It’s tough for me to explain how I came to be such a dysfunctional person. As a youth, I spent most of my time happy and quiet. With two older sisters that had diverging interests and little desire to interact with their younger brother, I entertained myself nearly all the time. During the day I had my mom’s soap operas to keep me occupied (Days of our Lives, if you want to know. I can fill you in on all the details of Marlena and Patch and Roman and Bo and the ubervillain Victor Kiriakis). Or I had LEGO® to play with. I had a twelve-inch Spiderman action figure that kept me occupied until I took his head off for some reason I can’t figure out.

My best friends were my stuffed animals. Well, no.

Okay, the stuffed animals were comfort objects, but they stayed that way until I moved to Wisconsin (I was six), when they became my best friends. I got to know people here and there after moving to town—a lot of kids my age and in my class lived in the neighborhood—but I can’t say that, in retrospect, I’d describe them as friends. My family moved to Wisconsin in January, but I was sick with the flu when we got to town, so I didn’t start school until February.

And when I showed up that day in February, the other kids in the class—kids who, I would learn, lived near me and whose parents knew my parents—felt a need to test me. They wanted to know easy crap like who was the first president of the U.S.A., and who was the sixteenth. They wanted to know who “invented” gravity, and what ten plus ten was. Easy crap.

But they also wanted to know harder things, like if I could make a snowball, and if I could throw it properly. I could make the snowball, the perfect snowball packed into a tight little wad of ice—still can—but to this day I can’t hurl them. They wanted to know could I ride a bicycle—I couldn’t—and what crayons I had in my coloring box. I was the only kid with a gold crayon and a silver crayon until someone stole them.

They also wanted to know how I reacted under pressure, what happened when I was teased.

As a kid in Minnesota, I’d never been exposed to this. Kids didn’t tease. There was always a group of “tough nuts” that offered vague threats about “giving you a lickin’” but it wasn’t hard to figure out that if you just kept to yourself, they left you pretty much alone.

In Wisconsin though, nobody shoved you around physically. The kids didn’t talk about fighting, at least where I went to school. They called you a girl. A sissy. They planned elaborate pranks and executed them. They ditched you on the walk to soccer practice. They made plans with you and never showed up.

It wasn’t an issue of keeping to yourself, because that drew their attention. If you tried to join the crowd, they knew you didn’t belong and mocked you until you left. They were into cruelty. I hated them. I spent much of my free time alone, playing with toys and talking to my stuffed animals. I read a lot. I thought about suicide.

But first grade ended, and I made friends. In spite of this, I never felt entirely comfortable in their presence. Every now and then, the butt of the joke would fall on me. I got more comfortable with this. My dad taught me about reactions, and how that was the key to the whole situation. Were I not to react, the provocations would end.

But it didn’t end, not until fourth grade, when we had a kid with what they called “emotional problems” in our class. He had stringy, dirty blond hair, and he talked to himself. His catchphrase was “snake.” The word made him excited, and when agitated, he said it over and over, working himself into a tizzy. Then he’d rub his hands down his face, leaving his nose to wiggle like rubber, nod his head up and down, and rock on his heels. Or, if he was sitting, at the waist. He sat on his hands sometimes. He always wore these brown shirts and a denim jacket, even in the winter. It was rumored that his parents did not treat him well. I’ll call him Dan. Mostly, we ignored him.

One day at recess, which happened in this asphalt lot with four-square game boards spray painted on the asphalt and a giant sand area loaded with very shaky, old playground equipment, I and some of my friends were walking along, engaged in some conversation, and we came upon this kid. Everyone hushed up, and we were probably going to keep walking, but I stopped everyone.

“Dan,” I said. He jerked to attention and fixed his steely blue eyes on me, his shoulders hunched and his hands on his thighs.

“Snake,” I said. His eyes flashed, and he gnashed his teeth. He brought his hands up to his face and rubbed them roughly down it, making his nose shake.

“Snake,” I said again. He started to shake, rubbing his face more furiously, making a strange groaning sound, a sound like the heaviest of breathing. It was almost a sob. My friends started to laugh.

I’d made them laugh before, but not like this. Mostly, I trafficked in lame humor like puns and knock-knock jokes. This wasn’t the quick, weak laughter, but a harsher kind. This was the laughter of expense, the piercing, violent laughs of hyenas. I didn’t feel good about this, but I certainly didn’t feel bad.

“Snake!” I shouted at him. “Snails! Snake!” Instead of rubbing his face, he slapped his hands against his temples and made that awful, inhuman groan.

I can’t say that this was how I became such a bastard, such a mean, incisive person, but it was certainly the first time I’d expressed it. What burned me about the whole situation was that Dan went to the teacher and told on me and I got in trouble. Big trouble. I had to write an apology to him and his parents, one full page each!

For four years, I’d been trying to sic the teachers on my tormentors, but they’d done nothing. Especially the worst years, the first two, there had never been consequences for the other kids. But one kid with “emotional problem” could get me in trouble for using the magic code word. I started to hate authority. Once again, I spent a lot of time alone. I contemplated suicide again, because of this sick, sick feeling I had. I had been mistreated and had mistreated others. I was nine, and a bastard.

I don’t like acting like a jerk. It gives me a sick rush like raw, hot cigarette smoke. It brings that awful sound Dan made to my ears. But I also remember being the quiet, happy kid, and all the problems it introduced into my life. I remember being the victim, and I remember when I demonstrated that I could bark and I could bite, others stopped.

My mom tells me that she knows, deep down, I’m a nice person. I suppose I can see that. I do things for other people, and give people an inch or two more than they deserve. But I’m selfish. I do these things because I expect a return. I do a good turn not for its own sake, but for the return favor.

Or maybe this isn’t the truth. Maybe I’m just taking a certain angle on myself, ignoring other evidence. It doesn’t matter; my self-opinion changes frequently, informed by circumstances like the weather, alcohol consumption, music, and the company I keep. Osmosis describes me quite well. I’m like a stalk of celery—dump a bunch of caustic chemicals all around me, and I’ll become a sour, bitter thing.

I want to be a nice person. I want to treat people decently, with dignity. I want to still be funny, clever and smart. I want to be engaging in conversation, but I want to be a positive person. After sixteen years of negativity and insults, put-downs, and aggressive behavior, I’ve become something low. How do you change that?


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