My Story, Part 1
Lonely in Childhood, Adrift in Adulthood
Feeling Out of Place Everywhere…
At home, as the only HSP, I was the observer in the family; As such I never felt understood or valued.
That’s me on the far right.
I’ll bet most of you reading this can identify with this statement. It didn’t matter if I was with my friends, at school…which was never the best experience…working meaningless jobs, and even later in life as a university-level lecturer and administrator… I’d never felt comfortable with who I was.
My Early Years
My earliest memories are mostly what I’d call happy. As the middle of three children growing up in the 60s and coming-of-age in the 70s, what did I know about happiness? I had a roof over my head, clothes on my body, and food on the table every single night.
Mine isn’t a story of growing up in poverty; My parents owned every home we lived in. My father was a high school graduate, the first in his family, as well as a self-taught and US Air Force-educated electronics engineer who became an accomplished mathematician, painter, a great dad, a loyal husband, and a solid provider. The pinnacle of his career was working at Mission Control in NASA’s spacecraft center and later at Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California.
My mother was also a high school graduate. She only worked outside the home for a brief period when I was in high school in a part-time position where she cut fabric one afternoon per week in a local sewing store where my sister worked full-time following her high school graduation.
My mother represents the origin story of my empath and HSP traits. Though my neurochemistry was unique from birth, as Dr. Elaine Aron argues in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, when early caregivers are distracted by their own needs, have a perceived lack of resources, or some other issue that might interfere with their ability to make their newborn and/or growing child a chief concern, the child may develop a heightened need to pause-and-assess when confronting perceived threats. If the infant/child feels that his needs might not always be met, there is a good chance he will learn to be cautious and afraid.
To be fair, I was never hungry or without love. However, I realized later in life that there was a definite pattern that developed during my childhood that convinced me that my mother was unable to cope with the stresses of raising three children.
Something wasn’t normal
Her average of three hospitalizations per year—which my siblings and I thought was normal because it was our only reality—resulted in a kind of vacation for us because my dad did the grocery shopping and bought us all kind of treats my mother wouldn’t have approved of us having. The sugary breakfast cereal “Froot Loops” was the forbidden “froot” in our house, but when Mom was in the hospital, our “froot” consumption (and likely the resulting sugar highs) skyrocketed. Another treat that started out as a hospitalization- associated benefit was chocolate milk made from powdered Nestle’s Quik whose marketing messages convinced me that rabbits also liked chocolate milk. It later became a staple in our pantry.
There was an inherent inner conflict for me during her hospitalizations in that I missed her, but I also enjoyed the reprieve from her overly-critical and narcissistic management of my every move.
I was 12-years-old when I realized that my mother’s hospitalizations weren’t the norm. I was suddenly embarrassed and I knew my family life was vastly direct from that of most of my friends.
The realization that my mother’s most dominant personality trait, one that proved to be my Kryptonite, as well as her overall frailty of both mental and physical health, came after we moved to California in 1970. Shortly before we moved she contracted meningitis and developed what was to be a life-long seizure disorder that includes violent shaking fits that occur without warning. Though almost perfectly managed now for decades, those early episodes were to become not only my most vivid and most frightening childhood memories, but frequently used by her as a manipulative threat to govern our bad behavior.
“You’d better behave or I’ll have seizures tonight,” she’d say to my brother and me when we were becoming close to surpassing her ability to cope with our behavior. The threat was enough to stop me in my tracks…and she knew it. I feared the terrifying sight of another grand mal seizure, the foaming at the mouth, as well as seeing her eyes roll backwards into their sockets.
Like most children who are manipulated by similar threats, I assumed personal responsibility for her seizures. They had to be my fault. She basically said as much.
This narrative is not about outing my mother as a narcissist, as I long ago forgave her the ill-treatment I and most often those I cared about received from her. It’s more to demonstrate how an incapacitated parent can unwittingly influence the development of and the reinforcement of HSP traits and behaviors in children as old as 10-12 years of age.
Anxiety ruled my life
As an infant I was diagnosed as having colic. I was the early riser of my three siblings and I was always the only one to stay awake awake on long car trips; I was the sensitive one and the one with all the allergies to fresh fruit, nuts, and a host of other foods. I had all the hallmarks of the HSP child but no one knew anything about such a trait.
As a young boy, I developed several nervous tics, batting my eyes and wrinkling my nose like a rabbit, as well as making brief grunting noises. My parents thought I was mentally ill so they took me to the family doctor. At eight years of age, I was hospitalized for “a case of nerves” and underwent all sorts of tests and diagnostics that no otherwise healthy boy of eight should undergo. At the end of my hospital 10-day stay, there was a loose diagnosis of some sort of stress-related disorder.
However, this around 1965 and I wasn’t referred to a psychiatrist or a behavioral therapist of any kind; Neither was I medicated. I think our family physician knew that I was reacting to my mother since she was also his patient at the time. The nervous tics lasted well into my twenties and they drove me crazy. Seeing myself on a video tape at a friend’s wedding blinking and twitching was excruciating to watch.
I wanted more than anything to stop these nervous tics and would pray that whatever god was listening would intervene and rid me of this need I felt to twitch and blink. Unfortunately no devine deliverance was forthcoming. They remained a part of me until my mid-thirties and then gradually disappeared. (Oddly enough, they disappeared after I severed most of my emotional ties with my mother.)
This brings me to the topic of religion. I said that I prayed for the tics the be taken away and that I hoped some god -an old man with a long white beard in my child’s mind- would deliver me from their daily torture. I grew up inside of the fire and brimstone preaching I heard from the ultraconservative Southern Baptist church we attended in Texas.
If I was already afraid of most things in life and easily manipulated both at home and at school, church was the perfect setting for those that wanted to further use fear—particularly the threat of hell—to affect changes in my behavior. I was convinced I was going to hell because I was told exactly that every single Sunday and Wednesday evening. I’d have bet my $0.50 weekly allowance that no one in heaven had nervous tics. No, I was going to hell and that was that.
My dad’s faith seemed real to me later in life when as an adult I could objectively observe my parents. My mother’s faith always seemed superficial… maybe because her personality prevented her from growing in it. After all, the focus of the entire church construct was directed outward and upward; In brief, it wasn’t about her. Covert narcissists need everything to be eventually be about themselves.
Young Baz, age 9
L.F. Smith Elementary School, Pasadena, Texas
5th grade with the worst teacher in the world
School of any kind was always difficult for me as I preferred to be the observer instead of a learner. I didn't have a learning disability, I just found most of the topics boring and uninteresting. I was more interested and distracted by the expressions on the faces of my fellow students and the details of my teachers’ physical appearance than I was in Texas history and learning my multiplication tables.
Bt the time I reached the fifth grade, my elementary school experience had reached a crucible in terms of my grades and my motivation to learn what was being taught, but what occurred in the 5th grade impacted me significantly for decades to come.
My teacher/torturer, Mrs. Frazier, was one of those rare teachers who picked on students she didn't like. She like to bully boys in particular. Lucky me, as the fearful, nervous kid in the front row, continually batting his eyes, I was an easy target.
She was known for her frequent referral of students to the Principal’s Office for physical spankings (this was Texas in the 60s when beating kids in school wasn't just acceptable but expected). I was paddled numerous times by the Mrs. Pearson who was equally as old and crotchety as Mrs. Frazier and twice as evil since she seemed to revel in the referrals. She was the Dr. Mengele of L.F. Smith Elementary School in Pasadena, Texas and always eager for fresh blood to be referred her way.
How could educators get so much from spanking young children? Why did they think violence of any kind would correct behavior? I am still in disbelief that my parents co-opted such behavior. Today they’d be sued for endangering a child.
Victimized by cruelty
“I swear on my copy of The Elements of Style, the closest thing to holy writ in my possession, that what I am about to recount is the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, Strunk and White.” ~Baz
I arrived in class on a Monday morning and noticed immediately that among the disorganized mess that was inside of my top-lifting desk, there were two rather thick textbooks. I was horrified at reading the words in all caps that confirmed what I already knew - that they were the “TEACHER EDITION” textbooks.
I couldn’t imagine how they got there. It was Monday morning and we all had been lined up in the hallway waiting for our teacher to unlock the door. Even though I’d been spanked by Mrs. Pearson and humiliated by Mrs. Frazier numerous times that academic year, this had to be the lowest to which she would descend in order to single me out for additional embarrassment.
She began that day with the announcement about her missing Teacher’s Editions textbooks. A ripple of reaction spread like an aftershock through the class. The familiar companions of fear and humiliation battled for superiority in my head.
She said she was going to give the guilty party the opportunity to come forward and admit it (in front the class, of course). If the guilty party did so, there would be no punishment.
It was pure classroom theater and I was dying a thousand deaths in my seat. Had I been afflicted with poor bladder control, I’m certain I would’ve left a puddle on floor beneath my desk.
She limped in her characteristic polio victim’s gait directly over to my desk and lifted the top. She crossed her arms staring down at me not unlike Prof. Serverus Snape did at Harry Potter in his first year at Hogwartz. But unlike Harry, I was a highly-sensitive boy and unable to do anything but shut down in response to a strong female figure of authority. It was, after all, all I knew how to do. I started to cry.
She lifted the books high in the air like they were sacred tomes handed down from the gods, sneering at me while my classmates looked on in horror. They started whispering about me; “Why would he do it?” “How did he do it?”
How, indeed? It was the one question that no adult ever asked, including my parents.
I was an 8 or 9-year-old kid. I didn’t have access to a locked classroom on the weekend. How could I have done what she so publicly accused me of doing? It didn’t matter, I was presumed guilty and my punishment was waiting in the Principal’s Office.
I tell this particular story for two reasons, the first being rather selfish. If the dead can hear us, I want Mrs. Frazier to know that she remains the single most detestable human in my experience. She is right up there with Hitler and Josef Mengele, not that I’m old enough to have known them…but you probably get my meaning.
Take that, Mrs. Frazier you sad, twisted old mass of wasted humanity… and you, too Mrs. Pearson with the badly dyed hair.
Secondly, to illustrate that HSP children can be further traumatized and have their HSP traits seared into their psyche when repeatedly manipulated by adults who are entrusted to care for them. The failure to protect me from this type of bullying is shared by my parents and the school officials involved.
Had PTSD or post-traumatic stress syndrome been better known in the mid-sixties, there is no doubt that I would’ve qualified for the diagnosis. But it would be several years later after surviving 15 years in a dysfunctional marriage where I was assaulted both physically and mentally and to this day possess the scars from both, that I would be diagnosed with it and only then begin to put the pieces of my HSP and empathic puzzle together.
—End of Part I