Here we were in a brand new area of Phnom Penh – a very cool little bar filled laneway.
While I was confused as to how we could have been here for four weeks and not known about this, I was definitely enjoying the $2.50 mojitos.
We’d had a fun little date night, and were close to getting in a tuk-tuk home when we decided to turn back to have one more drink and try a different bar.
We enter, it’s dark and hip – we could be in any major city in the world. The cocktails are great, and being made by a guy who is unmistakably Aussie.
I head up to pay, and before I have a chance to ask him, he says:
“I think I know you from the internet. It’s Mike, right?”
What soon transpired was a solid 20 minute chat while Nards was waiting (kind of) patiently back at our table, seemingly forgotten by her husband.
Random, weird, recognised-from-the-internet moment aside, it’s the conversation I dove into that speaks to something bigger at play.
Being in a totally foreign place, not knowing anyone or speaking the language and being solely and consistently around just-one-person, can be hard.
Sure, Nardia and I just got married, and we love each other and each other’s company.
But too much can be, well, too much.
We have chosen this adventure, including all that comes with it; highs and lows. However, it’s also forcing me to truly understand the isolation a lot of guys experience day to day, even with people they know all around them, possibly even masking it via drinking or other distracting past times.
For many guys, isolation isn’t self-determined by moving your life to a new foreign country. It’s a slow death of friendships, as we get married and have children and life piles on top of life. It’s the heavy work hours with little time or energy left to socialise. It’s the job placement in a location with no connections outside of work, the fly in/fly out.
Or it’s the gradual slip into a routine of responsibilities so thick, that your life doesn’t feel like yours anymore; distance from your partner increases as you become flatmates and co-parents, rather than connected lovers.
Isolation is Killing Men
Regardless of the catalyst, isolation in men over the age of 30 is real and hitting worrying numbers. Exact figures of “I feel isolated” is virtually impossible to determine. Instead, we can look at stats like job and life satisfaction, and the studies on isolation that do exist.
In an article by Billy Baker in the Boston Globe earlier in2017, he discussed some of the following examples; a 2010 AARP study shows that 1 in 3 Americans, age 45 plus, are chronically lonely.
Then there is the work of Dr Richard S. Schwartz and his wife, Dr Jacqueline Olds, who actually wrote a book on this topic, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, stating the huge cost of isolation, including “the public health dangers of losing our friendships are incredibly clear.”
And it’s not just the cost to our mental health – isolation and lack of connection have been shown to have a significant effect on our physical health, with a huge study out of Brigham Young University in 2015, using data from 3.5 million people collected over 35 years, showing that those who fall into the categories of loneliness, isolation, or even simply living on their own see their risk of premature death rise 26 to 32 percent.
We can also look at numbers like rates of depression, anxiety, suicide. Until recently in Australia, the highest rates were in men aged 35-44. That number for suicide has now been surpassed by men aged 85+. These are fairly consistent throughout the Western World.
Isolation and its effects aren’t an issue exclusively to men, of course not. However, it seems that women are better at getting this connection without the need for physical interaction. Where a phone call might suffice for many women to maintain friendships, most men need a physical presence. Baker also points out that studies have shown men tend to make their deepest friends through periods of intense engagement, like school or military service or sports. That’s how many of us are comfortable.
Women also show much lower numbers in the above areas, showing a clear difference between men and women.
So what happens?
It seems as the naturally higher number of friendships from our teens and twenty’s dissipates, so does our ability and willingness to share any lack of connection we feel.
Many of us have people at work, the gym, which Baker calls “accidents of proximity”. While having a chat about the weather, sport, or the kids with those friends can be great, would you see them outside of that environment? Most likely not.
Then there are the mates that are only for the superficial stuff. This is certainly a lot better than nothing at all. But can you drop into and talk about the shit that matters when needed? Can you talk about what is actually worrying you? The kind of things that, traditionally, were seen to be associated with being a weaker man, a pussy; your feelings?
It’s this lack of connection in general, and with other men particularly, that is killing us at a rate of five suicides a day in Australia (of course this is an incredibly complex issue involving many factors, however, I am willing to go out on a limb and state my current belief that isolation is a huge causal factor in the suicide rates in men globally – plus we’ve seen the impact it has on our overall physical health).
It also brings up the issue that many men, while feeling isolated, might not actually have awareness of the feeling itself, perhaps, instead being masked as an issue with work, or at home. Not only this but also a complete lack of awareness that what they are missing, what actually drives them significantly as a human, is connection.
Joining those dots is a vital part of the puzzle, which many of us right now are suffering in silence about.
We got it all wrong idolising the lone wolf for being strong and self-reliant, he’s not. It’s a myth we taught ourselves for a bunch of reasons and for modern masculinity it’s like idolising an aggressive cancer for how good it is at killing a person. It’s that need to get shit done, get through the week, just keep bringing in the paycheque, “I can’t catch up this week I’m too busy”… we want to take pride in powering through on our own.
This brings me back to chewing the fat with the barman who has been following my work online for a few years. As much as I had told myself just that week that I was ok here in relative isolation in Cambodia, busting along in ‘Get shit done’ mode planning an upcoming event, getting my connection with Nards and creating space from her when necessary too, I was clearly needing some man time.
And, to blow my own trumpet for a moment, this is from someone who is both pretty switched on and aware to these things in myself, and actively working in this field of talking with, listening to and supporting men.
However, upon some simple reflection which brought the awareness up, it also reinforces why I do what I do, and why Beyond The Beers exists – to provide safe, judgement-free space for men to chat, listen, laugh, and feel comfortable enough to drop beneath the surface and talk about shit that matters.
There is immense power and importance for men in feeling a sense of ‘me too’ – that you’re not alone in trying to manage the shit that life flings at you. And that’s what we do – facilitate this.
For Brisbane men this is something you get to be a part of on Sep 16th (grab your ticket here for just $24 while we still have some), but for other men, if this is you – be it an acute situation like mine, or a slow and steady burn in your life – you can’t wait for people to include you, for it to magically get better, you have to step into taking responsibility for this yourself.
To get out of isolation can seem like a huge and daunting task – Where the fuck does one turn? Who do you talk to?
Start by simply entering the game and asking yourself, and then others that question, research, find groups, classes, Meetups, events, old friends that you can initiate contact and connect with.
No one will do it for you. The way out of isolation is to pull yourself out – when and if appropriate. Keep in mind that this might be as simple as recognising that you don’t have answers and putting your hand up to ask for support. Find a coach, a mentor or someone who does have the tools to do so.
Brisbane Men, come along to Beyond The Beers on Saturday, September 16th at the XXXX Brewery:
All other men, if this resonates and you feel the pull to connect, I have a few spots in my diary you can grab here if you want an easy place to start – a 15 minute chat with me:
For now, I might have to go wandering more Cambodian bars to see if I can find more dudes that “Know me from the internet”.
I am joking.
Articles mentioned and used: