As you might expect of a perfectionist overthinking about anxiety, actually finding the right words to speak honestly about my struggle was an obstacle at first. Even after I knew I was ready to talk, it depended on who I was talking to and their initial reaction/response as to whether I could have a conversation at all. And if I did, then how long I’d be thinking about it afterwards.
Talking to people I wasn’t close to always felt easier, probably because then I wouldn’t spend the following days wondering whether I’d been understood or if I’d burdened people. Or if someone I cared about would think I was losing my mind. Some people I’d imagined might be a struggle to open up to were really helpful and present for the conversation, and some that I hoped might be able to hold space for me, weren’t. One thing is for sure, in the end I was always glad that I’d tried because, if nothing else, I was sure I was finally being myself.
We’re all at very different places with our understanding and experience of mental health and we just need to practice those difficult conversations if we want to get better at them. I think back over previous conversations I’ve had where I failed to be what someone needed. It’s a skill to actively listen and empathise without making the conversation about you; to support without trivialising; to share advice or experience without telling people what they should do or feel or to ‘cheer up’ and ‘look on the bright side’. Communication around mental health is a constant learning exercise, and now I’ve experienced being unable to cope and how that can affect every part of your life, it’s a skill I’m determined to become adept at.
A word I’ve noticed I use a lot more these days is ‘journey’, it always sounds false for some reason and like I’ve lost sight of my extreme privilege in life. But other synonyms either feel too literal or even more pretentious – I know I haven’t been on a voyage! So, let’s just say, for want of a better expression, that I feel like I’ve been on quite a journey in the last year or so. As well as accepting my anxiety is real and seeking out help, I’ve had my work and social life turned upside down due to the virus, and have been locked down with a pregnant and clinically vulnerable partner throughout the pandemic. I am fully aware though of how much more tough this has been for so many other people, and it would be wrong of me to do anything other than be honest about how fortunate I am right now.
My family has avoided the virus so far. I’ve kept my job and been gifted time to think and work on my own wellbeing which clearly had been needed for some time. I’ve also been lucky enough to connect more closely (albeit digitally) than ever with some incredible humans around the subject of self-awareness and personal growth, as well as reaching new levels of honesty with my fellow overthinker and hero of a partner, Anna. I’ve had the chance to try my hand at creating content that might be able to help others who are struggling.
Now I’m much more able to talk about what is really going on with me, I’ve learned to listen to those around me and understand what is actually going on with them. It’s, unsurprisingly, way more interesting and engaging than general small talk. It’s also affirming and enlightening to follow someone else’s struggles as they almost always have an overlap with my own, and providing support on each other’s journey can solidify a relationship on a deeper and more profound level.
I’ve found sources of support which have been catalysts for personal growth and inspiration to push even harder to connect, create and grow. Menfulness was already out there, but presented itself exactly when I needed it. After attending the activities and getting to know the people, I’m becoming a trustee, to work with four other local men to run and build the organisation up to achieve its full potential. The same thing happened several years ago with my community cinema – Film at the Folk Hall. Almost as soon as I realised I needed to be of service to my community, there it was, round the corner from my house, in need of the sort of help which I could offer. These networks have helped me to accept and understand myself while directing me closer to who I want to be.
There’s a safe and unspoken permission you get in such a support network which means that you’re already allowed and accepted: the reactions are kinder; more time will be given to get your thoughts out; you won’t be told how to feel, or what you should be doing to defeat your demons; or what you should be grateful for instead of working on yourself. You can practice some of those more complex conversations before you speak to family, friends and loved ones. I recommend everyone go out and find your support network. If it doesn’t exist, why not create it? There is support and funding available to help you. Trust people enough to ask for help. Talk to me, if I can assist you, I will. Just remember, however much you might feel it, you are not alone. I can assure you we are all craving connection in some way or another.
I believe this connection is available to us all, because we are all capable of owning our own vulnerabilities and speaking our inner truth. I know this is not new to many of you reading. I imagine that many women reading this already understand the benefits of this kind of connection. Historically and traditionally men have not felt able to learn about and share their more complex emotional struggles. This leads to repression of painful or uncomfortable feelings and a deterioration in overall mental wellbeing. We all know people who are, right now, struggling through their own silent battles. People who could be empowered from us vocalising ours. For some reason, despite recent progress generally, this mutually beneficial transaction still remains a big secret from a large part of society. So many people are suffering inside while talking about the weather or what they’ve been watching on TV.
Opening up about my mental health might well be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I say that now because I’m about to become a parent, which is likely to be both the best and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So this acceptance of struggle and commitment to growth has come at the right time for me. The more I think about the timing of all this anxiety, the more certain I am that it is precisely because of this journey to parenthood that these things have bubbled to the surface.
To me it has always felt like a race between having a child and arriving at the point where I feel psychologically ready to have a child. It’s like, I know it’s not real or helpful, but I still can’t shake off the baggage from the stories we’re all told to ‘protect’ and commodify us in this uncertain world: Don’t say that; Don’t do that; Don’t wear that; Man up; Be more like your sister, your friends, that rich or ‘successful’ person; Get better grades, cars, things; Don’t over share; Share more; ‘Meet my expectations of the persona I’ve created of you!’
I can’t help but (over) think about what this all means for my daughter. Completely innocent. On her way into this turbulent existence without consent. Near limitless potential, divided by the sum of our collective fear and judgement which will be taught to her through the stories she is told. My stories need to be better, stronger, more inspiring or perhaps she’ll end up like me: Playing a role defined not purely by my own ‘destiny’ or capability, but by the limitations my own stories, beliefs and anxieties have set before me.
The way our needs are met in our early learning phase, the way these evolutionary fight-or-flight chemical disturbances play out, our countless and cumulative experiences over a life-time; all this enables us to cope, or not, with what this world throws at us. So here we are. Here I am. Thirty five years old, weeks away from parenthood and I feel like I’m just getting to know a huge part of myself that I’d been taught I was supposed to repress. But instead of continuing to conform, I’m attempting to reframe as best I can. ‘Struggling with your mental health is a weakness’, becomes ‘Challenge is what makes the strong rise up’; ‘If we talk about it people will think we’re mental’, becomes ‘We are all mental beings, and we connect the most when we talk about it’; ‘Being honest will affect my future opportunities’ becomes ‘I am capable and can create value despite my struggle’.
So what now? Well, I know I’m not out of the woods yet by any means. I’ve been at home. I’ve had the perfect get-out clause for avoidance. While this has given me time to work on some stuff, there will surely be a challenge to now find what ‘normal’ is for me, especially as I’m about to be thrust back into it with a new baby human in tow. So I’m not going to pretend like everything is fine all of a sudden because I’m finally ‘owning it’. Or even like this version of me I’m aspiring to no longer responds to external validation and criticism. Of course I do, but at least I can fully recognise it for what it is. It’s not just bubbling away in my subconscious, governing my behaviour.
I’m taking positive action to assist my progress. I exercise, not because I enjoy it, I don’t. But it does wonders for my head. I keep my social media accounts at a safer distance, which might slow any potential business ‘growth’, but I’m beginning to prioritise my mindset above such things. I keep some people at a safer distance, which might limit my connections. Again, it’s a matter of learning to put my wellbeing first, it’s a steep learning curve around who and where I can really be comfortable being me and that finally feels OK to say.
From the work I’ve done coaching others, and the progress I’ve made coaching myself, I’ve learned the benefits of not ‘settling’ and always striving to get 1% nearer to where you want to be, despite any self-limiting beliefs. But since parenthood has become a reality, I’ve realised that acceptance is equally important. Otherwise growth is just another hurdle/fight towards an unreachable perfection. You can’t always justify the time and resources to push, or ever fully know which direction you should be pushing towards. Sometimes you have to sit back, relinquish control of the outcome and just allow things to be.
Finding the balance between progress and acceptance will be key for me as a parent. As will accepting that I may never completely ‘defeat’ my own programming, but that I do have some control over the experiences I create for my daughter. And that these early experiences can have a profound impact on her understanding of reality, her feelings of fulfilment, her acceptance of who she is and what her place in the world might be. Perhaps that’s how we truly escape our childhoods and defeat our shame: By not passing it on. This is fast becoming what I believe is my true calling and maybe even, if there is such a thing, the meaning of life.
(EDIT: Well I finished writing this weeks ago but of course needed time to have a characteristic overthink about the grandiose ending. The truth is, of course I can only speak about my truth; the possible meaning of my life; how I feel at this moment in time. While terrified of the prospect, I for some reason always knew I wanted to have a child one day and the fact we were able to makes us incredibly lucky and, while I may have struggled with many things, I am grateful every day for that.
I’m also aware that not everyone wants to have children, and I completely believe this should be a personal choice. I also strongly believe that women should have complete autonomy over their own body and reproductive decision making. I certainly do not propose that anyone needs to have a child to find the meaning in their life. But I suppose I do float the idea that regardless of your feelings/circumstance around parenthood, there could be some deeper meaning in the way we set an example in our lives, if not directly for the next generation, then for each other. Perhaps by leading with vulnerability, self awareness and honesty we lay the foundations for a more empowered, inclusive and open society in the future).