Men. We’re more likely to commit suicide and less likely to seek help or find ourselves in a therapist’s office. And why? While there are many factors, a big part if it is because of a societally constructed view of gender roles. A view of gender roles that is so misguided that it seems to have spurned a generation of undefined kings, generals, warriors. And me.
I am now a 32 year old man. When I was a kid I remember playing war with some other kids my age. I launched a brutal assault with pine cones. (In my defense my opponent had and used pine cone technology as well, I was just better at dodging them). I landed a direct hit that drove my opponent to seek hand to hand combat, and me to seek an orderly, or maybe less than orderly, retreat. Because I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “man’s man.” Pine cones were one thing, but actual fighting was not for me.
I am not a man’s man. I cannot bench press a car, I wouldn’t make a good soldier, I don’t own a chainsaw, and I’ve never been a rugged man. A ‘fix it’ man.
And in addition to those supposedly ‘non-manly’ things I see a therapist and try to understand my emotions.
General Patton has often been pointed to as being the epitome of male toughness. But he slapped soldiers he met in the hospital because of mental health issues. He didn’t consider such non-physical complaints, at that time called battle fatigue but now known as PTSD, as valid. Is that what men are supposed to be? Tough talkers who slap around those who show signs of mental illness.
Society says yes, at least judging by how Patton has been deified in this country, but I am learning to say no. I say no. I say that sometimes I’m not okay and sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t sought help. I wonder if I’d just be another male suicide victim.
I may not understand what drives me or why I have these struggles. But I understand that recognizing that fact and trying to do something about it doesn’t make me less of a man.
A big part of my struggles comes from my struggle to communicate my fight to those around me. This is also common among men. Men don’t burden others with their troubles. Instead men sit, and watch sports, and drink beer, and talk more about the athletes they see on the television than themselves.
And don’t get me wrong, I love beer and sports too. But unlike the example I gave above, I’ve learned how much I need therapy. History, society, they may say its not manly. But I am surviving. Too many men aren’t. Too many men are casualties of a gender stereotype that is literally killing them. And surviving is manly. Fighting the same mental health demons that sometimes kick your ass and might always be waiting for you shows mental toughness that is manly.
Growing up I showed emotion. I cried. And for that I was not a popular kid. I was considered weak and a crybaby and left out, a fact that fed the isolating feelings from my earliest memories of depression. Because when a boy shows emotion society tries to beat it out of them, force them to conform into being a king. A general. A warrior. But rarely are men raised to be poets and painters, ballet dancers and barbie collectors, teachers, therapists, and so many other things that are considered not manly.
I’ve always struggled to know who I am, to understand how I define myself. The depression and anxiety feeds doubts that were born out of this understanding that I was somehow not a man, an understanding that came about only because society said so. And slowly I am learning to undo that damage.
I may not have ever been a leader or one of the cool kids in school. I may have never fit into the archetype of king, general, or warrior. But now I hope that other men start following my lead. I hope that we as a society can redefine what being a man is, so that maybe we won’t lose so many men to suicide, alcoholism, and the like.
Within the stigma of mental illness there are so many smaller stigmas to overcome. A few posts back I talked about the stigma surrounding police. Today it is men. And the one thing these stigmas have in common is that they can kill. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
We can redefine male toughness to be someone that shows emotional courage, that is open and honest about what is going on inside them. Maybe this post will be a small first step, but only if we get the message out there. May is mental health awareness month and the data are clear that men are in particular need of that awareness. I hope that this post has helped to do that, and that others out there can do similar things for the kings and generals and warriors in their lives. And then, together, maybe we can define men not in the unrealistic way we want them to be, but in the way they actually are.