For those who didn’t notice the rather significant outpouring of support across social media earlier this week, Monday 10th October was World Mental Health Day. As has been acknowledged by many before me, mental health is something affects all of us, yet due to the culture of archetypal roles of masculinity, femininity, conformity and so forth that permeate society, it is still a stigmatized subject in many circles, touchy and taboo. It takes great courage for an individual to admit they have mental health issues; it takes an equally great amount to admit to others the same thing. They are stumbling blocks, reinforced by traditionalistic and animalistic notions that have shaped culture for centuries; whilst we are getting better at acknowledging there is a problem, many still won’t talk about it, whether because they are crippled by their own fears and limitations or those of the people who they surround themselves with.
And that’s what I want to talk about today; friendship, and how it shapes an individual approach to mental health. Recently, I read a blog post by a freelance journalist and old friend called Rebecca Marano in which she frankly examined how her mental health issues had been exacerbated by failed relationships, how her state of mind had defined the parameters she allowed others to get away with in what was a damaging association because she viewed herself as less. On some level, I can relate to this, though in a more platonic and companionable sense. I did not seek out professional help – out of a discomfort with admitting there was something unusual about me – when I feel that I initially began to suffer from mental health problems. But nor did I seek out friends to discuss this with at the dawn of malaise either. Yet over the intervening years, I have found a group of people, mostly accepting, understanding and even relatable who have helped me to see that my mental health is not necessarily a curse, but a blessing in equal measure.
Your self-worth as an individual is sometimes tenuous at best in your formative years, and the more it gets kicked, the more it tends to bruise.
It’s ironic – or perhaps, poetic – that such mental health issues likely arose from damaging friendships. In the same way that my life is heavily defined now by a variety of excellent personal and professional relationships, my life when first suffering through that initial period of problems was as equally defined by a series of bad connections, connections that likely moulded my struggles for the following five years. My parents and sister were comfortably the most positive associations I had at that time, around the age of fourteen and fifteen. However, my high-school friendships were considerably more fraught. I left my primary school with three of my four closest friends being blown to the wind, off to secondary education elsewhere across West Yorkshire, whilst I entered high-school with one best friend and a gaggle of slight acquaintances. I never really made new friends until late year eight, and even then, it was through my existing best friend. Part of my inability to socialise successfully was my personality; a bombastic, fast-talking, tie-knot-too-tight nerd, who didn’t have MySpace, or Bebo, or Facebook, or any social media platform (I eventually, begrudgingly, began on Twitter in 2012 and no-one can get me off the bloody thing now). Part of that inability however lied with the stirrings in my mind; that I wasn’t cool enough, that I wasn’t smart enough, that I wasn’t hard enough to socialise with these people. I was an exaggerated, cartoonish buffoon in the eyes of many (less intellectual and equally smart people, it must be said, for they held a consensus despite their intelligence), with an accent out of place and an affinity for drama rather than physical education (I played Marley’s Ghost once and was the hammiest thing since Brian Blessed).
Despite the favouritism of some teachers, others belittled my excitable attitude in equal measure – and across our friendship group, a schism was slowly starting to appear. It was around January of 2010 when it happened – two of them fell out and battle lines were drawn. I refused – out of some noble, higher intent – to take sides, including that of my best friend. By the following week, rumours were spreading – “Did you hear what Andrew said? Did you hear what Andrew did?” – and I suddenly found myself ostracised (I would find out later that someone had created a false profile of me on social media and committed a rather grievous case of identity fraud, complete with racist overtones). Backs were turning and the few close friends I had left at high school – Ryan, Peter, Lewis, Abbie – were fighting their own corner or battles equal to my own in some form. I didn’t wish to burden them and I didn’t feel I could confide in a teacher either – such practices in early high school had got the shit kicked out of me, until Lewis’s brother Joe pointed out to teachers that making me pick out bullies in front of a whole class or assembly was not the best way to deal with bullying.
Your self-worth as an individual is sometimes tenuous at best in your formative years, and the more it gets kicked, the more it tends to bruise. Depression need not have a catalyst – but plenty of incidental factors help it escalate. Even surrounded by people, in love or hate, you feel alone, you feel isolated, your self-identity, your slight grasp of masculinity crumbles. And yet, you assume it is normal, because you don’t want to admit to suffering from mental health issues – why would you, when you already feel an outcast amongst outcasts? High-school was a melting pot, a jungle I had fallen foul of. No-one here was going to respect me for admitting – how could they, when I couldn’t respect myself if I had depression?
As I wrote earlier, friendship is one of the key factors that shapes a battle with mental health. For me, at fifteen, the support system seemed non-existent or insufficient, particularly when I myself could not relate to it. All this culminated in a dark April that year, the lowest ebb, and much of the immediate summer that followed is charted in my article Can I Play With Madness, also on here. Needless to say, it stands as a defining chapter in my life. Things came out, as they often do at the intended end, and so began the long road back to the top with my parents and friends suddenly aware. And that was the most shocking, gratifying and humbling thing; suddenly, that support system was there, had been there all along – but because of the poison that had seeped through my friendships at high school, the slurs and the slander, the black dog on my shoulder had lead me to believe that no friendships saw me worth their time anymore.
It takes great courage for an individual to admit they have mental health issues; it takes an equally great courage to admit to others the same thing.
I went through year eleven in an odd place. I was made Head Boy, played and umpired cricket in the school team, and went to my first ever concert (The Human League, but again, read Can I Play With Madness for an insight into music and mental health). I left with a clutch of impressive grades and again, saw myself separated from most of my friends when I chose to head to college rather than sixth form. Many similar issues played up whilst there – the difficulty of integrating myself into new friendships, the “clique” atmosphere of some groups, the disturbing amount of pre-hipster tweed and teachers who were not the most tactful or efficient. But when those inevitable tensions drew people apart, I didn’t become ostracised or demeaned – I firmed up friendships instead and formed bonds – Ben, Jennifer, Max, Bryony – that are still with me three years on and hopefully will be for a long time. And when I hit those rough patches, when I felt myself spiralling, for no reason or every reason, they understood. They closed up ranks aside me, but did not protect me – it was solidarity, rather than segregation. They let me see the world as I did – but let me see it as they did too.
See the difference? Whilst I still have some incredible friends from high school, the atmosphere there, and the nature of the connections that surrounded me shaped the idea that mental health issues were something to be swept under the carpet or risk having your head flushed down a toilet for being “not right” (this actually did happen, and I can’t recommend the experience). At college, and later university, the people surrounding me have been understanding, supportive and proud of me for readily admitting my demons. They are invaluable individuals who, like many others, give me the strength to talk about these issues, and help you through the good days as well as the dark ones. My friend Laura likes to stick on some Northern Soul and dance me around her flat when I’m down. Alex likes challenge me through outlandish and ridiculous bets. Sam generally drags me off to a concert that I thoroughly enjoy by some hip and trendy band I’ve never heard of. My parents take me all the way out to Scarborough, to a place called the Harbour Bar that does heavenly milkshakes. When I first met Stevie to discuss Mantality, we chatted for an hour about Nine Inch Nails in intense detail, forgetting that our tea was going cold. These are the sort of people who you want surrounding you, even if you don’t have a mental health problem. True friends, true companions, who get you at all your levels, at your peaks and valleys.
To go back to Rebecca Marano’s article, I’ve had a share – in high school and college – of friendships that coloured my worldview and perceptions of mental health and myself in a darker shade, because of their actions. But for four and a bit years, I’ve been flanked by some of the greatest men and women I know, men and women who have shaped my view of myself to become one that is celebratory. There was a point where I loathed myself – but because of the friendships I have, I can look in the mirror in the morning and truly say I love myself. And that’s the greatest gift they could have ever given me; self-respect.
Thank you, guys. You’re too wonderful for words and I’m lucky to know you.