Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Where Is My Mind?

In 1989, my father came and asked me how I felt about moving to England.

I was 9 years old at the time. I had no idea what "moving to England" really meant. Neither did my Dad really explain it to me because, I guess, he didn't really know what it meant either. Not that it would necessarily have made a difference anyway, since my father's mind was already made up, and (being 9 years old) I would have done anything to please my Dad. Our tendentious relationship hadn't yet started.

When I got to England, I ran into culture-shock, a broader and stricter pedagogy, and (I guess) my first real identity crisis. I didn't fit in. In an all-boys school, I didn't know how to play rugby or cricket, didn't know the football stars, didn't play football (soccer) as well as everyone else, didn't get the cultural references, didn't know the history of the place, didn't know the social tropes... worse still, I didn't know enough of the American things that the boys there thought I should know about: the rules of American football, for example (I could tell you baseball - I liked baseball - but I never learned American football because I never played it). I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land, only I also didn't know all that much about my own land either.

The experience was traumatic. I didn't fit in, but neither did I stick out. I was a blank, a background, an unnoticed entity. My father was at work most of the time, and my mother was busy with my (newborn) baby brother. I had to learn to handle the situation largely on my own.

Simultaneously, I was ill a lot. I had repeated tonsil infections on top of a good deal of allergies. This meant that I also didn't get out much. I had no friends, spent a lot of time at home and by myself, so I turned inward.

I guess this was the beginning of what I now call a "spiritual" life. I made up an imaginary friend, Julius Caesar, to play board-games against. I developed a rich imagination. The times when I was well, I would get on my bike and explore the footpaths in my town and the ones nearby, pretending they were other lands far away. I read a lot. I went to the movies by myself. I learned to cope with being alone, though I was none-the-less intensely lonely. I got by.

When I was 10 or 11, things began to change. I had my tonsils and adenoids removed, and the infections stopped. I was less ill, discovered what the sense of smell was, and put on weight. I began to acculturate. I started hanging out with kids in my class. I found a best-friend. I fleshed out an identity: I wasn't good at most sports, but I could run track. I liked computers. I became a bit nerdy. My grades, which had not been the greatest, began to improve. By the time I was 12, I was thinking about taking my GCSEs, going on in the English curriculum.

Then we moved again. To Minnesota.

There was less discussion, before this second move. My Dad kinda made the decision for the family: it was a good career move for him, and so there was a great deal of pressure on us all to accept the decision. My sister and I, having both learned to fit in finally, wanted to stay on in a boarding school or similar. We were talked out of it and/or given a categorical "no." I was more the former, my sister the latter. After talking with my parents, I thought that I could move, thought I could do it. Maybe it was "hubris," but I thought that if I could move to England and fit in - even if that was difficult - then I could move back to the United States and fit in, even if it was difficult.

Maybe that was the first big mistake of my life, because the transition back to the United States was even more traumatizing than the move to England. You have to remember: I was 12. Puberty had begun. Adolescence was starting. Suddenly social dynamics was everything. Hormones meant that girls were important, and if girls were important then social standing - being as close to "alpha male" as possible - was everything.

God's cruel joke being, of course, that at the same time we all go through this, He gives us growth spurts, acne, vocal changes, dropping testicles, menstruation and the like.

Shy, an outsider, not getting the cultural references (again), not understanding the sports (again) nor being particularly good at them, terrified of girls having gone to an all-boys school in England, having no clue about the (American) Civil War (I could tell you all about the English in detail) or Teapot Dome... I fell to the bottom of the pecking order. I was Omega Male, shunned by all around me.

Like the previous time, I retreated inward a great deal; but something - the hormones, I'm guessing - made the experience much more traumatic. It was... scarier. More lonely. More saddening. More... depressing. My chronic, lifelong fight with depression began around this time.

Then, one day, my 7th grade class was taken out ice-skating. I hadn't ever really been ice-skating before; while everyone around me (who had grown up in MN) whizzed about on the ice, I spent my time falling down consistently.

On the way back for a 7th-grade dance (a novel concept, to me), I sat alone on the bus. I doodled in the condensation on the window - absent-minded doodling. I drew a swastika. Now, I was not, am not, and never will be a fan of Nazism or white-power or the like. I'm a Muslim socialist who does human-rights work and is married to a Jew. Being around right-wingers gives me hives. I drew the swastika without any intent to cause harm. I just drew the damned thing because I was doodling in the condensation.

My cohorts didn't see things that way.

I don't blame them. We were 12 or 13 years old, play-acting at an adulthood that suddenly and for the first time seemed attractive and "good." And part of that adulthood meant not-liking Nazis. I didn't like Nazis either. Indiana Jones fought against them.

So at the dance - a traumatic experience for every 7th-grader anyway, I think - one by one, or sometimes in pairs, my classmates came up to me to register their disapproval of me. "How could you draw that?" "Do you know what that means to me, as a Jewish person?" "What you did was awful." "I can't be friends with you." "The fuck is wrong with you?"

It was my own personal middle-class American version of a Maoist "struggle session," where your friends and neighbors tear you apart, verbally and emotionally.

Coming on the heels of the recent move to the United States, this experience pushed me over the edge. I wasn't just excluded; I was shamed. I wasn't an outsider; I was a pariah. In this adolescent world where social status meant everything, I wasn't the omega male. I wasn't anything.

I took the lesson to heart. I am a bad person. I desperately want acceptance - but I don't trust that anyone will give it to me. More than acceptance, I want to be welcomed, but there is no "welcome" that can ever satisfy me. I am, and always will be, an outsider. I can never be a part of a group. When I become part of a group, I consciously or unconsciously edge my way to its edges; if I can, I try to leave it. I know that, soon, they will not just shun me, they will punish me. It won't be for anything I can prevent; it will be for something I do wrong without knowing it. I am bad by default.

In some moments, when I have fight left in me, it's not my fault. In those moments, it's you: it's your fault. You are cruel. You don't know the whole story, and punish people for things that aren't really their fault. You jump to conclusions, act rashly and irrationally. Here is the original of my do-gooderism. I jump to defend the defenseless, stand up for the victims, the little guys. I see, in them, myself. But it means that you and I are always at odds. It means you have no capacity for compassion, mercy, or good in you; or at least, not enough. And I will never trust you because of that.

I always need to know more than others. Knowledge is power: if I know all the cultural references, then you will never have any "legitimate" reason for ostracizing me. I will fit in, and the only way you exclude me is by disliking me. Of course, I can never fit in - my gut tells me I can't - and since everyone will or does tell me (on some level) that I am less-than, I will tell myself than I am more-than. I am smarter than you are, a better person than you are; and I am worse than you are and I have suffered more than you have. Because I am so vulnerable, I will become arrogant, aloof, a know-it-all. I'm desperate for your approval, needy for you to want to be around me, but I won't let you near me.

Since women (in this adolescent world) hold all the cards, women became my focus. I "need" to be accepted by them; preferably, desired by them. I was obsessed with having a girlfriend. When I had one, I was elated; when I didn't, I was catatonic. When I had one, I was looking for another, better one; when I didn't have one, I was looking for one, any one. At the beginning of a relationship, I was excited: here was potential, here was the possibility of finally being accepted, wanted, welcomed. The more time passed, the more than wore off and the greater the fear of discovery - of being "found out" - became. And so I would begin to preemptively pull away: become cruel first, before cruelty could be meted out upon me.

Meanwhile, that inner life that I had ripened - and rotted - into a spiritual life. God - or nirvana, or THAT - was and still is the ultimate Relief-with-the-capital-R. He is the All-Accepting, the Merciful, the Forgiver, the Compassionate. He is the Power and Strength that I need; if I have Him, then all the rest would fall away.

The problem was - and is - that I recapitulate all the same behaviors I employ towards women in my relationship with Him. The only difference is that He is the Absolute, and they are the relative.

I am compulsive and obsessive about my relationship to Him. I am desperate for any tidbit of information that will give me an "in" with the Almighty, and so I purchase and read spiritual literature like it's going out of style. I make spiritual life into a vastly more complex process than it actually is. As I grow closer to Him, I fear He will find me out, and so I begin to look elsewhere; when that "elsewhere" doesn't pan out (as the relative is wont to do), I drift back to Him.

I became a "God" addict. About 10 years ago, I had a moment of non-dual bliss, a taste of absolute love. I became obsessed with recapturing it with whatever cheap, easy, simple and direct method I could find. It has caused me a great deal of pain, both emotional and physical, and in spite of the consequences I have not stopped grasping after Him, hoping that this time, with this new insight, we can be reunited.

It has been the only really real and lasting relationship with anybody or anything that I have maintained, consistently, throughout my (admittedly brief) life. It has been a sick relationship, undoubtedly unhealthy for me and undoubtedly not of any benefit to Him.

Where I am now is a precipice.

I've seen... well, myself, or my self. I've seen a long-standing pattern of thinking and emotion and behavior, and I've seen how on the one hand it protects me, and on the other hand, it harms me. In a grosser, more obvious, more harmful form it has actually destroyed my life.

But do I get rid of it? Maybe that seems like an obvious question: if it's harming you that much, get rid of it. I don't know, however. The question becomes: if not that, then who? Meaning: if I let go of this set of behaviors, this identity, then who I am? What's left? What becomes of me?

And that's where the fear comes in. Because I have no idea what life without these behaviors - without this identity - would be like. Would it mean giving up my spiritual life? How about my collection of spiritual books? How is it going to affect my relationship with my wife? Any change in one person in a relationship has the potential to seriously destabilize the relationship itself. We just got married - what if this leads to a divorce? What about my relationships with women generally? Wouldn't it just mean being - once again - a stranger in a strange land who doesn't know about his homeland either?

Mostly, though, the fear is silent. It sits just below the surface. If I have something to do, something else to think about, then I don't notice it. The instant I have a quiet moment, though, there it is: a rim of fear around what seems like an entire ocean of loneliness and sadness. Or rather, like the fear is a dam, a barrier, holding back this ocean's worth of sadness. The dam is beginning to crack, and I'm concerned that the ocean will drown me, if the force of that emotion smacking into me like a tsunami doesn't crush me all at once.

Meanwhile, a woman has written me online. It's rather like throwing chum in the water. My mind, prodded by all that fear, went insane: here is a woman expressing an interest in, well, me. So obviously, here is the potential for the acceptance and welcome that I so desperately want.

In my head, a thousand permutations of the possible relationships we might have are being played out. They range from the ridiculous - a polygamous marriage including her and my wife - to the incredibly unlikely - I leave my wife, marry the new girl - to the very unlikely - we have an affair - to the possible though not likely - we become best of friends forever - to the possible - we become close friends - to the likely - we become friends - to the more likely - we become acquaintances - and so on, along with all possible combinations of these and more.

This crazy, fantasizing part of me knows it has been found out. It knows that very soon, it might be "killed off," after a fashion. So it's working overtime to repeat the pattern behavior, just this one last time. Like an addict about to go to rehab, it wants one last hurrah before it has to stop, and it's working furiously to make that happen. Just this one, last time. For old time's sake. Besides: maybe this new girl is the answer. Maybe she'll win out where all the others - and God Himself - have failed.

It's running around like crazy, trying to mortar the dam before it gives out. I'm sitting, leaning back against a tree, watching him. The world is about to end. Israfil is blowing the first blast of the trumpet, the mountains swirl like dust motes in late afternoon sunlight. My center cannot hold and I'm watching it all fall apart.


gniz said...

So what did you do?

Ashiq Chris said...


Girl and I got together to see a movie, nothing happened between us, and I haven't heard from her since.

I started seeing a therapist I don't particularly like, and I'll be switching that up relatively soon, going the gestalt route.

My wife was diagnosed with depression, is getting treatment, seems to be doing and feeling a lot better.

And I'm sitting again, which I really wish I had been doing all along.