When you’re from Scotland and live in Australia, eventually you get used to dealing with the timezone. You tell your family that you’ll be free at a certain time if they want to chat; you’ll tell your friends not to call at just any hour in case they wake you before work. Sometimes, though, you’ll be phoned unexpectedly during your shift – you check the time difference and it’s 4am back home – by a friend in Glasgow who, unbeknownst to him through a mix of depression and alcohol, hasn’t realised that he’s phoning you at such an inconvenient hour. ‘I didn’t know what else to do,’ he’s muttering repeatedly in an anguished tone, and you can tell that something is wrong but you’re 15,000km from home and what is your purpose here really? You can tell that something is wrong but you can’t help but feel inconvenienced, can’t help but feel frustrated that this is your burden right now.
This call happened to me just two short months ago, Zoom as a Last Resort from a friend, James, whose grandad had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly and the overwhelming depression that he’d then spiralled into had become too much to bear. Yet his grandad’s death, I’m informed during the call, actually happened two days after Christmas. ‘Why has it taken you so long to tell me then?’ I ask through interspersed expletives. ‘I don’t know’, is his meek but expected response. This call to me is coming from his lowest point but it should never have reached this stage.
James’s story is, sadly, not unique. He is the typical millennial man who has grown up in a country like Scotland – or Australia – lumbered with hypermasculinity. He is just one of the thousands of men who’ve been taught that emotion is a weakness, not a strength: the men who need to drink five pints of 5% lager before they can even begin to fathom sharing their feelings, the men who think it’s feminine to cry and choose to unwisely bottle it all up instead; my housemate Alex, who proudly informs us under the influence that he’s never told his parents that he loves them as if this is a point of honour, my high school friend David who thought it would be better to jump off a bridge rather than admit to his family that he’d lost his job and was struggling for money.
This is the thing: all of these men I’ve just mentioned probably don’t even know that it’s Men’s Mental Health Week. In their Twitter feed mostly composed of music news and sports memes, probably nothing has appeared about it on their timeline. The week will come and go and these men will continue with their lives as if nothing happened. Hemingway spoke of his Lost Generation during World War I but, almost 100 years later, in the digital age no less, a generation of men have been lost again, this time to the throes of hypermasculinity; they’ll look back in 20 years at the improved mental wellbeing of their male offspring and be unable to not feel piercing envy. With increased connectivity, with access to more information and education than we’ve ever had before, this just shouldn’t have happened.
This is also the thing: I have spent the past 500 words discussing the subject of men’s mental health without even daring to use my own first-hand example as a man. Lecturing and pontificating on other male friends felt far easier than looking inwards and revealing what was there: not acknowledging that this essay was written during a bout of insomnia that has become more frequent than usual these past few months or that this feverish writing style is not mere aesthetic but is in and of itself a result of anxiety or that the friend Alex from the third paragraph who has never been able to tell his parents that he loves them doesn’t actually exist and was just a placeholder or that if I ever was the one to be calling on Zoom in the early hours of the morning instead of receiving the call, I would wait months until I was at my true lowest moment too. And that all these feelings are conflated through a deep sense of shame of being a man and not acting in a certain way that was indoctrinated into me at an age when I really had no idea about the suffocation it would later cause when I reached adulthood.
After that call with James, something didn’t sit right. His hesitation when I questioned why he had waited so long to open up felt off. I opened up Whatsapp and scrolled and scrolled through our conversation, until I reached Christmas last year. There it was: two days after, the day his grandad had passed, James had phoned me four times; several texts asking ‘are you up’ and ‘I need to talk’ sat read but ignored.
And just like that, the man who I thought had suffered in silence had become the one brave enough to reach out. I had scolded him on the importance of communication when I was the ignorant one. And the crushing weight of considering that those missed calls might have been the last contact James had ever made forced me to look closer at my other relationships recently, especially since the start of the pandemic. I had willfully ignored messages for weeks from people back home, blaming work, blaming tiredness, even sometimes using mental health as an excuse.
If life has forever been altered by COVID-19, it will also be accompanied by an unprecedented increase in mental health crises: to exist in a time like this, with the onset of lockdown always present, with the daunting thought of losing loved ones at any given moment, is to exist in a state of constant danger and anxiety. It might be even more difficult for men, who have always struggled more to find the safety of communities to aid their mental health; if discussing your feelings over drinks at the pub was arduous, the difficulties of doing so over Zoom are unimaginable.
When you’re from Scotland and live in Australia, you get used to dealing with the timezone but you never get used to the distance. You might speak to your parents every month, text your friends a lot, but there’s always something missing. The next time that unexpected 1pm call comes in from James, or anyone else, I won’t act frustrated; the next time that text comes in saying ‘I need to talk’, I won’t ignore it. And maybe, during next year’s Men’s Mental Health Week, I’ll be able to talk about more positive things.
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
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