Male Tears

Cry me a river

Cry me a river

Saw a version of this mug today during a meeting with my line-manager and my first thought was “haha”, but it got me thinking enough to merit writing something.

I had a funny eye test the other week where I was trying to articulate to a male student optometrist (in a way that I hoped wouldn’t compromise my masculinity beyond all doubt) that it hurts me when I cry. Of course, you might think that when it hurts, that’s when you cry, but I mean that it causes me physical pain to cry. I don’t cry as much as I should, but when it ought to be happening, I get a stinging sensation in my eyes that makes me need to rub them and prod at them to try and get that sensation away. The medical explanation for it is that I have what they call ‘dry-eye’ syndrome – something that seems to be exacerbated by constantly staring at screens and not enough time staring wistfully into the distance (doctors’ orders!). They suggested that I get some eye drops, gave me a leaflet and continued with the eye test.

Of course, there is also a psychological thing around the difficulty of crying which is related to how men are socialised and taught to (not) deal with their painful emotions by bottling them up and stuffing them back down and generally not mentioning them or acknowledging their existence. As aware as I am of the negative consequences of this for men as a group and society as a whole, I’m not able to rationalise myself into painlessly shedding tears. I can’t help but feel that my body is causing me to react this way as a physical symptom representing the psychological challenge of allowing myself to cry. In the last year, I’ve had legitimate reason to cry in a way and place that would be socially acceptable but still didn’t feel able to let go. Simultaneously, I’ve found myself crying at happy / inconsequential / inspiring videos and music with the associated itchy, sore feelings. It’s frustrating because I believe a full-on sobfest might be quite cathartic.

An attractive lady struggles to remove a 'male tears' mug from her face. Superglued rims are no joke :'(

An attractive lady struggles to remove a ‘male tears’ mug from her face. Superglued rims are no joke 😥

The other thing that made me think is that when I went looking for an image of this mug, I realised that it’s a funny and legitimate response to the stupid Mens’ Rights movement and their stupid activists.

It must be pretty hard to sympathise with dickheads who are trying to legitimise your oppression. That said, not all men are. To make fun of all men’s inability to express themselves in a vulnerable way makes it harder for men to express themselves full stop. It alienates the ones who might be on your side and ultimately reinforces the status quo. Thus the patriarchy continues.

I think that perhaps the only way forward is for more full and frank communication. Unfortunately, it’s totally apparent that the people who need to do the most work on communicating their feelings are the worst at it and are actively discouraged from doing so by mainstream society.

Brené Brown talked about shame and vulnerability really powerfully in an episode of On Being back in January. The story that blew me away starts at 20:46, but the whole episode is worth listening to.

Ms. Brown: But the messages and expectations that fuel shame, the messages and expectations that bring us to our knees, are so organized by gender. You know, for women, it’s really about do it all, do it perfectly and make sure you make it look effortless.

Ms. Tippett: Right. It’s also about how we look, right? I mean, part of that is, and look great while you’re doing it too.

Ms. Brown: Oh, yeah, absolutely, no question. I mean, that’s the part that better look effortless. Appearance and body image is still the number one shame trigger for women. For men, there’s a really kind of singular, suffocating expectation and that is do not be perceived as weak. So for men, the perception of weakness is often very shaming and that one of the things that’s interesting is, I talk to men and, you know, what I heard over and over was some variation of, look, my wife, my girlfriend, whomever, they say be afraid, they tell me, you know, share your vulnerability with me, open up, but the truth is, they can’t stomach it.

The truth is that, when I’m very vulnerable, when I’m in fear, when I talk about it openly, it permanently changes the dynamics in our relationship. And when I started sharing this with women or whenever I started interviewing couples, women are like, oh, God, it’s true. I want you to be open and I want there to be intimacy, but I don’t want you to go there.

You know, and so, I’ve come to this belief that, if you show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show you a woman who, A, has done her work and, B, does not derive her power from that man. And if you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to fix it, but just hear her and be with her and hold space for it, I’ll show you a guy who’s done his work and a man who doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything.

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Post Mortem

I have a grief ritual that gets me through each week, more or less. Every Thursday, after my working day is done, I head to one of the excellent, loosely craft beer, pubs in Islington, buy a lonely pint and read a chunk of an interminable tome called ‘Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies’. It was kindly bought for me by my Stepmum in the absence of knowing what else one could do in the aftermath of my sister’s death last year.

The book itself isn’t so difficult as the fact that it allows me space to open a painful wound and allow some of the difficult feelings out. It’s a weird thing to feel all teary as others around me are going for post-work drinks, hot dates or cool-guy time, but something about the atmosphere allows me to blend in and feel unnoticed in ways that other places don’t. I’d never pull the book out on public transport (too performative), and I never feel able to bring it out at home (where I read books for pleasure). The third place of the pub is a genuinely safe space to read some difficult material. When I’ve finished the book, I’ll find something else that fits the topic, or I might write about it.

I said around the time that I would have the rest of my life to mourn her death and that still feels true. Events have conspired to ensure that I have an upcoming reminder. The process has been very slow and after the postmortem report was released to us, we found out that we have to attend an Inquest – which will take place on Wednesday. The Inquest is presented to us as a straightforward 30 minute appointment in a small town courtroom, during which time we have the opportunity to raise any questions we might have for the Police who attended the scene, the doctors who conducted the autopsy and her regular GP. The reality feels like it will be a great deal more monumental.

I chose to read the post-mortem report a few weeks ago during one of my allotted griefslots. It was a really bad call. I wasn’t prepared for the unpleasant details, that her body could be referred to as ‘it’. I hated reading the police description of the scene, reducing 30 years of her life to circumstantial details around the house. I hated the incomplete medical history – for all the connections that could have been made. I hated that this last official document to her life will have been a piece of begrudged paperwork for some of the contributors. I hate that it is a series of pieces of evidence to the fact that she is dead. Whilst I read this in the pub, I felt sick and wrong in the head. It turned out that this was something I should have read at home.

I feel a sense of dread about the impending Inquest. I worry about the consequences for my parents of having to relive that day and I worry about how bureaucratic the process might feel.

Massive Bereavement

I’ve not written here in a terribly long time, which feels like such a waste of a really good URL. One of the major reasons is that I’ve been knocked sideways by the death of my younger sister last August – which was a waste of a really good person. Not empirically, undeniably good in that she was a perfect human being who made people happy everywhere she went, but good to me. She was my only sibling and died of a tragic accident at home at the age of 30.

To lose the one person who grew up with me, shared most of my childhood and life experience and saw first hand so much of my pain and success has been almost too much to bare. I think of all the love and understanding that has been lost both ways – that which she gave to me, effortlessly and that which I had for her. It’s deeply painful for a brother to take and I wonder whether being a man makes it harder. I was very involved in planning the funeral. I chose a reading and music that I knew she loved and read the eulogy. As I was involved in this process I felt detached and analytical. As I came to read the words that I prepared, I got through it with the wobbliest voice imaginable. I found it hard to be in the moment – I don’t know why it mattered to not appear weak in the face of extremely distressing circumstance, but I wanted to appear like I was coping.

Fans of embarrassing stock photography could do a lot worse than to image search 'bereavement' - a veritable treasure trove awaits

Fans of embarrassing stock photography could do a lot worse than to image search ‘bereavement’ – a veritable treasure trove awaits

I’m not sure that I can write about the grieving process in a meaningful way as there are so many elements to the loss that my family has experienced that it’s difficult to get close to explaining it to someone who is outside of that circle of experience. But I want to write about it as I’ve tried to deal with the pain and loss in a boringly typical male way thus far and it’s doing me no good. I can feel myself getting angry about things that do not matter in work and in my personal life, and I think it all comes back to the fact that my life is irrevocably changed, for the worse, and I will not get over it soon. Yet, rather than accepting that the situation is bad and understandably sad, I try to act as though nothing is bothering me and that I am dealing with it with stoicism and grit.

Part of the reason why I have not been able to talk about it openly is cultural, for sure. Our society struggles to cope with death at the best of times, and for colleagues, acquaintances and friends it’s a tricky thing to know how to broach. I think that they don’t want me to feel upset (or worse, appear upset on my visage), so they don’t raise it. This relegates it to taboo status. Unfortunately, all this not talking about my life-changing sad experience does nothing to help me assimilate it into my life experience thus far. There is going to be an inquest into her death next month, and that raises a lot more difficult feelings which it helps to express on here. I apologise if this appears off topic in comparison to the usual subject matter of this blog.

First

Having struggled for some time with feelings of inadequacy around my ability to be a man, I find myself strangely heartened to repeatedly hear that masculinity is in crisis. It’s an idea that the British press has grabbed hold of and continues to run with. Unfortunately, the consequences of this crisis are pretty terrible for men and the people who know men.
In typical fashion, we don’t tend to talk about our experience of being men and so I have started this blog in order to try to articulate some of my experiences. I have lots of opinions and I’d like to hear from other men so that we can understand each other, understand how to explain ourselves to others and ultimately attempt to find some sort of way out of aforementioned crisis.
Struggles I have faced:

  • Anger – anger is a human emotion that everyone experiences from time to time. It can be harnessed to positive effect but it can also be extremely devastating. These feelings can lead to domestic violence, family annihilation and suicide. Not all men will go to those extremes but my sudden losses of temper frighten me.
  • Money – the old model of masculinity has men as breadwinners, providing for their families. This is an ancient idea, harking back to the image of man as strong ‘hunter-gatherer’. My generation has struggled with student and consumer debt for some time and in certain fields, thanks to positive changes in the workplace, we can no longer expect to have as great a slice of the collective wealth, power and status. I find it hard being caught in-between the expectation to be a provider and the understanding that I should not expect to be one.
  • Love – sexual politics is complicated and we receive mixed messages. Men need to be romantic, but they also need to have a bastard element (if they want to be attractive). We need to be ourselves but we need to be better. We need to be amazing at DIY and incredible lovers. We need to be there for our kids and do more housework, but we also feel the urge to provide for them.
  • Communication – if there’s one thing that ties together all of these issues, for me it’s about communication. I frequently find it hard to tell people exactly what and how I feel, who I am and who I want to become. I think that an inability to communicate clearly leads to many of the struggles and issues that men face.
  • Appearance – men aren’t supposed to care about their appearance but they’re also supposed to look like Rambo / Arnie / Ryans Gosling and Reynolds. It’s confusing. I’ve found myself worrying about my appearance and odour from time to time. I’ve recently lost weight and found myself preparing for a mud race. More about this next week.
  • Faith – I grew up in the Church of England and have gone through Evangelical and Liberal phases, settling on an uncomfortable agnosticism that recognises many of the positive aspects of organised religion. I studied Religious and Theological studies at University, so it’s likely that some of these themes will come out in this blog.
  • Friendship – I have a good number of friendships with other guys, but few of them are deep and involved. This I’d attribute to difficulties around communication on the whole, but perhaps there’s more to it than that. I’d like to explore the nature of male friendship.
  • Role Models – who are the people that we should look up to in these times? Let’s try and find some role models that aren’t Chuck Norris cartoon archetypes and celebrate men who are doing it right.

It suffices to say that being a man in the early 21st century is confusing. I’m going to do my best to share some of my experiences, I hope that you will join in too.