This blog post is part of a series on men’s mental health for Movember. In this series, different men give their perspective on male mental health. What does it mean to deal with mental health as a man?
In certain cases as with the interview below, people have had the courage to reveal their identity. This is both brave and vulnerable, congratulations to them!
What made you want to share your story? Please introduce yourself
Hi, I’m Chris Hart, I’m 39 and live in the UK. I’m a dad to three boys and have worked in recruitment for the last 14 years.
I wanted to share my story because, slowly over the last couple of years I have become more comfortable in talking about my own experiences with Mental Health. It has taken nearly 39 years to get to this point, and now I want to do what I can to help others in talking about it and reducing the stigma.
Have you ever experienced a mental health or wellbeing issue? If so, when was the first time you became aware of it or experienced it?
I have always known there was something ‘different’ about me, I call it ‘the way I am wired’. I have known since I was a kid, if I had to put an age on it, I would say around 8, maybe. And things have stayed with me ever since. Those ‘things’ being Anxiety, Depression, OCD and Addiction.
What did you experience that made you aware of it, and what did you do about it?
My parents separated when I was 9, my therapist suggested that was the cause, but I don’t buy it, it’s too cliché for me. It definitely affected me, but I was incredibly lucky as a child, my parents’ divorce was probably the most amicable in the history of all divorces. Even to this day, my parents and their partners are like one big happy family, we all get together for family events, sometimes just for the sake of it.
I have very vague memories of feeling the way I do before they separated, which is why I refer to it as being just ‘the way I am wired’.
I didn’t do anything about it to be honest, not anything productive anyway. Ever since I was a child I have been incredibly high functioning. I grew up on a council estate in Basildon, Essex in the 80’s, which is not exactly the environment that promotes boys talking about their feelings.
I mainly experienced anxiety as a child, OCD was in there too (not switching lights on and off a hundred times, that’s not how my OCD works).. Then, when my teens kicked in, drinking and experimenting with drugs became my way of dealing with things. It stayed that way up until, well, to this day if I am honest.
I finally decided to get help a couple of years ago. As I said I am incredibly high functioning, meaning I was the master at hiding it. My friends had no idea what was really going on, nor did my other half. But, I think after about 30+ years of keeping everything bottled up, things finally started to seep out. I started to get chest pains on a daily basis, which even though they are a physical symptom, I knew were a result of my anxiety. I was also finding it harder to hide my mood swings and control my drinking. At this point I was a Dad of two, so the fear of not being around for them kicked in.
I went to my GP, which was the most nerve wracking thing I have ever done. This would be the first time I was going to tell someone else “I think I have anxiety and depression”. Looking back, I think I was more scared they would say there was nothing wrong with me. Luckily the doctor agreed. I was prescribed anti-depressants and a few months later I started counselling, which I did for about a year.
How did taking those steps make you feel, and have they helped?
I still have my down days and I still have moments when alcohol gets the better of me, but I am in a much better place now. I feel like I’m more in control, I can spot the signs and I understand which actions and behaviours lead to me regressing. I’ll let myself off more nowadays if I do have a bad day whereas before I would really beat myself up. Now I think that allowing myself to have the odd bad day is actually a good thing, it allows me to reset or spot new behaviours I want to change.
At the time though, it kind of sent me backwards. I think going to counselling and talking about all this stuff I had bottled up for 30+ years was difficult and for a short period of time during counselling, my behaviour and moods definitely got worse. But I got through the other side of it and even though I’m not “cured”, I am better equipped to deal with things.
What are your lessons learned with regards to taking care of your mental health?
I wish I had reached out for help much earlier. I definitely feel like I have been my own worst enemy and held myself back in life. The hardest part for me was opening up to all the people closest to me. I had drip fed my other half bits and pieces over the years, so it wasn’t as much of a shock to her, but she was a little taken aback.
But when it came to my parents and my mates. I was shitting myself to put it bluntly. I had no idea how they would react, especially my mates, they’d known me for nearly 20 years as this outgoing, loud, cocky so and so.
When I first told them, I did it in one go, like taking a plaster off. I sent them a message in our WhatsApp group. A couple of them found it hard to compute at first, they couldn’t get their head around the fact that the version they’d known of me was all front, that the arrogance and cockiness was a defence mechanism. They also couldn’t get their head around this not being new and that it hadn’t happened overnight, rather it was something I had been dealing with my whole life. That was the hardest part for them to understand. But they listened and they got there.
I’m still just as loud and cocky when we get together as I don’t know how to be any different, but I’m also more open if they ask me how I’m doing, which they do. They don’t push it, they listen if I want to talk and they understand if I don’t want to. That’s all I need.
What are your next steps for your own mental health?
During lockdown, I decided to self-educate. I took a Mental Health Ambassadors course and I also became a certified CBT Coach & Practitioner. So, the next steps for me now are to put what I’ve learned into practice on myself. CBT is great, as I was taking the course, I was also applying it to myself. It’s so helpful, just little things you can do day to day that change your thought patterns and your belief system.
I’m taking things one day at a time, it sounds cliché but when I think back to a year ago, I don’t recognise that person any more. And maybe a year from now I’ll feel the same.
Can you talk a bit about society’s perception of male mental health, do you think this affected your own perception and your ability to deal with your problems?
Society’s perception of mental health has a lot to answer for. The time and place that I grew up in, it just wasn’t talked about. And then working in a Sales environment, no chance. It’s the fear of being judged, because, once you open up and say something, it’s out there and you can’t take it back.
As a guy, there’s just this expectation to be ‘one of the lads’. This is definitely a big part of why I kept my mouth shut for 30 years, I didn’t want to take the risk. The risk of being looked at differently.
Anxiety is a powerful force, and not a force for good. I cannot express how much Anxiety will convince you of the worst, how it controls you. Pair that with being a guy working in a Sales environment, I just didn’t feel like I had any other choice but to keep quiet, not just to work colleagues, but to everyone.
According to you, why is it important for men to speak up about their mental health, and for society to address it as a whole?
It is important for everyone to speak up because it does make a difference, not just to yourself, but it might inspire other people to do the same. You’d be surprised at the number of people that open up to you once you have done so yourself.
The reason society has an issue with it, the reason there is stigma, is purely down to a lack of education. More importantly, from those who are not willing to be educated on the matter. Mental Health is as important as Physical Health, and should be treated and talked about as such. People should feel as comfortable talking about their depression as they would about having a cold or breaking a leg. Mental Health affects everyone, we all have it, some just have more to live with than others.
What would you like to say to other men who might be suffering in silence from a mental health issue?
I get it, I get why you stay silent. No shame in that, and you shouldn’t feel any pressure to open up. You’ll open when you want to and if you want to. But, what I can say is talking does help. You don’t have to open up to everyone at the same time, I didn’t, in fact I still haven’t. It’s been nearly 3 years for me since I went to the GP, so it’s been a slow process and one I have done at my own pace. Do what is right for you, but know that there is someone out there who understands and will listen.
Where can people find you?
Connect with me on LinkedIn