Labyrinth 11: Growth

Labyrinth 11: Growth

When I picture myself in childhood, I don’t see a child; I see a tiny adult. It’d be nice to remember childlike trust and playfulness, but I don’t. I was locked in seriousness, and I stayed locked in for too long. These days, I’m beginning to grow beyond it.
At least I came by seriousness honestly. My memories of early life revolve around monitoring others to prevent harm. In toddlerhood, while my mother was still alive, I monitored her moods and tried not to trigger a trip to the psychiatric ward.
She was touchy. Once she had a breakdown because I’d left a cup on a piece of furniture, which caused a water mark. Another time, she returned from a hospitalization with a gift for me. It was a hand-painted wooden jigsaw puzzle that she must have crafted with love. But it was easy to put together, and I grew bored with it almost immediately. She became so distraught, my grandparents drove her straight back to the hospital.
After her suicide, when my sister and I moved in with our dad and his new wife, I learned to monitor my stepmother’s mood in order to anticipate her cruelty and—if possible—grovel enough to derail it. The need for this was dire. The one time my sister and I complained to our father about how she treated us, she came into my room that night, awoke me, then squeezed my neck tight with both hands. She hissed, “I’ll kill you if you say anything again, you little shit!” From then on, strangulation was a go-to punishment whenever she was extra angry or unhappy. I never doubted she was capable of homicide. Monitoring her moods—and molding my behavior to soften them—seemed a small price to pay for survival.
A few year later, at my dad’s insistence, I started monitoring my sister. There was little I could do to protect her, but I tried. She suffered a psychosis in her junior year. At first she just seemed a little wilder than usual. Then she began talking of angels who spoke with her. It scared me when she said they had messages for me, so I didn’t ask what they were saying, despite my curiosity. Talking about angels was a big change for Jan, even with all the LSD she took that year. But I did not tell my dad. More often than not, protecting Jan meant protecting her from his anger, which seldom failed to trigger some self-destructive impulse in her.
My dad soon figured out something was wrong even without me tattling. Jan’s speech and behavior were growing ever more unhinged, to the point he no longer could ignore the problem. As he arranged for a psychiatric bed at UCLA’s neuropsychiatric Institute, he told me to keep an eye on my sister as she sunbathed in the backyard. After hanging up, he came out and saw her staring at the sun. I hadn’t even noticed, but he screamed at me. “You CAN’T let her do that! She’s going to go BLIND!” I felt stricken. First, by fear for my sister’s eyesight. Second, because although he often got furious with Jan, he almost never did with me. At home, I was too compliant a kid for that, and I felt unprepared for his rage.
Life seemed so serious, I lived in a state of high alert. Anxious and stressed, I found it hard to interact comfortably with peers. And because my family didn’t spend time with other families or the local community, I lacked opportunities. Meanwhile, getting relocated annually led me to see relationships as temporary, unreliable, and not very satisfying.
Social interactions confuse me still. Chatting amiably? Kinda hard for me. Interpersonal resonance? That’s difficult. I often feel cut off from others, as if in a fog. As I grope to connect, I tend to be either too revealing or too reserved. Psychiatrists tell me my interpersonal difficulties are partly due to ADHD. The diagnosis helps me understand my social impediments but doesn’t help me overcome them. Though I’ve improved in recent years, I am still learning skills most people master in childhood.
Much of this will sound familiar to those who suffered abuse, loss, or neglect. Much goes missing.
In my case, one missing ingredient was play. Children learn interpersonal skills by playing with others, yet I never got the hang of it. The only part that made sense to me was competing. I liked to win. When instead I lost, I felt shattered. I’d sulk or blow up.
At age seven, in Minnesota, I walked a long ways home through the snow after losing an elimination round in a marbles tournament. When I entered my stepmother’s house earlier than expected, Della didn’t ask what had happened. Of course she didn’t care. She ordered me to go back—not because facing the setback would be good for me, but because she didn’t want me in the house. The humiliation of returning—cold, lonely, defeated, and scared—didn’t teach me to play less seriously.
Another missing ingredient was good modeling. My father lacked interpersonal skills himself (I suspect he had what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome), and his viewpoints were anti-social. He mocked people who conform and obey the law. He prided himself on breaking norms and encouraged me to do the same. I admired his independence, but his recklessness scared me. Though his throwing beer cans at tailgaters has always made for a good story, I felt frightened and embarrassed when it happened.
I followed my dad’s lead unevenly. Often I was defiant. I yelled at teachers, shoplifted, bought and sold drugs, and drove while stoned. But when frightened I grew timid, eager to please. I wasn’t a kid who could sustain the rebel persona. My fear always lurked nearby, and it undermined my boldness.
No doubt my memory is biased. There must have been lighthearted times I’ve forgotten. And, if I’m honest, there are some I remember but don’t dwell upon. Even so, it seems obvious my childhood self was more serious than was healthy.
Thus, prior to the John Muir Trail trek, I was intense and competitive, and I remained so afterward. But I was also unfocused, and my only ambition was to become a pot dealer. I wasn’t seeing life clearly, and I didn’t have the social skills to gain perspective from peers.
I was old in terms of hard knocks but young in terms of emotional development and sense of identify.
With its adventure, exertion, wildness, and fasting, the trek triggered a psycho-spiritual growth spurt. When I returned home, I felt proud of myself. I started paying attention in class and striving for good grades. My competitive spirit kicked in, and I began standing out scholastically. I still felt isolated from my peers, but at least now I was liked by teachers. Because I hung out with stoners, I wasn’t a typical geek, but I began to frame my social unease as a smart kid persona.
All this was largely positive, but it came at a price. The playfulness and adventure of being in the mountains faded as I focused on study and grades. My seriousness deepened. When I got to college, I didn’t live in a dorm or join a fraternity. Instead, I bunked with my girlfriend. I adored her, and our time together did my heart a lot of good. But relying on her for companionship made it easy to avoid connecting with people outside our household, so my social skills remained stunted.
As the years passed, inspired by charismatic friends and mentors, I went through phases of attempting more sociality. I’d attach myself to a group and try to fit in. I’d work to cultivate friendships. But I was morose, insecure, intense, and self-absorbed. My efforts generally ended in disappointment and feelings of rejection.
I’m still serious and fairly isolated, but I’m noticing a shift. For the first time in my life, I have multiple friends. Even better, I’m learning to lighten up, to play a little.
Not long ago I spent a weekend at a “Spirit of Play” retreat. The leaders set up tables of art supplies, and one was stocked with colored play-dough. I made a nest filled with spherical eggs of orange, yellow, and plum. Its base was surrounded by a ring of forest green leaves. On top sat a tiny blue bird, dwarfed by the eggs below.
The nest was inspired by a gift I received from a colleague long ago, when I still worked as a surgeon. It was little glass bird, with a card that read, “The Bluebird of Happiness”. The message was needed, but I wasn’t ready to heed it back then.
I might be ready now. Since the Spirit of Play retreat, I’ve reflected on my priorities. I’m thinking about what went missing long ago. It helps that it coincided with my 65th birthday, meaning I’ve reached official retirement age. I feel inspired to focus less on growing up—studying and producing—and more on growing down, into my original self, beneath all the pain, beneath the defenses. I feel playful roots reaching toward a long-buried childlike joy.
Today I’ve written about seriousness, and in other entries I’ve described harmful choices. It’s easy to feel shame about all this, but I honor the truth that I was the product of an unhappy family and burdened by trauma. My seriousness and poor choices resulted from causes and conditions. I am not to blame for how life sculpted me in childhood. Nor, of course, is anyone.
I also honor the truth that ever since the John Muir Trail, when I see a path toward growth, I step onto it. Sometimes years go by when I don’t see one, but eventually—I’ve discovered—one always appears. And I’ve been good about following it when it does.
Maybe that’s what the JMT gave me above all else: the experience of a new and beautiful trail that took me places I hadn’t imagined. Following one such trail taught me to watch for others.