Over the years, I’ve learned how to respond when something bad happens. Some people break down and cry, some softly, some so hard they can hardly speak. Some people curl up in bed and lose the ability to function for a few days. Some people get angry, and they punch something or someone. Some people just shut down and go numb.
I just move past it. I don’t give bad things the power to make me feel anything. I’ve learned that there’s nothing else to do. There’s no better response than to just not feel the bad thing at all, because what good does any of that other shit do you? None.
You could say I got this way out of practice. My life has just been one shit thing after another. My mom and dad divorced when I was four, and that was the beginning of all of it. He left us, and for years he didn’t do anything to support us. We’ve been poor as hell for as long as I can remember, and even though my mom worked really hard, we never had “nice” things or really, any of the things I asked for, like video games and even books and stuff. I got used to it.
The year after my father left us, my mom’s mother died. Then my grandfather on that side died, as well, two months later. It hit my mom hard. She started drinking, when she had any money to buy drinks. That’s where most of the money went that could have been spent making our life better.
My mom started dating a virtual parade of men. Some of them were alright-ish, but they just didn’t gel with mom. Most of them, though, were shit. If they weren’t needy, if they weren’t just verbally abusive, they were physically abusive. I will give my mom credit, though, because the instant a man hit her, or me, he was out of her life. I didn’t learn how strong this made her until years later, but looking back, I’m proud of her for this one thing.
I don’t say any of this out of a desire for pity or sympathy, but I do want to say enough to illustrate my point. Two years after my grandmother died, on the anniversary of her death, actually, my mom’s sister was involved in a car accident. My mom’s sister, and her husband, and their two kids were in the card, with my uncle driving. Three of them were killed. My cousin was the only one who lived. He was eighteen.
My mom is one of those people who sobs uncontrollably when something bad happens. Well, maybe I’m being unfair to her by using such a weak term as “bad.” Horrible, gut-wrenching, awful, terrible. These are all better words for the series of events that continued to follow me through my life. She sobs, and she drinks. That’s how she deals with things.
Crap things kept happening, mostly in the form of death. I’ll spare you all of the details, but if I mention my best friend from the 6th grade; my cousin, two years after his family died; and the dog my mom saved up to get me for my thirteenth birthday, three days after we got him, maybe you’ll start to get the idea.
The point is, I started to get worn out on sadness. I just got used to the bad shit, and I didn’t respond to it anymore. It’s like when you first put your clothes on, and you can feel the fabric rubbing against your skin. Once you’ve felt it there for a while, you just don’t notice it anymore. It just becomes something that’s a part of your life.
I’ve never been depressed. Or at least, I don’t think that I have. People I know — I hesitate to call them friends, because I’m bad at friendship — have told me that you can depressed and not know it. But I feel like I don’t have any of the symptoms. I’m not sad. I’m not tired all the time. I get through life pretty well, pretty functionally, anyway. I’m don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been numbed to the negative or what.
I will say that I am not well adjusted. All this shitty stuff and the way my mom has responded to it, and the number of jobs she’s lost over the years, and all the men she’s brought through the house in a desperate attempt to pretend she can find happiness again — it’s all stuff that doesn’t lend itself to a great upbringing.
I think a lot of people would say that not being sad about things that tear most people down should mean there’s “something wrong with me.” Like, when the girl who probably could have been considered my best friend moved out of state with her family, I hugged her goodbye, and she cried, but right there our relationship died because she didn’t think I seemed sad enough. She said those words — “There’s something wrong with you.”
Well, I don’t think that’s what’s wrong with me. I see it as a strength, not a weakness. The worst part about me is that, with all the bad that has happened to me and all of the “education” I’ve gotten on how to respond to it, I’ve missed out on something major. I don’t know how to act when something good happens.
When somebody gives me a birthday gift, I say “thanks,” and I mean it, but when the word comes out of my mouth I can feel that it sounds insincere. I can see the look on the giver’s face that says, “Did he even mean that? What a jerk.”
Let me give a better example.
I’ve been taking ballet since I was seven years old. I know, it doesn’t sound like my mom should be able to afford it. She can’t. That I’ve had the opportunity is a miracle. At the community center, there was a woman who, in her retirement, decided to start giving free ballet classes.
I enjoyed it. It was one of the few things in my life, for many years, in which I was able to take some joy. When my first ballet teacher died when I was fourteen, I almost felt sad. Instead, I got a part-time job, and my mom said that if I could pay for my own ballet lessons, I could keep taking them. So I did.
When I was sixteen, my father called my mom and told her he missed her. He wanted to be back with her, he wanted to help her, he wanted to be there to raise me. In my opinion, he already missed out on that last one. Anyway, she believed him.
I dreaded this for many reasons — chief among them being that I didn’t know this man, and I didn’t have any reason to trust him. But actually, my reason after that wasn’t how he would treat my mom, or whether he would get our hopes up and then leave again, or anything else that might have been reasonable to fear.
No, my biggest fear was that I would have to stop doing ballet.
You see, the one thing I knew about my dad despite our years of separation was that he was one of those “manly men.” One of those guys who’s obsessed with the idea that men need to be tough and do “men’s work” and all of that sort of toxic male bullshit. One of those guys who thinks ballet is, as he might say, “gay.”
I’m not gay, by the way. Not all guys that do ballet are gay, for the record. It’s dumb that I should have even feared what he thought about the fact that I did ballet, because I shouldn’t have cared about his opinion at all — like I said, he was so far removed from my life as to practically be a complete stranger with whom I happened to share a bit of DNA.
At seventeen, maybe seven months after my mom and dad got back together, I had a dance recital. I never once talked to my dad about the fact that I did ballet. I didn’t even want to bring it up. It never embarrassed me to mention it to anyone else, and I never felt shame for it — except with him. But I guess my mom must have said something to him, or he just found out. I don’t know.
When I stepped out onto the stage for my solo, the lights made it so that I could barely see the audience. I should have just pretended there was nobody there. It made it easier to fight off the nerves, you know? Instead I scanned for my mom. I wanted to know if she was there, because last year, she hadn’t come. She’d gotten too drunk to drive, “on accident.”
She was there, and, sitting next to her, holding her hand, was my father. I swear even with him there in the dark and the lights shining in my eyes, I could see him smile at me. It shook me.
I danced. I did well, despite all the odd, unfamiliar feelings coursing through me.
At the end, when I went out from backstage, my parents were waiting for me. My father — my gruff dad, who was wearing dirty jeans from work and a heavy work jacket, who couldn’t have looked more out-of-place if he had tried — gave me a hug and told me he was proud of me.
And all I had to say was, “Thanks.” Even though I was sincere. Even though I felt it, deep inside me, I didn’t know how to express that. Because this was an unquestionably good thing, and I hadn’t seen enough of those to know how to behave.
I’ll keep trying, I guess, because I know my reaction wasn’t sufficient. I want to make sure he gets it. I still don’t know how to feel about him, or the fact that he’s back, but I want to let him know — and my mom, too, I guess — how much his reaction meant to me. I just have to figure out how I’m supposed to do that.