When I Moved Past Masculinity and Asked for Mental Health Support

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. This blog post is a reflection on my experiences and should not be considered professional advice.  Also, I refer to some emotionally challenging things in this post, including divorce, suicide and violent language. 

I remember walking down a quiet neighborhood street in the dark.  It was January in Wisconsin, the temperature was below zero, and it was late at night.  I had no idea where I was walking, but I had just separated from my wife after months of fighting and ultimatums and failed attempts at repairing our relationship.  I needed to be in silence, look up at the stars, find myself. And find ways to stay sane throughout the torturous process of divorce that was about to come: dividing possessions, finding a new place to live, sitting in a courtroom and agreeing with a judge that our marriage was “irretrievably broken.”  

Even throughout those hard parts of the breakup, I barely sought help for my tenuous emotional state.  My mom had bought me a journal and encouraged me to write down what I was experiencing – and I did (and continue to journal semi-regularly now, 12 years later).  I spent time with friends who were still on “my side” after the separation. I found healing in the outdoors, kayaking, camping, and walking in nature whenever possible.  And I moved into a community of awesome people at a housing co-op, rather than living on my own initially (and their support was crucial in getting through things). But I never went to see a counselor until many months later, after the divorce, when I realized that I wasn’t truly getting better.

Barriers to Seeking Help as a Teen (and Boy)

Why did I wait so long to pick up the phone and make an appointment with a mental health professional?  I think some of it had to do with the general stigma around mental health and seeking this type of support, but I think a lot of it had to do with my experience being a man and pressures specific to my gendered upbringing.  Prior to finding a therapist, I had only negative or limited impressions of mental health professionals.  

As a depressed teen, my parents once took me to a psychiatrist, who I would only learn later was more interested in what drugs I should be on, rather than hearing about my problems.  My other knowledge of mental health came from seeing friends struggle and, in some cases, spend time in psychiatric wards after suicide attempts or other dire situations. Therapy and counseling seemed like something reserved for the most serious of cases.  I never knew of mental health as something that could be managed or tended to, like physical health, with the help of professionals who might just talk things through with you. It is also a disservice to our society that the word “counselor” is often used confusingly: I knew I had to go see a guidance counselor once a year in high school, but the full-time football coach and part-time guidance counselor who filled that role certainly didn’t give me any guidance or counsel.

Me with long hair at 17 years-old. My big smile has been a good cover for mental health struggles.

My guess is that these general experiences and frustrations might resonate with others, regardless of gender.  As a boy and young man however, I experienced a number of things that I think compounded this general distrust and lack of interest in seeking help.  As most men can probably relate to, one of the greatest fears of boyhood is being called a pussy, faggot, or some other gendered variation on being called weak.  Part of this shaming relates to seeking help. You ask for help from teachers or other adults, you’re a pussy. You “tattle-tale” or answer too many questions in class, you’re so gay.  I’m guessing there are plenty of parallel fears for girls or non-binary young people, but so much of my daily mental calculus as a boy was consumed with not being seen as needing help and showing others I was self-sufficient.  Growing up and transitioning to adulthood, this pressure to do it all myself and be an island without asking for help was so ingrained that I didn’t need any peers to reinforce it.

Asking for Mental Health Support

Following my divorce, when I finally did wade through the mental health benefits that came with my health insurance and pick up the phone, my first few counseling experiences were dismal.  The first counselor I was directed to had an office in an old hospital-like setting and spent no time with rapport-building before she asked me to walk-through all the details of my painful relationship that had just ended.  I thought it might be better to see a male counselor, but he seemed to think that we should skip straight to coping strategies and treat my mental health like a puzzle to be solved, rather than taking the time to get to know me and what would work best for my situation.  

Me as an eight year-old wearing an awkward plaid flannel shirt tucked into blue jeans. This time period is one of the last times I remember not worrying a whole lot about how I was seen as a boy and mental health things hadn't started yet.

Therapy didn’t work for me until I found a counselor who I initially thought wouldn’t work at all: I left my first appointment with her thinking I would never go back after her peppy-ness totally turned me off.  She could sense that I was uncomfortable though and called me to encourage me to come back, even if just for her to connect me with someone who worked better for me. So, I went back. And because I could tell that she cared about supporting me, whatever I needed, we developed an awesome therapeutic relationship that not only helped me heal from divorce, but also supported me in quitting a job that didn’t work for me and going back to school in pursuit of my current career.

Managing My Mental Health

My life is completely different now, over a decade later.  I’m getting married in a week. I have a full-time job with “outdoor adventures” in the position title.  I shuck oysters a few days a week, working with awesome people in a food hall, where I constantly get to geek out about culinary obsessions (and think back on when I almost went to cooking school instead of college).  I’m starting a business with my partner, Brit, and spend most evenings and weekends thinking about building renovations, how to price our physical and mental wellness services, who else in the community we can reach out to, and how we can best benefit the overall wellness of the Raleigh community (and Southeast Raleigh, specifically).  

My life is full – and full of meaning and purpose.  And I still get depressed. Fairly often. The difference is not just that I have a therapist that I trust who I can make an appointment with when I need it.  It’s also that a number of therapists over the past ten years have given me tools and resources to manage my mental health with systems of support that work for me.  I journal, I bike to work, I spend time alone doing nothing when I need to, I connect with friends and colleagues and try to engage and be vulnerable in ways that I didn’t before.  Nature and the outdoors is a healer I, ironically, haven’t been getting enough of recently, but I’ve got plans for a coastal writing retreat to reconnect. And I consider all of those things as part of my mental health.

One of the things that I appreciate most about #stopthestigma, and associated movements, is that it makes not only sharing mental health struggles more accepted, it is also helping redefine what supporting mental health means.  It’s no longer just sending someone to a psychiatrist or therapist. It’s enjoying a morning cup of coffee with mindfulness (and maybe a friend). It’s hugs. It’s putting a stop to bullying and hyper-masculinity that is destructive for all involved.  Now that I’m in a new phase of my mental health growth, I recognize that I need to soak up all the support I can before I get to a point of breaking down. If you have (or are) a boy or man in your life, I hope you recognize that they might be waiting until that point to ask for help.  Let’s change that.