That Gift of Self Loathing
As my best friend described the muscle bound action figure she had given her brother for his birthday, I stopped listening. Well, I could still hear what she was saying, but my brain was chattering that I should have gotten him a gift. Nevermind that I was eleven and hadn't yet given a gift to anyone that hadn't come directly from my parents. But still.
It was probably a combination of panic and being eleven that made the idea seem not a hundred percent terrible, and once it didn't seem terrible it was easy for it to start sounding brilliant. I'd give my friend's brother a box to hold his new action figure. He needed boxes, right?
I'd be giving him the gift of organization. Just what every seven year-old boy dreams of getting.
Smiling, I told my friend of my plan.
"No, don't," she said quietly. "Don't do that."
But I was excited. I was going to show someone I cared about that I was thinking about him on his birthday. How could that ever be a bad idea?
The next day I asked her what her brother thought of his present. She told me about an exchange between him and their eldest sister.
"What did Bessie give you for your birthday?" their sister asked.
"A box of rubbish," he answered glumly.
"That witch," came the reply.
I'm pretty sure I laughed it off long enough to walk back into my house and up the stairs to my bedroom. Once there, I collapsed onto the bed and wept, asking the God I still believed in why everything I did came out all wrong.
No matter how much I try, I wailed, I mess everything up.
What I had envisioned as a toy box for a friend wound up being a dilapidated cardboard cube, stuffed with newspaper and hastily wrapped in the Sunday comics. I'd never really wrapped a gift myself so I'm sure that there were swaths of brown cardboard peeking through jagged rips across Ziggy's face. Maybe. I actually can't recall the time between my friend telling me not to give her brother a present and telling me what her sister had said. I have no idea what my shitty gift actually looked like.
But I do remember the despair that came from knowing I had done something incredibly, ridiculously stupid. As I sat there realizing that I had indeed given the gift of garbage, I also realized something far more important: I was absolute shit at this whole relationship thing.
It wasn't my first experience with malicious hindsight, but it was part of a turning point.
I was eleven, so what felt like days laying in a pool of self loathing was probably more like a ten minute deluge and a three hour nap, but still. Self loathing it was. Not just regret, or chagrin, or the self effacing resignation of I have to do better next time. This was all out hatred, a many-barbed voice that has become my truest and most predictable lifetime companion.
It wasn't much of a stretch, I think, for my friend's eldest sister to assume I was being an asshole rather than just an incompetent gift giver. I had been going through a pretty big jerky phase. I remember emulating the insult-laden banter that seemed to fill the adults around me with laughter. My father's teasing was probably supposed to be good natured, but it often stung. It was complicated, realizing that I was hurting other people and that my father was hurting me. I didn't really know what to make of it then, so I just figured being an asshole was part of the McLean mystique.
My own birthday party that year was a wonderful affair held my uncles' Kailua beach house. Ben and Kalani weren't my biological uncles, but in Hawai'i, biology is only one of the ways that you become family. I'd met them how I met most of my aloha 'ohana at that time: my cousin's flower shop. Ben, whose attention to wreath making was an extension of his proud, refined self possession, kind of terrified me with his cold and critical demeanor. I took his disdain for the entire world completely personally, so it was with a healthy amount of shock that I learned Ben's partner Kalani had called me "a beautiful spirit." Kalani took a shine to me and his usual gracious, welcoming nature was even more generously bestowed upon my self-conscious self. His insistence that my birthday party be held at their beach house was not lost on me, even then. And I zero percent felt like I was worth that very beautiful gesture.
My uncles' house abutted the parking lot of Kailua Beach Park, and upon walking up the crest of sand leading to the beach itself, I felt a strong sense of...ʻāina...I guess would be the best way to describe it. I had the first fleeting realization of place and importance; a kind of present tense nostalgia that has only grown stronger the older I get. The feeling is kind of...chaotic. Everything seems so damn important, and I'm filled with anxiety at knowing I'm forgetting all of the most important bits. Nowadays, I can identify and appreciate that desperate anxiety for what it is, but at that moment, on that beach, I just hoped that nobody noticed that I was about to cry.
When it was time for me to open my gifts, I settled onto a sofa with prettily wrapped boxes surrounding me. I started to feel overwhelmed, wanting so desperately not to look like a crybaby in front of my best friend. The confusing tears I'd been fighting all day were compounded by an anxiety that I was determined to hide. I had to do something, and fast.
Maybe it was the combination of sugary treats and stage fright that turned me into a ridiculous toddler, but whatever it was transformed my gratitude and anxiety into ridiculous shit-headedness. But since I was all confused, thinking that being an asshole was hilarious, I was a complete and utter fuckhead to my entire family.
I tore into box after box in what I thought was a comedic display of childish glee. After discarding the refuse of each new thoughtful gift, I cried out "More! More" in a fit of birthday girl greed. After awhile I got bored with the performance but couldn't stop myself from continuing it. On emotional auto-pilot, I dug through each and every single one of my gifts like a poop-flinging monkey until there was nothing but the rubble of tissue paper and gift boxes around my feet.
Honestly, I didn't know what happened. But hey, it was over and I hadn't cried. Mission Accomplished, right?
Then why did I feel so strangely unsettled?
That Monday, my best friend pulled me aside to talk to me about my behavior.
"I was pretty mad at you," she said. "At your party. You were acting like a spoiled brat in front of your whole family."
She was right, of course, and I knew it. I waited for the uncontrollable spiral of self loathing, but it never began. Instead, I was able to admit I'd been a jerk and go on playing Barbies at recess. Sure, I felt pretty bad about being an asshole at my uncles' beach house, but I didn't spend days at the bottom of some hypersensitive well. That wasn't me, I told myself. I'll be more like me next time.
It didn't take long for me to do rudimentary kind of analysis of the birthday party situations. What I decided was that it was easy to dismiss my birthday party behavior because I wasn't invested in my greed-driven performance. Sure, I'd acted like a complete shithead, but it was just acting. I wasn't actually a shithead. Right?
On the other hand, I'd felt so destroyed by my earlier gift giving failure because I for reals thought that I was doing a good thing. I honestly wanted to show someone that I cared, but found out that I had no clue how to do that without coming across like, well, a witch.
Holy crap, it was all so complicated.
After the birthday present debacles, I tried really hard to get myself together; to be a sweet girl. A nice person. A good friend. The "beautiful spirit" my Uncle Kalani said he saw in me. I stopped going by the nickname Bessie and insisted that everyone use the more grown-up Celeste.
I knew my work was paying off when my friend's little brother confessed that he'd once had a crush on me.
"But then you turned mean." We both knew he was talking about a list of complaints that had been stacking up long before I gave him a box full of garbage. I nodded. Yes, I had gotten mean. I wasn't going to deny it.
"You're not mean anymore," my friend's brother said. He smiled, and I beamed with triumph. Although I didn't exactly want my friend's little brother to have a crush on me, it was a hell of a lot better than being called a witch. Again, Mission Accomplished.
But I was always kind of aware that I was thisclose to being a horrible, bratty, witch. How in the world could I avoid it, if my genuinely best efforts turned out to be wrong? And indeed, it seemed as if I was constantly making shitty, yet totally heartfelt decisions. The reeling shock of my wrongness took me back to my bed again and again.
I seemed to possess the uncanny knack for unearthing the exactly wrong thing to do or say or wear or whatever. Every time I tried being myself, it just turned out all wrong. In fits of desperation and anxiety, I shrugged into some other strange persona only to muck things up more, even when I kinda knew better. No matter what I did I made a mess of it. I learned over and over again that it hurt even worse when I'd mucked things up by being myself. But always, I was going to muck it up. There was just no way around that one.
I collected my inevitable and repeated failures as evidence of my utter worthlessness. The way that some children take out daydreams and run them between the fingertips in their minds, I took out my shame as if it was the only thing I had worth remembering.
And man, did I have a lot of it.
It became almost impossible to trust my instincts in any social situation. I'd try to show someone how much I care, but wind up being pushy and stubborn. The next time, I'd feel too insecure to offer myself up, then find out my friend had felt neglected. And so on.
I could never get it right, no matter how hard I tried.
I wish I could say that I've therapied my way through my social anxiety self loathing, but the truth is that I am regularly reminded just how bad I am at this whole social interaction thing. I hurt people, all the time. I say the stupidest things. I put myself out there, like really out there, and am terrified of the repercussions. Because I know there will be. I am going to make a mess of this, just like I've made a mess of everything. It's just a matter of time.
And every time it happens, I really fucking hate myself.
Growing Up Is Hard To Do