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15th May 2018

Why society’s expectations of men and masculinity are damaging and unfair

Poorna Bell on losing her husband to depression, and how the shell of masculinity we have created as a society is so dangerous

Poorna Bell

This month, it will be three years since my husband Rob passed away by suicide. In those three years, I have written a lot about Rob being the everyman – someone who held down a job, had a wife, a dog, owned a house – yet who lost everything.

When Rob made the decision to kill himself, like a lot of men who die in this manner, he had reached the end of the road with what he could deal with. He wasn’t being selfish, he just couldn’t see a day when it would be different.

Although he suffered from depression and battled a hidden opiate addiction, the current statistic that the most likely way for a man under 45 to die in this country is by his own hand shows Rob is not a minority in the matter of death and his gender.

In the last three years, I have written a lot about Rob. I’ve written about his huge intellect, his career as a science journalist. I’ve written about his love of punk rock, his hatred of slugs. I have written about his struggles with mental health, his desperate and tortured fight against addiction. Above all, I’ve written about the thing I watched my husband struggle with the most, that prevented him from accessing services and asking for help until it was all but too late: the impossible expectations placed upon him.

I’m not saying that anyone ever sat him down with a clipboard and ticked off the ways in which he wasn’t measuring up. I suspect no one needed to – he did that to himself. I’m saying that our expectations of boys – get on with it, pick yourself up, be bullish, be bold, succeed, strive, make money, don’t cry about it – cements into a hard, inflexible shell when you become men. It doesn’t mean your emotions and your struggles aren’t still there, it just means that now society has sealed off any real way of you expressing that to other people.

Rob was not a minority in feeling like he fell short of expectations. He had a successful life, and then through a series of bad decisions found himself in debt and in the thrall of a drug that self-medicated his depression. Yet like others, he was trapped between an impossible crossroads: ask for help and fail the expectations of being a man, or work to the ‘everything is great’ hymn sheet even though he was slowly self-destructing.

Writing about the problems of men may sound odd coming from a woman, but I felt it was important to call out these expectations because honestly, who do they matter to? Whether it’s getting a six pack, earning tons of money, having the best car – what do any of those things say about you as a person, and how will any of those things get you through a tough time? 

In my book, I spoke to the then-CEO of men’s mental health charity CALM Jane Powell who said: “There is no give because there is no permission for give. Either you’re a proper man or you’re not. So things like shame, embarrassment, guilt – failure to be a proper man is the ultimate disgrace for them. I often think what that must be like. Here you are, God’s chosen one. You’re supposed to do everything. Be responsible for everyone around you.”

The expectations of being a man don’t just come from men; they also come from everyone else in society, and we continue to fuel and feed this unrealistic idea of what masculinity is.

As Martin Robinson said when launching his support network for men called The Book of Man, we have to overturn the idea of there only being two types of men: The Lad or The Suit. Because you may fit this template in some ways, but it’s the ways that you don’t, that will end up being toxic.

There was a moment of doubt when I worried that I was speaking on behalf of men based just on my experience with Rob. But then I received letters from men saying that it was true, and that the pressures they felt sometimes seemed unreal, and they didn’t feel they could talk to their partners about it. Conversely, I received letters from their partners at their wits end asking ‘why won’t he open up to me?’

What really hit home, is after three years of campaigning, writing about men and talking about how we had to loosen and redefine these notions of what we expect from men, I received an unexpected phonecall late at night.

It was an old friend who I lost touch with at university. I remember this guy being a playboy, super confident and brash. To be honest, a bit of a dick. But now, his voice was barely above a whisper: he was struggling with addiction and didn’t know how to tell his wife. We had a long, judgement-free chat, and I gave him advice and recommendations of people who could help him.

We finished our call – him grateful that I hadn’t judged him, me hopeful that perhaps this call was a turning point for him in seeking help.

Yet the next day, I received a text from him to say that he didn’t want to talk about it further, and he wanted to draw a line under it. He said he was an alpha male, and needed to be strong for his kids and ‘get his shit together’. I could almost picture his jaw clenched, looking at himself in the mirror, pushing all of his emotions and feelings down until they were buried beneath his bedrock, all but hidden from view.

It made me feel so incredibly sad that his mask was back on and he was walking in the world, keeping all of that inside.

What struck me about Rob, and most recently this friend, was the sense of rigid bravado layered over deeply entrenched pain. That despite being in a situation of such desperate proportions, the need to show the world how brilliantly they were doing, won out over getting proper help.

What I also realised, was that for men, the crowning expectation above all, was around making money.

Chris Rock said it in his Netflix stand-up show Tamborine: “A man is only loved on the condition that he provides something.” My friend was fixated on making sure he had enough money for his family, no matter the cost to him emotionally and personally. When the value of a life is measured mostly in terms of economic success, we find ourselves in shaky territory when things go wrong.

My last words to my friend was that he had to understand that he was up against something formidable. That there would come a point maybe not today, not tomorrow, when he might reach the end of his road of dealing with it.

“You’re the lucky one,” I said to him. “You’re still here, and that means everything is possible. It doesn’t matter what other guys are doing, or what you failed to do, or how you compare. They do not walk in your shoes, and they will never know the contents of your own mind. Make money, don’t make money. Be an alpha, don’t be an alpha. But be the man who is still here – that’s the only thing that anyone wants.”

Chase The Rainbow by Poorna Bell is out on 3 May on paperback, published by Simon & Schuster, £8.99.