I recently had a conversation with a very good friend of mine about mental health, and how it affects us. Discussing how the stigma around men being perceived as "weak" for admitting they are struggling, is still very real, and how some groups of people, even those who are meant to be there to help, still don't quite get it. My biggest example of this was a female counsellor who was doing my preliminary assessment deciding I had "mother issues" after five minutes of speaking to me. Having recently lost my mum, she was quite central to the discussion at the time, however, not the root cause of what I was feeling. So man feeling down, mentions his mum, awww, mummies boy, there there... That is how that felt, and really left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
Going back to my conversation with my friend, it was quickly apparent that it is a common theme in seeking help for depression or anxiety, to be made to feel like you are weak, rather than in need of some support. That is not to say there is not a huge amount of help and support out there. There are some amazing people out there, for which I am truly grateful.
The talk was probably the longest talk I have had with a friend about the condition to date. There have been other chats with a couple of other friends, but we have never focused on things for quite so long. I think part of the reason for that was, that for once, it was not about me, it was about them, as well as talking about our collective experiences, a lot of time was spent talking about his own. Which felt amazing. It was almost like the conversations I have with myself when writing these entries, but for once, with an actual person, who responded with their own experiences.
One of the things that came up in our chat was, what is it like to be on the other side of things. What is it like to live with someone who is struggling with mental health?
Ask someone in the midst of an episode of depression or anxiety what is wrong, and the chances are you will get very vague answer, along the lines of nothing, or oh I am just a bit tired etc. Very rarely will you get a full on detailed explanation of what is wrong. And to be honest, if you do get an answer like "I have just been feeling really depressed recently", most people don't know what to do with it, and revert to the old classics like "aaah chin up mate, you will be OK". No offence people, but it's true.
However, for some, namely our partners, and people we live with, there is a whole different world, and one I have given very little thought until now. What is it like to live with someone who is detached, sometimes vacant, and slowly but surely curling up into a little ball of safety and silence? At some point, our / we (the person with MH issues) behaviour starts to affect you / them (the person living with the person with MH issues).
Be it, withdrawing from regular activities, loss of interest in intimacy, YES!! men really can lose interest in sex when feeling off, or just lack of engagement in day to day life, friends and family. Whatever the changes, they are bound to be noticed by our loved ones, and they have to somehow cope with that. For example, my last blog entry said IDGAF, and I meant it, to a great degree I still do. But for my partner to read something like that, how does that feel? How are they affected by being shut out so to speak?
The first thing I want to say, and I think I speak for a fair few men is, "it's not you". We can be in a strong and loving relationship, care deeply about a person, and still quite simply shut them out. It isn't personal, it doesn't mean there is someone else on the scene, or that they don't want to be with you, or that they are unhappy with the relationship. In fact to some extent, I think we tend to shut out the ones we love the most, the fastest, maybe to protect them from the spiral of destruction we find ourselves in.
So how does that feel? I really don't have an answer for it. So for me, yesterday I decided to make sure that my partner knew, to the best of my ability, that it is not about her, not caused by her, and that my behaviour is about me, and no one else. Isolation works because I can focus on me, silence works, because I can work on me, me me me. Selfish if definition, but very much needed in reality. When things are not right in my head, the one person I can rely on every time to sort things out (eventually) is me. No amount of pressure is going to make things right.
When I say pressure, I mean pressure to talk about how I feel in the moment. Another common theme between me and my friend is that we both recognise each person has a role, and that role has a specific time and place in the timeline of recovery. I realise there are many people out there who care, and want to help, unfortunately it is more about quality than quantity. For someone in the midst of an MH episode, speaking alone is hard enough, let alone speaking to people who simply just don't get it. It can feel like speaking to a plumber about an I.T problem. They might want to help, and might have some ideas, but ultimately you need to speak to the I.T guy, not the taxi driver, mechanic, or cook in the local cafe. OK that was all a bit strange I know.
What I mean is, just because you are the closest to someone, does not mean you are the right person to speak to, and that is not personal, it's just a fact. Sure, by all means, enquire, ask how we are, but please do not be surprised or offended if the reply is a very short and sweet one, with very little information. If we respond by saying we are not feeling great, but don't say much more, there are a few little pointers of what you can do. 1/ Don't just shrug and give up. 2/ acknowledge there is something wrong, remind the person you care. 3/ Guide the person, don't force them, suggest speaking to someone else. 4/ Don't pretend to understand, unless you actually do, from experience. And finally.... Please don't just give up. There is a balance to be found, we are all different, but I would say for most, a quick, occasional, "how you doing", with no expected response, is really quite nice.
I was explaining to Ann yesterday that my responses will vary depending on how I am feeling, but I will always respond. If the response if distant, and short, please just accept that is just how I feel at that time, and don't push. She has become good at recognising when I am feeling a bit down, and tends to give me some space. I don't want to use the phrase a wide berth, as that just suggests you should avoid contact, which is not the way to go.
For me, the main thing is for her to understand my behaviour is not based on my emotions towards her, and this is the same for many. Sadly this is not recognised by many, and instead the partner feels alienated, puts it down to a breakdown in the relationship, and things begin to fall apart. The last thing someone in the middle of an MH crisis needs. Guilt and abandonment. Of course, this all comes back to my original point of what it must be like to live with someone struggling with MH. I don't imagine being shut out feels great, struggling to communicate is damaging to both parties in the long term, and depending on the severity of the episode, the level of being shut out can vary.
This is where a conversation really needs to take place. For anyone who has an ongoing battle with their mental health, I would implore you to take some time when you are feeling more like yourself, to have this conversation with you family and loved ones. Explain it is not personal, and express how you truly feel when you are low or in a dark place. Make sure they understand your processes, and what role they do, and can play in your bounce back. Information is key, for both parties.
Anyone living with someone with a physical disability or condition, learns what to do when the moment strikes. Epilepsy for example, knowing what to do if you see the signs of a seizure coming, or what to do when one happens. Because it is a physical display, we can understand, and respond with empathy, and offer the right help at the right time. MH is not really any different, you just can't see it, and that, for use humans and our narrow perspectives, is a problem. So just learn what you can do when you see the signs. Please.
So I have gone on about the loved ones, but now lets focus on us for a second. Another thing that came up in the conversation was how WE respond to prompts from those around us. The world is slowly recognising the reality and severity of the number of people fighting MH these days, especially that men can indeed feel weak and vulnerable. The messages are out there, for us, Its OK to not be OK", and on the other side the prompt to just ask "are you OK". Which is fantastic, the ball is rolling.
However sometimes numerous people will ask if you are OK. Some you are happy to communicate with, others you would rather not (again, not personal). But, they have after all gone to the extent of asking, so we at least owe them a response of sorts. In person, we tend to just brush people off with a facial expression, or a grunt containing a couple of works. Body language and evolution helps us interpret that as a kind of "leave me alone". Most get the message, but sometimes the wrong message. It is less "leave me alone" and more a "not right now". But if you were to say not right now, it would start a conversation, which may be unwelcome at the time.
The most common way of communication these days however is IM and social media. And that is a whole other world. For a long time now, a vague post on social media, or short reply on IM has been seen as attention seeking. I have written about it a number of times now, and it falls into the same category as misuse of certain phrases. "I'm so depressed right now" gets used so much by people who are disappointed with the outcome of something, but is assumed to be the same as someone who is going through a bout of depression. Because you were sad about losing your friendship bracelet is NOT the same as being depressed. Being nervous about a job interview is NOT the same as suffering from anxiety. But in the modern world, everyone feels they know what depression and anxiety is like, because they have used the words before, to describe a very temporary and short lived moment.
So anyway, back to IM and social media. A short post can actually sometimes be a cry for help, gently seeking those who you can turn to at a moment of vulnerability. However, just to complicate things a little, in a conversation on IM, it can also be more of a "I'm not up to talking right now". It is a frustrating and delicate balance, but one that ultimately needs to be driven by the person who is having issues at the time.
For US, the ones in the driving seat, I would encourage one thing, and this is what was discussed the other day. Emojis. Yes they have taken over the world it seems, with stories being told with them, and even plush toys of them now, but they can have a use too. If you get a message from someone asking how you are, I know all too well the dread of "do I reply" which looms when you open it, and they get a read receipt. Well, maybe emojis are the answer. As long as the other person knows what to expect, a simple emoji could express how you are feeling right now, albeit vaguely, but can also says you don't want to talk right now.
If someone has gone to the trouble to ask how you are, the chances are they care, and can tell something is up. So they at least deserve a response, to put their mind at rest that nothing serious is up today, and they can get a gauge of what your state of mind is too. Sounds a bit silly to some maybe, but for me, to be able to fire off a simple emoji, relieve myself of pressure or guilt of "ignoring" someone, and relieve them a little of their concerns, it is surely a win win.
I guess my message from all this rambling is a simple one, talk! Communicate, make sure people on both sides understand what is going on. We talk so much now about caring about the ones who are fighting with their minds, but we also need to make sure the ones on the receiving end of the silent treatment understand too. When you are in the right frame of mind, have those conversations with the ones who are always there for you, and the ones you care about the most. Make sure that they understand it is not personal, and you truly value what you have with them. If nothing else, it helps with the feelings of doom about friends and relationships when you are at your lowest.
Hope some of this makes sense to people on both sides.
Thank you to everyone who has stuck by me, put up with being pushed away, and stuck around for the bad times as well as the good. And sorry to anyone present or past that I have pushed away. Like I say, it's not you 🙂 Regardless of uptake on offers of chats, meet ups etc, I appreciate every genuine gesture made, and am pretty sure most people in the same boat do too.