‘Manxiety’ sufferer Rhodri Marsden explains why it’s about time more of us spoke out about this male taboo
If your girlfriend is half an hour late arriving at a party, the correct procedure is to make a mental note, carry on enjoying your evening and think about calling her in 20 minutes to check she’s OK. But this common-sense approach was not for me. Having failed to reach her on the phone, I sat sobbing with friends as I assumed she was dead. Mown down in cold blood by a juggernaut, she didn’t deserve to die so young.
I had no idea how I’d break the news to her mother, or how I’d hold it together at the funeral. Life is so short, so brutal, I thought to myself, my chest heaving. And then she turned up. I quickly performed a humiliating emotional U-turn and bought a round of drinks. This level of anxiety, I decided, was unsustainable. I had to do something about it.
As evidenced by the recent troubles of English Test cricketer Jonathan Trott (which I’ll come to), we all get anxious. We’ve all had dreams where you turn up at school wearing only your pants, or you’re behind the wheel of a malfunctioning car stuck on a level crossing. The shrill beep of the alarm clock usually offers respite from such anxious moments, but for an increasing number of people like myself who suffer from anxiety, that feeling of pulsating panic can remain with us all day, all week, all year. We lose perspective of the things that are worth worrying about and the things that remain outside our control.
I’ve suffered to a greater or lesser extent for nearly 20 years, but for the first seven or so I didn’t even realise that it was a feral presence running amok within my own head. I genuinely thought that employers hadn’t replied to emails because I’d angered them and that loved ones would be killed in traffic accidents because there was a statistical likelihood of that happening. Anxiety ruled everything, and my attempts at avoidance became somewhat extreme. Rather than nervously wait for someone to arrive, I’d generously offer to pick them up. Rather than wait for a call, I’d reassert control by getting on the Tube for an hour, making pointless journeys 30 metres below ground level where I knew no one could reach me.
The cause of this irrational behaviour isn’t something I’ve ever had a satisfactory answer to, despite having extended periods of cognitive behavioural therapy. The anxious mind still seems to be poorly understood; statistics provided by the charity Mind suggest that anxiety is more common in the UK than depression, but sufferers are less likely to seek help and more likely to self-medicate, less likely to receive sympathy and more likely to be told, Ann Widdecombe-style, to buck up.
Big boys don’t cry
The “modern malaise” isn’t helping. Whether it’s Affluenza (the pursuit of wealth outlined in the book by psychologist Oliver James), fear of missing out (or Fomo, those well-documented feelings of envy caused by social media), first-world guilt or recession-induced panic, the increased incidence of anxiety is very real. “Our information line has seen a surge in calls since the start of the recession,” says Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, “with more people concerned about changes to welfare, debt and financial problems.” Anxiety is about a loss of control and a need to reassert it – and straitened economic circumstances create a lack of control writ large. Financial insecurities compound our everyday anxieties such as survival, endurance and our ability to carry on a certain lifestyle.
Men in particular have a tendency to ignore and suppress their manxiety, booting it several yards up the street with the help of alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-medication. “This is partly society’s conditioning,” says Lucy Beresford, author of Happy Relationships At Home, Work & Play. “Adults imagine that one way to instil backbone in young boys is to say ‘big boys don’t cry’ – ie you don’t have permission to reveal your feelings. As a result, the majority of men don’t feel comfortable with revealing their anxiety; if they do, it’ll be seen as a sign of weakness. And they don’t create the same kind of support structures among themselves as women do.”
This reluctance of men to admit to anxiety is reflected in the media; male icons still tend to be marked out by their unreflective, action-based personas. While Trott’s sad exit from the current Ashes series over mental-health issues has prompted widespread sympathy, there are still raised eyebrows that a sporting star could possibly crumble under pressure in this way – when, actually, it’s statistically probable that one member of the team that lost in Brisbane is a sufferer.
The positive coverage of Trott’s departure is, one hopes, part of a wider acknowledgement across society that swaggering machismo is an unnecessary mask. Evidently, rampant and destructive anxiety is equally dreadful, but striking a healthy balance between the two – just the right amount of self-doubt – is the ideal we should be striving for. Accept that it’s OK to show weakness, that worrying is normal, but that bricking it constantly for no apparent reason is avoidable. Anxiety can be understood, controlled and, if you’re lucky, despatched to the black hole from whence it came.
No pan pipes
Which isn’t to say that it’s easy. I embarked on a scattershot approach that involved trying anything recommended by anyone except Jehovah’s Witnesses. I avoided caffeine and alcohol, which came with its own drawbacks. I went to aforementioned therapy sessions, which were enlightening but ineffective. My GP prescribed me fluoxetine, which I left untouched as one of the potential side-effects was “anxiety”. I paid a hypnotherapist £100 to tap me on the arm for half an hour. All these things have evidently worked for other people, but they didn’t work for me.
But I’ve stumbled upon an almost accidental combination of remedies that has, thankfully, reduced my levels of anxiety. Exercise, I’m sorry to report to anyone as lazy as myself, makes the most powerful contribution. If I don’t bomb around on my bike for 45 minutes a day, I feel rubbish.
The biggest revelation, however, has been meditation. How contemptuous I’d been of this because of its supposed associations with lotus positions, pan pipes and new-age balderdash. I only tried it because one website, getsomeheadspace.com, referred instead to “mindfulness”, which I found marginally less offensive.
“Helping men get over the myths surround meditation is a matter of language,” says Headspace’s co-founder Andy Puddicombe. “We were thinking of alternatives to the word ‘meditation’ for six months. But the important thing is to make people aware that this is just an exercise to help you become more focused and more present.” Once you’ve got over that hurdle, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would spurn meditation, especially bearing in mind its proven effects upon anxiety, depression, sleep and so on. “The nice thing about it,” says Puddicombe, “is that it’s a tool that you can use on your own to manage your own happiness.”
Recently, a list headed ‘Reasons For Admission’ did the rounds online. It was put together at West Virginia Hospital For The Insane in the late 1800s, and includes such spurious afflictions as “religious enthusiasm” and “parents were cousins”. It makes you realise how far we’ve come with our understanding of mental health, but shattering the misconceptions of anxiety is just another step that needs to be made along that road. As Sartre says, to be human is to be anxious, and that’s something that Puddicombe is keen to underline. “You’re not weak or ill-prepared. Anxiety is part of the spectrum of emotions we experience. It’s just a question of learning how to deal with it.”
For more information, visit mind.org.uk