When I was twelve years old, my father left us for seven years. This followed twelve years of continuous, consistent shouting at my mother and occasional physical assault directed at me and my dog. Our nuclear family was completely isolated, and when my father left, flawed as he was, it was just me, my mother and my brother.
In my father’s absence, my mother juggled the role of the nurturer and the disciplinarian, a role she adopted with little success. Her caring nature confounded her attempts at punishment and guilt tortured her. She worked steadily, throughout, leaving me and my brother largely unattended.
The next year, my brother got sick with Crohn’s Disease, before anyone had any idea what that was. He was hospitalized for two years and had two feet of his intestines surgically removed. My mother went to the hospital every day after work. She arrived home after I went to sleep and left before I woke up. For months at a time over a period of two years, I didn’t see a family member.
All this going on, I developed bad habits. I went through a genderbent pre-telling of Freaks and Geeks, changing rails from the honor roll, school paper and debate team to the outcasts smoking cigarettes behind the Burger King, wake and baking weed and joining endless house parties.
I skipped a grade and entered senior year of high school at 15. My nickname became Ferris Bueller. I ditched 77 days my senior year and aced all my tests, negotiating secret deals with my teachers to eliminate homework as a factor in my grades. When it came time to go to college, my parents struck up a co-parenting deal — my wealthy father would pay for my brother, and my mom would pay for me.
My brother went off to UCLA and I went to a state school. There, I took a year off to fall in love with a woman, who, seven years later, would discover she was a lesbian and, on Thanksgiving, announce that she was leaving me for a woman from her work.
I graduated from college just as my father returned from the post-divorce adventures I suppose every absent father goes through, freshly remarried and transformed by yoga and regular meditation practice. He told me he would pay for my living expenses if I got into grad school. I did get into grad school. I got into USC film school, my dream program.
At USC, I attended on work study. I inquired after scholarships only to be told with a condescending, self-satisfied scoff that white men don’t get scholarships in my program. There, I was judged like never before in my life.
The version of me that hadn’t been spiked into the dirt, the honor roll, debate team me, would have succeeded. The me that had crawled up through the mire was looked down on and judged — all the behaviors and attitudes that helped me survive in a lower world worked against me. Nevertheless, I persevered, and I succeeded, graduating on time with perfect grades and an unimaginable amount of student loan debt.
After grad school, at the height of the recession, I was unemployed for 6 months and then contracted the same illness that had affected my brother when we were teens. I went through my own year and a half of unbelievable agony, stress and bureaucracy — except alone, navigating the maze of insurance and pain as an adult with no parents visiting me nightly, kept company only by an ongoing nationwide back-patting about a new Affordable Care Act that made my life ten thousand times harder than it needed to be.
After that ordeal, broke and newly single, I pulled myself out of bed and worked out six hours a day, ate healthier than an Olympian, got a minimum wage job at my dream company hoping to work my way up and then, through cosmic humor and self-destructive tendencies, I suppose, promptly slept with a much more popular coworker who turned out to be engaged.
Of course it wasn’t all bad. I remember all the great times. My friend [redacted] in high school, the high I got when [redacted] the cute Asian girl from my class said yes after I asked her out, watching Amelie for the first time, falling in love for the first time with [redacted], meeting someone who had been through a similar life to mine, traveling to Japan once I could pay my own way, the excitement I felt when I got accepted to my dream school, the pride I felt when I worked my way up from unable to lift my body weight to doing ten pullups at once for the first time.
I’m grateful for my natural strengths. My patience, my kindness, my sensitivity, my love of absorbing thoughts and ideas, my gifts as a conversationalist, my natural musical talent, my wit, my mental acuity, my humor, my grit, my depth. I’m grateful that later in life I was able to appreciate my family as human beings, in spite of their flaws, and gain an understanding of them. I’m grateful I was able to internalize that they love me, in their way. I’m grateful it worked out so far. I got a stable, well-paying desk job that I hate and now I’m just like you.
What these experiences hindered, though, was building lasting and stable friendships. Often in my life I was dealing with very adult challenges, from a young age, and wasn’t able to fit in well or fully relate to my peers. I admit, I had a great deal of jealousy for their normal lives. I always felt ‘other’.
And so, I, alone in the periphery, watched, eager to participate. Full of so much kindness and laughter, so much intelligence and so many passions. So capable of limitless love. I tried to reach out, but, continually I was disappointed. And with disappointment came pain and resentment — but a child grows, and decides to be a man or decides to wallow.
Pain becomes perseverance. Resentment becomes determination. Determination as I look at the bar and fail and try again a thousand times until I’m so sore I can’t move and, eventually, I pull myself up. Perseverance as another person says no, I’ll never be what I want to be, and I try again, regardless, enduring setbacks but never giving up. Both, as the world delivers trial after trial that can’t compete with anything I’ve seen already. Trial becomes fire; fire becomes honesty, integrity and honor. All, in turn, becomes gratitude. Perseverance becomes tattooed on my arm and my character.
Worry not and deliver me no sympathy, because I am not broken and never was. This is not a sad story. This is the story of how I came to care, on a deeper level, and to disregard the unimportant shrieks of ego, topicality and temperamentalism. I am not ashamed of things that happened to me over which I had no control, because I was put in a world to suffocate and I chose to furrow my brows and breathe; and not only to breathe, but breathe fire. My great heart, with its numerous keloid scars, beats louder and brighter than most. It thumps pride and best wishes for you as you savage each other, as you latch onto divisions that set you down the course of disappointment and isolation I’ve felt so many times.
And what I care about is to see a world where people more expertly resist their savage nature and see the forest for the trees — the forest which, with bitter irony, separates love down a winding and dark path, and fear at the first clearing.
Sometimes, only after mistakes have been made, can we grow tired of the comfortable, depressing sepia of the clearing and grant ourselves the drive to trek into the uncomfortable, but imminently more fulfilling unlit path and discover its brilliant color.
Or, at least, that’s what I feel I’ve learned from all this.