Finding a way back

19:40, Nov 25 2012
Bronwen and Greg Burmester.
Bronwen and Greg Burmester.

Alistair Bone talks to a family of swimmers about what happened when one of them faced a deadly challenge.

Whangamata is soaking in the sun as summer looks like it might turn up at last.

Tradesmen passing Greg and Bronwen Burmester’s hire company wave, looking like no hurry, and a dog is lolling indolent on the forecourt.

The beach a few blocks over is empty and perfect. Ice-cream-capped waves and white sand, the Aldermans sharp on the horizon and a khaki-coloured island moored just offshore.

‘‘It would be on days like this’’, says Bronwen, ‘‘when it was just brilliant and I’d think: I just want to feel good to be alive, but I just can’t.’’

Everyone knew there was something up but no one knew how far her plans had come along. There were two places she had decided she could do it. Sometimes Greg would tell her to go have some time out.


She would turn him down. ‘‘I knew I shouldn’t be on my own, so I would say I didn’t need to, I needed to be around somebody, in case I … yeah.’’

Depression hit her late, in her mid-50s. She wasn’t any kind of likely candidate.

There is a devoted husband, three super-sons, including Commonwealth Games gold medallist and world champ Moss, the business, Whangamata.

There is a history of getting through tragedy – her 20 year old brother was killed in a car crash when she was 22, her dad died of cancer.

‘‘I got over those things. It was part of life,’’ she says.

It began three or four years ago when a shoulder injury stopped her from swimming, around the time the last of the boys left home.

‘‘We are very involved with our kids, so when they left, there was a big empty space. I thought I was prepared for it. I took up more responsibility at work, but I think I just overloaded myself.’’

At first she thought it might be empty nest syndrome, or hormonal, but in the end it was just what it was.

‘‘I don’t know why it came. I’ve stopped asking myself now.’’

She began to withdraw from people.

‘‘I got very tearful and emotional about things. I would be OK while I was dealing with the public, but then

I would go back in the office and cry and cry and cry. I just felt really sad.’’

Sometimes there was no reason she could see and sometimes there was. ‘‘I felt I was a burden on Greg and the family. And that just snowballed into thinking I didn’t want to be a burden to them and it would be better to end my life. I gave that serious thought and planning.’’

Greg says it was obvious that something was wrong, but they were helpless in the face of it.

‘‘You try really hard to make her life better. And there is nothing you can do. You think you’ve got a great relationship … we tried to make Bron’s life happier, easier, we’ve moved towns and businesses. We tried living in a bus for a year. Trying to find a safer place for both of us. And it just doesn’t seem to work.

In Bron’s case she felt inadequate – and that wasn’t the case at all.’’ There was never any chance the pair would separate. Greg was always going to fight. ‘‘You have to give and give up an awful lot of your own life (as a supporter) but it is still worth it’’.

Moss Burmester says the problem deepened for the family because of the type of person Greg is. ‘‘I know Dad is a very hands-on, sees a problem and will try and fix it, kind of person. And I think him seeing this and not being able to fix it, he’s found really hard.’’

Moss suffered from depression after his swimming career ended, but not to the same extent.

‘‘I think everyone at some stage at some level goes through feeling depressed and it just depends how bad it can get.’’

He began talking to people about what was going on in his head and that’s what got him through.

His mum didn’t, keeping the growing thoughts of suicide to herself. ‘‘I knew at times she’d be down’’, says Moss,

‘‘But she kind of hid it from us. I think what happens is you hide it and it compounds. From mum’s point of view I think people looked at her and saw that she had three lovely sons and a good job and a great place. Why would you be depressed? And I think you start questioning yourself and saying well, I shouldn’t be depressed. And that is what you feel embarrassed about’’.

Bronwen had some luck. Son Cole came to visit from overseas and she was hit by the thought it might be the last time she saw him.

Her brother gave her John Kirwan’s book All Blacks don’t Cry and a light went on. ‘‘I identified a lot with the things he was saying.

And I started to think it didn’t really matter that I didn’t know why I was depressed.

My childhood was so happy, I have a happy marriage and wonderful kids and I love living here. But when I read that I realised I didn’t have to know why’’.

She made an appointment to see a doctor.

‘‘I wrote down the suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t talk, so I just handed it to her.

After that we talked about medication and help and she made me promise I wouldn’t take my own life.

My son Cole was here and he made me promise too.

When it’s been sad I’ve thought of those times I shook their hands and promised.’’ She told everyone, including her own mother.

Kirwan’s book talks about physical exercise as a way to fight depression. Bronwen had her shoulders fixed and got back in the water.

‘‘I’ve always been a swimmer. The water to me is healing and it replenishes me. Even before this depression thing, when I was a kid and I felt a bit down, just going in the water was cleansing and gave me vitality.’’

She swims 3 or 4 times a week, even training with a local triathlete in the waves over winter. ‘‘I get buzzy. I can just think about the swimming or the stroke or just looking round in the sea i don’t have to think about the depression’’.

Bronwen will compete in the Auckland Ocean Swim – a harbour crossing on December 2 nd. Moss will take part – using just his feet and no arms – to give ordinary people a chance of catching him. The pair will raise money for the Mental Health Foundation.

Moss, Bronwen and Greg all put communication with a depressed person top of their list of must dos.

No matter how bad you think you are at it.

‘‘Nothing changes’’, says Moss. ‘‘It doesn’t change them at all. All it means to me is that I have to make a bit more contact with them, talk to them and let them know that if they are feeling depressed on the day or having a down time I am there at any stage they need for a chat’’.

Greg says he has never been one much for reading pamphlets and such. He’s learned about depression from watching it nearly kill the most important person in the World.

‘‘The one thing I would tell myself five years ago? I think I would encourage her to get professional help sooner rather than later. Bron and people like Bron have got to realise that people love them and care about them and that they are worth having around’’.

Bronwen says you don’t have to go into detail. ‘‘You can just say I feel really, really bad and I need some help. If you suspect someone is really down or suicidal don’t be afraid to come out and ask them.

I talked about it vaguely to family and friends and I wished they’d said ‘is it more than being down?’ I wish I’d said to them I’m desperately needing help.’’

Things have got better. With medication, counselling, the support of her family and swimming. ‘‘I’m way higher up. I don’t feel suicidal at all now,’’ she says. ‘‘Before I was thinking about it every five minutes and would today be the day. Now I have down days, but I will take an hour to walk on the beach or do a bit of painting. I don’t mind being on my own now. Just having little goals like the swimming, the tap group show on Sunday. Just having fun things to do, building up friendships and also acknowledging it. Not being afraid to say this is how low I got’’.

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