True, life is the real thing. No dress rehearsal but, at least, we get to choose the personality of the character in which we are cast in this lifetime. The ability to do this – the power to do this – we always have once we hit our teen years. From there on, we have them on tap, ready to activate at any moment of our choosing.
The aim of this type of karmic rite of passage goes well beyond challenging the persona’s comfort zones and testing one’s survival instinct. Apart from testing our mettle, it wants to ‘move’ us beyond the point of no return to our old self. It wants to spare us any regrets.
Seriously, I do understand the theory which spells out that, regardless of our persona’s trigger hotspots, mindset and physical habits, we can maintain elevated emotions that keep us steady: even as a new crack opens up underfoot, we give ourselves the emotional oxygen needed to push ahead, high on resilience.
Our default mindset is cluttered by insecurity, fear and anxiety – stress by any other name.
Even in the absence of any perceived danger, the flood of stress hormones released by our adrenal glands fuels our thoughts emotions, reactions and inactions.
Be they tedious, tiring, unrewarding, intimidating, physically or emotionally challenging, the sooner we find a way to respond from the point of resilient calm and openness to the content of these moments, the healthier we will be. The happier, too, all other things remaining equal.
Perhaps, to contextualise a major source of my anxiety which gets repeatedly triggered by my mother’s antics over the past 20 years, I need to share an entirely different episode that occurred a few weeks before I turned 21 and while in my last year at the University of Texas at Austin. Cher, my first and only roommate, was 22 and we had been in a committed relationship for the previous 3 years.
The week before the Homecoming (football) game, always a momentous event in American college life, something came up for Cher. She wouldn’t be able to make it to the game. OK, not a problem missing out on the game.
A few days later, no idea why, really, as I was not really a football fan, I agreed on a ‘buddy’ date with a bland and burly guy, a Vietnam veteran, Cher and I had bumped into a few times at our local hangout. Like, why not?
To my surprise, the guy [let’s call him G – short for guy] arrived late to pick me up. He was dishevelled and unkempt. He had just returned from a hunting day out with his pals, he said. Yikes! Had I known such was his ‘sport’, I would never have accepted a buddy-date with anyone who killed animals for fun. Bad energy.
Anyway, as G was driving me home after the game, my first spike of adrenaline was triggered when he overshot my exit on the expressway. He calmly said that he just wanted us to have a quick nightcap before driving me back home.
I told him very clearly that I preferred to go straight home, as planned, but he left me only two choices – jump out of the moving car or humour him by sitting as calmly as I could while he had a quick drink – after which he would drive me home.‘You’ll be home within the hour,’ he promised. So, not wishing to create a situation when there really wasn’t one, I shrugged -whatever.
As we walked in, G went down the corridor to go to the toilet, he said. Not yet seated, I casually looked around the living room. It is then that I noticed a big, ugly hunting rifle leaning against the sofa.
I began counting the minutes, keen to get back in the car and home. Eventually, G called my name. From the hallway, his voice was insistent. He wanted to show me something, he said.
Grumbling to myself, I followed that voice, determined to speed things up, so I could go home. I remember walking down the hallway past an unlit room.
Next thing I know, I’m gripped from behind by my long hair, knocked down to the ground and straddled – his forearm bearing down and crushing my throat, his foul alcohol breath hot on my face. No need to be explicit about what happened next.
The second most horrible series of moments that night began with being pinned under his heavy body, as he eventually fell asleep on top of me. More than from the rape itself, it is from experiencing what ensued, a series of acute heart/brain reactions, from which my nervous system never quite regained equilibrium.
Though the violent abuse was over, I was literally ‘scared to death’ – scared out of my brain – terrified that even the tiniest of movements, as I tried to inch away from under him, would wake him – that he would rape me again – or … even worse …. that he would grab the hunting rifle I had noticed in the living room.
From the corner of my eye, high up on the nightstand, I could discern the red digits of an alarm clock. Minutes turned to hours.G snored intermittently. I was so afraid to die right there and then that, torn between the fear that he might wake of his own accord the longer I waited and the fear that my movements would wake him, it took me three terrible hours to free myself from under the weight of his body.
Then, suddenly, I made a run for it.I groped for what I hoped were my clothes, and with that bundle under my arm, I ran to the living room and slid a window open. Its screech ripped through my ears. Heart thumping, I jumped out naked, crash landing into a flower bed below.
Crazy-high on adrenaline – fearing G could have heard the window slide open and come after me, I hid behind parked cars, slipped on the clothes I had scooped up in the dark, his pants, my top, and ran for my life down the street.
Back home, Cher had been sick with worry, as I should have been home on time for dinner hours earlier. She came to collect me. I remember half-lying on the curb after having called her from a 7 Eleven store, leaving the store attendant to give her the address. One look at me, she guessed what had happened. ‘You were there, slumped on the ground like a broken doll,’ she said later.
Once safe, did I feel shame? No. Not then. Not ever. Like, why would I? Did I feel the urge to press charges and know that the one who had violated me would be adequately punished? Yes, definitely. Absolutely! In the aftermath of that buddy-date gone nightmarishly wrong, did I feel anger? Yes. Definitely! As much anger and outrage as my 20-year old self could muster.
I immediately pressed charges – G was found ‘not guilty’. That was 1974. He was a returned Vietnam veteran. The bruises on my throat, the diagnosed pulmonary contusion, and the scratches on his face could all have been ‘exchanged’ during a domestic argument, I was told.
What I did was go ‘dark’. I dropped out of all my classes for 3 or 4 months. Then, one day, from something Cher was saying, I realised the end of term was nearing. There would be final exams that I had to pass. I returned to my classes and crammed and crammed some more.
That year, for the first time, I scored Cum Laude/Honours – a perfect 4.0-grade point average. That man had not broken me. This specific rite of passage challenged my persona and tested my survival instinct, it was not of the sort that is rewarded by inspired, conscious evolution of the persona.
The thing is, some 40 years later, I am still experiencing several symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder like ‘hypervigilance’ – a jumpiness at unexpected thuds, sharp or dull sounds from inside the usually quiet house or street. In the quiet of my study, the phone ringing suddenly creates a nasty spike of adrenaline and increased heartbeat.
Perhaps, such side-effects get more seared in the brain when the violence is suffered in a state of total lucidity.
Beyond the chronic fight/flight-inspired racing heartbeats and the sharp spikes of adrenaline that come from the set of emotional reactions that were fired up so long ago, nothing that man did to me altered my life in any way.
I was gay before and was still gay after.I had been studying for a B.A. in English Literature, and a teacher of English Literature is what I became. I did not deviate from any of the plans I had made prior.
That said, the anxiety embedded in my psyche from way back, has made my mother’s unpredictable, volatile personality more difficult to actively accept that might otherwise be.
Of course, once fear and insecurity become natural ingredients in our emotional brew, not unlike a faulty home alarm system, the twin amygdalae tucked inside our temporal lobe get overly sensitive in response to our unconscious thoughts.
They pump up our heartbeat. They slow down our breath and squirt our solar plexus with adrenaline. In short, our amygdalae trigger anxiety.
They rule the roost to the point where, even when legitimately entitled to feel good about a timely break in the pattern, the joy of that moment remains trapped between the ghost of memories past and the spectre of imagined complications to come. They leave tracks to which I am drawn again and again.
The stickiness of these regressive, sabotaging impressions makes it difficult to generate and grow moments of peaceful, active acceptance essential to measure progress. The trick, then, is to give ourselves either the command or the permission to think differently. To shoo the ghouls. Which is much easier said than done while the terrain remains unpredictable.
That’s because our five senses, what have come to be rooted in our temporal lobe, our persona’s likes and dislikes join forces against us, against the low end of our ego-persona. They spiral and draw our life force energy outward, depleting our inner core.
Peaceful or painful, not unlike Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ introspection, lies in our coherence of the choice we make.
Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, had a name for that most ambitious of undertakings: Self-transcendence – a state of being more evolved than self-actualisation – the realisation that we are one small part of a greater whole, and we adjust our behaviour accordingly.
Put simply, aiming for self-transcendence is merely the ambition of ‘getting over ourselves,’ as the colloquial expression has it.