Oi Polloi

Interview: Kevin Braddock and Torchlight System

Published: Fri Oct 20 2017

Three years ago magazine editor Kevin Braddock (who you may remember as one of the founders of ace anti-lad mag Manzine) suffered what’s called a major depressive episode whilst living out in Berlin.

Now, in a bid to help others, he’s released a publication called Torchlight System, explaining his story and sharing what helped him in his recovery.

I called him up to talk about Torchlight, as well as the wider issue of men’s mental health and depression.

I’m fully aware that this is a bit of a departure from the usual chat about ‘ace clobber’ that we usually feature, but it probably goes without saying that the stuff Kevin is talking about here is far more important than the latest trainer collaboration or another article about jackets.

Okay Kevin, to start this off can you give us a bit of an introduction?

I’ve been a magazine writer and an editor for more than 20 years. I’ve worked for music mags, and style mags, and launched a few things. I did one called Manzine which was kind of like an anti-lad’s-mag men’s magazine.

And then I lived in Berlin for five years and had what’s called a major depressive episode, which is a very bad attack of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.

That was about three years ago, and I came back to the UK to recover, and made this project of Torchlight to come out of this experience.

That was launched in April and we were just rolling it out under the radar until I wrote a story for the Observer which went viral, and everything we had sold out in a few days. So now we’re doing this crowdfunding thing to get it back into print.

Can you explain what Torchlight is?

It’s a bit like a magazine, but it’s a linear narrative of my experiences of having a breakdown and going through recovery. It’s about the stuff that was going on in my life at the time and the process of beginning to recover from the experience.

I made it with a friend of mine called Enver who is a designer who I was working with when I was over in Berlin. He’s the guy who came and picked me up when I asked for help. I put a message on Facebook one day saying I needed help, as I was basically trying to finish it. I’m very glad that I did.

The magazine comes with somethings called ‘practice cards’. What are these?  

It’s a pack of cards that me and Enver made. When I was beginning to recover I was looking around for things that could help. I was reading a lot and trying out a lot of different physical things like yoga and tai-chi.

After a while I realised I was getting overwhelmed with all these amazing, helpful things I could do, so I thought that instead of trying to do ten things a day, I’d write them on index cards and just try one thing. We thought that something like that could be a really cool thing to go with the publication.

There are two types of cards; there’s action cards — things you can do. And then there’s idea cards — things to think about.

So you shuffle the pack and you try and do one thing. It’s a way to practice habits in recovery.

There seems to be a real issue around men and mental health, with suicide being such a big killer of young men. Why do you think this is?

I think that it’s becoming easier for men to talk about these issues, but on the other hand, suicide is now the leading single killer of men under the age of 45, so there’s obviously a huge social problem with it.

I think the modern world is incredibly complex and scary in a lot of ways, so it’s understandable that a lot of people are suffering.

I don’t think it is just a problem for men; it’s a problem for everyone, but generally women are much more able to talk about their feelings than men are.

Why do you think men in particular struggle to talk about this stuff?

Because we’re supposed to be strong. There’s ‘the beauty myth’ — that whole idea that women are meant to be beautiful, and I think the same thing applies to men, but with men, it’s about strength. There’s social pressure to be strong, to be independent and autonomous — all those things get invisibly imposed on men, and if you don’t feel strong, you’ve got a problem.

I think the other thing is shame. It has, for a long time, been considered weak and shameful to have a mental health problem. If someone was too depressed to get out of bed and go to work, there has often been a sort of moral accusation of laziness.

That’s certainly been the case with me – I felt too miserable to be able to do anything, and that’s what depression does to people.

Do you think this idea of ‘the strong man’ is a bit outdated? Where do you think this comes from?

It’s Victorian repression really. It guess it goes back to that era, when we didn’t talk about our feelings. And there’s the famous British stiff upper lip thing.

I lived in Berlin for a while, and Germans find it much easier to talk about their feelings. They think that mental health is an incredibly important thing, and don’t separate it from physical health.

Is there a bit of a disconnect between knowing you should talk about things, and actually talking about them? When you sit down with your mates at the pub, it’s hard to start talking about mental health stuff. How can that be made easier?

That’s a good question. There’s support networks that are all about opening up and meeting other people and talking, but I agree it’s not easy to find the right situation to open up to somebody. What we tend to do is go down the pub and get really pissed, and then at the end of the night say, “I’m feeling really depressed about XYZ.” It takes a lot to get to that point.

Men aren’t very good at going to see their GP, but if you aren’t feeling well in the mental sense, that’s the first port of call. If someone is concerned they might have a mental health issue, the first thing they should do is a see a GP. To deal with these problems, it does need professional help. At the same time, I think it’s good for people to let their friends and family know that they’re not feeling well.

There’s a really big education job to be done in society about mental health and mental illness. Not everyone suffers from it, but I think everyone will know someone who’s suffering from something.

There’s a job to be done about how you can help these people and understand the problem, rather than just say, “Pull your socks up, you’ll be fine,” and those kind of platitudes.

Are phrases like that almost negative? Do they just brush things under the carpet?

Yeah, I think the worst thing you can say to someone who is depressed is to say, “Come on mate, cheer up,” because they can’t. It’s patronising and it’s unkind.

I suppose that ‘man-up’ attitude doesn’t really help.

It’s destructive. I think those kind of things are very dangerous.

What helped you?

Where to start? The love of my friends and family — people being generous and giving me a place to stay or something to eat. Fundamentally, it was about other people — the people around me.

But then also things like finding a job that wasn’t too stressful. When I had this episode, I had a very stressful job that kind of broke me. These days I’m very careful about the work that I do.

Reading a lot about philosophy — particularly stoic philosophy — helped. And exercise has been a really important thing for me. Not pushing myself too hard, but using my body.

Getting yourself back in your body rather than just living in your mind is a very valuable thing. You can’t think yourself through depression — it’s that constant circular thought pattern of anxiety and fear of something, even when you don’t know what it is.

If you’re standing in front of a gorilla, you’d be afraid because it might rip your head off, but with anxiety you’re afraid, but you don’t know why.

It seems there’s a lot of pressure on people today, with work and social media and everything else. Is it hard for people to avoid all this pressure?

I do think it’s hard to avoid. We’re all under pressure and we’ve all got to pay our rent. It’s very difficult, particularly for young people who are facing a very insecure job market — they’ve maybe come out of university with a lot of debt and they’ll look at their parents and think, “I’ll never be able to afford that lifestyle. These are all pressures.

On the other hand, I think work can be a very positive thing. It’s good to get up in the morning with a goal.

People need things to do.

Yeah, I know that if I have too much dead time, I’ll end up thinking about the meaning of life and become very sad and miserable.

The realisation that it might all be meaningless probably isn’t great.

Yeah, that is part of it. I don’t know what the meaning of life is, but I think it’s probably to help other people. That’s certainly one of things that seems true to me. If I’m helping other people and doing something positive then I’m less concerned about the end of the world.

Definitely. This is just an interview on a clothing website, but are there any words of wisdom or anything people can take away from this?

We call this Torchlight System because it’s more than just a magazine; it’s a set of ideas. The three big ideas we want to communicate are to ask for help, to tell your story and to share your practice - if you find things that really work, and then let other people know that they might help them too.

I think it does really come down to asking for help. That was the situation I was in. I was either going to finish it, or I could ask for help — which was frightening cos it would mean that people would see what I was really like.

That can’t be easy.

It’s really terrifying. If we go back to what we were talking about at the start, about men and the need to appear strong – you think that if you ask for help it makes you look weak, but actually, I think it’s a very strong thing to do.

Read more about Torchlight here.