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Finding Compassion for a Broken Man

He didn’t imagine this for my life. He’s in his 40’s and walking back to his halfway house, after working a long day of construction framing. His body aches and his mind is screaming at him. He uses alcohol and drugs when he can, it quiets his mind. Yet he knows he will likely be drug tested tomorrow, so he walks past the liquor store with what little strength he has left. He gets back to his dingy room, the cockroaches hiding from the light. He swallows a couple sleeping pills and waits for sleep to come. Sleep has always been hard for him. It’s been 40 years and he still hasn’t figured out how to sleep, what type of man can’t fall asleep.

He’s being hard on himself again, that’s really the only way he knows how to speak to himself. While he remembers his past, he isn’t yet able to offer himself any compassion or forgiveness about why he can’t sleep now. When he was a toddler, the youngest of the bunch, he wasn’t able to protect his older sisters. He laid in bed hearing the repeated sound of a belt as it hit his sister’s flesh. His oldest sister would bawl so loudly, yet that seemed to end her punishments sooner. Then his mother would begin to belt the younger sister, and she never made a noise. Her beltings would last the longest. He would finally wet the bed and cry out. His mother would leave his sisters alone, now he was the one to face her pain.

Towards the end of her life, he would get to know his mother. She was a depression child, the middle of seven. After her father left the family, her mother had to try to keep seven children feed, which seemed like an impossible task. She gave her middle child away, to be a maid, for a household that had plenty of food. Over her entire life, she would only share one story of her time in that household, so what happened there would mainly be a mystery. Yet it’s evident to see, she carried a lot of pain, and it would leak out and effect those she loved the most.

Back to him though, he’s lying in bed with his noisy brain. Even in prison, he had better access to alcohol to calm his brain. Within a year in prison, he was a bootlegger, sneaking juices from the cafeteria and fermenting them in his cell. He was able to trade his moonshine for a little more safety in prison, and the alcohol allowed him to get some rest. Rest might be an overstatement, it allowed him to black out, more of a respite from his mind and his physical cell. He didn’t have alcohol in this moment, so all the memories of how he messed up everything in his life flooded his mind. How he and his wife were both been sent to prison for being marijuana farmers. His kids were in their early teens and drifted among family members, each suffering from their own trauma and not being able to provide his kids a home. By the time he got out of prison, his kids were adults, thus no longer needed and no longer spoke to him.

He had a temper, he knew that, he was far from the perfect man. When he was born, the trauma of his mother, already impacted his epigenetics. His DNA was methylated, which is actually a protective factor, if a human was born into a warring tribe, it was safer for us to think less and react more, this piece played into his temper. He spent his entire life reacting, no one had showed him a different way. The traumas of his prison life added on to the traumas of childhood meant he had a highly activated amygdala. His amygdala would take input anyone else would sense as beneigning and send him into fight of flight. What happens in fight or flight, is blood flow to the prefrontal cortex almost stops, this prevents the ability to empathize with another or even yourself (another reason he frequently speaks so harshly to himself) and shuts down logical thinking. It floods his body with stress hormones, so he’s ready to take out the threat in front of him, even when the threat is someone he loves. He has no way of sensing this, he’s flooded with cortisol and lacks blood flow to his prefrontal cortex. While it’s possible to demethylate his DNA, he didn’t know to search out for this, he keeps blaming, ridiculing, and torturing himself for not being able to act differently.

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This is my portrayal of a small part of my uncle’s story. A few months after this point, I’m 19 and visiting my grandmother and see him viciously lashing out at my grandmother. She got down on her hands and knees crying. He began yelling racial epithets, I never knew existed, at two of my friends. I held a bitterness and fear towards him for this event.

My uncle’s story does change. After his third DUI, his life begins to change with the support of his mandated counselor. He praises her frequently for altering the course of his life. He becomes the only family member of that generation who encourages me to take care of myself. He appears to release the manipulative traits he picked up as a child to obtain safety. He rebuilds the relationships with both of his sons. He’s in intense, chronic pain. He chooses to spend his money on their college education, instead of obtaining medical insurance and addressing his needs. They both get their associate’s degree and walk for their graduation on the same day. He then allows his son and myself to help him get insurance and begin to have doctor’s visits. They discover he’s already stage four cancer. He’s surrounded by his sons, nephews, and niece during the last year of his life. He’s healed many of his wounds, and supported us in beginning to do our own healing. I believe he became the man he wanted to be.


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