by Robyn Mirmak
It’s fair to say the phrase “don’t do drugs” is firmly embedded in our brains, and I'm sure that over the years it has kept a few away from the temptation. However, as clearly pointed out in this week’s enigma, young people can’t be told what to do. We (quite rightly, I might add) have the need to rebel in order to find our autonomy, and inescapably for a lot of people, that means we’ll find sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll along the way. Though this might seem obvious, it’s often underestimated in drugs and alcohol lectures, as evidenced by the Office for National Statistics which states that there were 11,326 young people (under the age of 18) in contact with alcohol and drug services between April 2021 and March 2022, suggesting many schools’ drugs education is ineffective, or even misleading.
Our speaker Joe, is from the Amy Winehouse Foundation. He's old enough to have experienced the world, yet young enough to translate, immediately removed any hierarchy saying, “I’m not here to tell you what to do”. His charm and youthful energy was not only contagious but also relatable – he was here for a chat not a lecture. Jokes were passed around about authority figures and how they “handle youth” by simply scaring them into submission. Finally, someone understood our teenage angst. And so, with a respectful, two-sided relationship intact, we sat around eagerly for Joe’s story.
What was striking from the moment he began were the references to toxic masculinity, though slightly hidden so the boys wouldn’t switch off. We were straight away asked what we thought a geezer meant, and though some of the Hurtwood audience seemed perplexed at his North-east London slang, most of us pinpointed him as a guy with a Guinness and a cigarette. This was a similar description to our speaker’s father, who left Joe with some masculinity to live up to which, desperate to be cool, led him to some mistakes with friends, women and alcohol. In fact, he demonstrated all five traits that the University of South Carolina defined as Toxic Masculinity: 1) power over women; 2) intimate partner violence; 3) aggressive behaviours; 4) emotional detachment; as well as 5) heterosexual self-presentation.
Admitting he was not painting a great picture of himself, he was keen to emphasise that the cause of this was the fact that he was scared: scared to show his emotion, scared to disappoint his father, scared to not be a man. And it was inevitably this low self-esteem that led to his alcohol addiction as, when he was drinking, he wasn’t scared anymore. Moreover, he was acting just like his friends, so he needn’t worry about judgement. It’s important to note that here, he told us that everything we’d already been told about peer pressure was a lie: our friends don’t force us to do anything - the truth is they don’t care either way - it’s your own brain creating the narrative that if you don’t do what your friends are doing you aren’t worthy of their company.
Then came his experiment. After being told to stand (which the back rows did tentatively) we were asked to sit down once he shouted out the number of followers or views we’ve ever had starting at 50 and ending somewhere in the 1000s. Being at Hurtwood there were a few TV stars in the room with more fans than the rest of us and so it took a while for everyone to be seated. We even had a pair pretend they had 12.5mill which, if we hadn’t all laughed, may have been believable. Once the laughter subsided, Joe pointed out how these hundreds and thousands of people are the amount we’re trying to please and fit in with on a daily basis. It wasn’t patronising, it was just stating the facts, but it certainly caused a few shivers, particularly once we realised that the reason Joe started drinking in the first place was to reach and maintain popularity.
Soon came the horror stories about being an addict. You would have thought we’d heard it all before, but rather than focus on his physical side effects, Joe talked about the misery he caused the people around him, a perspective we rarely hear about, and one that felt much more impactful. In particular, he recalled the way he treated his mother and then girlfriend as “shameful”, losing his last ounce of self-worth. However, it’s clear it was also this support network that saved him. His recall of his sister’s wedding seemed pivotal: full of pride while she walked down the aisle, he burst into tears, unexpectedly blubbering in front of the whole congregation. Yet for the first time there was no fear of judgement – it was his sister, of course he was going to cry – and our geezer finally learnt he was allowed to be vulnerable. Of course, his story was then interrupted with a universal “aww” from all of us but once he resumed, we realised this celebration of love and family was what gave him the initial strength to sober up. Their love saved his life, his mate even tricking him into going to rehab.
This sweet and loving atmosphere continued into the final part while he told the tale of his current girlfriend, even letting it drop that he was going to propose, which gained a round of applause. What was most important, however, was the way he talked about her, crying while he expressed her resilience and delighted that his horror story had turned into a romance. This I think was what gained him the most respect: we all want that happily ever after and we were finally taught that to get it we have to be grounded and honest about what’s happening in our lives. His soon-to-be-fiancé called him a ‘doughnut’ for thinking he had to hide his emotions and allowed him the space to deconstruct a lifetime of toxic masculinity. His relationship with his mother is now better than ever - “she’s my best mate”. And Joe now represents The Amy Winehouse Foundation, reaching out to young people to warn them how the desperation for popularity and masculinity could be detrimental, as it was for him.