Why don’t men talk? #3 Sam Johnstone

I met Sam when I worked in a gym in South London back in 2004/5. He is such an easygoing guy, we hit it off talking about mountain biking and our shared enjoyment of getting out of London to ride cross country! We've stayed in touch since I have moved to Australia and I've gradually heard his story over the years without knowing all the details. He began his journey with counselling before me, so I have been interested to hear his progress and spurred to seek help for myself. I look forward to speaking to him more in the coming year as this project unfolds.

Over to Sam...

It’s funny really when I think about this question. For years I just thought it was just me that didn’t open up about his feelings or seek help during times I was struggling. But as I have grown older I’ve worked on my own issues and become much more self aware. As a result I now see that a lot of my male friends only talk about issues in their lives when they are drinking or have taken drugs. I could safely say I only have three male friends who are at a level where they can talk openly and really describe what they are feeling.

This answer is going to be based upon my own experience and perception of life, so I guess in a way I am answering you Tom through a lens. I’d need to speak to many more men to come to the truth of the matter, but I will try based on what I’ve found so far in life.

I’d have to say the main cause is our upbringing. There are certainly many, many reasons, but I feel this is the most impactful. It can either have the power to overcome all the others, or position a person under the weight of them, in a place they never truly emerge from.

I say this because my childhood upbringing taught me so much about how to act in the world that it took me years to override. At first I thought there was something wrong with me, because I’d been brought up by fairly decent parents, who hadn’t abused me physically. It really wasn’t until years later in going through counselling for alcohol addiction and then psychotherapy that I saw the micro aggressions and poor role modelling that had contributed to my perception of the world. Obviously this is not to say that my parents were the sole reason I didn’t talk, but their example was a stark one when compared with many of my peers. It wasn’t really until I talked to others that I found out that my “normal” was not what it appeared to be.

My parents used shame and negative reinforcement as tools to teach me that obedience and hard work were the path to success. They firmly positioned that failures in my life were entirely mine, but that I could if I tried hard enough overcome them. Where other parents supported and encouraged their children after receiving poor sporting or education gradings, mine would say that I didn’t study hard enough or give enough effort. In areas I had no special talent or interest in they would be particularly scolding. They had worked hard as children, under strict parents and as a result they had reached a level of success as adults as results. Success that provided for me. My mother and father would rarely use positive encouragement to say that I could do something unless it was around other parents. Success was seen as something that was worked hard for and shouldn’t be celebrated until the job was done. I understand now that this way of parenting was most likely due to their own upbringing. The result of this was that I would try and hide my perceived failings, no matter how small or insignificant they would be. I shied away from talking to them about the small things out of fear of shame and disappointment.

In the long run this meant that when I did have more serious issues to talk about I would seek out my aunt, who was an enigma in her family, being an artist and not a doctor, solicitor or banker. She was an amazing person who I felt I could talk to about anything, without fear of shame. Unfortunately she moved to another country when I was 15, this being the pre-smartphone era made it very difficult to call her without my parents knowing. When she left I went backwards in talking about my issues and started drinking with friends as a fun way to distract from home and the pressures of school and future exams. As I progressed through the end of my schooling and into university alcohol and drugs became the easiest tool for me to offload my baggage. The beauty of it was that whenever my friends and I had an outpouring of emotion it would be forgotten the next day with mindless hangovers! Ultimately the alcoholism became an ineffectual tool that I used until a bad car accident three years ago. I realised that something needed to change and so began my journey into rehab, counselling and then psychotherapy.

I’m sorry if this was a bit short. I’m sure you have other questions, but when you asked me about this I was taken back many years to being a teenager. I just thought “if I had heard from someone then they were struggling too, then perhaps I’d have some strength to help me open up and share a little.” I’d love to talk more about this when the time is right. As you well know psychotherapy and counselling are a long process that has to unpack a great deal. It can take a fucking long time to undo the shit we’ve learnt!

All the best mate,