“I know you’re in there
You’re just out of sight.”
~ Al Stewart
I can’t begin to number the times my wife has said to me over the years things on the order of “I just want to talk to the real you!” It used to piss me off, because I was convinced that the “real” me was the legend I’d created in my mind and was attempting to project to the world. Hell, it was frightening to think (because it was true) that there might be someone inside that I didn’t even know — someone who might blow my cover, who might leak the word that I wasn’t the tough guy I’d painted myself to be. What if the world back then had known that I secretly wrote poetry; that my greatest ambition was to live in the woods, take pictures and write? Would they have cared one way or the other? Probably not. But having been convinced that the real me wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t about to let them find out.
The playwright Bret Harte once wrote to the effect that we are all bit players in every drama but our own. In my recent experience he was dead on, but that wasn’t always the case. For most of my life, like most addicts, I thought the world had its eyes on me. If I walked into a room, I knew you were looking at me — looking for mistakes, flaws in the way I was dressed or carried myself, chances to criticize or make fun of me. You weren’t bit players in my drama, you were the producers, directors, and (worst of all) the critics. It sucked.
In few cases during my childhood, adolescence and adulthood did I have family or friends with whom I felt close enough — unjudged enough — to come anywhere close to being myself. My real self wasn’t good enough for the authority figures in my early life — from the ones who abandoned me to care for my younger brother when he was born (for which I was totally unprepared) to the demanding father figure later in life, to…well…to you all. I had a couple of friends in middle and high school with whom I could be me. That was it. The rest of the time, I produced and directed my own little show.
I was a Great Pretender, living out my legend with the other Great Pretenders with whom I drank, flew airplanes, hunted and did the other “manly” things that I felt were worthy of the me I wanted to be. No wonder I drank, drugged and acted out in other ways! Who wouldn’t, having put that much pressure on themselves? There were innumerable people in my life who would have been delighted to meet the me that I really am, would have nurtured me and my dreams, and who would have understood. But they didn’t know me, and I was afraid of them. Hell, I didn’t know me either, and I was afraid of the poor, confused kid inside more than anyone outside. The legend lived on, because I thought you wouldn’t like me if you knew what I was really like; if you knew how I longed to just do wimpy things, to simply “live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man,” as the poet wrote.
And then I caught sober. I got a program. I started hanging out with folks who understood me because they were the same kind of people. I began to accept who I was, and I began to change. I changed slowly, but in the direction of reality. That has involved changing my own reality a lot. I’m still not convinced that I’m “living up to my potential” (a constant early refrain), that I’m a pretty nice guy who is liked by most of the people I meet, that what I do is as worthwhile as what others do. I know those things on the surface, but the knowledge hasn’t completely filled that empty place inside.
I know now that it will, and I know I like the feeling. I like not being a legend in my own mind. I’m beginning to like being me, instead. These days, settling for that suits me just fine.