September 2005

The Nation Reviewed

She is somewhere

By Celina Ribeiro
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

CDs are stacked high like Jenga next to open, highlighted textbooks. Clothes are shoved into a blue laminex wardrobe the last student tenant left behind. Buckets of belts, earrings and necklaces are squashed beside a pile of dirty clothes. She is somewhere in this mess.

She swears gleefully into her mobile phone, bangles chiming against each other, as she sips on her peppermint tea and bites into a chocolate. She speaks and looks like most other 23-year-olds – confident, casual, a bit cocky. But for a while she will tell me about another part of her, a little under the shiny veneer, a part of her that made her feel unique and isolated in the world. There were times, just recently, when a blackness encompassed nearly all of her. But it’s cool; she can talk about it fine.

Nothing was simple, not even the end of sleep. She would wake up worried and anxious. She would seek out negativity before allowing her eyes to open. First she needed to confirm that she was ugly, so she would rush to the mirror straight away. She saw scars that did not exist all over her face. Not an easy morning. She did not know precisely what the day would bring but she was fairly certain it would be bad.

Getting ready to leave the house took a small eternity, like preparing to walk naked through the world. She would get dressed, then re-dressed, agonising over her face, her hair, her shoes, her pants, watching this whole parade on her oversized mirror. She was scared of what people would see and too tired to deal with it. It was safer at home. But she did try. She would get dressed knowing for a fact that regardless of the effort and time she spent, she would remain vastly inferior to all others. And painfully, she also knew there was something very wrong in thinking this way.

Hours would pass without notice. Time became something she sensed go by but had no real concept of. Entire days would be spent in front of the mirror. She tried desperately to stop seeing the scars, the hundred imperfections she felt made her so ugly, but the more she stared the more she saw, and she was only making it worse. In the university lecture halls she felt all eyes on her – judging her, disgusted by her. It became too much. She would run out in the middle of lectures to go to the nearest bathroom and look at her face. For a brief, beautiful moment she would see only a few normal spots. But within a second she would begin to see everything she feared others were seeing. And that was the end of uni for the day.

She lost interest in study, friends, work, family. The things that normally make up a young life seemed a great chore. After failing an exam for the first time in her life – equity law, a ball-breaker under any circumstances – she stopped going to uni. Her mind would be so wound up in itself that study was pointless. She stopped going out with her friends. It all stopped. It’s not easy for her to look back at that period. She has lost so much it makes her cry. But she shrugs it off quickly. Don’t worry. It’s fine. She can talk about it now.

She was always exhausted. She would sleep 11 hours a night and remain entirely without energy. If anything beyond routine happened, if her parents fought or if she caught a perceived criticism, she would shut down. All she could do was retreat. And she would sweat all the time. She was short of breath. She would shake. Her heart raced. It was like a constant panic attack. She had no interest in eating and lost seven kilos from her small frame in a matter of weeks. She felt lost, defeated in every aspect of herself. The future was bleak yet unattainable. She could not envisage a life beyond anxiety, self-doubt and sadness. Life offered nothing but pointless, causeless anguish. At the same time everyone else her age looked Coke-commercial happy. They were all confident and attractive, and if they didn’t have all the answers they didn’t seem to care. She was envious of everybody and their perfect, fairytale lives.

She was always, like, “I just wanna get over it.” That was the whole thing. She wanted to make herself feel better because she desperately did not want to feel this way. She wanted to be strong enough to do it on her own. But her family had become worried. This was a different daughter who was locked away in her room all day or sitting comatose in front of the TV. Eventually her oldest sister, a psychologist, told her she should consider medication.

She was offended and shocked by the idea. Here she was – healthy, financially stable, with a good family, close friends and hundreds of opportunities – being told she was mentally and emotionally broken. She had never imagined she could become this person. But it made sense. This was more than a bad mood. It was not normal. So she followed her sister’s advice – lucky, she says, to have someone to point her in the way of treatment. Many families do not notice the slow slip from rite-of-passage angst to actual depression.

She was put on Zoloft and things changed. Within a month her moods had turned around and she felt better about herself. The medication corrected the chemical imbalance that had drained so much of her energy. She saw a university psychologist from time to time, but because the drugs made her feel so much better she did not address the issues at the core of her depression. And about a year later, she fell back into it.

She had just come back from backpacking through England, Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic with her friends. A postcard-fantastic time. She went straight back into her parents’ home, back to university, back to work – and crashed. This second bout was so bad. She was petrified of feeling this way again. She felt all her progress ripped from under her. “Oh God, what have I done wrong?” She could feel herself sliding back, back into her armour once more. Everyone around her, as much as they wanted to help, could not imagine what she felt or how to deal with her. Her depression was infinite, and very lonely, and it was gaining momentum, dragging her further and further in.

Again she increased her Zoloft dosage. Again it halted the momentum. Then she started to address the things that had been playing on her mind, playing with her mind. She felt suffocated living with her loving parents. She worked hard at university but had heard a thousand stories of a thousand other law graduates who were unemployed for years. She saw all her work going to waste. She saw herself unable ever to own a house in Sydney. Things seemed both stagnant and changing too fast, all at once. That’s what the imagined scars were – an unwanted, uncontrollable addition to her changing self. And she felt she could do nothing about any of it. She saw the promises given to her through her childhood years being slowly and cruelly prised away.

Now she says youth depression makes a lot of sense. Young people are constantly told they can have it all, and at some point realise that they cannot – and that maybe they do not want it anyway. They are dragged in all directions, seeing the value in both running through the rat race and in pre-emptively downsizing, and being pressured all the while to enjoy their carefree youth. It makes so much sense.

She moved out of home, took on part-time work in a law firm and started to realise that the things which make her happy, like friends and family, are the things she always has, and that the things she was so anxious about, like job security and the prospect of never earning a respectable wage, really do not matter so much. She took herself off medication. Her doctor would probably have wanted to wean her off it, but she was tired of feeling dependent, even though she doesn’t really think she was. She was nauseous for a while, like coming off antibiotics. But now she is just happy. It was a skill she had to learn.

If I want to talk to her again I can. It’s cool. She’s fine. It’s just sometimes the memories can be a little overwhelming. She pauses and shakes her hung head. “It’s just a waste of time, I think.”

Celina Ribeiro

Celina Ribeiro is a journalist based in London, where she co-edits a small magazine. She has written for the New Statesman, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and New Matilda

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