I’ve written 3 sprawling, unedited posts since deciding to tell my story publicly — wondering at what point I need to get all into SEO and social media marketing, which is all so unpleasant. How did the world turn into this place where everyone is a brand selling themselves? Anyway, have had a lot of responses here and privately which are encouraging me to keep going. Including one person who remembered playing with me when we were 5 (a time I have no memories of), some old contacts from different chapters of my life that surprised me would be reading, and one person who triggered me a lot by giving the feedback that my story smacks of white, male, upper class privilege. (Really? I thought I was talking about emotional abuse and abandonment and bullying, but I guess I could recast myself as not white or male if that would help.)
The process of writing and sharing is stirring up a ton, and processing that is hard. Going to try to write about the feelings coming up. I also notice how my story gets increasingly less descriptive of what I was thinking or feeling, which may be part defense mechanism and part trying to be objective about very subjective experiences.
I do want to say, on the idea of privilege — yes, I had some things others do not. I was able to attend schools in the suburbs, not war-torn Somalia. And I was able to attend a private school when I could no longer stand being in the public school. I got to go to college. And, I’m sure over the years, I have benefitted from white privilege, male privilege, and American affluence (though I was perpetually poorer than most of the people around me). I take issue with the idea that I’m projecting privilege however, as I have been making an effort to describe as well as I can, *what occurred*. As I keep telling the story I’m going to have to go into some very hard aspects, like describing how I became abusive in adult relationships, or how I used drugs and sex to self-medicate my pain. I do not want to additionally have to respond to claims that I had it easier, or that my suffering matters less because of privilege. I disagree.
A huge theme coming up for me is how alone and peerless I always felt, and in present day how crippling this is. When I say alone I mean emotionally alone. I’ll get more into the word “peer” below. But from literally my earliest memories, my experience of the world was of being completely overwhelmed, and having no outlet or trusted support, anywhere in sight, to help me make sense of what was happening. As I struggled in adulthood, chronology not yet described here, I was constantly feeling overwhelmed by how behind I felt compared to everyone around me. Almost as if I had been asked at age 10 to just go take care of myself and compete in the world, good luck!
The more my life unfolded, the older I got, the more terrified I felt inside, feeling not only like an imposter wearing a mask to try to feel like I was like anyone else, but feeling also that this was not a choice. My survival depended on it. I could not opt out of being in the world, nor was there any “home” to return to for regrouping, for nurturing, for guidance.
I went from teenaged druggie to recurrent college drop-out (finishing reluctantly after 7 years) to adult workaholic. Always rewarded for intelligence, and eventually obsessive drive, while falling down over and over at my inability to find real peers.
When people my age began marrying, having kids, buying homes, and had a few years of career under their belt beyond me, who finished college at 27, the sense I’d had growing up that I’m being bullied and yelled at at home because something is wrong with me, I don’t measure up, was exacerbating. Oddly it didn’t really process for me until my late 20s either that, objectively, my family was in any way unusual. That most people’s parents don’t separate when they are one. That most people have at least some siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, some sort of larger family around them. That most people get to know a group of friends for years in the same town, same schools. I was more focused on being bullied. On the messages telling me there was something wrong with *me*. From every direction.
When I ended up in an asylum at 18, having apparently now been abandoned by my father completely, his job complete since I had graduated high school, and doctors refusing to let me go live with my mother, correctly assessing that she had some screws loose and was not a stable support, AND being told, explicitly, “you will never have peers and do not have a future functioning in adult society…” This was seriously traumatizing. To add insult to injury, some of my “friends” like Flower Man Rod Webber, came to visit me in the hospital and laughed and made fun of me and the other patients, gossiping elsewhere about how Jason’s crazy, is in the loony bin. Thanks friends. There were reasons I had never opened up to anyone I knew about what my home life had been — primarily deep shame. If people are already making fun of you and very clearly showing they did not give a flying fuck how you might feel, why would you say, hey, also my whole family sucks and are bad people! You don’t do that.
I hd a ton of anger in me too. When my mother found a therapist for me in Needham around age 14 or so, he told me after several visits, well, you definitely have a lot of anger. I blew up at him. “Fuck you, I’m not angry! You don’t know anything about me!!” It’s not clear to me when in my story I came to understand what anger *was*. All I heard from him, like everyone else, was “you are the problem.” I desperately wanted anyone to say, “Jason, you are growing up with a dysfunctional single mom. Shitty privileged kids are bullying you for their own insecure reasons. Your dad left because he has some stuff in his past that made him scared to be a father. If I were you, I’d be pretty upset and scared.” No one ever said anything like this.
Hospitalization itself, as I’ve learned from many others over the year is a common experience, was very very very traumatic. Locked in a cage as if you are a criminal, instantly devalued among your own friends as crazy, by association. And contrary to public presumptions, there is not a lot of healing going on in such places. I was on a combined adolescents and psychotics ward (I was the former), as physical renovations caused the hospital to combine populations. I met kids my age who had been at that hospital, inpatient, as many as 5 years — their entire teenage experience. None of them seemed any crazier than most of my friends. They seemed like teenagers. There were schizophrenics who were taunted by the minimum wage, not particularly qualified “mental health workers”. I remember one man in his 20s who referred to himself as “D-A-V-I-D”. He insisted that his name be spelled out, not pronounced. He removed all tags from clothing and did not like any sort of artificial noises like radio or television. So the staff enjoyed taunting him by calling him David until he cried. If you have ever read about the Stanford Prison Experiment, you have some inkling what the dynamics are like in mental hospitals.
I was made the liaison between the patient population and the psychiatric staff, which meant I would be called upon at weekly grand rounds meetings to speak out for patient issues. And speak out I did. I fought with the doctors over various issues. There was the time the patient showers all broke and only had cold water for a week, yet doctor/staff showers (which existed why?) had hot water, but patients were not allowed to use them. Various abuses of power I witnessed, I would call out. Not surprisingly this added to my diagnosis, which at the time was Oppositional Defiance Disorder, with Magical Thinking. I was so doped up I once responded to my doctor asking how I was feeling, “like Jim Morrison.” The hospital is a surreal place.
But I digress. A lot. Was meaning to talk about how I felt, growing up.
I felt shame. Pervasive, relentless shame. I spent tons of time alone, trying to figure out, why does my dad not care about knowing me? Why did he leave? Why is my mother always yelling at me? What did I do wrong that forced us to move over and over? Why do the kids at school hate me and call me a loser?
And then I also felt, suck it up. Put up a front and carry on, because life is not going to get any easier, got to move forwards.
I completely loved drugs. I had gotten drunk 2 or 3 times from age 13 to 15, raiding the liquor cabinet of my house or a friends and drinking until puking. It felt soooo good to just feel positive. [I’m not sure why there existed a liquor cabinet in my house as I’ve pretty much never seen my mother drink in my life.] The second time, with a friend, J___, we ended up roaming the town at night and were intercepted near the high school by a police cruiser. We ran in different directions and I escaped and made my way home, but J__ did not. When I woke up in the morning I tried putting pillows under the blankets where he was supposed to be sleeping as a subterfuge but eventually parents were called; J__ had been held by the cops.
At 16, suicidal for the first time, I decided to finally say yes to drugs, having had some friends who had been doing them. I smoked my first joint hanging out with some seniors in W___’s backyard, and it was a revelation. Everything was calm and serene and funny. JT and I took the Needham seniors shuttle home that day, and I remember looking out the back window and laughing so much, it was like watching a movie! Tried acid for the first time within a week of this, and that was even more of a trip. We were headed into winter break and it was snowing, near white-out conditions. I remember walking with I__ and A__, brothers, through the falling snow and experiencing what we called “strobing”. Time was occurring in discreet instants, a few seconds apart. It actually looked like walking under a strobe light. I loved this ability to completely discard the horrible reality I was used to in exchange for magical funtime land.
That year I became a habitual pot smoker. Did acid 68 times over the following 12 months, and also enjoyed hanging out at High Rock in the woods, drinking beer and smoking weed with what suddenly was a very large group of friends. That everyone I now knew had childhood traumas, alcoholic parents, divorced parents, their own bullying experiences, was not really talked about. I didn’t usually know the details, though in some cases it was pretty clear things were fucked up when visiting their houses. But I liked having these friends, and bonded over drugs, music, movies. Parties. W__ through an annual Octoberfest shindig where it felt like everyone from age 14 to 30 showed up. He’d get a case of every beer on the market, there was pot and coke going around. Good times.
I seem to have a very hard time talking about how I felt, keep falling back into storytelling.
There was something confusing, identity-wise, about being the druggie partying all the time but then going to school and taking advanced classwork, being praised for my work. Hanging out around Harvard with people much older than me. Never around parents. At this point I stayed out of the house as much as I could. I felt simultaneously like I was almost well-rounded in the variety of connections I had, but with a constant underlying fear that I belonged nowhere. I didn’t tell my druggie friends about my academic interests, and didn’t tell my academic friends about my partying. I didn’t tell my parents shit, and they didn’t ask. (Though I recall one time coming home after being MIA for 3 days, still in my mother’s house, and tripping hard, where I made a beeline for the bathroom so she couldn’t see my dilated eyes, and she asked from outside “Where have you been? What have you been doing?” To which I replied, verbatim: “Uh… just the samedest thing as I ever do…” The mirror stared back hard as I tried to determine if what I had just said made any sense.)
I will write more later about drugs. And about guitar and jamming and other adventures in high school. Suffice it to say, when I graduated with honors, got a 1390 on the SATs (taken with an extreme hangover on purpose based on a friend’s not bad advice), and then landed in the mental hospital within a year of graduating, being told I was more or less homeless now… I felt alone. Scared, alone, ashamed, and confused about who am I?
Who am I? If you are reading this (you are) then you may have known me back then, or in college years, or working years. I am not asking you, reader, to tell me who you thought I was. But it’s a testament to how strange my life has been that I get such radically different perspectives from the people I’ve known over the years.
My friend E___ replied that there are 7.4 billion people on Earth, all unique, and all the same. I really agree with that. I felt, all my life, terminally unique. And I’m writing my story in search of the things that make us all the same. I never shared this story over the years, outside of therapists and lovers, who all got some pieces of the story. Some of it I’ve never shared with anyone. I don’t want to feel so terminally unique. But then so many people, often well-meaning, and not knowing the story, have given so many horribly invalidating messages. Trying to minimize, they’ll say oh we all got bullied, or oh everyone’s family is messed up. Some will angrily tell me how they had it worse — sexual and physical abuse, losing parents to death at a young age. People tell me I think too much. Get a dog. Take some meds. Get over it, they’ll say. But meanwhile, as an adult in his 40s, I have collapsed and isolated basically 100% because I don’t feel acceptable anymore, don’t feel like anyone else, don’t know how to have peers.
Oh right so as a final point for this post, I’ll say something about “peers”.
People tend to make friends with peers. They may have many many acquaintances who have had more glancing connections, something in common, but most people, most of the time, develop the tightest bonds, the most lasting connections, with people who have shared experiences with them. When we’re very young, what we have in common may be that we are in the same school. Or we like playing with blocks. We don’t have enough life experience to have much in common with anyone. Our peers are the people are same age. That said, it’s notable that my earliest memory of a friend, C___, was also being raised by a single mom with some mental health issues, also an only child.
As we do have more life experiences, we become more individuated but peers may be the other kids also taking martial arts, or playing soccer, or who are into sci-fi. And we may not notice how are closest friends share family dynamics or socioeconomic realities. Maybe we know a bunch of kids who also go to Catholic school. A peer is not someone who has *everything* in common, but is someone with something in common, some shared experience that gives a common point of reference. Adolescence comes with intense cliques and social groupings, and pretty intense bullying of the weird, other kids. College means suddenly having a huge set of peers who all have in common that they are in college, away from home for the first time. If you don’t go to college, you have peers who are working. By the late 20s, you have peers who have in common that they have also been building support networks of other young adults. Later you make friends with other parents, people in your career. And so on and so on.
I did not feel I was having shared experiences with others. Or not in any good ways. Drugs opened me up to a world of people carrying emotional burdens, and I had that in common. But at every stage of my life, I saw people passing me by. Dating when I was scared shitless of being rejected by girls and later women. Building careers while I flailed around at college. Building families and businesses while I tried to catch up with how to be some semblance of professional.
All against a backdrop of having no real history anywhere. And now and then calling “home” to one or the other of my parents, where I could hear the familiar refrains of invalidation and disinterest.
That feeling has stayed with me even as I have now had the experience of a career. Of marriage. Of adult friendships. Of support groups where everyone shares about how shitty their childhood was, how bad the messages they got from close family, from bullies. There is growth in such connections and experiences, but it’s such a hard cohort from which to form a positive identity.
I intend to keep writing, to get to those adult experiences, and then to the traumas that finally knocked me out of the game and left me standing alone, searching for friends in the ashes. I am 46 years old and am often told, you are so young, you have years ahead of you. I’m trying to examine a life of struggles so that I may move forward, find new peers, rebuild what I’ve lost. I have no surviving family and have not worked since the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April, 2013. I’m divorced and on disability for PTSD and severe major depression. I meet others who are also unable to work, alienated from family, on their own. The vast majority of them believe in the medical model of mental illness, which says that the reason they are where they are is because of mysterious brain cooties and that pills are the answer. The actual longitudinal research says, rather, that people without a stable support system, people with traumas including childhood neglect and abuse, have a hard time assembling a functional life. The psychology researchers and practitioners that I’ve followed over the years believe that most mental illness is about past trauma and that recovery and healing involves working through that trauma so as to be able to find connection, belonging, purpose, and roles. A pill might help someone get out of bed or push through crippling panic attacks, but that is as far as pills go.
Despite feeling lifelong alienation I have known so many people from so many walks of life with so many stories. I’ve known people smarter than me, and many more wiser and more experienced than me. I learned contrary to Dr. Stupid at McLean Hospital, that everyone has genius, within their own experiences and knowledge. And I’ve seen how much wisdom comes from people who have been through all sorts of heinous shit and come out the other side — wisdom that easily surpasses that of the conforming herd who went along to get along. People’s responses to my writing have helped, are helping, as I try to find meaning in it. A meaning where I was not and am not a loser, a burden, a freak, a “bad investment”. Trying to find my tribe, despite an overwhelming feeling they don’t exist.
So thanks for reading.