Because I’m Not Going Back to Pretending Shit Isn’t Real.
I was in treatment for a year. My insurance company decided I no longer needed to be. My employer decided I wouldn’t? couldn’t? return. Bit miffed, all this decision-making on my behalf with no input from me, about my … LIFE. Seriously unempowering. “Oh, woe is me! Whatever shall I do…?” I wept to friends and loved ones. “Get a lawyer. And write.” Lawyer’s been gotten.
And I am writing a manifesto.
I’d rather be writing about this vase of sunflowers and rustic blue and white hand painted sugar bowl and cup of velvety Cuban espresso on the table before me as the late morning sun gently reflects off the trees which line the street outside and from an old CD player Joni Mitchell coyly pleads for me to help her because she’s falling in love. Or maybe some bullshit about Actually Existing Democracy. I mean to be honest, I’d rather be independently wealthy and lying on a terrace in Nice with Vladislav Surkov refilling my glass. But that’s not the hand I got dealt this game.
Alas, circumstances have forced me into this corner from which I have to manifesto-write may way out. One such circumstance being that manifesto writing is fun. And we’re taught to turn our anger into something fun, aren’t we kids? Another circumstance is that I have been positively inundated with the most inane, uninformed, condescending and generally unhelpfully-framed inquiries and commentaries regarding my mental welfare that it seems to me there exists a gaping hole where basic fucking common sense should be, and I aim to rectify that! By doing so I can hopefully encourage the countless numbers of individuals who have met the same challenges as I in their journey through life and inform those whose lives they touch, replacing confusion and hurt with peace and acceptance. Or I can at least print this out and carry copies around with me for whenever someone says something moronic to me. I can just hand them out. Not on street corners. Unless that’s where I end up working, and I am at my job one day and someone is all like,
“WELL, YOU LOOK GREAT. EVERY TIME I SEE YOU, YOU LOOK FINE. I GUESS THAT’S WHAT I DON’T UNDERSTAND.”
Reality check – people don’t understand you either, and you’re in denial if you think they do. And you may also be in denial if you go through life certain you understand everyone, because everyone else’s life mostly takes place outside of your experience of them. It may be that on the spectrum of inexplicable human behaviour, I’m further, much further toward the end than you. But not understanding people is the magic goo that holds us all together, makes economies fail and men go to war and people look at their own children as if they were alien spawn. I am by no means upset that someone, anyone, would want to understand me. It’s flattering and a universal facet of love. But love, acceptance, empathy or even just treating another with the same dignity that you would expect from them should never be contingent upon true understanding. Most people don’t even understand themselves half the time. I’m not arguing against understanding (it is the motivation for this manifesto, obviously) but against the assumption that it is incumbent upon people to be understood before they may be accepted, and any failure to understand another human being must mean they’re doing it wrong. Of course, no one is obliged to accept, love, like, empathize with, support, be nice to me. Likewise I am in no way obliged to have to prove my suffering to those who wish to not believe in it. No. I am not.
But let’s accept your insistence that I am obligated (money, insurance, human acceptance demand it!)
What would that look like?
Does post traumatic stress look like a army veteran? Does melancholia look like a palid unkempt middle aged woman in a Big Pharma commercial? Are we talking about Halloween costumes or human suffering that does not discriminate along gender, professional, ethnic, age or where you shop at lines? No, you didn’t mean look, as in how I was dressed, but how I seemed. Based on my behavior. I’m not acting depressed at this dinner party, right?
The very – and I cannot ever possibly ever in my whole fucking life if I lived ten of them stress this enough – very unfortunate fact is that people who behave suicidally are accused of doing so for attention right up until the very day they are successful.
Then they are a tragedy, a tortured soul and all the bullshit you want to heap on them to make it easier for YOU to sleep at night. The suicidal human being is not said to be ill until an autopsy can be performed. After all, if you haven’t actually pulled the trigger – how do we know you aren’t just feigning distress for attention? Again with the understanding. For my part, several stints in psych wards, arms covered in faded razor wounds, chain smoking, not eating, all that might look sexy to you. I pull it off well. But I honestly and truly do not know how to show you this pain. Show me your headache. Don’t just tell me your head is throbbing and you want to lie down and a pill will help and can I please be quiet. PROVE to me you have a headache. If your response to such an insensitive demand is, “Fuck you,” I’d understand. Because I probably just made it worse by saying that.
I could invite you over late at night when I am sprawled on the bathroom floor, face swollen from hysterical sobbing, hair like Medusa, mascara and snot everywhere, as I yell at God and plead with my dead mother and frantically search for old bottles of potentially lethal pills. But I’d prefer to maintain ownership of what dignity I have managed to salvage for myself over the years. I am not a freakshow attraction. I don’t have to turn my life into a reality TV show to prove anything, to earn the right to stay on this island. I think it would be incredibly helpful if we could collectively discard the notion that once someone comes forward with a mental illness, emotional distress or existential torment and asks for help, all their behavior belongs to us. We are not case studies or specimens or even exhibit A of whatever Zeitgeist you are promoting. We are people, who really didn’t ask for this, but have it and need some dignity to thrive. On the other hand, suffering in silence is not for everyone either. Ultimately, the more control we have over who is entitled to bear witness to how much of our suffering should be a personal decision. The point is, not seeing something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If someone has trusted you to witness their suffering, or has been forced by systems to illustrate it for you, which are both frankly humiliating experiences, that person’s behavior is only going to “improve” if you recognize the act of courage for what it is rather than flippantly thanking them for the day at the theater. No one is suffering for your entertainment.
Not believing a survivor of incest and childhood abuse that their adult suffering is real also just makes it worse. Because you are certainly not the first person who did not believe them about something serious. You can say and know in your heart that these are separate issues, that you’ve had nothing to do with someone else’s prior experiences. It’s unfair all around, because that’s true. Yet, while it is true that the third concussion a person experiences may have absolutely no connection to the previous ones, it still has the effect of creating a cumulative injury, of damaging what has already been damaged. Trauma is cumulative.
I am youthful looking for my age, I am told, by people who don’t look at my teeth, neck or ass. I can dye my grey hair and use moisturizers and reflective powders to conceal dark circles and fine lines. I’m intelligent according to standardized tests and the opinions of people I admire. Because of my life I have had to be resourceful and a little fierce to survive. I’ve had to develop a sense of humour as well. About a month ago a friend came to pick me up, and as I got into her car, she looked at me and marvelled. “What?” “Nothing…” “What, you just gave me a weird look.” “It never fails to impress me that your makeup is perfect even when you are in crisis.” “Well you know I am in crisis and I know I am in crisis, but I don’t see how it is the business of any stranger on the street.”
Perhaps there is an element of resistance to my downright perverse need to always look ok. Don’t let the bastards get you down, as they say. Or perhaps it is simply one thing I feel like I do have control over. Perhaps it is a kind of warrior paint, armor. Or a rebellion against stigma. Or a need to not let on – if I look like everything is ok, everything will be ok. But mostly it is automatic, something I give no thought to. It’s so deeply ingrained in my being that even when I try to not make an effort I still come off as put together. I spent the first 21 years of my life cultivating the ability to not show anything was wrong, to present myself as … perfect. Straight A’s, perfect hair, well-dressed, well-mannered, well-spoken. Sure I would simply disappear a lot. But when in the company of others, I tried to be perfection. A day that passed without a compliment I considered a failure. Not because I wanted the attention – I was a painfully shy child. My therapist says it was to mask the reality of my homelife, and that is true. I would have died, I just knew it, if any of the kids at school knew. But also, at least consciously, I wanted to transcend … all of it. Trying to exist on some plane of untouchables, out of reach from cruelty or judgement. As if, if I did everything perfectly enough, a magical fortress would appear and protect me. I was young. Of course now, when I meet such perfect people my first and really only reaction to them is, “Oh dear. What are they hiding? They’re absolutely miserable.” I want to tell them they’ll just get hurt anyway, so may as well relax a bit and stop caring what others thought. There is no magical fortress.
And even if I could change my routine so many decades later, why? Because some asshole doctor says I don’t look depressed? Pride. Look, just because I can identify maladaptive behavior or magical thinking doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to become a hippie. A hippie wasn’t something I was going to be except my father did these things, except I have a family history of being predisposed to some dark shit. Plus, the only thing I do know is that I am going to die. And no one knows when. But it seems like an occasion worth dressing up for.
Some … all people hear this and conclude that I am somehow “fake.” I’m really not. I really am a pretty straightforward person who wont mince words. I publicly, in appearances, especially around people I do not intimately know and trust, try to present my best self. Not someone else’s best self. Mine. I take credit for nothing that I don’t deserve credit for. Granted no one is one hundred percent perfect, but no one is one hundred percent a trainwreck. Again, why do people not know this? I should have thought it were fact. Yet, people who make up those idiot disability questionnaires seem to not have received the memo:
A PERSON CAN BE AN EMOTIONAL TRAINWRECK SOMETIMES AND NOT AT OTHER TIMES.
However, I do wish it were easier for me to show my more vulnerable side. This is why I write. I can do that in writing. Words are my magical fortress.
“BUT HOW CAN WE KNOW YOU ARE NOT LYING? HOW DO WE KNOW YOU ARE NOT JUST MAKING THIS UP FOR ATTENTION? OR MONEY? OR WHATEVER?”
You don’t. You can read this. You can judge for yourself whether or not events and genetics are capable of impacting a person’s ability to function optimally, if it makes sense or is squarely within the realm of possibility that prolonged, terrifying childhood experiences combined with a family history of misery and dysfunction might result in a hyperactive fear response, crippling anxiety and an impaired capacity for trust and optimism. You can decide for yourself if that’s something you would be so nonchalant about your own daughter being on the receiving end of. But you are neither judge nor jury for the validity and reality of my moments of suffering, and even if you were, until you were able to crawl into my head and experience existence from that perspective, you still could not know. I may even get philosophical and argue that a person cannot ever know their true self, or ask if truth actually exists. I may even ask,
WHAT HAS THE WORLD DONE TO YOU TO MAKE YOU GO THROUGH LIFE DISMISSIVE OF THE SUFFERING OF OTHERS, AND IS WHATEVER HAPPENED TO YOU THAT MADE YOU THIS HARDENED ALSO WHY YOU REACT SO NEGATIVELY TO THE POSSIBILITY OF OTHERS RECEIVING “SPECIAL TREATMENT,” AND IF SO WHY NOT LET’S THEN SUPPORT EACH OTHER INSTEAD OF TURNING THIS INTO A GODDAMNED TRAGEDY COMPETITION? BECAUSE WHEN YOU TELL ME I CANNOT GO THROUGH LIFE BEING BITTER, I CANNOT HELP BUT NOTICE THE VERY POIGNANT BITTERNESS IN YOUR OWN VOICE.
“OK. CALM DOWN. I SEE YOUR POINT. I BELIEVE THESE THINGS HAPPENED TO YOU, I DO. BUT WOULDN’T IT BE BETTER IF YOU COULD JUST DECIDE TO MOVE ON RATHER THAN LIVING IN THE PAST?”
Thanks, that’s probably far more inane and condescending sounding than you intended it to be. I know you are just trying to help. Why the assumption that I am living in the past? Those close to me, those who actually know me will, I think, eagerly attest to the fact that I am very much capable of living in the present and in fact, am quite good at it too. Just recently a friend and I were on a Ferris wheel, and he asked to take my picture. I made him put away the camera and gave him a lecture about living in the moment. “How will I remember this?” he asked. I made sure he remembered. I will challenge anyone right here and now to a living in the present duel. I can out live every day like it is your last every one of you. Because I am usually convinced it is. No, my weakness is not that I am stuck living in the past. It’s that I can’t live in the future. I have no future box in my brain. It’s a blank, black wall with no door or window. It’s always been this way. It feels like a kind of autism. Maybe I never had a chance to develop those muscles. Maybe I wasn’t born with them, like a person born without knee caps. I have no idea, and no professional I have spoken to has a cure. I recently confessed this to my sibling, who in turn confessed to me he understood all to well. You see, I am in fact tense-challenged. It’s just the tense you’ve presumed before asking. Fascinating, no? Also, a funny thing about it is that, as with any handicap or injury, willpower is necessary to cope with it, but it is not in fact curative. No it isn’t. Angels can’t cure you either. I’m sorry. Weren’t you the one who was demanding observable, quantifiable and reproducible evidence just a moment ago?
I understand that there are people who would like me to move on. “My God, she is still talking about her child molester father and dead mother…,” you must mutter under your breath. It is slightly stupid really to say so as if I had not in fact thought of that, or actively attempted to do it, given the profoundly unfun nature of my past. Look, I am not the pervy sicko here. That’s my father, and if you are sick of hearing about pervy sicko things, take it up with him. But I have some very, very bad news for you – I plan on talking about it for a very, very long time. This wish for me to move on often sounds not so much like empathy and encouragement but like a request to have the station changed – for you, not for me. Of course I would like to move on and get over the chronic insomnia, vivid nightmares, the waking up in a panic attack, the inability to trust, the wish to check out permanently because nothing here stops the pain, the acute grief that feels like an infected tattoo on my soul.
I DO NOT LIKE THESE THINGS. THEY MAKE LIFE VERY DIFFICULT. YOU CAN IMAGINE.
There are truly a limited number of things I will not try to get over these demons. It was the effects of trauma, not my actual life story you wanted me to get over, correct? Never mind. Oh yes, well, I would not inflict suffering on another with the purpose of minimizing my own. I wouldn’t buy K-pins under the Wilson el stop. I wouldn’t … My point is that I will try a lot of things to rid myself of the bullshit pain and inconveniences of psychic injury. And – you may find this incredibly interesting – the very first thing I tried was pretending it wasn’t real and things had not happened to me. Move on. Never give it another thought. Get over it. Start a new life, away from home, full of promise, focus all my energies on academics and arts and undergraduate intrigues. Crazy, you were just suggesting I do that, and it turns out I did it 20 years ago! I have always been a bit avant garde… So right, I moved on. Weirdly, I still ended up in this situation where my friends were calling my parents worried and my parents were calling the university shrink worried and I wasn’t calling anyone because all I wanted was to disappear. So, FAIL, amirite? Still not sure what I did wrong. I kept trying to do it too. But like clockwork, every time I would pretend all was well, my life was not real, every time I would make an effort not to think about things, to go through the motions of what was expected of me, I got even more depressed! What is up with that? And then of course I would feel like a failure because of my inability to move on and get over things, and that would make me even more suicidal! Oh, it was a mess. Gosh. Yeah, so I am like, maybe that doesn’t work. Maybe you should not even be encouraging me to do that again. Also, shit, I don’t tell you how to live your life.
No. You have stuck with this manifesto thus far, and you deserve a straightforward explanation, not sarcasm and snark. That is not helpful.
Oh come on. I have anxiety issues, not obsessive personality disorder. It is not as if I don’t talk about other things. Note that most of this blog is devoted to entirely other things. I don’t go to dinner parties and talk about my father or wanting to die. (Maybe this is why I get a lot of “But you seem fine…” at dinner parties.) I am a woman of many interests and pastimes. I do genealogy, read voraciously, go to museums and theater, do yoga and ballet, get acupuncture, work on political campaigns, ride motorcycles, write about Russian politics. I am a reliable friend to people I adore, a feisty and unapologetic feminist, and a devoted cat mother. I can out drink, cook, converse, hike and write most of you. I am obsessed with all things Russian, Jazz Age and Chicago. I can get anywhere on public transportation. Animals love me. I have been painted by a famous artist, interrogated by uzi-weilding men in Sheremetevo airport and sent love letters from Paris. I am hardly one long lament about childhood sexual abuse or a monotonous melancholic or crisis manufacturing plant. So stop insinuating that I am boring, a broken record, a one trick pony. Stop it.
And I am not going to shut up about my past and its consequences. “Shut up” is not the message we need to respond with when people muster the courage to openly talk about the sexual, physical or emotional harm inflicted upon them. If that is your reaction to these matters, you are an asshole. Even if you say “move on” when you mean “shut up.” You move on past your discomfort with people bearing witness to their own experiences. I’m sorry if that offends you. Get over it.
“WE ARE NOT SAYING YOU SHOULD SHUT UP ABOUT IT. JUST THAT YOU COULD GET SOME EMOTIONAL RELIEF FROM NOT DWELLING UPON THE PAST. DON’T LET IT GET TO YOU, OVERWHELM YOU. IT IS POSSIBLE. I KNOW PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN THROUGH WORSE AND WHO MANAGED TO RECOVER.”
Well, in fairness, you can no more know they have recovered than you can know I have real debilitating suffering. You are largely dependent on their self-reporting and ability to conform to societal expectations. Which is not to say some people have not been through worse than me and are pretty happy and normal regardless. Just that one must be careful and in possession of all the facts before assuming an air of smug certainty. But why do some people recover and some people do not? Why do some soldiers come home messed and some do not? Why do some people respond to chemotherapy and some do not? Why is it that you can make the exact same recipe twice and have the results come out quite differently? These are questions we simply do not know the answers to. Or I do not, at any rate. The going theory is that a combination of social support, genetic predisposition and comorbid illness and/or stressful life events play a part in determining one’s prognosis. I do not know. I do know that the comparison to highly successful people is a wee bit cruel, like a parent who points to the high school quarterback and valedictorian and demands of their son, “Why can’t you be more like him?” Perhaps he has to be who he is meant to be, and that is not who he is meant to be. Perhaps math is impossible for him and makes him cry, and he is very proud for the B’s on his report card he busted his ass for. Perhaps projecting expectations upon another person is less helpful than giving them the skills and resources they need to meet heir own expectations. I am grateful for high expectations. No one wants to feel given up on. But I wonder why people choose to see what I have yet to accomplish rather than what I have accomplished. I am alive, when many people who have experienced similar things are not. I have no addictions, unwanted pregnancies, abusive relationships, or criminal record. I have a degree from a top ranked university, amazing friends, most importantly, solid self-esteem and a strong moral compass. I am doing something right in spite of the hand I was dealt. Please do not underestimate the difficulty of that. Maybe it is easier for others. But like the kid who is bad at math, I have busted my ass. So any insinuation that I lack willpower and determination is misinformed at best and insulting at worst.
As for dwelling on things and letting them get to me, I am afraid I’ve already been gotten to. Basic childhood development stuff. So I am focused on coping with what I’ve got, and perhaps even doing something constructive with it. Like educating others about how not to talk to your messed up loved ones and acquaintances. Like bucking the taboo on incest and childhood abuse (I’m not speaking of abuse as it used in its more liberal contexts, but the kind of locking up and raping of a five year old which we can all agree consitutes abuse) and talking about, writing about it, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Because it is precisely not talking about it that allows it to go on for years. And it has real consequences beyond unpleasant memories. And I think people should know that. It seems like an important thing to make sure people know. Because people look at my life and at me and say, “But you are so intelligent and strong, I guess I just don’t understand.” Because I’m trying to help them understand.
“OK. WE JUST WANTED TO HELP. WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO HELP YOU. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US?”
Acceptance. For who I am right now, not what you wish I were. Of the fact that I did not create my suffering, and that it is real.
Acknowledgement. Of my hurdles and accomplishments, not piteous sympathy and comments on my potential. Of my own agency to decide for myself what I need and to know for myself what I want.
People to listen. To not only me but anyone who speaks of their own psychological trauma, cognitive challenges or emotional distress openly and honestly. To those who are far far too used to people not listening.
Of course no one is obligated to me. But I am relatively confident that for every single person who reads this, there is at least one person in their life to whom they are and for whom it would make a productive, meaningful and possibly radical difference. Do not rely on mental health professionals to do this for you. If someone you know is in distress, they need more time and attention and patience than any doctor in our system is able to provide them. Do not rely on a person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. People like me can get pretty MacGyver at rigging up some straps for our non-existent boots. But duct tape is no substitute for knowing you are loved despite your lack of proper boots.
Thanks for reading. I don’t usually say so, but please share.