Dennis Shinski is a third-year student at the University of Calgary’s social-work program, and works as a youth advocate at a Grande Prairie high school.
It was around the age of 13 – the year I started drinking and doing drugs – that I started realizing that life wasn’t as fun as it used to be.
I’d become keenly aware that the public and my peers were telling me what I should be doing and how I should be feeling. I followed those rules, because in my mind, if I didn’t conform to the status quo, then I could lose my sense of belonging, or lose my friends. If I didn’t dress and act like them or if I looked different from other teens on TV or in magazines, then I might not be considered cool or popular amid the daily pressure to “fit in.”
So I would put on a mask when I was with my peers, rather than authentically feel my feelings. That’s how I wound up having the default script of masculinity embed itself as a chant in my brain, as I grew up into a toxic teenager: Man up. Don’t cry. Don’t back down. Work harder. Have more sex. Don’t show weakness. Don’t share your feelings. Don’t be a sissy.
Internally, I didn’t understand these commands. Why are boys and men told to be like this? But on the outside, I knew that whenever I stumbled or failed in my pursuit of these masculine markers, I would feel pain, whether real or perceived; I would be seen as somehow less of a man.
That’s what led me to alcohol, drugs and partying: I needed a way to force the pain down inside of me, to numb myself to something I wasn’t mature enough to grapple with.
That worked, at least temporarily. My partying led me to quit school, and at the age of 19, I became attracted to the possibilities in the oil and gas industry. It seemed to be full of men who liked the same things that I liked, or rather, that I was told I liked: drinking, using drugs, making money and living recklessly.
While not everyone was like that – some people in the industry were accountable, responsible and kept their sense of integrity – it was hard not to succumb to the trappings of the lucrative oil boom: the parties, the late nights, the luxuries I hadn’t been able to afford. So even though I threw myself into my work, making more money than I ever had in my life, I wound up just spending it all just as quickly to feed my new habits. I would read my bank statements and not understand why my savings weren’t growing, and then go out every off-day and party furiously.
Everything started to fall apart when I was 23. A decade after using drugs for the first time, I failed a drug test from my employer. But I rejected their offer of help; my script told me that only weak-minded people with problems needed a hand. I was fired after that, just as I’d be fired at all the jobs that followed as I marched headlong down a path of self-destruction.
My ego, which had been thriving for years thanks to the status, money, possessions and image I had accumulated from my time in the oil rush, was cracked in half. I felt overwhelming guilt and shame over everything I had done over the years, but I hadn’t developed the tools to grapple with my emotions and feelings. I used more drugs to numb the pain and hide my vulnerabilities, and it took over my life; when a friend of mine died by suicide, I mourned the loss in a frenzy of cocaine and alcohol.
Deep in debt, I lost my material things – and worse, I grew to realize I’d already lost who I was as a friend, a brother, an uncle and as a person. I lost my sense of purpose as a human being altogether. I would binge-sleep the day away and binge-watch television in a cyclical fashion. Once, a friend told me: “You were the person everyone wanted to be, and now you’re the person no one wants to be." It was a crushing blow, helping to spark six dark years of addiction and depression.
Eventually, I became so desperate that I felt there was no other option but to change. I was going to lose my job, my place, my partner, my sanity and everything that I’d lost many times before all over again. With professional help, I began a journey of self-discovery that led me to address my substance-abuse problems and to identify my main problem over the past few years: me.
My relationships to my peers in the industry, to ideas of manhood, to my work and to myself were toxic. It took a huge amount of work to understand I needed to manage my life so that I was actually fulfilled, rather than just seeming fine. It didn’t happen overnight; in fact, the work still continues to this day. But it wouldn’t have happened without a moment of reckoning.
This may not be the case for everyone who works a blue-collar job, like the one I had in Alberta’s oil patch, but there is definitely a mental-health crisis lurking there. The life period between 15 and 25 is a formative one, and often, people that age forge identities around their work. But in November, the unemployment rate for Albertan men between the ages of 15 to 24 hit nearly 20 per cent. So even as young men follow the footsteps of older folks who quit school and got rich, they’re finding the industry – and themselves, as a result – more unstable than ever before. The outcome of the recent federal election, which came to be seen as a national referendum around the oil industry, left 55 per cent of Albertans feeling “sad,” according to an Ipsos poll; 69 per cent felt “worried.”
This compounds what experts already know: that the 15-to-24 age group is the most likely to experience mental illness and substance-use disorders than any other age group, that men are higher risks for addiction and dying by suicide, and that men are less likely to seek help for mental-health issues, in part because of that typical, toxic script telling us what it means to be a man.
So when Western Canadians talk about feeling disillusioned and alienated, don’t think of that as just a political talking point around the economics of the oil and gas industry and the need for climate-change solutions. It’s about actual human beings who, in this downturn, may now be feeling completely rudderless. Human beings who, even before this stretch of struggle, have been steeped in a culture of hyper-masculinity, even when times were good. Human beings whose pain goes unseen, until it’s noticed in suicide-rate spikes and we need to see them. Trust me: For many of these men, asking for help feels impossible. The least we can do is lend them our eyes and our hearts.
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