As I mentioned in the previous episode, my Americanization was by no means a smooth transition. There were several character flaws I had to unlearn in order to stay above water. The first and most important one was openness. The Americans- at least those in the Midwest- value a person that is direct and honest about what they want. As a rule, British people- and British men in particular- guard their feelings like a lonely 13-year old guards his internet search history. I was told growing up to never let the bullies know they were getting to you, and maintaining a stoic exterior became a matter of pride that I took to the extreme. Of course, a perceptive person will be able to tell if something is wrong, and all you end up doing is suppressing a problem that gets left unresolved. When I got to the USA and my new friends became close, fraternal companions, I soon learned that I had to adapt or die.
Nothing pisses off a Midwesterner like the idea that you feel a certain thing but don’t want to tell them. I’m not just referring to being depressed, but more mundane things. For instance, if my American friends want to eat at a particular place and I’d rather not, they would rather I tell them straight up what I want rather than hide my displeasure behind a translucent veil of martyrdom. The first time I remember my depression being an issue of discussion was the advent of Intramural Soccer. Akbar formed a team for a league of 6-a-side games of footie in which half the members were boys and the other half were girls. This event revealed another trait I had to unlearn- the assumption I always make that I’m not included in anything that’s happening.
“Of course we were going to ask you!” Aaron and Akbar said, frowning at my feigned shock. That was another thing I used to do a lot (and still do sometimes), in order to guard against disappointment. I was still carrying around the fears of my school days; that I would assume I was included in or invited to something, only to find out when I got there that it was a “No Michaels Allowed Club”. Every Tuesday we’d get the bus that took us from Upper Campus to a place called Bollinger Fields. Akbar was sort of like Gandalf in that he knew everyone on campus and was effortlessly personable (even if the Akbar that Aaron and I knew in the dorms was more interested in toilet humor and telling us to suck our own dicks than being the kindly magician at the Hobbit birthday party). He would spend time with the other members of our team, making them laugh and asking how they were doing. I stuck close to Aaron and sought his counsel. I would get so nervous before a game, even though I had been playing association football for a good decade. Part of my anxiety came from the fear that because I came from a footballing nation, I would be expected to be the next Frank Lampard. We arrived at Bollinger and I surprised myself by putting in a good performance. I even notched a goal after our star player, a small South Korean girl (and easily one of the most talented footballers I have ever met) played a pass that (no exaggeration) was an exact replication of Lampard’s assist for Ramires against Barcelona in 2012. I ran on to the diagonal pass and coolly slotted the ball past the keeper. Everyone was so happy for me and I was full of confidence.
The next week, however, proved to be an opposite experience. I let my nerves get the better of me in a feisty, bad-tempered game. I felt weak, clumsy and embarrassed. I couldn’t get the ball to do what I wanted it to and I couldn’t assert myself athletically. We lost the game and to top it off Akbar ended up getting concussed. I couldn’t leave my feelings on the pitch and return to normal life. Just as the week before had me elated, I now became consumed with shame and depression. It was the first instance in my life where I thought of myself, in the moment, as being emotionally volatile. In my last post in this series I talked about the way in recent years my emotions have swung erratically between the extremes of happiness and sadness. Well, the second week of Intramural Soccer was the first instance of that. I have a distinct memory of walking alone down the sidewalk, ahead of the rest of the lads who were helping a wounded (and incoherent) Akbar walk. They called after me, seeing how childishly sad I looked, and I struggled to convey my feelings whilst at the same time being unable to hide them.
Aaron took me under his wing and we straightened it out. Ultimately, it wasn’t a big issue and I was fine by the end of the night, but it’s significant because it is the first time my friends got a sense of my emotional fragility, as well as being the first time I had ever thought of myself as an emotional person. The all-consuming nature of my anxiety that had been put on display at Bollinger would return time and again over the next few years, and it can be quite devastating when the issue at hand is much larger than a mere intramural game. It’s something I continue to work on.
I look back on the incident with fondness now, because it was the start of a journey that led me to a greater understanding of myself. As I said last week, my time amongst the Americans unveiled things about myself I didn’t know were there, but which surely had been lying dormant inside me for a long time. Americans, even the more steady among them, will come across as forward and direct to the British. The idea of me living with them and not being open about what I was feeling was not an option. Aaron became my full-time therapist, investing hours in my personal development out of nothing but his own unique instinct to care, protect and motivate. The next week, as I was shaking on the bus that took us to Bollinger, Aaron took note and said to me “We don’t have a chance tonight if you don’t believe in yourself.”
It’s one of those times someone says something to you that you know you’ll remember forever. I had been in Eau Claire a few short weeks and already I was being more open with my feelings than I ever had with my friends or family from back home. And as strange as it felt back then, I had no idea that my journey was just beginning, that I was entering into a story that would last years and be full of ecstatic highs and soul-crushing lows.
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