Throughout much of my early life, from childhood through the first decade of my adult life, I lacked anything that could be considered remotely similar to empathy. It is a quality I believe needs to be developed early on in a child's development, but any such development was denied to me for a host of reasons.
I was a different child in the years leading up through Kindergarten. My early life had left me with a need to reach out to others and to try to understand and connect with them. Things changed when I scored extremely high on an intelligence test when I was six years old, which led to me being part of a study done by a woman who was a doctoral candidate at Clark University (oddly enough, fifteen years later I would lose my virginity to a doctoral candidate at Clark University who was doing studies on young children). All this led to me being bumped ahead a grade, given advanced schoolwork to do, and slowly but surely becoming withdrawn from any form of real socialization between myself and other children. I became extremely withdrawn, painfully shy and terrified of failure as a result of all this.
My parents were young and I was their first child. The accidental nature of my conception caused both my parents to sidetrack their education and their career hopes in order to raise me. In many ways they considered my "giftedness" to be a kind of reward for their sacrifice and hard work. My father and I clashed often, I was always afraid to disappoint him, but it took years for the realization to hit. While he was a left brain dominant genius, his son was a right brain dominant wacko. Reconciliation was often difficult, as I was into studying history, writing stories, painting pictures, and trying to create wherever I could, and he was trying to get me to do advanced calculus when I was eight years old. His thinking was mathematical, linear and he connected the dots in a straight line. My thinking was abstract, which was later noted by that young doctoral candidate when she reported that I was finding answers to questions that weren't on any answer key but worked just the same. Years later, when my girlfriend the doctoral candidate was testing me for entertainment purposes, she told me she had to talk to her advisor because I kept coming up with answers to problems that worked just fine but apparently no one had thought of, or at least thought to document as valid answers.
I've been frustrating psychologists ever since.
During the summer of 1994, following my death experience, I found myself at the mercy of a sensation that generally overwhelmed me. In one on one, or even in small group settings, I found myself feeling things I had never felt before. In the past, all of my interactions with people involved fulfilling a want or need of my own I believed they could provide. The few relationships I had with women were predicated on how they could provide the things I desired in a relationship, which were primarily companionship, security, loyalty and sex. My friendships were founded mostly on who provided enjoyable company and would be there for me when I needed them. At no point in time during the various relationships and friendships that existed in my life did I ever consider what I was able to provide them. This inevitably led to my depression and suicide, since the direct result of never seeing what I could provide others was believing I never did provide others with anything they could not get from anyone else. This, of course, led me to believe I was completely meaningless and useless, an easily replaced cog in a wheel, mass manufactured and disposable when broken. So, once I was broken, I disposed of myself.
My survival keyed on acquiring empathy, that which I believed was sacrificed in my childhood in order to foster development of my so-called genius. You ever see those super genius types who function at a higher mental level but are emotionally vacant and are socially inept to the point of not even knowing how to dress themselves? Yeah, that's what they were trying to grow me into. I rebelled as a teenager, escaped the noose, and then found myself without any real grounding whatsoever. I was no longer a genius, I was still completely socially awkward, and I had a serious inability to relate to other people.
The feeling that washed over me in the months after my suicide left me confused and mesmerized. I would listen to people and felt myself understanding them, not only on the level of what they were saying, but the emotions that drove what they were saying. Many of my old friends deserted me in those days, confused by the very dramatic change in my nature and how I dealt with things and how I was no longer completely dependent upon them. Others, who talked to me, were confused at how instead of listening and offering stock phrases I learned from a textbook in response, I seemed to geniunely listen and understand at a different level. Often I did not even have to try, a sense of understanding just came to me and I knew what to say and what to do. I was no longer disposable because I was no longer all about self-preservation and fulfilling my own wants and needs. Other people mattered to me, and once I was strong enough, it became clear that others mattered more to me than I mattered to myself.
It was when I began to go out into large groups that this newly developed sense of empathy began to overwhelm me. Sitting in a crowded club with a friend, I passed out at the bar. Having only had one beer, my friend was confused and concerned, but the truth was that this had been the first time I had been out in a large group since my death experience. As I sat there, I felt waves of emotion, feelings of anger, betrayal, desire and love washing over me from every direction. There were negative emotions and positive emotions, all crashing together in a cacophany of emotional sound. I had no idea how to handle it. My head felt like it was going to explode. My heart was beating rapidly. And I fell off the bar stool and passed out cold on the floor.
A month later, sitting in the office of my new psychologist, I told her everything that had happened to me over the previous six months, and then went back over my life history.
"Do you know what an empath is?" she asked me.
"Isn't that some kind of space alien?"
"Well, you are that as well," she laughed, "but I think your experience has given you an extremely strong inclination towards empathy."
"So, what does that mean, exactly? I passed out in a bar after being overwhelmed by the emotions of other people, I had to leave a concert because the way the music was affecting the people listening drove me to tears, and the people I've known for years get creeped out because they think I can feel what they're feeling because of how I respond, and this is a good thing?"
"It sounds like you grew up trying to, if you forgive me for putting it this way, function like a robot. You tried to please your father by trying to get your mind to work like a computer because that's what you thought would please him. Then you started fighting everything in sight, from religion to social mores, that did not make sense within your strict rationalist philosophy, and then you had all these relationships that left you empty because you felt they should have lasted forever and never change. You ever wonder why, in your near-death experience you went to a desert? Isn't that how you saw yourself?"
"You know, in 1984 I sent myself alone to the desert, well, to the University of Arizona, anyway because I believed I deserved to be exiled for my general incompetence."
"Let me guess, it didn't go well."
"After two months I stopped going to classes and sealed myself up in my apartment, leaving only when I needed to get food. Then I tried to pass myself off as a rock singer, got mixed up with some crazy dudes, did peyote with one of them, and saw a vision of myself as a unicorn impaling himself on a stake in the middle of a big bonfire. Sometimes I think that night was a vision of my suicide. Not exactly prophetic since I was quite aware that I was slowly killing myself because I didn't know what else to do."
"And you came home with your tail between your legs, unicorn boy?"
"You know, sometimes you sound more like a bartender than a psychologist. I get the feeling you'd be happier giving casual advice while pouring beers and shots than sitting in this office."
"Yeah, this office does suck."
"Where are you from? I can't place the accent."
"Houston. I came here to go to work on my doctorate. Clark University. They have a really tough program in psychology. I don't suppose you know anything about it."
"You'd be surprised."
After four regular sessions and another four over beers at a nearby bar, she convinced me to work on developing my empathy and learning how to control it and keep it from overwhelming me. With time, she felt, I would be able to keep it under control and there would be few times I would let it completely overwhelm me. There have been times when I felt it starting to overwhelm me. Those who know me know that sometimes I just mysteriously walk away or back out of plans, always making certain I haven't seriously disappointed, hurt or let down those in attendance. If it overwhelms me, I'm of no use to anyone, and often a danger to myself. I need time to focus.
At the foundation of everything I have come to believe in and to accept, from the deep understanding I have of the message, "Give everything you can to everyone you know" to my sometimes annoying habit of trying to help those who seem to be rejected by everyone else they encounter, I have to thank empathy, which once was a curse but now is the greatest blessing ever granted to me by my angels.
And Angie the shrink gave up her practice, dropped out of the doctoral program and went back to Houston to become a bartender. A couple years later I got a postcard from her, postmarked Houston, and on the back it just said, "You were right. I'm much happier." She didn't sign it. She didn't need to.