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Are you truly happy?
This is the question that helped me to change my life. When I stopped to seriously consider this question, I realized that the answer was no. In fact, I began to wonder what happiness really was. Upon recognizing this void, a quiet yet persistent voice within demanded attention to this, even though I did not know what to do. Eventually, I was guided to take that hard and honest look within. The search initially was to understand why things were going wrong ...
Are you truly happy?
This is the question that helped me to change my life. When I stopped to seriously consider this question, I realized that the answer was no. In fact, I began to wonder what happiness really was. Upon recognizing this void, a quiet yet persistent voice within demanded attention to this, even though I did not know what to do. Eventually, I was guided to take that hard and honest look within. The search initially was to understand why things were going wrong in my life. I was experiencing problems in my job and relationships. On the surface, others perceived me as successful, yet within I felt different, alone, unworthy, confused, and lost.
Discovering Michael is an inspirational story and guide about overcoming a life of adversity and challenges. It is a personal account and reflection of learnings about the journey and the methods used for personal growth and self-discovery. It is about changing unhealthy attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors into healthier choices, supportive of greater levels of happiness, meaning and purpose.
The Life I Once Knew
This chapter illustrates my experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family. Rather than a parent-bashing account, it is meant to portray the realities of my childhood. As a child, I was not aware that so many others experienced similar dysfunction in their families, often resulting in a similar development of distorted beliefs about themselves, as I had of myself and the world. I did not discover this until I reached my early thirties.
As we experience the various forms of abuse—emotional, mental and physical—we often feel ashamed and alone. The rest of the world looks normal, so we learn early on how to mask our situation and feelings. We learn denial for the sake of appearing okay and, incredibly, most of us survive the abuse to which we were subjected.
Personal growth begins with understanding what has happened to us. For some, this has long been buried and may need the support of professionals to unearth. In any case, it is not easy confronting the pain and trauma we attempted to hide in order to appear normal to others. To better understand why we are the way we are, we need to take a realistic look at our past, beginning with our childhood. We must also look at what teachings and lessons we were provided, both consciously and subconsciously, and what we learned and accepted about ourselves, relationships and life.
Many stories could be told to exhibit the physical and emotional abuse that characterized my childhood, but I have limited them to give you the essence of these formative years.
My story begins with a poem I wrote as I began to reflect on my life experiences. It captures the core of my past, the painful awareness of my life, and my leap forward.
Let My Concerns Go Bye
Life as I once knew
Seemed tough, unloving and full of concern
This was the story of my childhood
Which is now what I know I had learned
I carried forth this learning
Into all that I did and thought
My life was unhappy
It all confirmed what I was taught
Then one day the pain was too much
I was tired of my loneliness, my unhappiness and my fears
I realized it wasn't the world, but it was me
And then came the anger and tears
They talked about love, happiness and joy
All feelings I never truly felt
I had to learn these all over
A new deck of cards had finally been dealt
The turning point came
When I learned of the light
I am now beginning to see that within is my own lantern
That I understand how to ignite and make bright
I can see that this is all part of the process of life
That I am gifted, worthwhile and full of love
It was all necessary, of my own choice
It is what I needed to become my own spiritual dove
Despite the continued ups and downs
I am now learning how to fly
Finally I am letting go of my past
And letting my concerns go bye!
My birth certificate reads October 15, 1956. I am the son of Patrick and Mary. I don't recall much about my parents' lives or those of my grandparents, since they were never really discussed. My grandparents, except for one grandfather, died before I knew them. Dad was born in 1920 and was a "survivor" of the Depression. My siblings and I were lavished with stories about how lucky we were compared to how hard he had had it. We did have it easier regarding the basic necessities of life, but we paid emotionally and psychologically for the issues that our parents developed during their own childhood years.
I have two sisters. Karen was born in 1953, and Martha, in 1958. My brother John arrived in 1962. We were born in Albany, New York, and grew up in a suburban community. My father worked as a civil engineer for the State of New York and my mother was a housewife. We were a white middle class family.
For much of my adult life my childhood memories remained a blur. Even today voids still exist, but with the help of therapy I have been able to glean enough of what happened to know what it was like. I felt, and was, alone much of the time. I didn't have any playmates except for those I created in my head. I was skinny and the neighborhood kids loved to call me names and tease me. I rarely played with my sisters. I had five cousins, all girls, whom I saw only once or twice a year. I enjoyed playing with them, but I missed having male companions. Dad never seemed to be interested in playing with me. He was too busy working around the house and yard, or spending time with his father, William.
I remember going along on the two-hour drives to visit my grandpa in the Catskill Mountains, where my dad's family grew up. My grandpa lived in an apartment above a bar, the latter being where I spent most of my time playing a bowling game and eating peanuts. My grandpa did not appear to like me very much, preferring his Camel cigarettes and whiskey. He ended up in the Veterans hospital in Albany where he remained until he died.
I do not recall much about grade school. Time just seemed to slip by. The only positive memories I have were the time I attended a friend's birthday party where I mistook a bowl of butter for vanilla ice cream; riding my mini-bike fast enough to evade a local police officer; building dams in our stream; going to the local amusement park; and scoring a touchdown in gym class in fifth grade—memorable because I was not very athletic or coordinated then.
An additional memory that especially stands out was the gymnastics event that took place in front of all the parents and teachers. I was asked to walk on the balance beam, and I stumbled and fell. The crowd giggled and other kids laughed, while I felt embarrassed and full of shame. Following that humiliation, the coach made me climb a rope, which I had never been able to do in class. Once again, all I heard was laughter. Instead of receiving sympathy at home, I was ridiculed for not having succeeded, and then sent to bed. Such shame characterized my childhood.
I had crushes on girls, but they didn't seem to notice me. I frequently daydreamed about having a girlfriend like Stacey. She was very pretty, and I loved to stare at her and fantasize about holding her hand. During one of my fantasies I wrote on the cover of one of my textbooks, "I love Stacey." One day while I was bearing the brunt of other's jokes, a boy pushed my books to the floor. The book with my admission about Stacey fell on top of the pile. One of the boys saw it and snatched it up. He announced his finding to the rest of the class, which of course included Stacey. I stood unable to run away and hide, feeling the familiar shame and embarrassment I knew too well.
I was desperately envious of the other kids, especially the "jocks" who gained much attention from my peers. I craved a shred of that attention. I often wished I could be like one boy in particular, Ken. He had girlfriends, nice clothes, even "peach fuzz" before most of the other boys. I remember looking in the mirror hoping to see some signs of hair on my face, but I only saw another reason not to like the reflection.
I spent most of grade school doing homework and helping Dad with household chores, which he loved assigning. We had a lot of property so there were always sticks that needed picking up, flowers that needed watering, landscaping and whatever other tasks my dad could think of. I heard the other kids at school talk about Little League baseball, playing with their friends, having birthday parties and seeing movies. I felt sad and left out. When I went to bed, I took small solace in clutching my tiger pillow and my cat, my two best friends.
Instead of garnering sympathy or understanding from my dad, I was in constant fear of him. Most of the time my siblings and I were not allowed to play. Instead we had to work or suffer the wrath of the strap, an old belt of his. It hung in the closet in the kitchen, visible to all of us—a constant reminder of who was in charge and what would happen if any of us got out of line. We each got this treatment often for reasons unknown, if there were any at all. As kids we were like Pavlov's dogs, responding to Dad calling our names with a sense of urgency. Dad had a terrible temper and I would never know when he would lose it. I was on guard all the time, watching where he was, watching every move to try and anticipate when he would get angry.
The beatings resulted in bruises—external and internal. We were made to lie on the bed and pull down our pants, and then the beating ensued. As if that was not bad enough, we were forced to walk naked in front of our siblings to show what would happen when we misbehaved. Fortunately the bruises were on my behind, and therefore almost always out of sight at school. During one gym class, however, a boy pointed out the bruises to the other boys, shaming me yet again. I hastily invented a story that I had fallen out of a tree, as there was no way I would admit to being beaten at home. The boys would never let me live it down.
Though much of my time was spent working, I did have a brief window to play when I first got home from school. This time would always end abruptly at 4:15 when Dad got home. I remember standing in front of the living room picture window with my mom and siblings, waiting for his car to turn the corner. We had learned that how fast he came around the corner leading into the driveway, and how quickly he exited the car, reflected his mood. The faster he was the more nervous we were. Waving goodbye to Dad as he left for work and greeting him at the door when he returned were forced rituals.
When Dad arrived, my focus quickly left whatever I was doing and turned to dread. We all had to prepare for his arrival. Dinner needed to be ready unless he was going to work in the yard until dark. At any moment things could change dramatically with his ever-shifting mood. The fear of the strap and the embarrassment of being beaten were powerful motivators. In order to survive, staying in line was a constant goal. Sassing back or forgetting an order were the worst crimes we could commit. It was best to keep quiet and do as we were told.
During dinner, Dad usually complained about work. He told us continually about how "they" were always doing something unfair to him. He spoke of the exams he completed to earn promotions and how he had scored top marks. "But the bastards chose some nigger, Jew or ass-kisser who scored below me," he would say. He often devised strategies to get revenge, using the press to reveal departmental issues. We frequently visited Dad in his office, where he had a reputation as a jokester, ridiculing the State offices and management in a comical way. He seemed like a different person there.
When Dad had bad days at work, he was frightening. Even though life was lonely when he wasn't home, time spent climbing trees and playing with imaginary friends was far better than walking on eggshells when he was there, especially if he was in a foul mood. When he was home, there was no safe place in the house. My heart would stop whenever I heard his footsteps approach my room or hear him yell out my name—I knew I would be ordered to do another errand, or he just wanted to yell at someone. No matter what was said, I had to respond with "Yes, Dad." He served in the Army during WWII, and we lived with the discipline and regiment of a boot camp.
Dad was a perfectionist and nothing I did could measure up to his impossibly high standards. He could not stand idleness and always had something for me to do. Completing the errand or task was not adequate. Upon inspection there was always something I missed or did not do well enough. Along with this came the ridicule and comments that I would never amount to anything. Though I came to believe that I was useless, no good and just in the way, I still wanted to please him, so I kept trying harder.
God forbid when we received our report cards. Anything less than straight A's was reason for punishment. What scared me the most were the teacher's comments. Good comments were expected, while criticism was met with the strap. Although life seemed lonely and unloving, I adapted. I invented excuses to the other kids when they finally asked me to come out and play. I tried to explain that I couldn't because "I was going to help Dad around the house." Soon they stopped asking. I also learned the art of lying. Any excuse was better than telling the truth, and after a while I believed my lies.
Until I was ten my family and I had to do everything together. In the evenings we took our ritualistic walk around the block, hearing the neighbor kids teasing as we passed by. I hated the walks.
I do not remember playing with my sisters. After dinner we did our chores, homework, and watched a little bit of TV. The girls had to have their hair curled, which they hated. I watched them sit in the chair as Mom tied rags into their tresses to create curls. Dad was very demanding with how we wore our hair. Even though trends changed, we had to maintain the same style we always had. I had to wear my hair exactly like Dad's using Vitalis hair gel to grease my strands back. The other kids were growing longer hair, and I still had the 1940s cut—another cause of embarrassment. I carried my own comb and attempted to change the style while on the school bus, but then I just had greasy hair.
Each of us kids had hellish days. We dreaded getting caught for any of the things we attempted to get away with. Karen hid the book bag Dad made her carry, and Martha did the same with her lunch box. I hid my boots and changed my hairstyle. Karen and Martha sometimes brought a change of clothes when they hated what they had on. At times we lost the items we hid. One time Karen hid her book bag in a drainage pipe and there was a downpour. By the time she got off the bus the book bag was long gone. We frantically tried to come up with excuses to avoid facing Dad's terrifying temper.
When Dad caught wise to our hiding schemes, there was a great price to pay. Even though none of us liked liver and onions, we were forced to clean our plates. Karen once hid a mouthful of the detestable dinner in her coat pocket and forgot to throw it away. A few days later Dad checked our coat pockets, as nothing was sacred in our house and everything was susceptible to his spot checks. When he found the liver in her pocket, he demanded that she eat it right there in front of him, even though it was dreadfully old by then.
We each had our stories of being beaten and reprimanded, and unfortunately they were quite common. We followed a strict upbringing and did our best to stay in line. There were the rare good times, but it was the exception rather than the norm. We had fun when Dad was in a good mood. He told jokes and we went out for ice cream. Sometimes he even played catch with me in the driveway. When I did everything Dad wanted me to, and did it perfectly, I got the "Good boy" response which felt good.
My dad was the dominant presence in our house, while my mom wasn't involved with us kids very often. She was always cooking or running errands for Dad. He yelled at her all the time and she cried. She took her share of physical abuse as well. Dad hit Mom when they were fighting, often in the middle of the night, and it really scared me. Karen, Martha and I would hide in our rooms and pull the covers over our heads, or start screaming, "Please, stop it!" Dad would yell at Mom and call her terrible names, then demand that she take off her clothes. I had no idea what it all meant, just that it was Mom's turn to get it from Dad.
What hurt the most was when Dad asked us kids to line up and tell Mom she was wrong. When we did, we were rewarded and sent back to bed. This confused me; it didn't seem right. Why is this happening? I wondered, and often asked God, but there was never a response. I couldn't make sense of it so I blocked it out and returned to my fantasy world. Nice people loved me, I had girlfriends, and I was the star of the basketball and baseball teams. Life was too painful to live in the moment, so I escaped into my self-created reality.
Mom wasn't allowed out of the house, nor was she allowed to work. Neither she nor my dad had friends. Dad was extremely jealous if Mom spoke to a neighbor or anyone outside of the home. She seemed to live in her own world too.
Excerpted from Discovering Michael by Michael James. Copyright © 2014 Michael James. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 8, 2014
I have been struggling with low self-esteem for years. I knew it had something to do with my past, but I was not sure what to do about it. I could relate to many aspects of Michael's story. What I enjoyed was his overview of the different steps I could take. Not many men willing to share their story like this. Well done.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.