Why I became an R U OK Day Ambassador
It’s been a big week of vulnerability and revealing a few well kept secrets for me as I kicked off my first experiences as an R U OK Day Ambassador. It started by joining the NSW Minister for Women, Mental Health and Ageing, Tanya Davies, and the team at ACON, speaking at the launch of a new suicide prevention strategy that includes funding specifically for LGBTQI programs. I also spoke at ‘In it Together’, a suicide prevention forum held by local GLBT mag Star Observer. Prompted by the recent suicide of a friend, the forum was organised as an opportunity for people to learn, ask questions and start changes in our own behaviour toward depression, suicide, mental health and helping those in need.
It was my first time sharing my story so publicly and my first talk as an R U OK Day Ambassador. I was a little nervous knowing I’d be talking to a room of people I know, some of them for almost 20 years, but I became an Ambassador to give a voice and familiar face in our community to help create change, so I channelled the nervous energy for good.
One of the most important things about forums like In It Together is to see them as a starting point, what happens after and how you use the momentum is where the real change happens. Posts like this from My Gay Sydney are doing a great job of doing that and, as I’m encouraging everyone to keep talking, sharing and learning, I’m sharing my story. I hope it can help you to help a friend in need.
Hi, my name is Craig Mack and at 24 I tried to take my own life. Yeah, I’m just going to dive right in there. The first time I tried I was 16 and the last time I was 36. I’ve been managing clinical depression since I was a teenager and that definitely played a role in my suicide attempts but it wasn’t the only reason I didn’t want to live anymore.
I grew up with a mother who was a heroin addicted, drug dealing hooker in a world of heavy drug use, domestic violence, bikie gangs and police raids. I learned to roll joints at 6 and while most kids chores are to do the dishes, a couple of mine were bagging coc and mixing up hits in a spoon. #lifeskills
I was a pretty lonely kid. At home I was invisible and never really a priority; and at school, well what parent wants their child hanging around with the local drug dealers kid so the few friendships I had were pretty shallow and never went further than the school gate. I was a cub scout and I was in a local theatre group so there was some normality but I was always conscious that everyone knew what went on at home. If you’ve ever been in a crowded room, smiling through the pain of feeling completely alone, that was my childhood. To be honest, that feeling has never really left me.
As a kid, when everyone at home is too high to love you, be proud of you or even just guide you, you can’t help but doubt whether you’re actually worth anything at all. I was determined to not let that environment define me and to rise above it though so, like Glenn Close sticking a fork into her hand, bleeding under the table while smiling through small chat in Dangerous Liaisons, I bottled and compartmentalised my world, just so I could get through it.
The irony here is that in my last year at primary school I was voted in as a school prefect (yeah I was that nerd). I couldn’t understand how or why though, I didn’t see myself as anyone special so it never made sense to me.
Just I was started making friends in high school I was shipped off to live with my uncle. I was around 16 and the very fine thread that I was hanging on by broke. I started self harming and soon after attempted suicide. My uncle, a gay guy in his late 30’s who, until this point had lived a pretty quiet life with his partner and no kids, had no idea how to deal with the hot mess that he’d been handed. After being diagnosed with clinical depression I went into therapy and medicated my way back to some sort of normality. I never really talked though so therapy didn’t last long.
Through my teens and early 20’s I had my ups and down ( not all of them related to breaking my heels or falling out of the Shift on Monday morning from Friday night..geez that was fun) and I lived and laughed, but I still always felt like Glenn Close with the fork.
I call 24 my mid life car crash. I still don’t know what triggered it but over a period of about 6 months all my emotional defenses failed and everything I’d been holding on to from my childhood crushed me like tidal wave. My second suicide attempt didn’t feel like a choice, dying felt like the only thing that would stop the pain. I don’t remember taking myself to the hospital, I don’t even know how or why I unconsciously made the decision to go, let alone got myself there.. But that’s where I woke up.
This time I was ready to face the demons and recovery was more talking in therapy and less meds. It took a lot of work to rebuild, rediscover and start to like who I was ( perhaps for the first time) but eventually I did, and I learned how to recognise and manage the rollercoaster of depression (that’s what i call it anyway).
None of my friends knew I’d put myself hospital, my housemate didn’t know where I went every Tuesday morning, my work only really commented how being constantly late and tired was impacting my performance and no-one ever asked why I was bit sketchy some days and didn’t really go out or catch up with anyone any more. I didn’t mind at the time because all I wanted was to be alone, but it felt like no-one noticed.
I recovered and came out the other side stronger and wiser and I learned to ride the rollercoaster. But a few years ago the wheels fell off again and after a very long, deep, socially isolated depression that helped kill a relationship, kill friendships, kill my self esteem and and in one final attempt almost killed me, I dragged myself out the dark hole and started living again.
After a while one of my friends started planning catch ups, just walks in the parks, coffee, chats about life, boys, star trek and whatever else. I also had amazing housemates at the time and I started to realise that no one but them had noticed. For over two years no one saw how alone and broken I felt in a crowded room, no one seemed to notice that I’d pretty much stopped catching up with people or going out and that I was just living my life through Facebook and Selfies. It wasn’t that often that anyone called to see if I wanted to catch up, even rarer was saying yes and if I did I felt so uncomfortable and out of place that it was never for long. No one knew how much I needed help or a friend, and because I’d trained myself to look after myself from a very young age, I had no idea who or how to ask. Alone and out of the way is my safe default, but even I know that it’s not a healthy one.
No one ever asked if I was OK when I needed it most and it was only when that one friend did that I knew how important those three simple words are. To her, my housemates and my friends that tried I will be forever grateful. Around 65,000 people attempt suicide each year and around 3,000 of those succeed. I decided to become an R U OK Day Ambassador because over the last 12 months or so we’ve seen far too many people taking their own lives in our community. Knowing the feelings of social isolation, depression and the helplessness that makes you want to take your own life I felt I had to do something to help. Even if you think you do, no-one deserves to go through that, especially alone.
I also know how difficult it is to ask “R U OK?”, we’re all scared of the answer being “no” and not knowing how to help, what to do, what to say or even how we might react. Chances are you may not even recognise what not being ok looks like, or what signs to look for. From the other side, it can be just as hard and confronting a question to answer honestly. None of this should stop us trying to connect with each other though.
On both sides of the question “R U OK?” is vulnerability, and we’re told that being vulnerable is a weakness. In one of my favourite TED talks, psychologist Brene Brown discusses how vulnerability is actually a superpower and we should embrace and harness it, not run from it. It’s a powerful belief and a talk that’s worth watching.
That said, when you’re depressed, struggling and have no self worth, vulnerability feels like Krytponite and sometimes even Superman ( or Superwoman) needs Batman ( or Batwoman) by their side. There is a level of personal responsibility I have to take for my habit of creating my social isolation. A few oddly timely conversations over the last couple of weeks have reminded me that effort is needed from both sides to keep friendships alive, instead Indid what I do and quietly withdrew from the world. We also all live busy lives and it can be hard to keep up with or notice changes in everyone. When you’re in that dark and lonely headspace though it’s almost impossible hit the batlight and ask for help. It sounds so fucking selfish but that’s why it takes a friend to notice and shout out. If there’s someone you want to help but you don’t know where to start, at R U OK we talk about 4 simple steps to starting a conversation.
- Encourage Action
- Check in
The first one, Ask, is pretty simple.
Not being OK looks different on everyone so if a friend is acting out of character – quieter than usual, louder than usual, grumpier than usual, out more than usual, in more than usual (the key word is here is “than usual”) it could be a sign that something is up. You may not think it but happier or calmer than usual can also be a sign. There’s a certain type of happiness and relief that comes with knowing the pain is about to end.
Rather than try and guess though, just ask. There are heaps of ways to ask but one of the easiest is a simple “Hey gurl heey, R U OK?”
If someone says no, don’t freak out, just ask more questions and follow step 2. Some great follow up questions are things like “What’s up?, “What are you no ok about?”, “Duuuuude, what’s going on?”
The second is Listen
Too often when we listen it’s to respond, but that’s not always what’s needed and it can get in the way. Listening isn’t always about having an answer so there’s no need to jump in, the best thing you do is just be present. Ask questions, get them to expand on points, find out how they are feeling.. But also let the silence in, it can take time to find the words and silence is a powerful tool for listening, reflecting and sharing.
The third is to Encourage Action
While you want to be careful about giving advice or telling someone what to do, you can help by encouraging people to act. This can be as simple as getting or guiding them to think about one or two things that can be done to better manage the situation. It might be as easy as taking some time out or doing something that’s fun. It could also be more urgent like talking to their dr or other health professional.
Activities like The 100 days of Happiness, Daily Gratefuls or building a Smile Jar are wonderfully simple ways to consciously reframe how you perceive the world and change your own. And they are completely free.
When you encourage someone to act, it also makes the next point easier.
The fourth is to Check In
My friend who met up for walks and chats about boys, that was her just checking in, showing she was around and following up. Having even just one person connecting, checking in and showing they care, feeling like you have a friend, can be enough to start breaking down isolation and finding your feet again.
There’s more information on the 4 steps of Ask, Listen, Encourage Action and Check In on the R U OK Day website.
Sometimes I look back at my experiences and wonder how, 40 years later, I’m still standing. Technically I shouldn’t be and more often than I’ll ever admit I don’t want to be but if there’s one thing that I have to really bad at, ultimately I am glad that it’s knocking myself off.
I don’t always believe that when I say it and that lonely little kid who thinks he’s worthless is still with me every day and has more influence of some parts of my life than I like but, because I believe that happiness really is a journey, not a destination ( I know, it’s a cheesy AF, wanky cliche, don’t hate me) one of my favourite things to do is to prove him wrong by doing things he tells me I can’t or that I don’t deserve. For anyone who’s ever wondered why I’m such a fucking showpony and have my hands in so many different things, that’s one of my main motivations.
The rollercoaster of depression and the path to suicide are different experiences for everyone, this is just my story. Thank you for listening.
If you are experiencing feelings of depression or suicide there are plenty of support services available. For help, talk to a friend or get in touch with organisations like Suicide Prevention Australia, Beyond Blue, the Black Dog Institute or Lifeline .
If you know of someone who needs help but don’t know how to have the conversation, R U OK is here to support you so visit them here.
And if you’re looking for someone to speak at an event, just hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org