This is the third part of a series. Click here to catch up on previous entries.
“It’s easier to let go if you’re not holding on.” —Anonymous
I knew that I needed to learn this new brand of college math (Engineering Calculus) and I pursued it to the brink of insanity — for about a week. Once again I put my Tune-out Mode to use and decided to immerse myself in my drawing classes, for that is where I excelled and where I could make up for the anticipated low grade in Calculus. Besides, it was more fun to draw.
I was in one of two classes of Freshmen Architecture students and as a class we had all of our drawing labs together as a group, while our courses in elective subjects blended us together with the students from the other class. It was a good way to get to know everyone under different settings and circumstances.
My math anxiety was not made any better by my attempt to concentrate on drawing as a means to bolster my confidence level. It turned out that the guys in my drawing classes were good; I mean the GOOD type of good. Two or three of my fellow-future-architects could have gone into editorial cartooning or commercial art.
These guys were cranking out sketches and renderings that were well beyond anything that I had experienced up to that time and, just as in math class, I was once again a small fish in a very big pond. I did not see this coming because I had always cruised along just below the tip-top of the percentiles, in the top 10% or so.
I was scrambling in math, scrambling in my major, and holding onto a solid “C” in French. The one bright spot in all this madness was a single “A” in of all things, Gymnastics. Pole vaulting was paying off: strong arms and grip, strong upper body and back, all combined to one ray of hope — I wasn’t completely worthless after all.
At this point in the narrative I need to complete the picture of my first quarter away at college by explaining that on top of all this educational turmoil I decided to join a Fraternity and add alcohol and testosterone into the cauldron of fear, anxiety, resentments, and immaturity.
As you can imagine, it did not go well. Tune-out Mode, again: use this new social outlet as a means to concentrate on something that was working— good times with new friends and a social life that I never had before.
I am an only-child, born to parents who had huge, extended families. My father was the youngest of 10 and my mother had an older sister and their father was the oldest of 9. When both sides of the family got together it was a major production that typically took place sometime between the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
I had asthma as a child and my parents constantly reminded me of it, e.g. “Don’t do that, your asthma will kick up”, “Don’t pet the dog, you have asthma”, “Stay away from the cat, the hair isn’t good for your asthma”. They were trying to take care of me, but all I saw was a long list of things that I could not do, at least when they were around.
Every winter in Ohio I would get sick after Thanksgiving Day. After being hospitalized 3 times by age 5, my parents took me to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for tests. They found out that I had a number of allergies as well as asthma and recommended that we move to a more humid climate, South Florida to be exact.
The prevailing wisdom of the day was that moving to the dry climate of Arizona would “bake it out of you”, whatever “it” was and we had actually moved to Arizona for a few months prior to the diagnosis from Mayo Clinic. My third round of hospitalization with Pneumonia was enough to convince my father that the three of us should move to Florida.
We moved to Fort Lauderdale, which is situated on Florida’s East coast, south of Palm Beach and north of Miami. It was a land of surf, sun, and fun— Oh, and humidity, lots and lots of humidity. All of that humidity encourages a wide variety of molds to grow and also provides a moist climate for plants and trees to prosper (think pollen).
On one hand we managed to get away from the cold, wet winters of Northeast Ohio and the pollen of the hardwood trees and grasses. On the other hand we were immersed in sub-tropical beauty, complete with an enormous volume of new pollen, grasses and molds. I continued to get sick every November/December and the good news was that I was not hospitalized over it, although some of the home remedies were quite unusual in scope and duration. I missed a lot of school from first grade through fourth grade and when I was at home sick, or after school, it was against the House Rules to have any kids over inside the house.
My parents were convinced that other people’s children could not be trusted alone in our house. By extension, I took that to mean that I could not be trusted when alone, whether to keep order in the house or to play with the other kids, if my folks were not present. I spent my entire childhood, at home after school let out, watching other kids playing games together outside our house. The windows in our house were like having a high-definition television in every room.
The only channel was ‘lifetime’, literally. But it was not my lifetime. I watched baseball games, touch football, tag, hide-and-go-seek being played 50 feet from me and I could not participate. There was a second House Rule: I was not allowed to go outside the house, unless it was on fire, if my parents were not home.
I did not test the rules because I knew for a fact that the neighbor kids would rat me out to their parents. In 1955 we were the Damn Yankees in the neighborhood and I didn’t trust my “friends” to keep their mouths shut. My lack of trust centered over the first day of Second grade when, without warning, the boy who lived 2 doors down grabbed me from behind and pinned my arms behind my back while another kid punched me repeatedly in the stomach. I managed to get loose and away from them and never told a teacher, or my parents, what happened.
The reason for the attack was that the other kid found out that I was of German descent. At that time I spoke conversational German that I learned from my father’s father. The problem with my ethnicity had to do with the fact that this kid’s uncle, his father’s brother, was killed in Germany during WWII, which had ended 10 years before.
I became a loner at this young age. I eventually joined clubs and teams but I never really felt that I was a part of them. I learned early on that if there were an organized club or sport after school my parents would allow me to attend, as long as I kept my grades up. Rather than going home to an empty house and watching other kids have fun, I could stay at school and be outside and around other kids my age. My pattern of getting sick in December still continued, but the illnesses were not as severe and did not last as long.
Getting back to my situation at Georgia Tech, I had trouble in Architectural Drawing, English and French, and bigger trouble in Graphics and Calculus. The only bright spot was Gymnastics.
The only relief I had was my Fraternity because, you see, I had arrived. At last I was around other guys that I felt I could trust and it all started when someone handed me a drink of beer. I drank it down in three or four gulps and asked if I might have another. I could and I did and I shouldn’t have.
My only other experience drinking was about four months before when I was invited up to a weekend party at another fraternity house at Ga. Tech. A high school classmate who was a year ahead of me was going to school there and the party was to meet some of incoming freshmen to see if any of them were a fit for the fraternity.
My parents drove me up and dropped me off at the fraternity house, and then drove to a motel for the weekend. Someone handed me a can of PBR, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and I sipped on that beer all night. At the end of the evening, the other prospects had downed four or five beers and I still had half of my original one.
During Rush Week I went back to that fraternity house and nobody had anything to do with me other than a polite handshake and hello. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach once again. I was apparently on the Pay-no-mind List and so I was off to find new friends at another fraternity, located on the northern edge of the campus grounds.
This fraternity house was where I ramped up my level of social involvement, because I was convinced that drinking was the key to fitting in at college. My best thinking was that if I drank like the other fraternity guys did the previous Spring, I would probably have been accepted by them and invited to join their group. Instead, I was doing my best to fit in with these guys.
Video clip courtesy of The Accountant (a farm comedy)
Copyright © 2013 All Rights Reserved Ginny Mule Pictures
The acceptance and camaraderie that I felt with the fraternity brothers went a long way to ease the fear and anxiety that I held onto over my rocky grades. The alcohol went a long way to temporarily ease the pain. In the end it was of no help at all. I was beginning a long downward spiral.
Envision throwing a marble into the top of a funnel: it circles around the wide top edge, but over time it slows and slips lower and lower, while at the same time increasing in speed down the narrowing vertical space. That is how alcoholism entered my life, slowly at first and then with a hurried rush of mental and physical problems, coupled with fractured relationships. The good news is that I got help with my alcohol problem and am living a life of service and gratitude these days.
Fingerprints will continue with Part 4.