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John Paul Scotto | Longreads | July 6, 2023 | 11 minutes (3,069 words)

Dad and I were tossing a football in my yard. I was pleasantly surprised that my arm muscles retained the memory of a flawless throwing motion. The ball practically leaped out of my hand. 

“It’s a shame Coach Mike didn’t give you more playing time,” Dad said. “You had such power to the opposite field.”

He was referencing my final baseball season, freshman year of high school, two decades earlier. 

“It’s all right,” I said, snagging his pass with one hand. “It was just JV baseball.”

“You could’ve started at third base, shortstop, or catcher.” 

I remembered allowing five consecutive passed balls as catcher. Berating myself for striking out. Eating obscene amounts of sunflower seeds while warming the bench. A teammate saying, “What’s the point of you even being here?”

My face flushed. For God’s sake. How could these ancient events still make me emotional? 

“Well, I hate competition,” I said, throwing a spiral. “I’m never going to compete again.” 

Dad caught the football, tucked it under his arm, and said, “Fine.”

The sonic rhythm of our catch gone, we stood in a screaming silence. Would we fill that silence? Would we talk about the chasm between us? The thing we’d never really been able to discuss? 

Hell no.

My senior year of high school, I was accepted into 11 colleges. My father was in consistent contact with the football coach at each school, talking to them on the phone, mailing them VHS footage of my games. Baseball hadn’t stuck, but playing quarterback had; Dad hoped I would continue doing so at a higher level. The summer before college officially began, I moved to campus for practice, intending to succeed at quarterback as a tuition-paying walk-on. 

But sleeping in the dorms proved impossible. There was a strange dude snoring on the bunk under me. The room smelled of industrial cleaning solutions. The mattress was made of squeaky plastic. I was sore and tired from practice. My body needed to shut off and recuperate, but my awareness of this need heightened my anxiety and kept me awake. 

After three nights, bleary from sleep deprivation, I called the team’s head coach from my cell phone. I was pacing in the dormitory’s common room, on the verge of hyperventilation.

“Why are you calling?” the coach said when he answered.

“I can’t play football anymore,” I said.

Then I began weeping uncontrollably. The coach said nothing as I offered half-coherent, slobbery apologies.

Finally, he said, “All right, all right. Just calm down. Jesus. It’s all right.” 

Dad drove me home from campus later that day. I stared out the passenger side window nonstop: trees behind guardrails, green mile markers, the smell of Dad’s Arrid XX spray-on deodorant. 

“I’m sorry I quit,” I said. “It was too hard.” 

“You have nothing to apologize for,” he said. We never talked about why it was so hard for me. 

That was our entire discussion of my college football career.

Freshman year of college, I loved my classes, since they introduced me to ideas I’d never encountered in my small, conservative town, but I was going mad from lonesomeness and insomnia. In the wee hours of the night, I’d aimlessly walk city streets, contemplating suicide and fantasizing—ludicrously—about transferring to another school, playing football, and going to the NFL. I’d often sit in a pew at a vacant Catholic church, begging for Jesus or Mary or God or anyone, really, to help me calm down and sleep. 

This was unsustainable. After freshman year, I moved back home and commuted 75 minutes each way to campus. While my peers were attending college parties and discovering themselves, I was glued to a laptop in my parents’ basement, playing Texas Hold ’em, my money spread across six tables in an internet casino. I had rigid rules for how to play, and I was able to consistently win money. 

In the wee hours of the night, I’d aimlessly walk city streets, contemplating suicide and fantasizing—ludicrously—about transferring to another school, playing football, and going to the NFL.

My goal was for internet poker to pay off my growing student debts and ensure I’d never need a real job. This didn’t seem ridiculous. My high school football teammates and I were enmeshed in the poker craze of the early 2000s, and one guy from our town was already making a living as a card player. To this day, two decades out of high school, he’s never had a proper job, and he’s rich. He sits at the high stakes table in a casino and waits for “donkeys”—tourists, rich people, degenerates—to give him their chips. 

The difference between me and that guy was that he could control his emotions. I had meltdowns. I’d get heated about bad hands or I’d want to win faster. Then I’d break my betting rules, bluff hugely, and get called on it. I’d often spend weeks methodically earning thousands of dollars, and then, during a meltdown, I’d put all of my winnings on a single table and lose it in an instant. I couldn’t account for why I was doing this. Some nights—at the height of my addiction, which corresponded with periods of extreme social isolation—I’d try to stop gambling and sleep, but my arms and legs would flex and quake at the thought of playing cards, and I’d get out of bed and attach myself to the laptop until sunrise. 

I was in a long-term relationship with a woman I’d started dating at the end of high school. She attended a college two hours away, where she partied regularly and made friends. I had her Facebook page memorized, and when she posted a new picture, I scrutinized every person in it. Part of me was a jealous boyfriend. But mostly I envied her. I wanted a Facebook page full of people and fun. I wanted to be invited to parties. I wanted to dance and be free. Why couldn’t I? I wasn’t sure. I just knew that foreign, unpredictable circumstances drove me into myself, rendered me silent. As a kid, I’d always thought this shyness was something I’d grow out of, but in adult life, things became less structured and predictable and my shyness intensified. 

Eventually, my high school girlfriend and I broke up. We cried together and said that we had grown apart. I would struggle greatly with this loss, missing her for years after she’d moved on from me. But I knew our breakup was the right thing to happen. I was holding her back. I lived in a hole, and she lived above ground. I didn’t yet understand the nature of this pit I was in. It was too deep. 

When my gambling problem got harmfully expensive, I admitted to myself that I was a donkey, and refocused my addictive energy onto movies that I loved. During one phase, I watched Pirates of the Caribbean multiple times per day, every day, and I’d annoy my family with my bad Jack Sparrow impression. I also got hooked on Just Like Heaven, a romantic comedy about a man falling in love with a woman’s ghost who lives in his apartment. I liked fantasizing about living with a ghost. I wanted a human spirit to witness my private, friendless life, and to fall in love with me.  

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Because I tended to get obsessed with movies that weren’t very good, I often wondered if I was an idiot. The most pronounced example of suspected idiocy occurred after I wrote a letter to Keira Knightley and dropped it in the out-of-town mailbox at the post office. The moment the mailbox rattled shut, I got queasy, and I saw myself with a harsh and sudden clarity: I was a 21-year-old man who’d written a love letter to a celebrity, and the person who would ultimately read the letter—not Keira, of course, I realized in my new clarity—might think it had been written by a child. 

I stopped rewatching Knightley’s movies after that. Even my beloved Pirates. It scared me that I could get sucked into a black hole of obsession. My brain perpetually wanted something to latch onto and compulsively think about, but I had no idea why. 

I became obsessed with another movie: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I liked that critics considered the movie “good;” this made my compulsive rewatching feel slightly less idiotic than usual. 

I was especially moved by the scene in which Kirsten Dunst speaks the movie’s title. She quotes a passage from Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard”:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned.

The “vestal” is an ideal—forgotten, forgetting, innocent, safe—that the speaker wishes they could become, which of course they can’t. Because the speaker is not an ideal. The speaker is a human spirit cursed with a human memory. Like I am. Like you are. And no matter how much we try to erase our worst memories, they remain etched into us. 

Toward the end of college, I’d go to bars alone, sit in a corner, and watch how people behaved. I took mental notes of the social techniques that would be useful to me: how to buy a beer, how to nod and smile while listening, how to rest your elbows on a bar, how to navigate a dance floor with apparent ease. Once I had a working knowledge of traversing nightlife, I’d go out with my younger brother (he had a fake ID) or my former football teammates, to practice having fun with others. By the time I was 22, I trusted that I could socialize with peers, as long as there was alcohol involved, the lights were dim, and the noise was loud. In other words, as long as many forces were drowning out my social anxiety.

The speaker is a human spirit cursed with a human memory. Like I am. Like you are. And no matter how much we try to erase our worst memories, they remain etched into us. 

After undergrad, I bounced around. I did a master’s degree in New York City before becoming a well-intentioned, ineffectual high school teacher in Hartford, CT. Then I moved to Virginia to pursue an MFA. Each phase of life felt like a chance to finally become normal. My method of reinvention: lying. I tried to construct an image of myself that was socially competent, smart, and even charming. I talked as if I’d had friends in undergrad, as if I’d been to house parties and drunk beers from kegs. During my MFA, when I got invited to potlucks, I acted like they weren’t the first potlucks I’d ever attended. I talked about playing high school quarterback as if it were a purely positive experience, and I made no mention of the isolation and embarrassment of playing—as a shy and sensitive teenager—such a public role in a small town. 

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel hires a company to erase his ex-girlfriend Clementine from his memory. Most of the movie takes place in Joel’s mind, while scientists pinpoint and remove memories of Clementine. Throughout this process, the backdrops of Joel’s memories crumble and deteriorate. A powerful example: A house collapses into rubble, as if being demolished. 

I told lies about myself because I hoped that I could alter who I was to other people. I didn’t want to embarrass others—especially my dad—by being a strange man. Perhaps I could even alter who I was to myself, in my mind.  It was like I was perpetually demolishing a house inside me. And sometimes that demolition became literal in its violence: I would punch myself in the head, attempting to knock my embarrassing memories and bad feelings out of my skull.

But the house inside me would always reconstruct itself. 

It couldn’t be destroyed.  

After repeatedly failing at reinventing myself, I’d always give up my elaborate fabrications. I’d avoid social gatherings, and cling to a romantic partner or one great friend. This shift back into hiding always followed an embarrassment, usually involving alcohol. I’d drink too much. Then I’d puke or cry in front of people. 

Sometimes the embarrassment highlighted my dishonesty. For example, I frequently told my fellow high school teachers that I was friends with Snooki from The Jersey Shore. Snooki had grown up near me, and I played it as if I knew her before she was famous. 

Then, one day, my sister visited, and we ran into one of my colleagues at a bar. The colleague asked if my sister knew Snooki, too. My sister responded: “Too?” My face reddened, and, in a panic, I said to my colleague: “I’ve never met Snooki. I just pretended I used to party with her because I wanted to seem interesting.” My colleague changed the subject quickly, choosing not to linger on my lie or make fun of me, not because my lie wasn’t ridiculous or worth laughing about, but because only a weirdo would tell such a lie, and it would’ve been mean to tease a weirdo. 

Growing up, I knew I was different from other kids. Dad knew, too. But he didn’t want to think about it—perhaps because my obsessiveness and social problems were traits I’d inherited from him. I was taught not to whine about my insomnia or my emotional discomfort. One of the most common phrases I heard from my dad was “I don’t want to hear it.” He’d say this when I attempted to talk about an unpleasant feeling. So I kept my struggles to myself. Ground them up. Crushed them. 

This resulted in a lifetime of compulsive behaviors. Compulsive movie viewing. Compulsive weightlifting. Compulsive eating. Compulsive gambling. Compulsive self-harm, porn watching, chess playing, fiction writing, sexting, weed smoking, lying. Most of all, compulsive drinking. Anything to distract my mind from what it contained. 

For years, my wife encouraged me to see a doctor about my social, emotional, and addictive issues, making it clear that she loved me because I was weird, that I had nothing to be ashamed of. She stressed that I needed to explain everything, even the embarrassing stuff. Like the head punching. The strange obsessions. The rocking and humming when I was overstimulated at night. That this had all been going on since I was a little boy. Eventually, when I was 35, I told a psychiatrist everything and was diagnosed as autistic. This news, though difficult to deal with at first, has allowed me to forgive myself for the strangeness I’ve always wanted to erase. 

Forgiveness has softened my writing style. Before I knew I was autistic, the tone of my writing was vicious. I explicitly hated myself, and it was unpleasant to read. It was also reductive, as hatred always is.

From this softer perspective, I’ve felt safe to explore things I’d spent years attempting to eradicate from my head. Toxic friendships. Repressed queerness. Severe social problems. My complex love for my father. These are the stories I was supposed to have been writing all along, and I no longer feel, while writing, like I’m grasping around in the dark. Instead, I’m sitting in a sunlit room and simply naming what I see. 

Before I knew I was autistic, the tone of my writing was vicious. I explicitly hated myself, and it was unpleasant to read.

Finally bearing witness to my own life has been significantly more healing than medications or therapy. Every prescribed medication has had unendurable side effects. Therapy gives me brutal anxiety. But that’s okay. I’m finding peace just by envisioning myself through a forgiving lens. 

At the beginning of Eternal Sunshine, the memories of Clementine being erased from Joel’s brain were the types of memories we’d all like to erase: toxic moments; fights; ugliness. But then—and here is where Joel realizes he wants to call the whole thing off—the memories become tender, sweet, warm, good. I’ve always taken comfort in this idea: that bad aspects of the past are intrinsically linked to good aspects, and that to erase one would be to erase the other. Eternal Sunshine suggests that the ugly and the beautiful are parts of a whole, and that love—for yourself, for your partner, for your friends, for your family—requires you to acknowledge and embrace the ugly, so that you might also acknowledge and embrace the beauty. 

I used to be frustrated with how firmly difficult memories of my father remained implanted in my head. But now I’m glad they’ve stayed. If I had erased them, I would have erased Dad, and with that erasure, I would have lost memories I’d never want to forget. Like that time in high school when, mostly thanks to my talented teammates, I led our offense down the field and threw a game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock, and Dad—along with the rest of the crowd—stormed the field, found me in the fray, punched me lovingly in the chest, and said, with tears streaming down his face, “You clutch mother son of a gun, you.” A combination of words I’ve never encountered elsewhere, which translate, in the world of my head, to this: I can’t believe you pulled this off even though it’s all so hard for you, John Paul.

Or the time in college when I’d gambled away all my money and racked up a few grand in credit card debt, and Dad cracked open my bedroom door and said: “Listen, John Paul. If you don’t quit gambling cold turkey I’m going to get you professional help.” I said, “Okay,” and he said, “Okay.” Thanks to that tiny exchange, I was able to stop playing cards. All because Dad said aloud for the first time—and one of the only times—that he knew I had problems, and he wanted to help me. In the past, I resented how infrequently Dad would acknowledge my struggles. But now, post-diagnosis, I don’t want a single thing to be different about Dad. His brain contains something ineradicable and restrictive that makes intimate conversations with me incredibly difficult for him. He cannot help this, just as I cannot help so many things about myself. And therefore I forgive him. 

I’m also glad for the memories of being a socially stilted loner. An obsessive fan. A lying drunk. If I had erased these ugly things, I would have also erased what’s beautiful about me. Namely, this: I’m strong. I’ve managed colossal problems all by myself. I’ve stimmed through thousands of sleepless nights without understanding why my body was quaking. I’ve memorized how to carry myself through complex social situations so that my discomfort remains mostly hidden. I’ve learned to use my hyperactive mind to generate levity and happiness in others. I’ve developed the wherewithal to articulate my suffering in writing. And I’ve done all of this, until very recently, in the dark.

John Paul Scotto’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in 
The Sun MagazineGulf CoastDecember, and elsewhere. You can contact him here

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy editor: Peter Rubin