Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"What It Was Like"

(This blog is second in a four-part series, "My Story")


I grew up in a religious household. Every Sunday my dad dragged the family to church where we all pretended to be the happy, perfect family we weren't. Alcohol was essentially forbidden in the house and I learned that anyone who drank was an alcoholic and a horrible human being. Drugs weren't mentioned at all, and through that silence I learned to think of them as an unmentionable sin. I also learned to be very judgmental towards people who drank or did drugs.

My family doesn't really talk much. When they do talk, everything said is phrased very carefully in order to avoid offending or upsetting anyone. My parents (mom especially) tried their best to 'protect' me from what they saw as a big, scary world. As a result, I grew up extremely sheltered and naive. My parents didn't have any friends, so it didn't occur to me that it was unusual that I didn't have any either. If I'd had friends, maybe I might have learned earlier that, the way things were in my home, it wasn't like that for everyone.

Technically, I was allowed to spend time with other boys, but none ever knocked on my parents' door asking if I could come out to play. When I got a bicycle, I was only allowed to ride it up and down the street where I lived so that mom could always see where I was. Both my parents worked. When I was five, they enrolled me and my sister in a day care. It wasn't specifically just for girls, but there weren't any other boys there. Years later, I asked my parents what possessed them to think it was okay for me to be in an all-girls day care. They told me, with stunned looks on their faces, that it never occurred to them that there was anything wrong with that. It's not a stretch to say that I learned how to be a girl, not how to be a boy.

My father, even though he was around, was what therapists refer to as "emotionally unavailable". The only involvement he really had in my upbringing was to spank me every once in awhile. The irony is that I was an exceptionally well-behaved child who never got into trouble. When I was punished, it was for doing things that weren't wrong, but that I did because I was a child. I learned that I wasn't allowed to just be a kid. I learned that a father is someone who ignored me, who told me to be quiet, who punished me for being who I am. He would tell me he loved me, but words without action ring hollow, and I was able to tell the difference even if I didn't understand it.

I learned to depend on my mother for the love and support I needed. This wasn't exactly a good thing. Mom worried constantly about every little thing and the less control she had over something, the more she worried about it. She kept me at arm's length, constantly questioning, nagging, and nitpicking. The psycho-babble term for this is "enmeshment". Think of it like codependence on steroids. In my baby books, she wrote that at age two she had 'difficulty making me mind.' I guess no one ever explained to her that two-year-olds are just like that. It was at that early age I learned that the only way I'd receive love was if I was a perfect, good little boy. I learned this lesson well.

If you asked them, I don't doubt my parents would claim that they loved me unconditionally. I knew the truth: I wasn't allowed to be myself. Who I was, just as I was, wasn't good enough. I had to be perfect according to their definition of what that meant. Psychologists call what I experienced as a child emotional abuse--neglect and abandonment. I sometimes wish that I had been physically or sexually abused; it would be a lot easier to get my head around. It would be something tangible for me to grab on to, as opposed to the consistent nothing I did get from my parents which was, after all, normal to me.

One thing Recovery has done for me is I don't blame my parents anymore. They're human beings who did the best they could with the limited tools they had. They've lived most of their lives out of fear. By their example, I also learned to live in fear. I learned to cover everything up with a fake happy smile. I learned that the way to handle life was by pretending everything's wonderful. One of the things that ultimately led me to using was my inability to continue that charade.

School was a terror. You'd never know it to look at me; I perfected the art of acting happy early on, though I do wonder if my teachers ever asked themselves why I broke down in tears so often. I used to think that it just took me a long time to learn not to cry. Now I understand that the loneliness and pain I refused to let myself feel was constantly bubbling over, triggered by and bleeding through with every new hurtful incident. To call me sensitive would be the understatement of the year. As a bright child, I discovered that doing well in school only lead to more bullying, not less. I learned to skate through, that with practically no effort I could do well enough that my teachers never hassled me and the bullies picked on me a bit less. Occasionally, my parents would wonder why I wasn't living up to my potential. My skills at changing who I was for other people were growing by leaps and bounds.

Eventually, that skill progressed to such a degree that it became a matter of pride. I learned to shape myself into whoever I was with wanted me to be. I learned to say what I thought others wanted to hear. I learned to speak words that would cause them to say what I wanted to hear. Conversation became like a game to me, one I thought of myself as being very good at. But it didn't win me friends. No one respected or admired me. Because I had been socialized as a girl, the other boys did what boys do: they tried to turn me into a man by inflicting pain and suffering. Acceptance and inclusion were foreign concepts to me--nothing more than big words in the dictionary.

I endured an utter lack of affirmation for the real me. Any time I showed my true self, I was punished for it. Any time I tried to act from the place of who I really was, my attempts went nowhere. Standing up for myself only made things worse, so I learned not to. I developed what is referred to as "learned helplessness". Consider it a permanent case of the Fuck-It's.

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