When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself.
Three years later, my younger brother did the same thing.
Like the contours of our faces, the slope of our shoulders, and our love of The Three Stooges, mental illness and suicide attempts were two of the many things my brother and I shared. At the time of my brother's first suicide attempt, I assumed his bipolar disorder was the same as my depression, that he had inherited it from me like an old jacket or a too-small sweatshirt. I also assumed he would wear it the way I had, stabilizing once he found the right psychiatrist, the right therapist, the right meds.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. He died by suicide in his early twenties, just weeks shy of his college graduation.
I spent a decade unraveling the twin strands of our lives, trying to understand why he died and I survived. I wrote a memoir about it: "A Different Kind of Same." People often ask me about the title. Specifically, they want to know how my brother and I were different. I respond by explaining the nuances of bipolar disorder versus depression. I also mention that I was more vocal, that I had an easier time expressing my emotions and asking for help than my brother did. This brushes up against the biggest difference between my brother and I, the one I talk about the least: gender.
According to the American Psychological Association, men are far less likely to seek help for mental illnesses. There are several theories as to why this is, but the one I find most relatable, and treatable, is that society's code of masculinity equates emotions with weakness.
In my turbulent teenage years, I cried often--publicly. I screamed. I broke things. When I was miserable, I made sure everyone around me knew it. My brother, on the other hand, disappeared into his depressions. He drifted from room to room like a ghost. He closed the doors behind him.
I said, "I hate this. I can't do this. I wish I was dead."
He said, "I'll be okay. I'm fine."
It didn't occur to me until recently, when I found out that men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women, that his reticence probably wasn't a personality trait. And my survival might be due to more than the right combination of medications.
The social construct of gender has been millennia in the making, and it's oftentimes subconscious. Studies have shown that while parents believe they are treating their children equally, they actually speak about emotions differently with daughters than they do with sons.
So, how do we change these deeply engrained patterns? Do we educate parents of young children? Do we reach out to teenage boys? Do we keep encouraging middle-aged men to "open up?" Sure. Yep. No harm in trying.
But I'm going to suggest an additional option: feminism.
People often forget that feminism is about gender equality, probably because the inequalities skew so far toward women: lack of leadership positions, lower wages, impossible beauty standards, sexual exploitation and abuse. In the face of so much disparity, it's easy to forget that women do have some advantages. Emotional literacy is one of them.
What would happen if we worked to give men and women the same rights? Would there be less domestic violence? Fewer cases of sexual assault? Would there be better options for paternity leave? Lower suicide rates? Would we actually be able to meet somewhere in the middle, in a place where we're all just free to be human? I'd like to think so. I hope so. But the truth is, I don't really know.
What I do know is that my heart aches for everyone who feels they cannot share their pain or ask for help, regardless of gender. I know that I miss my brother every day, and I will always grieve the magnitude of suffering he carried in silence. I know that I am grateful to have survived, and to be comfortable sharing my feelings. I know that people care, and that things can change.
I'm now the mother of a son. He's going to grow up under the weight of some gender stereotypes -- after all, you don't undo this kind of programming in a single generation--but I hope the world he inherits will be a safer place for both men and women to be vulnerable. A place where emotions are allowed to be part of the human experience, and we're all taking better care of each other and ourselves.