R U Okay, Bro?
Almost exactly one year ago, I was diagnosed with depression. A completely accidental diagnosis.
A period of exhaustion, feeling flat and struggling to complete even the simplest of tasks, led me to a doctor’s office, confused with what was happening to me.
The hypochondriac in me had already narrowed things down to two different options. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or Terminal Cancer.
“You’ve got depression. Nothing major, let’s refer you to someone.”
As relieved as I was not to be dying, I was dumbfounded. My bewilderment was apparently nothing new to my GP, who referred me to a psychologist, as though it was for nothing more than treating a minor cold.
I managed two sessions of therapy before I gave up on it.
It didn’t work for me. I left each time feeling drained and confused about what I was doing, and I spent the days leading up to it feeling anxious and panicked.
It’s not in my nature to talk, especially about these sorts of things.
And this is a sentiment unique to many men.
There’s an expectation to be “hyper-masculine”. Drink beer, watch your sports, get laid. It’s a very basic textbook instruction to manhood. And fairly easy to follow.
But in this is the unspoken notion that men shouldn’t show weakness.
God forbid you mess up one of those. I would know, I’ve been just as quick to judge as the next bloke.
So what happens when your mind starts to falter? Is this the ultimate form of weakness?
The brain isn’t a muscle, it isn’t a physical conquest. In a way, it’s your own sentiment of ‘being’, the consciousness that makes you so uniquely individual. Yet, it is also incredibly beyond our control.
“I have no reason to be depressed,” I told my therapist as soon as she sat me down for our first session. “Look at my life, it’s great.”
And I stand by this. I genuinely had no reason to be depressed. I was succeeding at my degree at university, my social life was better than ever, and I was about to head overseas to travel for several months at the end of the year.
To say my mind was failing me then was bizarre. It felt like admitting failure. Like acknowledging some sense of snobbery, or dissatisfaction with my life.
I kept thinking back to when I injured my leg playing hockey. I spent weeks on crutches, physically struggling to do the most simple of tasks, like carrying my books to my classes.
But with an affliction so visible, people would help me. They could see me struggle with the most basic of tasks, and stepped in to assist.
But depression is a whole different kind of affliction. So I didn’t receive help. And, following the unspoken rules of masculinity, I refused to ask for it. Like spraining your ankle, I figured it would be something I could ‘walk off.’
As so many men do.
My life became a series of events where I tried to distract myself, remind myself that I could overcome the numbness that seemed to follow me. I embarked on an endeavour of self destruction.
It became standard practice for me to sneak home, trying not to wake up my dogs, at 7am in the morning. I would come home and climb into bed for three hours sleep, before waking up to force myself through the next day, stumbling to take a shower.
My alcohol resistance rose to an unhealthy level, as I indulged with anything that would still have an effect on me.
Through this all, I maintained that there was nothing wrong with me.
My social media was full of images taken of me from a year ago, in an effort to maintain the same social image I believed I’d always had. My grades at university were faltering.
At this point, I knew there was a problem. But to admit this would almost be an admission of failure. A breakage in the sacred bond that is your link to your manhood.
I didn't break this bond. However, an acquaintance from high school, Ed, broke the bond. A series of panic attacks and bad experiences with alcohol had become apparent on his end. So he spoke to me about it.
And that was all it took. In Ed, I suddenly had a confidant, and a good friend. The idea of ‘manhood’ was being redefined through this bizarre new friendship dynamic.
We could just as easily go for a beer and talk about how we were feeling mentally, as though we were going to watch the footy.
More experiences with depression started making sense. The exhaustion that seemed to plague me, or how my vision felt as though everything was literally black and white.
And talking these things out was helping both of us. We both individually expanded our circles, finding more people to confide in. Specifically other blokes. And we were finding more and more men around us becoming comfortable talking about their mental health.
My self-destructive streak wasn’t unique to me it seemed. The blokes in these ‘informal support groups’ we had formed, all shared common experiences. Abusing alcohol, drugs, whatever we could put in our bodies.
Most surprising to me was the types of people that I was finding these shared experiences with. By all means, these people were successful. They were smart, popular, and from stable backgrounds.
And I was beginning to see why.
It’s integral to approach your problems, not to bury them in self-destructive cycles. Men aren’t Gods, no matter what we like to believe. We aren’t infallible, and we most definitely are not indestructible.
But this preconception that we have to be all of this and more puts so much pressure on the average man. Because at the end of the day, you are just a man.
There’s no easy path to helping yourself. But for men, the path to even asking for help, is long and treacherous.
You’re not less of a man for asking for help, and you’re not any less tough for doing so. The bravest thing a man can do, is to say “I’m not okay. Can you help me?”
This change starts with every man turning to his best mate, and having a conversation.
So, man up. Man the fuck up.
And say, “R U Okay, Bro?”