I’ve meant to write about the holidays and the experience of getting through Thanksgiving and Christmas with a boyfriend and his family for the first time. Because while it’s certainly been an experience, it wasn’t as crazy or stressful as I expected it would be. Perhaps it was other people’s descriptions of their family holidays that put me off to the whole thing, or had my hackles raised, but there were no big meltdowns, no plate throwing, no huge blowups or fights, or anything else that ends up in movies about the holidays.
Basically, it wasn’t National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Or Home Alone. No neighbors were harmed during the month of December.
It was curious though to see how both Jay and I dealt with holiday stress. He tends to externalize more and withdraw, like most guys. If things get to be too much, he retreats to a quiet place to read or hide out. When he was forced to sit through gift opening on Christmas Eve, he sat in the corner with a book, mostly reading while people opened presents.
I sometimes deal with stress the same way, especially if I’m going through a bout of depression or am tired. But mostly I deal with stress by simply becoming someone else — or rather, I become a version of myself that can deal with that particular stressor. It’s an automatic defense mechanism, like being a personality chameleon.
This is something I’ve been exploring some in therapy the past few months. For a long time I’ve known that there are multiple versions of “me,” personas that I employ to cope with different social situations and people. My mom was one of the first people to point this out when I was a teenager, and she accused me of essentially being a hypocrite; of showing different faces to people instead of just “being myself.”
Of course, what she didn’t know then was that I was already in deep cover as a gay man; that I was desperately trying to hide who I really was from everyone for fear of being found out and things going very bad for me. In case you haven’t heard, gay teens don’t fare very well in fundamentalist Christian circles.
So during the time when most people are forming their adult identities and selves, and figuring out who they are as individuals, I was developing different masks to hide who I really was.
In one of his stories, David Sedaris recounts how his sister Amy had a penchant from an early age for adopting different characters and imitating the adults around her. She would come in for breakfast and her mother would ask, “And who are we today?” To which Amy would respond: “Who don’t you want me to be?”
Sharing that story with my therapist was rather a light bulb moment for both of us, as it brought to light the reality that this is how most of my relationships have operated for most of my life. I figure out who not to be for someone, and then become that person. The majority of my teen and adult life has been spent playing different characters, different versions of myself, for others. Like the sci-fi show Sliders, they’re slight variations of “me,” with different tastes, likes, dislikes, ways of speaking, acting, extroversion and introversion, and so forth.
So the reality is that I’ve never really developed a personality of my own. I’ve invested so much time and energy into developing characters that are socially acceptable, but haven’t put any of that into personal development. Consequently, it’s difficult to share genuine pieces of myself with others. There is a lot here on this blog that I divulge — stuff from my past, painful memories, frustrations. But doing that in writing, on the page, removed from other people is much easier. I don’t have to risk personal rejection necessarily in writing things down.
Everything really fell apart two years ago when I lost Seth and finally owned up to my total lack of belief in God, two huge things that formed the gravitational mass of the comfortable illusion that everything was okay. I’d come out gay two and a half months earlier, and was still adjusting to the notion of being out to my very conservative family. But God, my Christian faith and the church was still grounding me to the identity I’d been carefully cultivating and maintaining over the years. And I’d been painfully and pathetically pining for Seth for over a year, which provided another neat distraction from the fact that the air was quickly escaping from my spiritual life.
I didn’t realize then how deeply my world shattered the night of my birthday. I’d been running a carefully organized circus for 20 years, and all of a sudden the neat solar system I’d built to manage everything quite literally imploded. To cope with the pain I divvied up all the feelings into the different shards of my personality — parts of me that were already managing those different areas of thought and emotion. It was as though I truly became a different person after that night.
Apparently this is common amongst people who grew up in highly stressful and repressive environments as children. In order to survive we break apart to manage the stress and “pass” for acceptable to authority figures. For our child selves, it was life or death. We don’t have a choice.
So now I’m left as an almost-30-year-old with the personality equivalent of a broken mirror. I still revert to my chameleon state when things get stressful. And I still feel removed from various feelings and emotions. Memories are there, but the feelings are strangely absent. It’s an interesting place to be, going into my third decade.
More to come.