by isaac black
The healthier I become emotionally, the more I realize how much of my life I was living in emergency mode. I was very high-functioning. But I realize that I was living in a kind of manic state, where a number of defenses kept me from risking the disapproval of others. Commonly, I would use some artistic endeavor to justify my isolation, an attempt to communicate how I was feeling by speaking for how everyone feels, a quixotic effort that embarrasses me now.
And then I would wear myself out and become depressed. It was a cycle that I couldn’t identify, even as in its throes I felt thrashed around and abandoned by God.
Taking God out of the equation helped; it made the cruelty of life feel less personal. Seeing a therapist helped immensely. The first two months during our sessions I could hardly speak for crying. The biggest victory was finally feeling that I deserved a voice. Me, not some ur-narrator. My therapist helped me identify where a lot of things were coming from. She approved compassionate practices for myself and helped me avoid counter-productive, passive aggressive strategies. I’ve continued to learn about myself since discontinuing our sessions.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how my fear of commitment, my anxiety, my tendency to withdraw from relationships, all stem from a fear of inadequacy. Inadequacy ruled my young life. It ruled my 20s, and I’m only recently learning how to validate myself so I don’t seek out validation from romantic partners based on some version of me tailored to fit their tastes.
The fear is so deep that it feels appropriate to say that it comes from trauma. I don’t use that word lightly, and it feels strange to use it to describe my childhood. I was the youngest, the spoiled golden child in my loving, upper middle class Mormon family. I was racked with teen angst and resented my mom for babying me, but, I thought, wasn’t that normal? Even then I felt that I was being dramatic and that I should have been more grateful for what I had.
But the inadequacy was there, intensely, during my teens. High school was when I learned my habit of pining after some idealized crush, only to loathe myself when she rejected me or, heaven forbid, started dating someone else. An implicit rejection. I earnestly believed that X really understood me, that she could take away my loneliness. When she went for someone plainer, someone simpler, it felt personal.
I can’t pinpoint the age when I began to hate myself. The first day of 6th grade when I realized my friends from last year had graduated into a tier of popularity that I hadn’t? Earlier? Sometimes I wonder what memories of my childhood I may have repressed.
I do remember being no older than 7 or 8 and chasing the neighbor kids, friends of mine, off our sidewalk because they were selling lemonade there without paying us rent, swinging a wiffle ball bat at them with tears streaming down my face. It was the unfairness. My mom gave me the idea that they owed us something and didn’t change her tune even after seeing my inexplicable reaction.
The person in this world who I’ve felt the strongest connection to, my ex girlfriend, was the victim of childhood abuse at the hands of her delusional, bipolar mother. We understood each other’s emotions in an intuitive way. She won’t talk to me anymore, but I even understand that. The fact that she had gone through trauma made me try the word in my mouth: abuse.
I don’t believe my parents actively abused me. They both spanked me, though my siblings and I only took my dad’s spankings seriously. He administered spankings at my mom’s request when he came home from work. Not in anger. Afterward he left us alone to cry, coming in five or ten minutes later to give us a hug.
Maybe it was the hug. The hug was for him, not for me. None of it was for me. My feelings at the time probably knew that, even as my parents’ words said otherwise. Maybe that was the beginning of my tamping my feelings down, making room for my parents’ anxiety about being parents.
Maybe it was the time I hid in bed after losing to my brother in Risk, he following me there to continue talking shit. I yelled for my dad, and he stormed into my room to physically kick my brother out. Thinking he had come to save me, I smiled and said thanks as he put his fearsome face in mine and yanked me out of bed to spank me, telling me that he wouldn’t have a sore loser in this family. My brother glared at me through dinner.
I used to joke about that story when recounting it. I can appreciate the comedy of it–a game of Risk can be brutal. I can also see the humor in a boy chasing neighbors off “his property” with a yellow wiffle ball bat. But when my therapist asked if my dad had ever hit me, I told her the story, beginning it light-hearted and ending in tears. Thinking about both stories brings up very dark feelings in me. It’s a disorienting tangle so thick that it makes my throat feel physically constricted. It’s so dangerous that my body, still, chokes itself to keep whatever that feeling is from being expressed. When I talk about my feeling of inadequacy, it’s more than that; it’s a black void where I feel alien, rejected by normal humans for not understanding how they work.
My parents’ mothers both died in their youth. My mom was 7. They kept her and her twin sister in the car at the cemetery when they buried my grandmother. The family thought it would be best for them. My dad thought it would be best for me if he hit me, if he socialized me to be tough. They didn’t know it and still probably don’t, but they also socialized me to keep all my feelings to myself by responding to any emotion with anxious behaviors–my mom prattling on about someone she knows that I don’t know or care about, my dad barraging me with superficial questions and then offering a tidy answer as if he solved the problem. Both put our family to the foreground of their lives in such a way that their failure as parents would devastate them. Again, I don’t know at what age that I learned this, but I grew up removing my feelings from the fraught tension that existed just below the surface of our family dynamic. I will not hit my kids, but I don’t think that’s where my trauma comes from. “Abuse” doesn’t sound as accurate as “neglect.” Precious few of my feelings were validated until adulthood.
My dad was the son of a train engineer, a blue collar job–hard work with little pay. After retiring he sold shoes. He owned a little house and raised three kids, but whatever my grandpa took home from that job wasn’t enough for my dad. My dad became a different kind of engineer. He went to college and chased the highest salary he could by moving to Minnesota with his young bride. And they pinched every penny. My parents are retired now, with something in the ballpark of a million dollars in assets. They’re accruing so much from my dad’s investments that they can’t spend it fast enough, even while going on three or four cruises a year.
My mom was always helping and never accepting help. She’s the one in the neighborhood making casseroles and banana bread for all the neighbors, keeping up with everyone else’s life and never talking about her own. But she would let some complaints slip when her schedule, packed so tight as to never let herself feel anything, would become too much for her. She would demand my help, right that second, and then criticize me for setting the table wrong and redo it.
When I was 25, I was living with them. I had been working an agonizingly boring job for eight months. I couldn’t drag myself into work anymore. I confronted my dad, crying before I even started the conversation, telling him that I was quitting, asking to continue living there rent-free. He wasn’t happy. “You can’t just not work,” he said.
He always wanted to give his family a good life. That’s why he came home stressed and unhappy most nights. That’s why he moved to Minnesota, then Alabama, then South Carolina, not knowing anyone. But after he gave us that good life, he envied us for it. “You can’t just not work.”
I realize that materially I grew up with much more than most. I never starved and I never froze. But that fact was used as one of several cudgels to keep me from expressing myself. These material things were for me, supposedly, but they didn’t come without strings attached.
I became depressed my last year of college. I was going to graduate without finding the person who would make my life make sense, and I had no career plan. Moreover, I had no idea how much I needed to make to get by. $40k? $50k? I needed to save for a house, for retirement, to pay down student debt. In my early twenties I had become more attractive to women and got good grades, and I used those successes to delay thinking about the future. When I had no choice but to face the uncertainty it inspired such feelings of worthlessness that, after accosting God for not caring about me, I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel anything.
Sometime prior to this night I freaked out on my parents. I skipped a family function because I was wracked with anxiety and unable to project the stable false self they expected of me, but I blamed it on being sick. They wouldn’t stop calling to “check up on me,” until I felt so claustrophobic that I returned their call to yell at them for treating me like a child. My dad offered a non-apology: “We were just concerned about you.”
When I would tell my mom I hadn’t asked for what they gave me, I would usually add that all I wanted from them was to be left alone. I wanted independence. I finally achieved it, and there’s something to be said for that. When I found a job that paid me well and that had enough variety to keep me from getting bored, I felt satisfied and settled. My anxiety and depression abated.
During the summer before I quit, I had been working from home once a week. Let’s be honest–I wasn’t doing a lot of work from home. My boss naturally caught on and sent me an email saying as much. I panicked. I thought I was going to be fired. Anytime I sense any displeasure from anyone around me–and I have a very sensitive antenna for it–I internalize it and automatically assume the worst. I am, in my thirties, learning that sometimes when people are mad at me, it’s not my fault. Or that it’s not a big deal.
I tend to default to thinking that I’m going to fail unless I manage to convince myself otherwise. A cloud of embarrassment and regret always hovers just out of my peripheral vision. My anxiety comes from my mind trying to figure out the myriad scenarios in which I will fail and draw the disappointment of everyone around me. I have such a visceral fear of it that my psyche will do almost anything to avoid it–becoming depressed, diving hastily into exciting romantic adventures, overeating, or checking out completely. After the reproach from my boss, I checked out from my job because the thought of feeling inadequate and getting fired terrified me.
But as much as it scares me, I’m very attached to that cloud of inadequacy. It’s been my survival strategy, and letting go of it feels like letting go of a trusty knife. My psyche tells me, when I try to encourage myself, that I’m lying to myself, that failure is more true. I feel vulnerable when I feel good about myself, like any second the cloud of inadequacy is going to fly in and leave me feeling stupid and embarrassed.
In a sense, living off of savings like I’m doing is a perpetuation of using independence as a defense. But it feels therapeutic, when I don’t drop everything to finish a contracting assignment as soon as humanly possible, to remind myself that I don’t need that gig. I am beginning to feel autonomous in these kinds of relationships, to feel like I can assert and negotiate for my needs and well-being, that I can accept or reject things on my own terms.
Being healthy and well-adjusted means depending on other human creatures for, at the very least, understanding how to interpret social cues. I have lacked that understanding for most of my life because of a family environment where my feelings weren’t appreciated, because of my devotion to a church whose only prescription was more church, because of my kneejerk superiority and sarcasm. My therapist, two years ago, was among the first to give me the permission to feel, and I’ve come to learn that I have many friends who will give that to me as well. I’m beginning to let go of the knife.