My name is Tristan, I’m almost 30 years old, I am an economist working in one of the “Big 4” consulting firms, the General Manager of a team in the Australian Ice Hockey League in my spare time and I have been dealing with mental illness for over a decade.
I grew up on a hobby farm at Concongella in the Wimmera, in Western Victoria, and have worked in a number of both blue and white-collar jobs over the years, both back in my home town, in Canberra, and overseas, as well as many years studying.
Like many people, my story around mental illness is an ongoing one, with plenty of ups and downs over the past 12 or 13 years.
This story began around a decade ago, when I was in the early stages of my undergraduate degree. I’d moved around an hour and a half away from home to study Commerce and work in an accounting firm, was doing pretty well at uni without working overly hard and I was working part time in my field of study. I had made some friends at uni, and had some close ones who had moved down with me – so, from an objective standpoint, things should have been going along well, right? Obviously, because I’m writing about it here, they weren’t.
I was generally down, irritable, not sleeping well, putting on weight and becoming more and more withdrawn from my friends – both around uni and back home.
There was no obvious pressures or reasons to see why these feelings and these actions were happening, at least nothing I could readily identify as they carried on for over a year. In hindsight, I can see that these symptoms had their origins in a particular trigger event for me. Coming toward the end of high school, a close friend of mine was killed, and that’s something that took me a long time to deal with. It’s much easier to see the signs now, but at the time I didn’t know much at all about mental illness, much less what some common symptoms were, or how I was exhibiting several of them – as mentioned above.
At the time, I didn’t think people noticed the changes in my demeanour or behaviour, but speaking to people later made it clear I wasn’t quite as subtle as I thought. While the broad idea of mental illness was floating around (largely through the media), in my mind, that was something that ‘other people had’, and I wasn’t a “crazy” person, so I couldn’t be mentally ill. The perception that I had, of a mentally ill person being the stereotype yelling on a street corner, or in a padded room, was not a helpful one, and probably delayed my asking for help for a long time.
On day while I was at work, on a whim, I went to the Beyond Blue website and took one of the diagnostic tests –the K10 test. This came up with the result suggesting I go see a doctor. Now, for me this was pretty confronting. I’m from a small country town, grew up on the farm, and mental illness simply wasn’t something that was talked about. So the idea that I might have a medical problem was something I was a bit uneasy with.
It sat uncomfortably that as things for me were pretty good – supportive family, solid results at uni and work – that I “didn’t deserve” to be depressed, and that “others had it much worse”, which is a considerable barrier to getting help. I went out for dinner with a couple of friends the night I’d taken the test, and although not planning to, being afraid of what people might think, after a few drinks, I mentioned the test. What I found was just the first example of people being very supportive. They encouraged me to go see someone and get some help if I needed it.
Even with this though, it took a few weeks before I worked up the courage to walk into a GP clinic and see someone, not that I really knew what to expect or what to do. The doctor was great, he sat me down and we discussed why I was there, my symptoms and made a follow up appointment to get access to a Mental Health Plan, which provides Medicare funding for counselling.
Between the doctor and the psychologist I subsequently saw, I was diagnosed with depression. Hearing the psychologist tell me that I had depression was a bit of a shock to the system, even after all these steps. Depression wasn’t for me, it was something other people had.
Initially, I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through. This is a bit shameful to admit, but I was embarrassed. I thought people would think me weak or a sook – I certainly thought that way about myself, given outwardly things were pretty good for me, but for some reason I was struggling.
I remember clearly the first time I spoke to my parents about it. I was back home, at the kitchen bench, and they were talking about coming to visit and doing some shopping. This visit coincided with an appointment I had, so I was throwing up all kind of excuses as to why it didn’t work – none of which were particularly good. Eventually, I just told them I’d been diagnosed with depression and was getting help. Whilst they were somewhat surprised, both my parents were fantastically supportive, and still are.
My dad said something along the lines of ‘sorry to hear that’, and mum thought I’d just been having a bit of a rough trot. Over the next few months, mum would send me little motivational cards through the mail – these were absolute rubbish, but the sentiment was lovely. Jokes aside, Mum and Dad have been great through my battles with illness. I know at times they have been frustrated with not being able to help more, but they’ve always been very supportive.
Once I started seeing a psychologist, it took some time before things started to improve. These were some of the darkest times in my initial experience with depression. I barely saw anyone outside of work or class, I gained weight and had some episodes of self-harm.
Now, it’s important for me to point out that these episodes weren’t suicidal, but were about control and punishment after I felt I had failed in some way. I would treat myself in a similar way to a misbehaving pet. While I managed to hide the signs of self-harm from my friends, they started to notice things weren’t the same, and I was far more absent and withdrawn. Not that I really paid attention to them noticing my changes in behaviour.
After things started to turn around, after seeing a psychologist for a few sessions and starting medication, I realised the importance of honesty in my recovery. Honesty with myself about what was happening and honesty with my psychologist, so they could help me. If the whole problem isn’t being looked at, it can’t be solved properly.
Eventually I started talking to people about my illness – firstly with people outside my usual day to day circle, then people closer. This approach seemed easier for me, as my day-to-day life didn’t need to change, and there was no risk of the way people I saw regularly changing. Ultimately, my fears were completely unfounded - I didn’t find a single person who wasn’t great and supportive – which isn’t always the stereotype from the kind of guys I grew up with. The thing that really sticks with me, even now, is that as I began talking to people about it, I discovered that several of my friends were going through similar things, but none of us talked about it. Hopefully that mentality is starting to change.
I managed to take steps to get through the rest of my undergrad degree, with help from my psychologist, friends and family as well as balancing things with a bit more exercise and more routine in my life.
Around 18 months or two years into my recovery process, things started to unravel a bit again. At this stage, I was working in an abattoir back in my home town, saving money to move to Canberra to pursue further studies, and started to see some of the same symptoms pop up. This time around, however was easier – because I knew what to expect, and how to take steps to prevent things getting as bad as the first time. These steps involved regular exercise, making sure I had solid routines regarding sleep, and limiting alcohol in particular.
This time around, along with medication again, I used a technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, which is designed to train your mind to recognise thought patterns and learn to process things differently. As I was living back in my home town, the closest psychologist was over an hour away, so this time I used an online CBT tool, called MoodGym, which is run from the ANU – something I still use from time to time. This tool had a number of exercises to work through as a training program for the mind. This technique is something I continue to use when I feel I need a tune up, or just checking in on my health.
The most recent part of my story is still unfolding. In 2015, I took a job and moved to the Cook Islands. The Cooks is a wonderful part of the world, beautiful islands, lovely people and I had a great job – doing some very interesting work. Unfortunately though, I neglected my health, and was working 65-70 hours per week for a few months on end. I started to become distant again, I lost a lot of weight, then put a lot of weight back on, I had trouble sleeping, and the self-harming started again, worse and more frequent than before.
So, eventually, with some fantastic support from friends, I went back to the doctor and got some help.
Unfortunately, the Cooks is a very small place, and they did not have a clinical psychologist in the country, so I had to be somewhat resourceful in my treatment. Along with medication again, I would visit a psychologist when home in Australia or skype some in New Zealand if the chance arose, and use online CBT services – such as MoodGym. Something else that worked really well for me, was finding a really good confidant to talk to. For others, this could be a partner or a close friend, but for me, it was my friend’s dog, Manuka. I would regularly go around to my friend Shannon’s place, even when I knew she wasn’t home, and just sit and talk with Manuka.
Ultimately, despite the best efforts from anti-depressant animals, I had to make a decision to leave the Cooks, and a job I loved, to come back to Australia where I could get more regular help.
In the two years since I have been back in Australia, it has been an up and down road, with some improvements, and some setbacks. Initially, being able to access regular help was a big improvement to my mental state, and allowed me to improve my life considerably. I went back to my Master’s degree, and worked part-time in a couple of jobs – one in government, and one tutoring at uni – which was lots of fun. However, my health continued to be an issue for me. I still battled lots of episodes of self-harm, and gained lots of weight, which again became an issue for me and my self-worth.
Over time, with great support from both mental health professionals and a close network of friends and family to support me, things improved, the self-harm stopped, and while I am certainly not out of the woods, I am in a better place, and working on improving things.
I have graduated from my Master’s degree, and maintained a High Distinction average, as well as started a new job in consulting, which is really interesting.
I also managed to be a part of a championship-winning Australian Ice Hockey League team, the CBR Brave. This year my role has expanded from taking care of statistics and opposition analysis to that of General Manager, and I was very surprised to receive an award in the off-season for contributions to the community as a result of this, and my work around mental health in ice hockey – especially the Beyond Blue Cup. I still have a tendency to over-do things, but having a close support network around me helps to keep me balanced, as do the medical professionals.
Along with the formal treatment, it’s important for me to do the little things too – whether that’s listening to music, going hiking, or most importantly at all, watching ice hockey games. So my road has a way to travel yet, but things are looking up. I still have my sights
set on a PhD– which will require me to take good care of myself.