Never did someone stand over me as a kid and yell, “Let it out! It’s okay to cry! It’s human to hurt!” From my football coaches to my own father, it seems as though the social norm for men is to be some kind of impenetrable mountain of muscle that feels no pain and has no emotion. If we’re not hunting or fighting or eating a bloody, rare steak, then we’re not men. As a kid, I idolized the manly behemoths on TV. From Arnold Schwarzenegger to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, I wanted to be just like them. And I didn’t only want to mimic their physical appearance, but I wanted to be as happy and carefree as they seemed.
Our culture depicts men as heroes and symbols of strength and popularity, almost to the point of being invincible. Every little boy wants to be invincible. When my parents fought—yelling and breaking things in the house—all I wanted to be was invincible against how sad they made me feel. I wanted to be invincible against the feelings I had when that girl I had a crush on in 5th grade said, “No thanks, you’re too fat for me” after I finally worked up the courage to ask her to be my girlfriend; instead, I ran away and cried in the boy’s bathroom during second period. I wanted to be invincible when my youth football coach called me a “pussy” because I got hit and I said it hurt; instead, I questioned why feeling pain made me less of a man.
All these feelings, emotions and a twisted view of masculinity had a hold on me. Rather than accept and process my emotions, I learned to ignore and compartmentalize them. I kept my issues and pains to myself and tried my hardest to push them down as deep and far away from the surface as I could.
Then, the day came when the flood couldn’t be held back any longer and the levees broke. For so long I had hidden my pain, my confusion, my depression and I had become good at pretending to be “okay” with everything life was throwing at me. But one day it was not “okay” anymore. My mental illness had been ignored for so long and it would not be quieted any longer.
I couldn’t find any more strength or courage or fight just to keep those around me from finding out how bad I truly felt. I was so conditioned to “man up” that when the pain, sorrow and thoughts of suicide ran through my mind, I had no answer. I couldn’t yell or puff my chest at depression. Depression didn’t care how much I could lift or what car I drove or how many girls I had been with. Depression knew the real me. It knew the little boy who could never face his real problems head-on because the society in which he grew up wouldn’t let him. He was too busy pretending to be strong, too busy pretending to be a “man” to admit he lived with depression.
After my attempted suicide and rehabilitation, things started to become clearer. I learned that pain, sorrow, anger and sadness are a part of life—emotions don’t care if you are a man or woman or household pet. For the first time, I could accept and acknowledge my weaknesses and my pain. Finally, I found myself and have never felt stronger or more of a man.
Coming out about my depression was one of the most freeing and courageous things I have ever done. No longer am I silent or fearful about who I really am. I am comfortable and confident enough in myself to accept and face my demons. I’m no longer ashamed of my depression. And being self-aware and brave enough to face my emotions fills me with more manly strength and pride than any action hero ever did.
I can now step in front of my mental illness and accept it as a part of me, instead of always living in its shadow. And I’m here to tell you fellas to be bold and fearless about who you are. Be strong enough to admit your pains. Be courageous to acknowledge your struggles—regardless of how “un-manly” they may seem.
Depression affects 6 million men per year. So, next time you’re in the locker room talking, I hope that the conversation becomes deeper than football plays and girls. For being a man is what we men make it.
Rob “Roro” Asmar is a chef and restaurateur in the DC area. He passionately advocates for mental health through his volunteer and awareness raising efforts and seeks to break the stigma surrounding mental health & men. His open and positive attitude are expressed through his social media platform @RoroMeetsWorld where you can find his cooking and refreshing take on life.