Published in The Link 37.14 on Sept. 6 2016
For the Mental Health special issue.
Here’s a list of every time I remember crying:
-When I was seven and my brother hit me during a street hockey game.
-When I was 11 and my mom told me she and my dad were separating.
-When I was 13 and my brother and his friend Jesse Kaminski thought it would be fun to blind me with camera flashes.
-The first time I watched Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
-My first experience with death, at 13, when a family friend died in a biking accident.
-Two days after Donald Trump was elected, watching the protests in Manhattan on Twitter.
Here’s a list of a few times I remember not crying, and wondering why I hadn’t:
-When my grandfather died,
-When my mom got cancer,
-When my mom beat cancer,
-When my aunt got cancer,
-When my other aunt also got cancer,
-When my mom got surgery on her spine that could’ve also paralyzed her.
It’s an odd list. And I’m sure there were other times I cried that I’ve forgotten, times tied to violence against or from my brother, or linked with childish inability to understand The Emotions Of Life. But with the major exceptions of death and divorce, there doesn’t seem to be any method to what slipped through the cracks.
I was conscious, sometimes, of not crying. It’s not just retrospective, like looking back three years ago at the death of my grandfather and saying, “Huh, weird how I didn’t cry.”
In the moment, I tried to cry. I sat down in the dark and wallowed in the loss. I thought, “This is unhealthy, that I’m not crying.” I told myself that I’d never see him again. That any stories he hadn’t told me were now gone. No longer would I visit his apartment and receive a drawing or an exotic coin, or suffer through retirement home food with him. I focused, but nothing came out.
I know I’m not alone and I know I learned not to cry from somewhere. After my parents’ separation, I looked back and couldn’t find moments where my father showed the pain that he no doubt felt—at least not in ways that I could recognize at the time. He would be angry, but he wouldn’t be sad. I’m sure my father thought he was doing it for my brother and me. To seem strong, or something. Or maybe it was just for himself, the old “If I can’t feel it, it isn’t there.” But, of course, the pain was there. And whether or not he was consciously trying to show my brother and me how to behave, that’s exactly what he was doing.
For Eric, my brother, anger became everything. It was his go-to. That, and deceit. He used lies and rage to turn any problem against anybody else. He never had to face the pain he felt either, just like my dad. He also never had to cope with the pain my father’s anger caused him, let alone how his own anger and dishonesty hurt those around him. While yes, he lived the consequences of a life built on hate—constant conflict, fear and violence—he never had to face the reasons why.
It’s sad. My dad kicked him out, oh, maybe six years ago now? It was because of some squabble over dinner that escalated until my brother threatened my dad with a knife and my dad broke his finger disarming him.
I’m grateful for the counter-example my brother set, though, because without him, and the abuse I suffered from him, I would likely have learned the same lessons from my father as he did.
I understood, even at 13, that Eric thought nothing could be his fault. Nothing that caused him distress could be the result of his own actions. It had to come from elsewhere. I took that and went in the opposite direction. Everything was on me. And because I was responsible for the feelings of those around me, I had no space for my own feelings. This was by design.
Suppressing my own emotions felt good. I took what I interpreted as my father’s stoic refusal to feel sad and made it mine, minus the anger. I felt useful.
My mom had some very hard years after the divorce. By being there for her, by helping her bear the guilt she felt for what she saw as tearing up our family, I was able to bury my own feelings. The family friend who died? He was her fiancée.
His death undid her plans for the future as much as it undid mine. But, again, by being there for her, by soaking up her pain, I could continue ignoring my own. I didn’t have to consider how adjusting to another father figure in my life would’ve felt. I didn’t have to recognize how guilty I was over how badly I’d treated him before his death. I just hugged my mom when she cried and that was good enough.
Obviously, I didn’t recognize her parsing those emotions as a healthy example, something admirable to follow and learn from. If I had, then I almost certainly would have been better equipped to be of actual help to her, my brother and my father. Instead of taking the pain Eric caused me and burying it so that I could help my mom with the pain Eric caused her, I could’ve reached out to him.
I can’t honestly speak to the gender theory of hypermasculinity causing emotional self-mutilation in men. I haven’t read the stuff. But I can speak to every man in my family who doesn’t handle his shit. My father. My brother. My uncles on both sides. All of them carry the same baggage as me. One way or another, they bury their bad feelings. Alcohol. Weed. Women. Gambling. Anything but pain.
In a therapy session with my father and brother, when I was 14 or 15, I told the therapist how I try not to feel things. He told me emotions are like a knapsack: you can only carry so much weight. When the bag gets too full, things will spill out and you won’t be able to control where or why it happens. Or worse, it’ll break your back. It’s better, he said, to put things in and take them out on your own terms. You get to decide how heavy your bag is.
As men, we need to work on that. But first we have to face the complicity we share in spreading pain instead of feeling it.