Category Archives: Family and parenting

A very personal rural mental health post

Andrew and Marian
“Today, there are only three of us,” my father said, rather matter of factly. It seemed an odd statement as we sat outside my share house in my parents’ Commodore. After all, I was in university now and I could count to three.

“Where’s Andrew?” I asked innocently.

I can’t remember how my parents answered that question but the reason for their surprise trip to Melbourne was to tell me that my brother had drowned at Walkerville the afternoon before, 25 years ago.

Walkerville is a stunning place. Steep cliffs studded with historical sites curtain pristine sand in a sheltered cove that arcs towards Wilson’s Prom.

The sea has cracked open faults in the limestone to create caves walkers explore from the beach. Just as my parents and brother set out to do.

Andrew had not long been discharged from a clinic after months of treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The disorder is sent up in rom-com movies every few years but, believe me, there’s nothing funny about living with it.

I’d often visited Andrew during his stay in the clinic. Walking to the local cafes, he’d feel compelled to check whether his wallet was still in his back pocket every few minutes. That didn’t bother me but it was devastating to Andrew.

“I know it’s ridiculous, I know in my head that it’s probably still there but I just can’t make the feeling go away and it’s horrible. It’s not me,” he said.

Another day, Andrew explained that while some of the therapy was helping, he’d come to the gutting realisation that many of the people he’d met at the clinic had been back time and time again.

“I thought the point of being at the clinic was to cure the OCD but maybe I’ll always be like this,” Andrew said very softly.

OCD was the one blight on Andrew’s otherwise rosy horizon. Dux of maths at the grammar school, then a science and engineering student at Monash Uni, Andrew was clever, sporty and social. The total package, the apple of my mother’s eye.

The day he was discharged from the clinic, Andrew insisted on driving the pair of us back to the farm from Richmond. It was a hairy three hours I will never forget. At the intersection of Glenferrie and Dandenong Roads, we happened to be first at the lights. When they changed from red to green, Andrew asked me to remind him what the green meant.

The clinic hadn’t warned me about any odd behaviour, medicinal side effects or that driving might be a problem.

Andrew spent the next two weeks on the farm with Mum and Dad. The three of them decided to join the local walking club for a trip to Walkerville. Mum had dodgy knees, so was slow getting down the steep cliffs and Andrew tagged along with her.

Walking along the beach, Andrew asked Mum if she could see red spots in the sand. She tells me that, realising they weren’t real, Andrew was shattered at the prospect of hallucinations.

Out of breath once they reached the first cave, Andrew sat on a boulder to rest while the group ventured in. When they emerged, the walkers found him floating face down. Despite their desperate efforts, he could not be revived.

The coroner theorised that the drug used to control Andrew’s symptoms had made him susceptible to seizures at times of stress and exertion. My parents had no idea a bushwalk could kill their son.

Later, at a debriefing session, the clinic defended its silence on the side effects of his medication on the grounds of confidentiality. Andrew was 19, after all.

I wasn’t there to hold Andrew’s hand as he sat on top of that boulder and the nightmares of guilt came for maybe a year, nonetheless.

Bending down, I’d be spinning a whirlpool on my back, my brother being sucked slowly but inevitably down. If I allowed the whirlpool to collapse, he would die, if I didn’t free him from it, he would die. Every night I woke in a sweat.

I completed the last semester of my psychology degree in a daze and changed the course of my career to the far less emotionally taxing field of marketing.

Twenty-five years later, the grief has lost its edge but little of its power. A visit to Walkerville last year for a friend’s birthday party seemed to take place in slow motion and left me feeling traumatised for days.

My father is gone, my mother is caught in dementia’s unrelenting grip. She tells the story of that day again and again. The red spots, her leaving him on the boulder, the discovery, the refusal of a boatman to help, the desperate search for someone with a landline at home in a holiday town. I can’t tell you how that hurts.

I still feel bewildered. If the nearest help for Andrew was closer than the three-hour drive from home, if there was the right post-discharge support for him and my parents locally, would that have saved his life?

I’d hoped that today’s rural mental health system treats our most vulnerable brothers, sisters, sons and daughters better but it appears there is a long, long way to go.

A paper prepared just last year called Mental Health Care in Rural Australia shows many rural Australians are still “…falling through service cracks…”.

It takes well-resourced and proactive parents to access professional help, assuming they do recognise the early signs my family missed.

Andrew would be 45 this year. I like to imagine that if things had been different – with the right help – he’d have harnessed that remarkable mind of his to become a brilliant scientist and save the lives of others.

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7 crisis support)
www.kidshelpline.com.au

headspace: 1800 650 890
www.headspace.org.au (direct clinical services)

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Little man’s milestone a Milk Maid’s journey, too

schoolmorningdriveway

Today is Little Man’s first day of school and, inside an incredibly still house, my mind spins.

The little boy who leapt onto the school bus without looking back this morning was born while Milk Maid Marian was in its infancy.

baby

The blog has tracked Alex’s life on the farm, from supervising operations through to being a hands-on member of the team with his own favourite jobs. He’s seen flood, fire, drought and snow in his five years. What adventures will the next five bring?

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Infectious farm life

gullynudge

I did not choose to become a farmer “for the lifestyle” because it’s harder than you’d think.

It certainly wasn’t for the money. My decision to buy out the farm was something I found hard to explain to my incredulous accountant even though it could not have been clearer to me. Maybe if I’d had The Wind in the Willows handy, I’d have shown him this:

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

My childhood was filled feeding calves, riding ponies, priming pumps, dodging snakes and learning how to drive. That stuff, the snuffling of grazing cows and the wildness of the farm through its changing seasons got under my skin.

Today, my own children play with the calves. I do everything I can to tend their love for all things living and build their capability with all things mechanical.

mechaniclores

And they’re thriving. Not that every day is like a scene from the lid of a chocolate box. Farm life is great for kids in so many ways despite – or because of – the challenges it brings. Resilience, independence, self esteem and a work ethic flow from long days dealing with setbacks and simply doing what has to be done. No need for tough love to learn life’s lessons.

Even so, there’s a part of me that questions whether we’re doing the right thing, infecting our kids with farm life. Opportunities for young people are undoubtedly richer in well-resourced regional cities.

And what will life on the land be like for my grown-up little people in 20 years’ time if they, like Mole did, feel the tug of home’s invisible little hands? I don’t know for sure but I soothe my mother guilt by remembering that at least they have the chance to grow up slowly.

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Grateful as the farm stops for no woman

hospital

Today is a day of triumph. It’s school holidays, breeding is in full swing, cows are on their way to market, the farm is a patchwork of ploughed paddocks and I have barely left the couch during the last two weeks. Until today, that is, when I made a shaky trip down to the flats with the kids to see the cows.

Pneumonia that didn’t respond to the first two rounds of antibiotics left me a teary mess, too weak to reach the washing line. After every test known to womankind at the emergency department and an extra set of different antibiotics, I reckon I’ve turned the corner.

In the meantime, Wayne has worked extra bloody hard on the farm and at home. A friend has had little Alex over for a play date and invited him for another. Our agronomist, Scott Travers, and cropping contractor, Wayne Bowden, have worked together to get summer crops in the ground despite their dizzy client. I am very lucky and grateful.

pairieplough

With 21mm of soaking rain just a couple of days ago, the paddocks are roaring into Spring and the smell of freshly turned soil is intoxicating.

Even so, the highlight of the morning was time spent amongst the milkers.  Most of the cows have shed their shaggy winter coats and are blooming with health.

springcowlores

The kids and I watched as a group of cows swirled in excitement. Swishing their tails, sniffing, pushing, mounting each other, the “hotties” of the paddock were unmistakable.

hornycows-gif

Zoe and Alex were dispatched to capture their numbers while I sat, propped up like a rag doll, against an old home-made water trough. I wrote down the numbers they shouted, messaged them off to Wayne, who will find them a mate them in the morning. Everything is literally buzzing, croaking and heaving with life.

The farm waits for no woman. What a glorious place to be.

 

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Fingerprinting a dairy cow

I hate paperwork with a passion but a little ink drawing on one archived oversize envelope had me leaning back in my chair, smiling. And here it is.

Cameo

You see, there was a time when my Dad didn’t pay much heed to details like ear tags. Every herd member was known by the spots on her hide. There was “Lipstick” and “Lipstick’s Daughter”, later joined by “Lipstick’s Granddaughter”. There was “Milk Jug” and, most infamously, even “Sicking Monster”.

And if there wasn’t a name for the cow, he seemed perpetually blessed with inspiration for a fresh christening. It was such a logical, foolproof identification system that Dad was always mystified when a family member failed to understand which cow needed to be drafted from the mob. “Sicking Monster”, for example, was obviously the young cow sporting a large irregular C-shaped black blob with another smaller blob near the opening of the C.

The day Dad drew Cameo began with a decree that dutiful daughter should retrieve three cows from the paddock. Following his post-milking nap, Dad was appalled to find only two cows in the yard. “What about Cameo?”

I’d spent a good half an hour trudging around the herd of 200 cows looking for an obvious Cameo and failed. What you see here is the documentary evidence of on-the-job training.

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Secrets of a happy life revealed and it was here on the farm all along

“If your New Year resolution is to be happier, make your priorities fruit, nature, sun and sleep.”

This simple prescription for a happy life stems from Otago University research reported in the NZ Herald this morning.  Sounds a lot like farm life, doesn’t it?

From all of us here on the farm, have a wonderful 2015!

Before we say goodbye to 2014 though, I’d like to pay tribute to our wonderful fellow Landcarer, Margaret Ferguson, who helped us plant trees this summer and tragically lost her life in a farm accident this month. I still can’t believe this magnificent lady is gone but she would be delighted to see how well our trees have already grown.

The trees arrived in September

The trees arrived in September

 

The grass was sprayed to give the plants a head start

The grass was sprayed to give the plants a head start

 

We finished planting in the first week of October

We finished planting in the first week of October

 

Giving the trees a helping hand when it got dry was noisy work

Giving the trees a helping hand when it got dry was noisy work

 

Look how much they've already grown: the same trees on Boxing Day 2014

Look how much they’ve already grown: the same trees on Boxing Day 2014

 

RIP Margaret. We miss you.

RIP Margaret Ferguson: a passionate fellow Landcarer (Photo courtesy of Kaye Proudley)

RIP Margaret Ferguson: a passionate fellow Landcarer (Photo courtesy of Kaye Proudley)

 

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Singing in the rain: a pony introduces herself to the herd

Meet our newest family member, Dixie the divine.

DixieYesterday, the cows were in the house paddock for the first time since Dixie came to live with us and they were intrigued to meet her, lining up by the horse paddock and bobbing their heads in astonishment at the strange “brown cow that whinnies”.

The stars of the show line up to meet the new Queen

The stars of the show line up to meet the new Queen

It was a misty, drizzly morning and while the cows and Dixie were separated by perhaps 50 metres of paddock, the effect was magnetic. Dixie whinnied. The ladies mooed. And so on for a good half hour. Continue reading

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