Mental Health

I never want to be thin again

Catherine and her partner Bear at their 'Love Party'. Source: Photo by Tess Follett, supplied by Catherine Deveny.

For author Catherine Deveny, how much she weighs has never been an indicator of health or happiness.

Back in 2008, people used to cross the road to tell me how good I looked.

People:  "Oh my god, you look incredible! How have you done it?"

Me: “Stress, anxiety and depression. I feel like shit. I wish I was fat and happy.”

I was not trying to be thin. It was the worst year of my life.

And yet, 2008 was the height of my public profile. According to everyone around me, I had it all. I was a columnist for The Age doing TV and radio appearances all the time with a hands-on partner and lovely kids. I was gigging as a comedian, always out at opening nights, and coming home to a lovely inner-city house. “I feel like a failure in comparison to you,” they would tell me.

I have been thin only twice in my life and neither time was intentional. In 2000, it was because of cancer. In 2008, it was because of severe depression.

It’s not that I thought I’d die – I hoped I would.

I was in the grip of a depression so deep and so relentless I didn’t think I’d survive. It’s not that I thought I’d die – I hoped I would. I wasn’t suicidal but the idea of peace was such a relief I would often fantasise about a car smashing into me while I was running or the Earth being hit by an asteroid.

Crushing depression doesn’t always look like greasy hair, tracksuit pants and Netflix. Sometimes it looks like breathless overdrive.

I was running 10 kilometres five times a week. Why was I running so much if I didn’t want to be thin? I was not running to lose weight. I have never exercised to lose weight. I exercise for my mental health, energy, clarity, happiness and sleep.

My depression was so deep and my anxiety so relentless the only time I felt normal was when I was running and listening to music. Running was running away. I felt euphoric. Only when my heart was pumping as fast as it could and the music on as loud as possible could the endorphin rush quiet down my depression and anxiety to a whisper.

How much weight had I lost? I can’t tell you. I don’t weigh myself and don’t own scales. I love being fat.

Yes fat. I have no problem with the word. It’s a descriptor, not a judgement. ‘Overweight’ assumes there is an ideal weight and anything more is bad. If you have a problem with the word, you may want to have a think about that.

Loving your body exactly as it is is an act of civil disobedience. I don’t love my body despite its size but because if it. I did not love my body when I was thin. I felt weak and small. I am big and powerful.

My anxiety and depression had taken on a physical manifestation.

But my need to run wasn’t the only reason I had lost so much weight.

I couldn’t eat. My gut was in a knot for about two years. My stomach felt acidy and full it constantly growled and gurgled with acid and my breath was putrid. My anxiety and depression had taken on a physical manifestation. I was being consumed on every level.

Like many of you, I have managed with depression my whole life. I’ve medicated with writing, swimming, running and talk therapy (both professionally and just with mates). 

In 2008, my depression was not triggered by anything in particular. It was a symptom of my relationship with the father of my three sons breaking down.

I was overwhelmed with grief, sadness, misery, intrusive thoughts and rumination 24/7 for about two years. After two years, a lot of hard, deep, thankless work with no guarantees and making some big scary changes the horrific depression led me to where I am now – a happy, simple place of clarity and energy.

These days I am happiest when I’m riding my bike, walking the dog, caring for people I love, hanging out with people I adore and running my Gunnas Writing Masterclasses.

There were three important turning points that led me to the light. The first when I had woken one morning so overwhelmed by depression I thought “I can’t file a column this week, I’ve got nothing. This is the first time I will have ever missed a deadline or cancelled a gig ever.” I decided to book in at the doctors and take her up on her suggestion that antidepressants may assist. I thought ‘I need help, I have run out of energy and ideas’. I made the appointment for 11.30am, got the kids to school and came home to an empty house. I said to myself ‘Writing has always been the answer in the past, you have two hours until the appointment, see what’s in there’. I wrote this and cancelled the appointment.

The second turning point was when, after many and varied attempts at finding a way that we could stay together, I woke one day and thought “This is it, we have tried every single possible way to make this work a million times each and it’s still not working. I surrender. This is making us both so sick and so sad it’s time to split.”

The third was when I woke in the house and I was on my own for good.  He’d gone. Work had dried up. I was single. It was quiet and calm and the beginning of building something new. There’s nothing more energising than a new beginning. I had survived and thrived despite or because of everything to this point. That was pretty good evidence I would survive this too.

Was the depression a catalyst to my relationship break down or visa versa? It’s a good question. To live a full life you need to constantly adjust and change. I’m good at that and enjoy working on myself. Sometimes, though, there is a massive overhaul needed. One that is so fundamental and so daunting you deny reality long enough that your body cops it and your trauma and crisis manifests physically. In my case, that meant losing weight. For others, it may mean gaining weight.

If you are in the place I was, just keep going. See your GP, get a mental health plan, and keep going. I see you.

 Guy reveals what it feels like when he’s in the grips of an anxiety attack. Watch the full episode here

If this story brings up any issues for you, there’s always someone you can talk to at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.