Wednesday, 14 September 2011

R U OK - three simple words could change a life

I hope by now you all know what R U Ok day is about .

15th September is R U OK? Day.

I, like many of my fellow bloggers writing their own R U OK posts, have struggled with what to say , how to say it and how much I can comfortably disclose. I have two things to write about one from 21 yrs ago and one more recent.

So 'My story' is not my story as such.

Twenty one years ago my vibrant , boisterous and funny cousin G , committed suicide at 24yrs. G was only a year or so older than me. It stunned and shattered me. It was out of the blue or so it seemed. G had spent some time living with our family and we knew him well (or so NOT !) . No one knew he suffered depression, likely Bi polar.

He had a new job, a partner who was expecting his first child (I think) and was due to receive compensation payout for a back injury. A painful one. Then he was gone. G had his life on track, everything to live for after a period of being unsettled and having tough luck.

My father received a phone call one morning to ask him to identify G's body. I know not how or why my Dad was the one. It was devastating. It profoundly affected my Dad for a long time.  I honesty don't know the exact details (who talks about this) ... G hung himself in bushland not far from where he lived , where my Dad worked too.

I remember my husband telling me, he answered the phone call. After rivers of tears , I searched through all my wedding photos and my wedding video to watch G, to see why we had missed whatever. I saw nothing but his smiling face. For a long time I grieved G. I couldn't begin to understand the fact that he hadn't asked for help. There was probably more to it. I long, even now, to find where I packed my photos and see his face again.

I wished someone had asked G was he OK , 21yrs ago there was still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness and depression. It was very much Chin up mate , have a another beer . Harden up.

Two years before that I was 'nursing' people with mental illness. I have vivid memories, as a student nurse , of spending days (6hrs at a time) in locked wards of a certain mental institution. I was only 19-21 yrs old.

We were 'visiting' - how the heck could anyone cope being there 24/7. I remember never being so scared in all my life, when "crazy" people touched my arm, leg or sat virtually on top of me. Whispering words at me , others silent or rocking on the floor with blank looks, as well as pulling the craziest faces ever seen at me or my student colleagues if we dared make eye contact. It was a ward where most were involuntary admissions.

Yes, we had tutors, and the regular staff were there but I felt unsafe always. I digress...

I also spent time in a private hospital psychiatric unit. It was like a hotel and at 19-20yrs I wondered why all these seemingly 'well'  people were spending weeks, some months, in hospital. However, most were voluntary admissions. Both places were very different and left a lasting impression. I sat in on group counseling and chatted with 'patients' at times. They looked OK, normal , though of course we knew they were struggling with the ups and downs of 'whatever' caused their depression.

I am so thankful attitudes have shifted and organisations exist to help those who suffer depression. The stigma is not such a burden.

The next story is closer to home. There is no doubt that depression causes a lot of strain on relationships and especially marriages. Sometimes you don't even see it coming. I know I didn't.

There is no shame in speaking out about depression and it's affect on relationships. The more we talk the more others understand. Being honest allows others to not feel so alone, if they face the same issues and are feeling ashamed or unsure . The problem lies when people want to keep it a secret and attach blame or interfere in unhelpful ways.

I just can't say too much as it's not my story. Depression has been a part of our my husband's life for a while. He takes regular anti -depressants, I think the depression started after our daughter was stillborn.

He says it is largely a part of it. There is more to it than I suppose he will ever tell me.

I can tell you I felt shattered the first time he told me he had no reason to live , he felt there was no point in his life. I was thankful he told me, thankful he was able to speak to a professional and get help. He knew he clearly wasn't OK and was supported.

We were both OK about that. I still struggled to understand why ? He had three sons and me , no major financial or medical problems (then). He was never suicidal, from what I know, but knowing the thought was there. I was immensely fearful.

We, especially he, made adjustments but had to accept some things he couldn't change immediately.

Even before having a malignant cancer diagnosis, 18 months ago,  that turned our life upside down again. Thankfully, we had already changed our business structure. It turned out that it was an unforeseen blessing. Having a serious cancer diagnosis caused us to reassess a lot more of our life.

him both of us !

Speaking from my own point of view there have been many times when I haven't been able to contact my husband . When it seemed out of the ordinary . I would get very anxious to the point of being so terrified that something had happened, that then I would get angry with him . The Fear ? it drives you me crazy. I know I over react and I have to learn to deal with this anxiety.

Today , when you ask someone "Are you OK"  , it may be painful and very emotional. Here are some suggestions for starting an  RU OK conversation.

Take care of yourself too . Keep talking to your loved ones, friends or colleagues, and keep connecting. Be there but not intrusive and try not to take control.

Remember taking the time every day , not just today, to establish meaningful conversations can help stop little problems turning into big ones. As you listen you may feel ill-equipped to deal with the answer if it's "No ! " "Not really" or they disclose a bigger problem than you can help them with.

It isn't always possible to be everything to everyone , especially if you are struggling yourself or have several friends needing you. It is Ok to encourage others to seek professional help, if they don't already. Gently reassure them , that mental illness is the same as any other . Even suggest you can go with them initially, if they wish.

Here is a page of links if they need immediate help.

Personally, I know I have had periods in my own life when I faced my own anxiety & depression ( Immense grief after loss). I have had numerous friends and support groups who listened when I wasn't entirely OK, for this I am truly thankful. I have not had to take anti depressant medications though I would if I ever need them.

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