The Mirage of Masculinity: A Personal Study on Culture, Relationships, Loss & Self
“Real men don't cry. Toughen up. Man up.”
This is a story that shares my catalyst to become a more available man to myself and the world. I’m sharing it in hopes of dispelling a worldwide stigma toward mental illness. I hope to combat the damaging masculine narratives that say for a man to be strong at all costs they should never ever show or feel emotions.
We often hear damaging statements such as “real men don't cry. Toughen up. Man up.” Men are shamed, and perceived as weak and inadequate for feelings of sadness and pain. Men fear being mocked by their friends and family instead of being supported. Men learn from childhood to suppress their emotions to hide their feelings, then grow into adulthood suppressing them further. This means that they have taken uncomfortable feelings and emotions and protected them in their unconscious so much so that they are no longer aware they have them at all.
About an hour ago, I woke up in a sweat. It surprised me because I live in a cool climate. I laid there somewhere between awake and asleep with many nearly subconscious memories flowing through my mind. It didn’t take long to realize that I was finally feeling some unprocessed experience from a particularly overwhelming time in my life. I was transported back in time nearly seven years ago. As I lay there, tears rolled down my face as I genuinely felt grateful for my hard-fought ability to feel and to share with those I love.
Seven years ago, I was physically strong, I ran a gym and was a top 1% competitive Crossfit athlete. That is when my family discovered that my mom had ovarian cancer. This is challenging news for anyone but was particularly hard for me; to say I had a strained relationship with her is a massive understatement.
When I was 12, I decided to stop relying on my mother for any emotional support. Early on, I learned that she was incredibly inconsistent with her behavior. At that point, I had already tried to pry her from a catatonic state several times. To further clarify, catatonic schizophrenia is a form of schizophrenia, in which the patient presents abnormal behavior (taken to the extreme). On the one hand, the patient can enter into a state of catatonic stupor, in which they are unable to move, speak, or respond. This is the stage in which all the movement is suspended.
My mother would lay in bed for what seemed like days. The only indication that she was alive was her breathing and the tears that rolled down her face. Imagine an eight-year-old continuously saying, “mom,” and shaking their mother - to no response. My mother would quickly swing from yelling in terrifying anger, to laughing manically, to crying uncontrollably. Her mental disease continued to deteriorate as I grew older, as did her resistance to getting help. She became increasingly paranoid; convinced that people were telling her things with their blinking car lights, or calling her and then breathing on the other line. She one day called me and asked why my brother and I were flying in the sky over the house spying on her.
It didn’t help that I grew up in a small meditation community that stigmatizes mental illness and views meditation as a panacea to all ailments. I remember hearing that she just needed to meditate and she would feel better. At age 13, I began continuously asking her to get mental help (for those of you who aren’t aware: you can’t force someone to get help unless they are a danger to themselves or others). Every time she would deny. Once she angrily yelled, “fuck those doctors!” Later on, I discovered that she had shock therapy when she was in her 20’s and that her mother was murdered by multiple stab wounds. I spent most of my life hoping that my mother would get some help and become a loving and supportive parent. In reality, my mom was a mentally sick person, and I was in denial. She never got help, and I never had a healthy or rewarding relationship with her.
My mother discovered that she had late-stage ovarian cancer and a tumor the size of a football. If she didn’t get surgery, fluid would build up in her lungs, making it impossible to breathe. If she did have surgery, she would still have to undergo chemo and likely die. My mother decided to do nothing, I don’t blame her for making that decision. When fluid builds up in your lungs, you can drain it a few times, but eventually, that too will kill you. My mother was taken back to her house, and we had a hospice nurse come by the house daily. At that time, my parents were separated and not close, my two brothers and I took shifts caretaking and took over our lives for the following weeks. Fortunately, the disease didn’t take long; she was gone within three weeks.
It felt like I lost her twice in my life: once when I was a 12 year old, having consciously distanced myself from her- and again when her body deteriorated. It was hard to stomach the truth that I never got that relationship with her that I craved and wishfully believed was possible to experience. Sometimes it is easier to be in denial than accept reality.
I went from being a man at his peak of physical ability and false invincibility to a person that struggled to make any decisions with confidence. My girlfriend at the time and other friends were shocked at the impact that it had. Many of them didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just go back to the old confident person that I used to be. I spent the next six months depressed without many people in my life that could only be with me as I was, and not how they wanted me to be. All I craved was for more of my friends to be emotionally available (I did have several friends that were incredibly supportive at this time).
Eventually, I left my home town, which was the best decision of my life. I found work at Esalen, a community that places emphasis on uncovering what you’re feeling and experiencing it. After over a year I thought I had spent enough time, and I was “healed.” After all, “time heals all wounds,” right? In reality, time just can push unprocessed experience into your subconscious. I discovered that healing happens when you confront your challenging emotions and feel them. It is much better to feel than deny and numb emotions; a masculine epidemic within our society. In fact, that was just the beginning of my healing process. I was struck by my first and only debilitating anxiety attack and a bout of extreme depression. Not able to get out of bed, nearly zero desire to do anything, crippling anxiety related to the most basic tasks like driving to the grocery store. Fortunately, I was able to get some medication in the form of SSRIs and bi-weekly therapy. I took medication for six months and continued therapy for two years. Additionally, I didn’t consume alcohol or sugar for nearly a year, all in hopes of not further triggering depression.
Through this wild experience, I discovered that my panacea for depression is sinking into my feeling and vulnerably sharing my experience with others (connection), exercise, and time in nature. I cry willingly by how beautiful life is and laugh often. My life has never felt more full. Last week I was moved to tears, knowing that all of these people and the environment that I deeply love now will all die one day. It made me want to be more available and feel more while I’m able to. Like Sam Harris, one of my favorite meditation teachers said. “We’re all on the Titanic sinking, and counter to this is life, it's brief and short, unique and beautiful and you might as well flourish while you are still alive.” To all of my friends and acquaintances out there, I love you profoundly. Let us continue to express that love and emotion while we’re still able to.
JEFFREY STONE is an interdisciplinary thinker, creative, and designer. Outside of design and business, Jeffrey is passionate about art, solo trekking, and anything that allows him to get outside and move. He deeply believes that curiosity, play, and exploration are keys to success in any field, and finds that a variety of passions, hobbies, and introspection inspires and enhances the experience of life as a whole.
See his work here.