One of the first things that I discovered when beginning therapy was to appreciate the impact that my previous life experiences have on my current situation. As I have talked with others, it seems clear that my experience is not unique. We all pass through moments that shape us into who we are today, and in order to understand ourselves, it is helpful to look back on our own history.
Note: This is part of a series describing my story discovering mental health.
I wanted to begin my story by sharing some of my childhood and formative years. In all of us, the way in which we are treated as we grow up and discover ourselves has a massive impact on how we see ourselves later in life. One of the most freeing moments for me was when my therapist helped me to understand that it was natural and healthy for me to feel anger at my parents and recognize that their actions and words contributed to my mental health issues. And in turn, as I come to understand them more, I can extend grace and compassion to them for the experiences that they went through that in turn shaped their mental health. The more pain and suffering I experience, the easier it becomes to recognize their effects in the lives of others and to see how they have been changed by their experiences.
Part of my struggle growing up was the cognitive dissonance of my situation. Emotionally, there were challenges, and I suffered at times. But when I would step back and look at my life, my overwhelming privilege and good fortune led me to discount any negative experiences. I had not yet learned to allow two seemingly opposite truths to exist simultaneously. As a result, much of my early work in therapy was confronting the fact that I had truly gone through hard things, even while also being extremely lucky and blessed in my circumstances. I have come to see that we all have unique challenges, and no matter how charmed our lives may seem from the outside, there is always struggle and heartache we must encounter.
Strong Christian faith
One of the fantastic privileges of my life growing up was to be raised in a kind, Christian family. We were, and are, practicing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I grew up with a firm belief in a loving God who knew and cared about me. This faith provided me with a framework in which to understand the complexities of life. Having a perspective that life means more than fleeting personal pleasure helped ground me and gave me the ability to look beyond myself.
Having a strong religious base for our morals and values meant that many of life’s choices were framed in the context of good and bad. Righteous and evil. Salvation and damnation. This resulted in me interpreting the natural mistakes of childhood as sins that caused me to become unworthy. I felt keenly the biblical mandate to honor my parents, and interpreted that to mean that I obeyed them as exactly as possible. Now, before I perjure myself by claiming to be a perfect child growing up, I certainly wasn’t. But the fact is that I rarely did anything truly naughty or mischievous. Probably my most egregious infraction was to sleep over in the high school band room with a couple friends after late-night musical rehearsal and before early-morning practice, which resulting in a one-day suspension for trespassing on school property.
As I have learned, most people, especially young boys and adolescent males, benefit from fairly strict guidelines towards which they can strive. The problem for me came in the form of black and white thinking around my standards and guidelines. I routinely felt that any small deviation from the rules meant complete failure. There were only two options—right and wrong. So in the context of a religion that is fairly demanding with high moral expectations, I naturally exaggerated rules and commandments, exceeding any original intent or moral guidance. Part of the inherent challenge is that I was consistently rewarded and reinforced for striving to follow the rules, and thus further internalized the importance of approximating perfection.
Perhaps the saddest and most ironic consequence was turning the practice of my faith into an impossible paradox. I felt all of the heat of hellfire and damnation without the soothing and healing comfort of divine grace. I believed in a just God, while at the same time denying the existence of His mercy. One of the greatest realizations of the past year or so is that my faith can encompass a God who knows me and loves me even in the very act of making a mistake. He doesn’t condemn me or discard me as hopeless, just as many wonderful people in my life continue to show me grace and patience and love throughout my struggles.
Another key aspect to my personality and even pathology is that I grew up feeling keenly the responsibility of being the oldest child. I had ingrained in me from a young age that my choices and actions affected others. Someone was always watching me, and learning from my example, whether for good or for ill. In addition to being the oldest child of four, I was the oldest grandson on both sides of my family. Whether it was made explicit or not, I felt a heavy weight of responsibility in my immediate and extended family.
My siblings are two brothers and a youngest sister. We got along fairly well growing up, naturally fighting and jockeying for attention whenever someone came to visit, and often preferring the company of friends to family. My brothers and I shared a room for many years, and when I was in high school or so, I had my own room for a short time. But my brothers fought enough that I felt responsible to try and address the situation and shared a room with my youngest brother, leaving the middle one to have his own room.
Part of the reason that being the oldest had such an effect on me was due to my parents. I regularly heard reminders about how my actions affected more than just myself, and that my siblings were always watching me and learning from what I did. There were even times when I was asked why I was so difficult, and told that none of the other kids caused the same problems that I did. As I have become a parent, I have learned how easy it is to say those kinds of things. And it is true—you never have exactly the same problems with different children. My level of empathy for and understanding of my parents have grown as I have matured. At the time, those kinds of comments had a significant impact on me and the weight of responsibility that I felt.
I have big ears. They are both large, and they protrude nearly straight out from my head. At this point in my life, that is just a fact that I acknowledge and largely ignore. Growing up, however, it was a sore trial and caused intense suffering. From my earliest memories in elementary school, I was teased and bullied about my ears. The most common thing that I experienced was being called “Dumbo,” which continued throughout elementary school and into middle school.
My father told me about dealing with a similar situation growing up. His ears are folded in such a way as to appear pointed, and he went through his childhood being called “Spock.” In an attempt to help me learn how to deal with those situations, my dad would tease me at home and coach me on how to respond. He stressed that all the bullies wanted was a reaction, so if I could laugh with them, or show that they were not affecting me, they would stop. I heard over and over, “You can’t control what someone else will do—you can only control your own reaction.” As I look back on my childhood, I realize that these experiences were both painful and valuable for me. Those lessons were indeed helpful, but they also had the result of making home a scary and unsafe place at times.
As I grew into high school, I was sure that the teasing would end, but I was wrong. I continued to be called names, or have faces made at me in the halls. At that point, I had been dealing with similar behavior for nearly a decade, and was not quite as affected by it. Maybe it was just that the lessons my dad wanted me to learn were sinking in. I would respond just as easily to “Dumbo” as I would to my own name, and often the teasing would cease. It struck me as more and more ridiculous that people were acting that way at my age.
Near the end of middle school, or perhaps the beginning of high school, an event occurred that has entered our family lore. I have finally matured to the point where I can easily see the humor in the situation, even knowing the whole story.
I had decided that the best thing for me would be to be in a wheelchair. I remember thinking that girls would like me more, or at least pity me more and pay more attention to me, if I came to school in a wheelchair. Once that decision was made, all that remained was the plan for execution.
As a band geek, I played the tuba, and rented one from the school to practice at home. My first plan was to prop my legs up on the edge of the couch and smash my tuba through my shin bones. As the oldest, I would often tend my siblings, and I quizzed my brothers to make sure they knew that if something happened to me, they were to call emergency services. I remember clearly thinking to myself that the real struggle was going to be doing the second leg, because I anticipated some pain from breaking the first leg. Fortunately, I never put that plan into action.
The plan that I did put into action was a little more flamboyant. On one of the occasions when I was tending, I climbed up on the roof of our house and jumped off. I was sure that doing so would break my legs and I would finally have my wheelchair. I cushioned my impact as I landed, and so remained uncrippled. My error was clear to me, and so I returned to the roof multiple times, but was never able to force myself to keep my legs locked and straight as I landed in order to break them. Of course, the whole time I was making these attempts, my younger siblings were out watching me, and even the neighbors saw, and so my parents found out.
Their discovery resulted in major trouble for me. I was grounded and chastised for doing something so dangerous in front of my siblings. My father pointed out to me that if I had broken my legs from jumping off the roof, I would have likely shattered my ankles instead of a clean break of my shins. The story made it to my cousins, and became something for everyone to laugh at for years to come.
At this point in my life, I do not blame my parents or my cousins for their reaction. At the same time, I can recognize the pain that caused. I was clearly a child in some emotional pain, needing some love and attention, and instead I was punished and ridiculed. I am now able to both laugh at what is clearly a funny situation of a teenager jumping off the roof, and also feel compassion for little boy Ben who was hurting.
Overall, the defining characteristic of my growing up years was an adherence to rules. Whether those were religious, family, or behavioral, it felt clear to me that there was a correct course of action to follow, and I felt a deep need to be on that course. Perfection felt attainable and expected.
One of the big reasons I feel like my story is worth telling is the dissonance between a seemingly charmed childhood and some very real struggles that contributed to my mental health challenges. It was so liberating for me to hear from my therapist that the pain I experienced was real and could exist alongside great privilege and blessings. I hope that others can acknowledge their own struggles even when their life appears to be lacking in trauma.
As I have learned more about OCD, I have discovered that a common symptom is intrusive thoughts, often of a violent or disturbing nature. When I first heard of that as a symptom, I felt relieved it hadn’t happened to me. Only as I worked with my therapist more did I realize that my roof-jumping incident fit the bill. I was able to see more clearly that incident and others in which I had intrusive thoughts, but didn’t act on them.
Mental health can be affected by a number of factors. My journey began early in my life, and only recently have I come to realize the impact that it had on me. I will continue to explore my story in my next article on the suggestion of counseling.