How I Broke My Shoulder: Masculinity, Depression, and Feedback Loops

July 26, 2020
Sam Marfleet

This post originally went out in my weekly newsletter.

Standing upright you can see that my body is quite asymmetrical. My right shoulder droops and where it meets my collarbone there is a pronounced bump and a six-inch long scar.

I forget about it for weeks at a time. It doesn’t hinder my movement. It doesn’t remind me with little jolts of pain. It is completely silent. Forgetting this scar is as easy as forgetting my own shadow.

When it does come to mind I’m filled with guilt.

At eighteen I drank myself into oblivion. Before I succumbed to alcohol poisoning I picked a fight with a very violent person and I lost. This is how I think about being a man.

Setting The Stage

I had just returned from boarding school. I was depressed. It was about a girl, of course. The highs and lows of my life have always been about a girl.

Though we’ve come a long way in normalizing depression, it is still an unspeakably isolating condition. By the time the sufferer has the courage to admit they are depressed, the horse is long out of the gate.

Additionally, the problem with depressed teenagers is that they tend to do the kinds of things that make you want to throw compassion to the wind and throttle them. Maybe it’s the combination of adult autonomy and baby nihilism.

This isn’t to say that they aren’t responsible. They are. It’s just a vicious feedback loop.

My parents insisted that I defer going to university for a year. Considering that their boy had become a sullen pothead who had been suspended twice in his final year of high school, this was entirely reasonable.

Instead I was to learn the virtues of adulthood by working a respectable job.

From the first day I knew I was screwed. My boss was a man of gluttonous appetites with a predator’s sense for weakness. He took one look at me and understood that I was hurting. A privileged punching bag. How glorious.

He terrified me.

He presented as an alcoholic. Large, rotund, though he moved with enough dexterity to make that size threatening rather than comical. His eyes were piggishly small and deep set. His features if endowed with even the slightest drop of kindness could be handsome. Instead they were bulbous and grotesque.

My boss had his favorites. It was an open secret which of the staff members he was screwing. He would also make it clear who was on his shit list. Once, in front of a full staff, he opined on a female staff member’s feminine odor which he announced was quite apparent to him.

Like I said, he was a nightmare.

Make no mistake, I sucked as an employee.

It’s not that I was bad at my job. I was actually quite good at it. The problem was that I ran roughshod over every reasonable expectation for how an employee should act in public. I openly smoked cigarettes across the street from my place of work. It was well known that I partook of the cannabis—though never on the job. And I was terrible at office politics. I didn’t even try.

To this day I don’t have a good explanation for my behavior. I must have been aware that I was making life harder for myself but I was set on sinking everyone’s expectations for me.

Whatever the reason, work was a difficult and painful place. I lived to punch out.

Meeting The Musician

Outside my job I had two friend groups that I’d switch between. One was headed by an affable sports and cannabis enthusiast. We eventually broke off our friendship in a dispute over money.

Then there was the musician. This guy was talented. And, really, I don’t say that lightly. Music has always been my scene and, although I’m a mediocre tinkerer, I’ve had the privilege of hanging out with some incredibly talented people. This guy was right up there.

On the surface this friendship was a bright spot amidst a sea of bad decisions. The musician encouraged my musician pursuits. He even tried to take me to church! This made for an amusing aside where his highly religious family thought I was having some sort of conversion event during mass. In reality I was simply so stoned and paranoid that I had to recite repeated Hail Mary’s to calm myself down. I suppose that’s a conversion of sorts.

The musician was a gregarious, good-looking, savvy guy who took me under his wing. I respected him. He was good with women. He was a fantastic artist. Above all, he was a man. A decisive man that lacked all of my self-doubt and obvious agonizing.

He was also a violent drunk.

There were aspects to our friendship that were genuine matches. A common thirst for knowledge. An exchange of ideas. The desire to change the world around us. And, as I’d learn much later, an all-consuming aggression that we channeled quite differently.

But the foundation of our friendship was substance abuse.

You see, my preference for cannabis was being augmented by a taste of rum. Between the one-two punch of grass and liquor, I was getting absolutely black-out hammered. This worked just fine for the musician who was a great fan of the excess.

Then things started getting more volatile.

It was always the same. The night would start out great and then something would happen to cause it to take a turn. Someone would say something, do something, or maybe just look at him a certain way and suddenly the musician was filled with apocalyptic rage. Suddenly I’m trying to put the pin back into this human grenade that is threatening to rip and maim anything along its path.

Most nights I’d be successful. But some nights I wasn’t and there would be a fight. And it happened night after night after night.

I hated it all and yet I stayed.

Feedback Loops Destroy Themselves

That year was a blur. We’d be at shows. We’d drink. The musician would upturn a table, punch-in a car door, get us banned from a bar. He’d wake up regretful. Swearing to God that he’d be a better person. The next weekend it would be the same thing all over again.

I rightfully hold a lot of guilt from that period. I don’t understand how I failed to see friends peeling off from our circle as, one by one, they fell out with the musician. I regret dismissing the rumours of what he was like with other people. I regret not waking up after a single one of those nights and thinking, “Jesus, I am never hanging out with that guy again!” Even as his actions affected people close to me.
It’s hard to describe why I acted the way that I did. I thought I saw in his sober side something so redeeming as to absolve the drunken barbarian.

Most of all I regret introducing him into anyone else’s life. That bit hurts the most.

By the latter part of the year my drinking habits had become prodigiously messed up. My relationship with my parents had completely deteriorated. All they could see was a thin, unresponsive pothead who smelled of booze and cigarette smoke. In retrospect I think I was being traumatized by night after night of hostage negotiation. Then re-traumatized by my own decision not to cut ties.

Everything came to a head the night I drank maybe half a bottle of 150-proof rum and, finally, picked a fight with the musician. It was short and sweet. He circled me twice like a big cat hunting prey and knocked me to the ground.

I arose filled with piss and vinegar and when I looked around everyone’s face was a mask of fright. I quickly realized why: my shoulder was hanging off of my body.

Then came a flood of events. I yelled at the musician to put the shoulder back in place. We tried and failed. I was rushed to the hospital.

I awoke to a doctor prodding me. He was explaining to my parents that I was still drunk. I remember their faces peering down as if into a fishbowl. As if observing some other species of being.

How far I had strayed. The time away in boarding school. The walls built between us. My untreated depression. The feelings of inadequacy. The workplace bullying I was unprepared to deal with.

Most of all there was this thick and heavy shame. The musician. This person I had put on a pedestal. The person who was supposed to help me learn how to be a man. He had been preying on the weakness of the people in his orbit, some of whom I had introduced him to, and finally it had come to me.

There was not a lot going on for me once I was discharged. My parents were understandably distraught. Though, having lived with me for a year, I suspect they knew that something like this was inevitable.

There was a lot of healing to be done. Unfortunately for them this wouldn’t be the end of their troubles with me. I was really a shit growing up and for that I’m sorry.

Weeks later we met with the surgeon who led my operation. He informed me that there had been a mishap with my procedure and this was the reason why my right collarbone protruded quarter inch above my shoulder. The defect was cosmetic but he offered to fix it for free.

I heard his words but I was somewhere else. Buried beneath an ocean. Bubbles of sound floating around me. Only occasionally intersecting with my own. There the cold currents pulled and pushed as I tried to shake myself free of the thoughts that kept me tangled. Barely seeing the light above.

I told him I’d keep it.

An Attempt At Integration

It’s been nearly ten years since the events of this story. I’ve since moved to other countries, gotten married, and am a far happier person than I once was. Still, the experience has really tainted how I view my home country. It has infused it with a feeling of insecurity that arises when I think about returning.

I know abstractly that people can have bad experiences anywhere. I know that there are people like the musician all around the world. But, at home, he is there. Supposedly he’s reformed. Found Jesus and made his peace with mankind. That’s great for him, really. I’m not much interested in finding out.

I’ve never written about this experience. There is a fantastic amount of shame and confusion attached to them. Obviously I regret the actions that I took but I also have a difficult time explaining them.

Why was I so self-destructive? How was it that I found myself at the whims of a strong male figure with a disdain for authority and a penchant for antisocial behavior? Why was this my model for understanding manhood? Really—for all my supposed moralizing—my fixation was on the totally amoral exercise of power.

When I sat down to write I never thought that I’d be telling this story. But I started typing two hours ago and the words have flowed freely until now.

Re-reading this, I’m reminded of a story I once read. It is an excerpt from John Vaillant’s marvelous book The Tiger. I will close with it here:

“As in all frontier towns, the gender ratio in Vladivostok was hopelessly skewed, so surplus bachelors were forced to find alternative amusements for themselves. One of these resembled a cross between Duck, Duck, Goose and Russian Roulette. Around 1895, an elderly survivor of this game was interviewed by a Russian researcher and travel writer named Dmitri Shreider . . .

[Excerpt begins]

“Some years ago [c. 1870], at the time of those fruitless hopes for unity and cohesion, an institution appeared here, ‘The Lancepupov Club.'”

“What kind of club was it, and what were its goals?”

“Goals? Why to combat the fragmentation and alienation in our society, and to gather its members for conversation and the exchange of ideas. But it wasn’t long before the Lancepupov Club degenerated into something absurd, something that is shameful to remember.”

My companion was quiet for a time, and then, hesitantly, he continued: “For example, how do you suppose you would like to play a game called ‘Tiger Hunting’?”

“Tiger Hunting? I didn’t know such a game existed.”

“I didn’t either, but after I lived here for awhile, I found out about it. I remember the game very well, especially when it rains or snows . . .”

The narrator rolled up the sleeve of his frock-coat and barred his arm. I looked at it and noticed traces of a large wound above the elbow. The wound had obviously been inflicted by a firearm and, for the first time, I noticed that my companion could not move his arm very well.

“Listen,” I said to him, “so far, all this doesn’t explain anything. And what do tigers have to do with it?”

“You don’t understand? Of course,” he muttered in embarrassment, “how can you . . . games like this don’t exist elsewhere. I was the Tiger!” he exclaimed suddenly, and a broad smile lit his sincere face.

“You?!”

“Yes. You seem surprised, but it’s all very simple: first we would appoint someone–let’s say me–to be the ‘Tiger.’ Then we would take all the furniture out of the room, cover the windows with mats, and turn out the lights. The other club members would be the ‘Hunters,’ and they would sit in the middle of the room (facing outward), armed with revolvers. Thus arranged, they would shoot in any direction where they heard the Tiger (that is, me). Obviously, I’d taken my shoes off and emptied my pockets of anything that might jingle. I would be running along the walls in my socks, trying to step as softly as I could–like a tiger. But one time, the role proved too much for me: I stumbled and got a bullet in my arm. I was lucky it wasn’t my heart.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Listen,” I said, “this is not a game. It’s murder! To cover the windows, turn out the lights and shoot at a human being? You could have been killed.”

“Not exactly. As you can see, I’m still alive. Anyhow, we saw it differently: it was amusing, in its way. Of course, with the lamps lit, death was a real possibility; but, in the dark, the Tiger could become ‘the Tiger!’ Besides, according to the rules, you could only shoot at the legs.”

“But you were shot in the elbow”

“It was an accident–I fell down”

“How could you agree to participate–forgive me for saying so–in such an insane game?”

“How? Now, of course, I can’t think about it without feeling terrified. But back then, it was nothing. Back then, life was cheap.”

“And were your other pasttimes so . . . amusing?”

“No, they were more what you’d expect.””

Until next time,
Sam