Defying the Traditional Definition of Manhood
It was mid-April 1964 in a small town in KY. I was 5 years old; my mom had just passed and I kept hearing, “You know, Johnnie hasn’t even cried.” Usually, followed with, “Well, boys don’t cry.” It was as if not crying for my mom was something to be proud of.
There was a physical pain in my chest that was unbearable. There were times I couldn’t get my breath and I just wanted to scream. “Where’s my mom?” Then, “Be Daddy’s little man, be strong, make your Mom proud.” Hell, all I ever wanted to do was make my mom proud.
So, no one ever got to see me cry. But cry I did. I would go into the field behind my grandmother’s house, hide in her bedroom or go to our trailer and get in the closet over the dresser. I would cry uncontrollably but quietly because the fear of someone hearing me or knowing I was crying was paralyzing.
Most of the memories from my childhood are still as vivid as a movie I watched just yesterday, very fresh and clear. Yet, some of the things that went on between my dad and I are vague silhouettes, shadowy, faceless images, that I try to avoid. But the scars are still there.
Vivid, however, are the sounds of my older sister crying when he had her in the back room. Vivid, is the sound of flesh on flesh as he slapped the people I loved around the house. Even more vivid, the memory of me climbing back into that closet while the beatings were going on, rocking myself, crying, and repeatedly calling myself a coward for not stopping him. I was only seven.
My sister finally ran away, when the beatings and the other abuses became too much for her. I was alone again. It was like losing my mom all over.
After my sister left, I started getting into trouble. My emotions were all over the place and I was forever having feelings that I was told boys weren’t supposed to have. But I did!
I wrote poems to escape and you better believe I hid those. My grandad finally found them and exploded. I think he was embarrassed. He screamed at me, “You must be one of those f-in queers! Men don’t feel this stuff.” And once again I hid, and I cried.
I was twelve the first time I seriously thought of hurting myself. I was so screaming for help. No one heard me.
At thirteen, a therapist said, “If you aren’t already an alcoholic you soon will be.” For much of my teen years I was incarcerated. Jail became my safe place. For some unknown reason I never thought of hurting myself while I was locked up. Outside of jail though, there were constant thoughts of suicide and a few failed attempts.
Anyone, and I mean anyone, that said they cared about me, loved, or wanted to help me became targets of my wrath. No one could be trusted and especially those who were supposed to be taking care of me. Fear, guilt, anger and resentment consumed me and could only be numbed with alcohol or some drug. I could not bare the reality of my life and avoided it with a make-believe world that existed only in my head.
At 21, I finally ran away from KY and came to FL only to become a homeless junkie. I had a size 9 blue flip flop, and a size 10.5 red flip flop, one pair of blue jeans and one t-shirt. That was it, that was all I owned.
At 26, I spent an entire weekend injecting suicidal amounts of dope. After each shot asking, “Was that one big enough?” I finally ran out of dope and I looked up at the ceiling and meekly asked, “Just please don’t let me wake up.” Three hours later I sprang up as if a gun had been shot, realized I wasn’t dead and screamed at that same spot on the ceiling, “F- you, all I asked of You is to simply take the breath out of my body and You won’t even do that for me.”
That night, I somehow found and I went to my first twelve step meeting and for the first time in forever, I felt a glimmer of hope. I had no idea that my life was about to change forever. That was 1984, and I didn’t drink or drug again until 1991 and then it was for only 6 weeks and back to the twelve step rooms I ran.
Back in the rooms, I dove into the twelve steps, did all kinds of therapy, workshops, and healing practices. I learned a lot and I healed a lot. But in 2007 the darkness returned with a vengeance, like it was pissed that I had turned my back on it. Panic and anxiety attacks hit me like a ton of bricks, out of nowhere.
Prior to those attacks, I was a picture of what someone with many years of recovery was supposed to look like. A seemingly successful business, a beautiful fiancé, a new car and a nice place to live, hell my shoes were even the same color.
Soon after, the attacks, came the suicidal obsessions. I could not escape them. If I was awake, I wanted to die.
I discovered that even grown men cry. I could not stop crying. It no longer mattered who was around who was watching or who knew. The humiliation of being a ‘man’ with no control over my emotions was demoralizing.
First, I was hospitalized, then in a homeless shelter. I lost everything I had acquired, even my mind. Unless you’ve been there you simply cannot imagine the pain of having just enough of your mind left to know your mind is gone.
After 25 years of twelve step recovery and studying A Course in Miracles, I had hit a bottom that made the first one seem like a walk through the park. But there was one fleeting thought that more than anything other, held me together, “Johnnie, someday, someway you will see the gift in this.”
Prior to ‘the crash’ I had worked my rear end off to become a functioning human being in our society. Therefore, I had acquired some vital tools to get me through the darkness. These tools and some new ones saved me. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and after some trial and error was put on the correct medication to help stabilize my extreme moods. But I knew I couldn’t stop at that.
I had to dig in and get a new perspective. I had to implement and actually use every spiritual tool I had learned. I had to change my internal dialogue. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Learning to monitor and explore ALL my thinking and change all my self-defeating thoughts to ones that would serve me was hard work. I kept working even when I couldn’t SEE the results. I had to come to believe that hope was real even when all the evidence said otherwise. But! It worked and was worth it. All that discipline and effort totally changed my world.
The ‘crash’ happened in 2007 and I haven’t had an anxiety attack, a depressive episode, or any real thoughts of suicide in over 6 years. Yes, there are days that I have anxiety, days I am sad, and there are even days that I wish it would all just end. The difference though, is the anxiety doesn’t paralyze me, the sadness doesn’t lock me in my house, alone and shattered, and the thoughts of it ending are not accompanied with thoughts of self-harm.
I have to be determined, when my mind begins to spiral downward to change the thoughts that are driving it. I have to be vigilant to see hope where I could not see it before. I have to believe I am not alone and to allow others to be a part of my life. I even have to share the thoughts I want to hide. When I was locked away in the prison of my own mind, I felt alone and hopeless and I felt a victim to the darkness. The light within that comes from connecting with others is what carries me today.
Who am I today? I am an author of three books, I host a podcast for mental health issues, I am a certified Thought Coach, I am a speaker on most things’ mental health related. And… I own an Air-conditioning business. I call myself a fully functioning man, living with bipolar disorder. More importantly though, I am a 62-year-old man, that still misses my mom, I am a 62-year-old man, that still, more than anything wants my mom to be proud of me.
If you need help, please, let someone help. Become the master of your own mind. Know there is a way out and it is available to you too. Learn to watch the way you think and find your way back home.
And… Contrary to popular belief, real men and boys do cry. Please don’t make them have to hide.