Make it don’t break it – ego and men’s mental health

Over the past 6 months, I’ve been researching and… no… it goes back much farther than that. I’ve spent most of the past decade working in health communication – the longer I worked the more I became interested in research and treatment of mental health issues. My formal work researching and writing about mental health has also been coupled with years of really intense personal exploration through talk therapy, running, writing, and lots of reading/practicing mindfulness, CBT and ACT. I’m also a feminist.

As I got deeper into my work, and read more, and observed more, one theme that kept coming up again and again was that many men do not seek external resources to help them process their emotions. I’ve experienced this in my own love life, and also heard it time and again from acquaintances and in other people’s writing. “I tried to talk to my partner, but he just shut down”, “I feel like I undermined his sense of manhood”. This, or I have just seen men in my life walk away from difficult situations and bottle up their feelings despite the fact that I can plainly see on their faces that their insides of being gnawed away by their own anxiety or depression.

When women feel this way, we get tarot card readings, we go to the spa, we take a yoga class, we share a bottle of wine with our girlfriends – many men don’t seem to give themselves the space to find healthy outlets.

It worries me. It worries me, because I have acted as therapist to many men that I’ve been involved with, and I see other women in my life playing this same role more often than they’d like. How does one navigate the line between wanting to help your partner because you see that they are in pain, and becoming a bullying mother figure? How do you continually push your partner to seek out mental health support while still maintaining your desire to have sex with each other?

I’ve noticed a lot of anxiety and depression in a lot of people across the board, but once the feelings are identified, I have found women to be far more proactive in seeking help.

Anyways… this year I decided to create a series of workshops and retreats that sneakily address mental health issues through other means. Currently, a friend and I are running a writing workshop that draws on mindfulness techniques to get over creative doubt, and we’re planning on developing another that uses the same techniques to help people get better at public speaking. The next round after these two will have a physical activity focus. Part of my hope in developing these, is that they would offer a gateway to men. If you frame mental health tools as creative productivity tools, will men be more likely to seek them out??

But for the first round of the writing workshop, all those who registered were women. Granted, I DID post it only on my own social media, and in two FB groups that have only women as members, but still… I was a little disheartened that very few men showed any interest.

So the questions that I’m left with: (1) How do we help men to feel safe talking through, and seeking help for difficult feelings? (2) How do female partners support their male partners to better themselves without making them feel emasculated? (3) How do we make mental health resources more appealing to men? (4) How do we market mental health coping strategies to men in a way that’s enticing and doesn’t sound like “TALK ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS, SAD SACK! YOU ARE BROKEN!”

I am worried about men, because they die younger, and have heart attacks more frequently, and I want my future partner to feel like he can talk to me about issues in our relationship and in life, and also to not feel like I’m criticizing his entire being when I bring up issues that bother me. I’m worried about men, because I know what it’s like to live with at times crippling anxiety and depression, and I cannot imagine what I would do with myself if I wasn’t enabled to take care of myself through healthy outlets.

Later this week, I’m going to be releasing a Typeform survey on some of these topics, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s your experience with men’s mental health? How have you helped yourself, or your partner, access the resources they need?

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Bravery takes time

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post about the lessons that I’ve learned from my negative relationship experiences. It took me a while to share this post on social media, partly because I was worried about coming across as damaged and bitter in some way, and partly because I was worried about how the people who I was friends with at the time of said relationships would judge me for sharing the information that I shared publicly. Then with a push from my friend, and fellow writer, Naben Ruthnum, I stopped worrying.

I tried to write a really honest account of some of my most painful mishaps and pitfalls, and how they helped me to learn and grow as a human. I was not prepared for the response that it elicited.  It didn’t GO VIRAL or anything, but it did receive over 500 more page views than any other thing that I had ever written, and I also received so many kind messages, or distressed messages, or thoughtful messages from different friends and acquaintances thanking me for writing it and telling me how much some of the things that I wrote had resonated with them.

One of the other things that people said to me was that I was brave for having written and shared this, which is such a nice thing to hear. Who doesn’t want to hear that they are brave and courageous? While I agree that it was a little bit brave – just like sharing anything personal and creative is brave – what I want to say about this is that all of the bravery in the world would not have mattered, if I hadn’t also done an incredible amount of work on myself over the past few years. This has involved therapy, yoga, meditation, forcing myself to do things that challenge me even if they are terrifying, and taking a really serious look at the behaviours and habits that have manifested unhealthy relationships in my life. And I’m still putting in more work all the time.

I grew up in an extremely unhealthy environment (which I’ll leave for a whole other series of blog posts, and likely one day a book), and it took so many years to even admit to myself how deeply this had impacted my ability to have real healthy intimate relationships with other humans. But more importantly, it has taken me even longer to recognize my own value in relationships with other humans. All of these steps and lessons learned from my marriage, and other relationships that followed, were actually steps along the path to believing that I was worth it. I sought out emotionally draining relationships with people who weren’t present or available, because I just did no believe that I deserved anything better. I threw myself into one-sided relationships in which my feelings were regularly undermined, because deep down I believed that if I could win the affections of someone who was largely uncaring, that this meant that I was finally enough. I didn’t have “daddy issues”, but I did (do…) have “family issues”. And these issues meant that the more I had to work to win over and woo someone who was emotionally distant, the more inherent value I had. I simply did not believe that an already whole, healthy, kind, creative, smart, attractive, ambitious person who I was really impressed by and swoony over would ever be able to show even a tiny glimmer of interest in me. So in order to find love, I would have to go through the back door; I’d have to wade through drama and damaging behaviour; I’d have to put in my time as non-girlfriend therapist. Only then, when I had paid my dues in some wreck of a relationship, would I finally have earned my keep. Because if I proved myself to that person at their worst, then I would have earned the value to be with them when they became their best. Only what if that person never became their best? Or what if they never would have been the best for you in the first place? Of what if they DID become their best, only I’d taught them for so long that I was not worth the time and respect to treat well, so that the closer they were to their best, the more likely they were to leave me behind?

Anyways… I guess what I am trying to say is thank-you, but also that bravery takes time to build. There were a million sappy sad sac blog posts before this one, and a million journal entries exploring my feelings, and a million lonely moments where I wished that there was someone out there who could tell me what was wrong with me. And so as a writer, I can’t not share. And if the response to my original blog post made one thing clear, it’s that we need more sharing like this happening all the time. Because it is too easy to feel so alone. And there’s no reason why we can’t feel and work through that aloneness together.

Lessons learned from my shitty marriage (and the years that followed)

Cross posted from Medium

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Photo by Malloreigh Hamilton

For the most part, I have not been what I would call successful at romantic relationships. I’m working on it, as many of us are. But despite the fact that I still have some lessons to learn in the realm of courtship, a recent experience caused me to reflect on where I’ve been, and made me so incredibly thankful to have learned so many lessons during my youth, and to not be repeating them now. So I’d like to share with you – the lessons learned from my shitty marriage and the years that followed:

1) Sometimes romantic love is not enough. Romantic love is wonderful, and being “in love” is a pretty important component of a romantic relationship. But there are also many other things to consider when you make a commitment to a life partner. My husband and I had some divergent views when it came to our actual day to day life, and what a successful life looked like. Do you both want kids? Does one of you want to live in the city, while the other wants to own a farm? Do you love to travel, but your partner would rather never leave the neighbourhood? All of these things add up over the years.

In my case, my husband wanted a lot of the same things that I did, but was not willing to put in the work. He wanted to go out for fancy dinners, but didn’t have a job. He wanted to travel, but was unwilling to make any of the travel arrangements. Slowly, I realized that to achieve the life I wanted us to live, that I would also have to do all of the work for both of us just to bring him along. More and more, we fell into a cycle where I was disappointed in his lack of ambition, and he was hurt by my judgement. The day to day became overwhelming. I still loved him a great deal, but it was clear that the way that we wanted to live our lives was incompatible.

I’m not saying that this is everyone’s story, or that you shouldn’t get married to someone you are bonkers for. I hope that you are completely head over heels bonkers for whoever you end up with, and I absolutely wish the same for myself. But just make sure to consider the long game, and know that if you have a lot of differences, your marriage may be a lot more work than you’d anticipated. Differing approaches to your family’s finances can be particularly detrimental. Of course these things can be overcome if you put in the work. Just be prepared.

2) Marriage isn’t over until it’s over. Telling people that you’ve broken up. Dating other people. Being separated. These things are steps towards ending your marriage. But they are not the end of your marriage. Until you get that magic piece of paper saying that IT’S OVER, it is not actually over; any rationalization you use to say that it doesn’t matter is just you kidding yourself.

Over the two years that I was separated, my ex and I would play this game where we were with other people, but would have teary kiss filled conversations while out at the bar about how it was so sad that we couldn’t be together. I convinced myself that being separated was enough, and divorce would happen whenever, but that it didn’t really matter, and anyways the paperwork was too much of a pain. Deep down, I think that I was holding on to a small thread of belief that there was still time for him to get his life together, and for us to live happily ever after. I don’t know what changed, but one day while I was downtown, I walked into the courthouse and decided that I just couldn’t take it anymore. That afternoon I filed for divorce. When I finally received the divorce certificate in the mail, I felt so much relief, and so much closure.

It’s not over until it’s really over.

3) They are not going to leave their partner for you. In the years to follow my broken marriage, I was involved in a series of other peoples’ open relationships. My friend group at the time was all about reading the ethical slut, and being super open-minded, and really cool. Caveat – sure, open relationships seem to work really well for some people, and kudos to them! But for a large portion of humans, they are a horrible exercise in making yourself feel like a piece of insecure garbage for most of your life.

Anyways… one of these open relationship things happened to be with a close long time friend of mine. His girlfriend at the time was also a close friend. I don’t even remember how, but one night something between us “just happened” (see point (4)). We had this insane chemistry that made me feel like my skin was on fire just being near him. My whole body would vibrate. But he was still with his girlfriend, and I was still dating and seeking my own primary person. Then one day, my current fling and I were crashing at guy and his roommates house, and he went BONKERS. He flung himself into a fit of jealousy, and confessed that he had really intense romance feelings for me, and would date me in a second if he were single, and that it made him crazy to see me with other people. Over the months that followed, we continued to torturously secretly confess our feelings to each other, have sex in bathrooms at parties and bars, and cause drama for the people around us. He and his girlfriend did eventually break up. I remember thinking, “This is it! We are finally going to be together now.” We spent that Christmas together, and it felt to me like things were finally falling into place. But here’s the thing… if you start off a romance as a set yourself on fire, dramatic horror show, then when you decide to get your life together, you probably don’t want to bring that horror show with you. A few months later, he was in a monogamous relationship with a new person, and as far as I know, they’ve been together ever since. Again, maybe your relationship came out of an affair, and it’s going swimmingly. Good for you (kind of). But in most cases, it will end as a sad puddle of bullshit.

4) Nothing “just happens”. People say this all the time when they are talking about missteps, affairs, poor decisions. “It just happened!” “I don’t know how I ended up sleeping with him! It just happened!” “OMG! I know he’s in a relationship! But it just happened!” I’m sorry, but if things keep “just happening”, you need to get really real with yourself. “Just happened” is something that we tell ourselves to rationalize unhealthy behaviour to make ourselves feel like we’re not being terrible; it allows us to feel like we’re being guided by fate, and we are simply pawns of the universe when it comes to matters of romance, sex, and love. “It” might have just happened, but usually the road to “it” is paved with a series of uneasy, deliberate steps that set the stage for “it” to seem as though you weren’t deliberately meaning for “it” to happen the whole time. You exchange numbers, you have one too many drinks, you stay until everyone else has left, you go to their place for a night cap, you sit too close on the sofa… these are all decisions. And in the moment, you know that they are bad ones. But you choose to deliberately make them anyways.

As mentioned above, at some point in my marriage, my then husband and I made the idiotic decision to have a semi-open relationship. While it was easy to follow the rules at first, as things in our marriage began to fall apart, the rules began to slip. I would deliberately go out with my emotional crutch non-boyfriend, and stay out too late, and flirt too much, and I knew that it made my husband feel like garbage, and I didn’t care. And he did the same thing to me. Eventually I confirmed my suspicions that he had actually slept with a 19 year old who he’d been partying with, and that was it for me. The next day I told him that it was over.

The remainder of the lessons learned are less from my marriage, and more from the time spent out in the dating world since then – they’re reminders that I think that we all need from time to time.

5) Chemistry is not the same thing as love. Chemistry is a crazy thing. I have had one or two relationships in my life, that made me absolutely insane with lust. The kind of relationship where you don’t sleep, and you ignore your friends, and you forget your own name, because you just need to be touching that person. RIGHT. NOW. I am glad that I’ve experienced that kind of lose your mind, sexual fire, but make no mistake, it is NOT THE SAME THING AS LOVE. And having amazing sex with someone does not translate to having an amazing relationship with them. In one of these set-yourself-on fire-with-wanting instances, the object of my obsession and I would spend literally the entire day sexting. We would then spend hours staring into a screen at each other doe eyed, and telling each other how much we were losing our minds for each other (it was long distance). A month in, he told me that he was falling in love with me, and he booked a flight out to Vancouver to visit. We NEEDED to see each other. The plan was basically to spend 4 days locked away in a hotel room fucking. The problem with this plan, is that he had been ignoring all sorts of real life responsibilities for the past month in favour of paying attention to me. Booking his flight was the final pin in the cap of shunting his entire life, and finally caught up with him when he arrived. His friends were fuming that he had been planning to visit town without seeing them. And he almost lost his most important client, because he hadn’t told them that he was going out of town. He ignored everything that mattered. JUST BECAUSE OF CHEMISTRY. Our visit ended up being a confused mess of sex and anxiety, and we did not proceed with any sort of relationship afterwards. It took me a long time to get over this one.

If I thought about it rationally, I knew that we weren’t REALLY that compatible. We might have dated briefly for a few weeks if we’d met under normal circumstances. But because of our overwhelming physical connection, we convinced ourselves within a few short weeks that without having ever actually met in real life that we had definitely found “the one”. In summary, incredible chemistry is a magical experience, that literally makes you feel like your body and mind are high on another person 24 hours a day, and like they could give you ten thousand orgasms just by looking at you. You might even fall in love with someone you have amazing chemistry with. I don’t know what advice to give you to be able to tell the difference when you’re in it – because let’s face it, that connection can make you convince yourself that just about anything is rational behaviour – but don’t confuse chemistry with compatibility. Try your best.

6) When someone who you are having sex with needs you for constant emotional support, this is not the same as them being in love with you. This one might seem idiotic to some of you. I don’t know. But for me, as someone who always wants to try to help people, it is hard for me to say no when I see that they are going through a rough time, even if I know that spending time with them will be detrimental to my own emotional integrity. This has played a factor in a few relationships that I’ve had where the dude was clearly not into me romantically, but relied on me heavily for emotional support, and we were also involved sexually, so I confused the whole thing for being a real relationship, or moving towards a real relationship. Bottom line – if someone wants to be with you, they will just do that. There is no bad timing, or it’s complicated, or I’m so messed up right now. If someone won’t give you the respect of their full attention while you are sharing both your bed and your feelings, then they are not worth your time. The end.

7) Noone will be everything that you want and need them to be. The world that we live in today often shows us a really fucked up view of relationships where it seems like everyone who is in one’s life is like the best rom com mashed together with a Kinfolk magazine spread. They are SO IN LOVE, and living their #bestlife, and are #soulmates, who also have amazing sex every night, and just love to #elevate the shit out of each other. THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE. Picking a life partner is a compromise. I love love LOVE this project by photographer Dita Pepe in which she imagines her life with different partners through self portraits, because it shows how different one person’s life could be depending on the partner they choose to create their life with. Each one has its benefits and drawbacks compared to the others.

While a lot of these experiences were tumultuous at the time, and some of them might also have you thinking “YEAH NO KIDDING, DUMMY!”, it feels really good to know that I am ready to not make the same mistakes again. I’ve grown enough that I can see one of these danger signs coming from a mile away, and it’s nice to know that when I see one of them approaching, that my reaction is to move away from it, even if part of my gut is screaming at me, “But you liiiiiiiike hiiiiim. Maybe it will work ouuuuuuut.” It is empowering to move forward without having to worry about repeating the same mistakes that caused me so much grief. And though I know each person has their own lessons to learn, I hope that this list of lessons might give some of you out there the tiny nudge you need to say “NO MORE” to some of these terrible dating pitfalls. You deserve better.

We all do.

Learning to doubt the doubter

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Stop Worrying print by Sandi Falconer

I’m a self doubter. It’s what I do. Am I ready for this? Do I deserve that? Am I good enough?

I’ve worked really hard to overcome these doubts on both the career and friend fronts. And while I’m still not quite where I would like to be, I’m getting there. My outlook in these realms is immeasurably better than it would have been a few years ago, and I’m even starting to feel comfortable saying that I’m doing a good job (as a self judger/doubter, this is actually no easy task, let me tell you!).

For some reason though, the strides that I’ve made platonically and professionally have for the most part utterly failed to translate into the romantic areas of my life. For years and years, I have lamented, “Where do I meet the right person?! So many of the best dudes are in solid relationships already. Internet dating is terrible. I am not interested in the type of guy who is usually interested in me. I only ever have connections with people who are moving/dating someone else/living far away. Ugggggggh.” But the truth of the matter is that even if I did meet a person who possessed all of these qualities that I desire in a partner, and even if they did show interest in me, no relationship would come of it. Why? Because deep down (or shallowly down?), I just don’t believe that anyone who I really admire/desire/swoon over would ever have any interest in me whatsoever. I don’t think that I have enough value.

I recently went for a Tarot card reading (JUDGE AWAY. WHATEVEEEEEEEEEEEER) and one of the things that the cards said was that I, “desire a stable/secure relationship, but refuse to accept opportunity that arises”, and further that I, “fear what I cannot control about myself”. Oof. And honestly, I can’t say that any of this was at all surprising.

It’s true. When potential does come along, I work so hard to come across as though I’m as unaffected as possible. This is because 1) the person probably has no interest in me anyways, so DON’T PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE, ALTAIRA! YOU WILL BE REJECTED AND LOOK LIKE A DUMMY AND BE SAD; and 2) if I show any weakness, and not just strength and all of the good parts of myself, then they will definitely hate me forever, and not only that, they will tell everyone what a messed up horrible weirdo I am, and life will be a million times worse than if I had just kept my life to myself and never even tried at all. RIGHT?!?

So great. I know that I have work to do. The problem is that I am not entirely sure how to do the work that needs to be done? What steps do you take to make yourself really believe that you’re enough, and to stop thinking that you’re less than you are? How do you foster vulnerability? How do you master romantic confidence? How do you not just awkwardly avoid and run away as soon anything even remotely related to a romantic situation happens?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I guess asking them at all is the first step? I’m starting a self directed practice of acceptance and commitment therapy, and I am confident that this will begin to lead me down the right path. It’s hard – changing the story that you’ve been telling yourself for so long. But hot damn, life’s too short not to try.

THE END.

the 100 day project – day 16

Sitting in my living room surrounded by boxes, and marvelling at the fact that I will be moving in a matter of days. I’ve lived almost exclusively on my own for 7 years now, and this Saturday, I will be making the shift into a giant house with 3 roommates. I’m nervous and excited. I’m worried about what might go wrong, but also soooo looking forward to the possibilities. Having pals over for Sunday dinners and brunches, gardening in the back yard, roommie movie nights, and so so many evening beers and morning coffees on the front porch.

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I spoke to my mother for the first time in months today; not because I hadn’t wanted to. The last time that we saw each other was… awful. So incredibly awful. It was a turning point for me that sparked so much reflection, and began a journey that I’ve been on ever since to make change in my life. I needed time away, and now that the dust has settled, it’s time to make amends.

My relationship with my mother has always been incredibly fraught, but this year I am making a serious effort to stitch some of it back together. In her old age, I am doing my best to accept and let go of all of the things that she does that are painful, and to just give her the closest version that I can to the relationship that she wishes we’d had from the start.

Here’s to spring and new beginnings. Wish me luck.

the 100 day project – days 12 &13 – blog slacker

Blog slacker.

This is the message that I received from a writer friend this morning. And he was right. Just over a week in, and I have already been slacking and letting doubt get the better of me. Uggggggggh.

But that’s what the best kind of friends are for, right? Pushing you when you need pushing, and telling you that you are being a lazy dummy when you’re being a lazy dummy.

Most of my friendships are like this now – a fine balance between support and gentle pushing, or sometimes rather abrupt pushing, that let’s you know that someone is there for you, but also that they not going to take your shit. And I wouldn’t want them to. Take it. We can all be shitty at times, and the difference between a good friend and a bad one, is that good ones will let you get away with things when you really need their support and will give you a stern talking to when you’re stepping out of line; bad ones will let you get away with shit when you’re just being lazy, and will give you a stern talking to during the times that you actually need them for real support. Does that make sense? Did I articulate that correctly?

I feel like the best true friends that I’ve had are OK with me at my core, and will slap me back into place when I’m not being true to that core. But the ones that have not been the best have made me feel ashamed of my core, and would be encouraging only when I was easy breezy about all aspects of my life – good or bad. The bad ones wouldn’t have messaged me to give me a hard time for not writing; they wouldn’t have even noticed that I’d been writing in the first place.

This year, I’m working hard on being more vulnerable. I’ve been so in the past, but with entirely the wrong people, and it has not led to good things. I have had a lot of heartache in my life. Not particularly any more than your average joe, but as a person who is incredibly sensitive, it’s important to be even more discerning as to who you share your heart with. In friendship, or otherwise.

If you’ve been reading along, you might have noticed that all of the posts that I’ve done this month have been highly self-reflective, and I feel like they will continue to be so for the next while. I’m working really hard this year on being a better and better version of myself, and if that doesn’t require reflection, I don’t know what does.

Less blog slacking in the future. Thanks, friend.

the 100 day project – day 7 – weird confidence

This is going to seem silly. Maybe very silly. But I severely lack confidence.

While professionally, I have very good sense of my capabilities, and boundaries, and what I deserve, both personally and romantically I know very well that I do not. I don’t know why. I’m working on it. But at the moment, I shy away from any person who I see shining too brightly. On a friend level, all that this means is that it takes me a very long time to develop deep friendships, but on a romantic level, it means that I am forever missing out. I am forever too bashful. How do I find the balance between shyness and aloofness? How do I manage to show interest without humiliation> I suppose that all humans suffer this, but maybe some are just more sensitive than others.