The story of my inner critic begins when I was very young, perceiving the unrest between my mother and father. Money was always a critical issue. My father lived in the same house but was generally unavailable, emotionally and otherwise. At the same time, my mother held powerful feelings of resentment against him for not taking part in anything, ever. For several years (until my parents mutually agreed to remain together for my benefit but lived as if they were strangers to each other in the same house), there was so much tension that I would vomit from stress at every meal. It was a great relief when my mother allowed me to eat alone in my room.
My mother watched a lot of local news. She was convinced that the public school system in our San Diego neighborhood at the time was a breeding ground for criminality. She made a point of telling me that I wouldn’t last 10 minutes there and constantly reminded me of my responsibilities—that I was attending a private Catholic school and all the tuition money would go to waste unless I did well. I was a very stressed-out kid.
Moreover, my mother put me into programs (swim class, piano lessons) and bought me a lot of toys (which always made me immensely guilty as much as I liked them because I knew how broke we were), but with each thing came the enormous imperative to excel at school. Nothing was ever without an emotional string attached. I gained a lot of weight around ages 7-10, had trouble making friends, and preferred to spend most of my time alone with books or with our dogs out in the canyon below our house. I was very lonely. My father’s mantra was “Leave me alone.” And my mother’s was “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
At school, I got into regular fights (with the crazy maladjusted rich kids around me) and lost most of them, causing me to be mocked by the boys, then punished for what I often felt wasn’t my fault. I got punished first at school, then got punished by my mother at home on a weekly basis. I was always either entering or leaving a period of punishment. My father had no idea (and preferred it that way). My mother wanted to know why I was ruining my life.
Getting spanked with the unscrewed wooden strut from the back of one of our kitchen chairs eventually transitioned into hours of house chores, yard work, and being grounded, which was a great improvement. But the psychological difficulties remained. I was always made to understand that every time I slipped up, I put the financial health of the family and my own future in jeopardy. My mother, for all of her great qualities (and she had many) had no sense of humor about this.
Most days at school, I was extremely unpopular and was avoided by the other kids. In the eight years I spent at that school, I had maybe one or two friends and, looking back, I can say those were not good friendships. But they were what I had. People made me inherently uneasy. I enjoyed animals far more.
I lived in particular fear of our PE classes, where the oblivious windbreakered “coaches” let the boys vent their frustrations on anyone and in any way they wanted as long as we left them alone. I disappeared to the tiny school library when I could. When I absolutely had to participate in some team sport (I was never good at any of them), I was automatically relocated to the outfield—the Siberia of the baseball field—where the unpopular kids got sent until a freak ball came their way and the whole world started angrily screaming. I liked the butterflies and sitting in the unkempt grass. So the outfield was just fine if no one noticed me.
On the infrequent occasions when the insane screaming would start, I’d just watch the more important kids run from their first base or pitcher spot to catch the ball themselves, usually giving me a kick in the process because I’d be sitting out there cross-legged, doing nothing. There were a few times when I was beaten by several kids for not trying to catch the ball, even though they’d shouted at me not to try. You can’t make this sort of absurdity up. As an adult, I look back in wonder at a culture that could produce kids like that. Then I read the news and stop wondering.
At the same time, the administration of the school was looking for excuses to dis-enroll students on the “Catholic discount” because we were costing them money. So, in a sense, I really was being observed carefully but not for educational reasons. The lawsuit-averse strategy was to identify some misbehavior or defect in a kid (never the wealthy ones with the hyper-aggressive blonde PTA mothers); send him or her to the school psychologist—a psychology graduate student from University of San Diego, the affiliated private Catholic university in town; establish a defensible reason for the kid being put into after-school programs and / or remedial classes; and then eventually, pending a second evaluation, recommend that he be transferred into the public system where other resources existed to address the “problem.”
Several broke problem kids on the discount disappeared as a result of this strategy, but my mother was determined to keep me in. She fought vehemently to keep me away from the graduate-student psychologist and to keep any evaluation mediated by the school out of my files. She felt that once there was a psych paper trail, I’d never be free of it.
She worried a lot about my “permanent record.” To be fair, this was the late 1970s. The school was being run by people who came of age and were educated in a conservative American Catholic culture of the 1950s and 1960s. So as far as I can tell, my mother was more right about the stigma of mental illness than she was wrong. It wasn’t about pumping the kids full of Adderall back then. It was a cruel kind of sorting hat, keyed to money and the displeasure of those in authority. Piss them off and you got “diagnosed.”
After too many lost fights, too many after-school detentions, and a broken convent window, the extremely uptight (worried about her job) principle finally demanded that I get a psych evaluation or be expelled. My mother paid out-of-pocket for a professional child psychologist recommended by Scripps Hospital (i.e. an independent expert witness for the defense). My father, after great protest that his schedule was being disrupted and a parental screaming fight in the living room, finally drove us over to the hospital annex. Needless to say, I felt horrible about it all. It was, you see, all my fault.
I remember that the psychologist had a bushy mustache and kind eyes. He talked to me for about 15 minutes. Then he asked to talk to my parents. Later, I learned from my mother that he said: “Your son is just fine. You both, however, should get some marriage counselling.” By telling me that, what my mom really meant was: “Your father is a horrible person,” but I wouldn’t decode it for years, until personal experience gave me enough insight to agree with her.
She was already seeing a psychiatrist independently and learning ways to cope with being trapped in an unhappy marriage. That’s what a lot of “women’s counselling” amounted to back then. But my 15 minutes of therapy did produce a letter attesting to my normalcy, which my mom brought to the school. And henceforth all administrative heads were bowed. They couldn’t argue with Scripps Hospital.
Those had been bad years. But things got better. I learned how to fight, actually, both from my mother and a 45-year-old North Vietnamese naval captain, named Tran. After the psych evaluation, mom decided I was too soft and, at the suggestion of my wonderful magical spiritualist aunt, my mother enrolled me in martial arts classes at the local YMCA. That is a story in itself—a much brighter, happier story, at least for a while until my dad entered it again—but the upshot was that I started practicing Vo Lam Kung Fu, Chin Na, and Iron Palm at age 10.
Pretty soon, I could speak a bit of Vietnamese, break bricks with my fists, disassociate myself from levels of physical pain, take a shot to the face without falling over, and because I lost weight and got strong, I also learned compassion for other kids like me. My mother’s training was supplemental: “If someone tries to hurt you, hit them as hard as you can in the face.” She was a master of the hard school.
I only needed to do that once or twice before the bullies left me to my books and butterflies. I was not expelled. And then I went to high school to start the next difficult chapter of my childhood, but for a while I was a lot happier as a person. I was still lonely and spent most of my time in my head, but I had a group of very tough grown men over at the Y (most of whom had already been soldiers by my age) who would treat me with respect because I was completely sincere. It was a special thing for me.
It took me about 25 years before I’d have to return to those early negative childhood experiences as I struggled with pervasive suicidal urges and a critical inner voice that wanted me, above all else, to just erase myself. After a lot of reading, writing, talking, and self-work, I learned to think of that inner torment as a fragment of my personality stuck in those early years of being bullied and stressed out, a splinter from my childhood mind that had never grown up. As an educated adult who practices a lot of introspection, I have been able to understand my self-destructive impulses in a way that helps me see what they really are: the impossible attempt of a kid trying to cope with his parents’ problems.
They never did get marriage counselling. But part of me is still back there in 1979, feeling like all the vehemence and shouting was my fault, anxious that any misstep could permanently bankrupt us, and searching feverishly for a place where I would not be noticed. Many of my life choices since then—some good, some not so good—can be traced back to those feelings. They are part of who I am, wired into the basis of my personality.
They’ve also helped me in a number of positive ways, especially, as a teacher, when I have encountered those things in students. But I know there will never be a time when I can take my own mind for granted. I will always have a self-destructive (and, when it’s at its worst, overtly suicidal) tendency to feel disproportionately responsible and to seek some kind of punishment, even if that self-punishment is inherently unjust.
The unevolved child in me thinks that if I had just disappeared everything would have been better for my parents or would be better now. Luckily, the compassionate adult part of me disagrees with that. And I prefer to live like an adult.