Health

I Struggle With Mental Illness and RUOK Day Makes My Skin Crawl

It's cute getting people to ask each other "are you OK?" but the more vocal I get about my depression, the less people want to ask about it.
09 September 2016, 12:00am
These people don't get it. Image via Flickr user RUOK?

Was it RUOK day yesterday? As in, was it the federally funded suicide awareness day that encourages people to ask each other "are you OK?" Because interestingly, no one asked if I was OK. Since my teens I've suffered from anxiety, depression, bipolar, OCD, and a whole bunch of other fun things I won't go into here. Yet it seems the more vocal I get about my mental illness and my suicidal thoughts and my hypomania, the less people want to ask about it.

RUOK day has always shitted me. Put that down to my mental illness maybe (everything shits me) but there's something about the tokenism of RUOK day that has always made my skin crawl. The way the whole thing compacts the conversation around mental health into a hashtag, a tweet, a status update, or a Simpsons meme, but beyond that it plays out like a long echo signaling my otherness. Then the nattering of concern it brings up ever so briefly only serves to make the silence that bookends mental health for the rest of the year all the more deafening.

It's like having the Eye of Sauron pass over you. You're caught out briefly for our otherness and everyone is hats off and heads down and solemnly clapping your bravery or asking you to stand up, and then their hats are back on and their walking elsewhere, and you're left pissing in the wind 'til next year.

The other issue is that I have no idea how to you answer RUOK, which has to be the most condescending acronym to dribble out. The soft-hearted glibness of the name is shattering, when I see it trending I curl up in bed and hide, because you've managed to reduce the most difficult question into a logo, and in that is a trivialisation of both the issue and the sufferer's plight.

It also casts mental illness as this epic battle where the polarising choices are suicide or salvation. Death or acceptance. We talk grandly about depression and Australia's very real very harrowing suicide epidemic. We talk gravely and we mean it when we say "what can we do?" But we rarely peer in. Mental illness isn't so much a spectrum as it is a kaleidoscope or a prism—it shifts and changes under varying focus and light.

It's one thing to be ill equipped when you receive the answer, "no I'm not OK," but what if I really said the truth. Depression doesn't aleways feel like sadness. Most times if you ask "RUOK?," the true answer would be "no, I can't see dog shit without compulsively thinking about picking it up and eating it." Or how about: "no, seeing you and your fiancé in your white collar suburban home makes me want to kick your dog's head in and run into traffic." Or how about: "I hear Hamish and Andy on the radio today and the very idea of them makes my head feel like it's full of bees and I can't stop imagining cutting out Hamish's tongue and posting it to Triple J Hack with a note reading 'you're next'".

People aren't equipped to respond to honest answers. People aren't even equipped to open an honest discussion. I couldn't write this article a week out from RUOK day let alone six months out because that's how this whole game works. We're all surface skimmers, and unfortunately this is one of those things where skimming the surface hurts people in a very immediate sense.

It's hard to see politicians bob up to pass their condolences and platitudes when so much has been ripped from the mental health system, when we have an asylum policy that can credit more suicides than settlements, where we have an indigenous youth suicide epidemic that is talked about like it exists in a vacuum. RUOK comes from a good place. It's a start. But in the context of a lot of Australian politics and cultural identity, it's terribly hypocritical. It's also a reflection of how emotionally stunted Australian identity is. It comes at you already cringing, as though we're asking RUOK? because the very notion of "Australia" doesn't gel with the depressive, the anxious, or the "bloody mad."

I want a strong healthy debate around mental illness and suicide in Australia, and I know discussing it as a nation and society is hard. But I just don't think RUOK day is up to snuff. It can be better. Make it a month at least. Compact it into a day and you get this swirling tide of jerk circles and imposing death. Spread it out and we can bring in what we always exclude from the mental health debate: normalcy. Talk to me about my bipolar and depression casually like a normal person and not like I'm Lindsay Chamberlin and we'll really get somewhere. I've been trying to bring aloofness to my writing about my mental health struggles here and elsewhere for years now, and it tends to be confronting as shit for neuro-typicals but very reassuring and welcoming to those of us (quietly) deemed mad.

And that's the crux isn't it? Who is this day for? I can tell you after another day of anxiety attacks, intrusive thoughts, shame, and the big black dog, I do not feel like it's for me.

For help with any of the issues raised in this article, you can get genuinely great help at Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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