Tagged: Mental health

My ticker was a time bomb

The scar on my chest is seven inches long. At the top of my sternum, the incision site, it’s white and waxy, slowly fading on its journey south. But the last inch is a raised, red, rubbery knob of keloid tissue – a constant reminder, not that I need it.

It will be a year on Tuesday since I underwent open-heart surgery. I have not been quite the same person since; something for which I am mostly profoundly thankful, as much as I am to still be alive.

Mostly, I’m calmer. I had been warned of possible depression in the wake of the surgery. For years, especially in the last decade, I lived in a constant fritz of anxiety, having at least one very public meltdown. I have written openly about my mental health over the years.

These days, by comparison, I feel like a Zen master. Not that I’d recommend heart surgery as a solution to psychological trauma, but if nothing else it gave me a radical sense of perspective and gratitude, an attitude I wasn’t previously on familiar terms with.

Which means I can’t help but ask the question: to what degree was my psychological wellbeing affected by my literally broken heart? I will never know the answer to that question. Only that I didn’t know how sick I was until science and surgery saved me.

It was in late January last year that I was diagnosed with advanced valvular heart disease. Stressed and fretting over a deadline, I had a severe run of palpitations. I waited for it to pass. It didn’t: for half an hour, an hour, then 90 minutes, until I had pins and needles in my arms.

It wasn’t until paramedics wired me up, measuring my heart rate at 173 beats per minute, that it finally and inexplicably self-reverted. I pleaded to be allowed to return to my deadline. They held up the receipt spat out by the electrocardiograph and shook their heads.

Sometimes your real problems aren’t what you think they are.

Me, four days after surgery, 7 August 2020

I’ll spare you the story of the surgery and the aftermath, other than to say I’m now walking around with a bovine aortic valve and a repaired mitral valve. The problems were congenital; I didn’t know of the defects until they tried to kill me. Basically, my ticker was a time bomb.

The other changes are more interesting. This was a very different kind of existential crisis than the more ruminative type I was used to. I began to re-evaluate my life. I was 49 at the time of the surgery; I turned 50 in April: comparatively young, but time is no longer a luxury, either.

It would be remiss not to mention the small matter of a relationship that collapsed three weeks after coming home from hospital. Once, this would have been shattering. This time my reaction was a comparative shrug of acceptance – which is not to say it didn’t hurt, of course it did – but it was 2020, after all. It wasn’t personal.

It’s a cliche but true that you find out who your friends are in these situations. Those who were already close to me rallied. I was overwhelmed by support from strangers, too, and forged new, unexpected alliances. Those people have my love and thanks forever.

Those who were less present, again, only reminded me of my own past failures; the times when I had let others down, because I was too distracted or self-absorbed or just unable to give of myself as I wanted, because my own life was in enough of a mess.

So I found forgiveness. I had always been harsh on myself. Now I realise how hard I had been on others, too. It was all just sweet life, and humans being human: magnificently multidimensional, maddeningly inconsistent. I was no different.

Slowly, I returned to work. The surgeon told me I would feel like Superman within a month and he was right. I felt ecstatic, as though I was on an oxygen high after years of deprivation. That probably cushioned me to some degree from the blow of the breakup, too.

By November, though, I was struggling with what was probably post-perfusion syndrome, or pumphead. I felt cloudy and vague, and was having difficulty processing complex information. The fog still hasn’t quite cleared. Writing this is hard; everything takes longer than it used to.

But as much as we are running out of time – all of us – I don’t mind taking mine. Every second is a second chance. The future still fills me with existential dread but, without children of my own to protect, I try to shield myself as best I can. I find fleeting moments of joy everywhere.

Once I was drawn to extremes, particularly musical (my aesthetic could be encapsulated by a quote from Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, later adapted by Motörhead: everything louder than everything else). Now, with everyone shouting, I dig quiet time.

Most of all, I am grateful that I live in a country where, in the middle of a global pandemic, I was admitted to one of the best cardiac hospitals in the country, under the care of a brilliant surgeon and medical team, and walked away with a bill for $74 in medications.

I am outrageously lucky. The randomness of my good fortune is never lost on me. And yet I nearly threw away my own life more than once. I had to have it nearly taken away to rediscover my lust for it.

Sometimes I think I should get the keloid part of my scar removed. It often itches, particularly under restrictive clothing, and is still growing. But it’s also a badge of honour, a part of me that would feel wrong to cut or burn away. Maybe I need to be reminded after all.

First published in the Guardian, 1 August 2021

Guardian Book Club: Jimmy Barnes

When singer Jimmy Barnes’ memoir Working Class Boy was released in 2016, it caused a sensation. Barnes’ account of his childhood went beyond the usual adjectives like “raw” and “harrowing” on the cover to something much more purgative: here was one celebrity memoir that hadn’t been written for the sake of a generous advance. Barnes had wrestled the demons of a traumatic childhood in private for decades. Now he was doing it in full view.

The other thing that made Working Class Boy so shocking, frankly, was that Barnes had written it himself. Wasn’t piano player Don Walker the literary genius behind Cold Chisel, with “Barnesy” the red-faced screamer out front? Barnes further upended expectations by gambling on the story of his pre-fame years first, but his way of telling it was riveting. His voice was urgent, empathetic, as wry as it was moving, with a gut-wrenching turn of phrase.

Inevitably, the sequel Working Class Man followed. This was the proverbial sex, drugs and rock & roll memoir that perhaps was originally craved, and certainly expected – but it was far more compelling for us knowing where Barnes had come from. Jimmy Barnes – the rock star, and sometimes the caricature – had been a fixture of Australian life for so long that we had underestimated him. It turned out we had known little of the man born James Dixon Swan.

The first book was subtitled “A memoir of running away”. The second, “A memoir of running out of time”. Barnes’ life was far too big to be contained in just one volume. And now we have a third: Killing Time is a collection of short stories – 45 anecdotes, jokes and sideways reminiscences that didn’t fit into the first two narratives. But these are more than leftovers: they’re essential stories from the spaces in between. And it’s these stories, and the books that came before, which will form the basis of the next edition of Guardian Australia’s book club.

So much of a life in music is spent waiting. The Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts, asked (in 1987) what it was like to have toured with the band for 25 years, quipped he’d only worked for five of them; the other 20 he’d just been hanging around. That’s a lot of time to kill. Barnes eventually realised, while waiting, he was slowly killing himself and causing terrible suffering to those around him – most importantly his beloved wife Jane, whom he refers to as his saviour.

Barnes is in a steadier place now. Like all of us, he still has his demons, but three books and an album later (last year’s superb My Criminal Record is perhaps his best solo work, a lyrical extension of the first two volumes) he’s wrestled them to the ground. “After all those years on the road, all those years of drifting, with no sense of belonging anywhere, I finally feel I have found my place in the world,” he writes.

A slight disclaimer is necessary. Early last year I wrote an artist bio for My Criminal Record, my first real contact with Jimmy. Twelve months later, I was diagnosed with advanced valvular heart disease, requiring open heart surgery. In July, while on the short list and waiting for the hospital to call me in, the phone rang from a private number. My enlarged ticker skipped a beat. “This is it,” I thought – only to hear Barnesy’s familiar Glaswegian chirp on the other end.

Like me, Jimmy had been born with a bicuspid aortic valve, and had joined the “zipper club” in 2007. He was checking in on me, offering support. Over the next couple of months, either side of my surgery in early August, I took several calls from Jimmy and Jane, sending their best wishes. I’ve since discovered I’m far from the only one they’ve offered their kindness and generosity to in a time of strife, both to people you might have heard of and others you probably haven’t.

Jimmy says he’s not killing time anymore. “Every moment is precious,” he writes – and after my own surgery, it sounds true, not trite. Every second feels like a second chance. His books are precious, too, because they touch on things that are common to us, in all our flawed humanity.

Please join us as we talk about love, life, music, family and time – killing it, marking it, wasting it, making up for it – and have your own questions ready, too.

First published in the Guardian, 1 October 2020

The fig tree

On the east side of my apartment block is a large fig tree. In its halcyon days, its canopy covered the length of the balcony, providing shade from the morning sun. At the base of the trunk, an extensive buttress root system had pushed up and cracked the concrete driveway. This made the tree unpopular with the body corporate, but the tree is a protected species in Brisbane under the Natural Assets Local Law of 2003.

For a long time, that law protected the fig, and much else besides. Every spring, the fruit of the tree provided food for mobs of Grey-headed and Black Flying-foxes which chattered and bickered among themselves all night as they gorged themselves. Brush-tailed Possums ran riot. During the day, Australian Figbirds and Koels were regular visitors. The Koels would shriek their heads off at 4am almost every morning through October and November.

There were butterflies, too. When I started taking a serious interest in them, most of my early observations were from my balcony. I identified members of almost all the Australian families: swallowtails (Blue Triangles), whites and yellows (Lemon Migrants), nymphs (Evening Browns, White-banded Planes) skippers and blues (most thrillingly, a Bright Cornelian, which has vivid spots of orange, instead of blue, on the upperwings).

Bright Cornelian at home, 24 December 2018

Then in the month of May 2016, right after my marriage broke down, the tree was lopped. Not a branch, nor a leaf remained: just the trunk, which was left to protrude a few metres above ground like an exposed nerve that had been brutally hacked off. It looked how I felt. Sunlight flooded into my apartment. The sudden burst of natural light might have been welcome in other circumstances, but at the time I wanted only the cover of night.

There was no question about why the tree had been lopped. It had a habit of dropping large branches on my neighbours’ roof, particularly during Brisbane’s regular thunderstorms, not to mention huge quantities of leaf litter, which the local Brush Turkeys would determinedly rake through. It would only take one stray spark for that house, a decaying weatherboard which was nearly entirely submerged in the 2011 flood, to go up in a big woof of smoke.

Things were quiet for a long time around here after that. I was pole-axed by grief and feelings of shame, failure and loss. Mostly, I isolated myself, but I also felt abandoned. I missed the thump of possums on the roof and the constant squabble of flying-foxes, which had one less mature tree to feed on and disperse their seeds. Birds and butterflies stayed away. The whole block felt radioactive. So did I.

Thankfully, the body corporate didn’t kill the tree, much less uproot it. That would have meant cutting through a forest of green tape, and cost far more besides. They were doing the minimum that needed to be done for the sake of civic virtue and safety. But it stood outside my flat like a crippled metaphor for my life circa 2016. Still standing, but with no foliage for either decoration or camouflage, much less invite company.

After a while, regrowth began to appear. It was pathetic at first: a few thin branches growing out of the top of the stump, sprouting rebellious leaves. Eventually, they spread around the tree, not enough to attract much that I could see, but enough to provide shelter for the things I couldn’t. I accepted that if ever the fig tree was to return to its earlier glory, it would be in decades to come; long after I’d left the building, possibly in a box.

Then, on Christmas Eve of 2018 – another Christmas by myself – a pair of Bright Cornelians appeared. They were joined by an Orange Palm-dart. I grabbed the camera and snapped a couple of quick shots. I didn’t know it at the time, but within a fortnight everything, in Helen Garner’s words, would begin to heave and change. I’d awoken from my own coma, blinking in the fresh sunlight, and an old friend was about to walk into my life in a new way.

This summer, the fig began to bear fruit again. I can no longer see the trunk for the foliage, and the flying-foxes are swinging. A Koel found enough cover to hide (and scream) in. A couple of weeks ago, I was drawn out to the balcony by a gaggle of squawking, pointing Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Noisy Miners and a Grey Butcherbird, and saw a young Carpet Python snaking its way up the tree. Judging by the occasional racket since, it’s still there.

Today I stood on the balcony having a long conversation on the phone with my brother. While we were talking, I watched. A migration of Blue Tiger butterflies was in full swing, and another species, a Varied Eggfly, was dancing in the understory. I suddenly became curious about the identity of the fig. I’d never paid attention to botanical matters, despite my mother having been an obsessive gardener.

The leaves were now just close enough to the balcony for me to reach between the louvres and pull one from its stem, which immediately extruded a thick white sap. The leaf was glossy and smooth and very dark green, rounded at the base, tapering to a fine tip. It is a weeping fig, Ficus benjamina. I had, I decided, taken it for granted, and much else besides. The creatures I loved were coming back, but there was more going on outside my window than I ever realised.

First published on my Patreon page, 29 February 2020; reprinted in the Guardian, 22 March 2020

Tom Boyd lived the dream. Now let him live his life

There’s a moment in David Williamson’s play The Club where Geoff Hayward, Collingwood’s prize new recruit, is confronted by his coach, Laurie (played in the 1980 film by Jack Thompson) after a game which he’s mostly spent watching a seagull while stoned out of his gourd. “Marry-a-wanna?” asks Laurie, incredulous.

Hayward is unrepentant. He identifies the absurdity at the heart of what he does. “It’s a load of macho competitive bullshit,” he says. “You chase a lump of pigskin around a muddy ground as if your life depended on it, and when you finally get it, you kick it to buggery and then go chasing it around again! Football shits me.”

“Well, I wish to Christ you’d told us that before we paid out 120 grand for you,” Laurie replies.

I thought of The Club when I heard of the retirement of Tom Boyd, a former No.1 draft pick, his enjoyment sucked from the game after 61 matches, only nine of them with his first club Greater Western Sydney, before the Bulldogs landed him on big money. At that time, like Hayward, he was just a kid with potential. He ended up winning them a fabled premiership.

I see a lot of parallels between Boyd and the fictitious Hayward. The expectations that accompanied his outsized talent, draft standing and salary. His awareness that sport is fundamentally unreal, even as each body-on-body contest put him in physical jeopardy. That he was living out a fantasy that compensated for the frustrations and jealousies of others.

Another character in The Club, the veteran Danny, harbours his own resentments. “If I’m going out there to risk a fractured skull or a ruptured spleen for the amusement of a pack of overweight drunks in the grandstand, I want to get paid!” he yells at the club president. If the film was set in the present, he might also be addressing warriors behind their keyboards.

Were Hayward real and playing today, as a high-profile and highly paid recruit, he might have taken the same path offered to Boyd: made an unavoidably public declaration that he was struggling with his mental health, taken time out, and been treated with care and sympathy by his employers and teammates, if not by those in the outer and playing at home.

I’ve covered football on and off for 14 years now. It’s an enormous privilege but there are times when it shits me, too. I grew up supporting and crying over a club, not the one I mostly write about. On weekends as a kid, I ran around a muddy oval, struggling to get a kick, blessed with no discernable athletic gifts, much less physical courage. (Those who can do, et cetera.)

In the earlier days of the internet, I lurked and posted on message boards and observed the way football totally consumed the lives of some people, many of whom seemed to relish tearing down players for their lack of effort or skill or dedication or all of the above. But I also recognised and revelled in the same joy and love and communion they took from the game.

Here in Brisbane, I’ve seen one final in 14 years. In footballing terms, that’s failure, and many of the players I’ve watched have been worn down by it. They might be 20 years younger than me – the kids coming through now, 30 years – and I see their physical and emotional resilience as they try to take each day one day at a time. Those words are a cliche for a reason.

At times, away from work, I’ve struggled with my own issues. For me, tuning in to the homespun wisdom of coaches could be as useful as an extra therapy session. They’d remind me that everything is temporary and that nothing is ever quite as good as bad as it seems (useful for someone prone to black-and-white thinking, and I don’t mean Collingwood).

I hope Tom Boyd’s experience reminds all of us that footy is a game, no matter how much money or prestige or pizzazz is attached to it, and that if it’s not fun anymore it’s not worth doing, or even watching. He’s 23. He’s got a crook back but he’s also got the rest of his life to live and the world at his feet. He doesn’t owe anyone a damn thing more than what he’s already given.

He was a kid with potential, who delivered in spades. With five minutes to go in that 2016 grand final, Boyd grabbed the pigskin, kicked it to buggery, and it bounced between the two big sticks. In that moment, he gave hundreds of thousands of Bulldogs fans a pleasure they’d never known before and will never, ever forget. I hope he never forgets it either.

First published in The Age, 18 May 2019

Going public, or private, on mental health in the AFL

Let’s say a player at an AFL club has a mental health issue. He, or now she, may be struggling with depression, or clinical levels of anxiety, or even one of the more complex conditions recognised in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

They go to see the club psychologist, and talk things over with the coach and footy manager. It’s agreed some time out of the game is required, just as effectively as if the player was physically injured.

The club and player concerned then face a difficult decision. Should they go public, as Alex Fasolo, Tom Boyd, Lance Franklin and (going back further) Mitch Clark and Nathan Thompson have all done?

In Franklin’s case, he may hardly have had a choice: his enormous profile meant that any absence from the game leading up to the 2015 finals was always going to be heavily scrutinised and would require a public explanation.

Most of us, in less public lines of work, don’t face that question. If we’re lucky, we may have access to stress or sick leave, and we go home to fight our battles privately, hopefully with the support of family and close friends.

Let’s now say a player wants to take this latter option: to keep his or her struggle under wraps, after making the decision that going public will only exacerbate the stress and pressure they’re already under.

The club, of course, supports the player’s decision and does its best to honour it – knowing, at the same time, that the media will ask questions, that club forums and social media will be chattering about his or her absence, and that the industry leaks like a sieve.

“You’re trying to balance player confidentiality versus public expectation of wanting to know what’s happening,” says a football manager at a club in exactly this situation [not identified to protect the  player’s privacy].

“Our overarching aim at all times is what’s in the best interests of the player, so we’ll always revert to that, but the system both within how we report player injuries and actual media interest in it sometimes makes that a difficult situation to navigate.”

Going public with a mental health problem is often rightly lauded for its courage, especially in the context of competitive sport. They remind us that our sporting heroes are as vulnerable and have as many human frailties as the rest of us.

“We know that a lot of people who have mental health issues aren’t getting treatment, for a start, and certainly young men would be in that category, not just footballers,” says the same club’s head psychologist.

“We know that’s the case, so helping them, broadly speaking, and helping players and young coaches know more about these things is absolutely a good thing, there’s no question about that.”

But while removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues is a worthwhile aim, not all heroes wear capes, or want to be poster boys or girls for a cause. Doing so only adds another layer of scrutiny in a hyper-scrutinised environment.

“There may be a necessity to keep things pretty private, because the recovery process and helping people get back on their feet from some of the challenges they’re experiencing is a sensitive issue and can take time,” says the psychologist.

“It depends on the individual as to how they actually deal with those things. We want their hands to be on the steering wheel, in terms of who needs to know and how they would like to proceed.”

Brent Hedley, the AFL Players’ Association’s head of mental health and wellbeing, agrees that keeping health issues private is a challenge.

“The simple fact is that players’ lives are now more public than ever, and it’s becoming really hard for players to keep things in the background [with] the level of surveillance that occurs through media and the public.

“We’ve obviously witnessed a recent growth in the number of players that have spoken publicly. And while that’s really heartening, and it supports the de-stigmatisation of mental health [issues], we want to stress is that player consent in that process is paramount.”

Both Hedley and the football manager agree that it becomes more difficult when mental health issues intersect with poor on-field performance and, especially, erratic or anti-social off-field behaviour.

Of course, few young workers are as heavily psychologically profiled as elite athletes entering the world of professional sport. Long before prospective players begin their careers, the AFL actively seeks to weed out those unsuited to its particular rigours.

“There’s standard psychometric and psychological testing that the AFL does for all potential draftees, and all that information’s accessible to all of the AFL clubs,” the football manager says.

“We have our own sports psychologists who we engage specifically around the recruitment process, and their job is not necessarily to find reasons not to draft particular players, but to make sure that we have a complete picture to make sure we can give them every opportunity once they do come in.”

Whatever screening a player goes through before being drafted, clubs also need to be aware that mental health issues don’t discriminate and can affect a person at any time.

According to Beyond Blue, one in eight men will experience depression in their lifetime, one in five will experience clinical anxiety, and one in seven will experience both in the space of a single year. And evidence suggests men are less likely to seek help than women.

But, Hedley says, that increasing awareness means that the response to players who do open up about their struggles – whether it’s just to their teammates and club, or the broader public – is increasingly supportive.

“What we do witness time and time again is an overwhelmingly positive public and industry response. There’s a really strong thread of care and compassion,” he says.

“There’s no coincidence that more players are opening up, for that very reason.”

The point is that players need to know not only that they can ask for support, but that they can dictate the sort of support they want and need – hopefully with the cooperation of the media and understanding of fans.

“Ultimately the player needs to drive it,” says the club football manager.

“Like, OK, here are the options in front of me; I’d like to go down this path, and I understand that if I go down that path, then these are the potential consequences.

“And one of them may be that if it’s out in the public, that some people are going to make judgments, that there might be some embarrassment or commentary on it or whatever it might be.

“So the player needs to understand the implications of each option, and it has to be [their] choice, so [they’re] making that choice not under any pressure, but with strong support.”

Lifeline 131 114 or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636

First published in The Age, 19 April 2019

Missing pieces

For five days over late August and early September in 2016, a strange case gripped the Australian media. A family of five abruptly went missing from their rural property east of Melbourne. They left their house unlocked, and all potential trace elements behind: phones, credit cards and identification documents. Keys were left in the ignitions of remaining cars.

The alarm was sounded by one of the three adult children, around 24 hours after their disappearance, when he disembarked from what turned out to be an ill-fated road trip near Bathurst in central New South Wales, some 800 kilometres from their home. The two remaining daughters were quickly located after they stole a vehicle to escape; one of them later turned up in the back of a man’s ute, to the shock of the driver after he’d driven another hour away. Their mother was found the following day, wandering the streets of Yass, near Canberra; two days later, the father was discovered, safe but dehydrated, on the outskirts of the north-eastern Victorian town of Wangaratta.

The story became a viral sensation. “It felt like a variation on the Netflix show Stranger Things, itself a pastiche on missing people stories from the 1980s,” wrote Chris Johnston, a respected senior writer for The Age. “The strange gaps in the information also read like something out of The X-Files, with its protagonists fleeing from technology but tracked just the same.”

But the real echoes, he said, were closer to home. The road trip gone wrong was a common trope “straight from an Australian horror story”, with echoes of Australian cinema classics Walkabout and Picnic At Hanging Rock, of the legend of Burke and Wills, of foreign travellers stranded in harsh landscapes and unable to find their way home. Either way, the premise was identical: “City folk head into the bush and get lost, metaphorically and physically.”

Bizarre twists – that favourite tabloid phrase – abounded. Marnie O’Neill, writing for news.com.ausuggested that the family might be suffering from a psychiatric condition known as folie à deux (madness of two) between the family’s husband and wife, which can in turn grip the children (folie à famille, a family madness). She wasn’t the only one to speculate that the family was suffering from some kind of delusional disorder, as experts were asked to weigh in.

These were some of the kinder interpretations. One website cut to the chase with its headline “The family that went mad together”. The Australian edition of the Daily Mail found a new angle by posting “eerie” photographs of the family home: “What happened inside the walls of this pretty farmhouse that drove the family out of their minds at exactly the same time?”

Finally, when all members of the family were accounted for, a statement was released: “More than anything, my family and I need time to recover and receive appropriate assistance, including mental health services,” it read. “To this end, we request that media respect our request for privacy.” The statement was reported with a photo of its author leaving a police station in a car, shielding his face from waiting cameras.

Six months later, Mamamia posted a smiling, undated picture of two of the family members, taken from Facebook, which purported to show them “moving on with their lives”. It was accompanied by a link to a Mamamia Out Loud podcast, where a group of women shared their theories about what went wrong after the “bizarre series of events”. The discussion begins with a breathless introduction:

OMG, can we please talk about the [name withheld] family mystery? Someone needs to call Sarah Koenig, seriously, this is the weirdest story. Can Sarah Koenig please make season three of Serial about this?

I’ve decided not to identify the family, although the story will be instantly familiar to many Australians and to anyone overseas who was following the news at the time. Personally, I avoided most of the reportage. It felt gratuitous, prurient. Beyond the immediate urgency of finding the family safe and well, everything else seemed like voyeurism. This was a deeply private matter and they were not public figures.

Whatever happened to them, it needn’t and shouldn’t define them in the public gaze any more than in the eyes of their extended family, friends and community – all of whom would have just been grateful and relieved to have them back. They have a right to rebuild and get on with their lives without the judgment or scorn of strangers, and without their name being reduced to a byword for craziness.

After all, I thought at the time, it’s no less than I would want for myself. Almost exactly six months before their disappearance, I headed into the bush and got lost too.

ON THE evening of 22 February 2016, I scrawled a note to my former partner, threw a handful of clothes and possessions in the car, and took off into the night. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going: north, south, east or west. Somewhere along the way, I fired off three tweets that were unfortunately reflective of my state of mind before deactivating my social media accounts.

I drove all night, pausing only at a truck stop by the side of the highway to rest at around 2 am. The noise of the generators, and the adrenaline overloading my system prevented me from sleeping. I drove on, pulling up again in a country town, watching the sun rise from a sleeping bag on the local sports oval, then got back in the car and kept going.

By later that morning, the adrenaline had worn off, the car was labouring and I began to feel the weight of exhaustion, the magnitude of what I was doing and the distress I was causing for others. I switched on my phone, which was flooded with messages, called home and was persuaded to check myself into the nearest hospital. In between, my face was on the front of news websites. I’d been officially declared missing.

If I was sure I knew what was going on in my head at the time – and I’m still not – I wouldn’t explain it to you, much less why. I was, however, carrying lethal means of self-harm within the car, to say nothing of the fact that, while stone-cold sober, I drove a 28-year-old vehicle for more than 12 hours and close to 900 kilometres in a highly agitated and distressed state without sleep, food or water. By the time I was admitted to hospital, I’d barely eaten in 48 hours.

You could call it a cry for help or one long scream. It doesn’t matter: what does is that I didn’t follow through when I could have or, mercifully, hurt anybody else. According to Mindframe, which provides guidelines to the media about the reporting and portrayal of suicide and mental health issues, approximately one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness each year. I’m far from alone.

This story, however, is not mine. It’s about how we talk about mental health and people in crisis, particularly in the frenzy of modern news reporting, when social media can and often does run ahead of the news cycle, when difficult ethical decisions are made in real time – often before facts are fully established – in an age of clickbait, confessional storytelling, declining revenues and minimal editorial oversight.

“Every time a journalist makes a decision around how to report on either mental illness or suicide, they’re making a judgment call based on the facts about the story that they have in front of them, so the application of the guidelines can be variable,” says Jaelea Skehan, chair of Mindframe’s media advisory group and director of the Hunter Institute for Mental Health.

Mindframe’s National Media Initiative began in 2002, with the aim of building collaborative relationships between the Australian media and the mental health sector to promote suicide prevention and to encourage accurate and sensitive reporting of suicide and mental health matters. It also conducts guest lectures in most journalism schools across Australia, including in compulsory law and ethics classes.

In the 15 years since, most media outlets have adopted conventions such as the listing of emergency hotlines at the bottom of stories. To avoid the risk of copycat behaviour, methodology is rarely mentioned; phrases such as “committed suicide” are avoided in favour of “taken his/her own life” – if suicide is noted at all. There is a fine line between breaking the stigma of an awful phenomenon that claims more than 2,500 Australian lives a year and glamorising it.

But reporting on what are complex and often unknowable circumstances, the warp speed of modern journalism, the concomitant time pressures on its practitioners, the amplification of social media and the capricious demands of editors who oversee different newsroom cultures and values all mean that the variability Skehan refers to occurs both across and within organisations, sometimes wildly.

“Now more than at any previous time, when you talk about the media you have to ask who are you talking about,” says Margaret Simons, until recently the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. “Nevertheless, leaping in and generalising, I would say reporting around the subject is better than it used to be, but it’s still nowhere near good enough.”

She points out that mental health exists at the interface of many news stories: homelessness, for example, and domestic violence. She castigates Melbourne’s Herald Sun, which last summer ran a months-long campaign that cast a handful of people sleeping rough in the vicinity of Flinders Street Station as a public menace. “I think their reporting on homelessness has been disgraceful, particularly since they’ve also done some very good reporting on domestic violence. But they don’t seem to join the dots between the two.”

Mindframe, she says, has made a difference. “Particularly among younger reporters who’ve been through journalism courses in recent years; most of them would have been introduced to the complexities of mental health reporting. It doesn’t necessarily mean the culture of the newsroom supports them, or all of them are equally sensitive, or remember what they were taught. But at least they’ve had to think about it.”

Since Mindframe’s establishment, however, the social media revolution and the collapse of traditional media business models have meant the organisation’s best attempts at education are arguably lagging behind structural and institutional forces beyond its control. Similarly, the Australian Press Council, which regularly reviews its own material, has not updated its guidelines on health and medical reporting since 2001.

“I have definitely noticed that as I read mental health stories, I’m increasingly cringing,” says Melissa Davey, Melbourne bureau chief at Guardian Australia, formerly of the Sydney Morning Herald. She identifies two other pertinent issues: the loss or outsourcing of experienced in-house subeditors, especially from Fairfax’s ranks, and the diminishing numbers of specialist reporters.

It’s a sensitive subject for Davey, whose own family has been affected by severe mental health issues. She draws breath sharply when she brings up the case at the top of this story. “Everyone’s editors wanted to know what was going on there, and wanted approaches made to the family.” She attempted to make contact with one of them using Facebook’s Messenger service. She says it’s something she has dwelled upon ever since.

I CAUGHT up with some of the news surrounding my own disappearance in the weeks that followed. All of it was to some extent inaccurate, having been pieced together entirely from Facebook and Twitter. My partner had been advised by friends not to comment, particularly to television networks, so no one had much to go on. I read the stories with a sort of morbid detachment; I couldn’t afford to get too caught up in it.

One piece threw me, though. It was in the Daily Mail, and there at the top were screenshots of the three tweets I had broadcast (and later deleted) when in the middle of an emotional crisis. No link to helplines was provided. This was two months after the event: I’d come across the story accidentally, in the course of searching for an old article I’d written.

I looked at my profile picture and the awful words alongside it for several minutes, with an odd sensation of being outside and looking down on myself from a distance: the face, those words belonged to me, but I barely recognised them. What I recognised was that in writing them, I’d inadvertently cast myself as the Road Runner: I’d lit a firestorm on my trail, with coyotes in pursuit.

I emailed the journalist concerned requesting that the tweets be removed. The editor emailed back, noting that stories were normally not altered, but acquiescing seemingly on the grounds that I had asked nicely. They were replaced with an extra bullet point at the top of the piece: “There are reports he earlier posted a series of worrying tweets.” Helplines were added to the bottom of the copy.

Most other stories were well intentioned. I was a missing person, and the overriding concern was that I be found. It was hard to escape the feeling, though, that to some I’d ceased to be a human being: I was a story to be “got”. At least one piece referred to me in the past tense. The publications to which I’m most grateful are the ones for which I do the most work, as they all decided not to report the story at all.

What to do, though, when social media is racing ahead of the news cycle? Such a frenzy, Simons says, “will have journalists acting both as participants and also feeding off it, and a lot of that can happen before [a situation is] even clear”. Engaging an online audience often extends to the moderation of comments on stories, the inclusion of which may be dangerously inappropriate in such circumstances.

We have also become conditioned, in an age of overexposure, to want to know everything. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that a few editors were keen on what I’ll call the “Oprah” version of this story; naturally, a first-person tell-all would also have been cheap to commission.) “We can end up in a very precarious position where a story can quite quickly go from being in the public interest to not being in the public interest,” Skehan says. “We have this blend between traditional and digital and social media, and it means that people can forget when lines are being crossed.”

Every case is different, each presenting editors and journalists with a new set of considerations and complexities. And every media organisation faces another question, if it stops to ask itself this question at all: when to pull back? “At what point, when the initial story is over and the person is found, do we need to continue to stalk and hound and look for every single tiny detail associated with that story and try to summarise it in a headline?” Skehan asks.

This is especially the case when reporting on public figures. Sporting identities including former Essendon AFL captain and coach James Hird, former Olympic swimmer Grant Hackett and another celebrated AFL footballer, Lance Franklin, have found themselves the subject of heavy public scrutiny in recent times. All have received varying levels of support – or endured different degrees of intrusion.

Franklin, who took time away from the sport with depression (something that, in any other job, we would call sick leave), was treated with the most sympathy. Hird, who had been at the centre of a years-long scandal over the use of performance-enhancing supplements that eventuated in 17 players being suspended for 12 months, was admitted to a psychiatric facility in January 2017 after an overdose of sleeping tablets.

Hird and his family had learnt to live with media camped outside their home; now the cameras followed them to the clinic, where Hird’s condition was the subject of rolling updates as drawn-looking family members came and went. A familiar scene ensued: Hird’s wife, Tania, reading a prepared statement asking for the family’s privacy to be respected, in front of a scrum of cameras and microphones.

There is no common law tort of privacy in Australia, a subject that has been examined by successive law reform commissions. In 2004, years before the phone-hacking scandal, model Naomi Campbell successfully sued the English tabloid the Daily Mirror after it pictured her leaving a rehabilitation facility, in a three-to-two majority ruling that Campbell’s right to privacy, in that instance, outweighed considerations of press freedom. “You could argue the same with the Hird case,” Simons says.

Hird later wrote – by editorial request from the Herald Sun, but seemingly on his own terms – about his experience: “Everyone has a breaking point and I reached mine after years of continual stress … In 2002, I fractured my skull and required multiple metal plates in my head. I, for one, would prefer multiple skull fractures to the feeling of deep clinical depression.”

I have read Janet Malcolm’s excoriation of her craft (and mine) many times over. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” reads the famous opening sentence of The Journalist And The Murderer. Malcolm goes on to talk about the “catastrophe” suffered by the inquisitor’s subject:

On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.

It is the most uncomfortable truth any serious writer of non-fiction must acknowledge. This is not to say that journalists as a group lack empathy or consideration: “I think we get an incredibly bad rap when actually we really, really care about getting it right,” says Davey, and it’s obvious that she does. The point, though, is that a journalist’s first duty is not to our subjects. It is to our readers. I am no different.

In their study Black Saturday: In The Media Spotlight, Denis Muller and Michael Gawenda (Simons’ predecessor at the Centre for Advancing Journalism) examined the thorny issue of gaining informed consent from people who are traumatised. What practical meaning does informed consent have when the subject is in shock or distress? And how can a journalist assess the subject’s capacity in this regard? Survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, they wrote, “described themselves as being in a kind of daze in which they were responding to questions while disoriented by a sudden and violent displacement, worried about the fate of friends or property, agitated by lack of knowledge of what had happened to their towns and communities”.

When a person is in crisis, comparatively little thought may be given to the state of mind of those closest to them. For 24 hours, my former partner – a private person with no media experience – found herself fending off inquiries and requests for photographs. At the same time she was trying to liaise with police, with no more idea than anybody else where I was or whether I was dead or alive.

Dr Stephen Carbone, leader of policy, research and evaluation at beyondblue, says anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is not going through it alone. “Their loved ones are going through the same emotional turmoil, particularly if they’re bereaved. It’s especially painful when people have been bereaved by suicide; it’s a very confronting and challenging type of death for people to deal with.”

“When someone is in a state of a distress and concerned about the welfare of someone else, then their cognitive abilities can be impacted,” Skehan says. “If media are asking them to comment, they’re actually asking them at a time in which they are incapable of doing it in the same way that they would if they weren’t in the current situation.”

On the other hand, as Simons argues, it is also the media’s job to help people tell their stories. This becomes particularly difficult when reporting on subjects with potentially reduced capacity: the homeless, for example. “Would the journalist be entitled to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to tell your story because you’re not in a position to make that decision’? That could be insulting, and equally ethically questionable.”

Then there is the issue of verification. Muller and Gawenda quote one frustrated reporter lamenting that the demands created by the 24/7 news cycle, and the insatiable appetite for it, means that “what is fact right now can be proven to be fiction 20 minutes later … Obviously there are some things we are going to, with all good intentions, publish that in an hour or two, or the next day, [are] going to be found to have been incorrect.”

Social media, of course, only stokes the blaze. Journalists, now trained to embed tweets in their stories, can find themselves updating reports from what is often little more than a rumour mill in close to real time, with precious little opportunity for fact-checking. “It’s one thing if we know that a Facebook post has come from an organisation and that’s their statement; it’s another if you’re getting a bunch of random strangers speculating or making comments that we don’t know are true and then turning that into a story,” Davey says. This is exactly what ensued in my own case: without wishing to diminish anyone’s genuine care or concern, the effect was to turn smaller players into heroes while central ones, including my former partner, remained mute.

“If a person has disappeared, you’ll be updating it by the hour,” says Simons. In the case of the missing Victorian family, she says, “There were a lot of people reporting episodically, and gradually everybody became aware there were mental health issues involved. I think the tenor of the reporting did change a bit. But they were already a long way down the rabbit hole by then, and that’s partly the rolling deadline issue.”

IN AN essay for The Saturday PaperMartin McKenzie-Murray explored in further detail the rare phenomenon of the folie à famille raised by Marnie O’Neill. He noted the police had refuted the wilder suggestions in relation to the family: of mob debts, drug-induced psychosis or cult membership. “What remained was a curiosity so intense we somehow felt entitled to resolution.”

We only had questions, McKenzie-Murray said, questions mostly responded to with speculation, which he then only added to. Eventually he admitted: “All of which is to say, we do not know. And perhaps that’s fine.” His conclusion is freighted with guilt: “Our curiosity turns people into puzzles to be solved, and people like me assume the role of solving that puzzle for readers’ entertainment.”

Johnston notes that the case was an extreme one, and it’s unfair to generalise about the reporting of mental health based on it. In many respects this is true. But it also serves as a perfectly distilled example of how the institutional and structural pressures on journalists can very quickly lead them, and their readers, into places they may never have intended to go, and to things that were no one’s business to ever know.

Johnston acknowledged as much in a follow-up opinion piece. Stories about the family, he said, all “rated through the roof online”. And because there were few facts to go on, “the fantasies took hold”. Again, the piece was accompanied with a photo of the man at the centre of the mystery leaving the police station, protecting his face from view, proffering only a middle finger to the camera.

Leave me alone, it says.

Johnston was sympathetic. “They’ve had reporters – including us – knocking on their front door every day since last Thursday, but they were patient and understood they needed the media to help find their dad as much as the media needed them to try to explain to a growing mass of confused, engaged readers what had happened.” I respectfully disagree: while the media might have needed the clicks, the family owed readers no explanation whatsoever.

And did the family need the media? “With all due respect to journalists, it’s not their job to solve a missing persons case, other than if they’ve been asked to support the police,” Carbone says. “If you’re already half out of your mind with worry, the last thing you want to deal with is questions from complete strangers who obviously don’t really care about the person; they’re just after a story.”

Simons takes a more pragmatic view. “The police regularly turn to the media for help in finding missing people. I’ve been a journalist for 35 years; one of the main ways in which police look for missing people is to cooperate with the media in getting pictures and descriptions out there, and sometimes that can be very beneficial.”

The problem arises when such stories take on a life of their own. “It became clear part-way through the saga that it was a very domestic, very intimate familial build-up of psychological issues that got the better of them, possibly briefly, in the end. Now it is up to the family to figure out how to go on,” Johnston concluded. I can relate to this. Psychological issues can get the better of any of us briefly, sometimes in terrifyingly destructive ways.

Such episodes, once experienced, become an inescapable part of one’s history: to be navigated; learned from; hopefully avoided; eventually accepted. If we’ve become the subject of wider attention along the way, we return to the world in the knowledge that it knows more about us than we might ever have wished it to. We put on our mask and get on with our lives, trying to resolve our inner battles behind closed doors.

We are all puzzles. Few people are as consistent as they appear, or would have others believe. We shapeshift; we project different versions of ourselves to our bosses, colleagues, partners and friends. Sometimes we lose sight of ourselves along the way. The puzzle of who we really are when we are most vulnerable is the missing piece of sky in the jigsaw that is hardest to complete. It’s also the most intensely private.

First published in Griffith Review 57: Perils of Populism, 1 August 2017; extracted in The Guardian, 13 August 2017

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