On Becoming A Man

Updated: May 5



I used to work in the child and adolescent wing of a large psychiatric hospital. One of the patients I was tasked with supervising was a 12-year-old young boy named Michael. He was part of the half-day treatment program. Michael thought he was a dragon. This idea took hold of him when he was 6, and he quickly became completely convinced of it. Through years of imaginative mental creation and psychological gymnastics, he’d constructed an entire narrative that supported his mistaken belief.

  • Why don’t you look like a dragon? Because dragons can shape-shift.

  • Can dragons talk? Umm, duh. Of course.[1]

  • Why can’t you fly? I can fly, but only when I want to.

The list went on and on. However, no one in Michael’s life could push him to defend his beliefs too hard. We were instructed by Michael’s highly-educated psychiatrist not to test his made-up worldview too vigorously. I asked why.


“You’ll destroy the only successful coping mechanism he’s found to deal with his trauma. If you do that, he’ll most likely experience a complete psychotic break.”


That made sense to me, so I didn’t press further. Michael had, in fact, survived several years of serious physical abuse at the hands of his father. For the next two years, I accepted the psychiatrist’s opinion as gospel truth. I never questioned it.


[Side note]: Psychiatric hospitals aren’t pleasant places – for employee or patient. You can have decent days, bad days, or days so bad the only thing to do is roast weenies over the dumpster fire you call a job. What about great days? Lol. Don’t be naïve. We’re talking about life in a psych hospital – there are no good days. Thinking you’ll have good days in a psych hospital is like asking Satan when hell is going to cool down. It’s not. And you’re silly for thinking it will.


I was having a raging dumpster fire of a week. In fact, I’d had a couple of them in a row, making my job unusually stressful. And then, my friends, dear ole Michael decided he was going to melt down. I had no sooner stepped foot into my office from dealing with one crisis when I hear on my intercom,


“Mr. Thompson, Code Green. Room 112. Code Green. Room 112.”


A Code Green means a patient has escalated to the point where the physical management of their aggressive behavior will be required. There is a current or imminent threat of physical violence against staff or another patient. Room 112 – that’s Ms. G’s room. Ms. G is Michael’s day treatment program teacher. I run down the hall to Room 112. I can hear Michael before I see him. I enter the classroom and immediately escort Michael out. He is NOT a happy camper, but I have developed a reputation among the patients over the past 2 ½ years of meaning business, so he comes with me, screaming like an animal and pushing desks over as he storms out of the room.


We get to my office. He slams himself down in a chair, still hot with anger. I sit down and begin how I usually do,


“I can see you’re having a difficult time right now. Let me know when you’d like to talk.”


I sit down and begin to do other work. Almost immediately I get smacked in the side of the head with a colored pencil. My tank is already on empty. It didn’t hurt so much as it surprised me. It also made me mad – really mad. I imagine NASA launch sequences and the way I felt were similar:


“Congratulations launch crew! 32 minutes past the hour we have a successful lift-off. I repeat, Mr. Thompson has lifted off.”


I lock eyes with Michael and in that split-second-moment I decide to play an incredibly high-stakes game of poker with him:


“Guess what, Michael? You’re not a dragon.” I say in the most serious way I can.


He looks at me in horror. His entire mood changes immediately. He shoots to his feet and screams, “YES, I AM!!!”


“No, you’re not. You’re a 12-year-old little boy. Nothing more, nothing less.”


“I’M A DRAGONNNN!! ARRRRRRRRR!!” He screams, clenching his fists and defiantly stomping his foot.


“Nope. I’m not buying it. Do something a REAL dragon would do—breath fire, fly, transform into a dragon, eat me—do something like that.”


“I WILL!! YOU SHUT UP OR I WILL!!” He goes on to hurl a list of profanities at me faster than Congress spends money.


“Look, do you want me to believe you’re a dragon? Then do it! Do something a dragon would do. That’s what I want you to do. Do it now! Go on. Do it, Michael. Until then, I don’t believe you.”


“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!” He continues to scream, cry, swear, hiss at me, and assure me that I’ll be sorry for goading a dragon into a fight. He was right about one thing; I was being antagonistic. Relentlessly antagonistic, in fact. My Irish blood had finally gotten the better of me and I was ready for a fight.[2] It was time; put up or shut up, kid.


The following cycle of chaos ensued:

  • Michael assuring me he was a dragon.

  • Me telling him he wasn’t and I’d only believe him if he did something a real dragon would do.

  • Michael losing his mind.

This went on for 3-plus solid hours. The ordeal became a mini-event within the hospital. Staff would come by and peek in the window of my door; checking to see if everything was okay. My Supervisor, Eric, would pop in to see how things were going about every hour. Michael would beg and plead with Eric to correct me and inform me that he was a dragon. Eric did not. Each time he would abruptly leave, sending Michael spiraling into yet another meltdown.


He tried everything. Yelling and screaming. Curling up into a ball on the floor and ignoring me. Sitting in his chair. Running at me like he was going to attack me. Standing in front of me trying to reason the situation out with me. Crying was ever-present. I didn’t give an inch. He wasn’t a dragon and I wasn’t going to negotiate with him concerning the matter.


What Michael didn’t take into account was my resolve. I was willing to take the situation as far as I had to. Losing wasn’t an option. (If I lost, the psychiatrist would have had my head!) I was willing to die on this hill, and that thought never crossed Michael’s mind for two reasons: 1) people aren’t willing to die for a lie – figuratively or literally, and 2) because no one else in his 12 years on this earth had ever outright refused to believe his reality.[3]


Finally, he simply wore himself out. After 3-plus hours of nonstop crying, screaming, and throwing himself on the floor, a new young man emerged before my eyes. It’s a fascinating thing to watch genuine change take place right before your eyes. He was back to sitting in his chair. The tears had stopped. We had been sitting in absolute silence in my office for the past several minutes. I wanted to test the waters,


“Michael, how are you doing buddy?” I ask in the sincerest tone I can muster.


“Fine,” he says quietly.


The moment of truth has come. I ask the question:


“Do you understand that you’re not a dragon?”


… … … “yes,” he responds as he nods slowly. He looks at me, tears gathering in his eyes again. “I just… I just hate being Michael.”


He's looking at me differently now. There’s defeat in his eyes. I instantly realize the psychiatrist was right: I had destroyed his worldview. I switch gears because I can’t leave him in this state. It’s my responsibility to help him construct something beautiful from the rubble I helped create.


I smile softly and lean forward in my chair, elbows resting on my knees, “Michael, I can’t love a dragon. No one else can either. I can only love the young man I see before me.”


[Side note]: You’re not supposed to tell patients you love them – that’s a big no-no. I said it because I believe when you take something meaningful from a person you have to give them something back equally meaningful. I said it because I knew it was the only thing that could help him. Some part of a person dies when they’ve chosen to hate their own existence. Don’t encourage people to establish a relationship with the lowest ideal they can conceive of. Doing that is very dangerous, but sadly people do it all the time. I’m reminded of what Lloyd (a seasoned cowboy) said to Jimmy (a newbie cowboy) on Season 1 of the hit western show, Yellowstone:


“It’s the shame that hurts the most, you know. That shame, it’s in the mind. You can turn that faucet off whenever you want to. Rough business becoming a man, ain’t it? Beats the alternative, though.”


Centuries before Yellowstone was a thing, the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, underscored the same idea when he wrote, “It is difficulties that show what men are.” If anyone knew about difficulties, it was Epictetus. He was born a slave. He was well acquainted with the core aspects of manhood: Selflessness. Consistency. Humility. Duty. Honesty. The acceptance of reality. Becoming a man isn’t easy for boys. It’s necessary.



Michael turned his life around right there in my office. I never told the psychiatrist what I did.


Becoming an adult isn’t easy for anyone, but research points to it being especially difficult for men. The suicide rate among men is five times that of women.[4] Teen boys commit suicide nine times more often than girls.[5] Teen boys are diagnosed with depression and ADHD at a rate of 4-to-1 when compared to girls the same age.[6] Men make up 66% of the homeless population.[7] They are more than twice as likely to become alcoholics and are approximately three times more likely to become drug addicts.[8] Becoming a man isn’t for the weak, but as Lloyd said, it sure beats the alternative.[9]


Good men are badly needed in our world. I think this has been true since the beginning of time, but it seems to be especially true in our time. Nietzsche said that you could tell a lot about a man’s character by how much truth he could tolerate.[10] If you have a son, do not shelter him from the truth. If you are a young man, do not willingly hide yourself from it. In the process of avoiding truth, maturity will evade you.


Central to becoming a man is the acceptance of truth. Interestingly, central to Christian thought is the concept of Truth. It is the Way. It is the path of life. John 14:6 says that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Later, when praying for his disciples in John 17:17, Jesus said, “sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” What does this mean in relation to becoming a man? To become a man, you must accept the truth about yourself. Then you must willingly go wherever that truth leads you – no matter how unpleasant. If you come to the realization that you don’t follow through on your word, you must accept that truth so you can become a man of your word. If you’re a liar, you must accept that about yourself before you can start to be honest. If you’re arrogant, the acceptance of that fact precedes the adoption of humility. The list goes on and on. You can’t become the man you want to become without first accepting the truth of who you are right now. You cannot become a man apart from the truth. What you say and what you do need to match up. Dr. Jordan Peterson, one of the most influential thinkers of our day, puts it this way,


“The pathway to who you could be, if you were completely who you were is through the truth, and so the truth does set you free, but the problem is that it destroys everything that isn’t worthy in you as it sets you free.”[11]


May every person reading this – young or old – acknowledge those parts of themselves that need to be destroyed in the furnace of truth, and reemerge as the incorruptible image of Truth.


___________________ [1] Evidently, they can only speak in English though. [2] Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying how I handled the situation was “best practice.” I’m simply recounting it as I remember it – the good, bad, and ugly. [3] People can have different perceptions of reality, but there is only one truth. To the extent that your reality is accurate is to the extent that it matches with truth itself. What is truth, you ask? Read John 17:17. [4] Taken from: http://www.suicide.org/suicide-statistics.html. [5] Taken from: http://www.suicide.org/suicide-statistics.html. [6] Taken from: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/health/suicide-rate-rises-sharply-in-us.html. [7] Taken from: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/who.html. [8] Taken from: http://www.csdp.org/research/gender_brochure_final.pdf.

[9] This paragraph was taken directly from this article: https://markmanson.net/whats-the-problem-with-masculinity. [10] From his book, Beyond Good and Evil. The exact quote is, “The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.” [11] Taken from the following lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnUfXYGtT5Q&t=0s.

 



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