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A mental health checkpoint
Now That's What I Call Well-Being!
I write about mental health a lot. I’ve been on the wrong side of it, and want to share everything I’ve learned so it might help others. Here’s a C-90 compilation tape of previous essays from the intersection of mental health and parenting—a place where I’ve long pondered.
On meditation, mindfulness, and cultivating better habits
"When you’re doing something, you should reflect on the possibility that this might be the last time you do it. Again, you don’t dwell on this possibility, it’s just a flickering thought. Doing this can dramatically change your perspective on the events of your daily life. Mowing my lawn can be a burden, particularly on a hot day, but I can lighten that burden by remembering that there will be a last time that I am physically able to mow a lawn, and that after that time has passed, I will likely look back on these as the good old days."
“Think about the way you react to stressful situations today. Something happens. You think "I'm pissed off." Then, in an instant, you become that thought. You’re angry. You lose control. But with meditation, it's like that TV trope where a character's soul temporarily leaves their body. They look at their physical form and think "what the hell am I doing?" This is a skill that once you develop, you'll never see the world in the same way again. To be able to take a step back from the emotions that start to flood your nervous system and pre-empt the fight or flight response. You don't cast these feelings away: you witness them, honour them, but then act in accordance to what you actually want to do, not just what your programming is dictating. As Dan Harris says "You can still get angry sometimes. But not as often as you might think you need to."
“A constant and consistent meditation practice helps you reprogram these patterns. To step back from the hamster wheel of stimulus / reaction / response. You develop the ability to see these patterns from another perspective—feelings that are occurring, but not overwhelming you—and begin to take a step back, to observe them, and make decisions based on the father you want to be, not just driven by whatever emotion is at the wheel at that moment. You learn to look at your feelings uncritically: not to beat yourself up for losing your rag, but to dig deeper into why that same thing might be causing it to happen consistently. To lean into the spikiness, and to see what you can learn from it.”
On vulnerability, recovery, and asking for help
“We spend so much on self-improvement: $11 billion a year (just in the US) on books and courses to be the person we aspire to be, professional coaching and training courses to be successful at work, and therapy and marriage counselling for when things don’t go to plan. But, for some reason, we allow fatherhood to just happen to us. We’ve become “self-driving dads” — passengers in a vehicle going in some sort of general direction, but not in control of the route, how we’re going to get there, or what to do when we arrive.”
“Help can mean many things, not all of them tangible. It can be as simple as a phone call, or a thoughtful message sent at the right time. But help doesn’t come to those who hide away when things get hard. This Christmas, I learned to—eventually—ask for help. And I’m grateful for the people in my life who went out of their way to make sure I was OK. Help is out there. You just have to ask.”
“We're conditioned to look at fatherhood as something that has to compete with our career and passions. Choose success in your job, or chose to be a great dad. Either/or. Because you can’t have both. If you want to climb the ladder, there will be late nights, early mornings, missed bedtimes and busy weekends. Even at a place like Google—supposedly one of the most forward-thinking companies for working parents—I was pulled aside by a manager and chastised for “leaving early too often" to be home for bathtime. We’re force fed the success stories childless men who get up at 5am and do an hour of emails, 45 minutes of Wim Hof breathwork and then 90 minutes on the Peloton. And if you’ve got kids, forget about it. Therefore forget about success. It’s over. Fatherhood begins to look like a weakness.”
“As men, we hide our weaknesses away. We pretend they don't exist, or work quickly to fix them, doing our darndest to ensure they're invisible to all. But these cracks are the making of us—proof that we're fallible, that we can come back from whatever we’re dealt. We each have a set of scars, unique to us, and it's only by exposing them, and making our repairs visible to the world, that we help others do the same.”
“The last few weeks? Life is kicking my arse. This rebound has taken a while, and I’ve felt myself slip into a funk. It’s not just here—it’s spreading its slimy tentacles towards everything it touches. From talking to friends and fellow dads it seems I’m not alone. If you’re feeling it, your particular flavour of funk might flow from a number of sources: the intensifying cycle of horrific news, dark evenings bringing the dreaded cycle of “Is this seasonal affective disorder or something worse”, uncertainties around the economy and the increasing cost of everything (bar salaries), the inevitable exhaustion that comes from trying to balance it all and feeling like you’re doing a shitty job of everything. These things pile up.”
On paternal postnatal depression, loneliness and suicide
“When I look back on photos from that time, I don’t recognise the man in the picture. Of course, there are photos of me holding my son and smiling—I knew well enough to put on a happy face for those. But there's other photos—ones where I don't know I'm in the background, walking in the park or sitting on the sofa. And that man looks broken. Truly defeated. Empty. Shattered, in every meaning of the word. I look at him and realise what my wife must have felt, seeing the man she loves so far removed from the person she fell in love with. I needed help. I'm thankful that she was there to give it.”
“Loneliness is on the rise, and no group in society feels this more acutely than the modern man. I’ve already written about the increased risk of depression and suicide men face. These social problems run deep, with the percentage of men with at least 6 close friends falling by half between 1990 and 2021, from 55% to 27%. In that same study, 15% of men reported having no close friendships at all, a 5x increase since 1990. It won’t come as a surprise to any of you reading this—male or female—that studies consistently find men less likely than women to rely on friends for emotional support or to share their personal feelings with them. We’re not the best at asking for help. Loneliness exacerbates these feelings in a vicious cycle where feelings of isolation are consistently reinforced and compounded.”
“When undiagnosed, unacknowledged and untreated, mental health episodes can lead to grave outcomes. Depression is linked with more hostile and violent parenting, poorer physical health and well-being of children, and a higher risk of children developing chronic conditions, including depression and anxiety, as adults. For post-natal depression, the research is heavily tilted towards the mother’s experience, where research has shown incidents of self-harm are on the rise, and suicide rates for new mothers have tripled in the last decade. But when we layer on what we already know about male suicide—the leading cause of death for young men, a gender 4 times more likely to kill themselves than women, and with 82% of male suicides coming from the first known attempt—it becomes clear why fathers dealing with mental health problems are up to 47 times more likely to take their own life in the post-natal period. It’s a sickness that has been killing dads for decades. We’re only starting to become aware of it.
Frances Bean Cobain was 20 months old when her father Kurt took his own life. Michael Hutchence’s daughter Tiger Lily? 16 months old. Ian Curtis died leaving a daughter who had just turned one. Donny Hathaway, Chris Cornell, John Bonham—all fathers who took their own lives. The names, places and ages change. But the song remains the same.”
“I had PPND. I know how hard it is. How it rips families apart. How it makes men resent their children—maybe forever, at the most wonderful time of their life—because they don't get the help they need. I'm lucky this happened with my second child, and I had the inclination to find out what wasn't right. But there are thousands of undiagnosed dads, silently suffering, unsure of why they feel the way they feel. Taking it out on themselves. Their partners. Their family and friends. And—worst of all—on their children.”
3 newsletters helping my mental health
1. I’ve been a fan of Young Pueblo’s work for a while—on Instagram, in his books, and now with his newsletter. His monthly missives provide space for me to slow down, reflect, and ponder on some of life’s bigger questions.
2. I find at least one great morsel of insightful self-reflection in each of Sara Campbell’s Tiny Revolutions. There’ll regularly be many more.
3. Alex Olshonsky writes Deep Fix, and whilst our stories aren’t the same, there are many parallels. We’re like two rivers flowing, never crossing, but heading in the same direction.
That’s it from me this week. I’m off for a lie down. Send links, comments or get well soon GIFs to the usual adress.
Branding by Selman Design. Illustration by Tony Johnson. If you were ever thinking of subscribing to the newsletter this would be the time to do it, that notification would perk me up somewhat. Back to regular scheduled programming next week.