Depression is not a choice. For many it’s a silent struggle that needs a voice. Over the last two years, 75% of suicide victims in Australia were men. It’s a deadly conflict that needs a conversation.
Acclaimed American researcher, author, and social worker Brené Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly about a gentlemen who approached her after a talk about shame. After getting books signed for his wife and daughters, he told her that as a man he understood shame all too well. His observation was “…when we reach out and share our stories, we get the emotional s**t beat out of us. My wife and daughters? They’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off.”
Society’s stigma around what a man is supposed to be and what is expected of him as a father, a mentor, a provider and protector, knocks the very possibility of vulnerability right out of the park. My generation suppressed anything remotely akin to emotion, feelings and failure in aforementioned expectations.
We get very good at hiding emotion and questionability around our masculinity. We also get very good at portraying that guy who has it all together to our loved ones and the outside world. But a lot of times, that’s not what is going on inside.
Depression is an illness
It is not a personal shortcoming associated with any kind of failure. Depression can very quickly set up a long-standing relationship with shame. It’s a match made in hell! One feeds the other, and the cycle becomes self-perpetuating.
Shame is believing that we are not loved; that we are bad. It’s different from guilt, where we regret we’ve done a bad thing. Men who suffer from depression are frequently ashamed of how they are feeling. They often internalise messages borne of shame from parents, teachers, peers and the like. A lack of routine, uncertainty, and stress provides more traction to that cycle. Our sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) gets stimulated. We want to hide away or we react with anger and rage. A lot of the time we feel extremely alienated from others as well as ourselves because we become disconnected from our basic values as human beings. It can get to a point where we feel just too worthless to get out of bed in the morning.
It is suggested that 85% percent of people suffering from major depression also experience serious anxiety symptoms. And a depressed mood is a symptom in 75% of people who have anxiety disorders. Hello? Depression invites anxiety and vice versa and shame slips in the side door unannounced to help stir a constantly revolving cocktail of emotional hell.
When people (especially other men) used to ask me what my writing was about, I used to deliberate cautiously how I would answer that question. I was laid bare and vulnerable, and I choked for words. I used to beat around the bush, trying to get to the real point. Why? I was scared of being judged. Scared of being labelled a ‘pussy’ and not being what society expected a man to be. I wasn’t supposed to share the soft stuff. I wasn’t supposed to get off my white horse and take my armour off.
When I had the courage to explain openly and honestly that it was about my own personal journey into emotional discomfort and pain, and how that involved failure and success in varying degrees, and how I learned to talk about it openly, the response was surprising and overwhelming. Men who on the surface had that ‘man’s man’ persona jumped into the conversation with “Yeah. I get that,” or “I understand how you feel because this happened to me…” The subsequent conversation always had an air of relief, empathy and ‘God! Someone felt the same way I did!’ about it.
Vulnerability is putting yourself out there, hoping that there will not be a slap back or an indifference to our openness. Vulnerability is saying I love you first. It’s asking your partner for sex, or asking your boss for a raise. It’s all about going there knowing that rejection is a very real possibility. And that’s the same with having that conversation about depression as men. Yes it can be excruciatingly vulnerable and the risk is high that we may get the emotional s**t beaten out of us. But this conversation is very necessary and it opens doors that need to be opened.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Men are dying (remember the 75% statistic?) because deep down they long for that conversation. They long for that light at the end of a long, unending, miserable tunnel that provides the hope and courage to breathe another breath.
As I write this, my own emotions stir, awakening past experiences that trigger a welling up in my eyes. A tissue is necessary to clear my vision and keep typing because I know a lot of other men struggle in silence with no light ahead, little hope and pain much deeper and darker than my own. We need to un-mute and ask the simple yet prophetic questions that may pave the way to managing mental health in an open and constructive way: “Are you OK? I’m here if you want to share! I’m not going anywhere.” These words could save a life!
These words can open doors that have been closed for a long time. Doors that hold secrets, more shame, and darker events that have been long hidden. It was Sigmund Freud who said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Finding the necessary tools
The end result of opening that communication may be revisiting your childhood, or rewiring your perception of past events. It could mean reliving emotional trauma and unleashing more pain and shame in order to arrest and escape that spiralling descent into oblivion. There is no quick fix. But the revelation of such a journey can empower us with the tools and coping mechanisms to live fulfilled lives of self-awareness and self-love. We begin to recognise triggers. We challenge shame-inducing thoughts. A world of self-compassion and empathy is invited. We feel worthy of love and acceptance. We avoid judging ourselves and let the judgment of others pass by. And we learn to forgive!
We are only human and we are allowed to mess up!! We all do. It’s part of being mortal and part of life. The difference is that we take from those stuff-ups that which will make us a better person because of the experience. We become even more self-aware and empathic with ourselves and with others, especially the ones we love. Another spiralling effect, but in the opposite direction.
Let’s talk! Let’s save a life.
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