My story: Nives Clausen

Today, my story is about Amy.

Amy was born on 22nd January 1978. My labour was quick so right from the start she was such an easy child. All of Amy’s developmental milestones, except for her ability to crawl and walk seemed to take place fairly quickly also. We chuckled at the fact that as long as we kept her entertained with books and puzzles, she really had no need to become mobile, hence, she didn’t crawl until she was nearly 10 months old and didn’t take her first steps until she was 16 months old. She was such an easy baby and continued to be a very compliant child, much to the annoyance of her brother who loved to give her a hard time. By the time she was 22 months old she had memorized a little book called “The Egg” by Dick Bruna and on starting school, she was already reading.

Academically, school was a breeze for Amy and as far as we could tell, she was happy, had a lovely group of friends and all of her reports pointed to the fact that, she was quite well loved by her teachers as well.

Amy excelled in her schoolwork year after year. In fact Amy succeeded at whatever she put her mind to, whether it was ballet, gymnastics, baking for the Griffith Agricultural Show, swimming in the school carnivals, sewing clothes for herself. Although she didn’t really like doing it, but was encouraged by her English teacher, she even won an award for an essay writing competition at the Leeton Eisteddford. She never considered herself to be very good at sport but also managed to win the Best and Fairest award in the local basketball competition. So you see, life for Amy was full of achievements. She had this inner drive, was self motivated and just went quietly about the business of doing her very best.

By the time she had finished school she had been voted School Captain of St Patrick’s Primary School as well as School Captain of Catholic High School, now known as Marian College. She also managed to score a TER, or UAI, in her HSC exams, of 99.00. What couldn’t she do? Did I mention that she was rather lovely to look at as well? One of her friends from Wade High School once described her as “the total package”.

So at the end of a rather successful 12 years of schooling, Amy chose to do Physiotherapy at Cumberland College, the Health Sciences arm of Sydney University. At the completion of her first year she had done extremely well, so much so that she was inducted into the Golden Key Society, an honour awarded to those who achieved in the top 15% at Sydney Uni. Life couldn’t get any better for her, or so we all thought.

Amy returned to university for her second year with seemingly great enthusiasm although part way through the year, about May in fact, the tone of the phone calls home became a little more insecure. She was in love with a fellow but there was another on the scene who she was attracted to and she had the usual dilemma, what to do? Up until the time that Amy went to uni she always wondered if she would ever have a boyfriend, the kind that had reciprocal feelings for her, now it seemed as though there was over-abundance and she was not quite sure how to handle all the attention. Whereas before, she had no difficulty focussing on her studies, now it seemed as though all these other distractions (mainly the social life and the realization that she was quite attractive to the opposite sex) seemed to be playing havoc with her ability to concentrate. She also began doubting whether Physio was really the right course for her and from reading her diary, that’s something that she kept from the time she was about 8, these self-doubts really began playing on her mind. Her life became a series of highs and lows. In an entry dated 26th June, 1997 she wrote,

“My god, I am on the absolute biggest high ever at the moment. It seems as though every time the need arises to take a step up in my life, to grow or mature or learn in some way, I have to go through a horrendously deep and dark period before I emerge, soaring on the sheer joy of just being alive – it’s like seeing the world for the first time as a child does, rediscovering everything that was always there, but just needed a little deeper thinking and noticing, plus discover its value.”

It was about this time that, and it’s certainly reflected in many of her diary entries, that Amy began thinking about life quite philosophically.

She had ideas about how people could live in harmony and how she could heal people holistically but was afraid that a) she couldn’t share her ideas with others because she didn’t know how to express herself clearly and b) that she would be laughed at and ridiculed for thinking and believing something that was not mainstream. She actually spent quite a bit of time dwelling on these thoughts, so much so that she would talk about her brain “hurting” and how tired she was.

Because Amy was such a deep thinker and such a caring person, she gave a lot of her time to others, listening to their problems. She talked about being “stuffed” after spending 3 nights in a row being surrounded by others and their problems, rather than concentrating on her patients. It was about that time also, that there seemed to be a real struggle on getting to understand herself and acceptance of self. She often talked about the fact that she admired “genuine” people, people who were really honest about themselves rather than trying to live up to whatever others expected them to be.

As I re-read Amy’s diary it seemed as though life was pretty exciting, with the occasional insecurities until October ’97, when she decided to break up with her boyfriend. There was so much soul-searching though. I think this time must have weighed heavily on Amy’s mind because it was not like an assignment that you could just do study and research for and complete, this was life, with so many feelings and emotions to deal with.

In November of the same year, Amy said in her diary that she was scared because she thought that she might be manic-depressive, in today’s terms it’s referred to as bipolar disorder. It must have been about this time that she also shared that thought with me in one of the many “deep and meaningful” conversations that we had long distance. I might add at this point that Amy and I had the most wonderful mother-daughter relationship. We looked forward to our long conversations where she would share her ups and downs as many young adults do these days.

When she mentioned that she thought she was manic depressive it immediately conjured up thoughts of lunatics in an asylum with blank looks on their faces. I’d barely heard of the term “manic depressive.”

Surely she must be mistaken, she was just having a down time. She was putting too much pressure on herself. She wasn’t to worry so much about trying to fit so much into her life, such as being the editor of the Sancta magazine, supporting her friends who were also having dramas in their lives, going for head girl at Sancta, on top of wanting to excel in her studies and have a fantastic social life. I think it was at this point that there was a real downwards spiral in her life emotionally, and yet she continued to try to be everything to everyone, masking her true feelings with her amazing smile. Maybe the fact that I didn’t seem to understand the depth of her emotional struggle when she tried to share with me was the reason that she never opened up later on, when she really was on the brink of despair.

Three days before Christmas, there is an entry in Amy’s diary, which so clearly describes her depressed state:

“I have been crying every single day and just don’t seem to be able to snap out of it. I just worry about everything and think how much I hate doing everyday things. All I feel like doing is sleeping, but I think I am overtired now because I just don’t seem to be able to sleep. I worry that I’m just losing touch with everyone around me, with life in general. I hate talking to people unless they’re talking about me these days. I just want to be able to relax and wind down, so that I can start visualising myself as who I want to be, or at least getting to love myself and being able to cope.

At the moment I just feel that life holds no promise, that it’s just one big struggle that I couldn’t be bothered going through. I just want to feel at peace, to feel capable, to be motivated just enough even to do housework and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. I just want my mind to relax and just be content with life.”

About mid January, Amy began working on some self- help. This is what she wrote:

  • I do have brain capacity. My TER and my results indicate that. I just have to work on improving my memory skills.
  • I am young and should be energetic, but I have to realize that energy won’t come from lying in bed.
  • I am an attractive girl.
  • I can talk to people when there is something to talk about.
  • I have a family who loves me and friends who love me as I am.

Why can’t I accept this and make the most of it, instead of feeling like it’s going to end and then I’ll have no-one?”

Amy’s last entry in her diary was the 2nd February where she said, “God, I thank you for where I live and who my family are and for what I have. Help me to do my parents proud. Love, Amy.”

In hindsight, I think Amy had decided then that life for her was always going to be too difficult and one month later on 1st March, the day before she was to begin her 3rd year at uni she ended her life.

So how does a family cope from going from a state of complete gutwrenching grief, numbness, disbelief, emptiness, horror, guilt, worthlessness, to feeling “normal” again? For me, it was my complete faith in God that although bizarre as it may seem, Amy finally had found the peace that she longed for; my wonderful husband Darryl, my other children Nathan and Philippa, who shared openly and cried with me, my extended family and friends, Amy’s friends, who allowed me to talk about Amy over and over, to relive all that was precious about her without at any stage putting a time limit on my healing; the many people who came to visit and who opened up about their own battles with depression; the parents who confided in us when their own children were going through difficult times. Somehow, the fact that these people, people that we barely knew, trusted us with their secret, slowly over the years helped to heal the indescribable pain that tore at our hearts.

When people confided in us, it was their way of saying, you’re daughter was not alone, we too have been there. In a way, we felt that although we were unable to save our daughter, perhaps we could help someone else in his or her time of need.

After I regained my strength I set about learning and trying to understand depression in all its forms. There is so much information available now and thank goodness, people, even in prominent positions, are quite open about their battles with depression but 11 years ago, it was still quite the "not talked" about subject. I read a book by Bronwyn Fox, called Power Over Panic that really spoke to me about the feelings that Amy must have experienced that final day when she ended her life. She was confronted with the start of uni. she was depressed and she faced the very real possibility that she was going to be unable to handle it. For the first time in her life there was the possibility that she was going to fail at something and I truly believe she panicked.

You’re probably wondering at this point, did we seek help for Amy? To be quite honest, we were at a bit of a loss as to who to turn to. Eleven years ago remember, it was not a subject that was broached confidently.

We approached the school counsellor at the time, who had known Amy from her schooling days. We sought guidance from our local priest, we sought help through our local GP who prescribed medication in order to try and stabilise Amy’s moods. When the time came for Amy to go back to uni. we wanted to know that there was someone who could monitor her progress and basically keep an eye on her when she was so far away. It was recommended that she see a psychiatrist. In hindsight, that was probably not the best option for her and she probably would have benefited far more had we had the services of the wonderful psychologist that Darryl, Philippa and I went to visit after the fact, but things are always clearer in hindsight. Before uni. resumed, we drove her to Sydney to settle her into the new place she’d moved into with her dearest friends in Newtown. Again, the following weekend, a week before the start of the uni. year we drove there, to stock the freezer with food, to just spend time with her. As my lovely GP and friend who offered me so much support at the time has often said, “We did what we could at the time, with the knowledge that we had.”

In brief, what has this whole episode in my life taught me? To be thankful for each day that I have with family and friends and not to worry about the trivial things in life; that it’s okay to say, “I am depressed…I have an anxiety disorder…I need help;” to listen and be empathetic to others who may be in need.

I’d like to finish off with another excerpt from Amy’s diary. Her own “to do” list for achieving success.

  • Being thorough in whatever I’m doing.
  • Taking the initiative when required.
  • Not worrying about things I have no control over, eg, things I have already done, or innate tendencies in my character, and rectifying problems that ARE solvable by taking action whenever possible.
  • Trying to see the GOOD in everyone and everything FIRST, instead of picking it to pieces. Seeing everything that’s occurring, as another of life’s experiences.
  • Living life to the fullest within the parameters of the goals I want to achieve.

I still find her inspirational…and yes, I am extremely proud of her.



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