“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

These words from the 19th-century American philosopher, author and poet Henry David Thoreau capture the angst, loneliness and search for meaning so many men suffer, but so few discuss. These, of course, are feelings that can debilitate anyone, but today’s instalment of The Zone is specifically about challenges and changes men encounter.

Gareth Andrews knows a lot about this. After a stellar career as a footballer, businessman and media figure, his marriage of almost 25 years failed and bad financial decisions landed him in difficulty. The accumulation of calamity triggered a profound depression, one of the most common health issues, as is anxiety.

He will be online for an hour from midday to respond to questions and comments from the audience.

“I, like many men, thought I was invincible. I remember in my 20s I always said that I just had life totally under control. I couldn’t believe that 20 or 30 years later I didn’t have it under control. I went through some very dark times. It was then, and when I finally hit the wall with full-on depression, that I realised it wasn’t quite that simple.

“But through that period, I’d never spoken to anybody at a personal level to say how I was feeling. I started asking questions, and even when they are feeling bad men never ask questions because we’re not supposed to. We have just got to get on with it.”

From 1965, Andrews, now in his mid-60s, played AFL football for 11 years – nine at Geelong and two at Richmond, where he played in a premiership side. He co-founded the AFL Players Association.

He has been vice-president of Geelong for the past 15 years, and for many years was prominent in the media, commenting in print and on television about football. He also ran a successful real estate business, a career, however, that dispirited him and helped precipitate the crisis.

When he started talking to people about the manifold mongrel difficulties he was going through, he found he was far from alone, that many people who gave the appearance of being happy and well were, instead, suffering – often terribly.

“I started talking to other people and it was then I found they would always refer me to somebody else who had been through the same situation. And I would say I did not know there was anything wrong with that person. You are suddenly opened up to a whole new group of people who had suffered in a similar way.”

Andrews’ discovery brings to mind a lovely word, “sonder”, the etymology of which is uncertain, defined in online publication The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as:

The realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – popu-lated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness – an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an ant-hill sprawling deep underground, with elab-orate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sip-ping coffee in the back-ground, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Andrews has lit a candle in a digital window to attract others in need of help and support. About 18 months ago, his difficulties and his encounters with others in similar situations led him to set up Life Again, a foundation that facilitates men sharing their experiences, and which connects younger men with mentors.

Life Again’s website also carries an archive of Andrews’ musings on many subjects. It carries, too, stories from other men, who can choose to remain anonymous.

Life Again is not a substitute for professional and clinical help but rather is a place where men can discuss, and seek information.

“When I go out and do public speaking and meet with people who understand the whole Life Again concept, they take me aside and they just tell me their story and it almost makes you cry. But you can’t pick that person out from the one next to them. They all look the same, but you just don’t know which person is absolutely churning inside, burning inside.”

Through Life Again, he organises trips to central Australia. He takes men from the city to meet Aboriginal men and to spend time away from technology and work, to break away from strife and stress.

“We go into Aboriginal territory. We see a lot of stuff we don’t ever see in our daily life. We learn about ourselves and we learn about others, and we learn about the land. It is therapeutic and curative for everyone involved.”

One of the most important things Andrews says he has learnt throughout his ordeal and recovery, and through Life Again, is the importance of giving.
He sees it not only as intrinsic to men achieving a measure of fulfilment, but as a way to prevent retirement, one of the biggest changes a man goes through, from being a crushing experience.

“The message is don’t wait until the end of your business career to set up a giving program. You’ve got to go way back and start learning to do that mid-career, when you’re 30, when you’re 40, when you’re 50. Start doing things for other people, because when you do that and maybe even set up your own foundation, by the time you get to 60 or 65 you might have something substantial in place which can take over from your other career.”

One of the best ways to give, he says, is by mentoring. He believes had he received such support from an older, experienced man, he may well not have gone through the troubles that literally flattened him, leaving him at times unable to get out of bed.

Men, Andrews argues, are expected to be stoic, “to just suck it up” when life turns sour. He believes many men delude themselves that everything is OK but that when they start to talk about their feelings they realise they are struggling.

Responsibilities as a breadwinner, husband or partner and father wear men down, he says, sapping joy from life. Well ahead of the crisis that can come with retirement, many men go through a “midlife crisis”, which is usually caused by the realisation that one’s expectations, let alone dreams, will not be met.

“Life is tough, compared with what we expected it to be. Like anyone else at 25, I thought life was going to bring me lots of good things. I had no idea what those good things were going to be, but I thought that they were going to come. I got to what some people call the midlife crisis in the early 40s.”

Many men self-medicate stress and depression with alcohol and other drugs, which ultimately exacerbates the problems, and puts marriages and relationships under pressure, often terminally.

Andrews is illuminating another way, as did Andrew Robb, who will be a senior minister in Tony Abbott’s government.

A few years ago, Robb publicly declared he had been struggling with depression for years and was taking time off to deal with it. It was a moment of impressive leadership.

Andrews is often approached by women through Life Again. “I have examples of women who come to me having been to one of my speaking engagements or whatever, and say, ‘You’ve just made sense, you’ve told me why my husband behaves in the way he behaves, why he comes home at night and plonks himself down in front of the television and doesn’t talk to me.’ ”

A question Andrews often asks men is, “Have you done your best work yet?” He finds almost without exception they reply “no”. This opens a discussion about giving.

“No matter what men have achieved, whether it be as managing directors or in football or life, unless they have been out there doing something for others, they have a feeling that they have not done their best work yet.” Through Life Again, Andrews is trying to save others the 10-15 years of pain he endured.

Some reading this might feel sceptical or even cynical, or find it hard to break from “just sucking it up and soldiering on” amid feelings of sadness and dissatisfaction.

But perhaps there are others who might feel it is worth having a go at talking honestly and openly, which Andrews says was the hardest thing he ever did.

It was also the best thing he ever did. Every day, Andrews sees the benefits flowing to other men who buck the macho model. They help themselves, and each other.

“We as men have got to be more perceptive about ourselves and the men around us. We just assume things. We assume that this bloke is OK. We assume that this person is happy. I can guarantee you that every person you speak to will be carrying some sort of burden.”

Thoreau wrote a long time ago. The time has come, perhaps, for men to get their songs out for many years before being lowered into their graves.


* Published on The Age, 17 September 2013