Strong, silent?

By Nick Dilonardo

A recurring refrain from Tony Soprano in the late 90s HBO series that bore his last name as he dealt with his depression and anxiety in therapy centered on his image of masculinity. Tony would always ask, sometimes in between stifled sobs,”What ever happened to Gary Cooper?”

Tony was referring to what he saw as the decline of the “strong, silent” male. Tony felt that in the 90s especially, as pharmacology increasingly was recommended for patients of all ages dealing with symptoms of anxiety and depression, that we were all getting “too soft.” For Tony, speaking about the problems in his personal life to anyone – especially a woman, and especially a psychologist – was anathema. In fact, in the universe of the show, it was something that could get him killed. For speaking to a therapist, Tony could have found himself sleeping with the fishes.

This impluse, this desire to avoid confronting the stronger sentimental side of our being, as men, can be difficult and strange, making it hard to open up.

Suicide in men occurs at a rate five times greater than it does in women. I think this happens to do with Gary Cooper. Whether it’s the Hemingway mystique of “grace under pressure” or John Wayne’s no-nonsense approach to life, American masculinity has had a lot to do with the idea of being tough and silent in the face of overwhelming adversity. Whereas it may be socially acceptable for women and girls to talk to each other about the emotions they are dealing with, for men, it’s not as easy, no matter how much it can help.

I played football in high school. We on the team didn’t talk about our problems. When I was going through stuff, when I moved out of the home of my mother, the home I’d known for sixteen years, I didn’t say anything to any of them. When other kids dealt with worse – when kids on the team dealt with abuse, physical and otherwise – it went unsaid. The only way you’d know someone had a rough night was how much harder they hit you the next day at practice, and how little they talked to anyone. There is a double-standard in this country when it comes to sexual intercourse, and gender. Men are players. Women are harlots. A double-standard surrounding men’s ability to express their feelings is another. It may be that we as men lack a lexicon or vocabulary for dealing with these things. It may be that we simply don’t know how to say to one another the pain we are feeling, without feeling that we are diminishing ourselves in the eyes of other males. We don’t want to be “girly.” But this is the problem. Too often and too common is the retort or insult hurled against men that they “throw like a girl” or are being “womanish.” I suppose that women too are victim of this same attack: women who lack the ideal shape are “manly” or “tomboys.”

But as equal partners in this assault, we need to recognize the function or purpose being served: It’s the regulation of gender roles. It’s a system predicated upon clearly cut, distinctly defined places for straight men and straight women to fit into. It’s a worldview that is sorely outdated, and doesn’t acknowledge a variety of sexual identities and understandings of gender. Until we as men are comfortable with opening up about ourselves – until we are able to overcome the nonsense that we are being girly for being honest – senseless pain and suffering will continue to be endured by those that love people who suffer from anxiety, depression and other so-called disorders of the mind and body.

Until we can understand depression as something beyond a disease to be fixed with a pill, no matter how commercially convenient that may be for pharmaceutical companies, change will not occur. We need to understand these types of conditions in other terms, rather than understanding them as irregular disorders, symptoms of dysfunction or grounds for hospitalization. It’s the desire to be understood, I think, that lies at the root of the descent into depression. It’s when we believe that we are alone that the darkness sets in.

Only light can be used to combat darkness, as goes what Martin Luther King once said. We need to bring light to what we call “mental illness.” It starts by no longer being strong and silent. The pain ends when we open up.