What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up.
“Man Like” is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
The subject of today’s Man Like is Denola Grey. He’s an actor, a fashionista and an all-round badass. Denola tells us about battling anxiety and how he uses fashion to manage it. He also tells us about struggling to make genuine connections with boys while growing up, and how much his tribe means to him.
What are your day-to-day essentials?
I definitely need to do my skincare routine — both morning and evening — because I feel like if I don’t, my skin will fall apart. I have to meditate at least a couple of times during the day. Brief meditations. You know to kind of keep the anxiety in check because that’s something I battle with. And water, lots of water.
Anxiety? What’s that about?
I didn’t really know what to call it growing up, I always knew it was a thing. Maybe it was the years of bullying or just really not able to connect with people; I always felt an internal panic, especially in social settings.
But it wasn’t always like that. I was about 10 years old when it started, in primary 6. And it kind of stuck with me all till college.
I started talking to some therapists here and there to figure out why I had these intense moments of panic where my mind would be racing at 1000 miles per minute. And eventually, that feeling would go on for a few weeks and lead to can’t get out of bed depression. When I realised it was anxiety, I was better able to manage it before it got out of control. Now I’m happy to say that I have the tools to help me keep it at bay and not let it consume me anymore.
That sounds intense. How have you been able to find your balance especially during this panini we’re in?
We all need extra help. And I’m so thankful that I have such amazing friends that take mental health seriously as well. But the main thing for me was that in 2018, I got some clarity in my personal and spiritual life, which led me to read up more about energies and the mind state and what anxiety means in that space. How something as simple as breathwork and relaxing the body goes a long way in helping you feel grounded and secure because anxiety means you are not in the moment. Your mind is either living in the past through some triggers that remind you of past trauma or in the future based on possibilities that haven’t happened yet. So it’s always a reminder to kind of stay in the present, and I can only do that through breathwork and meditation. And sometimes, a healthy distraction with talking to friends or doing some work, or being aware that the anxiety is there but not grasping onto it, letting it pass like a storm.
Makes sense. So you mentioned being bullied when you were younger, in school? When did that start?
It wasn’t like people were beating me up or anything. It was just name-calling, ostracism and stuff like that. It got worse in boarding school when I was in secondary school because I was in an all-boys dorm. And it was easier for me to connect with the girls and just be friends with them because they were more emotionally intelligent. So I was always kind of ridiculed for, you know, being a “woman-wrapper”. It’s so wild that these people were just like 17 years old.
It went on for a while and I couldn’t take it anymore. And so my parents took me out boarding school, and to a day school and that wasn’t too bad. Again, I couldn’t really connect with a lot of guys in my year. I had some friends along the way, but I wouldn’t say I had any real friends till I was about 17.
Bruh, teenagers are mean. Is it easier to navigate male friendships as an adult?
Well yeah, 100%. I found that the key to connecting with people is just authenticity and knowing you aren’t going to be for everyone and everyone isn’t going to be for you. So I stopped thinking ‘‘Oh my God, are they going to like me?’ and instead thought: ‘‘Is there any value in this dynamic?’’
I stopped going after people based on some perceived clout or who I thought they were. Also understanding that some people’s energies are just not conducive for me and my mental health. And being okay with that and not trying to denounce people for not being your cup of tea.
I find it easier to show up as my authentic self. The people who subscribe to that stay and people who don’t can exit stage left. There are no hard feelings. I have more guy friends now, even more guy friends that are more ‘hyper-masculine’ than I would have expected. And I cherish those friendships because those guys have sense.
I can’t even begin to imagine how important your tribe is to you.
Growing up, I had a hard time finding people generally because I couldn’t trust them. I didn’t feel secure in those days. Because I thought that if you let your guard down people will be able to find a way to hurt you emotionally and those emotional scars don’t go away with time. So I didn’t really think I would have so many friends. I have so many fulfilling friendships right now. They’re very important to me in the same way that I’m important to them.
I got that confirmation last year when they banded together to give me the biggest surprise of my life. The best, sweetest short film and a love letter to me. I got to feel really validated in that space and in that love, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. Obviously, I didn’t share that on social media because you just have to keep some magic for yourself.
Is there space in your WhatsApp group?
Did you ever have a “man now” moment?
I didn’t have one key moment. I’ve had several over the years and instances where I look back on and I applaud myself showing up for myself for being a brave person. I’ve had to redefine what masculinity means to me so many times. I’ve tweeted about it — that tweet made headlines which I didn’t expect. I’ve had to confront people because of how I’ve been treated in my relationships, and, people don’t tell you how difficult it is to stand up to your friends. But I’ve had to do that numerous times and be like, I’m not going to tolerate this, you know, I’m not going to be someone that’s going to cower away from confrontation because I’m a gentle person. I think placing the ideas of masculinity and femininity side by side and seeing how they can both thrive together if left unabashed and unbridled are where I found my joy — somewhere in the middle
You once said something about using your personal style to navigate your anxiety. How did that come about?
For me, something as simple as putting an outfit together gives me an element of control. It gets me out of my head, and I can channel my more expressive creative side. And that has helped me over the years be like, you know what, you can beat me, but you can’t beat my outfit. I know that is something that is mine and is unique to me. I take great pride in that.
It also helps the way people relate to me because they are like this guy has a level of confidence and I can’t talk to him anyhow.
Inside, I still feel the fear and the anxiety. But when they come to me with a bit more respect, I feel less threatened and I’m able to show up calmer and communicate better. Over time that has become my norm. Even if I feel scared on the inside, people see those physical things, and they relate to me accordingly because they feel I have confidence. And people flock to confidence.
Taking notes furiously.
What’s a thing people expect you to like because you’re a man but you don’t?
For me actually, it’s the reverse because there are things that I like that people don’t expect me to like because of the low level of masculinity that they perceive for me.
Like you wouldn’t expect me to enjoy drinking a big bottle of beer but I love it. You look at me and think ‘‘cocktails and canapes’’ but I am a beer and chicken wings all day.
I’m dead. What do you think is the hardest part of being a man in Nigeria?
I think it’s the fact that a lot of men have not been taught to be expressive or to be emotionally intelligent. So you have a lot of emotionally stunted men who are deeply insecure. And when you possess all these qualities that most men don’t possess, it leads to unwarranted attacks and microaggression because you don’t fit the traditional model of being stoic and probably dead inside. So yeah, it’s the lack of emotional intelligence and the expectation to be everything to everyone but nothing to yourself.