R U OK? How to ask, how to answer & why it’s so important

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Our culture, as Australians, is pretty simple; when you come across a fellow human, you ask “how are ya?” And you respond “yeah, good, how are you?”  We’re conditioned to be “good,” to not speak about our problems, to not be emotional burdens. But sometimes that’s not OK.

Tomorrow is national R U OK? Day in Australia, which comes in an ironically timely fashion for me; after a few pretty good weeks, I’m going through a(nother) nasty little stormy patch right now. It comes and goes so quickly and with SO little warning. If you’re a fellow Aussie, you may have also noticed Buddy Franklin in the news over the last day or so, dealing with something similar, with some of his closest family and friends stating that they were unaware of his battle with mental illness. Ahhh to have a dollar every time that phrase was uttered… “Ohh, I had no idea, you seem so normal!” (I’m not a bloody alien!) And that’s the thing that makes mental illness so deadly; people still don’t talk about it because they’re, I dunno, embarrassed about it, feel awkward about it, still believe in the stigmas attached (all because the education isn’t there). And so, this horribly isolating, dangerous disease (every single bit as deadly as other serious PHYSICAL illnesses, by the way) goes unnoticed, often until its too late. And that’s what R U OK? Day is all about.

If you’ve never heard of it or seen the logo, in their own words, they are:

…a not-for-profit organisation founded by Gavin Larkin in 2009, whose vision is a world where we’re all connected and are protected from suicide. Accordingly, our mission is to encourage and equip everyone to regularly and meaningfully ask “are you OK?”

We know that suicide prevention is an enormously complex and sensitive challenge the world over. But we also know that some of the world’s smartest people have been working tirelessly and developed credible theories that suggest there’s power in that simplest of questions – “Are you OK?”

I’ve written a little about my own struggle with depression, anxiety and disordered eating before on here, but as a general rule, I’m not super open with it. Actually, let me re-word that; if I’m asked, I’m honest. If someone is genuinely asking, from a non-judgmental place, what’s going on and wants to know how I feel and where I’m at and how I got to that point, I will be open and candid about it. I don’t feel shame over it; it is what it is. Some people are affected by diabetes, and they don’t have to apologise for it. Some people are coaelic, and that’s not their fault. People with Crohn’s disease or endometriosis or melanoma aren’t expected to have to defend themselves and the perceived ‘inconvenience’ their illness is causing for people who don’t understand it. This is no different. For whatever reason, the way my brain is wired and the way the chemicals interact up there has caused me to end up with depression. I am not depression, but I do suffer from it. It doesn’t define me, but it does affect me.

As for the aspect of it all that R U OK? deal with, suicide, that’s not a subject I’ve written about before, and I’m not certain I ever will. It’s a difficult subject to broach; it’s something that everyone has an opinion on, and those opinions are all very personal and formed from our own experiences. I also tend not to discuss it because, like mental illness full stop, a lot of people out there don’t take it seriously. I will post a review on this book next week, because I think it’s completely necessary reading for every single person who is or knows someone affected by depression (basically everyone on the planet), but in his absolutely brilliant book Reasons To Stay Alive, Matt Haig writes this:

“Suicide is now – in places including the UK and US – a leading cause of death, accounting for over one in a hundred fatalities. According to figures from the World Health Organization, it kills more people than stomach cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. It kills more people than most other forms of violence – warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, gun crime – put together… Yet people still don’t think depression really is that bad.”

Those statistics, I think, really speak for themselves. So, instead of discussing my thoughts on suicide per se, I want to focus on one big thing we can do to prevent it. It’s easy enough that anyone can do it, it costs nothing, and it could save a life. Wanna know what this big thing is? Talking.

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The theory behind R U OK? is that a simple conversation could be all it could take to save a life. Talking, asking, listening, opening the conversation and therefore taking the stigma and secrecy out of the suffering. It’s as simple to affect change as just asking someone “are you OK?”

 

How to ask
Like I said, it’s a difficult subject. It’s hard enough to talk about your own feelings of hopelessness, let alone ask someone else about theirs. If there’s someone in your life you’re worried about and who seems like they’re doing it a bit tough, here are a few ways you can ask them if they’re OK…

1. Make time for it: Personally, while I appreciate friends asking me if I’m OK, there’s nothing worse than being asked at an inappropriate time or place, because then it kinda feels like they’re only asking because they feel like they have to, not because they want to. Ask R U OK? when you have time to stop and listen to the response, not as you’re rushing off between appointments. And consider where you are, too – the middle of the office or a quiet cafe might not be the best!

2. Let them know you’re concerned and don’t take no for an answer. Then, just let them talk: After asking “are you OK?” you’ll most likely be met with “yeah, fine, why?” Don’t take it at face value – if you know this person well, and your gut is telling you they’re not fine, call them on it. Tell them that you’re not entirely sure you believe that, and while you may not understand exactly what they’re going through, you’d like to try to understand and help where you can. If you’re worried, don’t let it go. Once you’ve expressed your concern, then just let them talk. When you’re used to keeping it all bottled up and someone actually, genuinely makes the time and effort to ask if you’re OK, it takes a little time to express what’s going on. Give them a moment to gather their thoughts, and when they do start talking, don’t feel the need to jump in and problem solve; sometimes just giving voice to what’s been swimming around in your head helps!

3. Let them know it’s not their fault: People who struggle with mental illnesses of all sorts often feel like it’s their fault. Like they’ve done something wrong to deserve it. One of the most comforting things you do is reassure them that this is not their fault, that yes it is a shitty situation, but it’s not their fault they’re in it. Depression is a nasty, irrational illness, and it doesn’t discriminate who it chooses to shoot down. But no one asks for it.

4. Do NOT say any of the following things, under ANY circumstances:
– It’s all in your head, you’re fine.
– You have a great life, I don’t know what you could possibly be so depressed about.
– There are heaps of people who are worse off than you.
– Just smile!
– You can actually control this, just decide to be happy.
– Yeah I know what it’s like, I have shit days too.- This has been going on for a while, shouldn’t you be better by now?
– Shit happens, just get over it.
– You’re so over dramatic, you just want attention.
And in case you’re wondering, I speak from personal experience here. Yes, people have said all of those things to me at some point. Some of them have even been said by family members. This is why I don’t have a lot of meaningful relationships anymore.

5. Set boundaries: While it’s very tempting to want to jump straight in to savior mode when a loved one is hurting, that’s not necessarily the best thing for either of you. Yes you’re their friend or family, yes you care very much, and yes you want to help. But sometimes the best way to help isn’t letting them transfer all their problems and hurts on to you. Let them know you’d like to help where you can, but make sure you’re not doing that at the cost of your own mental health. Offer to go along to a psychologist appointment if they feel like they need the support, or catch up for a weekly coffee and chat, but don’t cancel your plans day after day to be checking up on them. Encourage them to find solutions that will work for them rather than trying to do it all for them.

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How to answer
This is hard to write, because it’s very personal and individual. And personally, I hate being asked. I’ve been conditioned to shut up and put up, display the shiny, happy veneer to the outside world and deal with the hurt myself. But the older I get, the more I realise I can’t keep it up forever.

1. Put yourself in their shoes: If anything, depression makes you even more sensitive to other people’s hurts. A lot of people struggling with depression (myself included) try extra hard to make sure everyone else is doing OK as a way of deflecting our own problems. If you saw a friend who seemed down and out, you’d ask them too, so don’t get your back up when someone asks you – it means you’re loved!

2. Don’t get defensive: Assuming they’re coming from a place of understanding and love, they’re not accusing you of anything; they’re worried about you. They’re ready to listen, so you don’t need to defend how and what you’re feeling. Drop your guard and let them see you, not your mask.

3. Be open to help: It can be hard enough opening up to someone you know and love; it’s a whole different ball game opening up to a stranger. But you can’t use your loved one as a crutch. Asking if you’re OK is a way for them to make you realise that you’re actually not OK, and for you to become OK is probably going to take a bit of work on your part. Be open to outside help, because it’s unfair to expect your loved one to solve all your problems for you.

4. Be honest: If you’re not OK, say so. If someone cares enough about you to actually ask, the least you can do is be honest. They wouldn’t be asking if they couldn’t handle it, so tell them what’s going on as honestly and openly as you can. You’d be surprised how good it feels to get all the shit that’s been building up out of your head and into words. It can also help put things into perspective and give you a new lease on your problems, hearing them out loud instead of having them swim around in your head.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: If they care about you, one of the first things they’re going to do is tell you to let them know what they can do to help. You don’t offer your best friend help if you don’t mean it, so if having someone bring their extra dinner left overs to work for your lunch so you don’t have to cook, or picking up your kids from school, or just catching up for an hour over a cup of tea is going to really help you, let them know! Even your closest friends aren’t mind readers; if they don’t know what you’re going through, how can you expect them to know what they can do to help??

And lastly, SAY THANK YOU!!! Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone care enough to ask if they’re OK. If someone asks you, thank them.

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Tomorrow, let’s all put a bit of love out there and start the conversation, because you never know whose life you might be saving – all you need to ask is “R U OK?”

 

 

If you’re not OK, please consider seeking help from:
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
SANE – 1800 18 7263
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467

Finding myself in St Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans

St Louis Cemetery No. 1
425 Basin St. New Orleans
http://www.saveourcemeteries.org/st-louis-cemetery-no-1/


I wrapped my oversized cardigan around me a little tighter as my feet crunched over the leaves that peppered the footpath, and the early morning wind blew as if it were trying to pass right through me. I’d woken up that morning in New Orleans, the city I’d been inexplicably drawn to, and a long way from home back in Australia.

 

It was with some trepidation that I passed through the entrance of the St Louis Cemetery No. 1. It wasn’t the whole being in a cemetery thing that had me unnerved; I’m oddly at ease among the graves and stories of the past. What I wasn’t at ease with at that time was myself. I arrived in New Orleans with this feeling I couldn’t shake, like I didn’t fit in anywhere, like I didn’t belong. On that thought, the wind blew through me once more, as if urging me on through the front gate, as if pushing me toward answers.

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I moved silently through the decaying tombs, many dating back to the 1700s. Generations were contained within single crumbling structures; how many were truly remembered? What were their stories? The tombs would have been beautiful originally, but the deterioration they faced over the centuries only made them even more striking. Intricate wrought iron crosses and arrows decorated gates encircling tombs, while large stone and marble placards listing the names of the souls resting within lay on the floor beside many of tombs, gently pieced back together, having fallen from the places they’d originally occupied.

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Looking out over the praying angels perched on top of mausoleums, eyes turned to the heavens, I could see Treme Street and the housing projects beyond. Arriving just as the gates were unlocked for the day proved to be the perfect time to visit, with no one else around. I was a long way from the mayhem and commercialism of the tourist hub that is Bourbon Street; I was, proverbially, definitely not in Kansas anymore.

 

I guess travel is the ultimate opportunity to reflect and recharge; we all know the cliché of people “finding themselves” while travelling. New Orleans was so different to anywhere else I’d been. The people there seemed to live authentically, fearlessly. Free. As someone who’s spent the best part of her life held back by fear, I was hypnotised by that thought, ready to start my own new chapter. And, as if the spirits had me in their hands, the last thing I saw before I left the cemetery was an old book, the pages browned and torn, sitting on top of a tomb; as I walked past, the wind blew the open pages shut.

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You’re not alone.

Happy Monday people! I know, Mondays, not really such a happy day for the majority of us who had to drag our tired asses off to work this morning after a weekend that almost certainly wasn’t long enough, and are now dragging those same, even more tired asses back home to cook dinner, do laundry, pay bills, blah blah blah… But I’m trying to be a little more positive and optimistic, so HAPPY MONDAY! Congratulations on getting through!

Anyway, I thought I’d do something a little bit different with today’s post. If you’ve been reading for a while, you may have noticed that while I share a little, I’m not inclined to be as super open and sharing as a lot of other bloggers. That’s no reflection on you guys, it’s more a character flaw of mine; I tend to be extremely reserved, introverted, a closed book. But recent happenings in my life and resulting conversations with a few trusted friends have led to some realisations that while we are all fighting our own battles, we do not necessarily have to fight them alone, nor do we have to simply shut up about them.

Sometimes the bravest thing is not to keep your problems to yourself and deal with them stoically and alone. Sometimes, the bravest thing we can do is to share our battles and vulnerabilities, in the hopes that others fighting similar battles can see that they’re not alone and find courage in that, to maybe fight a little harder themselves.

So, let me be brave. After many, many years of struggling alone (I’m talking over a decade), let me say that my personal struggle is with depression, anxiety and disordered eating. Let me say that it’s not easy to deal with it, and that I’m not special; there are millions of people who deal with these things every single day, most of whom will never share these battles. You may have absolutely no idea that someone you care about is fighting; most people who know me will have absolutely no idea whatsoever. And I’m not writing this because I want people to know what I’m dealing with. I want no attention, no being treated any differently, no fanfare, no bullshit.- I’d quite happily continue dealing with my shit alone. I’m writing it because what’s helped me most so far is realising that there are other people out there dealing with the same thing and making progress, so while I hate to share, if my sharing helps even one person out there to know they’re not alone, and makes a difference to or even saves just one life, that’s worth it.

Depression, anxiety, disordered eating – they’re really shitty things to deal with. The stigma around it all is still there. Because there aren’t generally many physical symptoms, not like with other mental illnesses like anorexia, for example, people don’t take it as seriously. “Just cheer up, your life isn’t that bad, there are people out there who have it way worse than you!” May as well tell a diabetic to just “get it together and regulate your insulin levels!” Just because we look “normal,” doesn’t mean we’re not drowning on the inside. You can’t see the black cloud that follows us around, sucking up all our energy and happiness. You can’t see our scars, emotional and/or physical. You can’t see the self-hatred behind the fake smiles. You can’t see the panic attacks over what to order at restaurants before you leave the house, or the binge eating that goes on behind closed doors, or the after-math of that. You don’t see any of it. But, it’s there.

AFL footballer Mitch Clark recently and very bravely spoke out about his personal battle, and I think this post he wrote a few weeks back on Facebook sums it up pretty well…

People think depression is sadness. People think depression is crying. People think depression is dressing in black. But people are wrong. Depression is the constant feeling of being numb. Being numb to emotions, being numb to life. You wake up in the morning just to go back to bed again. Days aren’t really days, they are just annoying obstacles that need to be faced. When you’re depressed, you grasp on to anything that can get you through the day. Even in a strange way you fall in love with your depression because you think it’s all you have. It’s not being able to see a way out, to see something good, to feel normal. That’s what depression is, not sadness or tears, it’s the overwhelming sense of numbness and the desire for anything that can help you make it from one day to the next. Please don’t suffer in silence and alone. Reach out and ask for help.

 

So, as I finally put on my big girl pants and reach out and ask for help after half a life time of trying to go it alone, I hope that others can start to do the same. I hope those of you who are fortunate enough not to be dealing with these issues first hand can be gracious and understanding and non-judgmental of those of us who are. Remember, you’ve only got one life; you should never be too busy to save it. 

Desert sunrise, a police convoy, and Abu Simbel

I won’t lie – I was more than a little pissed off when our poor, patient guide Medo told us we’d have to be up around 4am to join the 4.30am police convoy to Abu Simbel the following morning. We’d just had a pretty long day, disembarking the Princess Sarah in Aswan and visiting the Nubian Village where everything had changed for me – I was physically and mentally exhausted. “But there’ll be a beautiful view of the sun rising over the desert! And I’ll bring you all breakfast!” Dude, 4am.

I’m a pretty solid morning person, with my body clock usually waking me up by 7am if I haven’t set an alarm. But 4am hurt. We piled into our little van and stared bleary eyed out the window as others did the same. We saw the police, dressed to the nines and accessorised with machine guns, directing the early morning operation. We sat together on the bitumen for a while, wondering what the hell was taking so long; eventually, engines started to hum to life and the convoy began the long, 300km drive from Aswan. We all found comfy spots in our little van and promptly fell asleep.

Why the need for the police convoy to get to Abu Simbel? Medo simplified it for us: “Money making.” Ahh… those two little words that make the world go round.

Anyway, credit where credit’s due – he woke us up just as we were about to drive into the sunrise and distributed breakfast lunchboxes to us all, with orange juices, chocolate croissants, and some strange but delicious packaged Egyptian sweet biscuits and breads. And he was right about the beautiful sun rise…

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

We finally rolled up, after what felt like an eternity, yawning and rubbing our eyes… It wasn’t what we were expecting. But then again, none of us were really sure what we should have been expecting. Not this. Not an absolutely stunning lake in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

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Turns out we were standing on a plateau overlooking the beautiful Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world, spanning over 5000km². It was breathtaking. We all fell silent and eventually still; I looked around and realised we’d all stopped in our tracks, disregarding the winding path before us to see the temple itself, completely taken by the view over the lake. The photos do not do it justice – the water literally sparkled and glistened under the sun. No one ever speaks about this lake when Abu Simbel is mentioned, but they really should – it’s perfect.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

We were eventually hurried up by Medo – as one of the first groups to arrive, he wanted us to get as much time without the huge crowds as possible. Legend. We couldn’t for the life of us work out where this temple was – we were coming from up high, walking down a dusty path winding it way around to the left (as you can see two pictures up). We looked out, and couldn’t see anything. All of a sudden, the first of the group let out a huge gasp. As we came around the bend to the left the enormous structure appeared underneath the plateau we had started on top of. Words can’t justify it, and neither can photos. But here’s a try.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

I’d spent a lot of time imagining what it’d be like to stand before this leviathan, but it was beyond anything I could have pictured. The main temple is the Temple of Ramesses, one of the handful of temples constructed in the reign of Ramesses II. Over the centuries, the temple was eventually abandoned and covered by the desert sands. It was rediscovered in the early 1800s, and eventually an enormous re-location project began in the mid 1960s; the temple was under threat of submersion from the rising waters of the Nile that would come from the upcoming build of the Aswan Dam. Over four years, the entire structure was cut into blocks of around 20 – 30 ton per piece, meticulously recorded, moved and put back together around 65m above it’s original location.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

One of the most phenomenal feats of the relocation was the fact that the original temple was aligned so that on 22nd of February and October each year, the sun would shine through the entry of the temple and directly onto the beautiful back wall – the relocation was so exact, that the sun shines now on the 21st of the months – pretty close to the original. Not only did the relocation get it right, but the original architects, all those centuries ago, managed to nail it without any technology.

Standing at the base of those statues was so surreal – enormous doesn’t even begin to describe it. I stand at a pretty average 170cm (or 5’7) and as you can see below, I was utterly and completely dwarfed…

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There is actually another spectacular temple at this complex which sadly doesn’t get quite as much attention – The Temple of Hathor and Nefertari. This beauty was built to honour Nefertati, the favourite consort of Ramesses II, and it marks the second time that a temple was dedicated to a queen. Nefertari is also depicted as the goddess Hathor, with the cow horns and solar disc on her head. This one was particularly special to me as I have that symbol tattooed on my wrist.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

After we’d been through both temples, taken our photos, stumbled around wide eyed and with our jaws to the ground, four of the five of us met up on a block overlooking the entire area. We just sat there in quiet reverence, and you could just tell that everyone really appreciated what they were experiencing. As we watched the other tourists running around with their cameras to their faces, listening intently to their guides, pouring over maps and guide books, we just sat there and watched it all. We stared at the temples and gazed at the lake, all in silent contemplation.

What the others were thinking about, I couldn’t tell you. What I was thinking about though was my life. How small and insignificant it is in the whole scheme of things. I’ll never be wonderful or grand, magnificent and well known. I’ll never be loved by the masses, nor will I be feared. People will probably never know my name, and there will certainly never be any temples or sculptures built in my honour. I’m just another girl leading another life. But on that day, I also thought about how happy I was and how proud I was of myself for having finally overcome some of my demons and for finally starting to live the life I’d so desperately wanted and coveted for so long. Yeah, I’ve had some luck along the way (I didn’t chose where or to whom I was born, for example, but I’ve been very lucky on both of those accounts), but it’s been a lot of hard work as well, actively seeking out opportunities, making the most of it all, planning, preparing… it was really beautiful to reflect on how far I’d taken myself, and how much further I could go.

And I was happy. We all were. That’s why I really love this photo.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

Photo Journal: Nonna’s chocolate roll cake

My family is Italian, which means two things – the food is delicious, and recipes are rarely written down. They’re just remembered, somehow. One of the recipes I really wanted to learn to bake myself and ensure was recorded was my great grandmother’s chocolate roll cake. It’s my dad’s favourite, and he has some really fond memories around this cake. I was really excited when my auntie (dad’s sister) offered to show me the ropes and take me through the whole procedure.

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