Listen to this story
Afew months ago I wrote a post about why all my friends want to kill themselves. I was nervous when I pressed publish; it was radically different from anything I had ever written, and I honestly thought no one would read it besides my mom.
I was wrong. It apparently struck a nerve and, at the time of writing, has 229,000 views.
This sudden spotlight has led to a strange phenomenon: folks are finding me on Facebook, Instagram, even LinkedIn, and asking me for help. Some of them want to kill themselves, some have friends who did, and some are just suffering from garden variety depression.
And they’re asking for my help.
Help which, let’s be clear, I am eminently unqualified to give. I work in data analytics, for Christ’s sake. I reuse Amazon boxes to organize my shelves and haven’t done laundry in two weeks.
So I often default to a response I’ve given to many struggling friends over the years:
“You should go see a therapist. As a matter of fact, I think everyone should see a therapist.”
Everyone, that is, except me.
I’ve never been to therapy.
Not that I don’t need therapy. I absolutely, unequivocally do. The women in my life can attest to that — they’ve performed so much emotional labor that they could probably unionize for better working conditions.
So why don’t I go?
There are two main reasons:
- Therapy is expensive
- I’m a man
The first reason keeps a lot of folks out of therapy — spending an extra $50 to $100 a week is a serious investment. Sadly, 46 percent of Americans state that “affordability” is one of the most important factors when choosing a therapist.
But I live in England now, where I can get a free NHS therapist (socialized healthcare and all that). And even if I were in America, I have a good job. Money isn’t really a barrier anymore.
The second point, however, is a bit stickier.
I’m a man.
This is not to say that only men are reluctant to go to therapy; society’s judgement of mental health struggles can make all genders hesitate to book an appointment.
But being a man puts a distinct “flavor” on one’s relationship with therapy.
To understand why, we need to start at the very beginning.
Modern therapy was invented by Sigmund Freud, a man who once stated in a letter to his colleague and collaborator Wilhelm Fleiss:
“I need a lot of cocaine.”
In these early, cocaine-fueled days of psychoanalysis, patients were largely female, and largely “hysterical” (a term we’ve used to pathologize women’s behavior since Ancient Greece). While this was intensely problematic for loads of reasons we won’t dive into here, it also had the unfortunate side effect of stigmatizing men in therapy.
Two world wars briefly changed this. Soldiers were sent to therapy en masse after “shellshock” (PTSD) was first observed in 1915. However, this was for pragmatic purposes — namely, to get them back fighting on the front lines.
After the soldiers returned from war, things changed. The only front lines left were in men’s minds, so the directive was clear: man up, have a drink, get a job. To this day, only 33 percent of people receiving therapy in America are men.
Instead, we practice a form of magic.
Boys in our culture learn alchemy from a young age, often from their fathers. There is a limited spectrum of acceptable emotions for us. So, when we are hurt and can’t show it, we discover our power.
We can turn sadness into anger. Vulnerability into laughter. Rejection into hatred.
And we are applauded for the transmutation. To our teachers, a boy punching a locker is far less distressing than one who’s crying. Disruptive class clowns are just future politicians. When Johnny throws rocks at Susie, he’s flirting with her.
There’s a phrase for this: normative male alexithymia. The inability of men to verbalize their emotions.
At first, this power feels good. It protects us from pain. But as we age, we find our alchemy a Midas touch.
Surrounded by gold, we’re left with nothing to eat.
Maybe that’s the reason behind one of the most surprising statistics I’ve found: men over 50 are actually more likely to go to therapy than those under.
It’s simple: they’re starving.
When we lack the language to describe our emotional states, our own minds become foreign lands. Not knowing the words for North or South, we are stuck visiting the same places over and over again. We pace in circles.
There’s a quote that I find poignant from The Old Man and the Sea:
“Let him think that I am more man than I am and I will be so.”
This is the paradox of masculinity: it exists only as it is witnessed. It is created, experienced, and destroyed in the eye of the beholder.
It’s performative. Look how high I can go on these swings. Listen to how loudly I can burp. Watch me get a flu shot without crying.
We need others to tell us, “You are not lost in a foreign land. You’re standing in that same spot because you choose to.” Because you’re a man.
Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899, the same year Freud wrote his magnum opus, The Interpretation of Dreams. Young boys gravitate towards Hemingway. He was the epitome of a “real man”: drinking in Paris, fighting in Cuba, shooting lions in Africa. But his manliness was all performance, much like the bullfights he enjoyed so much.
If there were ever a man on this planet who needed therapy, it was him.
He was not one of the heroes he so admired; he was not one of his characters. He was a scared, lonely, impotent man plagued with health problems and depression, chasing after a red cape.
Even a writer as gifted as Hemingway couldn’t find the language to talk to himself, about himself. The foreign land in his head became too challenging to explore alone; the only way out was to blow it all to pieces like some Spanish bridge.
Society isn’t bothered by men fighting demons. If anything, it encourages it. We love the James Deans, the Tom Waits, the Van Goghs.
But society demands that we fight alone, with Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Winning or losing is insignificant: what matters is our sportsmanship.
Alcohol is fair play. Travel is encouraged. Writing is tolerated. But therapy?
That’s cheating. Two points deducted.
Maybe this is why crying, an evolutionary adaptation to request help from other humans, is so taboo for men. You can’t ask for help in this game. It’s a painful lesson that all boys learn early.
The first time I remember learning it was at nine years old. I got in trouble in math class, and I began to cry profusely.
Ms. Nash said,
“If you can’t control yourself, get out of the classroom until you can.”
I stormed out the door, hot tears streaming down my face, confused and hurt. I sat in the bathroom with mint green tiles. With balled up fists, I realized crying was wrong, and hoped never to do it again.
I’m sure it was an insignificant event to Ms. Nash, not even worth mentioning over her microwaved dinner later that night. Kids need to grow up, after all.
And yet, I remember so vividly the shame I felt, sitting there fully clothed on the toilet.
I get that same feeling when I think about visiting a therapist.
I’ve never been to therapy.
And I take a strange pride in saying that. I wear it like a badge of honor.
But there should be no pride in my abstinence from therapy. It is a false pride; the kind that comes before the fall. It’s Hemingway having a drink with his hands shaking, fearful of going to bed with his wife.
Like defeated boxers who take refuge in sportsmanship, I proudly claim that my fighting is clean. I always touch gloves. I never ask for help.
But here’s the thing: no one cares. There’s no award for going it alone. I’m trying to prove something to an empty audience.
The truth is, I’m scared.
I’m scared to walk into that room with nothing but me, the therapist, and 1,000 miles of foreign land.
I’m scared I will be left standing alone, holding the dull gray lead I once thought I could turn to gold.
It would be nice to end this with a positive message and a call to action. It would be nice to tell you that I’ve booked an appointment for next Wednesday.
But that would be a lie.
Even after all this, I’m not sure if I’ll go to therapy.
I’m lucky. I don’t need to go. Overall, I’m doing alright.
But we don’t go to the dentist only when we feel pain; we get regular cleanings to prevent issues. Why should our mental health be any different? Why are we comfortable spending money on our teeth, but not on our most important organ? The organ that drives cars, writes music, tells jokes, looks at the stars, and forgets the name of that actress in Fargo. (“The cop, what’s her name?”)
I think everyone should go to therapy.
But if the idea of seeing a therapist makes you scared and uncomfortable, just know that I understand.
I don’t wanna say it’s okay because, well, maybe it’s not. But it’s real, and it’s honest, and it’s how I feel too.
This foreign land in our heads is tough to navigate. I still don’t know the words for “North” and “South.” But I think, just maybe, I can finally point to the ground and say “here.”
And I hope that one day, we’ll all be able to ask for help to get “there.”