To walk alone

I don’t actually blame anyone for how I was treated. I couldn’t see myself and therefore couldn’t see what others saw all day long. I would keep my appointments with a mirror to the minimum, always shrouding my bony arms beneath a jumper, even on the hottest day of the year. I always wished I could flee that form of mine, but I was stuck with it, and daily I would be reminded that it was all I was. My look and temperament defined me absolutely.

Thus every single day on the bus on my way home from school would be exactly the same: that mocking harassment, over and over, like a broken record. If I chose one day to resist, my resistance in itself would be the new source of derision, for my voice was too soft to be considered a threat, and my stature: I was a skeleton. And so it just spilled off the bus into the corridors of the school, and now I would be followed everywhere I went by those same three boys — humiliatingly, from the year below — every single day, just to be reminded, “You’re nothing!”

Of course, my family would say, “Why don’t you stand up for yourself?” But that was because they were totally oblivious to my actual lived experience. For years I blamed my timidity on my Christian upbringing, but it was deeper than that: it was my innate nature, completely out of my control. It was my biology, but those around me were so fixated with their own conclusions — that I was just lazy — to bother exploring what else might be going on. We didn’t have helpful diagnosis information at our disposal back then.

Socially, they tend to have quiet personalities. They rarely cause trouble and are often more helpful and thoughtful than other boys. They’re often shy and sensitive, and many are less self-confident and less active than other boys their age.

That kind of harassment wasn’t limited to the school, or to people who had grown so used to my presence that I could almost be treated as family. Going out in public, you just had to be prepared for a complete stranger shouting abuse at you across the road as you walked by. Again, I blamed my Christian upbringing or being middle class for the sneering attitudes of those I encountered, but of course it was simply my face and form. To all who encountered me, these personified my whole being. It was all I was.

Nowadays, parents of children with this condition would be given helpful advice like this:

If your son struggles in school or has trouble making friends, talk to your doctor, school principal, or school counsellor. Counsellors and therapists can give boys practical skills to help them feel more confident in social settings. And many schools provide educational services that can help your son succeed.

Back then, we just had unhelpful advice like this: “Stand up for yourself. Pull yourself together. Don’t be so lazy. Stop being so sensitive.” Of course, that didn’t help. It didn’t address any of the underlying issues. It didn’t provide any tools to help me navigate difficult situations, particularly those which had been allowed to fester for years. How do you, all of a sudden, stand up to somebody who has been harassing you constantly for two whole years? Of course, you don’t. My dream of developing ninja skills with which to smash their skulls against the floor had to remain pure fantasy.

I had my own plan to overcome the situation I found myself in. That was to leave that school and never look back. I would start over with a clean break at college, cut off from all of that backstory which had defined me up until then. Nobody knew me there at all, so it would be a fresh start and a chance for a new beginning. But, of course, I forgot one thing: I still carried that face and form with me, and it defined everything. It represented me to others before I even had a chance to open my mouth. If I thought I was going to reinvent myself as a cultured cool kid, I was severely mistaken. That was Mission Impossible.

I should have realised early on what was going on. I should have realised the evening I was pelted with eggs at a bus stop on Willerby Road. I should have thought to myself: there’s something going on here which is really out of my control. I should have thought, when I found myself perpetually on the periphery of every group of students, that there was something more to it than my perennial shyness and timidity. I really should have asked someone, “Do you think I’m okay?”

I wasn’t okay, and I knew it, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. Soon I was hiding behind a friend — one I thought to be cool, and I soon considered myself honoured to have been accepted as a friend by someone like him — relying on him as my forcefield to overcome all that held me back. Of course, I was just incredibly naive and stupid, making a complete stranger my big brother, who I always thought was acting with my best interests at heart. Undoubtedly he had good intentions, embracing me as a friend where most people with the same cultural background as me rejected me, but we weren’t on the same page at all.

There was a common theme there — an inner insecurity — which saw me devoutly devoting myself to anyone who treated me kindly. There were the youth workers at a Christian youth festival with whom I developed close relationships for a while, writing to them regularly to tell them about my world. Repeatedly, I would become the devoted, loyal friend, going above and beyond to maintain alliances, far beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable or ordinary. Later on, at university, most of the relationships that lasted were with mature students, much older than me. I couldn’t seem to build ordinary relationships with my peers. I didn’t know how to.

Back then, I didn’t know how to overcome my situation, because it was undefined. I didn’t understand why — thinking myself a nice, kind person — everybody always seemed to take such a disliking to me. And I didn’t understand why people who seemed to me to be nice and kind took to treating me that way either. I didn’t understand why kindness wasn’t rewarded with kindness. I didn’t understand why thinking the best of others wasn’t rewarded by them thinking the best of me. I didn’t understand why my personality traits — being quiet and shy — were compensated with such contempt.

But, of course, that was because I could not see myself, nor could I hear what was said in my absence. I did not see myself as others saw me. My view of the world did not align with the view of others. I thought being good to others would result in them reciprocating. In short, I didn’t understand why people were often so cruel and cold.

It was only at the end of my first year at university that I decided to change my whole approach. It must have been as I turned twenty. I had spent most of the year in the company of a mature student, a decade older than me. We got on great most of the time, but he had one weakness: he was an alcoholic, and that addiction manifested itself in outbursts of extreme violence, fortunately mostly directed only at inanimate objects. For a time, I took on the role of Jiminy Cricket, whispering in his ear: “You know, maybe this is not the best way to live our lives.”

Naturally, he didn’t hear me, but eventually I heard myself. Eventually I listened to my own heart. It said, “Leave all this.” It said, “Stop trying to please other people.” It said, “Be your own man.”

That was the moment I cut myself off from everyone, and decided to walk alone. For a time, I became a recluse, keeping myself to myself. Ultimately it would lead me to taking up an alien path which best suited my nature: this path I have walked the past quarter of a century.

To be generous to myself, let me acknowledge a characteristic that others probably don’t see in me. Most people, I guess, would probably describe me as being weak, but the reality: all of these experiences have given me great fortitude. I have the courage to walk alone, regardless of the pervasive propaganda of our age, or the demands of communal belonging. To take up a path so misrepresented and to maintain course takes real strength and determination.

To walk alone — in face of the constant demands to conform to a dominant culture, for the sake of career progression or family acceptance — is a course few would choose. I suppose I was blessed that I had such an extensive period of training in my youth. I guess I was lucky to have such a baptism of fire. It has given me a strength many could only dream of. I have the strength to walk alone.

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