Some young men find that they pay a high price by silencing their emotions.
All names in this story have been changed.
The thick skin of Henry’s thigh split open at the thirsty edge of his silver blade. From the gash poured blood. Poured sadness. Anger. Loneliness. The emotions that have been bundled up inside his strong, masculine exterior, desperate for an escape. Because the tears won’t fall, blood droplets do in their stead.
Henry Martin, a straight A high school student has not led an enviable life. Since his youth, he has been plagued with hardships that many don’t have to cope with during the course of an entire lifetime.
In the early years of childhood his father was a rarely present and when he was, his role was that of a disciplinary rather than an affectionate caregiver. He taught Henry to have determination, be strong and how to never settle for less than perfection from himself.
Corrupted by drug use and overwhelmed by work, his father left his family when Henry was at the young and vulnerable age of eight, leaving his mother a broken shell of a woman. His two older brothers did little to provide him with a replacement paternal figure, turning themselves to drinking and drugs to ease the pain of the abandonment.
This left Henry to be the one to shake off the blow and “be strong.” He knew that that’s what his father would have expected from him. Letting it affect him emotionally would gain him nothing, so he simply chose not to let it. Instead he became emotionally detached. His father was gone. He was not coming back. Henry knew that.
But just because his father was no longer physically present, his impression was already firmly formed in Henry’s mind.
Strength. Perfection. Superiority. Success. These words were already words tattooed in his mind.
As he grew from a child into a pubescent teen, physical appearance came to the forefront of his mind. He found his pudgy body not only to be physically unattractive but, more than that, he saw it as a sign of weakness and imperfection.
So he stopped eating. And started exercising. Emotional distress is said to be the predominant cause of an eating disorder, but in Henry’s eyes he was simply working towards a goal and having the determination to do what it takes to succeed. Emotions were something he pushed from his mind as much as possible.
Exceptional as Henry’s conflicted and troubling past is, his inability to express his emotions and his tendency to keep them bottled away deep within a tough shell of outer strength and masculinity is not as unique. In fact it is a problem that physiologists have been studying for centuries.
Doctors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson define it in their book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys as “emotional illiteracy.”
When asked questions about their emotions, “I don’t know” is a common first response from boys. After a moment or so of thought, an answer forms, but is spoken with uncertainty, as if unsure what they are saying is correct; unsure if they are even sure of how to define the emotions that are often times utterly consuming them.
“Every troubled boy has a different story, but their stories share a disturbing theme of emotional ignorance and isolation,” Kindlon and Thompson wrote.
The problem is deeply rooted in the customs and mannerisms of modern American society. From their early, formative years, boys are bombarded with a standard of masculinity, defined by the characters of video games, wielding their machine guns with bulging biceps. By drug addicted womanizing rock stars. By the professional fighters, slamming the heads of opponents into floors and viciously punching their muscular bodies.
Even when not directly exposed to these images, the definitions they form still infiltrate the lives of young boys and shapes the person he becomes.
Emotion is said to be unmanly. Crying makes you a wuss. To be a true “man” you must be in control. You must be respected. You must be strong. You must not show vulnerability. “Too many boys fall into the trap of embracing the image of stoic masculinity they see in the mainstream media — a template that has been adopted as the inflexible code of their peer group,” said Kindlon in the introduction to Raising Cain.
Fumbling over words, trapped inside a constrictive definition of manhood, embarrassed, ashamed and sometimes ignorant of emotion, boys are desperate for some form of outlet. An outlet for emotion is something as personal as the ridges on a person’s fingertips, but common threads exist; common modes of expression that boys have the tendency to turn to.
Pent up emotion can be channeled into creation.
In a low ceiling attack bedroom, the quiet strums of a guitar can be heard, reverberating off the nooks and crannies of the room and mingling with the smell of well read books. Amid the melodies’ complex chords, a few lyrics can be made out, but because they are mumbled, their meaning is obscured.
But when beholding the face of the musician, Clay Forester, it is apparent that the words aren’t necessary.
His nimble fingers move over the vibrating strings with simple precision and the look on his face is of peaceful euphoria. The lyrics are inconsequential because his outlet is in the music its self. Whether in listening to or creating songs, music has been his sanctuary.
Clay is not alone in that shelter of melodic comfort. It would be almost impossible to make a fair generalization of what genre of music boys like to play or listen to most because the variety is so vast: the steady beats and inspired rhymes of hip hop artists. The rhythmic melodies and poetic lyrics of indy rock songs.
The importance is often in the creation or in the relation. For those who create music as a way to express the emotions that they cannot seem to get out in normal daily life, the process of writing a song is therapeutic.
“If something really upsets me I’ll just go home and turn off all the lights and play guitar or piano or something and just write a song about it and get it all out. When something happens to me I’ll get a phrase in my head,” says Jake West.
For those who listen to music as a way of dealing, the process requires finding an aspect of the song to relate to. When emotional connections are lacking, hearing lyrics that express the same kind of emotion that they are feeling helps temper the sharp pain of feeling alone in a certain emotional sphere.
“Music is art. It is medicine. Its emotion. Its story telling. Its so many things,” says aspiring rap artist Max Camton.
Melodies and harmonies aren’t enough to alleviate the conflicting, confusing and consuming feelings raging inside many teenage boys, so they turn to contact sports.
The score boards’ orange numbers shown ominously from on high. The anxiety was palpable, hanging thick in the air.
Mud was streaked across jerseys, caked to bare arms and legs and splattered across perspiration-covered faces. A wind blew through the stadium and threw the field, biting bare skin with its thirty-two degree teeth but along the sidelines no one seems to take notice. Face after face could be seem from beneath helmets, eyes focused, expression tense.
The face of a quarterback not masked by a helmet, was being washed clean by a stream of tears, unnerved by what was said to be a bad call from the referees.
Another player brakes away from the pack of his teammates and with a look of callous anger, throws his helmet to the ground with excessive force.
One minute and thirty seven seconds remained in the final quarter of the game. The score was twenty-one to twenty eight. Manual High School was down but ready to fight to the death against the opposing team, a Catholic school that was predicted to win by a landslide.
If the facial expressions were not enough, the occasional call of the phrase “We want this” from encouraging team mates, would certainly indicate the intensity of their longing for the win.
Despite their obvious determination, the last few seconds slip from their grasp along with the potential victory. Players go from emotionally intense to outright violent and the age-old tradition of after game hand shakes turns into the early stages of a fracas.
“Several people swung on other people,” said Daniel Livers, offensive linemen for Manual’s team. “I didn’t. I had to hold some people back but I probably would have if there wasn’t a lot riding on us not fighting.”
Daniel knows enough to know that a brawl on the field would be detrimental to the team but he was very much in a place where he felt the desire to physically retaliate against the other players.
Hearing the intensity of the emotion felt over a game of football, something meant as a recreational activity causes one to wonder about what kind of greater purpose these contact sports serve for the boys who play, and whether or not they are a healthy outlet.
“In studying the motivation behind and the emotion involved in, participation in team contact sports, there is no need to address the fact that much of the pleasure and satisfaction to be gained from these sports is associated with the element of physical contact,” says John H. Kerr in his book Motivation and Emotion in Sport: Reversal Theory.
According to Kerr, contact sports provide a way for the intense emotion of anger and violence to be expressed in a controlled, contained and legal manner. It is a way for boys to feel like men, while doing something that helps them to cope with their emotions.
This being said, the way it helps them varies.
For Daniel, it is an escape. “When you are playing football you don’t really think about anything else which is good. After you are done with football you are just drained almost, not…empty, you’re just not all those raging emotions,” said Daniel.
Escaping from emotion through focusing on the simple objective game is not the path that all athletes take when using their contact sport as a way to handle those consuming feelings of anger and frustration. As a matter of fact, Lacrosse player Jacob West takes quite the opposite approach.
“Our coach tells us to forget everything before the game. ‘This is lacrosse; this is not your life right now. Your life is lacrosse right now. You need to go out and just play as hard as you can.’ But I keep that in me. Like if something is making me mad, I’ll play better than if I just had a good day,” West explained.
The violence is not something that is always kept to the confines of the arena. Not everyone is able to turn to sports so the violence, often resulting from fear, anger, loneliness, and confusion, is let out in a less healthy and socially accepted manner.
Michael Thompson stated in Raising Cain that “Adolescent boys struggle with sadness and…channel their sadness into contempt for others and into self-hate.”
Boys like Eli Davidson become so overwhelmed by emotions that he doesn’t have a healthy outlet for that he acts out to extremes.
“I get really mad really easily. A lot times its not very good and I’ll take it out just by destroying things. Like I’ll just go crazy and throw something. It’s just not pretty. Sometimes I’ll just freak out and take a really long walk and think about killing myself,” says Davidson.
The disturbing fact is that while boys like Eli keep those emotions hidden because of fear and misunderstanding, there is a risk of them actually going to something as drastic as suicide.
Statistics presented in Raising Cain state that “95% of juvenile homicides are committed by boys. Boys are perpetrators in four out of every five crimes that end up in juvenile court. Suicide is the third leading cause of boys during their mid to late teens. The vast majority of successful suicides are boys. Compared to a girl the same age, a boy is seven times more likely to die by his own hand.”
These statistics showcase the effects of that “emotional illiteracy.” Boys’ emotions fill them up like fuel and when one thing comes along to serve as a match the fire ignites and the explosion occurs.
That is not to say that all boys that struggle with emotions are doomed. Exploration of vast expanse of emotions is something evitable or boys as then transform into men. Understanding is the key to expression.
Henry examines himself constantly, looking for improvements that need to be made. Perfectionism drives him not only to examine what he is doing but also who is becoming. As a result he is thinking more about the way he is feeling.
“I can’t find people who can really understand what I’ve been through, but I can’t expect them to. I actually just figured that out. I used to get really angry with other people, because I was so sad about my own situation and I envied those people who lived in the little boxed world that they do and I would get angry at them subconsciously. It was very selfish of me and very ignorant of me but I am working on myself all the time so I am trying to get better.”