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Real Men and Mental Illness

I grew up on a farm in a largely rural area in Southwest Ohio.  “Real” men were defined by how long and hard they could work, athletic prowess and mechanical skills–that was not me!  While the majority of American males didn’t grow up on farms, there were similar unspoken measuring sticks that nonetheless communicated messages about what it meant to be a man in our culture.  Accompanying stereotypical responses to stress, challenges, and difficulties experienced by men were often heard: “buck up,” “get over it,” “never let them see you sweat,” “what don’t kill you will only make you stronger,” “never give in,” “grin and bear it.”  In other words, shut down your heart, don’t feel, don’t talk about painful emotions…don’t be human.

There have been significant changes in attitudes about masculinity in my lifetime (I’m a Boomer).  Nonetheless the shadow of suffering in silence remains a hurdle for most men, but especially for those struggling with mental illness.  For many, the inability to feel anything other than anger, or the lack of a “language” to express what’s going on inside, leave them completely unaware of their need for help.  Masking, numbing, faking it, acting out become ways of life.  Any suggestion or hint that they may need to talk to someone is met with defensiveness or a standard response–“What good is talking to someone going to do?”  To compound this “trap” is the ongoing stigma of acknowledging a mental illness even in this age of supposed openness and transparency.  We have a long way to go to make our culture safe to be fully human and fully male.

There are ways that loved ones can make a difference.  A significant point in my story came when my wife, who had suffered much at my hands, simply said “I can’t live like this any longer.”  She was not threatening divorce, rather saying that my depressive mood and subsequent emotional shut-downs had alienated her feelings for me.  She was the best thing I had going for me (and still is after 53 yrs).  I surrendered–sought help and found a renewing of my faith which undergirded my recovery and our recovery.  Over the ensuing years, her empathy and understanding have allowed her to come alongside and recognize that my mood shifts are not reactions to any defect in her.  When loved ones can differentiate between their family member and the mental illness, some of the internal conflict experienced by the loved one can be resolved.

Another component of my well-being has been the love and acceptance of others, particularly other men in my faith community and NAMI community.  Men with mental illness need to be surrounded by “healthy mirrors” that reflect back messages of who they really are, to offset cultural messages that unfortunately reinforce a sense of being “less than” or “not enough.”  Wholeness results when we can bring everything about us to the table (even our mental illness)–without shame and receive grace.  A NAMI meeting is one such table and those at that table never lose hope.

Eric Wharton

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