Guest post: Blowing the tough guy paradigm on mental health-“Man up & let your guard down.”
Despite all the usual uproar over Bell Lets Talk day, the good that comes from that day is still far more valuable than any concern over free advertising for a corporate entity. But often since few see that good, it’s easy to forget once the day has passed.
This year I knew that instead of simply marking the day by tweeting to raise funds and sharing stories, it was important to continue the discussion, particularly because several male readers broke the tough guy paradigm and tweeted their experiences…and some of those tweets resulted in other men sharing for the first time.
It was bit of a domino effect. And because I have seen first hand how much strength it takes to reach out…it makes you anything but weak… I wanted to keep the discussion going. I asked a friend who started out as a follower on twitter, to share his unique experience. He wasn’t sure at first but I left the door open. And I think writing it was both overwhelming and cathartic as putting words to any tough experience often is. His battle with stage 2/3 oligodendroglioma is remarkable…but his battle with the feelings and emotions that come with it, even more so. It’s a story about cancer yes,but also a story about a ‘tough guy’ realizing it’s ok to need someone to talk to. There is as much to learn here for family and friends as there is anyone facing mental health challenges or struggles. I’m proud that he chose to share his story with all of you.
For as much hate & evil that happens on social media,there is incredible good too when it brings people together. There’s so much more I could say, but his story says it all. These are his raw words… his story.
Know you are not alone. ❤ And your comments, stories and support are welcomed in the comment section that follows.
Lets Talk Day. Well, isn’t that cute and for the softest of kittens. But let’s take a walk back a bit….
There I was at 30, with my career dialed in, a house, a one-year-old girl and 3-week-old boy, I was told I had a mass on my brain. Everything changed.
I KNEW I was tough and I’d kick this things ass. It was pretty simple, brain cancer or not, I was tough enough to give it a run for its money. Rewind.
While spending 2 weeks of day trips hiking, kayaking and climbing in the summer of 2015, I started getting numbness and a ‘blood and fuzzy peach candy’ taste/smell. Like any ‘man’ I sucked it up, shook the bouts off and pushed on, while keeping it all to myself.
After 2 weeks of this it finally happened while I was driving with my wife and I had to pullover. Later that week I was having a CAT-SCAN and a doctor tell me “I’m not Willy Wonka…I’m not going to sugar coat this. Its bad, you have a very large mass.
Immediate thoughts are how do I tell my wife, my high school sweetheart? I wasn’t worried about me, I was tough, I was afraid of what this would do to her; she just had our son 3 weeks before. To this day, I still get vivid flashbacks of the moment my wife drew the curtains on my hospital room, car seat in hand. I just told her to come to the hospital, now I had to tell her why… it still makes me want to puke.
The next day I was at VGH in my gown, looking the same as the other sick people, but I was different. Sure, ‘brain cancer’, looks pretty bad, but I though, “fuck it, I’ve got this.” I’d let the surgeons do their thing, then just go balls to the wall on rehab and grind it out like every other thing I’ve done.”
I had worked hard to get to this point of my life, and now this. I had simultaneously swung a hammer full time to put myself through school part time until I graduated. I dumped my life savings into a tractor trailer and gave that a shot (didn’t pan out too well…), I worked 33 and 31 hr shifts cutting concrete in the same week because we needed the money for our first home, I used to hunt and fish, but not near enough to satisfy an itch. I had the sandpaper to get through it, or so I thought.
When you get news like this, people say you have two options, fight of flight.
The shock to the system is draining and invigorating, and perhaps is more 51/49 at times or 80/20 at others. I felt I didn’t have the choice-it was 100% fight, for my family, for my new son…I hadn’t even had the chance to know him yet.
But while waiting for surgery, in those moments after nighttime visits from friends and family, who all look like they were staring at a dead man, sober moments got the better of me.
I could be a vegetable, what if I need help toileting, I might not be able to go back to teaching, I would be such a drag on the family and the kids would never know their real dad…. I’d rather they knick something important and leave a good-looking corpse.
This is when strangers became very important to me. I couldn’t confess to my family that I was worried. I couldn’t show weakness to them, but strangers…. what did I have to lose? I didn’t know them, I didn’t have to save face, I could confide without reprisal. I had ‘the twitter’ so I used it to reach out.
Tough guys aren’t vulnerable, shit, you’re liable to be called a “pussy” or worse. Having the courage to ask for help or a shoulder isn’t easy, its tough and some “tough” things aren’t tough. They are fucking hellish, beyond tough. Everyone’s battle is different, and so is “being tough”.
I went in for surgery 1 week after seeing my GP about symptoms (those were seizures it turns out, and I still have them). I remember in the elevator on the way to surgery, it was packed full of doctors, techs, suits and practicum students, I announced, “Gentlemen, you are all probably wondering why I have assembled you here today…” I didn’t get to finish as we arrived at the brain surgery floor.
They scooped out the equivalent of 9.7% of my brain, put me on HEAVY meds, and waited for me to wake up. When I did, I immediately demanded my headphones and my “country’ playlist, I didn’t want to talk to anyone until I did a self diagnostic. After all my toes and fingers could move, I relented and opened my eyes...what carnage awaited me? The nurse asked me what month and year it was, I replied, “ June 2017”. You should have seen her face! “Its 2015,I’m kidding, relax!” I could hear my wife, comment that I still had my sense of humor. A day and a couple test later we left with one wicked scar, some meds and, “he’ll feel better in 6-8 weeks” (seriously).
I’m not physically fit; I’m a beerleaguer type guy. A third line grinder, if you will. What’s a Gym? I played hockey and football growing up, that taught me to suck it up, like it does for many dudes. I’m like lots of guys on construction site’s that just git ‘er done. I’m not particularly smart either, just so happens I had the persistence and drive to jump through the hoops. I thought recovery would be the same.
Post withdrawal, I couldn’t go out in public for anxiety of having a worse type of seizure. Cognitively I would tell people I felt 70%, but looking back more like 50 for a long time. I had zero energy and looked at myself as a burden of damaged goods.
My wife was looking after me, the house and our two little ones…pain, fatigue, depression and worthlessness created a feedback loop that kept me in bed almost all day. I knew it would take time, and I downplayed how I felt so that I, we, could appear ‘normal’.
But I couldn’t go out in public, let alone work. I couldn’t drive until I was without a large seizure for 1 year…. ever wondered what it would be feel like to be 15 again?
Then we got the news about the biopsy: 90% chance of recurrence, 11 year median survival. How uplifting…
This isn’t meant to be a bio, sorry if it’s coming across like that…let me get to the point here.
It’s ok to talk to people if you need to. If you are like me, maybe you just need a stranger to bounce stuff of off. I’ve been with my wife since we were 17 and I still cant talk to her about some of the things going on in my head almost 2 years post op.
It’s not weak to ask for help, it shows strength.
I wish I had seen that sooner.
I’m still dealing with my mess, but its better. Way better. I still have to grind it out day-to-day, but I’m starting to find terra firma.
Don’t be a wimp, go talk to someone, maybe not a shrink, just a person willing to listen. Don’t be too tough to let your guard down to repair the soul.
Armor needs to be tended to prepare warriors for battle. These demons don’t fight fair either, they kick you when your down like being swarmed by steel toe boots. Call me a pussy; I’m cool with that. Testosterone fueled society thinks its tough,but they haven’t dealt with shit compared to us… own it.