How To Get Men To Talk About Their Chronic Illness

The following post is part of the The January Project: Chronic Illness. A month long project where I research and write about chronic illness.  The information presented in this project is intended for educational purposes only.

I am not a doctor. I am a teacher and writer who, while being afflicted with two chronic illnesses, is trying to learn how to live a productive and peaceful life. 

With this project I hope to increase awareness, offer comfort to those living with chronic illness and offer clarification to anyone who knows a person living with chronic illness.


When my wife comes home from work she vents.

If she doesn’t vent to me, she calls her best friend to vent. And when my wife’s best friend has had a rough day, she calls my wife to vent.

After a day of work my wife needs to talk about it. She needs to share her frustrations (and accomplishments) with me or her best friend. And after she vents she often says, “Sorry, I just had to vent.”

For my wife, sharing her emotions seems almost natural.

And I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous.

Three weeks into my research project on chronic illness and I’m hearing a lack of male voices on the subject. There are tons of blogs, articles and podcasts about living with chronic illness on the internet but most are voiced by women and geared toward women.

Even the articles I found about how men typically deal with chronic illnesses were written by women. Not to devalue those articles, it’s just strikingly clear that there’s a lack of male voices in the chronic illness discussion.

But why?

Men are just as susceptible to chronic illness, and in fact, chronic illnesses are more fatal for men than women.

According to the Harvard Medical Journal, Men die younger than women, and they are more burdened by illness during life. They fall ill at a younger age and have more chronic illnesses than women.

So why the silence?

I think it’s simple—men don’t feel comfortable talking about their weaknesses.

It’s not that we don’t want to talk about our illness, we do. I have had a lot of deep, personal conversations with male friends and male students about deeply serious things, including chronic illness.

The problem is we just don’t know how to voice our fears, frustrations and without looking weak.

We fear that having a real talk will be mistaken for venting. And venting is something that women do.

I wrote in A Vulnerable Man that when I was 15 years old I was called a fag by another boy because I wrote a story that impressed my 9th grade English teacher.

22 years later, as I tell you this, I can see my teacher smile and hear her say that I have a “strong writing voice” and that I should “keep writing.”

For the teenage, heterosexual male being seen as “gay” in the eyes of your male peers is the ultimate fear.

And if I’m being completely honest, at 37, it’s still a serious fear.

In this NSFW clip, comedian Bill Burr accurately ( and hilariously) describes why men are so foolishly terrified to look weak in front of other men and how a man’s emotional repression ultimately kills them.

 “What are you a fag” is the reason why guys dropped at 55 out of fucking nowhere.–Bill Burr

Young age men are trained by society and by other men to suppress their feelings. And for the man struggling with chronic illness this “training” becomes increasingly dangerous.

My plan when I began the January Project was to research the origin of chronic illness, the different types, possible preventions and latest research.

But something happened.

When I dove into the project I was shocked to find a lack of males voices talking about chronic illness.

So the focus of the January Project shifted from general research to writing about ways men with a chronic illness can accept vulnerability, overcome shame and find their voice again.

Like women, men need to share their struggles, their stories. Because repression leads stress and stress leads to physical and emotional weakness.

5 Constructive Things Men Can Do

Each of the things listed below helped me to accept and openly talk about my chronic illnesses. These strategies will not cure your illness, but they will help you take the first, crucial steps in achieving a less-stressful, more fulfilling life.

There was a time throughout my struggles with chronic illness that I thought each of these strategies were dumb–even writing.

At first they were uncomfortable and seemed futile. But the more I practiced them, the more I was able to accept my chronic illness, release stress and gain emotional strength. Training your emotional muscles is like training your physical muscles– if you want results, you must consistently go to the gym and lift weights.

Finding your voice is a life long process. It’s work. But if we never verbalize our emotions we will always be fragile and walk a tightrope of self-destruction.

1.Write

I don’t know where I would be without writing. Writing has been both a release and a source of strength for me. Writing has made my thoughts and feelings more tangible, more clear and easier for me to understand.

The purpose of writing is to not pen a novel. The quality of your writing doesn’t matter. It’s to have a dialogue with yourself–a private venting session to constructively release your emotions.

2. Make one small change

A chronic illness can leave you powerless. And when you’re powerless, sometimes you think you have to change everything to regain your masculine power. One way to regain your power is to make one small positive change. Committing to one small change will provide confidence to make bigger, future changes.

For example, a few weeks after I committed to taking daily all-natural vitamin supplements, I decided to change my carnivorous diet to a total plant-based diet. After weeks on a plant-based diet my body felt so good I was able to completely stop taking steroids, which I had taken for four years to alleviate my chronic pain.

3. Listen to motivational speeches

Because I was so afraid to talk about my illness, no one knew how much I was suffering. I wanted to talk but, maybe it was a lack of courage or maturity, I just couldn’t.

I found that listening to motivational speeches everyday helped me to build strength and courage that one day inspired me to talk.  My favorite speakers are Tony Robbins, Brene’ Brown and Les Brown.

4. Learn something new

Learning new things is cardio for your brain. Watching a documentary, reading a book or learning a new skill are simple ways to gain strength and confidence.

In fact, living with a chronic illness requires you to have a growth mindset, which basically means to increase your intelligence by dedicating yourself to learning about new ideas and perspectives. Intellectually growing makes you feel strong and helps you manicure a resolve to overcome future setbacks.

5. Tell one person that you’re scared

Bestselling author Lewis Howes explains, “anyone who has experience trauma in the past and hasn’t ever discussed it with anyone will allow the trauma to grow in negative way until you begin to tell your story.”

Even when I was enduring CAT Scans, blood tests, biopsies and MRIs it was still hard to admit to my wife that I was scared.

Men will endure and suffer to avoid admitting that they’re afraid. But admitting fear takes real courage and is an important step in the healing process. Though the stoic, unwavering man is glorified in our society, it’s important to remember that he is nothing but a work of fiction.

Men– living with a chronic illness is hard. It will emasculate you. It will break your spirit. Don’t let it. Hold on. Have patience. And never be afraid to tell your story.

Women– understand that men need you. Though we may not say it, your presence gives us strength. Be frugal with your questions. The last thing a suffering man needs is to be assaulted with questions. Stay patient, refrain from judgments and one day, when we’re ready, we will share our story with you.

Be well,

Jay


Related Original Writings on Chronic Illness:

What You Need To Know About Men Who Have A Chronic Illness And The Shame They Feel (Published on January 5, 2018)

I Celebrated My Worst Day (Published on September 8, 2017)

20 Things My Chronic Illness Has Taught Me (Published on June 16, 2016)

 

 

Prince Harry Taught All Men a Life Saving Lesson

It’s an old story. A bit cliched. But still a worthy one…

A man and a woman are in a car.

The man drives as the women navigates through unfamiliar territory. They have no map, no cell phone service. The woman acknowledges the pending darkness and lightly suggests, they stop and ask for directions.

The man keeps driving, keeps his focus, pretending not to hear her.

The sun is all but gone. The street lamps start their work.

The woman looks out the window and clears her throat. She protests, this time with a bit more force, causing the man to snip. He insists he knows where he’s going. He speaks in phrases like, “we just got turned around a bit” and “no big deal” and “any second now”.

The woman runs her hand through her hair and exhales. The man wonders if the heat is on as he, grips the steering wheel and glances out the window hoping for something familiar– a landmark, a sign, a motion from God.

The 17 Year Old Male

A high school classroom serves as a great observatory for human quirks.

It’s always interesting when I ask my 12th grade students about their life-after-high school plans. The females often confess they don’t know. They have some ideas but are mostly unsure. A lawyer, maybe.

When asked, males are quick to verbalize their plan. Business or engineering or medicine or general awesomeness, for sure.

As if, to the 17 year old male, being lost, confused and unsure is a sign of weakness.

Prince Harry Finally Talks

by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

This week, in a New York Times article, Prince Harry explained how, for almost 20 years after Princess Diana’s death, he struggled with anger, with depression. And how his behavior was often erratic and destructive.

Harry, 32, attributed his recklessness to his inability to address his mother’s death.

An now an advocate for mental health, Harry credits his recovery to counseling and finding the courage to do what so many man can’t– talk.

“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well.” –Prince Harry

 A Moment of Honesty

A few weeks ago I had an conversation with a male friend of more than 20 years.

The friend, I assumed, was doing well.

Then, over a drink and an hour conversation, he opened up about his crumbling marriage. How he’s been married for twelve years and that it had only been good for about three.

He explained how he’d been living a life of silence. A silence that drove him into a depression.

His eyes filled with tears as he looked across the table, held his drink and said, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to talk to.”

The Condition

For most men, self-expression is hard. And only gets harder with age.

The longer they cling to a prolonged silence, the more difficult it is to talk. Men often consider stubborn stoicism as dignified and respectable. Yet they often fail to see how their hardness taxes themselves and those around them.

As a male writer I’m torn.

Because I know in order to write well, to produce meaningful work,  make others feel–I have to feel. Yet the square-jawed history of men has conditioned me not to. To remain quiet in pain. To accept my feelings as weaknesses. To emotionally alienation myself to remain accepted.

When you’re 17 years old, you’re inclined to define courage as being bold in the face of danger. You also think courageous men are always decisive and strong.

And it’s shocking to learn that 20 years later, remnants of that teenage ideology still remain steadfast in me.

The Tension Mounts

The sun is down now and the man still refuses to talk.

The woman eyes him. There’s been a growing distance between them for some time now.  Why can’t he just stop? Ask for help? Why doesn’t he ever talk?

He wants to say he’s been conditioned not to. He wants to tell her about the misaligned tenets of masculinity. He wants to tell her vulnerability is something men don’t do yet long for because they secretly know talking could very well save their lives.

But for now– the man and the woman stare out different windows, wondering how they got so lost, listening to the engine hum, driving aimlessly into the darkness.

Be well,

Jay