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By Non Wels, feely human and creator of You, Me, Empathy

(Trigger warning: Disordered eating, weight, and suicidal ideation are mentioned in this blog post.)

I’m a man in recovery from Anorexia Nervosa.

As a man, I’m not here to show you how strong I am, how impervious to crying I am, how in the face of an emotional peculiarity—or emotion, period—I find the willpower to stuff it down then proceed to crush a beer can in my bare hands. I am not here to show you what a man should be. Because the truth is that there are no shoulds.

At 18, I began starving myself.

I spent four brutal years doing everything I could possibly think of to repress my heart (not as a means to be more manly, but as a mechanism of survival)—such as attempting to mediate my parents’ failing marriage, running for 10-20-30 miles at a time until the agony of my physical body shrieked louder than the agony in my heart, journeying abroad to study literature in The Land That Knows No Sun (Wales), and fondly wondering if killing myself in a Welsh bathtub would be romantic enough.

And at 22, the doctor told me my heart would take its final, desperate beat in my chest unless I swiftly upped my caloric intake and changed… something.

When the doctor told me that my heart was not long for this world, I was 118 pounds (down from 175, my healthy weight). My hair was a brittle forest—clumps would take swan dives off my scalp on the regular. My skin, thin and pallid, was an arid wasteland no amount of lotion could remedy. My bones reverberated in pain persistently, from the knobby knees that felt in need of full orthoscopic replacements to the feet that were composed of cracked egg shells.

I was dying but I realized that I didn’t want to die. My heart, which spent 20+ years locked away in my Heart Guard—a protection against the violence and rage of an abusive father—needed to be open. I needed to look inward at my heart for the first time in my life. And my living depended on it.

So, I changed my heart.

The next decade, my 20s, I stumbled greatly: I tried therapy for the first time, I relapsed in my eating disorder; I abused alcohol; I wrote a lot; I slept way less; I moved to New York; I broke hearts; I found love; I worked in Alaska; I over-exercised; I started the slow, arduous process of looking inward to see what this big, maroon muscle in my chest was all about.

And in my 30s (I’ll be 38 this year), I haven’t figured out all the secrets of the heart, but I’ve learned this: It wasn’t the reintegration of food that saved my life, it was the recognition that my heart wasn’t meant to be a prisoner, but rather a leader, and an unabashedly feely guide on a path toward self-acceptance, self-discovery, self-love, connection, growth, and empathy.

And that’s the capable beauty of your heart, too—no matter how you identify, each of us, every single one of us feely humans on this pale blue dot has a heart.

I’ve learned to follow my heart’s lead. Find strength in its guidance. Look inward and accept that I—yes, me, who still struggles with this—has the strength of vulnerability, of empathy, of connecting and growing and learning and recovering and healing.

Societal constructs, cultural artifices, regressive gender norms—tell us that men can’t feel our feelings, that we need to be beacons of strength, that we need to toughen up, that we need to man up and be men. I say no to that. If there are any shoulds in this world, it’s this: we should not be pawns in a war against matters of the heart.

As men, I believe we need to shed these insidious, patriarchal assumptions of our place on this pale blue dot—not with our fists—but with our intrinsic and wholly human capacity for emotional vulnerability, empathy, and the indelible inward-seeking journeys we take to navigate and understand our feelings.

Non Wels is a mental health advocate, writer, doggo lover, runner, empath, and feely human. He has depression, anxiety, and is in recovery from Anorexia Nervosa, but these are just components of him, not all of him. Non is also the creator of the podcast and community: You, Me, Empathy, a safe space for others to share their mental health stories. He believes deeply in the power of vulnerability and empathy as integral foundational elements to recovery and mental health awareness. Non writes abouts mental health, his eating disorder journey, and other feely things at Connect with Non on Instagram @YouMeEmpathy.