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THE BLACK DOG & THE WAVE

I recently resigned from my job to look after my mental health. Just a few hours later I found myself sitting next to Sarah from Gizzy Local and somehow, in a brief kōrero, we shared honesty and understanding around mental health. 

After I left my job I thought life was going to get better, and then even better. But that’s not always how the story goes. I remember lying in bed, feeling physically incapable of getting up. I wondered how much water I needed, to replace the stuff streaming from my eyes. I felt groggy drunk with shame and inadequacy. The work I’d left was not easy by anyone’s standards, but the incredible people around me were sticking it out, with far busier lives and way more on their plate than me, so why couldn’t I? 

I slid a prescription across the pharmacy counter and felt like I’d failed. Having spent the last 10 years managing my mental health without medication — through exercise, meditation, creativity and mindset education — here I was. Antidepressants can take up to 4 weeks to work. Yikes. It sounded like a very long time. 

Back in bed, popping my first pill, I read through the long list of potential side-effects like it was the menu at a really bad restaurant. Insomnia was the special of the day, with a side of nausea and dizziness. Slamming the door shut to the one place I could escape to, I spent 4 nights owl-eyed in bed while venlafaxine tried to rally the sad and sluggish neurotransmitters in my brain.

Telling my flatmates (puffy eyed and wearing a dressing gown) that ‘I’ll return as a butterfly!’, I drove non-stop to Wellington to cocoon away with whānau and be looked after while adjusting to the medication. I manifested a transformation. It took longer than expected and I kept thinking “next week I’ll find work and get myself back together.”  It didn’t feel true even as I said it. My body and mind demanded stillness and patience while wings formed beneath my skin. It was a few weeks before I noticed they were there and longer still for them to unfurl. 

Now I’m a full-time artist pumping things out on social media as I take on an art challenge for the last 100 days of my twenties. It all looks very “go-get-it-girl!” and it’s nice to feel and share the excitement. It also feels important to share my humanness and be authentic. The project was born from a vulnerable and challenging place. I’ve bounced back with a resiliency owed to mental health education, financial security, family support and no dependants. 

When I think of those among us who live with depression while managing things like poverty, family violence, drug or alcohol abuse and the responsibility of looking after kids or the elderly, I recognise the incredible strength in our community and how many unsung courageous individuals we have here. 

One day, I’d like to be as comfortable telling my boss I need a day off for my mental health, as I would telling them that I have a cold. One of the top 5 leading causes of death in Aotearoa is people taking their own lives and yet we are still not in a place where taking “mental health days” is encouraged, normalised or fully accepted. Are we okay with that? Sharing our stories and strategies helps reduce shame and shows how common but complicated mental illness is. Checking in on each other, normalising kōrero about mental illness and encouraging healthy social catch-ups (e.g. a hīkoi up Titirangi instead of a beer) are all ways that we can make a change.

It’s no fun being swallowed up, but when the black dog spits you out, you might just catch the wave of your life.

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Words & Moving Images by Stephanie Barnett. Photograph X Ellen Taylor

Find more of Steph’s work & follow her 100 day project on Instagram @ stephmarybarnett or www.facebook.com/steph.barnett.77

@ellenmarytaylor

KAHU NGATA & THE NEW SCHOOL

A year and a half ago Kahurangi Ngata decided to take control of his own learning and life. His first decision was to forgo his final year of high school, Year 13.  Instead, with his parents’ blessing he would set out into the world that awaited beyond the school gates, with dreams of exploring art and gathering ideas for his future, whilst keeping ‘as busy as possible’.

Since then Kahu has been on a path that has taken him to parts of the country he’s never been before, alongside new people as well as friends and whanau. Kahu seems to have this ability to see opportunities for learning in everything he does and in everyone he meets. When we spoke he had this shiny-eyed enthusiasm and excitement, which was both compelling and reassuring.

When Kahu first set out to explore Art eighteen months ago, he had a few ideas about the kind of art he thought he wanted to do, but these have altered course and amplified in scale along the way. A month spent at animation studio Nyuk Nyuk Studios in Wellington, alongside his uncle, helped Kahu realise that animation wasn’t really for him after all. But he soaked up all he could from a guy who was back home from eight years of oil painting in Florence, learning how to transpose age-old methodologies from paint brush to his ipad pen; old to new.

Last year also presented Kahu with the opportunity to volunteer with the Seawalls crew in Gisborne, and it was through this experience Kahu discovered his love of the large-scale artwork. Not only does the outdoor aspect appeal but he’s found that spray painting works well with his fast and unstructured, loosely-planned style, ‘if I plan too much, or try to repeat an idea, I usually find it just doesn’t work or look how I want it to look’. Kahu completed his first mural The Tui & The Kākā at Solander Cellars in March this year.

‘Do you know that I’m interested in Birds? I could talk about birds for ages’ says Kahu. A trip to the Zealandia Ecosanctuary in Wellington has turned Kahu into an avid researcher of birds. While he has always enjoyed drawing bird life, these days Kahu will take any opportunity to get closer to them, which has variously included tramping with friends, spending time with some people he knows who look after birds and visiting Wingspan in Rotorua.

Kahu seems entirely happy to be painted with the ‘Birder’ brush; he’s fascinated by the uniqueness of our bird life in Aotearoa and their role in our country’s history. Interesting facts and anecdotes about birds spilled from Kahu as we spoke, his infectious enthusiasm and sense of wonder that made me want to go straight home and delve into all the old bird books on our bookcase.

Kahu’s family’s involvement with the Te Toki Voyaging Trust (his dad Morgan was crew on the waka that travelled from Auckland to te Tairawhiti in 2017 and his mum Cleo crewed on the Waka that went to Norfolk Island last year) has piqued Kahu’s own interest in what is being called the ‘Waka Renaissance’ in Aotearoa and led to his own involvement with the Trust.

Lately he has been based up in Auckland volunteering with Te Toki. He helps out with boat maintenance, preparing the waka for Tuia 250 commemorations later this year, and is involved in the training sessions, all the while absorbing as much knowledge as he can from the people around him.  The experience has added another aspiration to his hopes for his future which is to be involved with the waka that will travel to the Pacific next year. Being away from Gisborne and immersed in the intensity of our biggest most hectic city has also given Kahu a newfound appreciation for Home.

While Kahu’s experiences in this past while have undoubtedly been aided by supportive whanau and open doors around the country, it is Kahu’s own focus and openness to learning from any person he might come across and any situation he finds himself in, that make him a great poster boy for the case of self-directed learning. 

So while not everyone always has access to such support networks, we do all have the ability to open our eyes to the fact that teachers and learning opportunities reside around every corner, across every table. Just as Kahu is continually soaking up ideas, inspiration and imagery from everything he can, I came away from our conversation with scribbled notes to myself about birds to look up, new bands to check out.

I also brought away a reminder to myself about the importance of listening to our young people, just as they are listening, and trying to learn from our mistakes.

Thanks Kahu.

Story by Sarah Cleave

Images created by Kahu Ngata.

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