For the Super Men (and Those Who Love Them)
November is often set aside as a time to focus on men’s health. In addition to talk of mustaches and prostates, it’s also a time to think about men’s mental health.
As cancer patients and survivors, we spend much of our time (rightly so) focused on our physical health. Sometimes we forget to take care of our mental and emotional health.
I think this is especially true for men. And in times like these, when the world is causing us even more stress and anxiety, it is even more important for us to think about our mental health.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane
As a kid, I was always a DC Comics fan, way more than I was a Marvel fan, and Superman was my favorite character. He seemed invincible. Even today, my eyes and ears perk up at references to Superman. Since I have been home a lot lately, I’ve been happily listening to more music, and in the last few weeks, two songs I’ve heard have really stood out to me: Five for Fighting’s “Superman” and 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite.”
Super? Or crazy?
Here’s what caught my ear from “Superman”:
Up, up and away, away from me
Well, it's all right, you can all sleep sound tonight
I'm not crazy or anything
And from “Kryptonite”:
If I go crazy, then will you still call me Superman?
If I'm alive and well, will you be there and holding my hand?
I'll keep you by my side with my superhuman might
I like both songs a lot. But they raise an important question for me:
Why are those our only two choices – either be Superman or be “crazy”? Why is it that, if we aren’t invincible, there must be something “wrong” with us?
Psychologists have identified something called the Superman Complex. It takes many forms, but one of them is the idea that, particularly for men, we are supposed to be strong and unemotional, especially in the face of danger. For many men with blood cancer, or who are caring for someone with blood cancer, that becomes the default. We keep it all inside. If we aren’t “strong,” then we’re “crazy.” But the irony is that trying to be “Superman” this way might just endanger our mental health.
The silent type
When I was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, the first week or so was a whirlwind of oncologist appointments, blood tests, a scan, and a bone marrow biopsy. It wasn’t until about a 10 days after diagnosis, when I went to see a lymphoma specialist for a second opinion, that it all really hit me. I was 40 years old, with a wife and three small children, and an incurable cancer.
My response was to hold everything in. I broke into spontaneous tears every half hour or so. I’d watch TV at night with the family and insist we turn off the lights “to cut down on the glare,” but really to hide my tears from them. I worried so much about them.
After two weeks of this, I finally broke down in front of my wife, letting all of my fears and worries pour out. And she was amazing, talking me through things and assuring me that we could get through it together.
And we have, for almost 13 years.
But a good first step is just recognizing that your mental health is important. And maybe a good second step is just talking about what’s on your mind. That could be a pretty manly, heroic thing to do.
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