Tagged: psychology

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

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