[Content note: mental illness, suicidal thoughts, self-harm]
Can I make a confession? It’s not exactly an original one, and the experiences it concerns are anything other than unique. Perhaps it isn’t much of a confession, given how many people – although I’m thinking primarily of men here – have said something similar before me. I was corporeally contemptible when I was a boy – short, skinny, a late developer, and the youngest of three brothers. I was resoundingly shit at sport of all kinds, which was a bit rubbish considering how good at it my nearest brother was – the one I looked up to, the one who couldn’t resist the entirely understandable urge to stress his place one rung up on the ladder of life whenever the opportunity arose. For some reason my brain couldn’t tell the difference between a ball thrown at me and one thrown to me, and the same helpless spasm of indecision would foul me up each time I was called upon to stop or catch one. There wasn’t a tackle I’d fail to pull out of, or a pass that wouldn’t fall short. I could have cringed for England. Participatory sports were little more than a weekly episode of shivering, chafing and humiliation, longing for the time to pass and the bus to come and to just get home, while others shouted and ran and sweated and thrived. The echoes of these episodes rang round the playground and the classroom. The echoes, being echoes, all sounded the same: weak, weak, weak.
I know there were probably other ways to parse such experiences, but it was weakness that stuck. No one likes being weak. No one wants to be weak. For that reason, perhaps, weakness exerted this gravitational pull on my fears. For a boy, in our world, being weak is like not being a real boy at all. It is failing at boyhood, and it hurts. The myths and topoi of male strength, and of the alarming threat of its negation, are as old as the story of Samson – older, for sure. Such weakness is an insistently physical thing – it is being puny, a weed, the constant bodily awareness of your all-too-feeble presence in the world. Perhaps, for some, it’s all a bit ugly duckling – adolescence comes and your body changes and suddenly you feel and know yourself to be big and tall and strong. Not for everyone, though. Even long after childhood I wouldn’t wear t-shirts if I could help it: I hated the way what I still saw as my stick arms poked out from the slack loop of a short sleeve, so clearly designed to encompass brawnier limbs than I would ever possess.
Despite what I’d like to say, I can’t pretend, either, that I ever heard all the stuff we were told about inner strength and character and intellect as anything but an obvious and for that reason hollow attempt at consolation. It required you to deny the undeniable, that everyday awareness of your body as a limit against which you continually abrade yourself. This, I have learned, is a key element in the experience of marginalised groups whose marked bodies are the site of their oppression, groups to which I will never belong. It isn’t, though, supposed to be part of a white man’s experience of ‘his’ place in the world, in this world made for men like him. We don’t know how to speak of this weakness we shouldn’t have. So we hope to shake it off, to bury it, to never speak of it again once we attain to manhood. We also strive to stamp it out when we see it in others, and too often react badly if we discern it in our sons. I know, sometimes perhaps dimly and uneasily, the ways in which I’m still trying to compensate. I look at the clutch of slightly steroidal guys gathered round the weights at the gym (working out is one of the ways I’m still trying) and I wonder what weakness ever meant to them. This awareness is our secret, and our shame.
(I should make clear here that I’m not suggesting that a white boy’s or man’s experience of weakness is somehow equivalent to or, god forbid, worse than the experience of structural oppression. It is not; it is, precisely, different, because it happens only within the context of structural advantage. It is a malady of the (otherwise) powerful – to that extent it might call only for very little concern, were we deciding where to bestow any political fucks we might have to give. But I’m writing in the hope that I can unearth this stuff without it being read as any such plea. This is not a demand to be heard. It’s the biggest fuck off to shame that I can manage.)
Now I’m running scared of shame. And shame is key, because our weak bodies are also unhappy, intemperate, maladjusted spirits. As a young boy I was the chief of all crybabies, credited with a shameless capacity to turn on the waterworks in the hope of getting my way. Only it wasn’t shameless – it was shame itself, and alarmingly uncontrollable, yet another manifestation of weakness. Once, a song I heard on television while watching with the family somehow got to me. I can’t even remember what it was. But I remember that the tears came, and my horror at my leaking eyes only worsened the flow. I had to run from the room, hide outside, wait for the leaking to stop and the evidence of my shame to fade. At the age of 9 I cried in front of the class at my new school, which was a big mistake. Some time shortly afterwards I learnt to control the tears, but only by vowing never to cry again, a vow I managed to keep for more than three decades. Shame, though, stayed with me, the burning feeling always alive in so much of the emotional volatility and lability to which I’ve been subject for most of my life – an ever-present, possibly causal element in my lengthy tussle with undiagnosed and unacknowledged mental illness. For a long while the only way this could find expression was in sudden rages, as if I was still an undisciplined toddler, and in bouts of self-harm. To shout out your pain and alarm and distress, to slam your head against a door, to land a satisfying smack on your own face, could give you the fleeting feeling of being outside your own weakness – immediately before it turned into yet more evidence of just how weak you really were.
So such expression was never relief – in fact it redoubled the shame. To lose control like that was itself a form of weakness. To be seen to lose control, to be observed even by sympathetic others in the midst of a meltdown, was also a humiliation. People would laugh at the grotesquerie, the absurdity, of it all. Or they would recoil in alarm – what the hell is happening to HIM? It could, and it did, poison relationships, drive people away, diminish you in the eyes of those from whom you most wanted and sought recognition or acknowledgment. Hence ever more tortuous displacements, deflections, repressions, all of which only tighten the knot. At root, there’s both the fear that to reveal your weakness would be to prove yourself – perhaps rightly – undesirable and unloveable, and the dread that it will, especially in your attempts to conceal it, be revealed. Is this why some men find it so hard to seek help when they are in distress? Is it the fear that the revelation of our weakness will lead to our abandonment by those we love, and by whom we want to be loved?
I slipped into the second person there for a while. ‘You’, not ‘I’, deflection and displacement in full effect. It’s still hard to own any of this, even after mental health crises and treatment and therapy and all that jazz. To be told that part of my problem could be diagnosed as ‘anxiety’ was both a relief – it has a name! – and an added layer of shame. Anxiety sounds crap. It sounds pathetic. The word somehow brings to mind the comic panickers and ditherers of my tv childhood – Mavis from Coronation Street, Corporal Jones, Frank Spencer. Anxiety is rubbish. Anxiety is weakness, still.
Deflection and displacement are both coping mechanisms and the very name of the dysfunction. They have their currency in the internalised accusation, the cry of the bully within – in that kind of splitting or depersonalisation which puts you beyond yourself – which gives you a you to hate, and a you to hate yourself with. That time when it seemed like I wouldn’t let myself sleep for days on end – there was always a me beyond me, the powerful me that hated me, that knew exactly how contemptible I was and knew that I should suffer for it. There was the weird shard of self that somehow stood aside from my crazy rantings, as if to say that this was something I was doing rather than something happening to me. There was the side of me that gloried in how much I was hurting, but was rarely the me that I felt myself to be. That me was always elsewhere, the outside inside, the tormentor. Whenever I hit myself, it wasn’t the hitting hand that felt the blow. Later, calmer, the hand would throb in its own pain, which was now mine.
But then: that weakness is not the all of you. The charge of weakness is what you do to yourself when you hurt, when you don’t work, when things are not good and not right and you would so much prefer not to be here. And the tormentor is not the all of you either. The thing in you that hates and fears weakness, that wants to expel it or stamp it out, is defined by it – that thing wouldn’t exist without the weakness it abhors. And here, in spelling it out, there is also the me that can speak of these things, that can voice them without being only their voice.
Because there are other ways to cope, and thus to live. Once, in an early counselling session, the counsellor asked me what I did to comfort myself when I was distressed. The question literally made no sense; that sequence of words was unintelligible. And then suddenly it wasn’t, and I realised this thing I had never done, had never thought to do, was possible. Perhaps I don’t have to hate myself, my weakness. I don’t have to always be trying – forlornly, impossibly, pathetically – to escape or overcome my contemptible self, as if this is the only relationship to myself that I can have.
I can hear how shit that sounds – the spiky little voices are rising up in derision. But I don’t always have to listen to them. I can hurt, without hurting myself. I can learn. It can be ok.