The Coalface

I’ve found it hard to re-adjust to western life. When I stepped off the plane, the mad buzz of Lao traffic and the constant barrage of unfamiliar culture gave way to a profound silence. At night time it’s the worst. There are no whining scooters, suburban karaoke parties, or barking dogs — just the barely audible ping of a distant pedestrian crossing. It was as if the light of my life had suddenly turned off, and I was alone in an unfamiliar space, unwilling to move. So there, I sat, and sat, and waited.

I can remember the first wonderful friends I made when I was backpacking in Chiang Mai, at the start of my adventure. We spent two days traipsing around the city, hooning around on motorbikes and getting overly drunk in the city’s farang hotspots. Then, without so much as a warning, they continued on their journey to the city of Bai. I can still remember the feeling of saying goodbye and watching them recede into the distance. In the rapidly humidifying Thai morning still cool from the night’s monsoonal rain, my stomach did flips.

“That’s the expat life,” a friend told me.
“Get used to it.”

It was with this mentality that I carried out my time in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Eventually the constant stream of departing friends lost it’s emotional punch. You got used to the fact that people would leave and still others would come, who you would grow to love in time.

All the while I thought coming home would be as heartening an experience as going abroad, and that the culture shock would be quaint. I thought that coming back to Australia would be no harder than hugging a friend goodbye before their early morning flight back to the west. I thought there would be one brief shiver up the spine, one glance over my shoulder, and I would feel all right.

Looking back, my biggest regret is not keeping in closer contact with a lot of my friends from Laos. I was looking to spare myself pain by obstinately trying to erase them from my memory — I hope, in retrospect, I didn’t hurt them too much. I had to leave a woman who had become an inspiration and confidant, and a man to whom I grew so close that I considered him the brother I’d never had.

Meanwhile the months rolled by, and I continued to stagnate. I occupied a small space with a dimly lit monitor. All the things I had taken joy in before seemed hollow in the absence of the people I left behind. To make things worse I was out of work, and missing my job as a reporter.

I remembered weaving through the traffic in Vientiane on my motorbike; wind in my hair, coffee and a cigarette in hand, on the way to some event or another. I remembered the lavish buffet dinners and open bars that I would frequent to get a quote. I remembered the morning I turned on CNN to find analysts talking about whether the plane that had just gone missing on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing (after a spate of attacks in mainland China, and leading up to the National Conference) had gone missing over Laos — and I can remember the dread I felt when my civil aviation contact replied,

“What missing plane?”

I kept my feelings about all this to myself. I kept secret too, how bad I was feeling. In my mind there was a strong way to live my life, a result of mental acumen, that I was not reaching. I viewed myself as a failure, and I felt as though I had thrown away my chance at living well

In my self imposed isolation, my depression grew fiercely, and unchecked. It atrophied my self esteem and my motivation — I stopped writing and taking photos, and withdrew further from friends and family.

Then there was a coalface moment. My partner from Laos arrived in Australia and through her, I was able to see the how much I’d changed for the worse. I had been walking in the darkness, not knowing that I was depressed. Until then, I had believed everything that my depressed mind was whispering to me. At that moment, with help from my best friend, I had my hands on the coalface, I had the context that I didn’t have in the referenceless waste of my depression.

I couldn’t see the light, but I had my hands on the rocks that I could climb to get there, and a hope that the light would come.

But not everyone is lucky enough to have someone start them on the road to recovery. And looking back I’m surprised at how I fell victim to the same machismo that I normally rail against. In the shadow of male stoicism, beneath the suppression of emotion, depression is virulent.

In 2012, 2.5% of all male deaths in Australia were attributed to suicide. In that same year 75% of those who would commit suicide were male.

These are the first words I’ve written since I came back from Asia over three months ago. It’s taken me this long to be able to simply sit at the keyboard and write, knowing that before I write this, I can’t write anything else. It’s important that we men start to speak more openly about depression, and that we examine the effect that gender has on our lives (and on society broadly). It’s important that we reach out more to the men in our lives, and start to tear down the centuries-old toxic wall of male emotional isolationism.

Most of all, we need men to know that recognizing the symptoms of depression isn’t a sign of weakness, but the most courageous of actions — and the first step in overcoming the monstrous challenge that so many of us will face.

We can all put our hands to the coalface, and help eachother climb towards the light, together.

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