Monday, June 24, 2019

Hey Men… Don’t be a Chinchilla - Why guys struggle with being open about our problems, anxieties, fears, and pain

Most of my life I have been a chinchilla. Metaphorically obviously, although with my luxurious beard the confusion would be understandable.

No, what I mean is like most men I have unfortunately behaved like a chinchilla. If you are a man there is a good chance you have dealt with this same problem. And if you're not a man this may help you understand us a little bit better.

Let me explain...

So I used to raise chinchillas. Well I didn't actually intend to raise chinchillas, but I did own a male chinchilla and a female chinchilla, and I did keep them in the same cage, so yes, I ended up raising chinchillas. That’s how those things work.

Chinchillas are fascinating critters. They hop like a kangaroo, and have ears like a bunny, the tail of a squirrel, the face of a mouse, and amazingly thick and soft fur. Instead of taking baths, to get clean they roll around in volcanic dust, to simulate what they used to do when they lived in the Andes mountains of South America.

As interesting as all of that is, there's a different characteristic about chinchillas that I identify with as a man. (Sorry, I don't roll around in volcanic ash.)

The first chinchilla I ever owned was named Velvor, because of his velvety soft fur. He was a wonderful pet! He was intelligent, always friendly, loved to cuddle, and was full of energy.

Until one day.

I went to his cage to check on him as normal and found him lying on his side. Don’t panic animal-lovers, he was not dead, although he was very close to dying. He had no energy, no strength, and was unresponsive to me.

I rushed him immediately to our local veterinarian, who thankfully specialized in exotic pets. After a quick X-ray, the very serious problem became clear to the doctor. Over the course of many, many months Velvor had developed a massive hairball in his stomach. The mass was so large it had taken up all the room in his stomach so that he could no longer eat and process food. He was starving to death, and was within hours of dying.

I felt like a terrible failure as a pet owner, but I had no way of knowing. RIght up until Velvor fell over on his side he had been acting perfectly normal. He was active and alert. He had a full fluffy coat of hair. It seemed like nothing was wrong.

And that was exactly the problem.

You see, chinchillas are naturally wild animals from the mountains of South America. Although we see them as adorable pets, there are many creatures in their natural habitat that see chinchillas as dinner. In the wild, chinchillas cannot afford to show any weakness. If they act hurt or weak or in any way sick, they immediately become an easy target for predators. To stay alive, chinchillas will act like nothing is wrong, and will go about their daily lives as normal, to avoid showing any possible signs of weakness. And they will keep on doing this right up until the moment they fall over dead.

Although this may make an odd sort of sense in the wild, it was extremely dangerous in the safety of my home. I was there to care for Velvor and would have done anything to help him, but his instincts took over and he hid his weakness from me.

Thankfully there is a good end to this story!

The veterinarian explained that we had a very slim chance of saving him. We needed to do two critical things. First, we had to find a way to break up the hairball in his stomach so that it would pass through him. And second, we needed to get calories and nutrition in him.

For the first problem, the solution was pineapple juice. Yep, that’s right. I had to take a syringe full of pineapple juice and squirt it into his mouth and down his throat. The acidity in the juice would slowly start to dissolve the hairball so it could break up and pass out.

For the second problem, I had to force feed him a special food paste. It was a tube with this super high calorie, nutrient rich paste. I was supposed to squeeze a little bit into his mouth and hope he would accept and swallow it. Thankfully he ended up really liking the beef flavor (who knew?) and would eat bits of what I gave him.

And over the next couple of weeks this is pretty much what I did every two hours or so. I was teaching at the time, so I had to bring his cage to school with me each day and set him by my desk. Every other class period the students would watch as I would take him out, wrap him up in a towel, and feed him pineapple juice and beef flavored paste, like a baby. Like an odd furry baby that likes pineapples and beef.

And it worked. The hairball broke up little by little. As he got nutrition he also regained his appetite and strength. He lived.

So with that story in mind, why do I say that for most of my life I have acted like a chinchilla? Well just like a chinchilla will hide any weakness or sickness or injury, and will pretend that everything is fine, I (and many other men) do the exact same thing with problems, anxieties, fears, weaknesses, and emotional and mental struggles.

As men, our society often expects us to be strong, stoic, and in control. If bad things happen we are supposed to pull ourselves up, rub some dirt on it, and walk it off. Unfortunately this is not realistic, or healthy for men, or women, or anyone. We all hurt. Sometimes it might just be a day from hell. Other times it’s a failure at work, the loss of a job, the challenges of raising children, financial struggles, relationship issues, stress, anxiety, depression, and more.

Yet, like a chinchilla I know I have often tried to pretend that nothing was wrong.

Just keep moving.

Just keep smiling.

Just keep working.

Unfortunately like a growing hairball, if we don’t let someone know, open up, get the pain and fears out, the problems will just continue to grow inside of us, from something small and simple and normal to something that strangles our energy and joy. Left unchecked it produces more anxiety, depression, bitterness, and anger, and at its worse, hopelessness and suicide.

Although females are two to four times more likely to attempt suicide, men die from suicide three to five times more often than women. In other words, when a man gets to the point that he can no longer act like nothing is wrong, when all of his internal coping mechanisms have failed, when he finds himself alone at the end of his rope, men are on average over 10 times more likely to succeed in taking their own lives. And of the men who do commit suicide, only half have had contact with a mental health professional. Like a chinchilla pretending that everything is fine right up until it collapses and dies, far too many men fail to reach out to someone for help when they are struggling.

So why do we do this?

Well the chinchilla does this out of fear of showing weakness and then becoming prey for some predator. I believe we often do this out of fear as well.

  • Fear of appearing weak.
  • Fear of being looked down on.
  • Fear of our significant other rejecting us.
  • Fear of our job thinking we are not competent.
  • Fear of not being manly.
  • Fear of embarrassment.
  • Fear of admitting failure.

So is this fear unrealistic? Well sadly, like a sick chinchilla in the sights of a swooping hawk, the fear is not always misplaced.

Over the years I have dealt with loss, divorce, death, anxiety, depression, insecurities, doubt, and more. Unfortunately there have been times when I have opened up to someone close to me and they pulled away and put up walls.

But there are other times and other people who have not. They listened and loved. They helped me lift a load I could not bear on my own, until a time I was able to carry it once again.

As men it is critical that we find people in our lives that we can open up to and be honest with when we are struggling. Maybe a spouse, significant other, friend, or family member. We need to be able to ask for help from people who understand this is not a sign of weakness but an act a strength.

I love this quote below from Brene Brown as she talks about the importance of being there for your spouse or loved one when they are struggling and willing to open up to you:

"Show me a woman who can hold space for a man in real fear and vulnerability, and I will show you a woman who has learned to embrace her own vulnerability, and who doesn't derive her power or status from that man. Show me a man who can sit with a woman in real fear and vulnerability, and just hear her struggle, without trying to fix it or give advice, and I will show you a man who is comfortable with his own vulnerability, and doesn't derive his power from being Oz, the all-knowing and all-powerful."

As flawed and broken humans, we need to find people like that in our lives who we can open up to. And at the same time we need to be that person for others in our lives. We all need each other.

So that is what I am trying to do. In my life and in these writings. I want to normalize this conversation. To say we all hurt and we all struggle sometimes. To say especially to my fellow men, don’t be a chinchilla. When life goes to hell, and it will, reach out for help. Open up. Find someone you can speak to. A friend, a family member, a loved one, a counselor.

You are not weak to admit that you struggle. Quite the opposite. It takes extreme courage to be vulnerable, to be open, to be honest.

Sometimes every one of us needs someone to care for us, to help us get through a life crushing time, to syringe feed us pineapple juice to break up the hairball in our heart, mind, or soul.

Don’t be a chinchilla.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Confessions of a Geek Dad

A little over ten years ago, I went from being a father of one to a father of four in one day. I had gotten married for a second time, which brought three young boys into my life, at that time ages two, four, and six. For the adventure I was about to walk into I could have said “Boy Oh Boy Oh Boy” both literally and figuratively.

On one hand, I was not so worried. After all I was already a father, and I felt quite a successful one at that. I had my teenage daughter from my earlier marriage, and in all honesty she had been a joy to raise. She was smart, talented, funny, and mature. This should be a piece of cake. One well mannered daughter couldn’t be too different from three small boys. Right?

Well on the other hand though, this was different. I realized this wasn’t my daughter. These were three boys, and I questioned if I was the right person for the task.

You see, I really did not have much of a father myself. I am sad to say that my dad was an alcoholic who spent very little time with me, made my life a nightmare when he was around, and then died when I was eleven years old. I was a boy without a father. How could I possibly be a father to these boys.

Growing up I didn’t have anyone to teach me the ways of being a man. I did not have a dad with which to shoot hoops, or shoot deer, or shoot the bull. There was no father to explain how a car works and how to keep it working (I have since discovered quite unfortunately that oil is very important.)

I did do my best to pick up what I could from father-figures in my life.  I learned hard work from the dairy farmer I worked for in the summers, commitment from my cross country coach, wit and humor from my brother-in-law, and gentle strength from our aging pastor.

Still though anyone who knows me now, knows I am a nerd. I am a geek. I am a sci-fi watching, video game playing, computer programming dweeb. I rarely watch sports. I care little for cars (as any vehicle I have owned will attest). The closest I come to hunting is searching for meat at the grocery store. So how could I give these three boys what they need?

Over the years that I ended up having the boys in my life, I am happy to say my fears were unfounded. I learned a lot about what it means to be a father to boys, including the following three reasons that prove no matter who you are, you are the person your sons need.

You don’t have to know all the guy stuff

I found out quickly that the activities I thought were requirements of being a guy, were actually just some of many options. For example, you don’t have to know all the rules to all the sports to play with your boys. I could play catch in the front yard, shoot baskets in the driveway, wrestle on the living room floor, or do the ever-popular steamroller on the backyard trampoline. Boys just want to play. And tackle. And crash. It is true when they say little boys are all afterburner and no rudder. I just tried to keep up.

You can learn along with the boys

I also discovered that no matter how little I knew about sports and tools and cars, pre-school children know even less. The great thing about having kids is the chance to be a kid again yourself, to see life anew through their eyes, and do things you never would have done otherwise. Through the lives of the boys I had the chance to make pinewood derby cars, learn how to play soccer, build a double loft in their bedroom, start campfires in the backyard, and snow board down the neighbor’s hill (although maybe not such a good idea after a certain age).

You can share what you do know

And finally, rather than being concerned about what you don’t know, share with your sons the things you are passionate about. It turns out that Carter loved going into work with me in the summer to fix our schools’ computers and I even taught him how to re-image a lab all by himself. My passion for sci-fi and fantasy translated into a love for Doctor Who with the boys running through the house pretending the Slim Jims they were holding were sonic screwdrivers. And even my strange sense of humor rubbed off on the boys as eventually I got more laughs and less odd looks when I would share my dinner table jokes (“Hey boys, how do you make a Pumpkin Roll? Push it down a hill!”)

As the years have gone on, much has continued to change. Unfortunately that marriage came to an end, but I am so happy to say the boys are still in my life. Sure, it is different, but life is always different and always will be. I still see them, still send them corny Dad jokes, and am so amazed to watch them grow up into the men they will be.

And my daughter has now made me into a grandpa! It is so wonderful to be Papa to my grandson and granddaughter. I am so looking forward to everything I will get to teach them, and everything they will teach me.

In the end being a man does not really mean sports and tools and cars and hunting and inappropriate scratching. It means hard work and commitment and compassion and guidance and laughter and a sense of adventure. Well, and inappropriate scratching too.

Thankfully no matter who you are, these are the things you can do for your boys.