Warning: this theme includes themes of depression and suicide.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a very critical – at times cynical – mind. At times I’ve found the world a hard place to be in, unfair and full of injustice. I feel like it’s the source of some of my greatest passions, but is a beast that needs to be tempered. The truth that has helped me against the insignificance, the fast pace, the limited time and sometimes the despair, is that I am only one person, and all I can do is my very best to be a good human. I now see my mental health as not only essential to me personally, but also to the world, because my impact can be far greater if I’m healthy.
I was an unhappy teenager. I was successful but didn’t enjoy school and would dread most days. I’m not sure when this started, but I remember through much of my schooling it was difficult to get out of bed every single day. It made my chest feel heavy and a lot of days I would think about how much better life would be without school. It became a pattern of mine to live inside the future’s discomfort instead of focusing on the present moment. I also remember being a very negative person in general, as if I was always looking for the worst in every situation. In fact, I identified strongly with this negativity and thought I could use it to protect myself. In a way, if I always expected the worst then I was ahead of the game, or so I thought.
I remember my last school summer holidays heading into Year 12 vividly. My path always seemed set on entering University for something, but I wasn’t too clear at that stage what I would do. I had also recently begun to look at the world differently, and felt I had made some positive changes in my life that meant I was making the most of every day. It was at the beginning of that year, a friend of mine took his own life.
This shattered my reality. He was always the tough guy, the first guy to call you soft, and the first one to throw a punch. It was, and still is to this day, the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. Not only was it the first time for me dealing with the loss of someone close to me, but I was utterly confused, terrified, and wounded by this. Death is one thing, but to imagine the suffering and despair that leads someone down the path he took was an immense weight for my 17-year-old mind. From this, I learnt something tremendously important. The confusion and despair felt in the wake of the event left every person grieving, but more importantly, left every person wondering what he was going through in his last days. Every person that had known him in some way felt it, especially those closest. This frightening experience taught me just how much people truly cared.
During this time, I was involved in elite sport; driving down from the country (which was about 2 hours one-way) twice a week to train after school, with the hopes of making it at the highest level of Australian Rules Football. My injury woes during this were a bit of a running joke, both because of their frequency, minor nature, and bad timing. This wasn’t easy. However, when my friend took his own life the head coach at that time sat down and did the best thing he could have done – he listened. The club then gave me space to try and process the death. My time at the club continued through the following year until my absence from injury caught up with me. I reached out to the club for support regarding mental health surrounding my injury woes as well. Even when it was obvious I wouldn’t be continuing, they were perhaps even more supportive, and I can’t speak highly enough of the way I was received by them once I had the courage to speak up.
Amongst all this, I was involved in a one-sided friendship that was extremely distressing, the peak of which was him threatening to end his life if I wouldn’t enable his alcohol addiction. On many occasions I sacrificed my own wellbeing to help him out. Feeling trapped by fear in that situation absolutely sucked. I kept trying to help because I was terrified that he would take his own life, just like my other friend. I eventually realised that for me to be able to help anyone, I had to put myself first – and that being a friend and a professional carer don’t mix very well, especially since I’m not a mental health professional.
Sport is an important part of my story for another reason. I used it to reach out for support in an almost covert way, by first seeing a sports psychologist, and using this connection to address other things. I was diagnosed with depression at this stage, which for me was honestly a relief. Here was a guy saying to me that what I was feeling was real and valid. This came with a realisation that things could be better, which had an immediate positive effect. When I was in my darkest days it wasn’t just not being able to get out of bed, or even the persistent numbing of any positive feelings that I struggled with; it was the belief that there was no hope to get better, that I was doomed to feel awful for the rest of my life. The validation of my experience helped me see with greater clarity the problems I was having, but more importantly gave me license to try to make things better. I struggled for a long time before I got help, and I wish someone would have told me that what I was feeling meant something, before I got to this stage. Before this, my inner voice would tell me I was probably just fine – or worse – that it was normal to be unhappy. Seeing a psychologist helped me to explore and learn about myself, forming strategies to move forward. However, it was still up to me to make the changes in my life.
Mental health issues continued to touch those around me and I struggle now to think of anyone close to me that hasn’t suffered in some way. It hasn’t gone away for me and my friends, I’ve come to conclude that challenges surrounding mental health are part of being human. Maybe because we thought we were tough. Maybe we thought it wasn’t really a big deal. Maybe it really does take courage to speak up. Whatever it was, we always found it hard to reach out and accept help from the support that was always there. I can only speak for myself when I say I’m getting better at it.
My story is one of grief and challenges, yet resilience. Some people I will never see again, some friends were less than perfect, and at times it was a battle against myself. What I do know, is that every single time I reached out for help the support was immense, providing me with the tools, knowledge and perspective I needed.
University has helped me too. I’m currently studying Psychology. It’s given me a sense of purpose that I was lacking, and an avenue to explore the goings on of the world. I’ve made great friends there, for which I’m eternally grateful. Music has always been a guiding light, and now as much as ever that is true, whether it be playing guitar or just listening. Now that I’ve spent some time away from the pressure cooker of trying to be the best at sport, I find it much more enjoyable, and it provides a healthy escape. Despite the challenges I faced through sport, it has taught me how helpful physical fitness is to my general happiness, and revealed a streak of stubbornness (or resilience even?) that helps me push through the tough times. I also meditate, usually doing so once every few days, or when I feel like I need to.
However, these are actions. If someone had said to me when I was depressed, “just get a hobby”, or “meditate”, I would have thought they were deluded. The truth for me is that whilst all these things help me maintain my own wellbeing now, the resilience I have built and the positivity I have worked to include in the way I look at the world is the real difference. Sometimes I get down, I get stressed, I get depressed, and I catch myself, working to maintain that positive outlook. The reward that I get back for this work is a life full of colour and positivity. It has not been the things I do, or achieve, but the purpose that I take to them that has changed my life. Part of what drives me is sharing this with you, and for that I am grateful.
Words by Adan Richards
Illustration by David Blaiklock