Everyone likes to think they’re a bit unique in their own special way, but the reality is that most people are actually pretty similar. Most have partners of opposing genders, most generate offspring, most have a gaggle of extended family members and most, by and large, enjoy much the same things as they amble their way through life. My unique is… I dunno… different.
From the mundane to the truly unusual, there’s always been a degree of difference to almost everything about me. For example, my maternal grandmother was the only grandparent I ever knew, but I also knew her mother – most people know more than the one grandparent and few have the privilege of knowing a great-grandparent. I also have a really tiny nuclear family and have no cousins whatsoever – most people have cousins. I’ve been a massive fan of Doctor Who since I was about 8 years old – most people haven’t been and aren’t. I’ve never enjoyed, been interested in or been any good at sports of any description – most people are, at the very least, interested in one sport or another even if they have no actual talent for it.
And the list goes on. I don’t tend to like what others like just because pop culture dictates it should be so; in fact, if something I like later becomes popular I tend to like it less from then on – no, I can’t fathom that one either! I really couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks of me, my likes and dislikes or my choices in life. I’ve hated peas ever since I was a small boy. I detest small talk and I loathe talking on telephones. I’m obsessed with music. I love cars. I do my own thing, enjoy my own company, have a vivid imagination and could very probably keep myself occupied for weeks on end, without the need to be surrounded by people and without ever feeling the slightest bit lonely or bored. At times I can seem brash and confident – isn’t bravado a wonderful thing? The reality is I don’t really care for socialising, much less with people I don’t know; actually, I don’t really like people very much at all, as a general rule. I have some reasonably laissez-faire attitudes towards sex and monogamy and a somewhat unorthodox approach to relationships – that is to say, I haven’t been in one for more than a decade, I don’t miss it, I’m not actively seeking one, nor do I feel my life is any the lesser for not being in one. Add to all of this that I’m not exactly “in the marrying way”, as might’ve been said of me in the olden days, and by now I’m sure you’re starting to see the kinda unique picture I’m painting.
And I also recently suffered from a mental illness.
There. I’ve said it. I’ve formally outed myself to the big wide interweb world – I recently suffered from a mental illness. It’s time to tear the covers off the elephant in the room. That great big, fat, grey elephant that’s been standing over there in the corner for however long now. Everyone’s known it was there. Every now and then, friends and colleagues might’ve thought they saw its trunk, or a bit of one of its giant ears, peeping out from under the covers. But they’d look again and it’d be gone. They knew they’d seen something, they just couldn’t quite describe what it was.
I’ll tell you what it was: the long-overdue diagnosis of severe clinical depression. Thanks to the wonderous invention that is the interweb, I was able to undertake a range of tests online to help me establish, with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy, what was likely to be going on. I think I more-or-less knew what it was for a week or so before I eventually stopped stewing on it and took myself off to my GP for his professional opinion. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what had triggered it, nor when it had started, though with hindsight I suspect the signs were there years ago. Once the diagnosis was formally made, I was shown such care and respect by my management at work and was able to take three whole months off. Of course I dressed it up as ‘long service leave’ to everyone else because I just couldn’t talk about it at that point – I still didn’t really understand what was happening to me or how things were going to pan out, so the last thing I needed was a barrage of questions. On my last day at work before going on leave I fessed up to my nearest and dearest and from that point onwards – with them at least – it was a frequent topic of open and honest conversation.
Luckily while on my twelve week sabbatical, I found myself in the care of a psychiatric professional who didn’t want me to spend time rehashing the past or trying to recall every bad thing that had ever happened in my life and decide which one was the ’cause’ of my present situation. He didn’t wear a white coat and I never found myself laid out on a long leather sofa while he looked on, taking notes. He simply gave me a set of practical tools to take away, learn, practice and embed in my day-to-day life. All going to plan, the tools would not just help with my recovery, they’d also help me avoid ever going back to that awful, dark place again.
I’m happy to say the plan worked an absolute treat! The tools are still in use as and when I need them, but I’m all back to rights again. I’ve become fit, I’ve lost almost a quarter of my body weight and I think I’m more-or-less back to ‘my old self’ – my old pre-depression self, that is!
But I have to admit I’m still slightly devastated by one reality of this situation – although being diagnosed with severe clinical depression felt reasonably unique at the time, if only because I’d never been through it before, I was genuinely surprised to discover that it’ll probably go into the annals of my history as the least unique aspect of me. Of all the other aspects of me that I absolutely embrace because they truly make me just that little bit ‘different’ to the majority of other people, it seems being diagnosed with depression is quite possibly one of the least unique things that can ever happen to anyone.
Almost a quarter of all Australians will either experience or be formally diagnosed with a depressive episode or illness during their lifetime. And yet there’s still more stigma attached to this topic than exists around murder, homosexuality, abortion, HIV/AIDS and any number of other topics that impact far fewer people. There are so many organisations and initiatives out there that I have a newfound respect for and can’t give enough support to – Lifeline, Beyond Blue, R U OK Day – in fact last week’s second annual R U OK Day was, by all accounts, a resounding success and seems to me to be a perfect fit for twenty-first century life. Spread the word via social media, make the tagline catchy, keep the message simple – if the tagline and message can be the same thing, so much the better.
The concept behind R U OK Day is so important and so very simple. Everybody needs help some time. Asking for it is nothing to be ashamed of. I have first-hand proof of just how well things can turn out if you can only bury your ego, accept that it may all be a little confronting and ask for help.
And if you’re the one who’s OK but you think someone else might not be, please remember one crucial thing: that invisible line you think you can’t cross coz they might be fine, coz asking if they’re OK might embarrass them or, worse still, make you look like an idiot… THAT LINE DOES NOT EXIST! Whether to protect them or to protect yourself, you imagined it. You created it. There is no line that shouldn’t be crossed if you think someone may not be OK. Your question, those three little words, could mean the difference between their sadness and their happiness, between them seeking help or avoiding it, or quite literally between life and death. It’s not hard. It doesn’t take long. It’s no skin off your nose. It’s just three small words. And not just on September 15 either. Whenever. Wherever. Three small words. No shame. No embarrassment.
Elephants don’t belong in rooms. Believe me, I know…