“I Couldn’t Be Who I Wanted to Be”
A glimpse of stress at age fourteen
What do the American sitcom Parks and Recreation and Fitbit Relax feature have in common?
A playful question feels like a facetious way to begin a conversation on adolescent mental health, but I like the way it draws us to Michael’s story—he genuinely learned about meditating in an episode subplot on Parks and Rec, and uses his Fitbit to help him with breathing. “I gave it a try, and it’s cleansing almost,” Michael said on the podcast. “Just to not worry about anything and to have your mind so clear. I don’t — maybe that’s not how you meditate.” He laughed. “But that’s how I’ve been doing it.”
The answer, then, is that Parks and Rec and Fitbit Relax are both pieces to the puzzle of how a fourteen-year-old boy is learning to manage his mental health.
Stress wound its way into Michael’s life throughout his preteen years, growing in size until it overwhelmed him in his first year of high school. “It took over my life,” he told me. “I’d come home and do four hours of homework. This took a toll on my social life, and my physical health. I began to develop an eating disorder, which I still have to battle to this day. I lost a lot of weight. I became more of an unhappy person. I wasn’t fun to be around. I didn’t enjoy being around other people. I just felt like my life was a mess.”
“It was painful, to see my life almost crumbling. Because of schoolwork, or my friends, or just something that was stressing me out so much I couldn’t be who I wanted to be. It was really just—it’s painful to think about now, it was painful to go through then. I’m still going through it.” — Michael on the podcast
Things came to a head when Michael broke his leg and missed several weeks of school. He did his best to keep up with schoolwork in his absence, but the pressure he felt when he returned to school started building up. “I felt like I wasn’t strong, like I was a failure,” he told me, “and because of that I lost a lot of self-esteem.” His mind felt scattered and unable to focus. More and more work accumulated.
Michael came home from school one day and went straight to his room. He didn’t leave all evening. He didn’t sleep all night. Emotions flowed out of him as he yelled at himself, cried, and realized he’d been holding back his feelings for years.
“After that,” he said, “I knew I had to change something.”
That’s when he remembered the Parks and Rec episode and decided to give meditation a try. That’s when he started trying to combat stress with self-compassion and balance, rather than holding it in and toughing it out. He’s working on a strategy now that includes exercise, meditation, and reflection. Not there yet, but he’s working on it.
As I reflected on Michael’s story, I found myself thinking about the opportunity cost of not teaching young people about mental health. What if he had been taught about stress at a young age, for example, and learned healthy ways to deal with it? What if he had had a space where he could talk openly about his feelings?
Part of this is friendship. “A good friend you can trust,” Michael said. “That can make the difference for someone who’s going through a lot. Like most high schoolers are.” Like he was. “If you don’t have people to back you up, to be there for you, then it’s even more hopeless and miserable than it needs to be.”
Another part is introspection. Michael felt that learning about mental health and processing his feelings was something he had to do partly on his own. There’s a distinction, however, between introspection and isolation.
To explore this further, I reached out to Phyllis Fagell, a counsellor at Sheridan School who facilitates a student-led group for twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys. “They feel like they need a safe space to actually express their feelings in a way that reflects them authentically,” she told me, “rather than what society expects of them.”
Phyllis’ work was recently documented by Andrew Reiner in The New York Times. “What’s happening at Sheridan is by no means the norm,” he wrote. “It’s first cousin to a vanguard of programs across the country, where educators and coaches are teaching boys about the ways to recognize and prevent sexual and gendered violence.” Reiner went on to explain that while preventing sexual violence is usually a desired outcome for educators, boys’ reasons for choosing to attend these programs are often more closely related to desires for emotional authenticity and connection.
According to Phyllis, this kind of program offers two main things in the context of stress. Firstly, it normalizes the boys’ feelings and shows them that whatever they’re going through as an adolescent boy is normal. Secondly, it gives them an opportunity to talk together about strategies they are using to feel better. Both those things make a significant difference to boys’ experiences with mental health.
They would have made a world of difference for Michael—and not just a difference for him, but for the younger boys around him. What Phyllis has experienced is the boys in her group becoming motivated to be leaders for younger boys—preteens forming relationships with eight-year-olds, helping to create a safer culture for them to grow into.
“My current boys feel like this is an opportunity for them to make a mark, to make a difference and to have a legacy. So in addition to just meeting their own needs, and having the kinds of authentic friendships that are important to them, they’d really like to make a difference in the lives of the younger boys.” — Phyllis Fagell on the podcast
A commitment to a safer culture is the basis of Project Pneuma. Its mission statement is one of unhesitating vision: ‘The mission of Project Pneuma is to breathe new life holistically into the young men we serve by challenging them intellectually, strengthening them physically, nurturing them emotionally and uplifting them spiritually.’ It’s worth emphasizing that Project Pneuma operates in Baltimore, one of the most violent and racialized cities in the United States. This mission statement counters a culture in which over a dozen young people die by homicide every year—more than three quarters of them Black boys.
This culture of violence is closely connected to the origin of Project Pneuma. When the program’s founder, Damion Cooper, was a freshman at college, he was the victim of an unprovoked shooting that nearly ended his life. After wrestling with feelings of bitterness and anger for four years, he began to move on; and while volunteering at a local prison, he began mentoring the very young man who had shot him. After a year and a half, Damion told the young man who he was, looked him in the eyes, and said, ‘I forgive you.’
“Fourteen years later,” Luke Broadwater wrote in The Baltimore Sun, “Damion Cooper runs a well-regarded program that teaches young boys to do what he once could not.”
Project Pneuma’s programs include things like exercise, meditation and reflection—many of the same strategies that Michael is teaching himself in order to deal with his stress—and Damion’s vision parallels the positive regard illustrated by Phyllis. At the heart of this work is connection.
“Oftentimes they’ve had so many broken promises given to them. Once you allow them to feel safe, they begin to trust you. They begin to open up their hearts and they let you know what hurts them. Oftentimes we talk at kids but we don’t listen to them. So we take the opportunity to listen to what these kids are saying.” — Damion Cooper on the podcast
This connection is replicated by boys themselves. Just like Phyllis, Damion spoke about boys in the program becoming role models for each other. “There’s only so much even I can do,” he said. “When another young person speaks, it’s completely different. They take it another way.”
The question about Michael’s story is no longer a ‘what if.’ With Phyllis Fagell and Damion Cooper in mind, we can see exactly what effective mentorship looks like, and the results that it has. It creates a shift in culture. It’s a shift that will be led by boys like Michael, like the boys at Sheridan School or Project Pneuma, who have reflected on themselves and decided to live with more authenticity, more balance, more connection.
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This is a generation of resistance.
Featured in the Breaking the Boy Code — Season 1 Medium Series.
Breaking the Boy Code is a feminism-aligned publication on masculinity on Medium, and a podcast on the inner lives of boys on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify. Follow @boypodcast on Twitter and Facebook for podcast-related updates and masculinity-related news.