Brent Pope: 'For years I felt that I was weak as a man if I showed emotion but now I know that is the way to heal'
As part on our 'Mind Yourself' series, broadcaster Brent Pope writes about his struggles with mental health and how he copes with crippling panic attacks.
On the outside my life always appeared to be fulfilled and successful, I guess to many people it still does. When I was young I was deemed fairly popular, good at sports and well educated. I masked things well, as people with problems often do.
I was the class clown, always making everybody else laugh and the sad thing was that internally I couldn’t make myself laugh. Inside of me I possessed no self-confidence, no self-esteem in the way I looked, in the way I acted, I couldn’t enjoy my achievements, and my feelings of panic and insecurity were often terrifying and always irrational. But that is often the case with mental health difficulties, they are irrational.
When I get panic attacks or become crippled with anxiety it’s like a wave of negative thoughts invade my head and I can’t really explain it. It’s as if they grip me and convince me that my thoughts must be the truth, that they are the only outcome.
Even though over the years I have been taught to bombard them with positive affirmations often it is too late, I am in its midst and I am experiencing a terrifying panic attack again. I feel that all my life has been a failure, even though to everyone else it hasn’t. I will die alone, homeless, unloved and unfulfilled. I sweat profusely, I shake, I can’t breathe, and I feel I am going to die, but it’s all irrational.
Even though I feel that it may never pass it always does, sometimes it can be brief, other times I wonder will it ever leave me alone? But I cope, I find a way through.
I try and picture myself in the ocean with the waves gently lapping up against me, rhythmically calming myself. I ask myself, “What’s the worst that can happen here?” And I work backwards from there.
So, if I lose my job, I will find another one. If I lose my house, I will find another one. I tell myself that this will soon pass, it has before and that my negative thoughts are just that - mere thoughts, not reality.
I was talking to a beautiful young woman in St Patrick's Hospital recently. She had the scars of self-harm, physical evidence of her frail mental health. For years she had been trying to tell her mother that she “did not know why she felt a certain way”, she just did.
Her mother spent years trying to figure out what her daughter was telling her, often becoming angry and frustrated which is completely understandable. One day she just hugged her daughter tight and said: “Darling I don’t get it, but I get you.”
It made me cry. Sometimes just having someone listen is enough, to know that they don’t actually need to try and understand, because how could they? They just need to love you and be there for you.
I have a journal and it may seem silly, but every day I find five things that I am grateful for. Easy, you may say. Not so - on some days I can’t seem to find even one. But each day I do it religiously. In the morning I look at my list from the day before and say to myself “yesterday was not a bad day, today can be even better.”
It’s just my way of healing myself. Change the “in” to change the out. There is a movie called The Bucket List with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, and in one scene they sit atop a pyramid in Egypt contemplating their impending mortality and one asks the other, “You have made a difference in your own life, but have you made a difference in someone else’s?” That resonates with me.
Empathy towards others by acts of selflessness and kindness makes you feel warm inside – even when you’re feeling low, sometimes just being kind to others can show you what you have to give.
Nobody is perfect, we all have our sad irrational days, we all mess up along life’s journey, but somehow we survive, somehow we move forward one small step at a time. I know it’s a cliché but I don’t see my mental problems as a weakness anymore; they can be your strength. For years I was ashamed to know that I was not normal, but who is?
For years I felt that I was weak as a man if I showed emotion or talked about my feelings, now I know that is the way to heal.
After all these years the best advice I can give is be happy in your own skin. We are all unique, wonderful human beings. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone everyday and the things you once found difficult will become easier. Decide to love and appreciate yourself. Change the in and you will change the out.