Popular theory is that men don’t talk; please never say that to my friends, they are constantly seeking ways to shut me up! However, it is difficult to argue with this statement, and whilst more of us are beginning to talk about our emotions, there are still so very many who find it so difficult.
I have often wondered why, and yet I only have to reflect on my own life to know how tough it is. Talking; so simple, yet to many so painstaking. I spent 15 years incarcerated in 4 walls built through my own silence, unable to speak about the torment of living with Bipolar Disorder. I couldn’t speak, I was a man, and admitting to vulnerability was not an option. No way was I going to admit I couldn’t cope, and it nearly cost me my life.
I was told to 'man-up'
I had, after a first overdose, in 2003, confided in my housemates, a group of young males in their early twenties; attention seeker, nothing wrong, liar were just some of the labels. A couple of years later, my then manager advised me that I couldn’t leave work 15 minutes early for counselling and that I should ‘man-up’. It is no surprise that I didn’t speak to male friends about my illness for a long time afterwards.
It was after a further overdose, in 2006, that I next spoke to a man about mental health. He was my counsellor and I asked him from day one to challenge me, it was the only way that I could recover from the shattered debris that was my life. He obliged, and the period spent with him is one that shaped the person that I am today; stronger, constantly challenging myself, not afraid of my illness or responses of others.
Seeing more men speak openly is important to me
As someone who is vocal, I am fascinated by responses, especially from men. Having been involved in the launch of 300 Voices, a Time to Change project aimed at young men in the African-Caribbean community, seeing more men speak openly about their experiences is so important to me.
I largely self-manage my mental illness, but there are inevitably times when I need to speak with others, and there are 3 in particular to whom I turn. They are my Wolfpack, and I wouldn’t be without them.
They are my Wolfpack, and I wouldn't be without them
Steve, one of my closest friends, is, like me, very talkative. He is analytical and detail oriented. When I am having a difficult time and choose to speak with him, it will normally lead to a deep conversation as to why I am feeling as I am, and how I change it; almost a form of counsel in itself. It’s great knowing I can turn to someone and discuss my innermost thoughts without repercussion.
That said, there are occasions when I am already tormenting myself with analysis, and actually need to just think about something else altogether. My work colleague, Chris, is brilliant at knowing and managing me at these points. We’ll just go out for a walk and he won’t bother to ask me what’s wrong. He knows something is, but also understands that he possibly will not empathise with the mood swings of Bipolar, particularly my depressive episodes. We just talk rubbish about everything else, to a point where for a few moments, even I forget that I am struggling. It is priceless to know I have someone with whom I can have an invaluably meaningless conversation!
Finally there is Kelly; she is one of the boys really, always has been since I’ve known her. She understands that depression is a physical illness for me. Let me explain; when I have a depressive episode, it debilitates me. I feel the life being sucked out of me, I often find myself bursting into tears whilst attempting the most mundane task. It is not just mental; it is visible to all around me.
As with my counsellor those years ago, she knows how to challenge me. She simply asks, “are you going into depression, or are you having a really bad day?” Because there are times when, actually, it is just a really tough day which is challenging me, but that is different from a depressive episode. She questions me, gives me a chance not to assume the feared presence of the black dog.
I couldn’t get through, at times, without these friends and conversations
The reality is that I couldn’t get through, at times, without these friends and conversations. Men, by their nature, love to talk as much as our female friends. We just find it hard to show vulnerability and be totally open in our emotions.
However, I have learnt that we can help ourselves and others if only we have the courage to admit we are fallible and engage our friends to do what they want to do, help! So let’s get talking, and never stop.