Growing up is not an easy thing to do, for anyone, anywhere. Whilst there are varying degrees of difficulty, there is a common theme among young men that makes moving into adulthood increasingly difficult and challenging.
You must be strong.
The notion that men must be “strong” is one that can be at best harmful and at worst fatal to young men trying to navigate their emotions and identities whilst making their way into the world.
The more adverse the environment a young man is raised in, the stronger he must be. This is the message that I consistently hear being delivered too many young men across the world. It is known that suicide rates are at their highest amongst men and it is no surprise since men are constantly recieving the message that they must supress their emotions, “man up” and “just get on with it”.
What exactly is strength?
The kind of strength I hear spoken of is that which is only designed to hide supposed weakness, not the kind of strength that builds resilience Without the proper role modelling for a young man, how is he too learn this in the first place? If he is being taught by already dysfunctional elders in his peer group, they are only passing on the knowledge that was passed onto them Often, this is to protect themselves from an external threat whether it be in the form of violence, either physically, mentally, emotionally or sexually.
I knew of a young man that grew up in the affluent suburbs of inner Melbourne, in an apparently well to do, functional, middle class family He seemed to have all that he needed in order to prosper in life from an early age. His father was a successful businessman, mother was a stay at home mum, they went on family holidays together, they even had a little house by the beach for summer. From the outside looking in, it all seemed like the idyllic Australian dream, 2 kids, a white picket fence and a nice backyard.
However, things unfortunately were not all they seemed to be. Behind the scenes, it was a highly dysfunctional family unit. Generational trauma had been handed down on both sides where it continued to play out into this current generation. Alcohol and silence where the coping methods used which only exacerbated the trauma further.
As his young life unfolded in front of him, I recall he mentioned that he felt like he was watching it play out, like a movie, except he had not read the script and was given no direction.
He was not a popular student and did not have a group of friends that he could turn too.
It was in acting out his rage that he found people paid attention to him. He felt in control when he was out of control. He felt strong.
This behaviour progressed into theft, more violence, truancy and anything else that would gain him notoriety amongst his peers and in turn give him the attention of parents, teachers and inevitably the authorities. Home was now a war zone. So he left, at 13 years of age.
He was taken into the care of the state and inevitably ended up in the grasp of the Youth Justice system. Things did not get better as a result of this. He only got stronger. He adapted to his surroundings, seemingly very well to those watching, yet internally he was still that petrified young boy. He was scared of everything, of what others thought of him and of being hurt again. He was scared of the violence that encompassed his daily life and in turn, he utilised more and more substances to numb these fears.
He struggled to be able to talk to me about the next few years of his life. As he described it, it was all a blur, the same day, rolled into the next one, into the next one, with nothing changing except an escalation of substance abuse, violence, incarceration and failure. He had many, many attempts at changing the trajectory of this path to death that he knew he was on, yet, without avail. He was not strong enough to confront the emotional pain that lay underneath all of his misdeeds and the actions that had hurt so many people that he cared for and those that he didn’t, which included himself. He had become a wreck of a human being, with no meaning or purpose in life and no clues as to where he would find such a thing.
What had happened? Where was his strength now? He was terrified of the path he could see laying before him. He could not change it, he just did not know how.
We hear about those pivotal moments in life, those moments that seem to be controlled by powers greater than any we can explain.
Through a chance encounter he met someone from his past that he had idolised for many years.e looked up to this man for his propensity for violence and the ability he had to carry it out, he looked up to him as a young criminal wanting to be surrounded by those he saw as successful and strong. This man had embodied what he understood strength to mean.
Something had changed – he could see it in the man’s eyes and feel it in his presence. He was not the same man from a decade ago, yet he carried himself in a way that exuded confidence. As they began to talk, he was drawn to the words he was hearing with a magnetic pull. He knew that what was being said was important and he listened intently.
The man was explaining how he had turned his life around, how he had gone on a journey of self exploration and confronted the demons from his own past in order to be freed from them. He spoke of such things with integrity, intimacy and pride. He spoke of having the intense feelings of shame, guilt and rage that he carried for so many years be removed from his life. He was no longer involved in crime and on the merry go round of the prison system. The man spoke of freedom in many ways.
He spoke of the most foreign of things, such as meditation, love, helping others, friendship and many other concepts that the young man had intentionally distanced himself from.
As the conversation came to an end, they agreed to stay in touch, which they did for many years. Although the young man was not able to grasp exactly what it took during those years to be able to implement what that man had done to be able to turn his life around, he did plant the seed during those times though and when they did catch up and they discussed life, he continued to water it and it grew over time. The young man was not immediately able to entirely grasp what his role model had done to turn his life around, but the seed was planted through their discussions and he watered it as best he could. Albeit slowly, over time, it grew.
Today, that young man has that strength in his life, he came to realise that true strength lies in vulnerability, in facing and acknowledging the fear felt inside, instead of bottling it up or lashing out in an attempt to appear strong.
Having found a new way of life, he now shares his new found knowledge with the young men that cross his path today.
A blog by Angus Tegner, primary therapist at Reach Rehab