I was having trouble with revolving doors. Actually it was one particular revolving door at the entrance to my university. Every time I walked through it something glitched in my brain like a faulty switch. In the instant my hand reached the cool metal of the handle my vision was blurring at the edges and a cold sweat covered my body. Stuck between two moving walls of glass my mind would crumble and fall apart in fear.
It was around this time that I also became obsessed with the poet John Keats.
He wrote about the world with an emotional intensity and brightness that appealed to me then. I devoured everything he had ever written, I read about his tragic too-short life, and I read about what other people had found in the poems I loved. In everything I read critics described his writing as feminine. I hadn’t thought about that but I wasn’t surprised. Keats wrote about beauty, delicacy, and tenderness, he mentioned moonlight and flowers, and this made him a feminine writer.
Decades after Keats’ death another English poet, Rudyard Kipling, set out the ‘ifs’ and ‘thens’ that he believed made a man, in a poem that celebrates stoicism, that most male virtue that still defines how we think about conventional masculinity. The ability to suffer silently and supress strong emotions is the way we were taught to be men, and before that boys.
Because that’s when it started wasn’t it? All this gender fuckery. Back when that first choice between dolls and dinosaurs was made for us, when it didn’t need to be a choice at all. We learnt that being a boy was defined mostly by things that are not done. Boys don’t sing and dance, boys don’t cook and clean, boys don’t cry.
But boys did cry.
I knew that because I was 21 now and I was crying all the time. Mostly in toilets at train stations, although once absurdly in a supermarket, standing halfway down the condiments aisle, watching the jar of peanut butter I was holding begin to blur through eyes that were suddenly wet.
I wasn’t sure why I was crying, only that it had something to do with the revolving door problem and also a girl I’d broken up with months ago.
She was the kind of girl anyone would have fallen for, not perfect exactly but exactly and perfectly flawed. One slightly wonky front-tooth, and a habit of biting her fingernails down to the quick. She was a committed vegetarian, except for the times she got drunk and ate chicken nuggets.
The relationship came with a kind of intimacy that was new and terrifying. I was overwhelmed and insecure, but these things were also on the list of what boys are not, so I made sure all she saw was indifference and detachment, and after a while she wisely gave up on me. By the time I was breaking down in a supermarket we had been apart for longer than we were ever together, but I was thinking about her all the time.
Meanwhile at the edges of my life young men were dying, or rather they were taking their own lives. A boy from school, a co-worker, a friend’s younger brother. These men were slipping away in the same way that they might slip away from a party early, without saying goodbye, not noticed until they were gone.
And we carried on partying, because what else was there to do?
We told ourselves we were having the time of our lives.
Eventually I found myself in a doctor’s office, avoiding eye contact and staring instead at a poster of the human body without any skin, as I tried to explain about the revolving doors and how they tricked me every time into thinking I was dying. The doctor, a man in his late 50s I guessed and with hair creeping out in small tufts from him nostrils, frowned as I spoke and when I’d finished he paused, then asked me if I’d thought about using different doors to get to my lectures.
This wasn’t the remedy I’d hoped for. “I’m also crying in public toilets a lot,” I blurted out ashamedly. He murmured something vaguely encouraging about feeling better in a week or two and ushered me out of his office.
I couldn’t understand at the time why my doctor had been so reluctant to help me, but later I realised that he’d been embarrassed. He let me go with an uncomfortable smile and the words left unsaid but implied, be a man. I kept thinking about the poster I’d seen in his office – a flayed man, made up of all raw and vulnerable flesh laid bare.
Shamefully incompetent doctors aside, I was lucky.
I had people around me who showed me there were many ways to be a man. One was my own grandfather – a military man, a man who built things with his hands, and a man who cried easily. Another was one of my male teachers who quietly embodied all those ‘feminine’ values like gentleness, warmth and empathy that I’d first admired in Keats.
Then there was the girl who bought me flowers, which maybe doesn’t seem like a big deal, but was. She was trying to win my affection and it worked. Another time, when we’d been dating for a few weeks, I sat mesmerised watching her cross-legged on my bedroom floor deftly applying makeup. She caught my eyes in the mirror and asked, “Do you want me to do yours too?”
This girl was casually dismantling barriers with bunches of flowers, some eyeliner and lipstick. It’s true that these were barriers that had never really been there, but I’d imagined them for so long they’d started to seem real.
Fear, self-doubt, heartbreak – these are the things that as men, despite every piece of recent progress made, it still sometimes feels forbidden to talk about. It’s been years since all of this happened, and I don’t think about it much anymore. I can’t say exactly when I started to feel better, only that eventually I did. Walking through doors no longer fills me with existential dread. I am the master of all kinds of entrances and exits.
But I’m talking about it because I think that stoicism is mostly unhelpful for everyone, and because I suspect that signs of the same kind of crisis are there in the faces of men we all know, if we look for them.
And to those men I’d say, be a man, and be Keats or Kipling or any other kind. The ways are fucking infinite.
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