A little while ago someone came through our doors asking for some help. She looked like she’d been roughed up, but was adamant that she didn’t want us to phone anyone for her or get medical help. All she wanted was to use the bathroom to clean up and, if we had any spare, some cash so that she could catch the bus.

Nothing we offered made a difference. She went to the bathroom, came out looking a little less disheveled, took the cash we offered, thanked us and left.

It freaked me out. A lot.

I felt that I should have been able to offer more, do more, help in some way – but had no idea how. It troubled me for weeks – still does, really. What also troubled me was that I had no tools to deal with how I felt about the event or how other people present at the time did. It was awkward and uncomfortable and I found it difficult to understand why I felt slightly guilty about the whole thing.

So when the opportunity arose for me to sign up for a course that would provide an overview of mental health issues and how a non-mental health professional can respond, I jumped at it.

The course is called Mental Health First Aid and it’s effectively the mental health equivalent of a standard first aid course. It was run over two days by the WA Association of Mental Health (WAAMH), who offered it at a significantly reduced cost – which was also a great incentive.

The course objective is to equip participants with the skills and resources to recognise and respond appropriately to someone experiencing a mental health crisis – at least until professional help arrives!

We covered a lot of ground, including:

  • Understanding Mental Health, including diagnoses, prevalence and common misconceptions
  • Symptoms and causes of depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance misuse.
  • How to provide initial support to adults who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
  • Crisis First Aid for: suicidal behaviour, panic attacks, aggressive behaviour, self harm, acute psychosis
  • Responding to the effects of substance misuse

Some of it was heavy going, but it was made very real for all of us by the lived experience stories of people who came in to share those with us. Then there was the added dimension of about 60% of the course participants also having their own lived experiences of mental health issues, many of them still raw and relatively easily triggered. It made for some difficult situations and complicated conversations – but all of those served to inform each of us in different ways about how mental health can and does impact people’s lives.

I hadn’t realised that one in five Australians experience mental health issues, or that anxiety and depression are major players. And yet people don’t talk about it, don’t allow mental health to be just another health issue that can be managed. Why is that? 

Perhaps part of it is fear. But if we don’t talk about the size and shape of the black dog (and his friend the elephant in the room), we won’t ever learn how to recognise it and learn how to manage it.

Having completed this very basic mental health first aid course, I feel slightly better equipped to answer some of the questions. I have facts, stats, a manual, an action plan and a certificate. These all make me feel safer. But what really made a difference was talking to people, understanding a little better how to really listen, how best respond, what sort of help to offer,  and where to find resources that can make a difference in a crisis situation.

I very much hope that if that young woman came back asking for our help again, I might just be able to do something useful for her without being quite so terrified that I’d be doing the wrong thing. And if she still only wanted to use the bathroom and get some bus fare… well, that’s okay too. 

Last week I was presented with the choice of 20+ fridge magnets and an invitation to choose as many as I’d like. The magnets were created by a friend from original photographs that he took, in and around Perth. He combined the images with words to create positive messages for himself – and then decided to share them.

The art work is terrific and part of me wanted to grab all 20 and whack them up all over my fridge. But instead I showed some restraint and spent a bit of time sorting through to see if any of them really leapt out at me and said ‘take me home’.

What I discovered is that, although they’re all lovely, only two of them really resonated with me on that particular day. One because it’s who I am and the other because I need the reminder. 

I must have looked at those magnets dozens of times since I put them up. Whenever I open and close the fridge, there they are. They remind me to take a mental step back from rushing around and be present in the moment  – and they’ve made me smile. Every time.

So thanks, friend, for sharing your thoughts and smiles. They’re greatly appreciated. Smiles are huge and happy and lovely and can totally make someone’s day – especially if they’re shared.

So here are my smiles, dear tea leaf readers. I hope they work for you too – and that you share them around 🙂

His name is Spot, for fairly obvious reasons. I have no memory of actually playing with this toy dog, only of having him, of knowing he was mine. His tail is chewed, as are the edges  of his ears and his right front foot. I don’t know if that was done by a proto-version of me, by a real dog with a taste for soft plastic, or by a toy-destroying-sibling. What I do know that it was me that wrote my name across Spot’s brown and while rear end, irrefutably claiming him as mine.

In all my moves, from house to house, across continents, Spot has been a constant. Relegated to my memory-box, he grins up at me whenever I make foray into that Aladdin’s cave. It’s as if he’s asking me what I’m looking for, as I ferret around amongst birthday cards, diaries, theatre programmes, children’s drawings and report cards.

Spot keeps me company as my fingers wander idly through my past. I drift, lost on a sea of memories, oblivious to the the fading light as I take a brief holiday from the reality that is now. For a while we travel back to other times, other countries, shows I’ve seen, people who have disappeared from my life. Wisps of memory cling like fairly floss, leaving a residue of half-remembered moments that slowly dissolve, little more than a taste and a yearning for more.

Any time in the past 40 or more years I could have ‘re-homed’ Spot, passing him on to a child or dropping him off at a Thrift Store. After all, he’s faded and worn with time, my autograph is barely legible and his little body is no longer flexible. But somehow the moment of betrayal didn’t arrive. I’ve never been able to relinquish this one tangible piece of proof that Nicky-the-child, owner and protector of Spot-the-dog, really did pre-exist the Nicky of now.

How desperate was that little girl to assert ownership if she was prepared to forego the household rule of ‘do no damage’ and actually scrawl her name on this one toy? Was she punished for that, Spot? If so, it was worth it: the predator siblings left you alone. We are still together to share our past.

What is it that makes us who we are?

It’s often argued that the self is socially constructed, developed through the interconnectedness of the various aspects of the society in which we function. More specifically, the self could be seen as a complicated jigsaw puzzle of how we’re parented, our schooling, our social interaction with family and friends, and all our other life experiences.

But what happens if pieces of the puzzle that’s been created start to disappear? Are we still ourselves if we forget some of the bits that make us who we are?

What’s brought this to mind is my dear friend Mil. For a while she’s been getting more and more forgetful. But until fairly recently she just found it an inconvenience, something that could be considered an inevitable consequence of ageing. It was mostly variations on a theme of oh-dear-where-have-I put-xxx and not a cause for undue concern, she thought, considering that we all do that sort of thing sometimes.

Then suddenly great big gaps in her memory started to appear, seemingly overnight. The gaps seem random – her birthday party a couple of months ago, visitors from overseas last year, a tragic death in the family a few years before that, her youngest son and his family coming to stay last Xmas and a number of short-term gaps as well. Most worrying is that, despite visits to the hospital, consulting a neurologist and all manner of tests and scans, there appears to be no specific or discernible reason for it.  So there’s no clear diagnosis, just a great deal of confusion and worry.

Talking to her, I’ve realised that Mil feels as though she could wake up on any given morning and another little chunk of what makes her herself might be gone. Another memory – big or small – could have disappeared and, until told otherwise by family or friends, it will be as though the event never happened.

More frightening than the actual memory loss, she says, is the randomness of it all. For someone accustomed to being in control of her life, to planning events and taking an active interest in the world around her, who values logic very highly, this is a very scary place for Mil to find herself.

No matter how much I think about the situation or read up on memory loss, I find that I end up with more questions than answers. What does one do when events, days and years start to fizzle and disappear?

Standard advice seems to be to plan ahead once a diagnosis is obtained. This includes legal, financial and health planning. But the path to diagnosis, to discovering choices and to possible treatment seems to take so very long.

Starting to keep a journal seems to have helped. Mil’s found that simply making a note of things as they happen or writing down how she’s feeling on any given day provides her with reference points. When she pages back, even if she’s forgotten the events, she feels she can trust the words on the pages. She can see that she’s written them, even if she can’t remember having done so, and that distinction makes a big difference to her.

I find that this puts my years of intermittent journaling into a new perspective for me. Perhaps I’ve always been writing for a future me, providing myself with trustworthy breadcrumbs back to a past I’ll very possibly forget one day.

Perhaps it’s something we could all consider doing. That, and making sure that every year we have is as good a year as we can make it.

Since I’ve rather cleverly managed to end up with several part-time jobs (all at the same time), pups that need vets, walking and endless cuddling, and in-laws to keep an (active) eye on, normal things like grocery shopping, visits to the GPO for stamps, going to the gym, cooking and socialising have all taken a back seat for the moment. Pretty lame excuses, I know, dear Pen Pal, but there it is. So, until I have a little more free time, a quick-fix postcard to keep you going. Enjoy. Perhaps I’ll make the next one a recipe card – that’s almost like cooking, right?