Sep 25, 2011

My Little House

This weekend, my blog came up in conversation a couple of times.  (Let's not get into what kind of boring conversations that I dabble in that my blog is a hot topic.)  It made me think about my writing and I took a look at my recent posts.  I couldn't find any.  I realized that I have hardly been posting at all.  I've only posted once on this blog since the beginning of August.  I haven't written anything on my Darth Fatso blog since July.  I haven't even been keeping up with my Fantasy Football League blog - and I usually don't give up on that until the middle of the season.  I know that every so often I do one of these examinations and, for a while, I'll get more motivated.  But this time, something is different.

Something has been going on with me for a while - and I'm not entirely sure what to do about it.  It isn't exactly the same as the depression that I battled back in Tallahassee.  But there are some elements of that. I have hesitated to write much about it.  It is kind of personal and hard to just put out that for all three of you to read.  I remember, though, that other people have benefitted from me exploring my mistakes and stupidity in years past.  As the Demotivators poster states so eloquently, "It may be your life is merely to serve as a warning sign to others."  Shoot, my entire Darth Fatso blog is basically a giant therapy session. In addition, from some things I have heard from friends lately, I'm not the only one feeling like this.

I have developed a theory.  Well, its more like an extended metaphor.  Each one of us is like a little house.  As we grow up, our house changes to reflect our personality.  We plant little flowers and paint the outside like our favorite teams.  We hang banners and put garden gnomes out front.  It isn't much, but it is kind of who we are.  As time goes along, the people in our lives visit the house.  Some of these people make our house a little nicer.  Maybe they bring a nice potted plant when they come over.  Those people also can hurt our house.  They can bust out a window or smash into the wall.  They can peel the paint and rip up the garden.  Unfortunately, it seems like there are more people who fall into this second category.  More people are in the demolition business than the home restoration industry.

Those hurts are very real and have wide ranging effects.  As a child, we may hear from a parent, "Pardon me, sir, but apparently you think you are talking to someone who gives a s---," when you tell them a story.  Or someone may tell our friends, "Just nod and smile and eventually he'll stop talking."  That begins to make us feel like no one wants to hear what we have to say.  We start to wonder if everyone feels that way, which makes us pull away and worry that when we try to talk to someone they won't really care.  We may be ridiculed for being fat and unathletic.  It is combined with the way society treats and views overweight people.  Mix in constant rejection by the opposite sex.  A person starts to feel worthless.

"You're wasting your talents doing something like that instead of earning big money."  That means that unless you earn enough you are a failure.  "Why did you get the B?"  That means that even bringing home A's for years and being valedictorian isn't enough.  Perfection is the only way to get approval.  When doctors tell you that you that it is all in your head, rather than find out what is wrong, you begin to lose faith in doctors.  You feel you have to prove your injury for anyone to believe it - or that it needs to be really severe to deserve attention.  We all have these things happen to us.  Words, actions, attitudes.  They pierce us and wreck havoc on our house.  Soon, we learn that the way to survive this damage is to protect ourselves.

We build false walls all around our little house.  We plant huge hedges.  We construct a corn maze around our property.  We add giant decorative topiary in the shapes of our favorite animated characters.  In my life, I built these all around me.  I developed a very sarcastic way of speaking.  I was able to be brutal and cutting and disguise it as jokes.  I because extremely judgmental.  I felt that I was better than other people because I was smarter or more spiritually discerning or whatever.  I was completely oblivious to the fact that it was because I felt so inferior.  I would walk into a room and look around.  I saw the guys who were better looking than me or more fit than me.  I saw the girls who were too good for me.  There would be people who were more outgoing and socially comfortable.  I felt like a loser.  Over time, I started to find what made me feel better - my smarts, my Bible knowledge, my sense of humor.  Eventually, I started walking into a room and assuming I was the smartest in there.  Worse still, I would judge the others for it.

I turned to food as a solace.  Some of that was because that was one of the few things my father and I could relate about.  But a lot of it was a comfort.  I would when I was sad.  I would eat when I was happy.  I would eat when I didn't know what I felt like.  I found foods that made me feel good and soon reduced my diet almost exclusively to those things.  McDonald's burgers, Miami Subs steak subs, mozzarella sticks, desserts, soda.  And lots of pizza.

Even with all of those protective measures, sometimes pain would get through.  There were people who could still fire an attack that went all the way through the walls, the hedges, the Elmo shaped tree.  THOSE wounds were far worse.  They would cause more overreaction, more protection.  And those levels of defense often included pulling away from those people or becoming very angry or refusing to forgive them.  Bitterness sets in.  That poisons our relationships with everyone - making us even quicker to judge and slower to get over it.  That is where I found myself.

The last thirty months or so have been the most tumultuous of my life.  I have gone from working full time to being a stay at home dad.  I have lost 100 pounds and completely changed my eating habits.  We have gone through the most trying financial stretch of our lives (which is really saying something).  My rheumatoid arthritis flared up worse than it ever has been.  Heather's grandparents passed away - two people I had grown very close to.  I went through deep bouts of loneliness and depression.  I began to notice just how damaging my temper and sarcastic words were.  I heard my children repeating my comments and saw them copying my behaviors.  That forced me to change.  The solitude led to much self-examination and chances to work on my shortcomings. Through all of that, I have found that many of these walls and hedges and decorative foliage have been torn down.  My unhealthy coping mechanisms have been disrupted.

I have gone back to several people I hurt over the years and apologized for my behaviors and comments.  Recently, I went to someone and worked to repair our relationship.  I had said things that had hurt him and he had done things that had hurt people close to me.  At the end of the conversation, I felt completely different.  A huge weight had lifted off of me.  I had been carrying that anger and lack of forgiveness for years.  But, more than weight, it was almost as if I had seen a massive wall torn down.  And for the first time in decades, I saw my little house again.  It was battered and damaged.  And that terrified me.

As all of those protective coverings disappeared, I began to feel raw and vulnerable.  Things that didn't use to bother me hurt me now.  I got overwhelmed by the things I had to do.  Just trying to look at daily chores, work responsibilities, upcoming events seemed to cause a meltdown.  Last Sunday, I just sat on the couch and cried for what seemed like forever.  My head hurt and it felt like I busted a blood vessel in my eye.  The next day, my eyeball itched and burned all day.  All week I felt a little disoriented and weak.  Last night, something as simple as forgetting to cut the onions for on the grill started me crying.  It is an uncomfortable place to be.  I don't like it.  Of course, I am worried that people are going to judge me or call me a wuss.

The simple fact is that I have absolutely no idea how to function as myself.  At the age of 37, I am trying to learn how to respond to people, events, words, actions in a healthy way.  I don't want to go back to developing those protective behaviors - but I need to find a way to be less sensitive.  I can't retreat into the person I was before.  But I really don't know what to do with the person I am now.  For so many years, I lived in the corn mazes and solariums I had built.  I don't know how to live in my little house.  I never really had taken stock of it to see just how much damage had been done.  I don't think I really had even dealt with all of it.  I think that I had been so good at deflecting and distracting that I distracted myself.  I don't know if I ever really forgave my dad because I never really knew just how much he hurt me.  And I have been so busy hurting other people for the last couple decades that I never saw how hurt I was.  I've been wrestling with so much guilt about my bad actions and behaviors.  And now that I am reaching the end of that list of wronged souls, the last name on it is mine.

I know that you may not buy into all of this.  You may write it off a psycho babble - something I certainly believed for many years.  For me, though, it is very real.  It is still very new.  The fact is, I never really liked the person I had become.  I didn't like being arrogant and entitled and superior.  I don't much like this person either, though it is for different reasons.  I don't like him because I don't know how to control him.  I don't know how to function and succeed without dipping into my old bag of tricks.  I don't like the pain and turmoil.  But I'm not going back.  I have worked too hard and come too far to not see it through.  I know I have a lot of work to do, but it will be worth it.

In that conversation I mentioned, my friend said something profound.  We were talking about the process of breaking bad habits.  He said, "It certainly isn't easy.  It is extremely hard.  But so is losing 100 pounds.  And you did that. How much worse can this be?"  The essential truth to all of this is that I am not doing it alone.  I didn't lose that weight alone.  God gave me the strength, and He will do it again.  And I have a wife and family that loves me and supports me.  I have friends who genuinely care about me.  These people have seen through the fences and ivy and seen that little house.  And they love IT.  They love who I really am.  And they want to see me figure this out.  They can't wait to come visit the place when I'm done.

So as far as the blog goes, I'm sure I will get back to things eventually.  It won't be too long until I'm back to writing about UCF's ridiculous ability to get to the next level in sports or examining if the failure of green superheroes to capture the public's affection has something to do with the color itself.  And it won't be long until you are sighing and longing for the days when I was forgetting to write.  But for now, I have a little work to do.  Things are under construction.  I hope you'll like the renovations.

Sep 12, 2011

10 for 9/11

I know that I wrote about some of this five years ago (has it been that long already?).  But I wanted to again.  Yesterday, as a nation we observed the tenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in our history.  There were tributes running on television almost non-stop for the last week.  Sports teams wore flag decals, ribbons, and bandanas.  The UCF/BC matchup this past Saturday was especially poignant as the hometown Knights actually honored a BC alumni who gave his life in the World Trade Center while leading a dozen people to safety.  You had to be in a cave to miss the tributes; just like it is impossible to forget the event itself.  We all know exactly where we were at the moments the towers fell, when the Pentagon was hit, when the fourth plane disappeared into a field.  We all know precisely where we were when the world fell apart.

I was standing in a labor and delivery suite at the Orange Park Medical Center, awaiting the arrival of my first child.  "You may want to turn on the tv.  A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center."  The happiest and proudest moment in my life collided with the saddest and most terrifying moment.  I know we've told this story so many times, but it is impossible for me to separate those two events.  We were forced to deal with becoming new parents at the same time that we were watching parents lose children and children lose parents.  We were overwhelmed by the crushing grief and fear that emanated from New York and Washington DC.  We finally had to turn off the television once the camera crews started showing the thousands of people holding up hastily made "Have You Seen This Person?" flyers.  It became too real and too overwhelming.

I tried as best as I could to ignore what was going on.  It was virtually impossible.  Everyone was shaken - and understandably so.  We were living in the military-heavy community of Jacksonville.  No one there knew what these attacks meant.  We all knew there had to be retaliation - against who, no one knew.  You could feel the tension everywhere.  I swear to this day that some of the inferior care my wife received was due to the medical personnel being shell-shocked.  After Josiah arrived, we didn't watch the television.  I tried to avoid the wall-to-wall coverage on the internet.  As a result, we actually mercifully missed out on some of the most painful stories after the initial event.

One of my friends up in Buffalo wrote on his Facebook yesterday that he never realized just how much he was still in shock over the 2001 attacks until yesterday.  It was the first time the true weight of what happened hit him full force.  Last night, we had on the "minute by minute" replay of NBC's coverage.  Josiah wanted to watch it, since his birthday always coincides with the anniversary.  But, after five minutes or so, I felt myself getting anxious.  Even though I knew what was going to happen, I was terrified.  After about ten minutes, Natalie just exploded and yelled, "Turn this off!! I can't take it any more!"  She was just devastated at what exactly was happening - the fact that all the people on the planes died too, knowing thousands of lives were going to be lost (in the past).  I understood completely, because I was feeling the same thing.

I don't think I still have ever truly come to grips with what happened.  If I spend too much time thinking about it, I am just consumed by the grief and the scope of it all.  It is enough to bury me.  I remember right after the attacks, that I fell into the darkest depression I ever experienced.  I was so distraught over the loss of life and what this attack meant.  I sat there and looked at my little boy and asked myself, "What have I done?  How could I have brought this little one into such a horrible place?"  I was angry and withdrawn (classic male symptoms of depression).  It took months to escape that dark place.  And I have to be careful to not spend too much time thinking about that day or I can feel the darkness coming for me - like a Dementor attacking in Harry Potter.

I am sure many would call this avoidance.  I don't care.  I call it a conscious choice.  When I look back at that day, I see two enormous memories.  One is dark and horrible.  One is bright and wonderful.  I choose to focus on the second one.

My firstborn son, Josiah, turned ten at 2:11am this morning.  That, to me, is a huge birthday.  I remember my tenth birthday, how I felt like I really was growing up.  I was double digits.  I had lived a decade.  I was in the upper grades of elementary.  So it was a huge deal to me that Josiah was turning ten.  My little boy has turned into a very big boy.  He will be in middle school in two years.  I am very proud of the young man he has become.  He is brilliant and talented.  I am blown away by his artistic talent.  I have told him that between his artistic talent, his brilliant mind, and his knowledge of math and science he has all the tools necessary to create something absolutely incredible.  He could be a George Lucas or James Cameron or Steve Jobs or CS Lewis.

His brain has always impressed me.  Just this afternoon, he was standing in the living room running through all the ways that terrorists could still attack - despite improved security procedures.  The stuff he was coming up with (sleeper cell agents, deep cover agents, attacks using trucks or boats) was right out of Hollywood filmmaking.  The thing is, he's never seen those movies or read those books.  He was just thinking and generated these very intricate scenarios.  He's already created several fictional worlds for his comic books - and of course he's adapted popular ones to fit his needs as well.  I remember last year, he had to write sentences for his spelling words.  So he would write all twenty sentences as a story and incorporate words into each successive sentence.  I was just blown away.

He's always shocked and surprised us.  He sat up in his stroller at three months and was mistaken for a nine month old.  He walked at seven and a half months.  He was carrying gallon bottles of water around our apartment at nine months.  He had all the planets memorized before he was two.  When Pluto was demoted from planet status, I had tons of people come up to me from his preschool to ask me what he thought.  I told them to ask him.  "I think it's dumb.  Some scientists don't want Pluto to be a planet any more.  Doesn't make any sense."  People wanted to know what a preschooler felt about astronomy.  It just cracked me up.

When he was born, I remember watching him through the window of the nursery.  Heather's parents and their close friends, the Delisis, were standing there.  These friends are as close as family - their daughter has known Heather since first grade.  They came up to the hospital to wait for Josiah to come.  When they arrived, they said, "We could stay home and be sad or we could come up here and celebrate life."  We all stood in the hallway after he was born and looked at him.  Mrs. Delisi said something about God having a reason why Josiah was born this way on this day.  "He is going to bring such joy on a dark day.  He already has.  God has something big planned for him."  Josiah himself told me once, "We're going to do big things for God."  It was completely unprompted and something I tucked away.  I don't know what exactly his path will hold, but I feel confident that Josiah is going to be involved in something big.

I choose to focus on my son's birthday.  I choose to focus on the joy and love that having him brings.  It isn't that I don't want to honor those who fell on that day.  I wore a 9/11 memorial badge all day.  I saw a Marine in the restaurant we ate at for lunch and made a point to go and thank him for his service.  I talked to my kids about what 9/11 meant and what happened.  But if we spend too much time being crushed and crippled by that day, that actually dishonors those who sacrificed.  They died to ensure that we can still live our lives and live them to the fullest.  It's kind of like what Tom Hanks' character says to Matt Damon's in Saving Private Ryan.  "Make your life worth this."  I want to make my life worth their sacrifice.  And I want Josiah's life to as well.  I try to teach him about making the most of his abilities, not settling for less than is best.  I don't want him to waste his copious talents.  In future years, we will have the discussion about why he was born that day and what he can do in his life to honor that event.  For now, though, he is still bringing hope and joy for the rest of us just by being himself.

For a long time, I hated the fact that we had to experience his birth on the same day as something so tragic.  But, when I think about it now, I realize that we actually had a wonderful gift in the fact that we had something to amazing and incredible to think about instead.  I really didn't have to go through what a lot of other people did because I had this little baby.  Whenever it got too hard to handle, when the news got too bad, I could hold him and find a place of joy and hope.  It is easy to recognize things like that in retrospect.  I thank God so much that I have had him in moments like those.  And I thank God that he is my son.  He has made me a better man, a better father.  And it has been a true joy and honor to be a part of his life.  And I still can't believe he just turned ten...