Exercise the brain.

brain

Want the ultimate six-pack?  Big defined guns to impress the ladies? The Adonis beach bod? Well, you’re wasting your time reading this then, I haven’t a clue and I’m not some pop-up in your news feed which will tell you the top-five ways to get ripped. I am here though to chat about how important exercise is to your health, both physical and mental health that is.

I’ve always loved sport, it was something I was reasonably good at. Not a stand-out but certainly competitive. After I left school, I use to fit in a few games of hockey (the grass kind, not the psychotic ice kind) post hangover with a few mates but it was never serious and my beer belly happily grew throughout my twenties. It was not until I moved to Brighton, on the south coast of England, that I started to be a gym regular. My main motivation for hitting the cardio and weights then was that I weighed almost 95 kilos and 20 smokes a day made me sound like a wheezing bagpipe.

10 years on, I find myself in Sydney. I’ve ditched the gym (boring) and I now attend a TRX class 4 to 5 times a week at crack of fart in the AM. I really enjoy it. It’s 45 minutes of pain and it is bloomin early in the morning but by the time I get home, I’m awake, pumped and raring to go – much to the annoyance of sleepy eyed children and my doona loving misses. Oh and I now only weigh 80 kilos and I’ve dropped the ciggies so my lungs almost function as normal.

So, I’m probably the fittest I’ve been since 1982 and that’s a good thing. No one can argue that exercise isn’t good for you, especially as you get older. It keeps the joints functioning and the heart pumping. I do, of course, have a myriad of niggles and complaints but that does not stop me from putting on ye olde active wear of a morning.

But the real benefit is in my head. I certainly find that if I don’t exercise regularly, I can be stressed and irritable. I can also be lethargic and rather gloomy in my outlook. That short hard burst in the morning really gets my juices flowing and my energy levels up. The trusty endorphins kick in and I find clarity of thought and purpose for my day. If you think I’m talking horsedoodoo, then have a quick squiz on Google and you will see that there are pages and pages devoted to the benefits of sweaty fun for your aching brain.

Exercise-Cause-Happy

I doubt very much that I’ll ever have that six-pack or the huge guns all those dudes on the beach have, but I can keep up with my sporty kids, I can walk long distances and I’m sure I could dance the night away (if my moves weren’t so much like an embarrassing dad). It can certainly be hard to drag yourself out of your warm duvet pit of a cold wintry morning but I can assure you that if you make the effort and stick with it, not only will your body thank you but your mind will bless you. Now, give me ten and no slacking.

 

Mateship ˈmeɪtʃɪp/ noun Australian/NZinformal noun: mateship 1. companionship or friendship, especially between men.

mateship

A couple of weeks back, I was watching one of my sons play soccer (that’s about a third of my life). It was a gorgeous autumnal morning, one which Sydney is very good at providing. As we went 4 nil down (the oppo were very good) my phone rang. Well actually my portable smart device shrilled that a face time call was in the offing. I moved away from the glaring parents to seek a quiet corner of this foreign field.

It was my bestie calling. Nothing strange in that, except he is in the UK and I was at the time in the shadow of Belmore football ground, Canterbury. The first things which sprung to mind were: isn’t technology amazing, I’m about to have a face to face chat with someone who is currently sitting in a cottage buried in the Sussex countryside of the UK and I bet he’s pissed – my reasoning was that it was going to be about midnight there on a Saturday night.

Of course, I was right. It was my best mate Ollie and my other best mate, Bert, who is also my big-middle brother. They’d had a few beers but had a solid reason – England had won the six nations Rugby tournament with a grand slam. There’s nothing to swell an Englishmen’s national pride more than beating the Scots, Irish, Welsh and French in a very aggressive sport. The only exception would be beating Australia at anything, and I mean anything (one for the wife there).

Sorry, I digress. We had a lovely sober/pissed conversation for about 15 minutes and then signed off – me, to try and console my son (the oppo were very good, did I mention that already) and them, to bed and a winter’s hangover. During the conversation, Ols demanded/requested (depending on how you recall the conversation) that I mention him in my next blog – a promise I have now kept (you can thank me later mate). The conversation also got me thinking about mates and their importance, particularly to men.

I always remember, when the misses and I lived in the UK, she would only speak to her best and dearest friend (who lives in the state of Victoria, Australia) 2 maybe 3 times a year. I was shocked. I used to lambast her for being such a friend slacker. Her counter argument, and I think women have understood this for a long-time, is that they don’t need the validation of a daily/weekly phone call to maintain the friend relationship. Their friendship is so strong and secure that the busy lives they lead means that when they do find the time to breathe and have a good yarn are cherished and fulfilling moments. They are not just idle chit-chat and mundanity. I now understand this. Technology has afforded me/us the means to stay in-touch but not in each other’s pockets. I really enjoy those chats – they are one on one, face to face. It is productive and intimate.

So while I maintain contact with my friends in the UK (love you guys), that doesn’t fulfil the other requirement of friendship that men need – guy time. There is plenty of research done by charities like CALM and Movember, which shows that men, particularly married family man, struggle to maintain old friendships and make new ones which can lead to loneliness and sadly, all too often, Suicide. There are several reasons for this: work and family being the obvious blockers, but also just losing the skill to start that conversation and reach out. My head doctor, always emphasises the importance of having friends and a life outside of work and family.

Being a natural introvert (I knew I was a natural at something), I can’t abide small talk and banal chit-chat, so this can be a problem. It stops me from making instant friends (a skill my beloved seems remarkably good at), I need time. Luckily, and I thank my kids for this, through pre-school socials and the sporting field I have cultivated a group of mates who have similar interests, same puerile banter and  living circumstances. Its taken time and I wouldn’t say that I have the same relationship I enjoy with Ols and Bert (yet), but I know I could call them up for a beer, opera and if need be, reach out. It has taken me sometime to realise the importance of having bloke mates. I thought my lifelong pals back in the UK would be enough. It isn’t. Everyone needs social interaction, everyone needs to move away from the couch and the family. Sometimes it’s a struggle, the can’t be arsed factor, but it’s an effort worth making. Australian men of yester year realised its importance, otherwise they wouldn’t have murdered the English language to give us the delightful noun – mateship.

Mutton dressed as man.

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Now that I’m the wrong side of forty and I can see fifty looming on the horizon, it has got me pondering about appropriate dress sense and music tastes. Does my fashion sense and music choices need to be what is deemed appropriate for my age? Or can I say up yours and wear and listen to whatever I like.

The catalyst for this thinking was the recent commencing of Year 7 for my eldest son. He has just started senior school and I soon noticed when attending his cricket matches that all the men were wearing a uniform I was not party too. The uniform includes: Polo shirts, either stripy golf style or Ralph Lauren, Knee length shorts, combat or golf cut, Shoes, sandals (sometimes with socks) or leather deck shoes, Hat, wide brimmed or a baseball cap advertising and accountancy firm. I own none of these items. My summer wardrobe consists of a multitude of eclectic t-shirts, Short surf shorts or above the knee casual ones, Thongs (flip-flops for international readers) or sneakers. On my head is a range of trucker hats and Ray-ban wayfarers (matt black). I have to say, I felt kind of awkward. I was looking around thinking “I better pop down to Country Road or Galloways Golf store and have a makeover”. I felt the need to assimilate, too fit in.

This need lasted until my son was clean bowled and the game finished (yay). As soon as I was back in the car, I dialled in a bit of banging Rudimental, took off my truckers cap and thought ‘fuck that’. I’m not Zoolander, I don’t run around in high fashion (can’t afford it), I’m just a t-shirt and shorts sort of guy, they just happen to be slightly contemporary versions thereof. I don’t want to dress like my kids (they dress like me) and I don’t look like a hipster from Surry hills, but I do like nicely designed or creative things. I have over a dozen watches. Why? Because they look good. I have a decent range of sneakers. Why? Because they look good. I have over thirty t-shirts. Why? Ah you get my drift. I am comfortable in my clothing tastes. I can’t compromise myself and get into the whole golf thing or the winter version, which is rugby tops and comfy slacks, just to feel part of a gang I would never feel happy belonging too in the first place.

dancing dad

The same can be said for my musical mores. I was raised in London across the decades of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. I have 2 music mad elder brothers and thanks to them I was exposed to everything from punk, to new romantic, to hard-core dance music and the whole Madchester thing. As a teen and young adult I was obsessed by music. I’d buy the New Musical Express religiously and scour record shops for rare 12 inch (vinyl) white labels, looking for the newest and best thing. I’m not such a music nut now but I still have a good stock of the old stuff on my iPhone and  I Shazam the shit out of Double J (radio station) looking for new and interesting stuff.

I couldn’t tell you anything about the latest pop music and I don’t just want to listen to stuff from my yoof, which seems to be how most men of my age roll. I’m always astounded when I meet other blokes who have decided to just stop seeking something new and refreshing and scuttle back to their favourite bands of the 90’s as if this was the only decent music made. I love finding new stuff and now that my eldest son is showing an interest in contemporary music we argue over the playlist in the car to our hearts content. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be that cool dad who’s actually a daggy dad, trying to go to gigs and clubs with his kids. God forbid, that is a step too far and they’d just embarrass me with their outlandish dance moves.

It seems that somewhere along the line, middle-aged men have a sliding door moment and they follow one path or another. Coincidentally, it’s normally around the time they have children. They think the emergence of a child signals that the AC/DC t-shirt needs to be packed away, the earing pulled out and that golfing polo shirts really are comfy and appropriate. That the Belgian hard-core house cd which livened up many a party is now terrible and you much prefer those lovely One-direction boys. I can’t, I won’t do it. If I want to sport a t-shirt with an outline of a crow on it, I will. If I want to sing along to Alt-J (they’re a band grandad) I will. If I’m still comfortable at 50 with this approach, I will and if I’m still alive at 60, I will. Put’s trucker hat on, tightens sneakers and storms off in a middle-aged grump. So there.

Being Dad.

 

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Something I’ve not really touched on too much before is my experience of being a stay-at-home dad, house-spouse or as I recently read somewhere, and very much my favourite, ‘Domestic Engineer’. This job is a generational phenomenon, one which our parents and grandparents would have not understood or approved of as little as 25 years ago.

I can’t say it was a burning ambition when I was growing up, I think it chronologically went more along these lines: spaceman (6), fireman (8), policeman (10), spy (12), football player (14), rock star (16), and then millionaire (18). So, I was a bit out of my depth and shocked when in April 2004 I found myself being, to use the technical term, the primary carer. The reason for my successful application for this job was: I had provided the sperm, I had no career to speak of, my wife had quite a serious career to speak of and I had nothing better to do with my time.

And with that, the adventure began. I took the job very seriously. At that time in place I was very much in the minority and I didn’t want to give anyone ammunition that Dad’s weren’t up to the job.  We lived in a progressive seaside city on the south coast of England but that didn’t stop the mother coven from looking at me with suspicion and perhaps, a little bit of hate. Here was this guy, encroaching into a world very much carved out by Mums for mums. Now I’m a bit of an introvert (that’s a bloody understatement my wife screams in my head), so making small talk and sidling my way into mother’s groups was never going to be easy. Still, a mantra I kept repeating to myself then (as I do now), was ‘it’s not about you, it’s about your son(s)’ and with that I would load us up with all the baby essentials required for the day ( a shit load as it turns out) and head off to gymberoo, swimming and sing and sign classes. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all unpleasant, my son and I did some serious bonding, travelled to every building site in the city to look at diggers (we had a big Bob the Builder thing going then) and I met some really nice people, but I still felt very much the outsider, wheedling my way into a secret society. Also, I didn’t do a lot for my self-esteem and that created problems with life-style choices and mental-health.

Coming to Australia, was very much a re-start, a re-fresh, a new beginning. I instantly felt that my role in life was more accepted. Now, whether this is because of the more relaxed approach to life we enjoy here or that people just judged you on who you are not what you do. I can’t honestly say. The other option, it could have also been that by now, after doing the job for a few years and with another son on the way that I really didn’t give a shit anymore what people thought. This was what I did: cared for my boys and supported my wife with her own endeavours. I had a purpose, I could be proud of the work I was doing. I do definitely think that having two sporty boys helped. I’ve got no idea how girls work. Being around after school to take the lads to assorted sporting practices, getting involved in the clubs and trying not to shout too much on the sideline at weekend fixtures was and is one of my great pleasures.

When I look around the school playground now, I can see at least four other chaps doing the house-spouse thing. It’s not a lot when you crunch the numbers, but it’s a start. The same can be said when I go to the boy’s matches. The amount of beers I could have bought if I tallied up how many working men have said to me that they are either jealous, wish they could go part-time or even go the whole hog and be a full-time dad, would have afforded me my own pub. Come on Dads, man-up, they don’t bite you know – well my don’t anyway.

Of course, it’s not easy. It can be boring and very very tiring. Being a not very patient person, I can reach for the last resort sometimes instead of thinking about why they are doing that and what’s the best way to deal with the situation. Shouting never helps (but can feel bloody good). This is all outweighed by laughing at farts – yes, they are funny, enjoying their successes, burping the alphabet and watching as your child develops into the person you hope they may become. It also helps if you have a righteous mother in your corner to sort out all the crap you’ve created.

I have now held this position for 12 years (yet to be promoted) and for all its frustrations, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My wife and I enjoy a work/life balance which is the envy of many. We are a happy and close family who have been through a lot but have always had each other to get us through. My kids fill me with pride and I can’t wait to see what surprises the little shits have got in store over the forthcoming years.

I wish I’d done that earlier…

Thank You! keyboard key. Finger

Well, it’s been quite the week. One of the fears of writing personal pieces is that sensation of everyone knowing your business. However, this was vastly outweighed by the need to unburden myself and to help others (particularly men) in finding ways to deal with mental health issues. I am slightly annoyed with myself though. I had been umming and ahhing about whether to put this stuff out there. The catalyst was my amazing wife, who cheekily shared my Mr Perfect post on Facebook. My initial emotions of fear and annoyance were quickly switched to the thought – ‘I wish I’d done that earlier’.

Pleasingly, throughout the last week, I have received an avalanche of support from all over the joint. Perhaps, more importantly, I have had several men reach out to me to share their own personal battles. Result!! If a few words from myself can help and support a friend or even a friend of a friend then we are making progress. When I look at my children, one big hope is that by the time they reach adulthood, society will see mental health as just any other medical issue. I know it’s possible. Within my own generation divorce, abortion and equality rights for the LGBT community are now accepted parts of society (we just need the Australian Government to finish the job and give the LGBT community the right to marry).

I don’t plan to become a specialist writer on men’s mental health. Of course, it is a subject close to my heart, but there are lots of other things I am interested in and cross about. I will try and be a bit more prolific, a bit more light-hearted (where possible) and even more cantankerous.

Thanks again for all your support and kind words.

PS: Any men out there looking to make that first step, Mr Perfect has a great list of resources, whatever your poison.

Acceptance

ACCEPTANCE

 

In preparation for going legit and writing on my next passport application ‘freelance writer’ (yes, it’s happening), I visited my much forgotten blog – SPOUT. It had expired, a few days ago to be precise and with that expiration was the realisation of what 2015 had been for me and my long suffering family.

Once I paid my hosting fee to WordPress and took a look at my last entry, “Merry bloody Christmas’ December 2014, I read, not the end of a difficult time but the beginning of troubles which were to plague me for the last 14 months or so.

I thought in my naivety, that being diagnosed with a chronic blood cancer and then being lucky enough to have a pill which would help me stay alive would be enough. It wasn’t. All the anxiety and depression which had resulted from watching my mother die from ravaging bowel cancer was now compounded by the fact that I had a life threatening disease with a range of juicy complications. There is that horrible feeling of being cheated, of thinking ‘why me?’ Your anger simmers, your mood deflates and becomes withdrawn. You lash out at those you love, you become a hypochondriac (think a stockier, ginger version of Woody Allen and you’ll get somewhere near), you drink vats of red wine because you think you are a connoisseur but actually it’s to help you sleep and to stop you brain tick, tick, ticking. Life becomes an endless round of Doctors waiting rooms and health scares. Blood test, eye tests, heart tests and x-rays become the usual and throughout you try to keep it together, put your happy face on and go about your daily business.

Eventually you realise that something is not right and your reach out to get some mental me time. So that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s another Doctors waiting room, another payment to Medicare but in this more enlightened age of mental health, I wasn’t not going to do what I needed to do for my sake and my families. So every few weeks I go and see Dr.G and his penetrating eyes. I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant experience at first – I had a lot to get off my chest, but over the months as you take on board the counsel, talk things out and start to find some perspective, you get to a point of acceptance.

Acceptance how? :

1) Defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories 2) Acceptance: making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle 3) Contact with the present moment: engaging fully with your here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity

(Courtesy of ACT mindfully)

OK, honestly?, I’m still working on this, but I do find when those little fucking voices in your head start jabbering that just saying the mantra ‘acceptance’ is enough to keep the sods at bay for a time.

You may think that last year was a lost one, but that is not a true reflection. My boys continued to blossom and my wife continued to annoy, no sorry I meant, amaze me. We moved in to a beautiful new home and my undergrad study continued with success. We travelled to some wondrous places and enjoyed great times with friends and family. There was and is a tremendous amount to be grateful for and that for someone looking into our life, all they can see is a man with first world problems, but mental health isn’t that selective. Dark moments are very dark, your inward thoughts are hidden by your outward façade. It can be crippling and it certainly crippled my drive to bang on in this blog.

But now I’m back, feeling mentally better than I have in a long, long time. I’m not waiting to finish my degree (we’ll get there when we get there kids), I want to get back out into the adult world, earn a crust from writing and to start to enjoying life again, try to remember what happiness tastes like and forget what anger feels like. It’s not going to be easy, life just doesn’t work that way but I feel life will become an adventure again and not a chore.

Love.

B

PS: If you know of anyone who wants some freelance writing work done, just send them my way. Ta. B

Merry ‘bloody’ Christmas!

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On December 10th, I went for my regulation 2 year eye check-up. All was going swimmingly, until the optician took some pictures of my eye. Red spots. Clots to be exact. “I think you may have diabetes” she seriously informed me and gave me a couple of referrals for an Ophthalmologist and my GP.

The next day, off I went to the Ophthalmologist. More rigorous tests. Yup, looks like diabetes. Get to your GP asap. So on December 16th I went to see my super GP – Dr Tim. By now I was pretty anxious and just totally unloaded on him. “Had you had any symptoms of feeling unwell?” he asked “You’ve lost an awful lot of weight since I last saw you”. I gave it some thought. Sure, I hadn’t been feeling great. I had been very stressed during my Mum’s death here in Australia earlier in the year and the subsequent aftermath. I was anxious, depressed and rather moody. I had lost a lot of weight but thought that was a mix of stress and a more rigorous diet and fitness regime. He told me to go and get a blood test, but it certainly looked like our old friend diabetes.

The following day I gave the blood samples and waited anxiously for Friday and the results.

8am, December 18th. Dr Tim calls me at home. The tests had come back. “I need you to come to the surgery asap” he told me. It was the first day of school holidays and the boys and I had plans. Luckily my wife had not yet left work for the day. She rapidly arranged some child care and we flew off to see the Doctor.

We sat in Dr Tim’s rooms and we had a good news/bad news moment. “Your white blood cell count is through the roof…you’ll need to go to hospital asap”. “The tests indicate that you have leukaemia”. World caves in. But, he positively tells me “Its the best type you can get”. Ooh well that’s at least something – A good cancer apparently. Who knew.

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Off to the Royal Prince Alfred we went and into the health care system. I spent the next three days either strapped to an amazing machine that filtered my blood of the white blood cells, being off my head while they did a bone biopsy of my hip or having constant blood letting. The rest of the time I watched the cricket on the crappy TV above my bed. Oh and my spleen, which I’d never given any thought to and normally hides like a small plum under my left rib-cage was going into hyper-drive. It was now the size of a grapefruit. That lump I’d felt on my stomach and which I thought could of been the beginnings of a six-pack was actually fit to burst.

Eventually, they confirmed that I had Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) and it is the best one you can get. Who knew. If I’d contracted this disease 10 years ago, there was a very good chance it would turn into the acute, nasty version and I could hope to live for another 2-5 years but thanks to the wonders of genetics they had developed a drug, well 3 actually, which while it could not cure the disease, it could keep it in check and allow me to lead a normal and healthy life. There are caveats to that: sometimes it doesn’t work and occasionally there are a few nasty side affects but my options are few and I’ve now joined the chronically ill pill-popping generation.

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I’m home now and looking forward to Christmas and trying to come to terms with the events of the last few days. There will be lots of lessons to learn from this but my gift to all Men reading this and the lesson I have learnt is that if something doesn’t feel right or you are slightly worried about your health go and see your GP. That’s what they are there for. I’ve had plenty of time to ponder over the last few days and all the signals were there, but I took the usual bloke attitude that if I just left/ignored it then it would just go away. Plus, I was really happy with my new slim-line figure. It turns out, you can’t ignore it. I will now be going to the hospital on a regular basis for the rest of my life and my GP will soon be sick of the sight of me. But that’s OK, I have two boys who are my world and an amazing wife I want to grow old and happy with. If that means a bit of prodding and poking by amazing medical people now and again then I’ll do it. I’m not quite ready to die yet. Merry ‘bloody’ Christmas.

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