Behind the mask of suicide: 'It's okay to not be okay'

By Eleanor Ainge Roy

Eleanor Ainge Roy talks to a two-time survivor of attempted suicide about what brought him back from the edge.
Hiding your emotions can be exhausting and 'a point will come when the mask falls off'. Photo / Getty Images
Hiding your emotions can be exhausting and 'a point will come when the mask falls off'. Photo / Getty Images

Even tucked up in bed on a Saturday afternoon with his pukka showing, Justin Geange emits a showman's quality. Quick, dark pools of eyes. A cheeky, animated face. And a gravelly Australian drawl that is frequently broken by laughter.

But that could be because the All Blacks just pummelled the Wallabies in the opening match of the Bledisloe Cup. "Oh mate, I can barely watch it sometimes, I get too worked up!"

"Worked up" is an apt euphemism for Geange's lifelong fluctuations of mood. The manic highs that led to him believing he had founded a bizarre religion - and hit the booze, drugs and gambling big time.

And the lows - decidedly less rock-star - in which he cleared out his office desk, said goodbye to his family - and drove to the coast to take his own life.

"It was cold, and it was calculated, I didn't want to be around any more," he says.

"I was convinced my family would be better off without me. When I woke up in the hospital I was very angry that I had failed again."

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of suicide in the OECD. Last year, more than 500 people took their own life, the majority of them men. Our suicide rate is twice the annual road toll and, despite ad campaigns, support groups and celebrity speakers owning up to struggles with depression - the stats remain stubbornly high.

Geange, 44, happily married and the father of two young girls, has frequently wanted to "exit stage left".

As an ebullient prankster, television performer and the mascot of the Brisbane Broncos (he dresses as a horse, it's funny), this desire for oblivion from someone so vital can be difficult to understand.

"I am the joker ... I am the one who makes everyone laugh. When people are doing it tough I try to be the person who's a bit larger than life," says Geange in an RUOK video for TrackSafe, for which he is an ambassador.

"It becomes hard putting on the mask, and that is what I did for quite some time. Put on that mask, tell a few jokes. It is exhausting when you are living a lie."

Kyle MacDonald, a psychotherapist who writes a column for the New Zealand Herald, says people suffering from severe depression will often over-compensate to hide their symptoms.

"We all develop ways of coping with the world, and some of us cope by pretending we are fine," says MacDonald.

"By pretending you are fine, people might be trying to fool others. But they might also be trying to trick themselves into feeling better - by being super-happy, super-friendly, and super-popular. But it's an exhausting act, and generally a point will come when the mask falls off."

Justin Geange with wife Marni.
Justin Geange with wife Marni.

In 1988, aged 16, Geange was shy, isolated and almost entirely devoid of close friendships. He lived in a shed at the back of his parents property in Tokoroa, and had dropped out of school to join a band. On stage he was confident and electric; touring the North Island and partying manically. But when the lights dimmed and the music stopped at the end of the night, Geange's mind closed in.

"I was so cut off," he remembers of his late adolescent depression, a precursor to an eventual diagnosis of Bipolar Type II.

"There was a telephone in my parents' house but I lived in a shed out the back. This was before cellphones, before social media. The isolation was physical as well as mental, and my mind caved."

Geange's most recent suicide attempt, in 2013, came after two decades of stability, and had different triggers, and staggeringly different repercussions. After being made redundant, failing in a bid for a seat on the Queensland State Government and being knocked out of the semi-finals for Australia's Got Talent, the combined pressures re-ignited Geange's disorder.

"All the layers of stability I had built up fell down," Geange recalls. "Our income went from $120,000 a year to $50,000. I saw only one way out."

He knew his family would be affected - but he didn't predict the "hand-grenade effect" his attempted suicide would have on his colleagues, friends and neighbours. The popular family man wasn't an isolated teenager anymore - and the community's understanding of mental health issues had come a long way since 1988.

"I didn't realise one choice I made impacted the whole community around me, I had no idea they cared two cents for me." says Geange.

It's pretty clear they care for him now. Geange, with the help of his wife Marni, has set up a "bro code" - an established and efficient support network that kicks into gear whenever his mood begins to nose-dive.

"I'm very active on social media, a daily post kind of guy. So if my mates don't see anything from me for a day or two they'll send a text - 'are you okay mate? Thinking of you'. If I don't respond to that, they'll call my wife to check in. And then they'll come and take me out for coffee, for a yarn."

The bro code was developed among a core group of Geange's mates who had also been "doing it tough". Not all of them have a history of mental illness, but relationship breakdowns, deaths, financial pressures and the general stress of life means everyone in Geange's circle needs extra support at times.

Geange acknowledges these informal get-togethers (barbecues, coffee dates, a beer), were initially orchestrated by Marni and his mates' wives - who also helped ease the men into frank and intimate conversations.

"When they [the girls] all started talking, we blokes had to say something. The girls created that atmosphere where it was okay to just say 'yeah, things are hard at the moment'.

"I think it needed the female touch, because that got us talking," says Geange.

After 18 months off work, he is now employed as a part-time peer support worker. He also tours Australia telling his story. "I sort of feel a duty now to speak out about suicide, because people respond best to someone whose been there. People need to know it's okay to not be okay."

Five small things that help

1: If you have a busy or stressful week coming up, plan to get plenty of sleep - known as "sleep hygiene".

2: Get outside. Like gardening or going for a bush walk.

3: Attempt to eat healthily, junk food is my weakness but it doesn't help.

4: Half an hour in the sunshine every day.

5: Appreciate the smell of a freshly brewed cup of coffee, the feel of a hot shower or a massage. Pay attention to the small, good things in your life.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- Canvas

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