The Massive Strength of Vulnerable Men
Don’t believe the hype that ignoring your mental health and keeping your problems inside is manly
The year 2020, in many ways, feels like Tetris on repeat. I’ve attempted to masterfully maneuver the blocks of my mental health, faith, job performance, and physical safety into alignment. Even when I lack the insight to do so alone, the blocks continue to collide, and the “Game Over” jingle continues to play as this year throws more obstacles at me than I could ever attempt to manage.
When I run through the list of tragedies — losing Kobe and Gianna Bryant along with seven others on that overcast January morning, the Covid-19 pandemic, the altercation in Kenosha, Wisconsin that paralyzed Jacob Blake and claimed the lives of two more, and the death of the inimitable real-life superhero Chadwick Boseman — it’s enough to make the most resolute person experience vertigo.
In May, George Floyd’s death hit me so hard I had to sit down when I heard the news of an officer kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes. Group texts to my boys did not yield much relief. So I buried it deep in my soul, laying Floyd’s memory in my mental mausoleum beside Pac and Nip. As a psychology student, I know compartmentalization is unhealthy. But as a Black man in America, I also know compartmentalization works in a pinch. I’ve learned to suppress the rage at the furrowed brow that forms on a recruiter’s face because my name and experience don’t match their assumptions. I’ve mastered the feigned sense of calm when police follow me as I run through California suburbs, only guilty of exercising while Black. These stories are commonplace for every Black man, and our strategy of diverting and deprioritizing these emotions are necessary evils to maintain our sanity.
By late May, however, I recognized the signs that my mental health was on the brink. It’s in these times of global tragedies that we struggle the most. We rarely acknowledge the tonnage of negative emotions that lurk in our consciousness, and we damn sure don’t volunteer that information in the open, not even to those who look like us. Why is that?
Group texts to my boys did not yield much relief. So I buried it deep in my soul, laying Floyd’s memory in my mental mausoleum beside Pac and Nip.
Given our history of separation, torture, and humiliation, it’s no wonder we struggle to be astute stewards of our mental well being. Our fathers and their fathers learned to square their shoulders and tighten their belts instead of asking for help. We still use these archaic methods of coping with the trauma inflicted upon us. But I come bearing good news. It requires something simple yet magnanimous, trusting each other with our most guarded treasure: our actual feelings.
Vulnerability among men is often (and ignorantly) associated with being weak. The illogical thinking that only women can be emotionally available is utterly obtuse, yet its prominence in our conversations and culture reflect a frightening reality. It is easier for us to pretend we aren’t struggling with our mental health than to admit we might have a crack in our already-battered armor. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is the greatest remedy for our mental health; it enables us to acknowledge what’s going on in our heads and hearts.
I’d be lying if I said being transparent with my feelings is easy. It’s hard AF. During a conversation the week following Floyd’s murder, my friends and I all spoke about headaches we had that we couldn’t shake. Our bodies were having physiological responses to all of the mental turmoil. I asked the group, “Yo, how do y’all really feel about what the hell is going on?” There was a pause. In that brief critical moment, we decided that putting up a front would only hold us back. The tears started flowing, we opened up about some dark emotions, and our collective healing process began.
There’s always that dude who poses questions no one wants to answer in any group of friends. That dude is me. But without my uncomfortable inquisition, we’d continue to suffer silently while our bodies would eventually manifest so much stress that one night you have a stroke during a Martin rerun. C’mon Cole, that’s not a good look.
So much of manhood gets defined by strength, but we fail to realize that only the strongest of us can admit to having moments of weakness. To that hopeful end, I’ve seen more Black men openly discuss mental health issues in the last two years than I’ve seen in my lifetime. Our athletes and entertainers are no different. We all have seen the tragedy of ignoring mental health — as the case with Kanye West — and the treasures we unearth when we have a platform to discuss them, like LeBron James’ barbershop-based series, The Shop: Uninterrupted on HBO.
Your real friends, day ones, and patnah dem are there for you when you can’t pay rent, your significant other kicks you out, or you need someone to roll, no questions asked. That same loyalty has to exist when it comes to grappling with emotions we can’t wrangle alone. It’s our job as a generation of men who have access to more data and networks than ever before, to lean into our support structures when times are good and bad. I’ve found out so much more about my brothers when we talk about our mental health than I do in any other discussions.
So set up a Zoom. Grab some Crown Royal, Hennessy White (yeah, I know it’s hard to get), or a six-pack of Red Stripe. Be brave enough to have the conversations, and let’s pave our path to mental freedom. We all deserve it.