It took me years to realize my own negative emotions terrify me.
For a long time, I took pride in always having my feelings under control. Even when other people hurt me or treated me badly, I didn’t lash out at them. I didn’t show anger. No matter what the circumstances were — or what someone had done to me — I was almost always cool, calm and in complete control of my feelings.
I finally understand why I did that — and I understand why I feel like a caged animal when I experience negative emotions. I understand now why I want to repress what I’m feeling and get away from whoever has made me feel the emotions I fear. I get it now.
In Alice Miller’s influential book about parental child abuse, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” she imagines a hurting adult child asking his or her parent a difficult question. The book was recommended to me years ago, but I just got around to reading it this weekend. As I read this question, I felt sick at my stomach — because I already knew the answer for my life.
“What would have happened if I had appeared before you sad, needy, angry, furious?” Miller imagines a child asking the parent. “Where would your love have been then? And I was all these [negative] things as well, does this mean it was not really me you loved, but only what I pretended to be, the well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding and convenient child — who in fact was never a child at all? What became of my childhood? … From the beginning, I have been a little adult.”
I know what would have happened if I had let my father see my need, because I once allowed my unhappiness and fear to leak out. It was just one time, but that one time reinforced my understanding that I was never to express any need or fear. My father simply wouldn’t allow it — and I would be punished if I allowed him to see my needs.
I don’t know exactly how I knew not to express unhappiness about anything, but I knew this very clearly. Maybe I was punished as a tiny child for expressing needs. Maybe it was just his sharp tone in reply to me when I was very young. I’ve repressed the origins. I just knew that I was never allowed to be unhappy about anything or to express that I had a need which needed to be filled. He was the sole judge of what I needed — and I was not allowed to express any need or desire which was not from him.
I had just started the seventh grade. We had moved to Pensacola, Fla., and I had started school at an inner-city school which terrified me. We lived on Pensacola Beach, but the beach kids were bused into the inner city to terrible schools. (I wrote briefly about this school last year.)
In every way that I can imagine, this new school was scary to me. Academic standards were non-existent. The cultural atmosphere was completely alien. But the scariest part was going down into the basement locker rooms for PE every day, where teachers pretty much allowed kids to get away with whatever they wanted.
I was one of only two white boys in the seventh grade at the school that year. I was treated as a curiosity by these inner-city kids whose culture was alien to me. Every day in those dark locker rooms, I was threatened, verbally abused and pushed around. I was in fear for my safety, but I knew better than to tell my father how unhappy and scared I was.
This had been going on for weeks and I was having trouble hiding how scared I was, even at home. One night when I had gone to bed, my father was still awake doing something quietly in the den. As I laid there in bed feeling my fear of going back to school the next day, I started crying quietly.
I remember being very conflicted. On one hand, I was afraid for my father to hear me. On the other hand, there was a part of my little brain that thought that maybe if he heard me — even though I was trying not to be heard — that maybe he would allow me to tell him what was going on. If that happened, maybe he would let me tell him how I felt. Maybe he would do something about it.
He did hear me sobbing quietly. He didn’t come to see what was wrong, but he summoned me to come to him.
He asked me what was wrong. In that moment, I felt an immense sense of relief. He had asked me the question, so I could finally tell him the truth. He wouldn’t hold me responsible for complaining — because he had asked.
I explained what had been going on. The words tumbled out and I was crying at the same time. Weeks of hurt and fear and torment come rushing out of my 12-year-old heart. I told him how I was being threatened. I told him how scared I was. I told him everything.
And then he started yelling at me.
He was angry. He said that he was already under enough pressure with everything else that was going on — situations which he had created in our lives, of course — and that I was being selfish to bring my problems to him. He was white with rage as he yelled at me.
I tried to tell him that he had asked me what was wrong, but that didn’t matter to him. I was burdening him with my problems. I was being selfish for having a problem and for needing him. I was being a burden.
Nothing else was ever said about my fears at that school. He simply ignored it.
I went back to never expressing any needs. For the rest of my childhood, I was terrified of telling him that I needed anything. If the need was for money to pay for something or for something pragmatic, it wasn’t so bad. But I never again expressed any unhappiness or fear or need to him.
I learned a lesson which I’ve carried with me to this day. I learned that people don’t want to hear about my needs. They want me to help them. If I have any needs, I should be humiliated. I should be afraid. And I should expect for anyone who sees my needs — especially emotional needs — to push me away.
I mentioned yesterday that I have a great need to please those in authority over me, and this is a part of that. I didn’t realize this for a long time, but I have been programmed to believe that I must keep an authority figure happy and I must never express any needs of my own. I believe I will be punished and abandoned if I express my needs.
I had felt very little anger in my life, at least not consciously. But as I was going through therapy about 10 or 15 years ago — I went off and on, so I don’t recall when this happened — I started periodically experiencing sudden bouts of uncontrolled rage when I was alone.
This scared me.
It was unlike anything I had ever felt. It made me feel guilty. Everything about it was terrifying. But I finally came to understand — at least intellectually — that this was bits and pieces of the rage I had felt for years which I had been too afraid to express. It had been repressed since childhood.
As recently as 10 years ago, I couldn’t have shared with you the emotions which I routinely share here now. Those things were locked up, because I was afraid of expressing them. I was afraid to let myself feel them, much less to allow others to know how deep my needs can be.
But I’ve instinctively realized how much I needed to express these things. I knew that expressing my faults and failures was a defense against allowing myself to travel down the road of narcissism which had destroyed my father. Being open about my fears and needs and other feelings has been a little bit like walkng past a graveyard to try not to be so scared of it.
When I don’t make everybody completely happy with me, I feel guilty. It evokes a fear that I felt as a child — that I was in trouble again for reasons which confused me. And when I express my needs openly and honestly — as I know I must — I am terrified that it will mean no one can love me and no one can want me.
Everything about this — not pleasing everybody and especially expressing emotional needs — leaves me feeling emotionally naked. It leaves me feeling that I will always be abandoned — just as both of my parents abandoned me in different ways.
I can’t go back and change the past, of course, but I’ve come to realize that I have to experience those old fears and needs. My body has retained the damage from repressing those things for so long — and it’s taking me years to let that poison work its way out of me.
It was when we lived in Pensacola that I started my life-long habit of taking walks by myself. Pensacola Beach is located on a long, narrow island called Santa Rosa Island. The side facing the Gulf of Mexico is the beach side and the other side faces Santa Rosa Sound. It was along the sound which I walked every day in the evening that year.
I walked alone, sometimes for an hour or more. I walked because I needed to be away from home and be alone to try to feel what was going on and try to puzzle out what to do. My options were limited, but my 12-year-old brain had to at least think things through.
For most of my life, I’ve been traveling alone in one way or another. Sometimes in literal ways. Even more often in emotional ways.
As singer/songwriter Jason Isbell was getting himself sober a few years back, he realized that what he had gone through had left him alone for too long — and he couldn’t take it anymore. He says that he was sitting alone in an airport waiting room again when some lines started coming to him. He recorded what was in his mind on his iPhone’s voice recorder. That become a haunting song called “Traveling Alone,” which uses this as the chorus:
And I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?
I’ve been traveling alone for far too long — and I’m bitterly tired and lonely and afraid. I don’t show that every day, but it’s always there. I know I’m not supposed to show it, but I desperately need to show it. I desperately need someone who I trust and love to come with me.
As I think about this, I realize that I’m not so different today than I was when I laid in bed crying as a seventh grader. I wanted to be heard. I needed to be heard. I needed for someone to know what I felt. I needed for someone to love me and to help me.
But at the same time, I was afraid — just as I’m still afraid about the truth today.
I’m tired of hiding what I feel. I’m tired of being afraid of expressing my emotional needs. I’m tired of being afraid of being abandoned. I’m tired of traveling alone.
Note: In the video for Isbell’s song, “Traveling Alone,” the woman who joins him at the end is now his wife, singer Amanda Shires, who married him after he got sober. She and a couple of others staged the intervention which led to Isbell’s leaving substance abuse behind. The couple now have a 3-year-old daughter, Mercy Rose.