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Two buddies who haven’t seen one another in months walk into a sports bar, find a table, and scan the menu. Man #1 was just prescribed a new diet by his doctor. Beer and fried foods are off limits, so the grilled chicken salad jumps off the page. Man #2 has been fighting a fever, and recently started an antibiotic. He can’t wait to get home and crawl into bed.
The waitress approaches and asks if they’re ready to order. Crickets. They look at one another. Blink. Blink, blink. Eventually, Man #1 breaks the silence.
“I’ll take a 20-ounce draft and a plate of spicy chicken wings to start,” he says and shifts his attention to his friend.
Turns out Manliness will be joining them.
Man #2 exhales, fully aware of the warning shot that was just fired across his man-bow. Sweat from his fever drips down the side of his face.
“I’ll have the same, thanks.”
Ah, Manliness. Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable.
So many of us men are like this. Everybody knows we say and do things to showcase our masculinity, peacocking around unnecessarily, but it’s engrained in us, for better or for worse. And it works. Sometimes.
I was introduced to manliness at a very young age. My dad was a fighter pilot. Both of my grandfathers had been fighter pilots. All of my dad’s friends were fighter pilots. Our dog had really big balls and humped all of the other fighter pilots’ dogs in the neighborhood.
Men are always strong.
As the son of the fighter pilot whose dog humped the other fighter pilots’ dogs, my masculinity was under a microscope. Luckily for me, I was naturally masculine, and a quick study, wanting nothing more than to make my father proud. To say I had been groomed by manliness would be an understatement.
Unfortunately, I had also been groomed by a serial pedophile.
My real grandfather had died in the line of duty in a plane crash well before I was born. I grew up referring to my grandmother’s second husband as my grandfather. They lived on the other side of the country, so I didn’t see him much.
I was seven the first time it happened.
I know the exact day. It was the day before my aunt’s wedding and we were staying with my grandparents for the big weekend. I would be the proud ring bearer.
The day before the wedding, I went with my mom to be fitted for my first suit. When we returned from the store, I, the ring bearer-in-waiting with his own suit, was asked by my grandfather to join him for a drive. He whispered to me that he would let me drive the car. Manliness was calling.
That first time is still a blur, even after years of therapy.
I dealt with seven years of intermittent abuse. At one point, when I was nine, we lived with my grandparents for several months. Those were dark months. After that, it was only when we saw them, four or five times per year.
It didn’t stop until I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, when he died of a heart attack stepping out of the shower. It was good timing. I had just been interrogated by law enforcement about our relationship, and my denials were under attack. As I said, he was a serial pedophile, so the others were just starting to talk. When he died, I was left desperately clinging to the manliness I was born to exhibit. I knew I had to cover up what I felt.
A real man is never vulnerable.
This is when manliness began its love affair with my shame. And they work so well together.
Back to life I went.
This is the dangerous side to manliness; when it’s used to hide something. Some men hurt others. Some destroy themselves with alcohol and drugs, making certain others see them for how they feel inside. Me? Failure wasn’t an option. I pushed myself physically and mentally to the extreme, with the hope that achievement would solve what was rotting my soul from the inside out.
For the next twenty years, I was a manly machine and shame was the engine.
By the time I turned thirty-five, I had collected a list of masculine titles: Mechanical Engineer. Collegiate Athlete. Navy Officer. Ironman. MBA. Major League Baseball Executive. Veteran. Advertising Executive.
The harder I pushed, the more my shame demanded.
The sad part? I honestly didn’t know what was bothering me. If you were to ask me if I had ever been abused as a boy I would have said no and I would have meant it. I had rationalized everything that had happened as a close call. In my mind, I was one of the lucky ones who narrowly missed being abused.
Then, one day, I found myself in a boardroom, in a meeting at ESPN in New York City, listening to myself talk. I wasn’t a man. I was a shell of the person I had been when I was seven. I was a terrified boy dressed as a man. I was only saying things for the benefit of those around me, and I hated every word. I hated every ounce of my carefully crafted image.
Soon after, I left my job in advertising. I remember trying to explain to others why I walked away from such a promising career. I couldn’t. I must have been in the wrong job with the wrong boss and the wrong client.
My wife and I were engaged right around that time. I started my own business and we planned the wedding.
Soon after we married, my business still wasn’t off the ground. It was 2009 and the country was in the early stages of the Great Recession, so I was far from reaching my fundraising goals.
What made things worse, I was dealing with a profusion of unexplained anger.
I remember walking into our kitchen one evening, beginning a conversation with my wife, and mid-sentence, breaking down crying. I couldn’t control myself. She asked me what was wrong and I didn’t have an answer. This continued for weeks. I started having nightmares, odd dreams about my past, peripheral to the abuse.
Real men don’t cry.
Things only got worse, until eventually, I lost the battle. I wasn’t strong enough. The power of my shame was too much. I was forced to do the one thing my manstincts were telling me I couldn’t do: I talked. Like one of Bernie Madoff’s henchmen in front of a congressional panel trying to avoid jail time, I let everything out.
That was when I first started to feel like a man.
I expected my wife to leave me. She didn’t. She only loved me more. In convulsive fits of childish sobs, I told my parents, siblings, in-laws, and closest friends. They were all there for me, in one form or another. It was complicated to say the least.
Real men don’t need help.
I knew I needed to see a professional, but I wasn’t about to just walk into a therapy office. That would be humiliating. I needed to think about it. I researched it carefully, scouring the Internet for details. I read every book I could find. I learned about the different methods, different phases of recovery, and different effects that childhood abuse had on men and women. Still, I couldn’t find anything anecdotal. I wanted to prepare for what it would be like sitting in a therapist’s office. Zilch.
So, the day I finally found the courage to see a therapist, I made the decision to be a guinea pig and share what I was going through on an anonymous blog, session by session.
Therapy was tough. Writing about my experiences with therapy was equally difficult, but the process helped me organize my thoughts and I helped people as word spread. Thousands of men and women were doing what I had been doing before, safely scouring the Internet for a peek into the world of treatment, and now they were finding something.
After a year, I stopped writing. I needed a break. Seeing that my blog really helped people, I made the decision to turn my blog into a memoir, which I titled: Nice To Meet Me.
If you’re a guy, and you ever want to find out who your real friends are, write a book about your experiences with childhood sexual abuse. It’ll pare down your phone’s contact list pretty quickly.
Real men don’t share their feelings.
My close friends stuck around, and many of them have shared things they never would have because I blinked first. Sadly, some have shared their own stories of childhood abuse.
This is the part that gets me. Men will push themselves to the brink; contemplate divorce, even suicide, instead of being known as the one who asked for help. Mind you, we’re not talking about getting lost in the city and refusing to ask for directions, this is serious.
Who’s in charge of prioritizing these man-rules? Aren’t there exceptions? Where do we draw the line between ordering chicken wings when our health requires a grilled chicken salad, and abandoning healthiness and happiness altogether to protect a notion that none of us are obligated to defend?
Several months ago, I got an email from a man in Australia. He and his wife had just separated after decades of marriage. He said that reading my book had given him permission to finally tell her about his sexually abusive childhood. After he told her about his experience, she moved back in and they began working through it together.
He needed permission to abandon manliness. Without it, he would have abandoned his marriage.
So, here I am. I’m writing a fiction series about a man running from the memories his own abuse and covering it up with extreme behavior.
It’s been almost four years since I told my wife everything. I’m proud to say that our relationship successfully weathered what may have been the most difficult test a new marriage could face, and she deserves the credit.
We’re also the proud parents of a healthy, happy one-year-old boy, Theodore, named after my grandfather who died in the plane crash. Teddy makes things right for me, in many ways. It’s my job to make things right for him.
As Teddy grows up, I plan to give him permission to share his weakness, his vulnerability; to cry; to ask for help; to share his feelings. I plan to teach Teddy that manliness is something he should define, not let others define for him.
In turn, this will take showing Teddy my own vulnerability. Permission doesn’t come without example. That part won’t be easy. I’m still managing the stranglehold manliness has over me, but I’ll fight it and find a way.
I think that’s what a real man would do.
About C. K. Carlton