The Trouble With Us Men

If I think back about my first two months in lockdown, I’ve spent them pretty well. Gutting my garden… pulling six tonnes of concrete out of it. Drawing illustrations for buyers. And doing my best to be a decent father. My daughter who has just turned 13, looks after her own time mostly…. and even has a colour-coded schedule in excel (she didn’t get that from me!). My son though, needs interaction… he’s more extravert and misses his school friends. So I’ve had to adapt to being his friend as well as Dad. We have played Lego, thrown a frisbee, shot at wood blocks with a nerf gun, gardened, played hours of PlayStation game Subnautica together discovering virtual oceans. 

Still, it’s been hard to measure time and so the days just seem to have disappeared.

One day it didn’t go so well, and we fell out over a game we were playing, with him swearing at me and then me getting angry at him … I became my Dad and shouted a lot. We were so angry… I shouted and he shouted back and I felt like a loser for losing my temper.
And then 30 minutes later we were okay with each other. 

But it was enough to make me want to write again because I think, as a man, there is so much you don’t share for fear of looking weak, because you were taught that to share your feelings wasn’t what was expected of you, to get a grip. At least, that was true for my generation (Gen X) whose parents grew up in the war and recession and weren’t really taught about mental health. 

My Dad became so isolated when he retired. He just used to sit and drink. I finally figured out that he had anxiety after he admitted to me that he was on medication. But he drank to not feel anything because his generation were never taught to talk about how they feel. Men need to be stoic and strong, and they shouldn’t feel.

But we do feel. And holding on to all that stuff isn’t healthy. I’m not talking about everyone wearing tie dye pants and acting like hippies. I’m talking about just being straight with each other now and again…. at least the ones that love us.

Illustration by Matt Weston

So I talked to my boy later after our argument, but I didn’t chastise him further. I just explained my feelings that led to me shouting, because he needs to know that men can share how they feel and still be strong.

You see so much rage out there on and offline these days. And I am convinced it’s partly because of the male attitude that exists … they simply won’t communicate when they have thoughts that they perceive to be weak. I am no different, and find it difficult.

But, even if we talk about feelings, we can still be men. Good fathers, good workers, good soldiers, good people.

Yes it shows strength when you ‘buckle down and push on’, but not at the cost of your mental health. Because the truth is, that a healthy mind makes you stronger.

Feeling Stuff is Just Part of Being Human

When you deny or resist feelings of sadness, depression or fear, they just have more power over you. That’s why it’s important to not judge these feelings, but just acknowledge them and then move on.

There’s a meditation technique about this – it involves visualising yourself sitting by a stream, and watching as these feelings arrive on the current, observing them, and then letting them pass.

I think this new animation I am Square from Benoit Leva is a super cool way of showing a range of emotions, and how they make the difference between an inanimate box, and something that seems to have sentience.

So next time you feel ashamed about feeling something, remember that it’s just because you’re a human, and not an empty box.

I’m No Astronaut, But I Am Okay

A few weeks ago I was listening to a talk by an ex airforce test pilot and astronaut (sorry I can’t remember the podcast, it was probably the Moth or TED). He was very humble as he told the most spellbinding story about such an amazing career. Admittedly I forgot his name as soon as he uttered it, but it was obvious that he was a great man. A good and wise person.

“Some people are just better” I thought to myself, and “I have to be better”.  

But wait. This is the kind of “should, must” thinking that anxiety loves. Putting pressures on ourselves to measure up to unrealistic standards is unhealthy for our mental wellbeing. Not that I couldn’t have been an astronaut … oh who am I kidding. I can’t even see across the road without my contact lenses and I have the reaction time of a piece of granite.

So I adjusted my prep talk to something more constructive. “I have to be a good communicator.” I told myself.

Something I did at first in lockdown, is keep a diary. I used to rate my feelings and thoughts on a scale. Then reassess them with a more analytical, objective view. This kind method is a cornerstone for CBT which teaches you to reassess all your thoughts and feelings. And it helps you keep all your aspirations in their place.

It’s absolutely essential we have hopes and dreams. That is our difference as human beings. But they are there as a ‘North Star’ to guide us. They are not a mandatory for us to have fulfilling lives.

If you want to address this kind of Cognitive Behavioural Therapeutic way of thinking in your day to day life, I strongly recommend the “Catch It” app which is offered by the NHS. Find it here


Beyond the Virus

I’m currently on furlough, which is bizarre in the way that I’m getting (a little) money, and yet I’m not allowed to work (for my existing employer, anyway).

It also adds to the anxiety that already exists if you’re socially distancing in lockdown. The highs and lows can come thick and fast, fuelled by uncertainty of when we will come out of it, whether we will have a job at the end of it and if you’re getting used to isolation like me… the fear of being around people again.

I’m actually lucky. Because I have a family around me, and a decent amount of space amidst countryside where I can go for long runs.

Others aren’t so lucky. It’s a no brainer that the medical professionals that have been dealing first hand with the virus and its effects have had to face daily trauma. I listened to a doctor talk on LBC telling us that his colleagues ‘will be changed after this’. PTSD will be widespread amongst the medical front line.

Then there are those that live alone, who have had to face the echo chamber of their own minds, with little day to day conversation. And it’s this echo chamber that I think sometimes fosters anxious thoughts.

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Social isolation is an introspective place

The number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 are showing signs of slowing. But the mental health fallout will last longer.

So, last night I took a first step in a long term plan of mine. I joined an open day for a psychodynamic counselling course. I hope to (part time, maybe) do my bit in the future to help others face the shitty business of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses.

It was either that or start a micro brewery, but beer makes me flabby so….

Chill the F*ck Out

In 2015, a study* was performed using 200 cataract operation patients where patients were given meditation music before their operation, and their ‘stress coping skills’ measured. The results showed the patients with the music had lower stress levels before surgery.

That’s just one of boatloads of studies that show how great music is to calm an anxious mind.

So, I thought I’d give you a little recommendation of some music I use to chill out.

Future Astronauts podcast is in my opinion, the absolute dogs bollocks of chill out stations.

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Forget all of that hotel chill-out playlist tripe that they play to sun-baked oldies around the pool (apologies if you are a sub-baked oldie). This podcast contains 100% decent tunes that even a pilled-up Ibiza DJ who is half dead on the beach at 10am after a particularly emotional 10 hour set would listen to.

And even better, they have created an album to raise funds for mental health charities in the UK and the US.

Click here to listen to some tracks.

*read study here .

Finished my FutureLearn Psychology course!

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I’ve used some lockdown time to study one of my passions – psychology. 
I’ve just finished a great online Psychology course which is run by Liverpool University in he UK.

It’s part of my plan to get my swiss cheese brain more informed about mental health so I can communicate more about it. Hooray!

The course uses a shitload of really clever words, but essentially it challenges the current discussion amongst psychiatrists and psychologists about the relative importance of social, biological and psychological factors in mental illness.

If you are interested in doing the course on FutureLearn, you can take it here for free.

I think my general conclusion through my learnings is this:
Most mental illness is the product of what happens to you (social), how you see the world (psychological) and maybe some genetic predisposition for illness (biological).

Also though, the professor who leads the course makes an interesting discovery through research (done a while ago now in 2005) that the more a person ruminates on negative events in their life, the more they are likely to suffer mental illness effects.

I mean wow, this was particularly relevant in my case. I’m a massive ruminator (for some reason I’m seeing a cow in my mind) … bloody typical in people with anxiety I think. Personally, having social anxiety makes me go over every painstaking shit moment of any social event again and again… forensically inspecting it for a moment where I was a fucking bell-end. Something I personally am working on is to let go a bit more, and be kinder to myself.

Or, in other words, to just tell my negative magnification thoughts to shut the fuck up.

Why counselling is scary

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The other day I was sat around sketching. In truth, my mind doesn’t deal with ‘downtime’ very well, and being in lockdown for covid-19 (what week is it now? 10?) has given me lots of it… especially because I’m on furlough. To use another seafaring metaphor, I’m like a rudderless boat adrift in an ocean of time.

Anyway, I started sketching this submarine, probably because I’ve been playing way too much Subnautica on the playstation (goodness how I love that game). And it came to me that going into counselling is scary, in the way that thalassophobia is scary.

You just don’t know what you are going to be confronted by in the murky depths of your mind, and that’s why it’s confronting to enter the deep waters of counselling.

You see your brain doesn’t like being uncomfortable, and dealing with things it deems scary. So it worries, about meeting them again.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try counselling. Like with all things, you just have to get to know what’s under there and then it doesn’t seem so scary after all.

*starts up the playstation for a game of Subnautica*

My book is winging its way around the world!

When I started writing “Tell Your Negative Thoughts to Shut The F*ck Up” it felt exciting, because I knew it was the right thing to do. There are many serious books out there about anxiety, but sometimes the best way to communicate things is to tap into the not-so-serious. Be a bit more human.

So I’m proud to say that over 100 copies of the book are currently flying their way to the book’s Kickstarter backers all over the world – from New Zealand to Malaysia, Italy to America.

Some backers opted in for their own illustration based on a negative thought.

So in the interests of showing other sufferers that they might not be alone in their thoughts, I thought I’d share some (no names included, of course).

“I worry about someone asking for a lift, as I’m such a bad driver.”
“Seems like everything I do is rubbish”
“First BREXIT, then Covid-19. What the fuck is next?”
“I worry that I’m a bad mom.”
“Anxiety is a liar.”
“I worry that people are judging me.”