Does asking for help negate your manhood?
I didn’t ask for help. I couldn’t. An independent man didn’t need help. A real man didn’t call for or accept help. I couldn’t believe that there was anything in my life I couldn’t do alone. Mistakes were equally unacceptable, and I demanded perfection of myself. Too heavy to lift? Watch me. I didn’t need anybody for anything. Admitting otherwise was to admit I was less a man, and the very definition of who I was would suffer. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I became such an emotionally stunted and broken person.
I can’t remember a time, even as a child, when my pride would allow me to ask for help. Through school and into college, I didn’t need it. Helping others was perfectly OK. Getting help for myself was admitting a level of defeat I couldn’t bear to shoulder. When I’d find something I struggled with (like long division in fourth grade), I acted out in frustration.
My parents are not to blame. Somehow I internalized this version of what “IT” takes to be a man, that real men found a way to get “IT” done no matter the consequences and whatever “IT” was. My dad is a good man, and didn’t display the “go it alone” attitude I do. If not directly from him, then where did I get it?
I abused myself, my relationships and my body in my efforts to prove to everyone not that I was better, but that I didn’t need them. To me, the behavior was proof positive that I was growing into manhood. I was just fulfilling my vision of what it was to be a man. Now, however, I look back on those behaviors as just rampant stupidity.
Nine years ago I had what I call a nervous breakdown. I worked third shift out of necessity, as my wife and I could work opposite each other and never need to call in reinforcements for child care. Again, I hated asking for help. We did what we felt we had to do. I hated the job, the demands on my time, the stress it caused, my boss, and just about everything about it. However, I was too proud to admit the harm it was doing to me.
I slept in three or four hour spurts and knew levels of exhaustion I’d thought impossible. One night as I woke up to prepare for my shift, I was crippled by fear. I don’t mean that surge you get before a roller coaster or the mini adrenaline rush after a near miss to a car accident. I was absolutely frozen. I cried my eyes out over dinner and couldn’t move from the chair when it came time to leave. I resigned that night and felt as if a huge weight had been released from my shoulders. Rather than ask for help coping, it was easier to just quit.
The pattern repeated itself once more a few years later. I often say I wasn’t self aware enough to realize I was depressed but I don’t know if that’s the best way to describe it. Tunnel vision kept me from awakening to what was wrong with me and what it was doing to those around me. Why though. Why have I spent my life too proud, too stupid, or too sick to simply ask for help?
I’ve got a couple of ideas, but most reflect poorly on what we are taught as growing young boys.
- The traditional notion of manhood and masculinity. Can’t do it yourself? You’re a Pussy. (I include the word because of its popular use in adolescent and young adult vernacular for shaming others.)
- Pride and Shame. Asking for or accepting help somehow was a character flaw. I was ashamed if the topic was even brought up. OF COURSE I CAN DO IT, WHAT AM I? A WIMP?
- The illusion of strength: I’m strong enough to do it myself. I don’t need the help.
- My own mental illness. In my mind, nobody cared enough to help anyway and any offer otherwise was just for show. They didn’t really mean it.
That fourth one there? It belongs in the chicken and egg category. Which came first: Was it the mental illness causing my inability to admit I needed help or did the pressure I put on myself contribute to the mental illness? Whatever the cause, it nearly killed me. Twice I pondered suicide so seriously I was ready to pull the trigger. Once I was so close I can tell you the taste of gunpowder and the cold steel of a Smith and Wesson aren’t things I choose to experience again.
So what. One guy couldn’t handle the stress of life and nearly punched his own ticket. Who the hell cares, right? If it were just one guy it might not matter. There are thousands of us, each waging a war with himself and doing it alone. We don’t realize the damage we’re doing to ourselves and those we love by isolating them from our war. There is no shame in needing help, but too many of us don’t realize that until it is too late. No human can go their lives without needing help, and it is unhealthy and even deadly to believe otherwise. Eventually, many of us just snap.
I am no less a man because there is an obstacle too high or wide for me to cross. I am no less a man because I may weep openly. I am no less a man because I fear. I am no less a man because I am mentally ill. I am no less a man because only I get to decide what it means for me to BE a man. I will not be defined by a label. Instead, I choose to define the labels applied to me.
Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/flickr