Kayla Atkins-Gordine is a familiar face to many of us from BODYPUMP and LES MILLS GRIT Masterclass, as well as many Reebok photoshoots. Here, she shares her very personal story of how mental distress has touched her life.

2017 was the year that changed my life forever.

My Mum rang me saying my brother Kaleb wasn’t doing too well and he had broken up with his girlfriend. I responded, “Yeah but he’s always been like this Mum, and he’s always breaking up with a girlfriend, isn’t he?”

A week later, waiting to have physio, Mum called not once, not twice, but three times. This time it was different. She was frantically upset and asked, “Where are you, are you sitting down, are you driving?” all in one sentence. I snuck outside, my heart sunk and I said ‘Mum… what is going ON?” She said, “It’s Kaleb… he’s gone”.

I didn’t understand and needed her to explain. “What do you mean he’s gone?” I started crying and begging her to say the words that I deep down knew she really meant. She paused and took a deep breath. “Kayla… your brother committed suicide this morning, I am so sorry”.

I just went numb. I fell to my knees, held the phone in my hand and balled my eyes out for a good 15 minutes. I was in complete shock and disbelief.

For someone who has never experienced depression or doesn’t really know what it is, there is a popular misconception that depression is being sad when something in your life goes wrong. When you don’t get the job or opportunity you’d hoped for, when you lose a loved one, or when you experience a divorce or breakup. This is sadness, a true human emotion we can all identify with.

However, real depression can be described as not just being sad when something goes wrong; real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right. This is what my brother suffered from alongside several people I know and love.

I can stand here today and openly say I didn’t have a clue of the severity of my brother’s depression. I was uneducated and unaware of the facts. I lacked the deeper understanding.

In 2017, I stood at my brother’s funeral, he was only 22. I was so confused and couldn’t fathom it not only the thought of him being gone from this life, not just the fact that I would never see his face again, but the reasons why...

Why would he take his own life?

Why would he leave his family and friends here to suffer and grieve?

Why was I so oblivious to the signs of his depression?

And why don’t understand all of this?

SO MANY unanswered questions.

Kaleb Atkins

“Real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right.”

I understand sadness, I know what it’s like to feel genuinely and extremely down, crying in the shower for hours on end and that heavy heart broken state when things are going wrong, but not so much when things are going right.

This led to a strong desire to understand more and create an insight into depression.

In New Zealand, we struggle as people to stand up and openly talk about depression. We don’t see it much on social media, we don’t see it on Facebook highlights, and we certainly don’t see it in the news.

Because it’s not fun, it’s not happy, it’s not light and easy to talk about. And because we don’t see it around us constantly, we don’t see the severity of it.

The severity of it is this: according to the World Health Organization (WHO) approximately one million people take their own lives every year. That’s 3,000 lives each day, and about one death every 30 seconds.

Some people might fear rejection, some people may fear sickness, some people may even fear death. But for many people with depression and other mental distress, they fear themselves. They fear their truth, they fear their honesty and they fear vulnerability. These fears can be pushed into a dark hole with only one way out. My brother used this way out.

I have recently had a psychic reading and actually spoke to my brother… some of you may be thinking OK Kayla is a witch! But no, but seriously, this lady didn’t know me or my story, she described my brother to me, told me stories only him and I knew and said that he regretted what he did.

He said and I have this recording “It’s like a party you are not having a good time at and you want to leave, and I’ve left but I can’t come back”. He said he knew he had potential, but he could never access it because all of the other stuff in his head, the negative thoughts and beliefs that he wasn’t worthy, enough, loved, or cared for.

Kaleb and Kayla Atkins

"We need to speak up and be brave enough to shatter the silence and talk."

Many of my closest friends and family members have spoken to me of these same thoughts of escaping their own dark hole, some for days, some for weeks, and some for good... and that’s depression.

That’s the struggle and that’s the sickness that doesn’t go away.

It’s not chickenpox that you get once in your life that is curable and won’t come back.

Depression is the voice you can’t ignore.

It’s the flatmate you can’t kick out.

The feelings you can’t seem to escape, and it’s there for life.

After a while, these thoughts become normal and the biggest fear is not just the internal suffering, but of the stigma surrounding mental health.

It’s the shame, it’s the embarrassment, it’s the whispers, the disapproving looks, it’s the comments and THIS is what keeps people with depression from speaking up and asking for help.

The stigma in our society is VERY real, and if you don’t think it is let me ask you this….

Would you rather post on your Facebook status or Instagram story that you were having trouble getting out of bed this morning because you had a sore back OR that you were having trouble getting out of bed because you're depressed and you hate yourself? That’s the stigma.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that is SO accepting of literally any other body part breaking down apart from our minds. When we break our leg, everyone is quick to sign our cast or visit the hospital after a major surgery, but when we tell people we are depressed they are quick to judge and turn away. That’s the stigma and that’s the ignorance around this severe mental distress.

I have spent countless nights awake thinking of the solution to this, researching, listening to stories, podcasts, reading books, meeting with people, you name it. The truth is I don’t know what the solution is but man, I wish I did.

I believe, I truly believe it has to start with me and you, it has to start with our friends, our Whanau, our Tamariki, our loved ones who are suffering. The people in our lives who we know are hiding in that darkness, on the edge of taking the way out. Being aware and open to the signs is key and something I wish I knew when my brother was here.

We need to speak up and be brave enough to shatter the silence and talk. Because if there is one thing I have come to realise, is that rather than creating a society and community where we remain ignorant of others’ suffering, we need to help others and foster a culture of love and acceptance.

Kaleb Atkins

"It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to feel lost, feel down and confused."

Creating acceptance to be okay with what we see in the mirror and what we see in our own eyes. Because, when we dig deep and are honest with ourselves, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we realise we are all suffering in a different way, shape or form.

We all know what it’s like to hurt, to have pain in our hearts and we all know how important it is to heal our bodies when they are broken. The same importance needs to be placed on healing our minds.

Let’s stop putting an invisible plaster on depression, let’s start to see it as a serious wound in our bodies or a life-threatening illness.

If we can say the words, “depression is OK", then maybe we can start to see depression as an illness and NOT as an identity.

It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to feel lost, feel down and confused. We are not meant to be prepared for the hard times, the dark days and challenges. They come in waves. Remember nothing is permanent, we are only a reflection of our experiences and how we have overcome everything that has happened FOR us.

My brother has forced me to face my own demons and be brutally honest with myself in living my truth and accepting who I am, I encourage you to do the same, no matter what your life has thrown at you this far.

He has been my biggest teacher of hope, patience and trust.

Hope that I can help create a positive influence and purpose in the people around me to feel valued and worthy.

Patience that good things are on the way because no time, good or bad, lasts forever.

Not so much living for the good but getting through the bad and growing from lessons, overcoming challenges and appreciating moments and people.

And lastly, trust in a higher power and in ourselves that we are on the right path here and now.

All of this has shown me the true meaning of life. And for that I’m grateful.

By talking, breaking the silence, and ripping the plasters off to work through depression together, we can create hope and light in people’s lives, start to live beyond society’s stigma and overcome adversities, not avoid them.

Pain and death are our biggest and most powerful teachers of gratitude and love. To have gratitude every single day for the blessings we take for granted and all the little things we seem to overlook living our busy lives is one of the best ways to create acceptance and happiness. Because no one but you is in control of how you feel. Your happiness is your responsibility.

The more you love, the more you will hurt but it’s better to have loved and have lost than to never have loved at all.

You are important.

You are worthy.

You are valued.

You are loved.

You are enough.

No Reira,

Tena koutou katoa

Kayla xx

A day I will never forget… 21.03.2017 when you left us.

Kayla Atkins-Gordine is a BODYPUMP Instructor/Presenter, a LES MILLS GRIT Coach/Presenter and a BODYBALANCE/ BODYFLOW and LES MILLS SPRINT Instructor. She is based in Auckland and is also a personal trainer and singer.