Opening up about anxiety or depression issues is so important.
For most of my life, it seemed that men weren’t supposed to have emotions. It was considered a sign of weakness. Don’t ask a friend for help. Don’t cry. Don’t display vulnerability. That’s not masculine.
It’s pleasing times have changed. The growing focus on mental health and the recognition that many people suffer from a range of mental health issues is positive — especially for me.
I’m a typical middle-aged, white, middle-class Australian male. Nothing special about me. I like to watch sports and drink beer with friends. I have two children and a dog. I’m an #AverageJoe.
I love writing and travel and thus writing about travel. I’ve been fortunate to travel to over 100 countries and have written extensively about my adventures.
I’m also told I have a great sense of humour (this is starting to sound like a dating profile, but I’m getting to the point) and most of my writing has been focused on humour. But the coronavirus has changed this.
Isolation. Quarantine. People dying. Jobs being lost (including mine). It’s time to be a “real man” and talk about a real topic. A personal one. And rather than try and make you laugh or boast about my travels, maybe my writing may help someone.
Twelve months ago, my business was going great. My kids were smashing it at school and in sport. I was engaged to be married. Life couldn’t be better. Outwardly things looked pretty sweet for this Average Joe. But deep inside there was a different story being run. Work was causing me enormous stress and invading my mind with a constant stream of negative thoughts. I couldn’t tune out. This made sleep even worse than usual. I was becoming irritable and grumpy.
Every morning when I got out of bed, I was dreading the day. Turning to my phone and looking at emails, my heart would race, and I would feel nauseous. Work was hard and I would anticipate a catastrophe. Sometimes I would sweat when I started my workday.
To my colleagues, they knew the job was stressful and challenging. We would comment about the long hours and tough clients. But for me, it was deeper than that. Dragging me down. My mind would race- were the issues caused by me? Was I so bad at my job? Am I a failure?
The more I questioned myself the deeper my mental hole became. Despite so many positives in my life, thinking about work was negating them all. In a battle, good was losing to evil. My partner noticed my behaviour and offered help- but I am a male. I kept it inside. “Its just work, all OK” I would say. This wasn’t true, but for some reason, I couldn’t talk about this. Like there was something wrong in talking about my issues. Men. Don’t. Talk.
My friends would ask how my business was going and every time I’d say, “it’s going well.” I couldn’t admit failure to them. It was getting worse — I could see myself beginning to spiral. I wasn’t Ash.
I turned to the only avenue I felt I could confide in: Google. Typing away looking for anonymous advice. Dr. Google gave me results on Mental Health, Depression, Anxiety. From professionals and amateurs, I ignored them all.
I don’t have any of those. Depression is a serious issue. I’m not that bad. It’s for people with suicidal thoughts. I didn’t want to kill myself. I was OK.
Then, in September 2019 something happened that made me reconsider. A work colleague tried to kill herself. I was shocked. She seemed so outgoing and confident. Full of life and always out socializing. If she felt like that how did I not know? I spoke to her every day. Wait… could I be going down that road?
October and November, I was worried about my colleague (who made a recovery and is taking action), in addition to work and found myself teetering. Still holding it in, I decided I needed to do something. I decided to take a sabbatical from work.
The Sabbatical a.k.a. “Project Ash”
Being a workaholic I had accumulated 19 weeks of leave. Instead of taking several small breaks or getting this leave paid out, I asked to take them all at once. The directors of my company agreed. To the outside world, it was an extended vacation. To me- it was a chance to address some mental health issues.
Friends were asking- are you going to use this time to launch a new business? They assumed that would be my focus, knowing I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I said that I indeed was working on a project. I didn’t tell them what the project was. The project was me.
I set myself goals to accomplish over the 4 months. I didn’t want to waste time on the couch watching Netflix -ironically this is what much of the world is doing now- and waste four months.
The main KPI for me was my mental health. All underlying tasks fed into this.
- Spend less time on my phone
- Be more present with friends and family
- Focus on fitness and nutrition
- Work on my sleep measures
- Do a writing course
- Write more
I still loved travel and incorporated a trip into this time that fed into my goals. One was to go to a Health and Wellness Retreat in Thailand. Here I would be surrounded by experts (and strangers) where I would open up, try new things, rebuild myself into Ash 2.0. Heck, I would even eat vegan food for a week!
After the retreat, I would spend four days in Bhutan- known as the Happiest Country on Earth. A relaxed, peaceful trip, where I could see a culture, I knew little about and perhaps learn how they found happiness. (Their government has a Gross National Happiness index, which is a fantastic idea I’d love to see other countries emulate.)
Just one week into my sabbatical, I felt a change. No more dreading the morning. No more checking emails at 530am. I was updating my tasks, feelings, and thoughts online- just like I would do for any project.
A month into my break I was asked to return to work for a week for a planning seminar. I agreed and immediately the old feelings were back. I felt sick. The day before the seminar, it was cancelled and so, tremendously relieved, I resumed my project.
February was time for my retreat. I was heading to Phuket Cleanse- selected because there was such a wide range of activities for me to choose from. And I was determined to try them all. Aerial yoga, breathwork. meditation, 1 on 1 counselling, 30-minute ice baths. All activities that Average Joe (i.e., Anxious Ash) would scoff at as hippy rubbish. However, with an open mind, I did them all.
I had my induction session with one of the counsellors and told this story. She listened as I spoke for fifteen minutes. When I finished, she said- “you have anxiety”. I laughed. No- that’s not me. I’ve seen anxiety. That’s not me.
She then explained the causes and symptoms and I began to nod my head.
“Repeat that, Ash.”
I felt almost like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. She had dragged me out of the anxiety closet so to speak. I could now acknowledge this and work on it. I wasn’t ashamed. I was relieved.
Over my week there, I found lots of new things to practice. I started daily meditation. Being unable to sit still for long (a symptom of anxiety) it would be 3-minute sessions, but they were good for me. I altered my diet. I listened to positive affirmations. I journaled thoughts. All hippy nonsense right? Wrong. All necessary steps for me to rebuild.
I continued this in Bhutan and upon my return home, I told my partner, “I have anxiety.” She nodded. “I know. I’ve said that before.”
I was in denial and had ignored her. I thought of anxiety as a weakness. And I was a strong male. I had no weakness!
After my return, I was due to return to work. I was trying to keep my anxiety in check. Practice what I had learned. The day before I was scheduled back, I was called and told I was being furloughed. Indefinitely.
From the business, I co-founded and was co-owner of. That day was bad. I turned off. Wouldn’t speak to anyone. Ignored calls. I went to bed and didn’t sleep. Ash, the original version, was back.
The next day, I acknowledged this and decided to put all I had learned over the last four months into practice.
Work was beating me. I have anxiety and the situation wasn’t helped by that. Now I have time. To focus on my writing and my fitness.
I have decided I won’t go back to work there. It’s not good for me. I already have some other business opportunities. And my writing. I may not get rich off Medium. But maybe it’s my form of counselling.
I’m not going to quote statistics on mental health- there are plenty of articles and good advice on this from people with far more knowledge than me.
I just wanted to share my story and a few tips that worked for me.
I would encourage you to talk to friends and a family. Heck, even write an article like this. But be a man — talk about mental health.
Love and happiness,