If others were asked what most defines my life, they would say religion: first being raised in a very religious home, then adhering to an alternative religious tradition from the age of twenty-one. However, I would say that what most defines me is a chromosome disorder undiagnosed in my youth. The failure to diagnose being key to that definition of self.
As religious folk, we try to put on a big strong front, claiming that we accept the decree of our Lord, understanding all that happens as the test of life itself. Well, indeed it is true that I accept this is how I was made and that there was undoubted wisdom that came from those formative experiences. Nevertheless, I confess that I remain very bitter about my youth.
To the outsider, I had a great childhood: I was raised in privilege in one of the most affluent suburbs of our city. We had a loving and stable family. I was sent to the best schools in town. We went abroad for family holidays. I had opportunities not afforded to many others. Materially, I had everything I could possibly need, and more. Spiritually, ours was a home of faith, which defined everything: our entire communal and social life was orientated around the church.
To the outside observer, I have nothing to complain about at all. I wasn’t an impoverished, hopeless kid stuck in a refugee camp. Nor was I raised on a sink estate, afflicted by gang warfare, mass unemployment and a broken home. Nor was I the repeated victim of rampant racial discrimination, nor blind or disabled. We had more material wealth than we could possibly have needed, and more social capital than most.
And yet, despite all this, I remain bitter. Bitter with my experiences growing up feeling a complete oddball, certain that there was something wrong with me, only to be told that it was all in my head — that I was quite simply lazy. Instead of acknowledging a developmental condition, I learnt to imbibe feelings of guilt and self-reproach, blaming myself for my poor emotional development, immaturity and academic intelligence.
If anything was to blame for my weird behaviour, for years I would put it down to being raised in a religious home. My acute shyness, I would associate with whatever I learnt in Sunday School as a child. And then everything from being perpetually sidelined to being bullied at school, I attributed to that shyness. If only I would stop being shy — understood to mean socially lazy — none of these things would happen.
This would be exemplified in me complaining to my mother at about the age of ten that I was being bullied on the bus on my way home from school. Listening to me, she said, “Why don’t you just stand up for yourself?” That was the first inkling I got that what we learnt in Sunday School about turning the other cheek was not meant to be taken literally. In any case, I didn’t stand up for myself; it was just the last time I ever spoke about it. The bullying on the bus lasted five more years, spilling over into school corridors and classrooms.
Why didn’t I stand up for myself? Because I was extremely passive and timid. Because when I’d try to speak, my words would come out in a jumble, too quietly to be considered a threat to my foes. And some obvious other factors, such as me having no muscles to speak of and seeming to be younger than my age. Oh, and the fact that some of my bullies were prefects and teachers, who saw harassing the school’s misfits their duty.
Despite all our material and spiritual capital, I was an emotional wreck. From the age of seven onwards I had no friends outside school. As I became a teenager, I had very few at school either, spending most of my time alone, aimlessly wandering around the school grounds day after day. I think the friends I had had up until then could see that I was developing into a weird young man, with whom they no longer wanted to be associated. My immaturity was especially troubling to those around me.
I have blamed myself for years for all that happened in my youth. I even blamed myself for my stunted growth, putting it down to me skipping meals and not eating enough just when I needed nutrition most. I’ve told myself for years that if only I had just not been so lazy in those days, absolutely everything would have been different. For years, I have felt guilty for the depression and anxiety I experienced then, telling myself that I had no right to, given the wealth and privilege I had been exposed to.
Only now have I started to unpick all these feelings. In part because I had been deliberately mismanaging my treatment the past two years, convinced that by shunning that injection I would be able to subdue my lower self and overcome the spiritual diseases that have long afflicted me. And yes, in my completely unqualified analysis, that seemed to be successful. Only, it had unfortunate side effects too: my melancholy blues struck with a vengeance, and I now have aching bones.
Restarting my treatment, the worst of the despondent gloom lifting, I recognise just how much this disorder defines me. Nowadays, I look pretty much like any other middle age grump, shuffling around in his slippers, grumbling about the state of the world. But in my youth, it defined me totally. Much of how I looked, behaved, thought and developed I now know to have been impacted by what then remained completely undetected.
The disorder — and the lack of diagnosis — has defined my entire life. My self-loathing in my late teens came from here. The lack of self-esteem was forged in this crucible. My absent self-belief and inner confidence were seeded there. My preference for solitude over company has its roots in those formative experiences; I shun social gatherings because I hate to be judged on my appearance and intellect. But, I suppose it has informed some positive characteristics too. I am generally a kind-hearted man, patient and slow to anger.
Much more than by religion, this is what defines me. Perhaps I find that my understanding of religion compliments this experience. Perhaps it is the glove that fits the hand. Or the first treatment, before I could access a medical intervention. I am defined by the intense experience of feeling different, but being unable to explain how or why. Yes, those first twenty-five years of life have impacted all the years that have followed absolutely, but only now am I truly coming to terms with it.