Sunday, November 20, 2011
Of Perfection, Roller-Coasters and Punching Kittens
Now I know why I love my friends so much. And why I blog about my ongoing issues publicly. I never know when the next moment of truth is going to dawn on me, but my friends provide it when I write honestly about my latest dilemma. I believe healing inside and out are two sides of the same coin, and this update of what I consider a “medical” issue is completely valid in this forum. Emotional health and physical health are intimately related, ideally combined as one, a cherished image of them sharing a symbiotic equipoise in the mind of a healthy soul. I have come to believe this so strongly. In the days after my first surgery, I blogged day and night about my earliest memories, searching for clues as to how I—as an adult—would reach back and reprioritize my memories (not change or delete, just reprioritize) in order to lead a healthier life. What scars us as children lays groundwork for how we make decisions as adults. Every major part of my life traces back to some early memory, often traumatic.
My first traumatic memory, for example, was that of helplessness. I saw a dog shot to death. It was struggling to get out of a ditch and a security guard filled it with bullets. I was two, and I stood right next to the gun as it emptied. I never spoke of this memory until recently and I never knew the dog was rabid. I grew up thinking the dog wanted me to help it, and I was powerless. To this day I feel anxiety over killing bugs; instead I take them outside if they are crawling the walls in our house. I coax them onto a tissue and I shake it off in the bushes. The other traumatic childhood memory is of guilt: my nanny died in childbirth after she decided she wanted a child just like me. That’s the way it was explained to me, and I grew up thinking I had killed someone who wanted to love me even more. These are very potent things to discuss openly, but they have been the main forces guiding how I live my life. That they are closer to the surface and not stuffed in a dark corner is a benefit to me. I’m less likely to beat myself up as I did growing up. I can—from the wisdom of middle age, at least—reason things out and tend to my scars in the daylight.
I received many thoughtful comments and emails on my latest blog. It surprised me. Often, with a blog, I think through it for days before crafting it and posting it. I’m usually proud of the pacing, the wit, the style, the grammar, etc., and (being honest) sometimes I am disappointed when I don’t get a lot of comments. For the last blog, however, I wrote like the sportswriter Red Smith: I sat at the typewriter and opened a vein. I received comments and private emails back that were almost essays, and I could fill a book with the wisdom communicated back to me. I have more work to do on my inside, my emotional health, and perhaps my low testosterone has knocked me down enough notches where it’s easier to take myself apart once again and reconsider some things. If I don’t sort this out my central serous chorioretinopathy will worsen. I could lose part of my vision permanently. It is that serious if I don’t sort this out now. My emotional health is a medical issue, so read on.
Perfect. Perfection. Someone I love very much pointed this out to me. How many times did I mention that word in my last blog? It wasn’t planned, and—I suppose—when I write without planning I wind up saying the darndest things. The belief we can achieve perfection is, as it was pointed out to me:
“A recipe for disaster....if we were perfect, or what we accomplished were perfect, we'd have no further reason to be alive as our work here is to do our best, which surely is striving towards fulfillment, not necessarily perfection. But if you're looking for the source of anxiety that is exacerbating the red dot, look no further.”
Agreed. As always, I try to think back to when ideas like that took hold. When I graduated high school and began my studies at Juilliard, my parents moved from our house to a new one they had built a few miles away. In every way I could see, they were “moving up” from a nice house to an even nicer one. My father’s career went into the next gear and—for the first time in my life—I sensed from my mother that she was not worried about everyone’s financial future. I was the youngest of her children and we were now out of the house at college and beyond. Empty nest. My mother had funds to play with and she bought art.
The most notable piece (to me, at least) was a 1960 untitled triptych by American painter Bob Thompson. I would stand before it often and study it, the bold colors and messy brush strokes burning brightly before my eyes. When my mother died in 2006 I asked to have this one. My mother sometimes stood next to me when I drank in the Bob Thompson adorning the dining room wall. As I study it now, in my own house, I imagine her next to me, so close I could hold her hand again. I remember the first time we discussed it.
“He died of a heroin overdose,” she said.
“True. He wasn’t even 30 years old. This is something new to you, Alexander.” Then she lectured me as if I were ten years old: “There are people who destroy themselves. But some leave behind art that is perfect.”
I have an excellent memory, and I can still hear that, word for word, ringing in my head. When I went back to New York to resume the semester at Juilliard, my teacher told me I wasn’t able to express the depth of a certain oboe etude because, in my life, I hadn’t “suffered enough.” Well, that sealed the deal.
I had suffered plenty—privately—by the time I was four with dog shootings and the guilt over my nanny’s death, and I had made my adolescence into a model of strength despite my unspoken traumas that didn’t fit with the rest of the nice things surrounding my life. Something contorted deeply inside me during the next few months, and it was the desire to manufacture a suffering that wasn’t really there. The innermost core of me suffered and knew pain, but I had mastered that for a while, so a second layer of false suffering—“virtual” suffering, perhaps, or a more public suffering—encased me for a while, and maybe it is still with me, intermixed with the rest of my “real” scars. I set “perfection” as the only acceptable goal from then on. Fail and I was worthless. Come in second place and I was worthless. The failure and the suffering might lead me to produce something perfect in the meantime, even if I destroyed myself in the process. It wasn’t about me, anyway. It was about what I left behind.
I’m not saying this added motivation hasn’t helped me in life; in fact, many of my accomplishments are as a result of this inner drive for perfection. I tend to be a lazy person otherwise, and without the self-loathing I might not have produced anything worthwhile. I just noticed the Wikipedia article about me is about the same length as the one about Bob Thompson. I wonder what my mother would think of that if she were still alive.
After considering this, I have to understand how this relates to my healing. It strikes me that my desire to be a “model” patient could have a dark side, too. “Model” is code for “perfect.” That relentless drive for perfection again, so catchy in advertisements yet potentially dangerous. Everyone praises my positive attitude despite my diagnosis, but I wonder if I am missing out on part of my healing by not “going with the flow” some more, going up and down on the roller-coaster and being more honest about the lows—brutally honest—about the bad days when, in the words of a friend, “you want to punch kittens.” As I learned through childhood, if you block out the lows too much (something I was good at) the highs aren’t as sweet. If you inure yourself to the swings you don’t hurt so much but you also miss the surprises. Another friend told me, “some parts of roller coaster rides are wonderful.” True. Maybe I forgot about that in my drive to be perfect.