When Kazuko Shiraishi was severely ill with depression, she stopped being able to see colour – and then to taste or smell. With her senses shutting down, she longed to let go entirely.
Kazuko Shiraishi hides in the toilet. She weeps as soundlessly and quickly as she can, so that her colleagues won’t notice her absence. But in a small office, everyone is aware of everyone else’s moods. And the urge to cry overwhelms her often in the course of a day.
The year is 1999, the location a suburb of Tokyo. Kazuko is 32 years old, an office clerk – and a newly-wed. She dries her eyes with toilet paper and slips back to her desk. Before Kazuko got married, three things were important to her. Work. Friends. And a fiancé. But after she wed, she broke off all contact with her friends. It was her own choice, and it was necessary, she thought, if she were to fulfil her obligations as a wife. “I decided that from now on, there should be only two things in my life: work and marriage. I intended to be a perfect wife.” Kazuko told her family doctor about her crying jags and insomnia, figuring that he would no doubt diagnose her with “accumulated fatigue.” But her affliction turned out to be something else entirely. An illness that, at the time, seemed to have nothing to do with her at all.
She didn’t tell her husband. He knew quite well how she was doing, and in his eyes, she was a great disappointment. He too had expected a flawless wife – and one who would earn money until she became pregnant. But when Kazuko came home from work, he felt she wasn’t quick enough in getting dinner on the table. If he came home before his wife, he would calculate his waiting time from when he himself had arrived. Kazuko raced through her days: late home from work, get dinner underway, do laundry, crawl in bed at 12:30 and lie there awake, then up again before 5
and get going with her domestic chores before hurrying off to the office. And then that evening, repeat the whole cycle all over again. A recent Cabinet Office survey shows that at least one in every three Japanese women has experienced physical harm or psychological harassment in the home. Kazuko became one of these women. Her husband shouted words at her that she still can’t repeat. He hit her. Although Kazuko’s mother and older brother urged her to move back in with them, and her doctor had diagnosed her with major depressive disorder, Kazuko remained where she was. “I could not admit my marriage was a failure,” she says today.
Nevertheless, after five months of marriage, the violence and the harsh words became too much, and she left her usband. But that didn’t make her feel any better.
In the bathroom mirror
Only one thing remained that could rescue her – to be the perfect employee. It was critical to her that she appeared clear and composed at the office, but the medicine a psychiatrist had prescribed made her dizzy. She felt she had to stop taking it. “I had failed as a housewife. I could not fail as an employee too. That would mean: You are nobody.”
One night, she got up to go to the bathroom. When she looked in the mirror, she noticed something that made her wonder, but she was too exhausted to react. In the morning, the strange thing was still there. “I looked in the bathroom mirror and there was no colour at all. Not behind me, not anywhere. All gone.”
It was the last morning of the New Year’s holidays, and Kazuko’s first thought was for her next day at work. At the office, she had to manage documents that were organized by colour – but what now? She wrote the names of the colours on small sticky notes and set them on her papers. In this way she was able to cope; she could still “save face” at work.
But from then on, she lived in her own ghostly world. Everything was greyish, black and white. Kazuko compares it to a blackand- white film. Was it hot or cold? Her senses couldn’t tell her that either. Every morning, she asked her mother about the weather so that she could dress appropriately. The loss of colour had appeared suddenly. Then bit by bit, other sensory losses began to infiltrate her life. Kazuko enjoyed sweet things, pastel cream cakes and candy in bright colours. The tempting colour had already drained out of her treats. But now they also began to lose their taste and smell.
She attempted to find foods that gave her some suggestion of their prior pleasure, but gradually her senses of taste and smell faded entirely. “I realized that all food would fail me. And then I became scared of food. I became scared of even looking at food because of the disappointment.”
This once-athletic woman grew skinnier and skinnier. No one at work asked what was wrong. “My colleagues knew, but couldn’t say anything,” explains Kazuko. “They were all junior employees and couldn’t speak to a senior colleague. So they pretended that nothing was wrong.”
She couldn’t help but mention to a couple of colleagues that she no longer could taste or smell anything. She still remembers a senior colleague’s reply. “Is that so,” he said.
Split in two
Kazuko strove to work calmly and efficiently. Yet she was often a hairsbreadth away from snapping when colleagues’ work routines frustrated her. Only once did her composure crack. No, she didn’t raise her voice; she says she couldn’t do that. But she found herself throwing her computer keyboard on the floor. Everyone witnessed her loss of control.
For a long time, her thoughts had been circling around a particular action, and now, a short time after the incident with the keyboard, she finally gave notice.
But that didn’t make her feel any better. Kazuko had been living with her mother, brother and sister-in-law for a couple of years, and her situation had just gone from bad to worse: “I had failed as a housewife. I had failed as an employee. I was useless now. Of no value at all.” Her family had opened up their home to her, and she, a grown woman, had become completely dependent on them. An urge swelled inside her, an urge to liberate her family from the deep disappointment that she must have been for them. “I felt so sorry for them,” she says.
It would be simple enough. The remedy she would use was already there in the house; she just needed a cup and a bottle of disinfectant. One morning, Kazuko went into her room, closed the door and poured the disinfectant into a cup. She drank. She couldn’t taste the fluid, but it burned her throat. Again she drank from the cup.
The lamp was amber
Kazuko’s mother and brother found her unconscious on the floor. After she was admitted to the casualty ward, they persuaded her to let herself be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. Kazuko was gravely ill with depression and remained at the hospital for several months. Since that first hospital stay in 2001, she has had another three stays of two to three months each.
During the period of several years that Kazuko remembers as “the bottom,” she spoke frequently with her family doctor about her longing to die. “I was split in two,” she explains. “I wanted to survive, and I wanted to escape from the suffering.” She wavered back and forth between these two impulses. Her doctor always managed to convince her to hang on, telling her that life still had much to offer her; She just needed to wait and see.
His energy would succeed in lifting her spirits for a few days, and then she would slide back to the bottom again. Kazuko attempted suicide several times, and for a while she also engaged in self-harm.
Her last hospital stay was in 2009. She still doesn’t feel fully recovered, but her body has told her that she’s getting better. The same way the ability to see colour had abandoned her, it returned. One morning she awoke and looked at her lamp. It was no longer pale grey. “The lamp was amber. And my body felt so alive.” She hurried out to the kitchen to test whether she could also taste again. Years before, when she had clung to her waning sense of taste, she sought to rouse it with spicy foods. Not now. “I drank some milk,” Kazuko recalls. And she was able to
In her power
In Japanese culture, vulnerability can present itself as a pitiful failing and trigger a sudden plunge in your worth in the eyes of those around you. Better to hide your suffering behind an expressionless face. Better to endure loneliness in private, rather than in the glare of public disapproval. A few years before, Kazuko had despised and punished herself harshly for not being able to control her tears. She is no longer that woman, she says now. She allows herself to accept help from her family, her family doctor and the local psychiatric day care centre. She goes there regularly, several days a week, joining other people with brain disease. Here she’s found new friends – people she laughs with, plays volleyball with, listens to without judging. “Maybe one advantage of having this illness is that I can now feel compassion for other sensitive people.”
How would people living with depression like other people to deal with them?
"We would like you to be patient with us. It may take us many years to recover. And maybe the illness will be lifelong. It’s good if you keep an eye on us – but without too much intervention and demands. Sometimes those things can trigger a worse outcome. Just sit next to us instead. Stay with us."
– Kazuko Shiraishi
More about Kazuko Shiraishi
Kazuko lives with her mother, older brother, sister-in-law and their two young daughters.
Divorced, no children.
Former office clerk, now supported by her family.
Major depressive disorder.
Most recent hospitalization 2009
Kazuko goes to a psychiatric day care centre and sees her family doctor regularly.