When I started writing my goals down for this year, the writing target of 500,000 words was a relatively early one. Not the quantity, but that I would set a word target. I have lots of things that I want to write about, even more than I think, “Hmm, I might have something worth saying about that”, and others that are more, “Well, it might be useful or interesting.”. But there is a small subset where I ask a different question, “Am I ready to write that post? Is my writing ability up to the challenge?” This is one of those posts.
A few people have said they would like to now more about my tadpole years, the five years that I was intentionally single where I played “deconstructing Paul’s brain” and then put it back together like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation and hoped for the best. Mostly they want to know why I think the types of questions or process I used was different from someone else’s “coming of age” experience. And they want examples.
Let me start by pointing out that much of the five years was boring. There were few “epiphanies”, few “eureka” moments where the universe suddenly opened its arms and embraced me in revealed wisdom. It was slow. It was methodical. It was boring. But progress, when it happened, was often driven by fear and my reaction to it more than by courage.
Take my temper, for instance. I have a temper. Not like other people say, “Oh, his temper got the best of him.” More like, “he lost his temper with his brother/father, said something awful/unforgivable, and they’ve never spoken since”. I’m not violent, but I am potentially ruthless. Utterly, unforgivingly, mercilessly ruthless. It takes a lot for me to lose my temper…I don’t mean be irritated or impatient or speak a harsh word, I mean actually lose my sh** to the point where I go on the offensive.
Cognitive socio-psychopathy. Psychopath, meaning low impulse control and violent outbursts. Sociopath, meaning someone who knows right and wrong but manipulates around it. And cognitive, meaning it is an on-off switch that the person controls themself.
Am I a psychopath? No, of course not. Am I a sociopath? No, not that one either.
But if you attack me, push my buttons, hem me in until I pop, I will verbally go for the jugular. Let me give you an example. Back in high school, I had a best friend named Paul, nicknamed Ruf (like Rufus). Think Leonard and Sheldon, the younger years. He was dating this girl from another high school, never even mentioned her to me for about six months they’re dating. Very man-like conversations apparently. Anyway, they start having problems, she calls me one night at home and says, “Is there anything going on with him at school? Home? What burr is up his butt?”. I didn’t know, but she was pretty upset, needed someone to talk to, and I was it. No biggie, happy to listen/help. Except he was the paranoid type, and apparently he was worried that if we ever met, she’d leave him for me or something. I don’t get it, but whatever. Anyway she decided she didn’t want to tell him we’d talked. I didn’t care, really, so whatever. Flash forward a few days, she’s admitted we talked, and he gets really upset with me. Rags on me at school, goes in for all this stupid drama about how I’ve betrayed him, blah blah blah. I got pissed, and left. He called me later, went on and on, basically making me feel “trapped”, dumping on me continuously, and I lost my temper.
Now, for most people that would mean a shouting match. Yelling. Maybe just arguing back. Not me. I lose my temper, I go cold inside, and I find the worst possible thing to say to hurt you. In his case, there he was, looking for me to say basically “Sorry” and that “I care that he’s hurt”, etc. He wanted me to validate his feelings, to use the vernacular. And this is my best friend, one of only a few friends I have in total. The guy I hang out with EVERY. SINGLE. DAY at school. And I know what he wants, and I also know that he’s afraid that I don’t care. That I’m not sorry. That he feels betrayed and that he has no control. My best friend dumped it all at my feet, laid his heart upon his sleeve and said, “So what do you have to say?”.
I knew what he wanted, and I refused to do it. I went for the jugular. He wanted me to say something? I said, “Whoopee f***.” Now that may not sound like much. But it crushed him totally, as I knew it would. I invalidated everything he had said, everything he thought he knew about me, every aspect of our friendship that he relied upon. I was HIS best friend too. And here I was, blowing him off when he was at his most vulnerable. For me, it was the equivalent of the memes on FB that says “Share if you agree, only 1% of my friends will do it and I know which ones care”. A passive aggressive, let’s play my game approach to social interactions, and I don’t play that game on a good day, and that wasn’t a good day to test me. Did I feel bad about it? Nope. Did I feel guilty? Nope. It was strategic, not retaliatory. It pushed him away from me as if I’d smacked him with a baseball bat.
We “patched” things up a week or so later, more out of social need than compassion, but our relationship never really recovered from that point on either – the comment was too insidious for him to ever totally trust me again, or even himself in some ways. Am I overstating? A few months later, he was over at the house, and another friend and he were talking, with the subject coming around to me and my “cold heartless ways”, so to speak. They both said, quite openly, they had never ever seen anyone close a door mentally and emotionally as fast as I had with them in the past. One minute? Best friends. Next minute? I wouldn’t scrape you off my shoe.
Fast forward to 1998, and I had seen enough appearances of my evil side over the years that I wasn’t totally comfortable with it being part of me. It is a source of strength, it even has a name to me. Shiva, the Destroyer. It’s the core rock at the centre of my being, what’s left when I stripped everything else away. Except there was little I could do with that piece. Too hard to chip away at alone, and I had no professional therapist to hand me a pickaxe. And it protects me. It’s there if I ever need it. But like the “carry concealed” laws for guns, it is highly dangerous. I never ever want to use it against those I love. So I spent a LOT of time figuring out the triggers.
Since a lot of these defense mechanisms are learned, it wasn’t too hard to figure out what had been happening at the times I resorted to the mechanism.
First, I had resorted to it if I felt relatively attacked. It’s a defense mechanism, it’s triggered when I’m under attack. I don’t mean physically, I mean someone is coming at me generally head on.
Second, I had definitely resorted to it if I had no other option i.e. if I felt trapped, claustrophobic. So, for example, being around my family, with alcohol involved, and no way to just leave. Lack of a car, remote location, etc. Trap me? I bite.
Third, emotional drama. This isn’t quite the same as being attacked. If it is a highly emotional scene, maybe confrontational, maybe not, the energy charge in the situation is enough to heighten my sensitivity. If the other person is a drama queen? Really good chance of ticking me off to the point where I want to verbally hit back. Case in point. Argument with a girlfriend, I’m trying to defuse the situation, she’s just ramping up and up and up, she says something vicious and childish, and leaves. But as she goes, she slams the door. I lost my temper. I stormed out after her ready to tell her in no certain terms the wherefore and howto of certain physically impossible acts. But she saw my face, ready to tell her off and totally temper-fueled, and she thought I was going to kill her. I opened my mouth, and the look on her face made me stop and look behind me to see what was scaring her. I thought the hounds of hell were unleashed. Nothing there. The look on my face as I was about to tell her off was enough to scare the daylights out of her. Would I hurt her physically? Nope. But she di dn’t know that, and had a history that heightened her own fears. In the two years that followed, I made sure to always end the conversation before any drama could escalate to the point where my face alone would scare her, let alone what damage my words might do.
My temper, when released, doesn’t want to make a snide comment. It isn’t after a witty bon mot. It wants to devastate you from top to bottom. God forbid I know a fear you have. That’s what I’ll go for, every time. The type of comment that will stay with you in your psyche forever. Let me give you a simple, easy to understand example. I’ll attack myself. First though, some additional context.
During that same tadpole time, one thing that was haunting me was the question of whether or not I wanted kids. Lots of people think, “How stupid a question is that? Yes or no? Not that hard.” If so, I think you’re an idiot. Having kids isn’t like picking up a new handbag. You not only should know if you want them in general, but also if you want them if you had to do it alone, if you’ll be good at it, can you do it WELL, not just “muddle through” and count it as a win if they don’t end up in jail?
I had a close friend who decided that if she was single and of a certain age, she’d probably adopt on her own. That’s not that unusual in theory, but it isn’t a common situation in practice, truth be told. The numbers are quite low. It falls even farther down the probability scale when it is a potential single father rather than a potential single mother thinking about it. Very few males run off and adopt on their own. Societal bias, personal choice, stereotypes, whatever, it’s pretty rare. Less rare now, but pretty uncommon for 1998. So since I’m male, and I was single at the time, it was simple to say, “I don’t know”, since I didn’t have the option to either do it myself and I wasn’t with someone right then. But that wasn’t determinative.
I could have adopted. By myself. Not easily, but not impossibly either. So I poked my psyche to say, “Do you WANT kids bad enough that you would do it on your own?”. And I don’t mean brushing your teeth, daydreaming, thinking, “What if???”. I mean, deep in the night, lying awake, staring at the school, deconstructing what it would mean, both for me and for the child. Could I handle it on my own? Would I be any good at it? Was I mentally, emotionally, physically capable of raising a child successfully, relatively on my own?
So, I asked myself, “Are you capable of being a good parent?”. Again, I don’t mean gently thinking about it. I mean grilling myself like a fish. What a friend called self-mutilation as I broke down different aspects of my self into things that would work or not as a parent. And here’s the conclusion.
I wouldn’t likely make a good single parent. Let’s look at the criteria related to triggering my temper. Attacked? Kids do like to push buttons. Trapped? Single parent, and lots of people have felt like their life is on a one-way street to nowhere for 18 years. Usually not those who made a choice or who have my level of income, both of which mitigate some of the trapped feeling, but not entirely. Emotional drama? Kids never do that, do they?
So what is my coping mechanism? Escape usually. I step back. I avoid situations where I am trapped, attacked or facing unbridled drama. Those three things do not happen with my wife. Not overtly usually, and never together. She’s the opposite of a drama queen. With Jacob, and her too, sometimes I need to withdraw. Not necessarily physically, I just need to take a small mental siesta to disengage. To focus on the process, not the outcome. Some of that is just living in the moment for some people, but it’s not really that for me — it’s almost, and this sounds terrible, like I decide for 2 or 3 minutes to just not care. I turn off my empathy, my caring, my feeling side. Cognitive control. I mastered the technique during my tadpole years, as I layered my new self back over the core rock that was Shiva.
But I came to the conclusion that while I wanted kids, I was not likely a good candidate to do it “alone”. Combine the fact that I’m an introverted analytical type, reserved in emotion, and that I have a temper, and even on my best days, I’m not a warm fuzzy Father of the Year type. Check out my goals for the year — I have actual goals about “doing more”, being “more” than I am currently. When Andrea and I decided to have kids, I had to confess up front that I was unlikely to ever be a 50/50 co-parent when it came to the basic routine, diaper changes, feedings, snuggling, etc. She would bear more of the load than I would if we had kids. I’m better than my Dad was, perhaps, I’m emotionally aware, I’m present, I’m trying, but I am NOT a natural at this stuff. I’ll likely do better when he’s older and wants to talk about stuff, or when he’s learning bigger things, not unlike “mentoring” experiences now (lots of people have suggested I should become a professor or something and teach because I’m good at explaining things in different ways, albeit it with too many words). But until then, I have to commit to the quest.
So, if I pissed myself off, that would be the area I would go to in attacking me. I would start with basic premise of loving my son, and drive the knife in that I’m not doing everything I can for him, so how can I say I truly love him? Do I even know what love is? It’s not like I had a father who was expressing it regularly. Blah blah blah. But if that’s the area, the attack vector has to be far more oblique. Like asking myself how I’m doing on my goals and bringing the conversation around to goals with Jacob and Andrea. Talking about them doubtfully, like it makes no sense to have “green goals”, and implying that it’s laughable how badly informed I am in that area. Not direct, subtle. Go for my worries, my doubts, and twist the knife so that I keep twisting it long after the conversation is over. THAT’S what my temper would do if I was ticked at myself.
And that’s the kind of issue I worked on during my tadpole years. Some would call it “managing my temper”, others would say “anger management”. But that isn’t what I did. I stripped everything away, and then locked my temper in a steel cage with myself having the only key. Others could get to it by blasting, but long before they reach it, I have already exited stage left. Remove the impetus, remove the threat. I can’t get rid of it, not even sure I would if I could. It’s part of who I am, a source of strength. But I don’t want to ever use it. It’s not who I became. It wasn’t an active part of PolyWogg 3.0.