Den McHenry

That Time I Almost Killed a Kid

From time to time I notice that I’m holding myself back, either because I’m afraid of fucking up or terrified of being noticed, and I start to talk to myself as if I’ve gotten over it and made all kinds of great shit, and now I’m on some podcast passing on the wisdom I’ve attained. That kind of thing repeats often enough because the little game in my head tricks a part of me into thinking that recognizing a problem is the same as fixing it.

This reminded me of the time I gave up on novels. I hadn’t read Aristotle yet, and didn’t know the first thing about mimesis or catharsis. I hadn’t yet read Mark Twain’s damning review, but I knew that James Fenimore Cooper was full of shit when he let Natty Bumpo tie up all of the loose ends and save the countryside from the evil developers. What the hell was the point of the novel if it let you off the hook at the end, and made you feel like the thing that had to change had actually changed?

That’s how my little head games kept hurting me. I could feel like I’d solved the problem without doing anything but noticing it and tying a nice bow on it in my imagination.

Some Problems

I guess I should elaborate on the problems. Right now I’m concerned with how this has affected my ability to do creative work, and more specifically comics art.
  1. I spend too much time and effort getting ready to do things rather than actually doing them. I want to be efficient. I want to have the right materials and the right setting, and research the ways in which other people work before deciding how to proceed.
  2. I’m impatient, and try to work on the end result before doing any kind of preliminary work. Sure, I’ll spend days finding the right drawing board, but I won’t spend a second on sketches or studies. This connects with the next problem.
  3. I have a chronic case of trashing my own stuff and giving up on a drawing within seconds. Either I scribble over what I’ve started, or I throw it in the trash. I’ve spent as much time writing secret messages to myself—writing each letter directly over the last so that it becomes an illegible, black box—as I have completing drawings. I’ve written the most awful self-abuse and even wished for death because I disappointed myself on the drawing board.
The last is something I haven’t thought about in a while, probably because I’ve avoided drawing altogether for so long.

The Roots

Part of this has to be a classic case of impostor syndrome. But I think it comes in part from a childhood of being told that I was gifted. Being told that something comes easily to you and that you’re lucky to be talented, makes you feel like a fraud because it just isn’t true. Even as a kid, you recognize that it isn’t easy, but since everyone says it is, there must be others for whom it is true. You’re not one of them, but everyone thinks you are. You’re either a fraud or you’re doing something wrong, but you don’t know what, and have nowhere to turn for help, because this is supposed to be easy for you. And you’ll disappoint them.

So you become “your own worst critic.” That’s a shitty thing to have happen when the only way to get better is to make mistakes and just keep drawing. There will always be errant lines, and you can’t stop at every one. You need to complete something. And then complete something else. Your work will always be imperfect, but it should never be incomplete, or else there will be no work.

Complications

But that’s only part of the story. Some of my most vivid memories are of being wrong, embarrassed, bullied, or seeming a disappointment. They’re almost always with me.

I prided myself on spelling and pronunciation—even with a lisp and a stutter—and I was the first to put my hand up when the teacher asked if anyone could pronounce ‘deoxyribonucleic.’ I was so excited to show off that I didn’t even try to understand the word. Who knows? I might’ve known it, but in my head those letters sounded like ‘DEE-oh-ZY-ry-bo-NOOK-lee-ik.’ When the teacher called on someone else, who got it right, I was a tiny, panicked mess, shrunk down in my body like a thin shell. It’s a memory that comes back at the oddest times. Like “vitamin D” echoing in my head. Kids used to say that in a deep voice on the rare occasions I gave an answer because of one of those rare occasions. So I usually whispered or wrote the answer to the kid next to me and let him take credit.

I abhorred attention, and believed that even ostensibly positive attention was secretly an opportunity for open ridicule or silent judgment. Far into adulthood I was convinced that every time I walked into a room, everyone, whether whispering, laughing over a book, or sitting in silence, was talking, giggling, or thinking awful things about me. The worst part is that I believed that these things — what I imagined they said or thought about me — were true.

It didn’t help when, walking by the honeysuckle bushes one day on the way to the cafeteria, I turned to glance back at a group of girls who were laughing, and the prettiest one said, “Dennis? Ew, no! He’s ugly!” And the laughter picked up again. It’s not so much that it happened, but that I remember it so clearly. Years later whenever I drove by the school or stopped to vote on Election Day, I’d see those bushes, and that’s all they meant.

The time I almost killed a kid

There was the kid who would follow me home from school, whichever route I took, and always with two lackeys in tow. He’d taunt me mercilessly and try to goad me into an unfair fight, spitting on my back and into my hair. I wasn’t dumb enough to take the bait, but he never seemed to tire of putting it out there.

On the first day of seventh grade, as I stood in line for lunch, some bullies from my elementary school told a new kid named Matt to stand behind me and breathe heavily. I’ve been a heavy breather since I was born. There was some medical reason for it, but I’ve never known another way. I turned to face him, angry but silent, and as the seconds mounted, they goaded him on to do something. He wound up and punched me square in the jaw, and I didn’t move. I just kept staring him down till he ran away in fear. I started to chase him, and before I knew it I saw a foot come out from the lunch line. He hit the floor and I looked over to see another new face, a kid called Mike in a dirty denim jacket covered with menacing patches. He smiled as I tumbled onto Matt.

The lunch lady said we were on the floor throwing punches, but that wasn’t true, and that’s where it ended, with us on the floor. I think it made some people think twice, though. I could take a punch unfazed. But for me and my psychology, it was just another piece of evidence that I was weird and always a target.

Mike and I became friends. He was scrawny metal kid, so he probably dealt with his own share of bullying. He and I used to put on a little show in the hallways, where I’d hoist him up against the wall and pretend to be holding him by the throat. He’d kick and writhe and mime choking. We thought it was hilarious, and more than once put a teacher into panic. I think we must have been doing that one day outside the cafeteria when a dirtbag from the ninth grade came by to use the water fountain.

He took a mouthful of water, spit it all over me, and trotted off with a victory laugh.

Mike became a spy, and he had a plan. He found out which exit this kid used at the end of the day, and he told me which bush to hide behind. He told me to save up a mouthful of spit—no water for this fucker—and wait. It worked till he pulled his head back and all that spit sailed across the walkway to the bushes on the other side. When he pointed and laughed, I went into a rage, and nearly killed him.

The story that went around involved punches, but I’m not sure about that. What I remember most vividly is the choke hold. He was lanky and several heads taller, so I don’t know how I got his head down, but I was strong and a natural athlete, even if I was terrified of being seen in a wrestling singlet or football pants. (You're a fat little piece of shit, I probably wrote to myself a thousand times.) I had him bent forward at the waist with my left arm around his throat. He swung wildly, but had no hope of getting out or doing anything with his flailing, quickly weakening limbs.

I locked his left arm between my thighs so he couldn't punch back, and if I did punch him, as people say, it would have been now, when he was completely vulnerable and nearly unconscious. They say I punched him in the kidney, and that makes sense. All the rage I felt at everyone who’d ever been shitty to me came out as I squeezed and squeezed on his throat. I was too young and inexperienced to know how dangerous it all was, and too enraged to think about that if I did.

When I finally let go, his face was purple, and he dropped to the concrete. He was struggling to breathe, his body was limp, and I remember so clearly a heavyset bus driver with a pencil-thin mustache and wide eyes rushing toward me and keeping his eyes locked on as he knelt to help the bully. As the vice principal came running out to the scene, we briefly made eye contact. I just turned around and walked home, and I never heard a word about it.

That ended the bullying, but the damage was done.

So what am I going to do?

I guess thinking through that stuff is what they call psychoeducation. I kind of get what’s wrong with me. I’m self-diagnosing myself with Social Anxiety Disorder. It was there when I stepped in front a classroom to teach the first hundred times or so, and back a thousandfold every time an administrator walked through the door. Every boss I’ve ever dealt with, every job interview, every presentation I blew off and pretended not to care about, even in college. Every party I avoided and bar I skipped out on when my friend (singular) was busy making other friends. I kind of get it now, and it’s not what it was. So how am I going to proceed?

Back to basics. Start drawing every day, on a schedule, for a reasonable amount of time, the same way writers write. Keep a sketchbook and pencils at hand at all times and do studies of anything and everything. Ignore quality and just focus on some kind of completeness. Never stop at an eye or a nose. Stop wanting everything to be what it could be and let it be what it is.

And put things in public. Let people see you and be okay with that. It's time to do something real.

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