Passionate mental health advocate, Nic, shares the way his Mum's challenges with her mental health, and the loss of his friend Tamar to suicide, has driven his purpose to support others in sharing their stories and sustainably support themselves. 

As a toddler, I have memories of laughing and playing with my older brother… but I also have faint memories of yelling and fighting between my parents. The eventual divorce of mum and dad broke our family home open, and although I didn’t understand what was happening, it was a big and confusing change and I’m told I cried a lot.

From there, I lived with my mum and brother, and as far back as I can remember, I was bouncing a tennis ball, dribbling a soccer ball, or kicking a footy against walls, much to mum’s dismay. I just had this pure connection with and unconditional love of sport.

I was a small kid compared to my peers — both in height and self-belief. I’d panic in a nervous sweat around people at school, but sport was a protective mask I used to cover up different anxieties and insecurities about myself. I don’t remember exactly how I felt then, but looking back, I think I felt kind of different to everyone else, so it’s almost like sport helped me feel more accepted and included.

"Talking about sport helped me form close bonds with mates, playing sport gave me a bit of self-confidence in my body and watching sport was an escape from any issues at home or at school. Sport was the most exhilarating thing I could sink my teeth into, and as my parents had divorced, sport was like an extra parental figure holding my hand through it all."

Mum was always an incredible mother, and as a self-proclaimed mumma’s boy, I was very dependent on her. As a child and pre-teen, I didn’t have any real insight into what was happening in mum’s world, but as a teenager, I started to become a little bit more aware. I noticed mum was very up and down with her mood and our home environment tended to match her unpredictability. Even though mum and I were super close, and I could feel when things were a bit off, I felt helpless as I didn’t yet have the maturity or insight on what to do or how to support her.

It was only as an adult that I learned mum had struggled with post-natal depression, bouts of anxiety, undiagnosed attention deficit disorder, substance use… and suicidal thoughts. I've heard it said that life gives us feathers, bricks, and trucks, and in hindsight, mum’s battles through my childhood were like feathers tickling this subtle curiosity in me about how to help people.

As I progressed into my late teens and early twenties, I had opportunities to travel overseas, and I got to feel how sport can be a universal language that breaks down barriers. Sport helped me connect with people, no matter where we were from, the language we spoke or the differences in our backgrounds. My social circles were also changing, and during this time I discover a new friend. I feel like it’s almost as though the universe knew I was ready to deal with the roller-coaster relationship it would become.

Tamar and I instantly hit it off and it was… Friend-zone love at first sight. We became inseparable mates, which was different for me considering she was a girl and I only really hung out with my male mates. She was almost like a pseudo sister and girlfriend in one and we had lots of deep and philosophical conversations. I came to learn that all wasn’t rosy for my dear friend though, as Tamar was distressed psychologically and experienced complex mental health issues. Now, if mum’s battles were a feather tickling my curiosity about helping people... then Tamar’s was like a brick knocking me over the head to get my attention and learn about mental health.

At this time, I had to think about my next big steps too, and as sport was woven into every aspect of my life, I just couldn’t imagine trying to study or work in any other field. So, the university degree I did was in sports management, and straight after graduating, I stumbled my way into a role with a sports gambling company. Although I had dreamed of being a professional sportsman, a sports journalist, or a suave player agent in my youth, at the time, I remember feeling this career path was awesome as I got paid to watch heaps of sports. However, over time, my relationship to this work became strained.

During this period, I was worried about Tamar. Seeing her struggles was really confronting because I cared about her, and I just wanted her to be ok. It's like we were standing at the bottom of a big mountain, but we had no gear and no idea how to actually climb it. Things were definitely scary, but I'm very grateful for the times Tamar would let me in to support her, and I’m fortunate that Tamar’s family, mutual friends and healthcare professionals meant I wasn’t alone in offering her that support. Through this process, I really came to learn how important it is for carers and support people of someone with mental ill-health to have their own carers and support networks to look out for them too.

Then COVID-19 and lockdowns happened, and overnight, it felt like my life, my routines, my support networks, and my main outlet of playing team sports evaporated into thin air. Sport shutting down also meant my work shut down, and that led me to a state of introspection as I started to truly question my career path. I recognised my once unconditional love of sport had flipped on its head and was now a very conditional one. I was also aware of this guilt and shame I carried about the industry I worked in, and I felt embarrassed to talk about my work. In fact, whenever someone asked about my work, I’d change the topic as that panic in a nervous sweat I used to get in school started to creep back in…

As my support networks started to dwindle during the lockdown period, the same was true for Tamar. This left her vulnerable as she was more disconnected from many of the people and services that helped her stay afloat with her mental health… And I was then devastated to find out that during this period of disconnection… Tamar took her own life.

After I lost Tamar, it was just… Really messy and all over the place for me. I couldn’t make sense of things, and at one point I actually tried to Google the 5 stages of grief. Grief is a very individual experience though, and mine didn’t feel so textbook. In the early days, I was a crushing and overwhelming mix of devastation, numbness, anger, guilt and regret as I asked myself ‘how could this have happened’... ‘what could we have done’... and ‘why Tamar’...?

"For me, what had once felt like a brick knocking me over the head about mental health, now felt like a truck had crashed right into me. Although it nearly broke me, it’s also the key moment where something clicked. I knew I needed to do something to support people with their mental health and to continue Tamar’s story and legacy."

Through my experience of mum’s battles, my biggest learning from my childhood, and from mum herself, was to allow my emotions to freely pour out of me. Now, this process wasn’t a smooth or easy one, but the invaluable support of my amazing partner, mum, family and close friends guided me through it. I was also lucky to be connected to a community group where we shared about different issues in our lives, and this helped me realise and accept that I had to let go of what I couldn’t control, and that I couldn't answer all those initial questions I had. It’s almost like my support network gave me hiking sticks to climb my own mountain of grief… Just like the mountain Tamar and I had once faced together.

This community group served an extra purpose for me as I got to facilitate our sharing circles events. It was here that I developed my passion for community building, which provided me with a roadmap for the type of impact I wanted my future work to revolve around. Now, for better or worse, one of my coping mechanisms after losing Tamar was to dive headfirst into the mental health world. Losing Tamar had lit this huge fuse under me as I yearned for answers and desperately wanted to find purpose in my work.

The first huge moment for me was sharing my story which was a very cathartic process and let to me become a lived and living experience speaker. From there, I became a Mental Health First Aid Australia instructor, and I then felt like my professional world opened as I secured different roles across preventative mental-ill health, suicide prevention, youth empowerment and corporate wellbeing. I then felt confident to leave my full-time job in sports gambling, and there was an added bonus… For the first time since my teenage years, I got to reclaim my unconditional love of sport.

So, Tamar has gifted me with my ‘why’ as my mission is helping people share their stories, care for others, and sustainably support themselves. Through my experiences, I’ve learned that great meaning can come from the greatest of losses, and I know for certain I couldn’t be the person I am today without all the support I’ve been gifted.

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