Aaron R. Davis
Here’s what I wanted to say out on the lake yesterday, but couldn’t.
Thanks for being so cool about having a mentally ill son. I didn’t want to talk about it with my parents for a long time because I wasn’t sure if you would fall into the “mental illness isn’t a real thing” camp. I always expect the worst of people when it comes to how they react to me. So I appreciate you letting me talk about it and asking how I am and trying to understand.
I’ve always been like this, it’s just worse than it’s ever been right now. Well, actually, three years ago it was worse than it’s ever been. I’ve made a lot of progress. I can’t always see it, and I don’t usually give myself credit for it, but it’s true.
You didn’t see a lot of the neglect and abuse that went on at home. Do you know that commercial where the kids are at the kitchen table and giggling because the one kid is blowing bubbles in his chocolate milk and making a mess? The mom on that commercial mystifies me. She just laughs and shakes her head in that “Oh, those boys” kind of way. It’s okay because she uses whatever brand of paper towels. It’s just a mess; messes get cleaned. But that commercial fills me with dread. My mom is not a “messes get cleaned” kind of person. My mom would have screamed at me and probably smacked me right in the head. To this day, whenever I spill something or drop a dish that breaks, it’s a moment of terror that has to be taken care of right away, because I still feel that hot terror that I felt when I was getting screamed at and Mom was taking out her frustration on my face.
I didn’t know it wasn’t a normal way to grow up. I was just a kid. I didn’t know it was going to fundamentally affect me as a human being. I didn’t know it was going to make adult interaction so hard. I didn’t know I was going to grow up with an accelerated panic response to everything I did “wrong.” And by wrong I mean: things Mom would have hit me for doing. It’s why I have such an outsize response whenever I mess something up. It’s easier to stay inside.
This week I turned 38. I don’t feel 38 at all. I feel 22. I missed most of my thirties. I realized recently just how much my sister dying when I was 29 screwed me up. Growing up, I “learned” that I was a worthless, lazy screw-up. That people didn’t like me and that I was disappointing to the people who had to put up with me because they were related to me. I withdrew more and more, in large part because I was scared of everything, but also because I didn’t want to have to over-burden people with the fact of my existence. It always seemed the nicest thing I could do for everyone was to just not demand their attention in any way.
And then my sister died. Not me. I wanted it to be me and not her. She was only 13. No 13 year-old deserves to die. It was traumatic anyway, but the way I internalized it, through my mental illness, was as a challenge to my beliefs about myself. I’m the worthless one. Why is someone else — my sister, my goddaughter — dying instead? And that was the cap on a few years of death in our family. First Grandma in 2000, then my uncle, then three of my aunts and finally her.
I thought how disappointed everyone must be that it wasn’t me. Not that everyone wants me to die, but … well, maybe it wouldn’t have been as sad for everyone if it was me instead of her.
I felt guilty. I felt guilty that I got to live instead of her.
And it locked me up inside. And I’ve never really moved on because I’m so confused about why I get to still be here when I’m totally worthless.
When I was in junior high, there was another kid named Aaron. He suddenly died one weekend from alcohol poisoning. When he died, one classroom accidentally announced that I had died. People applauded. That’s the reaction I expect from people now.
So I’ve spent the last eight years feeling guilty and worthless and scared to move on. I don’t even know what I want to do with my life because I can’t imagine myself being good at anything or liked by anyone. I’m not even a good husband, really, because I’m constantly surprised that anyone would even want to marry me. I love my wife more than any other human being, but I’m constantly assuming that she’d rather not be stuck with me because my schema and my anxiety and my terrible childhood have all convinced me that I’m unlovable and burdensome.
And I might never get through a day without judging myself.
So it means a lot to spend a day with a family member and laugh and joke and fish and not be so goddamn impatient with myself about not doing well at something. It’s a huge thing for me, and I wanted to tell you that, but I just can’t tell people things like that without feeling weird.
It’s small things like that that help me to try and tell myself that I can pull out of this holding pattern.
It was worth the sunburn I got.
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