Ben - Podcast Transcription

Genevieve: Hey, I'm Genevieve Mora, co-founder of Voices of Hope and you are listening to ‘A Moment With’. ‘A Moment With’ is a series that delves deep into people's lived experience of mental health, sharing their struggles whilst also highlighting the tools and lessons they've learned along the way. Our hope is that by hearing their stories, you find hope, feel empowered and less alone in your fight. Today, a moment with Ben. 

Ben: When people say, I get what you, you mean? I'm like, no you don't because I don't see you sitting in the car in the mall by yourself for two hours while your family's shop.

Genevieve: In this episode, we discuss panic attacks and social anxiety. Your mental wellbeing is important to us. So if anything comes up for you while you're listening, you can find help lines in the show notes. Remember, you do not have to do this alone. [00:01:00] Hello, Ben and welcome to A Moment with, I am thrilled to have you here with me today.

Ben: Ah, Kia Ora, it's nice to be here.

Genevieve: It is a beautiful day and we're gonna be having some wonderful chats in sharing some of your own lived experience, to give our listeners some context to where we met, Voices of Hope and Les Mills where you work as a group fitness instructor held an event back in 2020. Was this just before the pandemic hit?

Ben: Yeah, I think like a month before the pandemic hit. (Genevieve: We must have just squeezed it in). Yeah, we did. And then like the world just absolutely changed afterwards.

Genevieve: And then here we are reuniting, reconnecting. And then also over lockdown, you were very kind and jumped on some of our Voices of Hope lockdown lives to share a bit about yourself and also some professional tips because you also work in this space, which will dig a bit deeper into later in the episode. So I want to start by asking you, because coming on and sharing your own lived experience is a very vulnerable thing to do. I think, you know, with mental health, there's a lot of stigma when it comes to it, but people like you that are willing to have these conversations will help so many people listening. So when I said, Hey, Ben, would you [00:02:00] come chat to us? Why did you say yes?

Ben: I'm an occupational therapist by background, as well as a group fitness instructor. And so one of the things that I preach, I guess in my job, is that we need to be talking about mental health a lot more, and it seems wrong of me to kind of say that that's a job for other people. So I think that sharing stories can be really validating, people can feel not so alone in their own experiences. I think the other thing that, and when I was thinking about, you know, why am I doing this, was a little bit about being a clinician and also having experiences of mental health. Because I think that's something that I know from staff room conversations that we all as clinicians have varying degrees of mental health, sometimes good, sometimes bad. However, there's a stigma, even within the mental health sector about whether or not we can, as clinicians talk about our own mental health experiences. So I thought, Hey, why not? You know, be brave in this space and be the clinician that is also willing to talk about their mental health.

Genevieve: It's awesome because I remember when I [00:03:00] was seeing, I think it was one of the first psychologists that I saw, what really frustrated me in that situation was that they'd be like, I understand what you're going through. And I'm like, no you don't, and maybe they do understand because everyone's human and we all go through our struggles, but the fact they couldn't share that with me that was something that I found really hard. And I guess like you said, there are boundaries in place, which I completely respect, but for someone like yourself to, to be like, you know, yes, I'm an OT, yes I'm a group fitness instructor and yes, I have my mental health challenges like many people do. It's such a cool space for you to be opening and I'm sure our people that you work with will, you know, be really grateful for that. Can I ask you what life was like growing up?

Ben: Well, I feel like there's almost like two parts and I don't think that's ever a rare experience for people who do, who have had mental health experiences. So I grew up in Gisborne, very small town. Most people know it from Rhythm and Vines, but I think that if you grew up in Gisborne, it's kind of like home and away, a little bit, like it's just the small town feels. I probably [00:04:00] was, uh, I think people describe me as shy and sensitive. I look back on my own childhood and go, yeah, I was a camp little kid. And so, I think growing up in a small town though, I think that people kind of learn to appreciate that, that was me. And, you know, you're just a kid and you're living. So I think that younger childhood part, like everything was fine, or, you know, I was living my best life.

Ben: And then when I was 13, my family decided to move to Auckland and I think that's when things really started to change for me. I didn't realize how shy I actually was. I remember actually an Aunty of mine said that I was a bit of a homebody and that I would just like to stay at home and read, and I wouldn't really play with the other kids. Um, and that didn't actually seem like any big issue, but developmentally, getting into high school, that was a challenge where people wanted to spend time with each other and I wasn't really down with that. And also on top of that, just going [00:05:00] from a small town to a very large school, being Maori, and then also finding my feet with my sexual identity as well. Like everything just felt like it was happening all at once, and I just got overwhelmed with that experience within the first two weeks of moving to Auckland, I was in class and I hadn't completed my homework because it just wasn't my priority, I was feeling quite down about moving to Auckland and a teacher made an example of me in class for not completing my homework. And because I was feeling so sensitive at the time, I just burst into tears in class, and that was almost like the catalyst for me, not returning to school, for nearly a year, really.

Genevieve: And this was 13 years old?

Ben: This was when I was 13 years old, because not only was I feeling different, but I had also then just cried at school, and I was the new kid and no one really knew who I was, and so everything got overwhelming really quickly. And so I developed social anxiety and that was [00:06:00] a real challenge for me, particularly in my teenage years. I still have issues with it now, but however, you know, being a clinician, I've learned ways to sort of manage that.

Genevieve: Completely. I think those years, especially those formative teenage years, you're talking about 13, 14, 15, you know, if not earlier, if not later, there's so much going on with puberty, hormones, all that sort of stuff. So if you're also, you know, navigating your sexuality and you're navigating, I guess, moving to a big city and you're meeting new people and you would rather be home because you've got this anxiety that I guess stops you from going out of the house. You know, all that together is a lot to be dealing with, especially at 13. Did you share that with anyone or did you feel like you were really kind of dealing with that solo?

Ben: I felt like I dealt with that more solo and to a degree, I think that there'll be people who know me, who will listen to this podcast and go, actually, I had no idea that it was that deep. And I think that's a reflection that it kind of is a preference of mine to try to figure out how I feel first and then once I know, then to share because I get invalidated very easily. [00:07:00] Um, and sometimes I'm not really sure about what I'm feeling and so it takes me a long time to kind of sit and understand that process. Yeah.

Genevieve: So when you say you get invalidated very easily, can you explain that?

Ben: Yeah, thinking about other mental health issues, many people will say that they understand what it's like. You know, I think about OCD and people say I have OCD but actually what they have is a preference to alphabetize their CDs. (Genevieve: Yeah, a tidy room). Or a tidy room, and I don't, you know, when you know what OCD really is, you're like, actually that that's not OCD and I think the same thing goes with social anxiety. People say that they get socially anxious and that is true, people get nervous in new situations. However, for me, I would rather lock myself in a room. Uh, well, you know, looking back as a teenage self, I couldn't do it, I feared for my own safety being outside. My parents used to make me leave the house and I couldn't leave the car to go into the mall. So they would leave me in the car while they were doing their shopping. [00:08:00] You know, I mean this in a very compassionate way to myself but my social anxiety was a hindrance, not only to myself, but also to the people around me. And so, you know, when people say I get what you mean, I'm like, no you don't, because I don't see you sitting in the car in the mall by yourself for two hours while your family shop.

Genevieve: Yeah. Completely. And then I think, you know, there will also be people that listen to this who really do get what you mean, because they'll be going through similar experiences with social anxiety, or anxiety as a whole, and I think you're so right. You know, the term anxiety is thrown around, so flippantly, is that the right word? You know, people say, and I'm so anxious today, but what is social anxiety? I don't necessarily need the clinical definition, but what is that to you? What does that look like? You talk about being, you know, stuck in your room, not wanting to leave the house.

Ben: So from just anxiety by itself, a lot of people would, in normal terms, say that anxiety is the overestimation of threat and your underestimation of your capacity to deal with that. When it comes to a social context, it really is [00:09:00] about a negative evaluation of others. So believing that other people would think lesser or bad of you, in a way that would be harmful. You know, I've sat with this story for well, all my life, and so looking back at those years, I think what I was really fearful of was that people would judge me for being Maori, people would judge me, because I was also from a poor family on the North Shore. So you know, I wondered if they knew that my family had no money, what would that be like? I worried about, you know, if anyone knew about my sexuality, what that would be like, and would I actually be physically hurt because of any of those things.

Genevieve: So there was a genuine fear for your life and, and for existing in society.

Ben: Yeah, so I did a lot of things to kind of hide. I suck at pretending so I think that there was a decision that I could have made, because I didn't really know I was anxious. I just kind of thought that, well, this is my life  experience. [00:10:00] And I had this decision, do I pretend to be someone who I'm not, or do I just hide away from the world? And for me it was easier to hide away from the world. Because I think I've always, actually liked who, who I am. I recognize that I am emotionally sensitive, I recognize that I have a preference for being alone. I recognize that I am a little bit socially awkward and I don't mind that about myself. However, I think as a teenager and the ideals that you hold about what type of person you should be, I knew that I didn't kind of meet the mark of what I thought people were looking for me so rather than face scrutiny, I decided to just spend time alone at home.

Genevieve: High school's such an interesting time, isn't it? Because I remember when I was there, you know, everyone wants to be the same, there's a fear of being different, but I feel that when you leave high school, difference is more celebrated, you know, being your authentic self and you know, really cherishing your uniqueness is such a powerful thing to be able to do. [00:11:00] And you know, I wish it was more accepted, I don't know if that's the right term, you know, during those high school years. What was the rest of high school like? So you started high school at 13, your Year 9 year was really difficult where you said you weren't really present all that often - take me through the next few years.

Ben: So Year 10, I had to have a bunch of meetings with my Dean to figure out how I was going to come back to school. Growing up, I was always smart and I always had ambitions to do something with my life, and that was really my nugget for going back to school, was I wanted to be a Marine Biologist at the time.

Genevieve: I wanted to be one of those at one point!

Ben: Was it the dolphins?

Genevieve: Yeah it was, and I also went snorkeling in the Great Barrier reef and I was like, sign me up.
Ben: Yeah, and then you find out that it's actually about plankton and you're like, no, that's not what I want. But that was my why, that was my why to go back to school. And so I had a whole bunch of meetings about how I was going to transition back to school. I was put into a class that was less focused on academic results. [00:12:00] It was kind of like the mishmash class, I think reflecting back that was a class where they put all the people that kind of struggled in different ways together, and so that really helped get me back into school. They tried to set me up with peers. That didn't really work, they didn't really know me to figure out the right match. And so initially I hung out and I guess this is my reflection of being socially anxious. So I guess, the repetition of doing what scares you slightly makes you a bit more brave and so it took me a while, but by the time I got to Year 12, I think halfway through Year 12, I was feeling confident in attending school. However, the way that I sort of managed exposure of myself. So I didn't really go to parties, I wasn't really that person. But how I managed was that I became very good at a lot of different things, because if I was good at things, then [00:13:00] people would accept me, people wouldn't criticize me. And so, my social phobia sort of developed a little bit more into perfectionism, which has had its own issues, I think later on in terms of my twenties.

Genevieve: And then it also came into play in terms of your sexuality and also being a Maori man. Do you believe that there is a link between those things?

Ben: Yeah, so I think, there's a whole bunch to unpack. I think toxic masculinity has been a thing for me, within Maori culture. There had been a lack of acceptance about the community, which has since changed, a lot of things actually have progressed, which has made things easier, in terms of feeling like I can be myself. But I mentioned just before we started this podcast that my Dad was in the Army and I think he had very solid ideas about what boys should do in terms of those gender roles. And I have [00:14:00] never been in any of those sort of stereotypical gender roles either. I feel like my entire life I've made choices that probably have left me feeling exposed, or different, but that's because society is framed in particular way that normalizes that it's okay to be heterosexual, it's okay to be Western. You know, when it comes to being a male, there's certain things that you can, you can't do.

Genevieve: We’ve talked a lot about toxic masculinity on this podcast, and it's such an interesting conversation and something that a lot of our men that we've discussed or talked to, have related to, but a lot of the females we've talked to, to in terms of how they believe males should be. Where do I wanna go with this? So in terms of, I guess your sexuality, can we delve a bit deeper into that if you're comfortable to do so?

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. So I think, well, I mean, I talk about sort of making these choices, they're not really my choices, but I think even in my sexuality, like it's something [00:15:00] where, so I identify as pansexual, which I've come to know as a thing, but for years I was like, am I gay? But am I straight? Am I bisexual? Well, like what, what does this all mean? And I think that I've come to accept myself as somebody who could potentially fall in love and have a relationship with anybody, which is cool for me and yet very confusing for everybody else. So I think that I fear negative evaluation even of kind of coming out as pansexual and saying that this is a thing for me. I think what I'm learning around my social anxiety is that there's actually a lot of legitimacy to the fears that I do have. And what I need to learn, how to do, is figure out where are my safe spaces, but also when may I need to push through those barriers. Like when are those barriers helpful for me to identify and avoid versus actually when do I actually really wanna be on the other side of the barrier, and if I do need to be on the other side of the barrier, what kind of skills do I need [00:16:00] to help me get through? And also, how do I bring my support crew with me. Because there's a lot of things where I felt like I've been one of the first people to lead the way and that's a lonely journey. And for someone who is socially anxious, sometimes I need allies to take some heat. I need them to step up and say, don't be a dick to somebody else, because it's really hard for me to do that myself.

Genevieve: You know there's some common themes and I'm just really interested to hear your, I guess, from a clinical view now, in terms of, you talked a lot about, you know, those 13, 14, 15 year old years worry about other people and what they would think of you. And then that also came into play in terms of your sexuality and also, the fact that you are a Maori man. Like how did, there is a common theme between those things, is there? 

Ben: Yeah. So I think that the common theme for me at least is that there is legitimacy in those fears that I have, that parts of society are racist, part of society is homophobic. [00:17:00] What I noticed when I was meeting with a school guidance counselor is that they were trying to tell me that my fears were just in my head and that actually everything was safe, and that's not a hundred percent true. I think if I was being accurate, sometimes that my fears are true and sometimes they're not. And so the job that I have, which is tricky, is to figure out when is my brain being protective versus when is it not being protective? Because when I was 13, 14, my brain was doing a very good job at keeping me safe, probably too much so. And what I needed to do, which I wasn't doing at the time and probably what I haven't started doing wholeheartedly until my thirties, is really be authentically me.

Genevieve: A lot of reflection that you've done. We talked about a wonderful woman on our pre-call [00:18:00] called Brene Brown, and you talked about something which I think really fits nicely into this conversation around belonging versus fitting in. Can you give us a bit more understanding of what that means for you?

Ben: So, I was probably 29 maybe when I read one of her books and it had this quote around fitting in versus belonging. And essentially what she was saying in that chapter was that if you're looking for signs that you don't belong, you will always find it, and I was like, yep that that's true from my experience. The other thing that she said is you can pretend to fit in, so you can change yourself to fit in, but you will never feel like you belong. And what I've interpreted that means is that you actually have to show up and be yourself, you have to be vulnerable, you have to say to people, these are my warts and all, do you still like me for who I am? And that's been almost life changing for me really, because no [00:19:00] longer am I hustling for other people's approval. I think that sometimes when we are trying to do what we believe other people want us to do, that's where we lose our way, and we live outside our values. So for me, it's really important to stick to who I am and I just end up being happier in all facets of my life. And I think that I end up on a pathway where people want to encourage me to keep being myself too.
Genevieve: I love that. If I was to ask you what helped you the most throughout your journey with social anxiety and perfectionism and panic attacks, what would you say was, I guess the key thing for you?

Ben: The big thing is self validation, because I think whenever I've tried to fit in or whenever I've tried to avoid, or whenever I've tried to perfect something, it's always because behind that is this urge to make right something that I think is wrong, [00:20:00] either about myself or about the situation. And actually there have been times that I've hustled for that, where actually, if I just accepted that it was what it was, then I probably could have saved myself a whole bunch of suffering. And as I've said before, like I think I've beaten myself up for having normative experiences or I've beaten myself up for actually being unwell. And so finding a way to kind of be kind to myself to understand what is valid about my experience, has not only helped me regulate how I feel and helped me have a better relationship with myself. It's also then kind of illuminated what the solutions might be. Now when I think, oh, I'm anxious about getting out of the car and going into this restaurant to meet these new people at this birthday party, I can go well, actually, that makes a lot of sense, you've never met these people before, you have no idea how it's gonna go and you are [00:21:00] by yourself. A lot of people would feel anxious in this situation, it allows me to sort of jump off the anxious trajectory.

Genevieve: Yeah, because you're validating that experience for yourself and then not avoiding that experience, but yeah, like you said it's helping you through that process. There will be people listening to this episode that are really struggling. They may be struggling with experiences such as what you have discussed on this episode today or different things, but regardless their struggles are valid. What would your message be to someone that is listening to this who is really, really struggling right now?

Ben: Yeah, my heart goes out to those people who are really struggling, because it's not easy to be sitting inside your mind. One, like I said before is to be kind, be kind to yourself and two reach out and find someone to support you. Sometimes that's really difficult because some people don't have the widest social networks or the social work networks that they have aren't particularly safe, but there [00:22:00] are places and spaces where you can get your needs met. So if someone's really struggling out there, don't feel like you need to do it alone, because chances are even just having someone to be a listening ear will be a burden less. And in that process, they might have some things to help you out, or you just might find out what you actually need in that process as well. So I would say reach out, whether that's help lines or whether that's a friend, whether that's a family member, whether that's just some random at the bus stop.

Genevieve: Completely, talk to somebody and we'll link those help lines in the show notes of this episode and all our episodes too. I have one last question for you. This podcast is called A Moment with, if you could have a moment with, perhaps it was your 13 year old self, when you were really struggling with social anxiety, perhaps it was in your late teen years, what would you say to younger Ben?

Ben: I think I'd say two things. One is that you are more loved than you know, [00:23:00] and I think that that would just take so much pressure off the feeling of not fitting in, but also to remind myself that I like myself. I often, to this day, think about what seven year old Ben wanted, and seven year old Ben was kind of cool and wanted some really great things. Um, and I think that seven year old Ben sometimes had a better sense of identity than I do now in my thirties. But when I go back to trusting what I really intuitively value about myself and about my life, it's pretty much the same as seven year old Ben. So I just wanna kind of tell seven year old Ben that he knows what he's doing, follow your heart.

Genevieve: Follow your heart, I love that. Thank you, Ben so much for your vulnerability, your courage, your openness, your authenticity. I'm really, really grateful for your time today, and I know that people listening to this episode will be very grateful that they got to hear your story too. [00:24:00] So thank you so much for joining me.

Ben: Thank you for having me.

Genevieve: Hey listener, thank you for sticking with us through this episode today. We hope that Ben's story has allowed you to know that wherever you are on your journey to self acceptance, you can learn to love yourself. Again I want to remind you that you're not alone in your fight and that if you need to talk to someone, you can find a list of support in the show notes. A huge thank you to the Lindsay foundation who made A Moment with possible. See you next week for another episode of ‘A Moment with’.