Thinking about an old greyhound shed in Moss Vale, an hour out of Wollongong, Rev. Richard Milne chuckles as he recalls down the phone line watching 70-odd blokes whittling away the hours.
There’s a group huddled over a woodworking table, another group firing up the kiln to hone their metalwork. Some are doing artwork in a corner, whilst another group is happy to just sit out on the porch, chatting convivially over a smoke and coffee.
“The blokes who don’t want to smoke just sit inside and talk over coffee,” Milne says with a chuckle.
This is the Moss Vale Men’s Shed, where Milne is president. He joined in 2012, seeking more of a social life, and says it has gone from strength to strength.
“We had 30-something members back then, we’ve got about 75 now. Everyone here loves it, feels welcomed and supported. There’s an amazing camaraderie.”
Milne puts on a brave face, but he’s hurting. He has chronic pain, which not only has left him reliant on the help of others but has contributed to his battle with the “black dog”.
“I suffer a degenerative bone disease, an arthritic condition,” he says. “I was put on the pension in 2001. Operations on my lower back and left knee replacement. It’s excruciating pain at times.
“I’m in 24/7 pain, and it wears you down. Dealing with the pain frustrates me and when it gets bad, that’s when I think it’d be easier to just end it all.
“And that’s when my wife goes, ‘you’re talking about it again. Time to go and see the psych’. I’m so lucky to have her, she’s been a trooper. But she cries sometimes because she can see I’m in pain and she can’t help me. And that adds to the depression.”
“But the psych I was seeing moved to Wollongong recently, and it’s not easy to get there. That’s why I’m so thankful for the shed because we all look after each other. We all check in on each other and say ‘how ya goin inside ya head?’ It’s pretty special.”
Milne’s condition requires the constant management of multiple medications, some for the pain, some for the black dog. His is a cautionary tale of what can happen when medication is mismanaged.
“With one particular medication, there was a miscommunication between my GP and my pain specialist and they stopped prescribing it for me. It’s not something you can just stop taking and I had an episode.
“A few days later, I blacked out from the pain. When I came to, I was in tears, I was just howling. I ended up in the hospital and they put me back on the medication.
“It was scary seeing what would happen if I ran out of meds. If I ran out and couldn’t get a refill, it would be like that all over again.
“Now I’ve got them all sitting in a drawer beside the bed and I’ve got MedAdvisor which alerts me when they’re getting low. It gives me peace of mind that I’m never going to be in a situation where I’m left without, I can just order a refill from the chemist or if I’ve run out it lets me know and I can book an appointment ahead of time.”
Milne draws comfort from the fact that he’s not alone when it comes to health struggles. And he says the Men’s Shed has been an empowering thing to be part of.
“I remember I stood up one morning and I said ‘I’ve gotta go, my pain levels increased over winter and I’m getting all these thoughts and I’ve gotta go and see a psych’.
“And one bloke got up and said ‘I’m glad you brought it up, I’m depressed too’. And then another guy got up before I could even get to the door, and then another five blokes got up after I left and shared their stories.
“It’s just amazing. It’s been amazing watching these guys come up to each other and say ‘how are you doing mate, how’s your head’.
“We’ve got guys who’ve been widowed and it’s really affected them, but now they at least have this place they can come to every week and we all look after each other.
“It’s the empathy the men have for each other. There’s no bravado.”