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.
20 responses to “Subduing the Demon”
Your 100th post couldn’t have been more compelling.
I have so much to say…how I can relate, comparisons, but really, I don’t want to, because I think this is such an amazing moment for you and all of us reading. I do know that you are a compassionate person, and I do know you care. It’s good to know that you and your wife are learning to deal with Mr. Hyde…it’s even better to know that you want to. Thank you for stepping out of the shadows. I wish I had the balls to put my own demons into words.
Oh, I know you can. Like me, when you’re ready, you will. I’m happy to have shared this with you.
The scary part is, that’s just maternal side of the my family… and paternal side isnt much better… and yet we’re all still here, and some of us are even pretty decent company, I think.
Thanks for filling in a piece that has been missing for so many years.
I try not to overly focus on it as either good or bad, since it’s all distant past now. It’s just experiences to be accepted and learned from, and in this case shared with a community of readers who have been asking for more personal works.
People undertake unethical behaviors all the time that they do not understand. Many, many families go through this stuff. It holds growth potential. Truly hope I did not disturb you with the aspects of the tale you may not have heard before. You’re more than decent company. You are an essential expression of our best hopes and intents.
(This is one of my college-aged nephews.)
I’m thinking of switching to a Biology major, then veterinary school. With how far the family has come, both sides with stories like these…. Ive been given the chance to pursue my dreams, and im going to take it and enjoy the fact our families came together and made it happen. I’m glad to finally see it that way. Took me long enough, heh. – c
Understanding takes the time it takes. I’m a slow buffalo myself, but I’m happy the way things have turned out.
This is brilliant writing as usual Mikey. The story is riveting with potential to touch people’s hearts. It takes courage to write your personal story, I know. But the power of sharing your story and making a difference to others is immeasurable. You are a unique and special individual. Thank you for sharing so honestly and openly. I told you that you can do it! Keep it up! I’m proud of you!
I’m deeply touched to receive your appreciation, Tracy.
(Tracy’s been one of my mentors in encouraging me to take off the mask a bit. She’s brave.)
I apologize for sticking my nose places where it likely doesn’t belong, but I was interested in your mention of the woman in the church choir. What was it specifically about your past that was “too much for her,” if I may ask?
I also apologize for not being as eloquently acknowledging of how you’re pouring your life out to us. I try to think of a way to express it, but have trouble coming up with the right words. Others continue to do so much better.
Apology accepted, though not needed. I would prefer to put it politely and not too specifically, as I want this space to remain open to read for all. She basically chose not to have a romantic partner with my varied and experimental past. When estimating the possibility of a permanent relationship, you should be entitled to accept or reject someone based on your own comfort level. I’m glad she dealt with it in an honest fashion. She’s a lovely woman, and she married a nice Dr. who I like very much. They both remain close friends of my wife and I.
Interesting topic for your 100th “anniversary.” Heh. It was very hard to read, though. It’s a side of you people – well, I – hadn’t seen before and that was a bit difficult to see. I was kind of shocked for a few seconds until I realized I was doing the same thing people do to me: You find out someone has faults, has messed up, and get upset? Not at all fair. Come to think of it, I’m rather glad you posted this. I know you enjoy being invisible, but I think I see you a little. You’re more human now. 🙂
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!…Oh well, as long as it’s you I guess it’s all right.
(The next one’s on seeing beneath the surface of the Wizard of Oz.)
Mikey, I enjoyed this, though you were right, this was even MORE uncomfortable than your Dilemma. I’m a recovering addict, and I relate to your demon in every way. Because I was shamed as a child and learned a language of shame about myself, I too have a demon that does not seem to ever die, and when my love tank gets low, he lashes out. I become addicted to anger and resentment as much as I have ever been addicted to other things. My wife does not want to live in a house with such anger, so I’m working on this from many angles. It is my wish and intention that my daughter not grow up feeling shame about herself or fear from an angry authoritarian. The road is long, but I take comfort that the sun rises and sets every day. I don’t have to be perfect, but I have every inducement to want to be better. Asking for what I need (love, and more love) is the hardest part. Thanks for this post.
I couldn’t have asked for a better reason to write this. I needed outside help. If you need it too, ask for it and seek it from experts. It’s all right to be afraid of doing so, as long as you do it anyway. Everyone has the Shadow. That’s why I understood it in the Wizard of Oz. The shadow can be controlled, but I doubt it can be destroyed for we are still animals at heart and in our genes. Tigers can be taught tricks, but they remain tigers.
It’s been a madly busy week, but replying to this post has been on my mind. I think that sometimes being who you are Today can be a very determined effort to be so “in spite” of influencing tragedies in our past. If you are determined enough to want to change the pattern then you can. I didn’t have the best of childhoods so made some BIG parenting decisions for how my kids would grow up. (or rather NOT grow up). The complete lack of interest of my parents has been taken two ways by myself and my sister, she wallowed in it, plays the “victim” and in bullying fashion took a lot of her anger out on me. She blames every single thing no matter how small on our past and on me, and even decades later struggles to find happiness in any facet of life. After many years of struggling with this I have tried to see that past as a place that I can leave in the past and to focus on the fact that positiveness can *also* be a self fulfilling prophesy .
I see it as a conscious choice :we have to either let it go or let it weigh us down. I can not be held to account for her pain or be forced to take responsibility for pain I was never responsible for inflicting. Yes of course it’s been a painful road to get fully to this point and many many tears have flowed, and sometimes still do… I now work on the premise that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” , and learn to laugh more… The love and support of my husband and kids keeps me motivated to keep on with a more positive attitude each and every new day. We have our shadows, (everyone does I assume), but the difference for me now is that my shadow follows me in the sunshine (as nature dictates) and I no longer walk behind, in the unnatural darkness of my shadow, belittled and subservient . Is my Mrs Hyde around sometimes?, you bet, it’s just that we are now more skilled at dealing with her and as a result, her appearances over the years have slowly become less and less frequent. Broken hearts and spirits and a massive lack of childhood love are very hard beasts to subdue but with the right treatment and support it IS possible to heal the soul. I’m not saying it’s easy, but look into your spouses and kids eyes and say that the effort isn’t worth it?
Me? I’m proud of the fact that I’m changing history (my own personal family history) each and every single day. I suppose you’ll have to wait until my kids are grown to see how successful I have really been, (no-one’s perfect after all) but so far Hubby tells me that I’m doing a pretty good job, so it’s worth it, every determined step.
Focus as much as you can on the wonderful Good Stuff that you have in your life, appreciate it and you will be far more likely to keep it.
I agree with every point you made, KD, and you made them well. Every obstacle can be a source of wisdom or of imprisonment. Everything that has power can be used for good or bad purposes. Every curse is also a blessing, and every blessing hides a curse.
Thank you for sharing your own story in relation to mine.
This has been an incredible read and a great post for your 100th.
I read somewhere that those who suffer the most can become the happiest. I certainly believe that those who suffer the most can also be the most compassionate. Your story is entirely congruent with the compassion we can all feel in your writings. I believe that although your past may have been, let’s say, less than perfect, you can make changes from this point onwards to create a better future. This comes from consciously deciding that your past is not going to hold you back and that it will become a source of growth. I think Kiwi Dutch’s personal story is a great example of this.
It’s the heart that’s important and it can always be transformed.
I appreciate your kind regards, Pie. I think it can happen as you say, and then again sometimes it kills the spirit. Hard to predict. I agree with you about Kiwi’s story, and look at how many on my blogroll favorites have gone through (or are going through) serious obstacles. You might be the most “normal” person whose work I read!
This has been a very moving post to read. Thanks for revealing yourself so deeply and sharing all your dedicated efforts to transform yourself. You are awe-inspiring.
Thanks, Sandra. It was mostly through the encouragement of Tracy Todd that I wrote this and the two posts immediately before it. I think the more you risk vulnerability when writing, the more readers empathize with your stories. That doesn’t make it any easier to do, however.