“You’re normally red-hot at responding and all week you’ve not.”

My mate was right.

By not replying to his texts, I’d still communicated, and he knew what that probably meant.

“It unnerves me,” he added.

It’s why my inbox included more than one message from him asking if I was ok. So I told him.

That exchange, which I found by scrolling back through a conversation between us that has evolved daily during this strangest of years, dates back to the summer.

There are others, similar in both tone and candour, which provide snapshots of our mood in between the regular chatter about football, family and finding any crumb of comfort from watching the news.

Unintentionally, it’s become a journal of how two friends have tried to muddle their way through months of uncertainty and doubt. A journal, and not a textbook, I should stress.

There probably isn’t an example to follow when it comes to navigating a global public health emergency, particularly when you live miles apart. But a daily ding – the message tone on my mobile – and the screen illuminating with his name, has become a part of our routine.

It has with other friends too.

Without WhatsApp, would we have found an alternative? I certainly hope so. Of course, modern means to make contact with each other – be it FaceTime, Messenger, or Skype too – predate the pandemic.

“We’ve always had each other’s back, but the intensity and regularity of our contact is what’s changed,” replied my friend when I told him I was going to write this piece.

“It’s really noticeable.”

When you can’t hug, high five, or even sit opposite each other to chat, then a substitute becomes even more important.

It can occasionally feel a daunting challenge to describe emotions using only words on a screen – pitch, nuance and meaning can get lost or, worse, misinterpreted – than in person.

Maybe, as my mate has learned, that’s why I sometimes say nothing when I’m struggling with my mental health.

That’s not always deliberate, nor conscious, and I do believe I’m much better than I used to be at speaking up. I’m also more likely to if I’m asked twice.

My eventual reply to the note in the summer wasn’t lengthy, but it did confirm his suspicions I’d hit an emotional bump in the road.I didn’t need him to have a remedy handy, either.

In fact, he’d already done his bit; just knowing there are people I can offload to – a direction to channel racing thoughts or nagging doubts – is often enough for me.

And, in 2020, those sensations have been magnified.

Already wrestling with constructing a new sense of self in my professional life, that grapple has been made more draining by the removal of other essential elements that shape who I am, such as seeing friends and family in person, or engaging with sport for work.

I have anxiety, while in the past have also managed depression, and not having the usual daily distractions for my mind has led to intrusive thoughts becoming louder in the quiet. It has, at times, felt like a crisis of hope.

How would an individual, so conscious of his vulnerabilities, cope when the choice, control and ability to connect in the usual way with others are taken away – even if temporarily?

‘Be thankful for what you do have,’ another friend wrote in a note sent using Facebook Messenger in April.

‘Does the kettle work? Have you got a couple of quid in the bank? And are you going to remember to talk to me using social media when you need to?’

I did, and I do.

And never does she judge.

‘How’s tricks?’ is how she checks in.

However, it’s not always on her to do so.

‘I feel crap, and just had to tell someone. I know you’ll understand,’ she wrote in a message sent to me on one occasion.

I answered, and reached out again the next morning.

Without these digital tools, would we connect in the same way about mental health?

Is it easier, less inhibiting perhaps, to do so electronically? Or do the means matter less than finding somebody willing to listen?

I’ve read again loads of conversations, all of them saved on my phone, during the course of the pandemic. It’s illuminating to see the peaks and troughs. And there’ll be more to come, no doubt.

Sometimes I reported that I was ‘fine’, and it was true. But, crucially, my mates were asking.

‘You seem a bit flat’, remarked one.

It was a cue, and I took it.


Our Ask Twice Campaign

The world has changed. Being a mate doesn’t have to. Three out of four men won’t open up to friends about their mental health for fear of being seen as a burden. Find out more about our campaign and help us get more people asking twice today.