Mental illness amongst men is becoming a subject that’s being hurled into the public sphere, and rightly so. Some men feel more comfortable contemplating suicide than talking about their emotions, men are more likely to get depressed, but women are more likely to seek help, and as much as we like to say, “just talk,” to both men and women, no one seems to want to listen. Often when we talk about mental illness, it can feel like we’re seeing it as a distant phenomenon, rather than a very urgent reality for a lot of people. Not to mention the fact that gender seems to play a huge role in mental illness.
My dad was in his 30s when he first became ill. He got diagnosed with depression and anxiety first, then it was manic depression, then cyclothymia, then finally bipolar disorder. Contrary to popular opinion, bipolar isn’t an adjective you can use to describe the weather, nor is it just mood swings. It’s a disorder that expresses itself in depressive episodes and manic episodes.
It is sometimes very difficult to live with someone who’s bipolar; the rest of my family and I try to understand that although it is difficult and confusing for us, it’s worse for him. And, that it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love us, or that he’s difficult to love. Everyone has those moments where they realise their parents aren’t superheroes who can handle everything, and when you have a dad with bipolar, the realisation crashes down quite quickly. I’m not looking for sympathy here, I’m just saying that having a parent with a mental illness, that they’ll probably have for the rest of their life (unless someone miraculously finds a cure), is the epitome of one of those moments. My dad was sick, and he turned into a man we barely recognised until he sought help, and then we slowly but surely got pieces of him back.
I‘ve always admired my dad; his ability to immediately see something funny in a situation that could easily be bleak is something I try to emulate in my own life. I still do admire my dad and his comedic prowess, except now there’s a weight to it. Often the funniest people are depressed – Robin Williams for example. Perhaps it’s a tragic sadness that this is the case, but I think there’s a sweetness to it. Because people like my dad and Robin Williams have had a rich experience in true despair, they know just how important it can be to have someone bring a little bit of joy into your life. There’s a time to be serious, sure, and a gallows sense of humour definitely isn’t the cure, but it softens the blow a bit. My dad was and is always the person making dumb jokes, despite his illness.
When my dad had a moment of astounding courage and told our family about his worsening mental illness, there was a line divided between them – those who were understandably worried, but willing to support him, and those who thought he was psychotic and never wanted anything to do with him again. Similarly, whenever I’ve told anyone about my suffering mental health, the dividing line reappears, yet at different points. There are the people who are supportive (and they’re all great), and then there are the people who think I need to get over myself. This is the difference I’ve found – ill women should get over themselves, ill men are psychotic. It’s either shunned or taken to an ignorant extreme. When we share those videos on the internet that talk about how it’s okay to share our emotions, it’s important to consider whether we’re sharing them to appear like a good person who cares about that stuff, or because we actually believe in the message. Most people would say that it’s okay to talk, and it’s okay to feel, but as soon as someone sits them down and opens up, they run 20 miles in the opposite direction. As far as I’ve observed when it comes to my dad, this is far worse for men. For men, there’s no support network like the kind that women have. What’s also had an impact, is the fact that people didn’t necessarily see my dad’s illness as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of psychopathy. I’m sure some people did and still do think my dad’s diagnosis makes him weak, nevertheless, the main reaction is one of abject fear.
Here’s the thing. Mental illnesses are just what it says in the name: illnesses. They should come with no shame or stigma because there is nothing to be ashamed of. Yet the shame between men and women is so different. I think it stems from the same place – shame at appearing weak, and fear of rejection – yet there is a fundamental difference, and in my experience at least, that difference lies in where we’re supposed to be strong. For women, it’s already assumed that we’re weak. We have to prove that we’re not. Men are intrinsically assumed to be strong, yet the way they’re supposed to express that strength is where the problems lie. Men are supposed to lead, take advantage of everyone around them, earn loads of money, and womanize. To be honest, a part of me wants to advocate being weak. You don’t have to be strong at all, never mind all the time. You can fall and think that lying in the dirt doesn’t seem that bad. However, I do think strength and bravery are good traits, we just need to change the definition of what they consist of.
In a perfect world, what constitutes as strength would be different for every person. For my dad, strength is found when he makes jokes about his illness and when he talks about it without judging himself. The same is for me too. For someone else, strength might be found in their love for learning new things, or in taking an opportunity that seems out of their reach. Such narrow definitions of strength stop us from being able to heal the wounds that mental illnesses can open. Our parents aren’t superheroes, no. But that isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean that they’re not strong. There’s no happy ending to a diagnosis like bipolar, and there doesn’t necessarily need to be. It is what it is, but it shouldn’t mean that we can’t talk about it. My dad isn’t a superhero; he is brave, and bipolar, and he is okay.
Written by Rochelle Asquith