I remember one time sitting at my therapist’s waiting room next to a small boy and his mom. The boy was being very playful, you might even say sweet; laughing and hugging his mom. The scene I was witnessing was probably a very normal thing to see for most people, but for me it was something that filled me with an overwhelming sense of disgust. My therapist finally came out and signaled for me to go back to her office. As I walked by the boy, playing on the floor, I was overcome with a deep desire to kick him right in the face. I didn’t of course, I am not a psycho. But those feelings of anger and disgust towards a little boy were so visceral, they scared me.
It was the first thing I mentioned to my therapist as soon as I sat on her couch. I kept going on and on about how much that scene bothered me. She kept asking me questions, trying to help me figure out why I was so angry, until I finally blurted out ‘Because little boys aren’t supposed to be cute!’ As soon as I said that, her eyes teared up. That wasn’t unusual. I had seen her for over a year by then and I had gotten used to that, I even used it as a sign that I had just said something that deserved closer examination. I don’t know if those reactions were strange, or even professional, but I found it extremely helpful.
She knew enough about my life by then to know when to give me certain pointers. She said something like ‘sometimes we can feel upset that other people have access to things we didn’t have.’
I analyzed that day for a really long time. I still remember how it felt, having a flood of memories gradually turning on in my head, like a blinding light. Every time I felt like crying, I felt like letting go of a cry that I had been holding in for a really long time but I always managed to stop myself.
There were a few times when I tried to talk about some of these memories but it always came out wrong, I didn’t know how to do it. I was talking to someone once about the neighborhood where I grew up. There was a major railroad route that crossed behind my street. Typical neighborhood for the region, streets covered with potholes, trash and stray dogs. Freight trains that came from Central America had to stop at the customs checkpoint there. Illegal immigrants from Central America, crossing Mexico to get to the U.S., would jump out of those trains, go through the neighborhood asking for food or whatever else people could give them and go around the checkpoint to jump back on the train. Not everyone made it back, people sometimes got in accidents, breaking limbs or getting crushed by the train. My cousins and I used to go play on those tracks, almost waiting to see one of those accidents.
One day an immigrant from Honduras came to our door, begging for food. My mom went back to the kitchen while I stayed at the door, just staring at him. The look of fear and desperation on his face never left me. For a long time I had dreams about him and always wondered what happened to him. If he ever made it to the U.S. or if he died along the way. My mother gave him two tortillas, some rice and a boiled egg which he immediately devoured.
In the middle of telling this story to the only person I let get close enough to me at the time, my voice started to break and I almost cried. I still remember the embarrassment I felt, like I was somehow a lesser man. I never did it again.
Overtime I started having issues with insomnia, nightmares and depression; eventually leading me to an alcoholic induced mental breakdown and a severe identity crisis. Everyday I woke up sick from alcohol withdrawals, sleeping on the floor, surrounded by a sea of empty bottles. It almost feels surreal, thinking about the last few months I drank like that. In a drunken blackout I locked myself up in my studio apartment, shut all the windows, disconnected the stove and let the gas running. I don’t remember doing that. Surprisingly, a friend I had been talking to the night before showed up to take me to an AA meeting but ended up taking me to the ER instead.
It wasn’t the first time that I drank myself into a psychotic break. The first time happened when I was 20 years old. After 3 years on my own, years of absolute self destruction, I was forced to move into my mom’s garage. I shut myself up in there and drank myself into oblivion. Almost everyday I woke up shaking and sweating from the alcohol withdrawals, almost convulsing at times. It felt like dying.
I started seeing and hearing things, a result of constantly going through Delirium Tremens, and I even developed a strange agoraphobia. I was not able to leave that garage unless to get more to drink and to smoke. I couldn’t even leave to shower or go to the bathroom, I filled up empty bottles with my urine and collected them around. The stench of that place became unbearable but I couldn’t do anything to change that. My mother would come in sometimes to make sure I was still breathing. I never knew what to make of all that.
Years later, in my third year of sobriety, I was working in the shipping department for a sunscreen company. My coworkers were teenage Mexican American boys who never lived in Mexico. I remember telling them stories of growing up in the rodeos of Southern Mexico where I worked with my father. They were so curios about the whole thing because they’ve never seen it but watched them on video with their dads. Rodeos in Mexico are not at all like rodeos in the US. They are extreme and are usually held in some of the most impoverished, rural and remote places. There isn’t a lot to give people a break from their circumstances so the rodeo is a loved spectacle. You get to see a lot of real, hard life in those places. All the terrible accidents I witnessed, being stuck in the middle of full blown riots, acts of violence and having free access to alcohol since I was like 7 years old.
I told the guys about the times I saw fatal accidents, bull-riders dying on the spot from their injuries. The way the people just picked them up, threw them in the back of a truck like a rag doll, and took the body to their families. There was no ambulance, no hospitals, nothing coming to the rescue in those places. I saw a man once with his face split open, after a bull had stepped on him, choking on his own blood. I stood there until I saw him take his last breath.
One of the kids suddenly said ‘Isn’t that like, traumatizing though?’ The question shocked me a little bit. ‘Traumatizing?’ I said. ‘No, it isn’t traumatizing. It’s MAN shit. I’m telling you some MAN shit. What are you talking about?’ We all laughed. That manly laugh that occurs when you’re in denial.
After two years of therapy and six years of sobriety my life had taken a very different route. The work I had put in to have a successful professional life had finally paid off, I was driving a car that didn’t leave me stranded on the middle of the road, I was taking care of my parents and I had just gotten back from a Europe backpack trip where I visited 5 countries. Life was unrecognizable at times.
One night driving home from work I had a moment, an experience really, while listening to a song by a Mexican singer that often performed at the rodeos where I grew up. It triggered a memory of the time my cousin and I were trapped in a badly constructed rodeo arena that almost collapsed. The makeshift bleachers that surrounded the rink were very unstable and built up way too high. Suddenly a fight broke out, which wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary, but this one kept growing out of control until it turned into a full blown riot. The bleachers started shaking, almost like an earthquake, and the stampede of people rushing down made it even worse. My cousin was working on the opposite side of the arena and came back to get me. I must have been 11 years old, my cousin was only 7 years older than me. I stood there frozen, not knowing what to do, on one side there was a crowd of people trying to get out and a massive fight going on on the other side. Some guy told me, I’m going to have to pick you up and throw you down so your cousin will have to catch you; he then dropped me probably a two stories height. I was a very small kid for my age, so my cousin caught me and we forced our way out through the crowd trying not to get stomped on.
Driving home that night, with all those memories coming back to me, I thought to myself ‘I must’ve been really scared.’ Then, I suddenly realized that it had been me who had lived through that. Those were all my experiences. I always told my therapist that my memories never seemed like my own, as if someone was playing a movie in my head, a movie of someone else’s life.
That night I could feel, at last, that those memories were my own. I had lived through that. I was that terrified little boy. I finally cried. It was a cry that got more and more intense with every minute. I even had to pullover, I couldn’t keep driving. All the years of repressed fear, anxiety and uncertainty finally caught up with me. All the feelings I couldn’t experience all those years I was in survival mode I had to feel that night, all of them at once. At one point I even started laughing, maniacally, at the same time. I thought I had finally lost it, I was finally broken. But I wasn’t breaking, quite the opposite in fact, something inside me was being put back together. I will never forget that night for as long as I live.