From our dysfunctional family to yours.
Hank the Blank wanted back in.
A few days—or a few weeks—had passed since I’d shut him out. Those days, weeks…even years—all that time during that time got tangled up in the junk drawer of my brain after I’d read his online stories.
Hank the Blank had molested me as a kid. Then, 35 years later, he’d pointed me to some stories he’d posted on the internet. Which turned out, when I read them at my work desk in the dim, mute minutes after everyone had gone home—to be erotic stories about incest. Fathers and uncles doing shit to kids. Boys, girls, it didn’t seem to matter. All were fair game.
I lost my mind in that tangled-up time. I shut down, withdrew from life, and lost everything that mattered to me except a seven-pound chihuahua.
I sent Hank the Blank a cease-and-desist that he returned to me in protest. He wanted back in.
I wasn’t sure why, and I’m still not sure, though I’ve spent the last few years wondering. Why did he need to me to read the stories? And why did he want back in, past the wall I’d mortared overnight in panic? What did he need so badly from grown-up me, aside from some screwed up romantic image of family cohesion, like one of those stock families that come with a photo frame you pick up from Bed, Bath and Beyond?
The best I can figure is that he’d fooled a ton of people with that image—a kind, quiet, decent man who was helpful and responsible and practical and safe. I think he’d fooled everyone. Except me. And he couldn’t stand it.
So he wanted back in, because if he could get back in, that meant I was malleable enough to shove back within the photo frame, a sad, stoic kid in a plaid collar who was kind enough to never make life hard for another human being.
He hungered for something inside me, something I couldn’t give. I fail at describing the specific hunger…emotional vampirism doesn’t cut it. More like spiritual cannibalism. Wanting something, from way down deep inside me, some internal organ he needed in order to keep living.
If I didn’t let him back in, he told me, I could consider myself uninvited from an upcoming wedding and all other future family events. What’s more, after I let him back in, I was to always “shield him” from my anger.
In other words, allow him to skate through his retirement, free from the consequences of his own pathology.
I should have told him to drive off a cliff—according to my friends, I should have cut his brake lines myself—but I was still…what? Kind? Weak? Naïve?
Maybe, but I wasn’t a dumb shit, either. I told him he could come back in if he went to therapy.
I told him this because he was so lacking in self-awareness, so utterly devoid of even conventional wisdom around appropriate human relations, that without direct, regular, ongoing professional intervention, he couldn’t help but break the people around him, like one of those assholes who rack up so many DUIs that their mugshots pop up in the local papers as often as the Sunday comics. He couldn’t steer his lame-ass Mercedes around me.
It wasn’t a real offer, on my part. Not really. I knew the outcome. He’d go to one session, then calculate that the 50 minutes of human interaction wasn’t worth the money (because to him, all human interactions are transactional).
Besides, he was smarter than some stupid therapist, so he’d quit, and spend his time instead responding to the thousands of emails he’d received from fans all over the world, who were deeply touched by the erotic incest stories, or at least emotionally moved enough to send him a few words of atta-boy praise.
By breaking our contract, he gave me the gift of unforgiving. I froze him out in the wasteland that surrounds the walled city of my internal organs.
I think the world would be a better place if everyone were in therapy. I say this knowing that those who need it most are the least likely to try it, or even think themselves in need.
I mean, look, I know. We’re all fucked up. But we’re not all fucked up like Hank the Blank. I know from experience that the narcissists, borderlines and other Toxic Avengers of my acquaintance could not change on their own. No amount of prayer, meditation, or self-help texts glittering in the far, deep caverns of the internet can illuminate the blind spots of someone burdened with a personality disorder. They need someone standing off to the side of them, holding up a Maglite.
Because it’s in those blind spots where the cannibalistic hunger for your internal organs sharpens.
They don’t get better on their own. A few weeks ago, when a family emergency led me to crack the door open again for Hank the Blank, he seized that opportunity to lay the entire blame for our estrangement on my doorstep, as if I’d just shut him out for no reason. As if he’d had no part. Then he said that he’d been thinking of writing me out of his will, since I wasn’t as nice to him as the rest of the family.
I told him I didn’t fucking care what he did with his money. I assigned him a new neighborhood outside the wall, a hood I never visit, save for an occasional surface-level email.
I’m so edgy about blind spots that I pester my own therapist and my buddy Smooth Operator, often, asking them, “Do I have any? What are they? What do you see me doing that you wish I’d wake up to?”
I’ll cop to it. Because of Hank the Blank and others, I’m a guarded motherfucker. And because I’m hardwired to build romantic castles around men who are deeply in love with themselves, I’ve had to lean on my rational brain to create a list of red flags to protect me in human interactions.
Like, guys who tell me I’m a good listener.
Guys who interrupt me when I’m talking.
Guys who don’t ask me any questions.
Or ask me questions and then steer the talk back to themselves in about four seconds.
Guys who want my enormously attractive body are fine, but guys who want to feast on my internal organs? Next.
The point, though, isn’t to chart my life’s course with red flags, or wall myself off like an overly-fucked character from Poe. As I get older, the scope of my dreams seems to narrow. But each dream’s intensity brightens. Maybe the world is full of Hanks. Maybe the best I can manage is to hunt and sift and hang tight to those with whom true, two-way connection ignites.
Look, I know. We’re all fucked up. We all live in deranged funhouses of our own making. But is there room for me in yours? When I step beside you, in front of the warped mirror, how many of us are reflected back?
Amateurish iPhone shots from home and Providence, RI when me and the Little Girl visited Tiny Dancer for Thanksgiving.
I think a lot about my addled brain, with my addled brain.
No surprise, I guess. I’m a writer. We’re good at it, or if not good, relentless.
What I mean is that I think a lot about my mental health, since staving off depression and PTSD is a daily effort that’ll likely last as long as I’m still breathing. And since 1999, when I first sought help, I’ve had 20 years of false starts, smooth patches, hard stumbles, and one black-bleak multi-year crisis—like field study for what worked and what didn’t in my own personal pursuit of serenity. Or, lacking that, adequately functioning enough to leave my apartment.
And what I’ve learned over time is that I’m a complicated fuck. As in, it takes a fuck ton of village to raise this dawg.
Good mental health, for me, resembles one of those Dr Seuss-like flying contraptions with wings, wheels, gears, and cranks, all of which play a vital part in the pursuit of flight, and all of which require a tremendous amount of sweat to get rolling.
Once it’s airborne and coasting, the contraption stays aloft with minor adjustments—one or two fingers resting lightly on the steering wheel as the wind gently rustles through my receding hair.
It took about 18 of those 20 years to figure out the blueprint and hunt down the parts, and I’m constantly losing or forgetting the manual, which I should know by heart. My own personal contraption requires:
- Antidepressants prescribed by a qualified shrink. This took a long time to figure out, and has required extensive experimentation, and many shrinks as I pinballed around the country.
- Solitude saves my skin. If I have to go two or more days without alone time, I recommend you keep your distance.
- Health insurance—much of the rest of this list depends upon this part, which is criminally hard to maintain, especially as I pinballed. I was one of the Americans saved more than once by Obamacare. (Miss you, dude.)
- Weekly therapist. This is separate from the shrink, since modern shrinks give you 15 minutes tops to discuss meds, without talk therapy.
- Sobriety. Meds without sobriety mean nothing. Sobriety without meds means nothing. That’s just been my hard-won experience. I go to traditional 12-step meetings and also recovery meetings from a Buddhist perspective, where I can be happily full of doubt about the existence of any god.
- A good day of good writing is like…I can’t even put it into words. Like, I’m failing at doing the thing to describe the thing. It makes me feel like I’ve fulfilled my purpose on earth, or something dorky like that.
- Full time work. I’ve yearned for more free time, and I’ve had more free time. I didn’t spend it wisely.
- I lift weights several days a week. I should do more cardio. I don’t do more cardio. Somehow I live.
- Friends. I need people I can say anything to. I need at least one who makes me laugh until I puke.
- Meditation, when my monkey brain swings through the branches of my fears, lusts, dreams, and udon cravings.
- One eight-pound chihuahua.
One or two go missing and I can skate by. Three or four and the contraption sputters and falls to the ground, where the laws of physics dictate that it’ll stay at rest, and I’ll end up with a sluggish head, barren heart, and a kitchen cluttered with empty containers of Chubby Hubby.
Massive effort is required again to get it back up in the clouds.
There’s no real order to this list. They all sort of depend upon and thrive off each other. A rickety, rusty, synergistic contraption that I continue to fuck with, depending on my current taste for enlightenment or self-sabotage.
Pretty sure this list disqualifies me as “low-maintenance.” I should just slap a warning label on my forehead. It would help weed out the idiots.
Some people have been thanking me for talking about shit some people don’t talk about. I appreciate the feedback, and I do wonder, often, if I’m ever gonna pay a serious price for this blog. Like, from prospective employers or boyfriends. Actually, no—just employers. A prospective boyfriend who backs out after reading this blog is not really a prospect. For anything.
As my rusty flying machine carries me toward the age of 50, out there on the rapidly-approaching horizon, I think a lot about acceptance—my failures and shortcomings, my minor accomplishments. My friends. My evolving dreams. If a couple of people feel a little less alone, after reading this, with their own ramshackle machines, then I’ve done something. A small job completed for a few seconds of satisfaction.