…I can tell what you’re thinking. “Natasha, you’re not a man, how can you tell us this?” Well, my friends, let me explain to you.
One thing I noticed pretty quickly after becoming involved in health and chronic illness blogging was the rather obvious lack of men writing and sharing their experiences. Now, I’m no psychologist, but even from personal experience, I know that the guys around me are generally less likely to talk about issues like this, especially in a public forum.
That being said, there are a huge number of issues that come up for men living with chronic illness, just like there are issues that women will experience that men just won’t (hello, lady hormones!).
So, I’ve turned to one of my best buddies, chronic illness sufferer and all-round smart dude, Colin Gorrie of Not That Kind of Dr. to talk about some of the issues that men face.
I was diagnosed with a genetic chronic illness called Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Hypermobility Subtype – the lines between the two are blurry) two years ago. Naturally, I turned to the internet to learn more about my condition, and to help me cope.
But the more I read about chronic illness online, the more I noticed that there were almost no male voices represented. And being a man with chronic illness brings its own challenges. Many of these challenges revolve around how the world sees us as men, and how that changes with chronic illness.
Here are four things that I would like everyone I know:
1. Strength isn’t about how much you can lift
Whether we like it or not, strength has been part of the definition of manliness since time immemorial. Many forms of chronic illness, however, rob us of physical strength. It doesn’t matter how much we exercise or what we eat: some men with chronic illness will never be able to be physically strong.
For example, my condition causes my joints to be extremely loose. As a result, I can’t carry a bag of groceries for fear my shoulder or elbow might dislocate. As a practical matter, I can solve this problem by using a cart, taking a taxi back from the supermarket, etc. But no matter how cleverly I avoid having to haul heavy objects, I still have to confront the fact that I was born into a man’s body, but one that doesn’t meet the criteria for being man-ly.
Isn’t this a silly state of affairs? We’ve been handed down an image of a ‘proper man’ who is strapping and muscular, an image we largely accept without question. But I say we are poorer for it: the problems that men need to solve in today’s world require brains, not bench presses – courage, not curls – and willpower, not washboard abs.
With this in mind, I don’t feel so inadequate not being able to pry the lid off of a mason jar.
2. The fact that we say nothing is wrong doesn’t mean that everything is right
We run into an acquaintance on the street; invariably the first line of conversation is something like this: “Hey, man. How’s it going?”
Who among us, ill or well, doesn’t answer with “Fine” or “Not bad” or “Can’t complain”? We do this even if we’d very much like to complain. Why do we do this? Because men suck it up. Men walk it off.
This may come from an admirable stoicism, or a sadder desire not to appear weak. Whatever the cause, it means that things are generally worse than a man lets on.
For a man with chronic illness, the problem is worse: he often won’t admit his so-called ‘weakness’ to anyone – sometimes not even himself. As a result, some men injure themselves in trying to keep up with the pack; others resign themselves to mediocre lives, never getting the treatment they need. Some treat themselves with alcohol or other drugs.
It’s sometimes worth breaking through the casual “Can’t complain” to find out what a man is really feeling. You may be the only one who does.
3. Just because we can make fun of ourselves doesn’t mean that others should
If I’m uncomfortable about something, I know that I turn to jokes. Humour – especially self-deprecating humour – is a classic defence mechanism.
I once hoped this would go without saying, but when someone is poking fun at himself (or herself – women do self-deprecating humour too), it’s not okay to join in poking fun at him. Then the defence mechanism turns into an offence mechanism.
Lest you think I’m being a party-pooper here, there’s still room for good-natured, gentle teasing. But be careful not to cross the line into hurtful territory. He may not tell you if you do (see #2). If in doubt, ask!
4. Keeping up with people’s expectations about what a man ‘should be’ is a full-time job
Think about all the ways that you worry about whether you measure up. For men, it goes something like this: a man should be broad-shouldered, square-jawed, and good at sports. He should have a good job, a fast car, and star in Old Spice commercials. He should certainly be able to lift heavy things.
Isn’t this nonsense?
All these unwritten rules tell us what a man should be, and the truth is that no one, even the healthiest among us, can live up to all of them. For those of us living with chronic illness, it’s even harder because we have more limitations. And it takes a toll, no matter how enlightened we think we are. It simply takes more energy to swim against the current.
So when you see someone with chronic illness – or simply anyone who’s something other than what they supposedly ‘should’ be, remember that, for them, simply living their own lives takes a great deal of strength. And that – not lifting grocery bags – is the strength that counts.
Dudes, got anything else you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments below!
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