I received a call this afternoon from a friend of mine. She read my post about the importance of listening, and followed the links that provided tips on how to have a conversation about someone you’re concerned with. After asking “are you okay?” she was met with an “I’m fine”. When it was pushed, it was met with aggression.
She asked me:
“What can I do? How can I get someone I care for to acknowledge something isn’t right?”
“How can I get them to see that it’s affecting their work, school, and relationships?”
This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked these questions.
As RUOK Day continued, I read the articles, heard people speak, and received messages. Today emphasises the importance of asking a simple, yet powerful question.
“Are you okay?”
We are encouraged to take the time to ask, to listen, to be open, honest, and remove all judgement; to our friends, our family, co-workers, peers, neighbours. We tap into our empathy, and put our interests aside for the sake of others.
Before you ask, it’s always best to be as informed as you can be. RUOK, Black Dog Institute, Beyond Blue, and Headspace are all great places that help provide knowledge and the tools to have a conversation.
But what happens when you have reasons to be concerned, when you can see the cracks in their ‘everything’s okay mask’, when you know they aren’t okay? What happens when asking is met with “I’m fine”, “Don’t worry about it”, “I’ll be alright”, “Leave me alone”, “Don’t be ridiculous”?
I can understand this problem all too well. Mum and my family knew something wasn’t right, they saw the cracks in my mask before anyone else. Before I knew I wasn’t okay, they did. I distracted myself, denied the feelings I had, pretended they didn’t exist. I didn’t want them to exist. Acknowledging them made them real, and after all, I thought it was ‘just in my head’.
I didn’t understand what I was feeling; I didn’t know I was different. It’s not like one day I was fine, the next day I wasn’t. I had felt like this for such a long time, it felt normal. People didn’t speak about their emotions, especially not guys. I didn’t know it could be any other way.
I felt such guilt for being so unhappy. I had so much yet I wanted to die. What right did I have to feel this way?
I was asked “are you okay?”, “what’s going on?” I pushed back. The more I was asked the more I denied it, the more I pushed back, the angrier I got.
“I’m fine! Leave me alone!”
I didn’t want to let anyone else into my world of pain. I didn’t have the understanding, let alone the words to describe how I was. I didn’t believe I had the right to feel this way.
What changed? What happened that made all the difference? What was my turning point?
One night, after a fight with the family, I ran away from home. My parents found me at the park around the corner. I was lying on the gym equipment, staring at the stars.
“Adam, what’s going on? What can we do to help?”
With tears rolling down my cheeks, I uttered the words “I want to die”. I couldn’t go on, I hated my life and I didn’t know why or what to do.
For the first time in my life, I realised that I wasn’t okay.
It was this very moment that allowed me to seek help, to start the hard but necessary journey to find what worked for me, to find a way out of the darkness. It allowed me to be where I am today, as strong, healthy, and as well as I can be.
Without that moment, I don’t know what path I would have gone down.
The point of this story is that although we are encouraged to ask others if they are okay, sometimes the most important person we can ask is the person that stares back at us every time we look in a mirror.
It’s the star of all our selfies, the person that is always there whether we like it or not, the person that has our mind and our heart, the person who we sometimes neglect, sometimes we love, and sometimes we hate.
Sometimes the most important person you will ever check in with and ask “are you okay?” is you.
For anyone that asks and has been met with a wall, or has been dismissed don’t take it personally. Don’t let it discourage you from asking at another time. Be open, loving, remove judgement, and remind them that if something ever comes up, or if they ever want to share, you will be there.
As heartbreaking as it can be, sometimes we need to let the person hit a low that makes them realise they aren’t okay. There is no blood test or scan, so until they are ready for help, until they know they aren’t okay; it’s hard to force someone that doesn’t want help to seek it.
But we will be there when they are ready, we will provide a safe environment to share. We will encourage their strength, and fight alongside them.
For anyone that has been asked, you might be perfectly fine and there is nothing to be concerned about. Don’t take it personally, feel lucky to have someone that cared enough to want to ask. But we all feel, and there is no demographic immunity, there is no ‘face’, it’s okay to not be okay. I understand distraction, denial, and not wanting to face what we feel. It can be hard.
Consider this. If you had a broken leg, what would you do?
Would you distract yourself from it, pretend it’s perfectly fine, and hope, believe it’ll just get better? Or would you go to a doctor, get the support you need, take the time to rest and recover. Then when you’re ready you work on strengthening the muscles that support it, and learn and do what you can to prevent it happening again?
Mental illness isn’t ‘just in your head’. Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. It isn’t your fault, it’s not your choice to suffer, but you can choose to seek help. You can ask yourself “are you okay?” Just like when we ask our loved ones, we need to be open with ourselves, honest, and remove judgement.
Remember you don’t need to be depressed to not be okay, and not being okay doesn’t mean you’re depressed. Part of what maintains my health is that I check in every now and then. I look into a mirror, I stare into my eyes and I ask “are you okay?” Most of the time I’m all good. Sometimes, after a breakup, or around end of semester exams and assignments, I’m not okay. When I’m not, I don’t worry; I start to implement the tools I’ve learnt over the years.
I check in every few days until I ask “are you okay”, and as I smile I say “you’re all good”. It might seem trivial to some, but we all have our bad days, doing this keeps me in control. Doing this keeps me well.
I understand all of this can be scary, I know it can be hard; I get the hesitation and the fear.
But we can’t let that stop us.
Believe me, the fear is misplaced. We shouldn't be afraid to speak about this, we should be more afraid of what not speaking about this can lead to.