Toxic Masculinity Silenced my Battle with Depression
A few years before her death in 1999, my grandmother was slowly ripped away from me. I always loved the time I spent with my grandmother but those days, I sat in idle anxiety until I was allowed to leave the nursing home hand-in-hand with my mom. I didn’t understand what precipitated the change. All I knew was that instead of love and softness, my grandmother began to look at me with a confused unfamiliarity. Instead of the English that she had worked so ceaselessly to learn, a desperate dialect of Italian seized her tongue, creating a barrier between us when all that existed before was a tight and affectionate bond between a grandmother and her principessa.
Her passing was my first confrontation with death. I remember how unfair that felt. Other kids got to practice with a goldfish or, at the very worst, a hamster. Me, I was forced to say goodbye to my beloved Nanny, the woman who had lived under my roof just as my parents and my brother had. She was more than a grandmother. I was gifted a third parent and, just as easily, she was taken away.
The church that morning felt cold and unwelcoming, the pew hard and unstable as it creaked beneath me. Incense burned and I tried to wave the fumes away, agitated by its thick, overwhelming perfume. And when they wheeled my grandmother into the church in her tiny ornate casket, I thought how ridiculous it was that they had tried to contain her life and her story in one small box.
This funeral was my first and I realized a little too late that I had no idea of what to do or how to conduct myself. With a tight throat and watery eyes, I looked beside me to my brother and my cousins—all male—and found not a single one of them crying. With no other example to follow, I took this to mean that I wasn’t meant to cry either. To me, my gender created no exception, and so I began to follow the same rules set upon my brother and cousins.
As a tomboy, I felt utterly blessed with the family given to me. I spent my days as a member of this boyish clique, trying to keep up in Mortal Kombat and pretending I fully understood the rules of air hockey and rolling on the floor with knobby knees and jagged elbows until one of us inevitably got hurt. But as the only girl in an Italian family, as the principessa, I also had the advantage of being endlessly doted on as well.
To me, it was the best of both worlds.
But here, at this funeral, I felt unprepared. I was forced to say goodbye to the woman who would sing me silly songs and who would teach me to pick tomatoes from her garden and who would wrap me in her warm embrace. All I wanted to do was rest on the pew and cry until I didn’t have any tears left. But if my family taught me anything, it was that to cry is to be weak. And there was no way that this girl, broken or not, would be seen as weak.
In our society, it sounds like a success story—a little girl fighting her emotions to find her true strength. And yet, two decades later, I look back on that day with nothing but regret. Unceasingly, guilt tugs on my sleeve, randomly rearing its ugly head and nagging me without mercy.
My grandmother was more than worthy of my tears and I didn’t have the decency to shed even one.
I’d come to understand later that the term for this was called toxic masculinity. Even as a little girl, this societal structure had poisoned me, had convinced me that showing emotions and vulnerability was an invitation for teasing and was reason enough to be seen as weak. So, at the age of thirteen, when I began to experience signs of depression and anxiety, I kept quiet. No one wanted to hear that I was in pain. No one wanted to hear that I was scared. And certainly no one wanted to hear that a voice lived in my head, taunting me at every available opportunity.
You’re a burden.
We’d all be better off without you.
For years, no one knew I was suffering. I became a convincing actress, manipulating others into believing what I wanted them to believe. On the surface, my smile never wavered. My grades were stellar. I participated in choir, in musical theater, in poetry clubs. It was all a guise, an attempt to cover up any suspicion that I thought I might be going crazy. Beneath the surface, I was anything but this perfect, overachieving student. I would procrastinate on my work until the early hours of the morning and then panic that I’d never finish it. My friends would ask me to hang out and I’d give any excuse I could think of to go home and sleep instead. I turned to harmful behaviors, hurting myself in an attempt to punish myself or to just feel anything at all.
With the exhaustion and the voices slithering in and out whenever they felt so compelled, I quickly grew tired of myself. The thing about that, the thing about depression, is that you can’t get away from yourself. You can’t just take a break from your brain. If there was ever a chance of me surviving this, I needed to do something.
I started with such a simple gesture that to even say it sounds ridiculous.
While sitting in a theater on W 41st Street in New York, watching a performance of RENT, I gave my teenage-self permission to be moved by the musical in front of me. I gave myself permission to openly feel something. I gave myself permission to just cry. And in the darkness of that theater, feeling safe and hidden away, I did just that. Baby steps, I told myself. I’d take baby steps into vulnerability. And so, quietly, almost secretly, I began to cry in the center of one of the most populated cities in America.
I cried for the characters on the stage. I cried for the beauty of Jonathan Larson’s music. I cried that he died unexpectedly at thirty-five, far too young. All of that spiraled into me crying about me.I cried out of fear. I cried out of frustration. I cried in mourning of the person I was before this disease grabbed hold of me. I cried out of fear of what uncertainties would torment me next. I cried until the curtain closed, allowing myself permission to simply fall apart for once.
My crying created no chaos. The world didn’t shatter. If the friend beside me noticed my tears, she didn’t mention it. And by releasing these tears that had been held inside for years, I had the privilege of feeling lighter. I felt calmer. Through my vulnerability, because of my vulnerability, I felt stronger.
My loved ones know of my struggles because, slowly, I have opened myself up to the conversation about my painful past. And because I have been open with them, they’ve found that they can be open with me too. Through vulnerability, we build communities. I still need to remind myself of this in those moments when I can’t suppress the tears because I’m still unlearning what I understand about strength. When a friend asks how I’m doing these days and I let it pour out, I remind myself how light and capable I will feel afterwards. I remind my friends of that when they do the same, when they break down in front of me and admit that the same toxic voices have been lying to them for years. In this honesty, we pave a way to a stronger and more compassionate existence.
Through vulnerability, we open ourselves up to treatment, to kindness, and to a sense of self-love. We all deserve these things. And to get there, all we need to do is give ourselves permission and understand that simply by working through our depression, we spend our days being strong enough.
Lauren Cutrone is a marketing coordinator for a small children’s book company based in New Jersey. She is also a contributing writer for The Mighty where she writes about mental health. Recently, Lauren has been featured as a poet for Nancy Smith’s Women Speakproject and a contributing writer for the book Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. When she isn’t writing, she’s listening to opera, petting dogs, and collecting garden gnomes. Lauren can be reached at email@example.com.