Earlier this year I was asked by the Movember Foundation whether I’d be happy to be a spokesman for the 2018 campaign, specifically to publicise their support for men suffering with mental health and addiction problems. I said yes, and the article below is the result of that decision to open up about the ‘bumpy’ couple of years I went through between 2010 and 2015. It’s in the December 2018 edition of Attitude magazine, and was written up by journalist Tim Heap, who did an amazing job capturing my voice in the article. Shout out, too, to Markus Bidaux for taking such a good pic. The article is dedicated to all of those who helped pull me through.
I’ve grown a (pretty terrible) moustache for Movember twice now: once in 2010, where I managed to raise about £1,600 and then again last year, raising £2,300. When I did it the first time round, Movember was still all about testicular cancer awareness, but last year I ticked the box saying I wanted my fundraising money to go towards men’s mental health, which is a more recent arm of the charity that not many people realise is there.
The reason for that decision was that my Movember efforts bookended a few years of my life where things got a little bit screwy. At the beginning of 2015, I was diagnosed as having undergone a prolonged nervous breakdown. I had underlying depression and anxiety issues, and between 2012 and 2016, I underwent 10 operations, all on my bum — which is obviously a sensitive area in all senses of the word. I had to have six emergency operations because of a series perianal abscesses which formed as the result of a fistula, and then had several operations to try and fix the problem, which resulted in various medical complications and lengthy recovery periods.
Around the same time as all of this, I fell into what a lot of gay men were going through at the time — and still are: too much sex and too many drugs. I was slamming crystal meth, so we’re talking right at the top of the risk register. An element of the drug use was pain relief, but as time went on, my dependence on them increased, my ability to perform in a sexual sense diminished, and, in hindsight, I was becoming a different person.
I was also unsatisfied in work. I’d left a fairly high profile, satisfying job at the end of 2012, publicly going out on a high but in reality running away from problems that were mounting up. 2013 was a train wreck, as I underwent six of my operations, two of them within a week of each other. By 2014 I was temping for a friend doing data input and cold calling for market research. Despite my friend’s honourable intentions, this just fed my depression and anxiety, fueling my lack of self-confidence and self-worth because of how far I’d fallen — professionally as well as mentally. I held it together more or less until the end of 2014, by which point it had all become this awful soup, and I realised that something had to give. If I hadn’t had that realisation, it could’ve been me that was giving, because my life was only moving in one direction.
Chemsex is a very pervasive thing. People start doing it because, frankly, it’s fucking amazing to begin with, and you have an almost Olympian sense of self-worth and what kind of sexual animal you are. But as time goes on, it becomes more about the drugs and people are not getting together for sex, they’re getting together essentially to consume drugs and stare at their phones for an entire weekend or longer. There’s an awful lot of emotional vandalism that everyone is basically taking part in.
My life as a gay man was quite compartmentalised, in that I was never really part of the ‘scene’ and a shared sexuality wasn’t what held my friendship circles together. That was both good and bad. I didn’t come out until university, and I was scared of rejection, so most of my gay life revolved around sex and hook ups, meaning that in terms of support from the gay community itself, I didn’t have access to much of that. On the other hand, I had still managed to retain a lot of my friendship group — people from university and that I’d met in London over the previous 15 years since living there. They were on hand to support me through, and it was one of those friends who offered to pay for 18 months of therapy for me and had staged a number of interventions the year before.
An intervention only works if you’re actually ready to take on board help, and for a long time I don’t think I was. There came a point where I’d been on some kind of lost weekend and I was due to meet my friend for a drink. It transpired afterwards he actually wanted to ask me about what was going on, because people were worried. I spoke to him on the phone to arrange it, and then fell asleep and slept through when we were supposed to be meeting. He ended up coming around to where I lived, couldn’t raise me on the phone, went back home to get a ladder and climbed through the living room window to find me passed out on the floor. I was taken to King’s College Hospital and blamed it on exhaustion — but they knew it was more than that.
With hindsight, that incident was a great thing, because I’d been trying not to own up to what had been going on, and there was no running anymore. It was the start of me opening up about what was going on outside of what by then passed for my normal nine-to-five life.
I went cold turkey, and celibate as well. I didn’t really talk to doctors about it, I just did it. It’s that realisation that certain behaviours are linked, and it’s how you purge yourself of those that starts the recovery process. The only GP intervention I had was to be prescribed 50mg of the anti-depressant drug sertraline, which I took for about two years. Mainly, it was all about seeing a therapist every week and opening up about what was going on and unpacking the trauma that had led to my breakdown.
I think to begin with, I went to therapy out of a sense of duty. I was quite combative, and I’d go in thinking, “Right, we can talk about this today.” During the second nine months, the breakthrough happened and I realised that there should be no set agenda to the sessions and that I didn’t necessarily have the solutions to sort myself out. Having control and a sense of agency over our lives is important but when you open up and talk about things, you have to be prepared to give up some of that control, which hopefully — there’s a huge dollop of hope in this — will get you to a better place. The longer you delay being open and honest, the worse things get, and the more difficult it is to sort your life out. Opening up tends to be the hardest thing, but it’s the most important.
I finished therapy in the summer of 2016, and during the first year, there were times when I felt I was slipping slightly. That’s what makes you understand how deep-rooted your issues are, and however quickly you get into a rut, it takes much longer to get out of it. Now, my brain is sufficiently put back together for the things that I craved to not be an attraction to me anymore. I no longer actively pursue sex as much as I did, but I can’t complain that for a period of time I didn’t get enough! I’m 42 now, and you realise that there’s more to life than searching for sex.
The brilliant thing about Movember, regardless of which bit of the box you want to tick, is that it’s good to be very vocal about the fact that a lot of men — myself included — have gone through the ringer, and that keeping it to yourself is the worst thing you can do. Suffering in silence when you have a mental health issue really sends you off in the wrong direction. The sooner you open up and seek help, the better.
The Movember Foundation is the leading charity dedicated to changing the face of men’s health in the UK and around the world. To find ways to support and donate, visit uk.movember.com
@NathanYeowell on twitter