This week it’s Men’s Mental Health Week and Carers Week and according to Carers UK, 42% of the UK’s carers are men.
Like women, these caring responsibilities can have a huge impact on their health but there is often a stigma surrounding men’s mental health which prevents them from seeking the help they need. So, all this week My Family, Our Needs is encouraging SEND Dads to speak up.
Today, we hear from Dan White, a campaigner for disability rights who has appeared on The Wright Stuff, Sky News and Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 programme. Dan is also dad to Emily who is disabled and requires full-time care.
Men. Tough as old boots, they deal with anything. That’s the myth. Maybe for some men ultra-confidence is the reality. Abrasive attitudes may be DNA encoded in a majority of men, but for a percentage this outward projection is a false reality, one that is pinned into place to disguise frailties. There is also, now, a growing number of men who are opening up, breaking free from the cultural stereotype of centuries old rigour and exposing their minds as never before, talking openly about their mental health.
I am one of these men.
There are countless articles and campaigns around male mental health at the moment. I am not for one moment saying that mental illness is predominantly a male only indisposition, no. Mental illness has no prejudices about who it attaches itself to; I am just here to tell you a personal and hopefully cathartic reality of how mental health is also a creeping paralysis in men and especially men who are carers.
People often assume that carers tend to be women but research shows that around four in ten carers are men. In an ideal world care, regardless of gender, would be a fully supported, financially stable resource. The truth, however, is the opposite.
Parenting in most circumstances is stressful enough, but when a family member, in this case a child, has a disability, the stresses are magnified due to innumerable external factors. Cuts to services, respite care and more mean daily battles for simple existence are turned into unwinnable wars where the first casualties are emotional and then mental.
Care should be just that, guiding and supporting a life that needs a little extra help. But in this era of ulcerous austerity and media falsehoods about the benefits given to families like mine, care is just one more coal to the fire of progressive mental illness.
Living our new life
My beautiful, life enhancing daughter was born disabled and as soon as I saw her, I was in love eternally. However, as she began her life journey, so too did my descent into mental hell. The seeds of my downfall were not sown by my child, they were sown by the inadequate and often ignorant support network around families like ours. The first inkling that my mental health was not quite right was when I began to realise that every small problem was being turned into a catastrophe. I had begun to catastrophise.
At first with all the sleepless nights, worries about finances and endless hospital appointments, I naturally assumed my more intense mental state was part of the processing of the life we were now leading. Life was relentless, with working and supporting a family, I literally had no time to go into self-diagnosis. Time was too full with a new, multi-layered existence. Soon I began to experience incredibly powerful bouts of anxiety that were literally burning like a furnace in my chest. I was anxious constantly about my daughter’s health, why we had to go looking for help, why we were so isolated from society and was my beautiful wife really coping when I was away? When I was carrying the seemingly pointless burdens of work? All these manifestations, I assumed, were a natural response to a life sent spinning off into an unexpected direction.
The brain is a complex system, as well all know. But in the case of extreme emotional trauma, it acts like an exposed wound to the spectre of mental illness. As life continued for us as a family, the wound I had opened festered with new varieties of invisible trauma. Anxiety was becoming intolerable to the point of real pain, every single tiny solvable issue was the end of days and now a voice had joined this negative duo, a voice that as the days wore on, grew louder and more poisonous.
In every battle there comes a stalemate. As the days turned into months, into years, as the endless campaigning for my beautiful daughter – for the community as a whole – began to feel hollow, I eventually fractured mentally.
To reach the lowest point, to literally feel like you are going to hell is mental terror extremis. All the tears that appeared for no reason, all the crippling anxiety, the voice screaming at me in my mental processing, all seemed to reach a crescendo of unimaginable horror and there was suddenly no respite. I curled onto the sofa and could not move.
The years of juggling work and care, the lack of understanding from work, the fear of the unknown, the rage of the complete unfairness of everything, but most of all, the utter failure I felt as a father that I could not make my daughters successive operations stop, that someone else had to make her well, combined to try and destroy me. As I lay on that sofa, watching my excellent wife continue to care, while suffering her own mental health issues, all I could think to do to stop the wall of despair and the visions of a future where we lose everything, was to die.
But I refused.
Climbing back up to the top
This is where we are now, today. I am breathing, social and political attitudes toward lives that are a little different are still rancorous and prejudiced as ever, however I survived, I refused the void, and this is how.
I sought help. I realised I had hit the bottom of the pit, I HAD to climb out. I was diagnosed, I wear a badge of bipolar, severe anxiety and body dysmorphia. Love was too strong a pull to me to give in. I fought to realise that stepping into the future with my family was where I wanted to be. Screw the dark, I turned to the light. But it wasn’t easy.
I am still walking. It’s not easy, you’re never cured, as many of you know, but there are lots of ways to beat down the black dog. What would I recommend? Talking, yes, talking, talking about it, to others, to fellow sufferers. The community of carers is vast, the community of parents with a disabled child, equally as huge. Communities are springing up online, we all have similar stories to tell but different advice to give, unity is strength, look.
For me, I have been using my experiences to reach out to people to make them realise they are not alone. I talk as loud as I can about it. I know this is not for everyone, but there are better choices than giving into a condition whose primary job is TO LIE TO YOU, because that’s what mental health does. IT LIES.
Art, writing, sunlight, medication, therapy, children, words…always words. Words win wars.
Good thoughts – use them. Use the good thoughts you have stored to beat down the bad, make the good memories louder, the kept visions of achievement, of compliments, of a child’s laugh. Arm yourself when the days are bright, brand the good memories into the mind, use them as a hidden cache of weapons. Your family, they adore you, they are part of you, reach out to them. Men, loose the shackles of supposed toughness, it only aids your enemy; you have emotions and voices so use them.
Mental health, like the oceans, is here to stay. And just like the oceans, mental health storms, pounds and rages, but it always becomes calm again. You are never alone; after the dark always comes the sun.
I will never be free of this, it’s still there, but I cannot let it beat me. I have a daughter, a wife to grow old with, attitudes to change and talking to do. Join me in the sunlight, everyone is invited. I promise you its warm.
Find out more about Dan or follow him on social media @Danwhite1972. You can also follow #MensHealthWeek and #CarersWeek on social media all this week to find out more and access support if you need it.
Don’t forget to check back tomorrow when we’ll hear from Oliver Mann about being dad to Freddie who has an undiagnosed genetic condition. Oliver will be talking marriage struggles, learning to open up and finding relief in running.