On Monday of this week I read in this newspaper an unattributed but powerful piece under the headline ‘Why men must not ignore their mental health’.
I read it with more than a passing interest because I am one of those men who ignored their mental health for far too long and, to be honest with myself, I’m still hiding from the truth.
Let me tell you about my changing interaction with mental health over the years. For the vast majority of my life I never gave much thought to mental health issues. I never knowingly encountered anyone with such problems, probably because my mental vision of such a sufferer would be someone in a padded cell in a straitjacket claiming to be Napoleon.
As I grew older, if I came across anyone who looked a bit sad then my usual bit of advice would be to ‘cheer up’ and if they needed something a bit stronger to sort themselves out then I always had ‘Pull yourself together’ as a last resort.
Like everyone, I experienced ups and downs as I steered my way through my adult life and occasionally the downs were very low. At the age of 29, after years of sailing easily and successfully through life, I found myself jobless, broke, about to be homeless and with a wife and three very young children to support.
Yes, I wasn’t as PC as I am today and back then I considered my family to be my responsibility.
It was a difficult time in farming in the UK, where I was at the time. Others were forced to give up and some couldn’t take it. Farming is a vocation, a way of life, especially for those losing family farms which had been handed down for generations. I knew of two farmers who attempted suicide and one who very nearly succeeded.
But I was immune to this hopelessness. I was young, fit and healthy and, most importantly, I had my family to live for and my wife who was my great support in troubled times. So it was onwards and upwards and time to start rebuilding what was lost.
My luck held and remembering my grandfather’s saying – ‘If you can’t make a living in Guernsey, you can’t make one anywhere’ – I cashed in everything I had and came home and somehow stumbled into the finance industry.
There I must have encountered men, and women, with mental health issues but my appreciation of such problems was so low I probably identified them as work-shy or incompetent. Some certainly used the ‘stress’ or ‘I can’t cope’ cards to explain their poor work performance and I’m pretty sure I used ‘Pull yourself together, man’ more than once. At no time would I have considered they were mentally unwell.
Things changed for me one September 13 years ago when Lynne, my wife of 30 years, my rock, my other half, died in my arms.
The shock was intense. Just a few months before in June we were celebrating my eldest’s birthday with no idea that Lynne was in the last stages of bowel cancer. I am writing this piece in the very room she died and I pause here to relive those moments as I have done time and time again since that night.
Right, I’m back.
You may have guessed by now that her loss hit me hard. Harder than I had ever been hit before – and this time she wasn’t there to give me a hand up and a shoulder to cry on.
Of course, she had anticipated that I would fall apart and a few days before her final breath she urged me not to withdraw into my shell but to live my life to the full and be there for the children and the beloved grandson she lived just long enough to share a little time with.
But I just fell apart. The first three or four years are just a blur and mostly I was hoping my time on Earth would be short and the pain of grief could just end. At no time had I ever considered that she would be the first to go. I had gone to great pains to make sure she would be well provided for once I had gone to make up for the cash-strapped years I had put her through.
As I made my way up to bed each evening, in a different room to the one she had passed away in, I hoped that I would not see another day. Had suicide crossed my mind? Yes – and I’m sure that if I hadn’t any children I wouldn’t be here today.
I had two personas. One was the professional self-proclaimed Giant of the Finance Industry and I remained, I think, as sharp as I ever was and carried out all my duties as expertly as would be expected.
The other was a complete emotional wreck who couldn’t sort out anything related to my personal affairs. It took me years to advise my bank that Lynne had died and that was only because CDD forced my hand when they froze my accounts. Anything like this would break me down into a sobbing useless lump which no amount of ‘Pull yourself togethers’ could cure.
Did I speak to anyone? Not for years –and then only reluctantly and partially to my doctor. What a saint that man is to have a patient like me. I hate going to the doctor as much as I hate asking for help. When my kids urge me to see the doctor I tell them I’m not well enough but I will go when I’m better.
After some years the good Dr Gallagher managed to get me to agree to take some happy pills. I declined all the other therapies he suggested. They certainly took the edge off and life became more liveable, but to be honest I was still reasonably glad that I hadn’t treated my body like a temple over the years and it wasn’t going to last much longer.
So that brings me almost up to date. Grief still fills my heart and I don’t want to live so long I get a telegram from the King. My life is generally good. I’m content, happy even. But something is still wrong.
I embraced the lockdowns and loved the feeling that no one from outside my family bubble would bother me and I had every excuse not to go out.
The lockdowns are now over but I’m still living in a lockdown. The very thought of leaving Old Farm reduces me to a wreck and I have a desire to hide should I hear an unknown tread on my path. I finally mentioned it to Dr Gallagher and he just said, ‘That’s not right, Horace, is it?’. And it isn’t.
I’ve started to do something about it – still not enough, but after 13 years I have taken the first step. I don’t know where it will take me but at least the journey has begun.
November is Men’s Mental Health Month and if anyone reading this is suffering, then my advice is don’t do what I did and wait 13 years before asking for help.