Give Up On 100% – Two Useful Percentages for Perfectionists

The whole country is infected with it right now. You can see it seeping into discourse like a poison, choking off voice after voice with scornful cynicism. “Impeachment is meaningless – no president has ever been removed from office that way!” “The damage has been done, why disrupt the system further?” “The system itself is rigged; there’s no point in playing at all.”

“You poor fool,” they say. “Don’t you understand there’s no point in fixing anything if you can’t fix everything?”

Listen. I get it. We’re all in a frantic fog right now, the kind of mindset you fall into when you’re constantly being gaslighted by an abusive narcissist. Someone is trying to destroy your reality and substitute his own, and that person desperately needs you to believe that any step you take to protect yourself is pointless if you can’t fix the whole world in the process.

But ask yourself why he needs you to believe that. Why is it so important that you do nothing to improve your circumstances, defend your loved ones, advocate for yourself? Why is an abusive person always mortally terrified of you making the slightest move to help yourself? That seems like the attitude of someone who’s trying very hard to not let you find out how little control they have, doesn’t it? That seems like someone who knows the only reason he keeps winning is because you believe him when he says you shouldn’t try.

Termites in your soul

Unfortunately, even if you can get away from that person (god willin’ and the creek don’t rise…) we’re all growing more perfectionist over time, and this mindset will kill you. I’m not being dramatic. Perfectionism is on the rise worldwide, according to a meta-analysis of cohort studies between 1989 and 2016, the first time perfectionism has been studied across generations. It’s approaching a legitimate public health epidemic, because perfectionism is linked (by another enormous meta-analysis of 284 different studies on the subject) to a host of clinical and psychological issues including anxiety and depression, PTSD, self-harm, eating disorders, hoarding, chronic headaches, insomnia, even suicide and early mortality.

Perfectionism destroys your desire to work, undermines your self-worth and creativity, causes you to sabotage your relationships out of insecurity, eats away at your body and mind until it kills you. It shuts down every hope and inspiration with “that’s not enough.” Nothing is ever enough. Perfectionism is like termites in your soul, chewing away at your foundations in a way that you might not even notice until your footing crumbles away beneath you.

Okay, so it’s bad for me… but it also makes me perform better, right?

Well, no. Sorry.

It might feel like being a perfectionist is required – it’s certainly helped you at work, and you can’t offer a single thought on any subject on the internet without some asshole wants to bitch about how there’s a fringe case your suggestion doesn’t address. Social media lets us filter out blemishes and show a perfect image of ourselves to the world, and slowly we start to hate looking at our real, imperfect face. Our feudal capitalist structure more or less forces a competitive, zero-sum view of the world on its children, one where there is never enough for everyone, and so basic human rights and safety can only be offered to the very deserving. It’s a compliment in some circles, one of those things you say when the interviewer asks, “What’s your biggest weakness?” “Oh, I’m a perfectionist – I work too dang hard! Please, exploit my maladaptive coping mechanism for our mutual monetary gain!”

But it doesn’t actually work. In a study from 2016, our friends Mr. Hill and Curran of the 1989-2016 meta-analysis found that athletes, employees and students alike saw very little or no benefit to their work, skills or progress from perfectionist tendencies and attitudes, and vastly increased their likelihood of burnout. The same study found that perfectionists quit faster because they’re afraid to make mistakes, so they often leave a trail of abandoned enterprises behind them. Perfectionists take longer to complete the tasks they do manage to finish, because they’re wasting time agonizing along the way. You’re working harder, not smarter.

So what can you do?

Perfectionism would have you believe that there are only two percentages that matter: zero percent, where you currently are (and always will be, says that nasty voice in your head), or 100 percent, where you must get in order to accept credit, feel pride, be finished and move on. The baseline for accomplishing anything becomes 100%; that’s your expectation for yourself, and so you project that expectation on the people around you. Anything less than exactly what someone wants (even if they weren’t clear about what exactly that was) feels like a total failure. In order to be acceptable, you have to be flawless.

These aren’t useful percentages. They’re about as informative as a black-and-white view of the world, and about as connected with reality – that is to say, not at all. What do complete, effortless success and utter, crushing failure have in common? You don’t learn anything from either one.

So let’s replace these all-or-nothing percentages with something more useful. Let’s try… 1% and 70%.

Start with 1%

Sometimes, to combat our extreme mental blocks, we have to get a little extreme in response. The perfectionist brain wants to look at this 1% and round it down to zero, and you’re gonna have to fight that impulse with everything you have.

Let’s say you have something very stressful and emotional and difficult to do – say you want to buy a house. That’ll stress anybody out. What are actual, mechanical steps to buying a house?

  1. Find a house you want to buy
  2. Pay for the house
  3. Sign a TON of papers
  4. Move in

Most difficult tasks in life are like this: a series of physical and mental tasks, none of them individually especially challenging. Everything we do, no matter how emotional or stressful, from planning a funeral to breaking up with someone to discussing climate change with the UN, can be broken down into a series of simple mechanical tasks. Usually those tasks are some form of “write some stuff on papers” and “talk to some people about stuff.”

You know how to do those things, that’s not hard. What’s making it hard is you’re saying to yourself, “It’s time to buy a house! So let’s go… buy a house!” You’re asking yourself to go from 0% to 100% in one action. That’s impossible, and you know it. This can become a way that we avoid doing things – we deliberately avoid analyzing the problem or figuring out what kind of help we need, because if we did, we would have to, like… do it.

So start with 1%. If something is overwhelming, start breaking it down into smaller tasks. You’ll know you’ve hit a workable level when you find a task that makes you snort with derision – “That? Of course I can do THAT, that’s a cakewalk.” Great. That’s your 1%.

Your perfectionism is something you’re going to have to defeat over and over in order to accomplish anything. You’ll have to beat it when you begin, and again while you’re doing the thing, and again when it’s over and you want to scrap the whole mess because it’s not flawless. Beating it when you begin is about accepting that 1% is indeed progress. It’s more progress than you were making while you were arguing about how much progress it was, isn’t it? But you thought arguing was a good use of your time. So instead, spend that time doing 1% of what you need to do. The argument will still be there when you’re done; we can have it again if you want.

Beating perfectionism when you finish is about accepting that 1% is indeed an accomplishment. If you get something done and every time you say to yourself, “Well, yeah, you did that, but that was fuck-all, that was nothing compared to all you still have to do”… tell me, is that the kind of sentiment that gets you all fired up to do stuff? Because for me, it’s not. For me, if I want to get something done, I have to be able to reward myself based on reality, what I actually did, not what I should have done or could have done. Your “should” and “could” don’t exist. They’re inventions, made-up stories meant to encourage you to behave, like Santa Claus. Why are you living your life like you’re on the Naughty list from birth when Santa doesn’t even exist?

At 70%, pull the trigger

Now, I don’t want to get caught in the fallacy that most of the world is currently mired in, that being the idea that because someone is a billionaire, he has profound insight that you can and should use to become like him. Most billionaires got that way by failing upward with inherited wealth. If you put them in a basement apartment on minimum wage for a month, they’d show up at Wal-Mart thinking they need an ID to buy groceries. These people, for the most part, do not have any useful tips for success beyond Rule 0: Be born a white man.

But… one thing that all successful people do more than the people below them is make decisions, right? That’s the whole job of the CEO, making decisions. He might not have any expertise, might never have seen the product his company sells, couldn’t tell you how to make it or what’s in it, but if you ask him, he’ll decide what to do and things will move forward.

Jeff Bezos, our Glittering Capitalist Overlord, told his shareholders in 2016: “Most decisions should probably be made with around 70% of the information you wish you had.” Why 70%? “If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re being slow.” Think about it – when you’re doing research, trying to figure out how to solve a problem, at the beginning, there’s a lot of new data. But once you’re closing on 70% sure, you’re not learning any new essential data. You could spend six hours trying to increase your knowledge from 70% to 75%, but you probably won’t stumble upon any new, immensely critical data, and you can’t guarantee your decision will be any better for the extra time spent.

Most people agonize. They have analysis paralysis. They want to nail down every possible piece of information and go into something feeling like they’re 100% prepared. But what will happen if you instead stop when you’re about 70% sure… and just try it? Bezos points out that course-correcting is usually pretty low-cost – most decisions can be reversed or adjusted once you’ve begun. So assume you’re wrong; okay, you jumped the gun a bit and if you’d waited, you might have avoided making the mistake you just made… but you might not. It might have happened anyway.

And what if you’re right? You moved before anyone else. You’re not just right, you’re right and FIRST. That’s how people make the big bucks, by taking a gamble and guessing right when everyone else is too afraid of losing to roll the dice. In order to win, you’ll have to lose, a lot, and not let that scare you into giving up.

Now… debug

If you’re a programmer, and you want to know if your code will work… do you read the code? Is that the most efficient way to find your own mistakes? It’s not, really – if you didn’t see the mistake when you wrote it, you probably won’t when you read it over again. The best way to figure out if your code works is to try it, to run the damn thing and see what breaks.

When we sit in stillness, trying to figure out the perfect course of action, the best step to take for the maximum reward, the one solution that will work forever in all situations… we’re trying to debug the code without ever having run it. It’s a waste of time. We simply don’t have the information required to make a coherent judgment at that point. The experiential data you’ll get from just fucking doing a thing is the stuff Bezos can’t write down and no list of life hacks will tell you, and it’s essential to success. Any decision you make without experience doing the thing you’re deciding on is going to be less than sound, because it’s based on a faulty foundation. It’s full of termites, and they’ll tear down everything you build if you let them convince you to sit there and watch it happen.

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.

A Manual of Happiness

One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.

– Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Content warning: lots of explicit talk about suicide and the mindset that accompanies suicidal ideation.

I bang on about absurdism a lot, but I haven’t really put anything coherent together explaining what I mean and how it underlies everything else I endlessly bang on about. There are a couple of sonnets with some musings as an appetizer, but they occasion more questions than they answer, because, well… I tend to start conversations in the middle, I suppose? With you, and everyone else. I think of this as a conversation we’re having, you and I, from which you can glean that the people who suffer me long-term are very patient creatures who don’t mind being ranted at for fifteen minutes and calling that “a conversation.”

So I was bopping around trying to answer some questions and express myself like a goddamn person this morning, and scanning back through Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” essay because I reread that shit like scripture, and I snagged on the line quoted above. This is why I tend to read and watch and listen to the same things over and over, hundreds of times – I get different insights, notice different elements and interpret differently each time. I never paid much attention to this line before, but today I’ve realized… that’s what I’m trying to do here. That’s what I’ve been trying to make all my life, in bits and pieces and a thousand different media: a manual of happiness.

suicide with a grin

It’s a ridiculous idea on its face. Who can say what happiness is? We never really know what we want, or how to fulfill all our nebulous needs. And the last person to tell you how to be happy should be a traumatized data ghost ambivalently haunting a run-down flesh prison who brings up suicide with a grin in every conversation, like good Christ, is that strictly necessary?

My friends keep this gif handy, and it’s a totally fair way to respond to virtually anything I say, although it’s not a foolproof way to shut me up.

But of course, the more ridiculous the idea, the more I like it. That’s the whole deal. That’s absurdism. I want to do this because it’s a pointless, silly thing to do that I am desperately unqualified for, much like everything any human has ever done, and for that reason it’s beautiful to me.

I’m not sure what form such a thing should take, and obviously me running in here with a new project going, “This is the new best thing ever!” is something that happens semi-regularly, so nodding and smiling is a perfectly reasonable response to my blather at this point. We’ll see how it turns out. Think of this as an introductory essay.

drunk and full of bright ideas

I think perhaps there’s something worthy to be said about happiness from the perspective of someone for whom it’s never been a given. We get a lot of advice about how to live from people claiming to have attained “success” in their process of personal development. It’s good salesmanship, fair enough – they set up a before and after picture with you on the shitty end, and on the other side, their perfect life of whole grains, yoga, four-hour Tantric sex and a schedule full of Oprah-approved activities. The one sure way to get from before to after? Buy their product!

The people who have been the most actual help to me in my life have often been the most damaged. The people who saved my life were the people who were also drunk and full of bright ideas at three in the morning, that’s why they were handy when I did something stupid. The shiny healthy people we’re supposed to emulate… those people are asleep at three in the morning. They’ve got to get up for yoga at five, after all.

Some of the kindest, most insightful, most comforting and inspiring people I’ve known would have said they were desperately unhappy. Sufficient happiness and purpose to keep living just isn’t that tough to achieve for most people – most people whose brains produce the right chemicals, most people who haven’t been kicked in the head by circumstance or other humans. Neurotypical people don’t have to analyze the reasons they’re still alive and come up with something bulletproof that stands up to endless interrogation. They find it weird and pointless when you try.

But if you’ve ever been suicidal, you’ve stared straight at the fact that you could check out at any time. That understanding is a reorientation of your perspective on the world that never truly leaves you. The first time it occurs to you, like all bad ideas, it seems like a sudden panacea, the sword that cuts through all the Gordian knots in your life. Long before it ever occurred to me, I lived with a man who’d attempted suicide twice before I met him, and tried another three times during the years we were together. He told me once that the days after he decided to kill himself and made a plan for it were the happiest days he’d had in years. All his fear and regret fell away, nothing mattered, the world felt bright and real and precious. He concluded from this that suicide was a good idea. This was, let me at this point emphasize, where he was very wrong.

a sense of existential freedom

What my undead friend was experiencing but misattributing is a sense of existential freedom. He confronted the fact that continuing to live was a choice, that all his misery and all the pains of his life were in his power to simply reject. He chose to reject life, and thought the sense of freedom and peace he then felt came from the rejection. But ending our suffering by checking out of it isn’t control, is it? It’s surrender. It’s letting the meaninglessness of the universe make him meaningless. It’s admitting that he thinks his life is worthless unless something external grants him value.

So to truly control his life, to maintain that state of happiness, of existential freedom that he felt having made a choice to end his life… how could he have done that? If it wasn’t the rejection of suffering that made him feel stronger than his burdens, at peace with his failures… what was it?

It was making the choice. Choosing consciously to live gives us the same control as choosing consciously to die: ownership of our fate. It’s not about what choice we make… the choice is the thing. The fact that we have the choice, and know it, and make it consciously, gives our lives all the meaning they will ever have.

only we can choose to die, rather than be killed
only we can choose to live, rather than be alive

An illustration: animals don’t, for the most part, commit suicide as a way to end their suffering. (The lemming thing is a myth.) There are parasites that can induce self-destructive behavior, and many animals will give their lives for their young or group in an altruistic way, but these aren’t suicide the way humans refer to it. The animals who have been seen to behave self-destructively in response to emotional pain have largely been animals with deep bonds to humans – animals we’ve trained in conscious emotional behavior.

What I’m saying is: choosing to continue living is a privilege only conscious beings have. Only we can choose to die, rather than be killed. Only we can choose to live, rather than be alive.

You can’t control the misfortune you encounter, but if you act like you can’t control it, you will live the life of a victim and a martyr. You will spend all your days mourning the control you don’t have and the life you could have led if only the world didn’t insist on fucking you so hard, so specifically, so personally. The only possible agency you can get in your life is by reacting to things as if you can positively affect the outcome, by pretending that your actions are meaningful and your perspective has value. You have to live like you have free will, because if you don’t, nothing matters anyway.

lunge at your life like a rabid wolf

Happiness is a matter of choice. Not choosing to be happy, but choosing to be here. Choosing to keep choosing. Choosing to commit all your attention to the experience you’re having and act with the agency you have, rather than raging at how little you can control and what you wish was happening instead. Regardless of what’s going on, y’know, try to act like you want to be here on earth, instead of acting like a four-year-old somebody dragged along to a boring cocktail party.

I know it sounds like what I’m saying is a complicated retread of “accept your fate, be happy with what you have and you will find peace, grasshopper,” but that’s not it. I don’t want you to accept your fate. Do not go gently into that good night! I want you to fucking rage at the dying of the light, and laugh at it, and give it the finger while you light more fires. I want you to realize that the only joy you’ll ever tear from life is going to come when you lunge at your life like a rabid wolf, okay?

Every time some new bullshit knocks on your door, another bill in the mail, another breakup, another war, another random accident, I want you to grin like a fucking pirate with a knife in his teeth and start looking for opportunities to express yourself in this situation, to respond how the passionate, defiant creature inside you wants to respond. You think it’s impossible to feel like a badass existential warrior when paying bills? I call that cowardice, my child. That’s you saying that in order to be strong, in order to be brave, in order for you to be worthy of your own admiration, you need big, easy, cartoon villains to fight, shiny rewards to win, unequivocal victories to brag about.

That’s you forgetting that being alive to pay those bills is a choice you made, and you’re making it again right now, every second you don’t jam a pencil into your jugular. You picked those bills, you decided that they were better than an eternity of utter nothingness. You chose to be here… and then you chose to drag ass through life like it’s a consolation prize.

Choose again.

Life’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book. What if somebody caught you reading a book like that and said, “Hey, why do you care about that? What’s the point? All the endings are written down anyway, why go through all the rigamarole when it doesn’t really matter what you choose?”

You’d be bewildered. Somebody who’d say that fundamentally doesn’t understand the fun of a game, of any activity where we have a modicum of agency and a lot of inflexible structure. Of course the ending is predetermined, nobody cares about that – the fun part is participating, getting to flex the little power we have within the confines of the system, to see what we can do. The fact that you get to decide anything is the whole point, the only point. It’s all you can do, so if you’re going to read the book at all, it’s the most important thing you can do. If you’re not doing it consciously, you’re not enjoying the book, and it’s because you decided not to participate.

In this book, you can’t go back and read the other endings you passed up. All you can do is choose. So choose. And choose again. And again. Pay lots of attention to how the world is, not how you want it to be, not what you hope or you fear. Then, with the little control you have… make the story more interesting any way you can. Look hard at the world, believe that you can change it, laugh at the despair in you that tells you how stupid that is, and start trying stuff. Make a decision, see what happens, and recalibrate. Stop trying to debug your code without ever running it.

the choice is the thing

By being here and putting up with the bullshit, you assert tacitly that being here is worth it, that being you has meaning.

When you become conscious, when you think about your existence, you declare: “I’m here!”

The universe responds, as it always does and always will: “No one cares.”

Next time the universe tells you this, like the next time you turn on the TV, repeat after me:

“I care. And I can care because I exist. I think, therefore I am. The more shit you throw at me… the more I think, the more I care, the more chances I get to try new things, change and grow, discover stuff I don’t know and see things I haven’t seen. I choose to be here, which makes being here important, because it was my choice. I care, and that’s enough.”

99 – Lost and Found

This project has been therapeutic for me in a couple of ways – certainly if you’ve been following along at all you’ll notice me dumping my brainweasels all over everywhere, so it’s cathartic if nothing else. The more I do, and the more I force myself to see that I do, the more I acquire a sense of… myself.

That feels very banal when I say it out loud. It’s something most people take for granted, I would imagine. A couple of years ago, I was joking with a friend and mentioned offhandedly that I had never recognized my own face in a mirror. “I mean, yeah, I know that person in the mirror, it’s the same person who’s always there when I look in the mirror, but it’s not me; it looks nothing like me.” My friend found this startling and concerning enough to comment on it. This was when I learned, at 29 years old, that other people generally do recognize their own faces.

I didn’t get much of an opportunity to develop an identity. I was born to be the proxy of someone else’s ego. This isn’t hyperbole or speculation on my part; my mother told me this explicitly: “I had you so that I would have a friend who could never leave me.” Since the second I was born, I existed to reflect and flatter a more powerful personality. There was only one scale of value: more or less like her. More = good, less = bad. More = love, less = pain.

That’s part of the reason I haven’t spoken to her in a while. Because my sense of self is very new and fragile. I have to build it now, as an adult, with my therapist’s and my wife’s help, because the person who should have helped me build it thirty years ago spent that time stomping it down to build herself up. I don’t want to cut her off, but I need a little time and space to build something that doesn’t have her fingerprints on it anywhere. My in-progress tattoo feels good for that reason – another way of reclaiming what belongs to me. It’s so easy for me to slip back into old patterns when I talk to her.

I know she often thinks that I hate her, but the fact is, it would be far easier if I did. I love my mother, even the worst parts of her, even the parts that hate me. When I talk to her all I want in the world is to be in her arms, to ask her for approval, forgiveness, comfort. There’s so much of me that would happily step right back into that prison, laugh along with all the abuse, just to be part of the family, just to belong to her. I think most of us feel that way. Hatred would be cleaner than this.

I don’t hate her. I hate myself for loving her and for not being good enough to ever get her love in return. That’s the monster she made of me.

Very young, I write my name on the sole
of my doll’s foot, so people know she’s mine.
I know it causes her pain all the time;
I know what it feels like to be controlled.

I feel your fingerprints still on my skin
I perch outside my cage all day
waiting for you to come put me away
waiting for another chance to let you win

I want to wrap myself in other words
I want to shed my skin and luminesce
for every tatter in this mortal dress
every destination half-remembered.
Each day your signature shows a bit less
Each day I feel a little less encumbered.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

98 – The Lying Machine

This started out as advice my therapist gave me, when I complained about being unable to trust myself. It’s difficult to make good decisions when I’m very aware of how profoundly trauma has shaped my worldview and the way I interpret what happens to me. If I can’t get good data about what’s going on and what people are doing, how can I trust my reactions or know what to do?

She reminded me again – you are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. You are a being inhabited by both of those things. And here’s the deal: your feelings, your sensory experience and the bodily reactions you have to that, and what that feels like… none of that can lie to you. It simply can’t. Its only function is to tell you what it feels.

But your brain’s whole job is to take sensory input, interpret it, and make decisions based on its interpretations. Your brain can and almost constantly does lie to you. Your brain can lie to you about where your pain is coming from or how to solve it. Your brain can lie to you about what you’re seeing, hearing, or doing. If you’ve got a good imagination, or if you’ve had a lot of trauma that resulted in your brain becoming… talented… in some very specific ways, your brain is very, very good at lying to you. Sometimes it’s so good at it that it can create an entire world that doesn’t exist for you to live in.

If you’re anything like me, it can feel by the time you’re grown up that you’re living inside a Lying Machine. Even if, like me, you got a little paranoid about lying after spending a childhood doing it in self-defense, and swore off it entirely… it still feels like you’re lying every single second. It still takes armor to go out, to talk to people; it’s still a different mask with everyone, a different shape to fit against everyone, none of it quite… right. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s what everyone does, it’s just that… being aware of it makes it a little harder to do naturally. It’s not muscle memory for me to act like a person. I have to do it manually, step by step, memorized out of the book.

So how is it ever possible to know what’s going on when your organizing organ, the one that’s supposed to figure out what’s going on, is a pathological liar? You have to let go of the thoughts, turn off the Lying Machine. It’s not required to live, and you can turn it off with a little focus. Focus all of your attention on that incoming sensory data, the stuff your brain is trying to interpret. Stop slapping words on it, stop trying to categorize and label it, stop all of that. No, stoppit. Just… observe. Just pinpoint the thing, see and hear it very well. If you’re crying, if you’re angry, if you’re afraid, if you’re stressed, go inside your body and find where that feeling is right now. Is it knotting behind your sternum? Is it tension in your shoulders? Is it pressure in your throat, like you want to speak or shout?

I’m not asking you to fix any of these things, or relax them, or anything. Just look at them. Note every single thing about them. Where, how, how much. Hot, cold, hard, soft, loud, subtle? What happens inside the Machine when everything is still? Pay attention. Don’t miss a thing. If you have time to form words about any of it, you’re missing something. Keep listening. Keep feeling.

Your body can’t lie to you. Your brain will take huge floods of incoming data and build conspiracy theories off it. So when the data starts flooding in, when you’re overwhelmed for whatever reason, just turn off the Lying Machine and monitor the incoming data. Bathe in it, like a wave. The Machine would tell you that you can make it stop, that you can in some way affect how chaotic everything is inside you and outside you, but you can’t. What’s happening is happening, and until it slows down, there’s no point in scrambling to organize it. Don’t try to control what you can’t control. Be here, right now. Don’t miss it or drown in it because you’re busy wishing it was something else.

“Damballah Wedo,” October 2006

Listen to your guts – they can’t lie to you.
Your brain, now, can’t do anything but lie
and try to persuade other brains to buy
and no matter what you say… they do.

No one claims to know the truth anymore.
The truth can only tie you to the ground;
why choose one world when there’s more to be found?
We burnt the boats the moment we hit shore.

But dearest, here’s the thing about running:
there’s oh so much you have to leave behind.
The wind can get to howlin’ in your mind
when you fix your eyes on your becoming.
Make a promise, get yourself in a bind –
make sure when Death comes, he’s taking something.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

94 – Understudy

I guess I’m just self-flagellating this weekend. Yesterday four hours in a tattoo chair, today re-reading sites about narcissistic parents. I don’t keep going back to this stuff because I’m learning something new about narcissism – I’ve got a grasp on the pathology and it’s not complicated – but because reading other people’s stories of how their family treated them helps me learn what abuse looks like. It helps me understand what kind of behavior is abnormal, what I’m allowed to be mad about.

I have no idea what a normal family looks like. I’m sure I’ve known a few, but I’ve always found normal people intimidating and tended to avoid them. I guess I felt like I’d infect them with whatever rot was eating at the heart of my house. My parents told me that it was me, that I was the problem, and for most of my life I believed that completely. I believed it so deeply that when I wrote a letter to my favorite advice columnist about a year ago, complaining that my parents wouldn’t stop asking me if they were good parents, what I wanted to know was how to make the question go away. I wasn’t able to mount an argument that they were bad parents, but I couldn’t in good conscience claim they were good. Captain Awkward answered my question directly, and her commenters said what she didn’t: that the behavior I described didn’t match up with the praise I heaped on my parents. They asked me if I was even capable of feeling anger toward my mother. I realized for the first time that I wasn’t.

That realization got me into therapy, and in the last year of that, I’ve become aware of how profoundly warped my view of the world has always been. I haven’t talked to the fam in a bit, for reasons I’m sure that I’ll go into here at some point, but if they asked me that question now, I could answer it. They weren’t good parents, no. That’s it, full stop. They tried, and they genuinely loved me – sometimes – but they were not good parents.

They were alcoholics. It got violent sometimes. It got loud and aggressive a lot. My mom took me out with her to buy more booze at ten or eleven all the time, and I trusted her when she told me that she was fine to drive after killing two bottles of wine since five o’clock. Her undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder made life at home a tap dance in a minefield. There was no way to predict what I might say or do to make her change, but she could turn from cheery sweetness to red-faced, screaming rage and back again in a split second. She would lay down rules and later shame and punish me for following them, claiming she never said such a thing. She never remembered what she did when she lost her temper, and she could lose her temper any minute. What she heard seemed to bear no relation at all to what came out of my mouth. She projected so much hatefulness, so much malice and deception and sadism onto me that I didn’t exist at all. I simply filled out the clothes of whatever scapegoat she needed next.

We used to go to Blockbuster a lot – yes, I know I’m on the verge of old – and there was this shitty horror movie on their shelves called “The Stepdaughter.” The cover featured a blonde in a bloody schoolgirl outfit, holding a bloody knife. My stepdad – and my mother filling in when he wasn’t available – always made sure to point at the movie and say, “Is that you? You gonna come in and kill me in my sleep someday, huh? Whaaat, it’s a joke, lighten up, Frances.”

I never knew what to say to that. After a year of therapy, I can say conclusively that no, it’s not so very funny if you think your twelve-year-old wants to kill you in your sleep. Why do you think that? If your child genuinely wanted to kill you, why might that be? Because, you see, the only way this joke is funny is if we all know that it’s a little bit true, right? It wouldn’t be a hilarious joke if we didn’t all understand that at a baseline level, we do not trust each other, we fear for our safety in our own beds, and that, around here, is called love. This is not a family. This is a war.

And just think, beloved and brilliant daughter, light of my life, just speculate, dear stepdaughter: what if we should come to truly believe you want us dead? What if it was more than just a little bit true? What might we do, if this is war? What might happen to you?

“Climb,” November 2019

They painted a killer over my face.
They showed me that they thought of this as war.
I learned to be what they’d taken me for,
learned to play all their villains’ parts with grace.

They never tell you the name of the play.
Watch carefully and you’ll know what to do;
you’ll work out who you are from context clues.
No matter if you’re right or wrong they’ll say:

“In this family, we laugh when people weep.
We quote the bullies’ best lines back to you
just because we’re sick of children today –
and how can you be drowning, it’s not that deep!
You just want us to feel sorry for you
so someday you can kill us in our sleep.”

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

92 – The Last One

Poetry inspired by poetry. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge bitchard (gender-neutral form of “bitch/bastard,” tell your friends) about poetry. I’m only willing to admit to liking a poet if I’ve been blown away by literally everything I’ve read of theirs. 100% quality or nothin’. It’s not about mechanical aptitude; it’s not about format. Mostly it’s about the poet’s heart. I recognize a heart like mine when I see one, by how it’s constantly bleeding all over everything.

One of the three poets who have managed to pass muster by this completely bullshit standard, Rainer Maria Rilke, was a German Romantic, better known for his passionate letters to his loved ones than his poetry in this country. The first poem of his I ever read is still my favorite, and I’m going to reproduce it here, because it’s short and great and he’s very dead now, and because it inspired the sonnet today:

“I In Flames,” May 2008
 Come thou, thou last one, whom I recognize,
unbearable pain throughout this body's fabric:
as I in my spirit burned, see, I now burn in thee:
the wood that long resisted the advancing flames
which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing
and burn in thee.

My gentle and mild being through they ruthless fury
has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.
Quite pure, quite free of future planning, I mounted
the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering,
so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs,
while in my heart the stored reserves kept silent.

Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?
Memories I do not seize and bring inside.
O life! O living! O to be outside!
And I in flames. And no one here who knows me.

It’s the last poem Rilke ever wrote, the last entry in his notebook two weeks before his death of leukemia at age 51. I love his personalization of Death as a friend, someone kindly who comes to pull him away from the suffering of his body. Rilke believed that we grow our deaths inside us from the moment we’re born. I find that idea elegant.

There’s something morbidly lovely about the idea of nurturing and building our particular Death within us all our lives, our one duty in life to bring this being into the world – Death is an infant born the second we die. It takes every second of our lives to create her, every pain and every joy, every scar and sorrow and mistake. That’s why she has such kind eyes – because she knows that all of your mistakes make her wiser, more tender, more understanding. All of your life is part of her, indispensable, even the bad parts, do you see? If you let her, she heals your wounds with her hands, as if every touch laid skin grafts over your raw and aching soul. She’s the only person in the universe who loves you more when you fail.

There are a lot of voices in my head,
and then there’s someone else who never speaks.
She smiles a lot, and dresses like a priest.
The others say that she’ll talk when I’m dead.

I’ve found she’s more softhearted than you’d think –
cries whenever we go to the movies,
always the begger
never that choosey
but when I mention suicide, she winks

and shakes her head. Refuses to be rushed.
I’ve tried to make her speak a thousand ways –
She has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen,
and when the hammer falls she’s never crushed,
but she won’t take command of this machine,
just hangs around, awaiting the end of days.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

84 – Parthenogenesis

One of the things you hear a lot in support communities for the children of narcissists is, “Don’t go to the hardware store for milk.” It refers to the tempting tendency to continue trying to get what you deserved and needed as a child – love, support, approval, guidance – from a person, usually a parent, who has already shown themselves to be incapable of giving you that thing. You keep going to the hardware store for milk, and you know they don’t have any, never did and never will. That sucks, it’s not fair and it’s not your fault, but the third or fourth – or hundredth – time you go in there asking for milk, it starts to look like self-flagellation. Your hope is killing you.

If you didn’t get a lot of that kind of familial support as a kid, you’ll probably go looking for it in everyone you meet. If you were raised by a narcissist, or an addicted parent who required you to parent them, you were taught to be someone’s emotional crutch. You were taught that someone who needs you to manage their emotions for them constantly is… someone who loves you. You were taught that when you manage other people’s emotions for them, when you determine your value by how much you please others, that’s you showing love.

It hurts to realize that your parents are never going to turn into the parents you needed them to be. It hurts even more to realize that hoping they will is still you judging yourself by their standards. It’s still you conceding that your life needs their stamp of approval. And when you give that up, it feels like being set adrift, shorn of your identity. It feels like all you had was that battered heart they left you with. If not there, where will you live?

Creating an identity, for me, has been a process that works from the edges in, something I perceive mostly as negative space. I imagine a person-shaped void, a starfield with arms and legs, and I imagine that person doing the things I do. Then I try to describe, as objectively as I can, what that person is doing and what I would conclude about that person from their actions. This helps me somewhat sidestep my tendency to judge myself differently from how I judge others.

This person-shaped void has become very important to me. I realized that there is only one person to whom I can safely say things like, “I need you to never leave me. I need you to love me completely, to the exclusion of all other things.” Though those are feelings we deserve and need to have at some point in our lives – ideally when we’re growing – they’re not sentiments that can be safely addressed by an adult to another adult. No other person can or should be the source of all your joy, or self-worth, or drive. So if you need to be loved like that, but no adult can responsibly promise you that they will forever… can you make that promise to yourself?

I was unable to come up with a reason why I couldn’t, so I did. I’ve promised plenty of young guys and girls that I’d love them forever, never leave them, sacrifice all for them. Why should that promise be any harder or less important to make to myself, when I’m the only one in the world who literally can’t leave me?

I can’t leave me, but I can ignore and punish myself. I can fail to love myself. I can fail to sacrifice my momentary comfort and security for the long-term good of the person I’m supposed to take care of. That’s neglect when a parent does it to their child… so it’s neglect when I do it to myself.

Imagining myself as this other person, this star-filled void, makes it a little easier. I imagine vague, bright arms around my shoulders, warmth against my body. I feel the deep love and commitment I make to others and try to imagine this void, myself, feeling that way about me. I know exactly what it should feel like, right? I know I’m capable of it. So to imagine it, in this context, is to create it.

We talk about self-worth, love, belief in ourselves, like those things are rare treasures buried underground somewhere, that we could find if we were only brave, diligent, strong enough. It’s not like that. You have love, belief, esteem. You know you do. You apply them to others all the time. All you have to do is try to apply them to yourself. No matter how stupid it feels.

Turn up your favorite love song, and imagine your own face as hard as you can. Imagine singing that song to yourself, the passionate feelings you’d have if you sang it to another person, but with your actions, your life, YOU in mind. This is easy to do when you’re alone – put on headphones and let yourself mouth the words, let yourself cry if you feel like crying. It’s good for you. Do this over and over until it no longer makes you cry, no longer makes you feel silly. Then pick another song, another tender ballad or sweet jam about someone with your hair color, and do it again.

This is one of the ones I used to sing to other people… now I sing it to myself. Try it on, I dare you. If it doesn’t matter, if it’s a silly thing to do, then do the silly thing for four minutes. Won’t matter anyway, right?

I found a negative space to love me,
the space between what was and should have been.
Over the years I’ve colored that space in
with starfields I’ve never seen above me.

In its way, it’s no more illusory
than any constellation I could try
to pin my hopes on, plot my progress by –
who drew the lines between the stars but me?

I feel my own fingers inside my head;
I feel myself pressed up against my back.
I swoon and let me take myself to bed,
each kiss and touch returning what I lack.
Who else can promise, even when I’m dead
to wrap my arms around us in the black?

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

82 – No Reason

Okay, I’m going to quote from The Fountainhead here, but please don’t get up and leave just yet – I used to be an Objectivist, I’m not anymore, and I’m happy to get into it with you about how poorly most people (including Ayn Rand herself) execute on her philosophy, but none of that is really what I want to talk about today. So the rest of this has the following content warnings: extensive discussion of both suicide and an Ayn Rand book.

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79 – Naked

I gotta get back at the Shadowplay rewrite, if only because the world is always and perpetually lacking for decent queer love stories and erotica, and Keshena is a person who, ahem… gets around. She has some of the same issues relating to women that I do, obviously, as she’s the poor puppet I invented to try out all my neuroses on. This one is from her perspective, but it has some of my own wistfulness in it.

Sometimes – especially if you are, like most of our congregants, a little fucked-up – and please, join the cult, take a taco – sometimes, you feel like the kindest thing you can do is spare someone the burden of knowing you. Sometimes you meet someone so arresting that all you can think is, “If I touch that, I’m gonna ruin it.” When you encounter someone from outside your little bubble of trauma and toxic people and mental illness, someone who doesn’t live in that world, you feel like a filthy animal on someone’s white carpet, terrified to move in case you destroy everything you touch.

I stayed away from women for a long time because I felt like that. It seemed like my love did people harm. An old friend who didn’t make it out of the Well once aimed a finger and a Texan laugh at me and said, “You got a head fulla bad machinery, darlin’.” And I do. This old thing don’t work right, and it will definitely leave oil stains on your sheets.

The fact is, it can be shocking to see a wound. Most people don’t like to without a little bit of warning. But it doesn’t harm them to see it, and it isn’t a sin to share your pain with someone, so long as they consent. In the words of Spider Robinson, trouble shared is trouble halved. When I am brave enough to stay, to be honest, to be naked… generally people aren’t as scared of what they see as I thought they’d be. Generally they’re a lot less scared of what I have hidden than I am.

Eyes on the ground, my creaking back is bent
from rolling stones down the hill behind me,
burning memories so they can’t find me.
But somehow, I sense this dream is different.

The ground is sticky for creatures like me.
This craft can only get airborne one time.
Just take your moment when our wings align,
and slip into the next cheap memory.

What if we were to stay this time instead?
What if we made a promise that we kept?
What if when the lady wakes up in bed
she isn’t alone with the tears she wept –
not just another notch above our head
not to retreat when we’re out of our depth?

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets