Over the past few years, more and more of us have begun to find it easier to address the mental health issues or addictions we are living with day in day out. But finally accepting that something is wrong is an important first step. More often than not, it is necessary to seek external help from a person trained in helping troubled folk through their toughest of times.
Meet, Nick Blackburn, a 37 year old psychotherapist from London who has been living in lockdown with his mother near Manchester. Like the rest of us, he too has endured his fair share of problems over the years that he has had to deal with and still has regular chats with his own counsellor. But then, he believes that a good therapist is one who has lived a life and who’s life isn’t perfect.
“There’s a misunderstanding that therapists ought to have immaculate lives,” Nick tells GuysLikeU. “I think someone with varied life experiences is better than someone who sounds like a therapy app. A lot of therapists are very good and have had quite complicated lives.”
Here, Nick opens up about coming out, dealign with stressful times and how lockdown has impacted on his life.
When did you realise you were gay?
Early on. I remember being on holiday and kind of walking around a lot, feeling like I was looking for something but not really knowing what it was. But I think that was about sex probably. I discovered gay porn on the internet when I was about 13, but that always felt like a separate thing. But I think I really got the message when I was about 19, after my first year of university. That was where I had my first gay experiences.
Oh wow, what happened?
I met a guy during Fresher’s week at university. We got drunk and took him back to my room where I gave him oral! I was sort of horrified by that for some reason – sorry Jack, if you’re reading this, you were really hot. I said to myself, ‘Oh well that’s definitely not for me then’ and so didn’t do much else for about a year.
It sounds like you were trying to talk yourself out of being gay?
It wasn’t a very tempting offer at the time. I didn’t have much of a sense of what sex was. I wasn’t sure if it was all about anal sex and if it was, how much it was going to hurt. I had also started to think that any of the men I knew hadn’t very much experience giving love, so the idea that I could be loved by a man took a long time for me to really get to grips with.
Who was the person you were most worried to tell
I think it was my parents, not because I thought it was going to be a big problem. I think I thought they would be worried for me and they would think that I was choosing a hard road for myself. If I’m going to be really honest I think I may have thought if I said it out loud, there would be ‘no going back’ for them and would have been embarrassing for me to tell them later on, ‘oh, I’ve changed my mind actually’.
Who was the first person you told?
I told a close female friend, I think in a throwaway line over email when she’d asked me how I was. I think I probably wrote something like ‘oh you know, sad, bored, probably gay’. I’d been in love with her which may also have been a welcome distraction from the guys she was actually involved with so it might have been a bit of a slap in the face as well.
How did you family take it?
I can’t remember if my dad ever said anything about it…I think I was told something like he’d said ‘oh I wish I could give him a hug’. But then my mum’s immediate reaction was ‘Really? Are you? I’ve always thought your father might be gay, or at least bisexual.’
I don’t mean that to sound like a joke—-though it is quite funny in a way isn’t it. It was disturbing for me at the time I think, talking about sex in the family. I’d always been taught, as a child, to be afraid of adults where sex was concerned, like talking about it would be leading them on. There was Section 28 in schools at that time which meant all that was very muddled, as if there wasn’t a safe way for adults and children to talk about sex and sexuality. If my mum read this now, she’d probably say ‘It wasn’t like that at all! I didn’t say that!’ …and things do get confused, don’t they? Some of the things we think about sex are basically irrational—but this is why they need talking about! It’s really better the devil you know with these things.
We can imagine. How was life at school?
I had a kind of role as kind of gay-adjacent but not sexual. I hated campness and it’s obvious to me now that I was just hating my own gay-ness. I wonder if being non-binary might have been something I could have got into more if it had been more popularly talked about. I remember a party once where two bi guys were kind of fooling around kissing each other – the kind of snogging you’d see on Coronation Street before the watershed – in a bedroom and I was just sat there watching them for a bit and it was like I was completely invisible, like it wasn’t something that was on offer for me at all.
Some young people dealing with their sexuality tend to suffer from mental health issues. Did you?
I think I was quite lonely as a teenager. I was quite sad at times coming back from nights out. I’d throw myself into work and school clubs and things. I was a very keen actor. It was probably good in a way that I got on with my A-Levels and saved having a big identity crisis until I was about 20. I think a lot of my 20s revolved around sex and internet dating and hookups and stuff…I was probably lucky this was a bit before Grindr or I might have got myself into deep water. I think the fact that I ‘passed’ as straight made things more complicated because I felt like a shit for being dishonest, whatever that means, whereas actually it made it harder for me to connect with people.
When you were finally out did you throw yourself into the scene?
Oh hugely. And yes, it was even better than I’d imagined: It was 2000 in Manchester and slap bang in the middle of a big economic boom so everyone had lots of money. There were still traces of 90s club culture so everyone seemed to be having a brilliant time. There were lots of bars and clubs and you could go out any night of the week. I loved it and thought all that would last forever. There was a big mix of people (more in terms of class than race as it seemed much whiter then then it does now), which I think was something drugs brought in. I wasn’t indulging in drugs but those around me were taking mainly ecstasy so things seemed a lot more social than they were 15 years down the line. We were going out and dancing to those amazing Britney songs – it was just a wonderful time.
Did you ever feel like you didn’t belong?
I think I really felt like I did belong, and in the gay pubs in Cambridge too, where there were older queer men who really helped me see sexuality as something that’s just a part of lifeand working-class drag stuff and so on. It felt like family, which was very precious to me.
As an out gay man, was it love that you sought most ?
I like this question a lot… I think I was a sexual being. I think I’d got the idea that love was this big demand that gets lumped onto you, or that grows in you until you can’t bear it and then other people find it a bit much. I do still have this feeling to an extent, though my boyfriend and I are very much in love.
That’s lovely to hear.
The first couple of guys I really fell for were not secure in themselves and were either not out to their parents or had other quibbles about sex. I think what I really craved, and still do really, is intimacy, feeling a really intimate connection, which can be a bit of a fantasy or like a drug sometimes, wanting everything to be really nought-to-sixty in two minutes and then detaching. There is something very precious about the sort of intimacy you can share with people you don’t know. You can get it in relationships too, but it’s harder to get right. You have to invest.
Did you experience any homophobia along the way?
I’m quite a big guy and I learned not to walk home drunk so luckily have very little experience of real homophobic violence. That said, I have had gay slurs theown at me after a pride event. However, I have friends who have been beaten up. One of the saddest experiences actually was when I went to see a GP at my local surgery about a free Hepatitis vaccination. I think he hadn’t had the right training so his line of stigmatising questions made me feel ashamed.
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I mean probably this is a Might Delete Later on legal advice isn't it but I woke up with these wavy lines on me and it's Carnival day here in Provincetown so… Boys keep swinging / boys always work it out. "I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me." Virginia Woolf
Men tend to be terrible about opening up about mental health issues – have there been times in your own life when things have got too much for you?
I had a guy I was seeing at one point whose sister took her own life. We were both struggling to stay connected and the relationship was in trouble. I was feeling very disconnected and wasn’t able to write or have sex or do any of the creative things I enjoyed. I think we had both been quite depressed really which was understandable. I felt very lost and desperate and I had to take myself out of the situation. That really helped but was, I guess, quite a selfish thing to do which hurt my boyfriend a lot. Then I started training as a therapist and I experienced therapy for the first time which was pretty life-changing.
As a therapist, is it hard having to deal with so many people – is it hard to leave work behind.
I really love my work actually. It feels like the right thing for me to be doing. Having a lot of clients makes me better at it; it’s a bit like law in that respect, or doing surgery – you don’t want to be someone’s first time. I don’t think it is something you leave behind in a drawer in an office or something but also you’re working with people to work out what’s causing their problem and to make changes, so that’s actually not a bad thing to bring home now and again.
Why do you think men find it so hard to open up about their issues?
I think some of our dads were crap at really talking and our role models on TV weren’t very good at it either. I think men want to get on with things as much as possible in a world where there are a lot of pressures like education, work and debt. I’m all for pressing on when you can but it can lead to problems later if something important hasn’t been addressed.
Does your job ever make having relationships difficult because you are constantly analysing and questioning them?
LOL! Yes and then your partner looks like you like you’re mental: my partner is very practical in some ways which I really like, but it’s got so we can joke about my wanting to talk about feelings. There’s a misunderstanding that therapists ought to have immaculate lives. I think someone with varied life experiences is better than someone who sounds like a therapy app. A lot of therapists are very good and have had quite complicated lives. Therapists are skilled at listening in a particular kind of way, and knowing what questions to ask; and holding their nerve.
What would you say to your 12 year old self about the future.
I think I’d want to have a really in-depth conversation about Doctor Who or something and see where the conversation went. He’s as likely to surprise me as the other way around. I think we spend a lot of time wanting to tell our younger selves that it gets better and not enough saying we forget how to be like them and we regret that. Whereas we might want to say it’s going to be a bit of a slog at times and we could have done with more support. I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to children I’ve tutored at different ages and they say the most amazing things if you let them. My life has been a process of finding the people who are able to talk about anything, rather that necessarily people who are held up as experts.
How are you coping during this strange covid-19 time? How are you dealing with isolation.
It is a strange time. My own therapist was wondering earlier if I was missing touching people, and part of me feels a bit weird for not being really upset about that yet. I’m getting really into Westworld and I think part of me has gone to a very ‘nothing is real’ sort of place like I’m really a robot or something, rather than, say, being upset about not being able to hold my partner. I’m watching him on webcam brushing his teeth or making dinner and we say goodnight to each other which feels actually more intimate in a way that sometimes when we’re together—-these moments have become very special.
How has this affected work for you. Explain how this has impacted on you.
It’s been strange taking my practice online, and a couple of my patients have struggled to find somewhere they feel they can speak freely, so they might have to call me from the car or at the end of the road or something, and that takes a bit of getting used to on both sides. Mind you I have a new patient who is nowhere near London so it’s opened things up too, and I have more time to see people and be flexible over money now I’m not commuting.
How are you seeing people deal with the situation.
People are dealing with it in different ways. Some who have a gloomy view of the world, or who don’t like socialising or have struggled to structure their lives, have found this situation a good thing in some ways. But yes for others it’s really tough, and I don’t think we’re experiencing the worst of it yet.
What advice would you give people?
I’ve noticed in some of the articles on GuysLikeU there is an instruction at the bottom to contact Samaritans, 111 or 999 if they’re in crisis. That is good advice of course: if something is on fire you want to put the fire out, not talk about it, and a therapist won’t always be able to text you back straightaway which is important in an emergency. But I personally am really, really up for talking about all of that stuff, about despair, and just helping someone figure out what it all means. Often when someone is feeling really desperate it’s because they’re getting overwhelmed by something. CBT is the dominant model of mental healthcare in the UK because it makes sense economically—and for some issues, focussing juston changing behaviour can be very helpful (stop that, do this). But when the instruction is something like ‘Stop hating yourself! Go for a walk!’ I think what’s missing it a real curiosity about where those feelings come from, and I think people have died because of that. A decent course of therapy costs about as much as a GymBox membership and I’m always happy to find a way to make things work for people who need help… So maybe try going for a walk first and maybe drink a glass of water and if you still feel rubbish after that give me or someone like me a call and we’ll start sorting it out.
For more information about what Nick does, check out his website southlondonpsych.com