I go back to a time when I was young and in front of a friend’s house. Maybe we were 10 or 11 years-old. Maybe it was the kids I chose to hang around with at the time or maybe it was me just being me.
This is one of my first memories where my life began to switch. We were in a small group and not doing much else but being kids and talking about whatever it is 10 or 11 year-old kids talk about. I cannot say I remember the conversation at all because I don’t. I only remember the idea that I felt so different from them and uncomfortable in my own skin.
I remember being so young and wondering what life would look like through someone else’s eyes. I wondered what the color blue looked like to someone else —or what was the color red like to someone that was colorblind?
I used wonder if all things were the same, what I would be like if I grew up in a different part of town, or maybe even a different town altogether.
I always wondered if my life would be different if I was the same on the inside, only, I was taller on the outside or maybe blonde haired or blue-eyed instead of brown haired and brown-eyed.
I wondered what my life would be like if I was the tallest instead of the smallest in class. I also wondered if people would like me if I was one of the strongest instead of being one of the weakest. Would I have had more friends if I was better looking or had more toys or more reasons for kids to like me? What if I was a better athlete or had a special talent that no one else possessed?
I never asked to think this way. it just happened. I certainly never wanted to feel this way, but I did.
I never knew what the word anxiety meant; at least, not really. I never knew what a panic attack was either. I heard of these things but I never knew much about the. I heard of the word depression too but I never knew what they meant. I certainly had no clue these things had anything to do with me. No, I thought I was just different. It was as simple as that.
Eventually, this small thing in me grew to become much bigger and overwhelming. And I could never explain why I was like this. I just knew there was something in my head, which at best, this the only way I could have described it. There had to be something wrong with me
I was small, yes, and painfully thin too. I wanted to be tougher, stronger, and I wanted to believe I was cooler too. But then 7th grade came along and I found myself standing in the doorway of the double doors at the cafeteria.
to the right side, was the pretty crowd and the athletic. To the far left were the troublemakers.
Both sides were popular but they were popular for different reasons. In the middle of the left side and the right side was a sea of kids, like a sea the unknown and unremarkable. they were the uncool, the socially void, and vacant names of the unmemorable.
There was no status in the middle or prestige of any kind; instead, there was only the lonesomeness of uncool status, the crowd-less, the never invited and never included faces of kids that went along their school years, miserably picked on, or hazed into a sense of faceless obscurity. you were ether someone or no one, and worst, there nothing harder than feeling like a no one.
Of all things I fear, I feared being that kid in the middle of the cafeteria. I was afraid to be unnoticed and flat. To me, being stuck in the middle meant that I was neither good looking nor bad but simply muted or plain, and as such, I believed if this were true that I could scream and shout or wave my arms in the air for attention and yet, nobody would notice or even care.
I have this memory of shop class early in the school year. I was standing with someone I will name as John. He was a year older than me, left back, and part of a crowd. John was not exceptionally strong or big. He was just a little bigger than me. However, for some reason, people liked John. He had charisma. John had something about him that made people take notice.
We were in shop class and John lifted up a small box with type setting to use for printing. The type settings were small metal parts. Individually, the small pieces were not heavy at all. However, when placed in a box and collected together, the box had weight to it. I remember John lifting the small box and showing me that it was heavy.
He wasn’t picking on me or showing the weight of the box to show if his muscles. Instead, John was more interested in the phenomenon of such small things being placed in a short rectangular shaped box and being so heavy
I lifted the box with strain, although, John lifted the box before me without allowing a facial expression so I couldn’t show expression either.
John asked, “How much do you think this weighs,” while lifting the box again to get a better estimate.
“40 maybe 50lbs?” assumed John while curling the box like a weight bar.
I had no idea what 40 or 50lbs. felt like. I wasn’t even sure of I knew what 20 or 30lbs. felt like. However, I watched as John curled the rectangular shaped box. I wondered what that felt like for him. I wondered if the weight in his arms felt the same as it felt in mine. I wondered if anything felt the same to me as it did to anyone else. The I wondered why did I have to think about things like this.
I wondered if I would ever find my place in the crowd. And I tried to find it but no matter how I tried; the words I chose never seemed to come out right. Instead, the words I spoke sounded in my head, lingering and repeating, as if all I could hear was the last things I said —and whatever I would say afterwards to fix this would only make things worse. It was like an endless cycle or like standing on a conveyor belt of words that just wouldn’t stop
I didn’t like this feeling. I was too small to play sports. Besides, the last team sport I played was less than fun. I mainly rode the bench on my 6th grade basketball team. This is also when I decided that I would never “Play” an organized sport again because there was nothing “Playful about this.
God forbid you miss a shot or God forbid you make a mistake—the feeling of loss was tough enough but it becomes even worse when so-called “Teammates” turn against you because they see you as not good enough.
Therefore, when it came to find a crowd to sit with in the cafeteria, I could not choose the crowd on the right. The only problem is I was too small to be tough. I was too small and young looking to be considered good looking by the girls in my class. At best, I could only be seen as boyishly cute. Unfortunately though, boyishly cute never lands the prettiest girl in the school.
I thought of people like John and wondered how he pulled it off. John was just plain “Him” and nobody else. John was also someone that sat on the left side of the cafeteria with the troublemakers. He had his share of problems in school. He was a behavioral disorder. He was frequently sent to the office, suspended, and often in detention. But whatever he was, John had status. As I saw it, maybe he wasn’t the biggest or the strongest, but at least John had an image to hide behind.
After only a few short weeks of 7th grade and interacting with my thoughts and feelings, I would often fake sick, and try to call out. I remained consistent with my symptoms; this way my mother would believe me without suspicion. I padded my story with feeling sickness on the weekends—this way my ploy would go undetected because most kids that faked being sick would only do this on the mornings of school. However, I played my hand with a better strategy.
One day, Mom said this was happening too often. She told me if I said that I was sick once more that she would take me to the doctor. As I took it, Mom was trying to call my bluff. She knew I was petrified of doctors. I was afraid of needles. I was afraid of hospitals too because of my sickly experience with gastroenteritis at the age of 8. She knew I remembered this.
I was hospitalized for 2 weeks, which to an 8 year-old boy, two weeks is a long time to be anywhere, let alone in a hospital bed with needles and machines plugged into me.
But to keep my story consistent, I maintained it perfectly. I agreed to go to the doctor, to which, Mom found this surprising, and rather than go to the usual pediatrician, Mom grew worried and took me to the emergency room at Nassau County Medical Center.
Of course, now I would have to maintain my story better than ever. No matter how afraid I might have been; no matter how much I was afraid of needles, I couldn’t back out now.
At any point, I could have folded my hand it would have been dealt with. I could have said anything at all or come up with a different story but to me, being discovered would have been worse.
I wanted to be okay. I wanted to be comfortable in my skin. I certainly didn’t want to be in the hospital, reciting my symptoms, which I had rehearsed several times to keep my story wire-tight. But this is where my footsteps led me,
Several hours later, I found myself in a surgical-type room, curled up and lying on my side while the doctors punctured a needle through my spine to perform a spinal tap. Unfortunately, the spinal tap injured me and I spent two weeks in the hospital, screaming in pain, because something went wrong. it would have been less painful to be caught with the lie, but no, I decided to take it further.
I underwent more testing like this. I went through more tests than I care to remember. I spent weeks in different hospitals and spent nearly six months out of school. And that was the goal. I wanted to get out of going to school, but not like this. I just wanted to rest is all.
The fact is that I struggled to understand the material in class. I didn’t understand my homework. My reading comprehension was poor. My penmanship was as sloppy as my appearance. I was in a constant state of concern, always worrying and wondering about my life and why things were the way they were. However, in my efforts to skip out a few days from school, I found myself undergoing a grueling 6 months of discomfort, which, in all honesty, it would have just been easier of I only went to class.
This is was a result of my anxiety
The Image Concept:
I received a fair share of attention when I returned back to school. I enjoyed this and used my excuses to their best possible ability. People were kind to me and that was good.
This took me away from gym class. I could go to the nurse at will. I was able to get special attention in the classroom and the teachers were less harsh on me for a while.
Yet still, I wanted to find myself, I still needed to find my place in the crowd. I wanted to feel cool and not be afraid of my anxiety machine.
I knew there was no place for me at the athletes table; however, maybe I could find a home on the troublemaker’s side.
I decided to stop cutting my hair from my previously “Little boy’s” haircut and I allowed it to grow.
I drank before and I had been drunk in 6th grade a few times with friends that stole from their old man’s liquor cabinet. I tried smoking at an early age too.
Also, I had an older brother that was popular and well known in the town. One day, as a joke, my brother told me if I drank a cup of something, which tasted awful that he would do my math homework for me. I accepted the deal and drank the cup, which resulted with me face first, puking in the toilet, until there was nothing left to puke.
Well, if I am right, I think this happened when I was in the 2nd grade. The cup was filled with vermouth and all of the answers on my math homework were wrong.
I knew people drank. I also knew people with older brothers that smoked pot and on a few occasions, I smoked pot as well. I had my first experiences with pot when I was still in elementary school. We even tried smoking banana peels and tea leaves a few times because someone told us it worked almost the same way. I tried smoking pencil sharpenings once and apple seeds too but none of that worked. And although I paid money for fake weed on more than a few occasions, I did smoke the real thing several times but to no avail.
It was a Friday night towards the end of the schoolyear. I decided to go out on my own instead of spend time with the usual kids. Besides, the usual kids didn’t seem to like me and I didn’t really like them. We were just friends as a result of geographical convenience. And so, I decided that I was going to broaden myself and walk the town to find myself somewhere new.
I decided to go to the playground behind my old elementary school. Perhaps I went there because life was easier in that school. This is not to say that I was comfortable. I always felt small and smaller than everyone else. However, once junior high came around, I went from being a small fish in a small pond to feeling like an even smaller fish in an even bigger pond.
I climbed up on the jungle bars and sat in the platform by the slide. I recall the blacktop was slick due to an earlier rain and the streetlamps were lit, giving off a strange yellowish hue from the glow. Of course, this was a different time in life because kids actually went outside back then. Our curfew was also different; hence, the reason why I was out after sundown.
I managed to swipe a few beers. I also managed to get a bag of weed, which I had just in case I ran into some of the cooler, older crowds. My plan was to use this as a bargaining chip and perhaps create an invitation with them.
However, I was alone for a while. And I didn’t want to drink because I wanted to prove myself to other people. I didn’t want to smoke weed to prove me anything either. I wanted to prove to me that I could be cool. And I did just that. Although poorly, I rolled my own joint and started smoking. I drank a few sips from my beer, but in fairness, I hated the taste of beer. I always did.
I never liked liquor much either. To this day, my stomach still turns when thinking about the smells of Southern Comfort or Jack Daniel’s.
But everyone else seemed to talk so highly about these things. Everyone discussed drinking like it was a great American thing.
Beer was a part of our country. So was booze for that matter. So I thought the problem had to be me. As I saw it, there was something wrong with me for not liking the taste of beer or booze. I must have been drinking it wrong. That’s why I started drinking; it’s because I wanted to change what was wrong with me.
After a while, a few kids my aged strolled over toward me on the playground. We were still young enough that the different levels of popularity did not segregate us just yet. Someone named Kevin came up to me, laughing, and his first remark was, “Kimmel is stoned already!”
I liked that . . .
I smoked the whole bag alone, and for the first time, I felt the effects. I felt a strange rage of paranoia take place. I was happy though and comfortable to laugh. I wasn’t thinking about how I looked when I laughed. At that point, I didn’t care how I looked or what others thought about me. I drank my beers too, but unfortunately, this is where the night when wrong for. However, once the vomiting started, at least I wasn’t paranoid anymore.
Come Monday, I wasn’t sure what the kids would say about me. I was worried that I might have looked like a fool. I was afraid that someone was going to make fun of me. What if I did something stupid that I couldn’t remember? How would I play this off in a crowd of people?
I rehearsed what I would say, just in case, and I got myself ready to either get into a fight or defend myself to the best of my ability. However, none of these things happened.
Somehow, I gained a status. I earned a position in the ranks of popularity and began something known as a “Reputation.” And mine was weak at best, but as I saw it, at least this was a platform I could build upon.
Decades later, I began to write openly about who I was and about my discomforts of living in my own skin. I detailed my fears and expressed my thoughts. I openly discussed my struggles to find my identity. I wrote about the reasons behind my behavior because back then, I didn’t have the voice or the vocabulary to explain myself. all I had was the fear of things being exposed.
As a kid, I believed I was alone in my fears. I never thought or considered that others felt this way. I was always afraid to “Like” someone because that someone did not fit the common criteria of what or whom I am supposed to like.
For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin. I never dared to tell anyone this. I was too afraid to feel vulnerable.
I always felt there was something wrong with me. I swore this was all a joke and everyone was in on the punchline —and sometimes this was worse because I swore that I was the punchline
Although this was decades ago, times have changed and so has our culture, as a motivational speaker, I find myself presenting my story in front of students of various ages in different schools and in different communities, and while I speak about my life, I notice a sea of young wide-eyed faces, mouth agape, and nodding to the details of my story because they relate.
One of my most celebrated accomplishments came to me when an 11th grade boy came to me after my presentation. He was crying. He shook his head in disbelief and he asked me, “How come no one ever explained all of this to me before?’
He asked, “Why did I have to go through all of that and believe it was my entire fault?”
From what I was told, that young man’s life took on a new direction . . .
The truth is we begin our training in life in the sandbox or on the playground. The most valuable lessons we learn aren’t math or history. This is where we begin to learn how to live and how to interact.
As we grow, the person we become is the same as that little kid we used to be because the main objective is the same. Protect yourself at all times, don’t get picked on, watch out for the bullies, and by any means necessary, don’t be unremarkable because feeling this way is almost worse than death itself.