By Brother Damien Price
Over recent years we have heard the question, “Are you OK?” asked more and more. This simple question has become the centrepiece of media campaigns and widespread efforts to support people who are struggling with their mental health.
“R U Ok” points to a mindset shift. It invites us all to take responsibility for the reciprocal nature of relationships.
If I am a true friend and I suspect that you are not in good space, I will reach out and ask you, “Are you OK?”
That is not easy. It is never easy. We want to respect privacy, we want to give the other space, we don’t want to interfere, we restlessly search for the right time and the right place and right space.
I have the honour of being involved with a community called Universal Man. We regularly put out podcasts and to date our most downloaded podcast has been: How to have a difficult conversation with a mate (universalman.org). Men in particular so often struggle under the burden of image, of some wrong image of what it truly means to be a man. We are tough. We can do it alone. It is a sign of weakness to show vulnerability or to seek help. All of this is rubbish with a capital R.
If the above is what characterises a true man then I am the most unmanly of them all.
Some 10 years ago now I had a massive panic attack as I took my seat on a flight from Christchurch to Brisbane. It took all I could not to run and force the cabin door open as wave after wave of claustrophobia flowed over me.
Upon arrival back in Brisbane I KNEW I was not well. I went home to my flat at Taringa and could not sleep. I was so bad (claustrophobia) that I had to move my mattress out onto the veranda.
The following morning I picked up the phone and called by good friend Dr Phil Zammit. “Phil, Pricey here, I’m not well!” Phil saw me within the hour. I was so scared. Would I suffer under the burden of mental illness that so deeply affected my wonderful father? Phil calmly explained that I had a “mild anxiety disorder” and I began a course of medication.
Twice since then I have been badly affected by those same anxiety issues, panic attacks and claustrophobia. Those two times – one in Melbourne and one here in Brisbane – were hell. You are so desperate to “get well” that the desperation only increases your levels of anxiety and it becomes a vicious circle.
But on all three occasions I have immediately put up my hand, “I’m not OK!” The last time I was ill in this way I was held beautifully and gently and wisely by a doctor friend in Sydney, another here in Brisbane and a psychologist friend as well as my Brothers’ community.
For three months these wonderful people checked in on me, challenged me, affirmed me, held me and walked beside me into health.
“R U OK” is only half the response needed – but it is oh so needed. The other half is the courage and the humility to admit, “I’m not OK!” To reach out to loved ones, to trusted ones and to simply say, “Help!”
It is NOT that they will save you, it is not that they will wave a magic wand, it is not that they will dictate the magic cure. But your small five-second choice to trust and be vulnerable, to say, “I’m not in good form! I’m not OK!” will be the beginning of a journey to health and wholeness.
It is almost as if there is a little damien inside of me – that when he hears big Damien say, “I’m not OK” he can let go, can sigh, can let go of the mountain of burden that he falsely believes he has to carry all alone. Wow! What relief – what courage – what small five-second courage.
It is MORE than OK to be vulnerable – in fact vulnerability is the doorway to deeper intimacy, to greater self awareness, to genuine self worth and to true inner freedom. It is MORE than OK to say, “I’m not OK”! That honesty, that vulnerability, that humility is true strength and anyone who sees it as anything other than that hides behind that own false walls of bullshit ego.
When we reach out to the other, “R U OK” or when we turn to the other with “I”m not OK!” we are inviting two or more pilgrims to set out on a journey and at times an adventure that can only lead to deeper love, deeper friendship and a deeper joy in living.
Like all journeys there are some critical times, crossroads and stages. I could be wrong but sadly I feel that for us men in particular we leave the “R U OK” too late on life’s journey or the “I’m not OK!” to a point when we are incapable of the words as the mountain is too high or the trough so deep all rational thought is beyond you.
Can we be so aware that the genuine and timely “R U OK” becomes part of the landscape of relationship: to be expected, celebrated and honoured. It is NOT that we seek to be drama queens or living from one attention seeking crisis to the next but rather that the permission to truly, genuinely and honestly check in with the other is part of love and care.
Similarly and perhaps more difficult can we courageously put up our hand to those who love us early in an inner battle and say, “I’m not OK!” When we can’t have fun at a party without popping a pill, when we need to drink to find ‘Dutch courage’, when the demons inside our head are whispering and not yet shouting – can we find the REAL courage to put up our hand.
None of the above are easy questions. Every journey of inner pain is unique and no one can truly walk in your shoes.
But we can simply make the five-second choice to turn to a loved one and say, “R U OK?” and mean it.
And we can simply put up our hand and turn to a loved one and with great five-second courage say, “I’m not OK!”
I would prefer those two five-second choices every day of my life to eulogies full of “He was a good bloke!”
Brother Damien Price is a former teacher in Brisbane schools including St Joseph’s, Gregory Terrace, St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, and St Laurence’s College, South Brisbane. He continues to work with schools across the country.