Part 1 – The Bridge Within
The past 11 years of my life have been dedicated to resolving a mountain of childhood experiences that have had a stranglehold on the way I’ve experienced and shown up in the world. As a kid in my late teens I left home after high school and set out on what I thought was an adventure and a quest for fulfillment and purpose, little did I know just how it would really unfold. While all my friends were getting accepted into colleges and some going the other route, selling drugs and finding themselves in their own existential dilemmas with the law I chose to leave. Now many might wonder how a 19-year-old kid who graduated a year late from an alternative high school with no driver’s license or vehicle was gonna take off on his own and materialize some kind of life for himself. Especially a life that did not look like renting an apartment in a low income area a few miles down the road from his parents and working some menial job while he decides whether he wants to go to community college or not. As an avid subscriber to all things alternative and far left of center my solution was found in a tiny niche of the punk culture I belonged to at the time, I would ride freight trains. In fact, I had spent the past two years of my life researching how to ride freight trains, I would spend hours excitedly sneaking into the freight yard down the street from where I had grown up in Sterling Heights MI, scaling auto carrier trains ogling graffiti plastered gondola cars and learning how to walk around a yard, figure out the layout and safely navigate the strings of cars without getting maimed. This was my ticket to a new life and away from a childhood and situation I had painfully floundered in, wrought with emotional and behavioral issues, and feeling blamed for falling short of measuring up to an ideal kid, student, peer, male, etc. All of which felt entirely out of my grasp to control. This is my journey, my story of transition change struggle pain healing, and redemption. Join me as I share with you the bricks I’ve laid to bridge the forgotten and lost parts of myself into a more whole and healthy me.
The ember that I stoked
Carried hidden in my heart
From the depths of hell,
I carried it from the birthplace it was born
Into the prison, it was raised
The fire that ignited a life
Was once a smoldering lump of wood
I stoked its flame
I bravely held it in my hands
And in its heat
I warmed my body
In the cold stale darkness, I was surrounded
And in its luminescence, I was guided
Magnetized to the oxygen on which it thrived,
Outside of those cold stale rooms
Through a maze in that cold stale home
Through terror and triumph, I held you tight
And with every breath, I breathed
Through every conceded notion
Against the impermeable winds of death, of atrophy
I stoked your flame and carried you close to my heart
Even when all was thought lost
I followed your smoke signals back to you,
Through the forest
Magnetized and attracted to your heat
Magnetized and attracted to your love
To my love
Because without you
I am not
And together “we” becomes “I”
I wrote this poem several years ago describing my childhood and the journey I had awoken to since getting off the street. It had felt desperate like I had been fleeing from some ominous darkness. A refugee in the night; It was a time of great uncertainty. It was 2013 and the summer before I had spent in limbo trying to find my footing after losing a series of jobs and unstable housing situations. My days of train riding had come and gone and I was making my way out of the well of trauma that had urgently ushered me off the streets in desperation. Asheville North Carolina had been my saving grace back in 2009 when I had initially made the difficult and arduous journey from a small farm in Northern California I had been working on to finally put down roots and get help. Aside from a failed attempt to move to Colorado it had been my home ever since. However tumultuous and uncertain my footing was with jobs and housing, Asheville was familiar and I found myself looked after as long as I had sought out the help. There seemed to be people and services willing to cut me a break and help me out of whatever pain or predicament I was experiencing. At this point, I had been in therapy for several years finding emotional regulation and teasing my way through the dance that is trauma work. My healing process was in a state of shift, and I was making strides to bridge the gap into greater stability.
Now, poetry had always been a cathartic release for me, a form of solace and a way to process the immense depth of feelings that my heart could not play a specific instance or timeline to.
But to better understand just where that poem came from and what its seemingly ominous pain spoke of, a deeper understanding of my past is in order.
Like many suburban white kids in the late nineties and early 2000s my adolescence and young adult life was colored by much of the emerging alternative trends of the time. I was a skateboarder, and mischief-maker heavily influenced by the Jack Ass MTV culture that slowly had begun to give me a voice to the dissonance and break I was experiencing with my understanding of who I was and the family culture and politics that was still trying to control that perception. The trauma I experienced, in my family unit and the rift it caused was just an expression of inherited traumas that had been passed down before me. I just so happened to be the scapegoat, the lottery winner or the expressor of the burden for this trauma, immediate to my experience and generationally passed down.
I grew up in a town just north of Detroit, my parents had moved us from our home outside of St. Louis Missouri when I was 3, after my father quit his job at McDonnell Douglas. We stayed with my grandparents, his parents, until he could land a job and figure out the next move for our family. My father was a second-generation Maltese American, his father had emigrated from Malta after World War 2 and came to the Detroit area through Canada where he met and married my grandmother. But the seemingly inspiring stories from the war and warm family that I was expected to accept at face value would slowly lose its sheen and deteriorate as I got older.
Now depending on the weight and nature of the trauma one is holding, its expressions can be more or less drastic and show up in a myriad of ways. In this case, mine showed up through physical, behavioral, and mental health issues.
These problems had been slowly percolating for years. Rearing there head with my family’s academic expectations running high and from a very young age a seemingly hopeless inability to keep up with my rageaholic father’s lofty goals for me. His moods would often swing from playful warm and fun to biting cold, angry and temperamental. Screaming, yelling, and a sense of tension coupled with violent outbursts made the air in our household feel like walking on eggshells when dad was home. My grades and performance in school were only the beginning of the emerging physical, behavioral and mental health problems I would begin to experience leading to an ever-burgeoning rift and more frequent clashes within our family dynamic. A constant renegotiation of boundaries expectations and norms was happening as my shifting physical, behavioral and mental health issues changed, worsened and played out.
Initially it was ADD, My grades had started to take a turn for the worse as early on as 3rd grade. I can remember my mother telling me how my 3rd grade teacher passed me from 3rd into 4th grade only because it was her last year of teaching and she was in a more lenient place. This would prove to be much of how I got through the rest of my years of schooling. In 6th grade I would develop a tongue abscess from my own nervous tensions and subsequent gnawing of canker sores in my mouth. My uncle would commit suicide that year and I would be left with the confusion and heaviness that would weigh over our families psyche trying to make sense of what happened. My mom seemed more distant but for a time things appeared lighter. The grief and weight of the situation had brought my family out of their rigidity and maybe away from being able to focus their energy on me.
This period of mourning however was only followed by greater issues with my own struggles; and the tension and anxiety that had been manifesting itself as canker sores had also been building into a series of ticks and behavioral patterns. By 7th grade these ticks and behavioral issues had begun to take a more prominent hold of my life. By 8th grade these ticks had fused with thought patterns and had developed into obsessive-compulsive disorder, I couldn’t function. My thoughts and fears circled around unwanted sexual advances from classmates and suicidal thoughts and feelings that had begun since my uncle’s passing. My life had become one riddled with fear and anxiety and the resulting prescriptive rituals I had created to quell the stress. Insomnia ensued and my schooling tanked altogether. I was pulled out of school and a deal was negotiated with the principal where I would submit work as I finished it at home.
Through the see-sawing of symptoms, the ticks that had been subtle had escalated into full-body shaking. My parents took me in for neurological testing yet nothing was found abnormal. I had MRI’s done but nothing showed up, still my parents were convinced I had Tourettes Syndrome. After all of this however I was beginning to get fed up with the medication and the doctors and the assumptions as to what was wrong with me with little regard or question as to how I felt or what I thought. I was watching my entire middle school years slide away from me. I could no longer be on the track team, one of the few semblances of relief and socializing that made me feel normal, alive and a part of something. I was a complete outcast and no one I had been in school with really knew what I had been going through. But there was a sort of space now, a distance that had been building in relationship to the seemingly tight grasp my parents attempted to wield. I was suffering and so the clenched fists of judgment and expectation that had once strangled my life had begun to release their grip. For one reason or another, they knew they couldn’t hold on as tight anymore. Maybe it was a mixture of love, worry and guilt, or the awareness of some, that my health was a liability. In this time I found greater freedom to explore and voice to give to the unanswerable anger frustration and pain I was feeling inside. That’s when I found punk music and everything changed for me.
Now some may think, “gee Jeff, you’ve had a lot of difficult experiences, I’m so sorry you’ve struggled so much in so many different ways,” and write everything I had been through off as some god-awful fluke and see me as a victim of circumstance or not having the genetic cards dealt in my favor. In fact that was exactly the narrative I was fed by my parents and team of random doctors, therapists and psychiatrists I had been seeing since the beginning of my struggles. But little did I know there was actually a name for the set of experiences and their subsequent symptoms I had been displaying.
According to the CDC’s website, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s): are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). For example:
experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect
witnessing violence in the home or community
having a family member attempt or die by suicide”
A paper published in 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics expands on this list:
Adverse childhood experiences include
• Emotional abuse
• Physical abuse
• Sexual abuse
• Emotional neglect
• Physical neglect
• Mother treated violently
• Household substance abuse
• Household mental illness
• Parental separation or divorce
• Incarcerated household member”
As a child with no cognizance or understanding of my own body and no way of being able to fully understand what I was experiencing I was left to live out my pain and actuate my emotions in the only real ways, I had access to at the time.
The article states,
“The researchers discovered that 89.5% of the sample had one of the following diagnoses: undifferentiated somatoform disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, dysthymic disorder, simple phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression, dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, and borderline personality disorder.
That isn’t all.
Researchers also found that dissociative disorders were present in 47.4% of those researched. Unfortunately, those with dissociative disorders also had experienced childhood emotional and sexual abuse, physical neglect, self-harming behaviors, and suicide attempts.”
But this list is just a tiny glimpse at the way my life would end up expressing the greater traumas living inside.
Aside from punk rock, there had actually been a historical protest in my long journey through my mental health struggles that lent a somewhat undeveloped subconscious voice against the dominant coercion of my parents’ narrative and the doctors they employed, being more concerned with medication than the larger picture of my health history. Which for so many of us begs the question. What happened to you? In fact, this question has begun to represent a shift in attitude around the medical establishments’ evaluation of the public’s health. “Traditionally, the health care system would point to high-risk behaviors such as poor diet, drug use, or a sedentary lifestyle as the primary causal factors. Questions for patients have focused on “What’s wrong with you?” rather than “What happened to you?” American Academy of Pediatrics.
From as early on as 4th grade I can remember crying in obstinance as I protested my morning Ritalin and later on Concerta for not liking the way it made me feel nor the implied social shame I felt from having been diagnosed with ADD. Further on I would find myself explicitly at odds with my parents insistence that my shaking and often times violent ticks were Tourettes Syndrome despite the inconclusiveness of what the neurologists had found in my brain scans. My symptoms were not just symptoms, in the sense that the clues to what I was really struggling with did not just lie in the physical and mental health realms of my childhood but in the behavioral realm too. As a child my awareness of my sexuality and lack of boundaries led to ever-growing run-ins with boundary violations and acting out. From chasing my 15 year old babysitter around the house snapping her bra strap, to grabbing my friends crotch in middle school and getting suspended for sending a sexually provocative note to a girl in high school. My pain and trauma was coming out in all directions and although I could not recall what it was that ailed me. The life I was living was alive with an unfolding story of a dormant past I was only beginning to get to know.
But Punk Rock saved me in more ways than one. Not only was it a great outlet for the angst anger and pent-up energy I had felt on a day-to-day basis, but It was also a purpose, It gave voice, direction, and meaning to my life in a time where I had felt isolated, alone, and misunderstood. Finally, I had something to stand for and someone, a group of people, a culture and ideology who was sick of the same old bullshit and not willing to settle. Even if I didn’t fully understand what they were talking about in there songs, or what exactly I was feeling or struggling with, I was learning by listening, and not only to the music but to me. I was discovering my voice and soon would immerse myself in topics like philosophy and politics. I began song writing, dreaming of singing in a band, and for a brief one night practice session I did. My lyrical dabbling developed into more expressive tones and I felt myself channeling poetry. In my most congested difficult emotional states the words would flow from my heart, my body and my soul out through my fingers and pen and onto the paper. It was a language all of its own and I was learning, developing and growing it one conversation and one emotional release at a time. My politics slowly evolved with my musical taste and I found myself meeting new people, especially women. The more I began to listen and know my body the more I began to identify and understand the women in my life and sometimes even over-identifying to my detriment. By my Sophomore year I slowly became turned on to feminism after a series of romantic interests both in-person and online through a punk rock dating website I frequented. My whole self-understanding turned upside down as I began to Identify and understand the toxic rigid male-dominated culture I had come from and more importantly, the relationship with the one man in my life who represented my relationship to that culture and much of the unanswerable and unspoken pain I was dealing with, my father. I became absolutely polarized, as I tended to do, demonizing men and denouncing my own masculinity, I adopted a more flamboyant personality and began to explore my sexuality allowing my gender to fall into a more amorphous expression, fluid. It not only became a way of self-discovery but also a mask. By denying my own masculinity I did not have to face the impossible truth of what I was harboring deep inside. In this way, I could cast aside the hurt wounded male inside of me. In fact, I didn’t just cast him aside, I hated him. And so, my adoption of a more gender-fluid identity acted as a cushion and space holder for a time in which I was slowly uncovering my hidden truth.