When I moved into the six-square-metre rented room I had to build a loft so I could fit my belongings under the bed. Suspended two metres from the ground, I meditated almost every day for the next year on being buried four metres below.
I would not tell anyone. I couldn’t burden them with something they might not have the power or the pep-talk to change. I couldn’t ask them to carry that weight in case it felt as heavy inside them as it did inside me. The desire to die became my secret hidden under the floorboards, pounding like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. Not that we had floorboards. In Redfern you cough up one-third of your weekly pay for a square of lino in a share house.
Each night I would drag my feet up the wooden rungs to sob into my pillow, doze fitfully, and wake up to cry again and spend the hours before dawn talking myself into turning up for work. The concealer performed its function as did the waterproof mascara.
I would arrive at work early to breathe slowly at my desk before anyone else arrived. Tilting my face towards the fluorescent lights throughout the day, I would send tears backwards before they could reach my cheeks. On weekends I would catch up on sleep by taking non-addictive anti-histamines as I reasoned it was the most responsible way to knock myself out. Later I discovered how easy it was to get Valium, which I would then ration out for the week.
My psychologist of seven years had retired and I was intent on coping alone until I found someone new whom I respected intellectually and trusted completely. I scrolled through photos searching for the least-confrontational-looking male GP in the area who bulk billed. I wanted zero banter and a subsidised mental-health care plan in less than ten minutes. The one I found avoided my eyes and handed over the standard Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS) test, offering a sympathetic chuckle when I suggested they should reverse the acronym.
The first psychologist asked nothing of my mental health history. He spent the session stereotyping me as an overworked female before spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about zinc tablets. I dug my nails into my palms until blood dripped onto my stockings. I stopped listening when he began a sentence with ‘Young women often …’
I had been around addicts long enough to avoid developing any kind of dependency but comfort eating soon turned into bulimia. I’d binge on whatever food was in the house and spend the night cradling the ceramic toilet bowl in my hands while I threw it all back up, holding my own hair back. I would fall asleep with my hands resting on my distended stomach. Then I was up before dawn to get to Coles as it reopened and replenish my housemates’ groceries so they wouldn’t notice.
Other habits were easier to conceal. I’d scrape the back of my hands along rough walls until they bled a little; I’d let boiling water pour over my wrists and hold baking trays until I had branded shiny burns into my skin. One left a shell-pink satin scar that healed in the shape of the Nike tick. Just do it, I thought. I’d pick around my nails until red pooled along my cuticles. I hated my body so much that I dragged it around bumping and battering my limbs until I was stained with slate-grey bruises.
Journalists wither without work and bloom during a crisis: a crashed plane, a gunman, a death in custody. I chose to spend time with grief-stricken relatives, loud unionists, boring property developers, asbestos casualties, abusive businessmen and evasive politicians in preference to my friends and family.
The next psychologist was sweet and softly spoken but perpetually about to cry. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a receipt reprint let alone burden her with plans to top myself so I spent two months detailing non-existent improvements—all thanks to her—because I wanted her to feel that she was good at her job. I spoke only of my body-image problems because I thought they would be most palatable and formulaic for her but water still threatened to spill through her eyelashes. I filled in the nonsensical sheets of CBT homework in the language and handwriting of a stranger, pretending my negative thought patterns had been erased and replaced by a mosaic of trite motivational messages. She was comforted, she was relieved. I faked a long holiday and never made another appointment, more convinced than ever I did not want to be here.
Some days I’d have a panic attack in the bathroom at work, hyperventilating with my back against the door and pinching myself so I wouldn’t pass out. If it went on for too long I was forced to pretend I’d had an impromptu interview but I never took a day off.
When I thought I was at risk of hurting myself I’d go to the nearest hospital and explain my situation to staff at the emergency department, who would leave me waiting for a psychiatrist. I felt safer just being there. Then I would decide whether to leave or stay and talk to the on-call and overworked shrink who would give me a referral I would never use or give me Valium, which I would stash for another night. I discharged myself every time, taking a cab home and mentioning it to no-one.
Anyone born into a dynasty of dysfunction knows your nearest and dearest permit normally unforgivably feeble excuses if you’re a no-show. I exploited this, knowing they’d assume I was caught up with family when I cancelled on them. I kept the reality hidden.
It is only when you’re trying to disappear that you consider what is inside you, how much space you take up, how long it might take someone to pack up your books, how heavy you might feel in someone’s arms. Although I was acutely aware of the impact of suicide I busied myself not with the immeasurable grief but with pre-empting the quantifiable grievances I might cause and so began devising plans in which they were minimised. I spent sleepless nights weaving a web of fantasies, stitching inwards to a version of the same finale in which I died leaving no score of sorrow nor mark of inconvenience for those still breathing.
The only place I felt calm was in the bath with the lights off, floating in the darkness where I could not see myself or feel my weight. Underwater I listened for the seconds between each heartbeat and imagined the longer silence should it stop. It was there that I most wanted to die, but I discarded that option when I thought of the housemate who was terrified of blood discovering an opaque red pool. He might crack his head on the sink or, worse, see me naked.
I researched cliffs and bridges but I had visions of SES volunteers trawling the coastline for the remains of a female, believed to be in her twenties, when instead there were sandbags to haul into flood zones and fires to help put out. It was often these faceless human resources I considered first.
Depression makes you disastrously introspective but I could not go far enough inside to ignore those implicated in each of my plans. Someone would need to sell me the drugs or the car, then someone else would have to find and recover my body. I needed a way to die and a way to disappear.
I often fantasised that the loft bed might collapse and I would die in my sleep. But then I imagined the lawsuit my family would launch against IKEA and the subsequent anti-Swedish sentiment that might start on a tabloid front page— IKILLER—and spread across Sydney, robbing thousands of affordable furniture. So when the bed began to creak and the planks of wood shifted in my sleep, I got out the Allen key and tightened the screws.
My time was divided between work and making it to work. One morning I was trying to succeed in the latter when I walked past a sign that, save for what I hoped was a spelling mistake, promised to solve my problems: ‘Dyeing service’. I stopped and stared at the obnoxious blue lettering, frozen in the stillness of relief.
The moment passed but instead of acknowledging what was clearly a fabric shop-front, my little soul, starved of sleep and self-love and stinking of desperation, became obsessed with 216 Devonshire Street. I recast the dying service provider daily. In the most comforting script a dark-haired woman wearing a navy suit opened the door offering a handshake and an iPad in which to enter my details. I created a (very) temporary account and punched my date of birth into the homepage. I was shown into a room lined with monitors, their screens alive with numbers and letters. ‘Someone will be with you in a moment.’
A white guy staring at a clipboard shut the door behind him and said my name dispassionately. He looked up, smiling with his mouth only. He told me about calculations — similar to those made by insurance risk assessors — his team had made to ensure my passing had the least impact on those around me. He detailed exactly how my death would appear to the outside world, where it would be faked, the number of actors involved and the emotional training they had undertaken, why the method would upset almost no-one, what chemicals he would inject into my bloodstream and how long that would take. He handed me a white gown and left the room.
In another episode an elderly man with an orthopaedic tread led me down a dark hallway lined with watercolour landscapes muttering about the rain that was forecast for that afternoon. I got the sense this place was an institution. I considered how dated the decor was then reflected, morbidly, on its irrelevance. He pushed a piece of paper into my hand that was blank save for the date and signature space left at the bottom. I filled it in and handed it back with a crumpled cheque for all that was left in my bank account. With the sing-song confidence of someone who had said it hundreds of times before, he recited a series of terms and conditions, of which I only caught some: ‘body which will be untraceable’, ‘loved ones briefly consoled’, ‘cause unknown’ and the monologue faded until I saw him check his pocket watch as my eyes closed forever.
The smell of a forced smile, lavender maybe, met my nostrils as the door of 216 Devonshire Street tinkled shut behind me. A tanned blonde woman with friendship anklets piled above her bare feet padded towards a shelf of oils where she picked one. Yin yangs and Om symbols dotted the room, feathers and crystals strung on pieces of leather hung from the ceiling. Bianca — said the badge pinned to her Aztec printed top—dotted some oil on my wrists and smiled maniacally.
‘Namaste,’ she said as she brought her hands together in prayer and up towards the bindi stamped on her forehead. I could not bring myself to say it back but I answered a series of awkward questions about my food preferences so she could determine my ‘signature scent’. The operation seemed itinerant, like a pop-up stand on a six-month lease. In this version I was cremated and stored in an urn perfumed with sandalwood. Such daydreams made gave me hope for an ending.
Not long after this I took too many sleeping pills and found myself in the emergency department. I wasn’t trying to die; I wanted to sleep for a long weekend. Lying in the hospital bed I could hear my heartbeat slowing and I was convinced the blood might not reach my fingertips. The next night I went home and closed my eyes and thought of 216 Devonshire Street but found no comfort.
I asked for help. I didn’t tell the whole story to one person, but revealed an aspect of my true state to each of my loved ones and hoped that together they could share the load. I told my sister I was bulimic. I told my father I was depressed. I told my friends I hated myself. I told a colleague I hadn’t been sleeping.
I found a psychiatrist I could trust. I told him I wanted to die more than anything but I wanted to want to live even more. With any other chronic illness I’d have taken a sick day. I would never have worried about being thought of as self-indulgent and weak. When I went on medication someone I respect told me not to take it at work in case a superior spotted me and I was denied a promotion.
I am concerned there are others hurting in silence, nursing themselves behind closed doors. I want them to understand that it might take some time to find the right professional help, but there is somewhere they can confide in a competent person free of censorship.
Seek a third opinion as you would with any other debilitating ailment. Don’t settle for someone who is intent on rearranging the furniture; find a professional who is in it for the long haul. Don’t suffer medicos who belittle you or use your gender to determine how valid your feelings are. Don’t make time for family members who whisper ‘depression’ in the same derisive breathy way they say ‘homeopathy’.
I still often feel unworthy of the air I breathe let alone the company of my friends or the respect of my co-workers, but I am learning to be vulnerable in front of the people I love and in turn others have granted themselves permission to do the same.
Every day in journalism you demand that someone takes your phone call, opens the door, answers your question, responds to your accusation, grants you emotion, explains their anger or voices their fear. I take the time to reciprocate and that isn’t a weakness.
I don’t want to live to spare anyone sadness, I want to live to bring them joy. I figured out what was killing me and I’m now dealing with it but I don’t think I could do that alone.
These days I’m imagining different endings. •