My Meandering Path Toward Authenticity

 In My personal path

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
~Brené Brown

I awoke early on Christmas Day 1947 brimming with anticipation. Searching frantically under the Christmas tree, I found Santa’s gifts of cowboy gear—hat, vest, chaps, boots, and two toy six-guns. But, to my utter dismay, there was no sign of the Shetland pony I was sure Santa was going to bring me.

Janie, my great aunt, and Mae, my great grandmother, pressed me to try on the cowboy outfit. “Santa won’t believe you’ve been a good little boy if you don’t appreciate his nice gifts,” Janie said. Disappointed and disheartened, at first I sullenly rebuffed their entreaties. But then I looked at my mom, Sue, who smiled encouragingly, and finally, I succumbed.

While my dad Mack was finishing college on the G.I. Bill, we lived with Janie and Mae at their home in Irving, Texas. I was happy kid, loving, and easily moved to tears, nonetheless both of my older relatives made it clear that, if I wanted their love and acceptance, I must conform to their vision of a “good little boy”—obedient (“Speak when spoken to at dinner and always clean your plate.”), cheerful (“There’s nothing to be sad about, Brucie. Just put on a happy face.”), and emotionally restrained (“Stop that whining or I’ll give you something to whine about!”).

Employing the time-honored childrearing methods of the era—blaming, shaming, criticizing, withdrawing love, and spanking—my relatives did their best to mold me into the dominant cultural paradigm’s ideal of maleness and away from any behavior that even hinted at femininity. My mom, young, fearful, and insecure, was overprotective of me, and she generally followed the lead of Janie and Mae. With no kids my age in the neighborhood, I hung out with Lucky, Mae’s mongrel dog, and I listened to the adventures of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Lone Ranger every afternoon on the radio.

Me in 1950

As a result of all this negative feedback, I unconsciously began to doubt my worthiness and my lovability. For after all, how could these women care about me if they treated me in such an heartless manner? Furthermore, beneath my awareness, I began to question my natural way of being, the essence of who I was, since it so often seemed to offend my elders.

A few more Christmases came and went before I fully realized the pony would never materialize no matter how I longed for it. But without the pony, I’d never be a cowboy, and if I’d never be a brave, adventurous, heroic buckaroo, who was I to be? However, while attending an SMU-Texas A&M college football game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas with my dad, Plan B crept into my unconscious mind. The roar of the crowd as the teams ran onto the field, the rousing refrains from the band, the fans’ fervent adulation of the All-American running back after scoring a touchdown; the seed was planted.

After we moved to Mount Pleasant, Texas, I learned the rudiments of the gridiron during sandlot games with my coterie of neighborhood pals. Ed and Marvin, the two older guys, taught us the basic techniques and rules, then we chose teams, and the mayhem commenced. Our games took place on a nearby vacant lot almost every afternoon after school, and though we wore no protective gear, we played tackle rather than touch football. Lots of bumps and bruises, but never any serious injuries. Scrawny, shy, and self-conscious, I was not one of the first players chosen, but I certainly became one of the most enthusiastic. Driven to conduct myself like I thought a real football player should and to fit in with my teammates, I unconsciously began to cobble together a hypermasculine persona based on the attitudes and behavior of my peers, adults, and radio and movie characters—tough, competitive, wary, and loyal. And before long, I was accepted as a full-fledged member of our little band of ruffians.

I never had second thoughts in 1955 about trying out for the Tullahoma (TN) Junior High football team after we’d moved there in the early fifties. It was just what real boys did. While I was certainly not a standout player, I held my own and became a starter in my final year of junior high—the ninth grade. I savored the camaraderie and bond with my teammates, and it was clear that being a team member provided a higher social status with the other students (including the girls) than the guys who weren’t on the team. My dad, with unfulfilled gridiron aspirations of his own, was highly supportive and very proud of my efforts.

After playing on the junior varsity football team my first year of high school, I became obsessed with becoming the best football player I could possibly be. I lifted weights religiously, ran sprints in the off-season, and abstained from alcohol and tobacco. I listened to the University of Tennessee Volunteer’s football games on the radio and visualized myself as a standout college receiver. And while I was not large for a football player—a little over six-feet tall and 175 pounds, I was strong, quick, and a vicious tackler and blocker, impulsively taking out my pent-up adolescent angst on my opponents. My junior year I became a starter on a team comprised almost entirely of seniors that went 8-2 and was ranked in the top ten teams in the state before running out of steam and losing two of our last three games.

Preparing to lay a blind side block on my opponent

Prior to my senior season in the autumn of 1960, the local newspaper sports columnist accurately asserted that this would likely be a rebuilding year for the Tullahoma High School Wildcats. We wound up with a 5-4-1 record, but gained momentum as the season progressed and won our last three games by large margins. I was voted team captain, chosen for the All-Midstate team, played in a high school all-American game in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and was awarded a full football scholarship at the University of Tennessee. Acknowledged and held in high regard by my fellow students, my teachers, and townspeople alike, I’d attained my vision of gridiron glory. But most importantly, I had achieved wholehearted acceptance by my teammates and my other pals.

On the surface, I was the epitome of the All-American boy—athletic, attractive, bright, cool, and tough. But despite my newfound status, just beneath my awareness, the limiting beliefs I’d taken on out of the events of my early childhood—that I was worthless, inferior, helpless, unlovable—festered. Ever on high alert that anyone might glimpse behind my fabricated façade, I was driven to be perfect—always do the right thing, say the right thing, always show up as the macho stud I pretended to be. And whenever I thought I hadn’t lived up to my unattainable standards, my fierce inner critic would harshly berate me, my brain would drop into its fight or flight mode, and I’d spend hours attempting to repair the perceived breach.

I had refrained from drinking entirely throughout high school in my pursuit of excellence. But it was springtime, and we were about to graduate and go our separate ways, so what the hell. Donnie drove on that day in mid-May of 1961, Billy Ray had shotgun, and I sat in the back seat. We stopped at a dumpy little package store whose proprietor was known to sell beer to minors, and we each purchased a quart of Country Club Malt Liquor, which was reputed to have more bang for the buck. We cruised out the country road toward Rutledge Falls sipping our cold brew, laughing, joking, prematurely celebrating the independence that was at hand with the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” booming from the car radio.

Though it was more than sixty years ago, I still distinctly remember the malty smell and the slightly pungent taste of the beer, but mostly I remember the peaceful, serene feeling that came over me as the alcohol took effect. Not fully cognizant of it at the time, the tension in my jaws, my throat, and my shoulders diminished, and my inner critic went silent. I was immediately and unconsciously hooked.

So, I began drinking, ostensibly for fun and enjoyment, but really as an unwitting attempt to regain the harmony, inner peace, and wholeness that I had experienced in my early youth and only infrequently since then. Besides, real men were big-time boozers, right?

My ungainly and often challenging journey toward authenticity began this day with the bottle, and I would go down a number of other blind alleys before finally discerning the wake-up calls that would lead me to the path back home.

To be continued

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