It Might Not Be The Prawns, Perhaps It's You Or Whoever Else You Aren't
That feeling, in your stomach. Kind of like when you need to wee, but with a tinge of nausea and in your stomach, not your bladder. It's there. You don't know why. You probably do, but you're not exactly sure. Or are you? It didn't bother you that much yesterday. You don't know what's better - knowing what's wrong and it makes no difference, or not knowing at all. That's not all you're not sure about. At this point, deciding what t-shirt to wear feels like deciding which of your children to drown to save everyone else you love. Either way, you feel kind of stupid, overdramatic. If you're a man, piss-weak, soft. Not a man at all.
Then there's the voice. Negativity's little pick-axe chipping away at your safe-room door. It doesn't stop. Your mind. It doesn't stop. Why did I come into this room? You stand there trying to figure it out. Nothing. No, not nothing exactly. Actually, it's more like too much something. That's it. Too much something that amounts to nothing, like somebody pouring water on your brain circuitry. It pops and fizzes and sparks. So much activity, but there is so little effective output. You can "go through the motions". Some can even continue to perform at a reasonable level. They call this "high functioning". I guess, at the risk of sounding conceited, I think that's what I was doing for 16 years as a policeman.
I breezed through training, I conducted investigations, I made arrests, I ran operations. I completed some of the more challenging courses, and worked up close with organised crime figures and terrorists, where split-second decisions needed to be made for operational security and personal safety. I think I was fairly well regarded by most of my colleagues. But, as the years went on, I wasn't okay, and there were signs.
Somewhere along my life journey, the feelings described above became my baseline. It was just how I felt all the time, with fluctuations here and there. Often, I would have reactions to food. It just became my normal. Eventually, I developed gall stones, pancreatitis, appendicitis, and a lesion on my liver. I have no idea whether any of this could be related to anxiety, but my point is, with all this going on, the stomach issues that were anxiety-related (but not diagnosed at the time) seemed to make sense - I just had terrible innards! It was true, but was it the whole truth?
What I ignored for years, was that voice inside; that constant state of hypervigilance; the insomnia; the utter exhaustion; the feeling of imprisonment. All combined with failing health, a young family, a Sydney mortgage, and sundry other life-pressures. It didn't matter. As a man, as a husband, as a father, I would think this is just my lot, it's what I have to endure to give my family a good life. But it did matter. And that voice. It was telling me every single day. My body was telling me every single day. But my masculinity, my pride, my stupidity, call it what you will, wasn't listening.
The pressure just kept building. There were days I was doing things at work, risky things, that I look back upon now and wonder how it all turned out ok. As I said, you learn to function. Experience affords you a sixth sense and this is dangerous. Eventually, something had to give … and it did. I screwed up. I screwed up in the simplest of ways - I forgot something. But this small error had the potential to cause substantial disaster, and so resulted in the deployment of legions of staff, briefings all the way to the commissioner, and me sitting on the wrong side of a police interrogation.
It all resolved okay. But I didn't recover from this point. Despite the incredible support I received from family and friends (whom I couldn't tell the whole story to) and work friends and colleagues, it wasn't enough. In fact, ironically, their support made me think I could just keep rolling through it and I made the mistake of not seeking professional help. It took a should've-been-fatal car crash, on a road I'd driven a thousand times, before I did that. That's right, my masculinity had to stare into death's obsidian orbs before allowing me the strength to seek help. And make no mistake, for many men, that's what it is. Much of it nature, the bulk of it nurture. The societal expectation and resulting pressure on Australian men to be the epitome of masculinity, a good provider, (and in more recent times) sensitive, communicative, and "present" is rarely acknowledged. This all sits atop our genetics. And sure, as men, we've historically had a pretty good run of things, and I think many men would agree there were/are aspects that need(ed) evening up as far as the battle of the sexes goes.
But, that's not where things are at. Today's social commentary permits the metaphorical public slaughter of men, particularly white men above the poverty line. They are open slather. I find it disgusting that, in an age where we are bombarded with words like equality, empathy, compassion, racism, and sexism, it's totally acceptable, even encouraged, to man-bash while men in Australia are killing themselves at alarming rates. Male suicide occurs at three times the rate of female suicide. This is not ok. This is not an acceptable "square up" for past inequity. Fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons are important. Furthermore, this repulsive behaviour is often perpetrated by those who would consider themselves advocates for the very values they ignore when it comes to men. Bigotry is bigotry no matter who it's aimed at and equality has an utter identity crisis if it doesn't apply to all.
So why are men today resorting to suicide at such a high rate? I believe one reason is changes in social expectations and standards, well-intended and otherwise, have made men unsure of who they're allowed to be. Am I supposed to be hard or sensitive? Both? Ok, but when am I meant to which and to what degree, and can I even be that? This seems a trivial life expectation but it permeates every aspect of a man's life from the schoolyard to courtship to work to parenting and so on. In times past, it was much simpler for men. Being a "man" pretty much amounted to outward demonstrations of mental and physical stone, being the bread-winner, the dealer of discipline, and the protector. Those we called a "good man" also spoiled their "missus" when they could and gave good attention to their whole family. You did man-chores - took bins out, fixed stuff, did the yards, and when work or chores were done, you hit the pub with the lads, or retired to your den for a pipe. Now, I want to be clear, I'm not saying the 50s standards of domestic life and gender roles/values were right and we should return to that. I'm pointing out that what this allowed men was decompression, space when their emotional vessels were overloaded, and distraction when things weren't great. It also provided men a simple life template of who they were expected to be. Again, I'm not saying these benchmarks are perfect, they too are flawed, but it's the simplicity and clarity I'm getting at, knowing what the game is.
But this simplicity is no longer commonplace. While still accused of being emotionally retarded and absent, society seems to want to continue to push the male emotional IQ and limit the time he has to deal with this. This a recipe for disaster. Men are further labelled as poor communicators. To some extent, this is true. Yes, men are more reluctant to discuss their feelings in detail, but, traditionally, a couple at the pub, a round of golf, a quiet 20-40mins wind down after work at home was a man's way of staying connected and feeling supported, or simply self-reflecting. He likely wouldn't express it that way (he may not even know), but that's what it was/is. And this is all most men need for their mental stability. I ran a dads' drinks group for several years. We met once per month. There were times when it was simply a few drinks, but many more where at least one bloke would mention things weren't great. There'd be some serious chat, punctuated with the customary jokes and comparisons to when somebody else experienced a similar issue. There wasn't one bloke who didn't express at some point how great the group was. Some expressed just how much they needed it and looked forward to it every month. It provided that decompression, that sounding board for normality, community. The same thing many mums get from mothers' groups.
So what's my point? Yeah, I kind of got on a rant there for a bit. This post was intended to simply describe anxiety and the dangers of leaving it unchecked. I ended up diving down the male-bashing and suicide rabbit hole and my thoughts about why it's so prolific in Australia. I suppose that's not surprising because they are so closely linked and close to my heart because of my own struggles. I guess what I'm saying is don't let your maleness allow you to ignore that inner voice or bodily signals that tell you something isn't right. Unless there's an obvious reason, such as some money pressure or an upcoming stressful event, it won't just go away. It's likely to get worse, because you're not right, and may lead to depression and far worse. Don't accept the extreme feminist slurs. It's not easy being a man. Shit, it's not easy being a woman or anyone. Ironically, perhaps the best support for this statement is the fact that female suicide, while far less prevalent than male suicide, is on the rise. I don't think it's a coincidence that this also parallels the blurring of traditional gender roles and the complexity and strain that has brought to the life of men and women.