Aaron J. Smith says that depression robs him of his manhood.
I am an adult man.
I can go grocery shopping, do laundry, prepare meals, do the dishes, clean the bathrooms, vacuum, pay bills, do taxes, and a host of other adult behaviors. At 36, I better be able to hold my own as a grown up. So I do all the things required to maintain a household, be an adult, and generally not suck at life.
Except when I can’t.
As much as I want to say that I am always capable, I have to admit that I am a mess at times. I have to admit that there are times in my life when I am unable to function as an adult in today’s society. I have to admit that there is a distinct possibility that on any given morning I might wake up in the throes of depression.
Depression stalks my life. Not just blue days or an extended case of the Mondays. I mean clinical depression. Depression I have to take medication to combat. This depression creeps into my life at various points like an unexpected illness or unwanted house guest. It shows up and demands that I pay attention to it, that I feed it, that I give in to it. It cripples me and reduces my capacity to function as a “normal” person. It makes me feel like less of a man because it replaces my capability with apathy.
Apathy is the best term I can come up with for what depression does to me. It’s not that I’m simply sad. It’s that I can’t bring myself to care. No matter how dirty the house gets, no matter how late the bills are, no matter how many days it’s been since I last showered, I just simply don’t have the strength or energy to care.
This isn’t how an adult man is supposed to act. We are supposed to be strong, to be capable, to keep going no matter what. We are supposed to be a rock, not eaten away by emotions and apathy. At least those are the lines fed to me about being an adult man. This idea of strength as the cornerstone and shape of manhood was given at a young age and has stuck with me, serving as both a definition to strive for and as a standard to compare myself to.
So as depression brings its waves of apathy, how am I not supposed to feel less of an adult, less of a man, a loss of value?
When our definition of manhood is wrapped so tightly with what we can accomplish, do, and conquer anything that keeps us from achieving these things is emasculating. When we tie our worth into this cultural definition of manhood, any failure to meet the marks of manhood result in a devaluation of the view of ourselves. When my value as an adult man is tied into what I am capable of doing, depression and its accompanying apathy threaten to rob me of that value.
This is a struggle for men who live with depression.
So when depression smothers us with the blanket of apathy, what do we do? How do we fight when we don’t even have the strength to care, when our days are cold and numb? I wish I had an answer to these questions. Truth is, I struggle hard with the apathy of depression. When it’s bad, bills don’t get paid. When it’s bad, I don’t shower. When it’s bad, I descend into isolation from my family. When I am having a bad day or a bad week, I feel like so much less of a man. I feel like I have no worth, no value. I feel like everyone else has their shit together and I’m floundering around playing pretend at adulthood.
Luckily for me, the treatment of counseling and medication helps me fight against it all. I am learning, slowly, to untangle myself from this cultural definition of manhood. The expectation that as a man I am always strong, always capable, always have things under control needs to be left bleeding by the side of the road. It’s not healthy to expect perfection of myself, especially because I battle mental illness. I’m not always strong. I’m not always able to take command. I’m not always able to function like a “normal” person. This doesn’t make me less of a man. This doesn’t diminish my value. This simply admits that I have an illness that I am learning to live with. This is embracing the truth that depression is my dark companion and with it comes these times of apathy.
I have to admit that I need help. I need my therapist. I need my psychiatrist. But more than that, I need my friends and family. I need a community of people that will help uphold me in the hard days. I need people who can come alongside me when I am weak and rather than judge me can offer compassion and care. I need a group of people that are dedicated to me and my worth no matter what storms rage inside of my head and heart. I need them to remind me that I am valuable when I don’t feel it. I need them to remind me of the truth that I am a man even when I am laid low by my illness. I need them to help me learn to be gentle with myself, to be kind to myself.
I need friends to help me see truth despite the lies of manhood I have internalized over the years.
So how do we combat this depression and the smothering blanket of apathy? With community. With other people. By being willing to share our story with fellow humans. By relying on the therapists, psychiatrists, and (perhaps most of all) our friends and family to help us battle our demons.
We have to burn the straw man of manhood that says it is an individual effort, a lonely thing, a strong isolation. We have to destroy the notion that we can do life on our own and we don’t need nobody else. We have to give up our ideas of strength as a lonely pillar and embrace the reality that it is the strength that allows us to admit we need other people to help us in our weakness.
I’m not going to call you to throw off the chains of depression. I know how impossible that can be. Instead, I am going to ask you to be honest about what it’s like to live with mental illness. I’m going to ask you to value yourself enough to share the truth with your family, your friends, your therapist. I’m going to ask you to be strong and admit the reality of the situation: depression breeds apathy in men and that eats away at our self-worth.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. It’s going to take some bravery on our part, some opening up about the reality of living with a mental illness and an admission that perhaps the idea of manhood we are measuring ourselves against is full of internalized lies. But we can be brave. We can be strong and admit our need. We can be men and bind ourselves to a community of friends where we can give of ourselves as well as be taken care of.
We have in our grasp the power to do the brave things, get the help we need, to model a new kind of manhood to the next generation, one that is brave and honest about its needs. Depression and apathy don’t have to get the best of us. They don’t have to define us. We are not our illness. We are so much more valuable than that.
Photo Credit: Aaron J. Smith/Cultural Savage