Warning: the following post contains no politics, philosophy, current events, or the kind of self restraint that would prevent self indulgent landmark posts. There are also scenes of an adult nature. Seriously, this is a very personal and oversharing post. Read on at risk of boredom and/or disgust.
Aside from my wife, Ornery Americans probably know me better than anyone. Even my brothers and parents hold an image of me that isn’t quite complete. I led a double life for years. Recently I’ve pared it down to about 1.2 lives. I think I’m finally reaching a point where I might have the ability to be an open book, in the main. But I’m not without fear at the prospect.
I’ve had this tendency to deceive, to try to appease the expectations of my parents and their culture, while indulging myself in secret sins, since maybe the 4th grade. At that age it was pretty innocuous. I ran with a kid who used swear words and whose older brother was Bad. And I happily did what I could to fit in with him, without hinting to my parents that I was trying out swear words, smoking weeds (not weed, just weeds) and peeking at a Playboy magazine. Around my family, I was hardly perfect – I was mean to my younger brothers, bitched about chores, and drug my feet when it was time for church. But they had ideas about Nice and Not Nice, when it came to our public faces, and my official family-public persona was that of a Very Good Boy.
As my habit of deceiving my family and my church associates was budding, so was my spectacular skill at not having any social skills. I think I was pretty average, in terms of socializing, up through the 3rd grade. I had my first kiss in 1st grade, and I was actually quite an accomplished flirt at that age (in fact, I’ve barely managed to match my 1st grade flirting skillz as an adult, and only at rare moments). I don’t remember much about the 2nd and 3rd grades, but that includes not remembering any particular awkwardness or difficulty interacting with people. Then came the 4th grade.
An early manifestation of my social impairment came when I, and my naughty friend, decided to tease a girl. She was quite pretty, and I think we were both attracted to her. But what we did was name her “Vicious.” We would call her new name at her during recess until she cried. One time we took her coat and threw it in the mud. (That time we got to talk to the principal.) What I never did was attempt to be friendly, or to even have a conversation with her.
Up to then I think things might have been normal. I was approaching puberty and so experimentation with having an independent life was probably normal, and finding out that girls were different and interesting might cause every boy to try out different ways of interacting – some of which are bound to be wrong. I didn’t have any sisters so girls were actually quite foreign to me. I was to always have a lot of difficulty interacting with females, particularly when some romance was at least a remote possibility.
But I think these were crucial years for me, and something happened which I believe changed things forever. My parents moved me to a different school.
I was getting high scores on standardized tests. And my teachers were detecting that I was bored in class. So they wanted to send me to a “gifted and talented” program at another school. My parents, with the purest of intentions, sent me there for the 5th and 6th grades. And things were always different after that.
Gifted, Talented, and Outcast was more like it. The class consisted partly of high-IQ or talented students, and partly of social outcasts. I think they took all kids who suffered from lots of teasing and sent them to this class. I fit in both categories, because while I was smart and found school easy to the point of being stultifying (at that age), being in a completely new school at the same time that I was developing acne, finding girls ever more fascinating and scary, and becoming unable to speak without squeaking – having all of this in confluence helped me find my niche of near silence and crippling social awkwardness.
This was the age where all the students were starting to “go with” a girl or boy they liked. They would have friends talk to friends to make the offer, so it was hardly sophisticated, but it was still too much for me. I was asked to go with a girl that I actually quite liked (not sure if she was actually aware of this). It was too scary, so I said no. I wanted to go with her, badly, but I didn’t know what to do and I had to decline.
Things were made especially awkward by a class activity we called Student Court. If someone was tardy or had some other minor infraction, they were tried in court in front of the class. If convicted, a punishment was provided. The most common punishment seemed to be forcing the miscreant to “dance” in front of the class, with a partner. This was a swaying slow dance affair, and highly embarrassing. For me, it was more than that – it induced suicidal fantasies. (There was no logic to the fact that the punishee’s dance partner really shared in the punishment.) I was required to dance with the girl whose offer of going-with I had refused. I lit the room with a crimson glow.
Once in 6th grade a practical joke led to another layer of mortar on my identity as Mr. Unsmooth. We were coming in from recess and my classmates tossed me the foursquare ball and asked me to put it away in the storeroom. OK, why not. I went on back there, and tossed the ball in the bin. As I turned around I saw that the girls in the class were all in there, and were desperately trying to cover one of their number. She had been changing clothes for some talent show or something and I had been tricked into walking in on them. I was beyond mortified – sure that I was then seen as a pervert and peeping Tom, I rushed back to my desk and kept my forehead on it for most of the rest of the day. I was unable to make eye contact with anyone. I was filled with shame.
During these years I no longer had a cohort with whom I would experiment with being Bad. I was on my own – at school, then, as well as at home and church, I was a Very Good Boy. Yet I was convinced, somehow, that I was not good. I think part of why I was so easily shamed is because somehow I had developed a secret bad identity. I’m not sure where the ultimate roots of this lie. The way this manifested in those years was stealing the Sears ads and staring at the bra advertisements. I was, for whatever reason, completely preoccupied with this sort of thing. I had no access to actual porn at the time but I took what I could get.
This is getting very long, but I have a lot more to say about Jr. high and high school. Girls remained foreign, and frightening. I remained outwardly proper, and inwardly obsessed. I would try to find time whenever I could to hide away with some form of titillation. On the outside I still had acne (I’ve only recently began to clear up), and a tendency to blush easily and brightly. I had almost no interaction with girls all the way through Jr. High and High School. I had male friends, and with them I was at ease. But boys in different cliques were sometimes nearly as scary as girls, and I was sometimes nearly as tongue tied and incapable of social interaction with them.
A few of the worse memories:
--Being in Foods class and having the overdeveloped jock behind me "gleek" on my neck for a sustained period of time. Being furious, humiliated, and too scared to turn around and tell him to knock it off before I broke his nose. Hearing the girls sitting next to him giggling in embarrassment (at the time, I interpreted it as laughing at my humiliation).
--Walking down the hall, and having girls say hello to me. Pretending I didn’t hear, because I was instantly panicked and unable to figure out how to react. Knowing that my pretense was seen through because I felt the blood in my face lighting up the hallway.
--Being with a band group in which the girls were very flirty and forward, and turning on my heel and practically running away because it was too frightening.
--Working at a grocery store as a bagger and feeling the dynamics of coworkers flirting all around me, and being an island of quiet and exclusion in that (admittedly inappropriate) sea of hormones.
--Being asked to dances by girls, miraculously saying yes, then spending the entire dance not saying anything and sitting out every fast song, face red, desperate for the torture to end. Repeat the island in the sea of flirt metaphor.
--Finally being on a date with a girl (she asked, again) forward enough to hold my hand and flirt with me despite my awkwardness and lack of reciprocation. Feeling a thrill of sexual interaction Lite, and thinking things will be better. Then, the next day, she says hello in the hall and I pull my Deaf and Dumb routine because I haven’t changed after all.
Some of these events still inspire deep shame and embarrassment in me to this day. I can relive embarrassment like it was yesterday, despite barely remembering anything else about my youth.
In the meantime, I think in part because of my isolation and despair when it came to the opposite sex, I became ever more obsessed with sex. I discovered masturbation when I was 15. It was amazing and powerful and I nearly passed out the first time I did it…and I was horrified with myself. I was taught at church and by my parents that it was wrong and dirty and that I must not do it. But I couldn’t help myself. And my compulsion, combined with my shame, constantly eroded any belief that I was capable of being good or worthwhile.
Then I found out that I could see naked women in R-rated videotapes if I just got a hold of them. They weren’t available at home – my parents were quite strict about that – but I found that I could steal them. My obsession led to theft. From my perspective here 15 years later, I can forgive my personal issues. But I do not excuse my crimes. I stole videotapes back then and then watched them furtively at home, fast forwarding, trying to catch some glimpse of something. It was so easy and I was becoming sick enough that I started stealing all kinds of other things. I ended up getting caught three times, twice when I was a minor and I merely had to pay restitution. A third time later when I was about 19 or 20 and I ended up with a misdemeanor theft conviction.
If anyone is reading this, I want to mention that I’m sharing these details because I think I need the exercise of being open about my life. I think if I’m going to completely defeat my tendencies to have a double life, I have to be able to tell people these things even though I’m ashamed. And you could have stopped reading, remember.
So long story short, I fed my “pornography” addiction and obsession with sex, indulged in criminal activity (telling myself that I would pay it back later – and I actually did, eventually, pay restitution for every thing I ever stole, in one of my attempts at repentance). And I went to church, and said the right things, and hid everything from my parents (with a couple of horrifying lapses related to the shoplifting). I was quiet and reserved and a generally good student at school.
Being at church and having that weekly renewal of shame and guilt eventually became too much for me. I tried confessing my sins to the LDS ward bishop. I thought it’d help me stop. What it did, however, was turn my private shame into something yet more awful and difficult, while doing nothing to change my behavior. I wasn’t able to stop (at some level I didn’t want to, I was fulfilling needs that weren’t being otherwise met) and yet now someone knew what kind of person I was. (I thought at the time I was one pretty awful kind of person.) I went through years of confession and promises to try to change, through two different bishops, and never did. I usually confessed to slightly milder variations of my sins, or lied about frequency, trying to minimize my shame.
Eventually, at age 19, I was expected to go on an LDS mission. While my parents knew I was not perfect by any means, they didn’t know the extent of my behavior. They were planning on my going on a mission. This was a heavy expectation – my older brother, and every single male in the extended family (that I knew of) went on missions. My father had done it. All of my grandparents had done it. It was commanded by the prophet. I knew I had to go. And I knew I was miserably unworthy and unfit to go. Despite my inability to change, I started lying to the bishop again so he would think I was OK to go. And I kept telling myself I would change, would stop, would be worthy – tomorrow. I submitted the paperwork. I was called to serve in the Vancouver B.C. mission. I was two weeks away from my departure, when things came to a head.
I had called in sick to work like I did very often, so I could cruise bookstores and video stores or perhaps just go to the movies. This night I was at a movie theater and looking at a magazine I had picked up, sitting in the family car in the theater parking lot. My parents suddenly walked up beside the vehicle. They were looking for me. I freaked out and dropped the magazine on the floor. They furiously told me to get my butt home. They followed me there in the other car. I found out my grandparents were in a car accident and they needed the car I was supposed to have driven to work, and my parents had called and found me absent. They started looking and got lucky and found me quickly. They discovered the magazine I was reading – it was not of the kind an LDS mission-bound boy ought to have had. They started asking a lot of probing questions. And I broke down and told them all about the various things I’d been up to over the past years, and how I was by no means ready or willing to go on a mission. I wept with shame. My mother actually was sympathetic, which surprised me. My father was stoic and simply expressed some disappointment and asked me to figure out what I was going to do. I remember I went outside, and lay on the lawn in the dark, crying and hating myself and wishing things were different. I was out there for hours.
I decided to try to repent again. Come clean with the bishop, get some therapy to try to overcome my habits. Get ready for that mission. I wasn’t able to face then that I didn’t really believe in the church anymore, and I didn’t really have the desire to serve. I had, rather, a desire to live up to the expectations of my parents and the church and almost everyone I knew.
Therapy was a bust. I didn’t stick with it and I would go indulge my old habits when I was supposed to be in session.
Repentance was a joke. I didn’t have a true desire to change, no matter the story I told myself.
I think what seemed like a compulsion was really a manifestation of rebellion – it was my desperate attempt to opt out of something that I didn’t believe in and didn’t make me happy. Yet I was so strongly invested in trying to make my parents happy that I couldn’t face this truth.
I strung this out for a couple more years. I was attending college and failing my classes. I was living at home (after all, I was getting ready to Go On A Mission). I was trying therapy off and on. I was going to the bishop and confessing failure on a regular basis. I was submerged in self hate and conflicting desires. And as this progressed, I found bigger Sins to try out. Strip clubs, hardcore porn, even “escorts” a few times (I was still socially crippled and unable to do anything in the normal way). And when I finally confessed these things to my bishop, he determined that I had to be subjected to official church discipline in front of a council of elders. The session where I described my sins to a group of frowning thirty somethings is something that will burn with infernal flames in my memory forever.
I was “disfellowshipped”. It’s one step short of excommunication. It meant I was not to participate in any church activity except passively. I could attend meetings but not speak in church, and not hold any church office (even something as simple as a building custodian).
That’s when I quit going to church in near despair. And that’s when my life started to get better.
I moved out of my parents house when I finally dropped the pretense that I was going to go on a mission. I got a steady job and kept it because I had to pay my rent. I got a girlfriend within 6 months.
That was almost 10 years ago. Since then I have developed a career, of sorts, gotten married to my 2nd girlfriend, and had three kids. I’ve learned to talk to women without stumbling all over myself – I’d still be hopeless in normal dating situations, but being married I’m immune now – I can treat them like ordinary people instead of alien beings.
Nothing helped me as much as getting myself out of the constant pattern of reinforcement of my shame and inadequacy. The poison in my life was trying to meet a standard I didn't want to meet, but couldn't be honest with myself about, and the narrative that I developed to explain my failure. I was a bad person for many years. Simply pausing that cycle - not even getting to the point where I developed positive cognitive behaviors, but simply stopping - was the best thing I had done in years.
Having to be an adult helped a lot too, but it’s amazing what lowering my expectations for myself did to improve my results.
And my actions have slowly become congruent with my outward self. With my wife I am honest – she knows who I am, what I’ve done in the past, what I think. I’ve managed to stop being so damn compulsive and shamed about my interest in sex – having a willing partner has done wonders in that area. I don’t lie about my life. There are still things I don’t discuss with my parents – like the fact that I drink alcohol, and that I like boobies – because it would make them uncomfortable and I don’t really see the point of that – but I don’t lie about it. And I’ve developed some trust and openness with my mother about my loss of faith that I never had in my younger years.
I’m not where I want to be yet. I’m still socially awkward. I can’t interact with people in social settings without becoming shamed and embarrassed. I realize that it’s all in my head, though, and that it’s something I can overcome, at least in theory. I feel hopeless about it at times because at my age and with the size of the handicap I have at this point, it doesn’t seem realistic that I can get over it – but I’m a hell of a lot more comfortable with myself and my ability to interact with people than I was ten years ago. I still remember awkward or embarrassing situations with something like a punch to the gut, but I also have some memories of making a funny joke, or meeting someone’s gaze and making small talk successfully. Things are better.
I have a lovely, incredibly caring wife. I have three kids who adore me and need me and for whom I think I can do whatever is needed (if they needed me to turn into a smooth talking extrovert, by damn I would try). I have a job where I’ve earned the respect of dozens of people and the friendship of a cherished few.
And I have Ornery, where I can be myself, as much of myself as I can convey online. My wife knows me better, as I mentioned. She gets to observe what makes me smile, shiver, or get annoyed. She eats, drinks, and sleeps with me. No one could know me better. But Ornery is where I say what I think, make my silly jokes, and trust in the good folks ya’ll are to listen and respond and provide a caring arm around my shoulders if I need it.
I put a high value on this place. And on the fact that here I am myself, and allowed to belong. Thank you. If you read this whole damn thing you’re a masochist. Good night.
Read the whole thing. Not in love with pain. Came out from reading unscathed.
Back when I was learning to sound out words, I remember reading the titles on the Discover Magazines that my parents kept in the bathroom. One of the words was "sex." I asked my mother what sex was and she said "that's what it's called when a man puts his ______ into a woman's ______." I asked why anyone would do that and she said "it's how grown-ups make babies, but it also feels good so they do it for fun a lot."
This frankness was typical of my childhood. My mother's side of the family are all freakin' Vulcans (meant in the nicest way).
But my little brother was raised in a similar way, and your post makes me think of him. Somewhere around age 10 he got very awkward around... well, almost everyone, and that hasn't changed much since then. Maybe it will take getting out of the house for him, too.
Posts: 64 | Registered: Apr 2008
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I read it. I think you're too hard on yourself. We've all done things we're not proud of. Other than that, I'm not going to try and give advice, I treat Ornery like a psychiatrist half the time, too, so I know how you feel. At least we have a place to share, and friends to listen.
Great post. We all have our inner demons that we have to confront and handle the best way we know how. I am glad that you have found a loving wife and have kids. They seem to make us be better people. I am glad that you didn't end up going on a mission. You needed to be true to yourself and your feelings. It seems you have found some peace with yourself. I am curious about your current belief in the church. Did you ever believe or was it always just something you did because your family did (I mean going to church, etc.) You don't really sound bitter about your experiences with your bishops. It was more about you not being ready/unable to change.
quote:I am curious about your current belief in the church. Did you ever believe or was it always just something you did because your family did (I mean going to church, etc.)
As a child I believed, in my naive way. Why would my parents lie to me? But this is really just the same thing as going along with it because my family did it. And my dad, a critical thinker he is not. He went along with it because of his family, although he's sincere enough about his beliefs. My mother has lost her faith now.
As an adolescent, it's impossible for me to detangle the experience well enough to know whether I *really* believed in the LDS church or whether I just really wanted to please my parents and fit into the culture that I grew up in. I really didn't know non-LDS folks, and never had any experiences that would allow me to evaluate LDS doctrine and its expression in the people around me with any reasonable perspective.
As an aside, and not to be insulting to people with genuine faith, most of the expressions of belief and divinely revealed knowledge of the truth around me at the time were specious and shallow. It's hard for me to believe now that anything like a majority of the LDS folks I knew had the sort of deep seated faith that I lack(ed). It's just what they have always done, what they are used to. It's not to say that there aren't plenty with more profound faith.
quote:You don't really sound bitter about your experiences with your bishops. It was more about you not being ready/unable to change.
Oh, I'm plenty angry about it. But not at the individuals. I believe they were good men who were given a job within the church that they simply were not, could not be, qualified to do. But they did their best. I also think the church has its share of liars and hypocrites who mete out judgment while hiding their own sins, but I have no particular reason to believe the men I dealt with were among them. (Had I stayed within the church, I probably would have become one.)
And yes, it's more about my inability to conform than any wrongness about the church. I think the church works for a lot of people, and maybe it'll pay off for them when we're all dead. But it didn't work for me. It's as much about my character as anything, but there's the rub: the church promises that it will work for anyone, and I couldn't make it work for me. I exhausted my soul trying. I failed. I choose not to be too hard on myself about it at this point. I think deciding it isn't true is the only reasonable (self-loving) thing for me to do based on my experiences.
Which makes for awkward tension about the subject with my family.
Posts: 6847 | Registered: Mar 2003
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Scifi... It sounds, very much like the rest of us grownups, you slowly learned to be comfortable in your own skin.
Bravo to you - and quit with the agonizing over just being yourself in years past. There's no guilt in just being who we are - within reason, of course inasmuch as what you do doesn't harm others - and if it did, then the first step is to forgive yourself. If it was that bad, then seek those people out. Otherwise, let it go.
If only there were more of us out there who are comfortable in their own skin... The world would by far be not nearly as f'ed up as it is. Most folks who are not okay with themselves take it out on everyone except themselves... And blame everyone else.
Like forbidding masturbation - usually those are people who love to whack off but feel guilty about it so get all high and mighty on the rest of us. IMO, all those can go pound sand while I happily pound my... um, you know, when I feel like it w/o an ounce of shame or guilt.
If the "norm" doesn't feel right, then there's no guilt or shame in making your own way.
Go listen to some Rage Against the Machine next time you feel like beating yourself up - you'll feel better and can redirect all your rage at da man.
[ June 18, 2008, 02:40 PM: Message edited by: Colin JM0397 ]
Posts: 4738 | Registered: Mar 2003
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That was interesting reading, Scifi. Thanks for sharing.
I sympathized with a lot of what you said. I went through a period of depression at 18/19 that really crippled my ability to interact with other human beings, and not only is it painful to look back on, but I hate the thought of those wasted years and opportunities. I guess once we've come out on the other side of that sort of thing, we have to just forgive ourselves. I'm still working on it.
I think I would have some serious sexual hangups if I'd just accepted the attitudes and mores that my mother tried to push on me, which were all pretty negative (I think it was primarily her own lack of enjoyment in sexual activities, but it had a healthy coating of religious justification to it as well).
However, I was told (in Sunday School) that masturbation was perfectly healthy and natural as long, as like anything else, it didn't take the place of God in your life. And during my high school years, my boy-crazy, raging hormones were something that the adults in my life, primarily in the church, were very tolerant of and accepting of. Altough my acting on those hormones (as a teenager) was supposed to be confined to flirting, kissing and holding hands. I think that was an acceptable way to grow up, actually - I experimented with my sexuality within boundaries that I and my guardians were pretty comfortable with (for the most part). I hope I manage to do the same with my hypothetical kids.
The stuff I do with my husband would absolutely scandalize my mother. But I'm pretty sure Jesus doesn't mind.
Posts: 740 | Registered: Nov 2007
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