Ask any suicide survivor what thoughts were running through their mind when they decided to end their life, and you’ll come across a common theme: feeling trapped.
Trapped in relationships, trapped in financial circumstances, trapped by family, trapped by obligations that seem as impermeable as iron shackles.
In Western countries, men are a very high risk group for suicide. According to US numbers, men are four times more likely to complete suicide than women.
Having contemplated suicide, I can tell you that the notion of escape was powerful. As a psychiatrist colleague of mine, Dr David Codyre, put it so well: suicide is “an act that is driven by the absence of any other choice more than an act of choice”. It doesn’t set you free in a world where you feel trapped, but your overloading brain tells you that it’s the next best thing.
How did we get here? When I think of my grandfather and many like him who fought for our freedoms during World War II, I can’t help but wonder what it is about modern manhood that sees some of us take the exit route rather than hold onto the life that sheer luck has bestowed upon us. Could it be, despite thousands of years of male-dominated culture, that much of our freedom is illusory? Where is our missing freedom?
Here’s four things I think we need to work on:
1. Freedom to communicate
We avoid confrontation, unless it’s driven by physical aggression or the passive aggression of competition. We often fail to articulate what really drives us, upsets us, gets us out of bed in the morning or sends us into the pit of despair.
It’s not because we’re not capable of doing these things. The stereotype that men “don’t do feelings” and can’t communicate is a patronizing one. We don’t do it because we don’t think we’re supposed to do it. We fear that an honest conversation with a friend, partner, brother, sister, or parent will make them think less of us.
2. Freedom to love
Our avenues for showing affection toward one another are so limited. For heterosexual males, to show brotherly love and share physical, non-sexual touch carries with it a steamroller of judgment. At best, a hug might extend to a brief chest contact followed by three slaps on the back.
Surprisingly, gay men have more in common with their straight brothers than might seem obvious in this area. I shied away from showing physical affection for years because I was terrified someone might get the “wrong idea”. It didn’t matter how much I might have needed it. In fact, rejecting such affection was designed precisely to show how much I didn’t need it.
Because that’s what I believed it meant to be a man.
3. Freedom to be different
The Madonna song “What It Feels Like For A Girl” samples the following line from the 1993 film “The Cement Garden”: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it’s OK to be a boy.”
But it’s only “OK to be a boy” in a very restricted number of ways. The quote goes on to say that for a boy to look like a girl is considered “degrading”, and that this is rooted in misogyny.
I don’t believe we’re all misogynists, even those of us men who recoil at the idea of walking down the street dressed as a woman (though why anyone of any gender would wear high heels is a mystery to me). We’re crippled by fear, and it’s not just of looking like a girl. It’s of being or doing anything that’s considered by our peers or society to be girlish. Male nurses, hairdressers, personal assistants, retail workers … add your own stereotypical “pussy” professions to the list.
Again, straight and gay men alike do this to each other, out of competition to see who can be the most masculine. For both straight and gay men, a lack of masculinity equates to weakness and undesirability. Our sometimes unorthodox choices in music, clothing, leisure pursuits or careers can be cut off at a young age while we follow the path we believe we’re expected to, leading to deep dissastisfaction later in life.
4. Freedom to fail
I think all of us have a story somewhere in our past about our father, or a significant male figure in our lives, getting lost in the middle of nowhere on a trip and refusing to ask for help because he “knew” where he was going.
It’s just as well the earth is round, because if it weren’t, many of us—myself included—would swear blind that nothing was wrong in our calculations even as we continued to be sucked off the edge of the planet.
If there’s anything guaranteed to torture a man, it’s failure and the fear of it. Men are not supposed to get things wrong. Even in the book of Genesis, it was Eve who ate the apple and screwed everything up, that had nothing to do with us.
My one wish for men in the 21st century is that we gain the true freedom to fail and to respect that we’re all capable of it. Not only will it make us more courageous, more communicative, and more loving of our brothers, but it also will lead us to a realization that there’s many paths, many options available in life to make us happy men.
—Photo credit: CarbonNYC/Flickr