“It’s just a few tics, don’t worry about it” was one male friend’s response to my writing about life with Tourette’s. That was someone meaning well. The ignorance, misconception and dismissive attitude towards mental health and neurological issues are far worse online. Progress has definitely been made in encouraging men to talk about mental health but more effort needs to be made in showing people how to listen.
There is as much misconception about Tourette’s as there is about mental health issues. I’ve experienced it since the age of 9 and seen it go from obscurity to part of popular culture for the wrong reasons. Around 10% of people with Tourette’s involuntarily swear and even amongst those who do, there are many others facets of the condition impacting them every day. I’m far more likely to swear at someone saying “it must be so funny having Tourette’s” for the thousandth time. For me, Tourette’s is physical tics in every part of my body, some minor but thousands of times a day, others violent and painful. I can hold them in better than most, but they still come out daily when I’m alone or walking down the street.
Besides the physical and vocal tics, there are regular migraines, sensory issues and utter exhaustion. Successfully holding it in takes the majority of my focus and energy each day, while actually ticcing puts a physical strain on you. The relentless nature of the condition makes you prone to mental health issues and I have experienced depression, OCD and severe anxiety for many years. It is often difficult to know which is causing which. Depression can even bring a numbness that helps ease the tics, but that’s a fairly dark silver lining. As with mental health, the contrast between what is going on inside and what people see is striking. Some of the hardest parts about depression are the isolation of dealing with it alone, the lack of understanding and assumptions people make. It’s not a coincidence I seem fine most the time in front of people, it’s how I plan my life.
The sensory issues in particular lead to a lot of anxiety. In busy situations I have found my senses just overload and suddenly I can’t process information. I can’t see or hear properly and just walking down the street becomes an ordeal. This happened at a social event recently in a crowded bar where I found I could no long pick out anyone’s voices and had to concentrate hard just to stay standing. The knowledge that this can happen brings an extra layer of anxiety to social situations.
I’ve found it more difficult to talk to a lot of male friends about mental health. While the majority would not say anything negative, the main reaction is silence. There are plenty of other men I know who I wouldn’t even try to discuss it with and some who regularly make dismissive comments about mental health in general. Like most people to discuss mental health and personal struggle in public I have received plenty of calls to ‘man up’. I watch too much football, go to the gym and do many of the things men are supposed to do. Yet I can’t man up because I like wine, theatre and nuance. I’m sure the need to reinforce masculinity to that extent comes with its own deep-rooted insecurity. It’s also making it more difficult for other people to discuss their experiences and ultimately, costing lives. The fact I’ve given it that much thought probably reflects my inability to successfully ‘man up’.
For decades, we’ve seen people unable to talk and suicides among young men rise. I have one or two male friends who have asked more questions and been keen to listen but talking to women has been far easier overall. With a quarter of us experiencing mental health issues at some point, there’s no reason gender should make any difference. In one case, the fact I had written about my experiences encouraged a male friend to talk about their own struggles. That is the main positive for me. It didn’t lead to any solutions, neither of us necessarily had the answers or any advice, but we were heard and understood a little more.
There is too much pressure to inspire and be positive when it comes to mental health. We all want to be positive and make it through difficult times, but that won’t happen if we can’t discuss the reality of how difficult it can be. There will always be those difficult days where you can’t bring yourself to exercise even though you know it might help. Adding that extra layer of guilt helps no one. Mental health and neurological conditions remain extremely complex. Yet we can all help for free simply by removing assumptions and actually taking the time to listen to people.