• Dr Nadine Hamilton

So, how's your head?

Reprinted with permission by Stuart Bruère – Wairarapa.

My history of struggles with clinical depression around 20 years ago, are known to many of you. It was a particularly challenging period of my life; brought about by trying to keep too many “balls in the air”. The establishment of a new practice, the financial planning, challenging HR issues and undertaking a heavy professional workload eventually overwhelmed the initial euphoria of “going out on my own”.

So twenty years on what’s changed and what have I learnt. Well I’m obviously 20 years older, the body creaks a bit more, I’ve sold my practice and recently I stepped aside from management and became a “foot soldier” again in a multi-clinic organisation employing in the region of 100 people.

While one wouldn’t “wish” a depressive episode on anyone, in my case it was a period of immense growth. I learnt reflective skills so that I now have the tools at my fingers tips to take much more direct control of my life. I became more courageous to express my thoughts and put my hand up when I needed “space”.

2016 was a challenging farming year on the East Coast of the North Island. In the Wairarapa our customers experienced one of the most savage El Nino weather events in the 35 years I have lived here. Day after day we experienced ambient temperatures over 30 Celsius, watched stock literally “melt” in front of us and on it dragged into the winter with no relief. Capital stock was either sold or farmers decided to try and farm them through the winter using grain, baleage, silage, hay and meagre crops. I couldn’t make it rain but what I could do was “own the moment”.

So now you’re wondering, what is “owning the moment”? I decided I could either succumb to the dooms day conversation about the drought on every farm I went to or I could “set the agenda” in the first few moments when I arrived to do my work. Laughter is a great way to gain attention and at least give some relief to what can be quite challenging moments. Owning the moment doesn’t have to be funny though – it’s simply a way of thinking how you are going to engage the farmer in a positive frame of mind. As I say to my 20 year old daughter – think about how you are going to optimise the moment to gain the outcome you desire.

In 2015, my wife and I went on a road trip through the Kakadu National Park and on down to Uluru. Three weeks in the Australian Outback in the winter. It gets mighty cold at night, so we had to find a couple of beanies in Alice Springs. The best colours had gone so we were left with a hi-viz yellow and a hi-viz orange. They did the trick. But what to do with these two beanies when we returned? I took them to work to wear on cold days. Just the ticket when you need to get a farmer laughing – every rude comment one could imagine, but it got them laughing. The best comment was one farmer in the Tinui district claiming I looked like I had a “F…ing condom on my head”! My happy hats are well known in the district now.

I used them to “own the moment”. But once the laughter subsided, I had the farmer’s attention and it was time to get on and explain such things a grain overload poisoning; most often a symptom of much more fundamental issues, with a feed budget that simply did not work.

I spent time prior to the onset of the drought thinking about how I could simplify the notion that a 60kg ewe needed 1.2kg DM per day as her maintenance diet. A number of farmers can calculate it when they are feeding green grass, but put them into a situation where they require an understanding of feed values when using grain and bought in supplementary feed and they struggle. I simplified it by telling them a big round bale of baleage would feed about 166 ewes per day. Add 300 gm per day per ewe of grain and they will at least maintain their condition. It was also important to get them to understand that ruminants need time to adjust to a new diet, so introduce it gradually over 10 days. There was lots of other supportive information and follow-up that went with this and it was all reinforced by emailing a link to our website to an article on drought feeding sheep. Most farmers did very well once I had got them settled into a routine.

In the direst of circumstances I was able to counsel my customers through a pretty tough farming experience. I took on the mantra – I’ve had a good day at work if no one has abused me and I haven’t been injured.

So why have I told you this story?

Well 20 years ago I had succumbed to a very similar set of circumstances. I did not have the tools to cope with the day to day drudgery of the same problem, different day. My experience with depression forced me to re-evaluate how I organised my life at work and away from work. We simply don’t have the mental capacity to cope with on-going stress without it costing us emotionally, physically, spiritually and socially.

I learnt new skills. Here’s a list and my explanation

1. Let people know how you are feeling. Not every detail, but enough to let them know you are struggling and need a bit of space. Most humans don’t detect our moods terribly well.

2. If a professional job “goes wrong”, sit down and reflect on what caused the problem and change it. Discussing it with an empathetic colleague can be helpful too. A good many years ago I lost a stag following velvetting, due to post capture myopathy. It was quite “gutting” but as I thought it through, I realised the stag had been overtly stressed before I even started the job. My solution was to advise any farmers from then on that when I saw stressed stags prior to velvetting; I would come back a few days later when they had calmed down a bit.

3. Plan and commit to holidays. I now know my holiday plans 6 -12 months in advance. This acts a great “target”. Even when things are a bit rough at work, I can at least focus on the dates I know I will be away on holiday. Anticipation of an enjoyable experience is priceless. How can you anticipate something if you haven’t placed it on your radar?

4. Don’t waste emotional energy on people who are of no emotional consequence to you. In other words – care for your nearest and dearest but beyond that take great care before committing emotional energy on people who may continue to cause you grief. This doesn’t mean you are not empathetic to a customer’s circumstances when things are going wrong but you are not responsible for their mortgage, farm management, poor decision making etc. How often have you been confronted by a customer “complaining” about how expensive it was to get their pet dog’s broken leg plated? My response now is to say “well you could have been spared all that expense if you had purchased pet insurance”.

5. Eat well. Plan to sit down and eat healthy food. Fresh vegetables, fruit etc. Look up recipes for things you might enjoy. So for example, how often have you enjoyed a Thai Green Curry at a restaurant? Google Thai Green Curry and you will find the recipe – give it go yourself. Share the meal with friends – if you are half-pie decent at it you will gain “Jamie Oliver” celebrity status!

6. Exercise at least 4 times per week. My knees are bit “buggered” to jog, but I can ride a mountain bike along the river trails around Masterton. Some vets I know enjoy competitive sports – not my scene though.

7. Think of a creative activity that may engage you in a group of people you wouldn’t normally socialise with. This year I joined an adult choir. It has been a wonderful experience to be part of a group of 70 adults who can literally bring an audience to tears singing Handel’s Messiah. I enjoy writing poetry too.

8. Keep a sense of humour – yes some farmers can be tricky or some farms present the same awful facilities every time you go there. Don’t get stroppy about it; think about how you can make a joke in your head. So for instance, I used to have a dairy client (long since deceased) who had crappy yards, crappy cows, crappy animal health – we’ve all had one or two. In order to maintain my humour, as I left to go to the farm, I would just tell the staff I was off to the “how not to, dairy farm”.

Well there is glimpse into “my head”. I’m glad to have been able to share it with you. It looks pretty good to me. I hope yours looks this way but if it doesn’t, work on it and “own the moment".


If you or anyone you know are struggling, please seek immediate medical care.