23 Sep 2017

Brent Williams: Depression just said 'you've got to face this'

From Saturday Morning, 8:30 am on 23 September 2017
Brent Williams

Brent Williams Photo: Supplied

When he was in his late 40s, anxiety and depression overwhelmed Wellingtonian Brent Williams and he walked away from his partner, four children and job.

He tells the story of his journey back to the world in the graphic memoir Out of the Woods, illustrated by Turkish artist Korkut Oztekin.

For years, Brent worked as a community lawyer focused on child abuse, family separation and neglect.

He found himself increasingly obsessed with the cases.

One day he was reviewing a publication on child abuse with a fellow professional.

"She looked up at one point and said 'Brent, what brought you to this area?' And I just broke down … From that moment on I could no longer hold [onto] the defences which had stopped me looking at the things which had driven my life's work."

Brent's father, Sir Arthur Williams, was a millionaire property developer and philanthropist who died in 2001.

He was also a deeply unhappy narcissist and domestic tyrant, Brent says.

"This man was a parent who inflicted a lot of harm on everybody in the family."

Arthur was obsessed with perfection, to the extent of having Brent sleep in leg irons from the age of six because he thought his feet weren't straight.

Brent constantly tried to win his father's love and approval and denied his own suffering until one day he couldn't.

"I remember I was lying in bed one day, it was midday and I was curled up in a ball crying. This had been going on for a while. And I thought 'This isn't right'."

He went to his GP, albeit with a made-up concern about sunspots.

"I was just about out the door and I said 'There's something else I need to talk to you about.' I was hugely embarrassed. I didn't want to talk to anybody about this."

Wellington's town belt will grow by 120 hectares.

Wellington Photo: 123rf

The GP sent to a psychiatrist who said he had a textbook case of depression – but he didn't believe it.

"I kept trying to prove them wrong, kept trying to back to work, then collapsing, going through this long process of denial … It wasn't me. My personality was strong, independent, I could battle through these things."

Surely he could call on the survival skills he'd learnt in childhood, he thought.

"But depression didn't allow me. Depression just said 'No, you've got to face this, you've got to look at it'."

It was perhaps only standing up at the Out of the Woods launch at Unity Books this week that Brent accepted his depression wasn't a failure, he says.

"This was the bookshop that only a year ago I would approach from the back alley and if there was anyone in the shop that I knew, I would walk away … I was ashamed to say that I suffered from depression, that I wasn't working."

Therapy helped, although it took a while to find the right person. Writing and taking sanctuary in the woods around Wellington's town belt also helped him through.

"Nature was a huge healer, I think. I could sit there and watch little things in nature – birds, bugs, ants – and somehow that was very helpful."

Part of Brent's recovery was a spontaneous out-of-body experience at a homoeopath's office.

"He said 'What is your principle complaint?" I literally responded physically. I fell on the floor, I curled up in a ball and for the next hour, I had this experience where i left the room and went out of this earth … It was this most beautiful experience where I saw love … I saw what the purpose of life was. I saw before birth and I saw after death and I saw the binding force of our lives, the purpose of our lives.

"Death had been a huge fear for me, all my life, particularly as a child it would send me into panic attaches, the thought of dying, the thought of infinity, the thought of something I couldn't control … This experience made death something which was totally understandable. It was as sensible as birth and the two weren't separate. I completely lost my fear of death after that. And I'd lived with that fear all my life – it was driving my anxiety to some extent – and that completely went."

Brent no longer works as a lawyer, he's been a woofer, a woofer host and has explored massage.

He hopes Out of the Woods will help people understand and overcome depression and anxiety.

"The longer you leave the depression the more roots it digs in and the harder it is to shift."

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 anytime to speak to a trained counsellor for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.