The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 1 Happy Jack

baby child close up crying
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When my mother was pregnant with me, she went into premature labor, and because it was 1959, I was likely to die if I was born too early. It was as if I was in a hurry to get the action started, to take the water slide down the birth canal into life. But I don’t have some freaky “Go toward the light” prenatal memory, nor do I feel some unconscious pressure to start the party early. I just pieced together the few facts I was told and assumed the rest.

Against our religion, which told Mom to pray it out, Dad convinced her to go to the hospital. Mom was adamant about her religious convictions, one of which was absolutely not submitting to medical care. That meant no health-care providers; no surgeries or medical procedures; no medicine, vitamins, or supplements—no pills of any kind—certainly no shots or injections; and no casts or splints or anything that’d make us appear needy and less than perfect. Sympathy wasn’t even allowed; we denied that suffering was even possible in our idealized spiritual world. Why offer sympathy for something as unreal as a dream? Medical interventions were shunned in favor of prayer, or, as we said in Christian Science, “knowing the Truth,” with a capital “T,” because we, apparently, had God-revealed insight into the human condition, which was spiritual and perfect, not material and imperfect. Thus there was no need for material interventions of any kind, to include medicine and material means used to cure. We just prayed to understand our true spiritual perfection, which would result in material healing.

Thus, it was out of character for Mom to acquiesce to medical care, and it was the only time she ever did. She got a shot to prevent her uterus from contracting so that I wouldn’t be expelled too soon.

Why did she give in that one time? Was it a mental weakness, as she feared, or Malicious Animal Magnetism—people thinking mean thoughts about her and making her ill—or was it a mother’s love? So, I remained in her womb for a few more months. I liked that she relaxed her religious boundary just that once. The fact is, I continue to like it.

And thus began an ironic life.

So, fortunately for me, instead of being stillborn I was still born, yowling from the outset. It seemed that I needed to voice my perception of life from the very start. It was as if I were wailing, “Look at me! I live, but I’m still kinda worried about it!” And I needed witnesses, people to hear me, which, in this case, were my parents. In retrospect, I guess I wanted them to remember my angst, thereby documenting it. Someone had to be there, to gaze down at me, to adore me, to contain me, to let me know that everything would be OK and that I was welcome. I suspect not enough of that occurred. Or maybe it did, but I was just naturally wired to be a so-called pissant.

When we are young and small, we are dependent and have very few choices, so we must accept, to varying degrees, the mandates of more powerful people who wish to write the stories of our lives for us. When I was born into my particular part of the world, half of me was a blank slate to be written upon by those around me. I would discover that my other half was genetically programmed to want to figure out people and existence rather than participate blithely. That same part of me resisted my implied fate. I wanted to be better than predicted and move toward self-actualization—to stretch toward my potential. It was my innate personality, and I had no choice other than to indulge it or repress it; albeit, as a young boy, I had no idea what I was doing, other than standing up for myself.

But apparently, my first role in life was to be the pissant of my family, or at least that’s how I was labeled. It was authentic, I suppose, but it was not necessarily what my family wanted me to be. If there’d been doctors involved after I was born, they might’ve used the word “colicky” instead of “pissant.” Ugh. Colicky. Even the word dripped with the likes of stuff haked up.

I yowled without comfort when my eyes were open; I napped and then awakened to wail some more. I’m not saying that I remember any of this, of course, but my parents wouldn’t let me forget it. I’ve always seemed to want more attention than I’ve ever really deserved—or maybe I just wanted to express myself—but I had to find a better way to connect with people other than yowling for them or pushing them away when I thought I’d been slighted. Do we all start life this way—either not getting enough attention and admiration and then fussing, or getting our fill and then approaching life feeling entitled? My lifelong challenge has been to become more comfortable with other people’s indifference to me. I thought I deserved to be known. I was mistaken, of course. To be known is not an entitlement; others’ attention is either reinforcing for them or an act of grace from them—their love is a gift. I know this may be hard to accept, but we either accept it or suffer the anxiety needed to keep it out of our awareness. I recommend awareness; with awareness can come relief or appropriate intervention. First, we diagnose, and then we treat.

Surely, Mom prayed for me, the unhappy baby; I assume that comforted her, at least. But apparently, just lying there didn’t do it for me. Perhaps that’s when ennui became my nemesis. I calmed down when she placed me in one of those baby walkers. It made a  near-toddler look like a bionic, six-legged spider. Running was my thing, I now understand, but I didn’t consciously know it then. That was only the first time that running would save me. I joyously propelled myself from person to person across the yellowing linoleum at toe-pinching speed.

As a result, I became somewhat pleasant to live with; I morphed from colicky pissant to the child with the ironic moniker of Happy Jack. Sometimes that was an authentic role for me before society and my own desires had had enough time to reshape me subtly into other chameleon colors. Happy Jack was an orange chameleon, combining the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It was the color my parents preferred me to be. The problem was acting happy when I wasn’t happy. I needed to learn to fake it better. It wasn’t OK to have dysphoria. That was “Error,” erroneous thinking, and it was frowned upon in my family of origin’s version of Christianity. Being quick to smile and as independent as a little boy could be helped us all get along better while sharing the same house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the 1960s. I, too, wanted to be Happy Jack. I liked it when the giants around me smiled down. So, I began to learn how to keep them smiling. Having so-called negative emotions—anger, fear, sadness, anxiety—irritated them, which was not good for me, being the smallest and least powerful member of the family at the time.

I became Happy Jack to fit in and be accepted and loved.

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