Better Is As Better Does
Sunday night, Gay Pride in New York City, Pat and I went to a party called Alegria. We often go to this circuit party (it happens a few times a year) and spent 6 or 8 hours dancing and hanging out with our friends. When we go, I dance like nobody is watching. When we go home, I am spent; and happy.
At about 9am Monday morning (we arrived at 2:30 am) one of our friends turned to me on the dance floor and told me that he and his friend had been making fun of the way I dance. I laughed and asked him to repeat himself; the music is very loud and I wear earplugs to protect my hearing - I was unsure of what he had said. He repeated himself. They had been making fun of the way I dance. Did I want to see? And he began to mimic me. He paraded and pranced around me, mincing and prissing and making grotesque faces. He stopped and turned to me and said "this is how you do your face when you dance" and he started up again. It was grotesque.
I had stopped dancing by this point.
When I was younger, I was prone to tantrums and fits, prone to making a mess in front of other people. This was something I did into my adulthood. My husband and closest of friends have seen it - and for some reason, they are still with me. I don't do that anymore; I stopped doing it about 9 years ago, around the time I stopped drinking. On the dancefloor, after watching my friend imitate me for what was probably a minute but what felt like more, I gathered myself and began to dance, once more; and I danced away. I left my friends, my husband, and I went for a walk around the club. It is a big club, so there was a lot of places for me to go. I found a seat up in the audience portion of the Best Buy Theater in Times Square and I sat and watched the lights and the people and I thought. I thought long and hard. And I decided that I didn't want to dance anymore. I certainly did not want to go out dancing with that friend anymore. The last time we had gone out together, he made fun of the outfit I wore. Tonight it was my dancing that he mocked. Who knew what he would tease me about the next time?
I am not thin skinned. I am not the boy I was. I got thicker skin. I get my validation from inside myself. I get my approval from my husband and the people in my family. I do not allow my self esteem to be damaged by petty remarks and bad manners. However; I am a human being and I do have feelings and they do get hurt, thick skin or no. So I found myself wondering what makes a person think that they can say things to your face, like you don't have any feelings at all? What makes a person unable to recognize that the things they say are hurtful? What makes it impossible for a person to govern their tongue? And what makes it feel right, teasing your friend, teasing someone for whom you, supposedly, have affection?
I've been thinking about the It Gets Better campaign created by Dan Savage and his husband, Terry. It was created in response to a rash of teen suicides, based on bullying for being gay. In the It Gets Better campaign, people have recorded videos and uploaded them to Youtube. In these videos, people both famous and humble encourage gay teenagers (indeed all teenagers) to protect themselves from self inflicted harm by recognizing that teen bullying is temporary and that life gets better - but only if you stick around. It is an extremely moving and popular campaign that has moved many and changed lives. I am sure that it has saved many teenagers who suffer from bullying. And what it says is, certainly, true. It does get better.
But it doesn't end. Bullying. It changes. And it is called teasing.
My girlfriend's mother used to tease her, as a child. She picked on her and tormented her, leaving her a grown woman with trust issues, with emotional problems people call 'baggage'. My other girlfriend has a father who called her fat when she was a little girl. To this day she has self esteem and self image problems. My husband was teased by school kids but he was also emotionally pummeled by family members.. because he was a fat kid. I was teased for being a sissy.. and for being a chink... a jap... a gook... a slope... pick an epithet.
As children we are teased and bullied. It sets us up for the scars we will carry through life. When we grow up, we should be able to shake off these memories, these hurts, these fears that we have gathered in our hearts and minds and become the people that we wish we were; but it isn't that easy. In fact, it isn't easy at all. I have sat and listened to friends talk about the emotional scars they have carried through decades of therapy, self help books, searching and striving to change; and most of them have entered into their fourth decade (ok, some are in their third, others in their fifth), still trying to step out of the shadow of pain inflicted upon them in their youth.
Is it any wonder that they, that WE, are unable to overcome the pains of our youths, when pain is piled on top of those pains.. new pain on top of old pain, most often inflicted by our loved ones?
I recently said to a loved one "I think I may have an unrealistic idea of what my body should look like" and they made a joke at me. I have something called dismorphia that prevents me from seeing myself as I am, when I look in a mirror. I am not able to see my body; what I see is a funhouse mirror of myself. I wanted to have a serious talk about it with a loved one and they made fun of me. Also, recently, my husband found evidence of my closet eating. (I have an eating disorder - I squirrel food away and eat it, then hide the evidence). When Pat found the evidence, he made a joke out of it. I thought it would have been a better course of action, had he come to me and said "I'm concerned that you are binge eating and I'd like to help you with whatever is bothering you, causing you to make this self destructive choice." His teasing hurt me. So I thought about it for a few days, organized those thoughts and, when I was ready to talk about it, we did. That's the way we roll. No tantrums, no fights; we talk it out.
These little comments, snide asides, lighthearted teasing... they aren't lighthearted. If these kinds of remarks can make a mark, hit close to home with someone like me who has a thick skin, imagine what they do to someone truly tenderhearted. I've spent my adult life learning to safeguard my heart. My own best friend remarked to me a few years ago that he noticed how I had taught myself not to cry, not to feel and that he thought it wasn't healthy for me. There is some truth in his comment - I have. It isn't absolute but it is there. It's how I developed my thick skin. Still, it isn't thick enough to protect me from the odd wisecrack from my loved ones. Maybe it is because the wisecracks originate from loved ones that they hurt. Maybe if it was the teasing of strangers, I would feel nothing. They say we only hurt the ones we love. Well. I don't want to be that person.
I picked up the phone and began calling loved ones that I knew I had teased, had hurt. One who is sensitive to being diminutive and who I had remarked had a teenage daughter who was taller than him.... one who has had a lot of boyfriends and who I had teased about it... one who I had teased by telling an embarrassing story about her, until she asked me to stop. I had to apologize to my loved ones for ever having made them feel the way my loved ones had made me feel. I don't want to be that person. I don't want to be the person who makes someone feel humiliated and diminished. I don't want to be better than other people - but I don't want to be as bad as they are, either; and if I can stop behavioural patterns that put me on the same footing as people who tease their friends and family, I will. I will protect my loved ones by not being a grown up bully masquerading behind the phrase "I'm just teasing".
I remember how, as a child, my mother's sister would tease me for singing around the house, telling me to stop, that she couldn't stand it anymore. I remember how, as an adult, my college professor, Ed DeLatte, teased me in class for my singing; and I remember how, after, I did not raise my voice in song, anywhere, any time, for over five years. It doesn't matter whether we are children being bullied or adults being teased - humiliation is a timeless punishment that is inflicted on us, over and over again. The feeling never ends and never changes. We all live, hoping that we will not be, once again, teased, embarrassed, humilated; and when it happens to us, no matter our age, we are a child on the schoolground, dying inside, hoping the pain will heal and we will forget.
I know I will not forget. So I will do what I can to make the most of the humiliation. I will remember. I will remember and I will use that memory to remind myself to, never again, inflict that kind of pain on another human.
And in that, I can make the most of an unhappy moment in time; and attain a little grace.