I have always had a tenuous relationship with the idea of manhood. Or, at least the theory of manhood, and all that entails in being a man. I think it’s difficult for some of us dudes to understand what is expected of us at the best of times, but it is doubly difficult when you’re a confused and drunk man, like I was. Hell, I had a hard time being a human being let alone fitting into a defined gender role defined by no one and yet by everyone. Or maybe gender had nothing to do with it. Maybe it was just me.
Growing up, I didn’t have a large family. My father worked a lot of shift work and we didn’t see him a lot. And later on, when he was home, I was out. But he was, and still is, a loving man who provided and did the best he could with two boys in a new country. So growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by many adult males. All my teachers were females. The men in the neighbourhood worked, and the women stayed at home. That suited me fine – I enjoyed the gentle, yet forceful female energy and being a shy kid, I was able to cocoon in many ways.
I went to an all-boys Catholic school and found harsh and immediate rejection as the smart, weirdly-dressed kid. My pleas for help fell on deaf ears, as bullying wasn’t seen the way it is today, and it was just about getting over it. The teachers that were looked up to were jocks – and I wasn’t a jock. So I didn’t feel at home there either. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was starting to feel that lack of something in my life. I had just started drinking in high school, but it was a take it or leave it prospect. I drank heavily when I did, but could go for a while without wanting. That would change soon after graduation.
My luck with the girls was abysmal at best. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I didn’t even bother, to be honest. I knew I was licked in that department. Alcohol at least I didn’t have to whisper sweet nothings to to get it in my hands. It was just there. I hadn’t learned the ropes in being a man. I didn’t ask. I didn’t care to know, and yet I craved to be part of the brotherhood.
Now, did I start to drink because of all this? Of course not – this lost sense of manhood didn’t get me drunk as much as the colour of my car did. It was just a part of a greater whole for me. The feeling of a void was part of me not feeling part of me. Being a man was something I didn’t know anything about. I felt sexless…a eunuch – self-imposed. There were no instruction manual for this kind of thing.
This idea of manhood plagued me in my adulthood. Being a husband, employee, father…all these things didn’t magically imbue me with the mysterious formula of manhood. I didn’t see myself as fully capable of anything, kowtowed to women in all areas, and became the shell of a man I thought I deserved to be. And I drank more. I couldn’t be with women, and I couldn’t relate to men. I saw men on TV shows and movies being mocked – dumb, needy, man-children who needed to have the firm, solid, level-headed touch of a women to make them whole. Isolating and creating fantasies is a powerful thing, and I thought I was unique. I would eventually start to resent women for the power that I put on them. I started to resent men for the power that I put on them. And I hated myself. Weak, pathetic excuse for a man. Worthless.
So you can imagine my disdain when someone would tell me to “man up”. I would if I could. I just didn’t know how.
I don’t know when things started to turn in my recovery, but they just did. That worthlessness, that sense of shame, of being less than all started to go away. I was working hard on my steps, on working with others, reading, sitting and just being, praying, meditating and repairing relationships. The biggest relationship to repair was, and continues to be, the one with myself.
I started to see that being a man wasn’t what externals dictated, or how it was perceived on the big screen or in popular culture. It wasn’t in the collective portrait and resume of what a man should or should not be. It was just in being me. In being a solid, present and loving person who happens to be male. It is in treating myself, my fellow brothers and more importantly, my sisters with respect, understanding and compassion. I don’t feel that separation of us and them any more. I don’t feel the separation of myth and reality any more. I was starting to feel a part of, and not apart from.
I have learned how to be a loving male in the fellowship of AA. The men there with long time sobriety have shown me through actions how to treat themselves and others. They showed me that saying “I love you” to one another, hugging one another, shouldering another man’s head while they cried is what we can do. It’s not how much we bench press, but how much empathy and love we can carry on our backs. It’s not the hairs on our face that measure our manliness, but how we face our fears.
These are the things my boys will learn. These are the things I hope they will see. I pray that they will see the wholeness of life not through the filters of gender, but in through the power of trust in one’s self.
(I want to acknowledge the irony of posting this testosterone-laden topic on International Women’s Day. A big hug to all my sober sisters out there and my wife, family, friends and all the wonderful women in my life. Thank you for being in my life.)