Isolated by Differences

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For years I’ve been explaining the separation I felt from people and places when I was growing up as border crossing. Yesterday I learned differently.

When I was a kid my family moved constantly. My dad had frequently incapacitating post traumatic stress disorder and couldn’t keep a job, so my family – 4 kids and 2 parents – moved from motel to motel between the US and Canada. Cars constantly breaking down, often filled with the motto “If it doesn’t fit in the trunk it can’t come along.” In the nine youngest years of my we lived in 12 different cities; in the first 4 years of school I went 7 different places.

My friend Michaela took this pic of a moon over Nebraska.

When we finally landed it was because our car broke down 3 times in one week and we couldn’t afford to go any further. My dad got began lifelong treatment for his PTSD and we eventually got a house. Moving into a neighborhood where we were a racial minority among economic peers, it was hard to fit in. I was a goofy Canadian boy in cowboy boots and corduroy pants singing “Rhinestone Cowboy” while everyone else wore parachute pants and air jordans and sang “Billie Jean.” To say I didn’t fit in is an understatement.

For the rest of my youth I struggled with belonging and joining. I prided myself for establishing a unique group of friends who shared that sense of non-belonging, but somehow I never quite learned how to fit in. As a card-carrying member of Gen X, I held it was my duty to flip off the establishment and eff-up the system from within, which I tried to do through my 20s. I managed to create a career in a space where there was barely a field, and I established an identity as an outcast of sorts, so I was comfortable at least!

Along the way I read about Henry Giroux’s concept of “border crossers,” people whose identities are constantly in flux. We learn the codes and become code breakers; we find the barriers and circumnavigate them. Reinforced by reading some of Zygut Baumann’s works on liquid culture, I prided myself on this identity over all others. I had a sense that not belonging and staying apart was my superpower.

Then yesterday happened.

It turns out that at the root of it, that displacement is isolation. I was listening to a podcast with a writer from The New York Times when he was talking about the angst experienced by refugees in America, people who were stripped of their lands and cultures and identities only to be thrown into the cauldron of suffocating sameness that is mainstream American culture. While I wasn’t escaping war or a repressive regime, my family were mental health exiles forced to extreme escapes from the seemingly inevitable pauper’s prisons awaiting failed consumers in the 1980s.

As an adult, I’ve discovered that the suffering I experienced because of the isolation I lived in childhood and nurtured through my adult life was a healthy response to a traumatic experience. My child brain didn’t know how to cope with the differences repeatedly forced onto me by circumstances far beyond my control, and without therapy or even seeing that clearly as an adult I carried the burden of isolation for years.

That isolation affected my work, my friendships, my romantic relationships, and of course my family. Only now am I beginning to see that my own calls for conscious engagement with the worlds within ourselves and around us were a desperate plea for me to connect with what mattered most to me. Now that I see that clearly, I am beginning to see how to move forward. I’m also saddened for the younger person I was when I struggled so much, so righteously to have the belonging I didn’t.

That is yet another reason why I do the work I do today, to connect people wholly throughout the whole lives they live. Its a heck of a mission, and it comes from a true place.

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