My close friend Chris Withers is on the other side of the world working at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and sending me texts about how devastating and amazing Bryony Kimmings’ new show, Fake It Til You Make It, is. Kimmings is trialling the new show which she has made with her partner Tim Grayburn about men and mental health. Withers, for all his love and devotion to theatre (he’s a brilliant lighting designer) rarely sends me messages in the middle of the night telling me I have to see a show when it lands in the UK. In fact, I’m unsure I’ve ever heard him be so moved by a show before, something is clearly going on.
Skip forward several months and I’m watching Fake It Til You Make It as an Edinburgh preview at the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love. Kimmings has created something that is exceptionally compelling that tickles at the edges of the mind and throws open the darkness of mental health in men. Much of this is drawn from Grayborn’s own mental health struggle which is the catalyst of the work. Needless to say by the end I’m silently crying.
As it is a preview I won’t go into a breakdown of the show (you can read some of the Australian reviews on the show’s website here) but I do want to discuss something personal in relation to the work.
My mum’s dad committed suicide when she was 15, he suffered mental health problems. At the weekend – for the first time – I asked my mum what he was like and what led to his suicide. “He would have loved you kids”, my mum told me proudly when I said that I would have liked to have met him, but his “dark moods” (the illness) was too much for him. He was an “immensely lovable man” and I can tell by the way my mum is talking about him that she means it, even though forty years has passed since he took his life, that love is palpable. I’ve not considered much about him in my life – or lack of presence – until seeing Fake It Til You Make It. Much of Kimmings’ show raises the question of who is looking out for you and who is going to speak up about mental health in men, something that clearly wasn’t available for my granddad.
If truth be told I’m worried. If mental health issues run in my family – although it is less an if than a certainty – then there is a strong likelihood that I will suffer too at some point in my life. When I start to think about my emotional and psychological state I can see many warnings that I may be on the edge of mental health problems. I’m an incredibly emotional individual – the slightest change in the weather and my mental state is in flux – rarely being able to cope with changes in my life. I swing from incredible happiness – floating on cloud nine – to bouts of darkness where it takes a fair amount of effort to get out to bed. I’m an immensely driven individual but that drive and desire for success is often crippling. I regularly find myself saying “I’m on my period” as a shorthand for “I’m emotional and struggling to cope right now”.
For many people my age (I’ve recently hit 27) the pressure of adulthood can be crippling. As a gay man I’ve struggled for years accepting who I am (or rather accepting that I will always have to wait to be accepted by others). Withers and I have been friends for 9 years and we often speak about our mental health through metaphors or just simply: “I’ve been feeling down recently”. I’m an open book when it comes to my life and who I am as a person; you want to ask a question go for it, I’ll answer honestly. But get me talking about my mental health, well, I’m not sure how to do that. We don’t, as a society, discuss mental health. Things are changing of course, but its been a long time since someone asked me straight out “how are you feeling?”. Instead we ask, “How is work? How is the family? How’s life?”. We avoid mental health like we’re avoiding a running axe man – our flight or fight survival mode kicks in and we’d rather take flight than it face on.
I’ve spent the last week and a half tip-toeing around the edges of some darkness, I’ve spoken with friends, my partner and even my family about my concerns, my uncertainties. The perceived pressures that I put on myself and that society puts on me (inadvertently, perhaps) are my darkness. During Fake It Til You Make It Grayburn speaks about the fog or mess of his mind which is visualised through a number of headwear he uses to stop him seeing the audience. It is amazing how this visual reference strikes deeply. The armour that we wear each day – the fake faces and smiles, the makeup and disguises – to ensure we get through to the end weighs us down.
Grayburn’s wish to dismantle the stigmas of mental health in men, to get us more actively engaged in conversations around our mental wellbeing is one that is delivered with such honesty and frankness that I can’t help but to acknowledge my own weighty troubles. I may not have been diagnosed with mental health issues but I feel the strain and pressure I put upon myself, and at times I wonder if this will topple me.
I wish I had known my granddad, I wish I could have understood that struggle he had so that I can understand and see the struggle that I face on a smaller scale day-by-day. I don’t know if I do have mental health issues, but I do know that Fake It Til You Make It had a profound affect on me. I know that next time Withers and I get together we’ll talk about mental health and I hope we speak past metaphors and say it like it is. When I was speaking to my mum about mental health I said that “I wish we had spoken more about mental health as a family”. I sensed she was troubled by this, but to be honest our family has suffered countless strains on our mental health and each of us in turn has been through a councillor or therapist. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but we can afford to be more open about it.
I sent a tweet out to Kimmings after the show thanking her for making the work. I meant it with all sincerity. Mental health and men don’t mix and it is about time we stop this. I know I’ll be asking my male friends more “how are you feeling?” and avoiding talking in metaphors. It is the least I can do because I should have met my granddad and I didn’t because the support wasn’t there when he needed it. I won’t let that happen to my family or friends. I just can’t.
Edit: Since writing this I’ve had some frank conversations with my family and partner. I’m having open conversations with them about how I feel and how I need to be supported. As my mum said: “one small step at a time”.