Growing up it felt like I had this terrible secret that I needed to protect at all costs. I didn’t want other people to realize how vulnerable I felt around them -for these people to know how much they could hurt me with rejection. I felt sure that if they knew this truth they would use the knowledge against me in some way. It would make me an easy target for the bullies. I was a boy and I’d learned that boys are supposed to have a thick skin. At school I used comedy to hide my weakness because there was no way that fighting would ever work for me. Then I discovered alcohol, and it felt like I’d been given a suit of armor. I could be with people without letting them close enough to hurt me. I was happy to play the drunken Irish fool, and it was the first time that it felt like I had a natural talent for something.
Keeping Paul Protected Cost Me Dearly
People who knew me during my drunken years have said it was like there was this wall between me and them. I had this marvelous ability to talk insistently about myself, yet still keep people at a distance (talk about mixed signals). Countless times I was accused of being arrogant and self obsessed, but I took these criticisms as a complement. I knew what these words meant, but I saw them as positive attributes. I’d much prefer that they think of me as arrogant and self obsessed than to know that I hated myself and felt inferior to them.
Alcohol gave me superhuman abilities – I could feel inferior to people yet still be able to look down on them. I perfected the art of the elevator pitch, and this meant that upon meeting a new person I’d automatically launch into a spiel highlighting the reasons why they should like me. I could be like some needy maniac with strangers, but if people attempted to get beyond my bullshit the shutters would go right up. During my late teens and twenties I went through friends and girlfriends like other people go through rolls of toilet paper. I wrote sad letters and song lyrics about how much I wanted somebody who really got me, while back in the real world I did everything possible to prevent people from getting me.
Walking in a Park When the Barriers Come Humbling Down
During my trip back to Ireland a couple of months ago I went for a long walk every day. On one of these outings in a local park I suddenly had this image of myself as if I was a stranger looking at me. I’m tempted to call this a spiritual experience, but there was no real change of consciousness or anything fancy like that. I just saw myself as other people must see me. I was this balding middle age guy who was out walking alone – just an average person doing something average. This realization of my own ordinariness hit me as something truly wonderful. It felt like the barriers that I’d fought so hard to maintain over the years just came tumbling down. I felt vulnerable and sort of unimportant, but that was perfectly fine because it was just the truth.
I wish I’d realized this before, but I don’t need to be something I’m not in order to get the most from life. In fact by trying to be someone I’m not it takes me well away from my comfort zone. Like all humans I’m vulnerable and can be hurt by other people, but there is no shame in that. The price I’d need to pay to hide this vulnerability is way too high, and it is just not sustainable.