What I Learned About Men and Mental Illness by Avoiding It at a Party
“Quit biting your nails,” my wife said, taking her eyes off the road to glance at me squirming in the passenger seat. “I need you to be strong for this.”
We were headed to a get-together for her work. The invitation read, “come as you are,” but the event was in the nice neighborhood. Good thing I actually showered that day, put on underwear and adorned my legs with something other than sweatpants. I dressed casually but not too casual, trying to attain a look that communicated, “I’m relaxed, confident and I didn’t just put clothes on for the sake of this party.” Which I had. Big-whigs, counts and duchesses mingled together in one of their homes. It was a shoe-shining event for potential donors. I figured, if nothing else, I at least had one point of connection and an awful joke. Sipping on a cabernet and teasing my baklava, I imagined conversing in a snotty voice with a hint of a British accent, “Yes, yes. I’m a donor as well. Organ donor.” The room would erupt in awkward paid laughter.
Apart from letting social anxiety mark me like a spaghetti stain, my biggest concern wasn’t being asked what I did for work; it was being asked the questions that would come after.
“I’m a freelance writer,” I tossed to an inquirer like it was a game of hot potato. I hoped for some distraction or that my answer might satisfy. I didn’t want to get stuck with the potato.
“Oh, so… what do you write?” They shot back with a spud gun, knocking me in the gut.
I collected myself and pulled bum words off the streets to form an answer. “Uh… versatility is the name of the game,” I faked confidence while fidgeting with my organ joke in the back of my head.
What I didn’t want to confess was the content of my blog, Dadding Depressed. It is geared toward men with mental illness from a struggling new dad’s perspective. The name alone opens doors into my personal life that I am not used to opening for strangers. I assumed that assumptions would be made. I was concerned they’d ask prying questions. I was concerned they wouldn’t ask any. No matter what was to happen, I didn’t want to experience it. I simply wanted to support my wife and eat my food quietly.
With the help of the cabernet, the kindness of our hosts opened me up. At the end of the event, we stood in the kitchen talking with them, both in their 50s. The conversation was so natural that I felt tricked when I realized we were talking about my writing again. The name of the blog, the story behind it and the reason I started it all spilled from my mouth and into the conversation. I shared one of my go-to facts — that in 2016, 7 out of 10 suicides were white males. I said it was because guys don’t talk about it. I said it was because guys implode. I said it was because guys think they need to appear macho and put-together. Guys just don’t come as they are, I thought.
“My brother took his life last year.”
The words dropped out of our host’s mouth like a brick on my right. He said it flippantly, but I wondered if I could spot tears in his eyes. Our voices stuttered. I could sense it wasn’t a story he wanted to share. He tossed it like it was a game of hot potato, and the conversation went elsewhere.
As my wife and I climbed into the Equinox and drove off into the darkness, I felt encouraged but also challenged by my time at the event. I learned a valuable lesson. The entire point of Dadding Depressed is to open the dialogue about mental illness in men. And yet I didn’t want to have that conversation. I didn’t want to open up. I didn’t want to share my story. Instead, I once again got caught inside myself, trying to maintain the posture of a macho and put-together man.
There is a chance having conversations about depression and anxiety is getting overly romanticized. It’s kind of “in” right now. Remember when Prince William and Lady Gaga talked about it over video chat? They encouraged people to discuss these challenging issues while we just goggled at how cool it was they came together like watching the Jetsons pop up in a Flintstones episode. If we leave it up to the organizations, the blogs, the celebrities to make moves against mental illness, nothing is going to happen. We will forever talk about talking about it. Healthy change occurs when we have everyday, honest, transparent, tough conversations with those in our lives. It’s not romantic, fun or easy, but it is a healthy investment in authentic relationships, it’s where change begins, and it’s a small step in the right direction.
It’s certainly easier to have these tough conversations behind a computer screen. I’ve been called brave for sharing my story through Dadding Depressed, but I don’t feel brave. If I can’t use this project to inspire (even in myself) face-to-face conversation about men with mental illness, then what is my blog even for? I learned at the gathering we are all affected by this dilemma; I shouldn’t assume otherwise. We are all hurting by it in some capacity.
So, the next time I go to an event, I will be prepared to tell people what it is I do and what it is I write about. Maybe sharing my story can start a life-saving conversation for somebody who desperately needs to have it. It could be my personal invitation to the silently-struggling to enter the dialogue and to simply come as they are.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog at Dadding Depressed
Photo by Joe Gardner on Unsplash