I live a life beset by physical health complications which understandably have an impact on my mental health. On the whole this plays out as anxiety due to there being such a fine line between keeping an eye on physical messages from my body in order to manage my health well, and becoming hyper vigilant and unable to determine where physicality ends and rampant, ridiculous neurosis takes over. But prolonged spells of anxiety are utterly exhausting, especially as I already have the demands of respiratory issues to tire me when I’m simply doing things most people take for granted. When anxiety collapses into exhaustion, depression folds around me like a welcoming, numbing blanket woven out of despair, self-hatred and morbidity.
These days I know the darkest signs of depression, know when to reach out for support from professionals. If I’m honest, I’m still not entirely great at reaching out to friends and family but where I am with managing this stuff in 2018 is so far ahead of where I was back in 1998, a year in which I tried to take my own life on three separate occasions.
That year was not the first time poor mental health smashed my world to pieces but it was the very first time I’d become so depleted inside that I genuinely believed others would be better off without me around and that I would somehow be better off dead.
I’d survived a childhood twisted out of shape by the unpredictable mood swings of a narcissistic father who to this day is incapable of acknowledging the impact his problems caused for others. I’d survived moving again and again, five different schools, countless friendships forged then cauterised by his need to escape debt or chase the next pipe dream. I’d survived my own later attempts to recreate the dangerously unpredictable energy of that childhood when I took stupid amounts of chemicals and narcotics in my teens and/or launched myself constantly into the unknown by hitchhiking around with little more than a guitar and a couple of books to my name. By 98 I was over thirty years old, surely I’d come through the worst and learnt enough about survival to avoid listening to suicidal thoughts?
What was most distressing as my thirties began to collapse around me was the truth of my own failings as a father, as a partner and as a contributing member of society. In 91 my daughter was born and she meant the world to me. By 95 her mother and I had been separated for almost a year and a half and my son was born out of a different relationship. My connection with my daughter faltered over time as I failed to sustain a grown-up relationship with her mother. My son’s mother and I had already been through the worst kind of hell before he was even born – her daughter from a previous relationship died suddenly one night and changed the world forever.
I’d learnt to fear and mistrust the universe in my childhood. Or rather, I feared and mistrusted my father’s emotional instabilities but when you’re a kid your parents are your universe, they’re the blueprint for how you perceive the essence and the ethics of your entire existence. The death of a child brings pain and terror I’d not wish on anybody and for me it churned up all the long-buried demons of my own childhood at a time when ideally I’d have preferred to have been strong enough to support my partner and to make sure my own daughter and my soon-to-be-born son would never doubt my love.
I was not supportive and both my kids have had reason to doubt my love down the years, my daughter far more so than my son as she and I have not had a real relationship with one another for most of the last twenty years. Fortunately I managed to stay in my son’s life but breaking up with his mum in 98 was the very final straw and proved to be the catalyst for my suicide attempts.
Self-pity? Cowardice? Probably. All I felt at the time was that I’d fucked up one important relationship and begun to estrange one child and here I was facing the same scenario all over again. More than that, the grief and terror I’d suppressed after finding that other little girl dead in her cot now howled at me through the holes in my soul.
The morning after my third, unsuccessful attempt to kill myself I went to see my doctor, urged and accompanied by a friend. My GP very quickly decided I needed to be assessed by a nearby mental health unit. I think the same friend drove me to that unit – I was more numb than I’ve ever felt by that point and some recall is completely lost – whereupon I was admitted and assigned a room, told when mealtimes were and observed and questioned in various ways over the next week or so.
It felt like the end, like finally admitting I was a lunatic, a worthless fruitcake. In fact it was a new dawn. In my time in the unit I looked at the others who were also spending time there and recognised that while we all came from different situations, while we were different ages, races, genders, we all shared something: we were all unwell. Not lunatics, not freaks, just ill people unable to cope with their illness at that time and in need of extra support.
When I was discharged back home I was medication free, as I had been in the unit. I discussed medication with my own doctor but wanted to hold off at least until the psychotherapy I’d been told I could undergo had begun. Therapy transformed my understanding of myself and pointed me in different directions in my life. It’s not a miracle cure, I’ve needed to return to different types of therapist at various stages of the last two decades and medication has also been part of managing my problems, but therapy can be a source of enlightenment and a means to quieten the worst of those internalised voices which tell me how awful I am most of the time.
To begin with I was naive enough to believe therapy could rid me of depression, anxiety and my other demons. It can’t, but it has enabled me to turn what was once a monologue into a dialogue. Where there used to be a litany of self-loathing there is now a conversation between my demons and my more compassionate self. The demons still have some slick lines and can sometimes disarm my reasoned self-management but when they pump up the volume I am less likely to tune in and want to take my own life as a consequence. As with certain physical symptoms signifying a need to check in with my doctor, loud self-loathing now registers as a symptom of ill health and a reason to seek support.
While it is true that my emotional turbulence means I’ve never truly felt like a proper human, that I tend to see myself as a paper tiger in a jungle full of sleek felines, so perfect in their fearful symmetry (yes, I steal from poets, why not?), I do realise that this flawed self-image is also a symptom of my mental health struggles. I’d love to be a stronger, steadier and more stable person, not least because I might be more use to my son now he’s a young man with fiscal needs and might be somebody my daughter would be more willing to get to know after all this time. But I am what I am and wishing myself to be somebody else has never helped.
Just as I would prefer it if my physical health were not so troublesome yet somehow reach a level of acceptance that enables me to try to push the limits of life even as I factor in my body’s needs and idiosyncrasies, I would also prefer to be mentally healthier yet am beginning to find greater depths of self-compassion and thus acceptance of how things are and how I work with and around my own anxieties and depressions.
It’s a life’s work. I don’t pretend it’s not part of my life but I don’t always talk about it in this amount of detail. Mental health, men’s mental health in particular, is currently being discussed more in the media and, it is to be hoped, in everyday conversation amongst families and friends. The common belief is that men are less likely to talk about their mental health than women which may well be why men are much more likely to commit suicide than women.
So let’s talk about our stuff, our fears, our symptoms, our battered self-image, our rock-bottom moments and, most importantly, about the ways we find to pull ourselves back from the precipice. We can do that, can’t we guys? It’s far braver to admit to weakness and struggle than it is to bottle it all up and eventually tumble over the edge.