(Written for The Anfield Wrap online mag)
//Against Living Miserably
PICTURE the scene. You’re in your early twenties and you go to the game with a bunch of mates. Your priorities are simple. First off is Liverpool Football Club. Then, every tiny thing that forms and surrounds Liverpool Football Club.
There are secondary concerns, too. Getting hammered at the weekend, making sure you’ve got enough money for Liverpool Football Club and getting hammered at the weekend. Then there are girls, clothes and music. As Weller once said: “Life is a drink and you get drunk when you’re young.”
This is a joyous time, but it does come with certain responsibilities and constraints. The pressures on young lads are manifold. Money, job, expectation, peer pressure and machismo are all in the mix. The last two are particularly significant. You govern yourself based on your mates’ behaviour far more than societal boundaries.
There are lots of silly rules that must be adhered to – don’t act above yourself, look after your mates, don’t betray them and so on. It reminds me of the story of Jamie Carragher and his mates. Well, I’ll let him tell it.
“I remember I got a wallet once and got slaughtered for that.”
(You mean a fancy Gucci number, with special Premiership-footballer, super-expensive leather?)
“Nah, just a normal wallet. Where I’m from, you carry money in your pockets, and I got slaughtered by my mates. I’d never had a wallet before and they thought I was trying to be someone I’m not. I got rid of it. Never had one since.”
I love that story. Keeping his cash and cards in something other than his pockets is a bit posh and went against the accepted lifestyle of Bootle. So he packed it in because it went against the local grain. Its stupidity makes it funny.
Piss taking is an important part of life. If there are a dozen of you who are close enough to be considered brothers you stay with them for years despite their own peccadillos. You have a code that binds you for life. Call it brotherhood, whatever, but it’s there and it only erodes when the group disseminates and experiences change.
But what if you feel a bit different from the rest of the lads? What if you’re struggling with a few issues? Drinking too much, too many drugs, relationship (or lack of relationship) troubles that drag you down every day, debt, verbal and physical abuse? We all have some of these problems at times but what if you can’t shake off the demons and feel yourself spiraling into dark, dark thoughts? What if you sense something wrong with your state of mind? Can you really turn to your best mate and say “I just can’t face life”? You’d like to think so, these are your mates after all, but not everyone can. Peer pressure means that alternative behaviour is a bit weird and the accusations can soon fly – he’s “gone mental”, just “being a tart”, “full of himself”, “all an act” and so on. You’re always going to be judged and it’s going to be a bit embarrassing, so many don’t discuss it at all. Instead, many just try to make do and hide their feelings. The shame is too much to take. Sometimes there seems to be only one way out.
On average, 12 men take their own lives every day. Twelve! Be it through depression from illness, debt, work pressure or a whole host of societal factors. 77 per cent of UK suicides are by men. That’s an astonishing figure. We can probably think of someone who left the party early when we were young and we probably wish we could have said more, listened more or just been around to offer any support possible but we didn’t see the signs. Unfortunately, I’m in that position.
But it’s not that easy. Stephen Fry recently spoke of an attempted suicide last year. The same Stephen Fry who is almost universally loved, with his impressive CV, talent and charm. Cue the hardline arseholes who gripe about ‘What has he got to be depressed about?’ – like he has a choice. You don’t choose a gammy leg, poor eyesight or piles, but people get them. It’s an illness not a lifestyle choice and no talent in the world can make you immune.
Fry has the world on a plate but his bipolar disorder relegates it to nothing during his downswings. He can barely speak or move. Death seems to be only release and, although he’s clawed his way back to better health, it’s usually an option to end the horror of his condition. That’s the same Stephen Fry you see laughing and joking on QI. Would you be able to tell that there are times that he wants to die? Not really. Could you spot it in your best mate?
Yes, but what about his friends? He has enough of them. Couldn’t they help? Well, not always. Shame is a powerful deterrent to opening up. Fry drew an analogy of discovering a sudden plague of genital warts. You don’t want to show your mates them no matter how much they’re on your mind.
And that’s the problem. Depression is still a taboo subject in a young age group and it’s not easy to detect. Teenagers suffer angst. God knows I did. I would wander around like Hamlet with a hangover (thank you, P.G. Wodehouse) and poor scorn on the world and its inability to see that I was different from everyone else. I wasn’t depressed. I was a teenager and awash with hormonal changes just as you were/are. I enjoyed that period of self-absorption, of sighing and thinking that the world was wrong and feeling the need to disappear from it until one of us changed.
I still get it now but I’m not depressed – just prone to periods of melancholia, as most of us are. That’s not the same as clinical life-threatening depression so it’s easy for your mates to think ‘Dave’s not coming out with us because he’s in a bit of a mood’ when there are darker clouds above.
So how do we help our mates who see suicide as a better option than living? What can they do to see that help and support is available? How do we break the social barrier that stops us talking about things like this?
The charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) was set up to challenge the culture of men who are embarrassed to help or be helped. They offer a helpline and are keen to spread the word of their services via predominately male-related interests, pastimes and media – music, sport, entertainment and so on – one of which is The Anfield Wrap.
The programme works, too. In the year 2000 they launched Merseyside CALMzone – an initiative to reduce the number of male suicides in the local region and numbers have decreased. They argue the plain fact that suicides are not inevitable and that help, be it by phone line or other networks, is available. A similar programme was launched in London two years ago.
How can you help? Well, you can donate here www.justgiving.com/CALM and here uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charity-web/charity/finalCharityHomepage.action?uniqueVmgCharityUrl=thecalmzone but they’re also asking for groups and companies to pledge to end the supposed embarrassment of male depression and inability to face modern life.
Have a look at their website www.yearofthemale.com and see what you can do.
I’ll leave you with this from Stephen Fry. It’s more eloquent than anything I can add.
“If you know someone who’s depressed please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation, depression just is, like the weather.
Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest and best things you will ever do.”
Amen to that.