My best friend once walked up to me at a coffee shop and asked why I looked so down. When I told her my mom was going nuts again, she rolled her eyes. “Nobody likes their mom,” she said. “Get over it. So anyway, wanna grab some Chipotle?” I declined.
Don’t hate my friend. That’s not the point. She thought I was using the term “nuts” figuratively. Most people do.
At the time, I’d never told anyone about my mom’s mental health problems. So the misunderstanding was my fault. I should’ve used the more precise term, schizophrenic episode.
For a snap, part of me wanted the comfort of a friend. But the other part knew the truth. Nobody can make you feel better about something like that. You’re on your own. You have to manage your emotions.
A therapist or counselor can help. But in the end, you’ve got to own them. Only you can solve your riddles.
So I sipped my coffee and stared through a window for an hour, and then cracked open my Econ textbook. That’s exactly what I needed. Solitude. Caffeine. A painfully dull read to take my mind off things.
I’d just watched my mom escorted onto an ambulance by two police officers. I love the word “escort.” It makes everything sound so civil. People who get escorted places don’t lose a shoe in the process.
In fact, I’d literally followed the ambulance to my parents’ house from the highway. By accident. No joke. I was driving that way, when I saw an ambulance rush past me, and onto my exit.
I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t that be weird if the ambulance were driving to my house? And I was right. It felt pretty fucking weird, following a random ambulance that happens to pull up to your driveway. That made the twelfth time my mom won a trip to the mental health institution. So the weird part boils down to the timing. I’d arrived at the exact same moment as the ambulance. Weird.
Around that time, I asked another friend to let me stay with her a few days. Living at home to save money on tuition and fees hadn’t worked out the way I’d planned. It’s hard to study when your mom spends half the day screaming at your dad, and then your dad in turn spends the other half screaming at your brother.
My friend said no. And so did my other one. So I got a job and saved up some cash for my own place. A cheap little dump run by a weed dealer. The irony? The weed dealer didn’t own the property. His dad, a prominent local businessman, had given it to him.
After moving, I fell in love with a guy and gave up my virginity. For a while, it felt like we could talk about anything. He supported my decision to cut ties with my family and move out.
A couple of months later, he vanished. No breakup. No messages. Just dust. Later, I heard he’d moved to Canada.
So I went to class, worked at dive bars, and slept on a mattress in an empty room, rented by a drug dealing trust fund baby. It wasn’t all bad. He gave me discounts on weed. And he paid for the coffee.
The appearance of friendship helped. No matter how raw you feel, you can always listen to people and take an interest in them. Or at least try. I’m pretty sure I sucked at it, but my efforts earned some rewards. My work friends took me drinking with them and got me into bars, even though I was barely 20. Bartenders gave me free drinks. And I didn’t even have to say anything.
If you fake stability long enough, it becomes real.
Eventually, I started looking to the future. Having my own quiet nook felt nice. A routine. Small goals like publishing a short story in some no-name journal. An A on a paper. Rent money. Taking care of my basics helped me tune out the noise of sadness. Sure, most people want parents who listen to them bitch about stuff and give them hugs when they feel bad, insecure, or scared. Parents that give advice, either seriously or facetiously like in a CBS comedy. But you don’t really need that in order to survive.
Here’s what you need to survive: a decent memory. Arguably, eyes and limbs. But some people manage surprisingly well without them. A brain helps. So do typing skills. Most people have what they need to manage their lives. Sympathy and understanding doesn’t pay your bills, or get you any kind of promotion that means anything.
So finally I remembered that I was smart, good looking, and determined. If you’ve got one out of three, nothing else matters. And if you have all three, then why the fuck are you looking for sympathy? You don’t need it. No matter what bad shit ever happened to you, you’ll help yourself more than anybody else. Because nobody cares more about your success and well-being than you do. You can be your own best friend. You must.
Sympathy’s lethal to people with real problems. Thankfully, I sought little. No matter how bad I wanted it, I resisted. All around me, people talked about their problems. Little ones. Sympathy helps with small stuff. With big stuff, nobody can help you.
Take random crying spells. Like you’re driving somewhere, and all of a sudden you start sobbing because of something on the radio. At 19, you don’t understand what’s happening or why.
You might think that sympathy and comfort can help with random crying. How nice it sounds for a friend to hug you and listen to your problems. But that doesn’t help.
Sometimes I’d have to cut conversations short to lock myself in a bathroom stall and calm down.
Or mild panic attacks. Let’s say you go to a party, like a hundred others. But somehow this one feels different. Everyone’s smiling and laughing way too much. One little word or gesture makes you hyper-aware. So you leave. You spend ten minutes in your car breathing, and you drive home.
A year of that taught me something profound. The crying and random panics meant nothing. They were vestigial trauma from things that had happened a long time ago. I didn’t need a shoulder to cry on, just time and distance. Like any thunderstorm, they would pass and leave chirping crickets in their wake. What a great realization. One minute, you think you might die. The next, you feel completely normal.
The panic attacks hardly ever happen now. Why? Because every year, I built part of a life for myself. Crawled a little closer to my goals. Master’s degree. Publications. PhD. Real job. Spouse.
Each step helped me understand something important. It didn’t matter what had happened to me earlier in life.
Nobody ever gives you anything of value. You always have to earn your place in the world.
Gradually, I learned that nobody was going to give me a book deal because of my abusive, neglectful upbringing. Abused children are a dime a dozen. My childhood made me different, but not special. The knowledge and abilities I acquired over time did. Abused children who go on to accomplish great things, now those are special people.
Unfortunately, you can’t tell the entire world to go fuck itself. People still matter. We all need friends, coworkers, mentors, and dare I say…fans. But you shouldn’t burden them too much. Mentors look for pupils who show potential. Fans support artists they admire. Most relationships hinge on mutual benefit. Most of the time, there’s no excuse for becoming an emotional paperweight. Maybe your mom beat you every night with an empty bottle of Jack Daniels. Sounds like a great story. But if you let that become the reason why you never went to art school, then that’s on you. All kinds of people can control your past, but they’ve got nothing on tomorrow.