How being close friends with women made me the man I am today
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW). Some 1 in 4 people in the UK will be affected by a mental health issue each year, with anxiety and depression being the most common problems. The theme of this year's MHAW is relationships, because your relationships - with family, friends, partners, co-workers - are the cornerstone of good mental health.
I've been thinking a lot about my relationships with women lately.
Something occurred to me about a week ago as I had a sudden attack of loneliness – the type that comes from having left all of your friends and family behind in another country. The kind of loneliness that comes from wondering why the hell you decided it was a good idea to move to a city with twice the population of your entire country.
It's not a groundbreaking moment when you first realise that London, for all its people and the constant stream of overpriced events, is a lonely place. Every single person I know who has moved here has said the same thing in one way or another.
But what I realised was that I was experiencing a very specific kind of loneliness. I was missing a specific section of people in my life.
Since coming to London just under two years ago, I have yet to make a close female friend. I've made new male friends and re-connected with guys I went to university with. I've gone on dates with women here, and had little flings over the past year-and-a-half, but nothing has stuck.
Strangely, the only female relationship that has really blossomed for me since moving here is with someone living back in Ireland. We've joked that it's ridiculous it took me leaving the country to become friends, but it's a little worrying to me.
Throughout my life, I've always had at least one close female friend. As a child, my sisters primarily fulfilled that role, as I put on elaborate soap operas with our teddies and dolls for them in between games of football with my brother. Since the end of primary school, I have branched out and made friends from a few different backgrounds.
It was even a point of contention between myself and a previous girlfriend, that I had too many close friends who were women. She ended up giving me an ultimatum; I had to choose her or my friends. I chose my friends and she withdrew the ultimatum.
I've made it no secret that I haven't always been great to women. I fell into a lot of the same traps as I think pretty much all men who are attracted to women do at one stage or another in their life by mistaking any kind of intimacy for sexual intimacy.
As young men, we're not really taught the difference. I think this is why so many people believe that men and women can't be friends. They're wrong, it just takes a little learning (usually on the man's part).
All-male relationships don't tend to operate in the same way a relationship involving a woman does. While I have plenty of male friends who are supportive and always willing to help me, I know that it doesn't come easily for a lot of them. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that for a few men I know, they are more emotionally honest with me than they are with their other male friends, because it is something I make an effort to address and encourage.
I remember when I was growing up that a few people told me it was unusual that I had so many female friends. When I came out as bisexual, people pointed to my female friendships as a reason why the news didn't surprise them. While my initial reaction to such suggestions is to reject them as homophobic, I think there is a certain connection between the two, just not in the way that was implied.
I hung out with a lot of girls while I was in the closet for a number of reasons. Being a teenager is damn hard, and my sexuality didn't make it any easier for me. I found it far easier to be myself – or at least a more effeminate version of whoever I was – around girls than guys. It made me feel less "wrong".
I found myself talking more and more about my feelings. For someone who had a pretty noticeable anger problem as a kid, this was huge for me. My female friends gave me the emotional education that most young boys don't get until they are much older and have already developed bad habits of externalising negative emotions. Some men never get this education.
That is not to say that it's up to women to teach men how to understand our emotions, but just pointing out that we live in a society in which men are encouraged to ignore such things. If I had not had the support of my female friends as a teenager, I honestly don't know if I would be alive today.
This is what made it so hard for me to be without a woman in London who I consider to be a close friend. I still talk to my close friends in Ireland over WhatsApp/Facebook/Snapchat etc. but everybody knows that just isn't the same.
Dating in this city is hard enough but, as messy as it can be, it's relatively easy and straightforward compared to the complicated tightrope that is becoming best friends with someone. I'm not sure many women would believe me if I went on Tinder or OkCupid just looking for friends.
Thankfully, I have recently been reunited with one of my best friends. After living in separate cities for the past three years (she spent some time in the States), she moved to London just under two months ago. It certainly hasn't fixed everything, but I feel a lot better about it.
I guess my point is to appreciate the women in your life for all the unnoticed work that they do - from your partners to your sisters, to even just regular old mates. Tell them you love them and thank them for looking out for you, because god knows we don't say it enough.
I think I need to go call some people.