Here’s something I wonder about periodically in the harsh dread of night: Is it possible that there’s an allotted amount of personal strength doled out to each of us and eventually those wells experience a drought? It seems only fair that the tears we shed should be able to replenish all that’s gone missing, but I’ve learned for sure over the years that it’s simply not the case.
At sixteen, I wrote my college essay about the subject of personal strength. Back then, it was probably the quality I felt best defined me. I guess I was tested a lot when I was young. I think most of us are, but here’s my own mini rundown of the curious dysfunction that was my formative years:
o Parents divorced (really contentiously) when I was five.
o Moved to an area of town where I was the only Jewish kid in the school and one of only four kids who came from what they called “a broken home” in the 1980s.
o Called “a dirty Jew” when I was in the 3rd grade by some boy in my class. To this day, I remember his name and the sneer forming on his upper lip as the words came out of his mouth while I leaned against the monkey bars. I didn’t know why he was saying those ugly things to me, but I know that my head slowly drooped in shame.
o Hated the man my mother married when I was in the 8th grade.
o Moved into the city to live with my father when I was in the 9th grade. I was at my most vulnerable then. I didn’t know a single person in my new school in Chelsea. I was also at the most hideous looking physical stage of my entire life, something I would be reminded of each and every time I caught sight of my reflection in a mirror or a pane of glass.
o Saw my father keel over and die in front of me when I was fourteen.
o Sued by my step-monster immediately after my father’s death. She decided it might be nice to have the money he’d left to me so she dragged me into a lawsuit to try to get it. She also stole my puppy and refused to give him back. In those lost days following my father’s passing, I needed that dog desperately – and I never saw him again.
o Moved back in with my mother following my father’s death.
o Woke up to the news that one of my dearest friends died in a car accident exactly one year to the day that my father died.
It was after the loss of my friend that the people around me began commenting on my apparently impressive reservoir of strength. I remember getting a phone call quite out of the blue from a guy I wasn’t yet close to and he told me that he couldn’t stop thinking about me and how strong I am for going through what I did and remaining perpetually optimistic and upbeat. Honestly? That was a better compliment to receive than hearing that he liked my dimples or that I was starting to develop a body that looked suspiciously like an hourglass. Those physical things were nice, but they were also beyond my control while the strength factor was something I made it a point to cultivate.
The reality was that there simply didn’t seem to be another viable option for me. It never occurred to me to fall apart completely. I certainly had some soul-crunching days during which I had a hard time even getting out of bed. If I close my eyes now and try to remember the moments I’ve effectively blocked out for decades, I can still taste the tears that drenched my pillow and the chest of my Cookie Monster, who I slept with until the age of twenty. Sometimes if I breathe in really hard and then hold it, I can gain a semblance of how it felt then to choke back the unrelenting knowledge that people I loved were gone forever.
I didn’t want to feel broken. I needed the hovering sadness to dissipate and I craved the notion that my dreams could return to a state of calm. I’m just not and I have never been someone who feels comfortable being surrounded by chaos. Chaos frightens me – so I sought to harness anything that would remove it from my life for good instead of something that would just mask it in the short-run. I went to therapy. I allowed myself to grieve. I tried with all of my might to remember the people I’d lost as they really were without coating their memory in a gilded and untruthful candy sheen. I scrawled about hope and pain in journal after journal. I watched movies that made me think and movies that made me laugh. I rented horror movies from Blockbuster if I was having a day where I felt like I was choking on my emotions so I could at least feel a purge of something, even if it was fear. I tried to strengthen the sometimes-shaking foundations of my old relationships and build new ones that felt electric.
I tried to remind myself that I wasn’t really alone.
I never believed that there was anything particularly impressive about how I came through what I guess was a tumultuous childhood. After all, there were a thousand and one good things in my life, too – and I never once allowed myself to forget that. I suppose that I could have become an alcoholic or a raging drug addict or someone who flaunted myself sexually to gain some male attention that I didn’t get at home. I could have starved myself into a waif with my very own eating disorder so I could feel like I was finally in control of something, but the logic that always hung out in the back of my head doing the backstroke would whisper to me that those faulty coping mechanisms would only lead to further pain and I wanted to avoid pain at all costs. I just made the decision to swiftly move beyond anything that was patently not under my control.
I remember meeting a guy when I was in my mid-twenties and we had one of those magical nights defined by a sudden and sparkly connection. We were up until the dawn talking – just talking. We sat beside each other, shivering on a bench in Union Square as rats scampered near the trash bins and made the sounds of small beasts enjoying the forage. I guess we recognized something fascinating and new in one another that we hadn’t expected when we’d met earlier in the evening and our secrets and our past came rushing out of our mouths, the speed of the reveals astonishing both of us. As I told him candidly about my life, he sort of shook his head.
“What?” I remember asking him.
“You’ve been through a lot,” he replied.
“Yeah,” I responded. “But haven’t we all?”
Maybe it comes from being such a voracious consumer of literature and film for my entire life, but I have always been hyperaware that nobody has it easy – we all have a story to tell and at least four other stories to hide. Perhaps that lesson has been further formulated by becoming a teacher at the tender age of twenty-three and working in a district where my students often have to deal with issues like poverty and the painful ramifications such a thing brings. Surely the fact that I’ve always been a genuinely good listener also allows me to sometimes hear the screaming subtext of what is not being said. In any case, I have never convinced myself that my pain is particularly unique or that I’ve had it worse than anybody else. I just wanted to move past the worst of it so I could view the pain through the hazy calm of retrospect. I actually got pretty good at this kind of behavior. Here are some examples of how to put a positive spin on fucking misery:
My parents got divorced? Better to only see my father sometimes than live in a house with screaming. Screaming made it hard to sleep at night.
Being different than the other kids was hard, but it set me up to be tough and I’m proud of the steeliness that I can sometimes feel poking around inside of me.
Being persecuted on a playground for my religion was nothing short of debilitating in the moment, but at least it taught me definitively what being a completely innocent target feels like. As a result, I never turned into someone who takes pleasure in causing someone to feel a scorching pain for doing nothing wrong in the first place.
I hated the guy my mother married back then for real, but seeing him walk through my living room and knowing it was happening because my mother didn’t want to be alone made a lasting impression. Never ever settle, I would tell myself – and I say it still.
The truth is that I enjoyed my suburban high school experience far more than I did my city high school days, but at least I got to live with my father in a beautiful Manhattan apartment and take the subway to acting lessons on Bank Street in the West Village for a little while. At least the first time I ever drank a peach wine cooler and smoked a cigarette was not in some suburban basement but on a fire escape of an unfurnished SoHo loft during a party where I could look up and see the buildings and the stars. At least my first sins played out in an environment that was both elegant and atmospheric.
While I have never learned how to put a positive spin on my father dying in my presence, I did manage to convince myself (and fast) that at least I had him for the time that I did and he was – and remains – one of the greatest influences of my life. I’ve also acknowledged to myself the hard truth that his death reconnected my mother and me in a manner that might not have happened otherwise and knowing that our closeness was predicated by his absence does leave me feeling conflicted, but really – what relationship isn’t borne out of some sort of conflict?
My stepmother? She should rot in the steaming bowels of hell where I hope Hitler is assigned to be her roommate and he arrives to lie on the top bunk on the very day he comes down with a stomach virus that causes unceasing diarrhea that lands on her while she snores with her mouth open. See, this woman’s shittiness is something I have never been able to disregard – because I shouldn’t – and it’s impossible to act like an adult suing a child and then stealing her puppy for good measure is in any way normal, so I don’t even attempt to try. But I can say that I don’t think about her all that often and the second I do, I can feel a rage rise inside of me that begins right in the center of my chest and makes my skin grow hot to the touch. I shake her image out of my brain as quickly as I can, embracing the fact that I can become a human Etch A Sketch at will.
There’s also no possibility of even pretending like the loss of my friend in a terrible car accident brought with it clarity about loss because those were lessons I’d already learned. I did not need to learn them again and her loved ones never should have had to learn them either. The only positive thing that came out of her death was that our group of friends grew closer in the wake of her wake. I suppose there’s something nice to be said about that.
But make no mistake – having this kind of mindset is a choice. It’s also a survival skill. I have learned – much to my terrified dismay – that I am almost incapable of functioning when my head is spinning from a miserable cocktail of sadness and confusion. I retreat during those moments in any way I can and I usually accomplish it by taking more Benadryl than I should simply so I can pass out for a while. As far as escapism goes, downing some Benadryl isn’t the healthiest thing in the world, but when we’re talking about what it is that I could choose to ingest, I think allergy medication is relatively tame. I wish I worked out to relieve stress. I don’t. I wish I didn’t get short and snippy with people when I become consumed with fear. I do.
I wish I knew that, no matter what, I could always rely on being strong.
Maybe I know too much now. Enough years have gone by and too many people have entered and left my orbit for me to believe that we are all genuinely good at heart. I know that being a decent person sometimes doesn’t lead to a reward. I have seen vicious and unwarranted cruelty leveled without merit or regret and I have trusted people who violated that trust and robbed me of the very worst thing they could take because what they actually walked away with was the belief I had in myself that I could effectively and accurately read people. I don’t recover from things quite as quickly as I once did and I can’t deny that I wonder sometimes if maybe it’s because I have used up my own personal supply of strength.
The old you would have gotten over this long ago. I actually hear a voice inside of myself say that sometimes and it always sounds a little bit judgmental and a little bit sad. Then again, the old me was covered in layers of emotional scar tissue that I’ve tried to remove from my soul over the years in an effort to feel what is real.
Doing that was probably a mistake.
A lunatic or two who bizarrely makes sure to read every single thing I write will probably misread this piece and believe it’s about a romantic relationship gone awry. They’d be wrong. This is about something that actually matters. This is about all of those other relationships – the ones you are tied to irrevocably and the ones you chase simply to achieve a connection – and the pain that exists because life sometimes hurts. I want to avoid the throbbing discomfort that I think is just a part of life and I want to do it with the ease of the logic that used to beckon me through the fire, a soundtrack of the words, “There’s no other option than to survive,” playing on repeat as the sun goes down.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.