We are animals. When animals get stressed there’s an adaptation response called “fight or flight”. It’s more like fight, flee or freeze, but the point is it’s biological. It’s a built-in. You can learn how to use it properly, but you can not keep it from happening. When you get stressed, adrenaline will pump into your system, and adrenaline can turn you into a monster.
If you are survivor of any difficult struggle like me, you may have to deal with a problem called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Military personnel get it from being in combat, but it also happens to victims of crimes and survivors of car accidents or abuse. The reason PTSD is a problem is that you respond as if the threat is there – and it isn’t.
Anger kept me alive. I was not about to let my father kill me. I was much smaller, but also smarter and more adaptive. From the time I could first read I knew all kinds of stories about how brain defeats brawn. David and Goliath. The Trojan Horse. Robin Hood. I still needed energy to perform the super-human feats of stealth and stillness required of me. The energy came from the fight-or-flight response. When my father would fail to see me hidden in a tiny space, my heart pounded. I was in a state of hyper-attention fueled by adrenaline.
At times when I wasn’t being hunted I would think about the injustice of my situation, and adrenaline would pump through me. I felt invincible, impenetrable, faster, stronger, ready for anything that might happen. I needed that feeling. But a kid doesn’t know how to manage that much power. There are stories of mothers lifting up cars to free a trapped child underneath. That’s adrenaline. We synthesize it in laboratories, call it epinephrine and give it to paramedics to start up a heart that’s stopped. That’s how powerful it is.
I used it to focus my brain so well that I learned voluntary control of my gag reflex, the ability to dilate or restrict my pupils at will, and to be able to selectively turn off pain receptors. The old “holding your hand over a candle” trick. I could do that. The worst thing I did was use it to suppress any regret I might otherwise have had over hurting people. Usually all I needed were words. Words can destroy a person’s will if used by a skilled practitioner. The CIA knows this. Only the unskilled and inept resort to torture.
If you’ve read my earlier work here or had contact with me through comments, you know I’m also a compassionate person. I do care. I want you to get everything worthwhile from life that you seek. That was true when I was an adolescent too – unless you crossed me. At that time, if I judged you to be my enemy (and I was quick to judge), I would turn on that internal torch, get my adrenaline up, figure out your weak spot and cut you with a sharp sentence or two. I had no conscience. I had no regret. I made it sound like wit, so people encouraged me to continue. I was the Oscar Wilde of middle school.
By high school I knew how to cut up adults as easily as I used to destroy other kids. I would sit in the middle of the front row and stare at the teachers intently. When I figured out the weak spot in whatever subject they were teaching, I would ask a question I believed they couldn’t answer. When they didn’t know, I would follow up with another, indicating my superior knowledge of the topic. It was a charade of course, just a game to make them look foolish. It usually worked, because the teachers involved weren’t the sort of mature people the students respected. It was my job to make them want to quit the profession. They didn’t deserve the mistreatment I gave them. It was all displaced anger. It was an illness I was suffering from because I couldn’t solve things at home, where I had no power except invisibility.
Adrenaline is addictive. You can develop a taste for it. My father and grandfather were alcoholics. I have that genetic predisposition toward getting addicted. For me, the drug of choice was the one I got through anger. Once I was 15 though, testosterone acted like a methadone program. I didn’t have as much need to destroy people if I had someone to make out and grope around with. I wasn’t choosy at first. I didn’t stick to one gender. But even with this new outlet, I still had occasional outbreaks of rage.
Sexuality is a complicated thing (said Captain Obvious). Some women like men with a hint of threat around them. I could hint at and even be a threat, especially if it turned them on. That explains most of my intimate relationships in the dozen years between my two marriages. I was Dr. Jekyll most of the time, but I gravitated toward women who secretly wanted to cheat with Mr. Hyde. I wasn’t integrated. I could only be one or the other. Jekyll longed for the peace which passes all understanding. Hyde just wanted to get off, and he did the choosing of partners because he was the keeper of the adrenaline, my life-force drug.
Though I was addicted, I still believed that love was the greatest power in the universe. I hadn’t experienced enough of it, but I had been loved by friends and my first wife. I also read about it in Dickens and Shakespeare and every other river of great literature, and I believed what I read. I decided that if I was to be cured it would have to be through love. For the first time in my life, I began allowing Jekyll to do the choosing. For a year I dated a singer in my church choir who opened me up considerably, helping my disparate sides to merge. She had been through plenty herself and was also seeking healing through the power of love. When I finally opened up to her about my past misdeeds, it was too much for her to accept and she broke it off. However, we remained friends. We helped encourage each other toward the marriages we are in now.
I met my current wife at a birthday party. She spoke in a soft voice, with her head slightly bowed toward me. When I looked at her, she was outlined in a luminescent glow that separated her from the rest of the party. I had never experienced that kind of special effect before. Some invisible agent of providence had a spotlight ready for the occasion. She had never been married. After a decade of eating scraps tossed from the banquet of love, someone had saved me a place at the table.
But the last trick hadn’t been played. The demon remained, locked in a holding cell. When I felt threatened by dilemmas or felt powerless in situations, he emerged. I would shout and sometimes throw things. In the second year of our marriage my wife, possibly accidentally, hit me in the head with the bathroom door. In a flash, without time to think, I grabbed a plastic shampoo bottle and chucked it at her. At three feet it’s hard to miss. I gave her a black eye and bruised her cheek badly. I was horrified. This was not what I wanted to have happen, and I never, ever wanted to be capable of such an action again. I went to the phone book and picked out a therapist.
We saw the therapist both together and in individual sessions for about a year. He was an enormously wise, Jewish sage in his late seventies. His first question to me in our very first session was “Can you promise to never, ever do it again?” Because I was able to say yes immediately, with conviction, he explained that it would be possible to begin the real work. He taught me we can’t control what people will do, but we can completely control how we will react to it. It was as simple as that.
I was driven by regret to change, not only because I had hurt the person who meant the most to me, but because I could finally acknowledge the guilt I had over all the other undeserving people I had hurt out of my own weakness. He and his wife came and visited me at work when I was restoring “Gone With The Wind”. My wife and I attended his second Bar Mitzvah, which is given when a man reaches 83. He died a couple of years later. If heaven exists, he’s there teaching wayward angels not to envy mortals.
But what about the demon, the Mr. Hyde who lives in me? He’s still there. He comes out to shout every once in awhile. My wife and I try to deal with him from a position of compassion. He’s the way he is because he wasn’t loved enough. If you acknowledge him, pat him on the head and go “there, there”, he might grumble a bit, but he will turn and pad, pad, pad right back to the cell all on his own.
Happy 100th post to me! I sincerely thank you all for reading.