I’ve often asked myself what was the first time I felt like I encountered a life-changing moment. This is not an easy question for me to answer since most of the examples I can remember were not life changing at that moment due to my lack of self awareness. In most cases it was years before I could connect the dots and trace a change back to one of these early moments. The story I am about to tell is one such moment.
I’m pretty sure I was eleven years old when this happened. I was in Mr. Demko’s sixth-grade class. I was by now accepting the fact that I would never be great at sports, or terribly popular amongst my peers. But I did have friends despite my not being perhaps the best friend a kid could have. I wasn’t the last kid picked by others to join their group, but I was in the last few. I was forever being told I was smart, but never performed as well as I should given that gift. I was a class clown and just starting to think girls weren’t as creepy as I had thought in all my previous years. And by this time I had been told more than a few times that I was temperamental and selfish. While under interrogation I would likely have copped to having a temper, I think I would have needed some convincing that I was particularly selfish. But on this particular evening of this particular day in my eleventh year of life, I came face to face with selfishness and, at first, I didn’t mind it.
I had been home for most of the evening with just my brother for company. I don’t remember specifically what we had been doing — possibly playing with toys or more likely watching TV. But eventually it got late for us and we knew better than to be up and watching TV when our parents got home which was usually around 11pm. So sometime around ten-ish we took ourselves to our beds. My brother probably listened to the radio as usual — I could hear it faintly through the heating duct in the floor of my room. I, on the other hand, tucked myself into my little nest-like configuration in a corner of my bed next to one corner of my room. And I waited. I waited for my parents to return before going to sleep. They always popped into my room and asked how the evening went and then kissed me goodnight on my forehead. There was something about this punctuation of the day that made me feel comfortable and ready for sleep.
But this evening there seemed to be some kind of agitation in the tone of their voices though I could not make out their words as they put their coats away in the hall closet. Instead of both parents coming to id me goodnight, my mum alone came in and kissed me quickly on the forehead and left my room. I heard her close her own bedroom door seconds later. Then I heard footsteps coming down the hall. They were heavy and irregular. Something seemed to have bashed in either a wall or a closet door perhaps, then more irregular steps. Suddenly my bedroom swung open and my father flew in behind it and fell to the floor. He picked himself up and staggered over to me. He reeked of alcohol. He missed my forehead, kissed my eye, hiccuped and staggered out the room, slamming the door behind him. He crashed similarly through his own bedroom, I could hear some muffled, cross words and then silence. I was now wide awake.
For the first time in my life I had experienced the sight of my father out of control. My pack leader, my alpha male, was not in control. This state clearly upset my mother very much. It certainly did me. I instantly began wondering how this might affect me. I wondered if this heralded a significant change in our family. Would our family disintegrate? And just as quickly my thoughts centered on me — I am selfish afterall. I wondered if I would have to give up this nice room and the nice things in it. Would I have to change schools? Suddenly things that had weighed heavily on my mind a day earlier now looked trivial. My life as I knew it could be on the brink of destruction. Turns out I was wrong, and I was right.
The next morning was much like many other mornings to come. A night of disagreement and drunkenness turned into a moment of silence. People went about their morning tasks without speaking a word. Then we all went off to work or school. And when we got home, everyone acted as if nothing had happened the night before. There was no conflict acknowledged or discussed… or resolved. The dirt was swept silently under the carpet and life went on.
I was confused and there was no one seemingly open to talking about what had happened. I eventually tried to fill in the gaps myself and decided it was a one-off issue and nothing to be worried about. I felt some relief, but it felt like a fake relief, like I was papering over something.
Of course it wasn’t a one off. In fact this was just a taster of what was to come. My fears for my material well being returned with a vengeance. The trust I had placed in my father was gone, never to return. And it got worse. He was not just a falling down drunk, he was a mean drunk. He had an uncanny skill while drunk at saying all the things a father or husband ought never to say. His filters removed, he let loose all his darkest thoughts and feelings upon us. This behaviour, in one form or another continued until his death 37 years later.
If I had displayed some selfish behaviours before, I was now well and truly a prince of selfishness. From now on I was looking out for numero uno. All the things one could benefit from by having a present father now evaded me. He did not really engage with me and I stopped seeking out his engagement in my life. In fact, I just avoided him wherever possible. This was especially true if, after he got home from work, he would open the drinks cabinet. That door had a singular sound that I could hear all the way in my bedroom. And even to this day, the sound of ice rattling in a tumble gives me goosebumps.
So in this instance, a nascent set of behaviours called selfishness, became a hardened script. This was now my safe place. When times got tough I would turn inward and protect myself. I equated uncomfortable times with being under personal threat. Running away, separating myself from others, hunkering and bunkering down, became a script I would play out over and over again for decades to come.
Strangely, the seeds of change for me were sewn by my father, and so was its cure. When I was about 16, a good friend had had enough of me and decided I needed some home truths, some tough love. He laid out in front of me all of the worst parts of my character, replete with examples of each. But he saved the best for last, telling me that I was turning out to be just like my father who I blamed for all the worst things in my life. Though this was the last time I heard from this friend, he did me a great favour. He was right on every count. It was as if I was becoming an alpha asshole, incorporating the things I hated most about my father’s behaviour.
While I can usually be quite defensive when being read the riot act, in this case I did not. I took my licks, in a kind of state of shock.
At the time I was quite aware that I was slipping into some behaviours that fell into the category of following my dad’s footsteps. And if there was one thing I did not want to do, it was to become him. Sadly, I didn’t act on this realisation for two more years. But when I was 18 I realised that I needed to make some changes in my life. I needed to accept the fact hat my dad and I were more alike than not. I recognised the same addictive impulses in me that were so destructive in his life. I was also finally accepting what people meant when they said I was selfish and temperamental. And I began to see how chasing attention and approval of others could be a destructive vocation.
So what happened when I was eleven took seven years to fully understand in terms of change, and many more years before I could begin to unwind the consequences of that change. So tracing back the genealogy of behaviours can be a real challenge. It can be helpful in making sense of things but it is not the whole answer. Knowing where that script came from certainly helped me get started. But the real work was unpicking all the things that surrounded selfishness. But that, as they say, is another story.