There were two other speakers at my grandmother’s funeral. One was my aunt (by marriage) whose own mother had vanished into vagrancy many years ago. She shared some heartwarming words about how my grandmother acted as a surrogate to her daughters, my cousins, and how lovely that was for them.
The other was my brother, who I think wanted to show off his public speaking skills as much as anything else. His meandering comments could be reduced to his matching first and last lines, “She was my bubbie.” As touching as that sounds, there really wasn’t that much emotion in it.
Or maybe I’m just saying that because he doesn’t seem all that capable of much emotion. We haven’t spoken in about 3½ years.
One of my earliest memories is of lying on the floor with my cheek pressed against the carpet, staring into the light coming from the gap beneath the door to my brother’s room. Inside, he was playing Hot Wheels with the neighbor boy, who was also his age. They had a lot of cars between them, and I, on the outside, had one, that I drove along the perimeter as if I was trying to find a way into a secure military base or something.
The sight of this display broke my mother’s heart, so she asked my father to ask my brother if I could join him and his friend. I was maybe three years old, which would have made them six. I have no idea if they let me play with them, but I doubt they did so enthusiastically.
My therapist said this is a great scene and I should include it in a book or something. I tried to put it into a recent manuscript, but it felt forced. Feels like it fits right here, though.
Another famous family story is about my brother and this same neighbor boy. My mom bought a big cookie for him, but since his friend was there, she split up the cookie for them to share as a snack. My brother threw a tantrum and refused to take his share. He wanted either all of it or none of it.
About thirty years later, after my brother had freaked out about not getting to go to a restaurant of his choice and then lamenting the devastating unfairness of it again the next day, my mother retold the cookie story, explaining that he’s always been like this. My brother’s response? That clearly my mom did not love him enough because she’d given away resources to someone else’s child. I guess that’s just always who he’s been.
I’m not saying any of these stories cause anxiety, but they certainly do not alleviate it either. There are probably some indications of anxiety disorder in the way I reacted about these sorts of situations. Social anxiety has likely always been present.
When I was seven I was diagnosed with an unusual mental capacity. People like me were classified at the time as highly gifted. Professionals believed our condition was best treated by placing us in special schools.
While this sounds like the start of an origin installment in a tent pole movie franchise, I assure you it’s true. But unlike within the pages of the X-Men, which I read feverishly at the time, we did not have any magical powers, other than, in some cases, an advanced sense of observation and uncanny recall. In my case, there was also emotional acuity without literacy, totally unrefined and without guidance on how to manage my talents, such that they were.
I began my new school in third grade and quickly made friends. However, we were not afforded our own clandestine institution like the one Professor X created for his students. There were two classrooms for us freaks inside a larger school for normals, or as we called them, nons (they called us gifties).
Two years later, we were producing a video of a mock news program that would come complete with fake ads and promos for other shows we thought we might make some day. While blocking a scene, an older kid kicked my feet out from under me, causing me to fall flat on my face. Naturally, I was mortified, so I walked off the project.
The best thing I could think to do was choose not to participate. I didn’t tell anyone why because I didn’t want to relive the embarrassment of the moment, which absolutely included my reaction to the bullying as much as the bullying itself.
As a result, the pretty young blonde teacher chose not to have me back in her class the following year. That was to be my last year at this school, which meant I was to spend it in the other class, to be taught by the ugly old mean black-haired beast. This might not have been so bad if the rest of my friends were with me. But no, my inner circle was back in the light while I got pushed into the shadows. The X-Men may be freaks, but they stick together.
To combat this injustice, I opted out of all activities in the new class. During group reading, I closed the book and pushed it away. This was a class of good children, terrified into obedience by a fear of not getting into a good college, so they were rather fascinated with my stubborn rebelliousness.
Fearing I’d win friends and influence people with my lack of cooperation, the mean teacher sent me off to specialists. There they subjected me to reading tests. Once it was determined that my decision not to read in class was not in any way related to an inability to read, I was sent for a psychiatric evaluation. Further humiliation ensued as it was then determined I might be an unsafe child for my combination of anger and intellect.
From there I was sent to another classroom that served as a holding chamber for truly dangerous kids. It was somewhere beneath remedial education in a windowless bunker. They’d placed drawings of the outside world on the walls to look like windows, but even the drawings had bars over them. It was like daycare for early arsonists, vandals, and assailants. It might have even said that on the door. These were children that are allowed crayons, but not pencils, if you get what I mean.
My parents saw an easy fix to all this. Just put me back in the other room, surrounded by sunshine and rainbows, and most importantly, common adoration. But no, the administrators believed it was better to indoctrinate me into the bureaucratic nature of society as we knew it. For those who choose not to follow the proscribed rules, the institution offers a heavy fist, a steel door, and unsympathetic ears. Alienation. Get. Used. To. It. This is America. American education.
“This all sounds like a social problem,” my dad said, enunciating the word as if it were as trivial as the thread count on a soon-to-be discarded old sheet. “Just do your work and get out.” He could plan his idle time a year in advance, scarcely seeing friends every few months by appointment only. He could also outline a menu for every meal he’d eat the following month and stick to it without any thought of spontaneity. As far as I know, he’s never experienced heightened levels of anxiety.
My dismayed mom read aloud from a report in which a school counselor of some sort had deemed me a “sullen child.” Clearly, there was an issue at school because I wasn’t sullen at home. Sullen wasn’t even a word we knew, although I knew I did not like being defined as sullen by some jerk who didn’t even know me.
My brother, of course, picked up on this and tortured me with the term whenever he could. Whether I was actually in a bad mood or just sitting quietly, my brother would declare, “The sullen boy, the sullen boy is here, there sullen boy is here being sullen.” He sort of made a song out of it.
As the older sibling, he enjoyed the power he had over me immensely. A power that came simply from being born earlier, being ahead developmentally. It took me a while to catch on that he wasn’t smarter or stronger, just older and bigger.
Transparency: My brother believes we’re not speaking because he’s angry that I lied to him about something that cost him $3k. I did not lie to him, but I was wrong. I believe we were both wrong. Anyway, he doesn’t want the money. He wants me to grovel, to beg for his forgiveness. He wants to return to a dynamic where he can lord over me and I’m not interested in that.