Saturday, 12 September 2015

Are you okay?

Dear Reader,

It's Saturday evening here, and where you're from, it's probably not as late. Perhaps you just woke up, or maybe you've started the day with quite an amount of stress already. Either way, I'd like to ask you:

'A conversation could change a life.'

Last Thursday was natioal R U OK? Day. A day to connect; run by an Australian non-profit suicide prevention organisation each year during the second Thursday of September. Their mission is to encourage people to regularly and meaningfully ask: "are you ok?"  (see website). A gesture to make up for the lack of connection, or the lack of belonging. It is in their believe that such a little question could already make a difference for those who are struggling with mental illness, or whoever is having a tough time.

As I walked through campus, the R U OK spirit was already there. Wherever I was, yellow balloons would remind me of this question. Then I was reminded how we always ask 'How are you?' at the beginning of a conversation, almost automated:

    if( word == 'Hello' ) {
        next_word = 'How are you?';
        expected_answer = 'I'm fine';

How often do we really put thought into that question before we ask them? And for those responding, how often do we automatically say 'I'm fine' before our brain could struggle back and actually say: 'Well, today I'm not okay'.

Where ever you'd go, you'd see these balloons.

At university there were stalls with the same yellow balloons floating around. People would get a balloon, a wristband, or be decorated by R U OK stickers so that they could jump right into a group of equally decorated conversationalists. After sneakily walking past a few times, I finally had the courage to walk in and ask what was going on. One girl explained to me what the day was about when I asked her whether this was an annual thing, but that was about it. I didn't get to ask anyone whether they were okay. In a way, it still felt odd to me even though the instructions I got were 'Ask are you okay. Listen without judgement.'.

I just left without making much conversation. For some reason, the yellow balloons that were supposed to cheer me up, made me sadder. I couldn't help but think how the combination of yellow with black is considered colour symbolism for suicide, at least according to my design textbook. In fact, at one point I was so upset I found myself making use of the free hugs from people in costumes. I just told myself that I really should try something awkward for once. In fact I just hoped to feel some warmth, but of course, the hug was just a quick polite hug, and the idea got wrecked because the volunteer was ending its duty by decapitating the blue owl:

When feeling blue, the owl would give you a hug.

Of course I wanted more. I had wanted to walk into the group of yellow-stickered penguins and vent it out. I would've wanted to hug the blue owl tighter. I wanted to unload my secrets. When I was alone, I felt less alone than when I've actually had some real-life human contact with these strangers. I felt much more at peace and connected wandering around campus, being curious, and reading about the confessions which people wrote on postcards:

'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you' ~ Maya Angelou

I guess that's what trust is about, to me at least. If you trust me with your secrets, it's easier to trust you with mine. It's equivalent exchange; sharing vulnerability. I wrote something on a postcard too, and in a way it felt relieving, even though of course I wouldn't get a response from the wall. 

By any means, I do not mean to bash the volunteers who were part of this day. I am glad to see so much thought put into mental illness, making the taboo smaller. Most people feel like others don't even try to understand them, at least this day is a gesture of trying to reach out. We might not always understand, but the act of trying already tugs some heartstrings. 

So, even if you don't feel like it, try and reach out. Maybe the conversation will be worth it.

Yours sincerely,


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