Growing up without a real father taught me exactly what I needed to know about being a real man.
By Quentin Vennie
Artwork by Indhira Rojas
I was 10 years old, standing in my grandmother’s basement, when I was forced to face a reality that my developing mind was not yet equipped to understand.
There before me was a shattered mirror covered with heroin residue. My grandmother and uncle broke the news to me: The mirror belonged to my father.
I’d been completely unaware that he was a heroin addict up to that point. I also hadn’t realized that the man who was supposed to love me unconditionally — the man who had walked out of my life two years prior—had slept over at my grandmother’s house on the same day I was there. What hurt most was that he never bothered to make his presence known to me. The incident changed the trajectory of my life forever. It shifted my perception of what a man represented for years to come.
I was born in Baltimore in the 1980s, at the height of the city’s heroin epidemic. Raised by a single mother, I was forced to become the man of the house at a fairly young age. By the time I reached elementary school I’d lived all over west Baltimore. By middle school, I had witnessed the aftermath of a shooting right outside my bedroom window and been shot at myself for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My mother worked three or more jobs at a time to provide me with better academic opportunities while still trying to prepare me for the hardships and heartbreak that had become the centerpiece of our existence. To this day, I don’t recall ever seeing her cry when I was younger, despite us being on food stamps, having our electricity cut off, and having her car repossessed multiple times. She protected me from much of her struggles, but I was always aware that things could be better — should be better.
In school I was expected to be a model student, even though my reality was far less than ideal. None of my teachers or administrators took the time to recognize the world I lived in outside school.
When somebody suffers with an addiction, they’re never the only ones negatively affected by it. I was no exception. My father was a victim of the city’s heroin epidemic, and I became collateral damage, set on a destructive path for the next 15 years.
I went to schools populated mostly by white kids. I’d watch as their parents flooded the auditorium for school plays or lined up in the classroom to chaperone our field trips. It was painful, to say the least. I was constantly reminded of my father’s failures, but I couldn’t show any emotion or aversion to them. My feelings were frowned upon by my peers, but mainly by teachers and school administrators. To them, I was just another black kid trying to play victim. Treated like a derelict, I grew hostile to a world that judged me without ever getting to know me. It was as if my fate had been predetermined by the same people I was taught to look to for guidance.
My environment taught me to be tough, to protect myself at all costs. My hurt feelings manifested in violent outbursts, fighting, flipping over tables, punching walls — which then turned into me being reprimanded, perpetuating the cycles of anger.
The adrenaline rush of anger soon become my crutch. Shedding my vulnerability turned me into a darker, more aggressive person. I funneled every emotion through my propensity to become angry, to the point where anger became my only means of expressing my disdain. Ultimately things reached a point where my peers started treating me differently, acting with caution rather than sincerity. They knew it wouldn’t take much for me to go from 0 to 100.
I had a spontaneous urge to retaliate whenever I felt wronged, and it only got worse as I got older. Placing blame on others gave me permission to be angry and behave poorly. I was merely a casualty, I thought, trained to be this way.
I tried to look for understanding from my peers and authoritative figures around me, tried to verbalize my feelings, but that only led to more ridicule from those I sought compassion from. I was resentful and falling into the recurring cycle of anxiety, depression, and anger.
I thought I was being strong, thought I was being a man, even though I didn’t have many examples of what that really meant. Growing up, all I heard in my community was “man up” or “don’t be so emotional.” That attitude was ingrained in me by cultural and familial standards.
For generations, American culture has frowned upon men (and even boys) crying or showing emotion. Songs like Tim McGraw’s “Grown Men Don’t Cry” question the logic of this cultural displeasure. The Temptations sung about the desire to hide a man’s tears on “I Wish It Would Rain.” Boys who are emotional and vulnerable are often susceptible to torment and harassment, which leads to low self-esteem, zero confidence, and mental health issues. I’ve experienced this firsthand.
Anger is often the easiest emotion to tap into, as it’s predicated by pride and ego. To me, it’s simply the unwillingness to be vulnerable, and the pervasive idea of anger being associated with masculinity is sickening. I’ve often questioned: Was I a product of my environment, or merely a victim of society?
It took me having children of my own to know that being emotionally intelligent is actually healthy, and that true strength is hidden in vulnerability. I’m teaching my children that it’s OK to be expressive, that they don’t need to get angry every time something doesn’t happen in their favor. I’ve created an open door policy in my household, where communication is the priority.
When it’s all said and done, my goal as a father is to be the one I wish I had growing up.
Quentin Vennie is a speaker, mental health advocate, and author of the memoir Strong in the Broken Places (Rodale, May 2017).