If talking about your problems was good enough for Plato and Hamlet, why do so many men today find the only time they discuss the things that are troubling them is when they're down the pub after a few beers? Here Karl Coppack, writer for Liverpool Football Club's The Anfield Wrap, explains why it's time for men to open up.
–This is article #7 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
Think of every bad soap opera you’ve ever seen. That should be all of them if you ask me but if you’re an aficionado of the form you’ve probably come across a scene where a doomed couple are in the death throes of their (shudder) ‘relationship’. The clichés fall fast and furious until they arrive at this one exchange.
‘Can’t we just talk about it?’
‘Talk? All we’ve done is talk!’
This usually concludes the scene thanks to one of the dramatis personae slamming a door or collapsing in tears. End of Part One.
It's rare that a man seeks help from a man
Talking is the way we resolve situations or get things off our chests. I can’t believe I’m going to suggest such a thing, but let’s bring in Plato here. He wrote much of his theories in a character format where someone or other would question Socrates about what was on their mind that day – the rights of kings, whether might is right and the thorny issue of poets being banished from the city gates. These were known as ‘the Socratic dialogues’ and they make his point very well. Rather than standing around throwing out theory after theory, he chose to show all sides of the argument. This, as he and others saw it, was the way ideas progressed. Hence, Parliament – from the French ‘parlement’ – to speak. This is getting dangerously close to an ancient political lecture so let’s just say that talking about things tends to get things done. Sometimes.
Moving on a bit from Ancient Greece we only have to look at modern (ish) music. ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ sang Rod Stewart, while subsequently proving that he was actually quite keen on it. ‘A problem halved is a problem shared’ and all that. It’s true too. We’ve all got people we run to when we’re up against it. Thing is, it’s rare that male runs to male unless it’s son to father.
Men are strange like that. We find it very hard to admit to worries and problems and our mates are usually the last to know what’s on our minds. We either muddle through alone or run in the opposite direction.
Men don’t just sail through life with a hardened chin and the heart of a lion, ready to take on any challenges that come our way. We’re not all like Tony Soprano’s hero, Gary Cooper – the strong and silent type. If anything the only skill we truly master is the pretence of complete control. We can fake that easily enough and for the lucky amongst us who can steer their ship with a skilled hand so much the better, but there are many who have monsters below the surface.
'I get that too'
A few weeks ago I was out with some mates and somehow talk turned to what can be loosely described as ‘male issues’. That we did this at all was unusual. We’re a group of lads between the ages of 30 and 50 with differing backgrounds, careers and interests. We’re united primarily by a love of our football club and together we experience the peaks of troughs of emotion through that entity, but apart from that we’re a fairly mixed group. Some of us are obsessed with music, others aren’t. Some are married, some single. Some have kids, others not. We’ve all known each other for years and have travelled up and down the land together, attended each other’s weddings etc., but this is the first time I can ever remember us talking about aspects of our personality or health that concern us. This would never have happened five years ago when we were younger and more defensive about such things.
I don’t want to give the impression that we sat in the corner like some sort of moody Goth council –we’re not like that at all- but there was the odd raised eyebrow when people spoke up. Alcohol helped, of course. In vino veritas and all that, although Birra Moretti was the main lip loosener at the time, but what came over far more than the lack of embarrassment of admitting to perceived weaknesses was that we all saw something in ourselves through the words of others. The sentence ‘I get that too’ was muttered more than once.
Obviously, I won’t go into details about the general topics expressed that night, I’d like them to continue being my friends after all, but in the interests of disclosure I’ll admit to something I’ve kept quiet.
'I spent a weekend in silence'
For the last few years, I’ve undergone periods of intense gloom. This is nothing like a teenage strop or anything similar but an absolute collapse in self-worth for no obvious reason. There are times when I cannot face a living soul, times when I’d rather lock the door and not come out unless it’s absolutely necessary. Instead, I prefer to save the world from my interaction, my face and my sense of utter worthlessness. Only last month I spent a weekend in silence. I turned off my phone and just listened to my own mind tell me that I’m useless, hopeless and about to be revealed for the fraud that I undoubtedly am.
There’s no trigger for this. Oddly enough it comes when things are going well or I feel particularly loved – birthday parties, commendations etc. I don’t know what this is but I know what it isn’t. It isn’t depression. I say that not out of some ill-thought mantra about designer illnesses or anything so crass but because I know it will pass and I can manage it accordingly. This isn’t a daily struggle. I don’t have violent mood swings and I don’t seek medication. Furthermore, I am not a danger to myself so I live with it and wait for whatever it is to let me go. It always does.
The majority of my male mates don’t know this but I have several close female friends who have sat with me and tried to talk me round during these miserable hours. Why is that? Why is one ear better than another? Why can they know but not them?
Well, the truth is that I’m a bit embarrassed by it. I know I shouldn’t be but there we are. Those paragraphs were difficult to write as I know what it is to come – he just wants attention, look at him with his fancy ‘sensitive’ condition, look at him begging for sympathy. Actually, that’s the last thing I want. If anything that would make it worse. During those times I’d rather not have proof that there are others who agree with the overwhelming consensus within my id. No thanks.
'For every sympathetic ear, there's a boorish lout...'
There are always people ready to cast stones of disgust. Look at the recent suicide of Robin Williams. Despite the outpouring of emotion at such a loss some just couldn’t help themselves. Here’s Alan Brazil, a former footballer and DJ of the radio station Talksport. Like many he thought that it was Robbie and not Robin Williams who had died in the night. He expressed relief at that live on air.
"And then when she said ‘Robin’, I thought, ‘oh, okay’. It didn't hit me hard like it would if it had been Robbie, thank God it wasn’t.
"He's got a daughter, what's she feeling this morning? I don't have a lot of sympathy I'm sorry."
"But that's the way I feel, I'm sorry. What you leave behind is diabolical.... I'm really annoyed about that."
Well, we’ll all have to live with your anger, Alan.
What he fails to realise is that Robin Williams knew full well the impact his suicide would have on his family. Of course he did. He’d probably considered suicide many times before but his family pulled him back from the brink. Then one day it wasn’t enough to save him. I don’t want to think about what it must be like to be in that situation and see death as preferable and it’s the likes of Alan Brazil’s with their derision that keeps these issues hidden. For every sympathetic ear there’s a boorish lout who bays ‘why don’t they just walk it off’ to anyone within earshot. Little wonder then that men find it difficult to feel tell others that they are experiencing depression, drinking problems or whatever going on in their lives when they’re met with a cacophony of scorn from ‘those who must express a view’.
Of course women get depression and its various strains too but that’s treated differently. They aren’t subject to the stereotypical machismo that governs our lives. Men have to be strong. Men have to answer to peer pressure. Men can never admit to frailty etc. Quite ridiculous, of course, but there we are. The term ‘show your feminine side’ is generally pejorative in tone. Great. We’ll just eat ourselves up then, shall we? Harsh maybe, but that’s what many choose to do.
There are considerable pressures on us all these days. Life is an attainment race as it is and with these accompanying hurdles there’s no wonder that we struggle from time to time. Most of us would rather change an aspect of their lives be it career, health, looks or all of the above and that judgment is constant, whether it’s from ourselves or others.
There is a gender divide at play. None of my female friends have this need for validation. Whether this is because we’re just wired differently or because society expects different things from men and women is hard to say. But there is a difference in how we deal with life’s time bombs. Men seem less willing to ask other men for help.
So, did anything come of this chat? Not really. We simply went back to usual agenda of the evening but it was a start. We each admitted that we’re not all ‘well’ in a general sense. We all have things in our minds that dig into our ribs and sharing them doesn’t make us weaker. If anything it makes you the opposite. If you find that your friends have similar worries it makes your own a little more manageable.
Keep talking. It can’t hurt.
Karl is a former writer for Through The Wind and Rain and a whole host of others who are desperate for copy. Troubled with the modern world, grimaces at ball-playing centre halves and frowns at fancy-dan back heels. Apt to talk about the magnificence of Ray Kennedy wherever possible.
Photo courtesy: Cristian Stefanescu
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men.
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