I remember being about twelve during my first period of living in Germany (my father is in the armed forces) and realizing there were already large parts of my memory which seemed to be blank or very hazy. I felt very isolated and alone; a sense of not being present within myself, almost guiding my body from a distance above myself. A numbness and a dissociation with myself.
It took me until I was about twenty or twenty one, to talk to anyone about the issues I faced. The armed forces at that time were not geared up for mental health provision for the serving soldiers let alone their dependents. The internal culture of the armed forces was certainly not conducive to talking about your feelings or showing any kind of weakness.
I have been in and out of therapy for many years since the age of 21, and have experienced a varied collection of therapy devices. My first experience was with medicinal control and was in the form of prescribed anti-depressants. At the time, there was little explanation from the doctor regarding what I should expect to feel or how I should adapt to any new state I should find myself in. After about a year of feeling completely numb from the drugs, but still experiencing sporadic incidents, I took myself off the prescription without consultation with the doctor. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a very bad idea. I had not received any other therapy during the prescription course and once the masking had left my system the previous issues returned at a far more aggressive and heightened level. A while later and after several incidents, my partner at the time insisted I get further help and I was referred to full psychiatric assistance which entailed almost a year of regular meetings and talking therapy.
The pattern of therapy, break, degradation of mental health back into therapies including CBT has carried on for many years. The outcome would always remain the same, I would feel like improvement was being made during the sessions, I would begin to have less incidents and a time would come when the therapist would ask the question – do you feel you have improved and are you able to maintain your control? I discovered that humans are exceptionally adept at both masking their own condition from themselves and being led to believe they are making progress with simple kind words and an encouraging hand. Of course, my answer would always be yes, only to be experiencing a degradation in mental health sometimes as short as a few weeks later. This would lead me to the destructive conclusion that the therapies did not work and that no hope was to be found. I would descend into my own assumed state of mental health until an event would force my hand back into seeking help. This pattern has continued until my most recent therapy which was a form of re-conditioning designed for the PTSD diagnosis. It was extremely hard and exhausting, but I am glad to say this has been the most successful yet and I am relatively free of incident since its conclusion nearly a year ago.
I have tried to make many improvements in my life to assist my mental health which have had varying results. I have collected a wide collection of creative hobbies, I try to exercise when I can, I practice a form of active individual meditation (you don’t need to be sat down cross legged etc). I try to keep my mind and my attention busy, but with the understanding that a degree of melancholy and despair are an important factor of everyone’s humanity. Finding a good partner who supports you even in your darkest moments is one of the greatest saviors, but I am aware that not everyone is lucky in that department.
The most effective treatment to date has been the PTSD treatment. It consisted of eye movement experience re-programming; being asked to re-visit traumatic experiences whilst keeping both eyes fixed on a moving target and then re-processing them in a more controllable manner. It really is hard to describe the effect or how I makes you feel other than extremely exhausted and very vulnerable, sometimes for a couple of days after. I cannot explain how the process worked but I am happy to say that at the moment I am in control of my illness.
I can count on one hand the few friends who know of my condition and illness and I can count on a small portion of that one hand the number who know the full extent. I find it can be harder for the person who may be the listener to deal with the issues which may have become a daily part of your life. It can also be very hard to explain the complexities of living with mental health issues and how they may be affecting you from day to day. It is hard for many people to connect the image of a person who may be smiling and seemingly full of life in most situations with the one who is asking them to understand a complex and destructive nature. The guilt of unburdening can also be destructive enough to restrain the need for a listener.
Reactions are varied and can range from pity, and sympathy to degradation and cessation of friendship. Some people are well equipped to listen and be unbiased, non-judgemental help and others attempt to fix you with a whole host of numbing platitudes or advice from cartoon strips which have become so pervasive on social media in recent times. A few people have changed their opinions of me to such an extent that they are unable to continue being a friend or even associate.
I think that as much as we try to pretend that we are a newly-awakened, sympathetic, understanding society, with new ideals and morals concerning personal mental health, in reality, so many obstacles still stand in the way of upfront, uncensored, raw discussion about male mental health. The current mass-media proliferation of the perfect body, career, lifestyle and mental health expectation (insert stock picture of modern, chiseled man capturing the best days of his life with friends at a coffee shop after spending the day working at his self-made freelance company, sourcing other successful, mentally-stable associates for further self-appreciation sessions before heading off to the gym to perfect that physique).
The media are most excited when mental health causes a horrific incident or when a celebrity accidentally, and most likely without consent of their publicist, admits that they are actually human and experience difficulties just like everyone else. The online and print content will swirl with stories of well-known sympathizers and poorly researched factoids about mental health in the UK before being washed aside by the newest media nugget of human profiteering. The continuation and cementation of macho stereo-types is constant, to step away from this defined expectation of what a man should be is to break from the crowd. Pack mentality still looms large as a form of self-preservation in our society. I do not blame any man who may be suffering for attempting to survive and maintain cover within the maelstrom of lad culture, but only hope they can find some release from the pack in time to make progress in improving their mental situation.
I know stigma destroys any tiny shred of confidence that men may have in seeking help. I know that in most cases the situation needs to get extremely bad before help is sought, and this will usually be done in the strictest secrecy and most often in complete isolation, alone, with a stranger; a terrifying concept.
I hope that there will be a time when there is freedom for anyone to talk about their mental health. The drive for mental health awareness should be for society as a whole; from children to the elderly, male and female. We all have brains and as deeply secretive as the mind appears to be, we all have the ability or can learn how to express that which causes us most distress and to find help and solace in other human beings. I assume the current focus on men may be due to recent events in the sporting and media world. Unfortunately, however encouraging this current drive to raise awareness may be, we have all watched waves of this desire to improve the situation wash ashore and ripple the sand only to ebb back to the depths when attention and funding is drawn elsewhere. For mental health to become centre stage and for real improvements to occur we need a new understanding of emotional honesty and a retraction of stigmatic assumption and assumed rhetorical wisdom.
I know you are most probably shit scared. I was and still am. I know you hate to think that you need help. I know that you feel like maybe you are alone in the way you feel. I know you most likely ask yourself why you are so special in needing help when there are people in war zones or famine stricken lands much worse off than yourself. I know you have been dealing with this for longer than you will admit. But I also know there is hope for you; it’s not a clichéd payment of lip service. I know there is hope for you and you can find it. I know you. Let someone else know you. Not the Friday night, ten beers, “everything’s grand” you. The you you are thinking about right now. The you that just felt the hollow drop of understanding in your gut. Scare yourself and be honest with someone you trust, chances are they already had an idea and were waiting for you to speak. Take it slow, make small movements, find your voice.
If you, or anyone you know, are struggling with your mental health, there are people that can help. You can freephone the Samaritans, any time, on 116 123.
The Samaritans website
Nottingham Insight Healthcare website