Updated: Jun 5, 2021
Those of you who know me well, know that I've long struggled with validation.
My parents weren't particularly demanding, but they did one thing that probably had a more negative effect than positive, something that many other kids like me experienced.
They told me I was gifted. Exceptionally smart.
It probably doesn't seem like a big deal; maybe they thought it would be empowering, confidence-building. I think kids take compliments infinitely better than adults do because they haven't learned how to be cynical yet. But it planted an invisible seed in me, and those like me, that we were smart enough to do anything we really wanted to. There was no reason we couldn't succeed if we put our minds to it.
As a result of this "gift", I ended up skipping first grade. Ask any kid if he wants to skip a grade and chances are he'll say yes before you finish your sentence. They didn't want me to get bored, or waste my potential, I'm sure. I might have been able to skip two grades, but I'm glad I didn't because honestly I loved second grade. I was great at math, great at English; all the teachers loved me, which apparently was enough reason for kids to later also hate me.
I didn't really even have to try until somewhere around fifth grade. I did everything with the least amount of effort I could, and usually that was enough. Later on, it would get me in trouble because of procrastinating, but even then I'd usually manage to pull out a respectable grade.
I unconsciously told myself, "I don't need to work hard, I've got this. I'm GIFTED."
Eventually my laziness caught up to me, as did the bullies who seemed to enjoy torturing me more than they did anything else at school. I still believe to this day that my sense of humor developed out of necessity: I needed to win people over if I was going to survive.
In spite of that, I spent most of my childhood by myself. My parents divorced when I was 8, and my mother never quite seemed to know exactly where she wanted to be, so we moved, over and over, every year or two to a new city, and a new school. I actually liked being alone because I had my music, my Atari, my Mad magazines, my MTV. I entertained myself just fine, I was safe in my own little world.
It wasn't really until late in high school that I became the social animal I am today, mostly at the repeated urging of my mother who probably worried at how much time I spent alone compared to other kids. When I realized what having real friends felt like, everything changed. Sure, I'd had some friends before, but this was the first time I'd ever felt like I needed them.
My interest in intellectual stimulation started to take a distinct backseat to emotional stimulation. Not much later, it would take a backseat even to my desire to be a large fuzzy animal, but that's another story for another time.
Much of my childhood probably echoes that of other smart kids who struggled with bullies, and their own potential. Later when I went to college, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, and because I was "so smart" I felt like I couldn't afford to make the wrong decision and waste my potential.
Having "potential" seems such a ultimately worthless conceit, because what is it worth if whatever you have potential for, doesn't materialize? It's just a judgmental term people use that they think is a compliment but doesn't really amount to more than making people feel like they aren't good enough yet.
And that feeling has followed---and haunted---me, ever since.
Reflecting again for the thousandth time
Scanning the same mountains I never climb
Should I be happy with my life, or is it a sin
To fall so short of what I think could have been
It is enough to have made a few people smile
To have made an effort, but only for a while
Should I take pride in disasters avoided
Or be shamed by the virtues I never exploited
Am I holding myself up to unattainable goals
Is it my perception or character that's riddled with holes
Am I thinking too much or just acting too little
Not the best nor the worst, just stuck in the middle
I've felt the chill of winds that never blew
Cut down the tallest tree that never grew
It's always the "only if" that never does
Haunted by the me that is, and never was
Is there nothing so awful as having ability
Yet complacent enough to accept futility
Ensnared in a trap of one's own design
A prisoner of a war that's all in the mind
And yet having given such respect and care
The last truth is also most painful to share
If I am the best friend I could possibly be
And I love you enough, do I have to like me?
College was kind of a mess. It started well enough, but I was trying to figure out what I wanted and what would truly make me happy, but it definitely wasn't anything I was studying for a potential career. I picked Journalism because I loved to write, which I would later discover was kind of like deciding to be a high school cafeteria worker because you loved to cook.
I spent four years at three different colleges. I collected a lot of student loans that would take me over 20 years to finally pay off, but fell a few credits short of a degree. I ran out of money and any desire to keep taking classes I couldn't bring myself to care about - my focus was on building strong relationships with people who understood me, were like me. I left my job, my home and everything I knew and moved to California to be with my people. My animal people.
In many ways, it was the life I'd wanted. I hadn't gotten to be a mascot in college like I'd dreamed, but now all of us, in a way, were our own mascots. I had friends who liked me for me, and I didn't have to hide things or pretend to be what I thought was "normal" anymore. I got to start playing music I loved at events for my friends. It was an exciting, fulfilling time.
But my mid-life crisis seemed to arrive alarmingly early. My first remotely serious relationship imploded unexpectedly leaving me feeling very vulnerable and unloved. Sure, I made friends easily, but no one seemed to want any more than that, and I desperately did.
A thought started to come into my head often: what now? What should I do with my life?
What was I doing with all my writing skill, with all my musical talent, with my wit, with everything that was good about me? Whatever it was, it never felt like enough. Anything I created that I liked felt good for a brief amount of time, but it gave way to "yeah but think of what you COULD be doing if you really tried". I was amazing at thinking about all the different amazing things I could (should) be doing and terrible at actually doing most of them. Every compliment I got was like a hot shower: amazing for a minute or two before your body gets used to it and the water gradually starts to lose heat.
I'd conditioned myself to believe that no matter what I did, it wasn't going to be enough, because I expected that if it was, I'd feel like it was enough. I'd be happy. I'd be fulfilled. I'd be content, finally. It would last more than a day or two. I'd know I was good enough, my friends would love me and I wouldn't need to feel so much anxiety and doubt every single day.
Twenty years later, I'm smarter, I'm a better person, I've learned a lot, but those ghosts have stuck around all the same. I have so many "great ideas" that excite me a lot when I write them down, that I will revisit in moments of beautiful fantasy many many times, always seeming to enjoy the optimal outcomes that exist in my head more than tackling the substantial work that would undoubtedly result in something that might be good enough. And on the rare occasions that I actually manage to complete a project, even when it comes out pretty well, I always feel like I appreciate it so much more than anyone else ever does, or maybe even can. Which, should be okay......right?
The problem isn't really that I don't make enough creative content, or remixes, or write books, or anything else I might put effort into. It's that no matter what I do mange to accomplish, it's never going to fill the hole that's always been there. It's never going to magically eliminate the anxiety I'm tired of carrying. It's never going to be enough to allow me to relax and feel content with who I've become, confident that I lived my very best life and will be remembered as one of the good ones.
Just because we are carbon based life forms does not mean that that the constant crushing pressures of adulthood are going to turn us into perfect diamonds.
And I will wait to find
If this will last forever
And I will pay no mind
When it won't and it won't
Because it can't
It just can't
It's not supposed to..
The first time I heard "Clarity" by John Mayer, it hit me so deeply and on such an intense personal level that it just wrecked me completely.
It still does, every time. I'm wiping away tears just reading the lyrics right now. Because there's just so much beautiful acceptance, so much truth.
You can't use the best moments of your life, or especially anyone else's life, as the baseline or target for everything that happens to you. It's not realistic. So often it isn't the compliments or achievements that get planted as seeds and nurtured in our psyche, but the the criticisms and failures, real or perceived. Self-doubt is always there to erode the appreciation and confidence that our friends valiantly try to instill in us. We are often more brutal in what we tell ourselves about ourselves, than any outsider could be.
In spite of my struggle, I know the truth, and it gives me the strength to keep fighting my relentless inner critic. I wouldn't have what I have now if I hadn't accomplished anything.
That hole I struggle to fill ceases to exist when I can make someone smile or feel better. Even just being around my friends, I feel like I'm the best version of myself, effortlessly, the way I want to feel and be all the time. I'm still learning to love myself, and I'm indebted to my dear friends who continually show me the way even as they patiently wait for me to see what they see when I look in the mirror.
Not someone who has the tools to be great at some indistinct future point, but someone who already is.
You don't have to be gifted to be special. You just have to be present.