I am writing this story in the hopes of it in some small way helping anyone in need. One day a woman contacted me asking how my life is so perfect and how I do it all. She was a single mother of 2 struggling with a bad break up and the ensuing depression. It broke my heart that she thought that I had it all together because my Instagram perfect life conveyed a message that I was always well and happy. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While I surely have a beautiful life, I don’t think any human on planet Earth is always happy and I don’t believe that they should be either. We are here in the world of duality to understand ourselves and grow. None of that can happen without the difficult emotions propelling realisations. Anyone who avoids the hard stuff isn’t growing or learning for if you cannot face these feelings, you cannot face yourself.
I had a happy childhood growing up in Croatia, then the federation of Yugoslavia, a country made up of many countries , that before being united formerly waged wars for centuries. I didn’t know this of course, all I knew was that people called each other brothers and sisters (social communism vibes), everyone seemed happy, had enough to eat and I was never scared. I felt loved and protected by my family. But one day when I was 10, a bloody war started that broke the country up and my previously wonderful life was turned on its head. On my first day of school that year, my history teacher; instead of calling me by my name; called me Serbian and made me stand up in front of the class . I found out that my partial Serbian heritage, even though my ancestors had lived in Croatia for centuries made me into a sudden enemy. Some people hated me overnight -my best friend became a bully. My father, a transcendental meditator with no interest in violence was hunted at night by a gang of paramilitary men who would burst into our house and empty cupboards looking for him, while my little sister hysterically clung to my mother. The men the mob found would end up floating in the river the next day so it was by no means an ideal situation. Thankfully my father had got a night job as a guard of a factory through a friend so he stayed there and was out of harms way. My mother would lie that my father had left us and wasn’t coming back. It took a while for the men to give up. There were air raids, and visits to shelters where people would look down on me so much that I’d end up not going there at all when my parents were away, preferring to stay in the apartment. Once I saw bombs dropped on the presidential quarters while the large living room windows shook in front of me. After years of constant stress, my mother developed cancer. I remember preparing myself for her death and lying to my sister that everything would be ok while I picked her up from kindy on my push bike. Sometimes we had nothing to eat but stale bread and lard. Thankfully, my mum beat cancer and the NZ visa we applied for years ago was finally approved. Despite the intolerable conditions of the war, I didn’t want to leave. I was in love, desperately in love with the boy I lost my virginity to. But it was of course a non negotiable. I was barely 15, I couldn’t stay behind on my own.
I was so depressed, nothing in my life seemed worth living for. I decided to kill myself by stepping onto a busy highway. Cars screeched to a halt centimetres away, drivers swearing at me and getting out of cars. I ran. Next , I went to the top of a skyscraper, but just as I tried to jump, someone entered the rooftop and shouted me down. I gave up on that idea and accepted my fate.
We got to NZ just before the school year finished. I spent the whole summer in such depressed sadness, eating 2 litre tubs of Neapoletan ice cream, crying in a dark room all day long.
Then school started. The uniform we bought before the summer was too small because I put on 12 kg ( all that ice cream had to go somewhere!). One day I went for a run. I wasn’t fit so I walked most of it. But the next day I went again. And then again. Every time, it was a little easier. I quit the ice cream. It was hard getting used to schooling in English , uniforms, love letters that took 3 weeks to arrive and not having the independence I loved in my walkable hometown of Zagreb.
A couple of years later, I was “discovered” shopping for shoes and subsequently got a modelling contract in Australia. From here I moved overseas , living the life of a young girl making good money. I went at it full blast. Modelling was at times confronting – sleazy photographers would try to get me back for test shoots before they’d give me jobs, then want to get in my pants- it was a fine edge of preserving their ego yet saying no and backing out of the situation . It would make me feel sad and violated but these were pre-Me Too times. My feelings didn’t matter and respect or consideration wasn’t high on the industry’s list back then. There were many awesome people and many weirdos- it was at times hard disconcerting who was which. Throw in a couple of abusive relationships, a sprinkling of loneliness, a hefty chunk of friendship betrayal and you have a recipe for a storm of epic proportions.
Why am I telling you all this incredibly oversharing stuff? Because you need to know my back story so you can see how my trauma fuelled my growth and gave me a perspective on healing. From my experience, depression and anxiety can be situational, biochemical, neurophysical or physical. I’ll explain more on this below.
DEVELOPING PERSPECTIVE AND GRATEFULNESS
By some extent , I had a hard life. By others, I was lucky. Just as much as it is easy to slip into my pain body and feel the extreme hurt of existing for the pain I went through , it is also easy (with practice) to slip into gratitude for all the ways I was lucky and entitled. After all, I am a cis gendered , white woman, who was lucky to be accepted by countries and escape war, then blessed again by being pretty enough to do modelling and travel the world. I was lucky enough to meet someone with whom I had a beautiful child. I have talents that I am proud of and willingness to develop them. I experienced love , gain and acceptance as much as I experienced pain, loss and alienation. When my thoughts start spinning out of control in negativity, I bring them back to all that I am appreciative of. It could be sunlight on a blade of grass or a cute kid skipping down the street. It could be a favourite memory or sensation. I repeat: thank you , in my mind, then find other things to be thankful for. This trains my mind to find beauty in the world. Human brain is inherently negatively bias– it was once an evolutionary survival advantage, but not any more. Training the brain to look for the good, changes it. I still work on this. Sometimes it’s hard. Persistence is key because you are literally constantly making new neuropathways and the more they are used the more they become neurohighways so new ways of thinking feel more normal.
I know that there are many people who have much less than me. Who experienced worse. I know that for some people not taking medication is tantamount to suicide. This is not a post that tells people what they should or shouldn’t do. Everyone is different, everyone who is trying to live with this is doing their absolute best and there are many ways to healing. I am not advocating for one over the other. I am merely talking about what I learnt and what worked for me personally. I am not a medical practitioner. None of this is medical advice. This is only my experiences, put down in writing for you to hopefully gain something from.
MINDFULNESS: What I have found with depression and anxiety is that it is important to really feel our feelings without trying to escape them, numb them, explain them away, construct a story on why they are there or piece together reasons for them. Often times, things that happen to us are not the reason for the feelings, they are just triggers pointing to the past. It is important to give those feelings the respect of just sitting there and feeling whatever comes up, breathing deeply and not escaping. Even though it feels so intense and so unbearable that you want to jump out of your skin, sit through the feelings while creating the space to just be. Do not think. Just feel. Once these feelings have been given the respect they deserve, they will dissipate slowly. Thinking about why this is happening just activates the worry and fear centres of the brain and spirals the mind more out of control. Try to just feel it and trust that everything will be ok.
MEDITATION: There is no way around this. Trust me. I have laughed at my father when he used to do it. I have avoided it and tried to think my way around it ( I am a huge over thinker and rely on logic and knowledge to solve everything). In this amazing book called The Emotional Life Of The Brain, a neuroscientist proves that the brain changes and heals through meditation. Meditation and mindfulness go hand in hand. If you are serious about recovery, you should be serious about meditation. It will change your life. Start easy and short and slowly build up. Whenever my life is difficult now, I really look forward to my practice. It is like coming home to myself. An important part of meditation is developing the Observer. The Observer is the real you, the deep, inner core, your soul or spirit as some may say. Everything else is the mind and the mind is like an over excited monkey. It flits about and thinks about silly stuff, chattering away incessantly. You must find a way to separate the monkey mind from the real you. You are not your thoughts, you are the Observer. When you develop the Observer, the real growth begins for then you know where to come back to and who you really are – you are no longer ruled by unconscious thought patterns. This is how we develop consciousness – when we can notice our thoughts, without attaching to them, we can start to question them and then actively change them. We can dissociate from them and understand that we are not them- this is where the real work begins.
TRAUMA AND SCHEMA: This was a big one for me. I went through my life just getting on for decades. One foot in front of the other, constantly on the move. When I’d feel down, I would just pick myself up and get on. A wine with friends, overwork, busyness, overexercise, over socialising, my old friends ice cream and chocolate, binge watching tv, really, anything to get myself out of my own mind and heart. It worked, but always temporarily. There would be an inner emptiness that didn’t get solved and yet, I would just keep going. It was a full time job. No matter what happened to me, I would just get on, until one day, this boy I really loved spectacularly broke my heart in a horrible way. All of a sudden, all the traumas I had up until this point did what traumas do and compacted into something so large that I couldn’t keep going anymore. I just couldn’t because I felt so lost. I had to stop and reflect. I had to understand my past. I had to work through it in a meaningful way without running away. I had to finally face everything that happened and heal it. This led me to therapy. I did cognitive therapy, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, really, I did my best trying all the therapies. I read lots of books. I took on vast amounts of information on a daily basis , obsessively ( that overthinking thing). This made me understand the concept of a trauma and how it works hand in hand with schema. There are many types of trauma; like sexual assault, child maltreatment ( emotional, physical, sexual, neglect ), domestic violence, war related trauma, school violence or community violence, medical trauma , traumatic loss or natural disasters. There is acute trauma, repetitive trauma, complex trauma, developmental trauma, vicarious trauma, historical or intergenerational trauma ( Aboriginal people and other native people are affected by this) As you can see, traumas are a big part of living a human experience ( take the trauma test here ) A trauma makes us develop schemas to cope with living. Schemas are supposed to keep us safe from harm- the brain is a computer and schemas are malware protectors . Except, they often become malware instead, like a program way past it’s use by date, forcing the computer to make miscalculations. A schema is something we all have. It is a blueprint and a shortcut your brain takes in deciding the reality of a situation. Say once, when you were young , you got bitten by a dog quite badly. Your brain would’ve remembered this trauma vividly and stored it away in a special place. Now, as an adult, you are fearful of dogs because your brain no longer takes 20 steps in determining if a dog is friendly or not- it automatically goes from A-Z and decides that this is a really scary situation for you – even if the dog in front of you is just a little puppy that means you no harm. Schemas do this with everything and everyone. They aren’t dependent on reality. Shemas are usually developed in childhood or adolescence but they can form in adulthood as well. They can be good or bad but mostly they are an obstacle to living your life fully and feely. They make you feel any or all of these things: abandoned, unstable, mistrusting, abused, emotionally deprived, defective, shameful, isolated, alienated, dependant, incompetent, vulnerable to harm or illness, enmeshed, a failure, entitled, grandiose, without self control, self discipline, subjugated, self sacrificing, approval seeking, negative, pessimistic, emotionally or physically inhibited, unrelenting high standards for oneself or others, hypercritical or punitive. Shemas can ruin your life because they run in the background like a silent assassin whispering untrue things into your ear that make you think and feel things you react to without even being aware that they exist. If you don’t find a way to understand how they work, why they’re there and how you are perpetuating them with your thinking, feeling and reacting , they will find a way to sabotage everything you hold dear. Shemas are especially rife in ruining relationships and opportunities. Shemas are the kinda enemy you think is a friend- schemas are a frenemy sabotaging you from the inside. If we don’t heal our trauma and understand our schema, we cannot truly be conscious or have an open heart. It is a big undertaking, but every time one person heals their trauma they help to make a better world for everyone around them. Which leads me to…
RELATIONSHIPS: Relationships are a really big and important part of our lives because we are human beings and need connection to thrive. I never understood that relationships can be purely unconscious and run on interpersonal shemas before I did work on myself. We all want to be loved and understood yet our schemas can sabotage and ruin this for ourselves and others. I had a few relationships where schemas were a big and ugly part and it was impossible to have a genuine connection for very long. I thought these people were assholes because it seemed that they would sabotage the relationship or themselves just as things were good. They would say or do nasty things, have unhealthy alcohol or drug dependencies, blame, attack, be abusive and mean, insult, character assassinate, demean and devalue . It seemed that they could never get past a certain point of intimacy. Then I learned the real truth.
Some people have genuinely had beautiful childhoods and lives without complex issues and they have grown up with supportive mental frameworks that allow them to have healthy relationships. For the rest of us, we weren’t so lucky. If we do not take the time to understand ourselves better we will become unconscious about our interactions and blind to the realities we keep choosing again and again in perpetuity.
BPD or Borderline Personality Disorder ( and other cluster B personality disorders like narcissism ) was coined back in the day when people didn’t really know what it was, but they could see it in action. In fact, BPD is an emotional disregulation disorder involving an atrophied amygdala and other damaged brain seats. Amygdala is a centre of the fight, flight, or freeze mechanisms. Because the amygdala is damaged and thus oversensitive, people with BPD have a lot of schemas to keep them safe. They are subconsciously constantly on the lookout for threat and danger. Somewhere in their early childhood, just as their sense of self was being developed, they felt betrayed , usually by the mother and the brain created a complex system of safe keeping where intimacy was something to be feared and avoided, yet needed and wanted. This led to a push pull emotional world in which schemas run the show and keep the human being out of harms way of intimacy by insidious sabotage. Because amygdala can be all different sizes, no BPD person is the same or reacts quite the same. Everyone can go through periods of displaying BPD functioning, especially under extreme stress, and Lord knows I’ve been there at times, but true BPD will make the sufferer completely unconscious to the mind virus that had infected it. The trauma was so large that schemas run the show in such a way that the sufferers have dissociated themselves from a whole side of their personality. They have disowned their negative side and projected it onto others. This is at the crux of the saying: everything negative that you notice in others, you should first seek to see in yourself. BPD sufferers literally cannot see the damage they are causing or how they contribute to their own misery. They think that their problems lie in the outside world and yet, their problems are mostly started by them. They have an issue with constructive criticism, difficult emotions, and feeling too close or intimate yet they crave love and affection. I had this boyfriend once who told me that he hated buying clothes and only wore clothes that were given to him so I bought him a big package of clothes in his own style as a gift because he was sorely in need of them. This prompted him to attack me and blame me for being controlling and mean to him. Innocuous acts of love on my part that a normal human being would find amazing would trigger his terrible schemas into passive aggression, impulsive verbal attacks, withholding, and finally physical abuse. There was nothing I could do that would make him feel happy and loved because his schemas had already decided that being intimate with me wasn’t safe so he would destroy before he could be destroyed. Ofcourse, he had no idea he was doing this. It was misery causing for everyone because I was in a relationship in which my needs weren’t being met at all, in fact, I was selfish if I had tried to coax him into fulfilling them. He didn’t even get me a birthday present for 2 years and yet, I had flown him to see his favourite artist on an all expenses paid luxury weekend getaway, the itinerary of which I had worked on for weeks. Whatever I did was wrong, and he was always a victim. People like this will blame anything on you, even when it is clearly their fault. They will feel feelings purely because of their core wounds and think that what they are feeling is facts. They will then manufacture thoughts that support these feelings. They will even rearrange facts into something that supports their inner world view, one completely skewed by their schema. In fact, their schemas would always make them into a victim, no matter what really happened and what they did. They don’t do this because they are bad people, and I think that was the crux of my realisations. There are no victims or aggressors, no good or bad. We live in a world of duality and nothing is black or white. There is just endless shades of grey and unlimited combinations of trauma. But BPD isn’t a mental illness, it’s a disorder and it can be treatable with mindfulness, meditation and DBT therapy. Not treating it is the issue that perpetuates misery for everyone involved.
I wasn’t healthy either. Through therapy I found that because my childhood made me into a caretaker of my family’s feelings and needs through a difficult time, I learnt to subjugate my own needs ,put others ahead of me and I developed a lack of healthy boundaries. I would care take other people at the expense of my own needs and this made me into someone with co-dependent tendencies and a desire to rescue people at my own detriment. I would stay in unhealthy relationships for way too long, hoping that somehow, through love and patience I could change people and situations. I was wishing and hoping and not looking at the reality. In my misguided determination to save others I was avoiding saving myself, getting frustrated, angry, anxious and depressed that all my efforts weren’t working. Both sides of this dance are extremely unhealthy and misery causing for everyone. In fact, a healthy adult relationship with a partner, friend or anyone should be dependant on respect, a right to clear communication, healthy boundaries, productive conflict, considerate language, reciprocating attention to needs and conscious growth. By being a caretaker and enabler of someone else’s lack of consciousness without looking after myself, I was stopping them and myself from growing into bigger people. Sometimes letting go is scary and seems mean and unloving. However, just like truth, it will always set you free. If growth is not happening in any relationship you are in and the conscious connection isn’t being maintained and actively worked on by both humans – it truly is necessary to undergo counselling to see where you are stuck and why you need to maintain this relationship that causes so much pain. It may feel scary to be on your own, but it is so much more scary to turn around at the end of your life and realise that you wasted a great big chunk of it sleepwalking without true connection or happiness.
PHYSICAL: I started noticing early in life that certain foods made me feel a certain way. Alcohol would sometimes make me feel depressed. Gluten made my skin break out and days later I would feel down. Sugar made me high, then really low. Processed foods made me sluggish. Too much meat would shut down my digestion. Low quality protein would make me feel unsatisfied. I started playing around with different combinations of foods and learning more about nutrition. Then I found out about the gut/brain axis. Around 90% of neurotransmitters are made in the gut. That means that the building blocks of your brain are made in your intestine. What logically follows is that whatever you put into your mouth will directly influence your brain. Not to mention your gut bacteria colonies. The good vs bad bacteria balance is constantly in flux. A lot of bacterial populations double every 20 minutes so the body is constantly under a different balance. If you keep treating your body like a junk yard and feeding it with unhealthy foods, sugar, drugs or alcohol, your bacterial populations will go out of balance and gut dysbiosis will form. Dysbiosis is when the intestine is so disregulated by bad bacteria and an overgrowth of candida that cracks and holes form. These cracks then let undigested food and toxin byproducts straight into the bloodstream leading to inflammation of the brain and other body parts. Check your MTHFR gene mutation with a blood test- if you have this very common mutation ( and 1 in 2 people do have it ), it opens the door to a wide gamut of disease like mental illness and even cancer. It can be managed with diet and supplements. A lack of certain nutrients such as vitamin Bs, vitamin D, fatty acids etc can also make you feel down and strung out. Yep, anxiety and depression can be purely physiological so choose intentionally or risk your own peril. Make sure you exercise every day in one way or another. Even a half hour walk is so great for the spirit, mind and body and sweating is a bonus! It can be so hard to move the body when all you want to do is be curled in a ball, weeping but I swear, it will make things better.
SPIRITUAL: Sometimes our disconnect in the modern world can lead to feelings of hopelessness and sadness. I find that developing a spiritual practice is so important. Whilst I am not religious, I did develop my own spiritual connection to the Universe when I was around 18 , after noticing a void and seeking to fill it with something other than superficial trappings. I think that any religion and spiritual practice is wonderful if it makes you feel connected to yourself and other humans without judgement, fear or hatred. Generally most religion was based exactly on these negative things, as a way to control the way people live, so take away anything that makes you feel bad and leave the essence of loving, all pervasive energy. Whether God, Spirit, Buddha, Allah, Pastafarian, Universe, or your Higher Self, what you are looking to connecting is Love. Connecting to this energy gives me a purpose and hope and I think no one should live without inviting this blessing into their life.
SITUATIONAL/ SELF LOVE: If there are things in your life that make you unhappy, anxious and depressed, and you have fact checked that they aren’t just a by product of your schema, then by all means, you must change them. Make a goal and follow that goal step by step until you get out of that situation. I have been in many situations in my life where I felt deeply stuck situationally and I believe if I didn’t try my best to just take each day as it comes, making intentions and following through with them, I would still be stuck in that situation. You have a life, and it is a blessing. It is literally a miracle that we are alive here right now. Do not squander it in apathy for you will be sorry one day. Even if it is the tiniest step in the right direction you must take that step forward every day. Even if it is a small action of self care, you must do that for yourself . Have a shower. Clean up your place. Seeing mess around you will make you feel even more despondent. Love yourself every single day by nourishing your mind and feeding your body healthy things, ideas, thoughts and allow yourself to dream and be creative in any small way. Create a loving atmosphere in your own little bubble. Care for yourself in small, lovely ways. Be mindful of how you talk to yourself. Ask yourself: would I say this to a friend? Develop your own inner best friend and start talking to yourself in a kind and supportive manner. Whenever you feel especially harsh with yourself , have your inner best friend say loving things to you. Hug your inner child and adolescent often through guided meditation. Tell them that you will look after them no matter what or how they are scared. Do not give up. Make sure you get enough sleep by winding down every night before bed without a screen. If possible, get an old alarm clock and take the phone out of the bedroom all together. Do not have screens in your bedroom. Make it a peaceful sanctuary where you can rest easy. Every little step counts. Think good thoughts for they will lead to good feelings and good actions. Be conscious enough to take charge of your own life.
As a final word, I just want to say that I understand how hard it is to feel good in today’s world with it’s incessant whirr of social media, financial pressures, global warming, war, corruption and a constant shifting landscape of change. Social media can be such a plague for mental health because of the constant comparison it makes us do. There will always be someone who seems better off than you. Grass always seems greener on that side, but in all truthfulness, everyone struggles just the same no matter how rich, famous, or beautiful. Grass is green where you water it and this goes for your inner happiness and relationships as well. I still struggle with all I’ve written today and I keep reminding myself of my own cures constantly . I fail and I rise. Most days I am elated and happy. Sometimes I have a mental health day and just sit in my bed journaling and crying. Sometimes I get angry and instead of stuffing it deep down until it turns into depression, I hit pillows or scream songs in my car whilst driving. I still have schemas but I question their validity on a daily basis. I too have doubts and fears, failures and disappointments. I am not perfect, I am still learning to be better and how to understand more and I am sure this will be a fact until the day I die. We all have pain . Let us become aware of our own pain. Let us heal ourselves and become so conscious that we can heal each other and the world. Let us be open about these issues so we don’t suffer in silence and shame. No one is perfect. We are all human and that is a beautiful, complicated, intricate thing in itself. In this world of duality we are constantly surfing the darkness and the light. Do not pretend that your darkness doesn’t exist. This only makes it subconscious so you project it on others and hurt the world. Bring it into the light, examine it and love it into lightness. Extend your hand to another and love each other. Love is the only truth that matters
Books that helped me on my journey:
Emotional Life Of The Brain by Richie Davidson
Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr Campbell Mc Bride
Getting The Love You Need by Harville Hendrix
Power of Now and New Earth by Eckhard Tolle
You Can Heal Your Life and The Power is Within You by Luise L Hay
Living In The Light by Shakti Gawain
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
Whole Again: Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self by Jakson MacKenzie
Love Me Don’t Leave Me by Michelle Skeen
The Dance Of Anger by Harriet Lerner
NLP: The Essential Guide by Dotz
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew Mc Kay
Wonderful TED talk podcasts on depression
this podcast especially
Wearing a Carla Zampatti dress and Christie Nicolaides earrings