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Strong and silent and suffering

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I used to say to my cousin, "If they ever diagnose my dad with lung cancer, they will give him about five minutes to live."

Dad was a lifelong smoker whose middle-of-the-night coughing fits would wake everyone in the house.

In the end, my prediction was pretty accurate. After suffering with that cough for 20 years, he saw a doctor in August 2008 — because his ankles were swollen. By Oct. 13 that year, my father was dead.

Just days before his renal failure (he was so ill he hadn't been eating or drinking for a few weeks), doctors confirmed he had lung cancer. The location of his tumor was impeding circulation, thus the swollen ankles that finally sent him to seek medical care.

Sadly, this is not the only example of a time when I've been robbed of a relationship because a man did not take care of himself. (Two come to mind, but to protect the living, I won't elaborate.) And I'm certainly not the only person to watch the men I love not take care of themselves.

June is Men's Health Month. Women get just one week of health awareness in May. Why such a disparity?

Perhaps this can explain: "While the life-expectancy gap between men and women has decreased, it's no secret that men still need to pay more attention to their bodies," reports the National Institutes of Health. "Several things work against men. They tend to smoke and drink more than women. They don't seek medical help as often as women."

A 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked visits to physicians per 100 persons. Among men of all ages, there were 283 visits per 100 people, while there were 367 visits for women. The fewest were made by men ages 18 to 44, with 151 visits — women of the same age came in at 323.

When it comes to seeking help for mental health, the World Health Organization reports a gender difference, too. Women are more likely to seek help from and disclose mental health problems to their primary health care physician, according to a WHO report on gender disparity and mental health.

But it shouldn't take an awareness campaign or a medical or mental crisis to make you take care of yourself — both physically and mentally. And this goes not only for men, but also for any women who tend to shy away from speaking up.

Excuse the stereotype, but being the strong and silent type isn't going to keep you alive. And medicating with liquor might seem like a more socially acceptable alternative, but that's true only until you're drunk more nights than you're sober.

I can't say for sure that my dad would still be alive today if he'd gotten to a doctor when the coughing first started, but I think there's a good chance.

"Manning up" means getting help.

A friend, Kevin Johnson was among the men who tried to self-medicate with alcohol, or sometimes something stronger. Growing up in a family with a history of mental illness, he also struggled with depression and anxiety but refused to seek professional help. Recently, the 40-year-old made a change.

Seeing his relationships and his career suffer, Johnson returned to his Old North End home from work one day and talked to his wife. "I was just fed up with everything. I didn't feel there was a way out. I didn't say 'suicide' but I alluded to it." His wife suggested they talk to a marriage therapist. At that first appointment, the therapist said they couldn't do couples counseling because he was in crisis.

Johnson says there's a stigma attached to mental illness. He still thinks about the stigma — "My grandfather would slap the shit out of me if he knew I see a therapist and take medication" — but says, "The alternative was no longer viable for me."

After just a few weeks on an antidepressant, Johnson says he already feels better.

"If I keep feeling better, I am going to kick myself for the 20 years of misery that I put my loved ones through," he says. "I don't feel proud, but I'm doing something, admitting I don't have the ability to fix myself. I feel almost euphoric, letting go of control."

leurich@csindy.com

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