(originally posted on Since Right Now, July 31, 2014)
I WAS BORN IN DANVILLE, PA ON NOVEMBER 6, 1973, THE SON OF TWO UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS.
I’d grown up on university campuses and around academics for the majority of my early life. My father accepted a job with NC State University in 1976, so we moved – and save for two self-imposed moves on my part (one to Baltimore, MD, and one to Wilmington, NC), I’ve lived and worked in the Triangle area of central NC for most of my life. North Carolina truly is my home.
For the first 12 years, things were pretty typical. While my parents certainly weren’t well off, I never wanted for anything. There was always food to eat, a roof over my head, and I always felt loved. As an only child, I was spooled rotten, and rarely if ever was asked to do chores. As early as I can remember I was anxious, my hands always had a slight tremor, and frequently I would bite my fingernails and wring my hands. I had stage fright which only seemed to worsen as I entered adolescence. I was also terrible at athletics, though my dad desperately tried to teach me baseball and basketball. I was painfully shy and introverted, living most of my life in my own head and imagination. Ultimately, this imagination provided me an escape – writing stories, drawing, listening to tons of music, and making animations on one of the earliest Apple Macintosh computers, which my father purchased in 1985.
I HAD RARELY IF EVER SEEN MY PARENTS DRINK, AND CERTAINLY NEVER SAW MY PARENTS DRUNK. 1986 CHANGED ALL THAT.
My mom had begun teaching at a prestigious private school in Raleigh, which I had the (mis)fortune of being able to attend because I was her son. She began attending faculty functions where alcohol was served, functions which my Dad really didn’t enjoy. So he and I would frequently go see movies whenever my mom went out. On one particular occasion my dad and I came home to find mom’s car parked sideways in the driveway. Scared, we both went inside and found her sitting indian style on the floor, blackout drunk (which I didn’t understand at the time). The only example of a drunk person I’d ever seen was Otis from “The Andy Griffith Show.” This was quite different. The next day my parents sat me down, my mom explained what happened, and that it wouldn’t happen again.
THIS WAS A PROMISE THAT WOULD BE BROKEN OVER AND OVER.
I also became aware during this time that my mom had begun a relationship with one of the other teachers, who happened to be a woman. My parents were fighting quite often, and I couldn’t parse any of it. My mom couldn’t possibly be gay, I thought, because I *existed*. I was “proof,” right? I simply had no understanding, and no one was explaining anything to me. I would frequently sit at the top of the stairs holding the cat, listening to them yell. One Saturday morning, my dad came downstairs as I was watching cartoons and told me mom was moving out. He probably remembers what he said better than I do, and I can’t imagine how hard that must’ve been for him. It wasn’t until much later in life that I would understand all of my mom’s struggles. What I know for certain is that within a year of seeing my mom drunk for the first time, my family – such as I had known it – was over. I would never trust or rely on the idea of “family” the same way again.
I began doing things which were very uncharacteristic for me. Back in public school, I came close to failing the 8th grade and to conceal the fact, began forging my dad’s signatures on official school documents so that he wouldn’t find out. I also began shoplifting, mostly CDs and porn magazines. All of this came to my dad’s attention at different times, and while he was very, very angry with me for it he never seemed to take it as a warning sign that something in me was changing, and not for the better. I never saw a therapist, was never told to go to one, and was never made to attend an Alanon meeting. To the best of my knowledge, neither did he. We did, however, start going to church – which I began to immerse myself in as time went on.
I was able to turn things around in high school, got my grades back up to A’s and B’s, and started playing trumpet in the marching band. I was bullied almost daily by a popular upperclassman, which made high school a scary place to be. No matter who I told, no one seemed able or inclined to do anything. But no matter how scared, anxious or hurt I was, I never picked up a drink. Friends would periodically offer them to me, but I turned them down flat. After seeing what had happened with my mom, I wanted no part of it – for the time being. She began reaching out to me, so that we could begin rebuilding our relationship. One day after school, probably in 1990, I’d gone over to her apartment to rest, and sitting on her dining room table were the divorce papers. It had been finalized in 1988, but no one had told me. What I realized at that moment was until I’d seen those papers, there was a tiny part of me that had always hoped my parents would get back together. No longer.
My dad and I also had a strained relationship at times, and no wonder. We were two angry men – one of whom had lost a wife, the other a mother – living in a big, empty house which for my dad probably represented everything he hoped their marriage would be. Now, it was an albatross around his neck. And neither of us were getting any help for our pain, save for church. I was also a latch-key kid, because my father had to teach sometimes until 7pm. By the time he got home he was tired and probably not in the mood to deal with a teenager. Sometimes, I would be the typical smartass adolescent and start arguments, sometimes my dad would just be in a foul mood and lose his temper. So while I kept my grades up and kept quiet, I confided in him less and less as time went by. The only times I knew for certain that we would be okay (i.e.. not arguing) were on Sundays. Church, it seems, brought us together – more for the shared experience of it than the spirituality I think. But my dad always did his best to explain and discuss scripture with me, and we prayed together nightly.
My mom bought me my first guitar at age 16 and I began listening to very loud, angry metal music. It was an ideal release for me and I still play guitar to this day, at least an hour a day. I also met my first girlfriend in high school, which was a transformative experience to say the least. The night I called her up to ask her out, she had been drinking. Her parents allowed her to drink alcohol as long as she and her friends remained in the house. Again, I never partook and was always very clear about it. We broke up at least 3-4 times that I’m aware of – but such is the nature of high school relationships. With all my “mommy issues” I imagine I was an insecure mess to say the least.
The night of my high school graduation, some friends and I went out and snuck into a local pool which, at 10pm, was locked up. So we scaled the fence. They’d brought some vodka and sprite with them, which I broke down and took a few sips of. I don’t recall feeling anything, nor did I really like what I was tasting. My dad found out and the next day and confronted me. He told me the following, unequivocally:
“SOME DAY, YOU’LL BE OLD ENOUGH TO BUY ALCOHOL, AND WHEN THAT DAY COMES YOU’LL HAVE A CHOICE TO MAKE. I HOPE YOU WILL CHOOSE NOT TO, BUT IT WILL BE YOUR CHOICE. HOWEVER, GIVEN YOUR FAMILY HISTORY AND YOUR GENETIC MAKE-UP, IF YOU CHOOSE TO DRINK YOU ARE PLAYING WITH FIRE!”
By my senior year I had already tuned out his warning messages, and the messages of my mother. I didn’t trust or care about either of their opinions. In my eyes they could barely keep their own lives and sanity together, and college was my first opportunity to try my own hand at living life. I was a ticking time-bomb: insecure; naïve; self-righteous; and under a *lot* of pressure to perform. I was already adept at lying and stealing – no drugs or alcohol required.
When I moved into my dorm, I snapped a “selfie” on an old Pentax K-1000. This picture would represent the last time either of my parents could reach me.