Every single minute of every single day I feel like I’m walking around with a massive jug of scalding hot water balanced on my head. I’m afraid to spill a little tiny bit of that water because the whole jug will start to fall and burn the people around me.
I don’t want to write this because I’m so afraid of letting any water spill. I struggle to write this because even now I can feel it leaking over the edge of the jug. The older I get, the heavier it gets, and the more energy it takes me to hold it up. That being said, I’ve gotten pretty good over the years.
That scalding water is a roiling mass of emotions, not everyday feelings like happy and sad, but deeper impulses like furious aggression and lingering melancholy and passionate love and deeply-rooted unattachment and tense panic and complete serenity and untraceable agitation.
I have been taught these emotions exist inside all men. From a young age, I was taught that men are gruff, intense, tightly-coiled and, above all, emotionally distant because they hold everything in a jug above their heads to keep it from spilling out.
For a long time I didn’t know that the jug was even there, and scalding water would just splash onto any bystanders. Eventually people learned that they would be burned if they were too close, so they backed away. When new people came along, everyone around me would warn them not to get too close. That’s why I couldn’t make friends when I was younger.
It took me far too long to notice the water splashing. It took the people closest to me, the ones who endured burn after burn for years, finally getting fed up. When they turned to me and said, “No more!” I realized that I had to keep that scalding water from spilling.
At first, it was impossible for me to keep it up. As soon as I got distracted, I would lose control of the jug. Too late, I would realize that the boiling water was already splashing down. That lasted for about two years. I still slipped up all the time, but my arms got stronger and I got better at keeping the jug balanced. And a few people who cared enough took their chances staying closer to me.
When I started high school in a new district, I was surrounded by so many new people who didn’t know to avoid my jug of scalding water. Many of them got burned, but I quickly learned that there were some people I really wanted to keep close. For the first time, I really focused on holding the water up, and I got better more quickly.
That’s not to say I didn’t slip up. For the most part, I could keep it together during the school day, but if I was really upset about something or felt too confident or got too caught up in having fun, it was easy for me to lose control. Still, more and more people came closer and I tried harder than ever to keep that scalding water from spilling until it started to become second nature to me.
By the time I got to college, keeping the jug balanced was almost easy. Half the time, I barely noticed that it was up there. For the most part, the people around me felt nothing but the occasional sizzling droplets.
These days, I know how to distance myself when I feel my grip slipping. I know how to give myself breaks when I can set the jug down. I can even leave it behind in my apartment when I go out, sometimes even for days at a time, but eventually I have to pick it back up.
I learned to hold the jug upright because that’s what men do. I learned that men’s emotions are too violent, too passionate, too overpowering to go unrestrained. I learned this from men who were around me; I learned this from movies and music; I learned this from my therapists; and I learned from watching people scream in rage when they were scalded by the water.
I learned by example. I was burned, burned really badly by men who couldn’t keep their jugs of scalding water balanced, or by men who didn’t even try. I saw it for myself when I was younger. I grew so attached to people that when they made me upset I lashed out and they were scalded, and I would become furious with myself and desperately mournful that I’d hurt them.
Nobody suggested that I stop carrying the jug. Instead, I was only told to hold it tighter to keep it from spilling. Everyone who ever told me to “man up” was really reminding me to grab ahold of that jug because it was spinning out of control. I know that it’s just my conception of what it means to “be a man,” and that theoretically it should be easy to unlearn that and get rid of the jug of water. But it’s so natural to me to keep it balanced over my head at all times.
Occasionally a few drops slip out, but I’m almost too good at keeping it up. It’s almost like not enough spills out during the day, so by the time I get home the jug is overflowing. I’m scalded in a deluge of that aggression and melancholy and love and unattachment and panic and serenity and agitation and everything else. Oversaturated buzz words like “toxic masculinity” don’t even begin to describe how badly that water burns.
I’m so worried about spilling anything from that jug that it’s impossible for me to access anything inside. I can’t be emotionally vulnerable because I’ve learned through years that vulnerability lets the water spill out. I’m apprehensive of close attachments because I don’t want to grow careless with the jug. I dread change because I’m worried it will throw me off balance. And the scars I bear from the scalding I’ve taken constantly remind me to keep my grip firm.
I’m trying to unlearn the jug. I’m trying to teach myself that I shouldn’t bottle everything up until it spills over and burns everyone who is close. It’s not that I want to learn to stop carrying it; I don’t want this water to be so hot. I want to let it cool off, so that I can pour it out when I want to without hurting anyone because I know that feelings aren’t inherently harmful and are a healthy part of being a person.
But sometimes, when I’m frustrated, it feels like I will carry this jug of scalding water to my grave.