“Coward” he said. It was the tone of contempt, as much as the language, of what my best friend had just said that surprised me.
We were talking about the death of Chester Bennington; the lead singer of Linkin Park who hanged himself last week. My friend and I had grown up listening to his work, where lyrics such as “Numb” and “Crawling” resonate with our whole generation.
My friend knows that I’ve suffered seriously with clinical depression in my life. So I was shocked that he would have so little sympathy for Chester’s passing. When I explored how he felt about it, his reply exactly underpins why I am writing this blog.
I didn’t know until I read the obituaries that Chester had been molested as a child and grew up with an unstable cop Dad, or that he had struggled with addiction long before he became a rock star. We can ask with hindsight how a man so popular and surrounded by people felt he was unable to ask for help in his hour of need.
I won’t speculate on what was going through his mind or what his exact circumstances were. Enough of that has been done in the press. But it is a worthwhile point that people suffering with mental health issues often feel unable to talk about their problems or seek treatment.
A critical reason for this is the stigma; which you can’t truly understand unless you’ve been there yourself. And the group most vulnerable to this are men aged between 16 and 45. Suicide is our most likely cause of death, and we make up around 70% of all suicides in the UK, yet we make up less than 30% of mental health patients.
And the reason is in exactly what my best friend said. The judgement on a total stranger’s suicide as cowardice. I don’t feel it is cowardly. I feel it’s a tragedy that a man felt so lost and broken that he would take his own life rather than call someone.
I’m not angry at my friend, nor do I blame him. But it underpins the cultural paradox in our society that is fundamentally a male problem; we have to be “strong”, but we aren’t allowed to sometimes show the vulnerability needed to be so.
The word strength is defined in some dictionaries as ‘to withstand’. Not to be invincible, or be immune to pain. But to take a massive hit and not yield. It doesn’t mean you can’t feel hurt, or cry, or get angry. How you do it is not in the small print of the contract. Strength simply means to come under heavy fire and remain standing.
A male human being is genetically designed to protect and provide. Through evolution and the creation of complex societies, this has become less about hunting mammoths and more about being a good husband, father and citizen. To get a decent-paying job, contribute to the community and be there for the people you hold dear.
It is a natural part of life that things don’t always go to plan. At some point we have all lost a relative, had a relationship go South or suffer a career setback. Our circumstances, be they through fate or our own mistakes, are inevitable. And inevitably, they hurt.
One of my favourite quotes is by Aldous Huxley; “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what has happened to him”. And it’s true. I had no control over events in my childhood or my mother’s illness. And whilst I was never hit or raped, the sustained emotional abuse, trauma and neglect was hard to deal with.
The greatest challenge of this was in accepting that what had happened to me was wrong and naming it for what it was. After, it was about coming to terms with my illness and facing up to the damage. I spent many years in counselling; probing the wound and cutting out the hidden shrapnel. With time, those wounds have healed. And I’ve learned to love my scars.
The greatest lesson I learned was that everything revolves around me taking personal responsibility. I made the conscious decision to stop being a victim and instead be a survivor. I learned to understand and manage my depression, to get treatment and to focus on my self-development. It took a lot of pain, tears and blind rage. But I stepped up and I got through it.
It is that personal responsibility which I believe is the real definition of masculinity. I had to allow myself to feel what I felt and not avoid it. I had to have the courage to go to a doctor and get treatment; to go to counselling and stick with it. Blocking it out does not work. You have to look adversity in the eye and allow yourself to feel truly terrified, then somehow keep going.
There are no two words more deadly to our cohort than “man up”. Stop being weak. You’re too emotional. You’re over-reacting. Pull yourself together and get over it. I’ve heard versions of the above said to me many times in my life and I’m sure you have too.
Writing this blog is primarily a catharsis for me; in marking how far I’ve come. But another objective is in being that responsible, sensitive and conscious father, husband and colleague that I want to aspire to. To contribute to my community and help challenge the stigma that prevents so many people from getting help; that forces them into isolation. I want change.
We are getting better at talking about this, but there is still work to do. So as scary as it is to write this, I’m going to do it anyway and hit “publish”.
Courage, after all, needs to be contagious.
With thanks to a few people who helped me edit this piece after days of inertia. Your support is truly invaluable. Thank you. #PayItForward