Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shifting The Gear to Low...

Its 9.45pm. I sit in my apartment in a country located in the Far East.

I look outside the window of my luxury apartment and know that in the shophouses surrounding me, there are hundreds of young men from India and Bangladesh. They sleep on nothing but mattress-less bunk beds. They've spent their week's wage on an electric fan and a couple of blankets. The others sleeping in the same room, often ten or twelve of them, have come and gone over the last month. Construction projects finish. Many are sent back home. New construction projects commence. New workmen arrive. Most of them are under the age of 30. They come alone, with a promise of a better life, better living conditions and a future. Whether they receive what they are promised is something I do not know. Its hard to know. Do they lay awake each night, wondering where their life is headed?

My mind turns from the misfortune of young men with whom I feel no association, to the newspaper online. An article catches my eye. There is a story about a young woman who shares a similar age of many of these young men. Her world is very different from theirs. She is beautiful. She is incredibly successful. From the outside, everything that she does appears perfect. No errors. Total control. Poise. Grace. A loving relationship. A caring partner. A close family. Money. Endless opportunity. Yet, only a handful of people in her life knew that every day was torture for her. For ten years, she had battled depression and anxiety yet to everyone but a small number of people in her life, she was a rising star. I have no idea what she was going through when she stood at the Gap that November afternoon. No one will ever understand what a person is dealing with when to get to a point where they feel that the only option they have is to end their life.

I do know however someone who deals with anxiety and depression. I spoke with her today.

She reminds me a little of Charmaine Dragun. She comes to mind when I read articles about Charmaine. She once told me that during her darkest periods, all she wants is for the "pain" to stop. Strangely though, she cannot identify the pain other than the dull ache that feels as though its in her heart. She once told me that, when going through a "relapse", powerful surges of adrenaline run from her fingertips up her arms. These pulsate through her body every five to seven seconds, or each time her mind flicks from one thought to another. She says that she needs to turn the airconditioning to its coldest so that she can stop the heat, yet in an instant, the hot flushes turn to cold sweats. I ask her whether a walk outside would prevent her from feeling this way. She says no. She explains to me that an anxiety attack makes you afraid to even get out of bed. She explains the theory of how your body is made up in a way to allow you to choose "fight or flight" within an instant. She tells me that, in her case, this works against her. Her body is biologically designed to shift into 'flight' mode at an instant. I ask her how long this feeling lasts. She says that it goes on for days...sometimes weeks.

I ask her how it could have been that this successful woman, this newsreader, felt that she had no other option than to end her life. My friend shakes her head and says that many factors probably contributed to this woman's situation. Medication. Lack of medical guidance. However, my friend speaks of an overwhelming feeling of utter and total helplessness during times of relapse. She says that in between the electric pulses of adrenline, she questions why someone, anyone, won't just do something to stop the pain. She says that she asks herself many questions. Why won't someone just come and help her? Why wont people understand this debilitating condition? Why is she walking out of a doctor's office without feeling any better, or any closer to understanding how to make the pain stop? Why are people carrying on with their lives when she cannot even do simple things, like brush her teeth without losing control of her limbs because of this "flight" sensation into which her body sends her. Things seem out of control, because her mind and body is making her feel that way.

I ask her what she does when she relapses. She says that she waits for time to pass. The waiting is the hardest part, apparently. Medication needs to kick in, the chemical levels in her body need to stabilise and recommence their work. She explains that it is a waiting game. A torturous waiting game.

In this case, Charmaine didn't make it through that waiting game. This scares my friend, but my friend says that she doesnt want to get too dramatic about it. She says that she has wonderful support around her who know what to do when it happens. A handful of people who will drop everything to sit with her and wait. My heart warms as she speaks of her love for her family. She says that this is what may eventually differentiate her from Charmaine - her family is aware, and they have learnt through education and experience how to manage these relapses when they occur.

My heart breaks when I read about Charmaine, and when I listen to my friend's story.

I wish more could have been done for Charmaine Dragun.

I wish the world could face the issue that my friend, and this woman, and so many other people in this world, are facing on a day to day basis. They are successful people. People who have the world at their feet.

This keeps me awake tonight. I know that my friend will get up next week and continue on with her successful career, with a smile on the face. No one will know what she's been through, except for the very few family members with whom she shares her pain. I want to help my friend. I want to get the message out there that mental illness is real, that it should not alienate anyone, and our community has a responsibility to look at every single way possible to ensure that people like Charmaine, who clearly felt that she didnt have the support network that my friend has, gets that support before they get to a point where they feel their only option is to end their life.

We all have a responsibility to familiarise ourselves with Charmaine Dragun's story and to look closely at how it could have been prevented.


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