A musty odor fills my 160-square-foot bedroom. A small box heater is rumbling gently in the corner, fighting the 32-degree temperatures right outside the window. Sunlight attempts to break through the dark gray curtains but is unsuccessful. Swaddled in a deep blue comforter, I lay, now mid-afternoon, and stare at the barren off-white walls. My head, encompassed by the caseless pillow, is pounding slightly. I can hear water droplets falling outside my window, plummeting from the balcony above onto the concrete ground below. Playing on my age-old iPad is episode seven of The Bold Type, a show I’ve binge-watched too many times to count. My telephone vibrates beneath my pillow, but I let it ring. Because despite all the noise, all I can focus on is the silence.
The pitter-patter of his tiny feet, his freshly groomed nails on the hardwood floors. The dangling of his nine-year-old blue-collar, his two tags clanking against one another. Things that appeared so insignificant, so minor only a month and a half ago now are sounds I wish I had paid more attention to. No matter what, he was always there, laying sweetly upon my mattress, his black and white face and button-like nose nested in the wrinkled comforter. He would occasionally snort, occasionally snore. But most often, he remained silent, or so I thought.
Now that he’s gone, it’s never been so quiet in here.
We’re told that pets are family. This saying — at least for me — is false. Because my nine-year-old long-haired chihuahua, Cloud, was much more than family. He was my lifeline: the comfort I needed in my darkest moments. And when he could barely muster up the energy to breathe, which the doctors believe was because of some sort of cancer that appeared out of nowhere, I knew I was about to lose my best friend, my brother, my love.
What I didn’t know was that I would be unable to grieve.
On his last night with us, I laid on his soft, foam bed with him and cried. Playing the cast recording of Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen in the background — which I’m convinced was his favorite musical — I laid there and cried and talked. Talked about my nine years with him and how much I loved him.
And when he took his last breath, I cried.
But since then, I’ve been unable to feel.
I wake each morning, shower, get dressed, and head off to work. I come home each evening and sit on the couch, scrolling through the internet and checking the latest memes. At night, I lay in my bed, alone, and stare at the ceiling. The Bold Type plays in the background as I stay up until 2 or 3 or 4 a.m., unable to shut my spiraling mind off.
I go through each day with a smile or, more likely, an emotionless look on my face. I joke, I laugh, I write; I act as if I’m okay with the fact that he lived nine great years of life. But inside, deep within my core, rushing through my veins to my heart, is a sadness so indescribable, so painful, so infuriating. And yet, I’m left dumbfounded when it comes to expressing these emotions because society has told me to do otherwise.
I’m often the first to speak out against toxic masculinity: a rampant, dangerous mindset that teaches boys and men, like myself, that emotions equate to weakness and that to qualify as a “man,” one must stay strong in all overwhelmingly sad situations. Ask any one of my friends or family members and they will be able to recall a handful of times within the past month that I’ve gone off about toxic masculinity.
But here’s the truth: no matter how much I speak out about its dangerous ways, I can no longer deny that toxic masculinity has struck my core.
I’ve fought to redefine what it means to be a man, explaining that emotions do not show weakness at all. In fact, on the contrary, feeling and expressing emotions is a sign of how comfortable one is with themself, something that should truly be commended. When it comes time to walk the walk, however, I’m unable to follow through. Because more often than not, I have no idea how to express my feelings.
“But you’re always happy!” you may say. And sure, exciting career news or fun nights out do cause me a sudden, short-lasting happiness that I’m able to express. But when it comes to expressing emotions that truly matter, sentiments that we should all be able to discuss freely as human beings, I fall short.
Upon my dog’s passing, I felt I needed to stay strong for my family — my mother and father and brother. I felt it was my responsibility, as the one who constantly tries to focus on the positive side of life, to be the stronghold and the shelter for them in this time of need. So when they broke down, when they missed our sweet little baby so dearly, I held back the tears and emotions. I held back the pain. I held back the sorrow.
I held it all back because I didn’t know how to express it. And I still don’t. Two months later and I am still unable to grieve.
And so, like any time I’m unsure of what to do, I wrote. I took pen to paper — or more literally, cursor to computer — and wrote. Poems, essays, ramblings: all the emotions I’ve been feeling inside were quickly jotted down. What I soon realized is that although toxic masculinity hasn’t prevented me from feeling emotions just yet, it has certainly blocked me from expressing them.
I desperately want to feel, want to emote. And yet, it often feels like an impossible struggle to overcome: a hurdle just too high to leap over.
The loss of a pet may seem insignificant to losing a significant other or being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, and perhaps it is. But if even I can't muster up the courage to grieve openly, as someone who is well-educated in the gruesome thinking that is toxic masculinity, then how can countless other men be expected to do the same?
Emotions are power, not weakness. Emotions are what make us lovers, friends, and humans. Emotions are what we need to survive in this terrifying, unpredictable world we live in. So I urge you — fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, and family — to fight in teaching that no one should ever be afraid to express the way they feel, whether that be a feeling of pain, of love, of happiness, or of sadness. Because in our darkest moments — in my darkest moment — losing the ability to express our true emotions can be more damaging than the loss itself.
photos courtesy Gianluca Russo
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Gianluca Russo is a freelance writer, editor and social media manager whose work has been published in Teen Vogue, Brit+Co, Romper, The Financial Diet, Byrdie, Playbill, Paste Magazine, Dance Spirit Magazine and more. Visit www.GianlucaRusso.webs.com for more of his work and connect with him on social media @G_Russo1.