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.