Chances are I resented you. Friend or someone I just met, it didn’t matter because you had something I didn’t. Maybe it was more money or nicer clothes, perhaps a “better” family or more free time. Whatever it was, I kept score. For years this was my motivation hack. It was how I turned anger and jealousy into jet fuel. The faster and harder I pressed forward the more I escaped my past. On the outside, I seemed like a success. I had overcome poverty and a dysfunctional family, earned multiple degrees, traveled the world, a good job, and a long-term relationship, but underneath it, I was descending quickly into darkness. The journey back from the brink would be more difficult than anything I had ever done before. This is the story of how I went from bitterness to bounty.
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” -Carl Jung
From a young age, I knew my family was different. We didn’t have a nice house or go on vacations. We took the bus everywhere, and most things were secondhand. In sum, we were poor. I didn’t care though, but my parents did. They tried to shield my brother and me from the stress and tension by internalizing it, but over time they only managed to poison the well.
For my Dad, a proud Marine, I think he felt the sting of comparisons to relatives on my mom’s side. He didn’t make as much; he was blue-collar, etc. But he was a machine. He worked overtime and weekends and still found time to be a Marine reservist. However, the pressure would build, and he would explode in fits of rage. In there somewhere was his own hurts and anger from childhood and combat. More than anything though I remember the military man with Midwest roots. He taught us that duty, honor, sacrifice, and selflessness were the virtues of all good men. He’d talk to us about decorum, take us on brutal hikes, and deliver swift punishments. He’d also impose lofty yet vague goals for us, but never had the time or energy to offer us the support needed to make them a reality. In the end, I felt like a soldier as much as a son.
My mom, on the other hand, oversaw day to day operations. As an immigrant, she was hard working in her own right. With no high school education, she adapted, learned, and hustled her way through life. But as hard-charging as she was, she hid an almost debilitating fear and anxiety. I think she was especially fearful of being even poorer. She’d exaggerate or lie to save a buck. She’d stoke family intrigue for sympathy. This fear dictated her parenting style as well. Discipline came through verbal threat and encouragement through criticism and comparison. So and so was smarter or thinner or listened more. She also compared our family. So and so family had this or that or went here or there. I know she loved us, but at that age, absorbing that much, I was filled with this deep sense that somehow, I wasn’t good enough.
Entering high school, teen angst and my parents' worsening mental health caused me to spiral. I began to wonder why some of the friends had things I didn’t. I began to question why my parents never wanted anyone over (including our own family). I began to question why we didn’t show affection or say the word love. As they became more withdrawn, I felt more abandoned and empty inside, and so like many teens, I rebelled. At first that helped me drown out the critical, cold voice of my parents, but it wasn’t long before a new and equally cruel voice replaced it – my own. By college, things had become chaotic at home, and I had to leave. My brother, who had borne the brunt of things from my parents fell into a deep depression that he’d never emerge from. My Dad began to crack and descended into a slow and steady darkness. My mom, slowed by age, couldn’t vent her anxiety through physical work as much and so began to horde and grow more manic. The day I left I did not look back and wouldn’t for many years. To cope with everything, I threw myself into school and worked two jobs to pay my tuition. I slept little but pressed-on. Stress took a toll on me (ulcer at 21), but I was relentless. I got through the tough days by blaming my parents, cursing God, and comparing myself to others. The resentment became so all-consuming that it was like a fuel. I became obsessed with getting back at anyone who’d ever hurt me by becoming better than them. I was called ambitious, independent, and resilient by friends, but the truth was I was bitter, worn down, and old beyond my years. By graduation, with my Master’s degree in hand, I felt more empty and alone than ever.
“Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” -Herman Hesse
After college, the pain I held in began to spill out, but I was too proud and too scared to deal with it, so I continued with the old formula. Pain is like a drug though. When used too long, it can be toxic. These effects were the first dominoes to fall. As I struggled to find a good job during the great recession, things accelerated. I grew depressed and withdrawn. Things were in a freefall. Soon thereafter, the relationship of ten years with my girlfriend disintegrated before my eyes. Broke, alone, and without a place to live, it was like I woke up one day into the fiery wreckage of my entire life. As I staggered about, I had no idea who I was, or if I could go on. For months I hung on by a thread, but I truly believe that God finds us in our darkest hour. Some friends took me in and supported me for a year until I could get back on my feet. In the meantime, I entered intensive therapy and later, spiritual direction. I completed a course in mindfulness and dove into books on healing and growth. Pain slowly began to be transformed. It became something to honor and understand versus deny and manipulate. I reconciled with my parents and learned how compassion could heal. I saw that pain took from things, while love gave only more of itself. I learned to stop blaming others for the adversity I had faced. I learned to stop blaming myself. I began to acknowledge and care for that little boy inside who had endured so much. I let go of that critical voice and tendency to compare myself and spent more time embracing everything I was and wasn’t. I explored what brought me true meaning and peace. I began to see how everyone suffered in their own way, even those who seemed to have a good life. Over time, I started a gratitude practice and found God again. Some days I wept for the boy who grew up too fast and for the man I used to be but took peace in seeing that Christ had left hidden graces for me along the entire way.
Six years later, I still walk this path of healing and growth. Some days are still hard, but I try. Sometimes I get caught up in the pressures of Silicon Valley life. I wade too deep into the frantic current and unhealthy value on material wealth. I take in too much of the superficiality and self-absorption of the place. I begin to get frustrated with my little apartment and ten-year-old car. I dwell on how my family is still challenging and imperfect. Then, I gently stop myself and breathe. I know this poisonous pattern, and I’m not interested, and so I pray for the strength to let go, return to the present, and to trust. You know, there’s still much I don’t have, still a lot that I’ll never be, but as I close this, alone in my room, I look around and I’m surrounded by so many reminders of those who love me, and I know God is here and always has been. Perhaps it’s this last part that is all I’ve ever wanted – all I’ve ever needed.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” -Mary Oliver