Today's post is from Alfred Carcieri. A Seattle area comic. You can find more about Alfred at his site: www.alfredcomedy.com or on Twitter: @AlfredCarcieri
Grit. Determination. These are the things I was asked to write about. I have lots of different stories that I could tell to give as examples of how I persevered through a difficult time. Stories about not giving up when people said I would fail, or battling self-doubt to triumph through adversity. But the fact of the matter is, that isn’t what’s really relevant in my day to day life right now.
Armor. Thick layers of emotionally blocking, self preserving goodness that stops us from getting hurt when we’re out there in the world. That is what is on my mind, or more accurately, the severe lack there of.
Throughout our lives we go through traumatic events that help shape our view of the world. Some are good, some are catching an eye full of grandma climbing out of the shower and learning to KNOCK FIRST! Either way, we develop lots of armor as we grow up. Once you’ve seen the real-life equivalent of the old woman in ‘The Shining’ up close, you’re no longer as easily shocked. That part of you that was so graphically disturbed, has been muted by your internal mental defense mechanisms. You look at an ISIS beheading video the next week and feel nothing. Without realizing it; you’ve become a “harder” person, you’ve developed armor.
Sometimes the armor we have is from the safety net we’ve always had and never thought about. I never cared about what anyone else thought of me because of how great my family life was. I had an amazing mom and dad who really loved me and were always there when I needed them. As a result, I would go into the world with thick, almost impenetrable armor (until puberty hit and I learned the rejection of a girl, NOTHING prepares you for THAT!), not caring what anyone else thought or said about me, because at the end of the day, I always had home.
Cut to your late 20’s, you’re an adult now, trying to make it in the world as your own man (or woman, either way). You realize on a logical level that you need to care to a degree about what everyone around you thinks, or you’re going to be the weird social pariah people whisper about at the bar. So you make the effort to be nicer and to actually listen to other people’s opinions, even when they’re wrong.
Then out of nowhere, you’re at your shitty dead end job that doesn’t matter, because you’re pursuing YOUR dreams at night and you get a phone call.
Your mom has Ovarian Cancer.
That’s the chest plate you’ve been wearing your whole life falling to the ground. But it’s okay, you still have your chainmail under-armor protection, so you get on a plane and you go home to see your mom. You guys laugh and talk, and she’s the awesome rock she always has been and you feel better when you hear how optimistic she is. She goes through her chemo treatments and you go back home to get back to your life. You call every day and get updates, you find out the doctors said she needs surgery, but the chemo is working so the surgery shouldn’t be a problem.
She has the surgery and things went well. The next month she has her follow up and the cancer is gone. She beat it.
That’s the chest plate clicking back in place. You go home for Christmas and it’s awesome. Mom’s healthy, the whole family is there and everyone is happy, life’s normal again. Mom complains of some stomach cramps every now and then, but no biggie, who cares? She beat cancer!
Phone call. Three month check-up time, and the cancer’s back. With a Vengeance.
That god damn chest plate fell off AGAIN! But that’s okay, you’ve been here before. You get on a plane and you go back home again to take care of your mom. But it’s different this time. She’s not the rock she was through the last treatments. She doesn’t have the strength she had going into the fight the last time. But she still smiles and never complains. She puts on the brave face for the sake of her children and her husband.
You have long conversations with the doctors, who take a lot of deep, pensive breaths before trying to explain in depth medical jargon no one has ever cared about. You fade in and out while the white coat rambles on. Then you hear the phrase you knew you would, but hoped wouldn’t come.
“It’s time to make her comfortable”
Annnnnnd there goes the chainmail. But it’s okay, you still have the leather under-armor on and you put on your brave face for her now. You do everything you can for her. Get her favorite Pistachio Iced Cream, buy her first pack of cigarettes in over 20 years and you make sure to tell her you remember every time she was there for you. You guys laugh and you cry, but you have all the conversations that a mom and a son should have.
Then the nurse tells you, this is it. This is the last 24 hours. You take a deep breath and you prepare. You put on a smile and you hug her, and you hold her and you let her know she’s loved. And then that’s it. Just like that, with one final breath, the woman who gave you life, who was always there no matter what, is gone.
Well, this is certainly a swift kick in the balls. But you knew it was coming, so you soldier on and you help your family with all of the things that come with the death of a loved one. You get your dad back on his feet and usher in your 30’s on the way home from your mom’s Funeral. Then you remember that oh yea, you had a life you were trying to build before all this.
You remind your dad and he says; “of course” and you get on a plane and come back. To the other side of the country. Where you don’t have any family. To your one bedroom apartment, where you live by yourself.
Big surprise, the leather under-armor just left the building as well. So now here you are; all alone with no armor. Now what?
Well boy that couch looks like it sure could use someone in the fetal position for a few days. So you impart a lovely dent in the corner of your couch after a few days, but you know you have to get back out into the world. So you go grocery shopping. You walk around aimlessly in a daze occasionally remembering to grab the food you came for. Then you find yourself in the candy isle, looking up at the same Ghirardelli Chocolate’s your mom bought you every year for a stocking stuffer at Christmas.
Ahh yes, crying in the candy isle, this is how you always pictured your 30’s. You go home and get firmly back in your dent. A few weeks pass and you realize, this weird flood of emotions is a good thing. You’re SUPPOSED to feel things when you interact with people. But, I’m a guy, I’m not supposed to feel unless an athlete retires or I’m watching a video of a Soldier being reunited with his dog – ‘Murica!
Then you realize that the armor you had been using this whole time is exactly why you find yourself so alone. Oh man, that hurts.
You try duct taping your chainmail back together, but it becomes clear that the heavy stuff is never going back on. It’s too broken now and would be more harm than good. It’s tough, because even in it’s broken heap, the armor still has that old familiar feel to it.
So you start going back out there into the world. Slowly. But you do start going back out there and start getting back in to your routine. You start interacting with the people you pretended to before. Some of it sucks. Okay, a lot of it sucks. BUT, some of it is great. Some of it is awesome and you start feeling something you haven’t felt in months. Connection.
That’s when you finally realize; the armor was holding you back the whole time. It’s not impressive to fight the battles with armor on; that’s almost cheating. You have to take your lumps and really feel them, so you can learn from them. You have to get up when it hurts, otherwise you never get better, you never progress. You slowly learn how to get back up with help from friends and eventually by yourself. The fortitude was always there, but if you didn’t let yourself be hurt and be tested, how would you have ever known?
That’s real determination. Getting back out there without your armor and knowing it’s not easy, but you’re better for it. The grit to keep going when every day brings a new pain, because it can also bring new connections and happiness.
Well shit, I guess I did end up talking about Grit and determination.