In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), I thought I’d share with you a story of a time in my life when my own mental health was severely tested. We all have our challenges, but through sharing our stories and being open with each other, perhaps we can get through life a little easier. Trigger warning: this blog post contains mentions of suicide.
Mental health was probably the last thing on my mind when my mates told me about the riches to be made by scaffolding in the mines in Western Australia. We don’t have a history of mental illness in our family, but little did I know I was about to embark on the most mentally challenging period of my life.
It was 2011. The wife and I had just dusted off six wild years in London and had landed back in New Zealand via South America, to settle down, and do whatever settled down people do. Niki had finally plucked up the courage to pursue her midwifery dreams and was about to embark on four years of study. I on the other hand, wasn’t entirely sure of what I wanted to do. I did know my student loan had caught up with me and had mutated into a $50k beast, breathing down on my B- average, Commerce degree broke-a@#-conscience.
I decided to take off to Perth to join the boys, and try to get in the mines any which way.
It was made out that the roads leading to the mines were paved with gold. “Its a mining boom” they said, but little did I realise that in fact they were paved in expensive courses, hollow promises and false starts. Down to my last $100, I eventually blagged my way in and found myself in the WA desert, sweating like a politician in court, and covered in flies, wondering what the hell have I done?
I followed all the Mullets—fresh from their RnR in Bali, proudly sporting their latest and soon to be regrettable tattoo—onto the bus to camp. The camp was like nothing I had ever seen; hundreds upon hundreds of converted shipping containers called Donga’s, housing thousands of unfamiliar faced hi-vizzed workers, gyms, swimming pools, bars and as much free food as you could stuff down your throat.
You can go either of two ways when you hit the mines. Inhale deep fried rubbish and drink yourself to sleep (keeping to the bogan mantra of ‘9 beers max before 9pm’ so you can pass the mornings breatho at pre start, of course) or, you can keep it healthy, eat well and exercise.
The first morning, I stuck out like dogs balls in my shiny new uniform without a speck of red iron ore on it, lost in the sea of Mullets shoving their way from breakfast lines, to grabbing lunch and onto the bus to site. I met my scaffold team, led by ‘Wayno’, a 6 ft 5, 140kg bully from the Outback who would soon come to terrorise my every waking minute. You see, thanks to a three week course completed in Perth, I was an ‘Advanced Scaffolder’, with absolutely no idea about scaffold. “Are you ******* stupid you Kiwi ****?”, screamed ol Wayno in his latest morale boosting lesson on scaffolding. Thank God I had Joel, a 19 year old, snotty nosed kid from Tolaga Bay teaching me how to scaffold; “Ow Gav, don’t listen to that clown Wayno, he’s just an egg”.
The mental torment from Wayno lasted from 6am until 5pm for nearly 28 days straight. I had to do something to get the tyrant out of my head, so I stretched for the first time in a decade or so, and got back into my exercise. My first go, I managed 2 laps in the pool and ½ a lap of the 2km ring around camp before collapsing in a heap, coughing up flies and regretting every drunken cigarette I had ever touched. Now I had been captain of the 1st 11 Cricket team and school rugby player of the year in my final year, so I was partial to exercise, but that was over 10 years ago and besides, no one likes a blow ass still piping their former glories right?
Now don’t get me wrong, 90% of my 4am brain was telling me to stay in bed and flag the exercise. It won some mornings, but I had to make sure the 10% was ready to kick the 90% into touch. If I didn’t exercise, I would feel sluggish, and regrettably the 10% was dirty at me for giving in to the 90%. At night, it was all about pre-empting the attack of the 90% in the morning, so I would clear a route to the door, lay all my exercise gear out on the floor, so when the alarm went off, the 10% would sneak around the dozy 90% and make a beeline for the pool or gym.
Through setting small and achievable goals, by the end of my first swing, I was up to 50 laps in the pool every morning and 4 to 5 laps around camp. The endorphins were my new secret weapon, defending me against any negative thoughts, Wayno’s constant ‘constructive’ feedback and helping me keep my eye on the prize of paying off my student loan, saving for a house and getting home to Niki. The day after exercising, I came into work with a massive smile on my face and really couldn’t care less what abuse Wayno, the former boxer with a face resembling a chewed Minty, would spit at me.
Even with exercise helping me stay sane, when faced with a month straight in the desert, where every day is groundhog day, and you see another mate’s wedding sail by on Facebook, it’s natural to start questioning why you are doing this. To be fair, I did enjoy the International Fly in Fly out (FIFO) lifestyle as it kept my travel bug at bay somewhat, and I’d pass through Melbourne or Sydney for a night once a month and hit the town with the boys dragging a pocket full of cash. However ultimately, what’s the point of earning all this money, but not living life? Honestly, the money becomes irrelevant pretty quickly.
Scaffolding is a dangerous game and contrary to popular belief, it’s no mug’s game either. Vital to scaffolding safely is solid communication, and teamwork between the boys. You instantly form a bond of brotherhood, and in turn are always looking out for each other, which is really important. I soon realised that working in the mines is more of a mental battle than a physical battle, due to the isolation. Sure, lugging scaffold in 50 degree heat takes its toll, but so does a month straight of 12 hour days. I found chatting to Niki every night, and most importantly chatting with my new mates was key. My new mates were a smorgasbord of characters, ranging from Mongrel Mob Tokoroa, lawyers from Sydney, Hells Angels from Melbourne, meth cooks fresh from prison, geezers from rough South London council estates to Art history graduates from Scotland. We all came from completely different backgrounds but were all there for the same reason.
I hadn’t been in the game very long when rumours starting flying around about one of the boys taking his own life on his break. Then came the call to “crib it up” and wait for some clarification. It was pretty confronting having a workmate take their own life over some issues at home. It got me wondering, how could things have got that bad for him to leave behind a wife and kids? All those years spent away from the family, grafting in the desert to “get the family ahead” had led to the tragic irony of actually breaking the family up. The reactions from the boys ranged from tears, to being angry and calling him a “selfish prick”. Regardless of what anyone thought, we would all throw money in the hat for his family; it wasn’t the kids fault they had lost their Dad. Earning all this money was meant to solve all your worries right? However for many of the boys, their worries were only just beginning.
As the mining years rolled on, from project to project, more and more of the lads took their lives. Despite all the offer of help and counselling from the mining companies, the suicides kept on happening. It almost seemed random. You could be having dinner with the boys, expressing disbelief about last week’s suicide, only for one of them to go and do it weeks later while on RnR. It’s impossible not to wonder why.
Relationship breakdowns, one of the boys sleeping with a cleaner up in camp, a lonely wife sleeping with ol matey’s best mate, undiagnosed mental issues, diagnosed mental issues, money worries, gambling addiction, drug addiction and alcoholism. I guess these are all the same reasons as in the outside world, except everything seems to be magnified 100 times when you are in the desert for four weeks straight. A slight disagreement with the Mrs on the phone at night can fester the next day on one’s mind until you reach breaking point, and it wasn’t helped with the poor quality of phone or wifi reception. A poor choice of partner, or a stupid decision on the piss means some of these lads, who have a few houses and every mechanical toy under the sun and a couple of kids to boot felt they needed to have to have $2-3K a week coming in just to service their outgoings. Many of the lads had been earning this amount each week since they were 18 years old and thought it was normal, and in turn based their lives on their income, as we all do. I guess this is another factor as to why some of the boys are trapped in the FIFO cycle.
I made it my priority to keep my mental health in pristine form by maintaining it proactively. I just keep pushing myself in the morning with cardio on the spin bike, treadmill or in the pool. Another good tip my Dad once gave me was to smile, so as soon as I felt a nagging thought enter into my mind, I would smile. Go on, it’s bloody hard to have a bad thought when you are smiling. I realise me giving mental health advice is like a cooking show contestant releasing their own cookbook, but this is what kept me afloat:
For the 6 years I did FIFO, I got to meet plenty of lifelong mates, and unfortunately lost a couple of close ones too. I got to work and play in some pretty crazy places, set up the wife and I financially, and do a ton of travel around the world to boot. Don’t get me wrong, I am not telling you how to deal with your own mental health; instead I thought I would share my journey and how I got through what was mentally the toughest time of my life and what worked for me.
If you are struggling, I’d recommend a professional’s advice. Don’t wait, reach out for a chat with the following people:
Lifeline – https://www.lifeline.org.nz/247-helpline
0800 543 354
Depression Help line – https://depression.org.nz/
0800 111 757