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On My 50th Birthday, a Letter to Myself at 17

On My 50th Birthday, a Letter to Myself at 17

Munk's Junk (Everything Else)

High School graduation, 1980s

I see you at 17, you have just graduated from high school: feathered hair, parachute pants, asymmetrical smile.  Despite your outward ebullience, I see beneath the jocular façade that you are so very sad.  Of this you are (mostly) unaware.

I see the reason for your sadness: 12 years of institutionalized bullying—pervasive, relentless.  I am touched by the exquisite coping skills you cultivated, the exaggerated belief in your own exceptionalism that you use like armor to guard against painful things, made to measure to compensate for what is being denied you or taken away.

I see the cruelty of children: they throw food at you, but you keep walking; they punch you in the back but you keep singing; you do a jazz dance to Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children” wearing a burgundy leotard and the entire school laughs as one, but you keep dancing.  You confront the principal’s office like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich when some creep lights your locker on fire—I’m laughing at your indignant reaction when the principal told you they bore no responsibility, as the conflagration could have been due to “spontaneous combustion.” Despite feeling humiliated, you looked him in the eye—well really glared at him—holding your melted acrylic winter coat and hissed ”we both know full well my locker spontaneously combusted when someone threw a lit match in it!   I demand this administration’s accountability and I will see that I get it.”

Sanctioned abuse is what it was—and you stood your ground with your own unique brand of defiance.  So many who were less flinty became terribly introverted or disappeared entirely.  When I see you at 17 I am filled with admiration.  You may be a shame-filled Show Tune Sally, but you are no less a warrior for the legwarmers.

Take a breath because the next few years are going to be a different sort of test: there is an epidemic coming that will exact stunning losses.  You will come of age in an environment of complete hysteria, terrified to have sex and then diagnosed yourself at age 34—the immaculate sero-conversion, as it were.  With detached compassion, your doctor will give you nine years to live.  By the time you realize you didn’t die, you will be middle aged and realize you also haven’t lived.  You will be irritated when it begins to occur to you that life is an aggregation of adjustments and dashed expectations.  At this you will bridle and then—finally—begin to bend.

It is risky business to stake your happiness on what is, essentially, an enormous revenge fantasy. Your first therapist, Dr. Fader, will tell you one day in the not too distant future that you are “pathologically ambitious.”  At this you will spin on your heels and storm out of his office like Bette Davis in All About Eve.  Placing such capital on the necessity of having global impact is a strategy that involves far more luck than you can currently bear to consider.

But trust me that the more you let go of the need conquer the world the more alive you will feel.  Don’t exhaust yourself needing to “show them,” because, truth is, there is no “them.”  Though you will never be able to forget the pain of growing up gay and the brutality of those early years, eventually that pain will lessen and you will, at last, begin to treat yourself as compassionately as you do most everyone else.

David Munk

A version of this piece was featured in the Huffington Post.

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39 Comments

  1. Elena Becerra (Ellie Powell)
    November 6, 2014 at 4:29 pm
    Reply

    Hi David:

    So well put! I don’t remember much from high school, but I do remember the fun time we had with the senior variety show and you as producer. I always admired you and your enormous talent, even back then. The world has changed so much since then. My daughter came out to me when she was 14, she is now 18. I can’t even imagine having to do that when we were her age. I still worry that she will experience ridicule and acceptance, but she doesn’t seem to care about any of that. I guess it is a testament as to how far we have come and how far we still need to go. Keep up the good work! Ellie

    • David Munk
      November 6, 2014 at 6:44 pm

      Hi Ellie,

      Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to share. I am very happy for younger people— that in large part their process is, as you point out, remarkably different.

      David

  2. Stuart Davis
    November 6, 2014 at 5:47 pm
    Reply

    Congratulations my friend! 50 is the new 30! Enjoy it and remember, “Life’s a banquet….”

    • David Munk
      November 6, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      Thank you Stuart for taking the time to read and, most especially, to share your thoughts. David

  3. Jen Phillips April
    November 6, 2014 at 6:56 pm
    Reply

    Live! Live as if there were no tomorrow!
    I’m so glad you’re going after you dreams 🙂

  4. Angelina Murphy
    November 6, 2014 at 7:56 pm
    Reply

    So beautifully written–as always. Love you and happy birthday!!! <3

  5. Stephanie DiPetrillo
    November 6, 2014 at 8:37 pm
    Reply

    So glad that Laurel shared this via Facebook. It was a joy to read. Happy Birthday and everyday.

  6. Howard Alter
    November 6, 2014 at 10:30 pm
    Reply

    David,

    We did not know each other in high school. I moved to our town three years prior to graduation. In some ways we have come so far in our schools but in other ways it seems as though things become more challenge (24/7 bullying). I was so moved by this piece. I want to let you know your message is very meaningful to me and the work and ties in to some of the work I do now.

    To the extent I was a bystander to what you experienced I am very sorry. A few kids stepping up and saying it wasn’t Ok may have had an impact. I lacked the confidence, maturity, and awareness at 17 that I hope we have all developed at 5o.

    Howard Alter

    • David Munk
      November 7, 2014 at 2:30 pm

      Hi Howard,

      Your wonderful comments were so fantastic to read. I appreciate you taking the time to tell me how you feel.

      David

  7. Elaine Hewins
    November 7, 2014 at 12:30 am
    Reply

    Hi David,
    Thank you for sharing your journey; you are a wonderful writer. You showed such resilience. I am sorry that you were treated so horribly in school.
    Happy Birthday! Enjoy the next chapter of your life.
    Elaine

    • David Munk
      November 7, 2014 at 1:50 pm

      Hi Elaine,

      Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to read my work. It means so much to me.

      Love, David

  8. kurt
    November 7, 2014 at 12:31 am
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing this. Your writing is sharp and evocative with some wonderful turns-of-phrase (“shame filled Show Tune Sally”). I feel that you have quite the memoir in you – and maybe a movie/mini-series script as well.

    • David Munk
      November 7, 2014 at 2:31 am

      Thank you Kurt. I really appreciate your kind words and I’m glad you like the piece. David

  9. Michel alzxis
    November 7, 2014 at 9:59 am
    Reply

    My dear David, ot almost make ms me cry, god what a writting. Your woeds are sharp and getting right at the place pf pain. There is something universal inyour story as well that talks to me at least ahaa ! Love Alexis

    • David Munk
      November 7, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      Hi Michel,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my piece. It means so much to me! I hope you’ll stay in touch.

      David

  10. Suzi Katz Bernardo
    November 7, 2014 at 1:02 pm
    Reply

    Hi David,
    You are a magnificent writer! Although we are all very different, unknowingly some of us shared many common experiences. It is interesting at 50 how many of us felt the same at 17. Wishing you a very happy 50th birthday!!
    Suzi

    • David Munk
      November 7, 2014 at 2:31 pm

      Thank you so much, Suzi.

  11. Michele Brettholtz
    November 7, 2014 at 1:29 pm
    Reply

    Dearest David,
    As always, it breaks my heart to read about your struggles. But I am so proud of you today. You are a survivor. Continue to live life to its fullest. Always keep an optimistic approach and enjoy every day knowing you are better than those who are ignorant. Each day is a gift. Carpe Diem!
    xoxox Michele

    • David Munk
      November 7, 2014 at 2:03 pm

      Thank you so much Michele, as always. Lots of love.

  12. Aziz Rashid
    November 7, 2014 at 2:10 pm
    Reply

    Hey David,
    Remember me? Friend of Andrew’s from BBC in London.
    I showed you how to make tea once!
    This is very beautiful and moving. I used to have matching scarf gloves and legwarmers -which came in for a lot of abuse at my boys’ school.
    Best wishes,
    Azizx

    • David Munk
      November 8, 2014 at 2:46 pm

      I do remember you Aziz and appreciate the tea making lesson. I so appreciate you reading my piece and taking the time to share your thoughts. It means so much to me. I can only imagine what it was like at boys school (and I don’t mean that in a porno-wouldn’t-that-have-been-hot? sort of way. It was 100% the girls who saved my ass…

      I hope you’ll stay in touch and follow my blog as it grows.

  13. Melissa Jurist
    November 8, 2014 at 3:58 pm
    Reply

    Fifty years for one of my ab fab humans on the planet. Remembering our NYU dance parties and your delicious humor, which remains as vital and wonderful as you are.

    Besos!
    M

    • David Munk
      November 8, 2014 at 4:02 pm

      Thank you MJ – So appreciated.

  14. shelly
    November 11, 2014 at 3:34 am
    Reply

    So, I went to your page to see if your H piece was posted on it. It wasn’t yet. But I noticed that I hadn’t liked your page. How can that be? Am i too inside my own bloggy head that I didn’t even like your page??? So I liked your page and then I read your beautiful piece to yourself. You are everything you think you are or imagine yourself to be. It is NOT your imagination. The fact that everyone in the world doesn’t know it (yet) doesn’t mean it isn’t so.
    Carry on and don’t stop.
    XXXXX Shelly

    • David Munk
      November 13, 2014 at 3:19 pm

      Thank you Shelly. I really appreciate your words and our wonderful talk yesterday. Love, David

  15. Dave Ballance
    November 15, 2014 at 5:45 am
    Reply

    Really great essay. I can so identify with you and your history. I turned 50 in June.

    • David Munk
      November 17, 2014 at 12:10 am

      Hi Dave,

      Thank you so much for checking in. I wrote it for me but I also wrote it for you.

      I hope you’ll keep reading the stargayzing.

      David

  16. Robert Powell
    November 17, 2014 at 5:46 pm
    Reply

    David,
    What an eloquent letter to yourself, and the perfect loving wisdom in your closing. I’m the same age as you, with a very similar story. Thank you for putting into words what so many of us feel as well. Your quote “treat yourself as compassionately as you do most everyone else” is the best wisdom one could have as things come full cycle. 🙂 Thank you!

    • David Munk
      November 18, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      Hi Robert,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my writing. I hope you’ll stay in touch.

      Warmly,

      David

  17. Rick
    November 30, 2014 at 1:26 am
    Reply

    Hi David – happy belated birthday wishes! You’ve passed the halfway mark!

    Thanks for taking the opportunity to remind us about the traumatic stress that bullying, ostracism and ridicule causes us. I believe it’s the key issue we need to address and prioritize as individuals and as a community. There’s no need to list the self-destructive behaviors it causes and perpetuates, but there’s a very real need for all of us to look within and ask ourselves if it hasn’t created a shared lifetime of inability to love, and to find love. Forget over-compensation and underachievement: that’s the bitterest pill of all to swallow.

    With that in mind, for your birthday please accept a truckload of unconditional love! What else do you give somebody who’s not afraid to look at himself, and tell it like it was?

    Rick

    • David Munk
      November 30, 2014 at 2:57 am

      Hi Rick,

      Such a thoughtful and incredibly warm comment. Much appreciated and reciprocated (no doubt). Have a great holiday season and stay in touch!

      David

  18. Rick
    December 10, 2014 at 12:20 am
    Reply

    And very best holiday wishes back atcha David!

    Rick

  19. Alejandro Ramon
    September 18, 2015 at 2:03 pm
    Reply

    David,

    I’ve been deeply touched by your words.

    I tested positive when I was 20 in 1986 and was told by the doctors then I should plan for my death within the next year. Well, it has been 29 years and i am still here. Throughout those years I have battle through 5 pneumonias, 3 total hip replacements, 8 plus different drug cocktails and the their side affects, and countless hospitalizations for surgeries and illnesses. Each time coming through regaining my health and throwing myself into a new passion. Thinking to myself all the while “I’ve got to make this moment last.”

    Well, I’m on the cusp of turning 50 myself and have been reflecting on those pasted 29 years of life experiences. The good and not so great. I still struggle with not letting myself be over taken by “illness.” But everyday I search for something that feeds my wellbeing and soul.

    I have wondered how you were doing over the last 15 years since I last saw you in Italy at Gus and Steve’s wedding. I would love to see you the next time I’m in New York.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    Best,

    Alejandro Ramon (Al)

    P.S. I’m traveling to Florence, Italy for 20 days to celebrate my 50th birthday on November 5th. I’ll be raising a glass to Gus and Steve’s 15th wedding anniversary and boys night in Florence the night before the wedding. Happy Belated 50th Birthday David!

    • David Munk
      October 23, 2015 at 2:00 am

      I am terribly sorry for my slow response. The blog has been down while I reformat and prepare to relaunch and I have been traveling quite a bit. It is wonderful to hear from you after so long and I am gratified that you liked my piece. Please reach out to me when you are in New York so we can reconnect. I have great memories of you and can still summon the image of your big smile so easily.

      Love,

      David

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