World Mental Health Day

Mental Health, trendy isn’t it? Everyone’s talking about it, sharing memes and copying and pasting posts right now.

What happens when the volume turns down; when the phones are off or the next distraction explodes onto our screens? What happens when the man really has to look in the mirror? What happens when it becomes….”oh that’s so 2018” or “are you still on about that?”

We keep talking, that’s what we do. We keep listening. We keep checking in our friends, the distant ones, the ones who speak to us about the things that matter to them even if it’s not our number 1. We keep on keeping on because doing it saves lives. Doing it breathes life into someone who might not necessarily take theirs but is one moment of frustration away from a breakdown.

Mental Health is more than a medical diagnosis. To have the opportunity to have a positive connection to another human being is something that impacts our ability to live our every day lives as though there really is a tomorrow.

Sometimes the darkness is so thick around us that we push away the candles that are offered. Sometimes it takes persistence from one side to help you understand that the light shining in your life is a genuine one.

I love hugs. I remember there was one guy at university who would greet most people with a hug because he believed in a moment of positivity for everyone. Cheesy as it sounds, a hug has turned my down days where I’m -100 into a day when I’m +10 in how I feel inside myself. A hug has brought tears, opened hearts, allowed friendships to find new planes. Maybe a hug for 10 or even 30 seconds is all it takes. It’s not a magic cure but it’s a start.

No matter how well-intentioned we are, I hope that World Mental Health Day becomes more than a day where we copy and paste. You don’t need to push any social media buttons to check-in with someone no matter how near or distant. Your conversation may be the pressure reliever that they had been waiting for.

May you listen intentionally and without judgment. May your connections grow deeper, may many minds be saved, all because we didn’t just copy and paste.

AJ

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Fear? Oh!

As a male who is happy to adapt to any city, I’m generally comfortable wherever. I’ve been to London enough times to know you have to be savvy with the way you carry things due to the sheer number of people around you at any one time. I’m privileged as a male to (rightly or wrongly) believe, that I am at a lower risk of crime against me than a female may be.

However, after my colleague’s purse was taken on the first day of our company induction in London, my awareness of my safety was heightened. I found myself holding my bag tighter, I didn’t want any bulges that told you where things were on me. I was wary of anyone in sports or casual clothing that wasn’t in line with particular looks. Wary of being in confined spaces (lifts, tube etc) with them

At the top of my suspicion list were people that looked like me, followed by other ethnicities, those who spoke English and those that didn’t. At the bottom of the list lay predominantly white professionals.

As I returned from dinner during the middle of the week it dawned on me that, I was possibly projecting. Projecting fears that never manifested themselves. Those people didn’t (and still don’t) need my stereotyping, they don’t deserve to be looked at as potential thieves or muggers who might injure me for saying no their intentions.

I recognise that I was once a young black male who was seeking to avoid being seen that way. The overall majority of people are law-abiding folk looking to get from A to B. Who am I to think the way I did? I questioned my automatic suspicion of black males as being the perpetrators. Why didn’t I think that it was simply an opportunist? Why did I think that they, along with non-English speakers to be the biggest threat to my safety?

In truth, humans will do terrible things by choice or by accident at any given point. Not everyone can afford to hire security to protect them from what may never happen. We can only take a limited number of actions to protect ourselves. Beyond that, we are at risk of damaging our own mental health by living in fear. Fear that causes anxiety by magnifying the smallest possibility of negativity. Fears that lead to words and actions that could cause harm to those we are fearful of.

Pre-emptive strikes against someone who has no intention to hurt you is your problem, not theirs.

 

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Throw Me Away

Suicide…Let’s talk about it…..I must admit I’ve thought about it.

I feel sick, bubbling up with tears in a way I’ve never done at the mention of suicide. Today I remembered how in high school I was on the verge of doing so. How close?

I struggled with academia and comparisons with higher performing peers and siblings brought shame to my own efforts. Though I was never beaten for bad grades, the constant sniping was death by a thousand cuts. I wasn’t good enough, I’d be like such and such a person. If it wasn’t A+ they don’t want to hear about it, don’t mention creative stuff, that’s not going to get you anywhere. Don’t you dare disagree, or have an opinion that contrasts with another vision for you.  Walk like this, talk like that, hold your knife and fork this way, your lips moved – you must be being rude even though no sound was made. Your eyes moved this way, you’re supposed to be that way, stop being disrespectful. Dismiss it as nothing if you will.  For me, without validation from important adults, I was nothing.

I was bullied often and at different points, year in year out, from the beginning of primary school to the final years of high school. During break times playing basketball in high school, guys would actively shout “1000 points if you knock his glasses off or 10, 000 if you trip him over and get him to cry”.

There was one physical education session where I was playing football. I came in for some rough treatment as an outfield player and became the goalkeeper. Although I fared better in this position, the fouls got worse to the point where I blurted out that I just wanted to kill myself. They thought I was joking.

I had struggled with self-esteem issues (body etc) and all-around confidence. At this point, both were 6 feet under where I wanted to be. They had never accepted me for me. Nobody did. No matter what I did, being me wasn’t good enough for anyone. In my head, I mused whether school tie around a goal post or by other means away from there would do the job. How close did I get to it? close enough.

I fell ill and was out of school for over a week. When I returned, people told me that they thought I really had taken my life. They joked about me returning from the dead. I don’t know what stopped me from doing it. Maybe there was a fighter in me after all. I didn’t dare tell anyone how I really felt. Nobody would have listened anyway, not without making me feel worse than I already did. Dead rappers get lauded, there are no prizes for near misses.

Although I’ve thought about it in my adult life, I’ve been able to divert my intense thought patterns to a better place…just. Whilst I’ve been able to pour myself into writing in times when I had nobody to talk to, a creative outlet to channel destructive energy isn’t given to everyone.

I don’t want to be in a world where 9-year-old boys or anyone else feels like their life isn’t worth it. That hurts me to my soul. I hope that we create environments so that those who struggle can freely express their struggles, their pain. Talk to me, talk to someone.  Together we can change the puzzle so that more people feel like they fit into this world.

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Re: Definition?

I’m not the kind of man that can have his manhood away, Jamie Neville, fellow cast member.

Although my body no longer feels the emotional weight of a week of shows, I find my mind is still processing it all. It is still at the checkout scanning everything on the conveyor belt and counting the cost.

Now that I’ve cross-examined masculinity and mental health, what do the words “Man Up” mean? The negative association it had has been vanquished by virtuous relationships. Machismo is no longer the main mode, nor is there shame or intentional repression.

Maybe I was privileged to have encountered so many genuine people at once. Maybe it’s the post-show comedown. What I do know is that there is hope. Man Up is a statement of encouragement to be open and honest with yourself. It is a smoke signal for friendship and fostering positive behaviours. It is men recognising that they are not alone or other men cannot be their best selves alone. To hear those words is to tell someone that you’re ready to serve them, to support them.

I could argue whether the phrase should still exist, I won’t because I know it will outlive me. This phrase is a statement of your attitude and intent.

If I’m committed to using what I’ve learned then I will listen without judgement. I hope to understand the journey and help you along the way. Maybe we’ll see the finish line together. Are you ready for that level of vulnerability? Can your ego and prejudice stand down to help a man up?

If you’re the kind of man that can’t have his manhood taken away, your actions will answer the questions. I live in hope.

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All Good Things

The piano tinkled one last time as a man mountain of hugs closed the final show. A stream of tears became a Mexican tidal wave that overtook us all. Grown men sobbing publicly without fear or thought to what any of the audience may think. It was real, for all of us.

We had worked with each other, for each other, we loved and laughed, we embraced as we grafted and crafted something special. We hoped that it was impactful whilst entertaining. For many of the 600 or so that came, this was essential viewing.  A conversation on masculinity and mental health has well and truly been started, how far could it go?

When the last drop of celebratory beers had been drunk, and the last of our multiple hugs had finished, each of us returned home to face the reality of life outside the bubble of a performance. I didn’t know what to do with myself, I didn’t know how to feel. For all my emotional intelligence and self-awareness I was numb. I knew I’d grown but I didn’t know how. I was exhausted and fragile yet strengthened by the experience.

As I write this, I don’t know how I’ve grown personally, maybe I’ve grown as an artist. I remember the first performances where I messed up lines but got through my solo in the show. That started an incredible mental battle that I had to overcome. Slow down so that every line can have the impact you want it to, was the message from the directors.   I duly started my piece in 1st gear rather than 3rd and found a groove that allowed me to shine. Word perfect and performances 3 – 5 got better each time. Some said they saw me grow through each one.

Some have said they’ve learned a lot from me, again I don’t know what. So I ask myself what is the legacy of Man Up for me? Perhaps it’s relationships.

Throughout my life, I didn’t have many deep connections with the males, one every blue moon at best. The connections I had were generally social and rarely along meaningful lines. Ultimately they’d fizzle and I’d be left to fend for myself. As the weeks pass, I intend to build even deeper personal connections with the family or UpMen as we called ourselves. If brotherly love must continue, being intentional is necessary.

“Yes I’m a mess but I’m blessed to be stuck with you…”

Thank you, Paul & Clare, for your direction and process of co-creation, thank you Up Men for your love for this overthinking wordsmith. We have redefined the words Man Up in a positive way. Let’s build.

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Gremlins and molehills

My home is the stage, or so I thought. Nobody wants to hear me, besides, I’m not allowed to say what I think.

This was me, aged 21 after discovering that performance poetry was the one place where I couldn’t be shot down. The one place where I wasn’t being told that I wasn’t good enough. The one place I wasn’t compared to someone my family or peers knew. The only place where I could speak my mind and people had to listen.

The stage is my home, I don’t get nervous, I come alive when I’m centre stage. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Having written and rewritten my piece for Man Up, my confidence level was always around 8 – 10 on any given day in practice mode. I’ll be just fine for the shows, do what I gotta do.

Somehow the closer I got to the shows, an old gremlin spoke up and asked, “What if I mess up?” Fear of failure, fear of not meeting expectations, fear of letting others down had all shackled me for most of my years. Despite my confidence in my ability to deliver, it caused me to practice even harder right up to the last minutes before I was to step into the limelight.

Despite controlled recovery from a few stumbles, I beat myself up for the rest of the first show. I told myself it was awful, that my part was the weakest out of the solos. I told myself that the crowd didn’t want to hear me talk about race and masculinity, they came for the stories from people like them. They didn’t want someone to rhyme at them with all those hand motions. I told myself a lot of things. Somehow the rest of the cast didn’t see it like I did. They told me they saw me come alive, they heard my passion, they told me they had to remember to hold their applause.

I arrive at the mid-point of a series of performances, so far two nights, two sold-out shows. I was better this time, not perfect but better in the second show. Self-awareness can be destructive at times, yet with 3 shows to go, I realise the importance of embracing the bright. Take the microphone away from the gremlin and make your voice count in a good way.

I’ve got two shows in one evening before the final performance a day later. What matters most? The simple truth is my story is being heard in a way that only I can tell it. At some point I’ll tell it again without the production values, I might even give you the extended version. Simple truths about the best of what I’m doing matter more than amplifying minor faults. Knowing the mountains from molehills will take you far.

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Old vs New Man

To some, the new man seems more feminine. They seem too sensitive, soft, more cushions and curtains tan grit and graft. They don’t know where man has gone. This new man isn’t real man. They don’t fit, they’re the ones fighting for acceptance. They find fewer outlets for their kind of guy.

Is this new man an evolution? Is it the standard for men to come? Or is it just a phase that will go full circle? How does sensitive man teach the toughness that manhood is known for?

I see this so-called new man as more of an expansion to the existing property rather than a standalone building. It is an exciting addition to the stoic menu of masculinity. Our base instincts to build, conquer, fix will always be there. It is simply that we have better ways to protect ourselves. Better ways to heal.

Protection from being honest and open. Protection by knowing what our fights really are. Allowing ourselves the chance to heal properly and become stronger for it.

It is also about better day-to-day maintenance of the man mentally and physically. We have access to greater resources than ever before. Can we trust ourselves to use them?

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