From her teenage years through to adulthood, Kris Herbert reflects on her tumultuous mental health journey to share what she’s learnt along the way.
It was a crisp December day when I knocked on the door of the international editor of Time magazine in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren. “I’m locked out of my house,” I explained. “Could I please use your toilet?”
While I used the loo, the editor put in a call to NATO headquarters and got through to an Air Force general who was the US defense advisor.
“Sir,” he said. “I have your daughter here. I think she’s on drugs.”
The Time editor convinced me to stick around and watch a movie in his fancy home cinema, while my dad whirled into action with an intervention plan.
This wasn’t the strangest thing that had happened to me that day in 1993. I’d been all around Tervuren, following a golden retriever called Chessie, crawling through the hedges of the Count Von-Someone and desperately trying to work out the code hidden in the Flemish community paper.
I wasn’t on drugs. Not at that moment, anyway. I was a 19-year-old in the throes of acute psychosis. A few days later, I sat opposite Dr Vergouen, a Belgian psychiatrist who’d admitted me to his facility for observation.
“Some people respond to extreme stress with migraines or stomach ulcers,” he explained. “Your body’s response is psychosis,”
My stress had come from a combination of poor diet, too much alcohol and pot, not enough sleep, and an impending D in statistics – all things typical of a 19-year-old university student. Except, I had a NATO general for a dad.
Psychosis messes with the message transmission in your brain – I thought the television was talking to me and that doors were opening themselves. I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents to take their only child into the mental health ward of a foreign hospital on Christmas Eve. When the doctors asked if I wanted to stay, my mum cried.
“Do the doors shut?” was my only question.
I hugged my parents and watched the thick steel doors swing shut behind them with a reassuring thud. My body was safe behind those sturdy doors, but the adventure in my mind was running unabated.
The plot was simple: the CIA and NATO were collaborating to bring baddies from all around the world to Brussels where they would use an acid rainstorm to wipe them out. Innocents, like myself, would be protected inside cinemas, shopping malls and, yes, mental hospitals.
Everything was going according to plan.
I rang my friends. “I’m here. I made it inside,” I said. “Where should we meet?” When I didn’t show up to these arranged meetings, my friends called my parents who had to explain that I wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
For the first 48 hours, the doctors didn’t intervene, they only observed. So what did they think when my first move was to meticulously clean all my roommate’s toiletries and move them to the other basin? She’d gone home for the weekend so couldn’t protest when I thickly applied all her garish make-up, put on her pink, fluffy robe and slippers, and headed to the smoking room to make some new friends. Over dozens of cigarettes, I managed a broken French conversation with Muhammed, a Morrocan boxer. By the time I left the hospital several weeks later, I’d mastered a nifty series of air punches that finished with a quick elbow blow (this little display is still in my repertoire of party tricks).
The diagnosis from the doctors came back as “acute psychosis” and an antipsychotic drug called risperidone was prescribed. The ride ended and almost immediately, I plummeted from a world where I was playing an integral role in a plot to rid the world of evil into one where I was a crazy person locked up in a mental hospital. It’s no fun being crazy when you know it.
To make it worse, the medication’s side effects included drooling, stiffness and drowsiness. I wasn’t feeling better – I was a drooling mess, shuffling around the ward from meals to remedial craft and exercise classes. I suddenly felt very out of place. I wanted to go home.
Over the exact same period of time, on the other side of the Atlantic, a similar experience was unfolding for one of my best friends. Anne and I were born on the same day, but we were entirely different characters. I remember coming across Anne on the way to class one morning. She was late because it’d been raining and had stopped every few metres to rescue earthworms in danger of drowning in puddles on the footpath. I remember looking at her and pleading. “Anne,” I said. “You can’t save all the worms.” The thought crushed her.
I learned about Anne’s psychosis when a package arrived at my parents house in Belgium a few months later. It contained pages and pages of hand-written rants, a printed music score and a long white zip. Anne’s journey to the mental hospital hadn’t been accompanied by hugs from her parents. It’d been in a straitjacket in the back of a paddy wagon. Anne had been passionately preaching a disjointed sermon on the evils of capitalism in a bank. The teller called the police and the police called the emergency psych team. It wasn’t pretty.
Everything about Anne’s care was different. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed a lifetime of lithium. For some reason, I didn’t question this. I thought she had something different to me. For years, Anne believed the diagnosis and endured the life-dulling effects of lithium. When she finally stopped, there were no symptoms of bipolar disorder.
I wouldn’t be so lucky.
Fast forward four years. I’m 23, married, and living in New Zealand. My bachelor’s degree in journalism wasn’t enough to get me a job at The Press so I started working part-time at Jeans West in Cashel Mall while trying to pick up some freelance writing work instead.
We were skint, as you should be when you’re 23 and hardly working, and I often found myself lying awake at night worrying about money. Never mind that this was an entirely pointless exercise – I was stuck in a loop.
One day, I spotted a flyer at a local whole foods shop for a free meditation class at the Sri Chinmoy Centre. The word “free” had caught my eye. This was my introduction to meditation, courtesy of smiling girls in saris and complete with incense and ohms. It was awkward but nice. I only went once.
Christmas Day in 1999 was spent with my husband’s family in Sydney. The sky was bright and full of lorikeets as we sat down to a midday lunch with his sisters, their partners, and the first of the grandchildren.
I picked at my food and struggled to follow the conversation. I was dreading having to clear the table – I was convinced I would screw up, drop everything, and that it would be a tragic end to a beautiful meal.
This state of mind was a long way from my normal self who’d perform this task without a second thought, throwing a cheeky comment over her shoulder and, quite often, incorporating a dance move as well.
For weeks, I’d had no appetite. Food landed acerbically in my stomach. There was no joy in eating, or in anything else. I remember looking at my husband and thinking, “I know in my head that I love you. Why can’t I feel it?” I wasn’t sleeping. I’d go to bed and lie there until morning. Maybe I slept a bit, but it didn’t feel like it.
Like my psychosis six years earlier, this crippling depression was brought on by stress. I’d finally landed a job as editor for a local magazine. My task was to crank out large volumes of low-quality content that was mostly “advertorial”. It wasn’t satisfying. It wasn’t a serious job. And yet I beat myself up in all directions over it until I tipped over into the pit of depression.
I wasn’t sad or suicidal, I was just completely dead inside. I was incapable – even incapable of clearing the table after Christmas dinner.
I tried to explain these things to my husband, but from the outside, I seemed more or less normal so he didn’t worry at first. Eventually, I asked him to take me to the hospital. To be on the safe side, they prescribed me a six-week course of antipsychotics. I then quit my job, went on the dole and started walking on the hills behind my house every day. I went back to the Sri Chinmoy centre and bought a CD with some guided meditations.
Things started to change. I noticed that when I did the meditations, I saw the world differently. I saw people differently. I was more open and less judgemental, and maybe because of my perception things seemed to go smoother. It was easy to slip back into old ways of thinking though, seeing a world full of problems and assholes. But I began to see meditation as a tool I could reach for when I needed it.
With regular walks, fresh juice and occasional meditation, I got back into work. I got another, slightly better job writing advertorial and eventually scored a very good job writing about science in Antarctica. I came home from four months on the ice and started a new career as a freelance magazine journalist. I helped my husband build his dream business, and after years of trying, in 2007 I got pregnant.
My midwife looked at my psych record and referred me to the Mothers and Babies Unit which looks after new mothers with poor mental health. Because of my history, I was much more likely to suffer postpartum depression. The Mothers and Babies Unit would get me in the system so that I would only be a quick call away from help if I needed it. I marvelled at the New Zealand public health system and took myself to see a shrink.
I was in good spirits. I was seven months pregnant and loving it. But after an hour of talking, the psychiatrist dropped a bomb: I was clearly bipolar and I’d need to carefully manage this for the rest of my life.
This may sound like an obvious truth, but I’d never seen myself that way and it hit me hard. I preferred the Belgian doctor’s explanation all those years ago: that everyone has a breaking point when it comes to stress, and mine was psychological.
I went home and cried a big, pregnant woman’s cry into my husband’s arms over this new threat to my identity. Then I decided to ignore it. Nothing needed to change. She could stamp “bipolar” on my file if it made her feel better, but I didn’t need to carry that label with me if it didn’t suit me. Case closed.
I started to apply the same idea to others. Our mental wellbeing is not fixed. It’s a shifting continuum and at the edges, we each have our limits. We all also have access to tools like exercise and meditation, good food and, hopefully, someone to talk to.
I think in some ways it would be better to remove the stigma of mental illness and focus instead on filling up that toolbox for everyone. We have spent too much time fuelling the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Maybe instead we should be putting a few more warning signs up the top.
I grew up thinking that “other people” had problems with mental health and “other people” were crazy. My son has no such illusions. He’s heard my stories and they’re clear signposts that warn him that the cliff is there and the drop is steep. I’m busy stocking his toolbox the best I can.
I don’t regret any of the experiences I’ve had. They’ve taught me so much and they’ve stepping stones along a path that’s led me somewhere amazing: here. I’ve spent my life writing other people’s stories but it feels good to finally write something of my own. I hope it’ll be a useful signpost.
Where to get help
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.
Samaritans – 0800 726 666.
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Kris Herbert is the co-founder of Wanderble, a mindfulness start-up developing creative mindfulness experiences for individuals and workplaces. Sign up for more info here.