I’ve been writing this blog for about five months now, which seems strange as I can’t imagine my life without it. Cyenne has changed me, has opened me up to people and ideas that I’d held at arm’s length for so long, or didn’t even realise existed. Recently I owned up to my past and stamped my name on this blog (and the Twittersphere) and I realise that this was just a part of dealing with my issues; even though it’s been ten years since I quit playing the pokies I’m still dealing with it inside.
The reason I stayed anonymous initially had to do with stigma. People just don’t own up to gambling problems, especially not with the pokies. It isn’t the done thing. One of the reasons for this is that pokie addicts tend to loathe themselves for their “weakness”; another reason is that pokie addicts are widely scorned by much of society. I finally realised that I couldn’t play that game any more; the only way to combat that type of stigma is to confront it head on.
But there’s stigma, and there’s stigma. I’ve recently learned that there is far, far more to my story than I ever knew. I’ve been guilty of prejudice, of wilful ignorance, and it damn near wrecked me.
I want to talk about depression.
Before I talk about my depression, and the impact it’s had on me, I need to give you a snapshot of my life. Don’t worry, it won’t take long.
I’ve always been the good son. The quiet one, studious and well behaved, sandwiched between two loud and outgoing brothers. I was Mr Responsible. More than that, I was a hopeless optimist; I always looked for the bright side of any situation.
I was raised Catholic, and although that kind of wore off in my early twenties, much of the moral code remained. I picked out the good and discarded the bad and rolled on with my life. I always had a lot of friends, but as my circumstances changed, so too did my social circles. It just seemed to be that way I was; I always managed to fit in with my new crowd, and my old crowd would get left behind.
I tended towards long-term relationships; in fact, I was practically incapable of ending relationships, no matter how misplaced or painful they might be. I was a serial over-committer, because that’s what I thought people did. They committed to relationships and made them work.
I look back at the younger me, and I can see so clearly what a conflicted mess I was. But at the time I didn’t even know I was conflicted. All I knew was that my life was without hope.
You see, despite the sunny exterior, the easy friendships and the long-term partners; despite the excellent grades and the fantastic job; despite all of this, I was bleak inside. I felt trapped in a life where everything I did was to please others and I couldn’t see any way out. I always put myself second.
But depressed? Had someone suggested it I would have violently denied it. I wasn’t depressed, dammit! My mind was my own, sometimes it seemed like it was all I had, and I couldn’t even fathom the possibility that there was something wrong with it. Sure, I got down; sure, I was troubled. But I was a coper; that’s what I did. I coped. Somehow I always coped.
This is where I was when I discovered poker machines. I was in my mid-twenties, in a relationship that would soon become an engagement, working at a great job and doing really well. And hating it. The smart thing would have been to walk away, wear the pain of separation and start over, but it’s an indication of my mental state that I couldn’t even contemplate this.
There are other posts in this blog that talk about my descent into addiction, how I got started and how I couldn’t give it up. Suffice to say that when I was sitting at the machine, feeding in dollar coins and pressing buttons, everything else went away. The promise of a payout was a factor, sure, but it wasn’t all, not nearly all. Playing the pokies was the only time that I could get respite from the mess I was making of my life, and the fact that it was wrong only added to that. Sure, it was wrong, but it was mine. It was my secret life, and even a secret life of addiction and lies was better than the alternative.
The pokies numbed my pain, even while they made it worse. They were my drug.
Fast forward to six months ago. I’ve been “clean” now for a decade. I’m married with three beautiful and cheeky girls; my wife knows about my poker machine past. Of course she does, my last relapse happened after we met, and she stuck by me. But life has been far from ideal. Along the way there had been moves interstate and back again, there had been job terminations and redundancies, and in January 2004 my mother passed away. I lost interest in my career. I had no energy, no enthusiasm, no drive. I’d lost whatever capacity I had to enjoy life, and it was hurting me, my wife and my kids.
This was when I started Cyenne. I believe now that the prospect of turning forty and losing my family drove me to look back to what I still blamed for my plight, and tackle it once and for all. I’d ignored my pokie addiction for years, tried to live my life as if it had happened to someone else instead of me, but all that did was shove my issues deeper and deeper into my already troubled subconscious. I began to write about it.
For a little while the writing helped. I should explain that I’ve always loved writing, always thought I could make a living from it but never took the steps to try and make it happen. Finally I was committing words to the page (or the screen) and putting them out there for the world to see. And the more I wrote, the more my social conscience woke up. I stopped writing for myself and began writing about poker machines, about venues that were bending the rules, about industry organisations that were self-serving and misdirected. I had a goal again.
And yet, it wasn’t enough. I was writing at last, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that my life was still spiralling away from me.
Finally I went to see a doctor, and after a couple of false leads I was informed that I was suffering from depression. More than that, he wanted me to take medication to combat the condition. This rocked me to the core, especially the concept of medication. I had always… not “looked down” as such, but pitied anyone who couldn’t cope with life without medicating. Yet here I was, forty years old and being handed a prescription for Escitalopram.
With more than a few reservations I started my meds, and within a week I began to notice the difference. The plainest way I can describe it is as though there had been a curtain between me and the rest of the world, all my life, and I had finally pulled it aside. I could see with a clarity and purpose that I honestly never knew existed. In a sense, accepting that I was suffering from depression was actually the best thing that could have happened to me, for by accepting it I was finally able to start treating it. And that has allowed me the state of mind to finally start dealing with my demons, rather than running from them.
I started therapy to supplement the medication, and although we’re still in the early stages the signs are promising. It was a shock to realise that my depression most likely goes back to when I was seven or eight years old, but that’s just made me all the more determined to deal with it. This black dog has been running my life for over thirty years, but now I’m taking it back.
And I’m still writing. For a week or so after I started the Escitalopram, I lost the urgency to write and I began to worry that I was going to have to trade my peace of mind for my writing. But the drive came back, and I think now that I was going through an adjustment to the medication. I’m just glad it sorted itself out.
Now I’ve engaged in some spirited “chicken-or-the-egg” debates with others about depression and poker machines. Which comes first? Do pokies cause depression, or does depression lead to pokie addiction? I believe both can be true. There is absolutely no doubt that poker machine addiction can (and often does) lead to depression. However, in my case it was my depression that made me a prime candidate for the pokies. I was defenceless against them, and lost myself to them in a heartbeat. The truth of the matter is that poker machines are designed to have that impact on people with an appropriately vulnerable state of mind, and that’s one of the facets of the industry that must change.
The reason I’m telling you all this comes back to what I mentioned at the start: stigma. People, and especially men, still don’t want to believe that depression could happen to them. They reject it, they deny it, they try and cope with it. In the meantime, the pain and the damage rolls on. Depression, and mental illness in general, is seen as something to be pitied, and those suffering from it as somehow less than complete. I’m guilty of holding these views in the past, and I’m appalled at how short-sighted I was. It’s a sign of my hypocrisy that I could rail against the stigma of problem gambling, yet still hold true to my concept of the stigma of mental illness.
My biggest wake-up call came from an unexpected quarter. Through starting and running Cyenne, I introduced myself to Twitter. Now I might work in IT, but I’m strictly old-school and I had no interest in this new “Twitter” thing. However, I read time and time again how I needed to embrace social media in order to gain a wider readership for my blog, and so I signed up.
Over time I met and followed a number of people, mostly humorous, interesting and insightful people. For the most part you know who you are! One such person was Mike Stuchbery, and it was reading Mike’s account of his struggles with depression that really opened my eyes in a whole new way. Here was a seemingly confident guy, eloquent, funny and Twitter-savvy, who was willing to be completely open about his depression. Stumbling across Mike’s blog did more to change my preconceptions about depression than anything else, before or since.
If you’re still reading this: I apologise for the length of this post, and I thank you for sticking with it to the end. I’ve just begun my fight against a depression that has tainted most of my life, and I expect it to be a long road back. But at least now I can see the road in front of me, and I’m no longer walking blindly into the fog.