“I Suppose You Could Say I Was Stood On The Largest ‘X’ I Had Ever Stood Upon; The World Around Me Stretching Out Disproportionately, Like In A Cartoon Or A Horror Movie...”


On my 21st birthday, just over a year before he died, my dad wrote to me, “You have all the talent at your disposal to be whatever you want to be – so go on and be it. I shall be there until I am too old and decrepit to know what day it is.”


Throughout my life I have been chided by some for not being “masculine” enough.
            Being an artist I like colour, including pink and purple and their many shades, but was often told they were “girls colours.” I like fashion – rarely to wear, but to appreciate the aesthetics: the cuts, the colours, the patterns. I quite like books, galleries and museums – but hey, can I throw a ball?
            So, with everything seemingly pointing one way, I began to adopt something unusual. I’ve joked jokes that were funny for irony’s sake, and yet somehow dog-whistled the worst in society. I began playing Sunday football despite having little interest in the sport. During many moments of my life I daydreamed about being more creative. I imagined I would “break through” one day, that it was all part of the process, without considering if at any point my struggle was also self-inflicted.
            Competition. Pride. Assertiveness.
            I’ve stood chest out and shoulders back, and although I’ve stood that way on many occasions, for weddings and funerals, I have also several times put on a suit that gave me such pride in form, but at the cost of my identity.

I must be fair, it's those same “masculine” traits that have seen me gain many successes in my life – take quitting smoking, for instance: I was at work one day, many jobs ago, stressed, unhappy, emasculated by the constant barrage of belittling “banter” and “X-Factor Thursdays,” (where we would stand on a duct tape ‘X’ and explain why we hadn't hit our targets...), and I stood and went for a cigarette.
            I was two steps from my desk when my team leader, a large, freckled man who genuinely thought that the loudest voice won the most arguments, blithely said, “I thought you were quitting.”
            “I am,” I said.
            “No you won't,” he said. “I can just tell.”
            “Fuck you,” I said. “I will,” and pitifully went for the cigarette anyway.
            A month from this moment and I had done it. I had quit smoking. From 20-a-day to zero, in a month. My lungs felt inconceivably large, and my mood picked up, relatively speaking…
            After all, there was still always X-Factor Thursdays to look forward to.
            However, although I was thoroughly emasculated in front of my peers and superiors week on week by a failed target that, whenever regularly achieved, was always increased anyway, I decided I could stand tall. Why? Because, in my team leader's eyes I saw a hint of “You bastard.”
            I’ve learned since that this is the wrong way to grow.

Now, there are many who would laud me for my efforts: for rising to a challenge and improving my life while defying the expectations had of me; for using my stubbornness and willpower to complete a personal goal and show someone they aren't the boss of me. However, there's something much more concerning here.
            I mentioned that I was “emasculated as ever by a failed target,” but that's not true. I was emasculated by a management team that genuinely thought X-Factor Thursday's was a great way to shame their staff into performing. Not only that, but “whenever regularly achieved, [the target] was always increased anyway,” means that I was less a valued employee who finds purpose and satisfaction in their work, than a commodity whose own human need for validation was abused immeasurably.
            In short, despite working hard, I was trapped in a system where what can be quite positive aspects of maleness – honesty, duty, stubbornness, honour, the honest enjoyment of a job well done – were distorted for the benefit of a few who regularly mentioned that there were thousands of unemployed people waiting for just the chance to sit at my desk...

This, I hope, somewhat illustrates the difficulties facing men who want to express their masculinity in positive ways but who don't fit the mould, or whose earnestness makes them vulnerable to systems that thrive on exploiting them.
            For many, escape is almost impossible, and I was just young enough to do so. I enrolled into higher education, which naturally brought along a whole new set of challenges, but the difference, in my experience, is between growth under sunlight and being stunted under a canopy. MAN_AGE is a natural extension of that growth, so that I could promote the dialogue of other men who wish to evolve their identity.

Admittedly, I was lucky enough (and sure, clever enough) to change my environment, which allowed me the opportunity and relative freedom to evolve my mindset, my behaviours and my meaning.
            And yet, those very same behaviours – that stubbornness, to focus on one, which saw me quit smoking; that saw me produce an anthology of international poetry; fulfil my childhood dream of illustrating a published comic; travel to live and become employed in America, where I had the New York Christmas that my dad had always dreamed of; and then return to London to earn a 1:1 degree – those very same behaviours abandoned me as I now sat, post-degree, in a seemingly directionless world, with an overwhelming chasm deep in front of me.

If I return from London – from across the world – back to my hometown, my friends and family will believe I'm a failure. I should have sorted it out by now, so why haven't I?

I suppose you could say I was stood on the largest “X” I had ever stood upon; the world around me stretching out disproportionately, like in a cartoon or a horror movie...
            Isolation, depression, denial, inadequacy, fear, emasculation.
            I wouldn't believe my friends when they said it was fine. After all, they said, I had achieved so much! I had travelled the world and published books, sold art and ticked many bands off my bucket list. I was doing the things I wanted to do!

But here is exactly where mental health really reveals itself to be something unique:
       My closest friends said that I had proven myself to everyone but myself.
            I had even begun treating myself with the same contempt I had received at that horrid job, from that jeering team leader, whilst stood on that dreaded X.

Competition. Pride. Assertiveness.
            These aren’t bad things, and they’re a part of me, helping me to achieve everything I’ve listed above. But martyrdom is something pernicious; often self-flagellation dressed up. I used to think of how much time I had wasted, but now I think about how leaving that toxic work environment led me to achieve things I had previously withheld from myself.
            Challenges will always arise every day along the paths of anything and everything I could genuinely achieve, and there will be many Xs – most from within. Sure, I could choose to stand on them, but I’d rather walk right over, towards my goals.


 My close friend and honorary-big-sister Ruth said to me, “What would you do if you saw someone speak to a young boy the way you speak to yourself?”
            “I'd tell them to fuck off,” I said, bluntly. “Then I'd tell the boy he ain't worthless.”
            “Well then,” she said.


James Firkins is an editor, copywriter and graphic designer currently living near Birmingham, UK.