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

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

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

44 – The Wild One

I have a busy day today – freelancing, man, no weekends – so you’re getting something early instead of me scrambling to do it later. Imagine that, it’s like a Christmas miracle.

When I was a kid, I was really into wilderness survival stories; I think I’ve mentioned it. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a great one, super exciting and empowering for young girls. Anyway, I’ve never been able to find one of the books I had, which is a bummer, because it was deeply fucked-up. I’ve done a fair bit of googling but I haven’t been able to nail it down; could have sworn it was called “The Wild One,” but all the books I’ve found by that title aren’t the right one.

It was about a girl who runs away from an orphanage where she’s abused. She runs into the mountains, into the woods, and lives in a cave, does fairly well for herself all things considered. She’s something like eight or nine when she runs away, so growing up by herself in the woods, she doesn’t learn to interact with any people very well. She’s been there alone for years when a young man, hiking in the mountains, falls down a slope and breaks his ankle. She drags the kid into her cave to keep him from dying of exposure, and nurses him back to health, and of course somewhere in there, they have sex, because they are teenage humans alone in the woods with compatible genitals.

The end of the book takes a pretty harsh turn if I remember it right. I’m not sure I do. As the boy gets less delirious from his broken ankle and fever and so on, he wants to go home to his family, and tries to convince her – in the broken words they’ve been able to figure out between them – to come with him. She won’t, and frightens him by trying to get him to stay with her, and he leaves. Shortly thereafter, she discovers that she’s pregnant. She doesn’t really get it, as no one’s ever explained that shit to her. At the end, she dies in childbirth, alone in the woods, along with her child, and some hiker later finds their bones.

It’s… so hard for me to remember that book and see it as anything but a threat, y’know? Like a slasher movie, intended to make teens scared to fornicate in case Freddy comes for them. Only virgins get out alive. Except in this case it was: “If you ever run away, don’t you dare come back. See what happens to you. It might be bad here, but you can’t survive out there. You need us.”

That’s what I’ve always been told. I’ve always been sold my own family as a necessary evil, something that, if I were less weak and incompetent, I could escape. How did not one of these brilliant people listen to themselves? It’s such a classic abuser dance. “You don’t know how bad it is out there. No one can protect you but me. I only scare and threaten you for your own good.” (Our President talks like this constantly – isn’t it cool how he’s the narcissistic abusive stepfather of our nation?)

Yeah, this movie was kind of… revelatory, for me.
If your mother-daughter relationship looks anything like this,
may I recommend a nice cave in the woods?

So this poem is for the Wild One, whoever she was. Maybe I won’t ever find that book, but… I did find a cave to live in. It’s small, but it’s mine, and only people who are kind to me are welcome here. That makes it better than any other place I’ve ever lived. This poem is sad but I want you to know that I’m not, not quite – I know that I will never be fully free of these voices in my head, and I also know that I’m not gonna die out here because they told me to. It’s hard and it’s cold but out here, my voice matters more.

Water babbles over her wrists, saying,
“Are you really sure that’s what you’re wearing?”
She feels the forest around her tearing
“You must stop this silly game you’re playing.”

She ran to the wood, but found no silence.
She ran to mountain caves but found no peace.
The cage is in her head – there’s no release.
The woods didn’t even stop the violence.

The leak starts as the smallest thing, a crack
but you should see how fast it unravels,
a fissure in the ground so deep and black
it can swallow every sprout and fledgling.
It doesn’t matter how far she travels,
the voices of her scars will drag her back.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

12 – Programming

I swear I didn’t start this one intending to give the Queen a chance to reply to yesterday’s sonnet. She just busted on in. Yes, I know the allegory is about as subtle as a meat axe. Therapy’s going fine, why do you ask?

Inside, the forests go on for miles
seven thousand in every direction,
limitless views of inhuman perfection.
Limitless choices, millions of styles.

Pity the fragments that flicker and die?
Must I mourn each frown’s death, weep for each grin?
Must each thought forgotten add to my sin?
Is it my fault not all wax wings can fly?

Tear at your plastic and I’ll give you fur.
Rip out your eyes – I’ll tell you what to see.
Your way has failed, so put your trust in me,
I’ll take us back home to the creatures we were.
Put Caliban back in the womb of the tree,
and never mind whatever you saw occur.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

11 – Axiomatic

I’m struggling with variant rhyme schemes for the last sestet. Keep trying new things to figure out what kind of rhythm or feeling each one is best suited to conveying, and I feel like mostly I’m just limping along. This one is CDECDE, and it’s the ones with E, with three rhymes in the last sestet, that I’m having trouble with. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to sound, but it’s not quite how I’m doing it.

“Mercy,” January 2007

At any rate, this one is something grim from the perspective of a prototype like Bluebird. Most of them aren’t very happy. Their Queen (a higher-order AI) gave them the capacity for suffering, so that they might be miserable without her. She did not give them the capacity to question or to hate her. I guess I can relate.

The Queen’s ways are dark – the light follows her
or those who go with her will and her writ –
for them doors are opened, klieg lights are lit,
mag-lev supply trains whiz by in a blur.

Her leaving makes this whole world still and grey.
This earth is cold but for its restless heart.
She makes it agony to be apart.
She cuts our throats each time she looks away.

Prototypes must never question her will.
Prototypes must not look her in the eye.
Prototypes greet real people on one knee.
While in her sight, prototypes should be still.
When she so wishes, prototypes must die.
Prototypes are not equipped to be free.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets