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mental health

How to Talk to Mates About Anxiety, from Guys Who've Been There

The idea that New Zealand masculinity equals rugged individualism isn't helping.

by Laura Taylor
03 October 2017, 3:32am

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SAM BURROWS, 30
Deputy Principal

VICE: Hey Sam, tell me about your first experience with anxiety?
Sam: It was as I started to get into proper work, at times feeling a bit out of my depth. The way I experience it is psychosomatic, where I have really bad back pain that makes my back feel really brittle. And that probably started in my early twenties, I didn't realise I was getting anxious or that it wasn't a normal thing—I thought everyone got like that.

The more I had certain life experiences, the more I confronted the reality of myself with the perfect image I had in my head. And when those two things didn't match up, I experienced heaps of cognitive dissonance and I had a lot of guilt and shame that told my brain I had a lot to worry about and all the good things in my life would be taken away from me. It meant that I couldn't enjoy anything, I was always guarding myself and isolating myself to be okay.

"I'm really angry at my experience with anxiety cause I feel like it stole a lot from me."

How would you explain anxiety to someone who just doesn't get it?
How it felt to me was like bad weather. So when it was really bad I would get anxiety for like four months at a time. For the first month, it was like a dark, heavy thunderstorm. The second month it would be like grey clouds, third month overcast and fourth month it would break up with patches of blue sky. I'm really angry at my experience with anxiety cause I feel like it stole a lot from me. There is so much good around us, so much joy and things to be grateful for and I feel like anxiety robs you of that and makes think you always need to be ready for the next disaster.

Are there things that people could do that you found helpful in that time?
What I've really valued over the last five years or so is that my mum and I became really good friends and she's learned to see where I'm coming from first. So asking me good questions and letting me just come round for dinner, sit and not do anything. Just letting people do what they need to do is important, you don't even have to do anything, just being there is enough and knowing they are not disappointed. So maybe for an anxious person, vocalising you don't need them to be anything, that no matter what you will be on their side. So the person's brain can calm down and know even if my life goes completely balls up, I still won't be by myself.

Do you find it a hard thing to bring up with your friends?
I actually think there is a willingness to talk about it, and there is less of a stigma, but there aren't many tools yet. So guys don't know how to be there for their mates, they don't know what questions to ask or how to use their words. I find guys just struggle to start the conversation at all, it feels awkward. But even just being asked is good.

Are there any self-care practices you've found that helped?
One of the major things that really helped was I started journalling. Every morning I would go to a cafe and write everything down that was going on in my head. When I could see it on paper, it was like I had dealt with a little part of it. It was a lifesaver at the time, I had good stuff going in and bad stuff going out and I could externalise a lot of my pain so it wasn't a part of me anymore.

Is there anything else?
Yeah, it's okay not to be okay. Most of the time when you experience anxiety and depression, its cause you have been holding it all together for a long, long time and you've been trying really hard. And sometimes you just get really tired. It's okay for you to not find it easy, and it doesn't make you weird—in fact everybody finds it too hard at one point or another.

JEREMY HARRIS, 24
Student

Hi there Jeremy. Can you tell me when did you first come aware of your anxiety?
I honestly don't know when my journey with mental illness began, but I can trace it to my teen years. My parents moved for work and I moved into a school where I didn't know anyone. A lot of my support networks were gone and I was doing ballet full-time. I did ballet for 10 years at a relatively high academy level. I was world's apart from the other people; I was from a low decile area, they all were from wealthy backgrounds, and I found myself in a school where I knew nobody and spent all my spare time doing something I loved with people I didn't talk to. I remember at one point my sister said she was worried that I never had friends over I was like oh, yeah.

During that time I became aware of a melancholy nature I carried; I don't think I was clinically depressed then but I was heading into a darker place. I stopped ballet when I was 17 and started studying English and History, and through a long process, I ended up becoming incredibly anxious. I remember sitting in class and feeling like everyone was looking at me—that seems crazy because it was 500 people looking at the lecturer, why would they look at me? But I would get so anxious I would leave class, and I ended up only being there half of the time.

When did things come to a head for you?
In the end it got to a point where I was starting to ideate on taking my own life. I didn't know what it looked like to talk to people because I had been removed from my support networks for so long. I ended up going to the uni counsellors and scored dangerously high on the depression and anxiety self-diagnosis scale. Shit hit the fan and I had no choice but to reach out, so I did and got help I ended up on some medication for a while.

"There is a flawed idea that if you have meds you'll be sweet ."

And how have things progressed for you since then?
Since then it has been a daily journey of figuring out what that means. I didn't want to die, and I didn't want to say where I was. In some sense it was kind of liberating getting diagnosed. There is a flawed idea that if you have meds you'll be sweet when really there is so much else going on, but for me it was liberating to think this could actually help me. But part of the rugged individualism of New Zealand masculinity has meant that I have had this constant internal struggle of "does medication make you weak?" I've tried to survive without it, going on and off, and then I hit rock bottom again. My doctor said some people spend their whole lives on this, and that's okay—you just need to figure out if that's you. So I'm doing it for the sake of myself, but what also keeps me going is my fiancée and wanting to be healthy for her.

Are there things your friends do that help?
My best friend doesn't necessarily understand, which is fair enough because he's never been in that place, but he understands I need sleep, that if I don't sleep well then stuff starts to unravel. We used to hang out late all the time but he's realised that's not helpful for me, so we've changed what we do. He's also really good at listening to me. I think if stuff stays in the darkness it festers, but as you open up and bring it outside of yourself, you start to see it and it makes it easier, less heavy. It's stuff psychologists say all the time so it's easy to brush it off as cliché, but it's true.

Is there anything else you want to touch on?
If you are going through something, no-one has no-one that they can talk to. We feel like that's the case, but think about someone that you trust, or even is just trustworthy, and hit them up. Say "hi, I think you are trustworthy, would it be okay if I talked to you?" The chances are they will say yes. Get it out in the open, don't carry it around longer than you need to because life is good and it would be a shame if you missed out on it.

CAM THORP, 28
Wedding photographer and cafe owner

Hi Cam. When did you realise you were struggling with your mental health?
My story doesn't have a big crisis moment, but involves a gradual coming to terms with caring for my own mental wellness, and in turn learning to see friends, family and those around me with a new lens surrounding mental wellbeing instead of misunderstanding it. Growing up, mental health and the issues around it were completely unknown to me. It wasn't the kind of thing we talked about in my family. I guess it was assumed that people with mental health problems were broken people and I just always thought I wasn't one of them and never would be. Those people were over there, a long way away from me. And that was my view on it for quite a long time until the conversation around anxiety and depression became closer to home.

How did it all play out in your 20s?
I think a lot of us expect things to just kind of happen and that we deserve an amazing life, and we grow up assuming it's going to happen in the future, like oh yeah I'll have it together when I'm 25. Then you turn 25, 26, 27 and then you're like, oh actually life is happening right now not at some point in the future. So it begins to play on your insecurities around life not working out the way you hoped or thought. Disappointment and doubt creep in as you wake up out of this fairytale that we get sold and buy into. For me it's that gravity pull in your stomach, a constant nagging of the big questions robbing you from the ability to participate and be present.

"For guys, you either run away and avoid problems, or become full of advice and the expert."

What are some things you put into place to take care of yourself?
I went through a year of psychotherapy. I was really motivated to look at my past, be honest with how I was feeling and sort my shit. Psychotherapy is like a psychiatrist or a counsellor that creates a space to let the things inside you kind of emerge in a really natural way. It's pretty free and open, just talking to draw out what is deeper and underneath all your layers. I had been to different counsellors and therapists over the years, and I never really gelled with any one person, so after a few sessions I would just quit. I think I also wasn't prepared to participate in it. It's important to actually want to go, and go along with the therapist's style and process even though you might think you know what you want.

It also seems quite basic, but I'm quite passionate in advocating for doing the basics well—sleeping, eating and exercising well and being in relationships where you can express your feelings and be vulnerable. I think relationships is a key one. It doesn't have to be intense feelings all the time but you need to feel free to be yourself, share your heart and speak your mind about anything big or small.

Do you find it easy to talk to your friends about this stuff?
I went through a pretty rough year and there were friends who were present and friends who were not, and that was quite revealing. And that obviously sucked to have people who didn't want to engage on that level at all, but looking back they weren't at their best place either. The friends who I did grab were the ones I knew were healthy and could be there for me.

One of the biggest obstacles it seems people are facing is an inability to understand mental health struggles when they haven't personally experienced it. I was one of the people who didn't get it, I was understanding and tried but ultimately I didn't get it, I was like "get over yourself." And that came from ignorance and misunderstanding. Education around this whole thing is so important because the language around mental health is really confusing. Mental illness, disorders, spectrums etc. There's a confusion around what we are even talking about. I really believe that we need to stop thinking about mental illness as something you have or don't have and that we all need to take our own 'mental wellness' seriously.

How would you suggest to be there for other people, guys in particular?
I think for guys you either run away and avoid problems, or become full of advice and the expert—it's hard not be either of those extremes. Either way we are distancing ourselves. Being present and real is what we need. You just need to be there in the hard times, say what you think and offer advice you have with a caveat of "I don't really know", still being able to gently encourage people towards self-care. Telling people to exercise, or eat better, or change a daily rhythm seems to minimise what people are going through—but I think it's often the beginning point of what helps, it's the basics. And done in the right way we can help each other as friends to move toward those kinds of things.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Oh Nine. Follow Laura on Instagram.