In Australia, September 12 was ‘R U OK? Day’, a national day of action which encourages us to check in with friends, family and workmates. Coming two days after World Suicide Prevention Day this year, it is a reminder that people who can appear to be functioning on the outside may, in fact, be struggling to cope.
With suicide the leading cause of death for Australians under 45, I’m fortunate to have never lost someone in my immediate circle of family or friends to it. Perhaps the person closest to me was a teenage boy my own age who I’d known some years earlier. His father had passed away just a few months after mine and we were in a children’s grief counselling group together.
When the teachers at our strictly religious school delivered us the news of his death, it came with assurances that he was “not in his right mind”, he was “sick” and therefore God would forgive him. Although I hadn’t spoken to him after the age of 12, I felt like an invisible thread between us had broken, that he had come out on one side of grief and me the other. At 17, I realised that the line between ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ was paper thin.
This time of year always brings discussion around the deaths of celebrities like Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain — and the seeming contradiction between their external success and inner turmoil. Maybe we also tell ourselves that they “weren’t in their right mind” because otherwise the truth is too close to the bone. It means that any one of us may some day in a position where the burden of being alive is too overwhelming to continue to bear.
Yesterday I had a phone call with a colleague that turned into a discussion of grief (because sometimes that’s just how my work conversations roll). When you lose a parent at a young age, you have decades of practise in talking about death — something that many people find difficult. She said, “It isn’t until you’ve lost someone that you realise that everyone around you is carrying some sort of grief.”
Suffering is the single human experience that unites us, that every person on this planet will know to a greater or lesser extent. And yet we are so incapable of opening up about our vulnerabilities that it requires a public initiative like ‘R U OK? Day’ to start a conversation. In many ways, it is easier to ask someone else if they are okay than to assess ourselves, far less burdensome to take on another person’s troubles than our own.
So yesterday, I asked myself if I was okay and I came face-to-face with another problem: I don’t really know what ‘okay’ is. I don’t know if anyone does. I am not not okay, but I’m not sure whether I’m okay either. Are we even allow to be okay in a world where awful things are constantly happening? How is it possible to be okay knowing that you and everyone you love is going to die?
I live, as 2 million Australians do, with chronic anxiety, which means I feel like there is a knot in my chest most of the time. Yesterday was a particularly not-okay day — because sometimes generalised panic makes it difficult for me to sleep and I had just been through one of those particularly challenging nights.
Often we feel guilty to admit to ourselves, or to others, that we are not okay — because our problems pale in comparison to what we have seen other people go through. Even writing that paragraph about anxiety, I was just struck with a sense of shame: how dare I complain? It’s not so severe that I can’t function, and anyway I have nothing to be anxious about when my life is so obviously comfortable. Saying that I’m not okay sounds like I’m not aware of my immense privileges.
We need to learn that it’s okay to accept our problems as real ones, even if they’re not the worst things that have happened to anyone in the world. But accepting that we are not always okay is only the first step in a much harder conversation that looks deeply into what we need to do to try and be okay.
So don’t wait for someone to ask if you’re okay — ask yourself, ‘AM I OK?’ And if you are not, reach out. Suffering is what makes us human, but we don’t need to do it alone.