A dialogue for healing
In his one-man play, Rob Mokaraka starts a conversation about depression and shares his tools for getting through the dark times. Actor and director Rob Mokaraka knows a lot about depression. It’s a heavy subject that many people would rather avoid, but not Rob.
He recently returned to Te Oro in Glen Innes for a second season of his one-man play Shot Bro. In the show, he tackles his own depression and suicide attempts head on.
Rob lived with undiagnosed depression for many years. “I didn’t know why I had suicidal thoughts. Now I know it’s because of things I suffered in my childhood, he says.
He first tried to take his own life at age 21. Then again thirteen years later when he was 34. This time, he purposefully put himself in the line of fire.
During a particularly bad breakdown, Rob rang 111 and told them an armed man had broken into his home. He gave them a description of himself, grabbed a meat cleaver and wrapped a soup ladle in a tea towel, and waited.
He had no intention of being violent, he just wanted to be shot. Police swarmed the property and after ignoring their instructions to remain where he was, Rob took a bullet to the chest.
He was lucky to survive. Once he recovered, he pleaded guilty to charges brought against him and was sentenced to 400 hours community service.
The experience had a profound impact on him. “I look back at that time as, here’s a guy with undiagnosed depression and unresolved trauma who was walking around being triggered most days. “He had no coping mechanisms. You need to know what your triggers are and stay away from them if you can.”
As part of his recovery, Rob wrote his play Shot Bro. “It’s a dark comedy with a serious message. I wrap all the challenging bits up with a lot of aroha (love) and humour. By telling my story, I’m letting people know it’s okay to ask for help,” he says.
Rob, who is of Nga Puhi and Nga Tuhoe descent, aims to challenge the sense of “shame, guilt and failure” that many people associate with having a mental illness. “For generations, people have been taught to get over it, they’re not taught to get through it. They’ve never been handed the tools to navigate emotional trauma.”
A wananga, or forum, with tea and biscuits, follows every show. People can share their own experiences with the audience. “This is where the real healing starts,” Rob says.
“People realise, for example, why their father or sister may have taken their own life. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it lifts one layer of guilt off them.”
People often react to suicide with anger, Rob says. “They say he or she was weak. That’s because in their grief they can’t comprehend it. “The suicidal person had been holding on for too long and they didn’t let somebody know. Suicidal feelings get stronger when they’re not voiced.”
Rob has been performing Shot Bro nationally for two years. The response has been overwhelming, he says. Most shows are entry by koha, or pay what you can, to ensure it is accessible.
The 45-year-old has also recently wrapped up filming the Shot Bro documentary, which he has pitched to several TV networks. Next, he will be working on a short film.
Performing in Glen Innes is special, Rob says. “This place has a real sense of community which makes my job easier. When an area is a bit divided, even if their heart is there, it’s harder to get through.”
Jenni Heka, who runs Te Oro, was blown away when she first saw the play. “What was amazing for me was to hear the journey he’d gone through and then see people in the audience really connect.
“Last season, big tough guys and young people were getting up and talking about how they were feeling or sharing stories about people they had lost to suicide. Since then, the community has kept asking when the show was coming back,” she says.
What advice would Rob give the whānau of someone suffering from mental illness? “Surround them with unconditional love and be non-judgemental.”
Rob also has a message for parents. “Learn how to be open yourself. It’s scary as a parent because you want to have all the answers and be in control. But it’s important to be vulnerable so that they learn to do the same.”