I’ve seen a lot of stories about women with mental health disorders. I think that’s so incredibly brave and powerful of you. You don’t see a lot about men with these issues. I’m one of them.
I’m not using my name because of the stigma that still exists around the disease, particularly around men with the disease. Think about it: if you met me, a man, on the street, and I told you I had a mental illness, you would either react with fear or disdain. Our society expects men to be strong, unbreakable, unflinching in the face of fear, danger, or emotional distress. We don’t crack. We don’t show vulnerability often, and we most certainly don’t say that we have issues with mental illness. Men are taught to just “deal.”
So, let me tell you how I just “dealt” with mental illness until it almost killed me.
I grew up here in the United States in Connecticut to a working-class family. There were my parents, my three older brothers, and me. In my family, you had to be tough: we would roughhouse and break the furniture, throw the football around in the backyard, and generally torture each other doing “manly stuff.” I learned early on that I wasn’t allowed to have sensitivity to anything as a kid. My brother shot a bird with a BB gun and I raced to help it, for which I got a pretty bad beating from my brothers and another one when my father got home. He called me “sissy boy” and told me that real men didn’t act that way, not in this family. From then on, I learned to hide my feelings toward pretty much anything in my family. I learned to stuff it down, not to show emotion. Anytime I looked sad or depressed, my dad would “beat it out of me.” So, I wrestled with my brothers, I played football all through school, and was a typical jock while everyone was looking. At night, I quietly cried myself to sleep, overwhelmed with sadness I couldn’t control and falling deeper and deeper into depression that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it.
One day, when I was about ten years old, we were walking down the street and spotted a homeless man talking to himself. He looked sad and alone. My father leaned down and whispered in my ear, “That guy is sick in the head. If you don’t watch it, you’ll end up just like him. Now, toughen up, buttercup.”
I never forgot that.
Once I left for college down south, I had a little more freedom to be myself, and discovered that I liked writing. I was a bit more relaxed, but the crying fits came more and more often. I started skipping class in trade of lying in bed all day, listening to dark, moody music. Eventually, I tried to commit suicide my freshman year. My roommate caught me before things could get totally out of hand, and I made it to the emergency room just in time. When the doctors asked me why I tried to hurt myself, I said that I didn’t know. Seeing the same look on the doctor’s faces as I saw back home, that confusion as to why a big guy like me could ever be sad, I quickly covered it up and said that I’d been under a lot of pressure with exams, that I was sure I could snap out of it.
“That’s good,” the doctor said, seeming relieved not to have to talk to me about depression. “A smart, good-lookin’ guy like you shouldn’t have anything to be sad about.” He gave me a light punch on the shoulder. “Buck up, champ. Get back out there.”
As is male bonding and friendship, my roommate and I never spoke of the incident again, and I learned to cover my emotions again. I never told my parents, and we never reported the issue to the school. I made it through the next four years by hiding my pain, flying high on a new-found friend to relieve my pain: alcohol.
Drinking had never really been a big thing for me through high school; I’d been too focused on sports. But I joined a fraternity by my sophomore year, and discovered binge drinking. Suddenly, sadness seemed miles away. I could anesthetize the pain I’d felt all my life for hours at a time by drowning my sorrows with beer, booze, and partying. I was off to the races, and for a while, it seemed my problem was licked. I could focus, relax, and get things done. I didn’t share my feelings with my fraternity brothers; we bonded over girls, parties, and career aspirations, not depressive thoughts. Plus, everyone drank like I did and partied to excess. We even managed to get to class enough to graduate. I met a girl I liked, and we dated through graduation. I got a job, and asked her to marry me. The crying days were surely behind me. Maybe it was just a phase.
No. No, it wasn’t.
After graduation, I kept up with my fraternity brothers and we tried to recapture our partying ways on weekends outside of work and family obligations. My fiancé and I married, and she put up with my weekend warrior behavior in exchange for a dutiful husband during the week who brought home the money. I was making enough money that when I got pulled over for driving under the influence, it didn’t even phase us. We ignored that warning sign, laughing it off to the many nights I’d driven drunk in college and never gotten caught. We talked about it once and that was it. What we weren’t talking about was the fact that I’d started adding boozy lunches to my schedule in my cushy banking job where I was paid to entertain clients. I thought of it as a great perk of the job, and it did help me focus a bit better when I got back to my desk. Drinks with clients and dinner? No problem; I was your man.
What I wasn’t facing at that point were the facts: the growing depression and anxiety were killing me. I had to take sleeping pills on top of the alcohol in my system to stay asleep at night. I felt like I needed a sip of beer in the morning just to calm down enough to get to work. The crying fits started again in the bathroom. Everything seemed like it was going 900 miles per hour. I just needed something to take the edge off. It was a high-pressure job; lots of guys out there were like me. I explained the crying and anxious feelings as passion for my work. I raged out in the gym to expel the demons. But they always came back hours later. I couldn’t party the blues away anymore; I tried to drink my troubles away, but my troubles had learned to swim.
I also started forgetting things. First, it was my keys, but then it turned into more important things, like meetings, whole hours of work, and how I got home the night before.
I was on a business trip when it all came down to a head. I’d called my wife and told her goodnight, that I was heading down to the bar to meet some of the guys from work to celebrate our new account we’d just won. She said I didn’t sound like myself. I explained it away to being jet-lagged and tired, but inside of me, I kept thinking that I didn’t know how long I could keep this up. I was so exhausted and I was trying to shove down the panic I was feeling inside, over what I had no idea. I slammed a small bottle of gin from the minibar down my neck, and said goodnight. She told me she loved me. She later told me that I said, “Yeah, I know,” and hung up. I don’t remember that.
That night was pretty much a blur. The panic got worse and worse as we headed from the hotel bar out into the city air that night. I was along for the ride, and couldn’t hide the panic as well from my co-workers. They kept telling me to relax, but I could feel myself getting more and more riled up, that I was in danger of crying at any minute. I drank so much that night, and where it used to make me happy and mellow, it just sent me into a deep depression. I didn’t want to dance, I just wanted to drink. Eventually, I went into the bathroom at a bar, and I couldn’t stop the crying. I could barely breathe, and I was gasping for air, spinning around in the stall looking for something stable I could hold onto. A couple of buddies from work had followed me into the bathroom, and were saying things like, “He’s freakin’ out, man!” and “What the Hell do we do?” I was so embarrassed. I was throwing up, and kept crying and panicking. Evidently, I said that I wanted to die a couple of times. I don’t really remember that. I do remember bolting out of the bathroom, out of the bar, and into a cab on the corner. I told him to take me to the hospital, that I was sick.
Somehow, I made it to the emergency room, covered in vomit, barely able to speak. I told the nurse that I thought I was having a heart attack, that I wanted to die, to please call my wife and let her know I loved her. I was spinning out of control, and then I passed out on the floor in front of a cop. As my eyes were closing, I remember the last thing I said: “Please, God, let it be over.”
I woke up in the hospital, but not in the emergency room like I’d thought: I was in the psych ward on a 5150 hold. I said I was sure there’d been some mistake, but the doctors assured me I was in the right place. After screaming at them for what seemed like hours, the first man to ever really speak to me in a kind manner said something that changed my life:
“You seem like you’ve been fighting for a really long time. You don’t have to do that anymore.”
And that was the first moment of grace I’d felt in my entire life. I started bawling, and over the next two days, I told him everything that had ever happened to me. I told him about the crying fits, the beatings, the pain, the drinking, the emotional suppression: all of it. Eventually, I learned that it had nothing to do with being a “sissy” or weakness: I had panic disorder and chronic clinical depression, and was definitely an alcoholic. I received a care plan, was eventually released of my own accord, and came home to tell my wife everything.
She’s an amazing woman. She heard everything I said, and was even more committed to me after I told her the whole story. I’d never been happier or more terrified in my entire life.
That was ten years ago. I quit that job in banking and went back to school full-time, this time to help other people. I now work in the non-profit sector, using those client-schmoozing skills to get people to donate money to a children’s hospital. My wife and I are still together, and we have three lovely kids, two boys and a girl. I sometimes worry my kids will have my mental health issues, but I always remember that I can create a better experience for them. I will support them, give them space to talk about their problems, and create an environment where they’re never afraid to talk about their feelings.
I have a care plan that I stick to rigorously. I stay on my medication, I see my doctor regularly, I get plenty of exercise, and I know when to back off and take a break. I still have panic attacks, but I know how to lessen their effects, and I don’t drink to suppress them anymore. I go to recovery meetings and help other people just like me stay sober. It’s a very different life than it used to be, but wow, it’s so much better.
I think about my father’s comments years ago about the homeless guy on the corner and of the beatings I got for being sensitive or depressed years ago. I realize my father did the best he could, and I’ve forgiven him and my brothers, but I’ve also chosen not to be around them much anymore. I may not be able to rewrite the past, and they may never evolve to a better view of mental health. That said, I am here for a better future for men with mental illness. One by one, we tell our stories to let you know that, while you may not know our exact names just yet, we are out here and we’re dealing with mental illness just like you. One day, we’ll be able to receive the same care and concern as people dealing with any other illness, but for now, know that we’re here, we’re with you, and we’re not going anywhere. We’re your brother, your father, your brother, uncle, cousin, pastor, friend, fraternity brother – we’re everywhere, and we deserve care and compassion, just like you.