The Backstory of My Life…
Song writer: Bob Dylan, 1967
Performed by: Jimi Hendrix, 1968
I am writing this because I recently discovered the two words that describe the one lifelong condition that I have, the two words that explain everything – every odd or mystifying or exasperating thing that I have said or done, every difficulty that I have ever had, every hurtful thing that I have ever said or done, the difficulties I have had accomplishing my objectives, literally everything. These are not words that are new to me, probably not new to anyone, but for me the discovery was like shining a huge spotlight on my life exposing everything… anxiety and panic.
Before reading this you perhaps should read the narrative to this backstory here on my website: https://mickwebsite.com click on my grade 9 class pic :) It is a much different perspective, a positive view of my life. This backstory is a difficult, sad story.
The first time I realised there was something seriously wrong with me was when I was 16 years old. I did not know the words to put to it, and in my very dysfunctional home there was no such thing as talking about anything, but something definitely was not right with me. I have since been through a lot of therapy, including many years of counselling and working with a psychoanalyst, trying to determine how I got to be this way. For some years I thought it was depression because one counsellor suggested that. But that has not been it.
Anxiety And Panic
Recently I had a moment wherein I discovered the words anxiety and panic. Certainly I have known these words for many years, but I have never thought of them in the context of me - until recently. Now, many of the things that have happened throughout my life finally make sense to me. My entire, difficult life experience makes sense to me when I view it in the context of these two words.
The moment was like a scene in a movie. I saw a long road, there were thousands of spotlights shining down on the road, each illuminating one of the moments of my life when I said or did something that made no sense to people around me, or perhaps was hurtful, or I just mightily pissed someone off. During that moment I saw each and every one of those incidents.
This anxiety is with me always. It is a physiological condition. I feel it as tension in my arms and chest. Sometimes, like when I am by myself in my home or out in my backyard meadow, it may be mild but it is there. Often, as in social circumstances, it is debilitating. In some circumstances it has risen literally to a state of sheer, paralysing panic.
Anxiety does two things to me - it displaces feelings and inhibits my ability to think clearly. The effect of these is that I say and do things erratically - I say things that I do not mean, and often my behaviour is puzzling to those around me. I say and do things that are not characteristic of normal, human, feelings-based behaviour. Since I have rarely had any feelings inside me to guide my behaviour, I have often said things or did things that made no sense to those around me.
I do not know how many times I have been explicitly called stupid or dumb; or things I said or did were described that way. It was mainly in my early life but it still feels like it happened every day of my life. As a consequence I am always consciously afraid of being belittled whenever I might speak or whatever I might do.
The mother. The screaming, emotionally immature, out of control mother. She literally screamed the life out of me and screamed the anxiety into me. If she did not actually scream every single day it still feels like she did. I hated her. When I was too young to know the word hate or even what hate was, I hated her. The strongest experience I have ever had in my life was the intensity of the hate I had for her. She literally screamed the life out of me and screamed the anxiety into me.
One time I described it as being afraid of the blood running through my veins, or being afraid of the air around me. Another time I described myself as being like an alien, always feeling like I do not belong here, wherever here was at the time. One day many years ago it felt for a moment like the screaming had stopped. A distinct, however temporary, feeling of peacefulness inside. An emptiness inside where the screaming had gone on for so many years.
I have been living with this ever since I was a pre-teen child. Or maybe even sooner? I once had a dream that I had not yet been born. I was in the uterus. I was at an advanced stage. I hated being in there, although I did not understand hate and had no concept of in here vs out there. It was the constant screaming, making me crazy. "Get me out of this Hell-hole!". Just a dream? A family member spoke one time of a dream that mother was a Witch. This does not surprise me.
Although I did from time to time ask my mother about some things: “How do the babies get out? The doctor opens a small door on my side… What is the scientific word for fart? Gaseous effusion…“. She was good at answering questions at an appropriate level, and she knew that I was a scientist at a young age. And she did do the very best job that she could of being a mother, it is just that her very best was not very good. She was a good cook so we always ate well. Roast beef with carrots and potatoes cooked around the roast, hamburgers on Saturday nights, fresh veggies from our own garden, various cakes and pies baked from scratch for dessert, Christmas pudding with hard sauce, and Christmas cake both dark and white. But the screaming…
I have been mystified when people talk about their fond memories of childhood, even back to age two or three. For myself there had been no feelings back then, so no memories. I understand about this now as I have had good experiences over the decades where I had a part in creating fond memories for children as a good neighbour, a martial arts teacher, and as a friend. Unfortunately, unlike in the movies, in real life understanding does not fix the damage.
Memories are based on the feelings of the moment. I do not believe so much in memory as an intellectual, brain concept but rather have experienced it as a feelings, emotions concept. So for the 1947 family train trip out west, when I was 5 years old, I have exactly two recollections - a car trip on a miserable rainy day, with me in the front seat, on the lap of a horrible man with a scratchy beard, smelling of alcohol and tobacco, absolutely hating having his arms around me, trying to get away, my head banging on the windshield when sudden brakes were applied; and my envy of my brother when they unloaded his brand new bright red tricycle from the train. Two feelings, two memories.
In the Cubs I managed to earn seven badges - quite an accomplishment for me in that time and place. I recall going downtown to be tested for a collectors badge. I had collected matchbooks, thumb tacking them onto a piece of Ten Test. All around me kids are running around proud and happy, with a parent. Me alone and scared with my large board.
My presentation did not fit the rules. No one told me the rules. I failed. They did use that word in those days. There was a rule book. The leaders should have had one. They should not have let me go there on my own, so unprepared. But they did that. They failed! But I started over and got that fuckin’ badge the next time. Feelings and memories.
When I was a young chemist I did that whole scientist thing alone - no one ever came down to my lab to see what or how I was doing. This seems really strange now that I have seen so much interaction between parents and children in other families - children actually being listened to, being talked to on their level, being looked after and being loved. It was certainly good for me that I found that hobby. It is the foundation upon which rests all of the many successes that I have had.
As an older boy and young teenager, friends in the neighbourhood would from time to time exclaim “Mick, you’re crazy!”. This happened often enough that I took it on as a positive personal characteristic, something to be proud of. Since I am that crazy guy I am not a “nothing”. At the time I did not have this thought explicitly, but it was there implicitly. It got to the point that I was proud of being "crazy" because ..., well, ... at least it was something, or I was something. And it was usually said in a good natured way because my neighbourhood friends were not abusive.
Although I really did feel more like a “nothing”; that is if I felt anything at all. They were not abusing me or in any way being mean. It is just that I had said something or done something that made no sense to another kid. “Blurted out” might be a better word than “said”. One time I recall suddenly skipping along the sidewalk away from the group, and then back again, to their dismay. “Mick, you’re crazy!” No, not crazy, the anxiety had built up perhaps to panic; I had to get out!
In my later teen years and beyond I expressed this to myself as being spontaneous rather than crazy; that was a more positive view. But the truth is that my behaviour has often been unpredictable, crazy, perhaps hurtful to others, not based on feelings and clear thinking like a normal human.
I recall one time as an older teenager having had a difficult time, I went to bed, and cried myself to sleep. On awakening the bad feelings were gone. I felt better. In that moment I made the explicit decision that feelings did not matter; they were unimportant, they need not be a part of life. If they evaporate as easily as going to sleep then they really do not matter. How did I survive socially with no feelings inside? I paid close attention to what other people said and did, and simply mimicked them.
I used to wonder when I would become a man. I was well into my twenties when I saw much younger guys who were men in my eyes, but not me. As a kid I used to wonder how my brother could talk to the men in the neighbourhood.
I have wondered why I had to do so much more work than others to do reasonably well in my favourite academic subjects. Now I understand why I had such a difficult time in school, right through university. I had to do much more actual work to get good grades than the other guys. I remember watching some of the high-IQ guys sitting in the cafeteria virtually talking in calculus, and wondering how they could do that and I could not. I was enjoying what others considered the more difficult subjects - physics, chemistry, maths, economics, computer science, systems engineering - but it was so hard to learn, to think, to pass exams. I had to memorise a lot rather than just learn.
As a teen and young man I could never have a relationship that lasted more than a few weeks or that had any depth of feeling. Looking back at those times I had rationalised that we were just not right for each other. The end result is that I have never been able to have a successful intimate relationship.
Ah yes, the 60s! At one of those parties where there was a Purple Jesus bucket at the front door. Lots of drinking. MaryJane everywhere. Lots of good young people having a good time. I strike up a conversation with this girl who happens to know me from high school. She is telling me about her relationship with her mother. Her mom is her best friend. She talks about how they stay up late at night sometimes just talking. She goes on and on. I cannot listen to this! How can that be!? I am telling her that I actually, really hate my mother. My friend overhears this conversation and later takes me to task for my comments. "She is your MOTHER! How can you say that!" I was in tears during this confrontation. I understood nothing about this.
As a young man I always wondered what groups of people were talking about. How do they do that? One time before a social engagement I wrote a list on a scrap of paper and stuffed it in my pocket, so that if there was a lull in the conversation I could peek at it and have something to say. Another time I joined a group in the cafeteria. They were talking about politics. Of course I was “anxious” to fit in. I had previously heard someone make a derisive comment about Joe Clark. I inserted the same comment into the conversation. Well, this was a group of the campus young Conservatives. It did not work out well.
All Men Are Bad!
About twenty five years ago I had an epiphany – I discovered that I believe that “all men are bad”. I first expressed this in a men’s group that I was a part of - like a 1970s encounter group only this was the mid 1990s. We met every week or two at a member’s home and talked about stuff. Man stuff. Helping each other. Sorting out the stuff in our lives. Having feelings. Whatever. My good friend who took it personally exclaimed "Do you actually think I am bad!?" He was actually my best friend in the group. Lived around the corner. How do you make friends with guys when you believe subconsciously that they are all bad?
Recently another revelation - I am a man, so I am a part of the group of “all men”. So I believe, at least subconsciously, that I am bad. Not a healthy belief in any circumstance.
More recently I discovered, not surprisingly, that “I hate all women”. Yes, all of them! It is not just that mother but all of them. It is no wonder I have had such difficulties with intimate relationships all of my life. Well, too late now. I gave up on those a quarter century ago. The last couple of times, good while they lasted, ended up being no good for either of us, and more difficult for her than me. She had feelings. I have not so much as held a girl's hand for more than 20 years. Simpler this way. But a bit crappy when I think about it.
As an older man, a motorcyclist, a biker, I used the same mechanic for about 15 years. I describe him as one of the worlds’ good men. He is a motorcycle mechanic, a truck mechanic, a marine mechanic, a welder, and an overall good guy.
Through those whole 15+ years, every time on my way to his shop, I was filled with dread. He will laugh at me. He will exclaim about what a stupid thing I had done. He can not help me. And more. In reality none of that. That was just me and my brutal childhood consequences. One day in particular as he saw me enter the shop he stopped immediately what he was doing, leaned on the counter and said "So, what's going on today?" I expect that he saw the pained expression on my face. Of course he solved both problems, my technical problem, and my anxiety of the moment.
Like the annual Home County Folk Festival held here ever since the early 70s. I go, hang around, leave. I do not belong here. As leader of a large charity motorcycle ride I would feel that I did not belong with these people. At Jeep events, same thing. Any social gathering. It has always been like that. Everywhere. Wherever. I don’t belong here. Like an alien.
In a group meeting the leader asked us a question: "Tell us about what you consider a major loss in your life". People mentioned various things, typically death of a parent, family breakups, loss of job, etc. I spontaneously said "Childhood, I had no childhood, was never a child". Shock throughout the room. Lots of grumbling etc. "Of course you were a child!". I said "No! I was not. That part of life does not exist for me".
One thing that I have tried to do recently is sense when the anxiety is present and then become an observer rather than a participant in whatever is going on. Rather than participating in a foolish way in a conversation or activity I try to simply observe and let others come to me. However, it cannot work out like that as I am in a state of no feelings and no clear thinking so there is no deciding to observe only. Usually I have already said or done something that I regret before I realise what is going on inside me; it is the regret that brings it to me that it is time to retreat from participating and to just watch.
My sense is that there has never been a time in my life when I was literally, genuinely "happy" - like children that I see from time to time who are playing and laughing uncontrollably, or who are out walking with a parent holding hands, or those parents, or whatever. I think that I have always had this cloud of anxiety around and within me keeping me disconnected from life.
I often have moments when I regretfully recall one of the many stupid, foolish, hurtful times, however many years ago, whatever age I was, when I behaved outside of feelings. And now I know what was going on - anxiety and panic. And why not only school but everything was so difficult. And why all those other people were so much better at so many things. And it is still the same today, only now I know what is going on.
How Did I Manage?
Regardless of all this, throughout my life, in all things, I did the best that I could in whatever circumstances…
● I did get more badges in Cubs than anyone else in the group so I was appointed as the “Senior Sixer”
● I succeeded quite well in my childhood business selling magazines door to door in my neighbourhood, so I could earn that so-important chemistry set
● I developed a goal for my adult life, being a chemist, very early on, so that I was always motivated to continue
● I never gave up school in spite of failing twice – I responded by just working harder
● I earned very high ratings from my students both at the College and in my other teaching experiences: maths tutoring, photography, martial arts, and off-road Jeeping
● I was asked to be the moderator of the IronHead forum
● I did well as a board member and Field Trip planner for the nature club,
● and as a board member and Trail Maintenance Director for the hiking club,
● and as the Program Coordinator at work,
● and as a Leader in my street neighbourhood,
● and more…
But sometimes the best I could was not good enough - even in difficult times when I was being annoying or perhaps harmful to other people, I was doing the best that I could in that time and place.
Once I figured all of this out it made sense of all of the difficulties that I struggled with throughout my entire child-teen-adult-old man life. Mostly, I think people perhaps did not notice - however I behaved, to them that was my personality, they would be OK with it or not, and befriend me or not. I have enough native intelligence to have figured out how to get by. By the time I was a young adult I had observed correct behaviour enough that I could simply mimic it in most situations by saying only things like others had already said, and doing only things like others had already done; or saying nothing and just following along. I have done this consciously, explicitly. Except sometimes I misjudged and got laughed at or pissed someone off mightily.
Now I understand this part of me - I can think of only one thing at a time. A simple example - give me directions from A to B where there are a few or several steps. By the time you have told me the first two or three, I have forgotten the 1st or 2nd. It is the anxiety that interferes, the fear that I will get it wrong. A higher up example - when I was graduating from being a MSc student to a PhD program I could not visualise the next step for my thesis. It just would not come to me, like it was an empty space. Now it is obvious what I should have and could have done, but at that time it was just that empty space. Anyway, I resigned my position at UWO, and very much enjoyed teaching at Fanshawe College for the next 25 years.
And remembering people's names! I meet someone, I shake the hand the way you are supposed to, say the right formal words, and by this time the anxiety has risen to the point that there are no feelings to latch the name into my memory, so the name is lost. It is embarrassing. They always remember my name. I virtually always forget theirs. This makes it very difficult to build friend relationships.
I could go on and on but I won't, or perhaps I already have? The screaming mother is the problem, the anxiety and panic are the symptoms, the difficulty with feelings and clear thinking are a consequence and the cause of all of the problems I have experienced getting through this life.
screaming mother -> anxiety -> no feelings -> no clear thinking -> problems -> never give up -> have a goal -> work to my goal -> have a moderately successful life
Now approaching my 80th birthday, although I have never been happy, I am content that I have done the best that I can with a life that had such a poor start. I am still working on being around for another 20 years, so I am not expecting to "retreat from participating in life" in any serious way :)
BTW, it is not too late to go here… https://mickwebsite.com click on my grade 9 class pic :) It is a much different perspective, a more positive view of my life.