Andrew Robb surprised colleagues at the weekend with his sudden announcement that he was stepping aside from the Opposition front bench for three months to deal with depression.
He is by no means the first high-profile politico to admit to suffering from the illness, and said his decision had come after talking to Jeff Kennett, former Victorian premier, who also stepped aside because of "the black dog".
Depression is a huge problem among men — and not just politicians. Men are stupid. When men get together, conversation turns to the mundane: sport, weather, things like that, or moaning and groaning about the state of the world, why teenagers are out of control, how much petrol keeps going up, the lack of fish in the river. That sort of stuff. No wonder women call us grumpy.
What we don’t talk about are the issues and problems that are niggling us, things that women do automatically, but that men, perhaps because they associate it with emotion and letting go, don’t approach as long as there’s something else to discuss, which there always is.
Men hold those issues in. I should know. I held things in for years and years, perhaps decades, and it led me to a dark place.
I’m now 52 and have been on medication for more than two years. It’s a small dosage my doctor tells me, but it does the trick. I resisted going on drugs for ages, and only when my wife insisted I seek help did I relent, thinking it wouldn’t be for long — a couple of months at the most.
After a week or so I wrote in a journal:
"Having been in a state of denial for so long the decision to seek professional help was painful to accept. However, once taken there is the steady realisation that this is a measure that should have been taken a long time ago. It feels as if something, ‘voices’, have been lifted from my brain. That something — a voice that was persistently wearing me down with negatives — has been cut loose. I feel, once the medication began to kick in, relaxed and far less stressed than ever. For now the dark zone is put in its place, the voices are quiet and I can find comfort. I do not enter the vortex that blames everything and everyone and hates those near for bringing this upon us/me. I am refinding myself. Slowly. Piece by piece."
A few days later I added this cautionary note.
"On reflection that is exactly what you would expect to hear. The usual discourse of someone who has taken a step and expects medicine, pills, to weave magic chemistry in the brain. What if it is but a chimera, a mirage in the desert, towards which one blindly treads, only to discover that there is nothing?"
I had been given hope that maybe there was a way out of this, but what guarantee did I have that the pills weren’t just holding the black voices at bay, and that they would return as soon as the high feeling of that first relief wore off? For many people, depression does not just happen, it is an illness that quietly develops over many years. I realised that the tablets were just an initial and necessary measure against it, and that I would soon need to deal with the underlying habits that had permitted things to get to that point.
After six weeks this is what I wrote:
"I have a firmer grip on things. I appreciate how the ‘dark voices’ permeated for so many years and got deeper during the last few, to the extent that I was, without realising it, barely functioning and certainly in a state of denial about both my condition and what I was doing to those close to me. It became self-destructive. I did not care, although strangely I knew also what I was doing but could not break the curse. After a few weeks on the tablets I feel like a zone of my mind has been stripped away and there is clarity."
Six months passed.
"After an interval of seven months an improvement, if not a total recovery. The ‘voices’ are not there any longer and I do not have those unrealistic expectations. I am content. Happy? No, but I understand that, and the voices are silenced."
I continue the course of medication. My doctor tells me some people have been on the tablets for 15 years or more with no noticeable side effects. Now and again I miss taking them, perhaps because I am in a hurry first thing in the morning and when I realise I curse myself, tell myself to remain calm throughout the day. Once I did not take the pill for a whole weekend, thinking I would test myself, see if I could do without it. But I could feel the change coming on as the hours continued.
So what does this amount to? Am I addicted? I don’t think so, although I am not ready to cease the dosage, not prepared to cut the lifeline. My current course ends in a month and I will have to make an appointment with my doctor to get another script for the next six months. And I will.
What I do know is the medication has bought me time, and with that time I have to take the next steps. I can function pretty well socially, can engage with people as people should. As a writer I can write, which before I could not.
That isn’t the problem. What is the problem are men themselves, men with an illness called depression who, like me, do not seek out advice, or talk to others, because they are stubborn or proud or just plain stupid.
To acknowledge one has emotional problems, mind problems if you like, is to face up to the situation and begin to rebuild. If I’d talked through my black dog days it’s possible — no, probable — that I’d have come through them much, much quicker and with greater confidence.
I am lucky. But there are plenty of other blokes suffering in silence, at worst doing harm not only to themselves but also to family, to friends, in fact to anyone who loves them. It happens all the time. It is happening now.
Let’s talk about it.
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