I can’t remember a time whilst growing up that I saw my dad cry. In fact, in his 58 years I think I’ve only seen him cry twice and that was because he had just been caught cheating on my mum and was explaining to me how their relationship was over and because his mum had just died, leaving him at the top of the family tree with a dawning realisation of mortality. All the time growing up I remember being taught that men just did not cry, it wasn’t done, so every time I felt like crying as a child I felt like I was failing as a male. There came a point in my life where every time I felt an emotion that resembled the need to shed a tear, I managed to subconsciously suppress it without even recognising that it was there. I don’t know when it started, or even how, but over time throughout my adolescence I developed the ability to feel nothing, a cold apathy of emotionlessness that would protect me from ever having to feel vulnerable or exposed. I had an innate capacity for empathy, but I think it was simply an ability to deflect from me needing to feel for myself and just focus on how others must be feeling given any circumstance. Often time I would be described as cold, apathetic and sometimes just plain mean; others joked that I was a sociopath, remaining calm in situations when others would have lost it, feeling absolutely no remorse for my actions no matter how hurtful, and being able to deal with the sights and smells of horrific events with the calmness of a serial killer.
The truth is, I have cried as an adult. I’ve cried lots. I remember when I was nearing the end of my first stint in the Army; I had reached a point of utter despair, drinking stupid amounts of alcohol, sleeping with anyone who’d have me, and just rotating from work to the bar to bed and repeat. There were times where I was so low, that for no reason at all I would just openly cry, sob away until there was nothing left. But I would always make sure I was on my own. I could never do it in front of anyone. It was an unwritten rule, in front of everyone I would be sarcastic, apathetic, I would be like Fun Bobby from Friends, but in private I would often cry myself to sleep, I would sit in silence on my bed and feel utterly deflated. The epitome of the tears of a clown. I managed to pull myself out of the rut and made myself find something that made me happy, an outlet for that little black box of emotions that I had squeezed everything into, and it was fitness. Going to the gym gave me an outlet for pent up energy, it gave me a forum to vent my anger in a controlled manner. I even got a tattoo of 5 devils having an orgy on my back just to prove my demons were behind me.
My second stint in the Army came with added responsibility in the form of a wife who was pregnant. There was a lot riding on my shoulders to make a success of it this time for all of us. I have tried, really hard, and I think I’m doing ok. But since my kids have been born, they have already seen me cry 3 times. This may sound like a small number to many who are in touch with their emotions, but for me this is a huge number. The first was when I crushed my foot on the foot of the sofa chasing my little girl, I’m sure she saw tears in my eyes as the toes turned black and blue because she started crying in her natural empathetic way, all worried that I had really hurt myself; the second time was when life was getting on top of me, my wife had been dealing with anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia and I was dealing with how to deal with her and my daughter whilst simultaneously trying to deal with quite possibly the worst bosses I have ever had. I felt the ebb of depression creeping up on me as it had before, but felt I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. People were there to listen outside of work, I just didn’t know how to talk about it because I didn’t have much practice discussing my own emotions and having to recognise what I was feeling. I decided to talk about it at work, the first time I got ridiculed by one particular colleague and was made to feel like an absolute failure for not being able to cope with such ‘trivial’ issues. The second time I talked about it I got myself referred to a Clinical Psychiatric Nurse and was accused by my senior management of using mine and my wife’s situation to get out of dinner functions at work. It all got a bit too much and one night and whilst my wife was out of the room, I broke down crying, I didn’t expect my daughter to see me but she did and again she started crying and gave me a big cuddle saying that everything would be ok. I smiled and said to her that everything was ok, daddy was just a little bit tired and grumpy. The third time was today. But I’ll talk about that in a minute.
It was the second occasion that has really frustrated me. On reflection, despite years of attempting to recognise mental health issues, and equality of feeling, there is still a massive stigma that when a man expresses feeling of depression, sadness or even being upset he is accused (as I was) of being gay, a lady, faking it, attempting to get out of something or being a pathetic and unmanly loser. Why is it that men are still not allowed to show their feelings, why is it that men feel they have to be so cruel at preventing other men feel something? We still live in an era where men have to be men and women have to be feminine, no wonder so many of our children grow up with gender stereotyping and that action figures are for boys and princesses are for girls. Statistics would say that more and more people are able to talk about their mental health issues in the Army, but my personal experience does not reflect this.
This third time came as a bit of a shock. Whilst my wife was suffering from agoraphobia, the only thing she had control over was the house. So she compensated for her lack of control over everything else, by developing an obsessive need to keep things clean. As her agoraphobia faded, and she learned how to control her anxiety, she sustained the need to control the cleanliness of our home. This has recently been compounded by us buying our own home, a brand new build which is all shiny and…well…new. This has been like a red rag to a bull for my wife. She will keep this house shiny and new for as long as we will live, but we are suffering as a family for it. We all feel slightly uncomfortable in our own home, I have to open our cupboards using a piece of kitchen towel just in case I leave a finger print on the chrome handles. I can’t cook just in case I splash fat or grease anywhere and don’t clean it up perfectly to my wife’s standards. The toys can’t be left out, meal times are a mine field and playing with play dough, felt pens or paint is a breath catching moment. But whilst this sounds flippant, it’s hiding a really worrying situation for me, my wife knows that this obsessive compulsiveness is affecting us, but is powerless against it and it scares her. It makes her feel terrible, but she can’t control it. I made a comment and my wife started crying because she thought I was making fun of her. Immediately following the drop of her first tear, I had flashed back to the time when she was first suffering from her depression and had started severe panic attacks. I walked on egg shells in case something I said sparked off an attack, I didn’t know whether to play good cop or bad cop, I didn’t know when to push or just be there for support, and I had no idea how to cope.
Now she isn’t having panic attacks, and she isn’t agoraphobic, but she does have a mental health issue of control and in that one moment, and completely selfishly, I felt everything I had felt in those 2 and a bit years she suffered. I felt every emotion that I had squashed away because I wasn’t meant to feel them as a man, they engulfed me compounded with the guilt that I had just made the woman I love cry because of something I had said. That’s not supposed to happen. It became too much and I sobbed uncontrollably. This shocked my wife I think because I don’t think she’s ever seen me cry. At the point where I was at my worst, my daughter walks in and sees me. She tells my son, who comes in asking why I’m sad. I have no answer for them. I’m nervous about where this is headed, whether my wife is going to slip back into the state of depression she was in, or whether she is able and strong enough to recognise the symptoms and take proactive action to prevent them escalating. I wish I could talk about this with people at work, but I can’t. It’s just not done, blokes aren’t supposed to feel things. The good news is that the little black box of suppressed emotion has been emptied, so there should be enough capacity for some more feelings in there. Or how about this for a crazy thought, it is ok for a big boy to cry; it is ok for a man to feel emotional; and it is ok for men to talk to other men about feelings without being labelled as an attention seeker, queer or failure as a man?