I don’t think I will ever be described as being an over-achiever, although I know other survivors who are.
Back in my smoking days I would occasionally create a ball with the tiny pieces of foil inside the cigarette packages.
Recently, in one of those self-examination exercises I indulge in occasionally, I’ve been looking at my life, metaphorically, as individual bits of aluminum foil.
It’s as if that’s all I can handle.
I stall out and just sit in one place, emotional or otherwise, for what can seem like an eternity.
One of the perspectives I am getting, through the feedback of a social worker I’m seeing at the Mount Sinai Hospital Department of Psychiatry’s Clinic for HIV-related Concerns (here in Toronto), is that of my history of resilience – surviving and, at a minimum, plodding on.
The way I see it, self-critically, is that of a guy who has known others in comparable circumstances who have committed suicide long before now and, yet, on I plod for goodness knows what reason.
I hear, “I admire your (my) resilience” and internalize an unspoken rhetorical question “Why have you (I) hung on so long?”
A recurring problem for me is my short attention span, most noticeable since my serious accident in 2003 during which I was knocked down by a taxi cab, breaking my femur and wrist (but, then again, that’s when just about everything came into sharper focus).
I know this to be an effect of post-traumatic stress. I also know that a case can be made that I have lived with the effects of PTSD from quite a young age. So why is my awareness of this inattentiveness only now becoming such an irritant? (Or is this irritation I’m feeling not really new either?)
In the settling-for-less/resilience discussions I’ve been having I recall how I did not seem to be able to – my claim was that I did not know how to – study for school exams. Open books of my notes or text just seemed to stare back at me. Yet my grades usually averaged between the mid-70s and the low 80s. Upon graduation I even won two prizes.
Those grades were good enough to get me into one of the top three colleges of my choosing (even if they were not top colleges or universities by national standards). Then, dabbling in an above average number of youthful indiscretions, I managed to graduate college, too, again winning one prize. Within months I landed the job of my short-term dreams.
When some eight years later, with a few of the predictable behavioral problems beginning to have a cumulative effect, I left that job – no it was a mutually agreeable dismissal – I sank deeper into my ‘acting out’ behaviors and, within a year, became infected with HIV.
That was in the spring of 1989. I would not know my HIV status until the following spring at which point I took a paid, short-term leave from the most recent good job I had landed and, soon going on long-term disability, I have never returned to “work”.
This is not to say, as others have pointed out, that I have not been a productive, contributing member of society in terms of peer counseling, helping on home-care teams, etc.
It was during a holistic healing workshop, in the early months of knowingly living with HIV, that I recalled, with the objectivity of an adult, that experiences in my young adolescence had constituted sexual abuse and recalled more vividly that, prior to that, I had been abused, physically and emotionally at the very least, by a family friend who was also the head teacher in my elementary school.
The realities of my illness trumped any counseling which might have been called for at this time. My HIV had quickly progressed to include AIDS-defining illnesses which, in those early days of the 1990s, indicated the time was now to get my life’s affairs in order. Meanwhile I experienced more trauma, albeit a little more universal, with the deaths of friends who I had become close to through our common illness.
Fast forwarding to 1998, after the present-day classes of anti-retroviral drugs had begun to have such an impact on life expectancy (here in the “developed” world anyway), I experienced a manic meltdown when I experimented with a street drug one weekend. It was devastating enough, particularly materially, that I have not tried it again.
Does any of this sound like the after-effects of someone who had been abused as a child?
Ever ‘resilient’ I have managed to climb back up, after every setback, to something like ground level.
Still flighty and inattentive, however, I remain content with ‘good enough’ while continuing to wonder (strike up “If I Could Turn Back Time”) how much better – whatever that means – my life could have been had I done more than settle for the results of minimal work.
Here in 2007, in my 48th year, I continue to see the effects of childhood events affecting my life, consciously and subconsciously.
I hear, in almost admiring tones, descriptions of “resilience”. Yet, through those ever-critical inner voices, I remain mostly unimpressed and content to let ‘good enough’ be good enough.
All that said I see, in me, someone with strong empathy and compassion. That’s who I want to continue to grow into being – even if I don’t exert much effort to help it happen.