My name is Amber. I am a chef and have been in the hospitality industry for about 20 years. I believe that it takes a certain type of personality to become a chef. There is a craving for achievement, a passion for perfection and a desire to go above and beyond. Over my career I have witnessed first-hand how this drive can cause outstanding success but ironically – like a double-edged sword – the consequences can be debilitating.
Two years ago, I hit rock bottom, after many years of alcohol abuse, cleverly hidden from view. It damaged my health, ruined my relationships with boyfriends and family and destroyed my ability to function during everyday tasks without having had a drink.
At that time of my life I was not aware of support services like Lifeline and Beyond Blue and help was certainly not something I asked for. It was beaten into me as an apprentice that you must find a way to do things yourself and that asking for help was weak. This, unfortunately for many chefs (mainly older generations), is still just the way it is – in life – as well as at work.
The hardest thing I found, in getting back on my feet, was telling my chef friends and colleagues. Drinking is so ingrained in the culture of the kitchen that I was faced with encouragement to continue drinking, not the support I needed to stop. Consequently, I had to remove myself from those groups and slowly build the muscle to socialise again. I am so pleased and proud to say that I am strong enough to be around alcohol without having it myself and haven’t done now for two years.
Just after Christmas, my chef mentor and best friend took his own life. He had been in the game for many years, had owned his own restaurant, been in the limelight, had what looked like ‘it all’ but underneath that was obviously not the case. He had been struggling with drug and alcohol dependency since virtually the moment he stepped into the kitchen and that, unfortunately, is the lifestyle you get handed when you enter the cheffing world.
The package deal is a constant on-the-go existence, with busy services and a work hard, play hard mentality. Having to keep the energy up when all signs point to shutting it down. Even on days off it’s a constant search for perfection, where can you get the next best idea, quest for the perfect dish, must impress, gotta get the hats, gotta get the stars, it’s non-stop. I can only imagine its likeness to a battle field, under around-the-clock panic mode. Then, the accepted and encouraged antidote is to uncoil the pain and stress with alcohol or drugs, anything that will numb you for a while so you can take time out. I refer to this package deal chefs receive when putting on their apprentice uniforms as ‘The White Jacket Effect.’
It is unrealistic to expect to reduce the pressure in this unforgiving work environment, but I would like to step up and do something to get the topic talked about and get rid of the ‘push-on’ motto. There is certainly a shift occurring in the younger generations, but it is the older ones such as myself and Richard, that have it ingrained in our make-up.
Chefs are not invincible and I don’t want to see another brilliant life be wasted. Therefore, I am hosting the first ever White Jacket Effect Workshop in a few weeks time with 20 – 30 of my chef friends and colleagues. There will be speakers from RUOK?, Hello Sunday Morning and The Red Cross to talk about the resources and support available to people who were in the same situation as me. These guys and girls who are in the kitchen, day in and day out, will discuss the heavy topics and nut out some positive solutions together.
My vision is to develop communicative, ‘Safe House Leaders’ in the cheffing community, who are keen to:
abolish suffering in silence
address ‘balance’ and encourage health and wellness
start conversations about how to have a healthy relationship with alcohol.
I am committed to taking action to cause change in the culture of the kitchen and to redefine what it means to put on that white jacket.
Lifeline Australia: 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services. Call 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au
Festivities for Sydney’s Mardi Gras are in full swing this week and it’s a time to celebrate diversity in sexuality, gender and relationships. Oxford street will be filled with colour, music, choreographed dance moves and elaborate costumes on Saturday night for the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. The parade originated as an equal rights protest 41 years ago, but these days is much more of a pride celebration, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from Australia and overseas. Changes have occured recently in Australia for the LGBTIQA+ community in terms of marriage equality, but discrimination and abuse is still very present, and this can have deleterious effects on the physical and mental health of those on the receiving end. Sadly, statistics indicate poorer health outcomes for the queer community in terms of alcohol and other drug use, mental health outcomes and help-seeking behaviour.
Alcohol use in Queer communities
Research indicates those in the sexual- and gender-minority communities are more likely to drink alcohol, to drink at risky levels and are at greater risk of experiencing alcohol use disorders.
In a survey of the health and wellbeing of LGBT Australians in 2012, nearly 92 per cent of respondents reported drinking in the past year, compared with 77 per cent of the population aged over 14 from a 2016 national data set
A national survey of Australians in 2016 found 25.8 per cent of homosexual or bisexual respondents drank at a level considered to be risky to their health over a lifetime (more than two standard drinks per day), which was much higher than the figure of 17.2 per cent for those identifying as heterosexual
Higher rates of risky drinking per single occasion (more than four standard drinks) were also reported for homosexual and bisexual respondents (41 per cent) compared to heterosexual respondents (25.5 per cent).
Illicit and other drug use
Similarly elevated patterns exist among homosexual and bisexual communities in terms of illicit drug use and the misuse of prescription drugs. For example, use of methamphetamines in the past year was almost six times higher (6.9 per cent vs 1.2 per cent) and the misuse of pharmaceuticals almost three times higher (12 per cent vs 4.3 per cent) in bisexual and homosexual survey responders, versus those who identified as heterosexual.
Mental health outcomes for Queer Australians
Research suggests that LGBT people are at increased risk of a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm and suicide. This may largely be due to discrimination, abuse and stigma. In a report by The Australian Human Rights Commission, around 60 per cent of same-sex attracted- and gender-questioning young people said they experienced verbal abuse because of their sexuality, while 18 per cent reported experiencing physical abuse.
It’s important to reduce as many barriers as possible for those in the queer community to access assistance, support and treatment for both mental health or alcohol and other drug issues. Barriers can include things like lack of money, limited time, travel to healthcare providers, previous negative experiences and lack of knowledge about available support. Studies also show that LGBT people may delay seeking treatment in the expectation that they will be subject to discrimination or receive reduced quality of care and they also risk presenting for help much later in their trajectory, which can lead to worse health outcomes.
Anonymous, free, professional, immediate, non-discriminatory support to quit or cut down alcohol use
Hello Sunday Morning’s Daybreak app reduces many of these barriers. Daybreak is an online program and app that helps people change their relationship with alcohol through a supportive community, habit-change experiments, and one-on-one chat with health coaches.
Daybreak is free for Australians to download, it’s immediate and doesn’t require travel to an appointment, or a referral from a different practitioner. Best of all, Daybreak doesn’t discriminate. No questions about sexuality are included in the sign-up form. Most members who download Daybreak receive support from other members (peers) within five minutes of posting an update. The chat function enables coaching from qualified health professionals for those who want more support.
Other alcohol, drug and mental health support options available for the queer community
Culturally appropriate services offer safe spaces for non-discriminatory and non-judgemental support on a range of issues including sexual health, mental health and alcohol and other drug use.
The AIDS council of NSW (ACON) works with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, specialising in HIV prevention, HIV support and general health outcomes.
Touchbase, an online resource, seeks to help LGBTI people – as well as their partners, family, and friends – improve their knowledge about the interaction between psychological wellbeing and the use of alcohol and other drugs.
While the revelry will fill the front pages of the Sunday papers, not all those in the queer community will be celebrating this weekend, and some may find this a particularly hard time of year if they are struggling with their own sexuality or gender issues. If you know someone who may be struggling (or that someone is you), please let them know they are not alone, and support, without fear of discrimination, is available.
Australian Human Rights Commission: Face the Facts: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people • 2014 ISBN 978-1-921449-67-3. Available: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/7_FTF_2014_LGBTI.pdf
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016: detailed findings. Drug Statistics series no. 31. Cat. no. PHE 214. Canberra: AIHW. Available: https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/3bbdb961-ed19-4067-94c1-69de4263b537/21028-13nov2017.pdf.aspx
William Leonard, Marian Pitts, Anne Mitchell, Anthony Lyons, Anthony Smith, Sunil Patel, Murray Couch and Anna Barrett (2012) Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) Australians. Monograph Series Number 86. Melbourne: The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University. Available: https://www.glhv.org.au/sites/default/files/PrivateLives2Report.pdf
Are you someone who has heightened sensitivity to your environment? Do you react instantly to a change in temperature, a certain food, or even smell? Is it painful to be around people who are loud, or in the same room as people who are giving each other the silent treatment?
We all exist somewhere along a spectrum of sensitivity, from those who are highly reactive to their environment, to those who seem bulletproof to the goings-on around them. There are so many things that determine this, but, like most other things, we know that it is a combination of genetics and environment; the epigenetics that switch on sensitivity. Having a sensitive temperament can be a wonderful gift. Just ask the people around you. But it can also mean that you are much more vulnerable to the things that life throws your way.
The research into this area is slowly coming together to form an understanding of a ‘spectrum’ of sensitivity. This covers how our brains process information, and whether we perceive things as threatening, beautiful, exciting, or boring.
We all know someone with an artistic temperament and can talk for hours about their love of music. We also know the more solid, engineer types who would like nothing more than to sit in front of a computer screen and code for hours on end.
Sensitivity is aligned a lot with empathy. These are not necessarily the same thing, but it is understandable that if someone is quite sensitive to their environment, they may also be more conscious of the inner states of people around them.
Sensitivity is also associated with anxiety. Receiving a lot of signals from your environment means that you are often in a state of high alert. Sensitive people are also more likely to be affected by life events. This increases the likelihood of trauma and traumatic memories, which contribute to challenges in your daily life.
An analogy that researchers use is the orchid and the daisy. If you are an orchid, you will need a very stable environment when growing. You need to be in a climate-controlled greenhouse, watered daily, and protected from storms and wind. If you are a daisy, you can grow anywhere from the cracks of a pavement to a garden. If a storm comes along, you are likely to remain intact and undamaged afterwards. Meanwhile, an orchid will be damaged and need a bit of time to recover, and might have lasting effects.
We generally exist along a spectrum from the orchid to the daisy. From very sensitive, to very hardy. It is not about which is better, as both of these flowers were this way from birth. Nor is it a matter of choosing whether to be an orchid or daisy. This is something that is pre-determined from the moment of fertilisation.
So how does sensitivity relate to drinking?
A lot of research indicates that those with a sensitive temperament are more vulnerable to developing issues with alcohol. This is simply because alcohol sometimes makes the world easier to deal with. If you have a lot of emotions close to the surface, experiences of rejection, sadness, criticism, loneliness or anxiety can feel incredibly intense. When we think about alcohol, it can have the effect of taking away some of the intensity of these experiences.
Dulling the feelings
The numbing effect of alcohol, while not necessarily pleasant, can feel like a welcome escape from sesnsitivity. Switching off from feeling overwhelmed is important; unfortunately, alcohol is among the fastest ways to do this.
One of the ways that alcohol works is by causing our brains to release GABA. GABA is a chemical that causes us to relax and lower our inhibitions. This allows a sensitive person to switch off from a lot of the information that is coming in. They can be slightly more affected by alcohol as well, meaning that the dopamine rush is more significant and pronounced.
Some members of the Hello Sunday Morning program, Daybreak, admit that they are feeling overwhelmed by life. Alcohol is one of those things that makes it better in the moment when it feels as if things are getting to be too much. Life can be a heartbreaking, sad, and overwhelming experience. If you are highly sensitive to your environment, it is likely that when things are bad, they will feel really bad. The plus side is that when things are good, it will feel really good. But that isn’t much help during times of stress, loss, poor health and conflict.
What is a solution to this?
If you have identified that you fall somewhere on the sensitive side of the spectrum and your drinking is a part of this, there are some things that might be helpful for you:
Take care of the basics. Sleep, diet and exercise are important to maintain your emotional health and to have a sense of balance and calm. Even if we can’t control parts of our life, we know that the building blocks are critical to staying well.
Understand what role alcohol plays in managing some of these issues. Is it numbing? Is it lifting your mood? Consider other ways to calm your system or wind down. There are other ways to zone out: listen to relaxing music or take a day in bed to read and watch movies.
Be aware of your environment. If there are things that are impacting you, make some efforts to change it. Whether it is a cold office at work or an aggressive neighbour, these things can have a significant impact on mood and coping ability, and things are easier when we address them.
Seek support. Have a look at the Daybreak program for some ideas and advice about how to deal with things differently, or speak to a coach for additional support and information. A lot of Daybreak members have great advice and ideas for self-care in times of stress, and would appreciate your ideas too.
Remember, it’s a positive thing if you are on the sensitive side. This is particularly true in terms of having good relationships with those around you and as a part of society. Many highly successful and happy people describe themselves as having sensitive and empathic temperaments. It is a case of finding what works for you.
Retaining the capacity to reflect, wonder, express joy and support those around you, without being overwhelmed by them, is often a work in progress. We know that drinking can be part of managing this sensitivity, and often it is about finding ways to change that relationship. Move from numbing towards something more deliberate and mindful.
As a health coach for Hello Sunday Morning’s app, Daybreak, I have noticed that anxiety is a really common issue for our members. For some people, it is a chicken or egg scenario – is my drinking a way that I am managing my anxiety, or is my anxiety partly a result of my drinking and all the things that come with it? And, where does stress fit into all of this? Is it the same, or separate to anxiety?
One thing I have noticed is that stress in our lives greatly increases our vulnerability to high-risk drinking, as well as being overwhelmed with strong emotions.
I wondered why that was, and what kind of relationship there was between these three factors. My sense was that if I, as a health coach, had these questions, our members might as well – so I have put together some pointers that my coaching clients have found helpful in exploring the relationship between anxiety, drinking, and stress.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a tricky thing to define but is generally our brain’s way of responding to some kind of threat – whether that is a threat to our safety, our reputation, our relationships or our sense of self. It can be affected by our genetics, our environment, and our personality. Stress is often a precursor to anxiety – stressful situations put us into ‘fight or flight’ mode that helps us to protect ourselves from various types of threat.
Can you be predisposed to anxiety?
There is a lot of evidence that links stressful life events (SLEs) in our early life with issues later in life, including anxiety, depression and, sometimes, substance use.
SLEs don’t have to be life or death situations – they can be things like witnessing parental divorce, economic adversity or mental illness. The evidence indicates that experiencing two or more SLEs in early life significantly increased a person’s chances of developing an issue with their mood, such as anxiety or depression.
Of course, if you are a child who is vulnerable to stress, you are probably going to be affected more by something like a divorce or economic hardship– which is where individual factors come in. An anxious or sensitive temperament and stress early on in life can create a ‘perfect storm’ for some issues later on down the track.
Not everyone who feels anxious as an adult has been exposed to SLEs, but there is a really strong relationship between SLEs and anxiety or depression. It is good to remember that the active component here is the ‘stress’ – when kids are exposed to ongoing stress in their lives, it impacts how their brains develop and respond to threats in their environment. But more on that later on.
A good thing to remember is that SLEs in adulthood can also create issues with our moods – if we have a number of stressful events with little opportunity for respite, we can find that it is much harder to keep positive.
Perhaps we start to feel really anxious after a bad breakup that just keeps going on, or very down and helpless after some chronic stress at work. Our brains don’t deal with ongoing stress well, particularly the kind of stress that we feel we can’t do much about.
Remember – stress often comes first, and if it keeps going, that is when problems can develop. Often when we look back to difficult times in our lives, we can see that a number of different stressors led up to it.
What is the science behind this? It sounds too ‘tell me about your childhood’!
Emotions and stress levels
There is a lot of research into SLEs, as well as the actual mechanism that creates this relationship between our exposure to stress, our moods, and our relationships with alcohol. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of heavy duty neuroscience, but essentially:
We know that SLEs can change how our brains develop and even which genes are expressed; in particular, in the dopamine reward pathway which is a major player in high-risk drinking.
Research has found major disruptions in our dopamine signalling (for motivated behaviour and reward seeking) associated with SLEs. The part of our brain that controls this system also affects our stress and anxiety levels.
Throughout our lifetime, stress causes us to produce cortisol which helps us to survive and stay alert. However, when these stress responses are activated over and over again, a person can become vulnerable to later problems with anxiety and depression.
One way to think about it is like a button that gets pressed over and over again. At first, it works well, but over time it wears out. Sometimes it will get stuck in the ‘on’ position, and other times it won’t work at all and we’ll need to keep pressing it until it does.
People who have some problems with regulating their emotions as adults will often have had lots of stressful experiences as children, which have caused them to become ‘dysregulated’. The button in their brain that controls anxiety, mood, and even motivation, has been pressed too much and is now worn out. They might need to drink lots of coffee to get going, or they might need to drink a lot of alcohol to calm themselves down.
If there have been many disruptive, challenging or stressful events in your childhood, this may have contributed to you experiencing some issues with anxiety as an adult. If you were an anxious child who experienced a lot of things as stressful, that may also be impacting you now. If you’ve just come through a number of stressors and are finding that your emotions are all over the place, this may also be something to consider.
How does this button fit in with my drinking?
It becomes even trickier as the way that alcohol works is by taking advantage of this ‘worn out’ stress button. People who fit this description may be more susceptible to the ‘pleasure’ pathway that occurs with alcohol.
Exposure to ongoing stress means that our brains produce less dopamine over time, and so we can feel flat and empty – which can cause us to seek out the ‘high’ of alcohol or drugs. Having a sip of alcohol sends excitatory projections to our nucleus accumbens, part of our reward pathway. A complex set of interactions occur which result in that ‘good’ feeling we can get from drinking, and in people who are vulnerable, it can be a really intense and rewarding experience.
In particular, if you are an anxious person who is under stress, you may be existing in a state of mild discomfort. It is not a comfortable feeling to be on edge or tense, and alcohol is something that significantly shifts that, really quickly. We become conditioned to believe that this is perhaps the only way to take away the discomfort, or relive the stress we are feeling – and so drinking becomes more and more of a coping strategy, particularly when we are having a difficult time in our lives and are stressed, burnt out or unhappy.
Perhaps at the beginning it is about having pleasure and getting enjoyment, and later on it may become about taking away unpleasant emotions and discomfort from not having the alcohol – which is a good indicator that a problem is starting to develop, and some support is needed.
But where does this leave me?
This may sound really bleak, but don’t worry! The good news is that being aware of this relationship is a big part of the solution. Daybreak members who have identified this link between stress, anxiety, and drinking, have found some of the following strategies really helpful:
• Talk to a counsellor or coach about what kinds of things are generally stressful for you like relationship problems, criticism, failure or rejection. Understanding your triggers means that they are no longer triggers, but rather situations which can be handled with care and understanding.
• Finding other ways to ‘self-soothe’. Things like relaxation and exercise are effective ways of lowering physiological arousal and increasing your production of dopamine. Importantly, they also give us a sense of control over our mood state, which is really important for our wellbeing.
• Find ways to reduce stress in your life. If your stress button has been ‘worn out’ by life events, it may be necessary to find ways to deal with stress differently, whether that involves a change in your self-care, seeking support from friends and family to help lighten the load, or problem solving ways to address sources of ongoing stress.
• Make a list of trigger situations and a plan to deal with each of these. For example, if you know that you are likely to feel depleted and exhausted after work, make a plan to go for a walk with a friend, or schedule some other self-soothing activity that will be effective in lowering your arousal.
During these times that we are under stress in our adult lives, we need to be even more careful with things like alcohol and ensure that we are looking after ourselves and keeping stress to a minimum. This might involve getting some counselling to help deal with the source of strong emotions, or even to help to resolve current stresses in our relationships, work life or friendships.
Alcohol support program and community
Terry Cornick, a.k.a. ‘Mr. Perfect‘, talks about his dad, being a dad and how drinking and mental health tie into the whole story.
That sweet amber nectar. It can taste like “liquid gold,” I tell my wife after my first sip of a cold ale. I chime in with trademark sarcasm, such as, “I don’t normally drink, but go on, then.” The perfect accompaniment to a celebration, a new birth, birthday, marriage, religious celebration (some), promotion, divorce (?!) and sporting victory.
On the flip side, it is also seen as the perfect tonic for tragic news and disappointments, deaths and funerals, divorces (again), losing your job and many more hard knocks that somehow send us directly to its clasp. I can remember my first sip. It was on one rare weekend visit to my dad’s house for his “access,” which went from weekly to yearly to twice in one decade very quickly. But that’s another story.
We usually went to the pub, but on this occasion he must have been struggling for cash (as it was conveniently located 50 metres from his house), so we headed to the Off-Licence (Bottle Shop, for my Australian brethren). Trudging back with a case of Fosters–a terrible drop, by the way–I sat in his lounge on the floor watching television. While laughing he passed me a can and encouraged me to sip it. I winced as I gulped. How could adults ever enjoy this stuff? I would rather drink soap.
Alcohol was present in the early years of my life. At one stage my mum worked in the pub and my dad drank there. I can even remember as a toddler (pre-divorce) wandering around the pub with a pint glass as all my dad’s friends put their change coins in. I had this rotund belly on a skinny frame so they would call me “PB” (pot-belly), poke my tummy then chuck their money in. As strange as that sounds the glass filled up quickly, not a bad racket for a four-year-old.
These fun times were tempered by memories of dad coming home hammered from work and the carnage that followed. Another, far deeper story for my book.
But the reminders of the damage were never far from the surface. At around six years old he came to watch a football tournament I was playing in. He was pushing my baby brother in a pushchair and I never forget seeing half his face covered with a bandage. It turned out he was glassed in a pub after picking a fight with someone. As always, and as an almost silent child, I never questioned it. There were other frightening, dangerous alcohol-fuelled post-divorce events that I experienced watching on as a child. Their impact on my mental health at the time and now, are still deep and processing that can be difficult. I leave that for my Doctor visits.
Back at my mum’s house post-divorce we rarely had alcohol in the house. My mum barely drank anyway and after my sister’s birth in 1995, I would go as far as to say she was allergic. One bottle of Bacardi Breezer and migraines followed for days. So when I finally got to experience alcohol “properly” I was around 13 years old. A few of my friends’ parents were out for New Year’s Eve nearby. None of my close friends were huge tearaways, by the way, but some could be described as troublemakers.
After watching a film and playing PlayStation, one friend suggested we have some alcohol. Eventually I relented and we searched out every kitchen cupboard. We found a bottle of vodka. It’s clear in colour, we thought, like water; what damage could this possibly do? In the lounge ten minutes later we devised a simple game. The loser had to drink “some” of the vodka. Having no knowledge of measures we used a pint glass and poured two-thirds of a glass and downed it when we lost. The burn was deep. Fifteen minutes later the world turned into a wonderful fluffy marshmallow and we all danced around the room, wrestled, laughed and eventually passed out asleep with no real damage.
A couple of years later I witnessed my brother going “out on the town” dressed up and somehow getting into pubs and clubs at sixteen. It must have been the pin-striped pants, shiny black shoes, Ben Sherman shirt and black mafia-style overcoat that did the trick. The look of the day. When it was my turn to try my luck it came about by accident. My friends on the estate we lived suggested we go to a house party near our town centre. On route we realised it had been cancelled and before I knew it, fuelled by two sickly orange vodka alcopops, I was paired with a mate and his two girlfriends that looked far older and confident than we.
Five hours later my mum picks me up from the town centre clearly angry as I try and feign sobriety. My shin the next morning bearing testament to falling up the nightclub stairs and smashing it on the metal step. But a hangover? Anxiety? Depression? None of that. Come midday we all met up to play football for hours.
The university days of life saw darkness creep in concurrently with alcohol. Fresher’s Week, student nights and boredom meant substantial, encouraged drinking. But I never drank for taste. As a shy, introverted guy it was just an attempt to fit in. I figured I would be less visible that way. £3 three-litre bottles of cider before we went out were our poison.
Hangovers at this stage meant anxiety-filled days of barely leaving my bed: heart pounding, heavy chest, curtains were drawn and pleading, hopefully, that I would not have to face anyone that day. The escape of intoxication provided 12 hours previously had long gone. I was quiet and moody by nature, or so I thought at the time, so no correlation with mental health was considered. I did, however, crave Cherry Coca-Cola, a regular saviour post-booze. Post-university, friends and I discovered “Snakebite” (a horrific concoction of beer, cider and blackcurrant juice). Ironically we went to an Australian-themed bar called Walkabout on Friday and Saturday nights and post-football on Sunday. Severe dehydration meant waking up in the middle of the night after a session, usually panicking.
Curiously, I never drank during the week at home. Ever. I always wanted to function well at work, probably more than most. It was rarely in my own culture or those around me to drink at home. You went to the pub for that, the heart of the community. And on an English street, there are more hearts than Hallmark on Valentine’s Day.
Then Australia came calling. “The Great Escape,” as I call it. Unable to come to terms with, or get help for my mental health and sheer pain I was feeling, I somehow ended up on the other side of the world. A shift in my drinking culture followed.
At work I could not believe that we actually got to have a beer at 4 pm on a Friday, while still working! Mind Blowing! That gradually became a Friday lunch, then as I started to do particularly well I realised that in the sector I was working in, it was commonplace to go out on a Thursday night or meet a client for a beer mid-week. We worked alongside Sydney Harbour, after all, everyone reasoned.
As my income increased and my tastes in parallel, I developed a love for red wine or pale ale and cases of $70 craft beers. Spirits or shorts have never been appealing. But with this love has come an increased casual approach to drinking, on the whole a better approach, I think. But that shift has its own challenges.
To add to this, my mother-in-law works for a wine company. Their Hungarian background revolves around family dinners and a glass of wine or schnapps. A responsible yet enjoyable approach to drinking. Temptation is increased further as my wife, Carolina, works for an events and marketing company. Her biggest clients and accounts? Alcohol brands. That means events and freebies.
Some weeks I can drink one or two beers with dinner most nights, then have a few on a Friday or Saturday watching a movie at home. Taste is now more important than quantity. Once a month on average I let my hair down at a wedding or birthday, but by midnight I am in bed.
When stressful times appear and my cloudy spells increase, there is no denying I am thinking, “When I get home I am going to have a beer.” Thankfully, I do not have the urge to go on an all-night bender. Occasionally when this casual intake creeps up I have ways of dampening it for the good of my head. I managed to do a dry January, a huge feat for me. But some other useful strategies have emerged, some by accident.
Carolina barely drinks anymore. Motherhood has certainly affected that. And with this has become a tradition of hers. At 8:45 pm every night I make her a camomile tea. It has become so ingrained in our routine, and on most nights this influences me to not have a beer. With a few Best Man appearances and bucks parties on the horizon to organise this year, these will test my currently strong resolve.
By far the biggest influencer has been fatherhood. The seismic shift I have previously spoke of means I consider my 14-month-old boy first. They need to be fed, looked after, changed, dressed and played with. You are at their mercy. There are no chances to feel sorry for yourself with a hangover. It is non-stop all day until bed, and by getting outside when feeling a little dusty, it helps no end for my head. By no means am I suggesting having a child to regress drinking, but man, it helps.
My work with Mr. Perfect has increased my determination to develop an even healthier relationship with alcohol. I play sport and exercise regularly, so the balance is there but I have also met some incredible guys at our Monthly Meetups that on the face of it are ‘Mr. Perfects’. They have jobs, family and may be in great physical shape. But you never know from a surface understanding of a person what they may be going through. Some have confided they have been trying to change their relationship with alcohol for years. It fascinates me.
Ultimately I want to understand what my dad went through with his drinking. I used to just hate him for it and his lack of care or presence for his sons. But as I came to terms with my own mental health struggles I conceded he himself had something going on inside. A silent sufferer, as I used to be. He was killing himself slowly with the booze. It pains me to think I will never truly know why. Some family comments have suggested his long hours in his (for some time successful) London job from the age of 16 and the pub lunches that came with it, slowly turned into his addiction. He worked with his dad and he was known to “love a beer” (insert emoji for understatement).
What truly keeps me responsible is the final sight of my dad, just two days before he passed away. He sat silent and trembling, somehow making it out of bed to his couch to sit in the lounge as his wife and I chatted around him. The conversation was interrupted when my dad grunted. I had no idea what it meant but his wife did. She jumped up and returned seconds later with a tumbler of what I assumed was Coca-Cola. The pungent smell of rum soon told me otherwise.
Starting out as a hobby, Terry created a grassroots men’s mental health support network named Mr. Perfect that is growing by the minute. Although it does not pay a cent, it pays handsomely in purpose. You can check it out at www.mrperfect.org.au
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We interview Mr. Perfect about the generational shift around male communication and why having a society that’s open to emotional freedom for men is so important.
You’re told to suck it up, to be strong, to not cry because crying is for wimps.
Men don’t often open up about how they are really feeling to friends and family. Showing emotion and vulnerability has long been stigmatised as a sign of weakness. It is the stereotype of the heroic male represented in popular culture as fearless, resourceful, stoic and usually facing adversity alone. These characters tell us a lot about what is considered to be ideal male behaviour within our society.
Men should be allowed to be whoever they want to be.
Daphne Rose Kingma, author of The Men We Never Knew, has said:
“We’ve dismissed men as the feelingless gender — we’ve given up on them. Because of the way boys are socialised, their ability to deal with emotions has been systematically undermined. Men are taught, point-by-point, not to feel, not to cry, and not to find words to express themselves.”
Men are more than likely to express emotions in places where they feel safe and it is deemed acceptable by society, like a sports event. You’ll see hugging, passionate shouting, even tears of joy after a win. But you may not see other men hugging or tearing up in another circumstance, because they don’t feel as comfortable or as open to do so. It is often the same case when alcohol is involved. Men seem to open up after (many) drinks, they can speak honestly from their heart and it’s okay because they ‘were drunk and have an excuse’.
But men shouldn’t have to have an excuse to lean back on for speaking their truth.
As Psychology Today says, “men who deviate from the traditional masculine norm by being emotionally expressive and talking about their fears are often judged as being poorly adjusted.”
When upset, women are more likely to express their feelings directly, and to seek the support of friends and family, whereas men might hide their emotions or withdraw. The problem is that withdrawing is very dangerous and can lead to serious mental health repercussions.
The restriction of emotional expression in many men’s lives can lead to:
A greater sense of isolation;
Less support being available from loved ones;
Health issues, due to carrying chronic tension in the body and other bad coping strategies;
Relationship difficulties due to an inability to resolve emotional conflicts and/or a perceived lack of ability to be intimate;
Psychological problems such as depression, insomnia and anxiety.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men aged 14–44 years old.
Yet, as a young woman in 2017, I think the toughest of all men are those who stand up for what they believe is right, even in the face of other men. Men who show their emotions and ask for help when they need it, and who open their heart to vulnerability.
I’m not the only one.
Mr. Perfect, founded by Terry Cornick, is a grassroots mental health support network with a vision to transform men’s mental health by making it a comfortable discussion for all. It is a sarcastic nod to the male approach to mental health.
Mr. Perfect is a metaphor for what the world expects us to be. It is the mask we wear.
Mr. Perfect started as an non-profit organisation to try and start these conversations that were lacking in male societies. As well as corporate talks, a blog and a few other projects, Terry also runs a monthly Meet Up in Sydney where anyone can come for an informal social barbecue, have a chance to speak to other people in the same boat, and listen to talks from doctors, psychologists and other organisations. The Meet Ups are inclusive to anyone whether it be successful men, fathers to be, students or older guys.
“I often speak to doctors who say they feel very hopeless and do not know what to do when men come in with mental health concerns. They either give you a pamphlet for an organisation or a prescription for medication.”
“If it’s not clinical, you’re not told about it.”
Terry says there is such a stigma around getting help because we have been conditioned to believe that seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or a ‘shrink’ means you’re ‘damaged’.
“Not only that, but there’s also the age-old thing of being masculine and being a man, and we all propagate that: both men and women. We assume this is what we need to be and people think,
“Your wife’s allowed to show that emotion so that’s fine, but a guy just cant do it.”
“Whether it be tiny set backs or big set backs, you were expected to come home after being a robot for eight hours at work and not talk about anything and just get on with it. You would also excuse traits and behaviours in your mates and just brush it off as, ‘Oh, that’s just [Jimmy] acting out,’ and you laugh about it and that’s the end of it. There was never scratching below that surface.”
Mr. Perfect aims to normalise that conversation.
“Once guys start and open up just a little bit, there’s no stopping them. Often times they won’t stop and they will talk so much they will apologise to me for telling their story because they have probably not told anyone that for five years, or only their doctor.”
So, for someone to just say, “I know what you’re talking about mate,” or, “you’re not alone,” that’s the first step.
“My dad was alcohol dependent, and my perception of that growing up was thinking he was just an asshole. He was told he would die if he kept drinking 20 years ago, and when he kept drinking, that was it for me. I was never once told or ever thought, until I started getting help myself, that maybe something was going on in his head that caused him to drink. I can’t really put my finger on it and I’ll probably never know why, but alcohol is the best way for people to do that, to block it out temporarily.”
Terry says he has friends who will use alcohol as their crutch, so if they have a really bad day at work or they’re in a bad mood, their first reaction is to go have a pint. Then that leads to four pints, which leads to staying out until midnight and then onto a club, and before you know it, the next day they’re in a world of pain physically and mentally.
“When I used to not talk about things, I would have a big night and end up in an argument with my wife. That was painful to wake up the next day and go, ‘I think we argued, I don’t know what about but I know there was shouting’.
“So, where did that come from? That doesn’t come from me being a bad person. It probably comes from me being insecure and not being able to talk about my anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, whatever it was, while I was sober. It was just easier to do it while I was drunk and blame someone else.”
A generational movement is brewing
With Mr. Perfect, One Wave Fluro Fridays, Livin’, and many more small, start-up mental health organisations, people are starting to break down the stigma around talking about mental health issues.
Terry says there’s a real need for all these ideas and these contemporary initiatives are the best starting point.
“There are big government groups advocating ‘awareness’, but it’s hard to know what the money is really going to. There are a lot of smaller groups, starting from very low funds who are personally trying to change things. It’s positive but it’s so difficult with no backing and we now need support from those types of authorities and the government.”
How can you help?
Terry says that the most important thing is to have a good support network of friends.
“It’s just about listening and saying, ‘I went through that as well and I’m still here, so you’re doing well just by talking about it’. If you don’t have anyone to bounce these ideas off, it can very quickly go from a very small problem in your head to the biggest problem possible.
“When I’m going though a tough time, I text some of my mates and say, ‘Just letting you know mate, if I don’t get back to you tonight it’s because I’m just having a bit of a cloudy spell’. I’ve completely normalised it and instead of shying away they will text me and say ‘here if you need, give me a buzz now, reach out, I’m here, I’ll drop everything’.”
If I see someone suffering, I’ll just send them a text and say, ‘Mate, I’ve noticed you weren’t yourself tonight. Is everything okay?’ And sometimes that can open a can of worms but at least you’ve started that.