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Raw and honest: Jessica Friedmann’s Things That Helped

HerCanberra Team

Things That Helped is a raw and honest look at Jessica Friedmann’s descent into postnatal depression (PND) – and importantly, her recovery.

Pulling apart ‘the things that helped’ her chart a course to wellness, we read the very personal against a backdrop of pop culture and critical theory to look at some of the issues small and large around mental illness, creativity, race end gender. Confronting and moving, Things That Helped speaks to our experiences as women and mothers, and brings us together in an affirmation of friendship, family and art that is full of love and hope.

While pregnant did you think about the possibility of PND at all? 

I did and I didn’t. Because I had experienced severe depression in my teens and early twenties, I was assigned a psychiatrist at the hospital I was going to give birth at, and I checked in with her as the pregnancy progressed. We talked about coping strategies and the way my priorities would be changed and challenged after giving birth. 

A previous experience of depression does raise the likelihood of experiencing PND, so it was definitely something we talked about. That said, I felt so gloriously healthy during my pregnancy that the possibility felt far off and abstract. I knew it was a risk, but I didn’t really ‘believe’ it. 

Jessica Friedmann

Jessica Friedmann

Your book has some shocking statistics about the prevalence of PND, maternal suicide and the real lack of intensive help. Were you at all aware of these things before you became unwell – or better?

Unfortunately, I have had a few close friends go through psychiatric throughout our twenties, and I’ve seen the utter lack of systemic support they’ve received as they’ve tried to battle towards better health, so the issue has always been on my radar. The public system is so broken that it actually scared me into buying private health insurance, should I need to be hospitalised for depression, but even that isn’t fail-safe; I’ve sat with a friend on suicide watch when she was given a 72-hour wait time to get on a private ward.  

I’ve dropped my insurance now as it was causing too much financial strain, and I have a strong self-care plan and strategies in place for if my medication plateaus or life stresses become overwhelming. You learn pretty quickly to take care of yourself when you’re chronically ill, as the support just isn’t there. Advocating for yourself is another thing entirely. The system, including Centrelink, is set up to be baffling and make you feel ashamed for seeking help. It’s very easy to allow yourself to be turned away. 

Your book centres around objects, experiences and considerations that helped get you through  – can you give us a couple of examples of what they were and how they helped?

The one a lot of people seem to relate to is dance movies and the experience of watching them when you’re feeling ill or sad or vulnerable. There’s something magical about them! I must have watched Center Stage a hundred time by now, and the thrill of watching that final dance sequence never wears thin. Writing about the film was really fun.

I also had a ritual of eating pho in my early pregnancy. It was the only thing I could keep down, but it also reminded me of my grandmother’s chicken soup, which is such a big component part of my Jewish heritage; her own links to Footscray, where I lived, and to the idea of being nurtured. Just little things like that, that turned into larger stories. 

One of the unnerving things about your experience was, as a writer, losing your grip on words during this time. Can you tell us about that and then how you came back to words- was the writing intended to be therapeutic or just a natural thing fo you as a writer to do?

I never think of writing as being therapeutic — it’s too difficult! But writing the book did complement the pretty intensive therapy I was in at the time. I would talk to my therapist and then go away and grapple with things on the page, and become aware of gaps or of unconscious omissions. 

Losing my faculty with language was really scary and it’s why, I think, I’ve placed so much importance on other art forms in the book. Dance, painting, tapestry; they can all hold so much meaning that doesn’t depend on the verbal. Rediscovering these forms has been lifesaving. 

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And did you intend to write for publication or have any inkling your essays could be a book?

I was initially really resistant to writing about this period in my life, because it was difficult and gruelling and ultimately quite boring. But the idea of “wasting” that time really irked me. I think a lightbulb came on when I realised that I could use mental illness not as a narrative, but as a lens through which to examine all the things around me that excited or intrigued or frustrated or angered me. We really venerate a neurotypical voice in literature. I wanted to do something that unsettled that a little. 

How have people you know responded to the book – or the full weight of knowing what you have been through?

The response has been really lovely. I’ve had old friends get in touch, acquaintances, even strangers, to let me know how much aspects of the book have meant to them, or even just that I’m talking about postpartum mental illness at all. It’s still cloaked in such silence, even though it’s a more common experience than breast cancer. It will touch more families, be just as devastating. But we’re still supposed to deal with it in private. 

My family and closest friends knew what was happening at the time, and were incredibly supportive. I’m lucky in that nobody in my close circle sees a psychiatric illness as being less legitimate as a physical one, which should go without saying, but doesn’t, always. I did worry about the reaction of those friends I didn’t tell, and wrote about it to try to explain why. I worried that they would feel that I didn’t trust them enough to feel comfortable confiding in them. But that’s turned out to be unfounded, and the best thing I’ve done with the book coming out is to try to stop managing the feelings of others, or anticipating their responses. If people are struggling with that weight, we can talk about it. The experience has been collaborative, communal, which in a way is a relief. 

Any book recommendations – on this or other topics? What’s on your TBR pile?

My to-read pile is a teetering mountain at the moment! There’s so much contemporary writing I’ve been dying to dive into, but haven’t had time for while I was writing the book. I’m really looking forward to Durga Chew-Bose’s collection, Too Much and Not The Mood, as well as Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things — it’s been on my bedside table for a month. Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done looks incredible, and because I have keenly watched its progression in a series of Facebook statuses, Mel Campbell’s romantic comedy, The Hot Guy is on my list. 

In terms of writing on depression, I can’t recommend Dana Jack’s Silencing The Self highly enough. It’s a quarter of a century old, so there are aspects that read as outdated, and her cohort is, unfortunately, narrow, but by and large, it’s predicted a phenomenal volume of qualitative research into women’s depression, and done so accurately. It’s the kind of book I read when I need a kick of feminist context for the experience of depression; that it’s influenced greatly by our culture and surroundings, and not simply isolated within the individual. I love Jack for simply and plainly demonstrating that, and for placing mental illness within a disability politics that is strident and radical in its need for social change. 

Jessica will be appearing at Writing While Female at Muse Canberra this Saturday, April 23 from 3.30pm-4.30pm. In this special event in collaboration with Feminartsy, four of Canberra’s most insightful women writers will share unravelling and producing on a page their experiences and lives through their writing. Tickets $10 per person and includes a glass of wine or soft drink. Tickets and more information available here.

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