Most of us were saddened this past week to hear the news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing, not only because he meant so much to those who loved him, including his fans (of which I’m one), but due to how happy his life seemed. He was brilliant, handsome, compassionate, eloquent, and talented; and yet, he suffered, his distress proceeding in silence. As with the multitude of other straight men whom I’ve encountered, Anthony found it challenging to share his sorrow with the rest of the world; partially, this was due to his celebrity persona, but I believe that his reluctance was also heavily associated with his internalized image of manhood, despite how empathic and compassionate he was.
I’ve written several articles on intimacy and authenticity, detailing how necessary it was for us, as humans, to connect, and share our inner-lives, with each other; unfortunately, this endeavor is too often incredibly daunting for straight men. No matter how wonderful and compassionate a man is, it’s a relatively rare feat for him to let his guard down and openly express his sadness and hurt; in my clinical practice, the men I meet are frequently terrified of not being manly enough, essentially, of being human beings. They fear rejection and subsequent abandonment, by their associates, their friends, and even their wives. So, they resolve to encase their emotions in bubbles of shallow masculinity, as they go about their daily lives feeling isolated and mis-understood: these being symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder.
Depression, as a clinical syndrome, strikes where we can least spot it, beyond the exterior facade of one’s apparently well-adjusted self; therefore, its treatment is predicated on vulnerability and a willingness to expose one’s deepest thoughts. As men, we usually tremble at very idea, erroneously perceiving exposure as harmful, being antithetical to our core happiness. So, despite our collective progress, and our war on the stigma surrounding mental illness, too many still hold onto outdated concepts of masculinity, contributing to the vast increase in suicide rates among men, and sustaining the low-level of probability that they’ll seek treatment or even tell a friend that they’re in pain.
News stories cover our addiction to social media, and the subsequent spike in depression, but I seldom see stories about the internal struggles of men who so desperately wish to be known and helped. Intimacy, the experience of exposure and acceptance, has significant benefits: the reduction of a sense of existential and social isolation; presenting, and being accepted for, one’s authentic self; and, the most significant one for this article, getting the help that’s so indispensable to the restoration of emotional well-being. So, I’ve decided to write this article to implore men everywhere to become more open, with their wives, with their friends, and especially with their therapists!
The benefits of intimacy don’t stop there! Research has shown, and I’ll post links on the bottom of this article, that processing, and experiencing, emotions are essential to overall well-being. We tend to think that suppression works, that we simply need to pretend that we aren’t sad and we won’t be, but a growing area of research continues to indicate how incorrect that view is; in actuality, the opposite is true. As with grief, over the long-term, the more of our emotions, and particularly our softer and negative ones, we allow ourselves to feel, the better we’ll feel, overall. Accepting that sadness, fear, and hurt are parts of life helps us to live better lives, and just as important, helps the people around us to feel more connected to us.
It’s significant to stress that those around us who love us want to help us, but they can’t if we don’t let them in. And, rather than the expected rejection due to a failure of some antiquated version of manhood, our loved ones will love and admire us for the strength that’s indicated through vulnerability. Someone close to me once told me that vulnerability was a strength, and that truth appears more evident each day I treat my patients, as it takes great courage to exhibit one’s flaws. With depression, those flaws are greatly exaggerated, and they need to be challenged and reframed with a mental health professional in treatment, but that can only occur through a willingness to be oneself.
Emotional suppression is linked with depression in men, as we know that when emotions don’t see the light of day, they tend to return with a vengeance at some imminent point in the future, often presenting themselves as numbness and anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. And, emotional suppression is linked with a sense of social isolation, perpetuating a vicious cycle of interpersonal disconnection. I’ve struggled with intimacy for the majority of my life because I was raised with a flawed conception of what it meant to be a man. I had a stepfather who criticized me for being physically and emotionally weak when I was a kid, and girls who rejected me for being too sensitive; I’ve continually had to fight the interior consequences of exterior forces, and hope to help other men, like me, do the same. The battle isn’t external, as it doesn’t comprise of becoming more manly; in reality, it encompasses our need to rid ourselves of an ancient idea, one which blocks us from fully loving others, and as importantly, from fully loving ourselves.
This article is dedicated to Anthony Bourdain. Parts Unknown was an inspiring show.