Adolescent Angst

I was a happy, sunshiny kid, but at a certain point that all changed, and I became a withdrawn and anxious adolescent. Maybe it was because I moved across town to a different school in 8th grade, or maybe it was that being young for my grade level finally caught up with me. Besides being younger than my peers, I was a late bloomer, which meant that I still looked like a little girl while the people around me were in the process of developing adult bodies. I also was smart in school. For all these reasons I was bullied for the better part of two years. I remember one day finding myself alone in a classroom with one of my tormentors, who politely asked me a simple question about an assignment. I was so baffled to find her treating me like a human being that I could hardly think of anything to say in reply.

My tendency towards aversion most likely developed at this time. I had interests that put me at odds with most of my classmates, particularly classical music. I saw my first opera at 8 and was enraptured by it. My parents had a tendency to take me everywhere, to symphony, ballet, art museums, the opera, and the theater, and to talk about literature and philosophy at home. On Saturdays the Metropolitan Opera broadcast blasted through the house. I played piano and violin, emphatically uncool in the sixties. When my friends asked me what I got for Christmas, I shuffled my feet and mumbled something about a recording of Paganini’s first violin concerto. They looked at me funny and dropped the subject.

It’s not that I didn’t like the popular music of the sixties, but given a choice, I would always go for the music I loved over the music I liked. I had a few friends who shared my interests, and we clung to one another for dear life, developing a worldview of us vs. them. And then there was the awful family secret. I remember an occasion in 6th grade when my teacher tried to tease information out of me (how the conversation got started I have no idea), showing skepticism at my faltering responses. By the time I was looking at colleges, my violin teacher strongly recommended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. I couldn’t tell him that I could never go there because my brother was in the State Hospital in that town. Finally, my mother called him and told him the source of my reticence. It was embarrassing and disturbing at the same time. Here I was, preparing for what everyone said was a brilliant future, and here my two siblings were, sequestered away in places of darkness and shame.

I never told anyone, not my best friend—the girl I shared sleepovers with, in whom I confided my crushes, my feelings about my parents, almost everything—nor any of my friends; I never spoke about it with the boyfriend I passionately loved, nor any other boy, until my senior year in high school. I remember telling my friend Carl because he had a brother who was also in a state hospital, but I don’t remember how we sussed each other out on our common experience. Another male friend, Philip, the least tactful of my friends, prodded and poked at me enough that I eventually talked to him about it. I felt guilty and violated. And then one evening when I was babysitting, the friend keeping me company began to hem and haw to the effect that she had been told by our mutual friends that there was something she should never ask me. What was that, I wanted to know, thinking it probably had to do with our usual topic of conversation of who liked who. She hemmed and hawed some more, claiming that she would never, ever tell me, until finally she blurted it out: “They said I should never ask you about your brothers!” Dead silence. Years later the very thought of it would reduce me to tears, because on that evening so long ago, for the first time, I felt understood.

It was my mother who most strenuously demanded the code of silence. My friend Philip criticized her for it, but she had her reasons, and I accepted them. The dominant theories among psychiatrists at midcentury held that just about everything going on with a child could be attributed to attitudes and actions of the mother; even a hint of maternal reticence could trigger severe mental illness. Fortunately, early on she had a doctor who didn’t think that way, and who told her she’d done absolutely nothing to cause my brothers’ affliction. “What about my daughter?” She asked; “how will this affect her?” “Oh, she’ll be a little neurotic, just like the rest of us” was his reply. Then there was the refusal to subject our private tragedy to other people’s idle curiosity. I discovered later, when I decided to talk about it, that answering one question after another made me feel worse than if I’d remained silent.

Going to college was an opportunity to start out fresh, but I soon realized that I was still the same person with the same backstory and the same hangups. As a freshman at a women’s college, I began college life with a series of mixers and parties to introduce our class to the men at nearby schools. People were forced to make snap decisions about one another based on appearance and not much else. The dates that resulted from these encounters were difficult and stilted. I discovered that alcohol went a long way towards easing my shyness, but drinking led to further complications in the long run. Among other things, I ended up with a string of “boyfriends” who were fun to be with as long as we were both pleasantly drunk, but otherwise of no real interest. I also had to contend with the exhausting task of setting limits and sticking to them.

After struggling in this way for a couple of years, I found someone and became attached, or rather, dependent on him. Our brief marriage ended soon after we left college and tried to build a life together. I found myself at the age of 24 back in my parents’ home, going through a divorce and feeling like a failure.

The Four Noble Truths

There is a word in the Buddha’s language (Pali, a cousin of Sanskrit) that is usually translated as “suffering.” That word is dukkha. In order to understand its meaning better, we might consider its opposite and counterpart, sukkha. Sukka sounds something like the word “sugar,” to which it is related. We can imagine an experience of sweetness, of bliss, of pleasantness, and then turn to the opposite of these things to recognize dukkha as bitterness, bad feelings, or unpleasantness. The first of the Four Noble Truths asserts that there is a component of dukkha in all human experience. This is as true for the healthy, beautiful, privileged, rich, and famous as it is for those whose lives are full of obvious misery.

Imagine your most delectable experience, maybe sex with the partner of your dreams, or eating a slice of chocolate cake, or feeling a pleasant breeze on a summer day at the beach. No matter how delightful, these experiences don’t last forever, and when they are over, we are on to something else. “Yes,” you may say, “but it was wonderful while it lasted.” It was indeed. Yet if you look closely at each pleasurable experience, you may find that it wasn’t entirely wonderful. Perhaps a touch of performance anxiety accompanied the sex, or maybe there was a sense of frustration that the chocolate cake was gone so soon, or there was an annoying sound of nearby construction marring the beach scene. Maybe after the fact the partner showed too much attention to someone else, prompting jealousy, or the chocolate cake ended up causing a stab of concern about gaining weight, or the return to office work after the trip to the beach was all the more frustrating in comparison with what you were leaving behind.

I am not trying to accentuate the negative here so much as to unpack what the Buddha asserted as a simple fact: that suffering is universal. All of us are subject to sickness, old age, and death, and all of us, most of the time, want things to be other than they are. One thing we do in response is to try to pack our lives with as many pleasant, rewarding experiences as possible. When our efforts are unsuccessful, we tune out the things we don’t like and distract ourselves, finding ways of not being completely present. If we undergo too much trauma we may find ourselves unable to feel much at all, good or bad, or we may find ourselves acting out in a variety of ways.

The Buddha further taught that the root of universal dukkha is tanha, translated as “craving.” This is the Second Noble Truth. We crave not only this or that self-gratifying thing, but existence itself (we can even crave non-existence at times). Craving is part of a sequence called Dependent Origination, a highly complex process through which we become who and what we perceive ourselves to be. This is a convoluted sentence for the sake of expressing a difficult concept, that we are the orchestrators of our own identities. The most debilitating suffering, underlying any other, is the effort we make to hold ourselves together, because in truth there is nothing to hold onto. Craving and its next stage, clinging, mark our overwhelming need to be someone and something, literally to make something of ourselves.

The fruit of these efforts shows up in suffering. Returning to our examples, at the same time we are enjoying a sexual experience with someone, we also are creating a self that is sexy and desirable. When we are rejected or when we fail to perform, that image is shattered, and we suffer humiliation. Even if we are mature enough to handle such setbacks with ease, there is disappointment and a need to move on to better things. When we bite into a delicious piece of cake, we have an underlying personal narrative about food that accompanies the pleasure; for example, “What am I doing? What about my resolve to avoid sugar and eat healthy? Why do I do these things? What the hell is wrong with me anyway?!” Or maybe it’s more like, “That’s okay, I can do this if I want to, I am not a child, I don’t have to worry.” The self-talk serves the need to make sense of the experience within the context of our picture of who we are. Finally, as we enjoy the ocean breezes, we may be thinking, “I just love the ocean! I wish I lived here. Maybe when I retire I can come move to this town,” or else, “This is nice. I want to make a family tradition of coming here every year.” Then we become The Person Who Loves the Ocean.

The Buddha doesn’t leave us hanging on the edge of a cliff with our suffering, but rather gives us the Third Noble Truth, which is nirodha, cessation, the end of suffering. When we understand what is happening we are able to let go of craving, clinging, and everything that goes with it, especially the delusion of the separate, unconditioned self. We drop our defenses, stop propping up our image, and allow things to be as they are. Developing the insight to do this is difficult, but it is also possible. The Fourth Noble Truth is the means of doing this, the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. It’s a tall order, but it’s also the key to liberation from suffering.

Childhood’s End

I mark the end of the idyll of childhood as the point of my gradual awakening to the reality of my brothers’ situation. For many years I lived in the sunshine of my companionship with them, when we all were children and our lives were full of fun. The first shadow fell when I must have been in 4th grade or so, around 8 years old. There was an increase in tension around the house from both my parents, my mother in particular. The story was that the school in Rhinebeck could no longer keep Tommy because he was becoming destructive. There had been an incident in which he had put his hand through the glass on a door, and cut himself badly. He would need to move into the State Hospital system, specifically to the Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, which had an adolescent unit.

My reaction was to see the whole business as an adventure. I compared our family emergency to a chapter in Little Women, “Dark Days,” about Beth’s descent into her fatal illness. Now we had our very own novel, with our very own Dark Days. “I like Dark Days,” I told my mother, “I think they’re fun.” She groaned. On our first visit to what I thought of as Tommy’s new school, I spent some time walking around the grounds, imitating my brother’s gait with my hands up around my ears, until a staff member told me to get back to the car where I was supposed to be waiting for my parents. I was a bit disappointed not to have been taken for a resident. Later, when we were all together, a resident asked if I was a new girl, and my smart-aleck father said, “No, she’s an old girl.” I was pleased by the question, but had no idea what to make of my father’s joke. Soon after we left Tommy there and went home.

At some point during his stay at that hospital, my brother changed. He never was much of a talker, but he did have a couple of things that he came out with regularly. For example, he always loved getting donuts, and would say, “Take a ride in the donut car!” when he wanted us all to go out and get some. He also knew his abc’s, although he had a tendency to rush through them, ending with “w-x-y-zebrudder!” (because there was a picture of a zebra in his book at that letter). There was a particular bowl he liked with a flower pattern, which we called the flower bowl. It became Tommy’s bowl. We would laugh together, he would sing, he would throw his arm around me when we sat side by side.

The person who replaced that Tommy was far, far away, barely verbal, and unhappy. One Sunday a month my parents and I would drive from Pittsfield to Waltham and visit him, drive around with him for awhile, and then return him to the hospital.  On one such occasion we were told that he was in the medical wing. Apparently another resident had stuffed some burning newspapers down his shirt, and he was being treated for second and third degree burns. Lord only knows how the other person got his hands on matches, but then again the state hospital wasn’t known for being a great place to be. We went into his room and saw him there, in bed, wrapped in bandages. He said, “Stay in bed,” demonstrating that he had understood his instructions, and “Drink water.” I felt nothing. The next day I was back in my own world, in school. As I sat in homeroom I thought about how odd it was that the day before I had been witness to my brother in his suffering, and now the world was going on just as it always had been, with no one else the wiser.

(Many years later, when I had taken over from my father as Tommy’s guardian, I got some paperwork from his then-current residential program and read his history. I had never seen it before, specifically the fact that during his stay in Waltham he had received approximately 50 insulin induced coma treatments. My blood ran cold. As I began to consider what this meant, I speculated that Tommy lost much of his functioning as a result of that treatment. Is this true? I honestly don’t know, but it’s as reasonable a story as any other.)

Eventually, Tommy would be moved again to the State Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts. The day of the move, I rode in the back seat with him. As we sped along the Massachusetts Turnpike he suddenly became agitated, grabbed my right hand, and bit me, hard. The scar lasted for many years. The people at Northampton eventually “solved” his biting problem by filing his teeth. I don’t think my parents knew this at the time, although they had received reports about biting. We continued to visit him every month. Usually my father would go alone, because my mother just couldn’t stand it, and sometimes I would go with him. I did not know how or what to feel. My emotions had gone numb. I suppose I would just as soon not have gone at all.

Mark in the meantime moved to a school in Berkshire County, nearer to where we lived. His visits home continued at regular intervals, as well as our visits to him. I continued to think of him as my buddy. We made a game of finishing each other’s words, even words of only one syllable. A favorite pastime was the what-would-happen-if-I game (e.g.: “What would happen if I refused to go back to school and screeched really loud and ran out the door and, and, and— threatened to jump out of the car?”). I would come up with ways the adults would take charge, and punishments, and so on, while he would come back with more outrageous responses, until there was nowhere left to go with it, at which point I’d answer, “turn into a great big—“ and he’d finish, “rock!”, thus ending the game.

Eventually, these games became not so much something  we did together as something I did to amuse him. My childhood was over.


The Three Poisons: Delusion

Delusion is not as easy to characterize as greed or aversion. It manifests in less obvious ways, often hiding behind a mask of complacency. In the early 16th century, the humanist writer Erasmus wrote a book entitled Praise of Folly, illustrating the endless ways humans deceive themselves, usually with ruinous results. It is an encyclopedia of delusion, which could just as easily be called folly.

Folly in Erasmus’ book is the universal accompaniment to every human enterprise. People embark on careers, marriages, friendships, parenthood, and even recreation without the slightest idea how any of it will turn out, yet they think they know what they are doing. It is this act of self-serving prognostication that is the essence of folly. There is a saying that “Life goes on while we are making other plans.” Folly is those other plans. Folly, or delusion, is the motivation behind our tendency to live so much in an ideal future where we will have everything we want, causing us to devalue the present; or to fear disaster and waste our lives chasing a false sense of security. Delusion is also behind the tendency to devalue ourselves by believing we are other than what we are. We believe we are intelligent, beautiful, and accomplished, or else we think we are stupid, ugly, and good for nothing. Either appraisal is a devaluation and delusion, because it places a label on what can never be defined.

Just as desire and aversion are two sides of the same coin, delusion is the coin’s rim. We believe that if we could just have what we want, or get rid of what we don’t want, all will be well. If we could find the right person and marry him, we would live happily ever after; if that annoying coworker would just go away, we would finally experience lasting job satisfaction. Delusion is related to ignorance, with the refinement that it is willful ignorance. You can picture the delusional personality type with her fingers in her ears, forever chanting “lalala I can’t hear you!”

My best example of a delusional type is Ronald Reagan with his clarion call, “it’s morning in America!” (his admirers would doubtless suggest a different political figure). People who want to believe a leader in spite of the fact that his policies will not promote peace, prosperity, or goodwill are suffering from delusion. Likewise, people who try to use fact-based arguments in a setting fraught with emotion are deluded. Delusion permeates American political culture, more so even than the greed of consumerism or the hatred of racism (although in the current state of polarization between liberals and conservatives, hatred may overtake it). Erasmus’ Praise of Folly shows no respect to rulers of his time, castigating them as warmongering and hedonistic, with little to no interest in benefiting their subjects. If he were able to see 21st-century America, he would say that nothing has changed in five hundred years.

Humans are poor resources of wisdom or self-control, yet even so, all the poisons have some positive benefits for humanity. Desire can spur us to pursue wholesome actions, while aversion can motivate us to correct injustice (or even to do something as necessary as avoid spoiled meat). And without delusion, Folly tells us, no one would have the courage to undertake anything worthwhile. The path to enlightenment begins where we are, with a desire for a better life, an aversion to suffering, and a deluded notion of where that path will take us. It may seem like a poor foundation, but it’s all we have.

The Three Poisons: Aversion

I am going to admit one thing right here: I am an aversive type. Figuring out one’s type tends to resemble reading about symptoms of various diseases on the Internet, in that a person can easily imagine being afflicted with all of them. Still, when I face up to my most basic reactions to the world, the answer is clear.

Aversion, or hatred, is the flip side of desire. People have a strong response to something, but instead of wanting to draw it close, the impulse is to push it away. Aversive types walk into a room and find the one jarring note, the flaw that ruins everything around it, while greed types find themselves wanting everything they see.

Each of us flavors our aversion in our own way. When I was younger, I hated noise: the sounds of other people eating, chewing gum (especially bubble gum!), laughing loudly, snoring, just living their lives. I was the annoying neighbor who would pound on your door and demand you turn the music down, or track down a radio outdoors and tell the malefactor to turn it off. I was the silly person who would come outside in her bathrobe at 7:00 a.m. and tell the guy to quit mowing the grass while I was trying to sleep. You get the picture, I’m sure. On and on it went. Barking dogs, crying babies, children playing, weekend parties, the folks in the apartment downstairs making love, everything. I say I used to do this because for the most part I’ve stopped. Until that happened, though, my life was always just one intrusive sound away from being bloody hell.

Then there were the quarrels. For pretty much all of my life I’ve had at least one person in my immediate surroundings who would drive me crazy. Usually, but not always, these people have been women. I’ve journaled about them, talked endlessly about them, carried on interior monologues about them, dreamed about them, and ground my teeth when around them. Exposure would mean fresh fodder for rumination, although absence brought scant relief. The only way of getting rid of an obsession would be to find another one to drive it out.

Typically, the objects of my wrath were colleagues, peers, co-workers. Often they were rivals. In most cases, the adversary would either initiate or at least participate in the hostilities, out of jealousy or a desire to gain dominance. Seminars and department meetings were excellent venues for carrying on a passive aggressive campaign, finding just the right weapons to inflict pain without anyone else knowing what was going on. For an academic, this would mean introducing subtle notes of disagreement to discredit the other’s point, undermining without appearing to do so deliberately. At parties and social gatherings, hostilities might escalate through subtle flirting with another woman’s husband.

After hours, I engaged in countless phone calls and coffee breaks with allies, in which we’d rehash the person’s misdeeds, stupidity, bad hair, or whatever. I tried bringing these things up with my husband, but he was not a satisfying sounding board because he almost always would signal either boredom or disapproval, precipitating a fight between the two of us. All I can say is, Stephen, I’m sorry, and I am eternally grateful to you for sticking by me through all this tedious nonsense!

Aversion frequently drives people to embrace causes, which in turn leads to admiration from like-minded people. I have an award plaque from our local AAUP chapter for having advanced the cause of academic freedom. What that amounted to in reality was declaring all-out war on the college administration, standing up in faculty meetings, sending out all-faculty emails, participating in a grievance procedure, and ruminating day and night on the wrongs perpetuated by the evildoers. I had a tight-knit group around me keeping the fire alive, all of us assuring one another that we were fighting the good fight.

My actions actually helped both individuals and the college as a whole, but underneath all of it I knew that something was off. I was exhilarated, but I was also miserable, for I had no peace. It took me years to understand what it means for seemingly virtuous actions to come from a dark place. I am grateful beyond words to have learned this lesson.