Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

‘I thought I was the only one’

A popular criticism of psychotherapy is that “just talking” is of little value. To some extent, I share that belief. But it’s often a shock of great value to clients to learn they are “not the only one” who grew up feeling different.

When that feeling of difference is accompanied by shame, it can alienate a person for a lifetime. Historically, an obvious example is the situation of young gay people. That, mercifully, is changing.

I like this video for depicting the best response to the recognition of difference. Its implied message is that parents should support and encourage their kids in this regard, encourage them to associate with the like-minded. Yes, the video is idealistic, because it assumes the kid’s difference is positive or at least benign. You don’t want to encourage your young kleptomaniac to organize a kiddy crime syndicate.

The video very much expresses my own experience as far back as I can remember. There was the murky sense of a taboo gay orientation, of course, but I felt different in just about every other respect, too. This drove my mother crazy. She valued normality above all else and she oscillated dramatically between encouragement and its opposite.

A good example was her habit of writing me long letters that she pinned to my pillow when I was a teenager. I remember one that succinctly summarizes their tone. It began with (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m proud that you march to the beat of a different drummer…but.” And then it went on for pages and pages to tell me why I should ignore the drummer.

Another example I’ve written about before was when I won second and third place in a state poetry competition for high school students. I had no inkling of the award, but I came home one afternoon and my mother handed me the competition’s booklet of best poems. The poems were illustrated. One of mine was entitled (oy), “Love Song to a Mechanical Goddess.” It was an angry poem about the girlfriend who had jilted me.

The poem was illustrated with a picture of a jalopy on a trash heap. Yes, the judges presumed it was about my car. My mother handed the book to me, making a comment something like, “This is what life is about. If you choose to be different, you will not be understood.”

The effect of such parenting was to leave me more confused and suspicious than anything else, something I have struggled with my entire life, no matter how much therapy I’ve done. I developed a not-so-helpful defense: I became often oblivious to the effect of my behavior on others, as well as my talents and my liabilities. It doesn’t make aging pleasant.

At one point — after I did a three-week intensive 20 years ago — I asked my mother directly, “Why didn’t you just support me and encourage me, instead of trying to change me all the time? What was so bad about me?” She began crying and said, predictably, that she didn’t want me to be unhappy. But the degree to which she tried to change me suggested something more.

Soon after that encounter, I learned the sentiment was deeply rooted in her own fear of being different — a fear explicitly described in some of her own adolescent writing I discovered after her stroke. I can’t say this changed everything, but it did prompt the beginning of a process of forgiveness. As I often tell clients, forgiveness of others makes us more forgiving — accepting — of ourselves too. But it does not forever erase our conditioned impulses.

So, a video like this moves me. I do remember making exactly the kid’s decision: “I’m not even going to try to become something I’m not.” But I faltered because I really did not feel supported except by a few teachers and sometimes by my grandmother, whose memory still nourishes me. And, in the case of my sexuality, the entire culture informed me I was a sinner, a criminal and a mental case.

I know a significant difficulty in trying to support an eccentric kid is that the parents are often challenged to suspend their own values. But, surely, love merits the effort.

Please give the video a look.

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