On Growth: How I Accepted Happiness Is A Choice

by Kirk Klocke

From a young age, my social awkwardness and difficulty connecting etched an inferiority complex onto the deepest depths of my soul.

Around 4 or 5 my parents suspected I had hearing difficulty, and I remember sitting in sound booths raising one hand or the other: 10-kHz beep, right, yes. 13 kHz, beeeeeep, left, yes. 2 kHz boooooop, right, yes. 17.5 kHz tweeeeeeeeep, left, oh yes. Your hearing is actually quite good, kiddo. So good, in fact, that the high-pitched hum of traditional tube TV sets and old CRT computer monitors drove me nuts, and no one gave me a straight answer when I asked if I was imagining things.

My lack of initial responses to someone saying my name and asking me something (huh, what??) had less to do with hearing and more to do with what we later discovered was a mild form of a non-verbal learning disorder (NLD), a condition on the fringes of high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. People with NLD often have a huge gap between their verbal and non-verbal IQ. To compensate in daily life, these kids develop often off-the-charts verbal abilities to compensate for their struggle reading visual social cues. Emotionally and socially, I coped with the distress of not being able to connect with others my age in two ways: 1.) by creating a vivid inner world that included fictional characters with nuanced relationships to each other and their host, and 2.) by seeking out relationships with adults, much older kids, or that one other 90th-plus-percentile intelligent kid in the class.

Sadness in my neighborhood (photo illustration/Kirk Klocke)

Sadness in my neighborhood (photo illustration/Kirk Klocke)

When I reached young adulthood not yet having grasped healthy coping mechanisms and internal work-arounds to achieve connection, the unhealthy coping transpired like this: 1.) exclusively seeking out relationships that begin online, where I’d have a sort of social head start – one in which the furtive eye contact and facial expressions that neurologically cannot match my intent aren’t as much of a liability as say, approaching a woman in a coffee shop; 2.) seeking out more and more verbally intelligent peers until I finally found myself in Nicholas Lemann’s singular Evidence & Inference course at Columbia University in New York, then really freaking out because until that point, I had never actually been challenged by anyone my own age; or 3.) not seeking connection, rather withdrawing from the world both mentally and physically by drinking heavily in isolation, effectively and intentionally using alcohol as a sedative street drug.

All the above are, for different reasons, strokes of bad news. No. 2 would have been a healthy way of getting my need for human connection met, but at the time I didn’t know how to function in a situation where I was just average.

Immersed in the apex of the academic journalism world, just three floors above where the Pulitzer Prize is deliberated, I finally had what I wanted, but I wasn’t ready for it. Rather than face the waves of discomfort head-on, I retreated into a years-long chemically-induced waking coma that was the only way I knew to protect myself from the aching un-healed fracture of inferiority that dated back to early childhood and was again splayed wide open by the Ivy League juggernaut.

Until recently I suffered from a deep unhappiness brought about in part by the grim circumstances that are par for the course in active addiction, and in part by the way I thought of myself in relation to others. I had a weirdly high tolerance for punishment that included sleeping on wooden slabs in detox facilities, checking into homeless shelters and sketchy rehab centers, and losing menial job after menial job because I was too sick to show up.

Cliché, maybe, okay yes, but that was my reality. Suicide looked like a better and better option until a close friend died partly because of the way she thought of herself in relation to her peers (just like I did). Then I attended the funeral for that brilliant up-and-coming 32-year-old, along with about 200 others, and saw mental illness-related premature death from their perspective. From then on, the phrase you don’t want to do this was no longer a jokey abstraction. Attending the memorial service imbued a new accountability to remaining alive, not so much for myself, but for the supporters I’d leave behind.

An impromptu sketch by my doctor at the time (Illustration/Asfia Qaadir, D.O.)

An impromptu sketch by my doctor at the time (Illustration/Asfia Qaadir, D.O.)

That perspective served as a new foothold for what therapists call developing distress tolerance. But suffering keeps coming, even when we shift our worldview. When I’m actively suffering, I must remind myself that it’s a normal part of existence. In the watered-down, mostly-white, Western version of Buddhist meditation, they sum up scripture with the phrase, ‘All I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering,’ although more serious practitioners are quick to point out that Gautama himself never actually said or wrote this. An even simpler axiom is this: Life is suffering. Once that’s our expectation, things aren’t as bad.

I learned that we cannot eliminate suffering, but we can lessen it by accepting our present circumstances as neither good or bad, but as temporary facts. I can be sad that I’ve been single for 13 years, or I can have faith that my time and energy was meant for other things. I can have pity on myself for being broke and deeply in school and medical debt, or I can look at how rich the reality of my present life is: clients and colleagues from New York to San Francisco greatly value my work, and my immediate family is starting to trust me again. I can shoulder the burden of shame for losing ten years of productivity to substance abuse and mental illness, or I can mine the experiences for creative inspiration that may save others’ lives.

Happiness is a constantly moving target relative to our perspective. I wouldn’t rate myself as truly happy, yet, but I have left the deepest depths of my depression behind and climbed to spiritually higher ground, where material circumstances will always take a back seat to connection and experiences. How? By deciding service work is not just OK, it’s honorable and valuable. By deciding living with housemates isn’t punishment for being poor, rather it’s a ride on a communal ship sailing toward mutual success.

By doing this: Rubbing intellectual sticks together to make creative fire, telling you all about it, then letting go. ♦