In recent months, notable pillars of traditional masculinity, including NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, and muscular action heroes Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, have publicly addressed their experiences with anxiety and depression. While I would never wish either on anyone, I was glad to see them talk about it, and use their platforms to show that men’s mental health is a serious issue that needs to be discussed, especially by those we perceive as too tough to do so.
The impact of their actions on fatherhood is especially important. Dads are shaping modern conversations about masculinity and men’s mental health, and they are determining the collective lessons for the future, for their children, for their sons.
These celebrities are modeling the idea that acknowledging personal struggles does not make a man weak. Rather, their speaking out challenges the outdated definition of manliness as detached stoicism or brawn over brain. Their courage to defy the silence surrounding men’s mental health has inspired others to speak up and seek help.
Fathers need to take care of themselves, and to do it openly so their kids may witness, and even participate in, the process. That will teach children that men are allowed to step outside the boxes of societal stereotype.
I am walking that direction.
I have suffered from anxiety my entire adult life, to the point that working around it is as routine as a morning cup of coffee. I spent decades denying the obvious, that anxiety was having a very tangible and negative impact upon my family life, my social calendar and my career. Instead, I offered excuses, preferring that others believe me flaky or unreliable rather than unstable, for surely that was the only conclusion they could reach had they known the truth. Anxiety, I knew, was a thing I should overcome, “man up” or push down, not a condition with any place in polite conversation.
Even now, when talking about my anxiety with other men, including those like-minded in challenging the obsolete rules of masculinity, my fears are often confirmed. They ask if I’m sure. They try to justify and excuse my experience. They try to fix me.
There is a difference between bent and broken, and in speaking out I am hoping to help address it.
My anxiety manifests itself in various ways, but the most common cause is driving, something that I could perhaps navigate better if I lived anywhere but Los Angeles. It starts with a feeling that we all know, that seemingly frozen moment when your chair teeters on the brink of backward while you kick wildly for balance and the return of sedentary comfort. In most cases we regain our composure and breathe a sigh of relief, a moment of sheer and sudden terror soon forgotten. I, however, keep falling, my chair replaced by an upright bucket seat.
Most of the time the effects of my anxiety stop with the car, but in some cases an episode may last for hours, days or weeks.
In those cases, the results of my prolonged anxiety take their toll on those closest to me, namely, my family. I may be quiet and removed, frozen with worry, or quick-tempered, overreacting with a flair for the dramatic. In the case of the latter, I can feel it even as it is happening, regret building before the offense leaves my lips, followed hours later by deep breaths and earnest apologies, of which they surely tire.
While driving isn’t the lone trigger for my anxiety, it is the overwhelming factor. And most days, especially as a dad, I have to drive somewhere.
Funny enough, the traffic doesn’t bother me. If anything, it holds me in, the embrace of a rolling parking lot providing solace against the fears that hide beyond it.
And then there are the trips where I take every single exit just to catch my breath, 60 miles of avoiding eye contact with ramps that launch into bridges, cursing the one I once took accidentally and the haunting from it that I still feel.
Having my children in the car only compounds the situation.
For their sake, I have powered through whenever possible — fortunately, full panic attacks are rare and, in my case, seldom sudden — sticking to surface streets, which have never bothered me, despite the effects such routes may have on our schedule.
But there are consequences far beyond inconvenience. I have missed opportunities, friends and job interviews. I have fabricated excuses to justify my absence when the road seems too hard to travel.
Unfortunately, public transportation isn’t great where we live, and ride hailing across Los Angeles and back again can cost more than a plane ticket. Thankfully, the impact on my boys has been softened by good timing, carpools and the fact that our home is conveniently located. Nevertheless, while I don’t want them to miss some childhood fun because of my grown-up struggles, it isn’t their social calendar that worries me.
Some studies suggest that anxiety may be genetic, which is my biggest concern, and the reason I maintain an open line of communication with my boys, 15 and 12, about it. They know I have reasons for what I do, and that most people are fine in situations when I am not. I want them to know that it is okay to talk about my anxiety without embarrassment, despite the fact that I’m secretly filled with it.
Our conversations are small and fairly frequent, never making too big of a deal nor taking it too lightly. We address it through a combination of reminders and perspective, the knowledge that everyone is dealing with something, and that anxiety, when it appears, is mine. We find solutions where we can and acceptance when it is the only option available. The boys may grow frustrated or upset, but they are also kind and forgiving, mustering as much empathy as the back seat will allow. More often than not, they say they understand, that it’s okay. Most of the time, I believe them.
That, of course, is why it is important for my boys, and a generation of their peers, to see that it is okay for men to discuss mental health — whether it is their athletic heroes, or their slightly out-of-shape dads — to take away the pressures of confining masculine stereotypes and provide something much stronger: the owning of one’s self and a deeper understanding of others.
Fathers and sons discussing men’s mental health can help ensure that it is no longer taboo, and show that it never should have been. It is a conversation that not only redefines masculinity in a more positive light, but also can literally save lives. That seems a talk worth having.