I was about 13 years old when my parents first sent me to a therapist. Any other “troubled kids” out there?
I had been acting up in school: smoking, drinking, using drugs, skipping class, you name it. At one point in middle school, I had started a fire on campus while high and got arrested for arson. So, yeah. Needless to say, my folks didn’t really know what to do with me.
But at first, therapy didn’t help. I didn’t want help. Being vulnerable somehow felt dangerous—like if I actually opened up about my feelings, of fear and anger and loneliness, it would all be too much. What if no one wanted to help me? Then I’d be stuck having to deal with it all on my own again. That was too deep for me at that age anyway; like who wants to talk about their feelings at a party? No fuckin’ thanks.
For a few years after, I went to see various other therapists and family counselors. But in my mind, I was just a kid having fun and pushing boundaries. Sure, there were times when I got all caught up in my head, or had feelings I didn’t really know what to do with, but I tried not to think much of it. The truth was, I felt like shit a lot of the time and I couldn’t focus in school. I had issues with girls and friends and family, but I didn’t feel like I could talk about it. I didn’t wanna talk about it. I tried to just “man up.”
Spoiler: it only got worse.
A few years later I was again court-ordered to see a new therapist. I sat down with this guy and he saw it in my face: I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to talk. But instead of pushing me, he said “That’s okay. You legally have to be here for the next hour though, and I want a Slurpee, so just walk with me to 7-Eleven.”
We went for a walk around the neighborhood, he bought me a Slurpee, and we started chatting. We talked the way I talk with my friends. Somehow, it was easy and we clicked. He treated me with respect and compassion, not like just another screwed-up kid. No judgment. Over time, he showed me that I didn’t have to try so hard to avoid opening up. All it took was finding that one person, and things changed.
It’s been 22 years since that time; I actually don’t even remember that man’s name, but I still go to therapy.
I’ve been through a lot since then. From addiction and alcoholism to depression, I’m no stranger to life’s challenges. But I’ve also learned nobody can get through it alone. To find our way toward real happiness and freedom, we need to be more honest with ourselves.
We’ve been taught that men should be “strong” (read: emotionless). We’re taught that being vulnerable is a weakness, and makes us a burden. Even now, as we say men should be more open and sensitive, there’s still some mixed messaging and an awkward discomfort about it for many people which keeps us stuck. It’s embedded in our culture, even though research shows that men of all ages and backgrounds struggle with their emotions, are more likely to have mental health crises, and are increasingly more susceptible to addiction. This is a societal issue that affects billions of people per year, but we’re just not talking about it enough. And we will all continue to pay the price until that changes.
As men, we have to take that gutsy first step out of the box we’ve found ourselves in. There is no substitute for actually reaching out to another real-life human being, as hard as it might be. Take it from me. Even though it can be scary to feel vulnerable, our real strength comes from being honest and brave enough to accept when we don’t know what to do and find someone who can help. The first step to feeling better is to admit that we’re not always okay.
It’s not always easy, but it is that simple.