Sep 1, 2023
content warning: contains mention of death and childhood trauma
When I was a kid I was inundated with advice on how to be a person. I heard it in church, in school, in books. I was lost as a kid, maybe in a way that all kids are, or maybe just kids in difficult situations.
I took every nugget of advice very literally– I took challenges I faced in life as indicators of my own shortcomings, which they rarely if ever were. But advice on how to be a person felt like it might be the antidote to my problems.
I would obsess over the phrase “What would Jesus do?” Would Jesus stay up late to finish his homework? Or would he care for his body by getting a full night of sleep? Would Jesus speak up when someone was hurting him? Or search for empathy and compassion and understanding at the expense of his own well-being?
I also remember, likely from children’s books, hearing a message to “just be yourself,” but the examples provided usually involved someone hiding something for fear of how it might be received. I didn’t even know what, if anything, I was hiding.
I understood myself entirely in relation to others. If I was getting good grades and making people happy I was Good. If I was winning at a competition in a way that upset someone or getting rejected or failing at something I was Bad. And I felt a lot of shame any time I was Bad, because I wanted more than anything in the world to be Good. Because my being Bad was probably the cause of the trauma I was experiencing, and I wanted it to stop.
I did want very much to just be myself, but I was so far removed from who or what that was. I was adaptable; I still maintain that you could give me just about any job and I could find joy in it. I loved, for example, cleaning pools and re-stocking fireworks and passing appetizers as a cater waiter. I could get excited about a lot of things. My life was really quite miserable as a kid, so I think I developed a genuine ability to make the most of many situations. I could reframe negative experiences in a way that made them positive.
I didn’t know at the time what it felt like to really like something. It’s like how if 50 people in a class get a 100% on a test, there’s no way to know who the top 25 are.
But looking back, I do know what it felt like. And it makes me sad because in the moments where I felt uninhibited joy I would get this adrenaline like I was letting out parts of myself I’d been trying to stuff away. And then afterwards I’d feel ashamed to have been too much or to have taken up too much space. I was, underneath it all, boisterous, impulsive, gregarious, and a real ham, and I felt ashamed of all of those things. Impulsive hams sometimes overstep and sometimes talk in the middle of class and sometimes get in trouble. And getting in trouble was Bad.
For some reason, I think through my friend Mallory, my mom signed me up to take classes at Martin City Melodrama, which had a huge theater space in the Metcalf South Shopping Center.
A wonderful woman named Jeanne Beechwood ran the theater and felt more in touch with the joy of being a child than I was at the time. I was in fifth grade when I took my first class there, and it quickly became the place where time passed most quickly. I made friends who made me laugh a lot. One of my friends, Nels Carlson, is one of the first people I remember laughing with where he’d make a joke and then I’d make a joke and we’d build on our jokes one after the other. He was brilliant and when I was with him and the other kids at Martin City I felt life coursing through me.
We did improv games and put on vaudeville performances and hammed it up. I took classes there for a few years, into middle school, before moving from Kansas to Missouri with my mom.
I didn’t have many outlets to be a ham after that.
I used to think about death and dying a lot. Actually pretty excessively for much of my life. I was terrified of it as a kid, and it got really bad during the pandemic (I bet this was common).
I saw Hamilton for the first time recently and was moved (however cliché) by the phrase “why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
When I go to a museum with really old stuff I think about what it’d be like to know something you created would end up in a museum in a couple thousand years. I think it’d be a bit like winning the lottery– extremely rare and also maybe kind of empty in the end, but still sounds like it might fix all of my problems.
For years throughout my teens and early twenties I would skip plans with friends and stay home and exist in a suspended state of angst. I had ideas and thoughts all mangled up like a basket of yarn that was put in the dryer just sitting in my chest. And I felt it was urgent to get them out but I didn’t know how or what exactly they were.
I’ve been seeing the same therapist for over a year and she’s helped me a lot to heal from my childhood trauma and also to love myself.
In February she convinced me to sign up for an improv class. I was brought back to how I felt doing bits with Nels Carlson and the other kids at Martin City Melodrama. I wasn’t filtering my words and actions through the sieve of “what does another person want?” and was instead releasing my own uninhibited ideas, and connecting deeply with others as they did the same.
Taking improv classes marked an end to nearly a lifetime of suppressing my inner ham.
Something has pretty fundamentally shifted for me. At first glance, it feels like this experience specifically was pivotal, but I actually think it’s been building for a while. In tending to the shame and trauma of my childhood, I’ve given myself permission to be less afraid of being myself, and more room to figure out who that person is.
A lot of changes have happened personally and professionally in the past 6 or so months, and I feel grounded in the belief that I will be okay in a way I never have before. Even if I fail at something or if someone doesn’t like me, I can fall back on the fact that I am being myself and that I have love for myself. And I feel more comfortable than ever making jokes (non-offensive ones, of course) that maybe nobody but me will think are funny :)
I haven’t been thinking about my own mortality a whole lot recently. And if I do I’m more accepting of it.
The key, I’ve realized, has been being more myself. My therapist calls denial of my own wants and needs a form of psychic death. I’ve spent years being terrified of never being seen.
I thought to be seen I had to be remarkable, to be perfect, to be the president, to create things that told my story that wound up in museums of the future, to start my own company, to get promoted at work, to get good grades, to win awards, to buy everyone on earth a new pair of glasses with the right prescription.
But I’ve realized that to be seen I actually just have to exist in the world as myself with less concern for what I think other people want me to be. Besides, who’s to say I even know what other people want from me? And now I care less about how many people know or like or understand me.
Instead, I think the person I most needed to see me was myself.
‘Why,’ Ulrich suddenly thought, ‘why didn’t I become a pilgrim?’ A pure, unconditional way of living, hectically fresh as very dear air, spread out before his mind’s eye. Anyone who did not want to accept life as it was should at least reject it as the saints did; and yet it was simply impossible to consider that seriously. Nor could he become a traveller and adventurer, although that life might well have a touch of perpetual honey moon, and he felt the impulse to it in his limbs as in his temperament. He had not been capable of becoming either a poet or one of those disappointed people who believed only in money and power, although he had had the makings of either, as of everything. He forgot his age, imagining he was twenty. Nevertheless, it had been just as finally decided within him even then that he could not become any of these things. There was something attracting him to everything there was, and something stronger that would not let him get to it. Why did he live so vaguely and undecidedly? Undoubtedly—he said to himself—what kept him, as under a spell, in this aloof and anonymous form of existence was nothing but the compulsion to that loosing and binding of the world that is known by a word one does not like to encounter alone: spirit.
And though he himself did not know why, Ulrich suddenly felt sad and thought: ‘It’s simply that I’m not fond of myself.’
-Musil, The Man Without Qualities