This is the first of four loosely related posts that can be read in sequence or separately.
Order vs chaos
The country pub was a heaving mass of rosy cheeks, Christmas jumpers, and hiking paraphernalia. Groups of friends, families represented by every generation, and faithful canine companions alike filled the bar and restaurant, while big plates of comforting food found their way through the swarm of people with speed and proficiency.
It was December 23rd and I was getting festive with friends. Two of the group were running late, but I had a text with their food choices, so we could start ordering. With plenty of other tables to keep happy, though, it was little surprise the staff hadn’t yet shown us much attention.
Wearing a thick, stifling Christmas jumper of my own, and sitting near a log fire kicking out several megatons of heat, I could feel my core temperature rise - and my anxiety level with it. Although we had the table for a couple of hours more, I became aware of the time and began grappling with an unnecessary dilemma.
Let the staff know we’d made our food choices? Or not interrupt their flow and let them come to us when they were ready?
What many people would have laughed off as a very British desire not to cause a fuss was, instead, a feeling I was much too familiar with.
Open vs unaware
For all that I learnt in 2018 about being open about mental health, I also realised that openness first requires you to be aware of how a situation or moment actually makes you feel!
In striving for mindfulness, I’ve mainly learned how rarely I notice my own reactions. So used to being me and lost in my own head am I, that emotions - positive or negative - simply come and go, barely registering enough to attract acknowledgement.
A few things are big enough for a reaction to register … like encountering climate change denial … or listening to any insistence that deceitfully-won referendum votes deserve to be respected …
To quash those surges of injustice, I distract myself with something trivial, or fall back on saying it is what it is - a wonderful, broad phrase that does nothing about anything but soothes all frustration.
The absence of wider-ranging self-reflection, however, leads to inaction. Which begs the question: when does ‘keeping unnecessary stress out of life’ turn into ‘burying your head in the sand’?
The act of writing this, of admitting to passivity even when something really stirs me, is causing a sense of guilt in case it comes across that I’m busy resting on my laurels and enjoying the benefit of my privileges.
Listening vs speaking
Were it not for spending the summer of 2018 being part of Man Up, a performance art project about masculinity and mental health in men, I wouldn’t have recently met two students from Staffordshire University and found out about their studies.
They are doing radically different courses, but both are focusing on male mental health and definitions of masculinity, and have sought people willing to discuss those topics to help inform their projects.
As I’ve documented elsewhere, arguably the biggest thing I gained from Man Up was listening to the experiences of others. As a consequence, maybe I’ve grown too used to not contributing my voice. So I challenged myself to participate in the studies and see what I had to offer.
Our chats were stimulating and inspiring, taking me on rare conversational journeys and making me give voice to my own ideas and beliefs. Having settled into something of a comfortable routine recently, writing only for work, those two conversations left me compelled to commit thoughts to paper. They also left me with an altered perspective.
Ownership vs resignation
Back in the country pub, having spoken to the staff and not caused a tear in the fabric of society, I relaxed. Then I realised how welcome that feeling of relaxation was, how much I needed it, and that I probably hadn’t been good company for the preceding half hour.
Finally, I acknowledged to my friends that I’d been anxious.
We didn’t talk at length about it. Partly because some big plates of comforting food were soon put in front of us and there was a limit on how long we had the table for; partly because the benefit to be had from enjoying the social occasion was more important than any analysis.
But the moment of acknowledgement had done a job. Conversations about mental health are not restricted to significant, life-altering episodes. The little moments are important context; catching them can reduce the risk of them exploding into bigger moments.
In the spirit of being aware and open, I’m tackling the feelings of insignificance and triviality that I often reserve for my experiences. It’s time to apologise less and speak up more.