AMBROSE D. SMART | Imposter Syndrome
I think what I’m about to tell you is pretty much accurate, but please don’t take my word for it, because I’m not sure. There’s not much I am sure of these days.
About a week ago, my father apparently thought it was a good idea to consume a lethal concoction of alcohol and prescription medication. He’d been drinking for a while but never really liked to talk about it, and after a long, drawn-out hospital stay during which he was mostly unconscious and pretty much incapable of speaking and I was mostly just sitting at his bedside wondering how the hell I’d go on without him, he was finally pronounced dead.
And now he’s been gone a couple days, and I’m sitting here in my room just thinking—thinking about how I always thought it would be me who died from some sort of botched, half-assed suicide attempt, not him, and trying to recall simpler times when I wasn’t so damn confused, but it seems like I’ve been confused for as long as I can remember.
As far as I can surmise, it all started soon after my mother died, when I was about seven, and my father thought that joining a tee-ball team would help me “process my grief” and master important skills like Perseverance and Focus, so he used to take me to the park to practice hitting balls. He’s always been a tall, lanky man, but back then he also had a big, bushy, Nietzschean mustache, and I both admired and feared him.
But here’s the thing: I had possibly the worst stationary batting record of any kid on the team (this was all on account of my poorly-developed hand-eye coordination). Whenever I tried to hit the ball, my bat would travel right over it, or maybe if I was lucky, it would like barely skim the top of it just enough to knock it onto the grass in front of my feet. My dad wanted to prove to me that my clumsiness was all in my head, I guess, so before I swung the bat, he’d ask me to tell him whether or not I thought I was gonna hit the ball. And if I said “no,” I would always miss. It was like clockwork—as soon as the words left my lips, I knew in my heart that I would fail.
I think the point he was trying to make was that my success depended on whether or not I believed in my abilities—that whole self-fulfilling prophecy thing—but it didn’t always work out so neatly when I said “yes.” Occasionally I hit it, sure, which just fed into his superiority complex about self-fulfilling prophecies and having me all sussed out, but usually, I still missed, and when I did, my dad would yell at me about how I had lied—how I’d said “yes” but been thinking “no,” because if I’d really, truly, from the bottom of my heart known that I would hit it, then I would have. I quit tee-ball that year, I think. Or maybe it was the year after that.
And he did the same thing whenever I failed at anything. Like when I was fifteen and just learning to drive, I was completely flunking the hands-on portion of Drivers’ Ed because I would basically freeze up the second I started the car and be unable to even pull out of the damn parking lot. Well, as soon as my dad caught wind of my little dilemma, he made me go driving with him for like three hours every day and printed out about a million of those online mock driving tests and made me do all sorts of fancy stuff like parallel parking and three-point turns, and the second I pulled back into the driveway at our house, after I’d finished showing him all the maneuvers, he asked me whether I thought I’d passed, and if I said “no,” he made me put the car in reverse and do the whole ordeal all over again. If I said “yes,” he got out his pen and began totaling up all my scores on his little clipboard to make sure I was telling the truth, and I remember waiting there, my heart pounding and my eyes focused unblinkingly on him, his half-moon reading glasses perched on his nose as he scanned the evaluation categories one by one. Those few moments of silence were like that uncomfortable jolt of adrenaline you feel when you start down a big hill on a roller coaster, before your stomach catches up with the rest of you. But what makes roller coasters so exhilarating is the fleeting, temporary quality of those instances, and this feeling wasn’t fleeting at all. It was eternal.
At around the same time as my tee-ball crisis but long before my driving crisis or my many other crises too numerous and tedious to discuss here, I started playing piano because I heard Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum no. 3” on the classical music radio station and wanted to play like that. What I liked about that piece was that the melody sounded perfectly boring and simple on its own––it was the arpeggiation happening underneath it that made it interesting. Just about any old bastard can write a good melody, but it takes a special kind of gifted bastard to write a basic, easy melody that doesn’t even really go anywhere but sounds brilliant because of the harmony. It took me months of searching to find the piece on my own because I didn’t know what it was called or who it was by at the time, but it really struck my deepest harmonic and emotional sensibilities.
There aren’t any recordings of Liszt playing piano on account of him dying before any recording technology was popularized, but there are some old staticky 8-bit audio files of his pupils playing the tunes he wrote. I used to listen to those and pretend I was listening to Liszt himself. I could feel his spirit imbued in every note. I could picture him performing in a sold-out Hungarian concert hall while hoards of maniacal admirers clapped and cheered and called him a genius. He really was a genius, and he knew it too. He would probably walk onto the stage thinking, “I am the biggest goddamn genius the world has ever known,” and then he’d play all his complicated, flourishy songs without missing a single note, and when he reached the end of his final piece, he’d take his hands off the keys and bow and say to himself, “Damn right, I am.” I get the feeling that’s what he was like, but like I said, I can’t be sure—I never knew the man. But I sure knew, whenever I listened to those Liszt recordings, that that was what I wanted to be like.
So I thought that maybe, after studying the piano for ten years, I could put on a show like he could. I could finally play the Hungarian Rhapsodies and La Campanella and all those crazy, complicated pieces, and I always played them perfectly in the privacy of my own dormitory. At least I think I did. They sounded pretty damn perfect to me, but then again, I was the only one there (besides my girlfriend Claire who would sometimes hang around in the lounge while I practiced, but she probably felt like she had to be Supportive and Encouraging and all those things good girlfriends are supposed to be).
So I had my own recital and advertised it to all my “closest friends” and “biggest admirers” at college and was looking forward to absolutely dazzling them with my genius or whatever, but I was, like, stunned to death up there. I felt like such a massive fraud, trying to be like Franz or something, and I could tell all those people in the audience saw right through me. And so when I sat down to play the first note of “Liebestraum no. 3,” the piece that had started it all for me, I didn’t think, “I am the biggest goddamn genius the world has ever known,” because how could I? Instead, I thought, “I cannot play this piano to save my life,” and just like I had with the tee-ball and the Driver’s Ed, I froze up. I felt as bare and motionless as the melody of “Liebestraum,” but I didn’t have any harmonic waves pushing me along, perpetuating the illusion of brilliance. My hands were like made of concrete or something. I sat there for what felt like an hour.
And the ironic part was that as soon as I got back to the piano lounge and had some privacy, I could play La Campanella and the Hungarian Rhapsodies just the same as I could before my little screw-up. That was pretty damn embarrassing, if I remember correctly.
After that, I started questioning basically everything about myself and my life and even my relationship—I would constantly ask Claire if she really liked me or if she was just lying, and she always said she really liked me, but then I’d ask her the same question again a few minutes later, and the whole thing was pretty exhausting to her, I would guess, which is probably why she broke up with me, and that breakup might have been what triggered my little trip to the mental hospital.
So after Claire dumped me, I went home to see my dad because I hoped he could knock some sense into me. But when I was at the airport, the weirdest thing happened. You know those escalators that people use to take their luggage up to the next floor? Well I was trying to get onto one, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make the first step onto that little flat, moving conveyor belt section. I would put my foot out, but it would feel like too much of a commitment, somehow—like once I was on it, I couldn’t turn around and go back down; I had to let it whisk me all the way to the top. This all probably sounds kind of crazy—it definitely sounds a bit crazy to me now. I just felt, while I was standing there, that the time at which I chose to get on the escalator was of utmost importance and was gonna, like, make or break my entire life. So as you can imagine, the people behind me were getting pretty annoyed and started yelling at me to just go, and they probably thought I was mentally disabled or something on account of me being nineteen years old and too afraid to use a damn escalator.
But at that moment, while they were screaming and groaning and shoving past me, another insane thing happened—the voices of those strangers changed somehow, and they all became my dad. He was yelling at me for saying I was gonna hit the ball off the tee and then not hitting it. He was yelling at me for not putting my turn signal on far enough in advance––screaming about how I was gonna cause a huge wreck and kill us both. He was yelling at me for making such a damn mess of my life and for saying “no” to everything, and the thing is, I didn’t even know how to say “yes” anymore—all I knew how to say was “no.” It’s all I had known how to say at the piano recital as well.
So after I was hit by this strange epiphany, I asked the lady at the information desk if there were some normal stairs I could use, and she said that I would have to use the elevator, but that usually it was people with wheelchairs or physical impairments who used the elevator, and I seemed to be walking just fine, so why couldn’t I just take the escalator like everybody else?
And I was trying to find a reasonable, non-deranged way to explain it to her, but then I started having some sort of panic attack, I guess, and if what I was later told is correct, I was like totally delirious and just not making any sense whatsoever.
So after the doctors determined I was physically all right but apparently just a bit screwed up mentally speaking, they shipped me off to be institutionalized, and I never caught that flight, and my dad came to visit me at the hospital, where I was under intense surveillance because apparently, at some point, I had hinted that I was going to kill myself or something. It’s all sort of a blur to me now. But I can remember pretty clearly when my dad showed up. And what did that bastard say as soon as he stepped into the ward? He asked me how the hell I could have the nerve to miss my flight home and told me how lucky I was that he was here now, visiting me, and asked if I was ever going to be able to do anything without making a whole goddamn fuss of it.
And his question felt like a test, so I said I didn’t know.
He said the piano concert was one thing, but this whole ordeal, which the mental health staff had made me explain to them and then, after obtaining my signed consent (because I didn’t want my dad badgering me about the fact that I was “hiding things from him” or whatever) had so kindly relayed to him, was like next-level insanity, and I agreed that it probably was, but I maintained that I couldn’t get myself to step onto that escalator and I wasn’t totally sure why, and I was very sorry and upset, but that I wished he would please just let me rest because I was scheduled to talk to a counselor in an hour and had a group therapy session right after that, and I needed to recharge my emotional and conversational energy stores before they were depleted again.
And he told me to promise him, right then and there, that I would never pull any more insane shit like this ever again.
I promised to try, and he told me that wasn’t good enough.
So when they finally took me off suicide watch and let me go home, the first thing I attempted to do was to play all those Liszt pieces again, but my hands felt like concrete, just like they had at the recital, and I sort of broke down if I’m being honest. I felt like I was gonna need to go back to the loony bin.
This was all about seven or eight months ago. So there I was a couple days ago, sitting in that hospital ward watching my dad’s slowing heartbeat flicker across that stupid green monitor, and everything just felt so fragile. I was thinking about something Claire used to say to me about how I’m “smart” and “capable” but that I just have no self-determination, but I don’t think that’s quite it. My issue is that I don’t know whether I have any self-determination. I don’t even really know what self-determination means, if I’m being honest. I’ve never had a single sure thing in my life.
So there I sat in the hospital, watching the hypnotizing green beats flash across my dad’s heart rate monitor, when suddenly he croaked my name. I rushed to his bedside and grabbed his hand. And he said, “Son, promise me that from now on, your answer will always be ‘yes.’” He was harkening back to the lessons he’d tried to instill in me like thirteen years ago, but I think he meant it for anything that required any kind of commitment or self-assuredness—the piano playing, the relationships, the escalator-riding…
I could tell he was going to pass at any second, so I just said, “I promise,” because I didn’t want him to die knowing that I was a failure who was doomed to always be a failure. And then a gentle smile passed over his face, and his hand went limp, and he got this glazed-over look in his eyes, and spikes stopped appearing on the stupid green monitor and were replaced by a flat line. I was pretty sure he was dead. I stared at that bright neon line and listened to the monotonous, high-pitched drone that accompanied it for longer than I’d like to admit. For a few minutes, or maybe an hour, it was like that was the only sound that existed in the whole world. I just felt kind of stuck there—glued to my uncomfortable plastic chair.
I thought that once he was dead I’d feel relieved, and I was weirdly surprised that I didn’t. I more just felt empty—like this whole stay in the hospital had been superficial and pointless and had left me in the same place I’d started out, but now I had no father to stand over me and yell at me whenever I was being unreasonable. I’d never liked it when he did that, but I didn’t know how to function any other way.
So I didn’t cry or anything. I wasn’t really able to feel or do anything at all. I opened my mouth to call for the nurse to tell her that he had “passed on” or whatever, but I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.
They figured it out on their own eventually.
Hannah Smart (pen name Ambrose D. Smart) is a graduate of Middlebury College, and she writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her nonfiction has been published in Vocal’s affiliated magazines, and she has had her fiction published in The Corvus Review, Pif Magazine, New Reader Magazine, and Blue River Review. She currently attends Emerson College’s creative writing graduate program. To keep up with this author's work you can find her on Twitter @AmbroseDSmart