Silent Night: The Other Voice in My Head

As the 2015 holiday season envelops me, I reflect on last year's Christmas episode in Las Vegas and what it says about my psychological well being.

When I was a child, the holiday season was one of my favorite times of year. I was excited not for the presents or decorations it brought, but the feeling. For a few weeks, everyone seemed to simply enjoy the fact that they were alive. They stepped back and appreciated that our mere existence is wondrous and didn’t worry about all the other stuff that comes packaged with it. Christmas morning was the one time of year I could be in the moment and not worry about what happened next. I opened my presents slowly, taking time to examine each item, sometimes even unboxing them, before moving to the next wrapped mystery. I even took time to observe what my two brothers discovered because, hey, it’s pretty cool to not know what the overly-ornate paper is covering and watch the reaction of the person who realizes he gets to own what it contains. As a child, Christmas is spiritually pure in that selfish way. Everyone wants you to feel the joy of the desire to live.

When you’re an adult, it’s not the same. At least for me it hasn’t been. Every Christmas of my adult life, except for one, has been a trial by fire in which my will to live has been tested by emotionally-charged, combative situations. The most trying was last year’s family get together in Las Vegas. The year before that debacle, my girlfriend and I spent a few days in Sim City as one of my best friends had discovered how cheap it was. We stayed in the Rio, walked the Strip to take in all the decorations, ate like kings, saw Penn & Teller live, met Penn (one of my heroes), and met up with my godparents for dinner on Christmas Day. We didn’t even get presents for each other as we agreed the most important thing was to be together, and we would be spending money on the trip anyway. I honestly can’t picture a more perfect holiday.

The next year, we decided to repeat the experience. My mother, having heard about it from myself and my godparents, asked if she and my father could join us this time, offering to pay for a room in the Cosmopolitan and all our food as our Christmas presents. In hindsight, accepting this offer was my first major mistake, especially as my brother who I have never had a healthy relationship with and his wife were soon recipients of the same offer.  This trip should’ve been a tradition about me and my girlfriend’s relationship, not an attempt to merge it with my familial obligations. It was in that crossover that I unknowingly invited all of the psychological problems that I’ve faced in my adult life to come to a climax.

Ever since Britney Spears’ Vegas show began when we were there for our first Christmas together, my girlfriend wanted to go. Hearing about this desire from my mother, my brother’s wife, who is never one to be outdone, expressed an excitement to go as well. My parents, in their ever-generosity, purchased tickets for everyone. The only problem was that four of the seats were together a few rows ahead and more to the center of the stage than the other two. As has been convention in my life, I was asked, along with my girlfriend, to take the two seats in the back away from everyone else. I was annoyed, but didn’t think I had any choice but to acquiesce as my parents were paying for the ticket. But this trip was our idea, and going to this show was my girlfriend’s idea. If we were being left on our own, why didn’t we just do it all ourselves? We should have. I should have, and because I didn’t say so, I brought what came next upon myself.

As the show was let out, the crowd in the theater foyer grew making it almost impossible to keep track of myself, let alone my girlfriend, while trying to find my family. My stress levels rose above the annoyance I already felt about the seating as we grouped together and walked outside across the bridge over the Strip. I tried to get my girlfriend’s attention to say something to her by calling her name. Each time she ignored me. Each time the anger that masked my pain grew in intensity. We reached our hotel on the other side and I broke off, leaving everyone, including my girlfriend. I didn’t want to be around anyone. They had all left me alone in the cold.

I calmed down a bit and decided to locate the group to talk to my girlfriend and explain why I was upset. I found them and began talking to her. As I did, my brother came over, clearly intoxicated, put his arm around her, and tried to talk to her. I became irate. We are not a touchy-feely family. The only time I’ve ever touched my brothers’ wives is to hug them hello or goodbye. I would certainly never put my arm around either of them. Additionally, I was talking to my girlfriend about something important, why did he need her attention at that moment? Because it was a competition. I was 31 years old and my younger brother by a year was still trying to beat me at the pissing match he had been instigating since we were kids. I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t able to process that my family never takes my thoughts, beliefs, and emotions into consideration. I felt like I was losing my girlfriend to them. I couldn’t process anything. I grabbed her arm and tried to pull her away from my brother. She, completely understandably, didn’t like that so much.

The situation devolved into a shouting match between myself and my family. Horrified by everything, I ran off to my room. To her credit, my girlfriend followed and attempted to dissuade me as I threw all of my things in my bag in preparation to return to California and leave everyone including her behind. Over the years I’ve developed the coping mechanism of immediately cutting off anyone who threatens me emotionally. It’s the only method of self-preservation I’ve ever known. I was inconsolable, so that was my solution. As tears streaked down my face, I prepared to strike out on the Strip with my suitcase even though I had no car in the city, no room in my own name, and no plane ticket booked back to LAX. It was a completely irrational plan but I was well past the point of rationality. I was burning up from the inside, ready to combust at any moment, and didn’t know how to put out the fire.

Soon my mom came to the room to try and figure out what happened. She refused to believe me as I explained what my brother did and how it was intentional as he has a history of acting that way toward me. She could only say that she didn’t understand what I was so upset about and didn’t know what was going on with me. This moment was arguably the most painful I’ve ever experienced and my mom couldn’t even show sympathy, let alone empathy, for me. My girlfriend was, of course, shaken and hurt herself. I was on the precipice of walking out of the room with my stuff and leaving her there before she pulled me back. No one hugged me. No one told me it was being okay. I felt like I was the subject of an inquisition.

I don’t remember what happened next or over the rest of the trip. Over the next couple of months, my relationship with my girlfriend degenerated and ended. It was unable to bear the stress of us both feeling unheard and unacknowledged about what happened. I returned to communicating with my family sparingly. Most importantly, I threw myself into work and didn’t cope with what happened, a problem that was exacerbated by a week’s trip with my family following my youngest brother’s wedding in June. In that same month, I began a new job and, combined with my part time job and gym schedule, I began a schedule where I left the house at 7:30 AM every morning and didn’t return until 10 PM. I had shut out the world that I felt had shut me out.

A little under a year later, I returned to Las Vegas with one of my best friends for a conference he was giving a lecture at. As he had never really walked the Strip, we did so on the night following his lecture. I hadn’t realized that the Cosmo was the hotel next to the one where we were staying. As we walked into the same entrance that fed the bridge across the Strip, I was overpowered by the giant chandelier hanging in the middle of the room, shiny floors, and glass storefronts. I didn’t immediately recognize where I was. I just knew it wasn’t good. My head began to pound and my stomach churn, two pains that haven’t left me a week later.

My friend flew back to Los Angeles early the next morning leaving me with a whole day in Vegas to do whatever I wanted. I struggled to combat loneliness. I was decidedly and intentionally anti-social. I worked out. I played a couple slot machines. I wrote a review of the pilot of Colony. Most of that piece was completed while I ate dinner at Holstein’s, an awesome burger joint in the Cosmo right next to the elevator up to the room I tried to walk out of. The bartender even asked me if I was working. I said I was on vacation, but she was probably right. I’ve always been working. Writing is work. It’s also how I survive. My head is the only safe space I’ve ever felt I had to express my thoughts, beliefs, and, perhaps most importantly, my emotions. Except it’s never been a safe space at all.

I am very intentionally using the college campus buzz phrase “safe space” to describe my issues, as I don’t believe I’m looking for anything different than those protesters are. I just go about finding it differently. Adam Carolla has provided what I think is the best explanation for these events, for lack of a better term, on college campuses and beyond, especially in regards to race. His thinks that the demands for a safe space come out of unaddressed trauma. This assessment makes sense because asking for a safe space is asking for a place where you don’t have to feel pain anymore (as you only need an other space if your normal space isn’t safe). It is only once you have your safe space that you can begin to heal.

Notice how I used the word “your.” I never realized until recently that I ‘ve suffered trauma too. It is hard for me to accept that fact. Even writing it now feels disingenuous. It feels silly to mention my trauma in a similar breath to the kind I noted in the last paragraph. But emotions and experiences aren’t comparative, and I can’t evade mine any longer. I don’t know where or when it began, but being emotionally ostracized and delegitimized became normal for me. In fact, it became so normal that it’s what the voice in my head tells me. Except it’s not my voice. It’s the voice of my mother, my brother, my family, and whoever else has hurt me without my standing up for myself. It’s the Other Voice.

My voice is much different. I love life and myself and feel deeply. I cry during TV shows, movies, and the Patriots winning the Super Bowl. In my safe space, I know everything I’m truly capable of and do it. I hear my voice when I record my podcast, work on my web series, or write a script. But, mostly when I interact with people, my voice is shouted down by The Other Voice. I become fearful and self-doubting. I forget what makes me great. My safe space is destroyed.

You see, when people demand others be silent to create a safe space to live in, they’re not really seeking an external safe space. They’re trying to take back the only safe space any of us can have–inside of our own head. What they really want to silence is not other people, but what they believe other people caused–the Other Voice. However, I personally that other people didn’t create the Other Voice. I did, as a coping mechanism to put the pain I didn’t understand somewhere so it didn’t overtake me completely. And it’s always lurked, trying to convince me that my thoughts, beliefs, and emotions don’t actually matter. Why? Because I never addressed the pain I experienced. I never asked why I had been treated that way. Most importantly, I never told myself it was ok to stand up for myself when I was being treated that way. So, I never told the Other Voice to shut up. I thought it was normal. It became normal. It’s not normal.

Today, I’m coping with how alone I am this Holiday Season as I accept that spending time with my family will only strengthen the Other Voice and as I watch my ex-girlfriend quickly move on without any remorse or regret. I have to accept the mistakes I’ve made to bring myself to this point–and it sucks, a lot.

For me, December means cold, both in the weather and my soul. I look back over the past decade and the only good holiday break during which I spent time with my family that I remember is in 2007 when the Patriots clinched their 16-0 regular season. I still remember high-fiving everyone when Tom Brady connected with Randy Moss on his second deep throw in a row to him to give each of them a regular season touchdown record. And that moment is all I remember. I can’t recall a Christmas before 2007. As for after 2007, I remember numerous yelling matches during which my evil was decreed, the worst of all happening very publicly in Las Vegas last year. The Other Voice had never been louder. Now I have to try and figure out how to shut it up.

Maybe this year I can finally have a silent night.

(Note: Minor details of this piece have been edited since its original publication in order to better reflect reality now that I have become healthier.)