[ Content Warning: This therapy diary entry references bullying and suicidal ideation. ]
Once upon a time, many years ago, a boy was born. In most ways, this was entirely unremarkable. Boys are born all the time, and the boy’s family wasn’t unusual. It was a large family, but families were larger back then than they tend to be now.
I was that boy.
Some bad things happened to me, but I understand that bad things tend to happen to people, then as well as now. My parents didn’t know how to help me understand that bad things happen to people.
Back when I was growing up, very few people understood how to help with these things.
My dad thought that if you just acted tough, you’d be okay. He called this ‘being a man.’ The idea seemed to be that if you acted as if bad things didn’t hurt you, then the bad things couldn’t hurt you. On the other hand, if they did hurt you, it didn’t matter if you pretended it didn’t matter.
My mom seemed to think that if you got the house clean and put plenty of good food on the table every day, things would be okay. Anyway, that’s what I’m guessing. She didn’t talk to me about how she felt, either. My mom and dad grew up that way, so it makes sense that they thought that way.
When I was very young, one of my older brothers tried to paddle a little boat out onto a pond. He fell out of the boat and he died.
My mom was very sad, but she didn’t show it. My dad was very sad, but he didn’t show it.
My mom blamed my dad for building the boat that my brother paddled out onto the pond.
I was only four years old, and didn’t know where my brother had gone, and I was very sad, too.
When I was a bit older, I went to school, and because I seemed different from most of the kids, some of boys were cruel to me.
My dad loved me, but he didn’t know how to help me deal with bullies. He would probably just have fought with the other boys until they stopped being cruel to him. Or something. More likely, no one would have thought to bully him. He wasn’t the kind of person who tended to be a target.
My mom made me promise to never fight with other kids at school, but she never told me how to get the cruel kids to stop being cruel (I’m not sure anyone really knows how to do this), so I was very frustrated and frightened at school.
I also cried when I was angry and frustrated (still do, sometimes), which made the cruel boys act even worse toward me. Bullies love it when you cry. I think that it gives them permission to be awful. I wonder, sometimes, if they’re terrified of being discovered as being frightened, or being caught crying, and so when they see people doing that, they try to eliminate this reminder of their own weakness (if weakness it is).
My dad told me to ignore the cruel boys, which was my first lesson in shutting down when things get bad. I learned that lesson very well. You could even say that I was an expert in shutting down.
My dad was very old fashioned, and thought that being tough was one of the most important things in the world.
My mom was very vain, and thought that being smart was one of the most important things in the world. She liked people to think of her as being talented and smart, and wanted her kids to reflect well on her, so we had to be seen as talented and smart as well.
Because I loved my parents, I tried very hard to do what they wanted. I tried to act tough, and I tried to act smart. I was rather stuck, though, because I wasn’t as tough or as smart as my parents wanted me to be.
Years went by, and I got older and grew tall, but inside I always felt very small.
I was very lonely, and I have recently realized that I often tried to make friends with people the same way that I tried to get my parents to love me. That is, I tried to figure out what people wanted from me, or how I thought they wanted me to be, and I tried to do or be what they wanted.
After a long time, I started to forget who I was, because I was trying so hard to be someone else.
I didn’t realize it, but I was hurt on the inside. My thinking was tangled. Imagine if you wore glasses that were broken, but you didn’t know they were broken. The world you would see through those lenses wouldn’t be very close to the way the world actually is. That’s how my mind is.
Especially when I was younger, I sometimes hurt other people. I wasn’t always as nice a man as I’d like to think I am. Sometimes I would get very angry about things that weren’t important, like when I was stuck in traffic. I didn’t make good decisions about what sorts of people I hung around with. I hurt people I loved by doing things that felt good in the moment but were wrong. I wasn’t very wise.
As I got older, I gradually stopped making so many bad decisions. Partly it was because I didn’t want to hurt people, and partly it was because I didn’t like people I loved being angry with me, and partly it was because people stopped wanting to be around me because I wasn’t always very nice. However, I didn’t really learn to think better. Mostly, I stopped talking with people. I stopped trying to be friends with people. This made me even lonelier, but by now, I was used to being lonely, and I didn’t think I deserved to feel better.
In fact, I didn’t realize that it had been a long time since I had felt okay.
One year, my wife got sick, and I thought that she might die. I tried to do everything I could to help my wife get better. I went to the hospital every day, for weeks and weeks. I brought my wife flowers, and I comforted her when she was very afraid and very confused.
I thought that I was doing a good job taking care of my wife (and, really, I probably was), but I wasn’t doing as good a job taking care of myself. A kind person who I talked with had an idea that I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was. She finally got me to go to see a therapist to talk about everything that was going on.
The person I went to talk with turned out to be a very, very nice woman named Cyrene.
Cyrene knew a lot about helping people with tangled thoughts. She knew a lot about helping people who are hurt on the inside.
Cyrene helped me understand how being hurt long ago broke me a bit inside. She helped me start untangling my thoughts, something like the way that you might carefully untangle a ball of yarn that a kitten has played with. She even showed me how some of my thoughts were not helpful in my life. She showed me that unhelpful thoughts aren’t actually bad thoughts. You can have unhelpful thoughts without being a bad person.
I recently discovered that there are times that I am not sure I belong here on earth. I always felt as if I had to prove to the world that I had a place here. I thought that I had to do something every day to pay for my space here. There were even times when I thought I might be better off dead. When Cyrene asked me about that, I felt as if someone hit me. It was very strange, but I’ve found in therapy that I can often tell when I’m getting near tough subjects when I suddenly have trouble breathing or my shoulders hunch up. Sometimes my body knows more than my mind does.
Cyrene and I have talked nearly every week. Gradually, I have started to relax inside. It was like I have been gripping the world tightly and now I am letting my grip loosen. It’s very hard to hold on tight all of the time, but when it’s all you know, it’s hard to let go, too.
When you’re very young, it’s easy to get confused and think that everything that is wrong is somehow your fault. Cyrene helped me see that not everything was my fault. I often felt shame and guilt for the times I hadn’t been a good person.
When I do something wrong, it’s important to know that and to let other people know that. It’s called ‘being a responsible adult.’ However, guilt and shame are different from that. They don’t really help guide me to being a better person; they just make me feel bad. Sometimes other people can even use guilt and shame to control me.
A few days ago, nearly a year after Cyrene and I started talking, I was looking out the window one sunny day. A butterfly flew into view and landed on a leaf.
I felt as if static electricity was sparking in my mind. I was shocked into stillness. I realized that the butterfly didn’t have to have anyone’s permission to fly around in the woods or to land on a leaf. The butterfly didn’t have to ask anyone for permission to live in the world. It seemed to me that if a butterfly has a right to live, then so should I.
For the first time, I really started to understand and feel deep inside that it was also okay for me to be alive and not have to ask anyone for permission to be in the world.
I feel grateful to the butterfly. Somehow, I felt as if the butterfly, with a few flicks of its fragile wings, had lifted a huge weight off my mind.