But, my darling
you being different...
was your strength
The fear that I would cause grave bodily harm to myself is as old as my earliest memories. As a very young child on the train platform, going to see my father for our weekly Saturday visit, I was terrified that I would throw myself in front of the oncoming trains. In the laundry room, that I would drink the stinking viscous bleach. That I would eat the pale green pebbles of rat poison lying under our kitchen sink amongst a jumble of cleaning products. That I would pick up a sharp knife and slash my neck, or poke my eyes out. That I would hurl myself out of any tall window I came into contact with. That I would shove my hand down our neighbors’ fancy new garbage disposal, grinding my arm down up to the elbow, leaving me with nothing but a bloody spurting stump. You get the idea.
From my first sense of self, I knew that I was not like the other children my age. That I was different. But I certainly taught myself to act like them. I was desperate to belong, to be normal. My report cards from that time present a portrait of an engaged creative girl who "played well with others". From first grade on I trained myself to blend in seamlessly. I was very aware of what I was doing. But I knew that I was odd. And I was ashamed about that. There was a cold and terrifying darkness running through me. A powerful, physical urge to self-destruct. The feelings behind that self destructive urge and the anxiety that they caused is what I believe lies under my addictive nature. But who knows really? It could also be those wonderfully complicated Irish genetics. Or maybe just another one of the perverse tricks the universe enjoys playing on our hapless souls. "I know, that one over there, let's make her an alcoholic, and a drug addict too!"
But I hid all these feelings, terrified that someone would find out that I harbored this dark internal world, that I was positively not like other girls my age. “Never let them know” said a voice inside of me. “Never let them know you’re scared. Never let them know you’re confused. Never let them know that you are most likely going crazy."
There I was, acting as if I was a normal, happily adjusted eight year old, yet inside I was a tangle of sleepless nights and 3 a.m. panic attacks that I would endure silently under my blankets with Flobbity-Bobbity, my favorite stuffed animal. “Don't let them know” I would repeat to him and to myself, as I rocked myself into something resembling sleep.
Finally in second grade I could stand it no longer. I told my mother that I needed to see someone. I didn't know the word for therapist but I vividly remember finding my mother in the kitchen one aggressively cold and bright morning before school and telling her that I needed to talk to someone, anyone, about the recurring nightmares I was suffering from. Nightmares that my mother knew about, as some nights I would end up standing silently at her bedside shaking her awake in a state of terror. My mother, seemingly surprised, said "you want to see a therapist?" Yes! That's what it was. I needed to see a therapist. That step at 8 years old may have saved my life. My mother had friends in the psychiatric field back in those days and she found me a wonderful doctor not too far from our house. I saw this therapist weekly for several years and she was a real blessing in my life. Also a blessing is that this all went down in the 70s. I am afraid that if I went to a therapist today at 8 years of age, with my fears of drinking bleach or stabbing myself in the eyes, they would over-medicate me into such a state that I would end up a 600-pound cross-eyed vegetable, drooling my life away in some forlorn institution, out in the middle of nowheresville.
But back to the pre- "just throw some Valium and Ritalin at the problem" 1970s. I was honest with...let's call her Dr. X. Seeing her on Wednesdays at 3:30 became the highlight of my week. Only to her could I pour out my worst thoughts: the bleach, the rat poison, the inability to be in a room with an ax or razor blade for fear of using it on myself or others. No drugs were offered. We just talked and talked and talked. I told her a bit, in an eight year old's language I am sure, about this idea I had. That I was acting normal but deep down there was something very wrong with me. Something evil and sinister. Something suicidal and homicidal at the same time. I was a danger, I felt, to myself, but almost more terrifying I felt I was a danger to others. But Dr X begged to differ. She explained to me, again in the simplest of terms, that all my “scary thoughts” as we dubbed them were just my mind trying to process some very uncomfortable emotions. She tried to make me see that my young mind was unsure of how to deal with these feelings so it was making up scary stories to distract me from the real issues at hand. The real issue being a highly unstable home life. We did art therapy. We played games. And the greatest part of the whole hour were the two pieces of candy she gave me at each session. Candy to me was an unheard of luxurious treat, one not allowed in my house. She convinced me that I was not crazy, that I was not going to end up in a claustrophobic straight jacket, banging my head against the walls, in a padded room at Bellevue psychiatric hospital (my greatest fear during my elementary school years). She told me I was a highly sensitive and creative girl and she taught me tools to help me relax. From her I learned how to watch my thoughts rather than be derailed by them. She also taught me that many people live their lives with that “never let them know” operating system. But that I had been brave to tell my mother that I needed help. That everyone needs help sometimes. Maybe I just needed help a little bit younger than most. She made me feel...if not normal...then at least okay with being who I was. I'll never forget her. And I'll be forever indebted to my mother for listening to me. A therapist bill was an expense we could ill afford at the time and yet, somehow, she made it happen.
Then when I was in high school, Gillette launched an ad campaign for a deodorant with the tagline “Never let them see you sweat” and it became my motto. It wrapped all my behaviors into one neat little aphorism. The campaign featured different celebrities delivering the line and revealing their own personal fears and anxieties. Athletes, comedians, actors and fashion designers. They were all just trying to hide behind a facade of false bravado. But in these commercials they came clean about their innermost fears. I wasn’t alone.
“Never let them see you sweat” is still a major part of my operating system. Recently I have met adults who also had similar violent and disturbing thoughts as children but who never acted out on them. And that helps me too. I feel less freakish. Less alone. Thoughts are not facts, Dr. X taught me, they are thoughts. And with hard work and patience they can be understood, changed, transmuted - possibly even transformed - into something positive.
I have also learned that having these disturbing visions as a child does not mean you will grow up to be a homicidal/suicidal maniac. These thoughts are but a coping mechanism that children in distressing situations often use. I mean if you distract yourself with visions of death and destruction, self-inflicted blindness and your arm being ground down to a spurting stump in your unsuspecting neighbor's disposal then when you snap back into the reality of a somewhat dysfunctional home life, in comparison that life does not seem that bad after all. In fact it seems pretty nice. So this tactic can work well for children. In its own twisted way.
Now I see the wisdom in allowing the right person (or people) to see you sweat. To let them know who you really are, beneath that polished shiny facade. To allow them to see you struggle. Even to let them see you suffer. Now I try to exist with a different motto, one which is quite the opposite of my previous one. “Let them see you sweat” I say. And watch them sweat too. Always keeping in mind that as a human, if I don’t allow myself to sweat a little bit, publicly or privately, the chances that I will overheat, and possibly even die, rise exponentially.