Home Experiences Freddie Cocker – A Life-Long Battle for Identity and Belonging

Freddie Cocker – A Life-Long Battle for Identity and Belonging

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Photo credit: Jeremy Perkins - @jeremyperkins
Photo credit: Jeremy Perkins - @jeremyperkins

As part of VENT’s remit, helping men and boys share their experiences about their mental health in a safe environment is something I strive to uphold and facilitate. However, it would be hypocritical of me to ask other people to open up about their mental health issues without sharing my own. This article will address that and provide some insight into the tools that I use to manage my mental health issues as best I can on a daily basis. Please be aware, the contents of this article are thoughts I have only ever told people extremely close to me – you may find some of it shocking and upsetting. For those that know me, a lot of this might sound familiar. However, for those who don’t or know me in varying degrees of closeness, do not be alarmed by this piece. It is merely my attempt at helping others reach a stage where they too can control their mental health issues and lead a full and enjoyable life.


When you suffer with mental health issues, sometimes you can compartmentalise your suffering and naively believe that no one else in the world has felt as bad as you. I have certainly felt this way at some of my lowest ebbs. It’s important in times like these to take a step back and realise you’re not alone in suffering nor is it unique to just you.

I have suffered with depression since the age of seven and I first accepted I had depression at the age of 21. I did not realise I was suffering with it but in hindsight I had developed the symptoms associated with it even at that young age. My family had no awareness I was suffering with it either until a much older age.

There are many reasons why one might develop mental health issues. It might be due to a family bereavement, job loss, divorce, or even a psychological reason you can’t explain. However in my case, it was due to deep psychological trauma caused by being bullied in school.

From the school years of 3-11 I was bullied viciously and maliciously by a number of different people. I didn’t have the greatest of starts. During my primary school years I was overweight as a child, had a rude surname, supported a then unfashionable football team (Huddersfield Town) whom no one had ever heard of and lived in London where everyone supported Arsenal, Manchester United or at the most unfashionable (in relative terms), West Ham. Figuratively, I had a few targets on my chest.

In primary school I was bullied by one manipulative and disturbed classmate who had an adult mind even at that early age. He knew if he used these trivial factors like my weight to pick on me in front of the rest of the class, they would join in and no one would be willing to defend me or risk social exclusion themselves. This made me develop the initial stages of depression through deep-lying self-esteem issues, lack of self-worth, trust issues, paranoia and suicidal tendencies. I’ve suffered with migraines and headaches most of my life but sometimes I would use them as an excuse just to avoid going to school for fear of being publicly humiliated on more occasions.

Once I entered secondary school, the situation just got worse. The bullying occurred on a much greater scaler with a larger level of exposure and I no longer had the protection of my comparatively sheltered primary school. It was the epitome of a ‘dog eat dog’ mentality. If you showed any sign of weakness, it would be exploited mercilessly. I endured a myriad of public humiliations, personal abuse and physical assaults both inside and outside school. There was always a new reason to be bullied; what started out as trivial scapegoats developed into attacks on my personality and character. This was probably more destructive than any punch I ever received because it was a deconstruction of my entire way of being – it made me actively fight against who I was as a person to try and alleviate the bullying and hatred. As you can imagine, that also failed as well.

At the very worst stage of public humiliation, one summer in Year 11 when I went on holiday, I came back to find someone in my social group had created a Facebook page about me using an embarrassing picture of me at a party. They had invited the entire year group to it and I went online to see people in my year making disparaging comments, ridiculing my character traits and flaws in a way I had only ever heard over muttered whispers. The abuse wasn’t just in the classroom now, it was online and I had no way of fighting against it or escaping it. There are many other horror stories I could add to this but we would be here all day quite literally.

It could be argued that one of the worst periods of bullying I experienced in my life was in year 9-11. I was picked on within the group of people I used to call my friends – they were in fact just an abusive and bigoted social group who treated me with disdain and vindictive cruelty. These so-called friends openly mocked me day-to-day, never respected me and even one day took turns to spit at me on the way home from school for a laugh. The only reason I hung around with them was because, in my head, they seemed like the only real friends I had – I was universally hated by the rest of my year group. People did not disguise their feelings; someone even went as far as to once say I should go and kill myself because no one liked me.

The bullying I suffered caused me to bottle up all feelings of suicide, depression and misery for fear of it being used against me in school. The only way to survive years of abuse like that for me was to create a siege mentality inside my own head. By creating a mind-set where proving people wrong and leaving them behind is an objective, I could find some sort of method to get through it. This consequentially lead to me developing a one-dimensional façade where my external projection of my high-energy, bubbly personality consumed my entire being, shielding myself in public from further abuse. The outcome was the creation of a diametrically opposed state between how I looked like I was feeling and what I was actually feeling inside.

Whilst I attempted to maintain this positive exterior, eventually the bullying grinded me down to the point where I became introverted, reclusive and sought isolation away from others. This was despite my history of extroverted behaviour. I have always been a naturally loud person; in fact I’m probably louder than 95% of people I know. I’ve always had large amounts of natural energy and as an extroverted person; I gain pleasure and happiness by interacting with people, befriending them but most of all, helping others. Those people who despised me weaponised these character traits against me, grinding me down and slowly but surely, making me more introverted. It would cause me to try going entire weeks without speaking in classes in case people changed their opinion of me. I would feel ashamed of expressing an opinion or identifying with a certain hobby or interest out of fear of exploitation. Sometimes I would hide in a corner of school and catch-up on homework at lunch-time because I couldn’t cope with walking into social circles and being universally shunned, abused and picked on. Even some of my teachers over the years misconstrued this, criticising my attitude or my academic ability – by most teachers, with the exception of my RS and Drama teachers, I never got support or protection.

This lack of required support further extended to my family. They did not understand the misery I was going through, the extent of my mental health issues and on some occasions, worsened my condition through the words and advice they gave me. If it were not for the emotional support of my only friends I had at the time, Hannah and James, I would never have made it through my childhood and my teenage years or been able to cope with the anguish I endured when confronting my depression at university. I found escapism through external pleasures like football matches, music concerts or being part of my local youth cricket team but these were only temporary distractions from the daily struggle I faced routinely.

I was just an enthusiastic kid who wanted to learn, muck about a bit and have fun. Unfortunately, I never got that opportunity until I escaped that institution and joined a school who actually praised me for getting good grades.

Talking about being bullied when you’re still going through it was also hugely socially excluding. Being known as a kid who was bullied meant you socially isolated yourself, marking you out as someone who was unpopular, not a person worth befriending and a reputational stain on whoever decided to include you in their group.

Another issue that men do not talk openly about which is intrinsically linked to depression is suicide. The ratio of suicides from men to women in the UK is 3:1 and is the biggest killer of men aged 20-49 in the UK. I had thought about taking my own life since I first developed depression, but I would accurately be able to state that I wanted to kill myself or thought about killing myself every day for nine years in the years I was bullied, as well as during the opening couple of months of my final year at university.

The first time I tried to commit suicide was when I was 13. As it was over 10 years ago, my memory of it isn’t crystal clear; however I do remember it being a particularly rough day at school. I went around my house, trying to find all the different pills and painkillers I could find to try and ingest some sort of cocktail that would kill me or at the very least take away the pain I was feeling. Author Matt Haig summarises the rationale and mental state behind someone taking their own life in his book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’; “I didn’t want to be dead, I just didn’t want to be alive”- a feeling I saw in myself then. I saw no hope, no future and no way out of it. I wanted an absence of pain. The only possible conclusion I felt at the time was to end my life and escape the misery. I swallowed however many pills I took and hoped I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. At the time, I thought this behaviour was normal. Surely loads of kids felt this way and did this? I greeted the realisation that I had in fact survived with an anti-climactic sense of failure. I genuinely thought, “Even that I couldn’t do right”.

After that, I spent a lot of the next two years, where I was studying for my GCSEs in my room trying to compartmentalise my depression. I cried myself to sleep at night on many occasions and would try and count how many people would miss me if I committed suicide. Often, I would barely get past one hand. Letting out the emotion in a confined space meant at least internally there was some way of releasing the pain I was feeling. In my old bedroom I had a naked light that hung from the ceiling. Every day I would move my desk chair underneath it, stand on top of the chair next to the light and just stare into space, imagining what it would be like to remove my tie from around my school-shirt, coil it around my neck and the bulb and jump off. Sometimes I would spend 10 minutes there, other times an hour.

One day in Year 11 I thought I would finally go through with it. The bullying from my social group was getting worse on a daily basis and so I took off my tie and hung it around the bulb and contemplated kicking the chair away. But I didn’t. Whether it was my own cowardice or other factors, something intervened to stop me. At that moment I said to myself if there was a way of making sure just one person never felt like this in their lives, I would move heaven and earth to help them. No one in life should feel like this and there should always be someone who can lend an ear, help them through it and protect them even if at the time, I didn’t have anyone who could.

The third time I contemplated taking my own life was in my final year of university. This was also when I realised that suicidal feelings do not just affect you at one stage of your life. They can hit you at any time. Fortunately, my university years were the best experience of my life. I found friends who liked me and appreciated me for who I was, rather than someone I was trying to be which felt strange and took a lot of getting used to. I had also finally managed to unlock these repressed memories and deep-lying depression and recognise it for what it was. Initially, I was in denial for a long time.

I experienced another issue which might be common to some men with mental health issues. I refused to ask for help. In my head, I viewed asking for help and talking to people about my mental health issues as burdening others.  I thought that they didn’t need to hear this and maybe they would view me differently or even not like me because I told them about this. I soon realised this was a falsehood and one my friends emphasised that this was not the case. I was facing another identity crisis brought on by the intense depression I was trying to confront and one evening after weeks of suicidal thoughts I walked past my bathroom cabinet where all our medicinal pills were kept and was tempted to ingest them but I resisted.

The next week, after having an internal mental breakdown in the middle of a seminar, one of my close friends took me to the university medical centre where I told them I was feeling suicidal and I was given nine weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The effects of my bullying were so severe that for the first few weeks of therapy I could not mention it by name, only referring it to “things that happened to me in school”. I was subconsciously repressing it because of the pain I would have to confront when I discussed it openly. But eventually I overcame this, releasing the anger, the sadness and grief that had haunted me my entire life up to that point. For the first time, having this support and being allowed to be this open with my friends made me realise how cathartic it could be and how beneficial it was for me to release it.

I will forever be grateful to the friends I had around me at the time who helped me through it. They did not patronise or mollycoddle me but showed a depth of care I had not had before. I also remember those people who showed me kindness when no one else did, who showed me sympathy when those around them kicked me down. These people are the true heroes in life. This was another one of the reasons why I wanted to start VENT. However, this was just the starting point to controlling my depression, not the endpoint.

Fighting the depression I have is a daily battle. If I’m highly stressed, the depression is more likely to break through. If I’m socially isolated, it is also more likely to attack without warning and with success. But there are ways to deal with it and each individual will find methods that help them.

I discovered the key to repelling my depression and maintaining a balanced and healthy life was ensuring my mind was as constantly distracted as possible. If I could stop instances during the day where I was alone with my thoughts, the depression would be far less likely to break through. As a child, I always loved music and I always loved dancing. With music, my iPod was sometimes my only escape from the daily abuse that I endured at school. Once I plugged in, my worries didn’t seem as big anymore and my depression, at least whilst I was plugged in, subsided. I felt safe.  I found genres, artists and lyrics I identified with, whether it’s pop-punk and it’s rejection of traditional ideas about needing to fit in and leaving behind people you used to know or disco’s embrace of individuality and wanting people to have fun and be themselves. I found realms of music that I could get lost in and it provided a safe-haven for me.

I also loved dancing. The first time I entered a nightclub and got on the dance-floor, I felt an awakening I had never experienced. Suddenly, I could dance, be myself and no one cared. No one would be looking at me or talking about me behind my back. I could express myself as an individual without any damaging consequences. The other method I’ve found useful is exercise. Whether it’s through playing football, going to the gym or running, exercise gives me routine, goals and a confidence in myself that I had previously lacked.

I also developed mental tools that I could use to combat my depression on a daily basis. Before my counselling, on a daily basis all sorts of negative thoughts would swirl through my head. Sometimes highlight reels of horrible things people have said to me would cycle through my mind, or waves of negativity would hit me, causing me to talk negatively about myself or view my life prospects with pessimism. After my counselling I found tools to repel the depression to varying degrees. Where before I had highlight reels of negative comments or traumatic experiences go through my head, now I can replace them with positive highlight reels of nice things people had said about me, preserving my self-esteem and making sure I could get to the end of the day okay.

Others in life find other methods. There are no right or wrong answers, only choices that help you make the daily battle that much easier to manage.

Everyone’s mind is different and it is important to emphasise that depression or other mental health issues affect everyone in different ways. For me, my depression is like a disease in my own head. I can see it as a visible cancer. When my mental defences are down and it attacks with greater strength, my head feels heavier and the mental picture of the cancer throbs with intensity. For some, mental health issues can stop them being able to leave their bed or affect their eating habits.

For me, the depression latches onto those feelings of humiliation I endured when I was bullied, when I thought it was my own fault. It then starts to attack my self-worth in multiple ways. Firstly, it highlights all of the mistakes I have made in my life and heightens them to exaggerated levels. Every moronic thing I’ve said or stupid action that I’ve taken are recycled around my mind in a maelstrom of degradation. They weigh heavily upon me and I am incredibly harsh on myself as a result. I probably try and live up to other people’s expectations of me too much instead of focusing on living up to my own. I begin to doubt myself as a good human being, think I have let people down and ask unfair questions of myself that I cannot answer. This could seem fairly trivial in nature but my depression turns these questions into razor sharp inquisitions that tug at my self-esteem and destroy my self-worth.

It can also give you behavioural ticks which you don’t realise you have until someone points them out to you. It was my counsellor who first pointed out to me that sometimes when I say something positive about myself, I have to immediately counter-balance it by saying something negative or being unnecessarily self-deprecating. This is a result of an historical and distorted mind-set which wrongly saw self-confidence as a form of arrogance. When I attempted to speak positively about myself, my depression fought against it and told me to self-consciously check myself so as to not give others a bad impression of me.

For people who suffer with depression or other mental health issues, sometimes frustrations can be born out of a lack of understanding in how these issues operate and affect the individual. In my case, depression is an underlying illness and one I can easily mask on the surface. I can use my extroverted personality to conceal the dark thoughts I may or may not have in my head that day and maintain a functional existence without other people being aware of it. However, it can also be incredibly frustrating when that extroverted nature becomes a rod for my own back. This is usually in the form of pointed comments about my personality. One example of this was when I was at a party during my second year at university. During a conversation, a person said to me “Are you always happy?” It wasn’t meant in a negative way but it still stuck with me.

Comments like these are annoying because you can’t really answer them properly. If I said no and they asked why, I’d have to expose my mental health issues to a social circle which would then immediately be uncomfortable for me and for them. If I said yes, I would be satisfying their own simplistic view about my personality. This is why I hate labels. Being known for just being loud or another character trait is something I cannot stand and it is a patronisation which I’m sure affects many other people. I also hate being told to be quiet or to ‘tone it down’. For most of my life, my loudness was used against me by almost everyone around me to stop me being myself so when someone says this to me, in my mind it really does feel like they are saying ‘don’t be yourself’.

If you truly want to gain the respect of people who have mental health issues, do not attempt to pigeonhole them into categories or boxes that fit your own stereotypes. As human beings we are complex and empathy and respect should be shown in illustrating that.

Given all that I have discussed, it would be remiss of me to talk about how I am doing now. Just writing this article has been hugely cathartic to me and has provided some closure for me on this chapter of my life. I also hope it will educate others who read it to learn about my situation but also how they could deal with other people they know who have mental health issues. It’s important for people in my life to know that I’m now in a much healthier place than I was 4-5 years ago. I have tools at my disposal to help me deal with the pits and troughs that is life and I feel safe in the knowledge that whatever life throws at me now, I’m ready for and able to meet it head on.

No one manages their mental health issues perfectly and nor should they be expected to. Life is about how we can get through the daily struggles thrown at us, enjoy it and make the most of the opportunities we are given

If you think this article would be helpful to someone you know who is struggling with mental health issues, please show it to them. It is better for them to know someone else out there shares their pain and experiences. Who knows, it might just open up a conversation with them on how you can help them yourself.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Freddie,

    I am Cameron. I came across your article from your comment on Owen Jones Facebook post about international men’s day.

    I want to say that after reading your article, I was taken aback. I was inspired by reading your piece. I can relate to it due to being badly bullied myself through secondary school. I don’t know how I would of coped without the counselling sessions. My confidence was rock bottom for many years. I was glad to change schools. I used to hide my fears at the back of my mind.

    I’m better now, getting on with my life, starting my new job.

    I know we have a long way to go until the stigma around mental health affecting men, but there is nothing to be ashamed of talking about it. I hate these masculinity stereotypes.

    Kind Regards,

    Cameron

    • Thank you very much Cameron. Your comment has made my week. I’m so pleased it helped you in some way. Do get in touch with me via twitter @freddie_cities if you would like to write an article of your own.

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