R U OK? My name is Matt Barwick and I idolised and loved my brother Steve. He was my hero.

September 13, 2012

R U OK Day ?  Today is R U OK Day, aimed at suicide prevention

Author of Life in Limbo, My battle with depression, infertility and mental illness shares his poignant thoughts and feelings on the tragic loss of his brother to suicide, resulting from depression.

My name is Matt Barwick and I idolised and loved my brother Steve. He was my hero.

When Steve committed suicide I felt angry and confused. Angry at Steve for killing himself; confused by how things could ever become that bad that committing suicide became the only option? Steve had everything to live for: his beautiful wife Nicole, a lovely home, an excellent job, countless friends and family that adored him. I became preoccupied with these thoughts of confusion and anger, revisiting them over and over without resolution …

During the days that followed Steve’s suicide I sought to find answers to the many questions that still plagued me-all the whys and hows that surround a tragedy such as this. Upon speaking at length with Nicole, my mum and dad, the full story unravelled. They knew much more than I did, as it turned out. These conversations were some of the most intense and emotional of my life, particularly discovering that Steve had been suffering from depression on and off for several years. Nicole, Steve’s wife, and my mum and dad knew this, but it was something which he had knowingly kept from me because like many men, we both saw depression as a sign of weakness-so he was too proud to let me know. I was shocked to learn of his mental health issues and couldn’t fathom how I hadn’t noticed any symptoms, given how often we got together and the strength of our relationship. But as Nicole, and my mum and dad explained, his periods of depression had never been particularly prolonged, hence his ability to be able to hide his illness from many friends and family-myself included. At worst he only ever missed a week or so from work which he could easily conceal under the guise of a bad flu. So I learned that he had been depressed before and had gotten better-but not this time.

On the day of his death, he was home alone battling with a sustained period of depression, was drinking alcohol and took his own life. He left no note explaining why, unlike many depression sufferers who attempt suicide. A detail I later found out when trying to learn more about what Steve must have been going through. But in many ways, despite Steve not having left a note, we weren’t left wondering-it was clear the insidious illness of depression had taken his life.

Technology also allowed us to obtain photos of Steve from all corners of the globe, which we were going to use in a video presentation at the funeral, accompanied by some of Steve’s favourite music. Other elements of funeral coordination were considerably more excruciating, particularly being asked to choose the coffin in which your dead brother must rest. Nothing can prepare you for such calamitous events-they are surreal-unimaginable. You grit your teeth, fight back tears and do what has to be done to ensure a fitting send-off for your beloved.

The task of writing the eulogy weighed heavily upon me. The magnitude of this duty was overwhelming: to speak openly about depression being a deadly illness and suicide an all too common conclusion. I knew I had so many vital things to say but doubted I could find my voice to articulate them-I feared I would be overcome with emotion. But I began to write nonetheless.

The words below are condensed from Matts Eulogy for his brother Steve.

My name is Matt Barwick and I idolised and loved my brother Steve. He was my hero.

If the events over the last few days have taught me anything, it is the importance of open and honest communication between friends and loved ones. So given this opportunity I feel I should speak the truth, and in light of this I have a confession: I have battled with a terrible affliction from the day I was born, ‘Little

Brother Syndrome’. Its symptoms can be publicly embarrassing for the individual concerned: an overwhelming desire to constantly copy big brother’s entire being-his actions, speech, taste, opinion, demeanour and appearance.

In hindsight, I may have always suspected Steve would eventually be struck down by this terrible affliction- that his happiness, that dominated his life, whilst in abundant supply at times, was precious and volatile and could be sucked from him at a moment’s notice.

Sadly the specific details regarding Steve’s suffering from depression were never fully articulated to me until now. Steve and I had a tradition that was unspoken-like much of the foundations of our strong and loving relationship-which was to always get together when our teams played. This was easy at first, but became near impossible to uphold as we matured and all of the unnecessary baggage of modern life weighed on us both. Regardless, there would only be a handful of games that we ever missed each others’ presence.

Thankfully though, this year in early August (2008) we both followed our unspoken tradition of watching the game together. Our preference was always to watch the game at either of our houses. But on this day an alternative venue was necessary because the game was not televised on free-to-air because neither of our teams was doing all that well (the Dons 12th on the ladder and the Dees languishing in last place). To set the scene Steve and I walked into a completely empty club. But there was a massive plasma with prime epicentre seating. Great.

Quietly Steve and I were having a ball. Stakes were as high as the 2000 GF. Every game was, because of what the winner would get. Beer? No chance. Bragging rights! The greatest brotherly currency and something that couldn’t be spent or consumed and held all its value until the next epic encounter.

At half-time the game was still in the balance. And we discussed in great detail and delight how the second half might play out. Steve was lording it over me with his beloved team’s effort-I, on the other hand, was desperately trying to seek solace from the smallest sign of improvement from my boys…

Then the strangest thing happened, in hindsight. When the football talking subsided I felt an uncomfortable silence-something which normally never happened. This would have been the perfect opportunity for open and honest communication between brothers, about any and all topics including depression. Had we been sisters the chances of such an exchange would have been highly probable. But many men, and young Australian males in particular, find it near impossible to discuss such topics. We often discussed other important topics in detail but rarely those relating to one’s health. And mental wellbeing was somewhat of a taboo topic given the stigma and our Barwick family history of tackling depression.

So I am left with this encounter as one of my personal ‘What if’ Steve scenarios that I have been playing since last week over and over in my head. Many of us will have these. But rest assured Steve was surrounded by family and friends that loved and cared for him, many of whom are here to pay their respects today. Furthermore, I’m adamant no one in particular is to blame for these terrible circumstances given what I now know about depression. Instead all of us and yet none of us are to blame. Better communication by all of us would certainly have helped but communication is only part of the puzzle. Hopefully if we all support organisations like ‘beyondblue’ we can better understand this illness-I myself will forever be a supporter of ‘beyondblue’.

So I see this eulogy to Steve as a unique opportunity to present a call to arms … Let us unite as one and commit to the cause. Not just by monetary donation, but by breaking free of modern society’s leaning towards silence rather than frank and fearless communication between family and friends. And when confronted with uncomfortable silence don’t let it linger. Tackle it head on. No regrets, no potential future ‘What if’ anguish. The latter, I know, is an arduous request but you have a secret weapon. Just conjure up the spirit of quintessential ‘Steve Barwick Style’. And be always playful, and at times inappropriate.

Because, as I always stress to my colleagues at work, mistakes are inevitable, no dramas-we are not working in a hospital-no-one is dying here! However, what I have never been able to tolerate, for as long as I can remember, is not learning from one’s mistakes but instead wherever possible ensuring they never happen again. That is all I am really asking of you all today

R U OK Day ? How a conversation could save a life.Take the time to ask others R U OK? today.

The whole point of R U OK Day is to impart important but simple messages; such as ‘a conversation can save a life’; or ‘in the time it takes to have a coffee you can change a life’. The day is supposed to be a fun day, not a reflection on suicide, but one to engage everybody to ask “RU OK?, Is there anything I can do to help you?” “Do you want to have a chat?” R U OK? Day does not provide crisis support. If you need immediate help, call 1800 RUOKDAY (1800 7865 329 to connect with 5 Australian support lines.

Life in Limbo- is $29.99 and available in paperback from bookstores or online; or Ebook from Amazon or Ibooksbooks can be. Two thirds of the royalties from the book will go towards Beyond Blue; and Sids for Kids;

Read sample chapters here

Visit Matt on his Facebook page here 

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