The dilemma I’m in my early 30s and feel gripped by shame and inertia. I grew up a fundamentalist Christian (my dad was a preacher). But since I came out as a gay atheist some time ago, any meaningful relationship with my parents has been impossible. My childhood has saddled me with a toxic shame I can’t seem to let go of. One sibling is in recovery from heroin addiction and another is still using, and I struggle with addiction to a prescription drug.
My career as an artist has finally taken off, but privately I feel aimless, bored, uninspired, and guilty for no reason. I’ve had all sorts of therapy and read dozens of books about psychology, all of which have given me clarity about my problems, but no actual relief. I’m afraid it’s made me “therapy proof” by pitting my intellect against my feelings. I’ve been on meditation retreats, exercise hasn’t helped, I volunteer with a local charity. I’m on antidepressants. Despite all this, my appetite for socialising and relationships is steadily shrinking, and I feel increasingly alienated from myself and others. How do I break this impasse?
Mariella replies Did someone put you up to writing just to mess with me? Looking at the gauntlet you’ve thrown down, I’m already asking myself how I can possibly be expected to help. All the avenues I might have suggested, from seeking professional counselling to exhausting your body in pursuit of clearing your mind, have all been tried and found wanting, as you emphatically point out. An addiction to prescription drugs is not something you can battle alone, so I’d contact Battle Against Tranquillisers (bataid.org), but you do seem to have covered all other bases. It doesn’t leave me much to work with now, does it?
You’re not the first correspondent I’ve had struggling with the legacy of a fundamentalist religious childhood, but you’re certainly right to have come out and embraced who you are, not who you were told to be. It’s depressing to consider how many kids are still being scarred for life by the foisting of cultish parental conviction on to impressionable young minds. As the survivor of such an experience you’ve doubtless got a lot of worthwhile thoughts to share, so I’m glad to hear you’re volunteering for a charity. I hope it offers you a platform from which to explore your own issues. In my experience, the most rewarding moments of self-revelatory clarity have occurred when I was meant to be passing on my “wisdom” to others. Whether sitting under a baobab tree in east Africa with the hard-pressed members of a women’s farming co-operative, or delivering a “motivational” speech to secondary school students on behalf of Speakers for Schools, the dividends of such dialogues invariably seem to pay off on a personal level; sadly, I can’t speak for my audiences!
Perhaps in the same way that describing a dilemma on paper helps to reveal the real issues you’re addressing, focusing on the challenges you’ve faced (and sometimes overcome) both pinpoints and puts into perspective your own experience of damage. It sounds like what you and your siblings have been through must have been particularly brutal to have created such damaged adults. If the others are as articulate and intelligent as you, their embrace of a numbing addiction is all too predictable a response, though a wholly negative one. It certainly sounds like you’re still suffering the after-effects of a toxic childhood, but to be doing so with such a clear vision of why you are where you are and how you might reach somewhere better is pretty unusual.
There’s definitely a problem when a surfeit of analysis prompts you to start over-intellectualising your emotional impulses, instead of learning how to master them. Then again, it’s also a perfectly plausible response, once you’ve understood what ails you, to start judging those who’ve taken you as far as they can in that process for the moment, or so you’ve decided. Competing to outwit your therapists will only hinder your attempts to put the past in its rightful place; which should be, emphatically, behind you.
You haven’t articulated the experiences of your youth, but it sounds to me like you understand the initial damage and the repercussions. Although we’re all told you can’t look forward without achieving resolution in your past, sometimes it can feel so much more productive to put your best face forward and deal with legacy issues later. A messy start is, for some of us, best left where it occurred, and the further we get from the shadows the more emancipated we become. Maybe you’ve been too introspective and it’s time to throw off the shackles of self-flagellation and live in the sunlight a bit. Enjoy your moment, having embraced your sexuality and mitigated the damage of your upbringing, and now that you are finding success in your chosen field. I’d be tempted to channel the self-examination into your work and give it a rest during your downtime.
Instead, through your art and perhaps your words too, impart your wisdom to those who haven’t come anywhere near as close to reconciling with their past. There are huge swathes of the world where your advice on how to survive such an experience would be in great demand. Even parental reconciliation becomes a possibility when you’ve freed yourself from your immersion.
You may find that further assistance in the form of enlightened therapy becomes necessary down the line; but for now, why not live a little more, think a little less, and see what the world feels like when you’re not pitting yourself against it, but getting swept in its current? It’s only my opinion, but you wrote to me, so that’s what I suggest.
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