I have spent much my life asking this question: What does it mean to be a man? I first wondered this when I was very young, and it has never left. We learn from an early age what it means to be a man by how those around us treat us, speak to us, and influence us. They teach us whether or not they are aware of it, and we are learning whether we know it or not. It follows us through everything we do. I am finding that most men, like me, made up a lot of stuff about being a man; every man I have ever spoken with admits that there are times when he doubts if he is the right kind of man. Today it seems many people are starting to ask this question, and that is a great thing in my mind.
For many years I felt as though I was looking in on masculinity from the outside. I thought I was not a man. Why? Because so much of who I was seemed to contradict how men were supposed to be. I had a good sense of humor and liked sports — but I wanted to connect with guys at a deeper level, and you just didn’t do that, at least not sober. The problem was that I kept so much of that conversation inside. My masculinity was always on trial, and as both judge and jury, I was always guilty of not being manly enough. This long journey is what has led me to the work I am now privileged to be doing.
The foundation of our new trauma-informed and gender-responsive curriculum is built around this question: What does it mean to be a man in recovery from addiction? How do we help men begin to honestly face and deal with these questions and doubts when they are first getting sober? Although it is difficult, men have to address this question to some degree the moment they walk into a treatment center or start seeking recovery from addiction.
The moment inevitably comes when we have to face our addiction and ourselves in a way that we never have before. Those who are helping us on the journey of recovery from addiction tell us we have to “let go,” talk about our feelings, ask for help, in addition to many other behaviors that do not seem very manly. But we do them to save ourselves, our families, our lives. Whatever trauma or pain has broken us in our addiction is ultimately what strengthens us in recovery. We do what we are told despite how uncomfortable it is, and something happens: we get better. We feel better. Many of us feel more vital than we have in decades, and some of us feel alive for the first time in our lives.
That is the power of recovery from addiction: it gives us the chance to free ourselves from something that we did not know was binding us. Most men do not even realize the transformation is occurring. They go to meetings and hug other men because that is what other men are doing. They ask for help because they are told this will help them stay sober. They talk about their inner lives – sometimes for the first time – because if they don’t many of them will certainly use again. So we keep doing what we are instructed to do. We watch those whom we respect and emulate their actions. Slowly, we transform as men. We become, in our most true moments, shining lights of what it means to be real men.
So, again I ask: What does it mean to be a man in recovery from addiction? The beauty and challenge of the answer is that there is no wrong answer. It means whatever you want it to mean. It always means whatever you want it to mean. You are not bound to anything, because you can always change your mind. The possibilities are endless, and once you get out of narrow definition of manliness, the universe opens up to you as it never has before. In that clearing you find yourself – and you become the man you were truly meant to be. For me, although it can be difficult to practice, the answer to this question is quite simple: Be who you are.