The merits of poor self-esteem: Part I
My mother, bless her labyrinthine heart, saved every scrap of writing and artwork I produced in elementary school, or at least she had saved every scrap until I moved out for college. Then, somehow, everything managed to fit into a single box in our garage. Some time between college and med school, I went through the box. It held no surprises for me -- I had been through it several times before, looking for answers that I hoped would be more palatable than the obvious ones I'd known from the beginning. Nope, nothing new. I saved the interesting stuff and tossed the rest. I kept my first grade report cards, quarter by quarter showing a teacher initially enchanted by me, ultimately exhausted. I kept a small folder of stories bound with three brass brads. And I kept another brad-bound folder from first grade, this one titled MY FAMILY. The frontispiece consists of a family portrait, hand-crayoned by yours truly. You know the type -- family in the foreground, names pencilled crudely under each, house in the background, smoking chimney, yatta yatta yatta. The smallest figure's legs are fused in one column, he's armless, and his head sits atop his body, an undifferentiated lump. That's me. I imagine any post-Benjamin Spock child shrink would have had palpitations over that drawing, and he would have been right. I was one fucked up kid. And look at me now.Yeah, admit it. You missed that photo. (My son says, "You know, it's kind of obvious it's faked." To which I say: "What? What? What's fake about it?") I'm grappling for some image or memory to convey how self-hating I was as a kid, but you know something? So much of it was internal. I don't have it in me to be self-destructive, so I can't cough up any stories of drug abuse, insanely reckless behavior, or failed suicide attempts. Mostly, I stayed depressed. Fred Delse, my med school mentor I told you about in this post on ego boundaries, once said that it was nearly impossible to diagnosis major affective disorders in kids. I don't recall if he said, "It's impossible because they're all sick," but that's what I took home from that conversation. I thought: It's okay that you spent your whole childhood wishing you were anyplace but where you truly were. Other kids were undoubtedly more screwed up than you. Not surprisingly, I did have one addiction, schoolwork. I aced everything I touched. My one kernel of self-worth came from the knowledge that I was at the head of the pack. I earned this bit of self-esteem; I didn't have it foisted upon me by teachers eager to praise my every artistic, literary, or spoken turd. I clung to it like a life preserver, and in the end it did, indeed, save me.
***Sometimes I worry that my son's childhood is too happy. I feel a little better after yesterday's brouhaha.
***The fiction writer in me cringes. Show, don't tell, remember? But I can't show you, not while my parents are still alive and capable of reading my blog. Irrational as it may sound, my father's command to me in first grade still carries weight. I had blabbed to my first grade teacher. At our first open house, she asked my parents about the stories I'd told her. My dad denied everything, of course, but when he got me home, he laid down the law. Don't ever, ever talk about what happens in this house. So I can't show you. Some of these things you'll just have to take on faith. Besides -- when have I ever lied to you? But I'm still cringing. This is not effective writing.
***I'm not here to whine about an unhappy childhood. In fact, my second choice title for today's post was, It's never too late to have an unhappy childhood. I never would have become who I am today if I hadn't been fueled by a ton of self-hatred. I couldn't continue being who I am and doing what I do if I didn't still have that hatred burning inside me, constantly requiring appeasement. My worst enemy is my best friend. And I am resolute in my belief that a groundless "high self-esteem" is a bad, bad thing. Tomorrow: Sociologists agree with me. D.