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Three Moments and Processing Trauma as a Man
Preface: The following article contains themes/topics related to suicide, depression, and emotional distress. If these topics, or topics related to them, are emotionally triggering for you, you may wish to not read this article. Names have been changed in order to protect those they reference.
On September 21st 2015 I received a phone call that would become the catalyst for a series of emotional events for the next six years. It was my best friend’s sister calling me to tell me that he had died from suicide. At the time, I was baking a salmon fillet, using curried spices - both from my sister and her husband living out in British Columbia - and preparing for a presentation I had to give the next day at work. I can’t remember the topic of the presentation. But I can remember the cadence of John’s sister’s voice, and how it broke as it told me the news. This was the second worst moment of my life. The third worst moment came when she said she had to call Ivy, John’s closest friend from high school. Instead, I offered to call. It was unusual for me to call Ivy. We weren’t particularly close, but we both cared about each other and had a vested interest in John’s life. I dial the number on my phone and she picks up. I try to make small talk at first, in my flustered attempt to avoid the topic while also easing her into it. But it was apparent to her (at least I assume) that something was wrong. There’s a pause in the conversation. I tell her John is dead, and the last thing I hear from her was a scream and the phone dropping and hitting the floor. Her husband picks up the phone. In a quiet voice he says a few kind words before hanging up. It was that scream that was the third worst moment of my life. It bore such vivid agony in it… it was heartbreaking, and haunts me to this day. The worst moment came the next day. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought I had to do something, anything. I needed to feel productive, I needed to keep my mind busy, and I needed to show that I was strong enough to get through this. So I went to work, and I gave my presentation. I was fortunate that there were others presenting alongside me and they helped as I went through the motions of speaking on a topic I can no longer remember. After the presentation I got a phone call. It was John’s sister again letting me know the logistics of the funeral. I spoke at length with her about how she was, how her family was, and what they’ve been doing. I wanted to comfort her, despite how impossible a task it seemed at the current moment. But there was a weight on my mind. I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t know why it burned away at me. But I needed to know how John died. It was as though I had come to the final chapter of a long book, and the ending had been removed. If this story had been a real book, it would have been fine to simply set it aside. I didn’t have to know what happened. I knew enough. But still, my mind was driven to ask the fatal question that would become the single worst moment of my life. How did he do it? I have a great deal of hatred towards myself for asking that question. As I already mentioned, I didn’t need to know, and I certainly didn’t need to drag up such a sharp memory for the sister of my best friend ever, if not so soon. Yet I did. And I learned. And that is enough said about that.
This was a hard story for me to tell, even in its briefness. Additionally, it may have been triggering for the reader. So why did I write it today, Friday November 5th at 8:00am in the morning? For starters, I wanted to write it on behalf of Movember, which has become something of an umbrella period for acknowledging and talking about men’s issues - both physical and mental. I also wrote it because it was hard. These are feelings and events from over six years ago that I am still actively processing - mostly alone. There were other moments that spun from these that later went on to contribute to my mental health, mostly for worse. But these are the foundation of my story. These are words and feelings that I have struggled to speak out loud, or even acknowledge. And there are so many more that continue to dwell in me, unspoken. In his book, The Wise Man’s Fear Patrick Rothfuss writes,
“Teccam explains there are two types of secrets. There are secrets of the mouth and secrets of the heart.
Most secrets are secrets of the mouth. Gossip shared and small scandals whispered. There, secrets long to be let loose upon the world. A secret of the mouth is like a stone in your boot. At first you’re barely aware of it. Then it grows irritating, then intolerable. Secrets of the mouth grow larger the longer you keep them, swelling until they press against your lips. They fight to be let free.
Secrets of the heart are different. They are private and painful, and we want nothing more than to hide them from the world. They do not swell and press against the mouth. They live in the heart, and the longer they are kept, the heavier they become.
Teccam claims it is better to have a mouthful of poison than a secret of the heart. Any fool will spit out poison, he says, but we hoard these painful treasures. We swallow hard against them every day, forcing them deep inside us. There they sit, growing heavier, festering. Given enough time, they cannot help but crush the heart that holds them.”
In coming to terms with trauma, and in processing grief, it is incredibly important to be able to speak about them. As a man, I sometimes feel like my problems are unimportant, and should be kept inside. I should be able to process them on my own and that they’re not as bad as other people's problems. What’s more, regardless of who you are, some memories are simply sharp and it's sometimes easier to avoid seeing them rather than be cut. But healing doesn’t begin until we actually recognize that these are issues that cannot always be solved on their own. Rather, they’re like a virus, slowly infecting the way we think about ourselves, how we think about others, and how we behave. Without outside intervention this can be difficult, if not impossible, to remedy. People with a bacterial infection need antibiotics, people with Parkinsons’ need medication, and people with mental illness need therapy. There’s no shame in seeking help, and there’s no shame in acknowledging that you might not be able to handle this on your own. Just because I’ve been driving since I was 13, I wouldn’t try fixing my car on my own if it was smoking; I’d take it to a mechanic. They know what they’re doing. Similarly, I’ve been living in this body since I was 0. When struggling with something, I go speak to someone who knows more about the mind and body than I do.
It took time, but I reached out for help myself. I could see the effect that my mental health was having on those around me. I saw how my behaviour had changed, and I realized that my thoughts were on a path I didn’t want to be on. For three years now I’ve been on an SSRI antidepressant, and reaching out to therapists. There are days I still struggle, but it’s better; and I'm happier than I’ve been in a long time. I hope that anyone who struggles like I did, and I do, can reach this point and perhaps move beyond it.
My last comments are a plea to anyone struggling with mental illness. First, you’re not alone. There are many out here who live with mental illness. I don’t seek to diminish your fight, but rather let you know that you’re in good company and that we’re on your side. Second, remember that if you’re struggling with a mental illness, it affects many people. It may not be something that you can just deal with or bury. If you care about those around you, then you need to do what you can to help them, including helping yourself. Third and finally, living with mental illness can be an ongoing issue. Don’t be discouraged if you fall off the wagon from time to time. It’s part of the healing process, and everytime you get back up, it gets easier. You got this.
Josh is a cognitive scientist, acting as the Research and Evaluation Lead at mindyourmind. He enjoys playing games, recording music, cooking big meals, and bugging his cat Sim.
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