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I'm Terrified Of Passing Toxic Masculinity Onto My Sons

30/11/2016 10:30
Ron Nickel / Design Pics via Getty Images

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I've always been angry and I've always been scared. For the longest time, I just accepted that I was in some way inherently broken, that I was destined to never fit in, that this persistent fear and rage was the natural base level for my life. I don't want that to be the truth that my sons grow up with.

To start at the beginning, it's always seemed cheap to use the traumas of my early life - my parents split up when I was five, my mother died when I was eleven, I had a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with my father & stepmother, I was bullied at school and ultimately, thankfully packed off to my maternal grandparents - as any kind of reason or excuse for why I've always felt so angry & scared. Men don't make excuses, they just get on with it - because that's what you do.

So, I did. I went to university, developed a taste for drinking a bit too much and got a girlfriend - because that's what you do.

I endured that emotionally abusive relationship for far longer than I should have, because that's what you do.

After I graduated, I got a job that I hated and salved the frustration of that with a shallow social life and too much alcohol, because that's what you do.

I would have lapses. I'd hide from my family for months because I felt like an outsider and that I was a disappointment, I'd lose jobs because I couldn't face going in to another day of taking abuse in a call centre for pitiful wages. However, I'd always pull it back, keep in touch, have a social life, find another girlfriend, get another dead end job to pay the bills and have a few pints afterwards to dull the roar in my head, because that's what you do.

Then eventually, I found that I couldn't do it anymore. I found myself being physically sick before going into work and crying on the way home. The shame of that expression of weakness was almost too much to bear. I considered suicide (not for the first time, either) but my girlfriend of the time (now my wife) asked me to go to the doctor.

The first doctor I went to told me I was stressed and to get over it, with no further advice or compassion and sent me for an ECG to check if my heart was OK. It was.

So I got on with it, I managed to get another job on better hours for better money, because that's what you do.

Then my granddad died and the last piece of stability in my life went away. It took a year to really hit me, in which time I got married and we started trying for kids, but the panic attacks and overwhelming sense of grief and failure and rage kept coming.

Fortunately, our new doctor was more sympathetic and signed me off for a bit and started prescribing me anti-depressants, the dose of which increased every time I went back until I felt like I was underwater most of the time.

While my employers started off being relatively accommodating, allowing for a phased return to work and reduced hours, the fact that I later needed time to deal with my wife suffering three miscarriages or just having bad days and that neither myself or my doctor could promise that this would ever stop, meant that they started trying to force me out.

Eventually, I was made unemployed via a 'capability dismissal' two months after my first son was born.

The reality of being unable to provide for my family was crushing. I was a failure as a husband, a father and a man. I found myself arguing with my wife and having far less patience with my son than I should have. To compound the issue, finding a job I could keep was a struggle and the DWP don't seem to regard mental health issues short of sectioning as worthy of assistance. Once again, the concept of suicide sometimes seemed preferable than living with this failure.

Finally, some five years after first looking for help from my doctor, through various changes in medication and being referred to two different psychiatric teams, I was accepted for a year-long course of psychotherapy. It's only at that point that I managed to look at my history and view my life more objectively and sympathetically. Almost everything that had happened to me was clearly the result of traumatic experience and the ways I'd coped with it, ways which are almost entirely framed by toxic masculinity.

Fit in. Don't make excuses. Don't complain. Don't show weakness. Fight but don't cry. Drink but don't ask for help. Make money. Provide for your family. Keep going. Rinse, repeat. Boys don't cry.

I can see how these attitudes have plagued my life and exacerbated genuine trauma into a self-perpetuating cycle of anger, grief, fear and recrimination. Still, sometimes it feels like it's too late for me; the programming is embedded and it's one thing to have an academic understanding of why you're angry and scared and quite another to not be angry and scared.

I don't want my sons to share the programming which has crippled me. I don't want them to grow up in a world which victimizes boys for showing weakness and which treats mental health issues without compassion.

I can try to teach them different values, I can try to never tell them to 'man up' or any number of similarly harmful sayings but I can't change the society that perpetuates these norms.

Changing a culture which infects generation after generation of boys with toxic masculinity, blighting their lives and those of everyone they touch can only be achieved by a common effort. We can change how we do things, but we can only change it together.

HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.

To blog for Building Modern Men, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com. If you would like to read our features focused around men, click here

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