This post was written by Stephen A. Harris, who was asked to reflect on his experience with mental health and masculinity in his life. He is a dear friend of mine who has agreed to share his story. Thank you Stephen!
It Started From the Beginning
“You weak, cuz.”
“Why you cryin’ like a bitch?”
“You need to man up, that’s how females talk.”
These were common phrases when showing emotion around family growing up, especially my cousins around the same age as me. I was raised to believe real men don’t cry, real men are tough and real men don’t show weakness. What I didn’t realize was the damage that was being done that affects me to this day.
I very vividly remember a day when I was four, maybe five years old. I was at my grandparents house on my father’s side visiting during for a trip in the summer like we did every summer and we were playing in the pool out back. The pool was an above ground pool on top of an even concrete surface and it had one of those metal grates that led under the house, very Silence of the Lambs-y. We would sit on that, but not in the pool – just a sheet of metal and hard to balance on with wet feet. One time I tried to run into the pool and I slipped and hit my knees on concrete. When I went to stand up, there was a lot of blood so, as many children do, I cried and went inside for help and comfort. When you’re that young, all you know is that you’ve never that much of your own blood and it’s shocking.
When I went back outside, all of sudden all my cousins got very cold towards me. They started insulting me and throwing around phrases not too dissimilar from the ones above. Feeling rejected, I went inside and was sitting with my Pop Pop as he was making lunch and he explained to me how men don’t cry, crying like that shows some people you don’t deserve respect, “that’s just the way it is.”
I’d like to emphasize – the way he explained it, I don’t think he thought that way. But he wanted to explain that that’s how the world is and to stick to the status quo.
Am I The Problem?
That was the beginning of a very negative trend. In elementary school, I would judge the other boys for crying. In middle school, I let the other boys call me ‘gay’ and tell the whole school I’m ‘gay’ because my closest friends were girls. In high school I had friends who, when I shared my feelings on not really being that interested in hooking up with girls and more just wanting to date to feel close with someone, usually met my feelings with silence. Every time, I convinced myself that I was the problem, I tried to break the status quo.
Anyone who knows me can tell you I’m a very emotional guy. When I’m excited, you can feel it. When I’m frustrated, it’s obvious. When I’m disgusted, confused, even apathetic, it’s all on my sleeve. I can confidently say there’s two emotions I don’t show – fear and sadness. If I do show them?I run.
When I’m feeling afraid, I usually make up an excuse. I say that I’m in too much pain (I suffer from chronic pain so it’s an easy excuse) or that I’m not interested. It’s a lot easier to say that then it is to admit the real reason. I’m afraid I’m going to be bad at something, or that I’m nervous in certain situations all my friends seem so confident in, or I find many strangers intimidating to talk to.
When I’m sad, I usually bury it. I get performative and try to be funny. I try to focus on everyone else’s business or problems. If it’s too much to handle and I start to show it, I’ll usually just leave. If I can’t leave I end up completely shutdown, never providing an explanation, usually just saying ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m fine, just bored.’
That day at my grandparents house really stuck with me. It’s been over two decades since that day and I still don’t cry, even when I’m alone and there is no one else to say anything. That day, and many days like it, have created someone who holds onto all his problems. Someone who was depressed for a long time, and anxious for even longer. However, it also created someone who denied these things because I thought mental health wasn’t real and those feelings didn’t exist.
Finding My New Normal
It wasn’t until college, when I had a network of friends who accepted me and the things I previously saw as flaws, that I realized the flaw wasn’t in me, but in my idea of normal. I began to see and accept the cracks in my own mental health. I accepted my chest wasn’t tight all day because I slept weird or because the weather was off – those were real things I would tell myself to explain constant chest tightness – but because I was anxious. That was really the beginning of my mental health journey. I began seeking help and support for myself and, when I felt equipped to do so, I began offering my help and support to others. Every day since, I feel more confident to share what I feel.
Ultimately, it’s about letting people live and letting them do as they please as long as it isn’t harming themselves or others. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who support you and who can support back. Ultimately, it’s about you. As someone who used to reject the concept of mental health entirely, I understand it’s a long journey. I’m not sure when and if it will ever end, but I’m a lot happier to be on the path than on the sidelines.