There’s something about choosing an inanimate object as a Halloween costume that simultaneously amuses and unnerves people. When I was a kid I was fond of painting boxes to resemble this or that. One year, a packet of gum, another, a teapot. This year, every person who I have told I plan to be a tree has abruptly burst with laughter. There’s something unexpected about being a thing instead of being a someone. But I struggle to embody someone else when I hardly can embody myself. How can I be someone else when some days, it seems like I am barely myself?
I remember taking a disposable camera with me on a fourth-grade field trip to Sacramento. After developing the roll of film, my parents discovered that the majority of my photos were of squirrels I’d witnessed in and around the capitol. In the eighth grade, when I went to Washington D.C., I used 8 rolls of film taking pictures of monuments, buildings from abstruse angles, and clouds. My parents were mad at the cost of developing all my photos, then puzzled by their contents. “There are no people in these pictures,” my step-mom observed, anguished, “Where are your friends?” Do people have friends in eighth grade? I’m not convinced I did.
Days into my student teaching assignment, my mentor (and now friend) Shannon asked me if I felt like I was observing my life from a distance, like watching a movie of my existence rather than experiencing it firsthand. I narrowed my eyes. Maybe? How would you know to ask something like that? Well, if you know what autism looks like, it’s really not hard to spot in the wild.
My father-in-law is not a man of faith in the typical sense but he has unrelenting faith in the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. Your path laid out before you in a four-letter sequence as tidy as your DNA. a-t, c-g, INTJ, ENFP. Destiny. Because my father-in-law and I share a type, INTJ, he believes he knows a lot about me. He doesn’t bother to ask my opinion or hear about my experiences. He knows me like he knows himself. He acts like we’re part of an elite club, leaning in conspiratorially to share a universal truth about the long-suffering life sentence of the INTJ. “You and me,” he begins, “we’re not compassionate. You don’t know how to be a nice person.” One time I said I was, in fact, a pretty alright person and he didn’t know my life, to which he informed me that my response was not indicative of a compassionate person. Apparently, the truly compassionate would have the forbearance and wisdom to take this character assassination in stride and merely smile into the middle distance, secure in the knowledge of themselves.
I want to not be bothered by the stupid shit my father-in-law thinks he knows about me. But when parental figures wade into sensitive subjects it’s difficult to remain steady and trust my sense of self. Why is it a sensitive subject anyway? Why have I spent years thinking I’m some kind of arrogant jerk when, I’m pretty sure, I’m not that at all? Why have I made such efforts to improve my people skills over time? Oh, right, that other father figure: my dad.
My dad has left me with some stupid ideas about myself. Intellectually, I know it’s not true and probably an act of projection, more than one of judgment, but intellectual understanding doesn’t always lead to emotional truth. My dad has said that I’m arrogant, I can’t relate to people. I’m a smart-ass, I’m rude, I’m too loud. But also, that I’m too sensitive, that I’m defensive and collapse under the slightest criticism. It’s taxing, being a living contradiction.
I spent a lot of time in my 20s working on my perceived faults, if they were ever really faults in the first place. Even if my worst traits weren’t as egregious as they were made out to be, I am still glad I was able to improve something about myself. That’s the nature of adulthood: you can choose who to be. I don’t have to be a compassionless jerk if I don’t want to be. So I developed better qualities. I worked on myself. I feel good about the person I am.
Unfortunately, it takes so little to strip me of my sense of self and leave me bare, crying in the bathroom at my in-laws’ house, hoping no one can hear my muffled sobs. My mantra isn’t “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me,” but that’s not too far from what I hold onto when I’m hiding in the restroom. It’s too easy to peel back years of self-sufficient, emotionally mature adulthood to reveal the friendless eighth grader taking pictures of clouds on a field trip to Washington.
Ultimately these patriarchal take-downs hurt me because they reveal my fears about myself. I often feel disconnected from myself and others. Maybe I’m even less connected to people than I thought. Maybe my friends aren’t really my friends and everyone is just tolerating me. Maybe I really am just a tree or a teapot, a passenger in my own life.
I know none of those things are true, but sometimes, they feel very real.