Being deeply unhappy, even in the past, is not a story men are encouraged to share.
As a teenager, I carried such negative internal narratives that they resulted in actual physical responses of tightness and nausea a dozen times a day. These sensations of self-loathing would wash over me, creating a prickling sensation that raced across my skin, followed by a wave of heat resolving into a physical pain in my chest. It was like being shocked or hit. For me, it happened when I interacted with others or even imagined myself interacting with others. It happened when I looked at girls, spoke to my friends or simply saw myself in a mirror.
The internal dialogues of teenagers are the result of every interaction; every conversation they have ever had or witnessed. In his remarkable post, Confronting the Devil on Your Shoulder, Thomas Pluck talks about the process of digging out of the crippling negative messages many kids internalize from an early age.
The roots of my self loathing were both circumstantial and biological. They included my parents’ acrimonious divorce, an absent father, an explosively volatile and physically abusive older brother, a jarring relocation and a very late puberty. But events alone are not what holds a child back. It was the lack of communication about these events. It was the silence.
I grew up in a time when talking to your kids about their feelings was about as likely as joining the Bolshoi Ballet. My parents were born during the great depression. My life as a child was a cake walk compared to what they had to endure. My father’s stories of his childhood are a powerful evocation of grit and resiliency, but I don’t think he had a lot of conversations with anyone about how he was feeling. The blinding white flash of the back of this Step Father’s hand, yes, but not a lot of chit chat.
So, he and my mother took us as far as they could. And as much as I respect their journeys, mine is not made invalid by comparison. It is often said that we parents always want something better for our kids. But there is a larger truth at work here. On a meta level, we all simply can not live good lives without connection and communication. The central role of connection and communication in parenting is that it helps children process and frame the joys and challenges in their lives.
As a child, I needed help to parse the complexity of the world. I needed connection. I needed to talk to someone who could help me make sense of things. Instead, I was left to construct a world view on my own. This is not a job any eight year old should have to do alone. Though I had conversations with my peers, they were in no position to help. And those kids were not my primary focus. I spent my time tracking the kids who were a direct threat.
My strategy for creating safety was to play the feisty little guy. I took up smoking at twelve. I brown-nosed the bigger guys on my block. I always had a compliment for them. I was always ready to give them a cigarette. I formed what alliances I could. At one point, I landed a free-period job working in the Assistant Principal’s office. His name was Mr. Wooten. A tall sullen man who walked with a limp. Someone said he had suffered polio as a child. From an educational perspective, he was not the carrot. He was the stick.
When the school toughs would get sent in for misbehaving, I would stamp their forms and send them back to class, without their ever visiting Mr Wooten. Before they left, I would open the confiscation drawer in big grey file cabinet and hand them a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
This bought me some immunity during recess, in those terrible moments when the bullies would scan the ranks of the geeks and pick the guy who was going to take the beat down. Luckily for me, I had some sense of style. There were a number of boys who simply didn’t get it. A guy named Edward who literally had a pocket protector. I recall deep pangs of sympathy as savage abuse rained down on him. He was like the cow that was driven in downstream from the herd, to attract the piranhas. They would close in on him in the dark back corner of the locker room as the rest of us squirmed past to the relative safety of the well lit gymnasium. I always felt sick with guilt that he was back there, wide eyed and supremely puzzled behind the wall of thick bodies. To this day, my gut boils at the thought that no one in the school administration gave a shit about Edward.
But to save my own skin, I was happy to scoff at Edward as loudly as the rest. To make him the butt of the kind of vicious jokes that leave you feeling filthy forty years later. To push him in downstream from me and race across the river. Edward and Larry and Jack and all the rest who haunted the nearly abandoned chess club, picking absently mindedly at their pimples. Sacrificial sheep to the young alpha adherents of directionless masculine savagery.
I got myself elected to the student council by drawing endless election posters. My opponent was a girl named Louise Bone. My opponent’s polite drawings of her name and the world “elect” (I’m thinking maybe she included some flowers?) took a back seat to my drawings of a grinning dog with a bone in its sharp teeth. I can only imagine what it was like for her to see my posters all over the school making fun of her name. It would not surprise me if the phrase “Don’t pull a boner” was invoked. I don’t recall. For me, getting elected was my ticket to getting out of P. E. for the final year of school, and I didn’t care who took a beating in order for me to escape that place. My caustic campaign struck a chord with my peers. I was elected.
The first girl who ever agreed to be my girlfriend was named Anne. Initiated by the delivery of the words “Would you go with me?” scrawled in my nervous hand on a piece of lined notebook paper. Anne was on the student council with me. So, we decided to form an alliance. To become boyfriend and girlfriend. We sat together at lunch and passed notes. We did not kiss. We did not hold hands. We simply assigned each other the titles and were therefore free of the stigma of not being with anyone.
I had no sexual urges to speak of. I was still physically a child. Puberty was a year or more away. I recall the physical agony it caused me to try and give Anne a kiss on the cheek. All I had to do was lean over in an unguarded moment and give her a little peck. I knew that this was necessary. I knew I needed to validate my role as the boy. The pressure to do so was almost unbearable. But I could not do it. No matter how hard I tried, the thought of putting my skin in contact with her’s was physically impossible. The best I could manage was brushing the back of my hand against hers as we walked. An accidental touch. But kiss her? Impossible. As if in order to lean over to her, I would be pulling against some massive personal horror bolted firmly to the world itself. Meanwhile, I clearly understood that kids my age were rolling around on this one particular sweaty mattress in this one particular neighborhood garage. Feeling what, in god’s name, I couldn’t have guessed.
When it became clear to us that neither Anne nor I were inclined to fumble around in the alarming realm of physicality, we were left feeling like relieved failures, or at least I was. It ate at me because off all the bragging sexual dialogues swirling about. I didn’t care about sex. But I wanted to be able to brag about it to someone. anyone.
Not one of my finer moments.
Once, toward the end of my painfully courteous relationship with Anne, we were sitting side by side in the lunch room. My older brother took up a position facing us at a nearby table. He spoke to his buddy in a loud voice about how I couldn’t even bring myself to touch my girlfriend. He carried on this conversation so that kids for tables around could clearly hear him. In that moment, I fought to reach across and simply touch Anne. On the shoulder, or arm or hand. I couldn’t do it. I was acutely aware that I simply didn’t care to, making my inability to touch Anne embarrassing as both a prospective lie and a failure of manhood in the same moment. Shame flooded my face red. And hatred. I can still remember my brother laughing. “See?” he kept saying over and over. “See?”
By the first year of high school, I had only barely entered puberty. I was years behind my peers in qualifying for the attention of girls. My voice was still quite high. I giggled hysterically. When I discovered beer, I drank and then poured out a ceaseless stream of self pity stories. Girls walked off in droves. It took ten years to get myself on track, to build any kind of baseline of self esteem. As Thomas Puck puts it, to Confront the Devil on My Shoulder. And learning to forgive myself for not doing better as a sad and frightened eight year old somehow remains an ongoing process. We internalize the negative messages we get as children. When we hear them in our adult relationships they seem so familiar that we let them slip in again. Its a cycle of grief and pain that can only be broken through human communication and thoughtful self care.
But I will say this to men and women alike. You can’t let other people tell your stories for you, or censor you, or shame you. If you get a hint of that from someone who purports to care about you, go somewhere and rethink that relationship. Immediately. And if it continues long term, leave for good. And don’t bother looking back.
Being deeply unhappy, even in the past, is not a story men are encouraged to share. When we talk about what has happened to us, we feel pressure to construct a narrative that has us overcoming our troubles. Its embarrassing to admit that we’re not done with our old business. That old slights and old wounds still pain us, sometimes more deeply than we can express. But men need a space to grieve what has been lost. We need to advocate proudly for our right to grieve. Because honestly, many of us have never had our funerals. We never have been granted the retelling of our lost battles and weary retreats. And because of this, they remain with us, long after they should have been dead and buried.
To tell our stories of grief is to be vulnerable. And vulnerability is the third rail of male expression. Put simply, to go there can get you erased, gone, killed. While there is a popular assumption that women are asking for us to connect in more emotional ways, our intimate partners can often be repelled by male vulnerability. This is because there are so few spaces in which vulnerabilty to framed as an asset, as a pathway to strength. So few spaces where it is even visible at all. So, on some level our partners can not be blamed for turning away from displays of vulnerability.
But vulnerability is the key to living a fuller life.
Whenever I see an aggressive man, I see a man who is taking with force what he can not devise a way to be freely offered. It is the opposite of being vulnerable. While there is ample evidence that our human side, our stories and our vulnerability can create more significant connections in our lives, we, as men, often hide. Because we have seen those who rely on us for strength withdrawing at signs of uncertainty or worse, sadness. So, we struggle as men with the double bind. To be expressive can heal our souls, to be vulnerable can open up the doors of self awareness, but society and often our most intimate partners are not prepared for those dialogues because they can be immense.
And so there is a lot of hidden grief in the world.
More than once I have been asked the following question about my writing. “What do you think about your son or his friends reading this?”
It is a complex question. At what age? I don’t think I want him reading it in the next five minutes, but are we all to hide our stories until our children are grown? Stories that I believe add in crucial ways to the changing ideas about what it is to be human? Are we all to hide our stories generationally? To be released half a century later like some declassified cold war documents splattered with redacted details meant to protect still virulent state secrets?
Silence is shaming. Inherent in the call for keeping our stories private is the assumption that we should be ashamed of them. Brené Brown in her ground breaking TED talk, notes that people have a simple fear. That if people find out enough about us, we will not be worthy of connection. She goes on the say though that the happiest people she has met prioritize vulnerability and authenticity. Brown writes: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
We live in a society that asks man to whitewash their narratives and keep a lid on their emotions. This is both killing men and damaging the boys coming along behind. The varied and rich private stories of men and women and the conversations those stories invoke are part of the greater narrative of being human. If we are struggling in life, it is not because we have shared too many stories. It is because we have shared too few.
And then there is this: our children are creating their stories right now. They are parsing out meaning and creating the frames that will define their view of the world and of themselves. How can we as parents invite them to share those stories with us? How can we help them develop rich complex conceptual skills, such as creating multiple frames for any challenges they may be facing? How can we help them feel safe, confident and most of all free to share their experience of the world?
The telling of stories and the conversations that result is generational. Our kids need us to hear their stories and engage them in conversations about life and living, helping them learn to thrive and find their own joy in our vibrant world of complexity, uncertainty and change.
Please note: The names in this article have been changed to protect the individuals in my past. My recollections and my interpretations are my own.
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