Is the World Ready for a Vulnerable Man?
Last week I had the great pleasure of participating in a debate on masculinity in celebration of International Men’s day. The question for the evening’s discussion was “If masculinity is in crisis who needs to change, men or society?”
There were many fascinating and diverse perspectives shared on the subject (watch here), but there was a common thread running through them all; men today still find vulnerability very difficult. This is evidenced by the numbers of men who choose suicide in the face of despair. But what is equally important but rarely gets mentioned is that, society also finds it difficult to deal with a vulnerable man. By society I mean you and I, men and women alike.
I have seen this many times in my experience working in very male dominated fields such as the military and engineering, and of course as a men’s coach & counsellor. But never was this more obvious than when I myself was at my most vulnerable.
When I was 22 I was removed from a nightclub and carried out by 5 gorilla like bouncers whilst being punched then thrown on the floor and kicked. A few hours later, after collapsing, I was in a hospital bed with my fiancé beside me, our tiny baby in her belly, being told I should prepare for death.
After exploratory surgery they found that three broken ribs had ruptured my spleen. This was good news as it meant they could remove my spleen and I could live a fairly ordinary life. A week in hospital, a nice new 12 inch scar from sternum to pubic bone, and I was sent on my way to live my spleenless life.
My physical recovery was fairly unpleasant but manageable. As time passed and my body adapted to life without a spleen I started to notice other things going on for me internally. Life looked and felt different. I was responding to the world in new ways; I couldn’t cope with stress, I would get angry at the slightest thing, I didn’t like to be amongst people, I couldn’t watch violence on TV, I would have crippling panic attacks at the hint of conflict even if I wasn’t involved, I was hyper sensitive to any possible danger.
My experience of life as the young, confident, ambitious man with the world at his fingertips had shattered into dust. I didn’t know how to do life like this, I was confused, I was angry, I was scared, really fucking scared!
I kept all of this to myself of course, after all I’m a man right, I have to be strong, keep it all together, be the rock for the family, and I didn’t have the means to understand my experience never mind communicate it. I was able to keep up this facade for a while until it and I crumbled in a heap on the floor. I needed help.
Once I found the courage I visited my G.P. and after telling him my experiences he was clearly flustered and uncomfortable. He couldn’t wait to get me out of the door so referred me to one of his colleagues; a younger gay man.
This man heard me, he cared and he offered his help. So off I went with my box of pills, a repeat prescription and a referral to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe depression.
During this time my wife was also finding it very difficult to be with me. She had no idea how to support me, my condition made her uncomfortable and she was afraid for our future. I can’t imagine I was much fun to be around but avoiding me altogether definitely didn’t help.
Eventually I found a baseline from where I could cope with life and from here I made a choice to empower myself through education and learn about my experience, so I went to the book store in search for knowledge. Here I noticed all the books on the self help shelf were written for women.
Left right and centre I was hearing loud and clear that I, a vulnerable man, was not welcome. I felt abandoned, alone, ashamed and angry.
As men we learn that to “be a man” we have to be strong, powerful and have our shit together. We also learn that vulnerability is the opposite of that.
For thousands of years men have been raised to be loyal soldiers, ready to put our lives on the line to serve and protect the family, country, freedom etc. We have been trained to be anything but vulnerable! This training has also served society very well and, deep inside, our security feels threatened by a man in his vulnerability.
Thankfully we are at a time where this crippling limitation in our masculine identity is being challenged. We are realising that it doesn’t serve any of us. We understand that dropping the armour will allow for deeper, more intimate connections, and we all want that right? But the conditioning runs deep, not only in men but in women too.
A man will go nowhere near vulnerability if he is not going to be held, heard and supported.
It is time for us all to deconstruct the old rigid framework around our idea of manhood and allow for a new possibility to emerge; a world where a man can be vulnerable without being shamed, castrated and abandoned. Where he is allowed to freely express himself without being shut down. Where he is encouraged and supported to take responsibility for his own feelings and his own healing with compassion and love. A world where having the balls to be vulnerable is seen as a virtue and not a weakness.
This will be a better world for us all and we are all responsible for its co-creation, men and women alike. Will you join me?