Best-selling author Gwendoline Smith: the truth about depression

Colourful, bold and not one to shy away from an issue, Gwendoline talks candidly about her own experiences and why we need to destigmatise mental illness.

By Judy Bailey
Gwendoline Smith, aka Dr Know, is a colourful character in so many ways.
Her self-help offering The Book of Knowing spent 10 weeks this year at the top of the New Zealand best-seller list. A writer, speaker and psychologist, she specialises in depression and anxiety.
The success of her book, she says, shows the enormity of the need out there. In it, she shows you how you think and how that dictates the way you feel.
She is waiting for me outside her home in inner-city Auckland, a splash of colour on an otherwise dull winter's day.
She's sporting a pair of bright red sneakers, a multi-coloured top and a faux fur waistcoat, topped by a pair of large-framed glasses to match her sizeable earrings. She is warm, enthusiastic, welcoming.
That she has long been a household name in psychology circles is testament not only to the quality of work she does but also to her strength and resilience, because Gwendoline herself struggles with mental illness. She is bipolar.
"It's tough because when I have a manic episode, it takes months to recover. It's like a having a brain injury," she explains.
"You have to wait for the antidepressants to work. It takes a long time for spontaneous conversation, innovation and creativity to return. Being a sole trader means that I have to put my business on hold for that time. But I'm lucky I have a great relationship with the GPs who recommend me; they obviously think I'm worth waiting for," she grins.

Gwendoline has written candidly about her own depression, outlining one of her major manic episodes.
"I lived as the second Messiah for nearly a month."
It was exhausting trying to save the world; she also thought at the time that she was the product of a torrid affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Walt Disney, but naturally questioned that, given of course she was immaculately conceived (being the second Messiah).
"I was mad," she admits cheerfully.
How does she keep her equilibrium now? "I take a lot of medication," she says. Lithium is key.
"When I look back I wish I'd been on Lithium a long time ago. I would have avoided those train wrecks. I've had lots of cleaning up to do. I wouldn't recommend it as a learning curve," she says, with her characteristic wry humour.
Gwendoline also emphasises the importance of the five pillars of mental health. For her they are: "I contribute, I love helping people, I love my work, I love to laugh and have fun, and I place a lot of value on friendship.
"I like the concept of being comfortable in my own skin. There's a lot of crap about 'we deserve to be happy'. We don't. It's not your given right," she tells me firmly.
Gwendoline was born in Kent, England, in the 1950s. Her dad, Alan, was in the Navy. Her brother is five years younger.
In the early 1960s the family joined hundreds of other "Ten Pound Poms" on assisted passages to New Zealand to forge a new life.
The Smith family wound up living in what were then the remote villages of Meremere, Wairakei and Otara, as Alan found work on various power projects. His wife, Bette, worked in local shops and hostels.
Gwendoline was a bright kid. She skipped ahead two years and ended up with classmates who were much older and more socially mature. She suffered, like many migrants, from bullying.
"It was horrible. I had a funny name and a funny accent."
There were beatings behind the bike sheds, humiliation and name calling.
"I learnt that to survive, I would have to dumb down. I became the class clown. On reports I would get 92 per cent for maths but D for attitude. It took the heat off and I was accepted by the group."
Gwendoline and her mother Bette
She finished bursary at 16 and went straight on to Waikato University. Then began what she euphemistically calls, "a colourful time".
"I was 16 and living away from home. Because I was so young I was easily led. The seventies were the beginning of a significant drug culture. People were experimenting with LSD and marijuana and altered states of consciousness."
She says she "bumbled along" with sociology and psychology. Much of her sociological research, she reckons, with a grin, was done around bars.
"I was a singlet and gumboot wearing hippy, playing pool and quoting Lenny Bruce [American comedian and satirist]. I became a kind of bar mascot. If I was back in Tudor times I would be the court jester. When I look back on my behaviour at uni I was always on outrageous highs. I wouldn't have a normal 21st. I had to have two bands and 300 people. I was always attracted to substances of abuse."
Her drug of choice?
"People who have social phobias and depression tend to seek out speed, coke and amphetamines, looking for the up, up, up. But if you have a manic brain you're attracted to the hypnotic effect… sedatives and narcotics."
Gwendoline was eventually arrested just a couple of months shy of finishing her post-graduate studies, and sent to rehab.
In 1994, she suffered her first big manic episode.
Shortly afterwards she wrote her first book, Sharing the Load. The recent updated version is titled Depression Explained – How you can help when someone you know is depressed.
It is highly recommended by professors of psychiatry from Oxford University, and the Universities of Melbourne and New South Wales, and is a must-read if you want to gain understanding of an illness that is so often surrounded by ignorance, fear and prejudice.
Gwendoline says research clearly shows there is a genetic predisposition to depression. Which is not to say if a relative has suffered depression you will be depressed too. It just means your risk is heightened.
There are many contributors to depression. They might be biochemical – high levels of stress can lead to chemical changes in the brain. Physical illness can trigger depression, as can sustained levels of anxiety.
Gwendoline knows only too well what some of her clients are going through, and while ethics don't allow her to talk about herself, she doesn't hide her own experiences if they ask.
"I had a client ask, 'How long did it take you to come down from your last episode?' I said, 'About seven months.' He was reassured. 'Oh,' he said, 'I'm on the right track then.' I was able to tell him, yes, he was doing fine."
Gwendoline and her mother Bette have both undergone mastectomies and bravely posed topless for breast cancer support.
It was an incident in a chemist shop that caused Gwendoline to begin a campaign to destigmatise mental illness.
"It's an illness just like any other illness," she insists.
She was getting a prescription filled for anti-psychotic medication.
"I've never had so much attention in a shop," she tells me. "They were watching me like a hawk. I thought f* that, and went off on a crusade."
With the backing of former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, she managed to secure Treasury funding to run a destigmatisation campaign. She's campaigning still.
She tells me about an ethics conference on mental health at which she was to be a keynote speaker. Apparently there was some concern over her selection – she wasn't considered, she says, a "proper psychiatric survivor. I told them, 'How dare you assume that my psychic pain is any less just because I don't rummage in rubbish bins.'"
Gwendoline was not long out of a stint in a psychiatric unit after another manic episode and was working her way through depression, when, leaving a yoga class, she happened across a breast-screening van offering free testing. She went in – after all, her mother, Bette, had survived a mastectomy, and it was better to be safe than sorry, she thought.
And so began her journey with breast cancer. A lump was found. "The news isn't good, Gwendoline," said the surgeon.
She says she heard the words cancer, breast, mastectomy, and then, "I began to weep. The tears ran down my cheeks in what seemed like a never ending flow of water from my inner being," she says in her book Breast Support. It is a brave, candid account of her navigation through fear and trauma to recovery.
Her surgeon, Wayne Jones, says, "With her psychology training and intensely personal perspective, Gwendoline has done the research, gathered the resources and presented them in a very practical way. Breast Support is not only a very good book, it is also very cool!"
She had both breasts removed. And with characteristic enthusiasm and generosity of spirit she immediately threw herself into raising funds for breast cancer research. A calendar raised more than $100,000. Fittingly, Gwendoline appears body painted as a warrior queen.
She also persuaded her mum Bette, now 90, to bare her breasts for the cause. The pair share a close bond. It's a powerful and intensely moving image.
Gwendoline lives now with her partner, musician Murray Grindlay. They met soon after her double mastectomy, before she began the reconstruction process.
"It didn't matter a bit," he insists. "I just thought how incredibly brave she was. Besides, there was all sorts of fun in store for me – I helped choose the new ones!"
She is writing another book. It's about "over thinking", she tells me. And with a life as full and colourful as hers there will also be a memoir.
For now, she sends me off with an autographed copy of Depression Explained. It's compulsive reading. Gwendoline has signed my copy with the words "A gift from me" and in her exuberant way she's kissed the page. The lipstick is, of course, bright red.
The Book of Knowing (published by Allen & Unwin) is out now. Visit gwendolinesmith.co.nz.

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