“Had I not opened up, I honestly don’t think I would be here today”: why men need to talk when they’re struggling
Ahead of International Men's Day, writer Cory Varney shares his battle with anxiety and depression and reveals why talking about mental health issues is so vital, particularly if you are struggling.
Let's paint a picture: you're a man. You're a man and you have broken your leg. You can't do your job. You can't go about your day-to-day life. Not to mention, your leg really, really hurts and the longer it goes without getting sorted, the worse it could potentially get.
Despite struggling with a broken leg, you don't tell anyone, you don't want to ask for help and you decide that you're just going to get on with it by yourself.
It sounds absurd, doesn't it? I doubt there's a man out there who wouldn't reach out for help if they broke their leg. Let's not even start on the approach to man flu. Yet, there are so many who keep completely silent when it's their mental health in the firing line and I should know, I've been one of them.
One of the six pillars of International Men's Day is a focus on men's health and wellbeing. It therefore seems right to really zero in on men's mental health and something that us blokes aren't all that good at: talking about it.
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The Samaritans' Suicide Statistics Report 2018 shows a picture that's improving, with a 'significant decrease' in male suicide in the UK and the male suicide rate reaching its lowest in over 30 years. Yet, the biggest killer of men under the age of 50 is still suicide. Men still account for three-quarters of all suicides in the UK. The obvious question is, why has the picture improved and how do we keep it improving?
The obvious answer is talking. So, really, there's not much else left for me to do but… talk.
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My name is Cory, I'm 25 and I have had two serious run-ins with what I'd refer to as the 'bullies in my brain' in the shape of depression and social anxiety. They are akin to partners in crime, egging one another along in the worst of ways, making life extremely difficult for yours truly.
The first run-in came when I was just barely into my teens, living in Switzerland, going to the International School of Basel. I was always someone that had been painfully shy and that shyness morphed into a rather ugly social anxiety which, in turn, led to depression. Social anxiety essentially left me living my life in a glass box, a box with high walls and little room to move.
I could see everything going on. I could see the people I'd have loved to get to know, the people I'd have loved to make friends with, the places I'd have given everything to visit and the memories I'd be desperate to make.
But I just could not break out of my glass box. I was a master of excuses and an expert in telling myself 'next time' when it came to being social. Though, bit by bit, I started to live my life in black and white while it felt as if everybody else was living theirs in vibrant colours. My days were impossibly difficult. Getting out of bed was a chore. Going to school was akin to climbing a mountain. There was this lead weight inside me, pulling me down, telling me all manner of things: that I was worthless and that nobody liked me.
This lead weight was depression, an exhausting, merciless bully that had taken up residence inside my brain.
I didn't tell anybody, though. I'd skip class. I'd ignore friends. In truth, I had no idea what was going on with me and that is why I didn't talk to anybody about it. I had no idea how. Yet, if I look back, it was an illness like any physical illness – it was impacting how I went about my day-to-day life, I felt terrible and life was no fun. I began to work down those walls by talking about, to my parents, to a therapist and even to my classmates. The latter still ranks as one of the toughest things that I've ever had to do.
One drama class, I sat them all down – having spoken with my teacher who'd had experience in her family of depression – and I was honest about what I was going through. A weight was lifted. If you want a metaphor, I was taking on depression and social anxiety in a boxing ring, continuously getting knocked down and struggling to get up. They were all spectators, watching me struggle against an invisible opponent. Now, they were in my corner. Now, they were all behind me. I was still the one that had to go out and land the blows, but I had all of them cheering me on, backing me to get back up.
So it begs the question, when I moved back to England some three years later and depression and social anxiety came back with a vengeance, why did I stay silent?
Coming back to England was my lake in a desert, the answer to all of my issues. I was going to rock up back home and become this charismatic, confident, brilliant guy and live happily ever after. Again, on reflection, me pinning such high hopes on that tells me I wasn't all that better. I was just hoping things were about to turn. They didn't.
I knew nobody but my cousin at Sixth Form. I was still painfully shy. Once more, it morphed into social anxiety and once more, I got depressed. I couldn't talk about it because honestly? I was too proud. I was too embarrassed that I was struggling. I felt like an idiot. Have a gander around the internet and you'll see many men who cite similar reasons for not coming forwards – fear of being seen as weak; embarrassment; not wanting to be a burden; the need to be seen as a 'real man' who's strong, brave and doesn't cry.
Well, safe to say I cried a lot, I didn't get better and I ended up resorting to bashing my hand against a wall until it was swollen. My excuse? I'd fallen over and landed on it. It was terrible and easy for Sixth Form staff and my family to connect the dots.
Cue more talking, cue more therapy and cue a comeback. In both of my experiences so far, any fears I had of people thinking less of me and being seen as weak were proven to be completely unfounded. Instead, I had excellent support networks. I even opened up to people at Sixth Form and once more, I had people in my corner. We can't see mental illness, we can't see depression and we can't see social anxiety – perhaps that's why we worry so much about what people think and perhaps that's why such ugly stigmas still exist. Yet if we talk about it, we can build an image.
I would get depressed again when recovering from thyroid cancer, something I was diagnosed with just three weeks into university life. This time? I talked about it straightaway, I admitted that I was struggling and I saw a therapist. When my cat died and I was struggling to find a job, I talked about it straightaway, I admitted that I was struggling and I saw a therapist.
By now, I'd ventured onto the world of Twitter, blogging and the worldwide, web. I had found a world more willing to talk about mental health. I had no shame in what I'd been through. I understood that it was an illness, like any other. I'd had cancer, after all, and I can say with real confidence that both cancer and depression were phenomenally gruelling experiences, took enormous strength to beat and totally impacted the way I was able to live day-to-day. Both, obviously, were potentially life-threatening as well.
I don't think you can ever underestimate the strength it takes to get up every morning, put on a brave face and pretend you're fine when struggling with your mental health. There is nothing whatsoever that is weak about it. Nothing at all. Had I not opened up, shared and talked about my problems, I honestly do not think that I would be here today.
I'm not the only one that's talking, either. Prince William and Prince Harry have shared their stories, then we have footballers such as Danny Rose and Aaron Lennon, not to mention former Norwich City stars Leon McKenzie and Cedric Anselin. While I'm not royalty and my footballing dreams have long since died, I'm someone that left a full-time job in March to go freelance in a bid to chase their dreams of making it big as a screenwriter.
While Hollywood is distant on the horizon and there is no doubting this takes a lot of hard work, the point is, I have taken everything that life has thrown my way, I have got up off the mat time and time again and marched forward, landing the blows.
I opened up. I talked about my mental health. Nobody has questioned whether I'm a real man or not, people have been all too willing to help, I feel nothing but pride for what I've battled and beaten and now, I get to go chasing after my dreams.
A couple of uncomfortable minutes talking about mental health is worth the years of happiness, success and memories that can follow.
* Visit www.samaritans.org for help and advice or call 116 123, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.