Men keep going out of a sense of duty. What happens when that’s no longer enough?
I lay under the duvet cover screaming, screaming out loud. I could feel the break coming. I felt helpless and hopeless and I did not know what to do, I did not know how to deal with my wife, with my life. I was lost; as a husband, as a man, as Graham. I knew something was wrong, something more than the clash of brute force and stubbornness, something more than the titan struggle that had been going on downstairs. I was so lost I could not even work out what was wrong. I just wanted the world to go away.
After thirty years of marriage all I could see was destruction and emptiness. The love was destroyed, the friendship and companionship was being pried apart by the alcohol and the addiction. I had done what a man does; I had solved the problems. It was supposed to easy. The application of male logic to a situation could solve anything, no?
I screamed as I realised I had not only not solved the problem of my wife’s alcoholism, I had made it worse. My logic had failed to lever open the door of my wife’s emotions to reveal the dark secrets inside. It had, in fact, nailed the door shut and sealed the gaps.
The marriage service all those years back had come to a conclusion with the words, “May their marriage be life-giving and life-long, enriched by your presence and strengthened by your grace; may they bring comfort and confidence to each other in faithfulness and trust.” I was unable to fulfil the promise I had felt, committed to and believed in. What was left?
I sat holding the phone feeling a deep, dark void inside me. The woman I was talking to was measured and persistent. She would not let go or make it easy for me. She wanted to know every last detail of my expenditures so that ‘we’ could create a plan for how I would deal with my debts and how I would move forward.
She had just cancelled all my regular payments, closed my credit card, and listed all the other credit card debts I had. She showed me how overwhelming my situation was, carefully and calmly telling me that as a bank they could not support me any longer, that I could not continue to use them to fund my life.
I had come from the office where I had just told the staff that for another month I was not sure when we were going to be able to pay them. I had told my business partner that for another month we were not going to be paid at all. Running a business had seemed such a great way to follow my passion and earn a fabulous income at the same time. It was, until the work stopped coming in, until I was unable to pay myself, until I was unable to support my family.
When I was young I rode the bus to school, one day, in a deep, dense fog. It was so bad that a conductor walked in front of the bus, guiding the driver, showing him the road ahead. I felt like that driver, only the conductor had disappeared. I was on my own and could not see the road. I had a bus full of kids that had to get to school. I had to get them there, but I didn’t know where to go. This was not a dream. It was reality.
I had learned that a man coped with what faced him and kept going. I had been taught that it was a man’s responsibility to absorb the shocks of the world and shield the others around him from what was happening. Men could see the big picture beyond the immediate needs of the family or the company; men could range ahead, like explorers, and plot the path through the endless dense jungle.
My father’s dominance had showed me that a man did not take no for an answer; a man knew better that that. We did not question what he decided for us because his experience meant he knew the answers. He put up a great front against the uncertainty of the world. From my perspective he did seem to have all the answers, even if he did not have the subtlety to explain them well. I absorbed this dominance and thought that it would see me through life.
Being born with a club foot had forged this dominance into a fierce determination never to be seen as inadequate or incapable of doing anything. I could never ask for help because that showed weakness, showed that my ‘imperfection’ had won. Through my early adulthood I pushed ahead and succeeded at so many things. Nothing could stand in my way: I either pushed it out of the way or I just climbed over it. If the men working for me got in my way I could hit them or side-step them with the power of my logic.
My father’s need to have the last word built in me the ability to keep going arguing, fighting, winning. Whenever I felt inadequate I taught myself how to get beyond it, how to defeat it. Any sense that I had physical disability just spurred me on to greater physical craziness. I could climb anywhere. If no-one else could do it, I could.
In the midst of my shame and despair was a deep knowledge that I had to go to the edge and just keep going. There was no option to turn back, no ability to re-live my life and go in a different direction. One of the great qualities in stubbornness is the fact that there is nothing to do but keep going. It may require stupidity, bull-headedness, or any other ridiculous male quality, but it always involves faith that is an answer out there, that all I have to do is keep going and I will come across it.
Eventually the screaming stopped and I got out of bed and went back to living. I let go of my marriage and built a new life with a new wife and a renewed love of life and the future. I put the phone down and started dealing with my debts. I now live on a pension and have a new career. The company is long gone and I work for myself: responsibilities gone, debts in the past.
There are computer games where the protagonist walks out into thin air and as he puts his foot down the ground appears below him. That is how life is for me, more often than I like to acknowledge. Trust, faith or sheer rock-like blindness, I am not sure.
I do question whether my view of life is the only one that works. I see men around me, in retirement, who have given up, all the stuffing long gone out of them. They sit with hollow, blank eyes staring into a future of… nothing.
A friend’s mother died last week. It was unexpected and devastating for the whole family. The most poignant comment, however, was what my friend said about her father:
“I don’t know what is harder to bear—the pain I am feeling myself or seeing my dad’s grief at the loss of his wife of nearly 60 years. I’ve never seen him cry before. He’s absolutely bereft. It’s excruciating. He absolutely adored her.”
Men often only see their justification in terms of their responsibility to other people; when those people have gone, there is nothing left. They keep going because their wife, children, and colleagues expect them to. They keep going because of the shame of giving up. They keep going because that is what they are here to do. They have never been proud of themselves, just their ability to provide for others. They have never seen themselves as worthwhile, just as responsible. When that responsibility has gone, what is there left?
Image credit: Born.to.be.mild/Flickr