In August 2016, Kirra McDonald lost her partner Justin Jelenkovic after a long battle with Bipolar Disorder. Justin, or JJ as he was affectionately known, was an incredibly popular member of the Brisbane racing scene. A father to two beautiful girls, with a successful career, and an immense physical talent. JJ seemingly had it all. But in his eyes, he didn’t. In fact, the reality for him and those close to him was completely different.
Kirra's interview is a first in a series that aims to uncover the personal stories of Men’s Mental Illness. These people we have ridden with and laughed with, but for one reason or another, are suffering in darkness. This series, and The Man Ride, is about helping people realise they are not alone.
John Polson: Kirra, it’s been a year since we last sat down. A discussion that possibly changed my life forever. How are you going – 12 months further along?
Kirra McDonald: I am doing pretty good. It’s also just over one year since Justin took his own life. In that one year, so much has happened – physically, emotionally, mentally. It’s basically been a year of trying to rebuild life after Justin.
JP: So what does rebuilding look like?
KM: You don't know. Each day is something different. At first, I went back to work really, really quickly. I went back within two weeks of him passing away. You're existing, but you're not present. So you pretty much go through the motions every day.
"And then you remember that he's not going to come through the gate."
Early on it was just a matter of getting up, brushing your teeth, brushing your hair, getting dressed, go to work. And then you come home and then you go to bed. There'll be a noise outside and you'll think: 'Oh, he's on his way home. That must be him coming through the gate'. And then you remember that he's not going to come through the gate.
JP: And does that get better? Not that you forget about it, but are there days where you are not able to think about it?
"It doesn't get better. It gets different."
KM: It doesn't get better. It gets different. Even the notion of one day having a partner. It’s taken me this long to come to terms with the fact that's permitted for me. Even yesterday I was sitting there thinking about coming in here (Black Sheep) today and thinking, 'You know, he would really love doing a ride like this (The Man Ride)'. He would actually be pretty stoked. He'd get out there and he would wanna get involved with everyone.
JP: I’m sure he would.
KM: And then the reality sets in. That won’t happen. So your mindset has to change. It's about allowing yourself to remember, but to try to remove the emotion that comes with that. It's a different way of thinking now.
"If the girls liked you, that was it."
JP: I never had the pleasure to meet Justin. Can you tell me what type of person he was?
KM: JJ was really warm. I am an introvert, and he was the perfect complement to that. When we first met, I ended up being 40 minutes late for work because we chatted for so long. I had never done that. It was just easy.
JJ has two daughters. And for him, whoever he intended on meeting next in his life, he had to pass it with the girls, and that didn’t bother me at all.
JP: What was that like for you, being the pseudo-mum to JJ’s kids?
KM: From my perspective, when we decided to move in and share our lives together, the girls were always going to be number one. From the very first moment I met them, you could tell that his world was with two little girls in the middle, and I am a person who was lucky enough to be a part of their life when they were in our home and when they were in our care.
One of the first times we were able to hangout was at the dog park. He invited himself because he knew I was going down there with Charlie, my Moodle. Not only did he bring down Roy, his Rhodesian Ridgeback, but also his two girls. And that was the test: "If the girls liked you, that was it," he said.
JP: There were two other really important people in JJ’s life. Can you tell me a bit about them and how they helped JJ through some of his personal struggles and, ultimately, in his battle with Bipolar Disorder?
KM: He was lucky. He had a lot of friends, but there was always Adam and Josh, his two main cycling friends, that were the big constants in his life. They would often ride together and have these moments of quietness where they would just talk about what was bothering one another.
"Whilst Adam would be getting his fitness up, JJ was getting his demons out."
Inevitably, all three of them would end up on Mount Cootha (a local Brisbane climb, 10 kilometers from the city). JJ was a very gifted rider, and Adam was just starting. JJ would often teach Adam about patience, about not going hard straight away. During many of these rides up Cootha, Adam would be struggling to breathe, and JJ would be sitting there just talking. Whilst Adam would be getting his fitness up, JJ was getting his demons out.
Adam, I believe, did know about JJ's mental health issues. Not many people actually did. He was open about his depression, but he wasn't open about his diagnosis. He probably feared being judged like everyone else who has a mental health diagnosis. He probably thought it would limit him. And in the end, he thought it would limit him if he wanted to see his girls more. He was scared that that was going to be held against him.
"They can find themselves in a depression, or they can find themselves in hypermania."
JP: How would you describe a day in the life with a person suffering from bipolar disorder?
KM: It depends. It can change. Obviously, with bipolar, we're looking at someone who goes through an array of emotions. They can find themselves in a depression, or they can find themselves in hypermania. And I think sometimes people could have confused Justin's elevated mood for a very excitable, happy-go-lucky kind of person. He was that, but when you get him hyper-elevated, he was hard to keep up with and we had to come up with ways to help him cope with that. So you would give him space to allow him to let it out. But I found that there were times when you had to help him reign it in – he would just exhaust himself.
JP: Did these hyper-manic states help JJ in his job?
KM: Helped, but also hindered. JJ worked in IT and was extremely good at his job. He was extremely intelligent. There weren’t many problems at work that he didn't seem to be able to come up with a solution for. And a lot of the guys there relied on him a lot. I often looked at this incredibly smart human, who always had the right answers. For him, it could be exhausting. Not because he knew he was smart, but because he just kept going.
JP: What did it look like when he was in his low periods? Was it the absolute opposite of these manic periods?
KM: I remember one day at home. When we woke up I looked over at him and just thought, 'you look really different'. He said: “I just can’t go today. I just can’t face the day.”
"He definitely had insight that something was not quite right and a desire to get better."
JP: And was JJ accepting of his diagnosis?
KM: Yeah, he definitely was. I remember this one day before we even got out of bed, I said to him, "Okay. We can't do this on our own. Let's get some help. I don’t care what it takes, let’s find someone.” We contacted a psychiatrist but he didn't have an appointment that day. So I said to him, "You're not staying home by yourself. When I go to work, I want you to send me a message within half an hour of me leaving the house telling me that you're out the front door and you're walking." Walking for him was really helpful. Getting him out of that confined space and getting him air.
And so he walked, he stopped at a couple of points and took photos. He'd even found an app as he was walking along, called the Headspace app by Beyondblue. It’s all about mindfulness and the power of meditation. He started using it on that walk and was amazed at the positive effect it had. So yeah, he definitely had insight that something was not quite right and a desire to get better.
JP: Suicide is something the media don't actively talk about. From a person that has gone through it, why is this?
KM: They're scared of it.
JP: So why is it something that we can't talk about? Is it something that we should be talking about, first and foremost, from someone that has actually lived through it?
"Fuck this, I don't want to do it anymore"
KM: Yes. How many more of these men have had that thought of, 'Fuck this, I don't want to do it anymore?' I know of quite a few who have entertained the thought of how easy would it be just to go and not be a burden, because that's how they feel. It's a burden on them and they feel that they're a burden on everyone else.
I am a massive NRL fan, and the rates of mental illness within the league are extraordinary. This is no different to other professional sports, and other professions, where you have high achieving men seemingly disgraced with themselves and at a complete loss with the direction in their lives. I don't want to scare them, but they need to know that it doesn't have to be that way. Justin felt he had no reason to go forward in life. But in reality, he had two beautiful girls, was an extremely talented cyclist, and had a great career.
"Don't look at a person and think that because they're five foot ten and 95 kilograms they're bullet-proof. Nothing about us is forever."
So do I think we should talk about it? Yes. Do I want people to be scared by it? No. I ultimately don’t want another person, another family, or a group of friends to go through this. I came to the realisation that I want people to know that it's not a taboo topic. Talk about it. Don't hide it. If you are the other person listening, take the judgement out of it. Be mindful of the fact that we're all human. Don't look at a person and think that because they're five foot ten and 95 kilograms they're bullet-proof. Nothing about us is forever.
JP: Going through everything that you have over the last year, what does life look like for you now? Is it getting any easier?
KM: I hope so. I think so. I have nightmares of the day, and they're very vivid. I'd like them to go away, and they sort of peak and trough. Some of them are harmless where I'd be walking down the street and I could see him. That he was just up the road, and I'd be yelling at him to wait, and I'd get to where he was and I couldn't find him. And then there's the other dreams of getting home, the dream of finding him and yelling out to someone to help and nobody coming.
"Slowly, I made comments about him, not about how he passed away, because that can't define him, but more on the memories I have of him."
JP: And how has the cycling community here (Brisbane) helped you to deal with all of this?
KM: If I don't ride, then there's a two-fold effect. You get unfit, which no one ever really wants. Then you isolate yourself, and I did a really good job of that. I had taken myself away because I thought no one would want to sit through this. Slowly, I made comments about him, not about how he passed away, because that can't define him, but more on the memories I have of him.
"It's still a part of my life potentially, to meet someone and to have a family, which is what I've always wanted."
JP: What about meeting someone new? Is that something you think about?
KM: I haven't really spoken about it. If someone said 6 months ago that I should try and meet someone, I would have felt like I was cheating on him. I think everyone who goes through something like this will have a different take on it. For me, to realise that, yup, that's still a part of my life potentially, to meet someone and to have a family, which is what I've always wanted.
JP: I think you don't need me to tell you that you deserve it. What you said before that JJ would be the first person to come and do a ride like this, he'd be the first person that would probably encourage you to do so.
Kirra, thank you so much. You are amazing, in every sense of the word.
On October 1, nine locations around the world will come together to raise awareness for Men’s Mental Illness by doing something crazy on a bike. The inaugural The Man Ride Day is a 200-kilometre ride, for men and women, designed to push you to the extreme, physically and mentally. We don’t want your donation, just you and your bike.