Breaking the Boy Code

I Couldn’t Be Who I Wanted to Be: Boys and Stress

Episode Summary

Michael offers a glimpse of stress at age fourteen—how it led to struggles with his self-esteem and body image, and how he’s learning to cope with it. Joined by Phyllis Fagell, who runs a boys’ group at Sheridan School, and Damion Cooper, founder of Project Pneuma.

Episode Notes

Stress wound its way into Michael’s life throughout his preteen years, growing in size until it overwhelmed him in his first year of high school. “It took over my life,” he told me. “I’d come home and do four hours of homework. This took a toll on my social life, and my physical health. I began to develop an eating disorder, which I still have to battle to this day. I lost a lot of weight. I became more of an unhappy person. I wasn’t fun to be around. I didn’t enjoy being around other people. I just felt like my life was a mess.”

“It was painful, to see my life almost crumbling. Because of schoolwork, or my friends, or just something that was stressing me out so much I couldn’t be who I wanted to be. It was really just—it’s painful to think about now, it was painful to go through then. I’m still going through it.”

Things came to a head when Michael broke his leg and missed several weeks of school. He did his best to keep up with schoolwork in his absence, but the pressure he felt when he returned to school started building up. “I felt like I wasn’t strong, like I was a failure,” he told me, “and because of that I lost a lot of self-esteem.” His mind felt scattered and unable to focus. More and more work accumulated.

Michael came home from school one day and went straight to his room. He didn’t leave all evening. He didn’t sleep all night. Emotions flowed out of him as he yelled at himself, cried, and realized he’d been holding back his feelings for years.

“After that,” he said, “I knew I had to change something.”

Continue reading on Medium

Further Reading

As well as being a middle school counsellor, Phyllis Fagell is a writer and columnist in The Washington Post. Check out her blog and follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

You can support Damion Cooper’s program for boys and young men in Baltimore on the Project Pneuma website. If you want to learn more about the statistics I cited in the episode, visit The Baltimore Sun’s Baltimore Homicides webpage.


William Pollack, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood

Niobe Way and Jessica Cressen, ‘It Might Be Nice to Be a Girl…Then You Wouldn’t Have to Be Emotionless:’ Boys’ Resistance to Norms of Masculinity During Adolescence

Andrew Reiner, Boy Talk: Breaking Masculine Stereotypes

Wide Angle Youth Productions, Project Pneuma

Luke Broadwater, From anger to forgiveness: How one man’s shooting led to a new program for Baltimore boys


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Audio excerpts from VOA News and WBAL Radio. Supported by Next Gen Men.