AFS #4: Does insecurity and mental illness make me unlovable?

I found this question from Mr. LordMacbethh on Reddit’s r/RelationshipAdvice, and it made my heart hurt, because I see myself in the question and it’s taken me years to get to the point where I believe I deserve to be loved in spite of my issues. Here it is:

I believe that people with Mental Illnesses and people who are insecure are just as deserving of relationships as everyone else. Of course they shouldn’t let these things negatively affect their partner or significant other.

On flip side, I believe that all of my insecurities and mental illnesses make me unlovable. I’m 19M and gay and I’ve just started talking to someone and I’m concerned that my problems may make me hard to love.


I’ve had many bouts with Anorexia, and that’s something that’s likely to continue. It takes me like 30+ minutes to get dressed and choose my outfit because I want my clothes to fit a certain way to cover my insecurities & I want my clothes to project a certain image. The idea of just putting on clothes or just wearing comfy clothes is completely foreign to me. I’m constantly checking my appearance in mirrors and adjusting things, some of my friends think it’s annoying. I control my diet very seriously and workout a ton. Being shirtless/ nude around a romantic partner makes me really really insecure. I just generally hate my body. I’m also just very insecure about my personality, I’m always concerned I’m not funny enough or too overbearing, etc etc.

I have anxiety, depression, and OCD and they affect me of course. I’d never project them onto my partner or let my issues negatively affect my partner but I would definitely need a partner who is very supportive, empathetic, compassionate, and patient with me. I’m not necessarily controlling, like needing to know where my partner is at all times but if for example my partners behavior was drawing attention I’d get very anxious. I also have a lot of family related trauma. I think these problems would make it hard to be a romantic partner to me.

So my question is, what are your experiences with insecure partners? Can someone with mental illnesses and who is intensely insecure find someone who loves them and can be patient with them or is it likely to constantly be a barrier in their relationships? Any discussion is helpful!

Oh, darlin’. Before I even get started here I want to lay down a blanket statement, and I’d like you to write it down somewhere you can see it and repeat it to yourself for as long as it takes to start getting seriously on your own nerves: You deserve to be loved, protected from harm, and treated well by those around you. No quality you possess, from insecurity to mental illness to a face like a foot, can change that. It’s what you deserve, it’s a fact, and it doesn’t require a lot of data to prove it – I know you deserve love, and I don’t even know your name.

But you’ve got a rough road ahead of you. You know that. You know that growing up as a gay man at this moment in history is still a lot scarier and more isolating than it looks on TV. You know that people, especially men, don’t often treat men’s mental health issues with respect or compassion. You know that the gay community can serve to reinforce body image issues at times, because there are a lot of guys out there very much like you who will try to soothe their own insecurities by needling yours.

None of this is news to you… and yet, you’re not asking, “How can I feel better about myself?” or “How can I find someone who will fix all my problems?” When you look at potential partners, you aren’t thinking of what they can offer you. You’re distressed because you feel like you don’t have much to offer them. And that right there sets you apart from most people, especially most non-neurotypical people your age.

I want you to acknowledge this because the first important thing you can do to protect the people around you from your issues is remember that they are your issues to manage. You’re already doing this. You’re already anticipating the ways your behavior might affect a partner and trying to figure out how to mitigate that on your own, before you even have a partner. So let’s first acknowledge that you’re already ahead of the curve: you are ready to do your own emotional and mental work to get better, not put it on someone else. You are ready to do the best you can to give yourself to someone, not your mental illness. Two things I want you to focus on about that, two things you already believe, because you’re acting as if they’re true:

  1. You are not your mental illness. (Relatedly: you are not your thoughts. You are not your emotions. You are a being inhabited by those things.)
  2. You still get to choose how you act, however shitty those choices may be, and you are responsible for how you treat other people regardless of what problems you may be having.

That is a big-ass deal. Those are some advanced lessons, okay? It took me thirty years to get that far. Some people never do. The attitude that made you ask this question is going to make you a fantastic partner for whomever you choose to be with.

One more thing… I’m not going to nose into your family trauma too much, because you didn’t choose to go into it, but the data points you provide – anorexia, OCD, lack of self-esteem, desire to go unnoticed but still be exactly correct if anyone should notice – they also describe my life, and they paint a kind of picture. I think maybe the reason you think you don’t deserve love is because someone who should have loved you made you feel that way. I think maybe the reason you’re worried nothing about you is good enough is because nothing ever was, once. I hope you’re somewhere else now.

I’ll make some suggestions later on, but for now I just want to tell you that I know some of those people, the people who made you feel that way. They had ’em when I was a kid too. It took me a long time, but I found out that those people are wrong. They’re wrong for days. They’re wrong up one side and down the other, man. They are so wrong they have no idea what’s going on, and you know what else? What’s worse than being stupid, they’re mean. They’re fucking mean! They’re supposed to help you, protect you, love you, and they’re not just hurting you “for your own good” like they say. They are, in fact, doing something that hurts you, something that will never, ever make you better in any way, and they don’t care that it doesn’t work. Hurting you satisfies them.

That kind of person doesn’t know anything you need to hear. That kind of person has nothing to teach you. That kind of person can’t tell you who you are or what you’re worth – they can’t even see you. They only see themselves, so their judgment is meaningless, them projecting their issues on you. I know more about you from the few paragraphs you wrote here than that person knows about you, and I’ll bet they’ve known you for years. I know that you are trying not to burden someone you love with your pain like someone burdened you. I know that at nineteen you’re more of an adult than any of those people, because you’re preparing, with compassion and introspection, to manage yourself like an adult and give a partner something you were never given.

Now that we have established that you’re a catch, son, we can get down to business. To my mind, you just need a couple of things to help you manage your insecurity in a relationship:

1. A therapist

Get thee to therapy. No, I mean it. And I’m talking to all the rest of the class as well, now – everyone can benefit from therapy. We all grew up in a capitalist hellscape that places the value of human life somewhere below that of last year’s iPhone. You don’t have to have any kind of issues to benefit from someone whose job is to listen to you and not judge, to demand nothing, to help you understand yourself better. If you’re poor, I feel it, but you still have options. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a whole division just for helping you find support near wherever you happen to be, and it’s free. If you’re super poor like your gracious host, may I also recommend Medicaid? It’s saved my life, literally. Thanks, Obama! F’real tho, thanks.

An important caveat: trauma makes therapy… difficult. People with trauma often find traditional CBT therapists make them feel more self-critical and aggravate their anxiety. That was certainly my experience. I went through four therapists before I found one who could help me. The keywords you want to look for are “trauma-focused,” “MBCT,” or “EMDR” – those last two are therapeutic methodologies that have been proven effective with people suffering from PTSD or CPTSD. Psychology Today is a really good search tool and my therapist tells me that, at least around here, doctors keep it up to date and respond to it quickly, so it’s probably reliable. It’s okay to dump a therapist if they’re not helping you. Sometimes it takes a while to find someone you can connect with, and that sucks, but you’ll have a leg up if you find someone who understands trauma.

2. Support outside your partner

One way to take some pressure off your partner to be everything in the world to you is to make sure you have other friends, other things to do, a life of your own. This is also a good way to find a partner in the first place! You’re 19, this is your moment to figure out how you want to spend your time generally, so go try stuff. Join groups, take classes, go places. Go do interesting things; you will become more interesting, and there will be interesting people there who might share your interests! Your anxiety and depression will try to make you stay home, and that’s okay – don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself. At my best I can manage about one social outing a week, so if that’s what you can handle, that’s just fine, do that. Don’t go with the intention of making a friend, that’s a lot of pressure. Go with the intention of staying for at least twenty minutes and talking to one person. (Person-talking script: “Hey, my name’s Macbethh, what do you like about this thing we’re doing? What got you interested in doing that?” People love to talk about themselves. Ask questions, back off if someone seems unenthusiastic, and you will make a friend.) If you have fun, go again. If you don’t, try it one more time – sometimes it’s just a low day – and then fuck it, try something else.

It sounds like you do have friends, and I suspect that you probably overestimate how annoying you are to them. We tend to assume other people are noticing a lot more about us than they actually are. One strategy I’ve found effective with this kind of insecurity is, when you start wondering what other people are thinking of how you look in some way, ask yourself… the person you’re worrying about, what were they wearing? Did they have cat hair on it? Was it stained? Do you remember their appearance with any kind of detail… or were you so worried about what they were thinking of you that you didn’t notice a damn thing about them? Here’s the big secret of life, seriously: everybody’s that way. Everybody, every single person is so concerned about how they’re fucking up they can’t possibly notice if you’re fucking up. The confirmation bias you have, the memories of people abusing you for your minute fuckups come from a vanishingly tiny minority of assholes, and once you’re an adult, you don’t have to listen to those assholes anymore. You don’t have to nod sagely and go, “Yeah, thanks Dad, I’ll contemplate your drunken wisdom at length once you put the belt away.” When someone says (like they never will in real life), “Hey, stupid, you’ve got a stain on your shirt!”, you know what you can say? “Why are you staring at my chest, weirdo? Fuck off.” You get to say that now. It works now. It’s nobody’s goddamn business but yours what you look like, because you’re an adult. Go out wearing your underpants on the outside like Superman, fuck ’em, what are they actually gonna do?

3. Strategies for advocating for yourself and asking for what you need

Minimizing the harm you do the people around you with your issues is mostly a matter of clear communication – asking for what you need and setting boundaries. Having a therapist and other friends will help you feel the confidence it takes to stand up for your own needs. Remember that whatever you need to feel secure in your own space and your own body is fine – you get to dictate that, and anybody who tells you otherwise is not someone you want to be anywhere near! You get to say, “Hey, I’m working through some stuff around my body image, and right now it’s tough for me to be looked at. Can we have the lights off for a while / you tell me some things you think are attractive about me / you just tell me I look great when you notice me fretting in the mirror?”

Your partner can provide support and do a lot to make you feel sexy and beautiful, but it helps them if you can give them concrete things to do, rather than saying, “I feel bad, please change your behavior till the bad feeling goes away.” In a perfect world, how would they respond to you? If you can figure out what outcome you want, that’s actionable data for your partner. If you can’t… it’s possible you’re just trying to find a source for your bad feelings, but there’s not actually anything your partner could have done differently, and that’s a case where you have to manage those feelings on your own. You can also ask for space to process your feelings, and generally it’s okay to ask for time to recuperate and be alone if you need that. As a mentally ill introvert, I can take about four hours, max, of anybody, even people I love, before I need to go crawl in a hole and not be a person for a while. When I meet people, I say, “I try really hard to be up for fun stuff, but sometimes my brain clobbers me, so if I have to cancel on you for no useful reason sometimes, please know it’s not because I don’t want to be around you, it’s just because I don’t always have the spoons for social interaction with anyone.”

Generally, don’t be afraid to overshare with your partner. If they can’t take it, they are a douche, and I’m sorry, but you might meet a few. It’s getting better; there used to be more. If you’re feeling shitty and you don’t know why, it’s okay to say that. Your partner will be relieved to know you’re not expecting anything specific from them. Being somewhat impaired at expressing my own emotions, my go-to phrase is, “I don’t feel good.” This almost never means a physical illness, it means I don’t feel good; it’s nonspecific and true without feeling too whiny for me to say. “Hey, I don’t feel good, can you snuggle with me for a bit / bring me food / tell me I’m pretty and kiss my face?” Someone who loves you wants to do those things and will leap at any opportunity to do them! They were just sitting there trying to come up with an excuse to kiss your face!

In summary…

This is already lengthier than I intended, so I think it’s time for a TL;DR.

  • You deserve love. You are compassionate, brave, honest and capable of self-analysis. Anyone you choose to be with will be very, very lucky indeed. Don’t ever forget it.
  • Get a therapist who specializes in trauma
  • Spend time with your friends. Do new things, figure out who you are, not just who your depression is. Believe your friends when they tell you they care for you. Dump the friends who don’t and make new ones. Being by yourself is much, much better than being with someone who treats you badly – don’t do like I did and spend all of your 20s putting up with bullshit because you’re afraid to be alone.
  • Ask for what you need, be honest when you don’t know, and give your partner actionable ways to help if you can. It’s okay to ask for compliments! I’m shameless about it, man, I just come in the room all shiny and say, “Hi, tell me how great I am pleeeeease!” Someone who loves you will think it’s adorable.
  • Try very, very hard to perceive it and believe it when someone loves you and is good to you.

That last thing is gonna be important. Your brain lies to you, you know that. It tells you that your friends think you’re annoying. It will tell you that your partner doesn’t want to be with you, that they hate you, that they’re fucking someone else, someone more attractive, more experienced, whatever. Your brain is going to tell you a shit-ton of lies. Most of the time it’ll be telling you that your life sucks a lot more than it actually does. The only way you’ll have a chance is if you try very hard to see the stuff your brain is pretending doesn’t exist: your successes, your talent, your beauty, the love and kindness other people offer you. Your depression can make you totally overlook those things even when they’re right in front of your face. My therapist once had to tell me I’d done a “good job” three times before I actually absorbed it and felt a glimmer of pride. She was talking right to me and I couldn’t hear her, because my brain doesn’t want to believe that I can do a good job. Your brain doesn’t want to believe that you’re gorgeous, funny, interesting, lovable… but you are. You are. You really, really are. Find someone who will tell you as many times as it takes for you to hear it and believe it. You deserve that, and so much more.

45 – Let’s Pretend

It’s funny that I didn’t stumble upon The Belonging Kind before today, considering what a huge Gibson nerd I was as a kid. It’s hit me hard. So much of my daily life feels like a performance, and unlike seemingly everyone I’ve ever known who’s felt the same way, I don’t hate it. I hate trying to hide it, and not being acknowledged for the work I put into it. I hate people assuming that because I’m actively presenting a face for them to see, that face must be in some way “not real” or a concealment of my true self.

It’s incredibly fucking hard to interact when it feels like every person is looking for the lie in everything I say, trying to prove me disingenuous, trying to categorize me based on my words. The less control I have over my output, the more unpredictable results it gets from the people I’m interacting with, the less I want to interact at all – one of the reasons I’m so bad at the phone. Zero useful input from the phone in terms of body language or expression, but I’m expected to behave coherently in responding to it anyway… yeah, I know. I’m a fucking alien. It just… hurts, being an alien.

That’s the worst part of it. My brain hurts, all the time, like whatever I am can’t breathe in this atmosphere. It’s just a little wrong, all the time. Just a little hard to see, a little hard to understand, a little slow to react, a little foggy on the details. The purest peace I have is when I’m listening to someone I love talk, or watching them do something. I don’t have to respond, I don’t have to have a face… I can just admire their face, bask in their light. It takes the pressure off, for a second.

I don’t mind being an alien. I just hate feeling alone, and forced to pretend I’m not an alien. I hate it that it’s so hard to find people who like the alien, rather than the pretense. I hate it when people look at that pretense and see a lie, instead of a desperate, fumbling attempt to make myself understood.

Thinking about ghosts. Feeling alone and not alone.
“As Unchanging as the Sea,” March 2006

There is a place where it’s easy to think
the air somehow makes heavy things lighter
the nights are warmer,
the days are brighter,
time doesn’t slip away each time you blink.

There’s somewhere we don’t get headaches all day.
Somewhere words matter, and people listen,
anything other than gold that glistens.
Surely if I find the right words to say…

It hurts to discover my enemy.
It hurts to recognize that face as mine.
It hurts to realize that I’m so unkind;
the creature snapping at my heels is me.
If we could both leave our faces behind
then I could see what you need me to see.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

Why I Don’t Answer the Phone

I got into a conversation today about why abuse survivors feel like a burden on others.  This feeling has led me to a pretty suicidal realm at times, because it dovetails all too neatly with my other neuroses, but most people with trauma feel this way to some extent.

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This is the meme that started the discussion.

Some of it is projection – we tend to assume that people think like we do, unless we actively work to look beyond that.  So if we’re unhappy with ourselves, we assume that dissatisfaction is universal.  The bad qualities we perceive in ourselves must be tattooed on our foreheads, and the fact that these people tolerate us just shows how amazing they are by comparison.

I think there’s a larger factor here, though, and it’s that people raised by narcissists learn an adversarial game of love.  I believe that until you unlearn this game, you can’t gain energy from loving company, can’t be empowered and soothed by the company of the people you love – it will always be taxing to some degree.

an adversarial game of love

Part of being a kid is getting saddled with your parents’ values.  This just comes with the package – your parents can’t avoid expressing what they believe subconsciously, even if they’re careful about what they say and do in your presence.  So until you’re at a point where you can begin to question these things – and remember that trauma stunts emotional development, pushing that point further and further away with every blow – these things are just part of how you see the world.  These are your “received values.”

When you’re raised by a narcissist, you receive the values through a megaphone, because a narcissist makes the outside world responsible for their self-worth.  What does a narcissist value?  Only one thing: supply, or emotional sustenance.  It’s not quite the same thing as when you spend time with a friend and you feel better – that, hopefully, is a symbiotic thing, you and your friend supporting one another and giving one another energy in different ways that aren’t deleterious to either of you.

Narcissistic supply, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be positive.  Supply is provided any time the narcissist can feel that they are central to others’ lives.  Their centrality, the extent to which they feel important and focused on, is the extent to which they feel worthy.  If they’re feeling neglected, they will act out to increase the flow of supply, of attention and emotional energy, directed their way, whether this means asserting dominance, provoking others, or demanding their love and devotion.

you are valuable to the extent that you forget who you are

So the narcissist wants supply.  Their emotional state, their relationships, their worldview and view of themselves as a person are all dependent on the level of that supply gauge.  Which means that if you’re a narcissist’s child, what your parent taught you is that you are valuable to the extent you provide supply.  To the extent you make your parent feel central to your life and identity, you are loved.  In a very literal way, you are valuable to the extent that you forget who you are.

The problem with this – well, another one – is that narcissistic supply isn’t the same thing as emotional support.  It’s like living on nothing but popcorn.  It fills you up, but it’s mostly air – you’ll need more in ten minutes.  So you might learn to supply your abuser with what they need, but as soon as it becomes routine – or the wind shifts – the demands will change.  This makes every interaction an adversarial game: can you divine the way the wind’s blowing, and assume the appropriate position in time, or will you make a mistake?  In a way, it doesn’t matter – either outcome provides narcissistic supply.  Either they get you to scramble and attend to their needs, or they get to excoriate you for not doing so.  Either one reinforces their starring role in your life.

manipulate me for my comfort, but don’t you care let me catch you at it

So if you grow up being told that this is love, how is interacting going to feel to you?  Interaction isn’t a source of solace, or support – it’s like being in the room with a hungry animal, something unpredictable that you must nonetheless predict in order to be safe.  And when you try out the dubious skills you’ve learned on people outside the family, they call you passive-aggressive and manipulative.  That’s how it works.  That’s the narcissist’s edict: Manipulate me for my comfort, but don’t you dare let me catch you at it.

You learn a lot from this, growing up.  A lot of things that later you’ll have to unlearn, things like:

  • All interactions involve layer upon layer of emotional sparring that you will be punished for winning or losing.
  • All interactions are one person trying to get supply from the other, trying to drain their emotional energy.  At best, every conversation is a negotiation.
  • Your value to others is the amount of selfless energy you can provide them.
  • No one is ever being dishonest or emotionally manipulative except you. We have no idea where you learned that.
  • No one is interested in anything but themselves.
  • As a result, every second you spend expressing yourself in another person’s presence, rather than reflecting on and attending to them, is a drag and a drain.
  • Your inability to manage this situation with eagerness and enthusiasm is a disease that we need to cure for you to be normal and therefore loved.

And here we are.  If this is what a conversation feels like to you, even with people you care about, why would you want to interact at all?  Why wouldn’t you count the cost of it every second when you do?  Why wouldn’t you be certain those around you are doing the same, and why wouldn’t you, each and every time, come up short in that calculation?  You always have before.

do what the narcissist can’t

To get out of this life-sucking trap, where every notification makes you twitch and every phone call gives you a sick feeling of fear and shame as you stare at the phone, still not answering...  To get out of this state, you have to do what the narcissist can’t: you have to find self-worth that doesn’t rely on another person to survive.  I think self-worth, strangely enough, is a thing you build from the edges in, like a puzzle.  It’s going to be a very long time before you can envision the face of the person you’d like to be, the person who doesn’t live in this trap, the person who can love and be loved without counting the cost.

But you don’t have to envision their face.  Start with the edges.  Learn who that person is by watching their effect on the world.  You can’t help acting out your values, any more than your parents could, and I think you’ll find that yours are not simply the ones you were given, no matter how much effort was spent to indoctrinate you.  I think you’ll find that when you felt supported, when you felt safe, when you were able to act instead of react… your choices reflected the person you want to be.  What does that person seem to value?  How do they treat people?  Do they make others responsible for their pain, or do they strive to give more than they take, even if they don’t always succeed?

I’m going to bet that person is worthy of love.  I bet if you saw another person making the choices you’ve made, you wouldn’t even question whether that person was worthy.  Start from that value – you are worthy of love.  No one can diminish your value, and no one can increase it.  You are not required to bleed for those you love.  That’s not what we preach here.

love isn’t something you give or take… it’s something you do

Love can be painful, it can be stressful, but it is not adversarial.  They say all relationships are work, and they kick that one around the internet arguing whether it should or shouldn’t be so.  I’m gonna clarify it by generalizing like hell: everything in the world is work, unless you’re a sponge.  When the person next to you has the same goal in mind and is helping, work goes fast and doesn’t feel like work.  When the person next to you isn’t helping, or is working in a different direction, it will feel like every slogging, unproductive step is on you.

It’s not, though.  Love isn’t something you give or take – it’s something you do.  Do it for yourself first, and then if someone ain’t doing it for you, don’t do it back.

My, How You’ve Grown

I’ve been reading this fantastic book, “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep”, about the history of prion research and fatal familial insomnia.  It’s incredible; I’ve been taking every excuse to babble about it all week.  The author’s approach is so compassionate and yet comprehensive – there are a lot of not-so-great people who nevertheless do important work in the field of prion research, and D.T. Max presents their crimes evenly alongside their discoveries, neither excusing them nor allowing their crimes to obviate their contributions.  It’s terrifying and inspiring and dense with super strange facts that will make you a Cool Guy among the “morbid history nerd” demographic.

But this isn’t a book review, because apparently my elders would prefer I chose more uplifting reading material – my grandmother came in to say, “Sigh. Life in general is so much more! As you “season” with age, you’ll see.”

Reader, I did an acrobatic pirouette off the handle.

I haven’t been subjected to that “when you’re older you’ll understand” bullshit in a good long while, because at 32, most people seem willing to sell me booze and engage with my ideas as if I were some kind of adult.  It’s true that we’re always children to our families, there’s no possibility of ever entirely discarding the trappings of that relationship, but I think it’s possible to honor a shared past without inhabiting it, to love the child we remember without erasing the adult we see.  It just requires a conscious effort to look for more than what we expect, to look at a person for their identity rather than their role.

it’s just a phase

Because that’s it, isn’t it?  We slot people into roles in our lives as appropriate – mother, father, partner, boss – and then we try to optimize our relationship according to society’s instructions for interacting with that role.  We look at our family and compare it to other families we see, and consider ours more or less successful based on how well it matches up to the cookie-cutter.  We catch our child misbehaving and crowdsource the answer, looking for how kids that age are supposed to behave.  Is this normal?  Is it a phase?

That word, phase – do people still say that shit to their kids?  “Oh, it’s just a phase, you’ll get over it. You won’t care about that in six months.  No, don’t spend too much money on that, she’s only going through a phase.” Really think about what that says for a second.  You’re saying to your child, “You have no expertise on your own feelings or desires. This thing that feels very important to you is not important, and the degree to which you lack understanding of that is the degree of your immaturity in my eyes.  It would be best to crush your enjoyment of that thing immediately and waste no more of anyone’s time liking something you might dislike in the future.”

the apex of human understanding

Note that “growing up” is always seen as synonymous with “agreeing with me.”  There is no world in which a child grows up, acquires experience and perspective, and still disagrees with you.  Your worldview is the apex of human understanding, and all life is a grim slog toward the enlightenment you’ve already achieved.  All of this is implicit when someone says, “When you get older, you’ll see.”

Trouble with that is, if you look at the world this way, you will only ever see yourself.  That’s all you’re interested in. It’s all you’re looking for, so it’s all you’ll find. You’ve told the people you love that what matters to them is only real if it also matters to you.  That what they are is only worthy if it matches what you were looking for.  Someone you love came to you and said, “Hey, this thing is super cool, and it fills me with the sublime joy of discovery and makes me want to learn more.”  And you said, “That’s not the kind of thing I figured you’d be into. Stop sharing your discoveries with me until you mature into someone who likes what I like.”

Is that the relationship you want to have with your family?

your irresponsible brother Dave

Aren’t you at all worried that you’re missing out?  Don’t you ever wonder who that person is? Not the role they’re in – not “your granddaughter” or “your partner” or “your irresponsible brother Dave,” but the actual person hidden behind the role you talk to when they pick up the phone.  Maybe actually talk to Dave, for the first time in years.  Dave’s forty-three – have you been calling him irresponsible since he was eight years old?  Does that not seem like bizarre behavior, to not update your opinion of a person for thirty years?  If you met forty-three-year-old Dave in a bar or a park, would the two of you get along? Would you even talk?

I think the sad truth is that a lot of people wouldn’t choose their family for friends if they’d been given a choice.  And it’s not because we don’t have things in common – shared space and shared time creates commonalities, and so does any attempt to shape your loved ones to resemble yourself.  One way or another, we usually have a lot in common with our families.

What we don’t have is any reason to seek out their company, a lot of the time.  The jokes about family time being as taxing as it is rewarding are pretty universal – why is that?  Why do most people not quite like being around their families?  A lot of those jokes rely upon this idea of having to perform, to live up to what the family expects of you.  Here we are again… “family” is conditional upon your ability to conceal what you are, to go through the motions, to avoid the missing stair.

someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose

Any long-term relationship is susceptible to this.  The older a relationship is, the more opportunity there is to create habits that wear into wounds.  You started joking about Dave being irresponsible when he was eight, and he laughed then, and so you kept it up.  Dave kept laughing because Dave didn’t have any power – if it bothered him, he didn’t have any safe opportunity or framework to say, “That joke actually does hurt me.  Could we stop joking about that and joke about literally anything else, please?” He’s hopefully never before been confronted with the idea that someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose.  That’s a brutal revelation, one that a child has trouble absorbing, and so he tries to ignore it. Dave keeps laughing.  If he conceals that it hurts, they won’t be hurting him on purpose.  If I don’t call it rape, I can pretend I wasn’t raped.  Faking it is less painful. It keeps hurting, but over time Dave gets inured to it. He doesn’t even hear the jokes anymore.  He doesn’t see his family much either. Not for any particular reason, they don’t do anything really bad. They’re just… not as good to him as his friends are.  And somehow that’s called “family.”

The word family whitewashes a lot of behavior that no one in their right mind would put up with from a friend or a partner.  We’re looking for the family we expect to see, the one media shows us, and when we don’t see it, we pretend to see it.  We play the role and the role becomes who we are.

our teeth are loving

That’s how a family gets to a point of taking pride in their dysfunction.  “We’re not like those lame, boring families that are nice to each other.  Other people can’t understand this thing we have, but you know our teeth are loving, this is just the only way we know to express our emotions.  You’re special for getting it.  Outsiders don’t get it.” This is how we immortalize abuse as family tradition. We convey the impression that in order to be “in the club,” in order to belong, those lower in status must submit to whatever treatment trickles down from on high.  More than submit to it – celebrate it. Being part of the family means laughing when we make a joke at your expense; can’t you take a joke, don’t you have a sense of humor?

These patterns don’t start as malice, that’s the problem.  We don’t start out trying to bulldoze the people around us.  We just don’t take it seriously when it happens, and so it keeps happening.  When we trivialize what someone’s experiencing – “it’s a phase, you’ll understand better when you’re older” – we teach them that their pain is not important.  So they stop telling us about it.

If we don’t create opportunities in our relationships for open communication that sets aside power and status disparities, we can’t ever have genuine, functional relationships with anyone.  Power, status – it’s not comfortable to use words like that with our loved ones, and we’d like to believe our families don’t work like that. But power disparity exists, and ignoring it is just a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility, believing that the word “family” is sufficient to keep the family together.  It’s not necessary to work on and improve those relationships the way one would with a friend, because “we’ll always be family.” Okay, but if family doesn’t mean “a group of people who love each other and look after each other’s welfare”… what exactly will we always be? We’ll always be connected by blood, but if that’s all that’s required, why does it matter if we spend time together?  You want family to mean something when it absolves you, but not when it requires you to do emotional work.

any part of this person you ground down

What if you made it a habit, with all the people you love – friends, partners, family, anyone you plan to keep around for a while – to check in?  Not in a “hey, how’s tricks” kind of way – you’re going to have to give them a framework to answer you, because we’re not used to being this honest with each other, and you’ve probably given them at least one reason to believe you won’t react well to anything less than a glowing review.  But there are a lot of ways to get at what you want to know, and what you want to know is if there’s any part of this person you ground down to make them fit into your family.

Try any and all of the following, as appropriate to your situation and relationship:

  • “Hey, I want you to feel like you can tell me the truth about what you’re experiencing and feeling – is there anything I can do or not do to make you feel safer in doing that?”
  • “What have you been really interested in lately that we haven’t talked about?  You’re getting into culinary taxidermy? Well that sounds terrifying to me, but we don’t have to like the same things for me to love you, so please, tell me what you like about it!”
  • “We go to church/play board games on Family Night/eat at Hooters every week, and we’ve been doing that for a long time, I just wanted to see if that’s still sparking joy for everybody.  Oh, you say you never liked eating at Hooters?  Well I definitely won’t say ‘why didn’t you mention that earlier’, because we don’t always know how we feel about things right away and conveying that uncertainty across a power disparity is very difficult, and I don’t want to punish you for answering my question honestly.  Instead, let’s try another place, and those of us who like Hooters can go tomorrow night.”
  • “Hey, I noticed when I made that joke that your laugh was a little halfhearted.  If I say something that makes you uncomfortable, please don’t feel like you have to laugh it off – please tell me instead, so I can not do that in the future, because I’d rather we both be having fun when we hang out.”
  • “Remember that thing I asked you to work on?  Keeping up with the dishes/not picking your nose in front of the dog/not yelling at me when I ask a question?  I wanted to say it’s been a lot better lately – you’ve been working on it and it shows, so thank you.”
  • “What are some things you’d like to do in life?  Let’s approach those NOT from the perspective of me showing you how to scale down your dream until it fits neatly into your standard-issue soul-dead consumer life, but rather, let’s you and I figure out how to break down the existing paradigm to make whatever you’d like to do practical.  I promise not to mention money or college in any way during this conversation, because a lot of things can change in twenty years, and my understanding of what the workforce will require from you is probably already wildly out of date, and also your value and the value of what you care about is not determined by the amount of capitalist wealth you accrue, so you should pursue what you’re passionate about and we will make it work.”

Demonstrate, or have the common decency to occasionally feign, interest in your loved ones outside the sphere of your own interests.  Acknowledge progress, not just error.  Don’t measure others’ success in terms of similarity to you or your dreams.  Provide opportunities for safe communication.  Be aware of power disparities rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist, and be ready to swallow your pride if it gets in your way.  If you can’t hear good sense when it comes from the mouth of a child – or anyone you perceive as “lesser” – you aren’t worthy of any form of authority.  Don’t judge your children by how similar they are to you, or to other children, or to children from your day. That’s not useful info – why would you want your children to be similar to you?  They live in a completely different world and that will become more true every day.

Don’t look for your own reflection in the faces of those around you.  Listen to the person in front of you, right now. They’re giving you a lot of information – we all want to be seen, to be understood, and most of the time we’re broadcasting like neon lights, just wishing someone would ask us what we think or how we feel.  Each person is new, and they’re new every goddamn day. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss it. If you spend all your time describing the person in front of you, rather than listening to them, they’re going to disappear.

Isopods for Peace

Far as I can tell, image of a giant isopod at Shedd Aquarium by nate_newton of the Captivereefs.com forum, Oct. 2011. I tarted it up in Photoshop a bit.

This is the story of how I started an isopod peacenik cult. Kinda-sorta on purpose.

Deeeep.io (four ‘e’s) is a browser game created by Federico Mouse. It’s one of those EVO-type deals where you start as a very basic creature and evolve into more complex lifeforms as you level up. In this case, it’s a vast, procedurally-generated ocean. Oh, and it’s multiplayer.

That alone would have ruined it for me eventually had I not stumbled upon the way of the isopod. I tend to play online games alone, because, well, you’ve seen the internet. I’m so introverted it’s probably some kind of disease. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for about twelve years, and mostly I play that by myself too — run old raids for transmog gear, play the auction house for my sub fee, pet battle, farm achievements. I’m one of those that is happy just making my own game in the corner out of whatever I’m given. So when someone says, “Hey, would you like to plunge into an unregulated ocean full of internet randos and fight it out for a few blips of plankton?” I go “yeah no honestly that sounds like a terrible idea.”

All kinds of frothy chaos

It’s fun, though. The graphics are rudimentary in a charming way. I’m a blobfish, and I need high pressure to survive — stay in the Deeeeps, it tells me! Okay then. A few bellyfuls of yellow algae from the bottom of the sea and I have become a crab. That’s not how I remember evolution working when I learned it in school, but hey, what do I know, I’m an English major. Crab eats algae too, excellent. And nobody’s scooping up all this yellow algae on the seafloor — there’s all kinds of frothy chaos happening above me, but none of the big fish can eat algae, so they leave me alone.

I start to realize that Deeeep has a surprising amount of, well… depth. The dev has gone to the trouble to gently enforce non-griefing play. The top tier of predatory fish can’t even harm Tier 1 fish. Bigger fish eat meat, so they mostly battle one another, leaving the abundant algae for newer players to level up on. Of course, it’s the internet, so my confident expectation is that the first other person I encounter will make it his life’s work to fuck me sideways, and there’s a lot of that. I die a ton at first, but it’s all right. The more evolved I was when I died, the higher up on the food chain I can start, so I’m corpse-running my way to the top.

The fish-bitches bring it

I become a seal, and then a bird, and then suddenly get too fat to fly and plunge back into the sea as a shark. Eat fish, become the shark! It says that right at the top of the screen! I’m the boss now; bring it, fish-bitches.

The fish-bitches bring it. Teaming up is a very solid strategy, and alliances shift rapidly under the sea — I get mobbed by a school of piranhas, a ray, and a couple octopodes that I could swallow whole if I could just get them to hold still. I turn into a sinking shower of meat. My body will feed generations of scavengers.

This happens a few times. I get to experience most of the top-tier creatures. Crocodiles lurk at the bottom of the waterfall on the right side of the map, waiting for fish to get swept by the current into their jaws. Manta rays can take smaller fish under their wings and fight as a unified group. I see a hippo once, far away, and head the opposite fucking direction, because I know about hippos. The hell with hippos.

Me, a hippo, ruining a perfectly good beaver.

There’s a leaderboard in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The top contender has over a million points, the 10th a couple hundred thousand. And here I am munching on algae for 50 points a bite. Clearly mass murder is the only efficient way to climb… but I, as I’ve said before, carry the Imp of the Perverse on my back. I am incapable of doing anything in a straightforward way if a ridiculously convoluted alternative is available. And I get bored with the thrashing battles quickly. We’re all blocky little sprites with simple textures, and though each animal has unique talents and abilities, the bulk of any fight is bashing your face into another face until one face breaks. Climbing the leaderboard makes you a target, and bored fish form squads to hunt you down for your delicious meats. The voice of WOPR rings in my head: “The only winning move is not to play.”

The only winning move is not to play

Maybe it’s the perfect combination of sativa and Adderall jangling through my system this morning. Maybe it’s the constant fluctuations of the leaderboard. Maybe it’s the way that the mechanics reinforce behaving like the fish you’ve chosen. I find that when I am an anglerfish, and I act like an anglerfish, I succeed. I love this. It makes me happy to roleplay as a fish, to avoid larger fish, to eat plankton and hide in deeeep-sea volcanos.

No, you know what it is? It’s the isopod’s adorable little face.

Look at that face. LOOK AT IT

She’s so serious and determined! I love her curled feet. I love her tiny industrious frown. The isopod is a Tier 3 creature. She needs to be in deeeep water to survive, and she can eat anything — algae, red bubbles of volcano-gas, any meat that drops out of the melee. Oh, and she can curl up into a ball, making her invulnerable. She can’t DO anything while curled up, and she’s got so little health and damage that she’s not a viable combatant against anything, but she charms me. I start to spend a lot of time playing as the isopod.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you — there is a chat function in this game. Another nail in its goddamn coffin as far as I’m concerned, but whatever, today I’m high enough to ignore the dick jokes that float by on the current. It’s everything you’d expect — friendships made and shattered, battlefield betrayals, factions that coalesce and then begin infighting for dominance. And the more you talk, the more you betray your position, so a mouthy fish with a high score quickly gets gangbanged into chum. Again my Imp whispers, “The only winning move is not to play.”

So I play the isopod. I eat the algae at the bottom of the sea. The isopod gets a little speed boost when she’s near a seabed, so whenever I’m menaced, I skim along and lose most pursuit by ducking deeper into the caves. I can hide in sea volcanoes, and when I’m balled up and hidden, I’m completely untouchable. Something about this slow grind soothes me. What can I say — they gave me a number to increment and points to collect. It’s in my gamer blood, I have to make the number go up.

For hours I play the isopod, and I think. It’s meditative. I have time to contemplate the words on my screen, the changing social structures that appear when people have these low-key ways to interact. All the usual characteristics of internet communication are there. People swear, people spam. Spammers are eaten. Funny, charming people attract friends and climb the leaderboard, but people have lives, so eventually everyone dies, or goes offline and disappears. Through it all, I stay an isopod. I lurk at the bottom of the sea. I eat the algae. I play my little role and am content.

Assholes are not known for their patience

Sometimes someone hassles me. A lamprey bobs up and bumps into my shell, then lingers, repeatedly bashing his head into me. It hurts, kind of. But if I ask him to leave me alone, it’ll just make him bother me more. If you speak, you make yourself a target. If you make a request, they will do the opposite. I know how to deal with trolls; I can wait him out. Assholes are not known for their patience. So I ball up and sit there while he chews on me ineffectually.

“cmon” he says. Oh, yeah, that’s a winning strategy. I wasn’t sold on being devoured by a toothy phallus before, but now that you’ve whined at me I’m a complete convert, take me now! Saying that won’t make him leave, though.

The only winning move is not to play, says the Imp in my head. But then the isopod speaks up. She says:

“Isopods for peace.”

Then she sits, a little stone at the bottom of the sea, and the nonplussed lamprey gives up and goes looking for easier prey.

Huh. That worked? All right then. I go on eating algae. And the next time someone comes for my succulent morsels, I say it again: “Isopods for peace.”

“Cool man” says the squid, and scoots off.

It keeps working. It’s a fairly unassailable message, I suppose — short enough to have no inroads for mockery, universal in appeal, and offered as a proclamation rather than a protest or a plea. And with so much more interesting, darting prey about, no one bothers me for long. I fall into a kind of trance. Eat the algae. Roam the cave. Bump against a larger fish. Murmur “Isopods for peace.” Turmoil and brawl goes on above, and gradually, over the course of many hours, I climb the leaderboard. Other fish climb by chunks, thousands of meat-points per chomp, but inevitably they die. They leave. I go on. I eat the algae. I roam the seabed. Isopods for peace.

The Isopod Nation

I start to hear echoes. Other players pick up the line, at first as a joke. An isopod faction forms. A few related names climb the boards: “Isopodking” is up there for a bit, and “ISOPODS 4 LYFE”. They assemble into a pile of curled blocks at the bottom of the sea and proclaim the isopod way. Naturally, they attract attention. A few die — an isopod can be killed, but it takes the right enemy fish, and a clever isopod knows how to avoid risky situations. Whenever I encounter a predator, I greet it with, “Isopods for peace,” and from far away I hear the Isopod Nation cheer.

The Isopod Nation often forms in this natural cave at the far left end of the map. Isopods roll downhill, you see. Here I visit the Isopod Nation and find them guarded by a small squid and an oarfish.

They want me to join them, but I know I must not. I must go on. I must eat the algae. I must spread the word of peace. Then, too, I know what will happen to the isopod faction. It’s starting to happen even now. Enemies gather round their chitin pyramid, so they enlist larger fish to protect isopods on their way to the group. And then the violence begins again, a war by proxy with the isopods helpless to do anything but watch. They disagree inside their pyramid, and the nation splinters from within. They join the fray, and then they die. Far away, I murmur, “Isopods for peace.”

Sometimes I die. I slip up now and then. I learn which fish can hurt me fastest, which can poison me through my protective shell, which can swallow me and carry me somewhere I don’t want to go. I start over again, sometimes on the same server, sometimes on another. Blobfish, crab, isopod. Hide the evolution prompt. Isopod is the endgame. Each time I climb the leaderboard, it happens again —word spreads, predators come. I wait, I whisper: “Isopods for peace.” And gradually, I don’t have to anymore. A squid bumps into me, then backs up. “sry bro.” He twirls in the water and swims away. A gulper eel approaches and I tense up — gulper eels can swallow me even in curled form, and it hurts. The only way to really escape them is to hide in a volcano. But this one doesn’t attack — he spins in the water, which is how fish greet each other, since any speech echoes across the whole ocean.

“Hi,” says the gulper eel.

I hide in a volcano while trying to sway a gulper eel to the side of peace.

I think about it. He wants to make friends. I could have protection. I could spread the word of peace farther, faster. I could scavenge from anything he killed — and that’s where the isopod breaks in with her quiet voice. She answers the gulper eel:

“Isopods for peace.”

The isopod goes on. She eats the algae. The gulper eel follows for awhile, circles me in the water, amuses himself chasing the little fish that are too large for me to eat. Eventually he takes off. The isopod is alone again. But that’s all right. She’s seen what happens when factions form. That way lies violence. She knows that if she speaks, her message will be diluted. If she befriends another fish, she makes herself vulnerable. The path of peace is lonely.

But the message carries. I roam servers to make sure I encounter new people. It always works. I don’t argue, I don’t beg. I don’t ask anyone to leave me alone or call for backup. I don’t spam — I only call out my catchphrase when someone tries to eat me. I try to defend other isopods too, when I see them — I curl up next to them and whisper, “Isopods for peace.” We lean against one another and contemplate the ocean for a moment. Then we go on, and eat the algae. Predators learn that they can reliably find food by following my voice to the asshole who screwed with an isopod. It becomes known: the isopods are for peace.

Have I tamed the internet?

I’m trying to understand what’s happening even as I’m doing it. Have I tamed the internet? How is this possible? Nine-year-old Fortnite babies don’t give a fuck about peace. And yet they stand down when they see me. They twirl in the current and dance.

“whoa srry man, didnt see it was you”

“Heyyyy”

“gogo isopod”

“WTF is that ispod wth a million points”

I think there are a couple of things going on here, and there’s some kind of lesson in this for the real world, but I’m not sure what it is. So let’s pick it apart. Why is this strategy working? Why am I not a target? Why, instead, is the word of peace spreading, isopods everywhere left to graze on the seabed, separate from the food chain?

Several days in, I am no longer afraid to swim away from the seabed. No one will harm me. Isopods are for peace.

Part of it is the message — like I said, it’s brief and unassailable. It’s not a question or a request, and it never changes no matter what response I receive. Assaulting a balled-up isopod is ineffective, but it’s also unrewarding. Since having a lot of points doesn’t make me worth any more points to the one who kills me, almost any other activity is a better use of time than waiting for me to uncurl. Which is the other part of this — invulnerability. Is this what true pacifism requires? Complete imperviousness to harm, a seamless carapace? I could mount an argument in that direction, certainly, with historical sources a fathom long, but somehow I can’t bring myself to believe it. Perhaps it’s sentiment. Perhaps it’s idealism. But I can’t believe — not quite — that the only possibility of peace lies in complete isolation.

It is at this point that I should confess I got a little obsessed with this project. It went on for days, plays of three, four, seven hours at a time. (Yes, I have a lot of time on my hands.) One morning I logged on to a new server, recognizing none of the names, and was greeted by “ey man its Isopods for Peace, whats up”. That wasn’t my name, as you can see in these screenshots, but that’s the power the meme has acquired by this point. I am identified entirely with what I say, even though it’s my name, Gentle, that stays in the corner of a person’s screen for hours on end. I am nothing. There is only the isopod, and the isopod is for peace.

So the cult remains even when I am not online, which allows me to begin iterating on the form. I change up the message from time to time, now. “Peace is the way. Follow the path of peace. There is enough food for all to live in peace.” I don’t strive to stay at the top of the leaderboard; being #1 means nothing to me. I usually bounce between ranks three to six as fish rise and fall around me. The function of my presence on the leaderboard is only to amplify what I say. Not mechanically —crabs’ voices are as loud as sharks’ and whales’ voices — but psychologically. An isopod, in and of herself, means nothing. An isopod that says “Isopods for peace” when you hit her and is surprisingly clever at not getting killed? You might remember that, for a minute or two. But without spamming the message, that’s all the longevity it has — the next isopod you see erases the memory of this one, and they all look like food, and none of the rest of ’em moralize at you while you’re chewing.

A serene, idealistic statement

When I’m on the leaderboard, all fish can see is my name, unless they find me somewhere in the sea. They have no idea which creature I currently am. When they come for me, they come in force, expecting a shark or a giant squid. They approach ready to fight and find a tiny creature that offers nothing in its defense but a serene, idealistic statement — and yet, this tiny creature is passing up bloody-toothed predators one after another. My success proves that my message is valid in terms that everyone recognizes. That moment, when their bloodlust is stymied by my inexplicable behavior — in that moment, their minds are open. They’re confused, and they’re ready to hear an explanation. The isopod tells them, “Isopods for peace.”

“How u get to 1mil with isopod?”

“Peace is the path to greatness,” the isopod says.

A new Isopod Nation has risen. They are young and fiery; they call for and receive a kill squad of Humboldt squid to protect them. I pause on my path through their cavern and greet them. They beg me to stay.  A whale named spicy memez approaches and turns his meaty flank invitingly toward me.

I cannot stay here. Soon there will be blood in the water.

“kill me man. I wanna start over and be an isopod”

This happens a lot as time goes on — high ranked fish offer me their meat as tribute. This is powerful, a religious rebirth they’re requesting. They present themselves to the Isopod Holy Woman as a sacrifice, hoping to be swallowed by her and emerge as her child, washed clean to roam the seabed. Other isopods take the offer — the Isopod Nation grows by means of this peculiar parthenogenesis. But I refuse. I go on. I eat the algae. Isopods do not kill. And when the Isopod Nation fractures and falls, my voice is still heard in the wilderness:

“Isopods for peace.”

Isopods are friends, not food.

What I Learned About Activism from the Isopod Holy Woman

Some of the reason this project has gotten so massively out of control is the Adderall, and some of it is my own particular neuroses and obsessions. But some of it is that abraded feeling I have on my soul these days, that feeling you get after reading the news for too long and then remembering that you still have bills to pay, that while the world shits itself bloody, your own private hell is still here to comfort you with its demands. I feel powerless too often. That’s what they want us to feel, I know, so I fight it, but… I have to be honest with you, I still feel it. I feel trapped in one of those sound-swallowing rooms, my voice dead as soon as it exits my lips. Every word I say can be twisted, misinterpreted, taken out of context, argued with, and the more words I say, the more opportunities I provide to anyone spoiling for a fight. I feel I must speak to defend people who can’t, use my own privilege to amplify their voices, but I also feel so small, and so tired, and so helpless. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.

– Jonathan Larson

When I said “isopods for peace” the first time, I didn’t say it with any hope that it would help. I said it because it seemed like the kind of thing an isopod would say, and I was finding solace in her quiet confidence, finding strength in her weakness. When the spark caught and spread, I fed it because it gave me that rare kind of comfort, that feeling of strangers cooperating spontaneously. This world seems like a sluggish entropic farce to me sometimes, and those acts of real, collaborative creation push back against it, perhaps in the smallest way. So the idea was peace, simply that, and I’m as clueless as an isopod about how to achieve it. Peace isn’t super sexy, TBH — I wasn’t expecting it to catch on.

​Make your message simple, seamless, and search-engine optimized.

I hate that this is part of it. I really do. I hate that my day job wants me to learn SEO and social media manipulation, because I don’t want to do those things. I don’t use Twitter. I only talk to my grandmother on Facebook. I’m not being fucking dramatic when I say it causes me existential pain that in order to be useful a message also has to be easily palatable and bite-sized, and that in order to be heard I have to manipulate people into listening to me. But here we are. This is what we have to work with.

So make it short. Make it unassailable. Don’t use words that pin you down to a specific interpretation: “ALL isopods for peace” is the start of an argument, as it informs other isopods what they must be. But don’t supplicate either. “Don’t hurt isopods” is a request, and a certain kind of person will start hunting down isopods just to piss you off. Assume in your language that your point of view — in this case, “peace is good, let’s have some more of that plz” — is universal already, that your listener is already in agreement. People want to agree or disagree, to pick a side; it is in our social nature to align ourselves with a group if one is available that we can endorse. If you treat your audience as if they agree with you before you begin, disagreement requires a break from the polite social contract, a step against the current as it were. This is how salespeople make it hard for you to say no — they trap you in a situation where doing what they want is the path of least social resistance. We can use this fucking insufferable behavior to promote a worthwhile message.

Movements fracture as they grow. Human entanglements diminish the clarity and power of your voice.

I hate this too, in a way. Emotional involvement is kinda my thing. It’s what I do, it’s how I perceive and interpret the world. But obviously I’m fine with fighting a losing battle. I made a firm, conscious choice in my 20s that taking care of the people I loved was more important to me than taking steps to improve my own status and skills in other areas. I’m still paying for that choice in many ways, and I still don’t regret it.

That said… when you make connections, you make yourself vulnerable. When a movement grows large, disagreements boil out of control with more voices, more sides, more subtle gradations to consider. Schisms appear. Terminology becomes both vitally important and fatally insufficient. New words become necessary but are greeted with contempt and hostility. Founders find themselves obsolete in a movement they no longer recognize. This happens every damn time the number of adherents to anything goes from n to n+1, and I don’t think there’s a way to stop it. “A person is smart,” as Agent K once said. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

The Isopod Holy Woman solves this problem by eliminating intimacy — this is V’s way in V for Vendetta, and Batman’s as well, to subsume their person entirely in their persona, be swallowed by their message. But if you’re not an isopod or Bruce Wayne, how to walk that line? Is it possible to live a human life while not undercutting your own beliefs? It’s easy to find articles about Gandhi’s sex life and Mother Teresa’s financials. We see the divide between the popular image of a person, the person-as-idea — “Mother Teresa is a saint bringing solace to the poor” — and the reality of that person in the world — “Mother Teresa focuses more on conversion and missionary work than the charitable activity she’s famous for”. But here’s where this issue breaks down, because there is worth in promoting and actively supporting a worthwhile idea even if you’re not always in flawless adherence with it yourself. People cannot avoid identifying you with what you say and vice versa, but you are not always the person you aspire to be. None of us are. And therefore…

You can’t be too fussy about being misinterpreted or pirated. If you can’t respond on-message, just don’t engage.​

Creators are discovering this about the internet: the barriers between artist and audience are lower than ever, and the audience has no compunction about taking part. As an inveterate word-thief and Photoshop dork, I kind of love this secondary layer of art creation, the realm of fanfic, fanart, remixes, mashups, photomanips. Art as fuel for more art is the kind of perpetual motion machine I can get behind. That said… it always sucks when your art-baby runs off and makes an art-grandbaby for you with the guy who sleeps behind the bus station, so to speak. It sucks when you see your own words being used in a context that you don’t like, or misunderstood as supporting something you don’t support. (I read a great piece about this by Aevee Bee the other day which contributed to some of this pondering — check it out) That’s gonna happen, though, and your time is not well spent hunting down every propagator of heresy against your gospel and putting them to the sword. It makes you look like an insecure asshole, and nobody wants to listen to an insecure asshole. Also, they’re like ants — you can only nail one at a time and you’ll never get them all.

Twitter is basically that on a vast scale, cycling a million times a second, a machine manufacturing endless agitprop out of a slurry of ideas mulched down to bite size. It’s the chaos of whales and sharks above me, unfocused hostility and bonhomie bouncing off one another and becoming completely indistinguishable. The ephemeral nature of this makes it even more important that you don’t engage. When attacked, you stay on message, and your output remains internally consistent and clear. If they take your words to use against you, they will only spread your gospel on your behalf. Those who attack you will be many, but the more they are, the less organized they will be. Their output is muddy, hypocritical, without unified intent. It will be washed away by the sea, and you will eat their bones.

God damn it, you’ve gotta be kind.​

– Kurt Vonnegut

“hi Gentle” says the giant squid hovering above the seabed. He’s scooping up the volcano bubbles that float out of the vent near me, but he doesn’t attack.

“im only cool w/isopods,” he says. “anything else is x.x Isopods are friends”

This is not the kind of sentiment the Isopod Holy Woman can get behind. “Isopods for peace,” she answers. The words are the same, but now I mean something different by them: not only a plea for protection of one deep-sea species, but a rejection of the role of violence in this little world. It’s so small, this place, compared to the world outside my screen where my tiny chitinous whispers don’t echo to every ear in the ocean. Still… I can’t help but believe that a breakout of peace in any population, no matter how small, is meaningful. It’s a middle finger to entropy; it’s a wild, defiant cheer for freedom without force, self-regulated civilization. The Isopod Holy Woman proves, every second that she’s alive and on the leaderboard, that peace can win a race with warriors.

Kindness means something, goddamn it. It’s the only real power we have, because it’s the only one that hasn’t been dispensed like an antibiotic until all the assholes are immune. I worry that kindness is only possible from a position of invulnerability, but the Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that she could curl up in a ball and hide in a volcano for seven hours, and I would never die or fall off the leaderboard.

The AFK timer will kill you after 20 minutes without moving, but it’s not difficult to avoid.

But doing that wouldn’t spread the word of anything. I would be safe, but silent. The Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that for her message to triumph, she must be seen in the world, she must touch those around her, she must make herself vulnerable to their words and their whims. Sometimes this means that she’s swallowed, shut down for a while. That’s okay, so long as she always comes back. So long as the message lives, she can’t truly die.

I log on again in the morning. I don’t really have anything left to do here. I’ve proven my point. The message carries and grows without me. Whatever server I’m on, I see isopods at the bottom of the sea, scooping up algae and dancing their tiny pirouettes around one another. Some of them have the patience and discretion to climb the leaderboard. The sharks and squid pass them by without even stopping now. When an isopod drifts through a fight, the combatants close their jaws and greet her, become friends in an instant when she passes. Fish I don’t know greet me by name. “Isopods for peace” has become an odd little meme, a paper parasol against a hurricane of violence that somehow, for a moment, holds.

Maybe it’s meaningless. But I don’t think so. I think that the miracle of standing against a sea of troubles — not taking arms against it, Hamlet, just standing — is enough. I think a glimpse of living, thriving kindness in the world glows, and makes more possible. Maybe I’m just passing out parasols here, but I’ll keep it up, because people keep taking them. And maybe I’ll start scrawling it on walls next to the swastikas and the swear words:

“Isopods for peace.”

Do It For Nothing

Writing sucks.  I don’t have to tell you that – you’re here because you know.  You clicked on that title above because it matches the relentless voice in your own head that says, “This is never going to work.  This is never going to pay. I’ll never be Stephen King. Or even E.L. James, for fuck’s sake.” I don’t have to tell you how much writing sucks, but I’m going to, because I want you to hang out for a minute and telling stories is the only way I know how to make people sit still.  I’m not going to tell you how to make it suck less. If you know, email me, please.  What I know is how to do it anyway, in spite of the suck.

Honestly, I planned to have this all sorted out by now.  The Plan (TM) was to get married at 25, have a kid at 27, and then enjoy the work-life balance that writing for a living offers.  Oh! Almost forgot – at 17, make sure you publish a bestseller. Otherwise all the other stuff might be a little more difficult. But how hard can it be?  When I was in school, that supercilious brat Christopher Paolini had just hit the bestseller lists at the age of 17 and was awkwardly smarming all over Oprah’s couch, and Eragon was terrible!  In fact, a lot of the writers I saw making it big were mediocre – my first indication that the whole structure was bullshit, of course, but more on that another time.  I read The Da Vinci Code and said to my mother, “At least it’s a quick read – this man couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.”

“I’m trying to imagine someone writing their way out of a paper bag.  Or into one, for that matter.”

“No, wait, it’s somehow worse than that.  Dan Brown couldn’t write his way out of a hostage situation.  Dan Brown couldn’t write his way out of a ten-car pileup.”

So yeah, The Plan (TM) looked pretty feasible in the first few months of freshman year.  And then, like everyone else, I hit Real Life (TM) like Wile E. Coyote hitting a brick wall, and turned into a perfectly-formed disc embossed with my pissy little face.

What had seemed so easy when I was in high school – homework?  Nah, fuck that, I’ll work on my novel all night long – was suddenly the last thing I wanted to do with the whole exciting world of sex, drugs and job applications spread before me.  I wrote during my 20s, a surprising lot in fact, but usually only when drunk. Late at night, alone with a tall glass of limeade and Bacardi 151 – I shit you not, that was my tipple for years – I screamed into the blackness of Blogspot, filling a blog only my best friend knew about with yearning, dreaming, asking.  When I was 19 and my boyfriend moved in with me, I wrote about falling in love. When I was 20 and I had an abortion, I wrote about my terror and guilt. When I was 24 and a friend tried to kill himself three times in three months, I wrote down what I couldn’t say to him – my grief, my rage, my need to have the answers.  For ten years I drank from the bottle and spat it all back out on the page.

I’ll say this for it: it’s a lot easier to write when it feels like the top of your head will fly the fuck off if you don’t.  It was as if my brain was a kettle on a shrieking hot stove, howling and vomiting steam without pause until all the water is boiled away.  I was productive during that time, but only in the sense that I was producing something.  Words were coming out, the machine was doing its job.  But with the blog serving as friend, family and therapist, I couldn’t learn or grow.  I couldn’t make my work any better by screaming at myself. In his incredible book On Writing, Stephen King says, “Life isn’t a support system for art.  It’s the other way round.” My art was a great support system for my life, but that meant that until I sorted out my life, I couldn’t improve my art.

So I took the kettle off the burner, so to speak.  I got a job that let us lose the food stamps. Not a writing job; I can’t write on command – remember all that homework I skipped to write my own stuff?  Same thing. I read a lot of books on writing, which made me feel like I was growing as a writer even when I didn’t write a word for a year. Not sure how much I’d recommend that – in many ways, it’s a form of procrastination for me, but one that’s taught me a ton.  I got insurance, and then a doctor, and then antidepressants that saved my life. Gradually, my skull-kettle stopped screaming. (Have I tortured this metaphor to death yet?)

Now, I try to write every day.  I say try. I think about writing every day, does that count?  (No.) I still talk to my blog more than I talk to my friends, although I’ve got friends now, so I got that goin for me, which is nice.  When I ache to be loved, to be strong and confident, to be witty or wise, I write. I still live on the page better than I live my life. But letting that head full of steam die down (the metaphor puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again) allowed me to look at what I was producing and develop it in a more conscious way.  There’s a more conscious way to write than blackout drunk? Y’don’t say! And yes, the work is harder now. I write less than I used to. I spend a lot more time on those lovely soliloquies you get into while staring at the empty screen: “This is the only thing you’re good at, and you’re not even good at this. Why do you think anybody cares what you have to say?  It’s not really possible to create anything new anyway…” Yeah, my personal brainweasels talk like that asshole you met in Philosophy 101 freshman year, who droned for forty-five minutes about the inherent fundamental meaninglessness of the universe and then sent you a picture of his dick.

 

I’ve been rambling for a bit now.  Let’s recap. What we’ve learned so far:

  1. Writing is hard.
  2. Writing while drunk is easy, but being a writer while drunk is hard.
  3. Getting your life together and getting serious about your art are the same thing.  They have to be.

 

It’s that last one I want to really focus on.  It’s my thesis, as my 7th-grade English teacher would say.  She’d probably give me a D for putting my thesis all the way down here, but she also told me that “when you know the rules perfectly, you can feel free to break them judiciously.”  So far that’s been my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

The idea that you have to suffer for your art comes in part from that splinter of truth – that when you have to work, because you have nothing else in your life but your work, then you can.  Oh, boy, can you. Inspiration is like a burning knot in your chest, all the things you never get to say, the truth of yourself that you can’t get anyone to even glance at, the staircase wit and the throttled dreams… Write them all down, obsess over them, polish them like a dorodango until they shine.  But you know – like I knew, the whole time – that you’re polishing dirt.  There’s an upper limit on how good it can be, and that limit is you.

I’m not just talking about writing, let me be clear.  For “your art,” here read “your passion,” whatever that thing may be.  Maybe you code, maybe you cook, maybe you know over 700 yo-yo tricks. Whatever the thing is that you started doing and then never wanted to stop, the thing that got ahold of you and made you think, “How can I trick someone into paying me for this?”  I first got that feeling when my granddad read The Hobbit to me in about 1992.  When we finished it, I informed him that I felt Gollum’s character had been under-served by the book, and I wanted to write a sequel to it exploring his history.  Grand didn’t spoil my ambitions with petty realities like copyright law or The Lord of the Rings.  Although we started reading Fellowship together the next summer, by that time I’d already abandoned that idea and was writing my own.

So it’s this thing.  When you’ve got nothing else in life, the thing you do.  When you’re being kind to yourself, you know you’re good at this.  When you want to kill yourself, it’s because you’re good at this, and yet… and yet.

And if you are a writer, it’s that much more romantic, this struggle.  It’s practically de rigeur, darling, you simply must become an alcoholic for a few years.  You’ll come out of it just pickled in inspiration!  And yeah, you hate yourself a little when you catch yourself swirling your limeade and rum like it’s a fine whiskey, but no one else is watching, and if you weren’t a sentimental lowlife at heart you wouldn’t be here.  Yes, I got thrown out of a writer’s group for saying this once.

But although I think we all go through this “long dark teatime of the soul” to shamelessly pilfer the phrase from someone more talented, and although writers in particular are given to lingering over it, really wallowing in the misery while slurring about solipsism (just my brainweasels, then?  Alright.), I don’t think that you “have to suffer to write.” I do think the belief that you have to suffer makes writing while suffering easier, if only because you can feel a little privately martyred while you’re doing it.

I prolonged the wallowing stage longer than most – wallowing is one of my specialities – but I don’t recommend that either.  For the longest time I was waiting, in the words of Tracey Thorn, for “something that could make it easy.” We all tell ourselves these comforting stories when we’re putting off doing what we know we have to do.

“When I get a better job, I’ll be less stressed and I’ll be able to write my magnum opus.”

“When I stop drinking, I’ll be less of a pompous twat and I’ll stop using phrases like ‘magnum opus.’”

“If we move, I’ll have room for a real desk and then I’ll be able to sit down and write properly.”

“If I can find the right depression meds that don’t make me braindead, I’ll be able to work again.”

And year after year, I chased those moving goalposts.  It took me a long time. By the time The Plan ran out at age 27, I was… still unemployed.  Still living in a studio apartment and chaining payday loans. (Don’t do this thing, please.  Google “payday loan horror stories” and don’t do this thing.) But by 30, I’d gotten the job thing handled, knocked out the drinking (mostly), had an enviable desk situation going on, and had depression meds that made all of that possible.

And I still wasn’t writing.

Yep.  One by one, you fix all the problems, until you discover that the last problem is you.  There is no magic drug. There is no perfect desk. That unfucking you had to do on your whole life?  That took you your whole life to even begin?  Now apparently you have to do that to the one thing you thought you were good at, and this is where Mega-Maid switches from SUCK to BLOW, because by the time anyone else even gets a chance to like your stuff, you’re going to hate it.

There’s a lengthy Ira Glass quote about this that I won’t restate here; you probably have an inspirational wallpaper of it in your phone just like I do.  I think he’s right that the trajectory of most creative people has a goddamn pit in it, and all of this babble is me trying to say that I fuckin’ looked, my friends, and there is no quick way out of that hole.  It sucks and it sucks and it sucks… until it doesn’t. And the day you quit is the day you prove you’ll die down there.

You have to be willing to do it for nothing for as long as it takes.  I don’t just mean for free.  No money, but also no interest, no praise, no fame, no closure, no confirmation, no validation, and no hope.  You have to sit in that hole and know that you’ll never get out of it, and still find a reason to try.

I said this to my husband while doing the unfocused ranting that often precedes a writing session, and he said, “That’s a slightly bleak way to look at it.”  I get this reaction a lot, and at a certain level I always find it mystifying. I genuinely don’t find the above bleak. Maybe I’ve spent so long in the hole that I find it homey, I don’t know, but to me it feels like a promise.  Like the promises I made to the people I loved when the windows were broken and the water got shut off and we were unemployed.

I promise I’ll be here.  I promise I’ll keep trying.  I promise I’ll stick by you until we make it out of this, until it gets better.  I promise, no matter what, I won’t quit. I won’t give up on you.

I’ve said that to a lot of people.  The vanishing few are still in my life, so that’s what our promises were worth, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I made that promise to them, and yet I’ve never made that promise to myself in reference to the one thing I know how to do.  I was willing to go down with the fucking ship, “White Flag” blasting in my headphones and all, for any one of a chain of brilliant, self-destructive young men and women, but every time it got hard to write, I looked for a way out.

So that’s why I’m here.  I want to commit to this, and to you.  This is the only way I know how to make people sit still, like I said – assuming you still are, what a hero!  If you’re still with me, I want to see you at the top of the hole, when we both get there some day. I know we’ll both be there, because we’re here now, together, ready to climb.  Right now, I want you to take your art in your hands – metaphorically, okay, work with me dammit – and cradle it like the arrogant fuckboy you promised to love forever when you were 22.  Cradle it like the woman you married, who actually did stick by you until it got better, and that’s why it got better.  Cradle your guitar, or your word processor, or your favorite compiler, and be at least as fucking good to yourself as you’ve been to everyone you’ve lost.  Promise yourself. Hell, promise me! Promise the audience that’s waiting for you to speak.

    I promise I’ll keep trying.  I promise I’ll never stop. I promise I won’t hoard what I have, even if I’m certain no one else would want it.  I promise that I don’t need money, or fame, or even hope. I promise that this, just this – the way this work feels under my hands – this will always be enough.

Letters to You

Dear _____,

When I was a kid, I had to write thank-you letters to everyone who sent me presents at birthdays and Christmases.  I hated it, of course.  My mother wouldn’t settle for a thank-you note, no – these were letters, a full lined page at minimum.  There was even an accepted format.  I could do it in my sleep.  These days I could throw together a template in Word and fill in the appropriate name and gift on the line, but at the time I’m sure I would have gotten in trouble for such laziness in the performance of my gratitude.


Salutation, family member!  Line break.

Happy (holiday, as appropriate)!  Thank you so much for the (item)!

[Insert several sentences discussing how you plan to use the item in productive, educational activities to improve your character]  [Do not copy these sentences from earlier thank-you letters even if the gifts are similar – Mom will compare them to one another to make sure you weren’t lazy]

[If the gift was a giftcard, check or cash, here indicate what you plan to spend the money on.  Edifying activities, crafts, books, and clothes are recommended.  Do not mention candy or video games]

How was your (holiday)?  Mine was great.  We did [insert appropriate holiday activities.  Omit mention of parental drunkenness and rolling on carpet calling the dog a “faggot.”]  I hope the weather in (family member’s hometown) has been nice.

I have been doing [good/okay/my best] in school and at home.  [Do not overstate your good behavior.  Describe all bad behavior in full. Mom will correct your letter with tales of your most hilarious mistakes if she feels you’re painting too flattering a picture of yourself]

Thank you again for the (item/giftcard/check).  I hope you and (spouse/child/corgi hunting pack) are doing great.

Love, Your Obedient Descendant


One of these to everyone who sent a gift.  Usually I had a list of names, and usually I’d get through about half of it in the week following the holiday, and forget about the rest.  Next holiday comes… another list.

These days, nobody writes letters except one time-lost friend, another changeling bastard like me dropped into the wrong century.  She still writes to me.  We’ve gone back and forth on that, and I still feel pretty bad about how it’s shaken out.  She writes these gorgeous letters, dark garnet ink on creamy paper, sealed with wax.  All letters should look like this – I’d like my electric bill much better if it came on this lovely paper.  She writes her thoughts, her feelings, the ones she finds hard to express out loud.  I feel honored and so grateful that she shares these things with me, but when it comes time to answer her, I put it off and put it off till another letter comes and now I have two to catch up on.  I did this with my journal in high school too – writing on any kind of deadline shuts me down instantly, as I feel the minutes ticking by and stacking up, undocumented.  Give me a clock to watch, and I will watch it till the sun explodes, anxiously waiting for the moment that “late” turns into “too late.”

At this point, my longsuffering friend has accepted that I won’t write her back, even if I honestly and sincerely promised that I would, and I can spread out into the familiar comfort of lowered expectations.  Once you’ve come to terms with being a perpetual disappointment to your loved ones, everything becomes much easier.  Imagine my disgust with myself when I realized, in a creeping doom sort of way, that in spite of all of the above… I am really comfortable writing letters.

Sitting, staring at the blank page like y’do, my first instinct is to write “Dear…”  It just feels easy.  I have never been able to talk about myself – oh, I can talk, believe you me, but it won’t tell you a goddamn thing about what I’m really feeling.  Even when asked about myself, I dodge the scrutiny.  With strangers, I avoid the question.  It’s easy; nobody really wants to know how you are, it’s just a conversational reflex.  With people I know, I tell a story.  Like I’m doing here, with you.  “This happened when I was young.  This when I was a little older.  See the through-line?  See the chain of causality?  This is why I am the way I am.”  But it’s a story, no closer to the truth than any other story I could tell about the same events.

To put something into words is to immediately begin to obscure it with words.  How I choose to explain myself affects how you see me, even if the data points of what I say remain the same.  And it seems like the way I’m most comfortable being truly honest is an epistolary format.  It feels hypocritical because I’m so unwilling to write a goddamn letter to anyone who’s ever asked me for one… but I’ve never been able to do what I was asked.  The imp of the perverse has always held the helm in my head.

So what’s all this babbling for, then?  To explain that I want to explain myself.  I want to be honest with you, to tell you real stories sometimes as well as stories about robots and drugs and giant bugs.  And I think the best way for me to do that is to write you the occasional letter.  I was wondering what you’d like me to call you.  If you think of anything, let me know, will you?  In the comments or whatever.

Anyway, I hope your May has been [warm/temperate/cool] and your [spouse/child/animal/intestinal parasite] is doing great.  I’ll write you again later.

Love,

Gentle