The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 3 The Dead Boy

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A teenage family friend committed suicide using a firearm in his bathroom. The next day, while I took a bath, I shot a dart gun with a string attached to the dart. The string allowed me to reel the dart back without getting out of the tub. But the spray from the wet string caused a lightbulb to burst. So, Mom burst into the bathroom with hands on hips. After she saw that I was still alive she asked if I knew how expensive lightbulbs were. I did not. But I was already getting good at deflecting, and I pointed out that the popping lightbulb sounded a lot like a gunshot. “It could’ve been another suicide,” I warned. In retrospect, besides avoiding a tongue-lashing, I wanted concern from her, for her to understand that I felt as vulnerable as the poor dead boy must have felt. I didn’t wish to be naked and wet with my puny shortcomings exposed, alone with my enflamed existential angst.

Mom tightened her mouth and gave me pig eyes, that severe glare that I interpreted as disappointment mixed with disdain. Today I know what lightbulbs cost—and I’m reminded of my own mortality when lights go out and I have to replace them; metaphors tending to push into my awareness as a former English major—but lightbulbs cost less than the cost of an emotionally harsher relationship between a mother and her son (the psychologist in me opines). You’re going to hear a lot about the weight of relationships as I proceed, and this is merely an early lick.

I imagined that if I shot myself with a real pistol, my family would merely go on with their lives the way they were supposed to, the way those of us who live move on, the way everyone just moved on after that teenager shot himself in the bathroom. I saw the sense of it even then—I assumed that the big people were always right and I was usually wrong (although I felt right). But emotions other than contentedness or anger were not allowed in my family of origin. Still, something inside me thought that everyone should stop longer and look harder at what had happened. We should consider what we all faced. Was suicide like volunteering first for an unsavory task just to get it over with? I wondered what it was that teenager couldn’t face. But empathy wasn’t valued in our household. When Dad shot mule deer up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, I was the only one transfixed by the gore. To prove there was no suffering, I poked the deer’s eyes with a sharp stick and flung rocks at the pulled-out intestines. That could be me in the mountains, I thought—or on the bathroom floor—my eyes still open like the mule deer’s. When would it be my turn? Would it hurt?

That teenage family friend suffered to the point of suicide, and I wondered what statement he made. Didn’t his people pay enough attention to him? Shouldn’t we take a moment to figure it out, just one freaking moment for the sad guy? He was a wrestler, broke his shoulder, couldn’t go to prom, and so he shot himself. As it really happened, I concluded at the time that it made sense. Today I have to ask, really? See, as a boy, I thought suicide was about making a statement such as, “You’ll be sorry you ignored me once I’m gone.” Now I know it’s about hopelessness. Now I know that after we make some grand gesture—something profound, like, say, suicide—the world moves on and forgets us; sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but for sure eventually. I suppose the teen didn’t know that if he only hung in there, everything would one day get better.

One thing to know about me is that I’ve rarely been hopeless, but when I’m bored, I feel it take hold of me. Boredom gives me time to wonder what life’s all about and to dread death. Sometimes life seems pointless, which feels hopeless. I self-medicate with reading, writing, deep conversation, TV, and film. Alcohol’s been in the mix. When I was young, weed. Today I sometimes practice mindfulness, which is helpful, and I recommend it for others. The upside of boredom is that it has been a great motivator; it has forced me to find productivity and distraction. When I was young, my distraction was “supposed to be” physical action (“supposed to be” as determined by more powerful people who were not obsessed with words and books and peeling layers off people to better understand the essence of humanity rather than merely accept the facade).

But in that bathtub, with that dart gun, I was new to life and the opposite of hopeless; I had delusions of grandeur. The only statement I wanted to make was “Hey, I’m still here! Hellooo?” But Mom didn’t know what to say to a boy who needed so much reassurance. I wore her out. Full disclosure; I wore myself out as well. So, I learned to keep more things inside, to hide better to avoid disapproval. Don’t we all? When Mom spotted a problem, she told me to know the Truth. The Truth was that we were perfect spiritual beings and thus problem-free. We did not commit suicide, we did not believe in broken things. Our bodies were merely material illusions, only a manifestation of ignorant beliefs. None of us ever questioned what created the illusion of matter in the first place, what created Mortal Mind, what was the thought behind the thought. The shooting-oneself-in-the-bathroom issue was never revisited. We were excellent at denying what most of the world accepted as fact. The healthcare community had nothing of value to offer us, and perfect little boys did not make mistakes and felt no pain, emotional or otherwise.

Because of the combination of our religion and generations of stoic southwestern cowboy-up parenting, my family was an expert at ignoring uncomfortable things, such as suicide, illness, and loneliness. But I tried to fit in as best I could, the way kids do, the way kids must; what choice did I have? Witness the genesis of a chameleon. But I’ve always been a seeker, and I couldn’t ignore my press to uncover things, which made me both a teller of uncomfortable truths and sort of a colicky pissant.

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