Charity Begins At Home, So Fit Your Own Oxygen Mask First: Steven Oliver


It’s a good thing to ask someone if they’re okay. It’s a great thing to check in on yourself sometimes too, writes Steven Oliver.

My name is Steven Oliver, a statement which usually brings about five reactions: Omg I love him, he looks kinda familiar, isn’t he that Aboriginal, never heard of him and can’t stand that ‘insert disapproving swear word or title here’.

Most people though will refer to me as a comedian or stand up. I tend to think of myself more as an idiot and as for being a stand up, I’m a writer/actor which I technically think makes me more of lay down.

This isn’t about what I do though, it’s about three simple words, are you okay? Three simple words that I initially thought were “Are you a gay?”

I wish that were a true story but I obviously can’t stop being an idiot and popping out the bad jokes. In all seriousness though, thinking up such woeful jokes (aka, renamed ‘RUOK?’ Mardi Gras float) did make me wonder; how would my life be had I sooner talked about things that weighed heavily upon my mind? If society had taught me to not feel ashamed or weak when I was still learning who Steven Oliver was, would I be different in any way?

To be truthful, I’m still learning who Steven Oliver is and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to find out in the sense that I’m always changing, evolving. Sometimes backwards but for the most part I hope forward. I think I am, but sometimes I think too much.

See I woke up the other day and my first thought was ‘Why have I got so much on my mind?’ My second thought was ‘Why couldn’t I have less on my mind?’ My third ‘Can I have less on my mind? Are there unnecessary things I’m polluting my head with that in truth I don’t need to think about?’

I stopped thinking about that though because as per usual, I got distracted by everything I had going on.

Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.
Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.

See, on top of working nine to five, I was trying to organise my attendance at a workshop in Sydney on a Wednesday and Thursday, before flying to Canberra that Thursday night to speak Friday morning before heading back to Brisbane that Friday night. The following Saturday morning I would fly to Melbourne to perform on the following Sunday night before flying to Sydney the following Monday morning.

Once I had filmed the ad in Sydney, I would fly back to Brisbane ready to start at nine am the following day.

Honestly, the next time someone tells me Aboriginal people don’t do anything and get stuff for free, I’m going to give them a free slap to the forehead (when I can fit it in my schedule). Anyway, back to being busy.

While I realise some people thrive on that type of pressure, I am not one of them so, I cracked. I wish I could blame being dramatic on being a gay actor but the truth is, I just like life at a slower pace. Stop and smell the roses, that kind of cliché. A cliché that now has me thinking, “I’m a writer who should think of something better to say” but then I remember I’m also a lay down so, meh.

Anyway, I’m digressing. I’m sure you’ve got the point, I like to smell the roses. I even made a promise to myself some time ago. A promise I believed wouldn’t be hard to keep. I would never be too busy for family and friends. Unfortunately, it seems I’ve forgotten that promise. Inadvertently, I’ve also somewhat forgotten the person who made that promise. Now I was consumed by trying to do and be all these things. I no longer called people to see what was going on, how they were or if they were okay.

Nowadays, I glance at a Facebook page. Lives are being told through a status that doesn’t carry the weight of what they’re actually saying. Would they say to a person’s face the same thing they say on Facebook? I doubt it. I say this as a culprit and serial offender – we write our statuses as public announcements, we seek attention and show our disapproval when wanting to beat our chests about matters but, rarely do we use it to unload the heaviest of burdens we carry behind the screens.

That being said, I slightly admire those who don’t hold back. Who say everything they’re feeling in such honest terms. Whose creative use of profanity should not be dismissed so quickly but embraced as if you’ve discovered a new language that has never been heard before.


I admit it comes into conflict with my belief ‘there’s a time and place’, however, seeing people talk about feeling like shit while they’re actually feeling like shit is kind of appealing. Usually it’s a one-sided conversation though, meaning shit doesn’t get sorted. Your shit becomes shit to talk about and you defiantly say you don’t give a shit while feeling shitty because of all the other shit you have going on in this shitty world that just keeps shitting on you (now that was some creative shit right there).

Anyway (digressing), in amongst trying to organise flights that I swear would’ve made me a platinum member in a week, I remembered an earlier thought, I wish I had less on my mind. And out of pure need, I got up and walked out of my office.

Deciding that instead of the usual routine of lunch, thinking about what I had to do and then going back to do it, I was just going to walk.

I used to love walking. Walking was a way of discovering things. Discovering places, views and little nooks. It was time to myself. I needed this particular walk because it wasn’t just about getting my head to quieten but to remember something about me that I loved. I’m glad I did.

During that walk I discovered Whynot St, hanging from the street sign was a letter Y that some genius had decided to put there. I giggled and had this awesome moment of not being serious. Might sound strange coming from someone who’s known as a comedian but when comedy rotates around deadlines and entertaining then it becomes a job. The best laughter is the unplanned kind, so it was nice to giggle unexpectedly.

Inevitably I started thinking of work again. I thought of my role as an RUOK? ambassador and I saw the irony. I was feeling far from okay, I was feeling consumed. And for me, being an ambassador isn’t about declaring my life is fabulous and awesome and occasionally having times when I feel down. It’s about going, I’m human.

I bleed, I cry, I get hurt, I feel hated just as much as I feel loved. The final thought making me ask myself, “Are you okay Steven Oliver?” I started thinking again, “Am I okay? I think I’m okay? I mean I have a job, roof over my head”. But then I noticed that asking myself as opposed to speaking to myself brought about very different reactions. Then I asked, “Are you Steven Oliver, okay?”

I felt like I’d been hit in the chest, my head hurt and my eyes welled and I wanted to break down. I probably would’ve if it hadn’t been for the sexy tradies parked nearby. I didn’t want them seeing my crying face.

Now I wish I cried up because they might’ve taken pity on me and hugged me up. Instead, I walked past making sure they wouldn’t see my teary eyes. Even when I imagined them asking if I was okay to which I’d react by sobbing and collapsing into both their arms. Making sure neither felt left out when consoling me (even in my misery I’m considerate).

Instead, I took the less dramatic option and quietly made my way past before I found myself on the banks of the Brisbane River. Again, I started to think. Not about times and calendars, not about flights and meetings, not even about sexy nearby tradies.

(IMAGE: Andrii Slonchak, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Andrii Slonchak, Flickr)

I thought about the world we’re living in. That I can’t be alone in thinking we need to find another way. That there are so many of us who are trying to keep our heads above the water that we’ve forgotten what we should be doing is making our way back to shore. How everyone’s weary from constantly treading life’s waters. That so many of us are needing help but we don’t grab the person closest for fear we’ll take them down with us. That everything’s happening so fast because the world demands it, pushing us forward as quick as we can.

But, should we become lost along the way and unable to retrace our steps, what then?

I sat on the riverbank not caring about time or whether my lunch break was over. I was thinking about what mattered, me. That sometime soon I’ll have to stop neglecting myself and neglecting others. Besides, what right have I got asking if others are okay when I’m not?

When I connected to myself that day, I listened to the water lap the shore, I felt the breeze upon my face, I heard the tradies sexy voices and wished I was even more connected with them, like proper connected, like all out proper connection way like a big black block of Lego, then I laughed at myself when remembering how much of a big, black (biggest mob sexy) idiot I am.

I needed that connection. I need it again, just as I’ll need it in the future. It’s important I do.

So, when you get the chance and have some time, when you are not consumed by media/social media/politicians telling you what to fear, when you’re not stressing about what bills need to be paid, what deadline you have or what appointment you’re meant to be at, just take (or even make) a moment.

Ask “are you ‘insert name’ okay?” You may not get a simple answer but that’s okay, we’re not simplistic beings.

There are others who will have answers should you feel overwhelmed but I mostly believe that the answers are within. We just need to have an honest conversation with ourselves. You might think it strange or you may find you’re glad to have done it. I like to think of it as the safety demonstration before take-off, where you put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others.

Happiness glows brighter when it starts within and with every happy individual, surely it could only result in a happier world and that, well that would be more than okay. Makes me happy just thinking about it.

Within my chaos, I found my clarity
And in my likeness, did learn disparity
In abundant waste did I seek my need
For only when caged did I understand free.

Steven Oliver is a renowned Aboriginal writer and performer. He's based in Queensland.