Author’s Note: I wrote this letter while I was working over in Indonesia. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it, but now felt like the right time to share it with everyone. It is a quite personal story and before I share it, I would like to clarify that this essay is not intended to promote the mindless use of antidepressants to treat the illness. It is, instead, meant to explain that fear mongering against these drugs is not helpful, while also identifying their use as a last resort, when nothing else is working. And last but not least, a special thank you to Aoife, Kieran, and Molly for helping me with this, as well as my friends and family for your endless love and support.
I am lying in a hammock gently swaying beneath the palm-leaf thatched roof of a surf camp built over twisted mangroves and surrounded by coconut trees. The air is warm and humid, but there is just the right breeze to soothe sun-kissed skin. The ocean, just metres away, provides the tranquillising sound of small waves washing on the beach, interrupted only by the voices of children laughing and playing in the distance. There is a rich aroma of coffee coming from the kitchen and the scent of suncream on my skin brings me back to nostalgic memories of childhood travels. There is a relaxed vibration over the camp and all the other surfers have found their own personal shaded space to kick-back and take rest from the midday sun.
I am 29, single and free. I have no debts, future commitments or responsibilities. I am over 11,000 kilometers from my home in Galway, on the southern tip of a remote island in the Indian ocean lying 150 kilometers off the coast of Sumatra. I was offered a job out here as a surf guide at one of the few surf camps scattered around the different islands. I use the word “job,” but basically all I have to do each day is surf some of the best waves on the planet with the guests of the camp and take some photos. The chain of islands are called the Mentawais and are home to indigenous tribes living a primitive life deep in the jungle, as well as to many people from Padang and other parts of Sumatra attempting to start a new life on the frontier of the modern world. The town here is really small and basic. The only paved road is barely wide enough for two motorbikes to pass each other, and although new, it is already cracked and broken from the frequent tropical down-pours. In more recent years, the Mentawais have become a mecca for adventurous surfers. They venture out here after being exposed to images from movies and magazines of perfect blue water and endless reeling waves breaking over the shallow reefs off these islands. They come from all over the world in the hope of catching the best wave of their life. I was also captured by this dream.
I am confused as to how I should feel right now. I feel restless and suffocated by a sensation like a strong elastic-band wrapped tight around my ribcage constricting my lungs. My mind is racing between thoughts of self-hatred and self-harm. I feel unable to stop pulling the hairs out of my beard and my muscles ache. I look around me and see other people content with the moment, where as I am in a constant battle with it. My heart is hurting which is making my anxiety worse. I am trying to focus on writing, one… letter… at… a… time. But thoughts that everyone hates me or people might be talking about me are hard to push away; the anxiety grows. I cant get comfortable, the fear is unbearable.
Two days ago, I had one of the best surfs of my life. I rode inside perfect barrels, at times with the sharp reef just a foot or two below my board. Riding these waves was something I dreamed about since I was a kid. For the non-surfers, getting barreled means you ride inside the breaking wave, underneath the lip; it is an experience that is difficult to put in to words as for a few moments, the whole ocean wraps itself around you and you have to outrun it before it swallows you up and explodes you onto the sharp reef — to make it out is a pretty rare occurrence for most of us! It would normally have me buzzing for a week, feeling proud of myself. Nothing particularly negative has happened between then and now, and yet, I feel the complete opposite. My self-confidence is a diminishing drizzle and I feel paranoid. I believe no one here cares whether I exist or not. I am nothing. I am in a position I don’t deserve so I keep my head down and break all eye contact with the others. The only thing I can really focus on is how to end this feeling.
I know it’s shocking, and with all these horrible feelings comes the vague and distant memory that this has happened before. But I also remember that, once upon a time, I was happier — that tiny spec of gold in the vast inhospitable landscape of the present is the only thing that keeps me from ending it right now.
Close friends of my parents were utterly devastated when their son, who is just a couple of years younger than me, tried to take his life by jumping off a four-story building; amazingly, he survived and is still in hospital months after the incident recovering from his injuries. I looked at my family and saw in their eyes they were thinking that could have been Sean, that realization a cold smack in the face.
Do you feel uncomfortable now?
The word suicide popped into view moments ago and it sent alarming messages throughout your nervous system. You probably want to forget about it and skip ahead. Don’t feel bad. It is a word which conjures up fear because it informs us that people around us, people we know, are tormented, to such an extent, that they are willing to sacrifice their most precious commodity: life. In a natural state, the preservation of one’s life is prioritized above everything else, so to try to comprehend that there is a silent, invisible killer, so merciless that it will torture a fellow human to the extent that he or she would be willing to jump-off a building to escape it, should send chills to the bone in even the strongest of characters. Burying our heads in the sand will not help anyone so we need to face this issue head on and see what we can do.
If you were to ask me at the age of nine or ten where I would’ve seen myself in 20 years, I think I would’ve said a scenario not dissimilar from what I have right now; adventures on an island far away from home in a foreign land with a unique culture, a tropical climate, a place where volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, and intense electrical storms are all a reality, where sharks roam the ocean, long days are spent on the water and I become part of the nature that surrounds me. In fact, I believe this is why I’ve ended up here. Most people get sucked into the “normal” thing to do or the “right” thing to do and have long forgotten that child in them. I suppose I listened to him.
Everything here is trying to guide me into the present moment and pull me out of the endless spiral of horrible thoughts. It is refreshing to feel fear for a legitimate reason. Out here, if I am shitting myself while I’m being held down by a wave and dragged across a live coral reef that is ripping chunks out of my skin, I think GREAT, I should be shitting myself right now because getting cut up hurts like hell and I need air to stay alive; if I get a giant knot in my stomach and my heart starts to pound because I feel a tremor in the earth and am reminded that this island is overdue a tsunami, I think GREAT, this is the appropriate feeling for this situation; if I’m on a small wooden boat in the dark, kilometers from the island with no life-jackets, GPS, radio, phone, depth-finder, or lights in rough seas and the engine cuts out, I think GREAT, the fact that I feel like curling into a ball and crying for my mum is relevant to the situation and is rational. But then, when I’m in a safe and stable country, in a safe house, on a comfortable couch, watching a movie with a loving family and I get all those feelings for no apparent reason, there is no relevance and it is truly terrifying.
I don’t think that you would guess I had any issues if you met me, even those who know me well were shocked when they found out. I laugh a lot, I’m pretty social, have a loving family, and I’ve a good group of friends. My symptoms came at a very young age — I am just getting a grasp on things now, but for an eight year old, experiencing such traumatizing fear with no means to try to explain what was happening still cuts me up. I struggled with extreme anxiety and bouts of crippling depression all the way through school and having dyslexia amplified the problem. I had to cope with the frightening side: effects of different medication and missed many weeks at a time of school. I would have to pick myself up and rebuild my shattered confidence each and every time I hit the bottom. I reached an all time low at the age of 27 when I was admitted to hospital (not committed) and remained there trying different medication to ease my anxiety and bring me out of my depression. Psychiatric hospital has such a horrible reputation that when I tell people I was admitted, I feel I’m written off as a nutcase. I still struggle to deal with the suffering I know my family went through during that time and I feel immense guilt and responsibility for it. I signed myself out of hospital against the doctors’ advice; I had been relying on them to cure me but treating mental illness doesn’t always work like that.
Treatment for mental illness, in my opinion, is still in the dark ages compared to the progress made with other illnesses, and we are only beginning to understand the most complex organ in the universe. Join together 100 billion neurons (with 100 trillion connections) and you have yourself a human brain and the treatment we give patients today will probably be deemed primitive and largely inefficient 20 years from now. But it’s all we have, so I don’t want to send out a message telling you not to listen to your doctor or psychiatrist or discard the medicine you were prescribed. I am currently taking medication and listening to my doctor which I believe is helping me live a better quality of life but it is not perfect, and there are always side-effects. Medication I was on before stopped working because my tolerance for the drug had increased. I would recommend looking at the different types of treatment that are available. For some people CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or talk therapy are enough but for others a combination or the three might be needed.
The illness runs in my family. For me, the evidence points to a biological problem and not a weakness of character or an unwillingness to get up and get on with it. For example, would you tell a person with a heart condition that they are simply not trying to get better? Would you tell someone who has cancer that they are being dramatic when they tell you they are suffering? Would you tell a person with diabetes that they should stop their medication and meditate the diabetes away? Well, I have heard all of the above on many occasions and each time, it’s a giant kick in the balls and an attempt to pass the blame on to me. For those depression deniers, you only have to do a quick Google search to discover that brain images from those suffering from depression are noticeably different. I have met many people who have gone and are going through the same illness as mine, and I can tell you that they are some of the bravest people I have met. They are all trying to get better, no-one wants this illness nor are they exaggerating for some sympathy. Living with mental illness is like living in a nightmare at times and those dealing with it need all the help, love and support they can get. To get a better understanding of the physical side of the illness I highly recommend putting aside some time to watch Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky explain why depression is “absolutely crippling.”
I believe a good diet, exercise, meditation, staying social, and spending time with family can really help but when you are at rock bottom, the colors are sucked out of life, you have no energy, motivation, or concentration, and and all the things you used to enjoy mean little, if not nothing. It really struck me one day when I was feeling really low and a song came on the radio which had been one of my favorite songs, but this time, all it sounded like was a collection of meaningless noise.
I am trying to understand why I decided to write this story and why the words you are reading have come out in this order. I suppose I wanted to give you an insight into the mind of someone with an illness of the mind and to explain how important it is to emotionally support each other. I also wanted to show people that no matter how blue the water or high the palm tree is on someone’s Facebook profile, it does not show how happy they are. I think I wrote this mostly for me, a therapy to help me not feel so alone, trapped in my thoughts. I hope this story has found someone going through a similar ordeal and that might help them in some small way to feel connected and acknowledged.
You may be thinking that it’s great having the courage to be so open about myself but to be honest, it isn’t a big deal to me. I am open about this part of my life with anyone who is willing to listen and if people like me are too afraid to open up about it for fear of judgement then we will never progress. My days of being ashamed about it or thinking that I’m some kind of freak are over. Even the idea that opening up about it being an act of bravery says a lot about the intolerance and stigma of the illness in our society. We should all feel safe and supported when we reach out to others. Suicide of young people in Ireland is among the highest in the EU so try to have compassion for those who need it most.
For any young people reading this, or anyone who is suffering from depression or anxiety disorder, I hope I haven’t scared you. I have more good days than bad ones and I have felt love and joy many times. I know I will in the future – so will you!
You may go through this rough patch but you can get through it. You will know yourself better and will have a greater empathy for others. Keep your heads held high.