OTB Sports' Ciaran Bradley wrote about a bout of depression late last year. Here, he tells of his experience of counselling, and those of three men who turned their lives around.
As starting points for mental wellbeing go, Baz Luhrmann's 'Sunscreen' doesn't feature in many textbooks. But one line is touching, particularly as it comes from an older man.
"Remember compliments you receive, forget the insults; If you succeed in doing this, tell me how."
There is a beautiful fragility to that sentiment. The weighting of good and bad; the balance being ever-so-slightly tipped in the opponent's favour.
Life can sometimes feel like that - the scales tipped, or a flat circle that needs someone or something to disrupt the loop.
After my article in October, aimed at engaging men on mental health, was published and shared on social media, several got in touch to tell their stories and about how counselling helped them.
The stories here are told with their permission, with names changed, and on the understanding that their stories helped me to begin to address my own.
Be warned that some of their stories are dark in nature, with some references to suicide, so may be a difficult read.
I was grateful for every piece of correspondence, but Paul's story was the most affecting. What he has gone through, even just in the last few months, would undermine anyone's sanity.
Paul's brother took his life in September 2016, on the other side of the world. He travelled over for the cremation, which he describes as 'horrendous' for his mother.
Not only his mother.
All the while, Paul was helping his wife through the after-effects of a workplace bullying incident that caused her physical and mental anguish.
When we spoke in October 2020, Paul struck me as proactive and upbeat. His demeanour was astonishing. The hope here is to record what an extraordinary man his family have at their side, and the role that counselling played in supporting him in turn.
Through a combination of a course of antidepressants and counselling, made available through work, Paul began to feel the benefits of this combined approach.
"I needed help in 2017, with all that was happening," he says.
"It saw me gain acceptance of all that has happened. My brother’s loss and my wife’s struggle have armed me in a way I never thought possible.
"I’ve reached out to people struggling the past couple of years, something that I would have run a mile from before September 2016 hit my family."
Three days after our conversation, Paul's wife attempted suicide.
He is coruscatingly honest about the experience, any details of which have been amended to protect identities and confidences.
"[My wife] had told me that day she felt she couldn’t go on any longer. We discussed it, I told her she shouldn’t [do it] given the fallout from my brother and she said she 'wouldn’t have the courage' to do it.
"I told her I absolutely understood why she wanted no more pain, I completely got that and she knew that.
"But then it happened. And although I intervened at 4am, I wasn’t strong enough to fight for her initially and ensure she wouldn’t do it. It was as if I gave her my blessing to go.
"We’ve had that discussion since. I was in a brutal dilemma and I didn’t confront it as well as I may or seek help from someone else that day instead of wrongly assuming, 'Ah, she won’t do it.'"
One cannot begin to think the emotional weight of the experience in isolation, let alone given his experience with his brother. Having come off antidepressants after a year, counselling helped.
"I had to try grapple with that and needed counselling to try understand it. I’m not sure I still do.
"We’ve a long road still to go but we have that road and we’re grateful for that and while I did intervene at 4am, I know I could have been more forceful in keeping her safe that night.
"The counselling was of course of benefit. I needed to confide in someone trained and away from [the] emotion of family. Also, I felt a fraud."
The language of the impostor or the fraud is not limited to Paul, it crops up time and again with men and mental wellbeing. Words are problematic.
It is not that men are entirely ignorant of mental wellbeing, nor inarticulate. Often, it is a case of language not encapsulating feelings, particularly ones that have long since become normalised.
We might feel like we are not living up to expectations as a partner, son, brother or any of the other roles we play. We are often the narrators of - and audience for - our own criticism.
But this is the nature of the brain. Humans are constantly telling ourselves stories, about ourselves and the world around us.
These tales are, by definition, never objective reads of a situation. They are the product of an engine that has been running non-stop since birth.
During counselling, the mental debris and the habits you've formed slowly come into view, with an able analyst at your side. The Gary Neville at the touchscreen of your psyche.
Chris messaged to say that he had sent on the prior article to his girlfriend, as it helped communicate how he felt. A young professional, he needed to talk.
"The biggest thing I did, and the hardest thing I’ve done, was to ask for help," Chris says.
"I bottled it up for years and thought the low moods, low energy and dark thoughts were all normal.
"I couldn't understand what was wrong with me. I have a good job, a great girlfriend, a brilliant group of friends and a fantastic family. What have I got to be down about?"
The language of the impostor.
"I thought that if I ploughed on that the dark clouds would shift. And they would, for brief periods, and then they would descend again - each time it would be for longer.
"Finally, it became too much, and after years of bottling it up and accepting the low moods as normal, I finally decided that I needed to talk to someone."
Unbeknownst to him, help was available to Chris through his work.
"Not knowing where to go or who to talk to, I eventually heard that the Vhi, under my health insurance, offered free counselling sessions. Ringing them was the best thing I did.
'The counsellor referred me to my GP and - with his encouragement - I was able to talk to my girlfriend, my parents and my boss. All of them were brilliant, and straight away a massive weight was lifted.
"I couldn’t believe how good it felt to talk to people, was a massive weight off [my] shoulders, and was buzzing for a few days after talking to people."
Many are put off by not gelling with a therapist immediately, but the key is to keep looking.
"I thought it wasn’t for me as I didn’t connect with the first counsellor, didn’t like her approach, and was going to stop going.
"It was only that the GP said to 'shop around' that I’ve found someone who is good for me.
"I do believe that counselling is brilliant, I can’t recommend it highly enough. But you need to find the right counsellor for you - I’m currently on my fifth!
"It’s so important that you are comfortable with the person, and trust in their advice."
One Friday, I got a call from an English guy called Jonathan. After hearing from Chris and Paul, I had contacted the counselling service available through work.
Jonathan was arranging for me to see a counsellor, and asked how I was feeling.
We're asked every day 'How are you?' but, as we all know, it is one of those agreed social niceties that are benign but largely pointless - like acknowledging a car that lets you pass, or 'The One Show'.
This question was different. It felt like some therapeutic Eye of Sauron, burning away the layers of the facade.
I knew that Jonathan had been sold a lot of bullshit in his time, so I might as well save some time and tell him precisely how my life had gone to shit.
Not that it had gone to shit, not compared to other people's lives, people's lives whose are much more important than mine and I'm actually really sorry for bothering you and so on, and so on, until all of the little caveats and verbal tics are stripped away and you're left with: 'I feel like shit, and I'm not sure why.'
That pause, that stop in your motion in a world that seems like it is becoming ever-quicker and more demanding, is blissful.
For me, it just gave a glimpse of the stories that I have told myself, and the constructs that I have built, and where that scaffolding is maybe not quite so secure.
Counselling is not a social or professional transaction, it is somewhere you can just talk without judgement.
This is someone that has been trained to unpick this iteration of you, at this particular moment in time and space, after all that has gone before.
John was brief and to the point.
"I did 14 sessions last year. The first six were tough on Zoom, and this was at the height of my catastrophising.
“I had very intense emotions. At one point I had a suicidal thought which seemed to clear my mind of the chaos around me.
"I spoke to a close friend who helped me to bring back that chaos. If I didn't do that, I could never have dealt with my emotions - which, ultimately, I did.”
John said that lockdown negatively affected his mental health, as is becoming an evermore recognisable theme.
"The second set of eight sessions were with a cognitive behaviour therapist, face-to-face when restrictions were easier.
"They came to an end in December and I will be doing one every two to three months as a 'tune-up'.
"I found mindfulness and exercise a big help."
The call comes through for my first session, with a counsellor named Keith. It is akin to an out-of-body experience.
I was talking, but I heard someone else speak. Both the therapist and I were actively listening. He was trying to find patterns in my thoughts, I was consciously trying to not obstruct them.
The process is fascinating.
I have felt - for a longer time than I would care to admit - that I was on an infinite loop. Thought patterns and emotions keep recurring and it has led to a feeling of stasis and frustration, whether to do with work, family relationships or otherwise.
It is liberating to be able to talk to somebody whose job it is to listen, to use their skills, and to try and pull together disparate elements of lived experience.
This was a period carved out of the day to truly listen and be listened to, and it felt rewarding not just for the process, but because I took the decision to do it in the first place.
I would not have made that decision without Paul, Chris and John.
After the session, I felt still for the first time in days. My thought process was mindful and deliberate, where it had been revving into the red via strong black coffee.
I am no stranger to doing something once and believing that I'll keep it up for life - oh hey, learning Korean - but this genuinely feels like something that will be built into my habits from here on out.
A thought occurred to me. At work, I often listen to white noise to concentrate in our open-plan office. One of those videos is of thunder and rain.
Listening to one of these rolling booms of thunder it struck me as similar to how thoughts roll into the mind. They can emanate from nowhere - at least on a conscious level - before rumbling to a crescendo and then fading out again into the ether.
However deafening that storm becomes, there is help available to pacify it.
At least 50% of you are thinking that you can't afford it, as I did. There are low-cost options and many workplaces provide for it, you might just not know about it.
Talking to your HR department, the HSE or your local council will go a long way.
The second thing - and deactivate the cynicism alarms before reading on - is that you should see it as one of the most important investments that you can make.
- - If you or someone close to you is in a crisis situation, call the HSE Mental Health Crisis Line
- Citizens' Information has information around bereavement services
- The Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy website
- Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
- The HSE's National Counselling Service