As I detailed in my last post, up until I was about nine or ten years old I was an active kid who was always outside knocking around with my posse of friends. But when we moved from Sydney, Cape Breton to Stephenville, Newfoundland around 1979, the transition really messed me up badly.
I had a devil of a time making new friends. I hung out with a neighborhood kid named Brad for a bit until he moved across town and we lost track of one another. Then I started to pal around with a guy named Glen until his dad moved the family all the way to St. John's.
At that point in time it was almost as if I made a conscious decision not to make any new friends. What was the point? My half-baked brain told me that as soon as I met someone new, either I'd move, or they'd move or perhaps they'd spontaneously combust like a Spinal Tap drummer. Why risk the grief?
It certainly didn't help that around this same time puberty decided to throw me a few curve balls. Accent on the word balls there, BTW.
First off, my eyesight decided to konk out. The first time I can remember experiencing a vision problem was when I was sitting in the car at the Sydney Shopping Center and I couldn't read the KFC sign from the far end of the parking lot. Actually, in my defense, that wasn't as easy as it sounds since it was actually called "Kentucky Fried Chicken" back then.
To this day, I have no idea why my eyesight went south since both of my parents were blessed with 20/20 vision. My mom suspects that it had something to do with a near-lethal fever that I sustained when I was about seven or eight. Hey, kids, guess what one of the side effects of measles can be?
Just after the move to Stephenville, I started to have a hard time reading the chalkboard in school from my preferred vantage point (I.E. the back of the class) and my mom resolved to get me into a pair of glasses post haste. I don't know if you're old enough to remember this, Dear Reader, but glasses back then looked like salvaged portholes from the goddamned Lusitania.
Finally, a crooked dentist in Stephenville managed to convince my Dad that if I didn't get a set of braces pronto I'd end up looking like Lisa Simpson sans orthodontic intervention:
Too bad this guy was a greedy con artist who just wanted to deck his house out in my Dad's artwork, which he graciously offered to take in lieu of cash. Sonovabitch put braces on me even before my teeth stopped moving around. Thanks for exploiting my parent's fear and ruining my delicate formative years, you asshole. I hope you die in a fire.
So there I was: coke-bottle glasses, greasy black shock of Hitler hair and olde skool braces that would make members of the Spanish Inquisition wince. I used to joke with my parents and tell them: "Why don't you just finish me off with some orthopedic shoes and a hearing aid?" What an awesome time to be the new kid in class!
As you can well imagine the parade of kids hammering down my door asking to be my friend was incessant. It's a wonder my parents didn't have to move again just to get away from the constant harassment.
I became increasingly paranoid about my appearance. I was rake-thin with prematurely wrinkly-looking hands, chronic dry skin and bullet-deflecting knees. Even during the hottest days of the summer I'd always wear long sleeve shirts and avoid shorts like the plague.
In Elementary School they made us take mandatory swimming lessons. I was so terrified of changing in front of people that I begged my parents to give me an exemption. Well, I didn't get that free pass, just some sage advice from my Dad:
"Fer Crissakes, just wrap a friggin' towel around yer middle bits, whip yer drawers off, pull yer swimtrunks on and then take the towel off. Or leave the towel on, what odds?"
I followed his advice and this seemed to work pretty well until it came time to reverse the process. Since I was too scared to take a shower, I spent the rest of the day reeking of chlorine. On more then one afternoon, I squirmed in my seat as the harsh chemicals slowly ate away at my already-dehydrated flesh.
I became increasingly insular, shy and withdrawn, like a tween-aged Howard Hugues but without the Kleenex boxes for shoes. If anyone said anything to me that could vaguely be interpreted as an insult, I'd be traumatized for days. If not for various types of games (video, RPG, board) I would have spent my early teens living like a hermit. Thank Nyarlathotep that the lure to play with other equally awkward kids gave me some semblance of a social life back then.
When it came time to go to university I was still paralysed by my crippling fear of strangers. But after taking a year off and slowly going mad from boredom, I decided to attempt a form of shock therapy and move into residence at Saint Mary's. Despite how effective this was in staving off my social retardation, it did precious little for my confidence.
For that, I have to credit my amazing wife. Bless her heart, she saw something in me that I always knew was there but I rarely had an opportunity to exhibit. Thanks to her, all of my awkwardness, anxiety and self-doubt finally melted away. In fact, nowadays she'd probably argue that I've gone too far in the opposite direction and don't give a damn about what people think of me at all.
If anyone out there reads this and is currently struggling with self-esteem issues, I apologise for not sounding more self-reliant. Despite a constant diet of positive affirmation from my doting parents (and nominally, myself), I found it virtually impossible to crawl out of my spider hole of self hatred all alone. Sometimes it takes a certain person to validate what you've been trying to tell yourself all along.
Now I'm not saying that every nerd you encounter deserves sympathy. I've met some dorky, socially maladjusted human beings who are also mean, spiteful, nasty creatures who legitimately deserve to be shunned. But more often then not, that shy person who barely speaks above a whisper and sometimes says odd things in a misguided effort to fit in might be the product of a vicious circle of perceived (or sometimes real) physical awkwardness, self-loathing and isolation.
To these sad, lonely, desperate souls I can only say: trust me, it will get better.
EPIC Yep, I totally woulda done her...
FAIL Although I've destroyed most of the photographic evidence of myself at that awkward age, some records still exist. For example, here's my own deceptively angelic before pic...
And here I am after the ravages of puberty. Cripes, dude, eat a friggin' sammich already...