Thursday, February 10, 2011

Can You Love that Child?

"I hate him," I told Susan.  I realized what I said.  I began to cry.

"Hate's a strong word," Susan responded, writing on her lined, yellow pad.

"I know it is.  It's how I feel."

"Why do you hate him?"

I thought for a moment, making sense of how I felt.  "I hate him because he's gay.  Because he put me through so much."  I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.  "He was gutless, that's what he was. He never stood up for himself.  He let the other kids call him names.  He let them punch and trip and hit him.  He was soft and sensitive, always scared of being hurt physically.  Why wasn't he tougher, like all the other little boys?  Why didn't he fight back?"

"Is that what you think he should have done--fought all the other children who called him names, who hurt him physically?"

"Yes."  I was emphatic.  "That would have been better than taking it all, wouldn't it?"  Susan scribbled on the pad.  I pulled a tissue from the box beside me.  "I wish he hadn't been born gay."

Susan sat quietly, the room silent.  I heard a car speed up the street out front.

"I take that back," I continued.  "I wish he'd been born in a world where it was all right to be gay."

"That's the point, isn't it," Susan said, smiling warmly.  "It's not about the little boy.  He was born that way.  He had no choice in the matter.  It was the world that didn't accept him."  She paused.  "Knowing this, can you now embrace that little boy, take him into your heart?"

"No, I can't."  My answer was quick.  "There's too much hurt.  I've been through too much because of him."

Susan sat motionless in her large upholstered chair.  "Do you think that little boy is at fault?" she asked. "Do you blame him?"

"I don't know."  I shook my head.  "All I know is what I've put up with all these years, how tough it's been."

Susan looked at her watch.  "I see our time is almost up for today."  Her voice was soft, soothing.  I wiped my eyes with the tissue.  "But I don't want that little boy to be left hanging until the next time. Since you can't accept him yet, I want you to leave him with someone or something that can. Who would you like to leave him with?"

I had no idea.  What the hell was she talking about--leave him with something?  He'd been left alone before.  He'd been alone most of his life.

Then I had the answer.

"I want to leave him with a dog," I said.

Susan seemed pleased.  "What kind of dog?"

I thought.  "A German Shepard."

"Good choice.  Now, I want you to imagine that little boy under the protection of a German Shepard. There he sits, his arms firmly wrapped around the dog's neck.  The dog accepts him, unconditionally, in a way you can't now."  I saw the little boy, hugging the large dog.  "The next time we meet," Susan continued.  "I want to work on uniting the little boy and you.  Give some thought to what we discussed today.  See if you can find space in your heart for him."

As I walked out of the large, old house that was now a professional building, I thought about that little boy and me, what it would take to bring us together.


  1. Love. OF course. Which is the title of this post.

    The way in which you describe this session, it's so vivid, so visceral.

    It's so very true that there's often a separation and disconnection, because it's the only way we can survive.

    Amazing Rick, and I'm looking forward to more about this.

    And to answer the question, yes. Unconditionally, wholly and absolutely forever. That little boy, and all the others who were/have been/are lost, and feel unloved.

  2. Wow, this made me want to cry, Rick. The idea that if you could have done things differently, behaved differently, that there would have been a different outcome. Such a natural feeling, that 20/20 hindsight, but so unrealistic, too. We do what we are capable of at the time. So unfair to expect more of ourselves through the lens of adulthood. This makes me think of my son who was bullied, too. A sweet, sensitive kid, we called him Christopher Robin when he was little. And when I saw it happening, part of me (most of me) was outraged and angry at the bullies and the teachers, but a little part wanted to help him toughen up, too, knowing that the world would always be tough, that there would always be people waiting to take advantage, wanting to give him some survival skills. We just don't want the ones we love to suffer, and sometimes expect too much of them, whether they are our actual children, or our young selves. I guess it's also about forgiveness. Forgiving yourself for wanting the sweet child to have a tough shell to protect him.

  3. @Heather: So I have a confession. If you didn't realize it, this came directly from personal experience--during a series of counselling sessions two years ago. Yup, it was a tough thing to go through, but did I learn a lot And, as you correctly pointed out, the answer absolutely was love--for myself. Took me a while to get there, but I did. And I'm so pleased to read that you did, too. Great job.

    I'm not sure this is true for everyone, but I suspect it is. When it comes to loving ourselves, I think we're really talking about loving the little child inside each of us. In my case, there was a sense of betrayal I needed to work through, as though that wonderful, innocent boy was to blame for all the hurt I've taken over the years. Of course, he wasn't. And, as Susan said during the course of counselling, he really did the best he could at the time in very tough situations. He coped the only way he knew how, and I can't hate him for that. In fact, I have to love him for that. He got me through, where that is not always the case for everyone.

    @Sarah: Where part of this came from is the feeling I had that children are so different today. When I was growing up, any authority figure was accorded the utmost respect, even though they may not have earned it. So I never learned to speak up for myself. I obeyed my parents, even though, in many respects, they were awful at the job, and I never created a raucous at school, because I didn't want to anger the teachers or attract more attention to myself, and I had no clue how to be spirited.

    I look at Kurt on "Glee," how he handles being gay, and he's light years ahead of where I was when I was in high school. He has a sense of himself, he celebrates who he is through his wild attire and the confident attitude, and he's not afraid to stand up for himself. He even had the balls to confront Dave Karofsky, the ultimate tormentor. That was not me, not by a long shot.

    So I wonder how different my life would be today if I had conducted myself more like Kurt. But I know that never could have happened, because times were so different. Because gay kids back in the 1970s would have been killed if they were out like Kurt. You couldn't do that. No way.

    If I hadn't already done this, I think I've just talked myself through understanding why I was the way I was, and why I had no choice but to be that way. Different times, huh? I imagine it still isn't easy being gay for young people, but it seems a hell of a lot easier than it was when I was young.

    My thanks to both of you for your comments. I really appreciate them.

  4. Thanks for posting this Rick. It really made me think about my own childhood. I think one of the reasons I did not experience the same level of bullying that you did, is that I had a younger brother who was always quick to make fun of me or wanted to fight me. Perhaps that prepared me to deal with potential bullies before they became a big problem. I just saw them as no smarter (or no more harmful) than a "dumb little brother." To this day, I would say that my greatest bully (certainly physically) has been my own brother. Of course there are myriad factors that can affect a childhood experience, such as the culture of the decade, or the town (neighbourhood) you grow up in. My feeling is that the teachers in your school were particularly negligient, and one would hope it would be less likely to occur today, but of course we know that bullying is a social issue that still needs a lot more attention!

  5. Doug, your comment got me thinking, too. I had a little brother myself, when I was three, for about six weeks. Kevin was born in 1962, a year after my sister, and he died of sudden infant death syndrome, or crib death.

    Over the years, I've often thought about what my life would have been like if Kevin had lived, how different it might have been. I wonder if having a brother would have helped me in any way to normalize my feelings toward straight men, especially since my father was emotionally detached from all of us. I've even wondered if Kevin himself might have been gay, since gay siblings are not unheard of, in which case, I would have had an ally (if we had been comfortable enough to reveal ourselves to each other).

    Of course, I'll never know. But that yearning I've always had, to be validated by a straight male--which I've written about in my earlier posts--may have been satisfied, in the absence of my father, by a brother who was straight. Oh, well, everything happens for a reason, right?

    A few questions, if you don't mind me asking: Are you and your brother close? How does he feel about you being gay? Do you think he helped you form your masculine identity?

    On the subject of the teachers in the schools I attended, well, I can't say many of them saw what happened to me. The other kids were clever as hell. The majority of the bullying took place when no teacher or adult was around.

    For example, the PE locker rooms. The teachers never seemed to be there. So, while everyone changed into gym clothes, the bullying took place. If the teacher appeared, everything got quiet. That's the thing about bullying--it's insidious. The kids know it's wrong, because they stop it when the teacher is there, but, otherwise, it goes on, and no one can do anything about it.

    And I couldn't say anything to the teachers that it was going on because it would have embarrassed me to tell them what was being done to me and why, and, had the bullies gotten into trouble, I would have gotten it even worse later on.

    Anyway, I'm way past the bullying. That's not what I want to focus on.

    The focus on this piece was really around the disconnect many of us feel between who we are today and the children we once were and continue to be, to some degree, throughout our lives. I think that child is our true self, the essence of who we are, and I'm willing to bet many adults have grievances with the children they once were. The challenge is to stop blaming the child for whatever we think he's done to us, and to embrace him fully, which amounts to having love for him, or for oneself. Anyway, that's how I look at it, given my experience. Maybe my view will help someone else see himself more clearly.

    Thanks so much for your ongoing interest in my blog and for taking the time to write a comment.

  6. Yeah, times are certainly better, today Rick, but in many places not as idealized as Kurt's world is, either. And regardless of the culture at large, our parents, and the type of interaction they demand is huge. My mom always encouraged us to argue our points (respectfully), while my husband was raised in a household where, not only were mom and dad never wrong, but they were never to be questioned. If you grow up believing your parents are infallible, then when there's a conflict, the child/teen is always "wrong." your coping skills when you are young are only as good as the tools you are given. You survived, and have gone on to create a remarkably rich and satisfying life. Your "little boy" was ultimately successful!

  7. Sarah, I realize Kurt's situation on "Glee" is somewhat idealized, and, certainly, I did not have a Kurt-like role model when I was growing up. So, at the time, having a sense of who I was and standing up for myself weren't options.
    But I think many young people are more self-possessed today, less likely to allow themselves to be victims, and I applaud that. If it means they have the courage to face their bullies and do something about the abuse they take, then so much the better.
    The example of the household where your husband was raised is a good and eye-opening one. That's exactly what it was like for me. I see now how awful my parents were, far too young to have children with no life skills in their teens and early twenties, let alone parenting skills. But I didn't know any better. I thought every household was the same. So I went along with it.
    But I love how I believe some households are today, where children are raised to think for themselves and to be spirited. I hope they would not be afraid to speak up for themselves should they believe they're not getting what they need in terms of encouragement, validation, and the like. That's how I think households should be. There's little value in situations where children are raised not much better than the family pets (perhaps an extreme example, but you get my point).
    And thanks so much for the comment about my little boy being ultimately successful. You are so right. But what a long and tough road it's been. I often wonder if it would have been less long and tough had I not been gay. I think that definitely added a whole other component to it. I guess I'll never know.
    Thanks so much for your comment.

  8. I understand how you must feel about losing your younger brother. He could very well have been an ally or at least an instructive figure for you. I think it really depends on basic personalities, whether brothers get along or not. My brother and I were friends sometimes and fought other times. As we got older, we became more and more enemies. He sometimes encouraged his friends to join him in taunting me. I think I tend to distrust men in general as a result. I always wished I had a cool older sister. Most of my friends are women. Despite being intelligent, my brother did not behave in school, made the wrong friends, did not complete high school, did not act responsibily in the jobs he got. He became a drug addict in his late teens and eventually became homeless seven or eight years ago. I don't have any contact with him. It has been quite an ordeal for my parents. Most of my friends cannot believe that my brother and I are actually related. I always remember him being unhappy about his situation in life, thinking that he was getting a bad deal. I don't know what could have made us so different, but being gay is such a minor challenge compared with what my brother now faces. Who knows if I could have helped him if I had been a sister or straight brother. I believe some undetected mental health issues may have led him to trap of addiction.

  9. Thank you, Doug, for this comment. You have been so open and honest, and I appreciate that.
    The situation with your brother is so sad. I assume he's your only sibling. Because of what's happened, you must feel in some sense like you're an only child, and like you're helpless to do anything. I can't imagine growing up at home was easy for you. I have to assume, from what you've said, your brother was uncomfortable with you, whether he knew you were gay or not (probably you didn't even know at the time either).
    At the risk of prying where I shouldn't, can you explain what situation in his life he was unhappy about? What kind of bad deal he thought he was getting? I just want to understand better. I'm not trying to be nosey. I understand if you don't want to say anymore.
    I was blown away by what you shared with us, never expecting it. Like I said, thank you. It couldn't have been easy for you to write it.

  10. I'm happy to share this with you and your readers Rick. I think it was more of a case of sibling rivalry. When my brother realized he could put me down by pointing out my "gay" personality traits (explicitly or implicitly) he tried to take advantage of that. I don't know why he was so dissatisfied. Even at Christmas he'd only be happy for about 20 minutes, and then he'd be complaining about something. He thought I always got more than him, though my parents were very careful to be impartial. He was even mad that I got to learn to drive before him (I guess he couldn't stand being younger). Of course there were fun times with him too. I guess for me it was super easy to be the "good boy" but for him it was excruciating, so he decided to be the "bad boy."

    Unfortunately, he was shy with strangers, so it was hard for him to make new friends. He was a "head banger" in high school in the 80s... and I liked Wham, without realizing that made me gay, although he promptly pointed it out to me. I went to private school in Vancouver, but he didn't want to do the same, and dropped out of school in grade 10 in Abbotsford. So we were definitely on divering courses. I guess my parents had no idea how to deal with my brother based on their experience with me.

    The drug addiction was like a car crash that occured slowly over 15 years (figuratively and literally, he totaled two of my parents cars!). When it reached the point where my parents had to kick him out for good and retire to Chilliwack just avoid being continued enablers for him (money and shelter), that was the hardest. My Dad still sees him several times a year (contact through cell phone and my uncle), but my brother is always in and out of shelters, jail, or rehab programs, etc.

    It is humbling to realize that sometimes there is nothing you can do for an addict who does not want to or cannot change (except maybe tough love), especially as a family member. It is humbling to think that could have been me if the genetic dice had been rolled differently. To me it will always remain the problem that had no solution. However, I believe the issues of homelessness and addiction do have deep mental health roots, and society needs to be more proactive in trying to find constructive solutions, however long it may take.

  11. Wow! Your candor here, Doug, is astounding and appreciated.

    It can't be easy to recall some of this and must be difficult to acknowledge the relationship you have with your brother isn't what it could be, or what you'd like it to be. I assume he is your only sibling, so that has to be even harder.

    I wish I could offer hope by writing, you never know, he might come around, but I'm not sure that's realistic under the circumstances. Only you and your family know what you've been through, and whether or not resolution is possible.

    Thank you so much for sharing, and for helping us to understand addiction and homelessness better.