CONTENT WARNING: this article contains descriptions of suicide and self-harm which some readers may find distressing or upsetting, so please read with caution.
By Steve Hanmer
Mental health has always been something that feels like it shouldn’t apply to me. I’ve always assumed that, despite my own experiences and struggles, that everyone else’s mental health issues are way worse than mine and they have a better claim to having a mental health issue than I do.
I first realised that I was struggling mentally around the time that my parents were splitting up. The details of those events are not mine to share publicly but looking back I realise that the trauma and the arguments affected me more than I realised at the time. Being the eldest of four siblings, it fell to me to be the strong one. I had to be the rock, the shoulder to cry on or the ear to listen. It may not have come across that way and I’m not sure if I succeeded with any of those things but I felt like hiding my emotions was the best thing to do.
That’s the way it has always been, that’s the stereotype: the man has to be the strong one. We’re the ones that people look to for the strength to move forward, regardless of how we’re actually feeling. When I heard about Vent and the stories that were going to be told, I wasn’t sure that my experiences qualified me to write this but over the last year I’ve read so much that I relate to and can recognise from my own life – that’s why I’m writing this. Maybe someone else will see that even though they feel they have to be the rock and the centre, they are allowed to accept their own feelings and problems too and speak openly about them.
In school, I was never the popular kid. I’ve always been the overweight person in my group or at least felt like I was and with my love for technology and books, I was an easy target for bullies. I remember when I was doing my paper round as a kid, a group of kids younger than me decided that I’d make a good target. Name calling started as I walked up the street, then they followed me and as I turned and walked through an alleyway to the next street, one of the kids decided that my face would make a great punching bag.
At school and at the organisations I was a part of, I had friends but it was a rarity to be invited to any events. Even when I was, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. My self-confidence after that day on the paper round was at an all-time low. If these random people that didn’t know me could see something to hate, I’m pretty sure the people closest to me could as well and I didn’t want them to have to be associated with me. I think, now, that is where I can first remember depression setting in. Despite wanting to not show anything outwardly, I knew that it was happening. I refer to it in my own head as me “slipping”. I could feel myself slipping back into the darkness of my own head and not wanting to crack and show that, I merely never decided to go. Eventually, the invitations stopped coming.
I didn’t have the easiest childhood. My parents weren’t together and even when they were there were always arguments. At the age of 9, my best friend died of a blood clot in the brain. She went to sleep after saying goodnight to her family and then just didn’t wake up the next day. Members of my family have suffered severely from depression, attempted suicide and I’ve been there right next to them when it has happened. I put on a brave face, stood strong and tried to fight off the feeling of my own darkness, not wanting to slip into it again. I might write another piece in the future, looking at how the experiences of depression and suicide that were surrounding me impacted me in more detail, with permission to tell those stories.
I first tried to take my own life when I was 18. I was living with a friend at the time and I remember taking every pill I could find – from pain killers to allergy tablets. I can’t remember what triggered it in the moment but I remember feeling like I wanted everyone and everything to go away. I was lying on my friends bed as I begged him not to tell his parents. In that moment, I can’t remember feeling lower.
After that, trying to overdose became a secondary way to try and take my own life. I turned to blades instead. The majority of the time, I didn’t plan to take my own life – I just wanted the pain to get out of my head and move somewhere else. It worked for a while.
I used to work somewhere that was a ten minute walk from the beach. Almost every morning I would go there before work, sit as close as I could to the ocean without getting wet and just imagine myself getting up and walking into the water. I’m not a strong swimmer, I knew that it wouldn’t take long before it got the better of me. I listened to Frank Turner’s ‘Plain Sailing Weather’ until I knew I had to turn around and go to work and had to make the decision if I was going to walk into the water or if I was going to turn around and start my working day.
Over the last 10 years or so, I have made so many mistakes and I’ve felt like I’ve let people down, even when that’s not the case. I’ve not been the person I want to be. It was only recently I realised why. There are days where I feel like I’m not in control of my own body. I can see things happening, it feels like I’m making the decisions but later that day or sometimes even weeks later, I realise I had no real control over what I was doing. Emotion takes over, I become someone I barely recognise and can see now that this other ‘character’ (for want of a better word) is my minds way of lashing out. I feel like I have a better handle on ‘him’ now more than ever but I live in constant worry that I might lose myself to ‘him’ again.
One of the biggest things that affected my mental health was my sexuality. I have known I was gay for as long as I can remember. The earliest point I became self-aware was during my secondary school years.
However, just like with feeling like I had to hide my emotions because it was the norm, I found myself repressing who I was because I felt that it was abnormal. It got to the point where I wasn’t coming out because I didn’t want to be judged. I actively hated myself every time I had a thought or romantic or sexual feeling towards another man. I would tell myself that I’d “slipped” and made a point to not think about men at all for the next few days.
It didn’t stop me from acting on who I really was but it stopped me admitting it not only to myself but to others around me. I struggled with who I really was compared to who I was telling myself I was; “No, I’m not gay. I want a wife and kids but sure, I’ll go round to that guys house and whatever happens, happens”.
It took my now boyfriend coming out to me and me realising how I had felt about him for years to finally admit to myself who I really am. It’s a relief to have one of the many things that was crushing me finally lifted. I’m happy with who I am now. I accept it and embrace it and my boyfriend is pretty damn amazing.
I said at the start of this article that I felt like the term ‘Mental Health’ doesn’t apply to me or how my brain works. Over the last year there have been three moments that I came to realise that I might be wrong about that and there is nothing to be ashamed about either.
My brilliant friend Kirsty wrote a book about her own struggles with mental health. Reading words from someone I knew made me realise that there are aspects of what she said that ring true with me. It made me think and realise that if I did speak about it, things might get easier.
In May 2017, Paramore released the album ‘After Laughter’. I’m a huge Paramore fan and was so excited to listen to the album that I made the choice not to read any reviews and just dive in. One song in particular caught me attention and I’d love for you to listen to it. It’s called ‘Fake Happy’ and it sums up how I used to live the majority of my life. It felt amazing hearing someone else verbalise what I was feeling.
More recently, in October 2017, my favourite author released a new book, ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ by John Green. It’s a touching and informative look at mental health based upon his own experiences with it. Seeing someone I admire like John Green, speak openly about his mental health issues when promoting the book really got to me – if the person that inspired me to want to write is telling me it’s okay, then it must be okay.
The idea of having thought spirals and losing yourself in chains of thought that crush you mentally really resonated with the character I had built for myself. Whenever I felt I was seeing my day through my own eyes with no control, it felt really similar to how John describes these thought spirals in ‘Turtles’.
2017 has been an amazing year for my own mental health. I know that it isn’t over and I can still feel everything weighing on me. I even still sometimes wonder if I should use that term, whether it even applies to me (I’ve never been medically diagnosed with anything) and I wondered if I should even write this and share it with the world as myself.
However, I am so much better now than I ever was. I can identify the problems, I’m ready to talk about it with people and seeing what Vent are doing made me want to open up to show to other men that it can be done. It’s okay to talk – there are always people that will listen, even if you don’t know it yet.
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