This week Louis Dunn shares some of his own mental health struggles as he came to terms with being a father. Louis now runs a charity, Dads in Mind which focuses on supporting Dad’s as they adjust to a life of fatherhood.
The birth of a baby can be an amazing peak emotional experience, and often it is, but increasingly in the UK men are beginning to open up about how the experience of watching their child being born has effected them, both emotionally and physically, not just in the early days of fatherhood, but for long weeks, months and sometime years after.
My Strange Brain
From a young age, I had a fear. I feared the sun. Someone said that if you look at the sun for to long you will go blind. So every time I looked at the sun I worried for days about losing my sight. I had a fear that I was going to be kidnapped. I obsessed that there was a kidnapper in my cupboard. I checked and I checked and asked for reassurance from my mum. Is this strange to you? Or does it sound familiar? I guess I always thought my brain was strange. As I got older I tried to deny it. "I don't have a strange brain" "I don't worry".
I had many days off sick! Now I look back I think they were mental health days. Days when I just didn't feel I was present. Caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts, like being caught in a spider's web of emotions unable to pull myself free. Pretty troubled some would say?
I didn't like to admit something was wrong. Was I ashamed? I am not so sure. Just not ready to face it. It was easier to ﬁght it. Push it away. Hide behind doors and drink in bars. I now realise looking back all of this was caused by, what I know call, a strange brain, but as I share my story with other men, I am increasingly realising that lots of other men seem to have strange brains too. I am not alone, getting to know other men with similar fears about life, love and fatherhood has caused me to breath a sigh of relief.
The birth of my son acted like a catalyst exploding inside in me, resulting in a passionate desire to seek out help... the birth of my son was the beginning of a process that has transformed my life, resulting in, amongmany positive changes, the forming of a Bristol based service called Dads In Mind.
When my son was born I felt it was time to learn to take control of my mental well being. It was time to give up denying that I had a problem. As I gazed at his tiny vulnerable body I knew I had to take action. I wanted to love him , I wanted to be a good dad, I wanted to provide. I put a lot of pressure on my self to be the perfect dad.
Thoughts would crowd my brain. I thought I was dangerous. I feared I could hurt my son. The guilt of these thoughts made me want to run away. In fact I did run away for a while. Until I got help I didn't know for certain what was wrong with me.
The process of taking control led to me being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People don't really understand OCD and that doesn't always make it easy to be understood. Often people think it is all about order, tidiness and incessant hand washing.
In fact in my case it's not, it's a crippling condition which left me feeling stranded inside my own thinking (obsessions) and stuck in habits (compulsions) that I had spent years forming, these habits acted like a life jacket keeping me aﬂoat in the raging sea of my many anxieties.
I am now feeling lucky to be working with other dads who are struggling with their own mental wellbeing issues following the birth of their baby. The work extends to fathers everywhere who are looking for support as they take on one of the biggest challenges life offers us, being a dad.
It was really useful for me to be diagnosed with OCD as it helped me begin to control my condition and take the right medication and get the right therapies I needed.
I personally found that mindfulness really helped me. My early exposure to the practice came through reading Jon Kabit Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, the book guided me as I started to bring mindfulness into my daily life. Meditating for at least twenty minutes a day, didn't come easy at ﬁrst, but the rewards that I started to notice in my mind and body kept me at it.
What I learned through that book I still practice daily now some years on. Mindfulness has become a way of life and as a result my thoughts seem to have slowed down, giving me the space to really enjoy my life from day to day.
Every man is unique and I know that my experience is a deeply personal one, but through sharing my story I have found that the principles that led to my recovery can be helpful to other men too. With that thought in mind I offer 3 suggestions for beginning to take control of your own physical and mental well being:
Be Kind to yourself, I know its sound cheesy, but from early on in my mindfulness practice I began to hear my own internal dialogue, and I’ve got to tell you I wasn't speaking to myself at all kindly. The mindfulness practice turned the volume up on the inside and once I could hear what I was saying to myself and the tone of voice I was using I was able to make changes that led to me feeling very differently.
Sit and do a mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes every day, this involves just following the ﬂow of your breath as you breath in and out. While you are breathing silently count your breaths as they go in and out. When your thoughts intrude and lead you away from the count (and they will), gently bring your focus back to your breath.
It has been useful for me to understand that the goal of mindfulness is not to stop my thinking, but for me to become aware of it. If you ﬁnd it difﬁcult to sit and practice mindfulness why not go for a walk. I have found it useful before I start walking to remind myself to be aware of the following things as I walked:
- What 5 sounds am I hearing?
- What 5 sights am I seeing?
- What 5 feelings am I feeling?
As I walk I begin to notice my footsteps, one at a time, when I become aware that my thoughts have led me away from mindfulness I come back to focus on my footsteps.
The time to practice mindfulness has come to feel like time just for me.
Two ways to get started
1. There is a mindfulness app which can be very useful to get you started. It's called Headspace and available for iPhone and Android. The basic excersises are free and they are all you need.
2. For Android users there is also the free app Prana Breath, which provide you with a few simple ways to experiment with breathing differently.
There are more simple things you can do for yourself, that will benefit you:
Take some time for yourself and not just your 10 minutes a day of meditation. Take a lunch break away from your desk, walk the dog, play that computer game, read a book in the bath, listen through a favourite album, whatever works for you that leaves you feeling you have rested.
The birth of my son was in many ways the beginning of the rest of my life, I wish you all the very best as you journey into fatherhood.
My name is Louis and I am 27 year old dad from Bristol. I live her with my partner Daisy and my son Francis (19 months).
I was born in Bristol however I was brought up in sunny Devon. I moved back to Bristol when I was 21.
I am a keen cyclist. I love to get out on my bike for long adventure rides through the country side. I also work in a bike shop part time as well as working for Dads in Mind.