Something different happened this past weekend. I knocked over a glass of milk, but I didn’t shriek and I didn’t call myself a moron. I got a sponge and I cleaned it up. It took about a minute. It was a nice feeling.
I don’t know how I got this way. Wait, that’s not true. I do know how I got this way; I just don’t remember getting this way. I can only imagine that many decades ago, when I did something that small children do, like knocking over milk, my father screamed at me. It created what someone explained to me as a highly developed startle response.
I don’t remember being yelled at. But I do know that somewhere along the way, I developed a deep, instinctual sense of shame and fear for doing something clumsy. For doing something that kids can’t help. And now, decades later, after years of therapy and recovery, I’m trying to fix it, to finally suck out the poison that my father injected into me day after day.
I did take one positive step many years ago. I decided not to have kids. My gift to the succeeding generation was not to rain upon them the terror of the previous generation, and the easiest way to deliver that gift was not to have a succeeding generation. I’ve never regretted that.
I have regretted that I’ve carried the poison of the previous generation in my blood, as sure as I carried its DNA and hereditary traits. It wasn’t even that I heard their voices in my head, although I do remember that my father would frequently rail about us kids “taking stupid pills.” No, this had to have happened earlier, before I was good at forming memory.
All I know is how it manifested itself, turning me into a neurotic, people-pleasing goody two-shoes (and when I wasn’t that, I was the exact opposite: a manipulative, cruel asshole). My years of therapy taught me to love and nurture that little boy – because his parents were so bad at it – but like Soviet agents launching a cyberattack, they got into his basic operating system, and did such a fantastic job of it that all the subsequent apps in the world couldn’t erase what they programmed in at the very beginning. It’s a frustrating state of affairs: to want to reboot and not knowing which buttons to press on the keyboard.
In the realm of recovery, people say it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I don’t agree with that. I’ll never be able to go back and change an unhappy childhood. But more than sixty years in, I’m just trying to be patient. As with any twelve-step issue, admitting the problem is the first step. Hearing that the startle response had a name was wonderfully empowering. Short-circuiting it is challenging, but I’m trying. I’m trying to be patient with myself. I’m trying to be patient with that little boy. I’m trying to act, rather than to react.