Most days of awareness come and go, but R U OK is different. It remains a measure of how far I’ve come in the seven years I’ve fought Leukaemia.
So often, these days of awareness roll around, usually underpinned by a rush of social media attention, and I’ll admit I tend to turn a blind eye. For the sake of openness and honesty, I’ll say now that no water touched my head during the halcyon days of the Ice Bucket Challenge, and while I appreciated the very powerful message being sent, I felt too often it was for likes and shares, the social media juggernaut eating up the meaning and spitting out some bastardised version of support that did more for those filming the videos than those they claimed to aid. That attitude to these awareness messages was all too common in my existence.
As R U OK Day hits, though, I fully admit, I was wrong.
No one’s life is easy. We all run uphill at some point during our time on treadmill-Earth. Of that, I’m acutely aware. But I can look no further than my own mortal race when it comes to R U OK Day.
It’s been seven years since I was diagnosed with Leukaemia.
Seven long years. The memories from that moment recede into my mind with every passing day. I can no longer feel the chemo coursing through my veins. I don’t remember what the hospital food tasted like, or the footstep sounds of an army of doctors tasked with keeping me alive. Those memories, thankfully, have faded away.
The chasm of those memories has been filled with seven years of life. Years spent traveling the world, falling in and out of love, spent with friends, family and strangers alike that patched up all the pieces of my soul that were so definitively broken all those years ago when my father pulled me aside a week before Christmas to deliver that line: “The Doctors say it’s Leukaemia.”
For someone who hid their feelings for so long, worried the world would judge me for not being stronger, the “mate, it’s been seven years, are you still sad about that?” attitude that I so feared was not the response I got. Instead, I found love, acceptance, and freedom.
In the years since I have sought freedom. If I denied I was still sad, scared and lonely, I could cover up those negative feelings with myriad positive ones; that was the plan. And so I felt like I was running away from my own personal monster who sought to catch me and return those feelings of sadness, helplessness and despair. It was my only intention to escape that monster. The passing months and years accelerated my mental foot speed until one day I turned around and no-one was behind me, I was alone, I was free of the monster who had pursued me unrelentingly.
But that’s the thing with emotional trauma, you’re never completely free. When something terrible happens you are indelibly marked. It is true that a monster is born.
However, it has taken me seven long years to realise the monster in which my terror was rooted was not some demonic figure sent to haunt me.
The monster was me.
Invisible to the naked eye, only my shadow behind me stood as a reminder he was there, lurking, waiting to drag me back towards the infinite sadness I felt all those years ago. Tucked away in us all, whether we have been through cancer, death, hardship in any form, is a monster. Call it what you will. The Black Dog. The Dark Cloud. We all have a darkness. What I had sought to run from for so many years was the way I felt deep inside, it was a race I could never win.
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For too long I suppressed my feelings, pushed them down. Punished myself for the emotional state I did not want nor understand. A diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress followed. Soon after by an Acute Anxiety Disorder. And still, I denied the feelings I had, blamed a busy life, a job I hated, a society that was making me feel the way I was. It was everyone’s fault but mine.
That’s the beauty of this fantastic day. Even after all that, it took the simple question of two great mates, and they know who they are, to help.
“Are you OK?”
No, I’m not. Not by a long way. But for someone who hid their feelings for so long, worried the world would judge me for not being stronger, the “mate, it’s been seven years, are you still sad about that?” attitude that I so feared was not the response I got. Instead, I found love, acceptance, and freedom. Maybe not the type of freedom that slays my personal monster forever – in fact, I’m not sure any of us ever can achieve that – but the type of freedom that takes the weight of the world off your shoulders by accepting every part of you; the type of freedom that says “You feel sad, you feel flat, that’s ok. Because if and when you want a little help, we’ll be right there to give it.”
R U OK Day is a chance to reach out; I urge everyone to make the most of it. It’s just four letters to you but you might be surprised at the freedom it’ll bring to someone else.