A friend of mine, Alice Sparks, runs an organisation called ‘Invisible Cities’ where ex-homeless people give tours around Manchester, sharing their stories. Alice contacted me saying a guide called Danny would love to take part in my men’s mental health series. Unlike most of the other lads I had interviewed, Danny was slightly more senior. I […]
A friend of mine, Alice Sparks, runs an organisation called ‘Invisible Cities’ where ex-homeless people give tours around Manchester, sharing their stories. Alice contacted me saying a guide called Danny would love to take part in my men’s mental health series.
Unlike most of the other lads I had interviewed, Danny was slightly more senior. I wanted to hear about his childhood, his time in the army and subsequent PTSD, his struggles on the streets and the phenomenal work he is doing around Manchester. I also learnt Danny was a keen poet, a great listener and a phenomenal sculptor. In my eyes, the Scouse Seamus Heaney!
When I first met Danny, I was moved by his energy and enthusiasm.
We decided to take a stroll around Balloon Square before wandering towards Angel Meadows. He pointed out the oldest school in Manchester, down by the bridge.
After shooting a roll of film, we headed back to the Invisible Cities HQ, sitting down to chat about Danny’s story, his opinions on why men struggle to talk, mental health in the army and how friendship and honesty can help men open up about their problems. Danny concluded the interview offering solid advice, from a wiser gentleman, on how we can be more honest with ourselves. And how to help others who struggle.
All in all, it was an absolute pleasure to meet Danny and I am sure we shall be seeing one another soon to sit down and have another chat over a cup of tea!
LB: Hello Danny, my series uncovering men’s mental health aims to feature a full range of lads, ethnicities and religious backgrounds, from all over. But one thing I’ve not touched on is men, slightly my senior. So following Alice’s recommendation, I thought you’d be perfect.
Growing up as an army kid, travelling the world with my dad’s job, I’m really interested in how the military affected your mental health. You’re in your sixties now, what were conversations around men’s mental health like in your twenties?
D: I joined the army at 17. If you were feeling down you kept it quiet. You had to be one of the boys and part of the team so you’d never show your feelings or emotions, you kept them to yourself.
LB: So I’m guessing on operations, to make everyone else feel better, if things were going tits up, you’d keep your panic inside? So as not to ruin the moral of other soldiers? Was it like if you were vulnerable you were seen as weak?
D: Yeah, as you say it was bad for morale and other people, so we did the English thing of keeping your chin up and not talking about your feelings.
LB: That’s interesting. I think when you come from an army background you don’t really have time to build a significant relationship with someone because postings are either two to three years. My dad was in NATO, so we moved around a lot from Italy to France and Germany.
D: You know you join the army, they pull you down to rebuild you. So you lose a part of yourself and become a trained soldier,
LB: My dad said the same thing.
D: Especially when I was in Northern Ireland in the 70s, I had people who were injured and killed so you have to learn to live with that loss. Even now, at my age with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have flashbacks of waking up soaking wet, screaming. I went to my daughter’s in July last year and was sleeping on a couch. My son-in-law came down and shook me, said I was screaming. And I was like, “what’s up?”, and he said “you scared the kids” yet I didn’t know I was doing it. So it’s things that have built up that you push to the back of your mind and then suddenly it comes back to you and it hits you, you know it’s a horrible thing at times.
I was blown up in the Falklands, I came out with horrific injuries through my arm, my legs and my back. Once I was medically discharged it was like the army had no responsibility anymore. So I had to struggle for many years. It was only through the Veterans Association in Bury that I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That took nearly 20 years.
LB: This is ridiculous, imagine you’ve had a soldier, one week he’s in Afghanistan shooting at the enemy and the next week he’s discharged and expected to work in an office job without support . . .
D: I went to work with a specialised organisation in the Army, where we had a little bit more leeway, we didn’t have to shave for example. We’d go undercover in Northern Ireland, those type of things, but were still ruled by the military law books in a sense. And when you come out, that is why it’s very difficult to settle into public life.
LB: It makes complete sense, it’s such an extreme change.
D: Yeah and I found a lot of people that come out the army, after maybe say six or nine years, actually develop mental health problems because, we’re not used to the routine of civilian life and you’ll find, as I said to you earlier that we did that survey that 1 in 5 homeless people in Britain are ex-service personnel. That is a hell of a number to take in.
LB: We have to think about the homelessness problem in the UK at the moment and it’s diabolical isn’t it? It’s horrific.
D: Well yeah, I do a lot of work with the homeless, I’ve been ex-homeless myself and it’s absolutely horrendous. The homeless you see on the street make up a small percentage of homeless people. You’ve also got couch surfers, people in bed and breakfasts, people in temporary accommodation or hotels.
That’s why my organisation calls itself ‘Invisible Cities’ – to show that people aren’t invisible.
It’s tough when someone’s been on the streets for a while, if you’ve got into a flat, I did it myself when I first got my own accommodation, you don’t know how to cope. Because you’ve never paid any bills, in maybe five years, so suddenly you’ve got water, gas, electric bills and so forth. All coming to you and you don’t know how to handle it, so we also offer that extra support.
I worked with a guy recently for six months. We got him into a flat, organised furniture, got him a telly, decorated it, put carpets down, settled him in. And I’ve seen him about four weeks later, I was walking down Oxford Road and he was sitting on the streets. So I said, asked, why are you here? And he went oh no I can’t. So I actually got him a taxi, we went down to the centre, I said what’s going on? And he got so fed up with being in the flat of his own that he went back on the streets and invited his mates back to his flat, so he had people that he knew. I don’t know if you know this, there’s a big issue in Manchester at the moment, with the spice?
LB: Yeah, around Piccadilly Gardens.
D: So these guys were all smoking the spice or whatever and he’d literally let them take over his flat and ended up back on the streets himself. So the neighbours complained to the council, they were all chucked out and he’d lost the flat, so we went from the top right to the bottom of the list.
LB: Just from not being able to handle the change really . . .
D: Yeah, and when he’d come back to the centre, if he couldn’t cope with the loneliness or whatever we could have helped him in that sense. But again this is what we were saying about the army, it’s pride.
LB: I’m starting to realise men have this pride where we don’t like to be made look like an idiot, we don’t like rejection. When something damages our pride, we don’t know how to cope. There’s this really good book called ‘How Not To Be A Boy’ by Robert Webb and he says men don’t know how to interpret our emotions, so women are far more emotionally intelligent than we are because when we feel happy, sad, anxious, anything, we always react in anger.
Even lads my age. They have an argument with their girlfriend, they’ve lost their job, I think these are all examples where you lose your pride don’t you? Temporarily, you lose your pride and many use negative coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol, to cope.
D: Yeah, and I think especially at my age, we were always brought up with the attitude of you know, man up.
LB: It’s funny, growing up in both England and France, I’ve got two examples of both these lads and their relationships with their girlfriends of say, five years, French, when they break up, they would be like ‘oh my heart’s broken, I don’t know what to do, my life’s over’ being completely honest about how he’s feeling, two or three weeks later he was fine. My English friend on the other hand ‘yeah, I’m not bothered, I’m quite happy. But still to this day I get the feeling he’s still not over it. It’s denial isn’t it?
D: Yeah, he can’t express.
LB: Exactly, but the only way you’re gonna become tough is by being vulnerable.
D: Yeah, that’s the time when you’re crying behind doors but not in public. I think you can have a lot friends in your life but maybe you just get one good friend where you can go, come on let’s have a pint and you can talk to that friend and they’ll talk back to you, and then you meet then next day and it’s not discussed what you talked about but you know you’ve…
LB: And you feel much better.
D: You feel better for it, and maybe that friend in six months time or whatever, he’ll come to you and say, listen I’ve just gone through something.
LB: But it’s terrible because I feel as if with my parents’ generation and your generation, people do have good friends but the problem is with social media these days. We’ve lots of friends but not that one you can open up to.
D: Well yeah.
LB: And that’s the trouble, like I have my best friends from university who if I’ve ever had a problem, I had problems in the past or they had problems, we could be honest with each other, it has been a very lovely chat but I know lots of people, they’ve got lots of friends but they never have one good friend who they can speak to.
D: But it’s also realising how friend is feeling at the time. We might be sat here now and you know you’re feeling a little bit down or something and I’m a friend of yours, and I notice it, so you say like “What’s up with you, you’re looking a bit down” and then we go back to the thing of “oh I’m alright”.
LB: “Yeah, oh I’m fine” It’s interesting ‘cause it feels like you don’t wanna be a burden on that person, you don’t want people feeling as if they’re being negative or a burden. And I think that’s why lots of boys just choose not to because they think ‘oh I want everyone to be positive and stuff like that’, god you can’t be positive all the time can you.
D: Well no, and I think you’re right on that sense that it’s you don’t wanna burden people, because you know like, I came here this morning with a happy attitude and whatever and then you tell me all your bad stories or whatever, so I go home feeling a bit low myself. So you’re like, I don’t want you to go home feeling low or whatever I’ll just keep it to myself.
LB: But in reality, it’s the biggest compliment isn’t it, because your friend probably had this problem on their mind for age and they’ve come to you about it as they can trust you.
D: Yeah, I found this through doing the mentoring in the homeless centre. They’ll talk to me and then I can go to the staff and say, look this guy needs medical help or whatever. They won’t talk to the staff, they’ll talk to me ‘cause they know I’ve been there so hence being a mentor.
LB: Yeah, because it’s such a negative thing when you say ‘venting out, oh I had to vent out’ and people see that as such a negative thing, but actually venting out is a positive thing in reality, it’s where you can be honest.
My coping mechanism when I’m feeling down is running, exercise is a classic but then being able to speak to people about their problems, would you say we’re quite similar in the way that when someone’s honest with you about feeling down it makes you feel good about yourself?
D: Yeah, we don’t have all the answers to all the questions but you know through different stages you can help people to move on with their lives and help. It’s like you ask me a question and I say well listen, I haven’t got the answer but I know a man who might.
LB: Yeah, who might be able to help you more. So you’re like a middle man in a way.
D: Yeah, just like building people up the ladder.
LB: The more you fall off, the more you kind of know how to get back on it, it gets easier every single time it’s just the first time that…
D: Well yeah, it’s the principle of my ladder is that you know, I’ve been on that ladder and I’ve been to the top, I’ve owned my own business, I had lots of money, everything. I fell off that, then it took me a long time to climb that ladder back, but I got to the middle point of the ladder and I thought I’m getting off here, I don’t wanna go back to the top of the ladder, I’m quite happy at this level of the ladder in my life. I thought. if I get all the way to the top again, it will be a long way down. I’m quite happy where I am.
LB: You do lots with Invisible Cities like you said, the guides and tours, can you just talk about what you do?
D: Yeah, we like to be honest with people that come on our tours, and talk to them honestly about homelesness and situations, and I talk to them about being ex-army and being in the Falklands and always say after I’ve spoken about that, that I don’t wish to answer any questions about my military service and we move onto other things, so you know people respect that I don’t want to talk about my military service.
LB: No, I think lots of ex-service men are like that, they just don’t need to be spoken about at all. I mean I haven’t spoken to my parents about what they do things like that, because that just doesn’t need to be spoken about.
D: Yeah and you know, would you mother, your mum talk to you about your father’s…
LB: We’ve never spoken, I’m 24 and it’s never a topic of conversation to be honest. I’ve never asked them, never been told. Obviously I know where my dad served and things like that, but I don’t really want to, we haven’t spoken about it.
D: you know I’ve got a few friends now, that are ex service people and I find it easier to talk to them cause we, ex-servicemen or ex-service people talk in their own language, we might be standing at the bar me and my mates and we’re talking about whatever and it’s like we’re talking in code.
LB: There will be lots of young people, probably reading this interview, probably moved by what you’re saying, I thoroughly enjoyed my time speaking with you and taking pictures, it’s been lovely.
D: It’s been a privilege to talk with you.
LB: Thank you very much.
LB: If I could have one last question, ‘cause there’ll be a lot of young people reading this going, oh what a phenomenal fella, love the story, love his honesty. Do you maybe have one piece of advice you would give to the younger generation, or younger lads who struggle with their pride, who struggle with being honest with themselves?
D: I would say, you know learn to be honest with yourself and if you have any problems, turn to someone a friend or a colleague and you know, let them help you, drop the male pride in the sense that you know, oh I don’t need anybody, everybody, everybody needs somebody. I’m nearly 65 years of age now, and I still need help, so you know if you need to talk to someone there is always someone close that maybe you wouldn’t expect, a colleague or a school teacher or whatever but you know you could turn to someone to sort out your problems and the sooner you do it the better, because then it doesn’t escalate.
LB: It’s kind of like a balloon, if you keep putting air into it and don’t let the air out, it’s just going to explode isn’t it, it’s the same thing with your emotions.
D: Exactly, especially with mental health problems, you might think you know, as I said I suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I have my bad dreams and my flashbacks and I go to a counselling service and I tell them about this and it, it doesn’t stop them but it helps me to realise what it’s about.
LB: Cause you have somebody there who can help, cause there will be somebody who’s a specialist, it’s CBT and things like that?
LB: There will be a specialist and they will just navigate themselves through your thoughts and be able to pick away for you to really understand and analyse directly, it’s great CBT.
D: And you know, let people know how you feel cause as you say with the balloon, it’s like you know, it’s like a bottle of pop the more you shake it up the more…
LB: The bigger the explosion after.
D: Yeah, so you know get, take the lid off, let the gas out and…
LB: Try to stay as flat as you can basically?
D: Yeah, exactly.
LB: Perfect thank you very much, that was lovely. Thank you.
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