"I didn’t know Charlotte Dawson but this is why I cried for her today."
I had a hot and cold relationship with Charlotte Dawson.
Don’t get me wrong, we never met. But when she first came to my attention on Australia’s Next Top Model (ANTM)– I wasn’t a fan.
I had vague memories of Charlotte being married to troubled Olympic swimmer Scott Miller at some point and I was aware she’d been a sometimes panellist on Beauty and The Beast with the late Stan Zemaneck years earlier but I’d never given her a passing thought (other than thinking she was extraordinarily beautiful). But when she came to my attention on ANTM? If I’m going to be honest, she irritated me.
Who is this woman? Why is she so mean to the teenage entrants?
That’s what I thought of Charlotte Dawson. In a nutshell: not much.
But my opinion changed. And I can tell you the exact date it changed: 28th August 2011.
Charlotte sat down with Mia to do a one-on-one interview for this very website and that’s when I saw the real Charlotte Dawson – a fragile, seeringly honest, loving, self-deprecating soul with a generous laugh. A woman who just like the rest of us was out there, doing her best and trying hard to be a contributor rather than a critic.
I sat at home that day, ready to roll my eyes and instead was mesmerised by her. Instead I wanted to be her friend. There she was, sitting on the floor of the Mamamia office, make-up free, hair pulled back and wearing simple – if not daggy – clothes. She talked openly and honestly – sometimes uncomfortably – about her history of failed relationships and her inability to choose the right partner, her reconciliation with the fact she would never be a mother, her feelings about aging in an industry that values only the very young and the paper thin. I watched her talk freely about her use of Botox, her experiences with online bullying, her fierce support of gay right and the mothering and nurturing (clearly rarely caught on camera) that she gave the ANTM entrants. I would never have guessed it was Charlotte who was the mother hen to those girls, dishing out the tough love and reality checks along with big doses of love to the young entrants.
So on 28th August 2011, I became a fan. And from then on I went out of my way to read interviews Charlotte gave in the media to learn more about her. That’s where I read about the fact she was sexually abused as a child at the hands of an elderly neighbour. About her teenage birth mother who gave her up for adoption. About her difficult relationship with her stepfather. And her pattern for choosing (according to her therapist) narccisistic men
This morning I heard the news that Charlotte Dawson was found dead. And I cried at my desk.
Why? I don’t even know how to explain it.
We weren’t friends by any means. We exchanged a few messages on Twitter over the years – most frequently a message of support from one to the other when things had turned ugly and abuse was flying at either of us for one reason or another. But truth be told she wouldn’t have known me in a line-up. I could have walked past her on the street and she’d have been oblivious to my presence.
So why the tears?
Because I feel we let her down. As a society. As human beings, quite frankly. She was so frequently pummelled on social media – the target of the most hateful, vicious messages. And having been the target myself on some occasions – let me tell you, it’s hard for the abuse not to swirl in your head long after you’ve read it. It’s hard for your spirit not to be irrevocably punctured; for your self-esteem not to permanently fractured when people are cajoling you to hang yourself. Or calling you a whore. (And on that subject can I just say how the hell do we expect teenagers to brush off this type of abuse when we, as adults, can’t?) Anyway. So Charlotte was frequently attacked online and we tut-tutted and agreed that social media is awful and said, ‘Oh my God, poor Charlotte’ but then more often than not we followed it with, ‘Well what is she DOING on Twitter? She needs to stop responding”. That’s right, we told CHARLOTTE DAWSON to get off social media rather than the parasites and miscreants who have turned platforms like Twitter and Facebook into the cowardly bully’s paradise.
So why the tears?
Because we are so bloody pathetic when it comes to understanding mental illness in this country which is RIDICULOUS. You know why? Because we’re surrounded by it. At least HALF the people in my friendship group are on some form of anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication. You’d never know, of course. Because still now it’s this big, shameful secret. But it’s not rare. It’s not an affliction of the weak. Or the fragile. It’s one in five Australians. You with me? According to the Black Dog Institute “One in five (20%) Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year. The most common mental illnesses are depressive, anxiety and substance use disorder.”
So we don’t need all these hushed tones when we talk about depression or people with depression. Most of us have it, have had it or will have it at some point. Of course we will. Life is bloody tough at times. And at some point we will each be brought to our knees. I’ve had a bout of depression in my life. Charlotte battled depression for years. Is that any surprise given her childhood? She talked openly and honestly about her struggle with the black dog and I think many of us responded by making her feel less than when instead she should have been applauded for her honesty. We should have responded not just with open minds but with open hearts and arms.
So why the tears?
You know what? I don’t know. I guess I worry that this morning her heart ached with pain and loneliness and maybe life looked impossibly bleak. I’m sad because I worry that she felt like she was of no use or not wanted or had nothing to offer. I’m sad because whether her death was deliberate or accidental – the result is the same: we lost her.
I believe Charlotte Dawson was a woman with a big heart who was in fact incredibly gracious and loving. And I worry she died without knowing that she was greatly valued and respected and wanted.
I wish I had a clever way to wrap up this column. A wise message. A moral to the story. But I don’t. I’m just sad because today Charlotte Dawson is gone.
This post first appeared on Mamamia.
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Over the past 25 years Rebecca Sparrow has earned a living as a travel writer, a television publicist, a marketing executive, a magazine editor, a TV scriptwriter, a radio producer, a newspaper columnist and as an author.