When you grow up with a lot of chaos, tragedy, and trauma “normal” transforms into this two-headed beast that you’re always chasing and running away from at the same time. When I was 22, freshly dropped out of college, depressed, lost, living with my mom and on the precipice of being thrown out to couch surf with friends, I was in training for a seasonal dead-end job and I wrote a note to myself on a piece of paper: “You won’t be here long.” I folded that note up and kept it in my wallet. I kept it for years, transferring it from wallet to wallet and finally just saving it with a trove of other random mementos. That note was my mantra and it meant– and still means– so many things to me. It was reassurance. No matter how bad things are, they won’t last for forever. I would think of it in times of uncertainty and in times of outright misery and it soothed me somehow. It was also a warning. Savor every good thing because change is the only constant. There’s a carpe diem kind of romance in it but there’s also constant fear. I’ve had moments of contentment interrupted by that note. It’s a distillation of anxiety, grief, and helplessness. There’s no agency in that mantra. There’s no choice.
One of my favorite songs is by Wolf Parade — “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” — and this is my favorite line:
Now we’ll say it’s in God’s hands
But God doesn’t always have the god damn plans, does He?
Life chooses for you and in my experience, life doesn’t generally have your best interests in mind.
So, this afternoon I was folding my laundry. About half of my closet is occupied with big bags of clothes I can’t wear anymore. Since I’m roughly an entire adult male lighter than I was a couple of years ago, I’ve had to completely replace everything except for some socks but I haven’t given away, donated, or thrown out hardly any of it. I got to thinking about why. I realized there’s a Venn diagram of reasons for this and as I consciously engaged with those reasons, my head filled up with scattered memories connected by my own peculiar psychological algorithms. I felt a lot of sadness but I also understood something new about myself and that note from a long time ago.
I guess I always start thinking about these things close to my birthday. August is a haunted house for me. My mom’s first big psychotic break happened the morning after my 10th birthday party. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have from back then. (A lot of my memories are Swiss cheese for a few years there). I remember the sun filtered through lousy curtains on the cheap mobile home carpet. I remember she told me that she had to get some help and the neighbors would look in on us and I couldn’t quite make eye contact.
Then, right before I turned 11, I regressed. After the first suicide attempt that I knew about and after a year of emergency room interventions, state hospitals, and what seemed like a Russian Roulette guessing game of psychiatric medications, my mom was home. We were very poor, she was unemployed, and ignoring calls from bill collectors and we lived far enough in the country away from other family or friends that the world felt tiny. I started sleeping in my mom’s bed next to her just about every night.
I was supposed to go to this great summer academic camp at the state college an hour away. My teachers pulled strings to get me in at the last minute because they knew my family was a disaster and I was a smart kid. My elementary school principle was the first counselor I had and he believed in me. Mr. Blue. He was one of the first in a long succession of strangers I would cry in front of. But when the time came to go away to camp– it would have been a week staying in a dorm– I couldn’t go. The idea of being away from home was too much for me to handle. I got next to my mom under an ugly blue and tan comforter that smelled like Merit Lights and I felt trapped. I was next to her then. I was safe. She was safe. But it wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. I felt it with an unshakeable certainty.
You won’t be here long.
My brother and I went to Washington DC that summer to stay with an aunt and uncle that I’d only ever talked to on the phone. I don’t think we’d been there a week before my mom was back in the hospital. I found out relatively recently as an adult that there was another suicide attempt. We had to stay in DC longer than originally planned– all summer, through my birthday– and I was fucking mess. I was fragile and emotional and clingy and it’s taken me a lot of counseling and maturity to have compassion for myself. For the longest time I would think back on my behavior at 10 and 11 and just think “quit your whining.”
Over the years that followed, things evolved and devolved in predictable patterns. My mom got worse. And then my brother. Yadda yadda yadda. Psych wards and methadone clinics in McDonalds and sundry felonies, suicide notes and a whole lot therapy. The full house of dysfunctional hereditary bad decisions. I’ve written all the trauma poetry about it so forgive my nonchalance. I got through most of it with only a weekend stay in the mental health ward at 21 and a lot of overthinking and baggage. Even now I feel a knee-jerk shame for all of it and how it feels when I remember it. There’s this vicious voice in my head: does the little whiny baby want his mommy? Does the sad little fake grown up want his big brother to give him a hug? Does the lonely bastard boy want a daddy? I’m almost 39 years old and I’m pretty sure that voice is never going to go away.
Mostly, I got through all of my childhood and adulthood fat. It’s inaccurate to say trauma caused my obesity because obesity is a super complicated thing (and really, that’s a loaded word anyway) but I definitely sought and found comfort in food. Most people do, I guess. It’s your birthday! Have some cake! Your grandma died 😦 Have some cake! Food is so often the emotional punctuation of our lives. I’ve spent the last couple years not so much denying that but learning new grammar for food. Instead of standing barefoot at night on thin sticky vinyl in the middle of a trailer park permeated with poverty and desperation eating white bread and sliced cheese until my stomach feels like it will burst just so I can feel something better than the alternative, now I have a plum. Again, food and fatness and all of the threads between them are super super super super complicated and I’m being glib here partially because well, gallows humor, and partially because I have written so many other substantive blogs about it. This essay isn’t about food and trauma. That’s just a digression. This essay is about the clothes in my closet.
I don’t know what it’s like for other people that lose a lot of weight. I know that I do a lot of work trying not to obsess about the number on the scale but I kinda do anyway. I have this not-so-secret fear of losing control and “falling off the wagon.” Like, I might suddenly go into a fugue and black out only to wake up having eaten 37 pizzas and 89 deep fried Twinkies and I’ll have gained three hundred pounds and I’ll be live-streamed on Twitter, farting, while people point and call me names. It’s beyond ridiculous for so many reasons. It’s the same fear I have about suddenly losing my mind and ending up a drug addict or schizophrenic. Or losing everything I own and ending up back in that trailer park. In my head, I’m always barely not poor, not crazy, not drunk, not fat. In my head, I’m always barely not alone. The lowest point, the worst thing I can imagine, has a gravity for me. It always has.
You won’t be here long.
So those clothes. Those 2XL shirts and big and tall jeans. Those poncho sized t-shirts and shorts that literally fall off of me without a belt much tighter than the belts in that closet that could wrap around me with a dozen inches to spare. I need them don’t I? Because no matter where I go, I won’t be there long. Elastic snaps me back. Gravity pulls me down. I am a marathon running, happily married, professionally successful man living in a half million dollar house lousy with stone fruit and I am also a 10 year old boy crawled next to a volatile open wound of a childhood every single night, teeth chattering afraid of everything just going away because God doesn’t always have the best god damn plans, does He?
“Quit your whining.”
“You won’t be here long.”
I’m happy. I am so, so happy. And my life is good. It’s really good. I am healthy and I am strong and I laugh and sometimes close to my birthday I think about all the strangers I’ve cried in front of and I know it’s healthy. Sadness is like the itch you feel when a scab is healing.
Something Counselor 3.0 (or maybe 4.0, hard to keep all my mental health professionals separate) told me twenty years ago comes to mind. Life isn’t a straight line. It’s a spiral. You don’t get farther away from the past. You actually get closer. Everything gets closer. Progress isn’t distance. It’s integration. I’m thinking about that right now. I’m thinking about my mom and 10 year old me. I’m thinking about 22 year old me and that note. I’m thinking about all the bad and the good and the rest. I understand a little bit more and understanding is a lot closer to compassion and compassion is a lot closer to acceptance. There have been times– some pretty recently– where I’ve wanted to fight the world. I’ve wanted to swing until my knuckles split and scream until my throat ached. I was just a little kid. Kids cry. And sometimes they get fat. And sometimes moms are sick and dad’s are dead and brothers get lost and it’s not fair and it’s not okay. It makes me angry and it should. If I have kids they won’t have grandparents. They won’t have uncles. That hurts so much. But after that anger and that hurt, in stupid little moments, folding clothes, there’s this memory origami, there’s an epiphany.
So those clothes. Those fucking clothes. Time to take them to Goodwill, right?