By Freddie Cocker
It’s been two and a half years since I started Vent and even in that short space of time, it’s been a journey of ups and downs all on its own.
I’ve been able to meet people I never thought I’d be able to, become a presenter in my own right through the Just Checking In Podcast and carry out a dream I had conjured up all those years ago as a broken and desperate 15 year old about to take his own life.
During this journey, I’ve learned more about myself than I probably ever have so far in life.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have a few existential moments here and there. Sometimes I have to take a minute and step back as to how on earth I’ve got to where I am today and realised I could have easily been found dead in my bedroom next to a pile of medication 12 years ago.
It’s also been a challenge getting to grips the image of me being seen as an ‘advocate’. I guess one mental scar from being cyber-bullied is having a supreme dislike of attention paid to me online, which looking back, is probably one reason why I always stress the focus of Vent is about other people, not me.
Being the conduit to helping other people means you don’t have to take the spotlight yourself. I’m trying to get better at accepting that attention when it falls on me at least.
In recent months however, I have failed to listen to my own advice I impart as an advocate.
I always tell people that recovery is not a straight line and I always tell people that it’s okay to have a relapse and that it doesn’t make you a bad person.
I also always tell people that it’s okay to share how you’re feeling and it will help in the short, medium and long-term…but I was ignoring all of those kernels of wisdom.
I thought once I had shared the entirety of my story that I would gradually keep getting better and improving both myself and my mental health.
Perhaps naively, I had this idea that once I had opened up about the bullying and depression, anxiety, suicide, sexual abuse, PTSD, imposter syndrome, my identity crisis and breakdown in University (all of which I’m now open about and are out there for anyone to read) that magically, everything would come together and I would have complete emotional closure on these experiences.
I even did a 3-hour podcast on them, split into two parts, venting out every last horrific bit of stigmatised detail that I could bring up from the depths of my repressed memories, in an attempt to expunge all the pain and suffering that they brought about.
In many respects, that of course all helped. I am at peace with my experiences, if not completely healed.
I do not harbour burning anger towards the people who inflicted that pain upon me, nor the people who could have helped me but chose not to, for whatever reason.
However, like life, recovery is not as easy as simply venting out everything you need to and then expecting things to carry on as normal.
Your life changes from that point and there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road you might not expect. I’m not afraid to say I was probably in a form of denial about that.
Overthinking and rumination are things which I have always lived with as part of my anxiety disorder. On the spectrum, I’d probably say it’s an 8/10 in respect of how severe it is and how much it affects me if I let it get out of control but on a daily basis, knowing my triggers, by-and-large I can keep it in check.
The reason why it became such an all-consuming maelstrom of negative and harmful emotions was when it began to affect personal relationships in my life, namely my love life.
Through no fault of the other person I was involved with, my mind catapulted itself into an overthinking meltdown, constructing hypothetical scenarios weeks, months and even years into the future, placing me responsible for hurtful actions and toxic behaviour that made me believe I was an appalling person, before I had even done anything.
Looking back on this, as fresh as it is, it was probably triggered as it’s a completely new experience for my mind to deal with, I wasn’t in complete control of it so my mind began to use my anxiety and overthinking as a defence mechanism to protect myself. However, in life you cannot be protected all the time, no matter how hard you try.
The overthinking was so intense and destructive that on one particular day it reached its zenith and, for the first time in over 5 years, a suicidal thought popped into my head. Thankfully, it exited my mind as quickly as it had appeared in a matter of seconds but it was the moment, I realised that I needed help.
That day I came into work in the afternoon and cried on the walk to the office, such was the intensity of the emotion. I had no idea why, yet I knew I needed to do something about it.
I then made matters worse by dealing it in a completely unhealthy way and something so paradoxical to my work as a mental health advocate. I simply wiped away the tears before I entered my building, got into work and completed my shift, telling no one.
How could I be this supposed ‘strong’ mental health advocate who tries to help others and be there for them when I could not even articulate my pain the way I tell people to?
What I became instead was the same antiquated, repressed and worrisome man I used to be.
I felt the pressure of being seen as a ‘strong’ mental health advocate.
Rightly or wrongly, I became cautious about being open about this crisis out of fear of the reaction it would bring.
In the work I do for Vent, I try to help as many people as I can, especially when they are in crises of their own but when it came to it, I couldn’t expose these vulnerabilities to the world.
The irony to this situation is that a month later, the person whom I was involved with left my life and all those situations I had constructed became obsolete, rendering my suffering completely pointless. It was actually quite a relief.
Despite my openness about a whole range of issues most people would find too stigmatising or traumatic to talk about, I type these words with a nervousness and an intense trepidation, probably embarrassment as well.
Perhaps it’s because my mind has programmed me to believe this type of anxiety should not be felt by men, perhaps because romantic or sexual anxiety is something my minds views as dehumanising or more likely, emasculating.
This is where toxic masculinity comes in. One might argue it is toxic masculinity which has made me feel less of a man for experiencing these feelings.
Sexual braggadocio is commonplace amongst a lot of boys, in some groups it may even be used as a social hierarchical tool or used to denigrate other boys in a social circle for ‘banter’; ‘How can I be experiencing these things when alpha-male culture has programmed us otherwise?’ ‘Why am I making such a big deal out of something so trivial?’ ‘Real men don’t think like this’ are thoughts my mind has probably given me in the past two months.
This experience caused me become the antithesis of the person I have tried to be as an advocate, if only for a short while.
Instead of being completely open about it, it was something I felt ashamed of. During this period, I saw a tweet from a fellow mental health advocate called Becky Reed who encapsulated exactly how I was feeling.
It read: “Mental illness is weird. It makes you grow up fast and act older than your years. But at the same time, you feel so far behind your peers because of the things it has prevented you doing”
I realised that despite other factors I’ve mentioned which were at play, this idea was at the root cause of my pain.
I’ve experienced huge trauma in my life, which has allowed me to develop empathy, compassion, understanding and a non-judgemental perspective which most people might not have.
Yet, in other areas of my life, it has stunted my emotional development and stopped me having the types of experiences so-called ‘normal’ people may have years earlier in their life, whether that be travelling abroad on my own, moving to a different city in search of new opportunities or in this case, my love life.
Perhaps due to the length of time I experienced this trauma (9 years), it’s taken me almost the same amount of time from that point to catch-up to everyone else.
If you’re reading this, perhaps you think these experiences are fairly trivial to be having a crisis about. I can only speculate.
At present, I now find myself in a strange juxtaposition in what I feel comfortable in talking to people about. For example, I can talk to people about the darkest moments of their life, discuss suicide, sexual abuse or other traumatising events in an open setting in order to help them. However, in other parts of life, I am only just getting to a stage most people my age were ten years ago.
Unfortunately, whilst all this was going on, my PTSD was getting worse. My PTSD takes the form of repetitive nightmares about being back in school and being bullied. Before, they were happening once a week at most where as during this period, they were increasing to twice or even three times a week.
Some nightmares I would be transported back to school with the mindset I had as a 14-year-old; broken, twisted and beaten into an unrecognisable husk of a human being, incapable of fighting back and simply absorbing the physical and mental pain that was inflicted upon me.
Other nightmares, I would have the same mindset I have now. I would stand up for myself, fighting back and winning before waking up with ‘survivors’ guilt’ as to how and why I allowed these people to do this to my teenage self in the first place.
More recently, I have had the same repetitive nightmare whereby whilst I am being bullied I am begging to be transferred school at Year 11 to the school I would eventually join to study my A-Levels.
It’s very hard to explain the psychological machinations behind these contrasting, vivid dreams and why they manifest themselves in this way but suffice it to say, it did not help the situation.
A part of having severe anxiety for me is wanting to always be in control of situations in life. If you have control, you feel safe.
The moment you no longer feel safe or that the situation is out of your hands is when I am most likely to have an anxiety attack and unfortunately you can’t control what you dream about (as far as I know).
The important thing to take from this article is that thankfully, I am over the worst of it. I have learned lessons from this ordeal and the situation that previously triggered such a crippling bout of overthinking and rumination is now completely normalised in my mind.
Although I feel I’m almost out of the woods, I still recognise I need to get additional support, which I am in the process of doing. My aim is to get my mental health issues diagnosed as soon as possible as well.
The priority support wise is obviously my overthinking but anyone reading this article could also surmise that I probably need counselling for my PTSD as well.
Hopefully, this is just another part of my journey so when I emerge out of it, I can thrive, not merely survive.