Man up, man!
We talk about it all the time here at PoetsIN. The stigma of being “a man” as the eyes of the surrounding world see it. We remind people that suicide among males is prevalent and that most of us have been affected by it in one way or another. This is true for me. Seven years ago, I lost a dear friend to suicide. For the sake of this piece, we’ll call him Jim. Jim was the poster child for being a “man”. He had a successful job with a large worldwide chemical company, a beautiful home, a wife, and two awesome boys. He was one of the most well-known scout leaders in our area. Shortly after my boy joined scouts, there was drama between the church where we met and the scout pack. Long story short, a few members of the church consistory didn’t like two of the leaders who were an integral part of the success of the scout pack, but the consistory would not sign our charter unless we removed them. The scouting program was about the boys, not this bullshit, and this angered Jim, myself, and many others. Jim made a tough but moral decision to support those folks and the program, and to focus on the program and the boys. He walked away and started his own pack. He invited those who wanted to come along and promised support to those who decided to stay.
I only share this part of the story, because this man affected so many people in such a positive way in just the few years I knew him. He wasn’t always positive, but was always driving for a positive outcome, no matter the situation. As his marriage began to fall apart, he still seemed happy and positive. Right up until the day he took his life. He stood by me as we sometimes scrambled to whip together successful pack meeting after successful pack meeting. Joking and laughing through it all. I loved him like a brother.
Jim had recently taken a supporting role as our committee chair and I had taken over as Cub Master of our thriving pack. As a result, he typically didn’t attend the weekly cub scout meetings. One night we were having an outdoor meeting when we saw the pastor of the church and a police vehicle roll into the parking lot. I stopped the pastor as the police car rolled up the back drive to the wooded area where we sometimes had campfires. The pastor asked if I’d heard what happened. When I told him that I didn’t know what he was talking about, he’d said that Jim had committed suicide. I was in shock. But we were in the middle of a fun outdoor activity with 25 scouts and I had to keep my shit together for their sake. I pulled one of my leaders (also a close friend) aside and shared what had happened. We muddled through the meeting, no one the wiser, and then had some conversation, in disbelief, about what had happened.
The days that followed are a bit of a blur, but I remember the wave of grief that spread throughout the community at not only the loss of our dear friend and valued member of the scouting family, but the way we lost him. I remember how upset my now ex-wife was, the shock my older son was in, and the sobbing tears my youngest son cried at the meeting we held for our scouting community and the subsequent funeral services.
No one, and I mean no one, suspected that our friend was depressed or contemplating taking his own life. Why? Because he hadn’t shared what was going on with any of us. I remember feeling guilty because he had called me that morning to say hello (actually, his way of saying goodbye), but I couldn’t take his call because I was with a supervisor at work. It’s interesting how our minds work when something like that happens. Could a conversation with me that morning potentially have changed his mind about what he was contemplating? We’ll never know. I believe it has more to do with his inability in the preceding months and years, to talk about what was going on and how overwhelmed he was feeling. This was very likely influenced by his perception of how a “man” was supposed to behave. Be strong. Take charge. It’s your job to fix the things that are wrong! What a bunch of horse shit!! No one person can save the world and we are extremely unfair to ourselves when we levy that kind of pressure on ourselves and don’t ask for help.
For quite some time after Jim’s death, I had the opportunity to talk to people who knew him well. The most alarming thing about him was how he had compartmentalized his life. I didn’t know many of his friends and they didn’t know me, until after his death. We gathered and shared our experiences, and we speculated about why he had taken his own life. For many of us, we’ve experienced a place of darkness close to that. Hell, some of us have seriously contemplated and may have even attempted it. For others who haven’t, it’s difficult to fathom what it feels like to be in that place. Talking about what had gone on in Jim’s life helped us better understand where his mindset was. A crumbling marriage, a tumultuous relationship with his then girlfriend, a mother who sided with his soon-to-be ex-wife, job responsibilities changing due to the company he worked for downsizing, and owing thousands of dollars in taxes. Yeah, a lot for one person to manage on their own. A feeling of helplessness at times. If only he had opened up and talked to us, to a therapist, to anyone.
I learned a few things from this experience. First, is that you can’t take this life for granted. It’s important that, within reason and without hurting others, that you do the things that make you happy. Second is that you are not alone. So many people share the same struggles. Talking to others may not remove those feelings completely, but there is tremendous strength that comes from unity. Thirdly, is that the stigmas that surround depression, suicidal tendencies, self-harm, and so many other mental health challenges need to be eradicated. I can only assume that Jim felt he would be less of a “man” if he showed vulnerability. That it would be a sign of weakness. This particular stigma, and others, come from parents who instilled these beliefs and societal expectations that have been drilled home for years and years.
If we are going to change the pattern of depression, suicide, self-harm, and the other issues we all deal with, we need to break these stigmas. We need to share our stories. We need to come together as a community and reach out to other communities. We need to continue to beat the drum and sound the alarms and wave the flags and remind everyone that we are not alone in our emotional challenges and there is help out there! As much as I’d like to believe that I wear my emotions on my sleeve, I sometimes have a hard time talking about what’s troubling me. Whether it be finances, work, my now adult kids, my parents’ health, or any number of other things, I sometimes find myself bottling it up. However, when I let guard down and share what’s going with my wonderful girlfriend, my friends, my PoetsIN family, and others, I always find that I end up in a better emotional place.
So, as uncomfortable as it may be, and despite what others in society have brainwashed you to believe about what it is to be a “man”, I encourage you to talk to those who love you, talk to us, talk to a professional if you need to. But talk. Get it out. Allow someone else to help you work through what’s going on in life. Because you’re worth it! So very worth it!
Jim left a hole in my heart and in the hearts of many. Here’s hoping that together we can continue to open a dialogue and work to drive the incredibly high numbers associated with suicide, depression, anxiety, and so many more in a positive direction.
Frank Tipa, Jr.