What is a Role Model? Not too long ago, we decided that it wasn't enough to cast fashion models based on comp cards and height. We wanted to showcase the stories of real people, who are brave enough to wear their label. Dexter is one of those Role Models. Here's his story:
I was hiding behind a smile. Isn’t that how it always seems? We go by others in our lives without knowing the full picture behind a smile. I grew up with the emptiness of abandonment, accompanied by the constant void of worthlessness. When you grow up without a mother, you tend to think that you’re the problem, and from the age that you can start remembering events your thoughts only trace back to why your mother would leave you. Back then it was strabismic amblyopia or my lazy eye that threw my mind into self-loathing, but then would come my innocence of youth being shattered by a traumatic event involving a relative. I can still remember how empty I felt, how alone I was and how I wanted to end it all at the age of 8. And I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell a soul.
Growing up as an African Canadian male, I was taught that real men don’t cry. Real men don’t show emotion. Real men don’t get hurt. So, when the event happened, I shuttered up and blamed myself for everything. The years would go by and I would find myself going from school to school as the black kid that was not black enough in the socially stereotypical way or too poor to fit in. I would find myself at university, and then everything would unravel. The constant inability of myself to get up and go to class because I was too anxious to be seen, the disappointment in marks, the financial strains, being homeless and then the vicious cycle of self-medicating through alcohol would begin. People never knew because I seemed so full of life. But I was fighting these demons every night, and wearing a mask I learned to wear oh so well when the dawn broke.
Eventually, the weight became too much. I would have to leave school after three years and a suicide attempt that would hospitalize me. I’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and dysthymia (chronic depression). For three years I had to battle institutionalized stigma that surrounded me and my suicide attempt on my former university campus. It came as a shock and complete surprise to me at first when being told by a counsellor at the school that senior university officials who were informed of my attempt were “disappointed in me after all that they had done”. Needless to say, I was blocked at almost every turn to get back in, which led to further relapsed episodes of extreme depression and more attempts at ending my life. I remember leaving the mental health ward of St Martha’s Regional Hospital and promising myself that I would do whatever I could to help others not feel that they had no other option than to go to the lengths of ending it all when suffering from a mental illness.
Now, I’m on my way back to school, albeit, in a new city and I’ll studying Radio & Television broadcasting, something I NEVER knew I would find a love for. If there’s anything, I’ve grown stronger by the stories of youth my age that have shared their own personal battles. Knowing that we’re not alone in what we go through soothes a soul that’s been barren of love and understanding for so long. My story is only one of the battles you’ll hear, and there are many others that are so brave in getting up each morning facing what they have to. Yes, I’ve been homeless. Yes, I’ve had relationships that have buckled under the weight of my illnesses. Yes, I do still suffer from these illnesses, but I’m getting better.
The support and love from the many friends that have become family to me is invaluable, and has kept me going for so long, but there are those still to this day, this very minute who don’t feel like they can speak up. Things are slowly changing, and that gives me hope. We’re not there with regards to a stigma free society, but by god we’re surely on our way. Believe it or not, change is possible. One of the senior officials that seemed totally against ever coming to support the growing mental health movement on the campus of my former university turned into a supporter, but that didn’t happen overnight. We need to keep pushing, to keep speaking up and with time we’ll find a way for us to redefine masculinity and its relationship with mental health. Recovery starts with the first blind leap of faith. Change starts with us.
- Dexter, @DexterJohnN
Photography by Tim Lingley