Time To Talk Day: my anxiety

Today is Time To Talk day in the UK. It’s part of the Time To Change campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) which aims to change the way people think and act about mental health problem, led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

It does what it says on the tin really – a day where people are encouraged to be more open about their own mental health, talk about the mental health of others and try, piece by piece, to remove the stigma that exists around mental health issues. At home and at work.

I’ve always been able to handle a lot of stress. Even when things are kicking off, I can get through okay. Maybe a bit tetchy with people at work, snappy or grumpy (or just plain exhausted) at home, perhaps lose a bit of sleep here and there. Still able to have a joke and a laugh, just maybe a little unpredictable I guess. I’m sure I’m like a lot of people in that when I’ve got a lot on it’s tough to turn off or relax, especially when you’re going through all the possible scenarios in your head and they get worse each time you do it! Nothing a couple of glasses of wine before bed won’t help eh?

Yup. That’s been me, for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes it takes something big to change the way you see the world. A birth, a death. Perhaps love.  For me it was a little post on Facebook whilst on a business trip somewhere in Germany.

A little context…

For a good few months, I’d been rolling through the mantra at the top – I’m fine, just got a lot on, nothing I can’t handle, etc etc, you know the drill.  I was almost snapped out of that one morning early last year.  I’d woken up in the middle of the night, work stuff rattling through my head like an old train, unable to get back to sleep and getting more annoyed about the fact that I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about work and all that. So rather than wrestling with the bed clothes and waking my wife I decided to just quietly get up, get dressed in the dark, and go to work. 

I live about 90 minutes from the office door to desk, and I was at that desk by about half 6. God knows what time I woke up originally, but by mid-afternoon I was grumpy as hell and dead on my feet.  I got home that evening and my wife asked me what time I’d left and I’d explained the night time scenario. I could see her worried face and tried to reassure her.

“I’m not stressed out, I just can’t stop thinking about things and I’m finding it hard to sleep”.

To which she quite rightly replied: “that is stress, you idiot”.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll have a think about that.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m sitting on a perfectly on-time, quiet and non-rattling train going through the German countryside, alongside a colleague and [dare I say it] friend [yes I dare]. It’s the end of a long day and I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed, wondering why I’m friends with people on Facebook with whom I’m not actually friends in real life, and wondering if I should just immediately unfriend anyone who uses #hashtags on Facebook post (#holiday #celebrate #blessed #lovemylife) when I come across this…

It’s like I’ve been slapped in the face.

I read the list again. I can tick off maybe a dozen of these without thinking about it. Another handful if I do.

I turn to my amigo/co-worker and show him.

“This is me”, I say.

Those words, on that train, were the start of a journey of my own. The very first step was admitting to myself that being really, really good at dealing with lots of stress whilst simultaneously hiding it isn’t the superpower that I thought it was. 

In fact, it’s bloody Kryptonite.

Left unacknowledged, unspoken and undercover, that stress can damage everything I hold dear – my work, my family and ultimately my life.

I won’t bore you with the details of precisely what happened next, but the first step for me was talking. Talking to colleagues, friends, my wife [hey honey – how’s your day going?], then my GP, then a counsellor. Then back to my GP and since the beginning of last year I’ve been on some medication which I’ve found really helps.

[By the way, it’s still a massive deal to “admit” that I’m on medication to help with my anxiety, because of some weird stigma and shame that exists about it. Perhaps I’ll unpack that in a separate post…]

Nearly 2 years on I’m a lot more content, more calm, more connected with the world around me, with myself and with my emotions than I ever thought possible. Sure, I still get nervous about things, and I still get pissed off about things – I’m human, not superhuman, remember? – but I know I’ll never confuse a superpower with Kryptonite so easily again.

And every single person I’ve told has been totally supportive. Just like I would be if it were the other way round. Turns out quite a few people feel the same. I know, right?

So over time, I’ve started talking about it more openly with my agency friends and family too. Because if I can show that I struggle sometimes, it makes it “okay to not be okay” and, hopefully, we can support each other through all the stressful times with a bit more honesty and vulnerability.

And I know I’m still on the journey I started that day, and that I probably always will be. That’s okay. That’s my decision and something I’m proud of, in a weird way.

But what I will say is this:

If you’re reading any of this thinking “fuck, that’s me”, then this is your slap in the face. From me to you.

You’re welcome.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Remember that the very first step is to talk.

And given that it’s #TimeToTalk day, maybe that’s something you might consider doing today?

Talk to someone who cares about you – a friend, a partner, a colleague – and you’ll find that they will be just as kind and thoughtful as you would be if they came to you.

Best of luck, and please, do take care of yourself.

A friend of a friend

This morning I was going to post a blog about something else. But the last hour has changed a lot. Changed my mood, changed the moods of those I’ve spoken to, changed the moods of many people around the area in which I live.

That’s because on Sunday night, a friend of a friend took his own life.

A man about my age, perhaps a bit younger. Married with a young family. Not going to be here for Christmas.

He really isn’t someone I know well at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever said more than a word or two to him at the bar or in passing. But he’s a recognisable face. The friend of mine who knows him is a good friend…

(Hang on , do I now use the past tense and say “he was” instead? Seems too soon; a bit cold. But he lives in the past now I guess?)

It’s a familiar story – former armed forces, struggling with his demons. We’ve heard it all before.

And now he’s not around any more. The world around him shattered into a million little pieces. The impact going further than he ever would have imagined.

The ‘former armed forces’ bit is all too familiar of course, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Just a few days back, I read a long, heartfelt post from an old school friend on Facebook, talking about his struggles after having surgery which has left him with a stoma to manage. Mental struggles. Really tough mental struggles. The kind of thing that makes people wonder if it’s worth it.

And another distant family member sometimes posts stuff that feels a bit like a cry for help. So does a mate of mine from Uni. I never really know what to do or say, or if it’s my place to do or say anything.

None of them have ever met each other, and the only thing they have in common is that they’ve all met me at some point (in varying degrees).

Oh hang on, there is one other thing.

They’re all men.

According to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. 75% of all suicides are men.

Click on the pic above to access the CALM website

Some of the reasons they give that men and boys can be more vulnerable to taking their own life are:

They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.

They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.

They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

CALM website

What a fucking mess. This is the other side of masculinity. The flipside of the patriarchy.

In his book “The Mask of Masculinity“, Lewis Howe talks about all the stereotypes that as men we feel we have to live up to. Aggression, invincibility, alpha, knowledgable. It’s all bullshit and yet sometimes as men we end up in weird situations where we feel we have to be more of something we’re not.

Stoicism is the first of these masks in the book. For me it’s the most destructive and dangerous.

Boy’s don’t cry. Grow a pair. Man up. Take it on the chin (literally about being punched in the face). Be a man about it. Don’t be such a girl.

It’s sexist bullshit.

Translation: emotions are female. Females are weak. Ergo, showing, talking about, even having emotions is weak, weak, weak.

That’s why men don’t talk about how they’re feeling. Try to pretend they’re not feeling. Judge themselves for feeling. Shame, shame, shame.

Is there a better demonstration that sexism is bad for everyone?

In that context – with all the masks of masculinity weighing down – it is incredibly brave for a man to show his emotions. It takes incredible strength and courage to admit you’re not okay. Because that vulnerability is something we learnt to hide in the playground, and everything we’ve heard and seen since has reinforced that.

I’ve got two boys, and I’m doing my damnedest to raise them to understand their emotions and those of the people around them. I don’t hide from them when I’m feeling sad (particularly around this time of year when the loss of my Mum a few years back is keenly felt). If they’re sad, or nervous, or unsure, I tell them that’s totally understandable.

I sometimes even bore the daylights out of them by explaining the evolutionary reasons for the ‘flight or fight’ physiological response. Super dull, sure… but they know why they get butterflies. They’ve told their friends about it. It’s something they can talk about.

I’ve done this because I want them to know that it’s okay to not be okay. So they can talk to their friends – if they need it or their friend does. To grow up to be well-adjusted, open, vulnerable, incredible young men. All a parent wants if for their child to be safe. And this is my way of making them emotionally safe.

Being a modern man is about dropping all the masks. Let it all go. Bravery is about opening up, not shutting down. We all get better for it.

So speak up. Or check in. It is your place, as much as it’s anyone’s.

Boys do cry sometimes.

Love and peace.

Please take time to visit the CALM website and share around the place – there’s loads of good stuff in there. And if you’re wondering how to start helping, try following the simple mnenomic below…