Dave hung himself from the lowest branch of the only tree in his backyard. Only weeks before he’d walked into my lounge room – his lower face covered in shaving cream, a machete in his hand, play acting the tough guy – an unexpected act of levity on his part.
He died of what we can only assume was a broken heart after losing his father, pain he tragically endured in silence. It was a heartbreaking end of a good man. He was the kind of man I knew enough to love a little; a stoic guy who was seemingly invincible…or so we thought.
Dave is dearly missed, he was as silent and strong as the tree his body swung from. I was so very wrong about him, we all were, and I wish we saw it coming.
Months later, Dan took ‘one pill too many’. A tragic accident, we told ourselves. He was warm, robust and delightful, though not so much so when he was discovered ice cold on his bathroom floor. He chose to snuff out his own light due to what we can only – somewhat poetically – hope &/or assume was overwhelming despair.
I will be completely honest, what was I left to think when the life of the party had taken his own life, and a man who was seemingly invincible turned out to be gravely vulnerable?
I found it impossible not to ask myself the question; who am I to survive my own relentless sadness if better men cannot?
My particular brand of broken was forged on my drunken father’s fists. Of all the things I remember from those years, few memories are happy, most are better left unsaid. But I will say is this, a part of me died with every kick or punch. Every angry, ugly word that escaped his enraged lips left a scar that took me years to notice, and many more years to find the courage to turn and face.
This is the stuff that shapes – and far too often, ultimately ends – men’s lives. Our inability to turn and face the darker side of the oftentimes messy path that led us to where we stand today.
Another Dan once told me our friendship was over.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you lack vulnerability”, he replied.
I was at a loss for words. Why, I thought, would a friendship need to be grounded in weakness? The army taught me that vulnerability was the enemy, which is why we often heard the joke; “all I feel for the enemy is the recoil of my rifle.” It’s a somewhat rudimentary tactic for distancing yourself from pain and suffering, but the best &/or worst part is, it works.
I watched a man die. He tried to thread his motorcycle between two cars at high speed. He failed, then bled out at my feet. A lady friend was in the car beside me when this happened, and she was shocked that I wasn’t. Our friendship also died that day.
As a victim of childhood trauma, a start-up founder and veteran with Complex PTSD, I’m well aware of the various struggles’ men face with mental health and the ever-complex vagaries of what it means to be a man today. Everything from the #MeToo movement, to Gillette’s ad about toxic masculinity – and I’d argue a general ennui with the lack of existential satisfaction hair buns, flat screens and tight abs brings – has led to the astonishing fact that in many western countries the leading cause of death for men aged 14-44 is suicide.
In 2016, when my marriage imploded, I ended up on top of a seven-story building, doing the math whether the drop would do the job. Thankfully, someone reached out to me in real time, which is the only reason I’m here today. But, and here’s the big but, I 100% own the fact that I ended up on that rooftop because I was broken and too scared to ask for help.
Today, thanks to the support of friends, highly paid professionals and some WebMD searches I’ve come to learn that being a bit broken doesn’t mean I’m worthless or life is hopeless. Today, being a bit broken on this epic journey that we call life means I’ve lived, I’ve made it through whatever’s been thrown my way, and I’ve (proudly) got battle scars to prove it.
I heard a well-respected psychologist talk about the hierarchy of suffering and the way it stops one man with a broken heart from seeking support because he’s not suffering as much as his mate who lost a wife. What we aren’t understanding here is that one man’s trauma isn’t the same as anyone else’s, nor does it need to be. I watched a man die and didn’t blink, but I’m not sure if I’d be alive today if I’d been through the sexual assault one of my good friends has to live with daily.
A somewhat lumpy metaphor, and potential path forward, is to view the stuff that breaks us in much the same way the Japanese approach broken porcelain. They rebuild that which was broken with gold, making the once broken thing far more beautiful and precious in the process.
Globally, 800,000 people take their lives each year, despite the various well-funded government programs, community initiatives and a ridiculously pervasive ‘hopes and prayers’ mindset. With 1 in 4 of us having to deal with anxiety, stress or depression at some point, my question is why aren’t we doing more?
Not government. Not media. You and I.
We need to be courageous enough to reach out to those we see wavering, we likewise need to have the courage to speak up when life is pulling us under. I’m literally alive because someone had the courage to show me they gave a f@ck, so I pray more of us ‘man up’ to do the same.
I’m a veteran, and proudly so. I learned how to be a man from the toughest school there is, yet despite our years of training in how to be tough, resilient and fearless, my military brothers from another mother are taking their own lives because they are too afraid to talk about being broken.
We lose one every hour. I’m calling BS on that, we can change this. Likewise, too many of my civilian mates have killed themselves because they were lost or alone.
This simply needs to stop.
The hardest conversations we’ll ever have are with ourselves. They’re also the very first conversations we need to start having. Ask yourself, do I need support? Or do I know someone who does? For me, standing in front of a mirror feels like standing in front of a firing squad. But that’s what real courage is, we need to face up. We need to directly address death by silence.
One time, I sat in a bar for hours, drinking and chatting with an old friend. After all the usual benign banter the topic shifted to more meaty stuff. He talked about feeling isolated and sad. He talked about his latest stint in rehab. He talked about being disillusioned with life.
He asked me, “Why are so many men so sad?”
I didn’t have an answer. I quickly finished my beer and went to get another round before the tears started. Here was one of my best friends baring a measure of his soul to me, and my instinct was to run away. But I stayed, we got drunk, solved the world’s problems and then went our separate ways.
Later, I felt like a brick had been lifted off my soul because I understood that other men felt pain too. Later, he attempted to take his life.
I failed him.
So, we need to learn to turn and face this stuff or men will keep dying. We desperately need to change the narrative. The world needs more men to step up and speak out, to set an example. It takes real courage and strength to break this cowardly silence.
We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our fathers, sons and friends.