Man-Up. It’s a phrase that I have used when bantering with mates as a teenager and at university, blissfully unaware of the irony that at exactly the same time I was hiding what almost led to suicide on a number of occasions.
But there are also some less obvious phrases and actions we use, almost playful, a “joke”.
A Doctor I once worked with in the day job laughed over a beer when they told me they had written a script for a patient that had “Cement” written on the pad. I must admit I laughed hard at it, a knee-jerk reaction, with very little thought or emotional intelligence being deployed.
I am sure 95% of these statements have zero intent for offence or harm or worse. But it's a worrying sign when society still uses them casually, not aware that they too, men and women (and kids) have been programmed with it.
Because this week I had one (three actually) of those experiences. I have had “colds” a lot in 2020 and finally did what I thought was right, and got a COVID test. It was negative (hooray). But it was met with some “jokes”. That I have seen and heard many times before but walked past silently. This time, the physical reaction it had to my head, heart and gut, was immense. I had to do everything in my power to repress answering in an emotional tone or state. I replied with a Psychology Today study about “Man Flu” and said I can only believe what science and medicine tells me, especially right now (to be clear, I have no idea if choosing a link to one study proves anything, it was just super quick to find in Google).
And then it got me “on the train” of thoughts I have, the conversations I have had with some of the best doctors in the fields of General Practice, Psychiatry and Psychology. The understanding that men generally come to GPs with a minor or fake physical ailment, or a physical illness brought on by mental stress, to somehow nudge open the door and hope the doctor can read their mind (or their body language) and detect that this is in fact a mental health presentation. They are there to work out how to confess that despite their apparently good external standing in their world, that they are feeling anxious, depressed, worthless, suicidal and have zero idea how to handle it in the real world and dare not tell the closest people to them for fear of being rejected and abandoned.
Unfortunately I did answer to one comment emotionally, and for a short time the outcome was not great. Hands up, dealing with conflict is a work in progress. And then when later I read my two-year-old boy his bedtime story, I was attempting not to have tears splashing off the laminated Little Blue Truck book. I felt like a kid again.
At first I chastised myself, as I used to do as an automatic reaction. And then thankfully I was kinder (I am getting much better at this). Because, frankly, it brought back all those memories of what I experienced, seeing done to others and the experiences I had. It brought me back to that place again, like my life flashing before my eyes.
I have had my fair share of physical illnesses and conditions and injuries too, and done some incredibly stupid things that were absolutely my own fault (and still do them occasionally). My GP used to joke about the four manilla folders just for me (only one page in there was mental health related). I played football and headed the ball with a slight fracture in my skull, went to work a day after doing the London Marathon (without training) and couldn’t get out of my chair, took part in an intense workout session with a virus and collapsed and ended up in hospital (plus a few other occasions for the same condition). All the time I would usually go back to work the next day. Hell, even when my dad passed away I got back to Sydney a couple of days after and went straight back to work not telling anyone about it until I really had to.
But these have felt like small-fry compared to the “other”. The experiences of holding in a lifetime of mental illness, as a child, teenager, adult, that still got up everyday and put the mask on and hated myself because of the shame and stigma of my condition, barely daring to utter the agony of pain inside my head and heart for fear of the response. Even at 22 years old when I effectively had a “breakdown”, I still cancelled that psychiatric appointment, the first foray to professional treatment, citing the fact my work would sack me if I had to leave for an appointment (dental or doctor appointments were not looked upon favourably).
The premise of “manning-up” is a bloody big reason we are in this mental health epidemic right now. It starts with that and then festers, over years, until one day when we have been made to believe putting our hand up for being physically sick with “man flu” is a no-no, and makes us believe that when we are mentally struggling we should absolutely not say a word as that reaction could be 100 times stronger.
So I forgave myself today for a part-emotional response. Because I truly believe that the intent was not to harm with comments like those that are thrown around. Surely our young sons, nephews, brothers, grandsons, partners, husbands, fathers and grandfathers’ physical and mental health is important to us? It is, right?
The work I have done in “mental health” over the last five years with the Mr. Perfect charity has taught me more than any professional qualification could have about our world. Women have literally fallen over themselves to reach out to help, offer kind words of support and men have steadily built our movement, one brick in the wall of resilience at a time.
The people I have been honoured to have met since my “coming out” and with Mr. Perfect, that have opened up to us, that have laughed and shared with us and that have felt some sense of belonging and acceptance in our community, no matter their “manliness” (or even gender), that is what we need for everyone, not just men. I can hold my hand high saying I have work to do personally, and have two little men in my world to do it for, but I hope we can ALL do the same in unison.