Difficult Conversations: Men And Sadness

“Now I saw a friend of mine, the other day
And he told me that my eyes were gleamin’
Oh I said I’d been away, and he knew
Oh he knew the depths I was meanin’
And it felt so good to see his face
All the comfort invested in my soul
Oh to feel the warmth, of his smile
When he said, ‘I’m happy to have you home.” Keep Your Head Up – Ben Howard 2011

I’m going to share a number of anecdotes that will hopefully coalesce into a bigger point.

Number 1: I went to an all-boys grammar school in the south-east of England and the biggest insult there was was “that’s gay”. It was used as a cudgel to ensure that your peers ascribed to the same rigid orthodoxy that you did. James has a girlfriend? That’s gay. Michael got top marks in his exam? What a gay. Dave said he’s been revising for the mock exams? *Sniggers* gay. The discerning young gentleman was quick to recognise when something was unorthodox and present an appropriate mask to conceal his feelings, usually by responding to any question regarding feelings with the only acceptable answer: fine.

Number 2: As a teacher, I learned to recognise when a young boy liked a young girl. This started happening usually midway through year 9, but really took off in the GCSE years. The first sign would be overhearing the young man in question, we’ll call him Will, make a scathing comment about a young girl, who we’ll call Heidi. The conversation would go something like this:

[Friend of Will]: Did you see Heidi at the party on Friday?

[Will]: Yeah, she was super annoying and had a face like a slapped ass.

[Friend of Will]: I thought she looked quite fit…

[Will – very agitated]: Na, she’s a slut and slaps on loads of makeup to hide her acne like we don’t know she has it.

[Black Unicorn, who like all teachers has the hearing of a bat]: William, would you be so kind as to share what you are talking about with the whole class from the front?

[Will, blushing]: No thank you sir.

I should point out that Heidi would often be in the same class as Will and would likely have heard Will talking.

What would happen after this, usually within 2-4 weeks? Will and Heidi would start going out.

Number 3: I have a number of male friends who, on the surface, are living their best lives. They have PhD’s and good jobs; some have loving families; they are gregarious, engaging, caring and thoroughly decent people. They work for international companies, educational institutions, tech companies, restaurants, the armed forces and the police among other professions. The one thing they have in common is that they have all suffered from crushing sadness and when asked how they were doing, would answer with the biggest lie in the English language: ‘fine’.

Number 4: In my last months as a teacher, I got so down that I would shun the company of all people over the age of 18. To be clear, I was still teaching well – in fact, I taught some of my best lessons when I was feeling most down, the preparation and execution of lessons being a welcome break from my own feelings. Break times and lunchtimes were a more difficult hurdle to navigate as my room turned into a hub for my form. It got so bad that I would spend many a lunchtime sitting in the male changing room, a place that was known to smell like a cross between fetid water and a century egg (google it) [did you just use Google as a verb? Oh, the humanity -Ed]. The problem was that teachers would come in and ask how I was doing. Luckily, I remembered the correct way to answer that question from childhood: ‘I’m fine’. Once that particular sanctuary had been breached, I took to hiding in the drama green room under a bench with the lights off. Rather that then interact with people that would ask me how I was. Ugh. Asking about feelings? That’s ‘gay’.

I remember listening to the comedian Bill Burr on a podcast and he said something like “men are killing themselves in droves because they are not allowed to say that a cat looks nice”. It stuck with me. [Update: I found the Bill Burr clip here] Then I started thinking and researching some more. In the UK in 2016, three-quarters of all suicides were men (4,508 to 1,457) [1], yet “women between the ages of 16-24 are almost three times as likely (26%) to experience a common mental health problem as their male contemporaries (9%). [2]

What?

How does that make any sense? It doesn’t unless…Maybe these men went to schools like mine where expressing your feelings was seen as ‘gay’; where they had no emotional vocabulary to articulate their feelings for a person that they like; where the correct answer to ‘how do you feel?’ was ‘fine’ and not ‘I’m so down that I hide under a bench rather than talk to people.’

The sad thing is, in a warped, short-term way, men are right. I have been in a staffroom when news has got out that a male member of staff has taken time off for stress or depression and the response from men has varied from anger at perceived weakness to mockery for that same weakness. But there is another response, uttered in unguarded moments, that is revealing. It goes something like this: ‘well I’m stressed and you don’t see me taking time off’. It is said with something like envy in the voice and the sense is that these men would love to admit that they are struggling, but they would be judged as weak. After all, to be masculine is to be ‘strong’ and stoic. Talking about your feelings and asking for help? That’s weak and ‘girly’. Taking time off? Out of the question. If I did people would start talking to me. Or worse: calling me “gay”.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. I’m a unicorn, not a miracle worker and it feels trite to leave a phone number to call or a catch-all final sentence. If I was pressed, I would posit that community is part of the answer and a lot of different ones are beginning to recognise the scale of the problem, from the Rugby Player’s Associations ‘Lift the Weight‘ campaign to groups like the ‘Campaign Against Living Miserably’ (CALM), a group leading a movement against male suicide. I’d also note that the age range that is most likely to commit suicide, 40-44, is an age where a lot of men step away from playing sports, which for many has been a community for the great majority of their lives. I’ve spoken to former teammates and they all make the same point: they don’t mind not playing, but they miss the camaraderie of being in a team; the pre-season training; the huddle before going out to play; the feeling of being, for 80 or 90 minutes, part of something bigger than themselves.

Their sadness is genuine and in that moment they recognise that, despite what society might have conditioned them to say, they are not ‘fine’.

 

[1] Office For National Statistics. 2017. Suicides in the UK: 2016 registrations. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2016registrations. [Accessed 4 May 2018].

[2] Mental Health Foundation. (2016) Fundamental Facts About Mental Health 2016. Mental Health Foundation: London

 

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