Words by Justin Reid-Simms (@houseofcardinal)
Photos by Peigh Asante (@Peigh)
The thing most likely to kill me, is me.
That sentence, that short sentence, is echoing around my head right now. It’s taken directly from a video that CALM produced last week that, for me, encapsulated everything we need to be doing right now to better understand mental health issues and normalize conversation around them. Narrated by the words of actual men going through depression and suicidal thoughts, the video was a trigger for me to reflect on my own journey. I highly recommend spending 60 seconds viewing it.
I don’t know why I got ill, I don’t know why I didn’t notice my symptoms or why I didn’t ask for help when I did, instead choosing to dismiss them as normal everyday occurrences in my life.
How messed up do you have to be to spend your days weighing up the pros and cons of committing suicide? Knowing deep down that you’ve already decided it would be too much of a toll on your family to go through with it, but still dedicating the time to entertain fantasies. As men we’re more likely to do something definite: a cut wrist, a rope from a tree, a jump from a bridge. But none of those ever appealed to me. My method of coping (or my justification for the internal pain I feel) is closely linked to external pain. But If I was going to end it all I’m sure I’d just take an overdose. Hey, at least there’d be some fun on the way, maybe some transcendental voyage of discovery before closing my eyes forever.
But for day-to-day coping? That’s reserved for putting myself through some sort of physical pain.
I’m too much of a pussy to cut myself and don’t really see the appeal. So my first port of call is getting myself into dangerous situations. Somewhere that I might end up physically hurt, though not through a direct fault of my own. Something that could be passed off as an accident, that wouldn’t arouse suspicion. I guess that’s why I like the idea of getting beaten up. There’s solace in exhibiting a physical manifestation of my feelings. A tangible—if only superficial—reason for the feelings of hurt, isolation and melancholy that occupy all of my internal energy but stem from an indescribable source.
Then there’s alcohol, the late night dancing and the abandon and escapism of nightlife. But every high brings a crashing low and no matter how high I reach there’s always a moment when I’m alone and confronted with what exists inside of me. We cannot escape our thoughts.
So, where does that leave me? For the past couple of years it’s left me with running. The physical embodiment of the daily endurance race I’m engaged with in the depth of my mind. To take yourself to a place of suffering through a healthy physical act as a way of justifying inner feelings seems like a perversion of what it is to run. Corrupting a healthy pursuit into an unhealthy justification for existence. I used to joke around with people when they asked me why I ran, “I run to suffer and to escape suffering.” I wasn’t ill at the time, but the residue will always linger. Illness never leaves you and when it comes back around you’d better hope that your coping mechanisms hold up, because without them you’re at the will of the destructive voices inside your head.
And so I was injured. I didn’t hit my goal. I failed. And perhaps all of that is, in part, why I’m here now. External pressures are fantastic for pushing us to be better versions of ourselves, but internal pressures can crack us before we’re capable of asking for help. How we deal with failure is very telling and looking back on my life I can see that I’ve actually never dealt with it—it’s always been easier to walk away. For all the self help books and self development podcasts I listen to now I can see that I’ve crafted myself into a soft version of the person I could be. From growing up sensitive to being a soft adult who has it “easy”, to searching for hardship and justification through an unhealthy combination of crazy mileage, crazy work hours and partying. A constant push towards an inevitable breaking point and that leaves me wondering why I broke.
So what do I do when I can’t run? I rely on community, I rely on my friends to help pull me forward and drag me back to a start line, or I just gloss over it. Mental health is not what we talk about. Not as men, not —I’m coming to understand—as women, and certainly never in public. We don’t talk about it because we don’t know how to engage with each other on that level, and I don’t talk because I fear judgement. I don’t talk because of the potential impact it has on my career, or because I’m scared of what my friends or family might think of me. To talk is to open yourself up and expose every neurosis for public scrutiny. So instead I just play games, I treat life as a giant masquerade ball and never miss my mark, playing every role with precision.
The most telling thing for me in being ill—and this has been since I first battled my inner daemons—was my appearance. I knew that the minute I stopped caring about what I looked like people would start asking questions, because the minute you change your behaviour people notice. Maintaining a certain level of fitness, taking care in the way I dress, not letting myself slip into being overweight or out of shape is enough to keep the level of crazy low and not do anything to upset the status quo. It’s a far cry from my early attempts at controlling my appearance with poor diet and, ultimately, finding a healthy outlet for unhealthy thoughts is the best I can hope to do. We’re so used to conforming and I don’t know how to step outside of those norms without feeling exposed and vulnerable, so I hide behind them.
I’m holding all of me inside, and only giving people a glimpse into what’s going on. “I’m on antidepressants,” is such a normal statement now that it doesn’t even draw further questioning. We just carry on, acknowledge and then move on, next. So, did you see that meme, that video, that picture of that person last night, or hear about that guy or that girl that we don’t really know anymore but still follow on Instagram to make ourselves feel better about our life? We move on and we move away. We leave the personal connection—the reach out for help that almost was get’s glossed over for something with less gravity.
Maybe we’re so concerned with what comes next that we can’t engage with what is present, with what is presently troubling us or our friends. When that contact is made it feels so alien that we recoil from the touch of our fellow human and retreat to the digital world where we feel safe. Lying on our bed scrolling through validations not knowing what that validation system is doing to our inner being.
So where am I now? For me, writing this is part of the cathartic process: opening up to my community about who I am and where I’m at and looking for the path out of there is an important step forward. Gaining some focus in my running, setting a goal and committing to training for it is a fantastic way of steering a path into the future with very manageable steps along the way. I’m looking beyond just running now, the thrill of physical movement offers so much to settle the mind. I’m also examining my relationship to food and how different food types affect my mood as a part of an ongoing process of refining myself and my ability to deal with my own feelings. Progress out of any period of depression is never straightforward, and while my own approaches work in part, I still find myself overwhelmed sometimes. Medication certainly takes an edge off, but the real progress is made in conversation.
There’s a huge irony in the fact that so many of my coping mechanisms rely on hiding how I’ve been feeling and while I don’t doubt that publishing this will bring further anxiety at the scrutiny it will receive and the questions it will ultimately lead to. If I’m not brave enough to share my own thoughts and experiences than how can I expect anything to change in society?