“Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?” — Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1
Growing up the middle child in a dysfunctional family gave me two intense compulsions to carry on into adulthood: 1) to always try to fix things rather than give up, and 2) to help people, particularly and especially the underdogs—people who are unable to help or defend themselves for one reason or another.
For better or worse, society tends to encourage these impulses by ascribing them to the archetype of the hero. Tribes and civilizations worldwide have romanticized the mythic hero archetype, often elevating the heroic character’s status to that of a god.
In one example, the Christian Bible insists that each man should “bear his own cross,”1 but also warns that “all fall short of the glory of God.”2 How can it be both? Doesn’t it seem a little unfair to expect a mere mortal to do alone what even the Son of God could not? Are these reasonable expectations, or a setup for failure?
We Could Be Heroes
“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” — C.S. Lewis3
Whether the origin point is found within religion, history, or popular culture, humanity has never had a shortage of pro-heroism propaganda to foist upon young (and particularly male) minds. Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, John Lennon, Batman…these are just some of the role models we’ve propped up in front of wide-eyed, impressionable, American boys. It’s a tall order to live up to, and kind of a morbid one at that. They tell you to be like Jesus. Does that include getting crucified? They tell you Lincoln was one of America’s greatest presidents. In fact, he was so revered that somebody saw it necessary to blow his brains out. John Lennon was a pretty cool guy, he got to be in the Beatles, he sang about love and peace…until a deranged fan put a bullet in him. And Batman? Aside from being obscenely wealthy and completely fictitious, his entire modus operandi consists of running around at night in a rubber suit. But hey, like John says, whatever gets you through the night.
Over the past 35 years, Hollywood has been paying lip service to the heroic ideal in the form of blockbuster comic book movies. Marvel Comics in particular have been raking in the bucks with their cinematic adaptations. Consider these clips from Spider-Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger.
The hero who made the biggest impression on me was the first comic book superhero as well as the first superhero on film. The granddaddy of them all: Superman. I had seen Superman: The Movie on network television, back in the days when we had family movie nights, and the commercial breaks were so short that the studios actually added unseen footage back into the broadcast version which had otherwise previously been cut from the theatrical release. A short while later, my mother took me to see the sequel in the theater. I knew movies were make-believe, but it still had a huge impact on my young mind. Truth, justice, the American way, don’t drink, don’t smoke, tell the truth, protect the weak…all that stuff stuck with me.
Of course, Superman had a morbid aspect to his character too. He was the last of an extinct alien race, the ultimate stranger in a strange land. Naturally, he appealed to a kid like me who never felt like he fit in anywhere. The influence was so pervasive, I was well into my adulthood before I noticed that I had become a carbon copy of Clark Kent without even trying. Not a musclebound hero, but a bumbling fool, a geek with no sense of self-worth…or “bags of humility” as Superman‘s screenwriters put it. But I digress.
In first grade, we were given an essay assignment for which we were to write about who our heroes were and why. I turned in one or two dozen words about Superman, scrawled in crayon and accompanied by a colorful drawing. The few words I still remember from it were “Superman beats up the bad guys.” Decades later, I thought back on this and realized that I had been trying to express a deep wish for someone to swoop in and save me from the bigger kids at school…and from my father at home.
But as I said, I knew even then that it was all make-believe. If I needed a hero, it had to be me. There was no one else in the world on whom I could rely.
Barbarism Begins At Home
If you talk to the most passionate of comic book fans about why comics are so meaningful to them, you will often hear minor variations on an all too common theme. Namely, that their favorite superhero served as a role model in place of an abusive or absent parent. My sob story is no different. My father’s proper place in my life should have been to be a man I could look up to, who would raise me to be fully prepared as a strong and capable adult. Instead, his tyrannical attempt at parenting made it easy for me to supplant him with an imaginary man in blue tights and a red cape.
In the previous installment of this series, I only hinted at what my home life was like when I was little. But let me tell you what it was really like. My brother and sister and I lived in constant fear of our father. A kind, understanding, loving parent might have been greeted with excitement and affection upon returning home from work. We, however, ran and hid from the Old Man when we saw his car pull into the driveway. We had no need for a bogeyman hiding in our closets or under our beds. The most terrifying monster we knew sat and ate with us at the dinner table.
It’s not as though we never did anything to warrant a little discipline—we got into trouble just the same as any other children—but no child deserves what my father called “discipline.” That word doesn’t nearly encompass the cruelty that we endured.
For example, because I committed the crime of absent-mindedly putting an unfinished soda down and forgetting all about it, my father boxed my ears so severely and repeatedly that I suffered partial hearing loss. “You’re not allowed to forget” wasn’t just the implied lesson, it was overtly stated and expected to be obeyed. Attention Deficit Disorder was not an acceptable excuse.
My younger brother had a more severe, more tragic disability. He was mentally disadvantaged owing to a misadventure in his infancy which deprived him of oxygen, and he still struggled with the small task of counting to ten when he was already 7 years old. But Dad’s idea of tutoring did not help. I awoke one night to the sound of my brother crying and screaming across the hallway. Dad was pinning him down onto his own bed and slapping him every time he guessed the next number incorrectly.
Our father did not love us. He was ashamed of our learning disabilities and resented us for it.
But the worst of it was when his own forgetfulness got the better of him. He would misplace things and assume that one of us misplaced it for him. There was no escape from his wrath when none of us could tell him what happened to his god-damned wrench. That is, unless one of us dared to take the blame just to get it over with. So to spare my brother and sister from a very, very long night, I stuck my neck out for them and confessed to many things I never did, even if for no other reason than to take a stand against something that I knew was morally wrong. I imagined that was what Superman would have done.
My mother held on for fourteen years before finally divorcing the Old Man. She stayed with him because she thought she could save him, that he would change. I did not learn from her example.
Throughout the years I was bullied and beaten, I daydreamed constantly about scenarios in which I would win out against my attackers. They’d throw some kind of insult at me, so I’d come back with something cleverer. Or they’d swing a punch, so I’d dodge it and land one of my own. It was pure fantasy, straight out of the movies. Because I felt closer to people on movie screens. I was small and helpless. I wanted more than anything to be big and powerful.
But at the risk of pointing out the obvious, my real conflicts never turned out the way I imagined. The simulacrums I fought against in my head may have played the same roles and wore the same faces, but they weren’t at all like the adversaries I faced from day to day. They weren’t real, autonomous, unpredictable people with their own free will.
Sigmund Freud posited (and Carl Jung agreed) that the Ego is “the seat of anxiety,” and that it gives rise to every reaction, both offensive and defensive, to dangers both real and perceived. In most people, the Ego protects the Self. But in some people, the Ego attacks the Self and assumes total control. An imbalance of self-awareness can give rise to extremes on either end of the spectrum.
The victories I imagined were won against reflections of my Ego—aspects of my shadow self—nothing more. I had spent all that time and energy retaliating against elements of my own psyche instead of meditating on compassion for my real Self, the wounded boy inside. Likewise, the sweet tooth I developed for being the hero was never really for the benefit of the greater good, nor even for my own good. That was just an illusion. I did it so I could say that I had done something good, and thereby believe for a fleeting moment that I was worth something. It was a temporary distraction from the psychological poison that had been violently reinforced on my mind and body each and every day of my childhood: a fundamental anxiety that I really was, in my father’s words, “good for nothing.” When I played the hero, I could forget that I hated myself.
There are many people of all ages out there whose anxieties lead them to an even more tragic conclusion. There are some who—God save them—buy into the hatred thrown at them so much that they wind up literally attacking themselves, either through self-mutilation or suicide. I came up to the threshold of that a couple of times, but I never quite crossed the line. My scars are all on the inside. For as deeply I held within my mind the fantasy of being a hero, having Superman for a role model did me a little bit of good. Superman always inspired me to never give up, to keep going even when I think I’ve hit my limit. That alone has kept me alive.
Who’s Got You?
There’s a line in this scene, which most people remember as the first big thrill of Superman, that has been weighing heavily on my mind over the past year:
Did you notice the big joke sandwiched in the middle of that action set piece? “You’ve got me? Who’s got you!?” In all these years of playing the hero, I never thought to ask myself that question. I completely forgot about keeping myself afloat.
And that’s the problem with this epidemical obsession with personal sacrifice and general do-goodery. Any notion of maintaining a healthy balance between serving others and serving oneself gets lost in the zealous drive to do what seems like the right thing. There is no balance.
I’ve taken the rap for things I didn’t do just to save someone else from the punishment. I’ve rushed in to break up bar fights and risked getting myself hurt or killed in the process. I’ve even stubbornly persisted in picking up after my father and trying to fix him. And, above and beyond the normal expectations and abilities of a normal boyfriend, I’ve played caretaker to women who were far more broken than myself.
Meanwhile, Back In the Real World…
So what happens when a guy with a hero complex falls for a perennial damsel in distress? Let me tell you what it was like.
Picture Humpty Dumpty, a vampiress, a spoiled child, and an addict all wrapped up together in one huge red flag. I thought maybe I would be special, that I would be different from all the other drained husks she left in her wake who were once men. I thought I could be the first man who was good enough and strong enough to get such a crazy train wreck back on the rails, and I had just enough self-assurance and self-respect to sustain that kind of faith in myself. But I didn’t have nearly enough—or maybe far too much?—to realize that it was all self-destructive, self-serving, egotistical hubris. It was hollow, meaningless, arbitrary gender roles. It was what I believed was expected of me as a man. For everything society has ever shown me, it might as well have been exactly that.
Please understand me: When I say she was crazy, I don’t mean that in some flippant, hyperbolic way. This is not a stereotypical guy rattling off the stereotypical locker room small talk. “Listen, bro, my ex was totally cray-cray.” No. Words have meaning and I do not abuse them. She wasn’t just a toxic person, she was clinically psychotic. We were two years into our relationship before an ER doctor finally figured out that she needed anti-psychotic medication. More on that later.
I also don’t mean to make light of psychological problems or the people who have them. I have enormous respect for people who live with trauma, chemical imbalances, and other serious mental issues. But I have run out of respect for people who exploit their weaknesses and play the victim card to prey upon the kindness of others. She played that game like a long-practiced professional.
If I could have seen things as they really were, I’d have seen that I was much more like the ineffectual king’s man, the hopeless thrall, the frustrated parent, and the enabling dealer all wrapped up together in one huge red flag, all the while mistaking it for a superhero’s cape. In fact, I was so blind to reality that I never noticed that she was digging her claws in before I had the first thought of trying to escape.
And once I did notice, I actually resorted to trying to convince myself and everyone who cared about me that I was okay with it. “We’re not perfect for each other, but we like it that way,” she said, and I repeated it back like a broken record for everyone within earshot. By then, my hero complex had me imagining myself as her Messiah, and those claws in my heart had become like the nails in my own imaginary crucifix. But I like it this way, I thought to myself. I’m fighting a good fight. I’m fighting for Love.
It came to the point that I was willing to bargain away my love in exchange for her mercy, but I would have neither so long as she was unable or unwilling to respect me as a human being, much less a partner. My feelings were, in her oft-repeated words, “bullshit.” I was expected, encouraged, and manipulated to put my troubles aside and care only about hers. She was a black hole of unresolved issues, and acted compulsively out of a desperate craving to fill that hole, whether by conscious choice or not. I gave her my compassion to fill it. She only wanted more. I gave her my love to fill it. She only wanted more. I gave her my mind, my body, and my soul, but she only wanted more, more, more. I consented to opening our relationship, and she still found a way to cheat on me. Repeatedly. Each time, I gave her my forgiveness—but still she demanded more. The only time she even gave the appearance of giving a shit about me was when something I needed was in the way of something she wanted.
Every winter, she would take months at a time off from work on disability. (This, from the girl who boasted to me early on that she does “the bare minimum of work” to keep her job. She’s a perfect example of why people on disability have a bad reputation among cynical conservatives.) Her therapist would give her books to read, “homework” to help her get better and get back to work. She never touched them. One Monday morning on my way to work, I moved the books to a place where she wouldn’t be able to start her day of lounging around watching television at the crack of noon without having to move them out of the way. And of course that’s exactly what she did. Then she yelled at me for interfering.
The first time she cheated on me (as far as I know), she called me in the middle of the night to tell me about it. This was well into our time as a polyamorous couple, and I had agreed to her meeting another guy for coffee. But she had promised me she wasn’t going to fuck him on the first date, so I had not prepared emotionally for that. I called her out on her deception, and hung up on her. A few minutes later I got a text saying “I know what I have to do now. Please take care of my cats.” Well, I know a suicide threat when I see one, so I forgot all about her cheating and turned my thoughts toward worrying about her. I called the police, they found her in her hotel room, and she put her “I’m perfectly fine” mask on and convinced them to leave. When I got there, the whole conversation was about taking care of her, rather than addressing the fact that she had betrayed me. It was a perfect example of how she manipulated me over and over again by bringing up her false tears to make me suppress and forget about my real ones. I was, as Shakespeare said, “easier to be played on than a pipe.”4 Her toxicity infected me so completely that I now hate not only her, but also myself for being so gullible.
The lowest point came sometime in June or July of 2013. It’s a long story, so I’m going to try to cut to the chase. I came home to find her halfway through a bottle of gin and breaking her glass in the kitchen sink. I only heard that happen from another room, so I didn’t see how deliberate it was or wasn’t. But that was the beginning to an ordeal that lasted all afternoon and all night. When I tried to take the gin away from her, she flew into a temper tantrum worthy of the most nightmarish problem child…except this was a full-grown adult (and not exactly slight of frame either), screaming, spitting, kicking, and punching at me. I had to physically restrain her on the floor for hours while she acted as if she was possessed by the snottiest demon ever spawned. I got her therapist on the phone, and foolishly avoided taking her advice to call an ambulance, thinking of the medical bills that would be incurred. Eventually, I got her ex-boyfriend “J” to come over and help. J also had similar mental health problems, so he was the only person she really trusted (this was the previous guy to get burned out and dumped by her…and I found out later that she was still fucking him behind my back). But that night she showed no more mercy, much less friendship, to him than she did to me. We both had to restrain her for several more hours until she passed out. She wasn’t awake to notice, but in that moment of quiet I finally broke down in tears. For some reason, I was recalling a moment a couple years earlier when she called me World’s Best Boyfriend. When she woke up, she seemed lucid for a while, but then grabbed a kitchen knife. We managed to stop her before finding out what she intended to do with it. Then we put her in my car and took her to a hospital. She resisted the whole way, clawing at J in the back seat and kicking my windows. But when we got to the ER she put her “I’m fine” mask on again.
I had constant nagging feelings that her bratty temper tantrums and empty suicide threats were nothing but manipulative crocodile tears, but I was too easily persuaded to doubt my intuition. I wasn’t persuaded with sex, as one might expect, but with appeals to my reason. She argued that because I do not share the same psychological issues that afflict her, I could never understand the paradoxical nature of her condition. Well, perhaps that’s true. But I couldn’t see without hindsight that she uses her condition to manipulate me and everyone else in her life, and in truth she has no genuine interest in treating it. It’s her meal ticket.
In the end, in return for all my trouble, she left me for a cheap thrill with a new fool—the third guy she cheated on me with (as far as I know)—into whose treacherous, lecherous, remorseless hands I practically delivered her myself. But that’s another long story, and I am fatigued with this one. Now that it’s all over, after the ten week long ordeal of waiting for her to move out, I have just one last wish left: that she would read this and understand what she did to me. It’s not a serious wish. I know it’s just make-believe. I don’t expect she will ever understand.
It truly would have taken a hero to endure all that without breaking. But I’m not Christ. I’m not Superman. I could never fix her, never sate her, never discipline her, and I sure as Hell could never trust her. How could I keep flying into her flame and not recognize that I got nothing for it but burned, each and every time? How could any sane, intelligent, reasonable human being understand why I would go on trying to live in that nightmare?
Even now, I can barely understand it myself. Why did I keep putting all my energy into someone who drained it all out of me and gave nothing back? Wait…I’m sorry, she did give back. She was very eager to point out that I got to keep the washer and dryer that we bought “together.” That’s all the evidence anyone needs to see what she thinks a person’s love and trust are worth. Seriously, why did I hold on to such a disaster for so long?
Something clicked in my head a couple weeks after we broke up. One of her cats curled up in my lap as we were politely watching television together, and while I stroked its fur I joked with my ex-turned-roommate, “Can I have visitation rights with the cats?” In the same moment those words passed my lips, I suddenly realized what ancient trauma lay at the heart of our entire sado-masochistic relationship: my parents’ divorce.
That day, half my lifetime ago, when I began sobbing uncontrollably in Biology class, the day that I checked into a mental hospital for treatment of my depression…that whole time centered around my parents’ divorce. As desperate as I was to be free of my father, it was more devastating that the whole family was falling apart. I wanted to fix it, but I was helpless to do anything. The ego-shadows of who my family were in my imagination proved to be illusory, and I was suddenly awakened to the truth that real life was out of my control. The battle zone of my family life had trained me to obsessively and stubbornly persevere in the face of it all, and I resented my parents for giving up while I had kept going, especially at a time when they were both still supposed to be responsible for three children.
Now, in the wake of a disintegrated and equally textbook codependent relationship in my adulthood, I once again found myself resenting my ex for giving up on what was supposed to be our life together. On a fundamental level, I hated her for making a waste of the time and effort that we had put into it, and particularly what I had put into it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. This wasn’t what I was promised. Instead of admitting to myself that I did not have control of the situation, that I could not save the day, I gave more and more of myself in a vain attempt to hold it all together.
This hero stuff is for the birds. No more.
1Luke 14:27 KJV
2Romans 3:23 KJV
3Of Other Worlds, 1966
4Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2