Movember: Men's Mental Health, Masculinity and Vulnerability
DISCLAIMER: This post contains sensitive subjects such as mental health, depression and suicide which may be triggering for some readers. If you are struggling with mental health, please reach out to your support system or your local help line.
Welcome to MOvember - a month dedicated to men's health to raise awareness around prostate and testicular cancer as well as men's mental health. This month I want to put a focus on men’s mental health and break down this outdated idea that being vulnerable by sharing your thoughts and emotions makes you weak.
On the contrary, being vulnerable makes you stronger by releasing the physical, emotional, and psychological stresses you carry with you on daily basis, and it also fosters stronger relationships with those that you choose to confide in and share your experiences with. Being vulnerable allows you to heal yourself and become a happier, more fulfilled version of yourself.
Mental health has always been an important topic to me, but men’s mental health is near and dear to my heart because of my experiences with my dad who suffered from bipolar disorder. I have mentioned this before on the podcast, but it isn't a story that I have shared publicly in any great length or detail. I want to share this story with you in hopes that it can help you in your own mental health journey and give you a deeper appreciation for those around you that may be going through similar experiences.
I was exposed to the realities of mental health from a very young age without even knowing it until I was in my teenage years. My parents were divorced so my time was split between the two of them during my childhood. On weekends with my dad, we would go down to the lake where we had a house and a boat. It was about an hour drive from our hometown and whenever I would go my mom would always pack a baggie of quarters in my duffle and tell me to call her if I needed anything (This was before cell phones were popular and had to use the payphones - which makes me feel very old). I never really understood why she did that, but I never thought to question it.
As I got a bit older, I realized that there was a reason for the quarters. I knew that my dad had some issues with his mental health, but I wasn't aware of the extent.
When I was fifteen or sixteen, my dad sat me down for a conversation that was difficult for him to have. He shared his story with me. For context, my dad played hockey growing up and he was a good hockey player at that. He played with Wayne Gretzky and had potential to make to the NHL (from what everyone tells me anyways). When he was around the age of eighteen, he began to experience these episodes but didn’t know what was happening at the time. He began to experience feelings of depression. He told me about the poor relationship he had with his dad who suffered from alcoholism and how that affected him, his continuously sleepless nights, feeling lost and hopeless, and how he tried to reach out for help but was told to tough it out (essentially). He tried to fight through it until he couldn't handle it anymore and decided he was going to take his own life.
He remembers being rushed through the halls of the hospital for emergency surgery. He told me he vividly remembers having an out-of-body experience and saw his body from above and wished he could have another chance at his life. He got that chance. He survived the accident, but at the cost of his leg which was amputated at his shin, effectively leaving him with one foot and ending his hockey dreams.
He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I at the age of twenty-two - a mental health disorder characterized by episodes of mania and depression. He told me about the signs that he experiences during his episodes so that I would be aware of when he was having an episode.
For those that don't know, there are different levels of severity with bipolar disorder. and various associated symptoms that not everyone experiences. In my dad's case, he would experience full episodes of mania for a couple months before he would fall to the other end of the spectrum and enter into a deep depression for a few months. It is a very difficult disorder to manage on your own, which is why my mom was always so vigilant with packing quarters and why my dad told me the signs to better understand him and be able to identify when he needed help.
It wasn't long after that I started to notice those signs that he was warning me about on a trip we took to Vegas. He was acting as if he was on top of the world, he didn’t sleep much at all, he started spending money and the biggest tell was when he started to chain smoke. At one point I saw him approach a complete stranger and ask for a cigarette because he had already smoked his way through a full pack that day. He was beginning a manic episode which lasted a couple months before he began to spiral down into the depressive phase. All of this was difficult to cope with for many reasons, but there was absolutely nothing worse than seeing my dad in the hospital room in tears. I hated seeing him cry. I still do. It broke my heart because there was nothing that I could do to help ease his pain or make him feel better.
My dad didn't experience episodes very often when I was younger. I only saw maybe two or three episodes at most before his health declined. In my second year of university the doctors informed my dad that he had an enlarged heart and would require open heart surgery. His surgery took place in Ontario during my teams CIS National Championships in Calgary. Needless to say, I was extremely worried for him throughout the tournament. There were a few complications with his sodium levels, but the doctors were able to level it out and we were told he would make a full recovery.
At the outset we were told that the surgery would impact his bipolar and would cause chemical imbalances in his brain from anywhere between 18 to 24 months. Knowing this, the family prepared to make sure that there was a solid support system in place for him to help keep him on track as much as possible. He experienced more manic-depressive episodes in that timeframe than I had ever seen before. They happened one after the other instead of having one every few years. We were all waiting for the 24-month timeframe to be up in hopes that things would go back to normal. Sadly, they never did.
During the summer of 2017 my dad was rushed to the hospital after falling in the house. I was at work at the time and got a call that he had been admitted and they weren’t sure what was wrong. What was initially only a fall turned into so much more. He was treated at the hospital and sent home before he was rushed to the hospital again the next day when he woke up and couldn’t move his lower extremities. The doctors figured that something must have got pinched in the initial fall. But then his cognitive functioning started to decline. He could barely communicate verbally, he forgot how to spell and do simple math equations, and his motor skills got worse. It was really difficult to see him in such a condition and I was scared for what could possibly happen next. I spent most of my summer travelling from work to the hospital to see him. Once he was able to use a walker, we would take short walks down the halls of the hospital and I’d do my best to get a conversation in with him.
He was discharged from the hospital before I returned to university but never made a full recovery. He had a successful business of over thirty years which he had to claim bankruptcy on as a result of his decline. Since then, his mental and physical health has declined even further and has developed Parkinson’s which has now progressed to Parkinson’s Dementia. It is so severe that psychiatrists have declared him to no longer be considered bipolar. He is unable to live on his own, he requires care 24/7, and he doesn’t say much of anything at all. It is heartbreaking.
I am sharing this story because it is important to break the stigma that surrounds mental health in general but just as important to discredit the idea that men being vulnerable and sharing their emotions and feelings makes them weak and unmasculine.
Masculinity is defined as the roles, behaviours, qualities and attributes regarded as being characteristics of men. Some common words associated with masculinity include strong, muscular, brave, driven and more. I want to point out that the concept of masculinity has been socially constructed over time and just like a bad habit, it needs to be broken. We can do that by sharing our stories, being open and vulnerable with our thoughts and emotions, letting others see the reality that we are living, by supporting one another in that fact that it is okay not to be okay, and encouraging people to reach out for help if they need it.
We are all human, we all have mental health, and it is important that we do what we can to take care of ourselves and the people around us.