Toxic Masculinity and Suicide

I’m not a man but I am well-placed to write about toxic masculinity.

I know what it feels like to be surrounded by people expecting you to live up to their expectations of what a man ought to be. To be repeatedly shamed, teased, or bullied for allowing the mask to slip, revealing the person behind the act.

Forty-odd years ago in a hospital in Manchester I was born. I’m guessing some doctor took one look and decided I was male: that’s what went on my birth certificate. I’m still living with the consequences of their decision.

I might have been given the label but that’s all. It didn’t mean anything to a baby–why would it? But it influenced the way everybody around me interacted with me. How they spoke to me, how they dressed me, what toys they gave me, what future they imagined for me.

I wasn’t given a choice, not even made aware that alternatives existed. So as I grew older and became more self-aware I felt more and more that there was a gap between what was expected of me and how I felt inside.

I’m autistic: there are certain behaviors like hand flapping and toe walking that are natural expressions for me. An autistic body language. I was teased and bullied for them in school and worked hard to suppress them.

But not all the behaviors I had to suppress were related to autism. Others–mannerisms, speech patterns, responses–were shamed as being “girly” or “sissy”. I had to learn the rules to be seen as acceptably male, to conform.

That’s the essence of toxic masculinity: conform or be punished. You will be bullied. You will be abused. Until you fit in. Or you die.

You see, it doesn’t take long before you feel you’re being watched every minute of every day. You watch yourself, alert to every slip. The pressure to conform instills a deep and abiding fear and anxiety.

Living with that day in, day out wears you down. You learn to hate yourself, hate the fact that you must conceal your desires and feelings, that you must hide yourself. You go through every minute of every hour pulling levers behind the curtain of this fake persona to keep yourself from harm.

You become depressed. You wonder why you make the effort when you will never be free. You might self harm just to feel something real, to do something to reach down through all the layers of deadening armor between you and the world.

It’s easy to feel suicidal. It’s understandable. It takes away the crushing pressure of the trap you are caught in. I tried to kill myself a couple of times. It wasn’t like TV and the movies try to show it. There was no note, no plea to the world for understanding. Just utter, wordless despair on a lonely, dark night with a handful of pills and a load of alcohol.

Most of the people who made me feel this way had no malicious intent at all. They just projected their expectations onto me, expectations of masculinity. I’m not male, but even if I were I would have been subjected to the same pressure to conform.

That’s why it’s toxic: it poisons you, poisons your mind with its relentless drip, drip, drip. “Man up!” “Grow a pair!” “Sissy!” “You’ve got no balls!” “You talk like a girl!” “Poof!”

There is no single, right way to be male (or female). There is not a single characteristic that all people of a particular gender share except one: their own identity. Expecting people to conform to your idea of their gender is immoral, coercing them by shaming or violence is abuse.

Trying to prevent people from expressing who they are, even unconsciously by perpetuating gender stereotypes, harms them. It really is a matter of life and death. I’ve lived it, I nearly died. I know.

We Care A Lot

Being a carer is hard work at times. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I do it through choice. But lately caring for Anne has become a whole lot harder. Her illnesses have gotten worse and she has become very depressed, frequently experiencing suicidal thoughts.

I can’t switch off from it. I’m receptive to her state of mind, and — believe me — when you’re prone to depression yourself it’s extremely stressful to feel the echoes of somebody else’s. It negatively affects my own emotional state and after a while, day after day, it builds up to the point at which I have to do my best to shut off. To lock myself away and wait for the overwhelming feelings to recede.

It is exhausting. I have found myself needing to take a break more and more often. And that is a cause of stress in itself because I feel guilty for failing to be there constantly. She relies on me, she needs my help, and I’m not always able to respond.

I’m aware that I’m not looking after myself as well as I would normally. I’m mostly subsisting on take-out food and candy. Things like washing are falling to a bare minimum. I’m becoming snappy far too often, my motivation is poor and I’m feeling low. Oh, and aspects of my gender dysphoria are increasingly intruding on my thoughts.

There is a feeling that I’m losing control, adrift and at the mercy of life’s currents. I know from past experience that this is a dangerous situation for me because it is a powerful trigger for self harm: cutting in my case. The thoughts and impulses are there, even as I write this. I sat for about an hour over the weekend holding a blade, just thinking about using it.

I haven’t yet because I do consider it something of a last resort. I’m just concerned that the time when I yield to my impulses is getting closer by the day: the time when I will regain the illusion of control over my life, at least for a while. The temptation is strong but so far my fear of falling into the cycle of dependency has stayed my hand.

The Clarity of Pain

ASSAULT!

Loud. Bright. Voice. Touch.
Stress. Retreat. Stim.

People stare.
Eye pressure.

“STOP THAT!”

“ACT NORMAL!”

Loud. Bright. Voice. Touch.
All too much. Overload.

Wanting to scream,
But no sound comes.

Confusion. Ravenous fear. Feeding
On the mind’s elemental chaos.

One hope. One chance to escape.
One solution to calm the storm.

The clarity of pain washes through
Like a tsunami. Silent wreckage
In its wake. Peace has a price.

Cutting Relapse

Just a little cut

Just a little cut: barely visible

It hardly broke the skin. (Probably just as well: the blade I used was a little rusty.) But I was in a bad place, my head scrambled by fear and stress: I couldn’t think straight. A tortuous feeling for one so reliant on intellect. So I gave in to the desire and experienced, in that instant as the blade sliced through a couple of layers of skin, a terrible clarity. A focus that cleaved through the turmoil. That intense instant of sharp, pure, cleansing, beautiful pain as I slowly drew the blade over my wrist.

Fully intentional, in control of my actions. No wild slashing for me: a slow, deliberate motion. Experience telling me just how much pressure to exert for the necessary effect without excessive harm.

What happened to cause this? I was cornered in my safe place, overloaded but going the way of dissociation rather than meltdown. But instead of being left alone to decompress I had to endure further provocation. I ended up with confusion rather than dissociation. The one beacon of hope, the one idea that my mind was able to present to cope was to relapse and cut myself.

I did it with the first blade I had to hand, on an old “waiter’s friend” bottle opener: I’ve used it in the past. I felt that same old release. The confusion sloughed away and my mind began to function again.

This wasn’t done for pleasure. It was desperation. I couldn’t see another way to regain control, to shock my mind back into its usual rhythm — just like defibrillation. It worked, and as the photo above shows I didn’t cause myself much harm. Not that I’m recommending this as a regular course of action.

I’ve had so much going through my mind recently; my blog posts didn’t give much away but I’m struggling: starting to feel burned out. I chatted to a few friends afterwards: they’re worried about me. A lot. They’re awesome and I don’t think I deserve them.

Why I Cut Myself

I was asked by Ariane Zurcher of Emma’s Hope Book to contribute my thoughts about SIBs… This is what I wrote in a comment on that blog:

I went through a spell in my early 20s where I would cut myself. I was living away from home for the first time, attending university, and I was not coping well. I was feeling lonely and out of my depth: I was awkward socially and didn’t feel that I fit in, and what I now know to be executive function deficits made living independently a huge challenge. It also made the degree of independence expected of university undergraduates with respect to managing their studies a big challenge: for me the rigid structure of school education where every day was filled with lesson after lesson was perfect, although I always had issues getting homework done when left to my own devices.

To cut what could be a long story short — I’ll write about it in detail one day but not right now — I was failing my courses: missing lectures, lab time and supervisions (what they call tutorials outside Cambridge, England). I had begun to drink heavily — my first means of harming myself — as a coping mechanism more than anything else. I was depressed, had problems with anxiety that I still suffer from, and hated myself for being unable to cope, for failing, for getting drunk every night, for not being able to make the kind of close friendships I saw all around me.

In my state of mind I considered killing myself. No, it was more than consideration: I calmly sharpened a knife, sat down, removed my watch from my left wrist and made a small cut. I’m uncomfortable admitting that it felt good. It felt really good, as if I was releasing the pain of my feelings. It wasn’t painful so much as a feeling of sharp clarity bringing my mind into focus. I did it again, just a short cut of about an inch, through the skin but not into my veins. And again, then on the other wrist. I was enjoying the feeling: I felt that I was in control for once.

That was the first occasion. There were others. I believe it was a reaction to overload, to more stress than I could handle, to feelings of failure and low self-esteem. I can’t say whether I felt anger — internalized anger. I can say that I was self-destructive and that I have always internalized my feelings, at least until I explode into a violent meltdown. And I can also say that the cutting helped. It brought a relief from the intensity of my emotions, a distraction from my troubles.

It also brought shame later on. It was sign of weakness, another sign of failure. The marks on my wrists were a visible reminder. And I was ashamed that I wanted to do it. I believed — because that was what I had been told — that it was wrong. That “normal” people didn’t do things like that. And I wanted to be normal, to fit in. Even my coping mechanisms were causing me additional stress.

I don’t cut myself any more. That behavior stopped after I left university — dropped out. I was away from the cause of my distress and no longer needed to escape from it. I was back in control, back home in a safe environment. But sometimes I still become tempted to go fetch a sharp knife when I’m feeling overloaded and away from any place I feel safe. There is a desire to feel that release again.

I hope this explains my experience of self-harming, how it started and why it stopped. And why I am never that far from it even today.