HEARTBREAK MADE ME REALISE I HAD GENERALISED ANXIETY DISORDER. THE ONLY WAY TO CONTROL IT IS TO TALK ABOUT IT – MR.MEN TALK # 2
Posted on 07 August 2019
My name is John Cowley. I’m 34, and a watchmaker by trade. I’ve recently gone through a very eye-opening experience. One which I believe has challenged my well-being. I was unlucky enough to go through a break-up that I believe got me to question my own identity, personality, my mental health and my outlook on what it means to be a man. Yes, it was one of those intense, heart-breaking situations, but it was also an experience that taught me about myself. When I saw the opportunity to share my experience with Mr Men’s, I also saw an opportunity to contribute to my own healing and maybe even help someone who may be going through a similar situation I moved to Melbourne in October 2017, from sunny Brisbane. I had been in a long-term relationship for about seven years, but we wanted different things in life. She wanted a family and children and I never did at the time. Ultimately, we both decided to move on. For me, that meant moving cities due to career limitations in Brisbane. I was offered work in Melbourne, and so I packed the car, left the family and friends– and headed straight for Melbourne. As soon as I arrived and settled in, I put my head down with work. Eventually, I threw myself into dating again.
My relationship and Breakdown
As some stories go, I happened to meet a remarkable woman who knocked my socks off. She had a three-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. When we met, she was battling with her ex for custody over their daughter. To me, there was just something about the woman, so I took that on, willingly – and very much surprised and enjoyed myself, being a part of this little family unit. After a few of the happiest months of my life dating this woman, she went to trial, and ultimately lost custody of her daughter. Although she wasn’t mine, I was devastated to say the least. I still can’t imagine how she must have felt. We stayed together through it at first, but as you can imagine, it wasn’t the same. I took on quite a lot to be as supportive of her as possible; and available whenever she needed. The stress and heartbreak led to the start of a long slew of arguments. Understandably, despite me trying to be there for her, she began pushing me away.
In early September 2018, she insisted I start dating again. I, however, remained available and was always there whenever she needed help, but as far as the relationship was concerned, romantically, it was over. I got so engrossed in trying to be there as much as I could for my ex, not even realising that it took so much out of me, mentally and emotionally. Not so much having to be there for her – I would have done anything for her. More so, the feeling of loneliness that came from it. I tried venting to loved ones, yet all I got was: “I’m appreciative of the situation, but she wasn’t your daughter. You didn’t know your girlfriend that long. Just move on”. That wasn’t helpful to me – to just get up and move on. At the time I wanted to hear that I was doing the right thing. I wanted to hear that things were going to be ok and that there was still hope. Ideally, I wanted to hear those things from her, even though that wasn’t fair. So, this whole time she was supporting her daughter, I was supporting her – but no one was supporting me. At the time I didn’t even think I needed it, to be honest. I wasn’t going through it. She was.
Helplessness, Loss of Control and Anxiety
I couldn’t admit to myself that I was supporting a lost cause. I would have done anything to fix it, yet there was nothing that could be done to make it all better. That’s where the panic attacks and overwhelming emotions started. There was a time when we got into an argument – the worst argument I think I’ve ever had in my life. After which, I got an adrenaline rush and started shaking. I felt sick and started vomiting. It took me about half an hour of sitting in my car until I could even begin to calm down. We’d said harsh and hurtful things to each other and the idea that these things were said made me overwhelmingly guilty. It’s like I’d built everything up and took it out on her, she didn’t deserve it. That was the first time in this situation where I didn’t just have an anxiety attack but was fully overcome with anxiety. I said things I shouldn’t have and there was no coming back from that. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
That feeling of panic started happening more often than I would have liked. On another occasion, I thought I saw her on the tram and completely panicked. All I could think of was just to run. Next stop I was off the tram. I couldn’t face seeing her. It was because the woman I thought was her was with another man. That thought just took over and made me run. I walked away in a textbook panic/anxiety attack state. Sweaty palms, shaking hands, heart pounding. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t even know that part of having an overwhelming feeling of anxiety is that your mind almost plays tricks on you like that. The most difficult thing was recognising that. Whether your anxieties are justified and tangible, or if they’re just insecurities manifesting within your mind.
The feeling of having no support system and going into self-destructive mode
I’d only been in Melbourne a short while and had yet to build any social base. I had no one to turn to, who understood the situation. No one who was mutual to us both. I tried talking to colleagues and family, but all they saw was me hurting. Coming from a good place though, they would just tell me to move on and take myself out of the equation, and I didn’t want that. They didn’t know our dynamic or the full extent of what was happening. Ultimately, I went into self-destruct mode. I turned to alcohol, simply because it was more socially acceptable. I went to bars after work, initially for just a drink – but then it became “a drink to get drunk”. The way I saw it was it wasn’t very “manly” to be emotional, so I drunk to numb it all. The gym was another outlet because, again, it was more socially acceptable to me.
It got to the point where I realised I was spending more money on alcohol than I could afford. The big kicker for me was waking up one day after I’d had a bit too much and noticing my recycle bin. Just bottles of alcohol piled up over about two weeks. Not just beer. There were empty bottles of vodka there too. I ended up learning that my family had a history with alcohol. Members who had struggled or even lost their lives to it. It was just so easy to come home, have dinner, a glass of wine, read a book, and the next thing you know; two bottles of wine gone! It’s different at a bar because there, you don’t see the bottles lined up at the end of the night. Seeing it right in front of your eyes and thinking “that’s legit all I’ve done for months” was a big wake-up-call. The other thing I had issues with was sleep. I would go to sleep just fine but wake up at about 3 or 4 a.m. feeling like I’d slept fine. So, at about 5 a.m. I’d go for a run. It was just a good physical thing where you’d have an hour to think for yourself. The issue with that was I didn’t care how I was feeling, physically. If I wasn’t running until I felt sick, I was lifting weights until I destroyed myself. It was my version of self-harm.
Difficulties expressing and the move to seeking help
It wasn’t generally acceptable for men to cry when I was growing up. My father and I are quite close, but we never really talked. I also went to a public, all-boys school, where I was instilled with this mentality; where if you’re hurt, there had to be a visible injury that allowed it. Emotional pain just didn’t happen. Growing up like that, you’re never taught how to communicate your feelings. Even though some guys talk, it was just in my experience, they were more comfortable talking to female friends. Otherwise, it was pretty much: “suck it up princess”. Sweep it under the rug and get over it”. I found that you could only do that for so long before you break. When you hold enough in, it just takes the smallest thing. In my case, cliché as it may be, I was driving when this song came on. I’d never heard it before, yet, found myself relating to every word. “The Opposite of Us”, was the name of the song. The tears just came flooding. I had to pull over because it was no longer safe for me to drive. I guess it was the build-up after suppressing and trying to be strong for both myself and my ex. That’s when it hit me – I had to talk about it. I called a friend from Brisbane, who I used to play sports with. He told me how to get a mental health plan from the GP, and I arranged to finally go and see a psychologist. For the first time in my life, I found myself talking to a professional listener, essentially.
Seeing a psychologist for the first time was very nerve-racking. Even being in the waiting room to see her was daunting. I remember having a preference for a female psychologist as well, because my experiences just led me to believe women were, generally, more sympathetic. At the first session, she recognised some of my behaviours, thoughts and feelings as anxiety. It was understandable that I was anxious over the past few months. However, I didn’t actually know the extent of it. It wasn’t just the feeling, or panic attacks. It was a constant, lingering, mind-and-body takeover. I remember It felt so good to have someone give a name to it. Now that I’m aware of it, though and with help from her, I have taught myself to say: “Think clearly. Is what you’re seeing real”? It’s maintaining that adrenaline rush that comes with any anxiety attack. To take a step back and think. Because, essentially, you become super aware of everything. It’s all going at 1000 miles an hour and you don’t react the best way. It’s “fight or flight”. The first session was exhausting! I remember we spoke for an hour and I was drained. Emotionally, I felt better, but I just didn’t realise just how much I’d been carrying around with me.
Overcoming my reluctance
During that session, I had my walls up, even though I spoke for the whole hour. It was a struggle for me to sit down with someone and just be vulnerable. It was a big step for me. She ended up saying to me: “If you want your money’s worth, then you have to open up. Look at it as investing”. That hit me. I changed my attitude and looked at it as the same as starting anything new. I didn’t know what I was going to get out of it, but I was keen to find out. I was quite proactive about it, and after that first session I started looking forward to talking to her and seeing her perspective on things. It was original. Mostly because it was unbiased. You tend to hear the same things from loved ones. She would even give me a bit of homework at first. Resources to read and techniques to practice. It was all up to me, but I really wanted to do it. I ended up having six sessions over five months. We had some big breakthroughs.
What I had learned from this experience as well as seeking help
First and foremost, I actually learned to deal with anxiety
The psychologist actually made me aware of my anxiety. Now I’m aware of when it happens, and I’ve learned techniques to deal with it. Thanks to her, If I get an anxiety attack, I still get a heavy heart but no physical reactions. It’s weird because once you acknowledge your anxiety attacks and know what could trigger them, you know how take steps to minimise it or completely stop the attack in its tracks. I still get nervous and super aware of my surroundings and feelings, but they don’t take over anymore. From just six sessions!
Opening up brought forward some positive relationships and social opportunities
After opening up, I felt as if a weight had been lifted. Going through this, I learnt that I have so many people to talk to. I feel like it’s even improved my relationships with the people around me. Some people at work used to view me as snappy and I think now since I’ve been through all of this, people are saying that I was better to be around. Even the friend who recommended I go to a psychologist. After speaking to him, he, in turn, confessed he’d been seeing one for years; and fully supported my decision to reach out to one. It was one of the first ever times I’d experienced two men talk about something relating to emotional or mental well-being. I was brought up to believe it was weak. Yet, we were supporting each other and leading each other in the right direction. He prepped me for it and told me what I could expect. In hindsight, I now feel that talking to another man isn’t so bad. I think for this specific situation though I felt a stranger (like a psychologist) was more comforting than a person who I knew – but that’s just me. I was still grateful to learn that talking to another man could be incredibly helpful.
Not giving myself time before dating again was not the best move.
At my ex’s request, I threw myself back into dating shortly after it ended. I felt like that was a mistake. I was a little too honest with the women I’d met. It was not the right time to start dating again. It never got to a second date – put it that way. One woman talked about having kids, and the floodgates just opened. I told her the whole situation and that I was pretty much just damaged goods. Not something you want to say on a first date. I should have waited longer.
I wanted a family all along
I’d been lying to myself for years thinking I didn’t want to be a husband or have kids. My psychologist pointed out to me that it was potentially because I felt I wasn’t worthy of having them. To mask that feeling, I subconsciously shifted from thinking I wasn’t worthy, to convince myself I just didn’t want it at all. I don’t necessarily want to jump and have a baby with the next woman I meet, however I am much more open and looking forward to one day having a family. It was a short time with this woman but caring about someone and being protective over this little person – even knowing that they weren’t yours – just made it so much harder to lose her. It was very unexpected. Just the little things that we had done together like chilling at a cafe. It’s hard to let go. When we went out as a family, we had complete strangers come up to us and tell me what a good job I was doing, or that I was a “good man”. Just out of nowhere. It made me feel on top of the world. In some cases, I would correct them and say “she isn’t mine” but it didn’t matter. It happened a couple of times. I felt really good about it.
Reflecting on what it means to be a man for me
Initially, I though being a man was being strong or tough – “Mr. Fix it”. Now, however, the first words I could think of are “Protect your family”. Fair enough, they weren’t my family, but it felt that way. I took on a lot with my ex, but it was all worth it. She was worth every minute. I haven’t felt like a good man at times. Especially not when I’m drunk and crying my eyes out. Certainly not when I was getting into arguments and speaking out of rage. People would call me a good man, but I didn’t feel it after it all went bad. When we were all happy, I believed it wholeheartedly.
I think being a “good man” is offering a helping hand, knowing all too well that there may be nothing in it for you. It’s when you care enough about someone to see something through – not just for you, but for the people you care for. I still think being a good man does mean being strong and tough. I just now think it also means asking for help when you need to in order to be tough and strong in the right ways. I have a lot to learn about what being a good man really means for me, however I do, at least, have this experience to lead me in the right direction.
What I can say to those who are going through something similar
Acknowledge your feelings
I would always recommend that you truly listen to your mind and body. Really acknowledge what you’re feeling, and don’t try to talk yourself out of it. You have to fully acknowledge any feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety or even any form of grieving. The sooner you do, I found it much easier to deal with it. Some emotions build up and just come out in the weirdest of ways. I think talking about it and letting it out helps you deal with it productively, rather than just let loose. Acknowledge it, hold on to it for a moment, and maybe even explore it. I think it feels really good that I’m a lot more emotionally open and comfortable with my emotions. I’m glad that this life experience taught me some things and changed how I treat other people. I’ve gained so much more of an appreciation of my journey, as hard as it was. I also now consider what those around me could be going through
Open up. You learn so much from others
I think a lot of men would do well to share. Just the idea that another man was openly talking about his emotions and mental health to me was so relieving and really got me thinking it was okay. I wish it happened more, so I’d know sooner. Finding someone going through something similar or doing something you’re scared to do, like see a psychologist, is very reassuring. Don’t be ashamed to reach out. Everyone you reach out to can teach you something. Just find that person or people you feel comfortable around. It works wonders and it’s the first step. When you’re going through it all, you’re so overwhelmed with what’s going on, but when you have someone clear-headed, who are guiding and supporting you, you really know where to go from there. Had I known what I know now, I would have reached out far sooner and reacted much differently. I probably would have avoided going into self-destructive mode. I’m quite embarrassed about it and it could have been a lot worse.
My Biggest and Hardest Lesson: Accepting something wasn’t in my control
The worst experience was having absolutely no control over the situation I was in. How it turned out wasn’t my idea of how things were supposed to go. I had to fix it. I had to heal her pain. It was my only mission. The reality just never sat well with me. In all honesty, it was the most helpless I’d ever felt in my life. I could do nothing but sit back and watch – this little girl and this woman who I’ve loved and wanted more than anyone I ever have before, literally just get taken away from me. No control and no say. It was a short relationship, but it was so much more than that. You can’t help who you develop feelings for, regardless of time. I’m still dealing with accepting that sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off.
Why I decided to share my story with Mr Men’s
I think men still have this idea and stigma against talking and opening up – thinking it’s weird or weak. Be that as it may, it gets things done. When things like these happen, you’re at a stage where you really don’t know what to do, no matter how convinced you are that you do, it’s too overwhelming! It’s good to find out that maybe, somewhere, someone did something you didn’t even know about to cope, and it worked. As I said I feel a bit ashamed of how I dealt with the situation before I reached out to someone. Maybe someone else won’t have to if they hear my story. Maybe they’ll reach out before they even get a chance to feel any regret. This experience was so hard for me. The number of times I felt like my feelings were invalid because of the duration of my relationship. Maybe, someone going through the same thing can know they’re not alone. I never saw what this experience taught me until I talked to someone about it. Now I feel a little better knowing that I learned so much, and it wasn’t for nothing. Why not share these lessons and maybe help someone? They’re quite easy to relate to.
I would like to thank Mr Men’s for allowing me a platform to share my journey. I really felt like what I had gone through was important and it feels so good to find someone or somewhere that agrees and thinks it’s important enough to offer me a platform to share it.