Riding South For Winter

An early blog this week, because I’ll be away this weekend, on the beginning of my personal Lions tour. Down to Dunedin for the Highlanders game, and to all three tests as well – all done on the bike. It seemed a great idea when I booked it in spring. Now that winter is here I’m a little more nervous about it.

You see, this is what I used to do, as a single man. Travel around the North Island to sporting events, the Highlanders, the Black Caps, Joseph Parker, an All Blacks test every year, taking the bike whenever possible. That was my leisure activity, my downtime. And I loved it. It was a great life. When it got colder in winter I’d sit by the fire with a book. I still don’t have the focus or concentration back yet for reading. Hopefully it’s not far away. The nights are long, sitting by myself with only an unoccupied mind for company.

I booked the Highlanders game when tickets first came out, and was tremendously excited. After she left, I couldn’t have given two hoots about it if I was offered the chance to play. The early advice I got was to try and resume living my life how I had been. So when some of the test tickets that weren’t claimed in the ballot came back up for sale, I bought them, as much out of idle curiosity to see if I could get excited about it as anything. I couldn’t. It was just something I was going to do. Something to fill in time.

These last two weeks now that I’ve been recovering, I’ve finally rediscovered a little bit of excitement about it. I was able at long last to sit down and roughly plan the trip ahead of time. I couldn’t quite get to a 5000km total – just denied by my original plan, which had been to start and end the trip with visits to Napier to see her, now being redundant. When I sat down to plan, the thought occurred to me this will be my first proper holiday since 2012. If you haven’t been on holiday in 18 months, ring a travel agent. Ring your cousin with a bach by the lake. Ring DOC and book a hut somewhere. Get off the farm, for your own sake, and for your family’s sake if you have one.

The recovery has been more or less sustained. A bit of humour coming back, and the ability to retort with a smart answer to most things people say. My humour has gotten me through a lot of dark places in my life to date, and yet I lost even that these last five months. There is the odd low moment, like sitting down at the kitchen table to a meal for one, and wishing I’d been cooking for two. Still, five months later, a moment of hope every time my phone beeps, wishing it’s her, knowing it’s not. I’m lonely now, in ways I never have been before. But mostly it’s positive steps. A return to working until the body says I need to stop, rather than my head. I’m terribly out of shape after doing so little for so long.

I’m hopeful it will continue on a mostly even plane. I’ve done it as naturally as I could, just waited and monitored it, managed myself through as needed, followed most of the advice I was given most of the time. This way I know it’s me trying to recover, not some false medication-induced recovery at risk of crashing and burning. I am on medication, and that’s part of the recovery for sure, but I’m confident it’s not the whole story. I got the all-clear from my psychologist as being on the mend and out of danger, and was left to schedule any further appointments on a need basis, rather than her feeling she still had to keep an eye on my progress at regular intervals.

Some clarity is back, along with some feeling, rather than just the endless numbness of depression. I can think again, plan, understand consequences. At one stage while depressed I bought a newspaper to try and do the puzzles, try and stimulate some mental process. The crosswords were a write-off. Despite having been a top math student and always having had something of a talent for numbers, I was unable to even do the medium-level sudoku. That should have been embarrassing, but I didn’t even care. I haven’t tried again but I’m confident I could do it now. It’s the little things like that, that indicate the biggest changes.

I haven’t done this alone. Many thanks are due, to my close circle of friends I first turned to, my family, my naturopath, my psychologist. Dad, for just picking up the workload without thought or comment. All of you who have been following my blogs, offering your support and wishing me well. It’s all helped. Asking for help was one of the hardest things I ever did, but it’s turned out well for me. Still too many don’t ask. Too many are afraid to, afraid of the stigma. How many of you reading this have suffered mental illness? How many of you know someone who has committed suicide? How many of you wish that person had instead come to you, and said, “Mate, I need some help.”? How many more people have to die, before this becomes ok? This is so common. How can it not be ok to talk about? I hope I’ve managed to shed a bit of light on this for some of you on your own journeys through the darkness.

Reading back through this, it sounds like I’m signing off. That wasn’t intentional, and I don’t know if I am or not. I’m not well yet, not at all. I don’t know how much more insight I have to offer though. I’m not sure how much purpose any further blogs would serve, or if it would just become me rambling on. I’ll see how this break goes I suppose, see if anything relevant comes to mind. Maybe my psychologist has the right approach. Any further blogs will be on a need basis, rather than sticking to a regular schedule. Thank you, all of you, the thousands of you. That still shocks me. I won’t say it’s been a blast. It’s been thoroughly miserable, and that’s been ok. That was the most important thing of all. If you’re fighting your own battle, don’t give up. If you’re stuck in that hole, please, ask for help. There is a way out.

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Turning Corners

For nine weeks now, since I wrote that first blog, people have been asking me, “How are you doing?” And I couldn’t tell them anything new. It was the same. Nothing had changed. I was doing miserably.

The week following my last blog, I felt it trying to move. Things still felt the same, but in tiny, incremental fragments, it was changing. Like when you rev the engine and turn the wheel in just the right way, and the car moves a tiny bit further than before. Still stuck, but a shift. I was still unable to do anything, but now getting frustrated at that inability, instead of just morosely accepting. A tiny thing to take encouragement from, but that frustration meant a part of me at least had had enough of this.

A nap crept in. I used to sleep a lot, and nap most days after work as well. For three and a half months this year, I slept no more than four hours a night. Sometimes two. Often not at all. After I started taking pills, over the course of a fortnight that gradually crept up to six. Not much, but a Godsend after so long in serious sleep deficit. And suddenly, I’d slept for an hour in the afternoon again.

My weight increased. I started the year at 90.4kg. Actually quite a bit overweight, for me. After she left, I barely ate at all for the first fortnight of the year. I couldn’t. I’m a big eater. I’m renowned for it – I tell people it’s my superpower. I was the guy who would eat a whole pizza, and then go to rugby training. And probably smash a family pack of fish and chips after. At family gatherings there was a simple expectation that I’d take care of leftovers. So to completely lose my appetite altogether was a huge shock.

I tried. For the first 10 days or so, while I didn’t understand what was going on, I’d cook dinner every night, stare at it for a few minutes, and then throw it away. Then I gave up even trying. By the end of the first week of February, I was under 80kg. I got as low as 76.2, at which I stabilised. My body had nothing left to lose. But still, I wasn’t hungry. I could eat now, but I still didn’t want to, didn’t feel like it. And then last week, over 78kg. Another change. Things were moving.

Monday just gone. Headlines proudly announcing it would be the coldest morning of the year. I don’t know – I didn’t see it. I’d already arranged with Dad to take the day off, and I stayed in bed. Until after lunchtime. I slept most of that time. I got up and lit the fire, and promptly took a nap in front of it. Suddenly I realised what had happened. I’d slept over ten hours. And then napped as well. Not just a tiny, almost unnoticeable shift anymore. This was serious. A big change. I took another nap to celebrate. Oh my God, I can SLEEP again.

Fast forward two days, to Wednesday night. I wandered into town, looking for food, not really interested but knowing I should eat. Fresh rolls at the Four Square. A big selection of deli chickens at New World, and I picked one that looked nice and juicy. I got home and smothered the rolls with butter, filled them with fresh, greasy chicken. And suddenly, I ate dinner because I wanted to. I ate that whole bloody chicken. It was delicious. And I was ecstatic. Not just that I could eat again, but that I wanted to. It was the first thing I had wanted all year. I had traction.

Dad left on Thursday, for a golf trip. It’s been well earned. He’s run this place virtually without me for months. I’ve been very fortunate to have that autonomy, to be able to just take open-ended leave, get myself right, come back when I felt like it and manage my own hours and workload on return. Someone working a 9-5 job without that ability, without an understanding boss, would have had a tougher time of dealing with this. I had plenty of time off accrued – I’d only taken one proper holiday in the last ten years. In hindsight, I’d prefer to have taken a break every year, even if I spent it wishing I was at work, rather than push myself to the point where I broke and had to take it, and never wanted to be at work again.

I’m also lucky I know myself very well. I’ve spent most of my adult life a single man living alone. My self-awareness and understanding is incredibly acute. I know myself, I know what I need, and I know when I’m pushing it too far right now. And I’m prepared to prioritise myself over that. It’s been really good for me to be minimally involved for so long, and see that actually, it can cope without me. The place is still standing. The farm is running ok. We maybe didn’t maximise a few things we otherwise would have, but it’s not the end of the world. And so I’ll walk away now when I feel the stress start building, the head start to tighten, and leave a job until the next day. It can wait. I’m not getting worked up for this.

And so I’ve got two weeks on my own. Nothing urgent, we made sure to take care of that before he left. But I can just take things at my own pace. I can eat. I can sleep. Hopefully, more and more, I can want. It’s not an instant cure. I’m not fixed of depression. The wheels will still spin from time to time, I’ll still need to stop and reassess the path forward from time to time, let the engine cool. It’s full of mud still. But maybe, just maybe, I’m gaining some control of my depression now, getting on top of it. And that feels very good indeed.

Complicating Factors

Another fortnight gone, another blog due. So where am I at? My mood has stabilised, but at a low level. Both my psychologist and my naturopath are concerned about the slow pace of my recovery, which surprises me. I didn’t know there was an expected timeframe, and wasn’t sure it was going to be straightforward anyway. There are factors at play that I thought would be holding me back – I was living in expectation of it taking a long time, which was probably becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. And whilst the trigger of my depression isn’t going away any time soon, the depression itself is made up of more factors than just the trigger.

My psychologist has diagnosed burnout and adrenal fatigue going on behind the scenes, feeding the fire. It makes things tricky – what’s good for my recovery from depression is bad for the burnout, and vice versa. I’m left trying to walk a knife edge between the two. It’s not really that surprising. The way I was living my life before I met her wasn’t healthy. And I knew that, but I could cope with it. We’re running a big farm, about three times the size of the average sheep and beef farm. And we’re good at it, consistently producing results that place us in the top one or two percentiles in the country. I’m an intelligent man and used to being a high achiever, and those sorts of results were satisfying. But they come at a cost.

From the start of summer in December through til when the rams go out in Easter, usually two weekends in three end up requiring being at work to some degree. Similarly, from the start of calving in mid-August I work every day, carrying on through docking in October and finally getting a break at Labour Weekend. It’s draining, and I usually need a week or two of recovery time in November, although in recent seasons with climate change bringing more extreme weather events, November is often full of unscheduled maintenance work now.

Farming is meant to be about the lifestyle, and maybe for the guys running smaller blocks to lower levels, it still is. But I’d lost sight of that. I was told recently that the farm should be there for me, rather than me being there for the farm, and that was quite eye-opening for me. I live constantly on the edge of stress and pressure, and that’s partly just because the job requires it, and partly by choice, because I need that challenge to keep me focused, or else I get bored and a bit destructive. It also suited my style and made me a better farmer. I’m very intuitive in the way I do things, going by feel, and by being constantly in touch with it and having my finger always on the pulse, I knew what was going on. Ironically I’d decided when I met her that this year would be different, I needed to step back and stop living like that. Finally I wanted to, finally I had found something I wanted to dedicate my time and myself to more than this place.

And then she left. She had her reasons, which aren’t mine to tell and I’m not going to share here. I understand and accept those, and almost perversely, am actually supportive of her in what she did. I can see the need. It just left me personally in a shitty place which I struggled – and failed – to deal with. And suddenly everything else in my life that I had been doing wrong crashed home, and I buckled. I hadn’t taken those couple of weeks last November. I hadn’t felt I needed to. I was almost high from being with her, and the effects of that had masked the need. But it turns out, it was still there, just waiting for an opportunity.

I barely functioned through the first three months of the year, getting up every day a zombie. The one friend to whom I had in absolute distress told the whole story, I leaned on so heavily she virtually carried me that whole time. With the whole range of my articulate and extensive vocabulary, there aren’t words to express the gratitude I have for that. Thank you. I’m back operating now, but the reduction in both capacity and ability to work has me quite shocked. I’d put myself at the level of a part-time, mid-level shepherd. A level I left behind ten years ago and more.

But even worse is that the desire is gone. I used to love my job. I’ve lived and breathed it every day for 15 years. Now I’m unenthused. Disinterested. Half-hearted. I farm right now because I can, and because I need to do something with my days. No longer because I want to. My psychologist assures me that will come back. It’s hard to share her certainty. There’s no fear of me going back to living how I was before, because I simply can’t perform to that level right now, and won’t be able to for a long time yet.

And that, really, is what depression is. A complete loss of desire, enthusiasm and enjoyment. I learnt after the first episode that I need to ask myself every now and then, what do I WANT to do? There’s always a list of jobs I need to do, but what do I want to do? And a major sign of depression is that I don’t have an answer. I haven’t had an answer all year. There isn’t anything. I’m getting up every day with no goal, no purpose, just marking time. Ticking off another pointless day. It’s a soulless way of life. And yet, I’d convinced myself that that was just how it was going to be, when according to the people around me, that’s not necessarily the case. So I’ll make the recommended adjustments, and keep trying. It’s not like I have anything else to do.

My Black Dogs

I never really understood the symbolism of calling depression “the black dog”. I mean, I know in modern terms it stems from Churchill’s description of his own struggles. Funnily enough, Churchill’s black dog was probably a crucial factor in the defeat of the Nazis. Even a bad dog is still man’s best friend.

But the association for me with dogs is always, unerringly, positive. Anyone who has owned a dog will be able to relate, minus the odd chewed shoe or wrecked couch. But when you lead a team of dogs, work with them every day, rely on them nearly as much as they rely on you, that relationship intensifies out of sight.

I love my dogs. I tell people freely they’re 80% of the reason I’m doing what I do, and that’s probably an underestimation. They’re not people, but they have their own characters, their own personalities, and they’re hardcase and endlessly enthusiastic for life and for work. I bring mine on from pups, and watching them grow and learn and start to understand is tremendously satisfying. You share their achievements, and seeing one completely click on one day and nail a job perfectly for the first time is quite elating. I have six dogs currently, including an actual black dog – a rising 3yo bitch named Haze.

I was a little fortunate to even get Haze. I was struggling at the time with another huntaway pup with no chasing instinct. I finally admitted defeat and looked on trademe late one night for a replacement. Here was a well-bred, good looking pup only 45 minutes away, already chasing in the training paddock. Is she still available? Yes. I’ll be down in the morning. We hit it off straight away. First morning at work, she mustered some calves for me. It wasn’t really planned, I didn’t want to do anything with them, but she was enthusiastic and doing a tidy job, so I took them to the yards and back, gave her a pat and said good girl. And that was that – she was mine, and I was hers. She’s terribly jealous. If I do a job with another bitch, or tell another dog “good girl” she notes it down, and later on beats them up. The message is clear – I’m his girl, and only me. Capiche?

I went back to work this week, for the first time since the beginning of March. The dogs were fizzing after seven weeks of sitting idle. Usually just a weekend off has them raring to go. I have to say I couldn’t share their enthusiasm. It was a real battle for me. I’d reached a point where further time off wasn’t going to be of any greater help, but even so just two and a half days was enough to exhaust me. The second afternoon, I set out to do a simple job, something that should take an hour. I spent four hours trying, failed to complete it, and got so stressed out my nose bled. For an hour and a half. It’s going to be a long road back. I don’t know how long. How long is a piece of string? Last time around, it was two years later before I finally looked back and realised I’d had a good few weeks – not just better, but actually good. Healthy. Happy. I didn’t have the support around me then that I do now, but I wasn’t starting from as far down either.

The midpoint of those two years was the toughest. A couple of people have said that when I’m really struggling, to remember the worst day I’ve had, and tell myself that if I could make it through that, I can make it through this, too. It’s an easy choice. The 13th and 14th of August, 2011. Because I lost a dog, another black dog, my original black dog. I actually lost two dogs that day, but Bo was a special case. The first pup I ever trained, except there wasn’t really much training needed. I just took her to work one day and started using her. And she understood, everything. Here I was as a junior shepherd, relying on a ten month old untrained pup as my main dog, and she just did everything. You couldn’t ask for a better dog to start with, you couldn’t ask for a better dog fullstop.

I’d had Bo eight years by 2011, from a pup, and from when I’d started out taking farming seriously as a career. We’d grown up together really. I’d worked with her all day every day, and she was my main companion. I told her all my hopes and dreams, asked her opinion on all the big questions in my life. The bond between us was as deep as man and dog go. And on the 13th of August, while at a fancy dress party, I got a phone call to say she’d been killed. She and another huntaway of mine, dragged from their kennels, beaten unconscious and left on the road to be run over, in a twisted act of revenge for something I hadn’t even done. Here I was, deep in depression, leaning on these dogs as my coping mechanism, and suddenly the next day I was burying them. My best friends. The guts ripped out of my team in moments. Ripped out of me.

It took a long time to come to terms with that. No charges were ever pressed against the guy who did it, which burns deep in my soul. I still often have moments of survivors guilt, that I wasn’t there, that I couldn’t be there when they needed me. Eventually I realised the only thing I could do was move on, rebuild, and live a good life anyway. A hollow victory, but the only one available to me. And I had. I got through that. I rebuilt my team, better than before, stronger. I found another black dog. And now suddenly, once again, I go to work every day with not one but two black dogs trailing behind me. Hopefully, eventually, Haze will beat up the other one for me. Because depression is a bitch, and Haze reckons there’s only room for one bitch in my life.

A Chance Encounter

I’m due for a blog, it’s a fortnight since my last one. Not sure if I can manage something coherent or whether this will just be a ramble, but I’ve achieved literally nothing else for two days, so I’ll give it a shot.

It’s been a tumultuous two weeks for me. I started taking some medication. It’s eased the pressure in my brain, like letting the blood out of a broken toe, and restored a lot of mental clarity. It felt initially like it was on the verge of giving me back the ability to sleep for more than four hours a night – felt like it, but wouldn’t quite happen. Like a sneeze that makes you screw your face up and then disappears. I may need to try something else. The mental clarity has remained but the sleep is regressing. I didn’t even bother going to bed last night, I was awake and alert the whole way through and knew I couldn’t have slept. And now, at 10.30pm after a night with no sleep, I still feel like sleep is somewhere in the distance.

I’ve also tried a new psychologist. I had tried one a month ago, and the guy was an idiot. He must specialise in the autism field – he spent the entire session trying to see if he could diagnose me with Aspergers (for the record, he couldn’t). But that wasn’t why I was there, and he just didn’t listen. It put me off, but early last week I realised I still wasn’t coping and needed to try someone else. The new woman is much better, and got it straight away.

On Thursday night, I also attended a local Hope Walk, intended for suicide prevention and awareness. It’s not really my sort of thing, but I thought I ought to attend after the attention I had inadvertently drawn to myself. It was one of the best things I’ve done, because listening to another sufferer describe all of their episodes of depression as having been brought on by big losses in her life helped me understand mine a lot better.

The first one was the farm. Being a family farm, we’re a lot more emotionally invested in it than most people are with their jobs. It’s not just a job. You carry it with you all the time. And these days, that’s a big responsibility. Farmers are not the simple, Fred Dagg type characters any more that a lot of people still conceive us to be. They’re running complicated, complex, highly-skilled businesses. But it’s even more than that. Your standard commercial business is funded by investors. If it goes wrong, some faceless investor loses their money and the person running the business walks away. Our investors are the life’s work of several generations of family. The cumulative life savings and the blood, sweat and tears of our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. All of the sacrifices they made, all of the hours of back-breaking toil they put in, that’s what’s at stake for us. Of course, then, we’re more deeply invested in it than someone managing a business financed by a hedge manager for a superannuation fund. How could you not be?

You can’t come home from farming and just switch it off. You don’t clock out at 5pm on a Friday and just blank it out until Monday morning. It’s always there, ticking away. And when it’s going wrong, like it did in 2010, the pressure is enormous. Working seven days a week, in horrendous conditions, steadily, inexorably losing ground. Watching nature laugh in your face, mock you for thinking you had some control over anything. And after endless weeks of that, the pressure got too much, and it broke me.

I hadn’t actually realised it until listening to the woman at the Hope Walk talk about big losses, but part of getting myself through the first episode had been learning to step back and not be quite as invested in it as I was. That will be why I managed to get through the 2013 drought without a relapse – which I was deadly afraid would happen at the time, and that fear added to the already intense pressure of the drought itself. But I’d stepped back, and wasn’t quite so emotionally tied into it, and I got through. I fed 5,500 sheep maize silage on 10 hectares for two and a half months. It was mind-bending stuff, but I coped.

And that’s why this one has rocked me so much. Because although we only dated reasonably briefly, I had come to care about her more than anything else in my life. More than the farm, more than my dogs, more than all of it put together. I wasn’t just heavily invested in it. I was completely, 100% invested in it. And when it went wrong, I went with it. As every interaction between us this year went wrong, I was right there, riding the trend. Going down with the ship, into the vortex to the bottom of the ocean. When one final text went wrong on the 23rd of March, I hit that rocky bottom, and my ship splintered into pieces. I couldn’t do it any more, realised I had to open up about it, and wrote that first blog. I’m still invested in it, and scratching my head about how I’m going to manage to step back from this one.

I ran into her on Wednesday, just a few hours before meeting my new psychologist. A chance encounter, in a shopping mall, both of us away from our home towns. And it went well. We stopped for a moment and chatted, as you do, and it was friendly, and smiley, and good-natured. It was our first in-person interaction this year, which helped – as well as two people might know each other, things can get distorted when all communication is digital. I’d made things out in my head to be a lot worse than they actually were. It was so good to see her, to see her smile at me, to hear her voice and look into her eyes. It’s been a bit of a setback in terms of now missing her terribly again, and wanting to make contact, and I’ve been low these last two days, which is why I’m unsure about this blog. Maybe I’ve got the tone a bit wrong. But this is where I am. More aware of myself, more understanding of what I need to do. And with the right help around me now to achieve that. Just because I asked for it.

Shining a Light

That went a bit crazy. I thought I was writing a blog for my friends, and maybe a few friends of friends they would add in. It would just be a fortnightly thing, a bit of release, a bit of explanation, to a handful of people. When I gave it to the NZ Farming page to share, I thought it might gather 100 likes, 20 comments. It might, at best, reach 300 people. It was worth it, I figured, because I might be able to help two or three people at those sorts of numbers. But the sheer level of response makes me feel a slightly more expeditious second blog was required.

3600 people reacted to that post. It was shared over 700 times, and by the time Stuff, the Herald and The Project picked it up would have reached nearly half a million people in total. Insane. I was playing with matches, and lit a wildfire. It really hit a nerve. Seeing my pictures on TV nearly made me physically ill, but I had Mark Sainsbury talking openly about suicide during prime time. Suddenly I’m a pseudo-ambassador for rural mental health. I never expected, never dreamed, it would become so big, so fast. I’m just a really ordinary guy. I never expected to be national f*cking news. The power of social media, harnessed for good. I never actually dreamed the problem was so big, so widespread. So common. How can something this common still be so taboo in modern society? Aren’t we meant to be a more accepting bunch these days?

Writing that first post, and probably even more so the reaction to it, has helped tremendously. I feel lighter – it’s taken a lot of weight off my mind. I’m not so bogged down. The offers of help, in many forms, from so many people, across the country and even around the world – it was extremely humbling. And when my pride is what got me into this jam, being humbled like that, on such a scale, was probably what I needed. But the most touching were the messages. Strangers, writing to tell me that after reading this, they were going to talk to someone. And the ones who just quietly tagged their mates in the comments, with a gentle, “I think you should read this.” What an experience, to have caused that. I barely slept that night, sitting on the couch in tears at what the post had become.

The hardest question I got, once from an aunty and once from a stranger, was, “How do we help? Tell us how.” And that really stopped me in my tracks. Here I was, telling you all I was reaching out and asking for help. But what did that mean? What was I actually asking for? Could I put that into specific words, in a way that could be understood by someone wanting to help, but with no personal experience of depression? What was it I needed?

I thought on that, carefully. And what I needed most was simply the freedom to be having a bad time. I’m exhausted from trying to appear positive. The keeping up appearances, maintaining the façade – it’s draining. It saps us of all our energy, energy we don’t have to spare, energy we need to be putting toward healing ourselves. I think, when having to put it into words like this, that’s why such a great proportion of people going through depression withdraw from those around them.

Beyond that, what I needed, what people with depression need, is understanding. Acceptance. To know we won’t be judged, or pressured. We need you to realise that we’re going to be irrational now and then. That socialising is often too hard – we can barely deal with ourselves let alone other people. Having to sit and smile all the way through dinner is impossible. We’re living minute to minute, holding our breath, trying not to blink in case we burst into tears in front of everyone. We need you just to be there when it falls apart, when we fall apart, so we know there’s somewhere we can go, someone we can talk to. Someone we don’t have to pretend that everything is fine with.

The stupid thing is, I had all of that. It was sitting there, waiting. My family, my friends, they would have given me that at any moment, if I’d just asked them. If I’d just let them know.

I do stress though, this is only my answer. Depression affects everyone differently, and other people may have different needs from those around them to get through. So I’m going to throw this question open – it’s better 100 people try to answer it than just me. What do you need? How can people help? Let’s help those that want to help us, understand how to do so.

Real Men Don’t Cry

I’m pretty much as stereotypical Kiwi male as they come. I eat meat, drink beer, and can name every All Black to have represented NZ since I was 10 years old. I’m reserved, self-reliant, and can jimmy up most problems in a number-eight-wire type fashion with ridiculous ease.

And in 2010, John Kirwan saved my life.

Ok, maybe not literally. I never quite got to the point of being truly, genuinely suicidal. I couldn’t have done that and left my dogs to the world’s mercy – that was literally what stopped me ever going that far. But he helped me put the pieces back together.

It was spring time. As a farmer, the most critical point of the whole year is a four week window in spring when all the new arrivals are born. It’s the time oft-romanticised in books and movies, sunny days, warm breezes, paddocks full of green grass and white daisies. And new-born lambs and calves playing and frolicking by the roadside. Except, in 2010, it rained.

Not a torrential rain. Not a rain that causes sudden flash floods and road closures. But a persistent rain. A rain that simply didn’t stop for that whole four weeks. Everything was wet. The grass, the sheep, the cows, myself. Even all the sheltered areas, by banks and under trees, got saturated and turned to mud. There was no respite. Every day was a slog, putting on already saturated wet weather gear, and walking to and from work helplessly watching as the previous 11 months work sat down and died around me. Towards the end of it, calves were struggling to get up and thrive. They’re born at around 45kg, and pretty resilient. Lambs are born at about 2kg, and lamb survival was horrendous. Lambs two and three weeks old were dying. It was a nightmare.

And one day toward the end of it, trudging home through the mud, I ground to a halt. I sat down in the mud. And I started to cry. It was too much. I couldn’t go on. Shit, I realised – I’m depressed.

My reaction, as I imagine is common for most people when they first face up to the reality of depression, was one of panic. I have to get out of this, and I have to do it fast. I’m strong, I thought. I can beat this. So I fought it. And fought it. And fought it. But you can’t fight depression. It’s cunning. It’s sly. It doesn’t give you anything to hit.

I booked some leave, under cover of my sister’s wedding in Dunedin, and drove around the South Island for a fortnight. I took a tent, a notepad and a pen. I drove until I saw somewhere that looked nice, and stopped for the night. I also took a copy of John Kirwan’s book. Thank God I did, because it was that book that taught me not to fight it. To instead accept it, work with it, and change it that way. I started writing out all the meaningful lines from the book, until it got to the point where I was largely just transcribing it. I still have those notes today, although the book itself I lent to a friend. I don’t know which one, and I don’t care because I don’t want it back – I just hope it helped them as much as it did me.

It took a long time, but after reading that book, and knowing what to do, I was able to gradually nurse myself back to good mental health. This is probably a complete surprise to most of you – only one person knew at the time, and a few others have only found out recently. I was too prideful to tell anyone else. It made me too vulnerable. Me, who always presents a capable, got-his-shit-together face to the world. Looking back, it was an utterly stupid thing to do. So risky. Trying to get through depression by yourself is like trying to tow a car out of the mud, with the stuck car. So many of you would have helped, and I’m sorry I didn’t ask. For fuck’s sake, if any of you are stuck, go and get another car. Ask for help.

The reason I’ve come forward with this now, is that I’ve recently become stuck once again. Late last year I was dating a woman the likes of which I had stopped hoping even existed, a woman I’d waited my whole life to meet. And she called it off. I was heartbroken, which turned to lovesickness, which has spiralled into depression. There’s no sense of panic this time. It’s a familiar place now. But it’s worse. I hit the mud patch at speed this time, and momentum carried me a long way out. I’m not just stuck – I’m sinking. Drowning. Right now, I’m so deep in the hole that I don’t even give a damn about my dogs. And when they’re what saved me last time I was here, that’s a really dangerous place for me to be.

So here I am. The real me. Weak and vulnerable. Exposed. Figuratively naked before the world. Doing what I should have done last time, and reaching out. Because it’s ok to ask for help. Friends want to help. That’s the point of friends. If a friend came to you and said “Mate, I need help.” You’d help, wouldn’t you? Of course you would. And you wouldn’t think less of them for it. So why do we Kiwi blokes have so much trouble being on the other side of the situation? We have to make this ok. We have to stop people drowning. People get stuck from time to time. Don’t let your pride leave you sitting there by yourself until you drown. Ask for help. Please. Someone, somewhere, can pull you out of the hole you’re in.