My father had tuberculosis when I was around six years old. This would start a series of skin tests, and the first time, I remember having to have a needle pierce my skin. I screamed in horror even before the needle touched me, snatching my arm back and looking to my parents for protection. I saw a slight look of disapproval on their faces and after the terrible experience ended, I was ashamed.
This would be the first of many lessons I would learn about what boys or men don’t do; I never cried again when I got shots.
I showed emotion that day and immediately regretted it because it resulted in a feeling of disappointment. I would try to hold back tears from this day forward, which would fuel a dormant anger inside of me.
My remembrance of tears has always been associated with weakness. I can remember an old man who made it a hobby to torment me. When I had my fill, I would attempt to run into my grandmother’s house, only to have the door obstructed. He would do these things just to make me cry; those already indoctrinated would laugh, point and taunt. Tears or feelings did nothing to save me from that point in my life. What I can imagine was a feeling of sadness or fear would soon become anger; tears would fill my eyes, but I wouldn’t let them fall. They were a sign of me wanting to do something horrible—something I knew I’d get in trouble for doing. That old man would later die and I felt a sense of satisfaction while others mourned his death. I didn’t tell my parents about this because emotions and feelings were never a topic of discussion and I didn’t want to disappoint them again. I would spend the rest of my childhood holding back tears and normalizing being angry or content, which eventually led to the cold, stoic person I am assumed to be today.
This recount of my childhood is not an indictment of my parents’ child-rearing. As I’ve matured, I understood they, too, had childhoods and they were a lot more colorful than mine. I’ve heard the stories of events during their youth and it immediately made me feel that the things I experienced were insignificant. They learned to survive in a world where feelings served no purpose; they were impediments to progress and action. They made you look weak and vulnerable and as was told to me and my younger brother, we were being raised to brave the world—a world in which we were born with targets on our backs. We could not afford the luxury of looking weak. Additionally, we were supposed to be men and providers and for that, we had to do things that lesser people couldn’t do—we didn’t bicker. We just got the job done for the sake of taking care of the family. I thank my parents for those lessons because I wouldn’t be here today if not for the resilience I developed.
Aside from not looking weak, my understanding of being a man was I couldn’t fail.
These thoughts would be justified by the relationships with my children and their mothers over the years. It seemed like I was the only person not willing to leave anything to chance. I was relied upon to be the breadwinner—often without a thank you. All normal from what I had experienced—I never heard my father complain about putting food on the table. He just did it. We never thanked him. Our lights never got turned off and we always had a roof over our heads; well, this must be manhood. I felt like I couldn’t fail because everyone had found comfortable positions upon my shoulders. Even when I was tired, I found strength in knowing that my kids would have what they needed. Even when I was tired, I would answer to the few concerned about my welfare, “I’m good.” Rarely would I give a glimpse into my mind by talking about how I felt. I’d argue I wouldn’t have known what to say, which is why I say, “I’m good.” Few can read into those words, and I’m often left alone without being asked to elaborate on what “good” actually means. It’s a safe way of avoiding the uncomfortable topic of feelings.
Today, I have worked to express myself more. It feels weird to look at the sheet of paper with columns of words that I can define but can’t explain. I’m coached by my therapist as if I’m learning to walk again, taking one step at a time towards wellness. I have embraced those that have surrounded me, arms extended, ready to catch me if I fall—and I have come to terms that many won’t make this journey with me, even close family members.
I am redefining what being a man means to me—he is supported, he has emotions, he is fallible, he says no, and he asks for help.
About T.G. Miles
T.G. Miles grew up a military child in multiple towns across the southeastern United States. He would join the military after completing high school and served more than 28 years on active duty. His more recent years of military service have been spent mentoring and counseling servicemembers on building resiliency and identifying needs for care. In 2020, he earned a degree in Psychology and began working closely with mental health professionals, ensuring servicemembers he served had quick access to care. After retirement, he wants to continue serving the military population as a therapist and while continuing his own personal journey to mental wellness. Some of his accomplishments include his rise through the military ranks to the highest enlisted rank and being a recipient of two leadership awards for his efforts to improve morale and culture in his military units. T. G. Miles prides himself on being “a fan of the underdog” and uses his position to identify people who need additional motivation and resources to be successful.