Have you ever had someone look at you with a pity? I have had people look at me with pity. A face that is one part judgmental and two parts charity. A look that will make you realize just how low you really are. A look, today, I only give to street kids. It’s the same look. I know. I give it to street kids and simultaneously feel horrible for doing it. But what is one to do? Help? How? One cannot help when they cannot even fathom the scale of how deep the problem is. The people who gave me this look saw that I needed help. But how? Where to even start? Should they remove me from the household? Pay my school fees? Pay for counselling? Clothes? Food? This very train of thought is becoming too much of a responsibility. “Is he being physically abused?” No. “He’s fine.”
The thing about growing up in an addiction environment is that you learn to smile. You learn to act. You can never tell anyone what is really going on. Because that will hurt mom and dad. You have a duty to protect your home. Both mom and dad and society will remind you of this regularly. You cling to your siblings closer than you, probably, will ever cling to anyone else. Nobody else can understand it. That feeling of wanting out but not wanting to leave people alone for fear that they will leave you permanently. Only siblings do. We keep our secrets. Nobody needs to know. So we put on Oscar Award worthy performances. Big smiles and tall tales whenever needed. But if not required then we stayed invisible. I am still proud of the fact that I can walk into a room, be recognized, and then forgotten almost immediately after leaving. Practice makes perfect. I have been practicing for 20 years. Daniel Day Lewis has nothing on me.
I got out. Out of reach at least. I went to school. A university far away from that little town. Away from the daily reminder of the addictions. A guilt trip or two over the phone. But I was out. I even made new friends.One of them used to say to me, “Smile until it hurts”. It sounds strange. But for him, he was just flipping the script. He had a lot of hurt in his life. He smiled because it hurt. So I suppose the destination of “until it hurts” for him was more about when the smile would run out of flavor. But unlike dad and his brown bottles, my friend found his smiles at the ends of Stand Up Comedy shows. Sometimes at the beginning of them. Sometimes at the end. A constant supply. As long as the internet could supply the Stand Up, he could find a smile. The internet has a lot of Stand Up.
As a friend, he was the best. We had similar backgrounds. Broken things tend to fit well together. We went on many adventures together. One could say, we discovered the world together and we almost ruled it. Almost. We did not see it coming. We did not see her coming. She had a nice smile. We both noticed. But she liked my smile more. So I thought, because she appeared to fly in my direction, like a moth to a light bulb. But moths fly in many directions. They only seek warmth. They could care less about the source. She smiled for me and she smiled for him. At first it was in secret. Then less secret. Eventually, she only smiled for him. I remember the day he told me what had been going on between them behind my back. He was smiling. Winners tend to do that.
I put my smile away for a while. A teacher stopped me in the halls. She heard me give a mumbled correct answer in her class and wanted to know my name. I told her my name. She looked at me and told me to smile. I asked her why. She told me to smile again. So I smiled. Then she asked me my name and I told her my name while smiling. It felt unnatural. She smiled as she said, “That’s better! You look better that way!” It made her feel safer in a way. I don’t know how. It just did. So whenever I saw her or was in one of her classes I smiled. I couldn’t do anything else. She checked to make sure. But it was not real. It was a means to an end. To keep her off my back. Practice makes perfect.