I had been wanting to do a speech for a few years but I had always held back because it dealt with suicide and male suppressed emotions, a hard topic. There is still a bit of a taboo around the subject of suicide, no one talks about male suppressed emotions and it is a topic that has great personal relevance for me.
I finally decided to do it because I came to realise that people listen and learn the best when they are feeling pain. That by pussy-footing around these subjects, by not talking about them we are not being forced to confront them and therefore deal with them. When I refer to ‘we’ I mean each of us individually, but also our families, communities and nations.
I am not certain that this culture of always having to feel good, to concentrate only on happiness is doing any of us any good. When someone dies we want to celebrate their life rather than acknowledging the pain and the grief that we are feeling. Losing someone hurts. It hurts so that we can learn to love ourselves and others more intensely. If we celebrate when someone dies, how do we learn the difference between love and grief? We should celebrate someone’s life while they are with us and grieve when they die.
We must be willing to lean into our fear and grief. To think those tough thoughts and to engage in those painful conversations. Feeling discomfort is a sign that you are probably doing the right thing, not just the quick, easy and fun thing. If its uncomfortable, its the right thing to do.
The level of male suicide in this country is an appalling travesty. We can talk all we like about how bad it is and we can talk all we can about depression, but we need to understand what is really behind all of this. An unwillingness to allow discomfort into our own lives. An unwillingness to accept that we all play a part in what is happening all around us.
Researchers, scientists and mental health professionals can give us all of the theory and evidence they like. We can tell men how they ought and ought not behave but until we address the real issues and actually do something about it, as people, families, communities, cultures and nations, nothing is going to change and each year hundreds of New Zealand males will die by suicide.
The plan for me in the foreseeable future, is to continue to read, think and talk more about the dangers of Male Suppressed Emotions. To generate discussion and to change the world one conversation at a time.
I really do hope that I have the courage to see this through. If I happen to offend you along the way, I don’t apologise. This is not about your happiness or sensitivities because none of that is going to help anyway. This is also not about LGBT issues, its not about depression, or sexism, racism or PTSD. Its not about religion, human rights or political correctness. Its not about the latest research and understanding. None of that has offered any solutions (my brother committed suicide nearly 25 years ago and the rates of male suicide in New Zealand have hardly changed since then).
It doesn’t just affect those who have been ‘affected by suicide’. This is about all of us. Its about social and cultural expectations. Its about misconceptions around masculinity. Its about isolation and confusions. Its about those men who never have the courage to commit suicide but are forced to endure a ‘tortured’ life.
Its about, while it is socially acceptable (and often encouraged) to numb our emotions and torments, society still frowns upon those for whom even the numbing doesn’t provide a solution.
I don’t have the answers, I just know that something real needs to be done and that sometimes its going to feel uncomfortable.
“We are suspended, rudderless, between our long history of male privilege and the newer, more diverse masculinities emerging from decades of social and economic upheaval.”
Over the past few weeks I have been talking to a lot of men about men’s issues. About gender relationships, about the need for an acknowledgement of the unique issues that men face as a result of their upbringing and the social expectations placed upon them.
I have had the opportunity to listen to the stories of many men, their struggles their sadness and their fears. Beneath male anger there lies a whole lot of fear and it’s not easy to watch.
It is clear that our masculinity is killing us (suicide, destruction behaviours, ill health) and others, which is why this conversation has to happen. If not for us, then for our sons, daughters and partners
We are all (not just men) responsible for the damaging culture of manhood we live in and we must be willing to play our part in putting things to right. It’s going to be uncomfortable and men don’t deal with discomfort and uncertainty very well. We have been conditioned for generations to simply suppress our emotions and leverage the authority bestowed upon us by patriarchy.
But men don’t find power in patriarchy. Instead we find social and emotional isolation and respond in the ways that we know best: anger, alcohol, drugs, bullying, put-downs, rebellion and self-destruction. Locker-room talk helps us to maintain our dominance and control over women, the last true bastion of traditional masculinity.
When you see all of this, you see into a man’s true fear. You see into an upbringing of being taught to hide vulnerable emotions that imply weakness, like sadness, loneliness, fear and pain.
“We shame and bully our adolescent sons into giving up their loving friendships in order to prove a destructive and isolating set of negatives. … rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not, they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay. In response to a cultural context that links intimacy in male friendships with an age, a sex (female), and a sexuality (gay), these boys mature into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.”
But none of this is the exclusive domain of men. Many women hold onto the same fears, or face the same struggles, as a result of their own upbringing or because they find themselves in an aggressive relationship with a man that is trapped by his own masculinity.
We can heal, but it’s going to take time, generations. After generations of men being raised to stay disconnected we need to learn to connect with each other in different ways. When we learn to connect and to share our stories we no longer feel alone, sometimes for the first time in our lives, we become family, tribe and community.
We must stop the sexist attitudes, the bullying, the put-downs, brinkmanship, the locker-room talk and be willing to lean into the discomfort of becoming what a man could be, not what a man should be, because that discomfort isn’t going away anytime soon.
I am willing to try. Are you?
Oh, and for any women who have read this far. You need to be a part of this too.
Don’t measure me by the size of my dick
Don’t measure me by the strength of my anger
Don’t measure me by the ferocity of my own destruction
Don’t measure me by the cost or power of the car I drive
The size of my house or the shape of my body
Don’t measure me by the brand of the clothes that I wear
Don’t measure me by the friends I keep
The words I speak or the tears that I cry
Don’t measure me as I am or as I should be
Measure me instead only by what a man could be.
Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.com
Its 5 years (23rd June) since I suffered a heart-attack. Described on my medical records as a ‘significant episode followed by a series of major complications’ over a 4 hour period my heart had to be restarted 3 times. My wife was told that as it was unlikely that I would survive, she had best call in the family.
Even if I did come through they didn’t know what quality of life I would have. My heart had suffered severe damage and my brain deprived of adequate oxygen for a prolonged period of time.
Early attempts to withdraw life support proved unsuccessful but eventually I was stable enough to survive without it.
Yet, that was all the easy part, At least it was for me.
We were warned about the risk of Post Traumatic Stress and depression but not prepared for it. The loneliness, the loss of connection. Doubt, fear. The loss of social standing. Complete helplessness.
The brain responds to your sense of standing within your social hierarchy (your tribe). Mess with a person’s standing within their tribe and they are lost, worthless. It is a threat that has been used throughout history to bring down many powerful leaders. Its why some of history’s great leaders have died alone, ostracised by their followers. Why we fear dying alone and pity people who do.
Our tribe extends beyond just our family. It always has. Our tribe includes everyone that we have connection with each day. Those who provide us with protection, a sense of self-worth or purpose. People in our community and those we work with.
Our societies have changed, we have less to do with our neighbours, even less to do with our extended families, we are less likely to belong to clubs and our social lives are less likely to involve other people at all. Those who we work with have gained a greater relevance in our lives. We can come to feel a lot more connected to our workmates than at any other time in history.
In the weeks after my heart attack I felt a driving need a need to get back to work, to reconnect with my tribe.
When I lost my sense of connection, I lost my standing within my tribe. I lost my team, my position and my autonomy. I had been banished.
It seemed that no one truly understood what I was going through.
You know what? During this time I was being encouraged to emotionally disengage from the workplace. ‘It would be better for my health and my happiness’. Thank goodness that I know when someone is talking shit, that they are making stuff up just to make themselves seem smarter. I now know the exact opposite to be true. Emotional connection leads to a greater sense of community, creativity and innovation which in turn lead to happiness and a sense of fulfilment (that sense that you get at the end of your day that tells you that you have done a great job, that what you did mattered and that you made a change in some else’s life). And then gives you the courage to try again.
Some people when they go through depressive episodes choose to hide away. They stay away from the work place. For me it was important that I didn’t.
At times it has been incredibly lonely and often frightening. I needed the support of those around me, I needed them to understand and I needed their connection. I needed them to allow me to bring my whole self into the workplace. Warts, farts and all.
That’s the point of this story. We can’t always have our family around us. When we would love to be with them we have to come to work instead and that’s way too long a time to have to shut ourselves down. To cope. To hold our feelings, our emotions and our fears inside of us. And its damaging when we try to do that.
That is what tribes are all about. They can’t replace our families but they can be the next best thing.
Having faced up to my own struggles and refused to just turn my back on them, I look around me and see that we are all struggling with something. And I know that what people need is not my scorn or contempt. Not my criticism or selfish anger, blame or shame. They don’t need me to turn away when I see their struggle.
From the top down and the bottom up, we all have a right to feel safe, to be listened to and to know that we matter. The freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. The right to have our bad days and our sad days. And we have the right to fart in the workplace, if that’s what we need to do.
To my tribe, to everyone that stood beside and behind me over the last 5 years, those who have sat next to me and the customers, thank you from the bottom of my (broken) heart.
For those who haven’t been able to show up for me, there’s still time. Show me the authentic you and I will show up alongside you.
Photo by Elti Meshau on Pexels.com
This is all about those discussions that we wish we could have with our dad or that we wish we had had with him.
Its about the discussions we are still to have with our sons.
Its all about all of those things that we were never told about being a man and many of the things that we were.
Its about the decisions that we make about how we live as men. Its about understanding what it is to be a man and how that is changing.
It may feel uncomfortable to sit in a room with a group of men and talk about feelings and fears but we all have our insecurities, anxieties, and uncertainties that we don’t feel like we are “allowed” to express as men.
We are all obligated to speak freely, to share our knowledge, our thoughts and opinions with the world because it is through conversation and sharing that we learn and can bring about change in the lives of other men: our brothers, mates, sons and grandsons. Men that we love.
One of the leading contributors to male depression and suicide is a sense of worthlessness which, in turn, can be generated by misconceptions around what it is to me a ‘man’. This misconception is another leading contributor to male suicide.
Believing that someone would want to do something for you is difficult for so many who are struggling with a sense of their own worthiness. Perhaps you feel that you are not worthy of anyone’s help , should never expect it or that your help is worthless.
If they are not worthy, then you are most likely destined to live in service of others.
You may believe that you are expected and need to be independent. This sense of self-sufficiency can manifest itself as a refusal to accept that you can be wrong or that you need to always be right.
These feelings are all about shame. Perhaps you have been raised to believe that being wrong, making mistakes, relying on others, letting others down and not being able to fend for yourself are all shameful.
You may have just developed your own sense of shame in growing up, or you may have suffered some kind of persecution or oppression.
You may be avoiding shame if you struggle to accept or show gratitude, or if you habitually:
The first steps towards gaining or regaining a sense are worthiness can be very simple:
I know many people who instinctively blame others. They also very seldom admit to being wrong and will almost never ever apologise.
I recognise them in my family, among my friends, in the workplace and in many social situations. They come from all walks of life and I used to be just like them. I’m not perfect but I am working on being better at letting go.
The more that I let go of these habits:
Actor Sam Elliott was so cool and so damn tough. He had a certain look; a full head of dark hair, bushy, strong eyebrows and a big mustache. Tanned, slightly leathered skin. The characters he played were cowboys or bikers.
A man of few words, when he did speak it was with a voice as dark and as rich as a fine single malt whiskey.
He was a dark, solitary and mysterious man who would ride into town to deal to the men who couldn’t deal with it themselves and then ride back out again. Sam Elliott was so cool and so tough that he made Clint Eastwood look like a hormonal teenager.
I always wanted to be just like Sam Elliott.
A few weeks back Sam Elliott reappeared on my TV screen. The same full head of hair, strong bushy eyebrows and big moustache. His skin still leathery and his voice just as dark and as rich as ever.
But these days the hair and the moustache are white and instead of dealing to the guys that cant deal themselves, today Sam Elliott was dealing with himself.
Far more introspective, questioning his own value and self worth, dealing to his insecurities and self doubt. Reconciling past relationships and trying to reconcile his past, worried about his virility and considering that fact that he never did live up to his full potential. Never became what he had dreamed of becoming.
As I sat and watched this new, older man I realised that I am indeed now, just like Sam Elliot.
Its surprising how many men are struggling to deal with depression, low mood, self doubt. anxiety and all that emotional stuff that we are so bad at dealing with.
I talk of men because it are mostly men that I discuss these issues with. I have come across a couple of women, one in particular, and she is wonderful to talk to, but I sense that it is easier for women to talk about emotions. For men just talking about how we are feeling, how we struggle, is hard and these conversations create a special bond that men are not used to.
I believe in the power of conversation. These conversations that we have are, for men, only ever one-on-one. I wonder how it would be, how more powerful it could be, if we men were willing to, able to, have group discussions.
These one-on-one conversations, between friends, therapist / patient, its like its still a dirty little secret.
Take any group of men and consider how many of them, may be struggling with suppressed emotions and misconceptions about what it is to be a man, whether or not they realise it for themselves.
We only find others who are going through the same things as we are once we are courageous enough to speak up. Until that time, we suffer alone. How many men have suffered unnecessarily simply because they couldn’t speak up or speak out?
Its crap that we can’t do this better. I know about this stuff and I talk a lot about it but even I still find it hard to talk about and share. I’m thinking and hoping that the younger generations of men are doing it way better than us.
Yeah men need to change their ways and their attitudes, well many men do but we are as we are not just from choice. A lot of what men are about is because of social pressure. Its not a gender issue and I am coming to believe that its not a mental health issue. Its cultural.
If men can’t speak up and out about these issues, then who will?
The following is a speech that I proudly presented on Anzac Day, 2017. It is a message that should be shared.
At the outbreak of World War 2, Great Britain was still treating 120,000 World War 1 veterans for mental illness.
The casualty rate in wars since 1945 has fallen to just 30% of the levels experienced in World War 2. In the same time the rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has tripled.
When they returned to America the Vietnam veterans returned to a home divided by its own internal conflicts.
The Vietnam veterans were the most hate veterans of all time.
They were also the most traumatised.
In Afghanistan and Iraq only 10% of American soldiers actually see active combat, yet on returning home 50% of them suffer some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
On average 22 American veterans die by suicide each and every day.
We don’t have the figures for New Zealand.
For many soldiers going off to war is the straight forward part, it’s in coming home that their real battles begin.
For my Grandfather these were the 8 further invasive operations that he had to endure to treat his wounds.
It was the near 10 year long battle with bureaucracy before he was finally awarded his full pension and was finally able to give up having to go to work every day.
It was his ongoing battles with alcoholism and depression.
This speech was originally written for my grandfather but on Thursday I received this letter from a woman who I do not know. Who I have never met. In it she tells her father’s story detailing his experiences in World War 2 and the battles he faced when he came home. Jacqueline has asked that I also tell his story.
As it turns out Jack Freeman was, like my Grandfather, a gunner. Like my Grandfather he fought in Egypt and Italy. They may have even stood a long side each other at some time.
And like my Grandfather, on returning home, Jack also fought his battles against alcoholism and mental illness.
My Grandfather managed to eventually win through in most of his battles, but in a wardrobe, in his room in a veteran’s hospital in Dunedin, at the age of 72, Jack Freeman took his own life.
So this speech is dedicated to my Grandfather and to Gunner Jack Freeman.
Huia Percy known as Johnny stood just 5 foot 2. Married at the age of 24, by the time he was 28 he had lost his father, baby daughter and his pregnant wife.
Perhaps then understandable that when World War 2 came around Johnny was the first in the queue, leaving behind his infant son and aging , widowed mother.
If it wasn’t for illness Johnny would have been on the first boat out but by God he wasn’t going to miss the second one.
They took him to Egypt and trained him as a gunner.
He fought at Tobruk and El Alamein and was injured in both battles.
Driving his truck through the desert Johnny saw a plane coming directly at them. He stopped the truck and yelled to his mates to ‘Get out. Take Cover!’
His body riddled with shrapnel, Johnny was the only one to survive.
They picked him up, brushed him off and sent him off to Italy to do it all again.
My Grandfather went to war, was critically wounded but he survived.
In those days they just stitched them up and sent them straight back out there again.
He had the scars to prove it.
When he came home he brought his scars with him.
People thought it amusing to make loud noises around him and watch him dive for cover.
If you saw a soldier cowering neath your kitchen table, would you feel pride
Scared and broken man
here in a place where no one can understand
This was once home but now it’s changed
he has changed
normal has changed
and it no longer feels like his
Back home, he sees familiar faces
but they no longer see him
They tell him that he’s okay, that he must get back to work
but he can’t because these scars that he bears
hurt him so much, every single day
He drinks to numb the pain in his body and his head
and people look at him and
all he sees is disgust in their eyes
because no one trusts an old drunk
and he can’t trust them
Over there he knew who he could trust
he trusted his mates and they trusted him
Over there his mates had his back
because he had theirs
Over there he was a part of something, he mattered
and it mattered that he was over there
Over there he had purpose and self worth
Over there he needed to stay alive
to ensure that they did too
But his mates died over there and
he should have died with them
died for them.
But back here, back at home, he wishes only
that he was dead!
Here lies the last man
The last man to climb a tree as a kid
The last man to take a stupid risk
The last man to pull a girl’s hair just to get her attention
The last man to playfight with his brothers
So that one day he can defend his mum when his dad tries to beat on her again
The last man to work his arse off at school in an education system where boys no longer thrive just to make his parents proud of him
The last man who, as the last grams of self worth drain from his very soul
Finally gets his first job, earning minimum wage and learning the lonely isolation of working 12 to 13 hours a day, 6 and 7 days a week just to make ends meet
The last man to fight and sacrifice his way up the ladder until one day when he finally gets his one shot at the top job he misses out because …
“I’m sorry, we have a quota and you’re a man.”
The last man to lose everything
To never own a flash car or a flash house with a room for every kid,
a master ensuite and walk in robe for his wife
The last man allowed to follow his natural instincts to provide and protect
The last man to ever be left alone in a room with children
The last man to kiss his own daughter on the lips and tuck her into bed at night
The last man to see his son on Saturday without having to go to court first
The last me to celebrate Christmas Day with his children
The last man to ever raise his own kids
To even know that he was ever even a father and that
his life may have mattered after all
The last man who although he stopped believing in God a long time ago
throws his head back, raises his hands to the sky and screams
“What the FFFUUUUCCCKKKKKKKKK?????”
And when still it seems that no one is listening
Lashes out at something or someone or even himself
Because thats all he has left and
Its no longer enough just to be a man
Here LIES the last man
Here lies the LAST man, and
Here lies the last MAN.
The term ‘Toxic Masculinity’ really sucks and its heaping more hurt upon men.
I never liked it and I think that I have now come to hate it.
Masculinity is not toxic, being a man does not make you toxic. What is toxic however, is the culture in which boys and men grow up. How we treat them, what we teach them. How we discriminate against them and the expectations that we lay upon them.
It is not all about how men treat men, it is not all about Alpha Male syndrome and all that. Men live mostly to serve, protect and provide for children and women and many of our troubles come from trying to meet those expectations of women.
Our culture of shaming or blaming, accusation is becoming more and more toxic to men. Social isolation is toxic to emotionally suppressed men.
A culture where we tell men that they must not lash out in anger, is toxic to men who know no other form of emotional expression. Take away that one avenue of emotional expression and you create a pressure cooker of emotional suppression.
A culture where we expect men to fight their natural instincts to provide, protect, to lead.
It is our culture and it are our societies that are toxic, that need to change. We (all genders, all people) need to create a new culture in which men can thrive as men and as authentic people, authentic men, not men that are more like women but men who are more like people.
We need to stop this denigration of masculinity. This growing culture where the achievements of woman and only the transgressions of men are splashed across the media is becoming more toxic to men.
We need to look at why men hurt people. Why they murder. Why they rape. Why men are over represented in our prison populations, and suicide figures. Why boys are failing at school and why males are stepping away from universities.
It is not masculinity that is toxic. It is not just masculinity that is causing men to act like this.
Toxic cultures. Toxic societies.
Right now, I’m reading this book by Lewis Howes and I know that you have heard it all before, but really if you are a man, woman or you’re raising boys you need to get your hands on a copy of this one.
If you are involved in organised sports: competing, coaching, organising or as a parent get yourself a copy.
I am not a book reviewer and I am not even a strong reader but this book struck a chord or two.
Sure I’m interested in these issues, they consume most of my waking thought but even if you have never thought about masculinity, yours or someone else’s, you need to do yourself a favour and get hold of this book.
Yeah, I’m not a book reviewer so you ought to just ask me about the book. Ask to borrow my copy of the book. Ask me why you should borrow my copy, whatever.
I bet that something in it will resonate with you and if somehow it doesn’t, well you need to wake-up to yourself, to whats going on, resolve to be more honest with yourself and those who matter to you and then read the book again.
If still you can’t bring yourself to read this book, get someone that matters to you to read it and then make you open up to the issues that it discusses.
When I started reading the book, I thought I was going to get away lightly. I have dealt with my Stoic Self. Sports Man, well that’s all behind me now. Aggressive Man, nope that’s not me, I have dealt with my anger, just like I have dealt with Materialist Dude and Gender Discrimination Guy.
Yeah, I was getting out of this one lightly, but now I have to read the chapters that deal with those other masculine characters that we all know: The Joker, Mr Invinciblity, The Know-it-all and Alpha Male.
Damn this book is about to real and uncomfortable.