by Andy Kirby
6:45am. The alarm drills into my brain, piercing a hole through which a pleasant dream of sun and sand escapes. The vacuum it leaves behind is filled – gradually – with growing consciousness. I locate myself and the what, where, and how comes back to me, first through the coldness of my toes and then through the knowledge. The knowledge of what is to come.
And I want to go back to sleep. I want to pretend I’ve not heard the alarm. I don’t want to move. I don’t want the day to start… I haven’t got the energy for it. I can’t believe I have to start all over again on this eternal-seeming hamster’s wheel. The churning relentlessness of it. The numbing thanklessness of it.
But it’s too late. My partner has sensed I’m awake. Of course I am awake – not even a hibernating bear could sleep through our alarm clock. She asks me something. And for a while all I can do is groan. And then, gradually, I find the words to express how I feel about the new-old day we’re facing.
Cockerels cock-a-doodle to meet the new day head-on. They want everyone to know about it. My own greeting for the new day is much less enthusiastic. ‘For f’s sake,’ I say, all over again, for the fifth or is it sixth day on the trot. I don’t know. I’ve lost count. The days roll – congeal – into one flabby mess. To paraphrase Morrissey every day is like Sunday. Only it’s a Sunday between the football and cricket seasons, all the pubs are shut, and there’s not much fun to be had at all.
So much for my get up and go. It’s got up and gone.
Today is a work day, it seems. And I know exactly how it will go. The mad dash with the kids; being snappy with them on the way to school. The mad dash home. Ostensibly having breakfast with my fiancée, which should be lovely – a real bonus of this situation – but which isn’t at all, because only a half or a quarter of each of us is present. The biggest parts of ourselves are already lost to email, to Teams messages. We will each of us occupy the same space all day, but we’ll barely speak.
We’ll spend our hours instead chained to the laptop, staring down the barrel of Teams calls. Our voices echoing back at us from the four walls. Close our eyes and we could be in an empty room, talking to ourselves. We all could be.
The day will yawn slowly by and yet by the end of it we’ll still find ourselves wondering where all the time went.
Having no energy is one of the classic signs of poor mental health. And – for the first time I’ll admit it – my mental health has taken a bit of a kicking this year. It’s been the same for a lot of us. I didn’t even think I possessed the energy to do Movember this year until the very last minute. Which shouldn’t be the case. I mean as far as charity fundraising feats go, not shaving your upper lip for a month doesn’t exactly compete with – say – the Three Peaks Challenge or running a marathon.
I changed my mind at the last minute because I made myself a promise I’d only do it in a half-hearted way. I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself to ‘perform’ like I did last year. I wouldn’t get my ‘tache to star in a weekly photo shoot like last November. I wouldn’t smash out a load of social media messages every day. I’d go easy. Keep under the radar.
That’s another sign of poor mental health: effectively going into hiding.
It’s quite easy to go into hiding this year: we’re all working from home. If I so choose I could turn off my camera and nobody would even see me, or my Mo. More: we’re all wearing masks now. I could easily wear a mask on my daily walks, on the school-runs as well as at the supermarket. As an aside I often wonder what we are hiding behind our masks – besides a mo. Are we smuggling sneers or smiles?
So why am I writing this blog? Why, after everything I promised myself, am I sticking my head above the parapet? Well, because I think I need to. I need to get it off my chest that I’m not OK. I’m pretty flipping far from OK. I’m not even in the same postcode as it.
I wrote a blog with a very similar title to this at almost exactly the same time last year. Last November I raised money in memory of a friend I lost to suicide. I didn’t consider the fact that I might, three hundred and odd days later feel in some degree similar to how Doug must have felt. I’m not saying I feel that bad. I don’t. And there are good days and bad ones. But I feel more of us need to acknowledge that we’re not feeling the best. It’s OK not to be OK.
Even though on paper I have everything going for me: a lovely fiancée (we’re getting married next year, lockdown rules permitting), two great kids (who never fail to make me laugh), wonderful, supportive friends, my dream job, and a season ticket for my favourite football team (not that I can go these days) sometimes that doesn’t feel like enough. That makes me feel like a spoilt brat. And I don’t like myself for admitting it, which makes me dislike myself even more.
The above paragraphs may come as a shock to some people. I’m generally thought to be a pretty positive guy. Steady. Up for a laugh when the time’s right. I’ve told very few people I’ve felt so low. When I say very few I mean one. And when I say ‘told’ I mean that I’ve vaguely hinted at the fact that I’m feeling kind of out of kilter. I have never felt comfortable talking about my feelings. It’s just not something I do. Like so many men.
But that’s wrong. And it leads to bottling things up. And to the bottle.
My birthday was at the end of October. I was… you don’t need to know how old I was but needless to say I’m not celebrating them any more. I was on leave for the day and I proceeded to take that day to drink – a lot. Problem was, I didn’t get happy-drunk, I got maudlin-drunk. I became inward-looking. I navel-gazed. I became snappy, too, like a dog backed into a corner. I wasn’t much fun to be around.
The next day my fiancée asked me what was wrong. She could tell I was bottling something up. She knew – tellingly – because I do this every year around my birthday: this mourning for another year gone, for a whole host of missed opportunities. This navel-gazing. This clenching of all of my problems into a fist inside myself. I wouldn’t release my grasp on my problems. No way. Only I didn’t know that I did that. I was oblivious to this repeat-pattern behaviour because I’d never talked it through. And it was worse this year, much worse, because of lockdown: because of the sheer scale of the things I missed.
She asked me why I didn’t focus on the things I’d achieved: my great year at work, for example. My wonderful family. The less said about my favourite football team, the better. But I couldn’t put it into words.
I work in comms. I’m a storyteller by trade: I’ve authored eight novels, countless short stories and four non-fiction books (about the good old days for my football team). And yet I’ve never been able to set down the right words about how I’m feeling, neither on a page or in the spoken word.
But do you know what? Because I’m a storyteller by trade I know that you get better at these things by practice. You don’t just sit at the computer one day and decide to write a novel and then do it. Well, some do, but they’re the lucky one-in-a-million folk. No, it’s a process. A learning curve. You have to rack up your hours at the coalface. Just like any other skill, you can refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of thumb that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert or master performer in any given field.
I’m not saying I need to be an expert or master, but at the very least I need to find the language to express how I feel.
This story isn’t going to have a happy ending. I’m not going to take you through all this darkness and then suddenly – tritely – say that doing Movember, actively participating in something which would ordinarily be fun, has suddenly dragged me into the light. It’s not as easy as that. But what I will say is that Movember has made me confront some of my own issues and challenges. It’s made me think about making some changes. But most of all it’s made me talk about how I’m feeling. I haven’t by any stretch of the imagination mastered it. But I’ve made a first step, with this blog, and that’s a giant leap for me.
Call to action
If after reading this you are going to do just one thing then please make it this: acknowledge how you are feeling; how 2020 has made you feel. I know some people have really benefited from lockdown, from a new pace of life – if that’s you, well done. Acknowledge what it is that has been so positive for you. Think how you can keep this up when the world finally finds its new normal.
If that’s not you and you’re perhaps closer to how I’ve been feeling, then please talk about it. Find someone you trust – friend, family, colleague, a trained professional – and open up. You don’t need to have any answers, you just need to start talking. This is particularly true for men. Gender norms and societal expectations play a role in men not opening up or seeking help – in fact, just a third of NHS referrals for talking therapies come from men. It’s why I’m such a big fan of Movember; they know that we need to make it the norm for men to talk and get help at the right time, in the right place. So, let’s start with all of us. Because, you know what? It’s OK not to be OK.
Help me make a difference…
Wild, weird, challenging, monumental, rocky, what the heck – there are lots of ways to describe 2020. It’s been a big year for humanity, and through it all Movember’s mission has stayed the same: stop men dying too young.
Think about this: globally, men die 6 years earlier than women. To make it worse, the reasons are largely preventable. In the UK, 3 out of 4 suicides are men. We lose 60 men to suicide each hour, every hour across the world. 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. And testicular cancer is the most common cancer among young men.
Pretty shocking, right? That’s why I’m doing Movember this year: they’re hell-bent on changing the face of men’s health and so am I.
The money I raise this Movember will help fund life-changing mental health programs, groundbreaking research and scientific breakthroughs for cancer treatments.
Pic via Andrew’s daughter
— Monday 23rd November —