Pretending II

Published in Mental Health / Featured - 11 mins to read

I have put off writing this post for several months now, probably since November. I’ve done so for a number of reasons, which we’ll get into in a little bit, but given that the current global pandemic has us all sitting inside, feeling alone and sorry for ourselves, I guess now seems like a good time to actually do it.

This weekend I finished watching The Witcher on Netflix, and to be perfectly candid, I really did not like it - I would even go so far as to say that it upset me greatly. I can’t offer a particularly good explanation as to why I decided to continue to consume all eight hour-long episodes, other than some sense of emotional masochism, or perhaps to fill me with righteous anger which I could then complain about in a blog… so here goes.

The Witcher certainly bothered me for reasons other than simply shallow, predictable writing and an all-encompassing desperation to take itself incredibly seriously. The titular witcher, Geralt of Rivia, embodies the toxic male stereotype so strongly that one would be forgiven for assuming it was done with some sense of self-awareness, but alas, judging by the rest of the show, that seems to not be the case. Henry Cavill does his best Batman impression throughout, accompanied by his signature bulging muscles and chiseled jawline, as he vanquishes monsters by day before vanquishing beautiful women by night, all the while displaying Aurelian levels of stoicism. His character is puddle-deep, yet he is of course still the protagonist of a multi-million dollar Netflix original - have we not moved past this yet? Are there not different stories to tell, ones which would not be retreading the same ground for the thousandth time, in which the male characters actually have genuine human emotions that are complicated and messy and amount to more than having a big sword and a big dick?

Geralt irks me so because in many ways, I am desperate to be like him. The seed of his masculine ideal was planted in me when I was a child, and is constantly being watered by the world around me. Collective progress has been made towards rejecting these notions of men, with a large number of male mental health charities occupying a larger part of public consciousness in recent years, the Royal grandsons becoming more outspoken about their issues, a growing number of people realising James Bond should actually be far from idolised, etc etc. There’s still a long way to go though; I think for society in general but surely for myself. It’s ingrained within me that men have to be financially, emotionally, physically independent, that they are the protectors of society with ample brawn and unwavering bravery. They should be charismatic and strong and, contrary to the well-known poem, insular.

Perhaps I have taken all these things to heart more than I ought to, but regardless they now occupy a space deep within my psyche. I know consciously, rationally, that these standards are not beneficial to hold myself to, and that I do not want to be Geralt of Rivia, but still those core beliefs persist and he is very much the bar I set myself; anything less is… not good enough.

Trying to supplant this idea of manliness is not especially easy either, as male role models who embody qualities other than these while still remaining undeniably manly are difficult to come by. The people close to me who inspire me and who in many ways I want to emulate are almost exclusively women (although perhaps that belies that I have some kind of bias against men, which is a blog for another day). There are fictional characters who do a lot better than Geralt at being men worthy of exemplifying, like Itachi Uchiha or Harrier du Bois, both of whom wear their (profound) flaws on their sleeves. There are men further away who I look up to, like Will Toledo or Sean Plott, but in their nature as semi-public figures, I am acutely aware that I only see a small slice of their true in the course of whatever parasocial relationship we may have; I think it’s a lot easier to be inspired by and emulate someone who you know deeply.

Recently I’ve felt the urgency to find a template for modern masculinity ramping up, as my younger brother is getting perilously close to legally being an adult. As much as I don’t want to be Geralt, I really, really don’t want him to be Geralt, but I know that to steer him away from that path, I need to have a convincing alternative to offer in his black-clad, golden-eyed place. Which I guess is why I have to write about the rest of this stuff.

I haven’t talked in anything other than euphemisms about my mental health on the blog for several months now, and I wish that I could say that was because I’ve had no issues with it, because that sadly is not the case. I’ve slipped back into pretending that everything is fine, when of course it is not. Part of it is my desire to fulfill that role of the male stereotype described above, to need no one else and not ask for help, for doing so would diminish my perpetually fragile gender identity. Part of it is to avoid crying wolf - if I ask for help too often and the people close to me make sacrifices for my benefit, what if there comes a time when their support is not so forthcoming, but I am in more dire need of it than before? In a similar vein, part of it is because I am desperate to avoid inflicting compassion fatigue on those around me - propping someone up emotionally is exhausting and clearly unhealthy for any extended length of time, and I am reticent to ask anyone to do so unless it is absolutely necessary.

These things make it difficult to talk about depression though. When faced with the greeting of my generation, “hey, how’s it going?”, I often feel at a total loss for how to respond. I don’t want to sugarcoat things, or out-and-out lie, to pretend everything is fine and dandy, but equally I feel like I need to set some kind of threshold for how bad things have to get before I start immediately admitting that’s the case. My depression has been around a long time and clearly looks unlikely to be disappearing anytime soon, and that means that nine times out of ten when you ask me how I am, the true answer ranges from gently melancholic to in full-blown emotional turmoil and anguish. Were I to say that those nine times, I am terrified that eventually people would simply stop asking me how I am. I am even more terrified that my depression may become my whole personality or identity, and that I fail to have anything to offer to others other than negativity - I still want to make people smile, laugh, feel good about themselves and the world, even if I struggle with those things myself.

Over time, I’ve learned to split my thoughts and feelings into two camps; those which are proportional to reality, and those which aren’t. Or, more accurately; those which seem congruent with how the majority of other people ostensibly experience reality, and those which seem incongruent - because all of them are congruent with how I experience it. The pretending is easy once the distinction becomes clear; you simply don’t acknowledge the things that you feel that you don’t think others would feel in the same situation. So that is what I do; I put everything else in a box, and I sweep the box under the proverbial rug, and sometimes I vaguely allude to the box - but I never talk about what’s in the box. I never take the box out and show it to anybody, let alone open it and show them what’s inside.

Obviously that doesn’t make it disappear though, and not acknowledging those feelings does not prevent me from feeling them. Even knowing that they are not proportional to reality - that they are not ‘real’ - that I should be mindful and sit on a riverbank as I watch them drift out past - does not prevent me from feeling them either. Sometimes they occupy a fraction of my consciousness, but sometimes they consume it whole, and yet outwardly I do my best to maintain the same façade regardless of what is going on behind my eyes. That is where the real fear I have about my mental health lies - that one day I will truly disconnect from reality, and be consumed by those thoughts.

I am unhealthily and unhelpfully ashamed about a lot of aspects of myself, this cornucopia of disproportion very much included. Fortunately, I think shame is one of the very few emotions that you can, to some degree, will out of existence, if you choose to own your flaws and accept them as an important part of your identity.

I’ve written about it before and touched on it today, but I am exceptionally uncomfortable in my own skin - I don’t really like the way I look at all, and even hate many parts of my own appearance. I don’t talk about it, or downplay it when I do though, because I’m ashamed and worry that it’s unmanly.

Not having an undergraduate degree constantly makes me feel inadequate - I’m not sure if I’ve ever even admitted that to anyone. I don’t feel as skilled as I think I should be, I am terrified my career won’t take the trajectory I want it to, the fact that I earn less than most of my friends also makes me feel like I am not good enough to be friends with them. Again, not something I ever talk about, shame, lack of machismo, necessity to act like I belong, etc.

I struggle a lot with loneliness, both romantically and otherwise. The few romantic relationships I have had, while some had their fair share of tumult, brought me a sense of peace, security and joy that few other things in my life have. The vast majority of my close friends are also in relationships, and I am jealous to some greater or lesser degree every time they are mentioned. Even platonically, often I struggle to find the sense of connection that I am desperate for - likely because I invest so much energy in being afraid of what the other person thinks about me, or perhaps what they might think about me were I more open and truthful with them. In my mind though, men are not lonely; we need only our own company to be happy. So, I don’t talk about this either.

All of these things might not be the appropriate response to my situation. Most people have it a lot worse than me in a lot of ways, and perhaps I ought to be more grateful for what I do have - which is a lot. Perhaps all those things are overrated; I won’t love how I look if I was 10kg lighter, doubling my salary wouldn’t double my happiness, a girlfriend would only be an attempt to duct-tape over my low self-esteem rather than a more structurally sound solution. In a way though, I don’t know if that matters, and I don’t know if I care - because all that stuff is how I feel, every day, even if I try really, really hard not to - which I do. It’s all painful; sometimes the pain is more a gentle discomfort, a slight soreness, and sometimes it feels unbearable; like a slew of broken bones, my body and mind desperate for it all to stop.

One of the pillars of being a New Man which I would like to erect is the concept of taking responsibility, and rather than merely complain, take action to remedy whatever problems I might have. I think this makes it easier to talk to people about these topics as well - having someone share their difficult feelings with you for the sake of catharsis and support rather than because they’re turning to you for a definitive solution is far more manageable and sustainable. So… what next?

I have a lot of learned behaviours that I need to unlearn, which has thus far proven difficult, but I am reliably informed that consistency is key, so I will keep trying. I’m not so naïve to think that I could give up all pretence in one fell swoop, but I can certainly chip away at it, and learn how to talk about the box under the rug, even if I need to learn a new vocabulary with which to do so. I can keep looking for male role models, and hopefully if I search hard and long enough, I will find some, and try to cast myself in their image - and if not, perhaps I will just have to make up my own version of modern masculinity and try to be at peace with that.

Given the present situation, this seems like the perfect time to try and work on myself, so here goes. And as always; wish me luck.

See other posts in the Pretending series