There is a tattoo indelibly inked on the young souls of boys in lone wolf training: Don’t trust men.
Lone wolves aren’t born; they’re formed in the rigorous training program that begins when boys are young and impressionable. A boy never volunteers to participate in this program, but his dysfunctional father conscripts him into it. While the ultimate goal of military training is to build men up, lone wolf training tears boys down. Left in its wake is a tattoo indelibly inked on their young souls: Don’t trust men.
There’s no official ceremony to mark his graduation, but a young man quickly realizes he’s completed lone wolf training. After his initial failed attempts at friendship, the lone wolf graduate frequently gives up in despair. The lone wolf stands atop his hill, watching the pack below hunt together, eat together, and socialize. The pack shuns him, and few of the female wolves choose him for a mate. The nagging feeling that something is wrong with him is unrelenting.
Becoming a lone wolf wasn’t my choice; it was my fate. As a young boy, I endured the rigors of lone wolf training until I left for college. My father was a huge, angry man whose use of violence as a training tool terrified me. I knew by age 10, that I couldn’t trust him. His behavior taught me everything I needed to know about men. This was my lone wolf orientation program, and throughout the more than twenty years I’ve worked with men, I’ve seen many lone wolves endure this same program in some form.
The principal of my school and the local police noticed my troubled behavior, but no one connected it to my home life. My father acted as if my bad behavior was inexplicable. By the time I was 16, I was drinking, doing drugs, had been expelled from school and arrested for car theft. As a teen, I began converting my pain into anger. I buried my boyhood memories, naïvely believing that they were gone forever. By age 20, I had no self-control whatsoever.
In my late 30s, I became a successful entrepreneur, choosing to work alone because I refused to play by anyone else’s rules. Fortunately, I had the entrepreneur’s survival instincts and stamina to succeed in business. Unfortunately, those same characteristics prevented me from feeling any need for self-examination. I mean, I was successful, right?
My relationships with women were numerous, brief, and primarily sexual. I was simply too frightened to open my heart, and the notion of being vulnerable with a woman was impossible, based on my trust issues. I was any woman’s worst nightmare because women wanted something from me that I was entirely incapable of giving them: emotional intimacy.
By 40, the pain from my isolation was, at times, visceral. I was desperate for the type of friendships I noticed other men enjoying. There was camaraderie between male friends that I was hungry to experience. My initial, awkward attempts at making friends failed because fear and mistrust weren’t qualities other men sought in friends.
In my early 40s, I attended a Robert Bly daylong event, and by the end of that day I realized that many of the 500 men in the auditorium were also dysfunctional loners. Their boyhood stories explained both their behavior and mine. That day marked the beginning of a long and difficult journey.
The next week I started a men’s group with eight other men, mostly strangers I’d recruited. I was terrified about being open and vulnerable, but I was even more afraid of remaining a lone wolf for the rest of my life. My first order of business was to understand why I was such a screwed up guy. Because I’d buried my boyhood memories, I couldn’t figure out where my life had taken a wrong turn. I simply sat hunched over in my chair in a circle with eight other men, with my head in my hands, staring at the floor. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone. I was temporarily frozen in terror.
Fifteen minutes into that first meeting, I lost my temper. I don’t remember why, but it doesn’t matter. I attacked someone for something about which I immediately forgot in the throes of my angry outburst. The other men were stunned by my behavior. One man calmly asked why I was such an angry guy. I was shaken, but I sat silently until another fellow wanted to know what kind of relationship I’d had with my father. The lid on Pandora’s Box exploded open.
Years of repressed boyhood memories flooded into my consciousness. I was caught in a raging river, and all I could hope was to remain afloat. Terrifying incidents washed over me like fast-forwarding movies as I re-experienced boyhood trauma. I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak. Tears came instead of words, and I hadn’t cried in a very long time. The man next to me put his arm around my shoulder and suggested I take my time. His tone of voice was soothing. It was the first time I’d relaxed around men.
Once I’d regained some composure, I shared the movie that looped in my head. After telling my story I felt a sense of relief, but it was the compassion of the other men that melted away my fear. I had been open and honest with eight men, and none had betrayed my trust. No one offered his opinion, advice, or judgment. Instead, each man thanked me for sharing my story and offered his sympathy for my pain. I was encouraged to revisit my story as often as necessary. As I felt the fear drain from my heart, my anger was the only casualty that evening.
In time, I forgave my father because I saw him as a victim, too. Fear and mistrust, my perpetual demons, had been eating away at my heart since boyhood. Rather than challenge those demons, I had accepted them, along with the notion that everyone lives in pain. Living as a lone wolf had been like living in an emotional vacuum, and the compassion from the men in my group breathed oxygen into my emotionally starved soul. I learned a simple but critical lesson about friendship: trust is the glue that binds men together.
—Photo Todd Ryburn/Flickr