Twelve Men - A collection of short stories on men's experiences with Mental Health
Twelve Men, a book by Lindsay Topham, is a collection of short stories from men on their experiences with mental health. Here is one of those stories!
I am lingering in the kitchen and by the water cooler, and any other area where there is opportunity for social interaction in the workplace. Taking an overly active interest in what my colleagues did with their weekends. If I am honest, I don’t really care, I am just feigning interest. Waiting for them to return the question, so I can tell someone, anyone, that I proposed to my girlfriend. I know that my now fiancée will be the centre of attention at her office today. She’ll be showered in excited exclamations of congratulations, asked to tell the proposal story in minute detail. And honestly? I am a bit jealous of the attention she’ll be getting. I had been planning the surprise engagement for months, saved the ring for longer. It was really stressful trying to hide such a monumental milestone in my life from the one person I always share everything with – especially when, ironically, the milestone involves her so heavily. So here I am, hanging out by the water cooler, waiting for someone to ask me how my weekend was so I can tell them I got engaged.
Not for the first time, I am experiencing the ways that men and women are treated differently about the same events – although I first noticed it under much darker circumstances. When I was thirteen my brother and I were mugged on our way into town. I grew up in a London suburb and getting mugged seemed to have happened to every boy I went to school with, sort of like a weird and unnecessary rite of passage. No one was hurt in the incident, and nothing was actually stolen, but it really scared me. And for the remainder of my teenage years, it left me apprehensive about going out, fearful I would get mugged again. My parents are very loving and caring people, but I think they are quite emotionally repressed. With their Anglo-Saxon approach to emotions and trauma (which is just to bury how they feel and never talk about it), they asked me if I was OK and I answered with the bravado of a teenage boy. They checked that I was physically fine, then moved on with the adage “these things happen” and we never spoke about it again. I cannot help but wonder if it would have been handled differently if it had been my sister who had been mugged. Would it have been taken more seriously? Would they have talked to her more about it? Would they have made sure she was emotionally OK? There is no way to test this theory. I was brought up in the way all my male friends were: lovingly, but under the assumption that boys don’t need to talk about feelings. We were taught simply to get on with things.
The next traumatic thing I had to work through happened when I was seventeen, when I was unceremoniously dumped by my first true love. I was devastated. There really isn’t another pain like your first heartbreak. I thought my heart might just stop beating, it hurt so much. It felt as if I was going to be in that amount of pain forever. I remember my mum coming into my room and offering the sage advice that all I needed to do was take all my feelings, put them into a tiny imaginary box, tie a little piece of imaginary string around the box and just picture the box floating away in the breeze, taking with it all my pain. As if it was that simple. The advice from my father was equally as unhelpful. ‘Oh well – you won’t mind in a bit.’ A year or so after this, I would go on to meet the woman I would later marry, so in a way he was sort of right, but at the time the heartbreak was destroying me inside. It was my reality, my pain. I had no way of navigating or understanding it. It was the first time I had known true pain at the hands of another and I needed to talk about it. Amid the injustice of being dumped, I needed someone to hear my side of the story! I needed to be listened to, to feel heard.
Instead, I was told just to get on with it, encouraged not to feel my feelings but instead bury them, or worse – just imagine them away. The other thing my mum taught me to do as a teenager was that if ever I felt angry, or sad, or frustrated (or feel any emotion of any kind), I should go to my room and punch a pillow until I felt better. She never advised my sister to do the same. Whilst that exercise might have provided a sometimes-useful cathartic release, it was not a mechanism for understanding my emotions or resolving the issue. In fact, all it did was condition me to express my emotions through violence. I once nearly broke my knuckles in a restaurant after getting into a petty and alcohol-fuelled fight with my girlfriend. As my anger levels rose, my instinct was just to get up and leave the situation. I went to the toilet and punched the wall – hard. Which would have been fine if it had been made out of feathers like my pillow, but it was a tiled wall, on concrete. My left hand was so painful, I couldn’t use it properly for three weeks. Of course, what I had wanted to do is go into the toilet and cry – a much healthier and easier way to express and release your emotions – but I had been so conditioned as a child to hide my emotions that whenever I want to cry, I feel a block coming.
It’s also true that boys aren’t taught or encouraged to confide in their male friends about their feelings. As kids, when my friends came over, we were just told to “go out and play”, usually at a game that involved taking what you wanted by force. So, as an adult it doesn’t feel natural to talk to my male friends. Whenever I am asked how I am feeling, even now, my instinct is to always make a joke and move on, changing the subject because talking about it feels uncomfortable. I saw my brother for six hours on Sunday. He is doing a teacher training course, yet I have no idea how it is going, no idea what school he is at or how he is coping. I have no idea how his girlfriend is. I do know that I hit him quite hard on the arse with a squash racquet and I poked fun at the beard he is unsuccessfully trying to grow. Little has changed in our conversational style since we were teenagers, embarrassingly.
Over the past couple of years, I have noticed a small shift between me and my best friend (my best man) where, increasingly, we have been going through the same life experiences (career progression, house buying, engagements), so there are common topics to talk about, similar anxieties. But it still makes me feel very uncomfortable doing it and I have known this guy for fifteen years. I find it much easier to talk to my female friends. They initiate the conversation and somehow it feels easier to open up to them; you don’t feel like you are being as vulnerable. Girls are much more used to talking about feelings, which is why I think there is a role in this suicide pandemic for women acting as agents of change. Women have always watched men being brought up in a world where they cannot talk, where they are told to “man up”, where they are not allowed to be human. It would be easy to think that this only affects men, but it is a societal issue; it affects all of us so will require all of us to bring about change.
We are immersed in a culture that promotes the notion that men cannot have feelings. And it is everywhere. The mechanisms of our society underpin the idea that men can, and should, have whatever they want. Pop culture reinforces the notion that to be successful, men should be arrogant, fearless, taking what they want by force. “Boys will be boys”, “man up”, “don’t be a girl”, “don’t cry, you pussy”. It is in most advertisements I have seen, justified in most films I have watched. I’ve developed a theory I like to call the Male Bechdel test. The real Bechdel test is a measure of the representation of women in fiction – if two named female characters share one single line of dialogue that is not about a man, then that work passes the Bechdel test. Very few do (especially in film) – you will notice this now I have pointed it out. My “Male Bechdel test” suggests that a film only passes the test if a male lead role doesn’t end up thumping someone to get what he wants. Basically, it seems that all successful films have an angry, aggressive man who can’t get what he wants by socially acceptable ways, so beats somebody up, or shoots someone, or punches someone or is the fastest or the strongest or the best at something. And it is through that he achieves his redemption. It stresses the notion that to be a real man, you must take what you want by force. You are brought up to believe you must take the things you want, and you are justified on the very merit of being a boy, then you are immersed in a culture which only serves to support that idea.
Taking all this into consideration, it is safe to say I grew up to be a successful “boy”, master in the art of burying feelings, punching the nearest thing I could find when I didn’t get my own way, believing I didn’t need to talk about what was going on in my head. This conditioning left me completely ill-equipped to handle the anxiety I went on to develop as an adult. My anxiety centred around feeling unsafe or threatened. My coping mechanism of punching things did not serve me well, so instead I obsessively fixated on specific, yet unrelated, things to handle my anxiety. I have been scared of hills (even looking at them made me nauseous); I have been scared of driving for fear that I couldn’t just stop and leave the situation; I got obsessed I was going to be killed in a terrorist attack. I would get off a train or tube practically every day because I would spot someone or something suspicious. A more rationally minded person probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance, but I was looking out for things that looked suspicious. In my defence, I was working in Paris when the Charlie Hebdo shootings happened; I worked in Belgium when the terrorist attacks took place at Brussels Zaventem Airport; I worked round the corner from London Bridge in 2017. The world around you can play a massive part in how you are feeling. I was very nervous during the Brexit years. My fiancée supported me to finally seek therapy about this when, during a romantic city break in Seville, whilst eating a piece of Manchego (yes, this story is nothing if not middle class), my throat became itchy and felt like it was closing up. I became convinced I was dying of brain cancer. Obviously, I wasn’t – I was anxious. It was the same anxiety I had felt all those times before, an anxiety of not feeling safe. Fixating on things was my brain’s way of processing the uncontrollable feeling of impending doom. No one had ever explained to me what anxiety was, so how was I to know? Anxiety isn’t always nervously wringing your hands, visibly sweating and pacing the floor like a cartoon character. I had no idea anxiety could manifest itself like this.
I eventually had a few appointments with a therapist, who taught me that anxiety can manifest itself as nervousness. I explained that sometimes it feels like I am not in the room, rather I am watching my life unfold around me, as if watching a TV show of my own life. She explained that this could all be linked to the mugging all those years ago. Carrying anxiety around has a tremendous impact on my day. I know immediately if it will be a good or a bad day, as soon as my eyes adjust to the light after waking. There is no getting around it. But I do tend to find that it’s a bad day if I was drinking the day before, but if it was a bad day yesterday, I was drinking. I self-medicated with alcohol, I guess. Drink half a bottle of wine more than I should, always make sure there is an extra beer in the fridge just in case. When I am having a bad patch, it is all-consuming. The patches could be weeks, could be months – sometimes longer still. It can be hard to keep it together at work on the bad days. By trade, I am an engineer and work for a large construction company. The stakes are high, and the environment is pressured. I have spent the past three years working under the threat of redundancy. Eighty-five to ninety per cent of my colleagues are men, making it a competitive and macho arena. This is not particular to my firm, but rather it’s the industry standard.
I work closely with my boss, both figuratively and literally (the guy sits opposite). This combination means there are no relaxed moments, and there certainly aren’t any spaces for talking about feelings. I must be concentrating, or at least looking like I am concentrating, all the time. My office is littered with posters about men’s mental health. It has to be. The number one cause of death in this industry is suicide. It is the worst sector for it because we send men to awful places to live in sheds, away from their families, to undertake cold, hard, horrible work for minimum wage. So, we have a lot of strong drives run by HR (an entirely female department) about men and their mental health. I have seen the posters, but I am unsure if the men it really needs to get through to have picked it up yet. What I don’t think works is encouraging men to engage with mental health awareness campaigns by organising a tea and cake session. If baking a cake was how men wanted to talk about how they feel they would be doing it already. The point I am trying to make is that it isn’t enough just to tell men to talk. It’s not permission they need, it’s education. There is almost an undercurrent to these campaigns where the slogan may as well read: Men, all you have to do is talk! Why are you not just talking, ya idiots? Men are not not talking out of spite or laziness; they are not talking because they have never been taught how to. Most men have been brought up to release their emotions through anger. They have been excused of shit behaviour their whole lives by the adage “boys will be boys”. They are encouraged to be competitive, tough, strong, forceful fighters. It’s eat or be eaten. It’s you or someone else. They haven’t been shown how to be vulnerable. Men don’t need to be told to talk; they need to be shown how. They need to be brought along on the journey.
We have, for generations, raised men not to talk about their emotions. To never express fear, anxiety, or worry. To never do anything that could make them appear weak. Our fathers, our grandfathers, our great-grandfathers have been brought up not to express themselves; now a dozen men a day are killing themselves. It is not a problem with men; it is a problem with society. Society has a problem. Society has a problem if twelve men kill themselves every day due to mental health problems. So, there must be societal change. Men have a responsibility to be part of and create change, but it isn’t for men to do alone. Men not talking affects all of us. Men killing themselves affects all of us. They are our sons, husbands, brothers, fathers, boyfriends, bosses, friends, colleagues.
We must create spaces where all people are allowed to be vulnerable; create environments where feelings and talking about feelings are normalised. Where we allow failure. Where we can talk about the things we are frightened about, the things that keep us awake at night. We must not excuse men for bad or destructive behaviours by the very virtue of being male – we should have higher standards for them than that. Let us not raise our sons as our husbands and brothers have been raised. Let us generate a change in society where people see the strength in vulnerability, where we celebrate the strength in asking for help. Where we talk about mental health with the respect that it deserves. It isn’t a handful of yearly campaigns that involve cake. It’s expecting better. It’s understanding that change requires commitment. It needs fundamental changes to the very core mechanisms of how we understand the world to work. The change required is everywhere. It is all of us, working all of the time. We held an engagement party where I was inundated with congratulations and demands to ask how I popped the question, and eventually I was able to express my immense joy at being engaged to the person I love most in the world. It was a relief to finally have the opportunity to talk about the stress of finding the perfect ring, of keeping it hidden in our house for months, how I nearly let it slip hundreds of times what I was planning to do. I joked about how terrified I had been on the day I knew I was going to propose, that even though I was practically certain she would say yes, there was still a tiny ounce of doubt that played on my mind all day until I managed to pop the question. I took great pleasure in telling my friends and family the details of the experience from my perspective, but it would have been nice if someone had asked me how my weekend was when I was lingering by the water cooler.
Twelve Men is available here