A journey to deep places
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet
EGO WAS HERE
When I hear of someone changing their name I’m always quick to judge that ego is at work. Imagine my surprise when it unfolded that I might change mine, not to satisfy ego, but to nourish ‘self’, and unlock energies long buried in me. I subsequently learned that this is not an uncommon story – but it took most of my life to unravel mine.
I was born Dennis Gabelish to a young couple in the 50’s. She, gorgeous, kind-hearted and a little tortured by a difficult upbringing. He, handsome, ambitious and a little blind to the wounds of a father that left early.
I had three grandparents of English origins and a grandfather whose family came from Hvar, a jaw-droppingly gorgeous island off Split on the Adriatic coast. It was my Slavic grandfather who left my grandmother and my father, to settle into a successful second marriage.
Being ‘wogs’ or whatever the prevalent insulting term for new imports to Australia was in the 1940’s, people of my father’s generation tended to hang together for mutual support, and worked at divorcing themselves from their cultural heritage, typically refusing to learn their parent’s language. As a result, my father’s best friend was also his first cousin. The cousin’s name was Dennis and the bonds between them were strong enough for my parents to name me after him.
Without digging into the story of why, by the time I was three my parent’s relationship had failed and by four my mother had remarried Dennis. As they did this they changed my surname to his, ‘for appearances’ they said. Divorce was still frowned upon, and even though the marriage was not incestuous, my mother received actual ‘curses’ from family members on her wedding day! So I became Dennis Beros, taking on the same name as my step-father.
DOUBLE WOUNDED YOUNG
Nearly thirty years later while studying childhood development as part of psychology I learned of two ‘naming wounds’ that may have had bearing on my own development.
The first was the change to my family name. Ask any three year old “Who are you?” and they will (all things being well) proudly announce their full name “I am Blah-Blah!!!” This is an important part of healthy ego-growth and self-identification at a formative point in life. I can only speculate what it would have felt like at that age to be quietly told that this inner locus was no longer valid. I can’t remember clearly, but I can guess at the impacts of losing first my father then my name.
The second was the well documented potential impact of being one of two people in a household with the same name, and being the smaller and less powerful one with that identifier.
I will not dwell on the rest of my childhood, beyond saying that neither my mother nor my step-father had much of a clue about rearing a child, let alone one with issues. They did try. I remember seeing a book by American pediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock beside their bed. I’m guessing it was Problems Of Parents (1962). Suffice to say that by seventeen I had left home and begun a career as a drug addicted drop out living as far away from my family as I could get.
It was many years before I returned to my home state and started getting in touch with reality. I finally gained university entrance to study psychology at about the age of thirty. It really was miraculous that I survived all those years of addiction, to most known substances. That I did was due largely to the love and perseverance of many people, not the least my mother and my two concerned fathers. Even the following years were not smooth, rather a circus of ups ‘n downs. But a combination of my studies; some good counselling; and the growth inherent in learning to father my own children; slowly brought me round to something of an even keel with glimpses of clear skies.
For years I had known that I hated my name. Not because I hated the man whose name I bore – years of therapy had brought me enough insight to appreciate human frailty and the realisation that most people just do their best with what they themselves were dished up by the cooks of life. That I hated my name was just true. I wondered if it was simply an aesthetic thing. Dennis seemed a daggy name to me. I envied mates whose names were John and Dave and well, almost anything else. My mother must have had some inkling of my childhood dissatisfaction with my name, or maybe she just got tired of calling out “Dennis” at home and getting two responses. So she tried a variety of nicknames and finally settled on ‘Nick’, thinking this clever, and persevered with it for some time. But it never really stuck.
As my childhood unfolded I realised that I had a ‘real’ father. The earlier events were beyond consciousness and I had to both learn and then grasp that I had a second ‘father’. Even on the rare occasions I saw him, the very idea bent my brain out of shape. My history slowly became clearer though, and the story I’m telling here began to consolidate in my mind. Making sense of my world around this stuff would take much of my adult life.
As I grew older I had voices (inside and out) recommending that I reclaim my birth name, but the idea of changing my family name back was never more than a thin wisp of cloud on a windy day. I couldn’t imagine offending my mother or my step-father in that way. I would be in my sixties before I even discussed my name with them. The aesthete in me may have decided that Beros was a cooler name than Gabelish. Either way, it was unthinkable that I would change it even if I had wanted to.
And that brings me to the fulcrum of this story. To my early 60’s. I had meandered all over the field in the sack race of life, blindfolded, with an inner cheer squad chanting “Who are YOU to even try at this game?” I did have a few accomplishments I guess, but I saw them as aberrations amid a sea of failures and other ‘learnings’. A litany of shambolic attempts at relationship had however given me my adorable, life-affirming children. And so I steadily learned the important skills of fathering, and how to do what I could to not hand on the emotional poison chalices I carried.
THE BIG QUESTION
A lifetime of low self-worth and self-sabotage eventually brought me to a place of deep enquiry into my own nature. I found myself in a position where I asked myself the simple, powerful question “What do you deeply want?”
I sat on this for some time, wondering, digging, analysing. But ultimately I just let it go to the mysterious pit that is my inner system – gut, heart, memory, glands, neural pathways and all the other evolutionary miracles that constitute ‘me’.
At the risk of losing your readership, I have to report that the answer that came back was pretty mundane. A motorcycle. Yep. There are a bunch of reasons I shouldn’t have a motorcycle. My family of origin hated all the early years that I rode them, and the mother of my two youngest children had lost her beloved brother at a tender age to a motorcycle accident. I had not owned one for nearly forty years. I couldn’t really afford the luxury either. I had a sense it was going to end badly. Still, I honoured the answer to my inquiry enough to take a peek online – to see just how cheaply a second hand motorcycle could be had for. Two days later I was riding home on a bike that needed work, feeling inept and unfit, out of my depth, in danger. And grinning broadly. Over the coming weeks I put the machine to rights and regrew confidence in my ability to ride well. And here’s the salient point – something deep inside me moved. I described it at the time like champagne corks popping in the basement. I had released some deep tectonic pressure in myself and my life began to move toward clarity, flow, and joy. I owned that bike for a year until I needed the money back. It brought me nothing but growth, insight and happiness.
During that year I went the next step. “What else do you deeply want?” The ‘name thing’ surfaced, despite my best efforts to poke it back down around the bend with a stick. Then, a bit like my hypothetical peek at bikes online, I allowed myself the luxury of asking this of my visceral circuitry. “Even tho you can never, ever, ever change your name .. IF you did .. what would you change it to?” I did not go out and buy a book of baby names. I did not start a list. I just waited. It took a little time – hours, maybe a day or two – I honestly can’t remember. But a name came. When it did I checked my memory for any negative associations. None. I checked for positive associations. Quite a few. I sat with it, chewed it, savoured it. It was my little ‘can never be’ secret.
Sometime later (I really can’t recall how long – weeks probably), I was sitting with a good friend and lover (stoned and with a glass of red in hand) and felt safe enough to tell her that I had been through this process. Not surprisingly, she asked if I would share the name with her. I cannot do justice to describing of the swell of conflicting emotions that accompanied that name on its way from my gut to my tongue. That little fish had to swim through swamps of shame, blender blades of self-doubt, crucibles of indignation, and thunderstorms of grief. Inner voices screamed that I was succumbing to ‘self-pity’ and that I should just ‘let go of the past’. But I did speak it .. in a tiny voice .. the hardest word I can remember uttering. The little boy deep inside me had spoken the name that he would choose for himself, if he could.
To this day I can’t really believe I found the courage to say it. I thank a summer night, the wine and the weed, my friend’s compassionate heart and my own striving. I bless the confluence of all the things that brought me to the point where I could mouth that simple name. Jack.
At the time I was under the mentorship of a wise man from the ManKind Project and as the business of our regular calls was primarily a mapping of the terrain of my soul, it was unthinkable to not tell him this story. Before the conversation ended that dear man had changed my name in his phone and never referred to me by my old name again. It was not long before all my many brothers in that work called me Jack.
Jack was out of the bag. Without any conscious choice on my part a deep want within me was manifesting. I began experimenting with introducing myself to new people as Jack. It filled me with joy. A new lover (even tho she knew the story) only ever called me Jack. Energy flowed. A deep, grounded, sustainable energy.
LIVING WITH A CHOICE I NEVER MADE
Soon the only people who didn’t call me Jack were my own kids and my family. I had to tell them. Profoundly deep conversations followed with some of them about all of this. There remains some resistance for some of them, of course. And that is OK. It is the stone on which I get to polish myself and knock off the remaining burrs of my own resistance – toward fully owning my deep truths and learning to honour my deep wants. Life’s work.
I have now told this story a hundred times, to groups and individuals that enquire. It has been beautiful to see people (who may or may not have had judgement) move through understanding, arrive at compassion for my experience, and often express happiness for me. I’ve not tired of retelling the story, because it has so many layers and byways for me to explore, but part of the reason for this blog is to have something to offer if time doesn’t permit the telling.
At the time of writing I have not changed my name legally. In some settings I’m bound to use my legal name. It causes no end of confusion and frustration. But I am Jack to myself, and most of the people who love me, and I have found in this journey a liberation, and accessed deep pools of energy and resilience that were previously invisible and unavailable to me.
Here’s to the power in names, and the beauty in every person’s story.
p.s. As you can see, I have also half-adopted a new family name and it’s neither of the originals. I don’t use it in the world much yet. In the same way as I posed myself the other questions – “Then what surname?” rendered up ‘Wilde’. Oscar Wilde’s life and legacy moved me greatly in younger years, especially The Ballad Of Reading Jail. Many years ago when working on The Save Ningaloo Campaign I was so taken with the natural values of that place I added to the website homepage ‘This site is dedicated to all things that remain WILD’. The ManKind Project which has provided me with infinite inspiration and succour, also helped me reconcile the wild aspects of myself that have brought me both grief, and redemption.
Words have meaning and names have power. Author unknown.