All the lies on your resume
Have become the truth by now
And the things that you never did
Have become your youth, somehow
—Older and Taller, Regina Spektor
My guts are in a turmoil. A workman is buzz-sawing the pavement across the road from the cafe that I was foolish enough to sit down at. I am running on three hours sleep, nursing a hang over, and I am way too tired to be here or to be processing this right now, but here I am.
A 7:30am safety recall appointment for my Corolla dragged me out of bed. Apparently the driver’s side airbag could inflate and kill me instead of save me. It had to be done. What I hadn’t expected to do was to spend the previous night meeting up with the man who was at the centre of my most traumatic childhood experience. The last time I saw Stephen was in 2002, the year I finished high school. 16 years later and it is 11:30pm. After many failed attempts to meet, he is in an Uber, and his live location tells me that he’s drawing ever closer. I am freaking the fuck out.
I am certain that I have described the incident before so I’ll summarise; one day, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I arrived at school to discover that all of my friends had vanished. They no longer sat where we always sat and, at a loss for words let alone action, I sat alone, frozen to the spot, and hoped that something would change. An indeterminable period of time later, an hour, a day, a week, Stephen approached me. He was alone and he informed me that everyone was in the art room. That they wouldn’t be coming back and that I needed to leave. No further explanation was given. Another indeterminable period of time later and I concluded that I had no alternative but to force myself to ingratiate myself into another group of peers. Most didn’t care, but one bully, Cowan, did. Built like the arse of a rugby player and a textbook bully, he ensured that my life was miserable for the rest of my schooling career and, more than any other person, he is the sole individual responsible for my becoming suicidal and engaging in self-harm. Having said that, it all dated back to the fateful day when I was abandoned by everyone that I knew.
16 years later and Stephen is drinking wine with me in the yard. It is the bottle my ex gave me, a souvenir from Spain that I’d been saving for a special occasion. This wasn’t the occasion I’d had in mind but I felt stronger knowing that some part of Peter was there with me.
We sat nervously on a picnic rug in the back yard, and talked briefly about our lives and what we have done to bring us to this moment now. Each of us summarised 16 years of living in a matter of minutes. Then I broached the topic that has haunted me for almost two decades and I watched for his reaction.
Stephen didn’t remember the incident ever happening. Not even with my descriptions and prompting was he able to recall the event that I described.
It would be a mistake to believe that his memory was somehow more perfect than my own but it is now hard to believe the events happened in the manner in which I recall if he is unable to recall anything that substantially corresponds with my own. The closest he came was that there was a time when he had spent a period of time working in the art room, but that it wasn’t with the friend with whom I’d imagined. He even had some pictures of those times to prove it.
So what did this mean for the memories that I held as fact in my mind?
There is a possibility that I am right in my recollection and that Stephen can’t recall these events because they are insignificant in his mind. It’s possible that he was lying to me but I don’t think that’s the case. There was no underlying sense of malice or guilt that I could detect in him at any point during the four hours we chatted. There was no sense of an agenda.
I think what is more likely is that my own memories are erroneous. That they, through years of dwelling upon them and through years of retellings have become an opaque construction of a multitude of transparent and overlapping memories. When I remember high school, I remember it as a long period of darkness that is characterised by intense pain, loneliness, longing and heartbreak in the face of what I felt was a hopeless and unending journey into despair. I remember being happy only when I had placed my mind elsewhere; when I was buried in a book, when I was being supported by Mrs Ireland and encouraged to take risks on the stage, or lost in a cult film, hidden in my bedroom, late at night.
So why did I construct my own most traumatic memory? Why did my mind feel it necessary to take a number of isolated moments of intense emotional trauma and concentrate them into a single, more powerful moment in my life? And, how do I move on from it? This moment in my life is my boogieman.
It, more than anything, is the hunchbacked creature that perches upon my shoulders, claws digging in, weighing me down and wishing nothing more than to grind me into the ground. But this boogie man doesn’t really exist. It is like Alice’s Jabberwocky. I made him up. I installed him in my mind so that there was a single incident of external influence that I could blame for the entire failings of my youth. It explained everything in a single incident which prevented me from needing to examine a larger period of my life. It prevented me from risking stumbling upon other moments of pain. It wasn’t my fault for failing to make friends. It wasn’t my fault for being naive and ignorant as to the way adolescent humans, and myself, were. It was the fault of those fuckwits who’d ditched me and left me alone. But that isn’t entirely true.
I was naive and I didn’t know how to make friends or how to deal with the emotional trauma of loss and rejection that we experience as we grow up. But nobody taught me how to do this, so is it really my fault? As a primary school teacher I know that social skills are learned skills. We learn them through a combination of interactions with others, trial and error, and through explicit lessons from our parents, our peers and our teachers. We teach children to have a growth mindset, to say ‘I haven’t learned how yet’, and we teach them to be resilient and to bounce back in the face of adversity with a new tactic for success. When they don’t have the tactics, we help them develop them. What happened to me is a failure on the part of those who raised me. I am not pointing the figure squarely at my parents who raised me with love to the best of their ability, but rather I am pointing the finger at the community as a whole.
I began exhibiting signs of social anxiety and reclusiveness during my first primary school which I attended from Kindergarten to mid-year 4. Sometime around year 3 or 4 I was secretly peeing on my mother’s carpet and remember spending most of my free time in the library, hiding from peers and seeking the praise and adoration of adults. There should have been six teachers at least, one from each year of schooling and the librarian, at that school who had a solid grasp on the kind of boy that I was and the needs that I had. So what stopped them from identifying the clear social-emotional needs that weren’t being met by the community around me? Why did it take another seven or eight years for me to write a play that gained the attention of my drama teacher and an immediate referral to the school counsellor? I needed therapy but by then, it was too late. I was a hormonal mess who didn’t want to be analysed by some jerk wad counsellor who felt it was appropriate to walk into my maths class and ask to see me in front of all of my peers. Needless to say, I did not cooperate with him.
There are children in every school who have social and emotional needs that go unmet every day. There are children who we as teachers identify and despite this, in the face of mounting curricula and administrative pressures, we fail to meet their most basic social and emotional needs. This is not an article about teaching but I know that today, schools have come a long way in this area, and yet we still fail so often. So what must the situation have been like back then, twenty-four years ago, when I was in pain and in need? I suspect the answer is ‘not good’.
The boogieman that I created exists in my mind. He is not real and yet, for many years, he has held tremendous power over me. By talking about him with others I disempower him and weaken his hold on my psyche. I have talked about him with a half dozen therapists, with countless friends, and with you – the persons of the internet and the world. I feel vulnerable each time I talk about him but I know that by doing so I’ll draw him a little bit further out of the shadows.
The great revelation that I’ve had thanks to my conversation with Stephen is the realisation that this creature is one of my own making. Whilst the feelings and experiences that he represents are true, his shape and permanency are not. If I created him with my mind then I can uncreate him or transform him into something else. Something equally, or likely more powerful than before, but most importantly, something in a shape, form and colour that I can now consciously choose. Strength comes from surpassing adversity. Wisdom comes from rationalised and contemplated experience.
If I am the only person keeping this boogieman alive, then I am in control of its existence. I can choose exorcism or transformation. If I exorcise it, it will die. If I transform it, I will own it and nobody can change that fact because in the real world, it was never alive to begin with.
At the very apt time of today I began seeing a new psychologist. We discussed many of the concepts that I have written about here and I feel tremendously positive to have done so and to be able to share these with you. I feel as though this is the beginning of a new chapter. Of a period of seeing the old through a new lens and I am looking forward to the insights I gain. The boogieman is weakened and when I learn how to exorcise or transform him completely, I’ll be sure to let you know.