This is the first of a two-part series I’ve been struggling to write for a while. For those who know me, I’ve jumped between highly restrictive diets and workout regimens for the past few years interspersed with periodic bouts of alcoholic binges. Truth is, I was hurting. I was suffering from low self-esteem and violent thoughts that seemingly arose from nowhere. The second post will cover how I’ve dealt with my issues of low self-esteem, being bullied, and toxic masculinity through food and exercise but I think it’s important to go through the darker times, for only then will it become clear why the extreme discipline of later years became so important to me. This will be a very long read and at times the wording may get clumsy, a product of old hurts surfacing while I wrote this. You don’t need to read this. But if you happen to be reading this and see some of your story in mine, please believe me when I say there is a way out. The story can end well. I promise.
Every Soul is born in a Castle built for it by the Universe. In this Castle, the Soul takes on two forms: a Child, pure as the Universe that created it, and an Elder, wise and rational as the Earth that bore it. Every morning, the Elder leaves the castle to forage for food for the Child from the Fields of Life surrounding the Castle. The sustenance takes many forms as well: warmth from a Mother’s hug, playtime with friends, a feeling of belonging at family gatherings, a bruised knee. In the beginning, these fields are wide and clear and the Elder can always see the Castle no matter the distance…
My Castle was situated in the second floor of a small apartment where meals were predictable and parents, affording us little chance to roam the streets, ensured freedom from discomfort if not from discovery. Attending school with all the complex, unwritten social codes forged during Recess then, was a disorienting experience far from the routine comfort of home. Everyone had a role to play, and spaces from the canteen to the playground were divided with invisible markers as to which clique owns it: the Jocks, the Trend Setters, the Wannabe Gangsters, the Just-Migrated-Heres. As a child, it was confusing and daunting trying to figure out how to fit into the right clique. Humans after all, are still animals – albeit ones that seem to think the contrary – and the desire to create hierarchies is ingrained within us. Any attempt to fit in though, just didn’t seem to work for me whether it was physically (I was the only kid who actively ran away from any type of ball during gyms class to the shock of the basketball-worshipping Filipinos) or socially (I couldn’t quite grasp how everyone around me played the “he-likes-she-likes” game so effortlessly). And amidst all the teasing, my dad would insist I comb my hair over, hike up my pants just a little higher than socially acceptable, and get over it: “Don’t listen to them. You’re not like them. Learn to be proper”. Easier said than done.
I first felt “Them” take over my body on a sunny Recess day in Middle School a few years after I had moved to an International School. I was sitting with a small group of friends at the end of a long lunch table. They were the sort that straddled clique lines: Athletes whose seduction game didn’t quite qualify them as the Casanovas and the Almost-Smart Ones and the Music Heads who listened to Rap with a surprising sprinkle of Heavy Metal. I sat with the same group of guys every day for the beginning of Middle School and for the most part, not out of any real common interest, but simply because I was most comfortable around them. Adolescence is a brutally raw experience what with raging hormones and misguided ideals causing boys “to be boys” and any perceived weakness is quickly pounced on by a specific clique with monikers that stuck, taunts, and the occasional show of strength. They were the “Horde”.
Any young boy my age attempted to avoid the Horde’s ravenous gaze by doing one of three things: finding a dominant clique to gain access to, having a superior advantage valued by the proverbial playground be it strength or charm, or being completely weird so as to choose the life of a self-exiled outcast, forever eating lunch in one of the empty tables in the corner. As luck would have it, economical parents who didn’t understand the rules of 20th century adolescence insisted I go to school with pressed slacks (perfect crease down the middle), leather shoes, and to top it all off, a turquoise green plastic lunchbox with a garishly drawn Mickey Mouse sticker plastered on front. “Who cares what they say?” my father would ask in bewilderment. “You should dress properly. You’re not one of them. And so what if you have a lunchbox? At least you get food!”. Well the teenage high society of the Academy definitely gave a fuck and for several years, I was “The Nerd” with a capital T and I spent most of my childhood school years in a low hum of anxiety every time the Horde came round the halls looking for targets, sneaking food out of my lunchbox so no one would see it or its contents of stewed squid or whatever other pungent-smelling Filipino dish my mom had decided to cook. But I digress.
On this particular day, the Horde was thankfully nowhere to be seen. I don’t even recall what was said between our group but I remember feeling a sort of embarrassment and going through my usual reaction of nervous laughter and attempting to shove it deep down. “Who cares what they say?” my dad would ask every time. But this day was different. It was the first day I became acquainted with a feeling that would become all to familiar for many years to come though at the time it felt so foreign. It started as a dropping in the stomach, a sort of hollowing out like the one you’d feel near the edge of a cliff or the top of a roller coaster. It was as if some imaginary floor in your gut crumbled revealing a boiling mass of thick heat that’s been hiding there all this time. The heat, first the deep red of wine, would slowly rise from my belly up to my chest and each inch it took left an electric tinge behind. Once it passed my chest, the gasping would begin, quick slurps of air that were barely noticeable as the conversation continued around me. By the time it got to my neck I would feel my arms slowly clench, palms tremble with sweat, and my shoulders rise to my ears, ears that were beginning to heat too as the thick mass reached eye-level turning the world bright red; the red you see when you close your eyes and face the sun. The suffocation would worsen and my eyesight would blur until all of a sudden, that electric buzzing in my head would disappear as if being sucked out, heat collapsing into itself and leaving a sudden frigid emptiness. They took over next.I slowly got up and walked away, carrying my empty can of iced tea, still smiling though I felt like I wasn’t the one controlling my body anymore. Except it wasn’t me in there. I turned to face the group about thirty paces away and with deliberation, crushed the can, exposing jagged edges. I cocked my arm back behind my head and despite having thrown many a pitiful pitch that lost us gym class games in years prior, threw with such accuracy it hit the intended target square on his soft cheek, splashing him in a mixture of ice tea, spit, and the remnants of the Zaatar sandwich he held in his hand. I remember smiling with satisfaction, hoping he was cut, and yelling: “Still think it’s funny?!”. They sat in shocked silence as I strode out slowly. I remember the Horde, smelling the beginnings of a fight, following me with gleeful shouts, congratulating me with thumps on the back and “Fuck yeahs bro!”. I remember feeling a short-lived high but as the red receded from my vision, the sinking feeling would return now soaked in guilt. I apologized to my now Ice Tea splattered “friend” not even ten minutes later much to the dismay of the Horde. “No way bro. You never apologize. Don’t be a pussy”. Seeing videos of schoolyard fights years later, this episode was admittedly on the tame end but that feeling, the eerie sense that I’m not all alone in the corridors of body and mind, became more familiar.
Over time Others will come too: friends, lovers, mentors. They too will build their Castles on the Fields surrounding yours. But sometimes, the Horde will come too, and their Castles, while beautiful on the outside, contain mean-spirited inhabitants who dug new roads to mislead Elders from their home….
They would follow during those moments of bright red anger. They were there when I smashed my hand repeatedly into the concrete bathroom wall until I fractured my knuckles, frustrated at the pressure placed on me to “play the piano like [insert name of friend your parents love comparing you to]”. They were there when I watched my parents descend into their marathon arguments, a silent filter of red quickly descended over my eyes, only lifting for me to realize I had been screaming bloody murder that they stop immediately, tearing whatever I could get my hands on. They were even there during imagined violent fights with the Horde that occurred in moment of idleness. Sometimes though, I managed to push Them further back like the time a middling of the Horde, a stocky, rather brutish fellow with a nasal voice repeatedly slapped me in front of a girl I had liked at the time (“You’ll let me slap you right? I have your permission to slap yes? What’ll you do if I just keep slapping you?”). I smiled sheepishly as They stood watching me in my pressed slacks (perfect crease down the middle) and leather shoes, accepting my fate. They came flooding back sometime later that night in bed as my body would clench in the darkness and tears would come rushing out against my will.
“So what if they say that? Why are you bothered? It’s all in your head” my dad would say. “Don’t pay attention to them”. I had moved schools a few years prior due to bullying that left me coming home with swollen bumps, cuts, and bloodied noses already and so I suppose in his mind, stick and stones may have broken my bones but words are but figments of the mind. A lesser evil that any self-respecting man should be able to overcome so to speak. And so use my mind I did. Shortly before High School, I realized that members of the Horde could be controlled with measured offers of…”academic assistance”. Doled out in precise measurements during critical assignments and exams, the Horde becomes docile, dependent even, on The Nerd and the ultimate satisfaction came when, cornered in the lunch room under threat of a barrage of taunts or potential physical harm from the Horde, I simply had to smile and say: “Keep talking and you won’t get any help from me during next week’s Final. I will personally make sure you fail,” for them to walk away with lowered heads and thwarted plans. The Nerd became a badge of pride and for a while They lay still.
Time inches and the Horde travel in packs, their gilded castles rapidly changing the skyline until the Elder can barely see the turrets of his Castle…
High School in the United States was next, a secluded all-boys boarding school with the universal cliques of the younger years – the Jocks, the Trend Setters, the Just-Flew-Fourteen-Hours-to-be-Here. The Horde was different here – physically more fit and sent from less-than-loving homes and tougher streets. The torment became more physical and insults went from the scatological to witty enough to actually cut through the thickest of skins. In most cases though, the exhaustion came more from just having to deal with it every day especially since you sleep, eat, and shit with the Horde. Even the lightest of insults, when piled on over time, become a burden and I carried mine around with me from Morning Prayer to Study Hall: “Ugly”, “Weak”, “Caterpillar Head”, “Gay”, “Terrorist”. And unlike “The Nerd”, I couldn’t wear any of them with pride. Every sign of un-American “Otherness” was quickly sniffed out, marked, and passed amongst the Horde as ammunition from the way I pronounced my the alphabet, not knowing basic American pop culture, or any inkling that you aren’t made of 101% pure grade masculinity.
I was told much of this was simply a rite of passage. That you had to have a thick skin and give it right back but I found no joy in it and any attempts were quickly pointed out as feeble “OK Ugly. Go blow up a building”. “So what if they say that?” my dad would say over the old-fashioned rotary phone, his tinny voice transmitting from a million miles away “You’re different. Don’t be like the Americans”. In the midst of all this, in a school whose faith professed that God shall protect the weak, God was surprisingly quiet. And so They came like a specter over the rolling hills of Wisconsin, a familiar heat in the unfamiliar cold of the Midwestern winters. They came when I grabbed a classmate by the collar, shoving him into a locker for taking my glasses as a joke. They lay their burning hands over my eyes as I blindly fired barbed words wishing people harm at the slightest of provocations, benign or otherwise. “Ugly”, “Terrorist”, “Gay”.
Insults were cloaked in political debate, asses slapped, nuts sacked, Charlies horsed, masculinity called into question. The whole time They followed, threatening to spoil the good moments (of which I most certainly had many…but this post isn’t about them). As I learned to cope through Middle School with memorized test answers, I found that if you couldn’t beat the Horde, you could at least blend in. And so I learned to pick weaker targets: poking fun at gaits, appearances, and accents as I saw the Horde do. It wasn’t sudden of course as most of us recent converts start the same: silence in the face of others’ torment, a turned eye at someone’s misfortune, an approving chuckle at a fall, a sharp word tossed in while a Horde member claimed another victim. I saw the Horde shove a baby-faced Freshman around in the middle of a group prayer I, as the Senior, was supposed to be leading. I stood quietly beside an equally quiet God as the Freshman quietly pleaded for help, fear in his eyes.
All this time remorse was also a constant, bubbling up during the time I tearfully confessed to the Rector that I hated myself for picking on another student because he secretly reminded me of myself. It all came to a head when a “friend” (though equally a tormentor in every way) took the time to write a letter to me as I boarded the bus on the way to the airport for Christmas Break. “Your head is like a balloon, Paolo,” he wrote in English tinged with a Korean accent. “I feel like you could pop any minute now at the slightest word. What happened to you?”. It was the longest bus ride of my life and as tears of shame welled once more, I wondered if perhaps I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can be overcome with strength right? Isn’t that what strong men who walk with God do?
At times, the Elder will be invited into a Horde Castle with feigned kindness (“I swear I’m sorry…I’ll never do it again”) and offered sweet wine and rich meats, though on other days, the torment is doled out just as sweetly. The years go by and the Elder begins staying at these Castles, craving the honeyed words and acceptance temptingly hidden amongst the taunts. “Stay a while,” they say “It’s a long walk home and I don’t really mean it. Just a little teasing is all. Here, have my coat. Isn’t it nice? All of us have matching ones”. The Elder will don this cloak, marveling at its luxuriousness compared to his threadbare shirt, tattered from years of hard work. The Elder is now Horde, and he’s forgotten his way home.
College proved no easier. The frozen tundra that Minnesota becomes during the winter offered few places to hide when the Horde, now well practiced over years of training, let loose its expanded repertoire of torments. Minor embarrassments of unscrewed shalt shakers that would dump their entire contents all over fancy restaurant tables, more slapped asses. Pranks that took advantage of a newfound access to alcohol and college parties: Sharpi-ed penises on bare backs, baby powder hurled while sleeping, certain herbs slipped into communal pipes without your knowledge. And a new plethora of taunts with improved pantomimes and sound effects were gifted to me from the way my face was shaped (“Horse Face”, complete with neighing) to my inquisitive nature (a whiny “Whyyy?”, mimicked in chorus with the push of imaginary glasses up better-shaped faces). “Why bother? Don’t be like them. Maybe they’re just jealous of you,” my dad would say over Skype, his crackly voice and video transmitting from a million miles away. All the while I wondered why indeed it bothered me. This was all really just fun and games wasn’t it? Was I really that thin-skinned that I dreaded coming home to the Horde I lived with or going to public gatherings for fear of Them? Was I not man enough? After all, sticks and stones may have broken my bones years ago but words can be reasoned through right?
And yet…I couldn’t. What use is Reason when the words flew into me like gold-plated bullets, dipped in the now-familiar Red I saw clearly exposed near the pit of my stomach? The pit that now contained a potent mixture of old, aged Anger mixed with a newer batch of Guilt as sliver-tongued Horde Leaders convinced me that they were doing this all “for my own good”. “We would only do things we’d do to our own blood Brothers,” they’d say as I imagined their own siblings in tears, on their backs on grimy floors, forced to sing the lyrics of “La Cucaracha” to a jeering crowd for “character-building” purposes. This was for my own good. I was going to be made stronger.
Stronger indeed I became as I gradually earned my way into the Horde, swagger becoming stronger as I got better at picking my own targets and using my Nerd abilities to craft my own insult-encased bullets and sharpened blades of retorts honed in the fires of Anger and Guilt. “You’re not you when you’re around them you know?” someone important to me once said, her sentiment echoing a distant memory of accented Korean-English in a small, snow-whipped bus. “Perhaps”, I thought, but wasn’t this how one became a Man? To have the ability to dish it out just as well as it was given to you? Countless stories have told us about boys who have to survive in the rough terrain of Life to emerge as hardened Conquerors on the other end, full of reckless machismo and rewarded for taking whatever they wished from Power to Pussy.
Through it all They grew, in size and unpredictability, taking over during the many angry moments. Through it all the intruding thoughts grew, in frequency and violence. Through it all, I slowly forgot, both myself and my peace. Through it all I learned how to hide the hurt, cloaking it in skinny ties, gelled hair, and the aggressive masculinity the Horde celebrates. Through it all I convinced myself that so long as I stay on the offensive, stay cold, stay at the top, it would all be OK. But through it all, through every moment I lay drunk in the redness that clenched my teeth and coated my rage in guilty pleasure, a tiny voice cried out from a distant Castle, a Child forgotten.