As an award-winning TV journalist, Jehan Casinader had plenty to celebrate. But his success masked a secret: a deep struggle with depression. In this extract from his new book This Is Not How It Ends, Casinader explains how dark things got – and how the power of storytelling helped him to survive.
Hotel rooms are full of shadows. I've stayed in hundreds of them during my time as a reporter, and although life on the road sounds glamorous, it's usually the opposite – especially when you're depressed. At night, feeling weary and exhausted, I often found myself trapped inside a gilded cage stocked with KitKats. In the silence, it was easy for self-defeating thoughts to creep up on me. On a work trip to Wellington, that happened in a way I had never experienced before.
I was staying at the Rydges Hotel. Room 1610 had a balcony with a stunning view of the CBD. From there, I could see the twinkling lights in the Beehive. I could see the TVNZ newsroom, where I began my career as a journalist – a place that was special to me. I could see many of the landmarks, restaurants and parks that I had fond memories of. The view was perfect. In fact, it seemed like the perfect place to end my life.
I wasn't surprised that I found myself standing on the balcony, with my hands gripping the railing. Depression had gnawed at me for more than three years. I had done plenty of stories about people who overcame their suicidal thoughts, and I used to believe that I could do the same. But I had also interviewed enough grieving family members to know that not everyone gets out of depression alive. Maybe I was one of those people. Maybe I just wasn't strong enough to survive. But the funny thing about suicide is you can always do it later. Perhaps depression is the only challenge in life that offers procrastinators an advantage.
I pulled myself away from the railing, and called my best friend Tommy, who was living in Wellington. He came to the hotel and closed the curtains so that I couldn't see the balcony, and he made two cups of tea. I knocked one of them over my bed. We sat in silence for a while. Over the previous year, we'd had regular conversations – often many times a day – about my suicidal thoughts. I knew that the amount of time and energy Tommy spent supporting me was taking a toll on him. But if our roles were reversed, I would have been fighting for his recovery too. When Tommy left the hotel later that night, he knew that I had calmed down enough to be safe by myself.
Before going to bed, he sent me this text: "Hey. I am really glad I was there for you tonight. I miss being able to be that person for you now we live in different cities. I meant what I said about you being brave. I hope you're able to have a solid sleep. Will call you tomorrow."
The next morning, I found myself hiding behind a pillar outside Te Papa museum, along with our cameraman, Andrew, waiting to surprise – and chase – the Minister of Immigration, who had been avoiding me. We were doing a story about the Government's racist refugee policy, which discriminated against refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Five months later, that policy was scrapped, in part because of my reporting. I was only able to produce that story because I survived the previous night.
I reckon we set ourselves up for failure by trying to live without suffering. Western medicine tends to operate on the presumption that things should be "fixed" or "cured". We expect someone to tell us that they can take all our pain away. In fact, we believe that life can only get "better" if our pain is completely gone. That's so unrealistic. Not all physical pain can be erased; sometimes, it can only be managed. It's the same for mental distress. Sometimes, we just have to find a way to live with it, while giving ourselves the best possible quality of life. We have the capacity to withstand huge amounts of pain – far more than we give ourselves credit for.
Before depression, I'd had a childlike sense of wonder. Even as an adult, I was easily excited by simple pleasures like taking a warm cake out of the oven, collecting pine cones in a forest, or watching a bird build its nest. I bought Christmas lights from The Warehouse and kept them strung up around my flat's living room all year round. To me, the world was a sparkly place, and I chased every glimmer of light that caught my eye.
My curiosity fuelled my working life too. It helped me to construct a powerful identity for myself as a journalist. I was a storyteller. I was a listener. I was a traveller. I was an investigator. I was able to solve problems, and introduce people to new ideas.
In my mid-twenties, depression stole that identity and presented me with a new costume – one that didn't fit properly. It was hot and heavy, and I could barely move around in it, but I felt like I had to wear it. I wasn't enjoying my work. I didn't care as deeply about the stories I was telling. The lifestyle that once brought me satisfaction – travelling, talking and tweeting – felt meaningless. I struggled to answer the phone. I felt distant from my friends and family. Bit by bit, depression dismantled the framework that held me together. My mental distress wasn't just part of my identity; it became my only identity. This was the character I thought I would have to play for the rest of my life.
"Depression" is the word our society has chosen to describe a particular kind of human experience. However, the notion that I had a mental disorder did not serve me well. In fact, it made me helpless. I believed an illness was in control of me, so I thought my decisions didn't (and couldn't) matter. That "illness" became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more depressed I thought I was, the more depressed I became. The more I was worried about becoming suicidal, the more I was attracted to the idea of ending my own life.
Over time, I came to the astonishing realisation that my depression was largely the product of a story that I had written for myself. I had constructed a plot about a broken character who would eventually end his life in order to escape his suffering. As the author of that story, I had the power to reclaim it. I could rewrite my past. I could reinvent my character. I could write a more hopeful plot. I could stop trying to control my ending. Through the process of storytelling, I could find meaning in my suffering – even if I couldn't erase it.
Some people will be outraged by this idea. I can hear them shouting, "Are you telling me that my depression isn't real? How do you know that my brain isn't broken?" And that's exactly my point. We don't know what is happening in our brains. Mental distress takes many forms, and affects each of us in unique ways. I do believe that clinical depression exists, and I know that for some people, a diagnosis and medication will save their lives. If you fit into that group, I'm stoked. But for others, including me, the medical approach to mental distress has been an abject failure. In order to stay alive, we must think beyond diagnostic labels and explore the stories that our lives are built upon.
In the world of storytelling, suffering is vital to the development of a character. In fact, an author can only show us how strong a character really is by putting them through suffering. When placed in a perilous situation, a protagonist is forced to make decisions based on their values. They must draw on their reserves of strength and courage – qualities they may not typically display. Suffering forces them to take risks and develop endurance. After facing adversity, the character is more refined, and usually more confident in who they are and what they stand for.
I kept asking myself, "What would a good character do?" I tried to write a hopeful story – and then live into that story. On any given day, if my biggest achievement was going for a 15-minute walk, I could still tell a better story at the end of that day than if I had stayed in bed.
In the same way that we prescribe antidepressants, teach meditation and encourage people to exercise, I believe we can also help people to rewrite their stories. If I sound evangelical – almost fanatical – about this process, well, that's because I am. The power of storytelling could change your life – and perhaps even save it. There's a good chance it saved mine.
This Is Not How It Ends
By Jehan Casinader
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
Out October 21
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.