Saturday, January 5, 2008

Battling depression in the public eye

Emma Tom | December 14, 2007

SARAH Tonen was chatting with fellow patients in the communal lounge room of a private psychiatric institution when someone turned on the television.

The suicide of newsreader Charmaine Dragun has once again focused public attention on living in the public eye.

A lifestyle segment came on starring a chirpy blonde with a perfectly coiffured hairdo, a tasteful twin-set and a dazzling smile.

Tonen, who was missing a pyjama button and hadn't brushed her bird's nest hair in weeks, felt her heart race. "This is it," she thought. "I'm finally busted." But as she looked round the room, it became clear no one was making the connection.

No one realised that the woman with the shiny perma-smile on TV and the psych patient eating hospital sausages with powdered mashed potato were the same person.

"It was one of the most surreal moments of my life," recalls Tonen, a well-known TV presenter who is using a pseudonym. "I remember staring at the beaming blonde on the box and feeling jealous because she looked so happy and on top of things. Talk about a split personality.

"I had to remind myself that that was what I looked like when I wasn't dealing with my mental illness. I may have looked pretty tragic sitting in the nut house lounge that night but at least I wasn't pretending everything was hunky-dory. At least I was tackling my problem head-on."

The death of Charmaine Dragun, the who-would-have-guessed-she-was-depressed newsreader who leapt from a Sydney cliff last month, once again focused public attention on the difficulty of managing a mental illness while living in the public eye. Dealing with a psychiatric problem is never easy but the stigma and pressure to pretend nothing's wrong is often increased when sufferers are famous and on display in a televised fish bowl.

One of the first Australian celebrities to talk openly about mental illness was actor Garry McDonald, who had a breakdown after a failed attempt to revive his Norman Gunston character in a TV series in 1993.

"Garry did an unusual thing," Ian Hickie from national depression initiative Beyondblue told the ABC's Australian Story in 2002. "He didn't try (to) hide it. He didn't say that he was away with chronic fatigue or a mystery illness or unavailable for a certain period ... He said it was a mental health problem, and that's really important."

Success, fame and money offer no protection against the savage bite of what Winston Churchill famously nicknamed the black dog.

The latest celebrity to open up is multimillionaire former talkback host John Laws, who spoke with remarkable candour on Andrew Denton's Enough Rope on the ABC last month.

"Some mornings I get so depressed I can't get out of bed," Laws said. "I ring up and say I've got a headache. I haven't got a headache. I just am so down I can't get out of bed."

Tonen admires Laws's courage but believes her 20-year TV career would be over if she spoke about her problems with depression using her real name.

"I'm Little Miss Bubbly," she says. "No one wants to know that while I'm sitting there making jokes on camera I'm wondering whether my family would find it easier if I hung myself or if I overdosed."

Tonen, who slyly orders mocktails at schmoozy celebrity parties so she doesn't mix alcohol with her medication, was diagnosed with major depression in her late teens after becoming what is known as a cutter: "Something would go wrong and I'd think: 'I know, cutting my arms with a kitchen knife will sort everything out.' I can't imagine why such a fail-safe plan didn't work out."

For years the rising TV star resisted psychiatric advice to take antidepressants. She then spent 18 uncomfortable months searching for a pill that had side effects she could bear.

"One made me feel like I'd just drunk 10 cups of coffee and was floating a few inches above my body; very conducive to sanity. Another made it impossible for me to have an orgasm. Once again, just the sort of thing to cheer a depressed woman right up. I took this last lot of tablets back to the doctor and said: 'Sorry, I think there's been some mistake. I was after the drugs that make you feel less engulfed in misery."'

After finding a medication that worked for her, Tonen successfully (and secretly) managed her mental health for years with drugs and therapy until earlier this year, when a crippling bout of the black dog floored her.

"Nothing prompted it," she recalls. "If anything, things were going unusually well. But I just sank lower and lower. My husband tried pointing out all the things that were going right in my life but depression is like wearing a pair of shit-coloured glasses. Everything looks like crap. I'd come home saying: 'I just got promoted. What's the point of going on?'

"Then, one horrible, horrible Saturday, I became convinced, utterly convinced, that my children would be better off if I wasn't around. Fortunately I'd had enough practice at wrangling depression to know that this sort of irrational thinking was a major danger sign. I realised I was way out of my depth and checked myself into a private psychiatric hospital."

Tonen's first tip about surviving a secret asylum stay is to decide on one easy-to-remember fib and to stick with it. She made the mistake of telling everyone a different story about why she was disappearing, then couldn't remember who thought her children had the chickenpox and who thought she'd twisted an ankle in a water-skiing mishap.

She also recommends trying to retain a sense of humour: "Everyone in the hospital was schlepping about in dressing-gowns and shuffly slippers, so I thought I'd get into the vibe and buy some, too. When I got to know some of the other patients, I found out that they'd bought their outfits for the same reason. It's quite possible that every mental patient in the place was wearing dodgy pyjamas just to be silly.

"Another popular way of passing the time was playing 'guess the ward'. The hospital was divided into different sections for manic depression, gambling addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and so on. People would get really offended if you thought they'd been hospitalised to go cold turkey from drugs when they were actually in because they thought ASIO had planted a chip in their brain.

"Still, it really amazed me how people were able to laugh even in the depths of despair. One woman who'd just had a psychotic episode cacked herself about how she'd been convinced her mother-in-law was trying to poison her. Another woman who was having electroconvulsive therapy was having trouble with memory loss. At group therapy, a counsellor asked how her morning had been and she smiled widely and said: 'Well, I don't remember a thing, but my husband tells me it went really well."'

Tonen spent two weeks in hospital and checked out after successfully switching to a stronger, old-school antidepressant. No one recognised her in "crazy lady mode" despite the near-miss with the pre-recorded segment on TV. She feels a strong connection with Dragun even though the two didn't know each other. She's especially sympathetic with the newsreader's decision to keep her struggle with depression a private affair.

"Despite the community education campaigns, the ignominy attached to psychiatric illness can still feel overwhelming," she says. "If you're hospitalised with a busted hip, you get soup and flowers. But if you're laid up with busted brain chemicals, the silence is deafening. Perhaps if Hallmark put out a range of 'sorry to hear about your recent insanity' sympathy cards."

In the meantime, you can continue to enjoy Tonen's work on the small screen. She's the one with the shiny perma-smile who looks as if she doesn't have a care in the world.

Tonen's name and some small details have been changed to protect her privacy.

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