Let Me Tell You About My Smile: Part 3 – Self Awareness


Addiction!” The second time I heard that word was while sitting in a chair in a little room as a therapist described my own life back to me. She followed it up with “Depression!” Another big word she used to describe my situation. I wanted to argue. But I was also the one who told her only minutes ago that I had been feeling tired with the whole “living” business. I did not get to argue. I did not want to actually die. But I knew I needed help. Positive thoughts were not going to keep me going for too long. I could feel it. So I reached out in secret and, as with all things secret, I paid for it myself. By this time I was very good at keeping secrets. And I had a part time job as a writer. So, I could afford it.

She was a nice lady. My therapist. She listened to everything I said and mirrored it back to me. Then she asked me how I would react if someone I loved talked to themselves the way I talk to myself. I told her I would comfort them. I would make them feel safe. She asked me why I cannot do that for myself. I had never said it out loud before. “I don’t deserve it…” It came out simple and with so much authority that it surprised me. Over the three months I visited her office. Once a week, like clockwork, first thing she asked me was why I didn’t think I deserved my own compassion. Have you ever had someone frantically try to convince you that you are good enough for yourself? She was Sisyphus and I was the rock. But she gave me the tools I needed to ask myself that question. Every day.

I cry sometimes when I am by myself. 20 years of pent up rage. It comes out unexpectedly sometimes. But I also know where the wounds are. So I know what to do about them. Compassion. Ask questions. Take a moment. Write. The tools I was given to cope. I withdraw and take a moment to reconstruct. A moment to breathe. Life gets heavy sometimes. So I need to remind myself that “I can…” I know what is waiting at the end of the alternative train of thought. So, “I can…”

I have a wife now. Friends and family who understand me. A job I am lukewarm about. But who isn’t lukewarm about their job these days? I am good at what I do and I like doing it. I still have my siblings. We lean on each other. Through my wife I have a whole other family too. They are good people. I also, still have my parents. They haven’t changed. They have gotten older which is a whole other world of responsibility. But they are still mine. I can’t abandon them. But I can take care of myself too. I understand that people are just people. They are the way they are. So I let a lot of things just “be”. That’s OK to do. My wife says I am too Zen sometimes. Maybe. But I see the world very differently. I know where the wounds are. I know what happens when I pick at them by reacting to everything too personally. I also know that my shit is my shit. I own it. I deal with it. Every way I can.

But every chance I get, I smile. It makes people feel safe somehow. I don’t know how. But it does.


Let Me Tell You About My Smile: Part 2 – Pity Party For One


Have you ever had someone look at you with a pity? I have had people look at me with pity. A face that is one part judgmental and two parts charity. A look that will make you realize just how low you really are. A look, today, I only give to street kids. It’s the same look. I know. I give it to street kids and simultaneously feel horrible for doing it. But what is one to do? Help? How? One cannot help when they cannot even fathom the scale of how deep the problem is. The people who gave me this look saw that I needed help. But how? Where to even start? Should they remove me from the household? Pay my school fees? Pay for counselling? Clothes? Food? This very train of thought is becoming too much of a responsibility. “Is he being physically abused?” No. “He’s fine.”

The thing about growing up in an addiction environment is that you learn to smile. You learn to act. You can never tell anyone what is really going on. Because that will hurt mom and dad. You have a duty to protect your home. Both mom and dad and society will remind you of this regularly. You cling to your siblings closer than you, probably, will ever cling to anyone else. Nobody else can understand it. That feeling of wanting out but not wanting to leave people alone for fear that they will leave you permanently. Only siblings do. We keep our secrets. Nobody needs to know. So we put on Oscar Award worthy performances. Big smiles and tall tales whenever needed. But if not required then we stayed invisible. I am still proud of the fact that I can walk into a room, be recognized, and then forgotten almost immediately after leaving. Practice makes perfect. I have been practicing for 20 years. Daniel Day Lewis has nothing on me.  

I got out. Out of reach at least. I went to school. A university far away from that little town. Away from the daily reminder of the addictions. A guilt trip or two over the phone. But I was out. I even made new friends.One of them used to say to me, “Smile until it hurts”. It sounds strange. But for him, he was just flipping the script. He had a lot of hurt in his life. He smiled because it hurt. So I suppose the destination of “until it hurts” for him was more about when the smile would run out of flavor. But unlike dad and his brown bottles, my friend found his smiles at the ends of Stand Up Comedy shows. Sometimes at the beginning of them. Sometimes at the end. A constant supply. As long as the internet could supply the Stand Up, he could find a smile. The internet has a lot of Stand Up.

As a friend, he was the best. We had similar backgrounds. Broken things tend to fit well together. We went on many adventures together. One could say, we discovered the world together and we almost ruled it. Almost. We did not see it coming. We did not see her coming. She had a nice smile. We both noticed. But she liked my smile more. So I thought, because she appeared to fly in my direction, like a moth to a light bulb. But moths fly in many directions. They only seek warmth. They could care less about the source. She smiled for me and she smiled for him. At first it was in secret. Then less secret. Eventually, she only smiled for him. I remember the day he told me what had been going on between them behind my back. He was smiling. Winners tend to do that.

I put my smile away for a while. A teacher stopped me in the halls. She heard me give a mumbled correct answer in her class and wanted to know my name. I told her my name. She looked at me and told me to smile. I asked her why. She told me to smile again. So I smiled. Then she asked me my name and I told her my name while smiling. It felt unnatural. She smiled as she said, “That’s better! You look better that way!” It made her feel safer in a way. I don’t know how. It just did. So whenever I saw her or was in one of her classes I smiled. I couldn’t do anything else. She checked to make sure. But it was not real. It was a means to an end. To keep her off my back. Practice makes perfect.

Let Me Tell You About My Smile: Part 1 – Growing Pains

A good friend of mine asked me to guest post him and I will be featuring his story in a 3-part series. In his own words, he has suffered it in silence for long enough and hopes that telling it will help someone out who could be going through a similar situation.

fake smile

Let me tell you about my smile.

It’s not a particularly pretty smile. I have chipped teeth. Several of them. Others have decided that they will pose like Instagram models by turning a little to the side so that you can see their curves properly. It may look sexy in my mouth, and to one or two randy dentists, but to the rest of the world, it’s just crooked. Then there is the yellow. I brush my teeth until they feel like porcelain when my tongue glides over them. But I can never quite get the yellow out. I sometimes consider whitening them but, I am not one to make changes to things which work perfectly fine. After all, I can smile.

I do smile. Smiling comes naturally to me. I am always smiling. I always have an inappropriate joke, or a funny dance or pretty much anything to do that will make people smile. It’s what I do. I am that guy in the group. The guy who never shuts up but when I do, everyone worries. Why are they so worried? I better not let them worry. So I smile. They feel a little safer when I smile. I don’t know how I know. But it just does.

My dad had a great smile. His teeth were just like mine. Maybe not as sexy with the Instagram poses, but they were just like mine. Whenever things were going South for the family, he smiled. He cracked jokes. They were inappropriate jokes but they were jokes all the same. His smile made us feel safe in a way. I don’t know how. But it just did.

But “South” is a relative term. It just means downwards. Nobody ever predicted just how low “down” could go. I have heard the phrase “financial hole” get thrown around from time to time by different people. But I never really fathomed how deep and how wide a hole could actually be. It’s like when you go online and you see the size of those massive sink holes in Russia. You think you know a hole. But there is always a bigger hole.

A bad decision here. Even worse decisions there. Some excessive borrowing elsewhere. Before anyone knew what was going on, dad had stopped smiling. He lost his smile for a while. But when one loses a smile, a new one can be found. Yes, he found a new one. It was at the bottom of a brown bottle. It was temporary but it kept him going day to day. Whenever he felt his current smile fading, he popped open a bottle and found the next one. A system that worked. He smiled. But when he found this other smile, his smile ceased to make me smile. It was more maniacal than calming, this new smile. It scared me.

The new smile was accompanied to his face by words. Dad was always a quiet man. One or two words or a joke here and there but now he had a lot of words to share. Words I had only ever heard him reserve for politicians and bad drivers. “Idiot”. “Fool”. “Useless”. It took me a while to realize that he was addressing me and he meant it. It took me even longer to grasp let alone accept that he was slowly forgetting my name. In time, I ceased to be me and became, “You” and “That boy”.

In times like that I still had mom’s affection. I should have been OK. But mom had her own issues. Mom could not hold on to money At all. It had to go somewhere. It was one of the things they argued most about. Where does the money go? And she would just look at dad with a bewildered look and say, “I don’t know.” And that was that. But she knew. Mom had a problem. She was a gambler. Not your typical casino gambler. No. Her’s was high risk ventures, church groups and relatives. She was always starting businesses which failed as soon as they started, or making donations to the “less fortunate” which eventually just became donations to her relatives who had the ability to make her feel like they were less fortunate. But the bottom line is that the money never came back. A stay at home mom does not have an income, so the money had to come from somewhere in the first place. How many days of school did I miss because of this behavior? I lost count. Dad sent her money to deposit with the school. But she was convinced that if she took the money and “invested” in something she would be able to send me to a better school. Stories I grew very accustomed to hearing. They were nice.

Until I one day realized that all my friends had graduated from school and I was alone in a little town with very little to do.