With a clear message to forget his feelings amidst a fractured family, Christian Clifton finds himself robot-like when it comes to his emotions.
The phone rang with the call that would change my family forever. I remember every detail—I was in my little league uniform eating dinner, chicken nuggets to be exact, waiting for my sister to get home so she could drive me to my game. I was almost done eating and about to go put on my cleats when my mom picked up the receiver.
Even at eight-years-old I could tell something was different about the conversation; the voice on the other end sounded frantic and as if tears were choking the person talking. My mother’s body grew rigid and her eyes opened wide, a blank stare of confusion quickly gave way to a deluge of tears. My sister had been involved in an automobile collision; she and the girl riding with her were both being transported by air to the hospital.
The next moments were a blur of motion and shouting by my mother; “We need to get to the hospital now!” “Drive faster!” she would scream every few moments at my stepfather who already was going far over the speed limit. Sitting next to her in the pickup truck I recall turning for a moment to look at her face; her skin beet red, eyes bloodshot, and she mumbled a prayer through wails and an ever present coating of tears. It was only for a moment that I saw this picture because as soon as I looked up I could feel her hand pressing my head downward towards my chest and hear her voice urging me, “Pray!”
I have a truly wonderful family and am greatly thankful for them. I know now that if I ever need anything all I have to do is ask, no favor would be too great. They were and are there for me in so many ways, but there is one hole. Missing from our home was emotional depth. My family talks about all of the superficial things, but there seems to be an unspoken rule against revealing our inner demons. I do not know if I am the only one who realizes it or just the only one who feels like this isn’t a good thing. Even during the frantic racing to reach the hospital where my sister had been taken I clearly recall a certain feeling of disconnect from the situation. In the middle of this traumatic experience, my feelings were not in frame with the rest of my reality. I’m not certain if it was only me.
As a child I remember struggling with feelings of depression and anger about the world, common symptoms of a teenage boy. When I tried to share these moments with my mother I was met with varied responses, but the messages behind her words were very similar. She sent out her words meaning to help but dealt such blows that I still have not found all the damage.
I remember approaching her once, nervously shifting my weight because I didn’t know quite how to bring up the subject. I told her my feelings; “Mom, I am not happy. I hate myself, the world, everything.” I knew this hit her hard and saw the emotions bubbling up behind her eyes. However, she turned to me and said something that I was not quite prepared for: “I understand son, but sometimes we have to get over it. We have to consciously choose to not be depressed, to not let the world beat you down. You have to focus and make yourself be happy.” The message was that I should simply “get over it”. She believed one could and should simply focus on the good in their life and force themselves into a better mood; after all she had done it for herself so it should work for me too.
I heard her words and the message of “get over it” sunk into my core like a rock. Instead of feeling my emotions I should simply devoid myself of them, rid my mind of their presence and press on only focusing on the good. A message that might have worked for others but for me it brought about a featureless façade to hide the turmoil going on just below the surface. If I was happy on the outside then maybe eventually I would be happy on the inside.
With no healthy outlets for my emotions other than to get rid of them, I numbed my heart to feelings of any kind. My conversations with friends, whom all seemed to be carrying some form of baggage as well, were always surface-level, and when the words hinted at seriousness I made sure the focus of the conversation was turned away from me. I became a strong shoulder for many to cry on, all the while never having a safe place to rest my own weary head. Instead of regular beneficial moments of emotional vulnerability I was defined by momentary outbursts of uncontrolled emotion that made me afraid of myself.
The other prominent message from my family was that my emotions were a weight unto others. When I reached out my mother, she had a tendency to internalize my struggles and place the burden of their existence on herself—a seemingly noble action but one which did more harm than good. I hated the fact that my feelings were hurting her, it made me feel even worse. I slowly learned to bottle the emotions up even more, hiding them deeper so as to protect anyone else from the pain they could bring.
My relationship with my siblings wasn’t much better. Being the younger brother by nearly a decade didn’t help to begin with as both my brother and my sister were moving on with their lives just as I came to the age of wanting to spend time with them. Our relationships have been awkward as long as I can remember with only minor moments of healing scattered across the broken paths we weave.
My brother was in college by the time I realized that I wanted to spend time with him. Instead of a regular part of his life I was the little brother that only came around a few times a year. We never were close, something that still is quite apparent to the observant eye.
I don’t think it was just the physical distance that put a wedge into my relationship with my brother; I know he has personal hurt as well that in some way changed how he dealt with emotional depth. Even when we were together there wasn’t much serious discussion to be had, we were quite different it appeared. I never quite felt comfortable sharing myself with him and I don’t think he would have ever opened up to me.
In some ways I still feel like a little child when I am around him, not quite fitting in and not quite feeling wanted. I remember the days I got to spend with him and there were moments that were simply uncomfortable because there was only so much time that could be spent on video games. When those awkward silences came around there wasn’t a meaningful conversation that I can remember, though I hope they did happen and the fault lies solely with my memory.
Now my brother is married with a baby on the way. He works a stressful job to provide for his family, something that I applaud him for. However, there is still a disconnect between us. Our ages still seem too different, our interests mesh on only the shallowest levels. I find myself always wanting to spend more time with him but I never receive the same message from him. I intellectually know that life is dictated by schedules and agendas but the feeling of loss doesn’t just disappear in light of such knowledge.
My sister was around a bit more often, at first, right before the accident. I was only eight years old when the call came—then she was out of the home for a few months while she lay in a hospital bed. After she came home it was just over a year when she was sentenced to spend seven years in prison because shortly before the accident she had taken a dose of methamphetamine which was still in her system at the time of the accident. Our relationship after she was incarcerated was dictated by a visitation schedule and a timer. It isn’t easy to build something meaningful with only a few minutes every week.
While I was able to see my sister on a weekly basis it was never quite enough to build that strong foundation. Every time I saw her we were surrounded by friends and family, the visitation time was a gift that needed to be shared equally. There were rare moments when we could sneak away from the rest of the group, still under the watchful eyes of a prison guard but out of earshot of family, where I could open up just a little. These moments were fleeting and always left me wanting more.
Reality had hit my sister and left her no room to hide any longer. Because she was in close quarters with others 24/7, her walls seemed to break away more than the rest of our family combined. She used her time wisely and built meaningful relationships where she knew and allowed herself to be known. She was forced to face her inner demons through many hours with no outside distractions and it made her a stronger person.
Her newfound self always made her more real to me than anyone else in my family. Her mess was constantly front and center with no way to hide it, because of this she learned to embrace and not fear it. Telling her of the real me seemed easier for I knew she was not afraid of my inner darkness.
She was released from prison a stronger woman than ever before and I looked forward to reclaiming those lost years of having my sister. She was just as eager to reclaim what she had lost too. My sister desperately wanted to move forward with her life and in what seemed like only a few months she was leaving our family behind to start her own life. There was precious little time to reconnect before our lives became to incongruent to build anything lasting.
The combined effect of these and other events brought destruction to my emotional health as a child, something I didn’t quite realize or begin to explore until the past few years. I always thought that I was healthy and stable. I could not have been more wrong. These deep rooted messages have made my adult life and relationships nearly impossible at times.
I know my family meant well, they were all just trying their best at every turn. My mother had a broken family in her childhood as well, she was dealing with a daughter in prison and a divorce all at the same time I was growing into my emotions. I don’t blame her for what she said and I know the responsibility for those messages now falls to me. I love them all, I really do.
I know I experience all the emotions that everyone else does but most of the time I just don’t know how to feel them properly. The years of hiding makes me a robot in moments of emotional duress, lacking any of the standard expressions of my inmost feelings. My mess is hidden behind walls and doors built to protect others and myself, a fortification so complex I don’t always know how to breach it.
I want to feel and express what is inside me. I need to. After so much practice my reflexes are quite adept at keeping loved ones at bay, a reaction that for my own sanity needs to be purged. It is a constant battle to open my heart to those close to me in a bid to save my own mind and life. I only hope I can figure it out before I cause irreparable damage to my current relationships and to kids of my own.
photo: langfordw / flickr