Column: Taking care of my mental health is like playing an impossible game

Every day I am following the unwritten rules of the ‘Being One of the Lads’ handbook, which gets handed to us all at some point in our mid-teens. The ‘University’ chapter is where the rules feel most intense.

Over the past two academic years, I’ve come close to breaking quite a few of the rules. I’ve developed my own set – excuses, some might say – as an appendix to the handbook, which seems to be getting me through.

When you leave your class abruptly due to a panic attack, you have to tell the lads you’ve ‘just got a headache’, while trying to control your breathing and your shaking hands. You can’t give the game away.

Being too scared to leave the house, in fear of what might happen, has its own rule too. You must tell the boys that ‘something came up’ so they don’t accuse you of being boring and never wanting to hang out with them.

Another item in the appendix relates to breaking down in tears on a Sunday evening because you can’t bear to go back to your rented house and struggle through another week. ‘Sorry lads, I’ll go from here to class in the morning instead’ is the answer you have to give for that one.

No situation is easier than any of the others, but those are just the rules. They say that rules are made to be broken. These rules have never been made, yet, for fear of being excluded from the group, we must always follow them.

More people are talking about men’s mental helath of late and are encouraging us to open up. Things are getting better, for sure, but we’re still pretty useless at it all.

There’s one male friend, Tom, who I can confide in more than the others, but even he doesn’t truly understand. “Cheer up, mate,” he says to me. Yeah, nice one, doc. I din’t think of that. I’ll give it a go.

As I write, I can sense the hypocrisy in my own head. From time to time, Tom has come to me with his own problems. He split up with his ex-girlfriend of three years and got made redundant from his last job. When he told me these things and offered up a slither of how he was feeling, I coiled up.

I dished out the old I Don’t Really Know What To Say Here But I Promise I’m Making An Effort kind of phrases. “Aww, sorry to here that” and “I’m here if you need me.” Even saying those felt a bid odd, and I quickly swept them under the carpet with some sort of inappropriate joke or sharp change of topic.

Yet when I am talking to Anne, my closest and dearest friend, things couldn’t be more different. We can talk about anything and things get deep, too. We know each other’s darkest secrets and I can handle her issues with sensitivity and emotion.

It’s strange how the dynamic is so different between a man and a woman than it is between two men. It gives us food for thought, for sure, that we still have a long way to go.

Despite campaigners raising awareness and encouraging us to talk, there will always be a sense that ‘us blokes will just be blokes.’ That can improve, there’s no doubt about that, but the pages of the ‘Being One of the Lads’ handbook will continue to churn through the invisible printing press.

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