The power of hurt

I used to believe that hurts just go away. I used to believe that if I push them down, put a smile on my face and just move on, that they just kind of dissolve. I’d feel better eventually. Everything would be fine.

I know now that’s not true.

Old hurts don’t “just go away.” No, what they do is fester. And, at least for me, as they fester, they get worse. They get infected. They spread to other areas of my life.

I grew up pretty isolated. Home was a painful place. Dad was angry, critical and abusive. When he was angry it was best to scatter and get out of his way. When he was in a good mood he teased and the teasing hurt as much as the angry criticism. Taking our cue from him, my siblings and I pretty much did the same things to each other that he did to us. Mom loved us but didn’t have the strength to stand up to him and he abused her as well.

School really wasn’t any better. I learned early on that the world was full of wolves and that the first second I showed any kind of weakness or vulnerability, they’d be on me. I was always pretty much the smallest, skinniest kid in school. Dad forced me to wear a crewcut when crewcuts were far from cool (this was the ‘70s). We lived on a ranch far from town so I never got to hang out with the other kids after school or on the weekends. I was always different and never fit in.

In 8th grade a new kid moved to town and for a very brief time I had a friend I could really connect with. That ended early on in high school when he betrayed me. I never trusted him again.

I never trusted anyone. I kept everything hidden. Inside I was freaking out, torn by emotions I couldn’t completely control and had no understanding of. I was alone and lost and frightened. I lived in fear of the next mistake at school, when the wolf pack would attack and shred me with their teasing. (I had a nickname that filled me with shame. There were kids who thought it was the height of humor to suddenly shout it out in the middle of class for no reason so that everyone could have a good laugh at my expense. I never showed that it hurt or bothered me. I believed what they told me, that if you don’t let them know they’re getting to you, they’ll eventually stop. That’s a goddamned lie.)

Except for angry outbursts at home when the pressure became too much, no one ever knew what I was going through. I was very good at hiding.

I went away to college and things were better. People were kinder. I had friends and felt accepted for the first time in my life. When I came near suicide after my freshman year I realized I had to change or it was going to kill me and I set out on a lifelong quest for some kind of inner peace. That quest has been the defining feature of my life.

Along the way I learned the importance of forgiveness. I forgave my father and others who had hurt me. I made amends for the hurtful things I had done. (And there were plenty. I turned on others whenever I could if it meant they didn’t get the chance to turn on me first.)

I learned to trust people more. I remade my life and it is a good one by all measures. Although I grew up in a painful, angry, broken home, I have broken the cycle. This fall my wife and I will have 20 years of marriage. I have two sons, both teenagers, and we have a very good relationship. Their childhoods are nothing like mine and I feel good about that.

But I have never been able to get completely over my past. I control it so that it doesn’t hurt those around me, but I still have a deep rage just below the surface. I still feel haunted by fear, mostly fear that people won’t like me. I haven’t let this fear control my life—I’ve traveled extensively, I’ve taught high school, I’ve worked with kids—but it has never gone away. I’ve faced it as much as I can, but I’ve also hidden from it a lot when I couldn’t take it anymore, mostly by drinking. I’ve done a lot of drinking. It makes the fear go away for a while.

I’ve also battled depression. My depression has gotten better. It doesn’t get me for days or weeks like it used to, but it’s always there waiting for me, a cliff edge I can never get very far away from.

Recently, while researching rejection for curriculum I am writing for adolescent male support groups, I came upon some interesting information. I learned that the emotional pain of rejection uses the same neural pathways as physical pain does. However, unlike physical pain, which recedes over time, emotional pain doesn’t. Try it. Close your eyes and try to remember how it felt when you really hurt yourself physically. Can’t do it, can you? Now, try and recall the most humiliating, shameful moment of your life, when you just wanted to sink through the floor. It’s still there, right?

Emotional pain doesn’t just go away.

According to the research I found, the pain of rejection is pretty much the greatest pain we humans can endure. Perhaps this is due to our distant, tribal past, when being rejected by the group meant getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Perhaps it’s because all life is connected on a deeper, spiritual level. Whatever the reason, the need to belong, to be accepted, is, after food and water and air, the most fundamental need every human being has.

I also learned that when we humans are rejected, we will go to great lengths to gain reacceptance. But what happens when we can’t get that acceptance? Depending on the person, we fall into depression, self-harm, escapism, anger and violence. Or all of the above. Males, especially, are prone to violence in our society, probably due to the fact that societal norms dictate that males have no feelings. To have feelings, to admit that our feelings are hurt, is to be called a “girl” or a baby or worse. Anger is often the only real outlet left.

So, what is an abusive, or absent, or emotionally unavailable parent to a child but the ultimate form of rejection? The earliest, most fundamental social circle for a child is the parents. When they reject the child it creates a deep hurt. When the child can’t gain that acceptance at home, the next step is to look further afield. School. Peers. Teachers. If the acceptance can be found there, it helps a lot. Doesn’t fix the fundamental hurt, but it does help.

But if the child can’t find it there either, what then? Maybe a lifelong battle with depression. Maybe an unquenchable anger.

Maybe a deep, irrational fear that the acceptance I have found as an adult is only an illusion. At any moment I could be found out and then I will go back to being isolated and alone. Only this time it would kill me.

That’s what I mean when I say that old hurts don’t just go away. I’m coming to see that this kind of sustained emotional trauma leaves a deep pain that affects my life decades later.

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this deep well of pain inside me that I am finally, fearfully acknowledging. I know I have to feel it, that I can no longer minimize it, pretend it isn’t all that bad. I have to move through it to get to the other side.

Whatever it takes, I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to finally be free.

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