I am Insatiable and Proud (From Me To Me, Through a Worm-Hole)

To hell with being ashamed of what you liked.

—Ralph Ellison

____

If I were to write this as some kind of list it’d say: 1.) No one is a decent person in their twenties… and then that would be the end of it.

If I were to recount every disappointing NYE party I’ve ever endured, I wouldn’t know which one to choose: the one I spent with an ex-boyfriend, stone cold sober, and weeping behind his back after the ball dropped, because I knew our relationship was doomed? Or, the time I had to work until 11 PM and rushed out into the cold, only to watch a ball of lights get dropped onto a counter at midnight in a way that only became funny in retrospect? (Among others, how would I decide?)

If I were to write this as some kind of book report, analyzing my life in relation to the books I’ve read within the last year, I’d quote an anorexia memoir: “Somehow we continued to believe that it is in the moments we are close to death that we feel most alive, and in the depths of our misery that we are most complete. Thus when it was over and we were warm in our beds, eating our breakfast and walking freely down the city streets, we often asked ourselves with sighing disappointment: Is this really it?”

Instead, however, I want to write about happiness.

I’ve spent the last year thinking about happiness, and what it means to me. Realizing that it’s a state of being I’ve always hoarded, and kept to myself—like, it’s easier for me to express sadness with clarity than it is for me to express happiness. On one hand, this is probably due to some kind of superstition, like: I don’t want to jinx it. While, on the other hand, I know it’s because I distrust happiness: it’s fickle and fleeting and always too good to be true. Like: Why share something with other people if it’s not going to last? Why put yourself through that kind of humiliation? (This has been my mindset for years.)

Therefore, to me, happiness is about as trustworthy as other people. Which is to say: happiness isn’t trustworthy, as a rule.

Now let me explain further, before I make you too depressed.

In the last year, I’ve learned that happiness is contingent upon our ability to accept the reality that people are capable of absolutely anything at any given moment, no matter how well we think we know them; that we are all so inherently disappointing, to spend our lives trying to deny and conceal this truth is to spend it feeling miserable, and hopelessly inadequate: alone. And, therefore, all acts of desire and longing—reaching for human connection—are acts of faith that we should be proud of. Regardless of how many times we get rejected, or pick the wrong people: it’s brave, and worth it, because getting anything right—in terms of withstanding love and happiness—is so rare.

This came as a loaded realization that, inevitably, segued into other thoughts; thoughts about desire vs. being desired, and whether being in a position of power is truly conducive to happiness.

As lame as it may be, I have always been a romantic and brooding person at my core: I enjoy nuanced movies and books with dark themes—any work of art with undertones that are hopeful in their hopelessness. (*cough* The Great Gatsby) Basically, I enjoy mourning things to a certain extent—longing for things that either never were, or will never be. And, at this point in my life, I’ve come to accept this general sense of unrest and longing as a part of my personality that’s never going to go away, whether I like it or not. (I am the longing: it me.)

All that being said, accepting this about myself has never exactly been the struggle. The struggle, really, has been acknowledging it, and not feeling ashamed of it. Because, I’ve got to be honest, being so insatiably desiring—of answers, and reasons, and other people’s explanations—feels very, very, icky and desperate. Like, it’s cool to be desired. Not to desire. Desiring is gross. (At least, this is what I’ve told myself ever since, like, the first grade.)

I look back, and recognize that I did a lot of weird things, trying to control this part of who I was. (Buying flavored water and sugar free gum instead of lunch, doing my homework but refusing to turn it in, breaking up with people I liked instead of stating—like an adult—what I needed from them, feeling attached to sociopathic and narcissistic people because I envied their level detachment, et al.) Which is to say: people do weird things when they’re obsessed with being perfect, and have absolutely no idea they’re obsessed with being perfect.

I remember always thinking—because I’m messy and have trouble remembering to shower on the regular, among other things—that I couldn’t possibly be a perfectionist, even though the possibility was brought to my attention as early as the age of seventeen. (A counselor asked me directly, “Are you a perfectionist?”) It just didn’t make sense to me at the time, having all these preconceptions about what that term meant. (To me, a perfectionist was a person who got straight As and played the flute or something—A.K.A. not me.) I didn’t understand that trying to deny and conceal a major part of myself—also known as hating oneself—was synonymous with being a perfectionist, but it is. (Maybe we’re all perfectionists on some level, and adulthood is about unlearning all the behaviors we’ve used to cover up who we are—who’s to say?)

Anyway, for the last decade of my life—I’ve realized—I often gave power too much power. Control, too. (It’s ass-backwards, but the pursuit of power and control—I’ve noticed—seems to only achieve more confusion and chaos within the self: more internal isolation, and less genuine human connection to trust and confide in.) So, yeah, maybe a person who makes the pursuit of these concepts the central focus of their life appears to have everything, or like they’re the most interesting person in the room: the most desirable. But the core reality of that person is always very brittle, and kind of sad. (I would know: you can’t spend all of your time doing things to win other people over, and then expect to feel satisfied with yourself, especially when you’re alone.)

This is not me trying to say I’m cured, because I’m not. (A desire for perfection will always be a part of me, just as much as desire itself will always be a part of me.) I’m just saying, ever since I’ve started trying—merely trying—to let things about myself be, without judging myself mercilessly, I’ve found that there are just as many things from my past to be proud of as there are to be ashamed of. And much of this self-acceptance has come from also accepting other people for who they are; that, like I said earlier, people are capable of anything at any given moment—both good and bad—regardless of how well we think we know them. (Ourselves included.)

Furthermore, as I’ve come to accept this—that’s there’s no controlling how other people respond or react to me—the easier it has become for me to accept my—and everyone else’s for that matter—one, true power: that we all get to decide. We get to decide what’s true about ourselves and the world; how to respond to others, and the things that happen to us; who and what we give our love and desire to; what we have space for, and what we will not accept; that the approval of others, and its effect on our ability to do any of this, is inconsequential.

So, happiness: we get to define it for ourselves, as individuals.

For me, this is it: going home and growing old; internalizing the belief that “figuring it all out” is a fruitless concept, and that there is no ultimate point to be reached; forgoing goals toward some perfect image and clinging, desperately, to the moments I’ll never get back; collecting more of those moments as I go, and experiencing them earnestly; remembering, mercilessly, both the good and the bad, and not apologizing for how difficult it is, for someone like me, to let things go…

This year, I’ve decided, was a good and happy one.

There were moments when I kissed my boyfriend because I couldn’t kiss the full moon, or the night sky, or the cold. I listened to love songs and thought about everyone, including myself. I wore a wide brimmed hat, and drank wine coolers, and learned that the more stems a cactus has, the older it is—like rings on a tree stump. My best friend and I got matching sweaters. I tried very hard to forgive and forget, and then I stopped trying. Some days I felt hearty and full, and other days I experienced myself as nothing more than a mere wisp of a person. I unfollowed a lot of influencers. I missed people. I wrote a short story about a dream: all the missing girls in the world were found, high above us all, growing old and fat in the trees. (I swear, it’s not as lame as it sounds—or maybe it is: I don’t care.) I listened to Post Malone’s “Circles” on repeat. I did a lot of the same things, and then I stopped doing some of those things. I realized that some of the behaviors that used to bring me comfort, just don’t anymore. (I no longer find myself trying to feel my way through smoke-filled rooms; I no longer see the romance or the purpose. I know all there is to know about that, and it’s true: it’s nothing but smoke.)

If I were to write some kind of vow for the New Year, it’d say: I am learning to accept my inherent lack, and I will learn to love my unique ache. (The subtle insatiability that makes itself known when the moon is looming and there’s nowhere to go—a general sense of dissatisfaction, tying me to others and making everything more human.)

I found a note that I wrote, one year ago, in an old notebook: If you love and nobody notices, do you exist?

This is me writing back to myself: Yes.

_____

Happy New Year, everyone!

xoxo

me laughing

I’m Not You & That Academy Award Isn’t Yours

It takes hard work to say, “This is how I am,” in a calm voice, without anxiously addressing how you should be. It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the window to the view outside. It requires conscious effort not to waste your life swimming furiously against the tide, toward some imaginary future that will never make you happy anyway.

— Heather Havrilesky, What If This Were Enough?

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Not too long ago, I had a bizarre conversation with a middle-aged man while I was at work. It started off normal, but then the fact that I have a B.A. in creative writing came up, and—out of nowhere—he started name dropping. (He told me he knew someone who’d won an academy award; that he’d recently met an eighteen-year-old who was making 165K a year; about how some female relation of his had just been accepted into multiple ivy league universities, etc.)

What any of this had to do with my creative writing degree—I have no clue. Though, buried beneath what he was saying, whether it was being implied, or whether I was inferring it all myself, the message seemed to be loud and clear: I’m not doing enough.

I don’t know what it is but, in the past year and a half, I’ve felt more judged than ever in terms of where I’m at in life. I’ve felt—however mildly—combative in the face of questions and comments, like: Why haven’t you moved to a bigger city? (As if that’s anyone else’s business.) What are you going to do though—like, for money? (As if I don’t have a full-time job that is—clearly—paying my bills.) She lived with her parents until she was 26! ~gasps~ (As if that isn’t the circumstance of many millennials who came of age post recession.)

Maybe I wouldn’t feel so prickly about all of this if I wasn’t also bombarded with similar, passive-aggressive, “boss babe” rhetoric every time I opened up the Instagram app. (Some examples: “There are only two options: Make progress or make excuses.” // “If you have time to scroll through social media, you have time to join my team.” // “AVERAGE people give shit advice. If you want to make money, listen to MILLIONAIRES.”)

It’s everywhere. All around us and in the air! Just like that silly Christmas song at the beginning of Love Actually: I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. I feel absolutely bombarded by the message that nothing anyone does is good enough. And then, on top of all that—it seems—to admit some variation of this sentiment—aloud—wouldn’t even warrant an empathetic response. (If anything it’d just cue some psycho, wearing LuLaRue leggings, to crawl out of the woodwork, saying with all the canned optimism of a Wal-Mart smiley face: “Maybe you feel that way because you should! Make the change today!”)

Work more. Smile more. Love yourself more. Buy this, or you’re not loving yourself enough.

Like, damn—average people might “give shit advice,” but when did it become such a personal failure to be content with being average? To want to just sit and reflect on what’s actually right in front of you—and maybe even find the audacity to enjoy it? (No side hustles. No gains. No self-imposed deadlines, or promotions.)

Clearly, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Mostly because, over the past few years, I’ve been forced to reckon with how I’ve never really experienced myself as enough—sometimes to a point where I considered myself non-existent. (Sometimes I still sift through painful memories, trying to find the source for this chronic sense of not enough-ness—like how dismissive my family could often be when it came to my thoughts and opinions; or how my grade school teachers often pushed me into the fringes of their classrooms, under the assumption that I’d never be intellectually capable of keeping up with the “normal” kids; or how a majority of the guys I’ve ever felt close to all eventually called me crazy, and minimized the extent of their relationships with me, etc. And none of it has ever added up to anything particularly unusual, or life changing.)

I guess, my point is: when you experience rejection so intensely and consistently, and you finally realize you’ve never felt like enough (for yourself) as a result, you’re suddenly faced with the very difficult task of re-writing your own narrative in a way that doesn’t echo all the negative criticism you’ve internalized about yourself. (This is exactly what I’ve been trying to do in recent months, and—in doing so—have started to consider that, maybe, this general not-enough feeling is more cultural and social than it is personal.)

When that man came at me with all those acquaintances of his, who had such concrete markers of success (an academy award, a 165K salary at eighteen, multiple ivy league acceptances), I’d be lying to you if I said those accolades meant nothing to me. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t feel a tinge of resentment, or that I didn’t resist the urge to snap at him like: Why are you telling me this? (It’s not as if reconsidering how we measure success, or trying to remain compassionate toward my own limits, has suddenly rendered me completely immune to desire or envy.)

However, I will say, before I could judge myself—based on whatever it was he seemed to be implying, or whatever my old narrative of rejection was trying to infer—I took a deep breath and reminded myself: None of these accomplishments are his. And I listened without judging him, or myself, to the best of my ability.

The modern world is always calling us to prove ourselves and—as a result—we ask everyone around us—both consciously and unconsciously—to prove themselves too. We project our own standards onto others, and then feel gypped, or perhaps a little jealous, when we see someone at ease; someone who doesn’t appear to feel so personally or professionally obligated to sacrifice x in order to accomplish y; who doesn’t seem to be affected by this intense pressure—all around us—to maintain some image of ambition and control; who is happy, without validation or witnesses.

Yes, I’ve felt combative in the face of questions, like: “Why haven’t you moved to a bigger city?” But, more and more, I hear myself drawing a boundary when these kinds of conversations arise. (The kind in which the pressure the other person is putting on me is more about the pressure they are putting on themselves.) I hear myself saying, with more and more certainty: “I’m not you.” And, every time, it’s so empowering. Every time, I feel a little more at ease.

Maybe, someday, I’ll get out of here. Maybe, someday, I’ll publish something big and realize my dream of being a writer in the most official sense. Or maybe I won’t. But, either way, that man’s voice—reading from his list of things I don’t have—is going to keep on going in one ear and out the other.

I’m done comparing myself to someone else’s highlight reel.

My Five Year Plan is Whatever: Happy New Year!

About a month ago I was at a job interview—which went well, but not great—and when I was asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I didn’t have an answer.

“I—I don’t know,” I began, before adding, very stupidly, “I want a life.”

Later I told Ben—my boyfriend—about how the question had rendered me speechless.

“Millennials don’t have the luxury of a five year plan,” I texted, with a vicious tone inside my head, “Like—there’s no professional way for me to tell them that my education and talents aren’t lucrative, and I can’t afford another twelve hundred dollar migraine. I can’t even see myself with good health insurance in five years. Whatever is my plan!”

He responded, “That question is a trap. If you tell them you see yourself working for them, you seem unambitious. If you tell them you’re going to go to grad school, or find a career in your degree, they’ll act like you’re a bad investment. It’s a lazy thing to ask.”

Sometimes I wish I could just level with people: “Look, I can read and write and show up on time and do whatever you say—but no. Most of what you have to offer—this office, this store, this company—will never ever be my top priority or passion. This isn’t what I want to be doing, but I’ll do it—and I’ll do it well, regardless—because I need money. I don’t have time to worry about five years from now when I’m already worried, right now.”

But it’s not acceptable. Admitting that you don’t know what you’re doing, or are going to be doing, and that you’re still trying to figure it out.

“Yeah,” Ben said—on the subject of five year plans, once more—two weeks later, “Never answer that question honestly.”

It’s not that I’m completely out of touch with what I want, and I definitely have a better sense of that than I did—say—three years ago. However, I have no satisfactory answer for where I see myself in five years. In fact, it’s already been long and arduous enough—just getting myself to a place where I don’t worry about not having the future figured out; where I can allow myself the patience to take things day by day. (Why is a forward-thinking individual—someone who’s experiencing life as a series of checkboxes—more valid, or reliable—in the professional sense—than a present minded individual? What difference does it make, where I see myself in five years, if I’m willing and capable of doing the job now?)

I guess, what I’m trying to say is: with the new year approaching, I can get so down on myself about this year’s failures. (I didn’t get into grad school; I submitted five essays for publication and the majority were declined, with the remaining two left in limbo; I haven’t finished any of the fiction pieces I started; I’m still not making enough money to be financially independent from my parents; I’ve accrued credit card debt; I don’t have health insurance in spite of working 40+ hours a week; I lost my best friend; I didn’t get a call back after the job interview, etc.)

For the past three months, I’ve sat around, torturing myself, thinking about how I don’t try hard enough, or that I don’t do enough.

I flicked through dated issues of Nylon magazine—publication dates ranging from 2010 to 2013—and scoffed when I came to a photo of Lena Dunham—aged 23—being featured as an established writer and director. (I remember bitterly thinking in the spirit of ho-hum: “I could be a ‘director’ too—if only I had rich poet-parents who sent me to a special creative-kid middle school.”)

It came as a sort of panic, flipping through those dated magazines and seeing so many successful people that were, also, so wildly young: What have I been doing with all of my time?

It’s not that 2018 has been a bad year so much as turning 26 has been hard. (My ex boyfriend used to always say, “Something about turning 26 is really hard.” And I’d dismiss him, thinking it was a ploy to delegitimize my own experience and opinion—considering he’s only 11 months older than me. Now that I’m actually 26, I realize what he meant.)

It’s like—from ages 21 to 25—everyone is constantly reminding you how young you are, and how much time you have. And then—out of left field—26 hits and, overnight, you start gaining weight in ways you never did before, and your brow wrinkles don’t totally disappear at the completion of an expression, and all your peers start joining pyramid schemes, and your ironic T-shirts don’t look so ironic anymore, etc.

It’s the identity crisis of ages, basically. And—without as much external confirmation that there is “still time”—I’ve had to continuously ground myself: Do I really believe I’ve accomplished nothing? Or am I just judging myself based on how I’d look on paper? (My answer to the former is always no. My answer to the latter is always yes.)

I’ve had to remind myself that I, at least, applied to grad school; that I even submitted pieces for publication, in the first place; that I’ve started writing fiction, at all; that I—finally—moved out of my parent’s house; that I left a bad work environment the moment I realized it was bad; that I set a boundary, and stuck to it—remained true to a promise I made to myself, at the close of 2017.

I don’t minimize, or invalidate, my own feelings and perceptions anymore—especially not for the comfort of other people. (Something I decided I wanted to unlearn, back in 2016, after a weekend where I took a bunch of drugs and wound up at the ER with a psychiatrist in my face, like, “So, are you trying to kill yourself?”) And, through this slow unlearning, I’m finally in a place where I feel healthy enough—mentally and emotionally—to begin turning my potential energy into kinetic, regardless of whether I feel “ready” or not.

It might seem as if no time is ever going to be a “good” time, but—more often than not—I think we’re where we need to be, doing what we need to be doing, in spite of how lost we might appear.

Here’s to another year of trying, for better or worse.

Happy New Year!

(Featured Image Credit: Ambivalently Yours, 2018, @ambivalentlyyours)

Thoughts Provoked by a Cardboard New York City

I’ve learned mine can’t be filled,
only alchemized.

— Stephen Dunn, “Emptiness”

 

The other night I was at a comedy show in a church basement with walls covered by cardboard cut-outs of the New York City skyline. Little white Christmas lights were peeking out from behind, creating the illusion of twinkling windows at night.

What,” began the sarcasm of the final comic, gesturing at the cardboard skyline, “you mean none of these buildings are in Jamestown?”

And I laughed harder than I had all night.

It was a relief, to have the delusion acknowledged. It made me feel better about how I’d been staring at the whole set up, all night, wanting to throw up due to some unearned feeling of homesickness.

The twinkling Christmas lights: they reminded me of all the nights I refused to sleep as a little kid. How I’d insert cassette after cassette into my Fisher-Price boombox—the one with the microphone and color coded buttons—trying to stave off my dread of public school, and dumb-kid jokes, and being unable to read through key-rings of word-cards at what the state deemed an “appropriate” pace. (I’d often hide in the bathroom and pretend I was Sailor Moon as I tried to come up with an argument that’d convince my mother I needed to be home-schooled.)

Thinking of those lost cassettes, the Oliver and Company soundtrack came to mind.

More specifically, Huey Davis’s opening song, “Once Upon a Time in New York City”, which—having mild OCD—stayed, that night, lodged in my mind, on a loop, until bed. Where I dreamed that my little niece came to me with a picture book, flipped to the very last page, depicting New York City in different shades of blue, twinkling like Christmas Eve.

It made me consider how a lot of the novels I like to read are about suburban life and its inescapable triviality; about characters who settle and try to pretend like they’re not mentally ill, or terribly addicted, or irreversibly repressed.

In season seven of American Horror Story one character, Meadow—a very pathetic and desperate person who wears big hats—says, “I wanted to be a painter, but I was too drawn to the normalcy of a middle class lifestyle.”

And I felt that to an extent; to a point where I at least didn’t forget about it.

Every time a person says, “Come to New York!” — “You belong in New York!” A small part of me is quietly objecting: But what about cul de sacs that smell like fabric softener? Crate and Barrel? Squishy blankets? Familiar faces? Empty movie theatres? It’s not “me” exactly, but still it’s there. This dull enduring self-rejection. What do I do with it?

Of course Meadow, who should’ve been a painter, chooses to drown herself in white wine and joins a murderous cult. Is that who I am, deep down? Or am I a brave little cartoon kitten with luck on her side; fate combined with a series of mishaps that ultimately lead to all the right things: adventure, friendship, purpose, home… (What I’d like to boast about having from my apartment walls.)

I once wrote a short story in which a young woman, drawing on a paper napkin, suddenly looks up, struck by clarity, and says, “Sometimes I can’t even imagine my world as the same one where little children go missing.” And the guy she’s talking to suddenly gets an overwhelming urge to break her hand.

I am both characters, is what I’m trying to say.

My many selves are in constant conflict, as if identity were a Rubik’s cube only the very, very, self-assured can solve.

Lately, I’ve been worrying: do we ever really get over our adolescent insecurities, or are we all just some variation of our sixteen year old selves? (I’ve been admitting a lot of weird things to myself, like: Yes, Nicole Richie’s anorexic body had a lasting effect on me. Yes, I am depressed in a way that only medication can fix. No, I am never going to have a “group” of friends like St. Elmo’s Fire. Yes, I have been caught in a cycle of denying these things since adolescence.)

Answering my own question, as I am wont to do, with the words of somebody else, Joan Rivers popped into my head: “It doesn’t get better. You get better.” So, yes, maybe our adolescent insecurities never really go away—our learned anxieties and aversions; our social and interpersonal hang-ups. Maybe all one can really do is accept these things as a part of herself. Try to get better. Learn how to deal.

I read my friend a letter, which I gave to my ex best friend. In it I explained why I couldn’t be friends with her anymore; how the position I was in completely inhibited me from being a good and supportive person to her. How my initial inclination—to be fucking pissed—was totally eclipsed by the fact that I wanted her to be happy. That, I felt, the best thing for me to do was remove myself.

I finished reading, and my friend asked, “Why did you blame yourself that whole time?”

Looking back, if I could have answered her with more clarity, I’d say: Because I have this sneaking suspicion that a lot of people think I don’t blame myself enough. (There it is, that prevailing adolescent phantom: What Other People Think. I know, it doesn’t really exist—nobody really thinks about anybody that much. Not as much as they think about themselves. Harsh judgments are short and fleeting. Most people say nasty things they don’t even mean, just to make conversation. A majority of the time, they don’t even know what they’re talking about.)

But it’s a good thing I couldn’t. Because, even with my clarity-driven response, I know I’d still spiral into self-doubt. My answer would become a game of Mad Libs. (I blame myself because I am stupid; because I am annoying; because I am boring, bitter, ugly, empty. Because I deserve it. Because I can take it. Because I don’t need it. Because she can have it. Because I wanted to be egalitarian, and/or civil. Because I am terrified of all the things I cannot see, and therefore, change, about myself.)

Self doubt. What Other People Think. Two things I’ll always carry. Things that won’t get better, but require my getting better. Like a bonsai; how a tree still finds a way to be what it is, however small and subdued—

“It doesn’t feel fair,” I texted.

“Because it isn’t,” my friend texted back.

Again with Joan Rivers: “It doesn’t get better. You get better.”

If we go backward in time, twenty-one years, little-me is lying in bed with her cassette player, listening to “Once Upon a Time in New York City”. Shocked by the carelessness of other little kids; totally dreading it; wishing she didn’t have to deal with it; not knowing that she was listening to a song about a place, just as sleepless as her.

Remember. She gets better.

But, for now, the twinkling Christmas lights will have to do.

Your insides, always fighting for you, even when you aren’t, will have to do.

Remember. People often misunderstand each other because they don’t understand themselves. Some will count up all the things you don’t have, in comparison to themselves, as a means of maintaining some imagined order. It’s okay. Let them have it. They’re trying to get better too. And even if there’s a hole you’ll never fill—some lack you can’t atone for—there is the melting ice—waiting outside the church basement that is posing as someplace else—speckled from being eaten through by salt. It’ll understand you when no one else will.

A friend is a friend is a friend.

There is a city that never sleeps, just like you.

The Death of a Brontosaurus has Everything and Nothing to do with the End of a Friendship

Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.

— Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Maps”

____

Mildly disgusted with my own sentimentality, I turned my head so my boyfriend wouldn’t see me cry, as a brontosaurus swayed and tumbled to her death, after a volcanic eruption, in the new Jurassic World movie. (She was so helpless and gentle. I hated how all I could do was watch, as this CGI projection, so reminiscent of glossy pages, and pop-up books, suffered from such despair.)

Why did it make me feel as if someone had suddenly snapped all the kids books, in the world, shut?

I thought about it.

How the image of this long-necked dino exists in our collective imagination as a symbol of hope, and benevolence. (Earlier that week, watching Jurassic Park III, my boyfriend made a joke reminiscent of “not all men”. He said, “Not all dinosaurs!” as the scene cut, from vengeant raptors, to the familiar John Williams theme, playing over triumphant shots of herbivores—the brontosaurus, most notable, among them.)

When she groaned, and her knees—eventually—buckled; when she disappeared, among the dirt and ash, I had a flashback to Jay Gatsby, face down in his unused swimming pool. (This is a partial Leonardo DiCaprio reference. His face has always appeared, to me, as an unrealized dream. And, I guess, now the brontosaurus does too.)

I chose my muses, and re-imagined them as a personal trinity. (Leo D., Jay Gatsby, and the brontosaurus: What if I could climb up the tail of a brontosaurus—over its back, and onto some idyllic planet? One where Leo is more like Jay. Less womanizing, and more one-woman obsessed—but not to the point of death. Never like that. A more balanced place with a smiling brontosaurus in the sky…)

I Googled about brontosauruses.

Apparently this particular dinosaur’s existence has often been called into question, having gotten caught in the crossfire of a feud known as “The Bone Wars”. (These excavationist battles involved two paleontologists—Edward Cope and Othneil Marsh—who were so focused on one-upping each other, in terms of discovering new species of dinosaur, that they eventually forgot the importance of scientific accuracy altogether. It was believed—up until 2015—that the brontosaurus was actually just a camarasaurus wearing an apatosaurus’s skull. That the petty distraction, of Cope and Marsh’s feuding, had caused some explosive bone mix-up.)

Now, let’s just say, for my narrative’s sake, that these paleontologists started off as the best of friends. That their feud didn’t begin with dinosaur bones, but a woman. (An empty woman who was alluring the way a fixer-upper is alluring. In that “what could be” sort of way.)

Let’s say Cope saw her first. Fucked her first. (Ripped up her floorboards, and found the mold growing underneath.) Let’s say he tried to repair her—love her—first. That, every time—with every solved problem—yet another problem was revealed. Until, finally, he couldn’t take it anymore—he had to confide in someone.

Let’s say he confided in Marsh.

As they dusted the dirt off of a yet-to-be christened brontosaurus, he said, “I keep trying to make it work, but no matter what I do, it never comes together.”

Let’s say Marsh took a break from his brushing, and looked pensive. That he gave the kind of brutal honesty true friendship was wont to reveal. He said, “You’re just another tool in her shed. No woman wastes anytime thinking about a hammer until she needs one.”

Let’s say Cope wasn’t offended. In fact, let’s say he loved, and valued, Marsh, unwaveringly, for his honesty. Until—some while later—Marsh admitted that he’d been seeing this woman too. That he’d never seen any reason to stop.

Let’s say, after that, Cope couldn’t un-hear what Marsh had said. That it played, round and round, on a loop, inside his head: You’re just another tool in her shed…

Let’s say this has nothing to do with Cope and Marsh, or whether or not the brontosaurus ever existed. This is about me and a friend.

How I’d always considered her the “strong” one. So much so that, the first, and only, time I ever saw her break down, I felt shaken. (She shattered like the finest champagne glass. Her face contorted, right before she began to cry, and I felt like I’d just gazed into a mirror, right before it cracked.)

“I feel so used by him, all the time,” she said.

(And I tried to collect the pieces.)

I said, “I wish I could show you…”

But I never found the words to describe her worth. At least not adequately. And all the time, I sat on the sidelines, an idle friend. Watched as her relationship with cocaine formed, and never said a word. Just read about its effects on the body, and imagined her brain like a building with shotty wiring. Imagined the lights in her prefrontal lobe, flickering, with her will to live trapped inside—debating whether the electric bill was even worth paying.

When she told me she was sleeping with my ex—one who was unkind to me—I felt like I’d just noticed a shard of glass, stuck in the tip of my finger. (A small splinter from that day she shattered like a champagne glass; a reminder of how my friendship would always fall short, because what I wanted to give depended on something so abstract. A feeling that could only be internally realized, and never externally given: “I wish— I wish—”)

Does Leonardo DiCaprio ever get lonely?

I Googled this and the results were soul-crushing.

The first article that popped up was for Daily Mail, titled, “Leonardo DiCaprio will end up Miserable and Alone”. (Images of his alleged “misery” were presented alongside images of his womanizing—everyone seemed to presume the two existed in tandem. Like there was some eternal version of Leo, planted on a private island. Where his mega-yacht was forever docking, and long-legged blondes were slathering tanning oil on one another, all around him—perpetually. And still: He couldn’t stop scowling.)

Eventually I found a statement Leonardo DiCaprio made himself.

He admitted that, sometimes, he feels so lonely it’s like someone has just “punched” him in the gut. And I imagined—on that distant beach—the scowl of his eternal self, deepening. (That’s the trouble, with lonely people. We fail to understand loneliness as a state of mind, opposed to a state of being. Every failure at communication, every failed human connection, feels like a father’s blessing to marry the idea that one’s problems are unique.)

I keep trying to divorce this idea from myself. Because, I understand: I’m not the first person to feel betrayed by a best friend. But the way relationships seem to end, with me—it’s like a Big Bang in reverse. I recognize my inability to experience human connection in moderation. To this point where I’d just assume pulling up a towel next to Leo, on his miserable beach.

Casting my rose-tinted glasses to the wind, and replacing them with some dark shades, “Fuck him, fuck her, fuck everyone,” I’d say. And we’d share a loneliness, like only being able to comprehend the insides of our own eyelids.

Eventually, he’d try to make conversation—some small talk about the weather—and I’d say, “I wish you were Jay Gatsby.” Shut down his attempts at positive interaction because it just wasn’t meant to be that kind of beach date.

Why did the brontosaurus’s death make me so upset?

It symbolized the death of something noble—good intention run amuck. Like watching a good friend crash and burn and feeling as if you’ve always been hopelessly inadequate to stop it. Like, being Nick Carraway. The sole witness of Gatsby’s isolation. Realizing that, you were the only one who ever showed up for him. That there was always a whole system, rigged against him. And now you’re calling, and calling… Hoping he’ll pick up, and listen long enough for you to save him from—something, whatever it is.

This is about how The Great Gatsby was about friendship, just as much as it was about love.

It’s about how I recently listened to an episode of This American Life that was all about break-ups. It featured a girl who quoted Phil Collins, as her boyfriend broke up with her—on New Years Eve—because it was the only thing she could think to say at the time. And all I could think about was how I’d like to re-write mine and my ex best friend’s story to have an ending like a 90’s teen movie. (I’d chase her down—in lieu of Freddie Prinze Junior—and quote “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.)

It’s about what a shallow, best-friend-stealing, asshole “the way things are” can be.

How, the reality of the situation is this: The moment I found the words to describe her worth, I’d been disqualified as a credible source. And, I just couldn’t watch, as her priorities got fed through a siphon, the scope of which kept closing in, until there was only this: Cocaine. Like, the Daisy to her Gatsby. A promise that’d never materialize into anything other than the need for more.

It’s about how, in the meantime, I can be found watching the sunset, overlooking the water, from a lawn chair. Planted between my boyfriend, and my other best friend—twin fire signs, my two favorite Leos. Laughing at the past, and pointing out Great Blue Herons. The sounds of crickets, absolutely vivid. Realizing the emptiness I’ve carried inside, since birth, isn’t there.

And I think of her.

And, I wish—

Relationships like Cake: I might want to Get Married Someday

I couldn’t even explain to you how good it feels
to look up across a room and see you standing there.

— Anonymous

____

My life has been so uncharacteristically fine, that I’m not quite sure how to write about it. I’m so primed for, and accustomed to, dysfunction, that this sense of calm, completely free from the anxiety that it will end, feels simultaneously eerie and relaxing. (Eerie in the sense that—for me—it’s uncharted territory, and relaxing in the sense that, it’s nice, taking a break from the idea that everything has to be perfect in order to be meaningful.)

This sense of “fine” was only completely understood, recently, when my boyfriend said, “You’re a very kind-hearted person,” and I found myself, suddenly, and unexpectedly, in tears.

Not because I was upset, but because I was the furthest thing from it.

For once, I was happy in a way that wasn’t like sitting inside a house of cards, clinging to every single second of stability. It was something more substantial, like, a happiness that didn’t depend on my boyfriend recoginizing I was a kind-hearted person, but on the fact that, I knew, I deserved to be understood this way.

I look back on my past relationships, and see that I used to receive love like a drain. I questioned the permanence of every kind word and promise; yes, because many of my exes proved to be unstable in their word, and untrustworthy through their actions, but also because I believed instability—a kind of relationship based on constant pursuit with no resounding sense of satisfaction—was the most someone like me could ever hope for.

My lack of substantial and satisfying relationships was due in large part, to my own self-doubt and fear: Could I bear the monotony of health? Of going on dates, and making plans, and meeting someone’s mom? Of not being able to see the end?

With stable relationships, there is a sense of “the unknown” that can be more disconcerting to some than the intensity and anxiety—maybe even fear—that comes with unstable—maybe even abusive—relationships. (This is the subconscious reason I believe many women choose, and stay with, men who are totally wrong and/or bad for them. The intensity of emotional pain feels more like love than the inevitable everyday-ness, and security, of actual love and compatibility.)

A thought I considered via the inadvertent, almost reflexive, comparison of my ex and current boyfriend.

The only way I know how to describe it is this:

Being with my ex was like, eating a whole cake in one sitting. A sort of “Wow, a whole cake—just for me?!” that was great for about one or two pieces, but by the third or fourth, left me sick to my stomach, and hating myself.

Whereas my relationship with my current boyfriend, is like, eating a single piece of cake. I’m not worrying about whether or not this is the last piece of cake I’ll ever have; if, perhaps, there might be better cake elsewhere, and I’m missing out. I’m just focused on the plate in front of me, understanding that whether or not I’ll ever get to taste this particular cake again, isn’t up to me; I just need have faith that it’ll be enough.

In other words, I felt more with my ex—our relationship’s extremities were exciting and romantic—but I’m much happier with my current boyfriend.

I’ve learned that some romantic connections, however cosmically-charged and intense they might be, just aren’t substantial. They’re only good in terms of potence, and not longevity. Creating a sort of rush and crash that leaves one dizzy, and lightheaded—trapped with a recurring moral that would follow any other unbalanced diet: Too sweet to last.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this idea in the fourth chapter, “Eros”, of his essay collection on love, The Four Loves. He said: “[Eros] cannot, just as it stands, be the voice of God Himself. For Eros, speaking with that very grandeur and displaying that very transcendence of self, may urge to evil as well as to good… The love which leads to cruel and perjured unions, even to suicide pacts and murder, is not likely to be wandering lust or idle sentiment. It may well be Eros in all [its] splendour; heartbreakingly sincere; ready for every sacrifice except renunciation.”

Which is to say, romantic love in the absence of the other three loves—affection, friendship, and charity—however intense, or pure-intentioned, will inevitably and eventually turn to poison. Seeing that, romantic love—when it stands alone—is comprised of our most primal forces: lust, entitlement, jealousy, desperation, desire… The other loves need to be present in order to counteract the egomania of romantic love; to create the kind of balance that makes an intimate relationship healthy, and nontoxic.

This is probably why finding the “right” person is so difficult. When we delve into a new relationship, we can’t predict how that relationship will manifest itself. There’s no way of knowing, or calibrating, whether the four loves will be present, or else completely lacking and imbalanced—leading to nothing but destruction, or heartbreak, or boredom…

We are all so specific, and unique, that—I do believe–there are only a few people in this world who can truly satisfy our personal chemistries; who can allot just the right amount of affection, friendship, Eros, and charity—forgiveness and acceptance—to complement our individual designs.

Therefore the idea of marriage—committing to one person, taking vows, making promises until death—really is completely insane: What if someone’s heart is wrong?

I guess, the point is: my boyfriend said, “You’re a very kind-hearted person,” and I realized my feelings for him might not be all-consuming, or intense. But they dawn on me often, and—when they do—it’s like I’ve suddenly stepped into a warm and private room, where no one’s hoping I’ll be anything other than what I am. (There’s this unspoken understanding that, moments when we have nothing to say are no indication of future loss, or love gone stagnant, but a means of communicating: I feel safe with you. A sense of normalcy I was once vain enough to believe I’d been excluded from.)

I don’t want to get my hopes up. I’ve been wrong so many times before. But the difference is—I don’t care—I’m not afraid of being wrong anymore. I used to think the concept of marriage—committing oneself to another person with such totality—was pointless, and insincere: Why legally bind yourself to someone else, in front of everyone you know, when you can make that decision privately, on your own time? Are we not mature enough to make commitments without mediation? Doesn’t the gawdiness of tradition—posed pictures, buttercream icing in the shapes of roses, forcing your friends into expensive dresses, the mere desire for witnesses—automatically cheapen one’s promises?

I thought of weddings as ostentatious shows—two people standing up in front of everyone, and putting on a front, not considering the days ahead, or the fact that there is an after to “happily ever after”. But now—stripped of tradition, and capitalist influences—I’ve slowly started to see the institution’s merit.

I’ve met someone who has done nothing other than be himself, and it’s made me rethink everything.

(I consider our relationship’s most tedious facts: splitting the check; the ever changing movie list—saved, safely, in my iPhone notes; an order of loaded fries with two forks; Bud Light in plastic cups, illuminated by the sun—the fact that I even found this image touching; pointing out dogs from the third story window; our Saturday morning coffee; South Park marathons, and deep belly laughing; putting our quarters together in the pool table; how the radio sounds different in his car—compared to all the other cars; the way he eats his breakfast, standing up; how tattoos seem to suit me, but not him, and this makes no difference to either of us…

It all makes me think of something a philosophy professor said, when I was in college, about his wife, “I have fallen in and out of love with the same woman, for the greater part of my life.” And how I’ve carried that sentiment with me, ever since. This idea of growing apart, and back together, over and over again; one that draws so many people to symbols of infinity, and mimics the way trees die, and come back to life—naturally, and via some force completely beyond any human intervention.)

It’s something I’ve never experienced before: a chance to see beyond some fantasy of myself as too-cool for just one valentine, and into a place where I’m less pretty, less mysterious, and more wholly known.

To take my heart’s desire, day by day, like a piece of cake.

A Millennial Girl’s Guide to Getting Over You

I wrote this story about four years ago. It was accepted for publication in a collection of stories about modern dating. However, being a major procrastinator, I completely forgot to turn in my edits, and I missed the deadline. Meaning, my story would not appear in the collection. (Something that was only mildly disappointing, seeing that, the editors wanted me to rewrite an ending in which the narrator expressed more regret over having given “so much to a person who was never really there”.) At that point, I think my conscience had taken over, because I didn’t want to re-write the ending. I didn’t want my narrator to express regret. (I’ve learned, none of us ever lose anything in trying to get to know someone, or love someone. Not even when we wind up heartbroken, and the other person proves himself to be kind of crumby.  If we can grow from it, and come out of it with the understanding that we did the best we could with the knowledge we had, then—in my opinion—it’s an opportunity to obtain new insight, empathy, and perspective.) Furthermore, I’m a very different person now from who I was when this was written. My happiness and self-worth used to depend, way too much, on my expectations of other people, and I allowed anger, frustration, and disappointment, to control my reactions to the world. I lacked boundaries, discernment, and proper self-care. And this had me believing I was powerless, with no control over my life, or the things that happened to me. As the years have gone on, however, I’ve slowly learned these life skills, and I am capable of conducting myself, more gracefully. Which brings me to my point: Grace is something I never would have learned had I not encountered hurtful and difficult situations; pain, failure, rejection, major breeches in judgment—all of it. This is why I’ve decided to share this story here. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and I feel like I’ve been hoarding it for too long. I hope you enjoy it!

_____

Our generation doesn’t like titles, formality, boundaries; we exist on a blurred line. You and I were not exempt from this collective preference for ambiguity; although I have to admit, I kind of wanted to be.

I said, “I just don’t know what I am to you, and at this point, I’d like some idea.”

You gave me a non-answer to deflect responsibility, even though we both knew it wasn’t my choice anymore, “I don’t know. My nature is really mysterious, and I’m a defensive person, so I’m kinda intimidated by the idea of scheduling my life around someone else.”

Mysterious.

I clung to the word as I started mentally constructing a grudge around it. I remember thinking: You work at Zumiez—the McDonalds of skate shops. You like to look at pictures of the ocean on Tumblr when you’re sad. You have the kind of hair that’s cut intentionally so you can slick it back as you light cigarettes and slam your Mustang’s door shut. I wanted to burst your bubble of ‘mystery’ with this list of facts. I wanted to say with conviction, “You’re just selfish.” But the words got caught in the filter that was my affection, and instead, I wound up saying, “I’m sorry, I know you didn’t ask for any of this.”

You said, “Thank you…Thank you so much for understanding.” And I went home, fully aware of the fact that you were never going to speak to me again.

*

Two tallboys of Lime-a-Rita later, I was joking about the guy who ‘mysteriously’ rolled away from me on his skateboard, “…and then he ollied out of my life into a sunset of his own narcissism.” This was the story I told all my friends. I didn’t need them to hug me as I cried, I just wanted them to laugh.

♥♥♥

I’m always surprised by how quickly I can turn my own pain into a joke—Oh is that the sound of my heart breaking again? No, wait, that’s just a Whoopee cushion deflating under the weight of my current disappointment. The humiliation sucks, but at least it makes a funny sound.

Here’s the thing, I have a knack for loving losers, and the fact that I know how to laugh at what makes these losers, losers, doesn’t change the fact that I love them. So whenever a loser winds up hurting me, I immediately start thinking about how I can deprecate myself in relation to said loser in an attempt to make my pain less like pain, and a little more like something people would care about.

For instance, one time, I had sex with a guy whose skin felt like it was covered in pinpoints—probably because he shaved his body hair. When everything was over, he cuddled up to me, and in an attempt to tease him, I said, “You have a body like a cactus.”

He didn’t laugh. Instead, he pushed me away with an indignant “I’m not like a cactus!”

I felt kind of sad that we could have sex but we couldn’t joke around with each other; that we were both so foreign to one another that the notion of having a cactus-like body was a serious point of contention and not just some dumb comment to laugh about.

Obviously, when I tell this story, I leave the sadness, the staring at the wall, the general disconnect, out. People like to laugh, but no one likes emotions that stagnate when they shouldn’t. No one likes the grey area that is somewhere between heartbreak and indifference. So I edit to avoid redundancy and to feign control over my own hurting.

What does any of this have to do with you?

I’d like to turn what happened between us into a joke, but I’m having a hard time doing it because, unlike a lot of the losers I’ve loved before you, I think you beat me to the punch. I can’t quite convince myself that you deserve the loser-label, and when all the laughter passes, my awareness of your existence still remains like a dull, aching cliché.

♥♥♥

I had to scrap the first draft of this essay because I realized I made you too likable. Or, I guess I should say, you are likable, and I emphasized that fact beyond deserving. It started off with the moment you sang along to Blink-182 in my ear, “Angel from my nightmare,” how you giggled like a little kid before you backtracked and said, “wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself.” How I chose to believe the former over the latter because the dreamy look in your eye was telling me, secretly, you meant it—but let’s be real, the giggle was just a side effect of the whiskey, and ‘angel from my nightmare’ is code for: You wear a lot of black, and I think you’re kind of pretty.

You weren’t fooling me, but you did fool me.

That night I followed you home and you pretended you wanted me to come into your room to look at a wax skull—what? Yeah. I know. I fall for the weirdest pick-up lines—Hey girl, wanna see a really cool candle?—but that’s what happened. I held the thing in my hand, and played along like we were two kids in an innocent exchange of show and tell. Right then, you scaled the bridge of my nose with your forefinger. You said, “You have a nose like one of those clay girls from the Puffs commercials.”

“That’s funny,” I said as you traced my mouth and I tried to pretend like your touch felt natural, “Someone once told me I reminded him of the Corpse Bride.”

You slid your hand up the back of my neck, twisted your fingers in my hair, and said, “She was clay, too.”

It was inevitable. Seconds later, your mouth would be on mine, and I’d drop the skull on the floor, allowing it to roll away like some horrible allusion to Snow White’s poison apple. I pulled off your white shirt as you peeled back my tights, and gathered my hair in one fist like a bouquet of flowers. You pulled me close and, the moment I said, “That kind of hurts,” you came, and the fucked up part about it is we both laughed.

♥♥♥

If I Google, Is my boyfriend a sociopath, I’m linked to checklists, and quizzes; psychological articles on defining characteristics, or blog entries with aggressive headlines like: “IT HAPPENED TO ME: I DATED A SOCIOPATH!”

The question crossed my mind with you—Is he? I think he might be. But then again, I don’t believe in using the term ‘sociopath’ lightly. I’m careful because sometimes I think it’s easier to believe that a person’s brain is broken than it is to believe that they just aren’t attracted to you; to say, Oh we’re just wired differently, especially when his wires are the ones that aren’t working.

All that being said, I still kind of thought you might be a sociopath.

So after our ‘break-up’ I consulted Google and tried to remain as unbiased as possible as I read, “all sociopaths are narcissists but not all narcissists are sociopaths,” and begrudgingly accepted that you never struck me as “too good to be true”, and had no apparent “desire for control” over anything. It became pretty clear that you probably weren’t a sociopath, so for fairness’ sake I decided to search: Am I a masochist? But all I learned about myself was that I definitely don’t enjoy it when cats scratch me, and the time I bruised my tailbone and said “It feels kind of good” wasn’t a legit enough story to prove a pain fetish, mostly because I was drunk at the time, and nobody got off after I said it.

Your brain wasn’t broken, and I didn’t have an abnormal sexual psychology. Still, I wasn’t ready to accept the truth. So I consulted Google once more–my apparent magic 8 ball for making sense of life, post-breakup.

I researched the seven stages of grief because, I have to admit, it kind of felt like you’d died. I concluded that I was still in the throes of stage two, denial, and subsequently decided to read all about your Mustang online.

I learned that your car can go from 0 to 60 in 1.5 seconds; that it has a six speed auto-select transmission; that this means you can choose between automatic and manual control at your leisure; that Ford had created a woman named Delena Henriques with computer graphics so whenever someone searches her name, all they’ll find is your car and a pair of digitally enhanced legs. I read about all of this as if knowing any of it could ever make up for all the things I never got to know about you.

♥♥♥

My initial reaction to your car was, “What is this, a Lana del Rey music video?” Then you grinned and slicked your hair back because you knew exactly what I meant.

The back of your car was loaded up with skateboards and Hurricane malt liquor. You took me to an abandoned parking ramp where I watched you Ollie, nollie, tailslide, frontslide, 50/50 railgrind. You cracked elbows and bent ankles until blood speckled your white shirt. But you were resilient; you bounced back in one fluid motion, as if the consequence of gravity was something you’d gone numb to.

I shivered, despite being wrapped in one of your hoody sweatshirts, and you looked at me from across the lot right before you gave a trick another go. Your blue eyes were always wide and ready to accept life as it is, and I longed for you in a way that I can’t explain. You were free of me in a way that I wasn’t free of you, and it filled me with jealousy and dread and an admiration that had me wondering what it was like to be the cigarettes tucked in your back pocket—what was it like being that sure of a thing to you?

That night, on the ride home, I stared out the window and tried to pretend to be less fascinated by you than I was, counting the street lamps as they passed, hoping to memorize the way the amber light flooded the gutters. I started to project the idea of you onto the overpasses, the graffiti, the neon glow of restaurants and strip mall signs. You took my hand and placed it on the gearstick.

Stupidly, I said, “I can’t drive stick.”

With your hand still covering mine, you said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Then you switched gears and all I felt was You.

♥♥♥

It’s a shame that Google can’t provide any answers to the specifics: What does it mean to be the angel from someone’s nightmare? Someone’s clay girl?

I can find step-by-step reassurance in articles that divulge the secrets to overcoming heartache for someone I was never actually dating, but that’s about as specific as Google can get. Through some blogger acknowledging that the pain is in the fact that ‘angel from my nightmare’ is just another way of referring to a romantic hiccup; to the person who bridged the gap between last break-up and next relationship; a nice way of saying: Non-girlfriend.

It’s a low blow, but it’s the truth.

Being the non-girlfriend meant everyone looked at me like I wasn’t allowed to be as upset as I was. It meant everyone questioned my questions. How could I possibly care, so damn much, about a person who was just sex? What gives me the right?

And I agreed: Yeah, what gives me the right?

But I wondered anyway.

I wondered, Was every kiss a calculation? Are you just some construct designed to get laid? Did you mean it when you said it? Do you think about the things you say? What’s it like being the cigarettes in your back pocket—what’s it like being that safe and tucked away inside yourself?

*

I promised myself that I wouldn’t address your faults with too much assertion when I began the second draft of this essay. I know break-ups are a double sided coin for any number of reasons—there’s my side and there’s your side. There’s one side tainted by anger and the other side consumed by sadness. There’s a battle between the itch to forgive and the steadfast grip of a grudge that is hesitant to let go and scratch that itch.

♥♥♥

Of course I went through all the motions of any break-up. I sent you drunken, stalker-esque “I miss you” Snapchats that were taken in the dark and only lasted two seconds. I listened to “Youth” by Daughter at least fifty times. I cried at the end of Her, and had a one night stand with a guy I met on OkCupid. I even eventually went back to your apartment while you weren’t there—your roommates invited me. We all got drunk and high and laughed; it was fun, but it wasn’t the same without you.

At one point, the door to your room was cracked, and I caught a glimpse inside. I saw your brown comforter all crumpled up on your twin bed, dresser drawers left open, empty Corona bottles, jumbled X-Box wires, holey Vans sneakers repaired with auto body putty, plates with half-eaten sandwiches. And when I drove home, I sobbed uncontrollably at the thought of it all because I just didn’t have it in me to be mad at you anymore.

I said it once, and I’ll say it again: You are likable. And, for a moment, you made me really happy. You brought the magic back into my life. You drove a shiny car that looked like it belonged on a plastic neon Hot Wheels track. You weren’t above laughing, smiling, sprinkling cinnamon on my cider, watching otters somersault, or pretending soda caps were hats for lizards.

And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but here’s the thing: Our generation is enchanted by the word ‘stay’. Stay with me ‘cause you’re all I need…All you had to do was stay…Stay, just stay…Kiss me before they turn the lights out! (Yes, these are all lyrics from pop songs.)

We don’t know how to let go.

We’re all confused and lonely. We don’t know where we’re going. Maybe that’s why we don’t like titles, formality; maybe that’s why we’re more comfortable on the blurred line—it’s too hard to get anyone to stay. We’ve all got shit to do, lives to lead… we just want someone to kiss before they turn the lights out.

I’m sorry.

I know it’s not that complicated: We’re two okay people who didn’t work out.

I just really wanted you to stay.

But Not You

All the double edged people and schemes
they make a mess then go home and get clean
You’re my best friend, and we’re dancing in a world alone
We’re all alone.

Lorde, “A World Alone”

***

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about reality, and whether any sound version of it exists.

It’s such a morally ambiguous time to be alive, and I’ve been struggling to discern anything from anything. (Good from bad, right from wrong, love from hate, fact from fiction, et al.) I feel as if I’m constantly falling down rabbit holes. Like I’m always being bombarded, or cornered, by biased, and unfair, realities.

I’ll perceive one thing, and then someone else will tell me that’s not how it went down. I’m wrong; I’m overreacting; I’m only seeing what I want; I’m not being “realistic”.

See, the significant amount of time I’ve spent contemplating the definition of “reality” only occurred to me, just this past weekend. After I found myself in an awkward situation, the brunt of which I had to take the blame for. Even though, from my perspective, the other person’s part was pretty deceptive

I met up with some friends, and they were sitting with this guy who, apparently, worked at the establishment. He was acquainted with someone in our group, and throughout the course of the night I decided I thought he was funny, and attractive.

He seemed to be just as interested: giving me eyes, asking me questions—just, generally, granting me added attention. So I was a little taken aback when someone in our group mentioned his having a girlfriend. Everything I’d perceived up until that point had implied the opposite. So much so, I actually assumed: That girlfriend stuff must have been a joke.

Eventually everyone left, leaving me alone with him. He said, “Do you want a tour?” I said, “Sure!” And he showed me around where he worked, not exactly backing off in the arena of flirtation. Until, finally, I just asked him flat out, “Do you really have a girlfriend?”

Without skipping a beat, he said, “Yeah.”

“Really dude?”

“What?” He said, “Just say it: what were you thinking?”

There was no way to say it without sounding narcissistic, so I just said it, “You’re attracted to me.”

He said, “I treated you the way I’d treat any customer.”

Never having been the kind of person to back off, when I believe something is true, I said it again, practically laughing, “No, you’re definitely attracted to me.”

He sort of shrugged, “Okay, yeah. Look, we’ve actually met before. And I liked you, but—whatever—you weren’t into it. And now I’m with her.”

Though I’m sure what he said was true, I had no recollection of meeting him before. Which means the interaction couldn’t have been too significant. This admission, however, had me thinking: Oh, okay, cool. So he had an agenda the moment I walked through the door.

And I just stared at him, not really knowing what to say. Trying to understand what he had to gain by creating this situation, beyond getting back at me for a rejection I couldn’t even remember giving. The sudden shift in context had me feeling really conflicted—questioning myself, my own interpretations of situations—and I resented him for putting me in that position. For acting like he had nothing to do with it.

He repeated himself, “I treated you like I’d treat any customer.”

And, for some reason, I found myself confessing, out of sheer exhaustion, “You know, I really want to meet someone. I’m at a point in my life where getting jerked around by entitled people isn’t even entertaining anymore. It’s just disappointing.”

He said, “I don’t know what to tell you. How did you want things to go? Seriously, what were you expecting?”

At which point, I felt simultaneously annoyed, and defeated. So annoyed, and defeated, I couldn’t even articulate an answer: It was pointless.

The whole interaction had been a zero-sum game, and to call him out on it; to try and get him to admit the deceit on his side, would mean to act from a place of self-righteous rage—a place I’d rather not go. (I felt like I was supposed to shake his hand, or something. Be a good sport, like: Good game, bro. You’re right. I’m just a self-centered chick who ignored you once. You get the trophy.)

I said, “I don’t know what I’m expecting anymore. I’m gonna go.” And, the moment I stepped outside, my reunion with the cold air felt like a physical manifestation of my own clarity.

What was I expecting?

I was expecting a fair shot, for my interaction with another person to not be rigged from the start.

I was expecting someone to be the person he was pretending to be: A single one.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but I actually find myself in these situations a lot. Ones where I feel isolated, and like I’m being denied my own reality, out of some weird place of revenge. (Seriously, I could site other examples for hours.) But my main point is, I walk away from these situations—time after time—feeling completely objectified, and punished, for reasons no one is willing to admit, or name. To the point where it has me wondering: There cannot be this many jerks in the world, it has to be me.

I’ve even talked to a therapist about it.

He theorized, “When people meet someone who is intelligent, and attractive, and good at what they do—some will assume: this person cannot also be sincere. The foundation of who they are falls under closer scrutiny. You feel wrong, because people have often treated you as if you are wrong, and some people will see this resounding self-doubt, and they’ll hone in on it—because they want to challenge your integrity.”

For most of my life, I’ve functioned under the assumption that I’m wrong, and everyone else is right. Which has made me more open-minded, and diplomatic, but has also put me at a disadvantage in terms of identifying abusive people. Therefore, it’s taken a long time—two years of therapy—for me to internalize the reality that I am not this vapid, or delicate, little girl that some of my male peers have made me out to be.

That being said, understanding, and accepting, who I am hasn’t made getting duped by jerks any less disappointing.

And when I told my friend about the incident—with the guy over the weekend—something she said aided me in locating the source of my disappointment: “Obviously we know monogamy isn’t a perfect arrangement all the time, but then to see the situations where there’s holes in it is seriously depressing.”

Considering this, I thought: If I ever have a committed relationship, I want it to be with someone who would never lead another girl into the abyss of his workplace, hidden from the judgment of other people, to spite-flirt. I don’t want to give any part of myself to someone who’s that insecure.

Because, that’s the thing—what makes it so disappointing. The utter lack of integrity; how individuals with it seem few, and far, between. When it’s what I’m craving, more than anything else.

Someone who values sincerity.

Whose reality is as honest, and objective, as my own.

Why is that so hard to find?

Some of my favorite lyrics come from Lorde’s, “A World Alone”, off her first album, Pure Heroine. They go: “Maybe the Internet raised us / Or maybe people are jerks / But not you…” And every time, the moment “but not you” is uttered, I feel pierced through the heart. Just the mere idea of looking at another person—past all the world’s shortcomings—and saying, with clarity: “But not you.”

A reality that is as shared as it is certain, that’s what I’m expecting.

In Light of Louis C.K. Admitting to Sexual Assault

We have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain,
but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain…
It has to change.

–Rabecca Solnit, “The Longest War”

In light of Louis C.K.’s recent statement, admitting to sexual abuse of former female colleagues, one of my best friends posted a Facebook status sharing her experience with sexual abuse. She started the status off by citing an article on Vice, written by Megan Koester. In which the reporter shared her experience, attending a comedy festival with the intention of investigating the allegations of sexual assault against Louis C.K. (Predictably, she was treated as an enemy, was told she was only welcome as long as she asked “nice” questions, and was ultimately shamed into leaving by the show’s COO.)

After my friend cited the article, she went on to explain her conflicting feelings about the scandal; she liked Louis C.K. She admitted that a major part of her wanted the accusations to be lies. But upon reading Koester’s article, she could no longer deny that, on a base level, the Louis C.K. scandal was personal. And taking full ownership of her own experiences with sexual abuse was synonymous with no longer excusing, or denying, our culture and society’s tendency to doubt victims and sympathize with abusers.

She concluded with, “I feel like now is the time for my story to be told, because it’s clearly part of a narrative too strong and too real. We have the power to shut down powerful sexual abusers – we’ve shown this. I ask for everyone to be truly conscious of how their time and money is spent, because if you’re part of the community my abuser works in, my guess is that this already sounds familiar to you.” Making a rendering point: We all live among this culture of abuse, therefore we are responsible for how it manifests and survives–like it or not.

☁︎

Sexual abuse is an issue I dedicate a lot of thought and time to. I am the daughter of a survivor, a friend of a survivor, and a survivor myself. (Though I think this is true of all women–hence, #yesallwomen). Having personal experiences with sexual abuse, and close relationships with survivors, has put me in a position where I had no choice but to understand the nature of abusers. How it’s never a black and white issue. That to believe dealing with the traumatic aftermath should be “simple” is, ultimately, naïve. The logic of someone who obviously has never dealt with the debilitating confusion that is realizing a person–who was supposed to protect you–is consciously exploiting your inferior position to compensate for his self-worth deficit.

My friend, the one who wrote the Facebook status, was harassed and violated by her supervisor in the past year. I’ve talked with her as she’s struggled to claim the title of “victim”. She doesn’t see “victim” as an accurate part of her identity; she’s intelligent and independent. Defenseless, and taken advantage of, are not what she sees when she looks in the mirror. She struggles to accept that there was nothing she could have done to prevent the situation–that what happened to her was not the consequence of who she is, or anything she did.

She’ll even say, “I’ll admit, I wasn’t smart in the situation.”

She’ll say, “Even though I wasn’t interested in this guy, I thought I could run the world because he wanted me. So I humored it…” She’ll talk about how, as a woman, she often feels like she’s been trained to use her sexuality to get ahead and that, engaging in this behavior, seems like something she’s supposed to do. But then, inevitably, and undeniably, she always comes back to the truth, “That doesn’t mean I wanted his hand down my pants.”

When she says these things, I reassure her, “I’ve never been willing or comfortable enough to use my sexuality to get what I want… So I know. It doesn’t matter how you carry yourself. If someone is going to abuse you, they will find fault in how you carry yourself and they will attack it–one way or another. And that’s why you shouldn’t feel stupid about what happened. I’ve found myself in similar situations where I knew I wasn’t giving any signals. And still, something really bad and traumatic happened.”

In college I was always really careful to create an emotional boundary between myself and male professors. I never bridged the gap between professional and personal because I never wanted my academic success, or the level of my talent, to be equated and reduced to a man’s personal preference. I never wanted someone to be able to say, “You only get good grades because he has a crush on you.”

This method worked out fine… Until my final semester of college when I had a professor who harassed me for refusing to humor his favoritism. And although it didn’t amount to sexual abuse, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that he was punishing me for not bridging the gap between personal and professional. For my right to create boundaries and “prevent” sexual abuse from becoming a possibility. This is why, I believe, when it comes to an abuser who wants you: You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Those months following graduation, I had night terrors. I kept waking up and seeing the silhouette of a tall horned man watching me in my room. Eventually it was brought to my attention that dreams of this nature are often a symptom of trauma. Which meant I was probably experiencing PTSD as a result of what this professor had done to me. (Though what he put me through was “just” emotional violence, it was enough for me to realize: I can’t imagine what life would have been like if he’d been able to invade me on a more intimate level.)

I told my friend, “There is literally nothing you could have done differently.”

Still, I feel for her and the struggles–both external and internal–that she seems to be experiencing at this point in time. The harassment of a male professor was merely the catalyst that got me into therapy for a number of traumatic experiences I’d had with men who should’ve known better. (Though I don’t care to share those experiences here.) And tackling these psychic wounds and unresolved feelings of anger and resentment is not simple, nor easy.

However, if there’s one comment I have to make about what I’ve been through–what my friend has been through–it’s that these incidents aren’t isolated. That “small” incidents of abuse and harassment against women–in everyday life–add up over time and become indicative of a much bigger problem. That the abusive guy is not just that guy–over there (the blatantly weird and creepy individual, like Steve Harvey). But the one we love, who made us laugh and helped us out in crisis. Louis C.K.!

I don’t know what the future will ultimately hold for men who abuse power, and women as a result. But I am glad that Louis C.K. is experiencing consequences. (FX, Netflix, and HBO have all reportedly dropped his shows and future projects. While his publicist and management team have called it quits.) I’m glad that he issued a statement in which he admitted the extent of what he did, and apologized with thoughtful remorse that, I hope, was sincere.

This kind of direct-honesty in incidents of sexual abuse, and abuse of power, is unprecedented. And I hope it opens up a conversation about the complicated nature of abuse–especially in professional arenas where everyone should have an equal right to safety, and the ability to succeed without compromising integrity. I hope it inspires men at large, especially young men, to look at their own actions with clarity. And to no longer deny the sexism, misogyny, and violent masculinity that hurts women to a point that (statistically) should be considered a national crisis.

As for myself, if there is one solace I have gained from being so conscious of these problems, and from being on the receiving end of them, it’s that: When an abusive man targets you, it’s not because you are inherently vulnerable or weak. Often it is because you are strong, you have integrity, and there is some potential in you that is worthy of envy and desire. In light of this reality, there is no more room for shame or doubt. And there’s no longer any urgency to prove the extent of your suffering, or the truth about your abuser: You know what you know, and no one can touch that.

“Crazy” Girl: Thoughts on Healing, Wholeness, and Compassion in a Morally Divided World

a-16

Nobody knows who the real crazy people are.

—Chuck Palhniuk, “Exodus”

I said, “It might sound sad, but it really isn’t—at least I’ll always have my own company.”

My mother said, “You were always very good at being your own friend.”

And F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” popped into my head like scripture: “She had come, in self-defense, to nourish herself wholly from within.”

I thought about how he made the statement sound so damning by sticking “self-defense” in the middle of it.

I thought about the character he was referring to: Judy Jones, one of literature’s first manic-pixie-dream girls. A beautiful depressed girl who smiles at chicken liver the same way she smiles at all the men who obsess over her—allotting her that added edge of derangement. How a story about a girl like Judy could only end with her being married off to an abusive asshole, rendering her dead in the spiritual sense. Hence: Winter in “Winter Dreams”.

It’s the tired tale of Manic-Pixie-Dream Girl turned Snow Queen. These are the kinds of female characters I held close in adolescence: Alaska, from John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Effy Stonemen, from Skins seasons 1, 2, and 4. And Daisy, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Their plotlines, however poetic and mysterious, only serve as limiting windows of female irresponsibility and destruction. With their characters constantly acting out, as if to beg producers, and writers alike, for some semblance of normalcy—the potential to grow beyond female trauma and spiritual death.

A level of complexity they’re, unsurprisingly, never granted.

(Alaska kills herself—or does she?—right after the novel’s male protagonist decides she’s a shallow bitch. Effy hits that jealous girl Katie in the head with a rock, tries to kill herself, fails, grows up to be a dead-inside businesswoman who sleeps with her narcissistic boss and, eventually, loses everything. Meanwhile, Daisy runs down her “horrible” husband’s mistress, totally ditches “nice” guy Gatsby for said “horrible” husband, and is ultimately rendered “horrible” herself.)

“She had come, in self-defense, to nourish herself wholly from within.”

I only recently began to understand that, as individuals, we’re supposed to “nourish” ourselves “wholly from within”. That this is not a defense mechanism reserved for the jaded and two-dimensional girls of fiction.

It’s not a defense mechanism, period.

☁︎

“I was an asshole, you were crazy…”

I understood this statement as a backhanded apology and my mind flared red at “crazy”. TRIGGERED! I stopped talking to him, completely. Stifled what I wanted to say: I’M NOT CRAZY, YOU’RE JUST AN ASSHOLE!

When I got home, I saw that he’d texted me.

“I’m just trying to make peace.”

I threw it back in his face.

“No you’re not.

If you were, you’d just admit that I didn’t do anything to you.

Which I didn’t.

I liked you, and you didn’t like me back.

If you’d just admit that we’d be fine, but instead you label me ‘crazy.’

Which I’m not.”

Could I have a sent a more guilt addled string of text messages?

He said: “I’m not an asshole normally, but circumstances between us weren’t normal.”

I couldn’t let it go.

“No. I treated you, and talked to you, like a human being. And you didn’t reciprocate that courtesy. And you know it. I’m so sick of everyone trying to return to my life from this past year. I don’t want anything to do with any of you. Like, you’re only talking to me because you’re bored and you know I have a boyfriend. You don’t care about me at all… You ARE an asshole normally. You just don’t want to deal with that reality.”

Then my personal favorite, (in the style of Season 2 Snooki of Jersey Shore) I said:

“I WAS A FUCKING GOOD PERSON TO YOU!”

He said: “I didn’t reciprocate that. I treated you unfairly and that’s why I’m an asshole. To be honest, I only see you as crazy because you’d press my emotions on purpose. You knew it got to me… I really want to come to an understanding.”

Still. I couldn’t let it go.

“I don’t think there’s any understanding to come to… Whenever I came to you looking for an ‘understanding’, you talked to me like I was a piece of garbage. There’s just no space for that anymore.”

Then I waited fifteen minutes, for my “crazy” levels to fall back into equilibrium, and texted him, again, as my normal self.

“I know I’d get really angry, but that was always after I felt like I’d been so patient and understanding. Like I have a limit! I honestly did care about you, at the very least as a friend. So some of the stuff you’d say to me would blow my mind… And I know I wasn’t perfect. I know I kind of walked all over you with my moral high ground, and acted like I was perfect when—I guess—I would do some stuff on purpose to upset you.”

He said: “Thank you.”

And it was like the masks had finally come off: I did X, you did Y. Can we finally leave the alphabet behind?

We often wear the masks of black and white identities, “crazy” and “asshole”, to correct the times when we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable.

This is especially true of the millennial generation.

I recently read an article that said psychologists are seeing more instances of personality disorders among millennials than any other generation. Presumed causes being, the rise of social media and having “liberal” parents.

(It’s the same old complaint of irrational entitlement in anyone ages 18 – 35:

Latchkey kids and Fruit Rollups are ruining society!

 Trace amounts of Red Dye #5 have poisoned the personalities of our young people!

 Everyone knows participation trophies lead to moral insanity!)

 It’s all bogus to me. I think millennials are just more open to the reality of mental health than the generations that preceded them. Therefore, there’s going to be more instances of personality disorders among us. We’re open to being diagnosed in the first place. (Unlike Debra from 152 BC, who’s probably just as borderline and narcissistic as the rest of us.)

Still, I think millennials struggle with interpersonal relationships. And it probably does have a lot to do with the options that the Internet and technology have granted us. Combined with the fact that, prior generations can’t empathize with the complications that coming of age with limitless information has created in our daily lives.

No one knew how to prepare us for the kinds of problems we’d face, being so goddam available to our peers and the world at large.

Therefore, it’s a particularly painful and confusing time to be a young person in general.

If you’re a millennial woman: You are living in the age of “love yourself”, yet no one told you how difficult this journey to self-acceptance would be.

There is just as much pressure to be independent and unapologetic as there is to be “liked” and validated by men.

Gender roles are changing; the whole concept of gender itself is changing. And yet, it’s still a debate whether or not you should be granted access to birth control.

The Internet has granted everyone constant access to you and your insecurities. The audacity to harass women no longer requires a level of grandeur reserved for the pathologically entitled. Now normal, everyday-type, men can say whatever they want without even having to look you in the eye:

*unsolicited dick pics*

“Can I fuck you in the ass?”

“You’d be a l0 if you lost weight.”

“Too good to say hi?”

It’s all as easy as clicking Send.

You are told: “Purge your life of toxicity!”

“Move on!”

“No one is worth stressing about!”

But you are also expected to be empathetic and diplomatic—don’t speak of anything or anyone in condemning terms: Rape and Assault are big words.

You are told women can do, and say, and be, whatever they want. And yet, a man who admits to sexually assaulting women is more qualified to be president than a woman who has dedicated her entire life to politics—just get over it.

“Do what’s best for yourself!”

It’s the recurring message on social media.

But nobody talks about how difficult it is to decide what’s best for yourself.

That being a girl means growing up having always viewed yourself through the lens of everyone else, only to be advised to un-learn that lens.

Then, on the flipside, there’s millennial men.

My ex boyfriend is sensitive, and quiet, and reserved, by nature. But our conservative community has forced him to split his personality in two. He can’t rectify his true nature against the image of machismo he’s supposed to project.

This fills him with a rage that he doesn’t know how to talk about; he resents his being hardwired for compassion, a “feminine” quality. So he treats his own heart like a problem that needs to be constantly corrected.

Whenever I hear the word “pussy” I feel myself tense up.

How do I convey the collective trauma tied to such a simple word?

The other day my friend told me that most boys don’t learn how to properly communicate until around the age of nine, whereas girls somehow “just know” their entire lives. She said it was due to the differences in how boys and girls are encouraged to play. (Female-play is focused on forming relationships and narrative, whereas male-play aims to make things explode and die.)

The two boys who shot up Columbine in 1999 are an exaggeration for how toxic masculinity has divided millennial boys into two categories: Sociopaths, and guys who are so repressed and misunderstood they just give up trying to communicate emotion altogether.

I’m being borderline right now, talking in such black and white terms.

But that’s the point!

How else do we cope in this world of contradicting messages, evolving roles, blurred lines, muddled information…

No wonder we call each other black and white names, like “asshole” and “crazy”, in the heat of an argument where we’re just trying to cope with how wrong we’ve both been.

It’s really, really, really, hard to feel whole in this polarized world. To not cling to the first diagnosis that only vaguely describes you, or somebody else—just trying to find a cure for the emptiness of your own identity juxtaposed to everyone else’s.

I would know: You can’t limit your “crazy”-self to the weekends and expect to wake up whole on Monday.

You’ve got to integrate her into your “real”-self eventually.

☁︎

I’m used to being called “crazy”. It’s a label that’s been thrown around, behind my back and to my face. Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment, and sometimes it’s meant as an insult. I used to try and combat it, saying I preferred “eccentric” or “passionate”. I went the feminist route, saying: “Crazy’ is the label we give women who expose injustice and mistreatment.” Because, honestly, the label used to really offend me.

I took it as: Literally out of touch with reality; vindictive bitch; can’t own her shit; victim-complex… I had yet to understand this label as a relative one, its meaning depending solely on the perception of the person who uttered it. That it wasn’t necessarily true or untrue, but a snap-judgment. One that I could give power, by constantly combatting it, or simply let be, by choosing confidence in my own reactions and perceptions.

(It happened last week, as I was lying in the backyard. I was reading This is Water by David Foster Wallace. More specifically, a passage that went something like: “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default setting—then you, like me, probably will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.” And the vitamin D must have gone to my head, because I heard myself thinking: I probably am crazy. Why should I be ashamed of that?)

This epiphany probably had a lot to do with something that happened a few days prior. I woke up with a hangover on Sunday morning, only to find that I’d texted my ex-boyfriend the night before, while in a vodka-induced depression:

“DON’T YOU DARE TELL PEOPLE I TREATED YOU BADLY!”

(Okay, it wasn’t in all caps. But that’s how I read it in my head.) And when I read it, I understood: This is why people call me crazy in the negative. Then, the solution: Apologize, admit it was crazy, and controlling, and inexcusable, and move on.

Maybe it was the full ownership of what I’d done and what it meant: That I am not perfect. That I forgot I’m capable of being wrong, and this reality doesn’t add or subtract from who I am—it just is… I don’t know how something so simple seemed to heal all the internal damage of my most emotionally taxing, and humiliating, year. But it did.

I thought: My “crazy”-self has always been my best teacher, why should I deny her?

(So many nights I got drunk and slipped out of my own body. Let my “crazy”-self run rampant, allowed her to do and say whatever she wanted. And when I woke up, the next day, I denied her existence: That must have been my estranged evil twin; we don’t talk anymore.)

See, the thing about my “crazy”-self is that she’s not inherently “bad”. Sure, she’s the part of me that acts according to habit and ego; who demands apologies that don’t want to be given, who searches for feeling where there isn’t any, who chooses the cup with a crack and then cries when it’s empty… She’s not inherently “bad”. She’s just misguided! Which is why she got “bad” when I stopped taking responsibility for her. My identity was split in two, and trying to find meaning in that kind of life was like trying to feel my way out of a pitch-black maze.

☁︎

I was watching Shannon Beador of The Real Housewives of Orange County, have a nervous breakdown at the slightest mention of her nemesis: fellow housewife Vicki Gunvalson. When I realized: Shannon Beador is the perfect example of what happens when self-doubt meets trauma. Ever since Vicki made those “allegations” of physical abuse against Shannon’s husband, Shannon (an already anxious person) has become even more anxious. She’s always one second away from flinging a plate at somebody’s face.

The “ramifications” of what Vicki said triggered a reality in Shannon that she can’t totally confront or forgive.

Which isn’t to say that what Vicki said was true, or okay. But to point out that, whenever someone hurts or betrays us in a way that we can’t find any rhyme or reason for—other than selfish gain—our integrity is compromised. It’s compromised because; we can’t truly forgive someone until we’ve made sense of their behavior. And if we can’t make sense of their behavior, we’re deprived of our only power: To forgive. Which ultimately makes one wonder: What’s so wrong with me that I can’t just “get over” this?

I over empathize with Shannon—in spite of all her erratic behavior—because I understand what trauma looks like. How it transforms your character into an exposed nerve ending that you’re constantly defending. You feel stripped of any power, because you’re convinced whatever you’ve experienced has used up any good you had left; you can’t remember who you were before. And, as if that weren’t confusing enough, trauma-therapy often means coming to terms with your role in the suffering that was, essentially, forced on you. You have to admit you’ve failed yourself the same way other people have failed you, which is just as frustrating and backwards as it sounds.

I’ve read Sierra DeMulder’s chapbook We Slept Here at least a dozen times now. It’s a collection of poems about overcoming trauma and abuse. And I’ve noticed that every time I read it, I understand the overall message a little better; the same way I understand myself a little better as life goes on.

There are a few lines that I only just started to understand a few weeks ago:

“Are you afraid of how
much it looks like you?
How it has
his mouth but your eyes.”

The “it” in this sample can mean anything: abusers, traumatic experiences, repressed memories, grief… The overall message is meant to point out how fear creates boundaries that might be more damaging than healing. An “Us vs. Them” paradigm where distinctions become so rigid, compassion is stopped dead in its tracks. You start thinking in black and white terms, because you just don’t want to take on the complications of blurred lines anymore; you can’t take the risk of seeing yourself in a person who hurt you.

In the throes of incomprehensible pain, this makes sense: You don’t want to identify with your abuser! (Your bully, your “enemy”, your whatever…) You want to be as far away from that dysfunction as Shannon Beador wants to be from Vicki Gunvalson. But the paradox is: These distances have a funny way of giving the people who hurt us, even more power.

Exhibit A, Shannon freaking out on Lydia McLaughlin, over the mere mention of Vicki:

“I’m NOT like Vicki Gunvalson,” Shannon says.

And I wonder: Are you afraid of how much it looks like you?

We have the power to see ourselves in difficult people and experiences, which is a power—though we forget this when we’re busy combating the “enemy”, and our own mental problems. We forget, because we so often act according to fear. To our own limited experiences and nagging anxieties: But what if I’m used and devalued, again? What if I’m misunderstood and rejected? What if I’m wrong?

I told my therapist about this anxiety in myself, and he said:

“I’m going to advise you to keep letting people take advantage of you.”

Which sounded bat-shit crazy at the time!

So I didn’t listen. Instead I acted according to fear, for months. And I felt like such shit because, I was totally numb; I couldn’t regain a sense of connection with humanity, and it hollowed out an emptiness that made me feel nothing but frustration and anger. Like, I’d experienced depression before, but I’d never lost a sense of awe in everyday things. No matter how depressed I got, I’d always been able to look at a tree and regain a feeling of wonder—that something more was out there. But this “depression” was different. I couldn’t see myself on the other side, and I’d lost my faith in peoples’ ability to change.

For the first time in my life, I was jaded.

☁︎

My therapist said, “Two gifts you offer other people are friendship and affection.”

Then he added, “But gifts aren’t always appreciated.”

(At work the other day, an older man’s total came to a $1.21. He pulled out some change and said, “Oh! I got lucky today!” He handed me a $1.06, probably thinking the nickel was a quarter. He seemed excited about his “luck”. So I pretended like he’d handed me the correct change. On the way out, he turned back and said, “I don’t care, but just so you know—you shorted me a nickel.” Then he walked out the door in a huff. And I stood there, fuming; thinking of how I’d knowingly short changed myself to protect his good spirit, only to be accused of doing the opposite.)

I understood what my therapist meant: You can’t hold the door for other people and then get angry when they don’t say, “thank you”.

The lesson being: If you spend your life constantly expecting to get what you give, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I didn’t used to be this way but, in recent years, I think I got tired of relating to so many people—got worn out from not feeling related to in return. Woe is me. I began to turn my personality inside out. I lashed out in moments where—previously—I would’ve felt more inclined to try and understand. Held grudges over situations I usually would’ve forgiven, or forgotten, immediately.

Exhausted from feeling duped by people I cared about, I drew bold boundaries between myself and everyone else.

You’re bad. I’m good.

Please step away from my circle.

But viewing life this way only made me feel more isolated, more stagnant in my emotional growth, and like “less” of a person.

I didn’t realize, when my therapist advised me to keep letting people take advantage of me, he was advising me to keep being myself.

See, for the longest time, I believed loving a narcissist made me a narcissist. That, as a kid, something must have been severely wrong with me for feeling sorry for the serial killer on death row—entertaining the idea of his innocence: What if this isn’t justice? Because, sometimes… I feel bad for Donald Trump. (The other night, I had a dream I was running down a collapsing staircase alongside a gradually shrinking Donald, who eventually became too small to save himself—so I picked him and carried him to safety.) Or how, when my family watched The Reader, I heard myself saying of the Nazi character, “But we don’t know what it was like in Nazi-Germany; how can anyone say with any certainty that they would have helped the Jewish people when we’re 73 years away from the situation?”

I thought even considering these taboo figures and ideas made me “bad”. That—when it came to narcs, and serial killers, and D.T., and Nazis, and my pity that said: How ugly and lonely is the human mind that only has enough space for itself—having a pang of compassion for the compassionless, somehow meant: I must be evil too.

I didn’t realize: Being able to consider the perspectives of inconsiderate, even outright condemnable, people, just means you are capable of understanding difficult truths; that you not only have the grace to empathize with friends, and family, and people like you, but to understand psychologies and perspectives, vastly different from your own.

Those months where I felt nothing but numb and empty, angry and afraid, I wondered—not from a place of moral judgment, but tender curiosity:

Is this how the people who hurt me feel, all the time?

☁︎

I’ve noticed that the initial response to particularly empathic and compassionate people is often one of suspicion, followed by confusion: How can this person possibly be so damn forgiving and sincere?

 Sincerity combined with idealism often looks and sounds phony. Mostly because: To love and appreciate, or forgive, anyone from a place of true sympathy, generally, isn’t the “cool” thing to do. Especially when we’re the ones on the receiving end of that sympathy: How can someone be so gullible as to pity a wretch like me?

We scoff at the sensitivity of others because its existence heightens an awareness in ourselves that we’re not always ready to face; makes us consider our own behavior in ways we’d rather combat than examine. This is why we, so often, speak of the open-minded and romantic individual as a mentally and emotionally fragile being.

In Chuck Palhniuk’s short-story collection Haunted, one story, “Exodus”, serves as a kind of allegory for everything I’ve just expressed. It’s about the depravity of objectification and how our (American) surrounding culture and society, normalizes this depravity. Making anyone who passionately opposes it seem like they’re going “crazy”.

The story focuses on a woman named Cora, who is an abuse advocate in her town’s police department. From the beginning, she is established as a deeply empathic person, described as a woman who “couldn’t buy just one stuffed animal”. Her house is a fortress of unwanted items, meant to emphasize her inability to abandon anyone, or anything; to “look away” from injustice and mind her own business in matters of neglect and abuse.

Initially, the other characters like Cora—at worst, they’re indifferent to her. She only begins to become a “problem” and subject of distrust when she upsets the status quo. The catalyst to all her controversy being when she accidentally orders two anatomically correct dolls (used for cases of sexual abuse, so children can recount what happened to them via demonstration) instead of anatomically detailed ones.

A.K.A. Cora accidently buys child sex-dolls.

She’s upset about her mistake from the get-go, apologizing to the director of her department and promising the dolls won’t be used. However, the director doesn’t see anything wrong with the situation and insists that the dolls are perfectly good replacements for the old, anatomically detailed, ones.

Soon after, Cora has a waiting list for the dolls. Detectives and officers begin reserving them for “off site” cases. However, it quickly becomes evident that the dolls are being reserved for sex. When Cora raises the issue to the director, she’s met with laughter and an alternate perspective, “Consider this tit for tat.” The director sites how women objectify men everyday, using them for sex and money—or as sperm donors. She says, “What do you think a dildo is?” She dismisses Cora’s concern over what grown men reserving child sex-dolls for masturbation might imply or mean. She doesn’t see it as cause for concern because the dolls aren’t real. She says, “If it helps, just think of each one as a seventy-pound condom.”

This is when Cora becomes increasingly eccentric. She does everything she can to protect the dolls from violation, cleaning them every time she gets them back and buying them new clothes. At one point, she decides to super glue all their orifices shut. When that doesn’t work, and the dolls come back with all the glue cut open, she inserts razors into their mouths and behinds. Still, nothing seems to combat the unacceptable behavior of her co-workers.

Her sanity finally reaches its tipping point when the director sits her down and insists that she just “get over” it. The director says, “It was a tough call… deciding if my entire team is crazy, or if you are… overreacting.” In this moment Cora realizes she is nothing but a 120-pound condom to the people around her. As a result, she loses it and steals a gun from the evidence room. She takes the dolls, loads her car up with shabby stuffed animals, and drives away with a Breather Betty riding shotgun. In the closing paragraphs it’s noted, “Nobody knows who the real crazy people are.”

The reason this story has resonated with me, for so long, is its main point: Cora is treated like she’s crazy because she’s the only character with a conscience. Rendering her a threat to everyone else’s hedonism, and a walking symbol for the unexamined lives of everyone around her. Extending back to what I mentioned earlier: We scoff at the sensitivity of others because its existence heightens an awareness in ourselves that we’re not always ready to face; makes us consider our own behavior in ways we’d rather combat than examine.

See, I’ve noticed that we like Cora-girls in theory but we don’t like them in practice. (The same way the pursuit of Justice is beautiful in theory, but a motherfucking bitch in practice.) No one ever tells you: If you’re going to lead a life guided by truth and justice, you’re going to be swallowing your pride constantly. You’re going to be forced to confront the darkness in yourself, over and over and over again. (Which I think goes against human nature on a certain level. It’s unnatural to choose discomfort, and that’s what makes truth and justice such a difficult pursuit.)

Recently I was reading an essay called “Tan Lines” by a Canadian Indian writer, Durga Chew-Bose. It’s an essay about why she’s always dreaded summer. Focusing on how she associates summer with racist rhetoric.

She writes: “Growing up brown in mostly white circles means learning from a very young age that language is inured to prejudicial glitches. Time and again, I have concealed my amazement. The semantics of ignorance are oddly extensive and impossible to foresee.”

She sites mothers at soccer practice and the pool, how they’d always comment on her skin as a child. How what they said was always intended as a compliment, but—for reasons she couldn’t place—made her uneasy. That, when she got older, her tanned white friends would place their arms beside hers and say with pride: “I’m darker than you now.” Sending a shock to her system, and hurting her in a way that she didn’t anticipate or understand.

As I read the essay, I thought of how many people would read about Chew-Bose’s experience and think she was “overreacting”. That she was looking “too far” into things—creating implications that weren’t there.

I remember wondering: Why isn’t a proclamation of pain enough to change people?

When we listen to another person’s experience with suffering or oppression, especially when what they’re saying contradicts the world as we’ve always understood it, it’s difficult to not react like: BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?! Making us skeptical and judgmental, rather than vulnerable and receptive enough to examine our past selves. To admit: I used to do and say some problematic shit. We close ourselves off when we question the validity of someone else’s reality as a means of protecting our own. And I think, at least most of the time, this isn’t necessarily done from a place of hatred, but fear. (Though fear and hatred are close relatives, and I’m not denying that.)

I guess I’m considering all this, now, because we’re living in a time of anxiety.

Right now, everyone is afraid. This divided political climate is the result of everyone feeling like something has, or will be, taken from them. And I believe that, as a white, cisgender, straight girl with no real history of persecution or exclusion, it’s my responsibility to not recede into self-doubt. To up my game in the arena of compassion and not fall victim to my own, ultimately vain, cynicism and despair. To, insanely enough, renew my faith in humanity…

Anne Frank wrote, “In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart.”

(On NPR, a few months ago, a psychologist was talking about how there’s been extensive studies on psychopathic brains, but hardly any on especially empathic ones. Which she found curious, considering everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum of feeling for humanity—between too much and not enough. What psychic qualities set empaths apart?)

I can’t help but believe Anne was so far on the end of feeling for humanity that she possessed an otherworldly spirit. That she was so full of conscience she could be deemed pathologically graceful, or gracefully insane.

She’d have to be, to believe what she wrote:

In spite of everything…

I no longer interpret “crazy” as an insult.

☁︎

I keep wondering what all my favorite female characters of my adolescence have in common—Alaska, Effy, Daisy…

I know it’s not just their paper flat personas of female “irresponsibility” and destruction.

I know it’s more than that.

But the answer doesn’t occur to me until I’m re-reading Leslie Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, for the third time. An essay where Jamison divides fictional women (and real-life women) into two categories: Wounded and Post-Wounded. The former is characterized by self-indulgent self-pity, while the latter is defined by self-indulgent self-awareness. (Another way of saying “Basic” Bitches vs. “Cool” girls, essentially.)

I realized both groups were annoying in their predictability, in their resistance to not become each other.

And that’s when it clicked: The female characters of my adolescence occupy a third category.

They weren’t in pain, or in denial of pain, so much as they were trying to escape it.

I think of Alaska and her alcohol, and her walls of books, and her crashing car; of Effy hitting that jealous girl Katie in the head with a rock and running away; of Daisy crying over silk shirts and gunning down her husband’s mistress without looking back. How nobody knows for sure what any of it meant: Did Alaska crash her car on purpose? Did Effy mean to hit Katie? Was Daisy really driving?

The female escape artist is sick of being defined by the anatomy of her nervous system, from being measured by how much or little she feels. She’s the one girl in the story who decides: You’re going to turn me into whatever you want anyway, no matter how many times I prove I’m more complicated than this plot—might as well opt out and become the metaphor!

In the words of Taylor Swift: “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”

I realize my life has been a constant struggle between being down-to-earth and a total space case. (With my head in the clouds, and my feet on the ground—what an age-old cliché.) I’m a realistic idealist, yearning to make people aware and forget all at once. Constantly pretending what’s happening isn’t really happen, while acutely knowing: Holy shit, this is really happening. Sincerely wanting everyone to be okay—to feel special and necessary and forgiven—while also secretly wishing everyone would get what they deserve: Karma!

I realize what Taylor Swift hasn’t: There’s no being excluded from your own narrative.

Yes, often we are innocent victims.

And we are all saviors, to someone: the “nice” guy, an un-judging friend, your sweetheart…

But we are also the sadists, and “crazy” girls, and arch nemeses.

Lady Gaga said it, “There really is no difference between the victim and the bully.”

Which is to say: Everything in this world is relative and a matter of perspective.

And that’s the only thing I know for sure, a big fat truth I’ve been struggling to balance for the past two years:

Are you afraid of how much it looks like you?

 Nobody knows who the real crazy people are.

A guy who, I feel, used to torment me, always looks at me with what I now understand as sincere sadness. And I realize I see myself in everyone and everything, and it has me all twisted up inside. Giving me so much joy and depression, filling me with such pride and shame. I have a headache and a heartache… I feel equal parts pathetic and admirable for being so affected by another person…

So, as I write this essay, I ask myself: What does healing look like, in a life where the only certainty is that everything is uncertain?

And I understand: It’s taking ownership of how you see yourself in relation to the world.

That we are not mirrors for each other, so much as we are magnifying glasses.

That I’m not crazy, some people just say I am because—let’s face it—there are times where I acted poorly and needed to recognize it. (And anyway! Isn’t the idea of “crazy” Cat so funny? Like there’s this fairytale version of me running around peoples’ brains, stealing the big toes from all her ex-lovers. I forgot some perceptions really are so ridiculous.)

It’s realizing that what you hate isn’t a person, place, or thing, but your own fear.

I’ve been so afraid of rejection, and failure, and being seen for who I am without mercy, that I forgot how to be merciful with myself. Which only made me less merciful with others. And—god—none of us are anything without mercy. How did I not see? Every rejection, and failure, and misunderstanding I’ve experienced, was a chance to remember: I don’t need acceptance, or success, or permission to feel whole.

It’s choosing to not be that scared person anymore.

I chose to see myself in the people who were less than kind to me; realized that no one was all that intimidating once I considered that, maybe, they were in just as much pain as I was, if not more. That my fault was never in being compassionate, but in believing others’ cruelty had anything to do with me.

It’s writing about the kind of magnifying glass you wish to be.

I hope I leave your world in Technicolor.

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