September 06, 2009 08:11am
SHE was an MP, a mother and a wife but Paula Wriedt was hiding a secret – depression. This is her story.
Paula Wriedt announcing Mars' sponsorship of Tasmania's bid for an AFL team.
AS I drifted in and out of consciousness, I could hear the paramedics reassuring those who were with me that I would be all right.
I wasn't able to speak but I recall wanting to say to them "No, that can't be right ... this is meant to be the end for me".
Fortunately they were right and from the depths of my depression and attempted suicide I have emerged as a new person.
Not everyone is as fortunate as me to come through this terrible illness and be well on the road to recovery. Sadly for many experiencing depression, it will be a lifelong battle full of frustration, tears and anger.
I look back on the years before my attempted suicide and realise the stress I was experiencing in my personal life and at work. My workload seemed to be getting bigger and it required me to be away from home a lot.
I was still reeling from nearly losing my seat at the 2006 election so I didn't complain, but willingly accepted any extra jobs that were handed to me, determined to prove my detractors wrong.
Throughout 2006 and 2007 a series of events rocked me to my very core. A close family friend died and, only three weeks later, my father became critically ill. I supported friends through numerous tragedies of their own and seemed to be everyone's emotional rock.
I didn't mind, as I felt like it was my way of making up for being a friend whose workload meant they often didn't see me for weeks or months at a time. On top of all this, I had two young children and set high expectations for myself.
I thought I had to be Superwoman and would do things like get up at 6am and bake muffins for their lunches. As a passionate cook, it was my way of showing them how much I loved them.
On hearing the pressure I'd been under, medical professionals all agreed that I was a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode at any time. Unfortunately, it was the events surrounding the public disclosure of my inappropriate affair with my former driver that meant the timer had well and truly run out on me being able to cope emotionally. Public knowledge of how I had messed up of my private life was too much for me to contemplate.
I knew a sex scandal would make headlines for not just days but weeks and years and completely overshadow my ministerial career of nearly 10 years. I was overrun with feelings of guilt, betrayal and confusion.
Even more importantly, I didn't want my two beautiful children to suffer nasty comments once everything was out in the public arena. I knew only too well from the teasing I experienced at school from other students what it was like to be the child of a politician.
As hard as it is to admit now, I was convinced that in taking my own life I would be helping my children. Thankfully, I realise now how irrational those thoughts were, yet at the time, despite my highly emotional state, I seemed to have such clarity about what I needed to do.
Since my hospitalisation I have spent a lot of time pouring out my emotions on paper. I found writing very therapeutic and enjoyed being able to be completely honest about my feelings and emotions, knowing I was the only one who would ever read them.
But in writing this article, I found myself strangely stuck for words. The delete key was overworked, removing sentence after sentence that I didn't feel did justice to this insidious illness that changed my life and affected so many around me.
When you are feeling well, it is hard to accurately describe just what depression is really like. So I bravely dug out my journals and realised there was no need to write more words about what it is like. I already had written many during some of my worst days.
This is a diary entry from September last year:
"I feel so overwhelmed right now -- big waves of emotion I can't control. Tears are flowing again. I have cried so much, I feel like I couldn't possibly have any tears left. I looked in the mirror this morning and I didn't recognise myself. My eyes are so puffed-up from so much crying. But there is something else there in the way I look ... a sort of vacant expression I don't recognise.
"I want the world to go away and leave me alone, yet at the same time I want someone to look after me, cuddle me and make it all go away and be brighter. It's like this repeated tidal wave ... a sea of emotion that occasionally I am on top of, riding the crest, and then it unexpectedly swallows me again and I sink to the bottom. I imagine this is what it must feel like to be drowning. I'm so overcome, I can't breathe. Just when I think I won't make it, I float to the surface again. But then it's just to bob up and down, treading water and wondering when the next tidal wave will hit. It is frustrating and I loathe the feeling of not being able to control this. It's almost like being in someone else's body."
I felt like this for quite a few months. Emotions I just couldn't control. Just when I thought I was coping all right, when my family saw me smiling and happy and all seemed bright, I would come crashing down again, often triggered by emotional stress such as a family illness or moving house.
Despite the frustrations of these episodes where you are caught between wanting someone to care for you and being left alone, thankfully I had overcome the desire to end my life. It was in fact a very sobering moment during my stay in hospital that made me realise that I was lucky I hadn't succeeded in my attempt.
Given the intense media scrutiny around my hospitalisation, I was placed under the special care of psychiatric nurses in a private room of a general ward. I couldn't leave the room for fear of being recognised and word getting out about where I was.
But neither was I brave enough to see anyone, as not only was I emotional but I was severely embarrassed about the mess I had made of my private life. I knew that people would be judging me.
I also made the mistake of reading some very critical comments on a website about my plight. By then, I had also begun to receive mail at the hospital and while the majority of it was supportive, some letters shocked me.
I was told by several people that they wished I had succeeded in ending my life. Much to my dismay, I received yet another one of those letters only last month.
After nearly a week in the ward room, plans were made to move me to elsewhere in the hospital. With a friend in tow, and wearing a hooded dressing gown in a feeble attempt to not draw attention to myself, I was shown a room in the Psychiatric Ward that staff felt may have been suitable for me.
I found the whole experience traumatic. The room was high security, isolated from the main ward, with cameras everywhere and an office with a security grill on the window. The only furniture was vinyl-covered foam shapes.
It truly felt like I was being "institutionalised". I became hysterical and had to return to my room upstairs.
On my visit to the Psychiatric Ward, it became obvious that after nine days with very little exercise, I needed to build up my strength again. Once the other patients had gone to sleep that night, a nurse took me for a walk around the wards.
For someone who was generally pretty fit, I found myself shuffling along weakly with my leg muscles burning. It was eery walking around the hospital at night with the lights dimmed yet different machines beeping intermittently.
We went into a ward I hadn't been into before. It had a different feel to it, one that I couldn't put my finger on immediately. Then I realised, we were in the Oncology Ward. As we walked through silently, I could feel tears welling up.
This put it all in perspective. There were people in here putting up the fight of their lives to survive, yet only nine days before I had willingly tried to end my own life.
From that moment on, I decided I wanted to get better, to be part of my children growing up and forge a whole new life for myself because I had a choice. Sadly, for many of the patients in the Oncology Ward, that choice wasn't theirs.
I have asked myself many times why I didn't seek medical help or confide in others about how I was feeling. To put it simply, confiding in someone would have meant admitting it to myself as well. It would have made everything real, yet by hiding it, I could kid myself that I really was all right.
I didn't speak about the post-natal depression I had after my daughter was born because I feared my predominantly male colleagues would see it as a sign of weakness.
I knew back then, in 2001, that there was a huge stigma associated with depression, borne out of a complete lack of understanding of mental illness.
Despite the huge effort right across the country going into educating people about depression, I still feared the repercussions if I spoke out seven years later about my most recent battle. It wasn't just the reaction of colleagues that worried me, but the general public.
Would they want to see a politician experiencing depression stay in Parliament representing them or would I be hounded out of my job "for my own good"?
I felt I had a duty to front up to work every day and put on my smiling face regardless of how miserable I felt inside.
While the long hours at work were clearly contributing to my problems, at the same time it felt like I was retreating to this safe "cave" where I didn't have to confront my inner turmoil.
I should have had more faith in the public. They have shown a great deal of empathy for what I went through. The kind words and random hugs of strangers I meet when I am out are heartwarming. The stories that have been entrusted to me through the thousands of cards and letters I received have touched me significantly.
There has been many a moment when I have been angry at the media intrusion into my life and that of my family, who were struggling to cope with the near tragic turn of events.
Coping with everything was difficult enough, let alone doing it all in the public eye.
Yet at the same it is only through speaking openly and honestly about experiences of depression that we can further raise Australians' awareness of the illness. So I willingly share my story now to help further the understanding of what it's like to experience depression and hopefully break down the stigma.
I only wish I had been courageous enough to admit to my family and friends that I was struggling and sought their help. I will always be grateful that when I really needed their help, they did not judge me but took care of me and supported me.
Depression is the most disabling illness in Australia today, with more than six million working days lost each year as a result of depression and anxiety related disorders but it is also largely misunderstood. It is this lack of understanding that prevents many people from admitting they may have it and seeking help.
If help is sought, it can be treated effectively and you can recover. The first step is talking to someone, either a medical professional, family member or friend.
It may be difficult to do but for long-term health and recovery it is the most important step to take so you are not alone.
Thursday is International Suicide Prevention Day.
Counselling services are available for anyone
Phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or access the internet on www.reachout.com.au