Aaron R. Davis
As you’re reading this today, I’m turning 36 years old. I don’t feel 36. I don’t feel like a grown man, not in the least. I feel like an unprepared kid that somehow got trusted with adult responsibilities, just waiting for someone to realize what a mistake that was.
Lately, I’ve been going through the old family photo album. Haven’t looked at it in years. Maybe in two decades. And it’s been very interesting seeing myself as a baby and as a little boy. God damn it, I was a happy kid. I’m smiling in nearly every picture I see, just enjoying this whole wide world and all of the experiences it had to offer.
But, like a lot of people in life, I can see the point when I stop smiling so much in photos. I can see where my fears start to take over and where a certain, so far incurable sadness sort of takes over my life.
It starts in childhood, as I begin to lose control of my weight. Partially it was the result of a series of prednisone shots that were designed to save me from ear infections. I suffered from a lot of ear infections as a kid, and my parents were faced with the choice of steroids or letting me go partially deaf. I think they made the right choice; I love music too much to contemplate not being able to hear it with perfect clarity. But I’ve never been the same since. I went from wiry kid to fat kid.
Looking at myself now, I can see that I was never really obese. I was overweight, yes, but compared to how I look now, I was practically svelte. But I was convinced I was fat, ugly and horrible because, when I started gaining weight in fourth grade, that was how all of the other kids made me feel. I grew up feeling worthless, internalizing their judgments of me, and came out of it all genuinely believing that I was not a person who deserved to be happy, or who could ever expect to be.
I know we tell our kids not to let these things bother them, not to take it personally, but that’s a load of shit. Kids are so terrified of being different that they’ll turn on the kid who’s more different just to deflect negative attention, even if that negative attention only exists in their fears. And the kid who receives the lion’s share of negative attention is going to internalize it. When something’s repeated enough, at an early enough age, it becomes a part of you. It becomes something you live with for the rest of your life.
To add to the loneliness and worthlessness I felt, my parents got divorced when I was in junior high. In the same few months, my father moved out of the house and my mother, sister and I were forced to move out of the home I felt safe in to a small condo. I moved out of that place 12 years ago, and my mom asks me why I never come to visit. Easy answer: it’s because that place never felt like home to me. Not once. It was a place where I spent my teenage years completely unable to relax. It was small and cramped and people were in my face all the time. I don’t care if I ever see it again. The place I considered home was a place I was forced out of at the age of 13. The place I consider home now is the apartment I share with my wife. I love my mom, but I don’t love where she lives. I’m glad to be gone.
My dad, on the other hand, got remarried soon after the divorce, and that created a second place where I was unable to relax. It was hard to get over the divorce: my mother was so touchy about it — when she first told me about it, I started to cry and she slapped me in the face; an incident she hates that I remember but which I still think of as the moment my ability to be comfortable around my family ended — and my dad wanted to much for me to be okay with his moving on right away that I felt like if I wasn’t I’d end up being some kind of asshole. So I spent most of my teenage years just being angry and quiet and not really caring what happened to me. School was hell, home was hell and my dad’s was hell. I’m still just not that comfortable around either of them. When everyone was “moving on” from the divorce, there were a lot of times when I tried to talk to either of my parents, and they would start talking to other people, completely unaware that I was trying to speak to them. Now they both ask me why I never call.
I don’t feel welcome anywhere. I looked on Facebook today and saw my dad and his second family are having fun in California, yet again, and I feel like maybe I’m just part of a family that he didn’t want to go on trips with. It’s why I really only care about being with my wife and having fun with her. I don’t care about being ambitious or having a career, because I never figured out where I was trying to go when I was a kid. I know we’re all supposed to grow up and move on and get over the hurts of the past. And it’s not like I sit around crying about how people were mean to me in school. But looking back at 36 years, I really realize that I’ve only scratched the surface of why I’ve been so unhappy and afraid and unengaged in the world for so long. It’s a feeling that’s become so normal for me that I’m surprised to sit back and suddenly realize that I’m 36 and I’m not still 22. It’s been like a blur.
And I don’t mean to give you the impression that I’ve never been happy. On the contrary, I’m very happy and in love and I enjoy my life. But since coming off antidepressants, I can see just how static it’s all been and how the moments when I am engaged by the world have been truly exciting for me.
I don’t know what the answer is. I’m unemployed and I can’t afford therapy. I know the line of demarcation, the two big events I’m trying so hard to get over, but which changed my life so much: getting fat and my parents getting divorced. I just don’t know how to undo the damage they caused me. It’s been so long that I can’t find the right string to unravel.
I’m a little scared of turning 36 and not having much to show for it, in that way that “normal” people are “supposed” to have something to show for being this far into adulthood. But a friend of mine told me tonight “Don’t worry; you’ll still be the same person you are now.” It made me feel good. It made me feel like there’s still an anchor inside me that’s who I am; something that will never change in a good way.
I’ll still be the same. But when I turn 37, I’d like to be the same, but also better.
That seems like something I can do, right?
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.