Jane Caro writes about twenty years of dealing with mental illness.
I was mental as anything between 1977 and 1997. I struggled with an anxiety neurosis that dogged my every step. From the outside, I looked pretty fine. I married, progressed in a demanding but creative career, bought and sold a couple of houses and had two children. I did, in other words, exactly what you’d expect someone to do between the ages of 20 and 40.
Inside my own head, however, I was a mess. Being me the mental illness that struck me down one Saturday night on the way home from a party was both florid and dramatic. Out of nowhere I began to be tormented by unwanted and frightening obsessive thoughts of violence. Not, I hasten to add, of someone being violent to me, but of me being violent to someone else!
It didn’t matter which someone else, either. Any other living, breathing human being – no matter how old, young, big, small, weak or strong – would do.
While I smiled and chatted and behaved (fairly) normally I could be having the most lurid thoughts about the terrible things I could do to you. I didn’t want to think of such things. I would have done anything to get rid of these unbidden, terrifying thoughts. But the more I resisted them, the stronger they became.
I was terribly ashamed, but the thoughts made me feel so desperate that I forced myself to seek help and tell others about the bizarre things that were going on inside my head. I was sure when I told my then-boyfriend (now husband) what had happened to me, he would shun me as evil and depraved. As you may have gathered by the fact that he eventually married me, he did no such thing. He was sympathetic and understanding but he also helped me see that my imaginings were slightly ridiculous, especially considering I am 157cm tall and in those days weighed about 45 kilos. For most of my imagined victims if I had lost control as I feared, I suspect it would have been like being attacked by a kitten. Even I could see my lurid imaginings were grandiose. What did I think I was about to become? Ted Bundy?
But even though the years went on and I never did any of the horrible things I feared (as I have since discovered, it is the nature of this neurosis that sufferers never act on their thoughts), even though part of me recognized the absurdity of my imaginings, they retained their power to make me cringe, quiver and writhe in mental agony. That’s the trouble with mental illness – it doesn’t make sense so applying sense to it doesn’t help.
My anxiety neurosis dogged me for almost two decades. It ebbed and flowed over that time, sometimes threatening to drown me, sometimes merely sloshing about my ankles. It left me with horizontal lines etched on my forehead – a permanent reminder of 20 years lived on high alert. The neurosis changed its nature at one point too. I stopped fearing that I was about to commit murder and mayhem and instead feared I was – any minute now – about to experience a panic attack of such magnitude I would become agoraphobic and have to stay indoors forever. Locking myself up, I suppose and metaphorically throwing away the key.
But my mental illness gave me gifts as well. As I struggled to free myself from irrational fear, I learnt a great deal about myself and the world. That hard won knowledge and self-awareness helps me immeasurably to this day.
Watch a trailer for the Mental As series on the ABC here.
I recovered eventually and I no longer suffer with anxiety much at all. There are many reasons why I eventually got over my obsessive neurosis. Real danger (my first child was very sick and almost died, spending two weeks in intensive care) chased out fantasy danger, for a start. I also came to grips with some experiences in my past I had been avoiding and denying. However, what really put me on the road to recovery was the gradual realization that safety was an illusion and danger was reality. Terrible things can happen and they can happen to anyone. My futile attempts to anticipate and so control ‘the dreadful’ were an exhausting and pointless waste of time. I tell the full story in my memoir Plain Speaking Jane.
Suffice to say here, it was when I accepted the reality of danger that I gave up fearing the fantasy of it. Now, I don’t worry about what might happen. I just do what’s in front of me. If the worst does occur – and it might – I’ll deal with it then.
I gained control by giving it up and that’s why I am pleased to be an Ambassador for Mental As, the ABC’s campaign to end the stigma around mental illness. I’m not ashamed of having been fucked up. Instead, I am very proud of everything the struggle taught me.
The ABC’s Mental As campaign begins across the ABC on October 4th and will run until October 11th to mark Mental Health Week. The campaign is to raise money for mental health research, and you can donate here.