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Robb’s Last Tape (Take Fifteen)

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We didn’t have much money when we were little. Once, my brother stole money from my mother’s purse and went on a shopping spree that eventually cost us lunch money for almost a week. He bought lots of peanuts for some reason. I distinctly remember watching the other kids at school eat their wafers and chocolate bars while I only had one apple and a watering mouth. I know now that it was the healthier choice, but you know how envious kids can get. When the teacher wanted to know why I had only one apple for lunch, I told her the truth: we were out of money.

To my astonishment today, I didn’t blame my brother for it. At that time, I perceived it as a form of cruelty perpetrated on us by our parents. They must’ve had money stashed away in some hiding place, money they wanted to keep for themselves. We couldn’t be that poor. To my innocent mind, it was the grandmother’s fault because she was the one who took care of the family’s finances. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford that new game console, they just didn’t want us to have it. We had to wear the same jacket two years in a row while the other kids got new ones every year. I wore pants knitted by my mother, which I hated because they felt heavy and made me look bulkier.

People in school were mean for no reason. I was bullied throughout middle-school and high-school, that is, ever since I became aware of the fact that I had an ego that suffered when it was deprecated. Older kids made fun of me because I was chubby and studied a lot. Because I was a geek and spent time making mud pies. Some of my classmates derided my inability to run during physical education classes, which I avoided to the best of my abilities. I even had my parents bribe the family doctor to give me a special dispensation for those classes. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, but my grandparents had convinced me that if I forced myself to do something, such as intense physical activity, something would burst inside me and I would die.

Once, I developed my own alphabet and wrote stuff using that. Kids in school made fun of that as well. I kept a diary and brought it to school every once in a while to draft and develop my thoughts. They stole it from my backpack and read it out loud to the others while I cringed with embarrassment. I had written about my first gay crush, who was an older student and a volleyball player. And for all this, the only explanation I could find at that time was that my classmates were inherently evil and that they hated my guts. So I tried to avoid them, get out of class before the bell rang, spend my weekends alone playing stupid online games. My father’s colleagues from work made jokes about my parents feeding me yeast, which made me look bloated like a balloon. My cousin’s grandma once told me I had the head and the ears of a mule. I was called a sissy by random people, on the street, in school, and everywhere I made an appearance.

Casual acts of verbal and physical cruelty were at the order of the day, to the point where even things such as “you shouldn’t sit outside because it’s cold,” took on the tinge of personal attacks. Why couldn’t they just accept the way I was? When my parents went away, I went to live in the city with an old lady (and a cat) who reprimanded me for my slowness and told me to suck it up and act like a man. These acts happened so often that I came to actually give credence to them and reach the conclusion that there was something inherently wrong with me. I didn’t deserve to have friends because I was so obnoxious. With this, there also came the belief that, eventually, somebody was going to accept me for who I was and save me from myself. The only thing to do, I thought, was to find that person and steer clear of all those haters who told me I wasn’t good enough. They were the ones who needed rehabilitation, not I. I was the innocent one.

Since then, I’ve made peace with it, with them, because the resentment consumed me. It still does, especially when I get rejected by someone and I am reminded once again of my own fallibility. It is in those moments that I begin contemplating the idea that perhaps my bullies were right after all. Maybe I am unlikeable just like they told me. Whenever I feel like I disappointed my students, by making an error or by not explaining a concept in the best possible manner, the feeling returns. Why am I even trying? Am I really that stupid to believe that I could actually do it? Yet, whenever this happens, I do my best to develop new ways of halting the stream of negative thoughts at their nascent stages. And it’s not by looking at myself in the mirror while repeating out loud that I am beautiful, that I deserve to be loved, that I am human and make mistakes. I do it by being frank about my fallibility up front so that people around me can identify my mishaps and perhaps forgive me for them, exercise empathy, nurture affection, or just ignore them.

As you can imagine, it takes a tremendous mental effort to do this, and at times panic settles in, and my body starts sending signals of encroaching danger where there is none. I had a severe episode on a Saturday morning in class when I felt I couldn’t go on teaching and had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom because I was afraid I was going to soil my underwear and pants in front of my students. I was out of breath and felt as if my knees were going to topple and I was going to fall over my desk. My heart was racing, and I was sweating profusely. That day, I taught for six hours in this pitiful state, taking frequent trips to the bathroom because I was drinking water like there was no tomorrow, and to this day I still can’t fathom what kept me going, or what, to my despair, was the thing that triggered it. The fear returns every once in a while, but I’ve learned to live with it, and now it no longer bothers me that much.

A similar episode occurred while I was driving the car with my parents in it, on our way to Romania. Our GPS got lost, and my reaction was way out of proportion. My blood pressure swiftly dropped. I couldn’t focus on the road, and I felt my senses receding to the back of my mind while I was desperately trying to focus on my breath. Luckily, I had not entirely lost my ability to make decisions and told my dad I needed to pull over because I was feeling unwell. The moment I did that, and I took a sip of water, I lost consciousness.

I woke up to a beeping sound, which in fact was only in my head, and to my parents’ dumbfound faces. I exchanged seats with my father, and just minutes later, after I had checked whether we were on the right motorway, I lost consciousness again. When I woke up, we were back on the side of the road, and there was that beeping sound still. Reality came back in chunks. First the sky through the windshield, then my mom and dad’s glassy eyes, their voices asking me whether they should call an ambulance. Then the realness of the situation: I had lost contact with reality a second time that day. My chest felt heavy, and my breath was labored as if no matter how much air I sucked into my lungs it just wasn’t enough. What scared me most, though, was the fact that I had uncovered in me this ability to explore, albeit unknowingly, this dark space that was beyond my control, and which ran dangerously close to death.

That summer, once we got to my grandparents’ place, I did a complete medical check-up. Blood tests came back clean. A cardiologist looked closely at my heart, literally, and concluded, somewhat to my chagrin, there was nothing wrong with it, except for the fact that it was slightly, almost imperceptibly, enlarged. I had hoped they could see my heartbreaks, but there was nothing there. Perhaps heartbreaks only make your heart bigger, able to accommodate even more people. Or more heartbreaks. I checked my blood pressure on a daily basis, and it stayed within the prescribed limits. My body was healthy, and all the tests corroborated that conclusion. The verdict was somewhat underwhelming: it was all in mind. My bullies were gone, only to be replaced by a bullying mind, which waged war on my body on a daily basis.

I tried meditation and mindfulness to dissuade my mind from going into a fully-fledged war with my body. My back ached from all those deep breaths I took. There was an urgency to the attacks which confounded me because I felt as if they went against my nature. I had been, throughout my life, a very calm person, so why was I experiencing them? Then, when all else failed, I tried medicating them. My doctor prescribed benzodiazepines, which I took, on doctor’s orders, one hour before my classes, so that the effects of the pills would be clearly discernible from the thrum of my irrational fears by the time I got to class. I panicked when I got on crowded trains, which was almost always the case, and I got lightheaded when I was about to go on a date. I resorted to the pack of pills, whose presence was somewhat reassuring, even when I was about to go out with my friends. My anxiety subsided the way an earthquake would, and I was able to enjoy life once again. I was back to my good old zen self.

The pills emptied me of whatever negative feelings I had. They slowed me down. Reality washed over me in a constant but calming stream, a rivulet really, and everything felt manageable. Whenever I made a mistake in class, I stopped, corrected myself, and apologized. I couldn’t care less about my slips. Yet, in time, I began being increasingly aware of the fact that the pills deprived me of whatever mechanisms I might have developed to work around my issues. They were not a way to do that, the tablets only numbed my feelings, which was akin to me avoiding my bullies in high-school when I asked my teachers to let me out the class before the bell rang. The solution was always the pill. When I couldn’t sleep because of all that constant worrying and dreading, my hand quickly reached for the pills, boxes of which I kept all over the house. I put one tablet in the pockets of every jacket I had, just in case.

I realized that matters were getting out of hand when I had gone out with a friend of mine, and he kept complaining about the humidity ruining his hair, and I was about to lash out at him and tell him that I was on benzodiazepines because I couldn’t deal with reality and he worried about his fucking hair?! I didn’t do it, but just the thought of wounding his ego in that way helped me understand that the medication was beginning to legitimize a side of me I wasn’t ready to call my own: the one that admitted defeat. The part of me which admitted to being unable to work without the pills’ helping hands. The side of me that had given up on trying to recover the calmness with which I had prided myself in the past. It was only a matter of time until I would resort to that chemical succor even for the most basic human functions, such as going to the supermarket or talking to neighbors.

Now, I don’t mean to say that medication is the easy way out of a time-consuming and challenging problem. When it comes to specific mental health issues medication is vital. That is, it saves lives. It helps people lead wholesome lives and prevents them from identifying fully with their affliction. You’re not your depression. Your anxiety does not define who you are. Yet, I believe it is also essential to realize that, in time, it could lead to a defeatist outlook on life, at least when it comes to anxiety disorders. Where do we draw the line between what we do and what medication makes us do? Does it affect our capacity to make decisions? Can we claim full authorship on a decision made while under medication?

Most of us probably know this, but medication does not go to the source of our problems, it only takes care of the symptoms. It sweeps things under the carpet where we can’t notice them, which can be a good strategy, especially when you have a full-time job, or you have to raise children who do not seem to understand your mood swings. It goes without saying that most people don’t understand mood swings because if they can just stop feeling depressed, then you can do it as well. You just have to be happy, embrace positive thinking, and start singing Bob Marley. It also goes without saying that this kind of advice is likely to make things worse because it implies that if one can do something, then all of us should be able to do it.

Over the past year, while dealing with my anxiety and panic attacks, I have also tried to identify as best as I could moments in my life that have led me to where I am today, but that’s always a difficult task. Most of the times the things you think have left a mark on you are not the source of your problems. It might be something else entirely. The abuse that was not perceived as abuse when it was perpetrated on you. Family issues, an alcoholic father, an opprobrious uncle, or a cousin whose sexual appetites were too developed for his age. It can be any number of things, and there is no right or wrong answer in this equation.

I always return to my bullies, which might be my easy way out. It might be that I’m giving them too much credit where there is little credit to offer, or where there is none. I also keep having the nagging sensation that my lingering on the high-school episode might be merely an obsession I have developed over the years and that it might be high time to just let it go. My bully-narrative does fall in line with the current craze for tales of redeeming à la Oprah Winfrey. We’re all looking, it seems, for a traumatic past that would explain why we are the way we are today, to be able to say that, yes, we’ve suffered, but we’ve managed to overcome that. Just look at how far we’ve come. And perhaps I’m vilifying my bullies the way I belittled my family when I felt like they weren’t giving me the things I wanted. I need them to be evil to justify the damage I seem to be doing to myself or to be able to say that the image I have of myself is beyond recovery because of that.

It’s astonishingly easy to vilify those who hurt us, or those who do things we perceive as hurtful. It’s as if we’re hardwired to do so, trained to expect instant gratification even when the rules of the game do not even mention it or are vague with regards to that. The slightest offense, such as reading a text without replying to it right away, triggers waves of resentment. Not getting a like on Facebook from a specific person is often interpreted as an indication of a friendship turning cold. Each gesture, even the most unconscious, is thus soaked with intentions that are, in most cases, detrimental to our mental wellbeing, deprecating to our egos, disrespectful of our investments, be them emotional or physical. The road from peace to fully-fledged war is a slippery slope.

This summer I met a guy I really liked, and it all seemed to work well between us. We both love books and reading, and so we always had something to talk about, albeit our tastes in literature were diverse. He likes Italo Calvino, while I find him cold and distant at times (though the guy swears that it’s not so). I love Faulkner and other authors he has never read, and probably never will. But that never got in between us. The first time we went out we had drinks at a bar in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and we instantly liked each other. We discussed Camus that time, and in no time we got to touching hands and looking at each other with dreamy eyes. After we had drinks, we bought beers and went to his place and listened to music late into the night. We talked about Virginia Woolf and, of course, we kissed (and…did some other stuff as well; I won’t go into details). Then it was time to go because it was getting late, and he accompanied me downstairs, and we kissed by the main entrance knowing that there were surveillance cameras. We felt rebellious because, I think, we had uncovered something in each other we both liked. I took a rented bike and rushed to the train station all sweaty from the pedaling and the unusually warm night. But I felt happy.

We decided to meet again, and when I went to pick him up from his apartment, I immediately noticed something was off. We had drinks at a different bar, and we grabbed something to eat, and then we took a long walk on the banks of the river Po at night. And we had THE talk. He liked me a lot, but he was unsure about it, because he had felt the same way about his ex, and it was happening all over again, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. He was happy about seeing me, but then he saw me and felt doubt creeping in. I felt humiliated and embarrassed and told him I was going to go because the discussion made me uncomfortable, and it reminded me of other such dates, which had not worked out and they only made me feel bad about myself. Yet, he told me to stay and talk things through. We did discuss things through, and his doubts seemed to recede. My doubts did the same. I have always been of the conviction that whatever issues we might encounter in such cases there was a way out, a compromise that would make things work.

We met, repeatedly, and then he had to go back to the south for the summer holidays. We talked, every day, exchanged ideas about books and writing because he is also a writer in the making. He got jealous when I commented on other guys’ pictures on Facebook, and he told me so. I was happy with that because, finally, there was a guy who likes me the way I am. Then the ominous silences began until I couldn’t take it any longer and demanded an explanation. He told me he changed his mind and gave full swing to his doubts. He was no longer interested in pursuing whatever we had because he never really liked me in the first place. I’m an exciting guy but physically not that attractive, and so he had decided we could stay friends.

I tried crying but couldn’t. Tears never came quickly to me. A friend suggested I took a shower because showers made him cry when the situation required it. I tried writing but couldn’t. I walked around my grandparents’ back garden trying desperately to muster the energy to scream, to be furious, to kick things, punch holes through the walls. I turned the music to full volume hoping that in that way I wouldn’t be able to hear my thoughts. What did I expect? Why had I trusted this guy who was, ultimately, just like everybody else? I should have known better! I tried reading James Baldwin to calm down, but nothing helped. The heaviness in my chest returned, the shortness of breath, the lightheadedness. And all I wanted to do was tell this guy that he was a douchebag. I felt betrayed, sad, and alone, and most of all, I saw my old fears confirmed. My bullies had been right after all.

I didn’t tell the guy any of that stuff. Resorting to negative feelings, I had come to know, was akin to reaching for the pills. A quick way out that would have closed the door behind me forever. And I didn’t want that. Deep down I hoped he would take his words back and we would get back together. So I kept all that resentment to myself. Then, when we met after the summer something was definitely off. He kept squinting at me as if he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. He was overdoing his gestures, he laughed theatrically and somewhat nervously. He was intent on showing me that we had lost whatever spark there was between us. To this day we still exchange texts every once in a while. A couple of days ago he sent me a picture of the cover of a book which had made him think of me, and that makes me happy.

Yet, my initial reaction was to vilify him. I wanted him to sense my resentment and feel sorry for hurting me. I wanted him to feel sorry for himself. And although I thought of him in this way at that time, now I realize that it was only a deviation from how I honestly feel about him. I still experience that warmth in my chest I felt the first day we met when I think of him. He may feel differently about this whole situation, yet I choose to stay true to my feelings. I will most likely never know how he felt. I only hope we worked things out, in the best way, for both of us. Resentment returns, of course, and often when I see him on dating sites, I get jealous and imagine him going out with all those guys. But that feeling is only a feeling that is not mine to have. He made his choices. I made mine.

And that’s that.

I saw his best friend today, on my way to class, and I was reminded of him. The same friend in front of whom he had kissed me once when we met on the street, back when things were still going well, and I was full of hopes, and I couldn’t look at other guys. And a wave of bitterness washed over me. And I took a walk. I often doubt myself, yet I refuse to believe there’s something wrong with me. I’m sure he had his reasons.

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