On the 2nd March, Exeter’s Art Society will be holding a life drawing class to raise awareness of mental illness. For various reasons, mental health is an issue quite close to my heart, so I thought that I would contribute to increase public understanding of mental health issues by writing about my experiences with anxiety attacks.
Everyone gets anxious. It’s a necessary component of our psyches. But for some, anxiety feels just a little bit more acute. It starts to appear in times and places that you don’t expect to experience it, and with a frequency that makes you wonder if eventually you will spend more time anxious than relaxed.
In 2009 I was sitting in a biology class at school, we were watching a video of a girl having an operation on her eye. I had been under general anaesthetic before, but for some reason as I sat at the flaking desks of the biology lab, the paralyzing powerlessness of this girl having her eye cut into, hit me with life-altering force. I imagined myself etherized, stretched out on an operating table, oscillating between sleep and death. And then I thought ‘be it later today, or in a week, or in half a century, I will be there. I will be in that state of paralysis. We all will.’ At this morbid thought my breath quickened, my chest tightened, and I began to lose control. Everything in me burst into a shout, I leapt off my seat and began shooting around the classroom as if in a gradual, frenzied collapse.
Mental hours, but actual, temporal, seconds later, I was back in my seat. Perfectly calm and collected. I never had another panic attack like that, but every single day I woke up worrying that I would have another one. The main impact of the attacks, or perhaps I should say the anticipation of the attacks, was that I had to stop rowing. Rowing was important for me because it was the only sport I could do, and as a boy at high school it was an absolute necessity that you be athletic in some way. It didn’t actually matter which sport you could do – being reasonable at TAG was enough – but there had to be one if you wanted any respect.
I had to give it up because I was constantly terrified that I would have a panic attack out on the river, unable to get out of the boat, surrounded by members of the public walking along the banks. And I say ‘gave up,’ but I wasn’t actually allowed to just give up because the coach said I was good and they needed me. I had never been told that I was good at a sport before, but the words were so painful to hear because they meant that I was trapped in the boat, trapped out on the river… until I wasn’t good anymore. So I became bad. I deliberately sabotaged my own performance. If we did a timed run I made sure I was slowest; if we did a power to weight ratio test, I made sure I was the weakest; I began to tumble down through the boats, from the 1st VIII to the 3rd VIII, and finally out of the rowing club forever. I tore off my stupid lycra one-piece thing for the last time, my school sporting career over.
I didn’t care what anyone else would think. I was too relieved to have emerged from my watery nightmare. But I had clearly lost a little bit of respect from one of the people whose opinion really mattered. My dad had always wrestled with the troubling idea that his son wasn’t a natural sportsman, and when I first told him that I was in the 1st Boat in rowing he punched the air. He became my coach away from the river, buying a rowing machine for me to train on at home, and helping me plot my improving 2000 metre times on a spreadsheet. I had to take all of that away from him.
The issue was that I never had the vocabulary to tell my dad what was going on in my life. Everything I had ever learned about so-called ‘manliess’ told me that men kept their feelings to themselves. What was even more odious than ‘manliess’ alone was where ‘manliess’ intersected with ‘Britishness.’ The British stiff upper lip, the Blitz spirit – to talk about your feelings, to appear weak, was not just unmanly, it was unBritish. Fantastic, so I wasn’t just a weak, effeminate depressive, I was a traitor now as well. Being a teenage boy I was also susceptible to the myth that gender identity and sexuality were somehow intertwined – I worried that by appearing ‘unmanly’ my dad might think I was gay. Talking up was out of the question, until it was no longer possible not to talk.
I was now more than a year into my project of trash-compacting my seemingly all-pervading anxiety, and I was a wreck. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t enjoy anything. I was short-tempered. When I wasn’t busy meditatively trying to supress a panic attack, I was bored and unhappy, almost waiting for the next episode of panic to give me something to do. I lived intermittently: a half-life of arguments with my parents punctuated with frequent, fleeting surges of panic. One day at school I decided that I had to see the councillor. I almost didn’t care if he threw me in a padded cell at this point, I just needed the miserable cycle to end. When I went to arrange the meeting I was told I couldn’t see the councillor for a few days, but that didn’t matter. For some reason I was just overwhelmingly relieved to have even made the appointment. I proudly boasted to all my friends and family what I had done. I went into the counselling sessions already believing that admitting that I had a problem, that ignorance and repression couldn’t solve was actually half the battle.
I didn’t see the councillor for long. I realised after only a few sessions that there was no miracle cure for my anxiety. I was, and am, a person with anxious tendencies, and managing that in a healthy way is going to be a part of my life experience. My most seismic realisation while I was first coming to terms with being a person who suffers from anxiety, was that social attitudes towards men’s mental health are a big problem, and one we all have a responsibility to tackle. We all need to understand that there is absolutely no shame in talking about your feelings, and that when you do, no professional is ever going to dismiss you as being ‘crazy’ and beyond help.
What might happen, sadly, is some people might say something like “oh just man up.” We must stop making this absurd association between masculinity and strength, or callousness. The first step towards doing that is to sever the connection between the two in our language. The feminist writer Judith Butler says that gender is not something pathological, nobody is born male or female, but that rather chooses to act, behave and dress ‘like a boy’ or ‘like a girl.’ This creates a binary opposition between men and women, and crossing that line in any way has been socially stigmatized for thousands of years. If we begin to look sceptically at our arcane concept of gender binaries, we might also see that it is ridiculous to say that something is ‘unmanly.’
Every year in the UK 1 in 4 people will be affected by a mental health issue, and mental illness does not discriminate between genders. Neither should our approach to treating mental illness. Boys, it’s time to talk about mental health. It will not make you less of a man, it will not make you more of a man either, but it will make you a stronger person.