I had a really happy childhood and family life growing up, I had loving parents and siblings, we were always well looked after and cared for. I have four elder sisters, and I am the youngest and was the only boy. It was really when I started school that a lot of my issues in terms of my self esteem and anxiety started.
I can say with happiness and confidence now that I am proudly a square peg. I was always quiet and thoughtful and creative, and happy to lose myself in books, writing, pop music, and being kind and helpful to others; things that made me happy. This was sadly not a view shared or celebrated by those I was at school with. Being constantly bullied by my peers, and not conventionally "fitting in" or "being a lad" (the definition of which I now realise was toxic as anything), and not doing well with certain teachers or subjects like PE, meant for a lot of my school years I very much felt like I was being sledgehammered, as square peg as I was, into a very round hole.
I carried this experience and my bad associations with exposure to certain situations as I left school and went onto university, and then onto the beginnings of my career that I am now blessed to have as a writer. I guess I really started noticing I had trouble with my anxiety during my second year of university. It was 2011 and I had not long turned 21. I had a difficult living situation in the accommodation I was in at the time, and I hid that I was struggling with it for months from my best friends. I was so embarrassed because in my head, this wasn't how uni life is meant to be, I wasn't matching the ideal. It was only when things reached an ultimatum with who I was living with and when it was in danger of affecting my uni work and grades that I turned to my best friends and told them what was happening, and they in turn helped me reach out to the university's Student Support Services, who were so helpful and understanding.
As my memory recalls, I think I was offered counseling at the time by Student Support, but I didn't take it. I reasoned that I was just having a bad time with where I was living, I didn't need that kind of help, I thought. How I wish I could go back and tell 21 year old me to take that counseling I was offered.
But even though I didn't acknowledge it at the time, I was mentally and emotionally scarred by what happened there, compounded on top of my existing issues with anxiety. And I didn't really deal or process the after effects of that. Not until about six years later, in 2017, where I really reached my low point. My career had taken a massive hit, and the marketing job that I had secured after graduation had come to an abrupt and sudden end. I had drained my savings I had accumulated and I was skint. I was looking all around me, and on my social media feeds, watching my friends succeeding in amazing careers, settling down and starting families. I was happy for them, but I also felt I had nothing to show for the five years since I graduated in 2012. I felt inadequate and embarrassed and I couldn't see a reason to live.
I remember I didn't want to leave the house for almost a month. It was at my lowest ebb that I went and saw my GP. He referred me straight away to CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). And it was through getting the help from a counsellor that I should have done some years previously, that I started on my journey to healing. I started to slowly unpick years of negative inner dialogue I had with myself, and started to actively change my thought processes and the way I thought about myself and - more crucially - stopped comparing myself, who I was as a person and as a man, and my achievements and successes to that of others.
After I completed CBT, I was in a much better place. I've had CBT once more since I first had it, back in 2020, and that time I self referred myself through NHS IAPT online, which I'm proud of because that time I had the knowledge of where I could turn to. I now use an app on my phone called Catch It, which helps me to actively use the skills set CBT gave us for those days where it is more of a struggle.
I am now dedicated to speaking up and advocating for mental health, and men's mental health in particular. It was through mutual friends in 2019 that I first saw a video on social media, that had been made by a chap called James Mace, who was just up the road from where I live in Essex. He had had his own experiences with his mental health, and the sad passings by suicide of both Keith Flint from The Prodigy and Love Island's Mike Thalassatis had inspired him to start up a men's walking and mental health support group of his own, to be there as a safe, supportive and inclusive space for men, and to stop them becoming part of the growing statistics around suicide rates in men under the age of 45.
This was the beginning of what is now Walk&Talk4Men. I was on that very first walk event James hosted, and he has become not only a really good friend and brother, but I have been actively involved with the group ever since. I now lead walk events for us twice a month where I live, but I also look after our website, social media channels and email newsletter that goes out once a fortnight. The group now operates walk events not just in Essex but right across the UK, from Birmingham and Brighton, St Neots and Basingstoke to Wigan and Preston. We've taken part in different activities with mental health initiatives with local councils and organisations, and with charities such as Mind and Movember. And just last year, myself, James and nine other walk leaders completed training with MHFA England, and all of us are now qualified in Mental Health First Aid, so we can offer support to someone that might be in crisis with their own mental well-being and get them to a place of safety.
My anxiety and mental health is something I will always be mindful of and have to work at. Some days it's easier than others, but I now know and have the toolkit at my disposal to help me, regardless of whether it's those days when I've got it all together or one of those days where I'm struggling and it really needs work. Meditation using my Calm app and journaling daily form a big part of that, as does utilising my skills and knowledge from CBT. But so too does limiting what time I spend on things like social media, and doing more of the activities that help keep me mentally and physically well, like getting outside for a walk and being in nature, helping others with what I do with W&T4M in the wider community, or following my interests such as reading, photography or going to gigs.
My journey with my own mental health and my anxiety has been shaping. And I say that because I've come to accept that it will always be part of who I am, whether positive or not. Hopefully, by telling my story, I can help someone who is struggling to get the help they need, or to take positive steps towards improving their own mental well-being.
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