I was planning to write this article in November for International Men’s Day. After learning that this week is International Men’s Health Week, I decided to bring it forward. If you know anything about mental health, you’ll know men commit suicide at three times the rate of women. Men are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol; you’ll also know that 85% (ish) of rough sleepers are men, and many of them are mentally ill and vulnerable before they become rough sleepers.
Society thinks it has an answer: “toxic masculinity.” I don’t like the term, personally. It is a simplistic term that is often used in a way that victim blames. It’s rarely all that helpful, especially when described as something that men possess, that we do to ourselves, and to each other. I don’t think it’s helpful and is often weaponised.
This is not the point of the discussion here though. If you’d like to know why many others feel the term is problematic, please read “Masculinity isn’t toxic” on Inside Man.
The Pandemic and My Personal Mental Health Issues
Spring & Summer 2020
Like many people at the start of the pandemic, I used the lost work and extra free time as an opportunity to learn new things – yes, I baked banana bread (guilty!) but also scones and biscuits.
I also learnt some new skills. I started learning Photoshop, social media marketing, I made videos for social media, and dabbled in a few other things.
But that soon became a problem.
By this time last year I was attending one of those free seminars every few days and a “4 day challenge” almost every month. I’d downloaded about 100 free guides from the small businesses using marketing guides and such to generate new businesses for themselves. I didn’t recognise it then, but I was in a panic about the future and the work and income I had lost. I tried to go through each of these guides as often as possible, to learn how to sell more, attract more clients. The Fear of Missing Out? More like the fear of having no income, no savings, and all the hard work since 2013 undone.
I did learn to slow down. A few late night drives helped to keep things as normal as possible while Cornwall was swamped with tourists.
SAD season – at least, the very start of it. Looking forward to Christmas nearly always staves this off until January although I do have days, sometimes weeks, where I lack the energy to do much work. Not great when autumn is usually my busiest work period. Getting outside and enjoying the dry and mild days also helped at this time.
In 2020 though, I felt it harder than in any previous year. I had to take days off from work, something I was so hesitant to do considering how much work I’d lost since the spring.
I had several panic attacks – mostly in the car after leaving the supermarket having held it in while walking around, but I had a particularly bad one at the end of a fireworks display.
Still, Christmas. We stayed home, we had a quiet one – we ate and drank too much, we watched a lot of TV, I finished the first draft of A Salmonweird Sleighing and sat on it to rest my eyes ready to pick it up again a month later for the first edit.
And that’s when things got really bad.
In early January I had a dose of paranoia that briefly tipped over into psychosis. I cannot remember how it started, but I remember it came on quickly.
I became convinced that someone was hiding in our flat. Every time I stepped into the hallway or the bathroom I’d peer down the hallway. I’d pass an open door and stare in for a few minutes. I was on edge, nearly always ready to throw a punch at this person when I caught them. My sleep patterns became disturbed – I feared getting up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet.
I started binge watching unsolved crimes videos on YouTube, followed by real horror stories. You might wonder whether this was the cause, but the paranoia definitely came first. I feel now that watching this kind of content was a desperate grasp for mental stimulation. It may have fuelled it somewhat, but it did not create my poor mental state.
I became convinced that Lady of the Dunes was haunting me because I’d read a few articles and watched some videos about her. I thought I saw someone standing in the bedroom doorway several times after waking in the middle of the night.
One night and still in early January, I woke up suddenly. I had a full bladder and tried to make myself sleep, but I needed to go to the toilet so badly there was no way I was going to sleep until I’d emptied it.
But (in my head) there was someone in the bathroom who would kill us both the moment I entered the bathroom. And so I lie there, frozen in bed and virtually paralysed, panic attack building. It took all my energy to reach out my hand to my other half and wake her, muttering and mumbling “help me” until she did.
That night took the wind out of my sails and the paranoia ended soon afterwards. I stopped thinking someone was hiding in our flat, but it was clear I needed a massive break from everything. I blanket rejected all work and told a few clients that I couldn’t do the work I’d taken on. I had work from a long-term ongoing client and focusing on this one client allowed me both the work stability I needed and the breathing space to do stuff for myself.
I must add that it is impossible for someone to have been hiding here. There is nowhere for them to go, nowhere for them to hide and not be detected – especially for several weeks. Looking back, this was no more obvious than my night routine where I would take my laptop into the office room, set it to charge on the timer, then go into the bathroom to brush my teeth, and then retire to bed. If anyone was hiding here, with my partner in the living room, they would have been found.
I didn’t go to the Doctor’s – not because of what you might call “toxic masculinity” but because at that point I knew it was too late. I was through the worst of it and the wake up call of trying to power on through and hope the paranoia would go away had already done its worst.
I had burnt out and did not have the energy to do much.
My other half ordered me to play video games – I replayed Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, perhaps my fourth playthrough. I’ve always loved the big open spaces of the city – ditto with the French setting of Unity. I found this calming and it inspired an Instagram post where I talked about how video games are good for my mental health.
I wrote Curse of the Storm Harpy before beginning my first round of edits on A Salmonweird Sleighing. This made me realise once again, how important it is for me to write horror – it helps get stuff off my chest and channels anxiety and stress.
On the work front, I deleted most of the downloads from the previous spring (that were clearly not helping) and took more time to do things that would take my mind off the winter SAD and the pandemic lockdown.
These things combined gave me both the break and the stimulation I needed to get through winter.
I entered spring to a wave of relief. The day I booked my first COVID jab, I cried tears of relief. Now I am just a few weeks away from my second dose. With The Delta Variant sweeping and now in the USA, the future remains uncertain.
The end of winter and most of spring was also a time for soul searching. I no longer feel fulfilled by some of the work that was once my bread and butter. There are some clients for whom my door will always be open, but I am actively now looking to change what I do.
I’m writing more fiction and supporting content around my books – and that’s why I opened a Buy Me A Coffee page (see below). I’m improving my photography all the time and I’ve recently improved my video editing.
I am confident about the changes that will happen for my freelancing business over the coming year. Mostly, the pandemic has taught me that I don’t need to be a super-productive machine. I am allowed to have mental health days off. I don’t need to fill the 9-5 with doing work stuff.
In the meantime though, I am coasting, sitting back and taking stock, grateful for the extra time I have to write.
Stay safe, everyone. Look after your mental as well as your physical health.
I’m also active on Medium where I write about child free living, mental health, social satire, freelancing, and a variety of other subjects.
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Thank you kindly!