‘Although I never expected this kind of violence, I had known for some time that there was something wrong. At night, I often awoke to the sound of them screaming. As their only son, I regarded it as my duty to keep my family together and I begged my parents to never get a divorce. Not only had I failed miserably in doing so, I also was furious at myself for not having foreseen and preventing the outburst.
We never talked about what happened. As a child, I was often told I was a crybaby and that expressing your feelings was unmanly. My job was to be strong and to be there for my parents, who were going through such difficult times. I denied my own needs completely. The only thing I allowed myself to feel was anger – directed at myself. When, soon after the divorce, my mother started drinking and verbally abusing me, my only reaction was to dissociate.
I overcompensated at school. I had a big mouth, told dirty jokes, and did everything I could to be one of the guys. Tom, the most popular guy in our class, had blond hair, big blue eyes, and a muscular, hairy body that I also wanted to have. I idolised him and felt so lucky when he occasionally chose to hang out with me. One day, we went swimming together and we jokingly challenged each other to take off our swimming trunks. We didn’t have the guts to do it, but I felt a weird sensation in my body I had never felt before. I immediately recognised it for what it was. Every time this feeling would emerge, I felt disgusted with myself and suppressed my desire.
‘The hunger was intense, but at least it distracted me from my depression. It gave me a sense of being in control, maybe for the first time in my life’
Because it was no longer safe to stay with my mother, my sisters and I moved back in with my dad. He was welcoming but preoccupied with work and emotionally unavailable. One morning, I woke up and just could not stop crying. It went on for the whole day, and then for the next day, and the next. Weeks turned into months. I felt extremely lonely. Not only because my parents were never there for me, but also because I felt that no one in the entire world really knew me.
I had always been skinny, but for some reason I became convinced that I would connect more with the popular guys if I were to lose weight and gain muscle. I began to starve myself. I sometimes ate so little I would faint. The hunger was intense, but at least it distracted me from my depression. It gave me a sense of being in control, maybe for the first time in my life. In the evenings, I would often give in to my hunger and eat – only to feel even more like a failure afterwards. I would punish myself by doing push-ups, the more, the better. I kept going to the point where I could no longer continue, just to prove to myself that I was a weakling.
‘Masculinity is not about being tough or emotionless. About being muscular or bearded. It is about being vulnerable’
I did not become more popular. In fact, I felt more isolated and invisible than before. More and more, I was thinking of ending it all. One night, I went to the bathroom looking for sleeping pills and nail polish remover. I suddenly began to dissociate. I stepped outside of my body: I literally saw myself standing there in the bathroom with those pills in my hand. I stopped crying. Seeing myself in this state was my wake-up call. I reached out and told people what was going on with me.
Years of therapy followed. It saved my life, but it did take a long time for me to leave behind my shame and express my emotions. For years, I had been guided by voices in my head that told me repeatedly that I was not good enough, not worthy enough, not manly enough. For a long time, I hated my body. Not only because of its appearance, but also because of the pain I felt in my stomach. My therapist told me to connect with it. I was terrified, but somehow I managed. I envisioned myself as the young boy I once was, and I said gently to myself: “Come on, boy, you can do it, just do it.” Acknowledging my pain and my grief was the first step towards healing myself and becoming a man.
Masculinity is not about being tough or emotionless. About being muscular or bearded. It is about being vulnerable. About expressing your emotions. It is the only way to be seen and valued for the person you really are. It is the only way to connect.’