I have a great number of threads of my psychological history that I store away in a safe place. I’m forever taking these threads out one by one, sometimes a couple at a time, to make sure that they’re holding up, that they haven’t become knotted or torn. Sometimes I like to see how their color or thickness has changed over time and as more threads are added to the collection.
Over the last couple of years almost all of my threads have needed a thorough re-examination and often a complete reinterpretation as I have discovered what it has meant to be highly sensitive. Specifically, my relationships with my family members take on distinctly different tones when my sensitivity is added into the equation. Even more, whatever has been happening since I started writing recently yet further recasts everything in a completely different light.
So for now I have an entirely new pattern in which to weave all the threads. It is far from the first pattern, and it will not be the last. It might seem that if the history and trajectory of my life can so easily be rewritten, then surely the details on which I’m focusing must be wrong or incomplete. Surely there are historical facts and events, along with some definitive, objective way in which to interpret them. But of course that would be ridiculous, because my story is about meaning, and meaning cannot be reduced to objective facts. And so I have a story of personal meaning, one that makes great sense to me as I approach the end of my fortieth year on this planet.
It is not easy growing up sensitive. It’s not easy for anyone. I’m sure that sensitive girls have their own special hell to traverse, but in American culture, being a sensitive boy is simply no fun at all, mostly because there is almost no realization on anyone’s part, including that of the boy himself, that although it’s somewhat rare, only some 20% of the population, being sensitive is one of many perfectly normal ways of being a human being.
I think there are maybe three stages to effectively dealing with being sensitive. First, one has to learn that it’s built-in and completely normal, in the way that any non-dominant trait is nevertheless normal, blue eyes for example. (I also have blue eyes.) Second, I think that it’s necessary to accept in one’s heart that it’s okay to be that way, despite the bombardment of messages to the contrary that we have internalized from culture. Third, and for me this is the hardest step and something I’m still working on, I’m pretty sure that at some point we have to move from grudging acceptance of our sensitivity to a full embrace of it, to dare not only to feel okay about it, but to love it.
I found out that Alanis Morissette is highly sensitive, and that she has a son who is as well. Part of me feels a certain jealousy of him, I must admit, but mostly I’m just grateful to know that someone in this world has been given the one in a million opportunity of being born to someone who can teach him from the very beginning that being sensitive is normal and okay. Sure, his peer group as he grows up can have a significant influence on him, and he’ll no doubt have hard times with not fitting in, but he will always be further along than most of us. Maybe he won’t be able to get to the third stage of outright loving his sensitivity until he’s older, more experienced, and wiser, but I think he has a good chance of passing the first two stages just through his mother’s influence. I do hope that’s possible for him. I’m so happy that Alanis exists, and that her son has her for a mom.
The thing is, sensitive children are very difficult to raise the way they need to be raised. Our need for love is weird, because it’s strong and overwhelming, and then sometimes, often, we’re completely distant. Few if any adults realize that something as simple as saying “please don’t do that” is the sharpest, most hurtful rebuke and punishment that a sensitive child can hear. Most of what is considered a normal, humane, and perfectly reasonable punishment in this gentle post-spanking world is almost unbearable. Even the most dedicated and loving parent could hardly be expected to know this.
And so it was in my mostly caring and supportive and loving family, one that made sure I was never hungry, and that I always had shelter and new clothes at the beginning of the school year. I was mostly allowed to be weird and quiet and to spend most of my time reading in my room or playing with Legos in the basement. Mostly.
My parents adopted my older brother after years of unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child on their own. He was a miracle to them, an answer to their prayers. Within a month of their bringing him home, they conceived me. My biological sister was born two and a half years after I was.
My sister and I excelled in school, and we were genetic offspring of my parents. My brother did not do as well academically, he was constantly getting into trouble, and it was quite clear that he felt like an outsider. I can’t imagine what he went through, but it took me a very long time to stop being angry with him for taking out his anger and pain on me through relentless taunting, bullying, and teasing. My weirdness and sensitivity provided endless examples of behavior for him to mock. Watching me squeal seemed to be his one true joy in life, though eventually I more or less learned to keep my emotions in check, to force a laugh or at least remain silent when he started in on me.
When we had been really young, he was my hero. I followed him everywhere, even after the taunting and teasing had become a common pattern. One day I finally realized that he didn’t want me around. I could sense that he felt like he didn’t belong, and I truly felt sympathy for him. Maybe that was even worse for him, because no one wants to be pitied. Maybe I felt sympathy but was an asshole right back to him anyhow.
It was an unwritten rule around the house that my academic achievements were never to be too loudly acknowledged, lest his feelings be hurt, lest it come across as rubbing his nose in it. I accepted and internalized that injunction, because it made perfect sense to me. But one lesson I did learn was that in order for me to shine, someone I cared about, no matter how much I often hated him, had to suffer for it.
I once caught part of an episode of Little House on the Prairie. I don’t remember the exact details, but either Laura or one of the other children got into some kind of trouble with a mean looking man, and the kid was gonna get it. It upset me deeply. I did not wait to see what would happen, and I don’t think I ever watched another moment of Little House. Besides, that shit was for girls, and I already knew I had to do my damnedest never to be caught liking things that were for girls, which sucked, because there were many “girl” things that I did like.
Michael Landon went on from Little House to lead in the show Highway to Heaven, which became a staple in our somewhat religious household. It wasn’t something that I was particularly excited about, but when it was on I found it enjoyable enough.
One night, probably when I was in middle school, while my brother was probably watching a basketball game in the living room, I took the smaller, semi-portable black and white TV into the dining room, kept the lights off, and for some reason decided on my own to catch an episode of Highway to Heaven. In every episode Landon’s character, an angel, helped someone in dire circumstances to extricate themself from their predicament. In this episode there was a runaway with cognitive disabilities, living on the streets, taking care of himself and his cat by stealing food where he could.
I don’t remember the dialog, but I remember the tone of the scene where the runaway explains to Landon’s character why he left home. He had been living with just his father, who had his own issues and who didn’t know how to deal with a son with special needs. The boy said that he tried to engage with his father, told him he loved him, but that in response his father hit him. He tried again and again, and each time he told his father he loved him, he received a blow. This character’s inability to comprehend how his simple, honest, and open love could be met with violence was one of the most unbearably heartbreaking things I had ever encountered.
I was decidedly confused by my reaction. I had never been hit by an adult. My parents loved me, and I knew they did. But tears started streaming down my face. It was a deluge, a torrent. I didn’t understand what the fuck was going on. And it just kept coming. I didn’t sob, I didn’t weep, it was just a never ending cascade of tears.
I knew I had to get my shit together. Should anyone come into the room, especially if it was my brother, I was simply fucked. The taunting would be swift, severe and pitiless. Because boys don’t blubber.
If I’m allowed a moment of pure self indulgence, maybe I can propose that there were indeed some minor parallels between this character’s life and my own, on a very small, non-abusive scale, that might be insignificant to most people, but deeply painful to a sensitive boy. Otherwise I have difficulty making sense of my reaction. I think that I tried to express love to my family members through my actions, or even inaction, by observing and responding to their implicit wants and needs, but in a non-obvious way that was not reciprocated as I blindly assumed it should be. Of course, how could they have known? I was hardly even aware of what I was doing. I didn’t know that I was more highly attuned to others and their emotions than the majority of people on this planet. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just sense what was going on with me the way I did with them. Their failure to respond in kind must have been by conscious choice, right? What had I done to merit that choice?
I felt on some level that I overwhelmed and confused my mother, who was often busy putting out fires my brother had started. So I did my best to be a perfect angel, to make sure she never had to worry about me, and I often fell through the cracks because of it. I felt that my brother was suffering, and that my very existence was a constant reminder of why, so I tried though often failed to do my best never to shine, but he kept bullying me. I felt that my sister, one of my best friends growing up, liked to have her way, so I consistently let her be the one to decide what we would play, but she never seemed to have her fill, never said, okay, now it’s your turn. I felt on some level that my father needed me to be like him (indeed the similarities between us are sometimes shocking), so I focused on whatever interests I had that overlapped with his, things like math, science, and computers; but to this day I have never felt that he wanted to see through to the real me underneath. Not that I have ever truly offered him or anyone else an opportunity to see that.
Above all, I felt that my sensitivity and emotionality perplexed my father. Probably he feared that it meant I was gay, like his own brother, though none of us kids knew about that fact until much later.
At one point, though, I dared to take the risk of getting a Cabbage Patch Kid. In 1984 every single child in the entire country, both girls and boys, either had or wanted a Cabbage Patch doll. It really wasn’t just for girls, so it should have been safe. However, one day as I was dragging around my doll Steve, my dad asked me why I would want to play with such a thing. It wasn’t accusatory per se, but I knew there was something behind his question. I felt an intense fear that if I answered wrong, then things would somehow be very bad. I mumbled that I wanted to be a dad myself one day. That would be safe, right? Then I would be like him, a dad. It was never discussed again.
I’m sure that my family members see things very differently than how I have portrayed them. I’m sure they will be horrified that I could write the above words, assuming them to be an indictment of their behavior, an attempt to place blame. But that’s not my point all, in fact quite the opposite: my point is to acknowledge my own complicity. My point is that I noticed something in how they acted, something in how they felt, something that I don’t believe everyone would have noticed. The messages they sent were deafeningly loud, and whether I interpreted the messages correctly or not is beside the point. I did interpret them and internalize them in a way that has stayed with me throughout the years, but that I no longer believe is effective for me.
Alternatively, perhaps my family members as described above are just thematic carriers of messages I learned from the Midwest, Protestant culture in which I grew up. I have read that one of the superpowers of sensitive people is their ability to take on society’s standards as their own. I believe it’s called introjection. Maybe that’s what happened inside of me, or maybe at some point my ever present people pleasing tendencies started to be driven by fear, insecurity, and obligation instead of by love. Now that I think of it, probably every child is born into this world hoping to show their love to others and to the world by exercising their individual strengths, but if those strengths are not clearly valued by society, then surely they can come to be seen as weaknesses and liabilities instead.
Another event in 1984 that eventually had a large effect on me was the release of the movie The Neverending Story, though if I’m honest, the release of its eponymous theme song by former Kajagoogoo frontman Limahl was a bigger deal at the time. God I loved that song. I liked the movie too.
Years later, when I was sixteen, I spent a month in Germany with several other German students from my high school. I found out that The Neverending Story had been written by a German author named Michael Ende. I decided that reading a children’s book in German would be the perfect way to improve my grammar and vocabulary, as opposed to something more adult that would be far over my head after only two years of study. I was impatient to learn more. So I bought myself a copy of Die Unendliche Geschichte, which turned out to be much more difficult than I had expected. German is not an easy language.
There is a passage from the novel that has rooted itself in my brain and doggedly stuck with me over the years, and it is this: “[Es gibt] in der Welt tausend und tausend Formen der Freude, aber im Grunde sind sie alle eine einzige, die Freude, lieben zu können”. Roughly and almost literally translated it becomes: “There are in the world thousands and thousands of forms of joy, though fundamentally are they all but one, the joy of being able to love.” At the time I half reinterpreted it to be about romantic love, as I was then prone to falling into agonizing and unexpressed infatuations full of longing and hope and other such inanities. On the other hand I filed it away alongside the cliché that a person can’t truly love someone else if he doesn’t first love himself. I didn’t think that was something I needed to worry about. I thought that my self esteem was in perfect working order, thank you very much.
The first cool and sunny days of autumn after I started college at UW-Madison were unspeakably amazing. I was immersed in crisp air, freedom, and an enormous new world of independent music that was pretty much nonexistent in my home town that was served almost exclusively by country and oldies radio stations, plus one other that shoveled out top forty crap. Singers like Juliana Hatfield, Tanya Donnelly, and Liz Phair were a revelation. For some reason, it was Phair’s languid and slowly building “Nashville” that filled me with a burning optimism that this nascent stage of my life would eventually open up for me such grand opportunities as an adult. I could not get enough of the lines “But I can’t imagine it in better terms/than naked, half awake, about to shave and go to work”, along with the almost sing-song repetition of “I won’t decorate my love” that closed out the song.
Then when I was a sophomore things went to shit. The only real external motivating factor that I could identify was that I was pretty sure my roommate was depressed, though of course he denied it. It was stupid of me to bring it up. The rest, I suppose, was adjusting to the responsibilities of college, meeting and adjusting to so many new people, and drinking a lot. I also happened to discover Tori Amos. Holy crap her music is dark, and that’s exactly where I wanted to wallow. I couldn’t get enough.
Eventually I got over my fascination with Amos and then for a decade and a half consciously avoided her music and the maudlin, tempestuous, and embarrassing memories it evoked. But I remember everything anyhow, and after recently giving her albums another listen for the first time in so long, some words from “Winter” stabbed me in the heart just like they had in college: “When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?” asks the father character in the song. Back in college and again recently I knew that I wanted someone to say that to me, but at the same time I knew it was silly. My amazing and supportive wife has said very nearly those same words to me on more than one occasion. I’m sure my mother or my father could say it, most likely after a brief pause to recover from their surprise that I wanted it to be said in the first place.
It’s pretty much the exact same feeling and longing that I get when I hear the Pet Shop Boys’ song “Here”: “You’ve got a home here/Call it what you want/You’ve got a home here/to return to when you can’t/face the world and you need/some support to succeed/You’ve got a home.” Again, my wife has basically said that to me. The fact that the longing has not yet been satisfied clearly indicates that something else entirely is going on, and I’ve known for quite a while, on some remote, detached, intellectual level, what that something is.
I needed to say it to myself.
But now as I’m writing this I realize that the need is not quite what I had originally thought. What I really need is to allow the small, bright eyed, sensitive boy inside of me to tell me that he loves me, and to respond in kind, instead of with disdain, instead of striking him for being a godforsaken defect and burden that has caused me to feel so alienated and alone my entire life.
I met him once, the little boy. Maybe it was a year ago. It started as a lark, really. I was reading Brené Brown and Elaine Aron at the time, and one of them suggested that her reader close his eyes and try to imagine his younger self. Pay attention, she said, to what he was doing, how he acted, how he held himself. What did that mean about him? What would he like to tell the adult you?
I have read any number of self help books but I never do the exercises, at least not in the moment. But what the hell, I thought, why not try this one? Certainly nothing would come of it, but closing my eyes for two minutes wouldn’t hurt anyone.
So I closed my eyes and suddenly everything disappeared and there he was, maybe five or six years old, dressed all in white, in a room so large that the walls couldn’t be seen. The only illumination was a bright yet gentle spot-light directly above him; all else was a vast darkness. I was taken aback by how beautiful he was. He sat on the floor, drawing on a sheet of paper in front of him. He seemed to be concentrating, open and inquisitive, trying to figure something out. He took the drawing and set it aside, started another. He had bright blue eyes, and when he turned to look at me and smile, maybe to invite me to join in his play, they became gigantic disks of dazzling blue light. I had no idea that I had something inside of me that was so beautiful. I was startled. He seemed satisfied just to have greeted me, and a moment later he went back to drawing, only now he was several years older, and there were signs of frustration on his face, in his movements. I thought maybe it was because he was growing into the perfectionist that I have long been, and that whatever he was trying to figure out was getting the better of him. Then just as suddenly he was gone and I started to sob, whispering “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again as tears streamed down my cheeks.
Looking back now I think I misunderstood. At the time I thought he was asking me to come over to help him, to join in his fantasy world, or to tell him that he had made a nice drawing, when it was probably no more than the scribblings and scratchings of kids that age. I didn’t want to lie and say that I thought it was good. But that’s probably not it at all. I think he wanted to be the one to help me, and I disappointed him like everyone else by not understanding the offer that was being made. I thought I had to protect him, to shield him from the cruelties that were in his future. I wanted to protect him. But it was he who was there to protect me, and I refused.
There is another theme in The Neverending Story that I always liked. On the reverse of the Auryn amulet are the words “Tu was du willst”. It can be translated as “Do what you want” or “Do as you will”. The discovery much later is that it means in fact that one must do what his truest, innermost will commands him to do.
On the other hand I was always so frustrated with Bastian’s hesitation as the Nothing threatened to rip apart the last small fragments of Fantasia. All he had to do was call out the name “Mondenkind”/“Moonchild”, but he just sat there and wouldn’t do it. How hard can it possibly be to say “Mondenkind”, or any name really? It was his choice, why not yell “Myrtle”? But now I know that it’s the hardest thing in the world to find the right words and then say them. Now I know that for decades I’ve been cowering and hiding from a similar responsibility, one that is also nothing more than a few syllables. So here it is: I love you, too, my darling, sweet, beautiful sensitive boy.
I suspect that he is my truest, innermost will, and that I must now do as he commands, which is probably nothing more than to have the courage to love, to experience joy in any of its thousands of forms, and to share my experience. I don’t think it will be easy. I expect I’ll waver, stray, and often simply want to give up.