Sunshine, sheilas, surf.
Beaches, boomerangs, barbecues.
Sydney, shark, snake.
These are just a handful of the words that best sum up what I used to imagine life in Australia would be like.
Throw a bonza reef, a beaut roo and a cute koala or two into the picture, and you’ve more or less got the complete outsider’s view of a typical Day In The Life Down Under.
Not long after I first set foot on Terra Australis, however, I became convinced that I’d stumbled across a previously unknown part of antipodean culture. To cut a long story short, I couldn’t get over how passionately the Aussies cared for their pet fish – in particular, the really good tanks they kept them in.
Assimilating myself with The Great Aussie Tank Fascination was a bit like waking up on the set of the movie John Malkovich. Everywhere I went, people would repeatedly greet each other with a reminder about their wonderful tanks. Yet much to my utter confusion, no matter how many new maytes’ houses I visited, I did not once see a single fish tank.
If you are confused and wondering what I am going on about here, well you’ll have a rough idea as to how I was feeling. It was only after several weeks that the penny finally dropped. Those wonderful tanks were just part of the local custom greeting, which simply went like this:
Q: How aaare ya’?
A: Good tenks!
Now you might think this should have been bleeding obvious to me from day one Down Under. But my confusion had originally arisen because there was another part of this custom I had yet to grasp. I guess this extra part of the custom is as a testament to just how friendly the Aussies really are.
It turns out that in Australia, if ever you don’t understand the first thing that comes out of someone’s mouth, you just assume they are asking “how aaare ya’?” – no matter what they might be saying. How good is that?!
For me, however, the ‘not being understood’ part was more often than not the case. Take the following scenarios, each in which I received the standard wonderful tank of a response:
• At the supermarket: “Hullo! Can you tell me where I might find the milk please?”
• At the bar in the pub (desperately): “Hullo! Can you tell me where the toilet is please?”
• In the Tourist Information Centre: “Hullo! I’m not from around here. Can you tell me how long it would take me to drive to Ayers Rock, and if there any hotels you might recommend for me to stay in while I’m there? Also what’s the weather like there at this time of year?”
Fair enough, I should have added that all the above scenarios were meant to be read in less than two seconds each, and in a gruff Glaswegian voice that resembled a rabid bulldog. But I’m sure it will still come as no surprise when I tell you that I spent a lot of time during my early days in Melbourne shaking my head and saying to myself “but I didn’t ask how you were.”
There is, however, one date on the calendar Down Under where the whole intent of the day is about asking people how they are.
R U OK?Day was launched in 2009, and falls on the second Thursday of September. It is a national day dedicated to inspiring all Australians to ask family, friends and colleagues “are you ok?”
R U OK?Day was started by Sydney Advertising Executive and father of three, Gavin Larkin. Gavin’s father Barry took his own life in 1995 at the age of 55, and RU OK?Day was Gavin’s way of keeping the memory of his father alive. He wanted to inspire Australians to ask the right question, to stay connected and to support those who are struggling with their own inner demons
Ultimately, Gavin wanted to help reduce the unnecessary suicide rate in Australia. Or put another way, Barry Larkin didn’t have to live in torment; Barry Larkin didn’t have to die.
Sadly, on September 21st 2011, after a 19-month battle with cancer, and only a week after the third annual R U OK?Day, Gavin Larkin himself passed away. He was 42.
R U OK?Day lives on, however – not only in memory of Barry Larkin, but also now in memory of Gavin.
The intent of R U OK?Day also remains to encourage everyone to regularly reach out to one another and have open and honest conversations about how they really feel.
On that note, various statistics show that around one in four suffer from some form of mental illness. You don’t have to be Einstein to work out that many of those Aussies who are constantly referring to their wonderful tanks are not being given the space to reach out and tell the truth.
It is my own personal hope that the children of today, including my own two young sons, can grow up in a world where it’s perfectly acceptable to say you are not ok. A world in which, when you are asked the question “how are you?” it will not be unAustralian to reply truthfully, along the lines of “not so good tenks, but tenks for asking.” R U OK?Day goes a long way to lighting up the path towards that new world, and for that we have people like Gavin Larkin to thank.
Part of the problem with anxiety and depression, however, is that many people don’t even realise they are sufferers. Occasionally, many might think they are, but either they don’t want to admit it to themselves, or they put it all down to just having a bad day, and they keep pressing onwards.
Even when the bad days start to last longer and occur more and more frequently, they still they never look themselves in the mirror and ask the all-important question “am I ok?”
I know that scenario all too well myself. It took me way too long to finally ask myself the right question. After my own years-long dance with the black dog, it was only when I had reached my wits end that I decided enough was enough. I looked myself straight in the eye in the mirror and I asked myself “am I ok?” And for once I was honest with myself and replied “no I’m bloody well not ok.”
I then took the action I’ve been blogging about for a year now. I put my hand on the shoulder of the black dog and said STOP! It was my turn to take the lead in the dance.
Talking of the past year, R U OK?Day is also of particular significance to me. Dancing With The Black Dog was first unleashed, tweeted, blogged, emailed and Facebooked onto the unsuspecting world on R U OK?Day 2011. Yes, my black dog blog is one year old this week!
If I could have one black dog blog birthday wish, it would be this: I would wish that whoever reads this, whether on R U OK?Day or not, whether in Australia or not, commits to asking at least one person before the day is out: “are you ok?”
Perhaps you are reading this and you think you know someone who needs to be asked if they are ok, someone you suspect might be living in secret torment. Perhaps you fear offending them, or just don’t know where to start.
Or perhaps you are the one who is living in that secret torment. Perhaps you feel it is you who needs to be asked if you are ok. If that’s the case, perhaps you could still consider asking someone else if they are ok first. After all, the best part of The Great Aussie Tank Fascination is that it usually involves reciprocation.
Either way, the conversation starts with just four letters and a question mark:
R U OK?
R U OK?Day 2012 is Thursday September 13th. For more information, please see www.ruokday.com