The Facebook memory button can be both a blessing and a curse. It can serve up humourous reminders of your past or touching photos, but then other times you can get torn apart by memories you wish you’d forgotten. I had a breakdown the other night after seeing a post I had made about the Royal Military College of Canada. For context, I attended RMC in 2008 after graduating high school and VRd before the end of the school year. I came back home a shell with crippling PTSD, depression, and a hefty bag of prescription drugs. The status was made a few months after I arrived home and was clearly meant to hide my anguish under the guise of “missing” my so-called comrades and my time there. My 19 year old self was screaming for help in that status, but I hid it because that’s what I was expected to do as an aspiring soldier. Emotions were seen as weak. Breaking down was even weaker. Seeking help was just pathetic. Seeing that post again overwhelmed me with emotions I’ve worked so hard to overcome for 12 goddamn years. I am writing here to discuss how toxic masculinity affects our mental health, but I think I’m also here to offer a hand to that boy I failed so many years ago. I’m sorry. You deserved so much better from me in those fragile moments.
I’d like to begin by addressing what “Toxic Masculinity” means. Toxic masculinity is a term that gets the blood boiling for some. You’re more likely to get bombarded with “not all men” or “my son/father/grandpa/uncle/acquaintance isn’t toxic” than someone actually trying to understand. That being said, I’d appreciate if you’d give me a chance to explain. Toxic masculinity refers to society’s glorification of strength, stoicism, a lack of emotions apart from anger, and dominance from their men. Anything less than those attributes is seen as weak or feminine. It also glorifies the sexual pursuits of men and eventually the “family values” of men being the breadwinner in a preferably heterosexual relationship (please keep in mind this is meant to reflect the inherent homophobia of toxic masculinity and does not discount the toxic masculine values that affect the LGBTQ2S+ community). These antiquated ideas were pervasive in my youth through common refrains like “boys don’t cry” or “tough it out” or through my encounters with bullies, my scorned friendships with girls, and teacher/parental concerns regarding my emotionality. They culminated, as they usually do, in increasing risks and demonstrations of masculinity despite how uncomfortable and forced it all felt. I attended RCMP camp, went to football camp, did martial arts (Granted, I did enjoy wrestling quite a bit), started drinking, smoked occasionally, forced myself to date, read pickup artist literature -barf-, and anything else that seemed “masculine” at the time. Eventually, I settled on joining the military because that’s what strong, virile men do, right?
Perhaps I’ll make a detailed post about my time at the Royal Military College of Canada when I gain the strength, but for now I hope you’ll settle for a quick rundown. Being so far from home and struggling to make friends, I suffered from a bout of depression early on which was only exacerbated by an ankle injury that led to condemnation from squadmates and a lack of support apart from drugs. My ankle never healed properly because I was damned if I pushed it (cause you needed to listen to doctors’ orders) or damned if I didn’t (I’m just “milking it”) so this only placed more targets on my back. I was getting angrier, I wasn’t sleeping properly, and my appointed base psychiatrist just offered drugs to numb the pain and get me back to work. My therapy was looked down upon with one cadet joking that I was “ready to kill myself” or my new nickname of “Chit” whispered behind my back. Other cadets repeatedly pushed me to quit, one warned that I’d “pay double” for screwing up, another said he was proud of all the first years “except for [me]”, and many stayed bystanders out of fear or out of complacency. My worsening mental health and problematic sleep schedule didn’t help with school either and I received my first round of Fs ever as a former straight A honour roll student. I was confronted for my Fs and accused of slacking by my superior cadets. I spiraled. I began to lash out at my squadmates and was even threatened with a court martial (instead of trying to figure out what was wrong). I attempted to take my own life not once, but twice and would have gone for a third if not for one senior cadet who stepped up and offered their hand. For the sake of anonymity, I won’t say his name, but I owe him a lot for actually giving a crap. I demanded to be admitted into one of Kingston’s mental health wards and I stayed there for two weeks among doctors, nurses, and fellow patients who earnestly wanted to help me. I was first diagnosed with PTSD at the hospital and I resented myself for it. I wasn’t being shot at or bearing the weight of systemic horrors so how could I have trauma? Maybe I was just weak. I went home for winter break and had several traumatic episodes. My family immediately noticed a change in my demeanor with one cousin later describing it as “if he could kill someone or himself right now, he would”. I vowed to leave RMC and put in my VR request when I arrived back on campus in January. It took them months to process my shit and finally let me fly home. It’s been 12 years now. I’ve made myself a good life, met a beautiful partner, undergone a lot of therapy, quit smoking and drinking (apart from an occasional shot of whiskey now and then with friends), but the wounds have never healed and I continue to struggle with my trauma and, more importantly, my acceptance of it.
That’s enough about me. I only began with that story to illustrate how toxic masculinity pushed me to the brink in an environment fueled by it. My story, after all, is only one of many mental health struggles in the world that go unnoticed or untreated because we fear mockery and potential retribution. The numbers say it all. An estimated 6 million (likely more) men suffer from depression every year in the United States alone that goes untreated. Approximately 4% of men and 10% of women will experience PTSD in the United States in their lifetime. According to Dr. Michael Myers at UBC’s Department of Psychiatry, men will often “repress” symptoms of depression or other mental conditions and the National Institute of Mental Health found that men often make “no connection between mental health and physical symptoms” thus leading to more anguish down the road. According to a US study conducted in 2020, men still commit suicide at 4 times the rate of women. Around 4000 men commit suicide every year in Canada and approximately 90% of those suffer or have suffered from a mental health condition. Suicide is also the 2nd leading cause of death for boys up to age 19. Men are also more likely to abuse (and die) from alcohol abuse and are 2-3 times more likely to abuse substances than women. Chosen coping mechanisms are often self-destructive in an effort to preserve an element of masculinity rather than engaging in self-help or seeking the care of others. The idea that some men would rather die than seek help is, on its face, ludicrous, but we’ve been conditioned to believe self-harm is preferable to talking about our feelings.
Despite the rising rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, and other mental conditions, the stigma of mental health is still pervasive thanks largely to toxic masculine stereotypes. The traditional idea of being the provider still remains for many folks and communities, they have to be strong and hard, they should be the disciplinarian, and they have to meet certain standards of sexuality and physicality to be accepted as real men. However, these expectations are thrown into disarray when confronted with our society’s poor economic conditions, our own sexual identities, and racial/sexual/class bigotry. Men can’t be the “providers” when full-time jobs can barely support a family anymore. This stereotypical role as well as family relationships are further damaged when we lack the time or energy to spend with our partners and children outside of labour. Male sexual identities are most often tied to our looks, our sexual encounters, and our domination over women and other men. Men should look a certain way as dictated by our media and we’re often deemed undesirable if standards are not met. This is not to say that men have it worse than women in this regard, but standards of weight, height, muscle tone, and skin affect men of every age and lead to self-confidence issues and mental strain. Our sexual encounters are judged on the basis of numbers, but we want quantity rather than so-called purity. The need for experience, the shame of virginity, and our desire for a perfect sexual performance every single time are toxic ideas that are constantly reinforced through the mainstream media, pornography, and archaic beliefs. We’re made to feel inadequate if we haven’t lost our virginity, if we don’t perform to our expectations, if we don’t get the model into bed, or if we just don’t desire sex. These apparent “inadequacies” have led to countless men doubting themselves as people worthy of love and respect. Bigotry and racism also play a role in mental health degradation where men are judged for their sexual preferences or their race’s masculinity or supposed lack thereof. I do not feel comfortable speaking for the LGBTQ2S+ community on this subject nor am I qualified to address BIPOC experiences, but both face toxic masculine values that undermine true liberation. Shame keeps men chained. Fears of inadequacy and failure keeps us silent when all we want to do is scream, laugh, cry, or just express ourselves as complex human beings.
Toxic masculinity is counterproductive to freedom. It holds us back from true sexual/racial/class equity, teaches our kids to judge others and feel shame from an early age, and often kills us for daring to step outside of gender norms. I allowed the Royal Military College to suck my soul out 12 years ago because I was afraid of appearing weak to other men. I have left friendships with women behind because I thought it too “girly” to spend time with them. I have pretended and faked my way into hundreds of roles just because they were deemed masculine whether they were jobs, sports, or my dating pursuits. I have refused therapy because I feared what people would think about a grown man seeking help. I have wasted so much of my precious life wondering what a “man” would do. Honestly, who gives a shit? Instead I am asking myself “What would I do?” “What makes ME happy?” “What can I do to make YOU feel free?” Thinking any other way is doing a disservice to the youth and fellow adults who are likely to be targeted and misled by poisonous masculine and patriarchal propaganda. I am goddamn tired of wearing a mask and pretending to be the kind of man society wants. I shouldn’t suffocate myself and neither should you. I often think of the words of Assata Shakur in these discussions “We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains”. Toxic masculinity and the patriarchy leave no room for love or support so let’s toss them both to the wind and embrace humanity instead. This piece was emotionally taxing to write so here’s hoping it was enlightening. At the very least, I hope you have found a little peace knowing that someone out there sympathizes with your struggle and loves you for who you are. Keep safe, talk about your feelings, go out with your girlfriends, paint some flowers, sing, wear a skirt, clean, cry when you need to, and tell any naysayers where they can shove it. You are not defined by societal expectations and have always deserved to live your best life. For what it’s worth, I’m damn proud of you. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you again. Solidarity, my friends.