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THE ROAD TO MENTAL WELLNESS Jonathan Arenburg
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To my mom, dad and my sister: from the beginning, you
were the ever-present lights that guided me through my life… Love you!
Monster Precursor for Illness
“What they didn’t understand, is that behaviour always happens for a reason and that reason. What is
the acting-out behaviour really telling us?”
It’s difficult to say when my dance with the mental illness devil began. I think back to being around four years old, when I had this thing about holding the doors
open for people. It was almost like a contest with myself to see how much I could do it and how helpful I could be. “I will, I will!” But now I’m wondering if I was opening the door to something terrible, dark and unseen, something that would almost destroy my life – and certainly change it forever.
And it was invisible. I’m sure that had I been able to see it, I would have slammed the door shut, even at four years old. If it had claws, a long scaly tail, terrible teeth, angry eyes, mouth breathing stinking fire…yes, I like to think that even at that tender age, my instinct would have been to stop it coming in.
Jump forward a few years. Since I was the age of seven or eight, I could feel this presence dancing around in my highly-sensitive head, moulding me slowly by hijacking my thoughts and altering the way I experienced the world. I am convinced that this is the reason I believed in the boogieman. He didn’t reside under my bed but instead, he took up real estate in the recesses of my mind.
My naive perception of the world started to crumble at the age of five, when I first walked into my local
kindergarten class sporting a navy-blue backpack with bright red trim and rocking a pair of Converse Fast Break sneakers, the best of the 1980s.
If I had any love for school at all, it ended on that very first day when my teacher gently explained to me: “No, John. You must leave your book-bag in this cubby, the one with your name on it.” What? It was a stained and lacquered thing I hated.
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That was when I had my Snoopy-like meltdown, head thrown back, tears springing from my eyes. “No, no, no!” I can picture it now, sun streaming through the window, making it even harder to see. That kind of grief, upset and protest came out in childhood more through tears. I didn’t know how to do it in any other way.
It would be a long road I travelled on, before I knew – much later – what it was like to be the young man who smashed his fists into rock-hard cinder-block walls and solidly-constructed fire doors. That’s what mental illness can be like, and that’s what much of this story is about, the whole journey to getting there
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And beyond such physical memories, I know what it’s like for others to want to dump me, to offload their “problem,” me, on to another school. True, it was a transfer, though I did switch schools for high school.
And then it would be another path from there, to becoming a firefighter. I would see things no human should see, travelling on a narrow road with flames all around me and death facing me each time I went out. Time and again. The potential of death, destruction, buildings raging and then smouldering ruins. Charred remains, and not only of buildings. Can you imagine how that kind of thing eventually would force a face-to-face meeting with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)? It would add itself to the problem that came out in much earlier years and would make it just that much more potent.
Along the way, I became successful at managing my mental illness. So, I thought. In fact, I was so convinced I had defeated my demons, that I stopped going to counselling. I would suffer the consequences. Why didn’t I see the disaster that was slowly unfolding inside of me? Maybe because I didn’t want to believe it?
Mental illness walked alongside me, constantly conjuring up worst-case scenarios in my ear. I was able to put distance between myself and my severe anxiety, so that the anxious voice was a dim holler way off in the distance. That voice had so little power that I stopped paying attention. A colossal mistake, and one I would pay for.
However, this is also a story of relative success and comeback. The ride we are going on is one that in the end leads also to face-to-face meeting with survival, helping others, and helping myself.
My overt sensitivity turned me into a grade-school tuning fork. I felt every little shift in the moods of entire groups of people if the room was thick with stress or the air was made still by sadness. It made me feel as though I was in some sort of mentally-made boxing ring and the vibes from the environment were its blows to the face. I felt it all and felt it intensely, no matter where I went.
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Being as young as I was, I had no idea why I was blessed or cursed with this sensitivity. In my naivety, I simply thought this was the way everyone experienced the world. “Just the way it is.” Not so. I would later learn that certain people are predisposed to being more sensitive than others and don’t just mosey through the world around them but feel it as they go. A fact I wish I was armed with in my youth. Perhaps I would have somehow been better able to handle what I was experiencing, not only externally but internally. My life at home was not immune to my finely tuned wiring. It’s as though someone threw a train into motion and then snapped off the brake switch, with this highly-sensitive disposition never shut off.
This reverberating force that dominated and shaped who I was becoming was like a double-edged sword. At the time I didn’t know its impact on my personality and my mental health, but it was the foundation for who I was then and would become over the course of my lifetime. This disorder would keep intruding, as it’s known to, and insert itself into my daily living, leaving controversy and hardship strewn along my life’s path like leaves gone bad.
The wonderful thing about this highly-sensitive personality trait is that – as I have found – it produces huge amounts of empathy for others. Because I had absolutely no idea that this trait was even a thing growing up, I didn’t question where this empathic sensor came from. It simply picked up on others’ pain and I instinctively knew that people were in emotional distress.
“You are hurting, you need something,” I would mumble to myself, directed at them. I might not always have been sure of what it was they needed but I felt compelled to ask. Some were understandably reluctant, so I would always offer up “I’m here if you ever need someone to listen.”
In a kind of superhero sense, a warm sympathetic feeling would wash over me and cause me to gravitate towards those suffering. It was almost like the “hero’s cloak,” used for good.
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For as long as I can remember I have reached out to help others and have always loved it. Even if this may sound – yeah – too self-admiring, I believe that this compassionate aspect of who I was has made me into the person I am today: caring, in a professional and personal sense. And being in tune with others on an emotional level was a likely driver for my tendency to take things hard.
It would take me years, but I would come to understand that “My God – sensitivity and mental illness are like fire and gasoline.” They made any pain I felt much more
intense, and because they were constantly being mixed together, the two would engulf me on a near-constant basis. I believe that this behavioural “wiring” propelled me to love more authentically. As far back as I can remember, I “got” the importance of family. It may be a function of this wiring, but it may also have to do with my mother having a large family, possibly both. I have many fond memories of being at my grandparents’ Christmas get-togethers. It was wall-to-wall relatives, shouting and laughing over top of one another, every room full of cigarette smoke and goodies of all shapes and sizes arranged as though a professional caterer had nothing better to do on Christmas Eve. “Get over here for your dessert!” We sang Christmas carols and played cards by the fire. “Who’s up for making a card house and a good round of Rummy?”
We kids would run and go so hard all night, our ears burning. We were so hot and tired, but we always went the distance and stayed awake for the entire time. It was the most magical time of my life. And once we arrived home, I felt the magic of our four-person family. There was a warmth running through me making me feel as though no harm could ever come to us, or the world for that matter. I have always wanted this feeling as an adult but alas, it has never materialized like it did on those beautiful family focused Christmases and other family gatherings.
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Looking back on my early childhood, I recall I was always told “John, you have a big heart.” This seemingly good-hearted nature I was gifted with amplified those warm and wonderful moments with family, and for that I will always be grateful. My momma always said I was “Such a sweet little boy, always doing for others.” Often, she would say, even to this day, “When you were little, you were always smiling and always so happy.”
As far back as I can remember, I was holding open doors and smiling at the people who walked through them. I found joy in the warm smiles and polite greetings I
received in return. I treasure what seems to be a built-in compassion option that comes with this life package I was given. But as with all great things, there is a rotten consequence for possessing such abilities.
As I grew into these presumably inherited traits, I began to feel the sting of being a sensitive, compassionate and easy-going child. It’s true what they say, ignorance is bliss. When you’re four or five years old, the world as you know it is near perfect – well, except for the meltdowns from pure exhaustion and the occasional “No!” from Mom or Dad when you’re asking for a toy. Other than that, my early years were pretty much Utopian.
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This was the first day I can recall feeling the darker side of sensitivity. Upon learning that I would be separated from the backpack that I loved (because it made me feel like a big kid), I had that meltdown. Like Snoopy when devastated over any number of things, I threw my head back and the tears started flowing. I felt a deep sense of sadness, a sadness that lingered perhaps longer than it should have. If I recall correctly, despite the chaos running through me, the teacher got her way.
The Emergence of Sadness
My naive perception of the world started to crumble at the age of five, when I first walked into that local kindergarten class, my feet securely in those hip 1980s sneakers, my back embraced by that navy-blue backpack with bright red trim.
Before I set off on my new adventure that was “big school,” there was a series of things that took place in my young life that may have started the mudslide of depression. This would manifest itself in or about grade three or four. Being too young, in preschool days, to understand the complexities of being overly sensitive, I still got the harsh realities of life. It would turn out or seem to
me that from the day of my birth, my life was fraught with challenges.
First, my emergence into this world was a turbulent and precarious one. Born in an Ontario hospital in the mid 1970s, I greeted doctors with two legs black and blue, and was unresponsive. As the story goes, I was whisked away and three minutes later, my sister made her way into the world, both healthy and vocal.
Fortunately, the medical teams were able to successfully revive me, and as a result I was granted an amazing gift, life. My sister and I were born a month premature and, in a time, when medicine was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is today.
Although I have no personal recollection of my experience, I still feel a huge sense of gratitude as a result of it. Looking back on the odds that I would survive is remarkable to me. This story of how I was first introduced into the world helps ground me in troubled times. Locked deep within the neural pathways of my brain (as a therapist might say), there it lies. I think that this is why I have been able to “feel” when I recall it. It’s a powerful force, that produces real, genuine gratitude for being granted an opportunity to live.
Perhaps my early years are what drive me to find the key to a cure for my troubled mind today. Could it be my brush with death has a role to play in the disintegration of my mental health? The scientific part of me often wonders what an impact my turbulent entrance into the world had on me. What impact did my emergence into the world have, deprived of oxygen as I was? I may never know the answer, but it will always be a nagging question.
After living in an incubator for the best part of three months, and one surgery later, I had a procedure to remove the toes – except for the big one – on my right foot. Somehow the surgeons thought this might clear up the black and blue that ran the entire length of my baby legs.
The decision came down to amputating my toes or both of my legs. Fortunately, the left leg showed signs of improvement, the discolouration slowly faded, and the pink hue of newborn skin started to dominate.
From this revelation, they elected to take the toes, a decision that changed my little life forever. The significant impact of potentially losing my legs has never been lost on me – who knows what path my life would have taken had this become my reality? This fateful decision is another reason I will always appreciate the gift of life and always fight to keep it.
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With six toes in total and both legs the colour mother nature intended them to be, I was sent home to finally be reunited with my mother and sister. My biological father, noticeably missing from the story, was not involved in our lives. A guitar-playing band member with long brown hair and riddled with anxiety himself, he had met my mother at a bar he played at. A man with another family. My mother realized that this was a scenario she didn’t want for us. It wasn’t as though he didn’t want to be involved. There were simply too many dynamics in play to allow for it.
Eleven months after my sister and I were born, we found ourselves on a plane and touching down in my mother’s home province of Nova Scotia. I suppose my mother felt this was the best thing for us all, to create distance between us and the potential hardships that would have come out of staying. Now, as an adult, I believe it was the best decision she could have made. And it would influence what became my life’s journey.
And the Sadness Continues…
Only a few years later, when we were three, my sister fell ill and was hospitalized for a long period of time. My mom, on her own, had tons of stressful things on her plate: a very sick little gal, a young lad whose needs – emotional, physical and otherwise – had to be met, and on top of that,
she was unsupported by family with the exception of her father. He supported her in secret because he knew it would open a Pandora’s box of trouble had any of his ten other children found out.
There seemed to be a streak of resentment through my mom’s family at the time, a disdain for one another. Maybe it was the size of the family or how family issues were managed over its history. Whatever the case, there was a huge rift, one the remaining members would attempt to fix in their later years.
My mother was a woman whose passion and wisdom were so intense that she took zero garbage from anyone. Her expressive nature, although mostly proved to indicate the true and accurate, turned her into the black sheep of the family. The pain she felt on a daily basis was way more than I could ever bear. How lonely and isolating that must have been for her, to not only be abandoned by her family, but to be a constant source of bullying and ridicule from those who were supposed to love and support her. All that controversy, with a toddler in the hospital with an uncertain future! Unimaginable. She would later tell me, “I have no idea how I got through those days. But I did.”
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I, on the other hand – and oblivious to the constant bombardment of my mother’s family battles and her challenges as a single mom scraping by – was in heaven. The entire time my sister was in hospital I spent every waking moment with my mom, even tagging along to her workplace. She worked in an office as a receptionist/bookkeeper. I did whatever toddlers do when they are stuck within the confines of their mother’s workplace. What I can remember is playing out in the yard there from time to time.
“I’m here, Mom is here,” I would sing to myself as I enjoyed the yard and its patches of mud.
I can’t recall much more about this period of time, memories lost to the years like accumulating sands over an
ancient ruin. This whole period of my life seems eroded by the passage of time and as a result, not much of it remains in my head. Still, it left an indelible mark on the rest of my life’s journey.
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Being so young, both my sister and I could not possibly have understood the complexities of what was taking place. Nor could we ever hope to comprehend the pain and sacrifice our mother was making. All I knew was that my little sister, younger by three minutes, was in hospital, that it was serious, and that this little brunette-haired girl had to go it alone. Why? Because Mom’s support system was so sparse that there was just no way she could stay by her strong little girl’s side as much as she wanted to. I can’t imagine the pain in both the hearts of my beautiful, kindhearted twin sister and my very strong and wonderfully independent mother.
Thankful to say, and much to the relief of my mother, my sister made a full recovery and came home to be reunited with her family. I’m sure she was happy to be home and no longer suffering in her sadness over being left in a dimly-lit hospital room with the faint smell of disinfectant in the air and only thin bed sheets to keep her warm throughout the night. Being left alone in that bland and sterile environment affected her. Being as young as she was, her only response was that of anger. “I hate you!” she would say to Mom. “I don’t want to be here. I want to go home!”
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Finally, it was a family of three back together again and a little bleached-blond-haired boy happy to see his sister. “Yay! Love you!” We attempted to move on with our lives and put this very uncertain time behind us. But for me, this happiness would fade quickly when I realized I would have to split my mother’s time with my sister. You may think I was acting spoiled and selfish, and maybe that’s what it looked like, but as a child of that age, I did not have much understanding of the whole scenario.
As time moved on and life settled into normality, I felt increasingly sad and lonely. “Help me,” I would say – but I had no idea who could. I was still that loving little kid with a big heart, but somehow, some way, that toddler-sized heart had been damaged in ways it would take years for me to understand.
As I look back on it now, I can feel how the intensity that comes with my sensitive nature amplified this lonely and sad feeling, to the degree that it latched on to me. I have been its host, its means of survival, ever since. I now know that this sadness and loneliness manifested into depression and anxiety. To this day, it’s unclear to me why those feelings of abandonment had such an impact. In some senses it seems so disproportionate. Regardless, the feelings of abandonment would be a theme that kept playing, like a stuck piece of equipment, throughout my life.
Only a few years later, my stepfather would walk into our lives and change it forever. It was a moment in my life I will always be grateful for, but it would further divide my time with my mother. It was sort of like “Hello, Dad. Goodbye, Mom.” It’s clear that this further dissection of Mom’s time had an impact on my feeling of loneliness, and it was overshadowed by the fact I now had a dad.
The Manifestation of Mental Illness.
In the adventure that was school, as far as I recall it, the first few years of my public education were unremarkable. But I am certain the feelings of loneliness were boiling just under the surface of this grade-schoolboy’s young smile. Maybe it was my insatiable desire for exploration and play that kept it all in check. Like many children of the eighties, I was obsessed with Transformers. They occupied a lot of space in my head. As a result, I would allow my imagination to take over. They were my world at times – yet there was another world trying to claim me.
I recall the main struggle starting to show itself around grade four when I encountered my first undesirable teacher. A wiry little lady with an early version of Harry Potter-like glasses and the floaty, flowered fashion sense of the nineteen-sixties, she had a hurried-ness about her, and seemingly was always on a mission.
My grade-four year started off with a book-bag full of school supplies and uncertainty. I recall the classroom well. Sprawled across the floor was a purple industrial rug, wooden-paned windows from the early years of the 20th century, and a small man-door in the back. I took a seat in the back at one of the many round tables, and there I remained for the year. I don’t know why I chose the back. I do remember feeling “safer” although at the time I’m not sure what I was afraid of. I can say now that it was likely anxiety trickling to the surface. Or maybe it was the empathic sensor warning me of the energy present in the room.
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By the time I landed in this woman’s classroom, I was struggling to grasp the concept of math, and failed to see any real use for a lot of the material being taught. I would toss my homework away on the walk home from school –
“Who needs it?” I’d say to myself – and make what I thought was a convincing argument that I had lost it. I soon learned that this scheme to get out of homework was no good. The teacher quickly caught on.
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I felt, even then, that these two factors made up her mind that I was a write-off, and to be de-prioritized. I felt picked on. No, that’s an understatement. It left me feeling as though the very scalp of my identity had been yanked off. She seemed to take a kind of sour glee in seeing me squirm. Whatever her motivation, the feelings of loneliness and sadness stirred within me with each passing day, till finally sadness just overtook me. But rather then expressing it to the outside world as what I was feeling – sadness – it
exploded out of me, as anger. Hated that teacher, hated life, hated myself.
It boiled and bubbled to the surface at full speed, and I was too young and not skilled enough to understand why I was so angry. My emotions took possession of my heart, and my mouth engaged long before my brain. I developed a hair-trigger temper, and it ruled me to the degree that by halfway through the year I was blowing up on a regular basis.
But why? What was it about this year that finally caused the volcano that was my long-pressurized sadness to finally let go? Honestly, I believe I was depressed and lonely for far too long. And this shrill voiced, seemingly stressed teacher was, well, just mean and scary, and ensured that the table I chose at the beginning of the year, the one in the back, was where I stayed. I guess my young heart could no longer stand the lonely, marginalized realm of being alone…I guess it was just too much.
Sometimes I wonder if the flames of my anger were fuelled by a familiar feeling I experienced back in the days when my sister came home from the hospital. Sadness seemed always to be the common denominator.
This temper, fed by a deep sense of isolation cultivated by this teacher, grew in its ferocity, like that of a monster in a movie, a gargantuan-sized beast, whom I have always imagined was as black as it was huge. A beast that seemed to stand at my side, always weighing me down with dread and fear.
It seemed to grow off the life force of others and as a result, it became almost unstoppable. Before the year’s end, my internal struggle escalated to the degree of physical outburst. Because of this escalation, my poor ten-year-old fists began to crash into walls and other inanimate objects as my mental pain became too much for its container. When I was filled to the brim, it was as if the unidentified
turmoil housed within my child-sized vessel cried out “I gotta be released!”
By the time I had reached this crossroad, I had felt the sting of loneliness for most of my young life. But it wasn’t only the turmoil at school that triggered my feelings of abandonment. My home life generally was met with the sound of silence at the door when I got home. “Hello?” I would say. “Hello?” There was just silence, even an echo.
My mother and father were the hardest-working people I have ever known. Dad, a country man raised on fishing and hunting, spent the majority of his time plugging away at his one true love – his work. A truly gifted carpenter, he was gone day and night, home just long enough to eat, sleep and make his lunch in the morning.
My mother, having two jobs for what seemed to be the better part of our lives, was home only long enough to make supper, then off again to help her father in his exceptionally large vegetable garden, or help him mow or paint. “Busy, John!” she would say to my mouth full of food as I tried to talk. She spent her working days as a sharp-as-a-tack bookkeeper for two companies and when the weekend rolled around, it was more painting, mowing and cleaning, this time at our place. The family times that I had craved all those years were few and far between and, well, it affected me greatly. “Mom…Dad…” I wanted to say. “Can’t we do something together?”
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Now, though, I don’t blame them for their long absences, and see they were very much a product of their time. They believed that working hard to provide for their family was the most important thing they could do for us. I admire them for that and will always be grateful for their hard, honest work that put clothes on my back and food on the table. I treasure them, as a lifelong gift.
When I reflect on this period of my life, I realize now that the darker forces that consumed me as a child likely were that of depression. My folks were only doing what
they believed to be the best way to live and to raise their children. “Can we go to a restaurant and eat?” This was met with “No, we are too busy.”
Every now and then, I would ask my dad, “Can we throw the baseball around?” It happened once and I don’t think he enjoyed it. Although we were spending time together, his mind was still focused on his work. It never happened again.
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I can literally count on one hand the amount of times we had done “dad and the lad” activities. One that sticks out is when we went fishing together when I was nine. We went to a local river. I was not interested but wanted to spend time with him, so I gladly went. It all went downhill when he realized that my nine-year-old legs couldn’t jump across to the other side. His solution? To grab my arm and fling me across the rapidly running water. The force of his throw was successful – however, I landed on my face. That was enough for me to say, “Never again.”
In spite of their wonderful efforts, my pre-programmed sensitivity was at work. It came right out to intensify the sad, the lonely and the sense of abandonment. What I needed – some closeness – was the opposite of what I got. I see now that no one, not even me, knew to the degree that that was true. But like a well-watered plant, depression slowly took root and grew, slow and steady.
My First Encounter with Therapy
Just before I hit middle school, my behaviours were so awful and problematic that both my parents and my teachers were at a loss. The only times I experienced a reprieve from the plague that was helplessness was when I remember thinking to myself “I can’t wait to get home and play the Nintendo N64.” The imaginary world of Super Mario and Zelda give my brain a much-needed rest. It was because there was so much happening in their worlds, that imaginary world that became such a refuge for me.
My parents advocated for me. My mother’s ferocious wisdom and her lion-like ability to stand her ground for not only herself, but also for her troubled son, ended up with her being able to recognize that this escalation was in need of some serious intervention. How many times did I hear her say, “That’s it! That’s it! We’ve got to do something. With you and with those teachers! They’ll have to deal with me, John – me.”
This resulted in many meetings with the school, ultimately ending up with an appointment to see someone at Mental Health. I can’t recall if my preteen self-opposed the idea of therapy or not. But I do know I felt grateful that my parents were able to try and understand what lay at the centre of my rage. “It’s all right, John – you’re going to be all right. There’s something there we’re trying to cope with, just like you are.”
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What actually happened during those sessions has been overwritten several times since I was a kid, leaving little to no memories of the actual sessions themselves. But I will never forget the gentle professional who helped me find answers. A tall, soft-spoken man from Egypt, he had a constant soothing tone of voice that was a refreshing break from all the noise and chaos of my life and the environment I was forced to trudge to every day for much of my life. Even just the way he said my name, “Jonathan,” seemed to give me a shot of total relaxation, and all the tension seemed to melt away.
It didn’t take long for his peaceful disposition to win me over, and as a result, it wasn’t long before I earned his respect. He also said, “We have a rapport, John, and I want to help you uncover the source of your increase in these so
called undesirable behaviours.” What I do remember from our many sessions of exploration was, as I said to him, these ever-present and often overpowering “feelings of sadness and abandonment.”
His uncanny ability to keep me at ease and feel safe was to me his superpower. He really was like a gentle superhero – and like any young boy, I’d grown up on tales and shows of caped crusaders. It could be that these feelings helped get me to a place where I began to understand why these acting-out behaviours arose. And both my family and I knew that deep within me there was this deep psychological wound that, even today, bleeds into my everyday life and runs over my opportunities to be happy.
When I think about the impact my parents have had on my life, I see their decision to put me in therapy was what you might call a defining moment. And it was something that would reverberate throughout my life. This moment was such a pinnacle. Its impact was, like the man who saved me, amazing.
Perception isn’t Always Reality
“I was drowning. That’s what it seems. I was struggling furiously while people looked on.”
knew how to get the attention of people, even if I didn’t do it on purpose. Developing a temper and taking it out on the walls of the school got me noticed by the
principal, the teachers – and the rest of junior-high. Around grade five, I developed a reputation that must have mirrored what everyone was observing. I was a “Bad Kid,” one to avoid. And as a result, my isolation got worse, and my feelings of sadness and loneliness grew.
These episodes of anger, when they wore off, left me feeling ashamed and remorseful. It’s like I would say to myself, “Are you in there?” looking for that other kid, that kind-hearted boy who came out, apologizing, and ready for the consequences. Such anger, such pain. I can remember hating this anger that was so deep-seeded, so ingrained into who I was that I had mistaken this pain for who I was as a person.
And the “kind, caring child – are you in there?” That kid who I had always been, gave in to this hatred. What does that mean? That my authentic self was a prisoner. It took on my identity, and I learned to really detest myself.
All my years through middle school I was a loner, in part because of what everyone around me saw. I can’t blame them for keeping a distance. Violence in any form is scary, especially for children.
There was one classmate, a fair-haired guy, who became my friend. Together, we stuck to ourselves. We had a lot of things in common, our love for transformers being the biggest. These toys, these robots that could “transform” into vehicles and other objects had such a hold on us. “Autobot! Decepticon!” we’d yell out, depending on which side we were on. And maybe it was something that really appealed to me because it showed something could change suddenly, become so different.
Many of my childhood memories were forged at his house, a large century home with pink wooden siding on its exterior and a widow’s peak – a railed rooftop platform – towering above the rest of the house. We would play in his room or large back yard for hours and hours. “I don’t want to go home,” I’d often say. There we were, getting lost in our collective imaginations the whole time. “Let’s build! Let’s go to war!” And as I soon felt, everything we were building was like a relief-valve. That cork had been stopping up years of pent-up pain.
“Thanks, buddy. Thanks for always being there for me,” I say years later. I will always be grateful to him. My friend – one of the few things that made school bearable – helped provide a healthy outlet from the turmoil inside and gave me an opportunity to have something of a normal childhood. He just accepted and embraced me for who I was, and as a result our friendship flourished like one of those hardy many-leafed plants. I often think about where I would have ended up without this incredible bond. As an old TV song goes,” Thank you for being a friend.” Even though we were just kids, I can recall telling him that.
The only other outlet I had was getting lost within the active imagination of my own mind. When I was young, I spent most of my childhood at my grandparents.’ They owned a huge property home. “Hi, hi, hi!” I would yell out. I was just giddy to be there. It was like my own personal
fantasy amusement world. “This is Disneyland,” I would say to myself, not caring who heard it. “My Disneyland.” The farmhouse was such a reassuring black-and-orange structure on the landscape. It had so many bedrooms every visit was a new adventure. The dilapidated old barn with worn wooden shingles, large sliding doors and metal roof, all less than two-hundred feet from the house, was like an echo chamber, and an amazing adventure every time I ran free in it. Some of the most fun I ever had was when I got lost in a singular play from its rock and dirt-floored basement to its old hay lofts.
But still, there was something going on in my brain I didn’t know how to handle. All I knew was that I was angry. I obviously didn’t have what the experts might call “skill sets,” or any proper guidance. I always blamed other things – external forces, which I could even picture as some space-age thing – for my behaviors. “Here it comes, invading from outer space!” Where I seemed to exist much of the time was some weird landscape that might even have reassuring structures – like my grandparents’ home – but way off in the distance.
I obviously didn’t know what this inner pain really was. But I picture when I had candy, or was playing with sand or something, and watching it disappear – out of my grasp and falling into some black hole. My slipping through the cracks as a child has had a domino effect that is still in motion today.
Their Minds Were Made Up
I knew what they, the educational professionals with their make-believe psychologists’ hats, were saying about me. “Yes…his problem behaviors are a direct result of some sort of learning disability.”
What was it, exactly? I did have a proper learning assessment, where the evaluator said I was “a very bright child,” but that I had some logistical things to overcome.
My handwriting was one of them. My penmanship has always been a mess, chicken scratch, scribbles, illegible, you name it. Despite these results, they entered me into what they called a “general program, a program for those who can’t keep pace with academic learning.”
I can only figure their decision to downgrade my education was based on, partly, the echoes of my anger traveling down the narrow hallway of my small-town junior-high school.
I didn’t understand what made the anger burn red-hot in me, but it was enough to make me feel like I was drowning in a sea of helplessness and frustration. So when the teachers and administration had concluded that I had “some sort of intellectual impairment” and my behaviors were a direct result, this stirred it up and took my suffering to a whole new level. How does a single student take on a system that was, by design, a teacher-student power imbalance?
I was drowning. That’s what it seems. I was struggling furiously while people looked on, thinking and saying, “Just a kid being silly.” They simply neglected to see or just didn’t understand the seriousness of my situation. But I didn’t understand it myself. What I really needed was their help – but didn’t know how to say that.
A General Separation
For me, the title “General Education Program” will always hit me with a big punch of hurt. Why? It meant to me their wrongful assessment and failure to see what was really producing my behaviours. It seems almost obscene that they could not. ” How can you not see it? Are you blind? Stupid?” And all it did was make my anger escalate. They isolated me from the rest of the class, shoved me in the back of the classroom and told me to “keep quiet” while they “teach the other children.” I tried to look insolent, like a rebel who didn’t care. I was churning inside. There were
some teachers then who only made things worse. My grade-eight year was met with a tall slim woman, near retirement, who had a very low tolerance for what she perceived as disobedience. So, when we were introduced to one another, it went south very fast. Right from the first day my skinny early-teen body walked through her classroom door it was war. I think she thought I would somehow bend to her will and that my bad-ass self would soon be whipped into shape. “Don’t think you’re going to get away with anything – not while you’re under my thumb.” Under. Yup, deep south. By that time, I may not have been able to crawl back up even if I’d wanted to.
She obviously didn’t know that the entire time I was at odds with her, it wasn’t being done purposefully. Under the hood I was a kind and compassionate young man, or so I thought. “All I want is for you to treat me like the rest of the kids!” I wanted to scream. But this dark force that was left undetected for so long, had command of, not only my heart and mind, but also over any abilities to perform academically. I couldn’t fulfill what I was there for, and she couldn’t reach it. It was a dark kind of standoff, with no comprehension on either side.
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Forced into a program I knew wasn’t for me, it served only to take my darkness and turn it ink-black. There was clearly more going on inside of me than met their eye, yet I was powerless to tell them. The lower form of education and the assumption that I was stupid? “I have no control, no control I can show!” I’d whisper to myself, hyper
ventilating. If a heart could be felt to break, that’s what I felt.” Yeah, I know you’ve washed your hands of me!” I’d sputter. I felt my stomach twisting, my breath caught, my hands shaking. Their decision to give up on me reinforced the again-and-again feeling of abandonment. Just a kid, trying to figure it all out on my own.
There I was, off in a back corner staring at a three ringed binder and trying to nurse a completely broken
spirit. “I must be stupid,” I began thinking. “That’s how they all see me to be, stupid and someone who can’t make anything of themselves. They’re adults and know more.” As time went on, I began to see the separation from my classmates materialize. I began to understand that my violent and vocal pleas for help had placed me in a box. If there had been disconnect before, that I was already struggling to come to terms with, this made it much bigger. It just grew, like some science-fiction blob. Next to it, my young preteen self-kept shrinking, and totally solo…
Imagine what it feels like to be placed on the outside by your classmates. Many of us have been there, but to be isolated by the teachers too? I went to school day after day and was told “Just sit there, I don’t have time for you.” This kind of statement often was followed up by the ever
popular line “Go to the office.” It was like a broken record, and they kept spinning it. Soon, it got so that I didn’t have to lose my temper. They reacted to what they thought would come next. “Can’t blame you for that,” I say now. “But if you’d only even acted like it mattered, like I mattered. maybe we wouldn’t have had all those stand offs.”
In their eyes, like those of my fourth-grade teacher, I was a write-off. As a result, whatever was wreaking havoc inside my head just became one with me, before I graduated from the coldest place I had ever known. But only two years before my departure, it was during that time they were doing them damnedest to ship me, dumb me off, “offload their problem” on to another school.
“That would have been okay,” I’d say to myself. “But it was a school for the intellectually-impaired. I would not have fit in there. Mom and Dad – you knew it, and so did I.” This is what assumption can do to your life.
But I had a very strong-willed mother advocating for me and who prevented the move. That prevented my union
with my depressive-like symptoms from being a total disaster.
So, what is the Damage?
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When I stop to evaluate my years at this school, all I can think about is how wrong they got it. They just didn’t know and didn’t have the time or desire to explore it. My entire young life was defined by the observations of people who I needed to help me. Instead, they shoved me in a corner, labeled me a slow learner and gave me the distinction of the school’s problem child. This may not have been their goal but solving behavioral-related issues just wasn’t on the radar in those days. And yet the damage was done. Its reverberation has been a kind of lifelong companion I don’t want but maybe don’t know how to live without. It’s just part of me.
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The biggest lesson I learned from my years in school was that I wasn’t worth the time or the effort. I was useless. This feeling echoed in my head, like when yelling in the vast country. The sentence, “You’ll never amount to anything!” was like this awful anthem over everything else.
Because of my parents, I left my junior-high school on my terms. For all those years, I was hardly ever granted the power to choose – but now I had it. So, when the day came when we officially graduated, I walked up to the principal – who I have no memory of – and accepted my diploma. After the handshake and the “Good luck next year,” I walked past him and ripped the neatly-rolled piece of paper in half. I can still remember the sound that thick paper made as it tore.
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