Thank You Old Friend
A couple of days ago I was rummaging through some old scanned documents on my laptop. Years ago I had a tendency of scanning any document I felt was of importance even though objectively I knew it wasn’t and storing it on my laptop. Pop psychologists would “diagnose” me with “OCD” because of this. I ran across a continuing education units (CEU) certificate for a training I participated in back in 2015 on suicide prevention in the LGBTQ community at the community mental health agency I worked at that year. I immediately thought of the emotional difficulty I felt that morning in attending the training. The training was hosted by one of our senior clinical supervisors in which she provided information on suicide statistics within the LGBTQ community as well as discussing preventative measures we as mental health providers could take to help reduce these alarming trends in the community. During part of the training my colleague's assistant read aloud a letter of a young gay men who died by suicide as a result of ongoing bullying he was enduring at the hands of peers and youth at school. On a side note, a year prior I had just become a father for a second time to another baby boy which immediately struck an uneasy emotional chord with me. In the letter the young man expressed a high degree of self-loathing, shame, coupled with feeling as if he was a burden to his family simply by being gay and the ongoing emotional torment. As my colleague read the letter in the moments passed I immediately begin to tear up of which I became noticeable to my colleagues also in attendance, noticeably one sitting to the side of me a few seats down. As I continued to hear the young man’s agonizing words I immediately tucked my face into my hands to hide the tears that were quickly swelling down my face but to also hide the perceived shame I felt in expressing my distress over this young man’s situation. At the end of the training I quickly grabbed my continuing education certificate and stormed out of the conference room heading quickly to my car which was parked on the adjacent street. As I walked away I heard my peer (previously mentioned) call "Luis!" while quickly walking towards me. “Are you ok?,” she asked with her arms halfway open as to offer me a comforting embrace which i declined with a cold response of, “I’m ok.” She studied me for a couple of seconds as if she was asking me through her facial expressions, “Are you sure?” I quickly got in my car, drove off, and headed back to my office. To this very day I still feel a sense shame in my cold response to her when all she was trying to do was to comfort me. When I arrived in my office I quickly closed the door and told my manager I was having a headache and would just stay holed up at my desk for the remainder of the day. I remained overwhelmed with grief knowing that the parents of a son had to endure such a tragedy in their son dying by suicide because of the constant bullying he had faced with more than likely little to no action taken by the powers that be to address it. “What if that was one of my sons?” I thought to myself throughout the afternoon of a day I was praying to quickly end. Not only did I recall my distressed reaction to the young man’s suicide note upon finding my continuing education certificate from that particular training, but I also recalled my shame again in not allowing myself to be vulnerable to my female colleague in at least telling her how I felt. At the time and even in many regards right now, I knew I did make somewhat of the right choice in that I can only have imagined the ensuing controversy and gossip that would’ve spread at the clinic if some of our peers would have found me locked in her embrace as we left the training. People love to gossip and a gossip in a work environment can create a lot of problems directly and indirectly. However in retrospect, I know my decision to not allow myself to be vulnerable with her rest mainly with the fact that I believed a lie that I rail against in my work with male clients to this very day….a man cannot show his vulnerability as that demonstrates a degree of weakness. This belief was ingrained in my consciousness for the past 36 years (the age I was at the time of the training) of my life through my interaction with men within an outside of my familiar circle. Movies, TV, and music also solidified these beliefs that as a man I cannot show my vulnerabilities whatsoever. Not only did the notion of being perceived as being weak should I show my vulnerabilities keep me from doing so, but also a fear in that I may not be emotionally reliable to others who may need me if I am simply showing them my human side. Add in the belief that women only want “strong” and stoic men and I was sure as hell not ready to allow myself to be vulnerable least I would never find a female suitor someday. Of in itself, this is one of many hallmark beliefs that uphold toxic masculine attitudes and practices displayed by men which is a scourge in our society still. Making matters worse are the ongoing mixed messages that men will receive from family, friends, various people they encounter in their lives as well as society as a whole. This message being that as a man you must allow yourself to be vulnerable and expressing emotions, but then also be wary of doing so has such could be seen as a display of weakness and emotional unreliability. The antidote to such inconsistency in this transmitted message is simply call it out when we hear it. Whether we hear an uncle, a girlfriend, or someone we meet in a coffee shop state a contradictory message we simply have to ask them what is it they are seeking from men and how their words and their mixed message are counter intuitive to breaking stigma around male vulnerability. Also explaining to them that when they encourage a man to be "strong" by not expressing his emotions, they are only contributing to the toxic masculine norms that are problematic for us as a whole. It is also an ongoing responsibility of mental health, medical, social service providers, and even just caring people to remind men that under absolutely all circumstances it is OK for them to be vulnerable as doing so helps humanize their very nature. On top of that just simply being a listening ear from my place of concern can go a long way and encouraging a man to share his deepest concerns, worries, and fears. (Even though I doubt she will ever read this) To my former colleague (whom I have decided not to name simply for privacy reasons), I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me an opportunity I didn’t take, to open myself to you during such a painful moment in my life. Please know if I seemed cold towards you at the time I didn't mean to come off as such. Your son is absolutely blessed to have such a caring woman as his mother and I can only imagine how your love and guidance will help him break generational stigmas regarding male vulnerability.
By the way...that's not her in the photo above! Lol.