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Male angst: Wrestling midlife demons and how to deal

CC Claire Coakley

Photography courtesy of Charlie Clift

Matt Rudd is a man on a mission: To evaluate why he and his male, mid-life peers are not exactly hitting it out of the park. Some seem closer to setting up home there, on a bench, letting it all slide. The research shows men are three times more likely than women to become dependent on alcohol and drugs. Men in the UK are three times more likely to take their own life. Matt entitled his book, Man Down.

Matt is a newspaper writer and editor, with his health and home, and a wife and three children; adding up to a life which, from most angles, equals success. But he uncovered his personal angst for the book and writes about male malaise (focusing mostly on the 'happily married with 2.4 children') with a wry eye, warm heart and includes advice from a squad of wellness experts.

Fitness-wise, your solutions included surfing and a PT, but it didn't stick. Why?

I went about it the wrong way. That is to say I went about it exactly the way most middle-aged men go about it. I bought all the fitness gear, all the fitness tech, I mapped my run, I Fitbit-ed my steps, I benchmarked everything. And I had a personal trainer for a few months. He was great but very target-orientated; it was all personal goals and protein. And, for a while, it was all good – when I finished one of those hellish obstacle races, I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier. (Terms and conditions may apply; obviously wedding/birth of children etc much happier.)

The trouble is that it’s unsustainable. You can’t always run faster or further. The app you’re using isn’t always going to tell you you’ve beaten 92 per cent of the people on that route. At some point, you’re going to plateau. When I did I felt miserable. After the runner’s high comes the runner’s deep, dark low.

When I wrote the book, I had rejected fitness as a panacea. It didn’t help that I wrote two chapters with a broken thumb after ‘having a fall’ – so old – on a night run. A few months on I can present a more rounded view. Fitness is great if you don’t give a monkey's about how quickly you’re progressing. If you’re doing exercise for the joy of it rather than for some future target. If you’re not pushing yourself to the point of cardiac arrest.

I have ditched the gym, the trainer and the apps in favour of jogging, hiking, and wandering around the woods at the speed and time that suit me. I spend much more time playing sport with my kids (I’m like Andre Agassi’s dad which creates a whole new set of problems) and much less time on a treadmill. I mean, a treadmill. A real-life metaphor for life in general. Why would anyone ever spend any time on a treadmill? Madness.

Matt Rudd (Charlie Clift Photography)

You went sober for a significant stretch and relaxed the regime in lockdown. How was that?

Oh my God, it was amazing. It went on way past all those lightweight Dry January-ers. I was still teetotal after the urge to tell everyone I was teetotal had gone. I was no longer running out of things to do in the sober evening. I felt happier, genuinely, than I had in a long time. I had time. I had energy. I had focus.

I put Majestic on speed dial

And then, as you say, I ‘relaxed’ the regime. Which is to say, I put Majestic back on speed dial and dealt with the sheer horror of working from home, while home schooling, by hitting the bottle.

I’m not alone. The data suggests problem drinking has spiked with all the other horrible spikes of 2020. I think this is entirely understandable – if you’re stuck at home, life on hold, newsfeed reading like a disaster movie, why wouldn’t you drown your sorrows? And with the prospect of a second lockdown looking increasingly likely, it’s tempting to stockpile a pub’s worth of booze again. I’m not doing that; I need to remind myself how great it is not to drink. It takes a while – longer than you think – for your mood to stabilise and for your sleep to improve (certainly longer than one single January), but it’s definitely worth it. Cheers.

What did you learn from lockdown, which you might add to a sequel of 'Man Down'?

There isn’t going to be a second Man Down. I’ve found it excruciating enough washing my midlife laundry in public the first time. I wrote the book effectively protesting the hamster wheel we all find ourselves on. I argued that the only way to escape the midlife doldrums was to think long and hard about our misguided relationship with status, success and happiness. Why were so many of the men I spoke to for the book miserable when they’d passed all the tests society had set for them? Why was their work-life balance up the spout? Then the pandemic came along and stopped the rat race in one week. Prayers answered. No need for a book. All is well.

Except as I, and many other people have found, the grass wasn’t necessarily greener. It turns out being stuck at home for months on end with our beloved family is also challenging. The financial worries have only become more intense. The what-if catastrophising has not eased in this traumatic year

We can use this year to build a better way of living

What is great, though, is that we have discovered that work can be adaptable. The sky won’t fall in if we work from home more often. It has traditionally fallen on women to ask for flexible working – men still struggle to tell their boss they’d like to be off on Fridays or leave in time for the school run a couple of times a week. This is now no longer the case. 

The old patriarchal system is gone for good (he said optimistically). Even when things go back to whatever form of normal lies in store, I can’t imagine all those stressed-out commuters I interviewed a year ago returning to their old, unhealthy, inefficient and unproductive ways. So the book is pandemic proof – it shows, hopefully, the ways we can use the disruption of the system this year to build a better way of living in the future.

You quote a study: 80 per cent of Bupa respondents would rather endure an illness than consult a doctor…

As I think I say in the book, one reader got in touch to say they’d left a piece I wrote about men being reluctant to seek help out on the coffee table for her husband to read. He had been very stressed but refused to give in to her “nagging” to see a doctor. He read the piece, realised he was behaving like a typical man and booked an appointment. Two weeks later, he had life-saving heart surgery.

Get help: It is, ironically, the more manly option

We know that spotting problems early is the best strategy for a long and happy life. So the advice is simple – stop trying to be heroic and stoic, and get help if you need it. It is, ironically, the more manly option.

You quote a former GP who said there should be 10 psychologists for every GP:

That was such a brilliant observation from Dr Ben Sinclair. All those mental health services are chronically underfunded. As a society, we prefer to wait for something to manifest itself as a physical illness before we deal with it which is ridiculous. Having said that, I’m very guilty of the whole, 'I’m fine, I just need to keep going' attitude. Even now, after two years’ researching this book, I don’t like to address whether I ever needed therapy.

Mariella Frostrup asked me directly on live radio if I thought, at the height of my midlife doldrums, that I’d had depression. It’s very hard not to answer Mariella but I just fudged my response. Because the truth is, I didn’t know and I didn’t want to find out. 

For me, the process of talking to so many other people in the same boat has made me feel much happier (how selfish – as long as I’m not the only one struggling, I feel okay). I have swerved seeking professional help by writing a book. It would have been much easier to do that differently but I understand the stigma. Having a therapist means accepting that you’re fallible and so much of the way we still raise boys is based on the old male attributes – strength, stoicism, the whole Rudyard Kipling. We won’t change that until we change the way we raise boys.

Should we rebrand certain solutions for men, including therapy?

I’ve been accused in my first two-star review on Amazon (much of which I agree with by the way) of not going far enough… of confining myself to a very narrow, “blokey” set of solutions. But there is no point suddenly expecting all men to go the full Eckhart Tolle when we’ve had a lifetime of buttoning-up our emotions. Just getting men to talk is a huge step. I’ve found that first step very difficult. I’m still embarrassed that I’m making such a fuss. 

But I’ve already had so many emails and letters from similarly buttoned-up men sharing, for the first time, their own stories. I don’t think we need to rebrand because, in my experience, once we start opening up, we are perfectly capable of moving to the stages that come after that.

You mention shame and self-pity among the catalysts for male angst. What else makes a feeling-low list? 

Definitely those two but the big one is a more generic ability to spin a narrative that is total rubbish. Imagining, constantly, what bad things might happen is a real man skill. I’ve learnt (or I’m learning) to stop sweating the big stuff, to stop worrying (as much) about whichever version of my future is the bleakest. It took a while to separate my catastrophic story from my not-that-bad reality. I honestly thought the whole world would come crashing down. But once I did, it was surprising how much better I felt.

My absolute hero in all things healthy is Jim Carrey

Which men can inspire a 'Man Down'?

There were a lot of men who helped shape the book, who gave their time and their honesty, who opened up, which I found immensely admirable. But my absolute hero in all things healthy is Jim Carrey. If you haven’t watched Jim & Andy, the film about the making of another film, please do so immediately and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a man who realised success didn’t equal happiness.

Chris Evans is also much further down this road than I am. He got rid of his phone a couple of years ago, and a lot of people said: “It’s easy for him… he doesn’t have a boss who might fire him if he stops answering emails.” I put that to him but he pointed out that he still had a wife, colleagues and family who found it very challenging when he went Awol. It took everyone time to adjust but he says it was the best decision he ever made. Quite tempting, no?

Which anecdotes made your heart lift?

The happiest man I met in two years of research was a bloke who was just getting started in the rat race. He was setting up a burglar alarm-installation business on the south coast. Every day, he’d have his (invariably old) customers telling him they wished they were his age again… they’d do everything differently. They’d follow their dreams. This got to him. 

So he finished with his girlfriend, sold his house and moved to a caravan by Loch Ness. He’s been there 30 years and other interviewers have dismissed him as a weirdo hermit. But the way he described the feeling he still gets from the moonlight coming off the loch, at three in the morning, was mind-blowing. 

He is living in the moment every moment. I found that very inspiring. We can’t all go and live in a caravan next to Loch Ness but we can find those moments much more.

Man Down: Why Men are Unhappy and What We Can Do About It by Matt Rudd is published by Piatkus in Trade Paperback, £14.99. Available from Amazon.

The views expressed on these pages are the views of the cited experts only and do not necessarily represent the views of Wellness Edit. Please always get a second opinion where specific medical advice is required.

All Content © Copyright Wellness Edit 2020. All rights reserved

Male angst: Wrestling midlife demons and how to deal

CC Claire Coakley

Photography courtesy of Charlie Clift

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