Monday, August 19, 2013

"I have to man up to my problems."

N said this three weeks before he took his life. “What kind of bullshit is that?” I would later rage. I had never heard such an expression from my sensitive son, raised by a feminist mom and a gentle dad. "Real men know when they need help," I told him, but he only shook his head. 

In the months since his death, as I tried to piece together the puzzle of his descent into a black hole, I began to see where the “manning up” may have come from. Older men he admired who urged others to “be a man” when they cried or despaired. College buddies who thought they were “bulletproof” in the face of tragedy. A cousin he adored who was “his own man,” living alone in the woods. Macho movies he seemed to be watching more often. Drafts of screenplay scenes featuring tough guys so extreme, they were like caricatures. Why should I assume that N was immune to media messages about what it means to be a man? The more vulnerable N became, the more he believed he had to hang tough. 

A psychiatrist writing in the New York Times recalled that as a young man, he had no idea what to do with sadness. I wonder if the same is true for many young men as they stumble into their 20s. There is little sense of how sadness fits with the rest of life, no voice or outlet for it. If they become mired in depression, it seems unstoppable; there is not enough life experience yet to recognize the pattern of ups and downs and how moods might be managed. Nor is there a readiness to seek help. And all this just at the age when they are most at risk for the onset of mental illness.

I was horrified to learn that there is whole class of young men in Japan who go into hibernation with depression for years, shutting themselves in their parents’ homes with video games. There are hundreds of thousands of these hikikomori and they are at high risk for suicide. A Buddhist monk is trying to lure them back to life with support services and activities.* 

Maybe we have a parallel phenomenon in the U.S., only its potential for danger goes unrecognized. It’s just boys being boys, retreating into the man cave, venerating tough guys. My son didn’t play video games, but he got lost in the dark of that cave, groping for a way to man up—and out.

What can we do to shine a light on this cave and open the way to other paths toward manhood?

*MacFarquhar, L. (2013, June 24). Last call: A Buddhist monk confronts Japan’s suicide culture. The New Yorker.


  1. We talked about this idea of "manning up" when one a man is feeling pain. It is surprising that the young men of today are still buying into the idea that to suffer is to be weak, which translates into "unmanly.

    What can we as mothers do to combat that distorted belief? Try to understand from where it comes? Is it the fear of feeling vulnerable? The belief that emotions can be conquered?

    I read that New Yorker article and was impressed with the monk's own personal journey. I think I even discussed it with V.

  2. It's so hard to know how we mothers can make a difference in this, especially when becoming a man coincides with our sons' need to separate from their moms. As a woman, I can't presume to know what it feels like to grow into manhood and be subject to all the mixed messages out there. I'd love to hear from male readers on how they see the "manning up" issue as it relates to coming of age, depression and suicide.

  3. My 12 year old daughter died by suicide only a few weeks ago. I found a letter she wrote to herself at age 10, urging herself to live, and telling herself to “woman up”. I found the phrase unnerving as well. Thank you Susan for sharing your journey.