Stoic to the end…and it’s killing us

In the last 48 hours, I’ve viewed two different media with different stories to tell on what has been seen as a key part of the Australian male character: stoicism.

A couple of days ago, I started watching a series called ‘Man Up’, looking at masculinity and mental health topics of the modern Australian male. It’s built around the host, Sydney radio presenter Gus Worland, struggling to understand the suicide of one of his best mates almost 10 years ago, and looking into the modern man. It’s funny, but also pretty raw at times, and certainly well worth a look at.

In a more lighthearted moment saw the cameras follow Gus to meet with a farmer from rural NSW, John Harper, who is trying to meet the issue head-on by trying to get other farmers to open up. During a talk, he gets the blokes to stand up, grab their crotch, and then turn to the guy next to them and tell them how they’re feeling. He then gets them to let go of their crotch.

“Can you hear balls dropping?” Harper asks after the exercise. “No. You can’t hear balls dropping. And this silly little exercise is about showing that men can talk about their feelings without losing your manhood.”

Simple, but poignant.

My takeaway from watching the first two episodes was that blokes need to open up more and share about what is going on at the deeper levels, rather than bottling it up inside until it blows open. Sadly, for too many men, that comes out in choosing to end their own lives.

But then a couple of days ago, an article by the king of the bandanna, former rugby player and author Peter FitzSimons, seemed to go the other way.

In it, he praised the “extraordinary stoicism” of Bryan Cousins, the father of troubled ex-football player Ben Cousins.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Cousins was a prodigious footballing talent who scaled the absolute highs of the game, mostly with my home team, the West Coast Eagles. Sadly though, he was never far from controversy, with well publicised battles with substance abuse, a restraining order from his former partner, and a string of other bizarre brushes with the law.

This week, he was sentenced to a year in gaol for drug possession and breach of restraining orders. Having avoided it at times before, it seems that Ben, once a superstar and arguably the ‘Prince of Perth’ was heading down the path that many struggling with substance abuse have.

His dad Bryan has largely kept out of the spotlight, seemingly only stepping into it when needed. Publicly, he has been very supportive of his struggling son, even though there are signs that Ben’s spiral into drug abuse has taken a major toll on the family.

But there was a line in Peter’s article that, having watched Man Up just before, stuck out to me, when he was describing Bryan’s response to all his son’s problems:

And the fact that he is not only still there, all these years on, but is the first one his son looks to in his darkest moment is a tribute to him, and I, for one, salute his extraordinary stoicism and dignity, in the face of overwhelming challenges.

To be fair, given what I had watched before, I am putting too much emphasis on the word ‘stoic’, but I can’t help but feel that, perhaps inadvertently, FitzSimons appears to be reinforcing stoicism of the Australian male as a virtue.

And that is a big problem, because as stony faced as one may be in public, the writhing and wrangling on the inside does come out, and often not in good ways.

I’ve been pretty open about my journey with post-natal depression, and am thankful that I have found a great deal of support. I’m off the medication now, but there are still some days that angst and depression get the jump on me.

I’m trying to equip myself with tools to better spot when my head’s not going into a good space, and how to move out of those deep ruts. I can’t claim huge amounts of success, but slowly I feel like I’m making progress.

Being open about that has been freeing. It is almost like confession, which is not so much a religious act of telling all the naughty things you have been doing, but simply speaking what is true that one might be healed.

As a new dad, I have to admit that I feel a whole host of different pressures to keep up the appearance that the good ship parenting ship sailing along smoothly. There is now – rightfully – a greater expectation on dads to be involved in raising their kids, but let’s be honest: we generally have no idea what to do, or how to best help out. That makes the reversion to the stereotype of dad as the provider and mum as the nurturer all too easy to fall back into – and with that, the assumption that we have to put on a stiff upper lip and just get on with it.

Talking with my mates who are new dads, it’s a common experience to feel some level of isolation by it. Suddenly the evenings where you might catch up with a mate are taken over by bottles, baths and bedtime routines. On the odd occasion that you have a moment free, there are all sorts of other things that a new dad feels that they should be doing – mostly sleeping! – rather than checking in with others and sharing their struggles.

And I have to admit that I have been pretty bad at that. My posture tends to be one of “nobody wants to hear what’s going on with little old me”, which, it turns out, isn’t true. In putting my struggles out for the world to read, I’ve found others who have been on a similar journey which has helped me to see that.

Things are starting to change, but only a little at a time. Nonetheless, it is progress.

If we all just embrace stoicism, none of that comes out. When we decide that we have to just keep going on, bottling up all the crap, it comes out in all sorts of other ways, and generations of people have been wounded by hurting fathers who expressed their pain often in hurtful words and actions.

It’s time to end this myth of the stoic Aussie man, because it is killing way too many Aussie men.

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