This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.
I was emotionally abused by my brother in high school. He was aggressively homophobic, and whenever we were alone together he would berate me and tell me to stop seeking help from our parents about my issues with depression and anxiety. This intensified my preexisting depression and anxiety and depleted an already low self-worth. I just graduated college, and I still can’t let go of it.
I scraped by in high school, but flourished in college where I felt mostly free from homophobia. I got a 4.0. I became captain of the varsity cross-country team. I graduated valedictorian. But I still feel this anger welling up in me all the time and this feeling of emptiness because I feel wronged by the people who were supposed to love and protect me. I have a viciously cynical worldview, because of this situation and because of the larger political climate.
I know much worse happens to queer people all the time. I know that there are struggles out there far greater than mine. But lately, I haven’t been able to sleep at night because of the way these memories rear up in my mind and fill me with this intense bitterness. It’s difficult to feel like your family that you love is constantly letting you down. How do I move on from this? How do I find peace?
Hey there, SC!
Oh goodness. Why are some people like this? It’s a mystery to me. In an effort to understand this behavior, I sometimes try to put myself in their skin. What might lead me to willingly inflict pain on another person like that?
And then I think, well, I’ve done that. I’m not proud of it, but nonetheless, I think most of us have, because we’re people. People, even good people, have a nasty streak. When I think of the times mine has jumped out, it’s been times where I felt powerless, backed into a corner, and hurt. It’s been times where I was desperate to articulate my frustrations with myself without having to acknowledge them.
That doesn’t excuse anything of course. But I think it’s important, SC, to observe how pain moves if we’re to overcome it. You know how like in Twister where the storm chasers have to get close to the tornado so they can release the tracking devices and figure out how the rotation works? Well this is like that. That’s what we’re doing. I’m Helen Hunt, you’re Aunt Meg under the debris, and I’m not condoning the titular twister, just trying to learn about it.
Anyway, iconic films aside, pain likes to travel. Pain likes to propagate itself at your expense. It’s not enough for it to burn you up on the inside. It wants you to open your mouth and let it loose on someone else. I’ve never met a cruel person who was content with themselves. It’s all misery, seeking company.
Knowing that, let’s take a look at what you’re after here, SC. You want closure. You want to be able to close the book on your brother’s torment and move on from it. But life isn’t a book, there aren’t any chapters, and closure is for novels.
Even if your brother were to suddenly apologize for his behavior, you would still be left with its impacts on you: your cynical worldview, your reluctance to trust, your feelings that you need to be the valedictorian and the captain of the varsity cross-country team to feel good enough. I would know! I’ve traveled a similar route.
And the thing is, even when the people who’ve hurt me have faded from my life, SC, I’m still frequently reminded of them. I see them in the way other people treat me. I see them in my new relationships. I see them in the mirror. It seems I have let these people shape the economy of my emotions: I’m not worth it, I’m not doing anything right, I don’t deserve good things.
It took me a long time to realize that my real enemies weren’t really the people who’ve damaged me, SC. No, my real enemies were their voices in my head, the imagined versions of them that occupied the offices of my brain and made sure every little thing I wanted to do went through them first. In the end, those voices weren’t the people who’ve wounded me. They were me, speaking to myself through their conjured faces, trying, in a twisted way, to avoid being hurt like that again by hurting myself first.
If you spend that much time torturing yourself, you’re of course going to find little time for happiness or for building self-esteem. There’s no room for trust, no room for love, no room for just letting yourself be. There’s just the preemptive toil of setting yourself on fire every day so no one else will come near you with their matches. And if you happen to burn someone else? Oh well.
What your brother did to you is wrong. Your parents not putting a stop to it was wrong. There’s not a thing in this world that can make that right. It wasn’t your fault. There are ways to assert yourself, ways to distance yourself from them, and ways to shift the dynamic in a way that will make being around them more tolerable. But that’s not what you asked me about. You asked about finding peace.
And I think, SC, that your peace won’t come from these people. It will come from you. It will come from how you treat yourself, and how you choose to handle the fire. You can let it burn you up, you can let it out on other people like your brother did to you, or you can learn to stop feeding it.
Remember, you have agency over how you speak to yourself. The brother in your head isn’t literally your brother. It’s you. That means you have the power there. You can disinvite his voice from your table. It’s not easy. I wouldn’t even say it’s fair. But it’s worth it, and I think we end up in a more stable place with ourselves when we do that work. It makes us better people. It makes treating others with kindness much, much easier.
Life is hard, SC. People will hurt us. When they do, we naturally want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes, in that process, we end up hurting ourselves and hurting others. But the better we get at recognizing our emotions and working through them, the better we can move through the world without privileging our fears over our joy. It can help us end the cycle.
Watch Twister, starring Helen Hunt.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on August 25, 2020.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, here.