This January, I will be returning to the Belvoir stage to perform Every Brilliant Thing, a one-person show I took over from the inimitable and brilliant Kate Mulvany after she was whisked away to star in the Amazon Prime series, Hunters, opposite Al Pacino.
Every Brilliant Thing is theatre at it’s most elemental. It’s pure story telling, close to stand-up comedy, containing improvisation and a good deal of audience interaction, and is at once a deeply considered meditation on depression and suicide, but at the same time told with hilarious and often heart breaking effect.
I got to perform the show for about two weeks to full houses earlier in the year, but this return season feels like unfinished business. Unfinished in the sense that the reality of suicide and how it devastates families, friends and communities has neither diminished, and nor have we as a wider community, particularly men, got very good at talking about it.
In 1980, I was in year five at Trevallyn Primary School, in Launceston, Tasmania. I turned up on a Monday morning only to be turned away. There would be no school that day.
A man had been found hanging from a tree in the playground.
I couldn’t put a word to the images that played out in my 11-year old brain that morning, but walking back home it felt like something brutal.
I never learnt the man’s name, but an 11-year-old friend, Rohan, told me the dead man was ‘old’, his dad had worked with him at the brewery, meaning he was in his forties. The man had had problems with both the drink and gambling, but no one mentioned depression.
A decade later, a close friend I played water polo with and did drama with at college, also took his life by hanging. Simplistic, unhelpful reasons were thrown around to try to explain why. He’d lost his job, he’d just broken up with his girlfriend, but nothing could nor would explain it.
I lost other friends, in early adulthood and my middle age. One was an actor, a couple played in bands, and another was a builder. They jumped off cliffs, they OD’d, they drove their cars into trees.
Several years ago my brother-in-law lost his brother to suicide. A popular music teacher who had been battling depression all his life, he hung himself in their back shed while his family watched television. His son and wife found him. He was in his late fifties.
The reasons someone takes their life are complex. Often there is no single reason.
But nearly everyone I knew growing up was either directly or indirectly connected to someone who had taken his or her own life. Between the years 2007 and 2016, the city I grew up in, with a population of around 80 000 people, were losing 6 people a month to suicide.
In 2018, preliminary data showed a total of 3046 deaths by suicide in Australia. To put that in context, that’s eight deaths each day.
The rate of suicide among males is more than three times greater than that of females. With more than half of all suicide deaths in 2018 occurring between the ages of 30 and 59.
So while suicide doesn’t discriminate between genders, it seems that men more often than not, lack the facility to communicate their fears, anxiety’s and vulnerabilities to someone that might offer them respite. Living up to rigid gender stereotypes, or unable to freely express their sexual orientations, with fixed on notions of stoicism, strength and self-reliance, men are too often not seeking or getting the help they need. It would seem the patriarch not only suppresses women, but also the men who would keep it in place.
Since performing Every Brilliant Thing at the beginning of the year, I have noticed improvements in the public commentary around issues of mental health, depression and suicide.
Elite athletes and sports people have been flying the flag of late, admitting openly when they’re not doing so well in the media, with some high profile athletes taking time out of their game.
Yet the fog that surrounds suicide in our community was never more evident than when Danny Frawley, a former AFL champion defender with the St.Kilda Footy Club, and more recently a much loved sports commentator, took his life by driving his ute into a tree, a day after his 56th birthday.
In the days that followed the tragedy, throughout the media, at the footy, and in the pubs, there was an inability to talk openly about what had happened. It felt like there was a confused nervousness about a car crash the police weren’t treating as an accident, and even though Frawley had spoken quite publicly about his battles with anxiety and depression, we still wanted to obscure the conversation, to distance ourselves from suicide’s brutal reality.
Performing Every Brilliant Thing again this January is about finding the words. It’s about opening up a dialogue. It’s about getting help. It’s about community. So grab your dads and mums, your brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters, your lovers and friends, because this play is about coming together in a room and not be afraid to talk.
It’s about all of us, ending the suffering in silence.
Every Brilliant Thing plays at Belvoir, January 9-26.
If this content raises issues for you, support can be found at Lifeline: (13 11 14 and lifeline.org.au), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467 and suicidecallbackservice.org.au) and beyondblue (1300 22 4636 and beyondblue.org.au)