Damaged Goods: Autobiographical Fragments
The theme of "damaged goods" is a persistent thread which has run throughout my life, and a self-image with which I have had to constantly struggle.
I was very slow in developing the ability to speak coherently. Even as late as age four I was forming what seemed to be sentences but which nonetheless seemed to others as nothing more than gibberish. My parents initially thought I was mentally retarded, and had me tested for that condition. It turned out that I had no problems in that area, so the examining doctor suggested that my parents have my hearing checked. They did so, and at age five I was diagnosed with a moderate, bordering on severe, hearing impairment. Thus, at the young age of five, I learned that I was handicapped.
I was fitted with a pair of hearing aids late during my first grade year, and it was at this time I was forced to acknowledge that I was not only different, but damaged in some way. I did not articulate it in this manner until some years later, but I began to view myself as "damaged goods". I was mercilessly teased by my classmates because of my hearing aids; after all, they did make me different from everyone else. Even with extensive speech therapy I still did not speak as well as others. Consequently, I was often bullied. Fortunately, I was an excellent student, so my teachers did what they could to defend me from the taunting of my classmates. Of course this was effective only while we were at school, but over time my academic excellence caused my status being changed from that of "retard" to "brain". Nonetheless, I still felt like I was damaged goods.
I was raised in a fundamentalist household, so I asked my parents why God had allowed this to happen to me. I was told only that "the lord moves in mysterious ways," and that "he had a plan for me which would be revealed in time." These answers were not satisfying, and the image of myself as damaged goods persisted. I wondered what I had done to offend God to cause him to inflict this disability on me.
Throughout my school years, continuing through my first effort to obtain a bachelor's degree, I resisted wearing hearing aids in large part because the hearing aids were so obvious that people with whom I was having conversations usually would stare at my hearing aids rather than look me in the eye when talking with me. This manner of interacting with others harmed my self-esteem and enhanced my image of myself as damaged goods.
I even allowed my hearing impairment to influence the direction of my career. In high school, like everyone else, I took an occupational interest test which supposedly determined the careers for which I was most suited. The first career on my results was attorney. The second career was psychiatrist. The third career was clinical psychologist, the fourth career was social worker. The fifth career was industrial psychologist. The sixth career was child psychologist. The seventh career was marriage and family counselor. I don't recall what the eight, ninth and tenth proposed careers were, but they were in the same vein as the previous six. Clearly I had a strong inclination towards the mental health professions; however, I feared that my hearing impairment would interfere with my ability to be an effective practitioner. It is ironic that now, at age 51, more than 30 years later, I am finally pursuing this life-long interest.
In my adult years, as a result of the psychological distress I was experiencing, I sought out psychotherapy. One evening my therapist questioned me about why I didn't wear my hearing aids. His question led into a discussion of the damaged goods issue, but he suggested that my resistance against wearing hearing aids was a way of manipulating people. A way of compensating for my hearing impairment was available to me, but I refused to take advantage of it, and instead required others to speak more loudly to me and repeat themselves in order that I could understand them. After some consideration, I admitted that he had a point.
Around this time a new type of hearing aid which fits entirely into the ear entered the market, and I purchased a pair of these. The new hearing aids were not only superior in quality to the hearing aids I had been wearing, but they also were less obvious. Fewer people stared at them as they were having conversations with me. Many were unaware that I even had a hearing impairment until I made some reference to it. As a result of the insight provided by my therapist and the new type of hearing aids, I began to wear them more frequently. I must admit they did improve my quality of life. I had been missing so much when I did not wear my hearing aids.
The therapist I had been seeing during my early adult years diagnosed my condition as generalized anxiety disorder. I would now like to fast-forward to 1996 when I was working in the technical support center at a large regional Internet service provider. Once again I had almost allowed my hearing impairment to stop me from pursuing this opportunity (I feared working on the phone, because lip-reading was such a significant part of how I comprehended speech), but the Americans with Disabilities Act was in place at this time. I informed my employers of my handicap, and with no hesitation whatsoever they acquired special equipment which assisted my ability to hear over the phone. In any event, a co-worker's son had attention deficit disorder, and this co-worker gave me a book about ADD called Driven to Distraction, telling me that he thought I, too, had ADD.
When reading this book I felt like I was reading my life story. A self quiz was at the end of the book, and, with 100 being the highest possible score, I scored an 88 indicating a very strong likelihood of my having ADD. I had discontinued the therapy I initiated during my early adult years after three and a half year because I felt we had accomplished everything we needed to do in therapy. With this new discovery, I decided to investigate the possibility further. After consulting with a psychiatrist, he agreed that I had ADD, and he prescribed medication for the disorder. At the same time, the life-long theme of damaged goods re-emerged; this time, however, I had a mental disorder -- a new handicap -- not merely a physical handicap.
A few years later I returned to my hometown of Jackson (I was living in San Francisco, CA at the time) for my 25th high school reunion. I was estranged from my parents, so I stayed with my brother and his wife during the visit. Just prior to the reunion event, they began questioning me: "What will you do if someone asks you if you are married?" they asked. I responded that I would simply say that I wasn't. "But what if they ask you why you aren't married?" they continued. I stated I would resort to the frequently-used diversion of saying that I hadn't met the right person yet (keeping my integrity by saying "person" rather than "woman"). They persisted. "But what if they ask if you're gay?" "Then I'll tell them that, yes, I am gay," I replied. "Then what will you do if they decide to make trouble for you? they asked. "Guys!" I finally exclaimed in exasperation; "I'm already nervous about this event, and these questions of yours aren't helping the situation!" My sister-in-law then offered me a Xanax to help calm my nerves, which I took.
The effect was dramatic, although not exactly euphoric. For the first time in my entire life I felt a sense of calm and peacefulness that I had never experienced. I can relate the experience only by analogy: because of my hearing impairment, I have had tinnitus -- a ringing sound in my ears -- all of my life. It was if the tinnitus had ceased, and I finally experienced what true silence was like. My first therapist in New York had once said he thought I was in a constant state of fight-or-flight syndrome; Xanax, for the first time in my life, caused that barely conscious but pervasive feeling to go away. I had been minimally conscious of this feeling because, like the tinnitus, it had been with me for so much of my life that it had slipped beneath my consciousness. The Xanax made me aware of the truth of my earlier therapist's comments, as well as the fact that this feeling which had been part of my life for so long was no longer present.
When I returned to San Francisco I told my psychiatrist about this experience. He asked me questions to determine if I commonly experienced distressingly violent nightmares or had an exaggerated startle response. When I answered these questions in the affirmative, he changed my diagnosis from ADD to post-traumatic stress disorder, and prescribed Xanax which I took for the following several years. My feelings about myself as damaged goods were affirmed, but now I had a different source to which to attribute the cause, which in itself was another illustration of the damaged good theme.
As a child I did not like eating meat. I also was a pale and frail child, and my father decided that this was because I did not eat enough meat. Therefore he was going to teach me to learn to like meat. He did this by forcing me to eat meat, and when I resisted he would beat me with his belt. I found eating meat so repulsive that at first I vomited. However, my father said, "You're not going to get out of this that easily," and he forced me to eat my own vomit, making me lap up every drop. This series of episodes which went on for a period of several months had indeed made me damaged goods, and years later I was paying the psychological price.
I lived in California during the years of the dot-com boom, and when that period was followed by the dot-com bust, I, like thousands of others, was out of work and unable to find a job. I had no choice but to return to my hometown because I could no longer support myself in California. After returning to Jackson, I went first to a clinical psychologist and then a psychiatrist for assessment, thinking that I would continue my Xanax regimen. However, they decided that instead of post-traumatic stress disorder I had bipolar disorder.
I entered a partial hospitalization program which is very similar to being institutionalized except that I was allowed to return home each evening. But every day from 9AM to 4PM it was all therapy, all the time. We spent three hours per week on cognitive-behavioral therapy, two hours per week on grief and loss issues and on family issues, and one hour per week on anger management, stress management, art therapy, goal setting and other topics. We also had a one-hour session each week of individual counseling and a medication management conference with the psychiatrist who ran the program. My medication regime was changed entirely.
But the biggest struggle for me was coming to terms with the fact that I did not merely have a psychological disorder, I had an honest-to-goodness serious mental illness. Once again the theme of damaged goods re-emerged. The cognitive-behavioral therapy component of the partial hospitalization program was instrumental in helping me come to terms with this issue. Yes, I had a serious mental illness; yes, indeed, this represented another genuine, documented handicap, but the notion of damaged goods was an idea that I applied to myself, and it was an idea which was within my power to change.
In late 2004 I was offered a job which allowed me to return to my beloved California. This job was an unhappy experience, so I moved to another job after five months. I remained with the new company for over two years until I was asked to leave because of a precipitous decline in work quality and productivity. I embarked on a search for a new job with little success, and consequently became very depressed. I lost nearly 100 pounds, but I attributed that loss to depression because I was not eating properly. However, I was taken to the emergency room twice towards the end of 2007 near the point of death.
On both occasions the doctors did not know what caused my symptoms, so I was released after a few days when my condition stabilized. However, without my consent or knowledge, I was given an HIV antibody test during my second admission to the hospital. I subsequently was told that not only was I HIV-positive, I had a T-cell count of six, meaning my immune system had been almost completely destroyed, and a viral load of 800,000, meaning HIV was running rampant through my body. I was diagnosed with an advanced case of AIDS.
Because I was unable to care for myself, it became necessary for me to return to my hometown of Jackson so that my family could nurse me back to health. I was gravely ill for a number of months, but as my physical health improved I became aware of a need to deal with certain psychological issues. The notion of damaged goods once again struck me, much more severely on this occasion. This time it was much more than a hearing impairment or a mental illness; I had a serious, life-threatening disability. I applied for and was awarded disability, thus confirming my status as damaged goods. Because AIDS is a permanent condition, my life would be forever altered. It would have an impact on my career and my relationships. Interestingly, at the time I was told I had AIDS, my first thought was not one of self-pity, but fear for what it might mean for a serious romantic relationship which had been going on for five years at that time.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Because psychotherapy had helped me on previous occasions, I once again sought out a therapist to help me deal with my grief and anger issues, as well as my self-image as damaged goods. From previous experience I also had learned some coping strategies, so once my health improved my activist streak reasserted itself. I learned that Mississippi has a significant HIV/AIDS problem, so I became involved in local and state HIV/AIDS activist organizations. I founded a support group for those struggling to deal with their own HIV/AIDS issues.
I also resolved to return to school to obtain a master's degree in social work so that I could provide counseling services to those living with HIV/AIDS. While researching programs, I learned that Tulane has a program leading to a dual degree in social work and public health, with a major in HIV/AIDS as an option. So that is the route I have decided to pursue: after obtaining a bachelor's degree in social work from Jackson State, I hope to enter the dual degree program at Tulane. After that I plan to return to Mississippi in order to specialize in providing psychotherapy for those struggling with HIV/AIDS, and work on developing and managing public health programs relating to HIV/AIDS.
Nietzsche once wrote, "That which does not destroy me only makes me stronger." I may be impacted by physical and mental handicaps, but in the final analysis these have served to make me a stronger individual. Indeed, they even have led me on paths I probably would not have chosen otherwise. I acknowledge my handicaps, but they shall not disable me. And that relationship I so feared would come to an end because I had AIDS: it continues to this day. As he told me, "Nick, AIDS is something you have; it is not who you are!"
Written for Human Diversity and Social Justice course at Jackson State University, July 2009. Grade: 9/10.
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Last revised: June 5, 2015.