“Come here,” I said. “You need to see this.”
My oldest boy walked toward me, his hands bright and swollen in mismatched oven gloves, one of which complimented the apron.
He knew what it was that he needed to see, or at least the gist of it. I had been calling him to my side of the kitchen island for the better part of an hour, skipping from video to video, Twitter to Facebook and back again.
“Watch this one,” I said.
This one featured a man twisted as a pretzel. He was stale, salty and, apparently, wanting for beer.
My son watched in silence for a moment, the words screaming from the screen loud enough for everyone.
“That guy is an idiot,” he said. “Who keeps calendars from 1982?”
He knew the whole story, having heard it from TV, friends, his parents and the internet.
“Do you see the anger?” I asked. “Do you think that comes from guilt or embarrassment?”
“I think it’s entitlement. It’s like he can’t believe anyone would question him, but nothing he says sounds very honest.”
We talk about it a lot. We talk about the heavy haze of glory days, and how generations built false narratives around masculinity, gender, race and everything in which entitlement was encouraged, openly and often. When you’re a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white man in America, life is an inside joke, whether you get it or not. Some punchlines are more taut than others.
At the end of the day, we all owe someone something, be it money, helping hand or apology.
Recently, I wrote about my anxiety in a piece for The Washington Post, which may make this one seem redundant or opportunistic, the furthering of a personal brand built upon the trending of a hashtag: #mentalhealth, and all the obvious, endless success that it implies.
To point, a friend of mine believes men speaking about mental health, specifically celebrities sharing their own stories while promoting upcoming films and the next big game, is nothing more than a calculated PR move meant to garner goodwill. Frankly, I find the suggestion off-putting.
There are few personal positives for anyone when publicly outing their struggles with anxiety or depression. Saying a thing aloud does not make it less so. It does not make it go away. If anything, it only serves to mark their rain cloud all the darker, coloring them in contrast, shadows against the sunlight of a Stepford society.
Perhaps this is why the suggestion of staged PR event rubs me as wrong, for sharing one’s story of struggle is not a selfish act, it is a selfless one, regardless of timing or platform.
The individual benefits gained from speaking about mental health are negligible, but the impact it has upon the audience is immeasurable.
Boys who are taught that men can’t discuss their feelings and personal issues grow into men who believe they can’t discuss their feelings and personal issues. Rinse. Repeat.
It is bigger than that, of course. There are books and studies and lecture halls, all overflowing with fact, experience and opinion, the what and why of men’s mental health and our relationship(s) with it.
Additionally, there is the added element of fatherhood and the context within which we frame conversations about mental health when speaking with our children. Are we discussing an example or are we living one? How do we separate assumptions of difference from perceptions of weakness? How do we offer assurance while also needing it? What is said aloud, and what is left to discover?
These are the layers built upon the issue itself, a perfect parfait of panic attacks and parenthood. The sweet embrace between moments that are too often less so.
I don’t know that I can stress enough how far from perfect I am. I am deeply flawed, filled with regret and anger of my own. My boys know this, because I wear my faults honestly, scars and tattoos, my skin a spotted stretch of timeline.
I can only hope they recognize the contrast that I offer, an appreciation of love and lessons, fluid and evolving. Masculinity is messy and moving, in my case highly melancholy. It is stitched from failure and forgiveness. It is many things, but it should never have been what happened in that hearing.
“Are the cookies ready?” asked my youngest son, bouncing into the kitchen with a tablet in one hand and a book in the other, the dog fast upon his heel.
“They’re cooling,” said his brother. “Come here, you need to see this.”