Life has its ups and downs. We are all faced with pressures, either in the workplace, or at home. Many times, however, we don’t quite know how to best manage some situations and thus stress, anxiety, and depression appear. And these affect both our physical health, and our wellbeing.
We tried to find out more about the obstacles we set for ourselves, about stigma, and cultural preconceptions in an interview with Răzvan Exarhu – radio personality, writer, chef and much more.
When you are going through a difficult time, what do you think is the best way to overcome it?
„Think about what you have to do, do not start with emotions. Look for solutions and leave hopelessness or sadness for later. Try not to forget that you are doing your best and do not blame yourself for not being a superhuman. These are some conclusions reached after 6 months spent at my father’s side in hospital, during which I understood that I am a long way from knowing my limits and that love always pushes them towards new horizons.”
As we all know very well, each of us has a certain picture of what psychotherapy means and about going to a psychologist’s office. What is the image that comes to your mind?
„I was distrusting of and amused by the semi-clichéd image portrayed in movies. I like sofas, but I’d rather use them for something else. In addition, it sounds like a fashionable and superficial thing. I probably also had this Getae-Dacian mentality in my head that says that a real man doesn’t need therapy, that it’s enough for one to have hair on his chest. Or that Romanian peasants didn’t have time to be depressed, that they were too busy working the field. Finally, it proved to be a matter of lack of trust, which I managed to overcome when I found a therapist whom I could validate both intellectually and, especially, from a human perspective.”
According to common mentality, when you choose to start a therapy program, to see a psychologist, you are judged and pigeonholed. What incentive would you give people to more easily overcome the stigma surrounding them?
„I know that seeking a spiritual counsellor is a very common occurrence among us – both for the psyche, and instead of medicines, along with black bryony cream, which is known to be <<good for apotheosis>>. There is a funny and clever sequel to the traditional Romanian cliché <<What will people say?>>: << And what DID people say?!>> I don’t think anyone remembers, if indeed someone said something about going to therapy, which certainly has nothing to do with a diagnosis of being not quite well in the head. I understood before making the step towards therapy that I do not share all my thoughts and that I need to consult with someone, not to ask for advice. I attribute a therapeutic value to a certain intensity of conversation – there is a certain degree of confession in there also, but within different parameters. So if stigma does come up, let’s look at it as a perfect opportunity to clean up our list of friends and acquaintances. And let’s move on with our business. My new social media alter ego, Nea Maste, has a saying: The world may be mean, but you are also very stupid.”
There is more and more talk about “toxic masculinity”. Do you think it is an insult to men, a form of feminizing them or should the expression of emotions not be associated with masculinity?
„I say that suppressing emotions is a social norm, which originates in the same source of stupidity: What will people say? Am I going to look gay if I wear a pink shirt and I don’t beat up my girlfriend? And I don’t know if this is due to a cult of masculinity – or femininity, which can be just as toxic – or rather due to lack of communication, lack of education, alienation, and the feeling that you have to be some kind of Iron Man, a cruiser impassively breaking the waves as he passes through life. Emotions pertain to human nature, regardless of gender and, having so many bookshelves filled by good poetry written by men, I think the species has no problem. It is only possible that to some the modern world or society seems a matter to be taken more seriously rather than ironized.”
Moreover, they say that men are always hungry because it is the only emotion that they are “allowed” to express. Do you think this justifies in a way your passion for cooking?
„The pleasure zone of cooking surpasses hunger and makes the step towards science. Or towards personal expression. I look at cooking, for which I have no passion – I am just naturally gifted for it, as a territory for expressing emotions and empathy, a kind of poetic space, even if it smells like a deep fryer. But I am sure that there are also members of the species for whom emotions are best expressed with mustard, meaning that they are “mici” (NB – a pun on the traditional minced meat Romanian dish whose name is a homonym of “small”).”
You do not shy away from speaking publicly about a time when things were not looking so great. Do you think it helps to talk about these periods?
„I think talking helps us, but mostly in a private context. With your therapist, for example. Ever since Brené Brown’s TED Talk everyone is so vulnerable and so open, it’s almost as if you are a prisoner in a group therapy session. To the extent that your better judgement confirms that sharing an experience might be helpful to others, it may do good to do so. But I don’t think we should use those around us as lightning rods or try to become more interesting by showing our boils and scars. That’s immature and narcissistic.”
Do you think it makes you “less of a man” to admit that you need help?
„We’re back to toxic masculinity and the Getae-Dacian substrate, immune to depression and other such nonsense so to speak. Although it sounds ridiculous, this pattern of perception is wreaking havoc I think among men who claim that boys will be boys. That’s all that could be done. I do not find it to be a valid explanation, all the more so as I went through this resistance movement myself and tried to heal myself on my own. It took me almost 3 years to overcome my depression and I think I would have been much more effective if I had not found it feminine to seek a therapist. Now I have found one and regret that I cannot be friends with him, although he knows almost as much about me as the owner of my former phone number. That would be a joke.”
You are always energetic, cheerful and willing to cheer those who listen to you. How do you manage to do this day by day?
„I am NOT at all energetic, I am lazy and hedonistic, I am rather more pessimistic and ironic – but I think that if I’m going to wake up early anyway, I may as well be more responsible. I mean, I activate a kind of sense of social empathy and think that listeners could benefit from having their attention shifted from the daily commotion. So I help myself at the same time. It is a rather particular state, somewhat akin to that kind of splitting that an actor experiences when embracing a character. I do not become someone else, but I come into contact with a layer of my personality or my mind that I would like to have more access to. It is mostly a matter of being childlike, of lack of inhibitions, of social or verbal habits. It’s a form of liberation and exploration. And the result I’m looking for is to surprise myself. Over the last 6 months it has been even more interesting to be fit in the morning on the radio, because during the rest of the day I was absorbed by hospital visits, where I was taking care of my father. And even more interesting to do so knowing at any time that I might be receiving THAT phone-call. If you find it appropriate, I am willing to donate my brain to science. Although when that time comes it may be filled with only champagne bubbles.”
You wrote about happiness in your book “Happiness is a Safety Pin”. Do you think that seeing a psychologist can be a safety pin for those seeking happiness?
„The symbolism behind the safety pin is one of many contrasting shades. That’s the very reason for which I find it very powerful – and it is not just an impression. My mother still has a safety pin on when in her homewear, I was stung many times by a suddenly unclasped safety pin, in Braila those who crossed the Danube had a safety pin attached to their slip, to get rid of muscle cramps – and then there is also the magical dimension, and I’ll put a stop here to the examples. I do not feel capable of showing the way to happiness, but I believe that good communication with our darkness and our light alike can bring us closer to that state we experience after we draw fresh air in our chest or when we are stretching our muscles, or when we take a bite of an apple, and it’s just enough like that, to regard happiness as the space that separates you from the next question.”