‘Boys don’t cry’: A flawed perspective impacting generations of men
Has the deeply rooted tradition of stifling emotional vulnerability led to the disproportionate number of suicides among men?
By Kevin Freier
The summer before eighth grade I broke the growth plate in my shoulder playing baseball. It was a devastating injury that took a tremendous toll on me both physically and mentally, as it not only forever changed the way I played the game but also the way I viewed masculinity. And even though it’s been well over a decade since this life-changing injury occurred, I can still remember it as if it were yesterday.
It was the bottom of the fourth inning in a one-run ballgame. I was behind the plate that day slinging darts, having already thrown out two baserunners. The count was 1-2 with a runner on first.
The top of the order was up to bat, and I called for a fastball low and away. The moment our pitcher broke the stretch, the runner on first took off. Less than half a second later, I was up out of my stance and sending an absolute rocket of a throw down to second.
I still don’t know whether it was poor mechanics or just dumb luck, but something in my shoulder popped mid-throw, sending the ball sailing into centerfield and a searing jolt of pain shooting up my arm. Being a mere 12 years old at the time, I reacted as any other kid my age would. I doubled over in pain and clutched my burning shoulder as fat tears welled up in my eyes.
When my coach finally came out to check on me, he said something that forever changed the way I viewed male emotional vulnerability. Instead of offering words of concern and compassion, he looked me dead in the eyes and said, “boys don’t cry.”
It’s been almost 20 years now, and I am still struggling with these words. Words that made me bite a hole in the side of my cheek during my grandmother’s funeral. Words that caused me to withdraw for weeks on end after running my first fatal car wreck. And words that damn near drove me over the edge on several occasions. But for what? I would like to think it was to prove something to myself or stay strong for my loved ones, but in reality, I know it was purely to maintain this dry-eyed version of masculinity.
The suicide epidemic
In 2020, the CDC reported that 25% of American women and 15% of American men experienced some kind of mental illness. Interestingly enough, the CDC also found that men made up nearly 80% of all recorded suicides. So then why is it that a group that makes up only 49% of the population and has fewer recorded mental health-related diagnoses per capita is four times more likely to die by suicide? Statistically speaking, that just doesn’t make sense. So where is the disconnect?
Many of us grew up in a time where the idea of boys or men being emotionally vulnerable was not too widely accepted. Boys growing up in the 60s, 70, 80s, 90s, and hell, even the 2000s were told to simply “man up” or to “rub some dirt in it.” But why is this an issue? And how does it tie into the male suicide epidemic that we are currently facing? Let’s think about it in terms of firefighting.
Going back to our Firefighter 1 days, what happens when you add an external heat source to a pressurized vessel? Over time its internal contents begin to boil and expand, thus putting more and more stress on the actual vessel itself. If not properly relieved, the excess pressure will cause the vessel to rupture and, more often than not, lead to a violent explosion – a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE).
Now, let’s replace our “heat source” with “stressors,” our “vessel” with “us” and our “contents” with “emotions.” So, let’s say we (the vessels) spend years stockpiling thousands of different emotions (contents) within us without ever actually truly feeling them … because boys don’t cry, remember? Over time these emotions then build up within us, causing the pressure to grow more and more. Then one day, a certain stressor is applied – a stressor that can come in the form of a problem at home, a bad call at work, etc. This stressor then starts to heat our already highly pressurized state, and before we know it, we suffer an emotional BLEVE.
How do we avoid this?
For starters, we can begin by simply recognizing the flaw in the mindset that “boys don’t cry,” because just like any other therapeutic process, acceptance is a vital first step.
We can learn to cut ourselves some slack because at the end of the day, we are merely humans who can only handle so much at a time. And life is already hard enough as it is, so why make it any harder?
Last but not least, we can choose to change the conversation entirely, not only for our own sake but for that of our sons, brothers, nephews and all other boys that follow in our footsteps. Because even though we might not be able to recover lost feelings, we just might be able to save someone’s life.
So, I challenge you the next time you are feeling emotional, let yourself feel your feelings. Let yourself laugh, yell, curse and cry, because contrary to popular belief, boys do cry.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with your mental health and/or experiencing suicidal ideations, PLEASE reach out to someone. That someone can be anyone – a friend, a family member, a trained professional, a crewmember, your superior officer, anyone. Because despite what you may feel right now, I promise you there is hope.
About the author
Kevin Freier serves as a full-time career firefighter/EMT with Albemarle County Fire Rescue and as a volunteer with the Barboursville Volunteer Fire Company in Virginia. A third-generation firefighter, Freier is a member of the Albemarle hazmat team and peer support group.