I’m a man who has jumped in and out of the ring of despair like a timid boxer. No matter how hard I try to hang up the gloves, however, issues around money, love, pain, grief, or simple seasonal change, keep throwing me back between the ropes. But I’m getting hit less each time – I’m learning from my mistakes. My story isn’t unique. It’s how I came to tackle it that is (but more of that later). In 2004, I was fresh out of university with no real sense of direction. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to become. I was lost. I thought my life’s purpose was something I was supposed to figure out myself, so I’d wait until I was in bed, alone, to search for meaning in my life.
I fell into a rhythm of getting no more than three hours’ sleep a night, pushing me into confusion and exhaustion, which led to feeling emotionally unstable. Needless to say, my utter cluelessness about depression and anxiety, let alone that I had it, meant I didn’t get help. I started withdrawing from loved ones. I thought I was bad at life and wasn’t meant to be a part of it. For almost a year, I masked the way I felt with a ‘live fast, die young’ attitude – getting into fights, crashing cars. Of course, the people I loved most – my family – began to notice, worry and question. But I didn’t have any answers.
I started to have suicidal thoughts – and that, together with my parents being so concerned, made me go to the doctor. It felt particularly hard to talk about mental health as a man, though, because of centuries of conditioning. Luckily, I think we’re seeing a shift now, but at the time I felt ashamed. I was diagnosed as being clinically depressed and sent off with two packs of antidepressants. ‘No one needs to know,’ I thought. So, for years, they became my little secret. After about six weeks, the tablets started to work and I began to smile again. The fact that I didn’t know who I was didn’t seem to matter any more. I was just glad that I could find joy in little things and was sleeping again.
However, I neglected exploring what the cause of my depression might be, meaning that, like a dormant volcano, bursts of emotional lava would spurt out from time to time. I’d go back to the GP, and they’d increase my medication. Back then, therapy wasn’t offered on the NHS and I couldn’t afford it privately. And I don’t remember getting advice on improving lifestyle habits – or perhaps I ignored it, to protect the fun I thought I should be having. So it was just me and the tablets. I’d hide them in a compartment in my washbag when I went on holiday, and would make up stories when I had to go to the doctor to get a medication review. Everyone bought it. (My girlfriends during this time were kept in the dark about how I was truly feeling. My parents tried to support me, but I was rarely around and deflected any attempt at help.) People would always say I had my shit together’, and I became so good at hiding it, no one ever suspected otherwise. But plate-spinning two different characters in one fragile mind began to take its toll, and I found myself at breaking point again.
It was an accidental moment of complacency that changed the course of my road to recovery. One day, I’d picked up my new prescription and left it in my backpack, which my girlfriend at the time then borrowed. She found the pills – and discovered my illness. Who I really was, was literally out of the bag. But with enormous compassion and understanding, she told me that she was there for me. I assumed she was saying that only because she felt she had to, while also sketching her escape plan. But she gave me the reassurance I needed to open up, and for the first time, I did. She made me feel it wasn’t a problem, but an illness – one we would try to understand together. And the mental load suddenly felt so much lighter.
It also helped me realise I wasn’t the only person suffering and I was reminded of the strength it takes to be able to cope with this illness, so it began to sound less like a story of failure. My curiosity with how the world works and my place in it suddenly became an interesting quest, rather than a pointless journey. The very next day I told my boss and he completely got it – no judgement. I thought, ‘OK, that’s two people in 12 hours who have been nothing but supportive, so maybe I should tell others’. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since – in a rather unorthodox way. I quit my job and wrote a play with my girlfriend – Fake It Until You Make It – about my experience, and what society needs to do to allow men to open up. It was a sell-out and we performed it around the UK and Australia. The show also became a form of therapy for me. I was proud to share my story with thousands of other people who needed a little encouragement to share theirs. It won numerous awards and resulted in a wave of celebrities joining the movement of men’s mental health awareness.
The honesty and real human connection of standing in front of thousands of strangers transformed something in me and encouraged other men to follow. We had endless emails from people saying that, after they left the theatre, they began a conversation about their mental health with close ones. They felt what I felt standing in front of that backpack after my girlfriend’s discovery – the beginning of a new chapter of not feeling so alone. It’s not just the play that’s helped, of course. I also realised if my body was healthy, it would help my mind in getting there, too. I stopped drinking and started exercising.
I quit caffeine and read self-help books. I began meditating. One play and one book later (Boys Don’t Cry – about men’s mental health and love), I can say I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery and connection, and I’m hugely grateful for all the people I continue to share it with. My advice to anyone who has a male loved one suffering with mental ill health? The most important element of recovery is love – that feeling of being supported. And, remember, depression is never over in one fight. I’ve fought many fights in the ring and been smacked down, but I have always managed to get up again with the help of my amazing corner team.