They found my uncle dead last night. He had been drinking himself to death for years so no one was really surprised. After 20 years living in Chicago, he ended up back in the old village where our family started. He went blind, his brain atrophied and his liver had cancerous tumors. The only thing he had in the end was his bitterness and resentment against everyone and everything. He pushed away everyone that tried to help him and he chose to die alone. That’s how much he hated the world. The scary thing is how much I related.
All the men in my family have killed themselves in similar ways. There was a time when I would not have cared about that. Maybe even thought we’d all be better off without them. I carried them for a long time, in the form of resentment, disgust, embarrassment and hate even. In my earliest memories of them, they were always drunk. One time I remember seeing one of my uncles trying to break into his own car. I happened to be playing soccer with some other kids from my street when I saw him in the distance. I went over to him, he was covered in sweat and trembling. Years later I would experience the same symptoms for myself, acute alcohol withdrawals. He was very angry from the desperation, trying to get into the car by smashing the window with a brick and get himself to the closest liquor store (my aunt sometimes would go to work and take the car keys with her and leave my uncle locked up in the house). I told him even if he got into the car he would not be able to start it without the keys. He then chased me with the brick and threw it at me.
My dad’s brothers used to have disturbing outbursts of violence. I never knew what to do with the juxtaposition of the fun uncles and the potentially harmful men. It became a thing you get used to, in the middle of family gatherings, to see them slap their wives around. My father never made public displays like that, his were always private. I do remember seeing it, spying through half opened doors, until that one time when I was old enough to fight him back. I don’t know that the fists of a 13 year old can do any damage but he stopped. And after being dragged across the floor by her hair, my mom still got up, went to the kitchen and served him his dinner. The weird thing is that my father never had his moments when he was drunk, he always did them sober.
I never took the time to analyze how all these situations effected me. I never really had the chance or the tools to do that. As a child I just accepted that that’s how life was because I didn’t know anything else. As I got older however, as I became a man myself, I didn’t know how to confront the fact that I also had the same potential for violence, simply for being a man. Not knowing how to deal with that, I chose to repress the thoughts and the feelings. I realize now why every time I got into an argument with anyone I dated, I’d shut down. I never learned how to express myself, I never knew how to utilize words to explain what I was feeling because no one did that. So, I would resort to bizarre, conversation killing, finalities. “I don’t love you anymore” and walk away, afraid to find out what would happen if I actually tried to let out what was eating me up inside. I thought it was preferable to disappear emotionally rather than let the aggression inherent in me and the violence that I grew up seeing possibly overtake me. I was so afraid of that. I tried my best to keep it away from people so I built walls too thick and too high so that no one would ever see what I was hiding behind them.
I was wrong though. It wasn’t a violent monster that I was hiding behind those walls but the scared little boy that witnessed all those things. I didn’t know though, no one ever told me that. Society acts as if it’s something that should be self evident. Didn’t you know kid? You were supposed to talk about the things you saw and the things that you heard. Don’t you know? A men is supposed to look after his mental health, you’re not allowed to become an inconvenience to society and all the people you’ll ever meet…
It took me a long time to figure out, my dad and his brothers didn’t know either. No one ever told them either. With all the advantages that I had, access to a different version of the world than the one they grew up with, the ability to learn a second language… I still didn’t know. They were men trying to rise above a chaos that they didn’t create, they were born into it. A dysfunctionality that started centuries before they were even born. They fought a losing war for decades. Them, their father, and their father’s father. And even with the massive weight of all that past, they still tried, they really, really tried. They provided, even with the limitations of our circumstances, I never knew hunger like they did. I know they wanted to be good fathers, protectors but no one taught them how. I don’t blame them for anything anymore. How can I? Knowing full well how hard it’s been for me to change. How horribly painful the journey to know myself has been. Today I am amazed that they even accomplished as much as they did.
My mom’s brothers were broken by their childhood though. I understand now why they drank themselves to death when they were still very young. There was a fatalistic drive to the way they drank, something my dad’s brothers didn’t have. The things I saw are nothing compared to what they grew up with. Their father, my grandfather, was an extremely violent man. He died before I was born but the stories that my mom has told me are enough to traumatize anyone. The viscous beatings he gave my grandmother, while my mom and her brothers watched, left a long term damage on their psyche. My grandmother still bears the scars from decades of abuse. She tried to leave him many times, taking the youngest children with her, but somehow her parents-in-law always convinced her to go back. Where was she going to go anyway? An indigenous woman who didn’t know how to read or write, with 7 kids, in a poor village up in the mountains, where no one had electricity or running water.
Finally, when my mom’s brother was old enough to fight back, he took the belt off my grandfather’s hand, pushed him onto the floor and told him he was never going to lay a hand on her ever again. The beatings stopped, but my uncles re-lived that violence, internally, for the rest of their lives. When they killed themselves drinking no one could understand why they had become so resentful and bitter. Everyone acted as if it was all a mystery, like all of those things never happened.
My mother always says that sometimes it feels like the men in our family are cursed. It’s easy to believe that there was a force at work making them act out those patterns of self destruction, because it was all so illogical, abnormal and unpredictable. Just as if they were being possessed. Now I know that, for the most part, they were not even aware of the things they did. They were a puzzle to themselves as they were to their wives and children. One thing my mom was right about, there was an invisible force at work controlling them. Not a supernatural evil entity outside of them, but rather a really human drive buried deep within them. A deep desire to understand themselves but not being able to.
It’s so easy for people to talk about generational trauma these days. Everyone thinks it is as easy as simply healing it. It’s a catchphrase, a hashtag, a million dollar industry. Disney even made a movie about it, songs and everything. The real talk about how men should go about healing themselves never happens though, never gets taken seriously and everyone just goes around thinking that we should’ve just known. Even now, I still don’t know. I’m still working on it. Sometimes, even after years of truly working on my issues, I still ask myself: what is wrong with me? And I have no answers. The only reassurance I have that I’m going in the right direction is seeing my nieces eyes when they look at me. There’s never any terror or loathing. They’ve never seen me drink, I quit years before the were born. They will never see me, or my brothers, tearing ourselves apart. When they grab my hand and drag me over to show me their drawings, when they burst into my room and start jumping on my bed or when they want to show me their favorite scene on some random cartoon; they give me all the answers I will ever need.