Hugo Schwyzer uses memories of his awkward, unhappy, throughly alienated years in middle school as powerful tools for defeating addiction and self-loathing.
Earlier this week, I had an interesting conversation via email with an old friend of mine from middle school. He had added me on Facebook after noting we had many mutual contacts; we went to Carmel Middle School together from 1978-1980. I barely remembered him.
He reminded me, not in a cruel way, of what an unhappy boy I’d been in those years. I don’t know many people who regard the years between 11 and 13 as the most fulfilling of their childhood, but I was an awkward, unpopular, thoroughly alienated kid in the sixth and seventh grades. My old acquaintance still has our seventh-grade yearbook (mine is long lost), and mentioned looking at my photo again recently, and seeing how evidently miserable I was. Minutes before the photo was taken one morning in September 1979, I’d had my backpack stolen. (I found it later in a trash can; it had been taken more out of puerile cruelty than greed.) In the picture, it’s clear that there are tears in my eyes. The yearbook photographers could airbrush out the skin blemishes that had already begun to ravage my face, but they couldn’t do anything about the pain in my expression.
The yearbook may be gone, but I have a copy of that photo. Indeed, that picture of me at age 12 was on my bureau for several years after I got clean again in 1998. Days after being discharged from what I pray will be my last hospitalization due to drugs and alcohol, I found a 8×10 color glossy print of that terrible photo tucked into some family papers. On an impulse, I stuck it on my mirror. A few days later, I put it in a frame.
I wanted to remind myself, each day, of the unhappiness that had been so much a part of my youth. I didn’t do it in order to wallow in self-pity. I did it because I decided, at 31, that it was time to heal the wounds of that scared and lonely and angry little boy. Despite his pain, that little boy had persevered in school, finding refuge in books. He had found refuge in animals and in nature. As isolated and alienated as he felt, and would feel for years, he had had hope—hope that someday things would be different, that he would be happy, that he would feel as if he had purpose and that he belonged. That hope had sustained him.
But that little boy was already an addict. When that seventh-grade picture was taken, he hadn’t yet found drugs and alcohol. (He would find them soon, within a year.) But he had found compulsive masturbation, he had found sugar, he had found self-mutilation. He knew how to alter his mood to grant him a temporary reprieve from what was in his head. And many of those behaviors would only get worse, far worse, over the ensuing two decades.
When I made the decision in 1998 that I had to get sober, that I had to give it all up (drugs, booze, sexual acting-out, self-injuring), I found strange comfort in that picture of my boyhood self. I remembered the old saying that “the boy is father to the man,” and decided (perhaps it was because I’d read too much John Bradshaw) that I was going to be the father to that terribly unhappy boy whose face I looked at every morning. During that long strange summer of detox and celibacy and growth, I looked at that boy every morning. I usually spoke to him, as I dressed for the day:“Don’t worry, Hugo, I’m here. We’re going to make it.”
My peers and I are transitioning into middle age with varying degrees of self-acceptance. I have friends and acquaintances who are still haunted by what they endured three decades ago and more; the scars of childhood and puberty don’t always heal. But for me, one key tool in my own growth, in my journey from being ruled by an unhappy and lonely inner child to being an inner and outer adult, was my commitment to that little boy whom I once was. I could not undo the hurt that had been done. But I could remember his desperate hope that things would get better, and I knew I could make those hopes real. As narcissistic as it may sound, that memory of my childhood self became a key instigator of my adult transformation.
It was unthinkable that that unhappy 12-year-old should have nothing more to look forward to than a lifetime of addiction. It was too much to bear to think that he should spend the rest of his days oscillating between pathetic expectation and crushing disappointment. He needed more and he needed better. And by God’s grace (and the 12 steps, therapy, and a hell of a lot of hard work), that sullen and isolated and hurting little boy saw his deepest wish come true.
I recommend this technique to everyone. Take out that embarrassing picture of your childhood self at your most awkward and most miserable. Put it somewhere prominent. And make that kid a promise that their pain will not endure forever. In ’98, I was a man who had broken all of my vows and promises a thousand times over. And as it happened, the first promise I could keep was to an unhappy little boy who needed so badly to know that everything—everything—would get better.
Originally published at hugoschwyzer.net.