TW: mentions of rape, suicide, mental illness
First, a disclaimer: I have nothing in common with this project other than the fact I am very happy to see it’s happening. Here’s the IndieGoGo campaign page. Please consider supporting the movie.
I have often seen kids, I mean – Internet users arguing on various forums about which of them is more Valhalla-worthy. As we all know, Valhalla is the enormous hall in Asgard, where the bravest of the warriors chosen by Odin dwell until Ragnarök, spending their days fighting, eating, drinking, being resurrected, I think I got the order incorrectly but nevermind. A large fraction of people tend to understand all this very literally, envisioning medieval warriors with axes and shields – and nothing more modern than that. They then get into heated discussions about whether uncle Sam who fought in Afghanistan for two years is going to Valhalla if he didn’t actually kill anybody and he came back alive. (Some also get into heated discussions about whether killing others in The Witcher counts.)
First of all, for the sake of uncle Sam I hope he isn’t going to Valhalla, because PTSD is a real thing and being forced to spend an eternity fighting and killing all over again isn’t going to make uncle Sam happy at all.
Second, Valhalla is a concept.
Valhalla isn’t literally a giant hall filled with roaring, bleeding men and Valkyries in conic bras bringing them beer. (If you haven’t read Valhalla by Tom Holt, please do!) The people who went into trouble of actually reading the Eddas and other sources know that Valhalla has five hundred and forty doors that eight hundred warriors can exit from at once. Which would mean only approx. 427,600 fighters would fit inside. This seemed to be an endless number in the times when the entire population of, say, Denmark was 500 thousand people. But Odin has been and still is collecting the best warriors “from the beginning until the end of times”. It always made me wonder (trust a mathematician to analyse religion) – what does he do with excess ones? When, say, Conor McGregor shows up one day, will Odin go to – Gods, I don’t know, Ragnar Lothbrok – and say “sorry, you’re out, we need a room for the young Conor here”?
Many things are concepts, and one of them is fighting.
I’ve spoken to numerous men and women, older and younger, of every race and nationality, who talked about their daily fight with chronic illness. The movie linked to above tackles specifically depression in men, but there is so much more. One of my closest friends lives with constant physical pain – it only alternates between bad pain and horrible pain. One has Multiple Sclerosis. Another one has rapid-cycling bipolar, yet is raising four kids and no matter how unwell she is she will rather cause herself more suffering than fail to get one of her kids to, say, a tennis game. And she knows she will get worse. When Matt Haig writes about his depression and a troll accuses him of “making money out of his illness”, one of them is a fighter and one of them is being a little shit. You decide which is which.
People who actually go to war and return alive often miss a limb, bear huge scars – the visible signs, the ones that give them people’s respect. But there are vets who didn’t sustain a single scratch, yet can’t sleep at night for years, because they only ever dream one dream, then they wake up feeling they’re too weak to go on. There are women and men who got abused, survived, lived with the trauma for many years, told their truth, then became targets of attacks on the Internet. Strangely, it’s those who think it’s a perfectly fine thing to further abuse a rape victim over social media that believe they will find themselves in Valhalla, simultaneously believing that if someone got abused it’s their own fault, and admitting to it is weakness. Looking for a warrior? One of the people in this conversation is a warrior. One is a poop emoji.
For a person with chronic, med-resistant illness every morning when they wake up alive means a battle has been won. But the war itself is never over. I know people with medication resistant depression. They don’t get a break. I met a woman who had suffered from depression for five years non stop before getting electroshock therapy. After two sessions she told me that this is the first time in five years she actually can see the colours, smell the flowers, taste the food…and smile. If you think having a big gun and wearing camo is “battle”, perhaps you can imagine that you have to be in that battle 24/7 for five years or the rest of your life, without breaks in trenches even for meals (that you can’t prepare because you’re constantly fighting), without ever being safe for even a minute. And the enemy isn’t even hiding. The enemy is in plain sight, mocking you. The enemy is invincible, because the enemy is your own brain and/or body, and it can only be defeated in one way.
By living, you choose to continue fighting, knowing you have no chance of ever truly winning. That woman who survived five years of depression is possibly the bravest and strongest person I ever met, and I have had an…interesting life so far. Regardless of whether she even knows which end of a sword/axe/AK-47/flamethrower is which, she is infinitely braver than people who are really good at shooting tigers, riding giant motorbikes, or torturing prisoners. Think about it: if people who die while fighting go to Valhalla, do kindergarten shooters who get killed by cops deserve to go there?
I don’t just mean “why are school shooters always men”, although that is true as well. But it is harder for a man to deal with chronic illness, and yes, it is patriarchy’s fault.
I’m going to get deeper into this in a few days in a vlog, but depression is still considered by some to be a “women’s thing”. (Same as sexual abuse is a “women’s thing” and, somehow, “women’s fault” to boot.) Men are not supposed to break down over nothing in particular. One of the tools in depression’s arsenal is shame. “I should be stronger.” “I’m just being lazy.” “I’m a loser.” “I’m worth nothing.” “I’ll just have a drink/line/etc. and it will go away.” And you know what? It does, for a bit. Until it’s back, stronger than before, and you’re back where you started, only feeling even worse about yourself and your weakness. One day, an obituary appears and voices arise talking about how suicide is cowardice and how this person didn’t stop for a moment to think about those they leave behind.
You haven’t fought this person’s battles for days, weeks, months, years. You haven’t had to cope with the sentence “you’re a loser and deserve to die” – not thrown at you by Twitter trolls, but by your own mind, over and over and over from the second you wake up to when you finally manage to fall asleep so that you can hear the same words in your dreams. You haven’t had to find out how it feels when you are always in pain and the biggest relief you ever get is when your painkillers just kicked in, you’re lying flat on the bed with a special mattress and a special pillow, and as a result you’re “only” around 8 on the 0-10 pain scale.
Toxic masculinity is toxic
Those who protest against the Gillette ad showing non-toxic masculinity may one day find themselves staring at the barrel of a gun because they feel they’re failing their family by being unemployed. Because men are supposed to be strong, unbreakable, to win every time, be resilient in the face of absolutely everything. As the article I just linked to says:
Men with typically masculine traits are likely to have decreased mental health — and are even less likely to reach out for help, according to a 2017 study. Researchers found that this was related to certain specific, stereotypically masculine traits. For example, men who valued self-reliance were more prone to suffer poor mental health, likely because they had difficulty seeking support. Men who valued having power over women also suffered worse mental health (showing any doubters that feminism is good for men, after all). This tendency to be stoic about suffering not only impacts men’s mental health — it also prevents men from getting physical healthcare as well.
The way we – men – are socialised eventually kills us, and those who still fight their wars with less and less strength are not helped by hearing how suicide is a coward’s way out. And remember, men can not be cowards. Strong! Brave! Odin! Valhalla! Our bloodied axes and drinking mead from skulls of our enemies! (If you ever tried to drink from a skull you know it’s not really the most comfortable sort of appliance you could possibly use.) (Don’t ask me how I know that.) Do you know what’s one of the most difficult things in a “traditionally” raised man’s life? Admitting he needs help and can’t cope without it anymore.
I can throw an axe and hit the target every time. I can’t shoot a bow anymore, same as I can’t forge, because my spine injuries took care of that. Back at school, still during the Cold War, I once shot a gun hitting 49 out of 50 points possible. (This was because I was wearing an old pair of glasses, had to squint a lot, my hands were somewhat shaky, and I stopped even trying to see the target.) None of those things is going to send me to Valhalla (I hope), and neither would playing World of Warcraft. The fact that I survived two years of nearly unbearable pain, mental and physical, just about might. But if Valhalla is indeed about continuing to fight every single day, I choose Helheim, because I already fight every single day here, on Earth, and Gods know I could do with some rest in the barracks.
PS. The next post is coming on Wednesday and will tell you whether you have Viking blood in your veins, so get your “Warriors of Odin” t-shirt ready.