I have struggled with my mental health since I was a teenager. My demons have often consumed me and, by extension, my loved ones. I made this worse for myself by not talking about my feelings while they were manageable and, worst of all, not being proactive in addressing my mental health problems.
Now I’m seriously working on it, in a variety of ways, and I’ve also finally done something I’ve never done before, I read a book about mental health. I’ve had many recommended and gifted to me over the years. I’ve still got books I downloaded on my Kindle that I either never read or stopped reading after a few chapters. I just could not get into them. They either didn’t speak to me or they felt like hard work. From thick tomes of psychological theory to patronising and unrealistic self-help guides, books on mental health can often feel totally inaccessible.
“Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks” by Sam Delaney is designed to be accessible and relatable. The language of mental health and therapy cannot be one size fits all, we need different types of voices out there and different ways of thinking, especially for this book’s main target audience, men who have struggled to accept they need help and find much of the traditional language of mental health impenetrable and off-putting.
Sam Delaney is a self-professed “Jack the lad” from a working-class family of four boys. He was outwardly confident and went onto become a successful journalist, building his career in the lads mags that had their heyday in the nineties and early noughties. In his thirties, all the stresses of his life combined with his toxic coping mechanisms finally took him to the brink, where he stopped, stepped away, and began to deal with his addiction issues and sort his head out.
This book tells that story in a relatable way with a lot of humour, sincerity and common sense that can’t be said enough. Beginning with his childhood, which the author recalls as happy and full of love, but which was nevertheless littered with traumas both large and small, moments of shame and embarrassment, that contained the roots of future anxieties, insecurities, and persistent sadness. This can be flippantly hurtful comments from family, feelings of abandonment or being told by a girl “I won’t kiss you, you’re too fat” in front of mates.
His parents divorced when he was young, enough to cast a dark cloud over any child, leaving a young Sam desperate for fatherly approval, and vying for his mother’s attention that was divided between four sons and the work she had to do to feed and clothe them.
The author is at pains to point out that he is aware that people have had worse childhoods, but therein lies a key message, the importance of recognising our own pain and trauma and not minimising it just because other people have been through worse. He points out that he wasn’t the victim of abuse, but you know what? I was, and I felt myself feeling a great deal of empathy for the little boy who was often “lonely and bored”, teased and bullied by older siblings (note that this book is dedicated to them, but brothers will be brothers) and put in situations that left him feeling isolated and scared.
It is important to check our privilege. I had a traumatic childhood but there are also many ways in which I count myself lucky and realise things could have been worse, but it can be counterproductive to downplay our own pain and avoid facing up to it. The author recognised this in himself, realising that “comparing and contrasting my pain to that of other, less fortunate, people was a technique I used to try and snap myself out of glumness”. This doesn’t work. It just makes things worse.
The book moves onto the author’s working life, one which was fast-paced and often went hand in hand with drink and drugs, and a lot of people will identify with the appalling work/life balance, the pressures of work and managing finances alongside all of the challenges of personal life that come up. Then of course comes parenthood to magnify everything, the pleasures, the stresses and the pain.
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Fatherhood, so says the author, was the best thing that ever happened to him but also one of the “toughest challenges of my life”. Amen to that. Not to take anything away from mothers, as the author repeatedly states, motherhood is even harder, but fatherhood has its own challenges and they are not insignificant. There are many men out there struggling to cope.
My own mental health problems raged harder than ever after becoming a dad, despite loving it. It disturbed repressed traumas from my own childhood, brought with it enormous pressure and made life harder to manage. It can bring with it guilt, shame, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and exhaustion. A sense of drowning in life. Many people, such as myself, and the author, will eventually turn to unhealthy and destructive coping mechanisms. This leads to some excellent passages about his own descent into addiction and the wisdom of his experience in making a successful recovery.
There are some key messages pressed home throughout the book, but not in a preachy way. It’s more in the manner of a mate who’s looking out for you and trying to give the reader the benefit of their experience. The book is like one big arm around your shoulder.
The simple importance of talking about our feelings, sharing and recognising our pain, not self-pitying, but not bottling it up or downplaying it is central here. Sam talks about feeling embarrassed about his mental health, “deeply ashamed of feeling sad”, a feeling many of his readers will surely recognise.
We may have come a long way in how we think about mental health in our culture, but this is still an essential message, especially for men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in this country, so it cannot be said enough that we need to talk about our feelings and share when we feel down.
The tone of Delaney’s writing will be familiar to any fan of his excellent (and my favourite) podcast, “Top Flight Time Machine” (referenced in the book in the chapter “How a Podcast Saved My Life”) which is permeated by his personal experiences and reflections on mental health and showcases his knack for storytelling and funny anecdotes, strengths he brings to this book.
Throughout this very readable book, I found myself laughing a lot, and also feeling a little emotional as passages led to me reflecting on my own life, and often feeling empathy for the author and the challenges he went through. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll get to reading a second book on mental health but for my first one, I have to say, this was cracking.
Sam Delaney’s Sort Your Head Out (£18.99; Little, Brown) is out now.
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