I feel like I learned the truth about death far too late in life, a combination of natural insulation from the subject and a consequence of my social anxiety. I cannot remember the exact age, maybe eight, but I was watching television in my living room while my mother ironed clothes. A life insurance commercial appeared urging viewers to prepare for the inevitable.
“Wh- Does everybody die?” I asked her, the tone of the question probably more confusion than concern, because my mind was still calibrating for the new information.
And I remember a curious mix of emotion on my mother’s face – a juxtaposition of “Oh, I am so sorry my boy had to learn this truth” and “Seriously? You didn’t already know that? I thought you were smart.” In retrospect, it’s also a funny memory to me that I approach with a similar attitude.
Prior to that, I believed death was like virtually any other disease. One could encounter it, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. If one got sick and got the proper care in time, one would recover. Only the unfortunate met with death – something sudden for which there was no chance for a cure, something for which we had not yet developed a cure, a lack of access to care, or a matter of personal neglect. No one in my immediate circle had yet died. My great grandparents were still alive. I had no pets to experience it that way.
So, that was the day I learned that it would eventually happen to everyone. Really put a lot of those Disney movies in a new perspective.
Even after learning about its inevitability, I do not think it’s right to say that I ever feared it. If anything, the inevitability made it something less worth fearing, something as natural as birth. Whether stoic, fatalistic, or fearful, it seemed that people had accepted that to some degree as well, so there was no need to fear it (even for an agnostic child who assumed that it also meant the end of consciousness).
What it did do is further fry the circuits of my anxious mind. One of the secrets to a health life is to live in the present, to deal with what is. The anxious mind prefers to deal in terms of “what if” though, oscillating between prior experience as reference and speculation about the future. For me that is especially true with social things and negative emotion. I try to relate back to past experience with it as a means for preparing to deal with it in the future, though it’s also not a vague preparation. I “prepare” for specific events.
Years before my corgi got sick, I would find myself dwelling on how I would take that eventual news. What would I do if I simply found him one morning? In many cases, I find myself hoping selfishly for a visible decline so that I have more time to prepare. I would play with him on the living room floor and find myself growing sad, holding onto one of his toys prior to the throw and thinking about the day he would not be there to fetch it.
Ironically, when he finally did pass, I spent my days – and much more time during my nights – pushing away sadness with thoughts of happy memories. “It’s not so bad. With all those memories he’ll never be completely gone.” The memories completely ignore the feelings of sadness present at the time, preparing myself to grieve.
What really got me occurred years before that though. My great grandfather, several years younger than my great grandmother in her second marriage, was an active man. He was a mechanic until not long before, spending the rest of his hours caring for the lawn, playing with his great grandchildren, and driving around to see us play. My great grandmother was the one with the hearing aid and annual hospital admission that frequently needed his help.
When my parents called us into the living room that morning, visibly upset, I felt a twinge of sadness but mostly prepared for the news that one of the illnesses finally got to my great grandmother. It hadn’t. He had succumbed to a heart attack.
We cried together that morning, but then I went numb inside. My parents would later admit they had concerns because my younger brother was often upset about it while I showed no particular signs. The truth, I think, is that my brain was trying to make sense of it first. I had learned only recently that everyone died eventually, but it was still something reserved for accidents, serious illness, or severe old age. Active men don’t just stop living one day because their heart stopped.
(Turns out that was partially true in this case – he had been suffering chest pains for some time and refused to seek medical care for it. I wouldn’t learn that for many years though.)
What was once a rare tragedy now felt deeply personal, like it was punishing me for something. It could take anyone at any time. What upset me was not the death part itself. What upset me was two-fold. On the one hand, it upset me that I would never interact with him again. While I had all of my memories, they were all that I would have forever. I could not add to them further. On the other hand, I would see things that I knew he enjoyed and feel sadness that he would not get to experience it anymore.
Like sitting on the floor holding the dog toy. My mind would not deal with what was, it felt compelled to deal in what would never be. It brings on a sadness during activities that I enjoy because my mind loves to remind me, “Enjoy this. Cherish it. Because one day you won’t get to do it anymore.” And that is a brilliant piece of advice, but if all one is doing during the activity is thinking that then one is not actually cherishing the activity. I think that’s part of the insidious nature of mental illness – you feel, you know in your bones that you’re doing it right, but you aren’t. It’s an illusion of rightness perpetrated by the mental illness.
I also tend to regard the incident with my great grandfather as a kind of singular trigger for my obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. A lot of elements of OCPD were present since my early childhood, but symptoms do not make a condition. A condition requires a constellation of symptoms that meet a diagnostic criterion (notably, interfering with one’s healthy functioning), and OCPD had not yet impaired my life. Social anxiety? Absolutely. Generalised anxiety? Probably, at least to some degree. But OCPD is not something I see present in my life before this.
I was turning 14 soon, which at least in the State of New Jersey meant that I was eligible to work certain jobs during certain times. It opened up a new world to me. Up to that point, what I had was school. Straight A’s without breaking a sweat and a personality that teachers adored. I did things quietly, so it did not seem to bother my classmates at all either. I could be friends with anyone because I offended no one and found adapting to them to be the best way to avoid conflict (in other words, I became whoever I needed to be around that person to get along well, so it was easy for them to like me). Their parents liked me because, according to them via my mother, I “brought a sense of calm whenever I visited to play.”
But work? That was real stuff. I was not one child in a sea of similarly aged children. I was a member of a professional team. Sure, any money I earned would go towards either savings or frivolity, but some of my colleagues were working to pay bills. Their ability to keep a roof over their head and eat this month depended on their ability to function in the same space.
There I was: Fourteen years old, around five feet tall and just under 80 pounds. I did whatever people asked. I did it as fast as possible while doing it better than they wanted – not because I felt I owed it to the restaurant but because I wanted to impress them. All of them. Customers, coworkers, managers, and the owner who helped me to get the job.
And for the most part it worked. I know it worked because it worked so exceedingly well that they would often feel obligated to tell me. Some of them even urged me to slow down, much as they appreciated my efforts, because I would eventually burn out. I worked long shifts whenever possible and volunteered for assignments outside our usual scope.
School became a backseat focus because it did not challenge me, and I had nothing to gain from continuing to be the “smart guy” everyone knew through grade school. College was approaching and we had genuinely smart students dominating in that area, taking advanced placement courses and competing hard for the top GPA spots. I forfeited that competition to focus on work. Grades meant college and later a good job – I was already out there impressing managers.
Side note: I do not recommend. It was impressive from the tiny boy at age 14. That same initiative from a guy in his 30s is just sort of what capitalism expects. I think it’s accurate to say that they enjoyed my precociousness more than my work ethic.
In the void left by the death of my great grandfather, work filled a tremendous amount. I had the respect and praise of real adults, people with whom I had only to associate a few hours a day under specific circumstances. That took off a lot of the social pressure, aside from one unrequited crush.
The only downside to it was that it began to apply pressure to my sense of morals and fair play. Customers were rude to staff (I imagine many of you reading this have food service or retail experience). Staff cut corners. Management did stuff for the bottom line when the right thing, in my mind, was taking the small financial hit to serve the staff or the public. And with all of my newfound respect among the adults I also found the courage to express my feelings on all of this. While it would sometimes result in discussions with management (honestly, it was the same managers and not all of them, often because they were the ones doing it wrong in my eyes), I was shocked to learn that they would tolerate it. It made me bold about calling out what I felt was wrong because it seemed like their strongest response was to ignore me.
I would definitely categorise my earliest years in the workforce as insubordinate at times, but my social anxiety and lived experience tapered it with increasing diplomacy. The only thing it could not handle was my personal distress – feeling like an imposter, that I was not doing enough, that I was doing it wrong, that I was more obstructive than helpful, that I was complicit with policies that I felt were wrong by continuing to work there.
It’s the point where I feel like years of quiet adherence to rules and people-pleasing finally crossed over into personality disorder territory.
Something I never discussed is the impact I believe it had on my life overall – feeling inadequate, unfocused, underachieving. I earn less than I know I could, even though that’s vague. I don’t have a specific career (more a niche that translates from position to position) because no field ever struck my fancy. I have interests, but either OCPD or reality precludes me from pursuing them. “Once you’ve seen how the hot dogs are made…” Every industry I examined is so fraught with moral problems that I cannot bring myself to be party to it, so my income became restricted by a “least of all evils” approach to finding work.
Then at home I look at the state of things – projects my wife wants to complete over time, the unforeseeable expenses that will occur, the desire to vacation once a decade or so, a need to have money available after we retire at 93 – and feel that I’ve let the side down. We are comfortable by any objective measure (I know because anyone vaguely familiar with our situation tells us how much better we’re doing than the average couple our age), but my anxiety means I never will be.
And what I learned in the wake of my initial work experience (also with age as I wrote earlier) is that my self-esteem derived from work was fleeting. They loved the precociousness of a tiny, barely-able-to-work boy going so eagerly about things. I’m just another child in the classroom now as an adult. People appreciate my work, but the bar to impress went way up…
Allow me to rephrase. People still say they are impressed with my work, but I do not believe them, and it’s not said with the same enthusiasm as when I was a boy, so even if true I have long passed the point of diminishing returns.
It’s a rough position some days, to feel simultaneously maxed out in terms of capability and inadequate in the context of what matters. “Am I doing the best I can? I think yes within the constraints of ethical grey areas. I could accomplish more, but it would probably require some questionable behaviour and I think how you play matters more than whether you win. A dishonest win is not a win at all.”
On the other hand, when I consider people who matter most my attitude is usually, “Yeah, they don’t need to see this though. My moral victory is not going to impress someone with their accomplishments. If I were them, I would not want anything to do with me.”
That is all part of the fun of learning to juggle anxiety with a personality disorder. I cannot help but think that I owe so much of that juggling act to one particular incident though.