“Why are you crying? Are you a girl?” piped up a voice brimming with confidence at having the attention of the kids gathered around in a circle, and pride at his display of strength. The voice belonged to my classmate in kindergarten who had just smashed the sand castle that I had been building on the playground. He had followed it up by pouring fistfuls of sand all over my head from where they flowed down my body ruffling the crisp, striped shirt that my mother had ironed so painstakingly a few hours earlier. By now, a swarm of my fellow kindergarteners had gathered around, attracted by the commotion. And like any good mob, they looked on at the commotion in amusement and burst into cackles of laughter at the scene unfolding before them. Ashamed and embarrassed, tears streamed down my face which is when the boy who stormed my castle, asked the question which led to more peals of laughter from the crowd, louder than they were before. The laughter that reverberated on that pleasant Chennai morning and numerous other incidents ingrained the idea in my conscience that hiding your vulnerabilities was essential to being masculine.
For those who haven’t watched it yet (I highly recommend that you do), Breaking Bad follows the story of a struggling high school teacher, diagnosed with cancer who turns to a life of crime selling crystal methamphetamine to ensure his family’s financial independence. The series ran for five seasons and achieved widespread critical acclaim and popularity. One might be tempted to ask as to what the series has to do with the incident that I just explained, mental health or men.
(SPOILER ALERT : The succeeding paragraph contains information which might be considered mild spoilers. If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad and want to avoid any information about the show whatsoever, skip this para. You have been warned :p)
Let me explain. Something that struck me while watching ‘Breaking Bad’ was how the men that the series followed steadfastly refused to open up about their troubles, holding onto the images of strength that they had so carefully cultivated. Take Gus Fring, the ruthless, calm, Machiavellian drug kingpin for instance. As a young Chilean immigrant he was emotionally devastated by the murder of his best friend at the hands of the Cartel. The depth of his loss can be judged by the way he spends the rest of his life building a drug empire to rival the Cartel and finally eliminating every single person he held responsible for his beloved friend’s death. Or consider Hank Schrader, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent. He is an incorruptible agent and a thorn in the flesh of drug traffickers till the end. To his family, he is as an emotional support and source of strength. Yet, he closes himself out from everyone when he experiences PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or when he is seriously disabled after a brutal assassination attempt. Who else to best illustrate this than the primary protagonist, Walter White (a.k.a Heisenberg) himself. Battling cancer, feelings of insecurity and notorious criminals, he refuses to completely open up to his loved ones on multiple occasions – and these lead him down a path of death and destruction that devastates everyone around.
Why is it that these characters refused to talk about their emotional scars and mental burden? Why did they not share it with the people they loved? Why did these men cut off themselves from so many sources of help? These questions are perhaps best answered by a character in the show, Gus Fring whom we had mentioned previously. When trying to convince Walter White not to leave the drug business, he tells him:
“ ..They (your family) will always be your priority and your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. He does it even when he is not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he is a man.”
These words echo true in so many of the messages that our patriarchal society feeds to young boys and men. “Man up “, “Be a man and suck it up”, “Boys don’t cry”. We would have all come across these at some point in time. From a very young age, we raise men to be take pride in their independence and urge them to provide for their loved ones. While these are noble ideals in themselves, what is problematic is the rigid gender roles that accompany them and the notion that being “strong” requires sweeping all our vulnerabilities and weaknesses under the proverbial carpet.
The effect of this conditioning is raising a generation of men who believe that talking about their mental demons is for the weak. Men who are emotionally expressive and open up are looked down upon as less “masculine”. From stories, legends and religion to movies and commercials beamed constantly, we are fed with a barrage of messages that the ideal man is a picture of flawless physical and mental strength with not a chip in his glorious armour. The men we look up to and consider our heroes are often portrayed as decisive individuals with no insecurities or doubts to speak of. In our age where (thankfully) superiority in physical violence has largely been condemned by mainstream society, the onus of patriarchal notions of manliness has fallen on being the ultimate “provider” – either to people they lead or those they love.
The fact that men don’t talk about their emotions results in very serious consequences. The refusal to speak up results in countless men carrying on with their lives while dealing with undiagnosed mental illnesses. The statistics paint a grim picture. Men are more than twice as likely as women to die from suicide and about half as likely to seek mental help. In many First World nations, suicide is a leading cause for death among men. This is a highly distressing phenomenon and it is time that we take steps to reverse the trend.
A very dear friend of mine once told me that it takes a lot of strength to open up about one’s weaknesses. While I can’t claim that I have completely internalized it myself, I deeply agree that this is a message that ought to be shouted from the rooftops to shatter the shrouds of stigma that hinder open discussions of mental health. Unlearning millennia of social conditioning and prejudices is not going to be an easy task, but perhaps we can make a dent in those notions, however small, if we tried. Perhaps, we can learn that being strong and feeling weak need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps, we can talk about how the heroes that we lionize and glorify went through mental torment of their own. Perhaps, we can tell men that it is perfectly normal and healthy to talk about their emotions. Perhaps, I can tell my kindergarten self that it is OK for boys to cry.