278. esoterica

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There hasn’t been much time to write recently, nor is there much time to write today, so this is going to be a bit scattered. We’ll see where this goes.

Eighteen days ago was the four-year anniversary of my breakup with Jay, the narcissist ex-boyfriend who nevertheless turned out to be—as I rightly feared—my likely last chance at a relationship before I turned 30.

I was hoping for some spark of insight about lessons learned about life choices, but instead I found little more than regret at having stayed with him for nine whole months.

Besides, there isn’t that much of my mind free to reflect on things like that these days.



One of the insights that I did have after things ended with my last therapist is that one of the reasons I feel so ambivalent about my parents is that there was a time when I was very young when I was happy with them.

This was before I was self-aware and able to internalize the bullshit theology that they were feeding me.

The world was simpler, brighter, happier, and there’s a part of my mind that still remembers what it felt like. A gulf of time and trauma now stands between me and that previous proto-self, and there is no way to get back.

You can’t go home.

I suppose that’s one of the things I most hate my parents for—robbing me of my childhood (and my future adult happiness) by teaching me to hate myself.

They also robbed me of the ability to truly enjoy things since I constantly view things that I like with suspicion or skepticism. There was always a fear growing up that one or both of my parents would disapprove of something I enjoyed or liked, for whatever reason, and would take that thing away.


I’ve also been thinking about my emerging asexual/demisexual identity as of late, where it came from, and whether I’ve always just been this way.

The present hypothesis is that, yes, I have always been this way. My hypothesis acknowledges that the relevant events happened between twelve and fifteen years ago, and that memory is an imperfect reconstruction of past events.

There’s also the reality that my sexuality formed under hostile, repressive circumstances, so it’s possible that my resultant sexual identity is a product of emotional trauma and abuse, isolation, and cult-like psychological programming.

That being said, while I definitely experienced the Saturn V rocket-like explosion of male sex drive during my teenage years, I do not recall ever being sexually attracted to specific guys. I had crushes, yes, to varying levels of intensity, but I don’t remember wanting to do anything sexual with any male peers.

Was that because I was unconsciously suppressing those desires on account of the then-impossibility of realizing them? Perhaps. I was intelligent enough then to have done that. Yet while my peers (even the Christian ones) seemed preoccupied by their sexual impulses (and, naturally, the struggle to resist and remain “pure”), I was more aware of the absence of such impulses in myself.

Piano, writing, research, or literally anything else held more interest for me than sex.

For my male friends especially, the struggle to tame their sexual needs and desires seemed ever-present, something that created a mountain of anxiety for them. I, on the other hand, struggled with just the reality of being same-sex attracted rather than any specific desires.

Being gay was largely an abstract concept for me.

What I experienced in terms of desire for other men wasn’t even necessarily sexual. Even today, I don’t have sexual fantasies about guys. What I do have are emotional fantasies—imagining going on vacations with a partner, buying our first house together, brushing our teeth, curling up on the couch together under a blanket while rain patters on the window.

It’s more the desire for intimacy than it is for sex.

That’s the homoromantic aspect of my orientation.


However, I’ve also been thinking back over my experiences as a sexually active gay man, because over the course of just a few years, I did have a lot of sex. I’ve been thinking about what that meant, especially considering how emotionally unfulfilling and empty it was.

To use a metaphor, I felt a lot like Dharma and Jane when they pretended to be German tourists and were confronted by an actual German speaker.

When I was sexually active, I largely went through the motions, doing what I grew up doing in most social situations—mirroring behavior, and generally faking emotions without understanding what was going on.

Fahrvergnügen?

At the time, I thought I was “discovering” my sexuality after years of repression. The discomfort I felt was internalized homophobia, I thought. Yet no matter how many guys I fucked, I didn’t feel any less confused or empty.

If anything, I actually felt resentful.


No automatic alt text available.

Wolf, Tikva. “Kimchi Cuddles.” Comic strip. 2014. http://kimchicuddles.com.

Reactions to my demi or asexuality have been interesting. There’s been a lot of Oh, I’ve felt that way before. I must be demisexual too.

Or: Are you sure I can’t convince you to give me a try?

Or: Your view of sex is just too traditional.

The notion of the absence of sexual attraction is apparently stymieing to many people. It’s the air they breathe, familiar and comfortable. Gay men especially seem to have a difficult time imagining life without being aroused by any hot or cute guy.

That’s one of my worries about dating again—finding a guy who:

  1. I manage to establish an emotional connection with that’s strong enough to move into sexual attraction;
  2. I find physically attractive;
  3. Is fine with not rushing into sex, and even waiting for me to determine if I’m attracted or not;
  4. Isn’t scared off by my crazy.

So yeah… I don’t know how this is supposed to work. Ultimately, my goal is to build a family of my own to make up for the one I didn’t have, but that doesn’t seem likely.

276. talisman

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4w-druid-cropA few weeks ago I decided to do a tarot reading for myself.

It’s been a while, and I’m always curious about what’ll come out of a spread, what different patterns and combinations of cards will resonate with my mind in its current state, and so on.

Interacting with tarot is always entertaining, mainly because of how terrified I was conditioned to be of it growing up. They were the Devil’s Cards, tools of Satan, gateways to the demonic, right up there with Ouija boards and troll dolls.

Of course, I don’t believe in any of that anymore—the Occult, the supernatural, angels, demons, God/god/gods/goddesses, etc. Still, it’s amusing to be aware of the vestigial parts of my child mind that retain that primal fear of tarot cards.

I actually got into tarot by way of the wonderful 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, wherein John Childermass carries a deck of tarot de Marseille cards.

Anywho, my view on tarot is that it functions much like an inkblot, or Rorschach, test. The cards and the patterns they form are random and arbitrary, but the meaning you find or the story you see is an indication of what might be going on in your subconscious, just beyond the edges of the conscious mind. The randomness that the tarot introduces can bring awareness to underlying and inarticulate thoughts or influences that often end up speaking to us through the images in the cards.

In fact, the purpose of tarot is largely misunderstood. The popular trope is of it being a divination or fortune telling tool, when really it’s just a means of exploring possibilities. Sure, most people who use the cards believe in some higher power that speaks through the cards, but that lends itself more to the theory that you get out of it what you put in.

Anywho, the reading I did a few weeks ago.

It was interesting because just a few days earlier I’d written about my compartmentalized personality, that there are these fundamental parts of myself that I was taught weren’t acceptable. In order to survive, I buried and cut those parts off from the forward-facing Self that is me, and that grew and developed.

And yes, I’m a Jungian.

huit_depeeThe card that I ended up drawing for the “Hopes and Fears” position (9) was the Nine of Swords, or the “nightmare” card. The deck I was using (the gay-themed “Son Tarot“) appears as a broken mirror, with swords aimed at the center.

A friend of mine who has studied tarot thought this card was about anxieties about my future library job prospects, which is true. That has been causing some anxiety, especially as graduation (and graduate loan repayment) looms closer.

wands04But it was the Four of Wands  card in the “Below” position that was the most thought-provoking. In most readings of this spread, this position signifies the underlying feelings and subconscious movement associated with the querent.

The Four of Wands is the “hearth” card. It signifies harmony, contentment, a happy home, celebration, good times/news.

My friend thought it described my current living situation and job search.

I had a different theory. My sense from looking at that card was that the root of the winter of my discontent may be the memory of the happiness and harmony in early childhood (before I was aware that anything was wrong with the world), and that the unhappiness and discontent I experience now stem from wanting to return to that state.

Yes, there was a time before I stopped smiling in photographs, before I was keenly aware of being observed by others, before I’d fully learned to hate myself, and before being alive was a painful experience. It’s what we might call Paradise, a state of blissful unawareness.

Between that and now is a gulf full of unresolved pain and regret.


A few days ago, on Tuesday, the therapist I’ve been working with since the beginning of the year suggested that it was time we end therapy. She thought we’d done good work towards building better habits and skills around managing anxiety and stress, and practicing mindfulness and identifying when negative scripts are playing themselves out in my head and my behavior.

Her theory of practice is that therapy is short-term and goal-focused, and that we’d accomplished the ones we’d set at the beginning.

On the one hand, I agree. The last couple sessions have felt positive, overall. I have been more emotionally stable over the last few months. Disappointments and minor setbacks have less of an emotionally destabilizing effect than they used to.

There has been significant progress, and perhaps this is a sign than I’m ready to handle things on my own for a bit.

On the other hand…

I worry that in telling her about my fractured persona last session that she decided she was way in over her head, and ended things on as positive a note as possible.

… that my health insurance no longer covers mental health visits, and this was the subtlest way of ending things.

… that while I’ve got my forward-facing self relatively well-managed, the leviathans swimming beneath have simply learned to be more clever.

… that I’m never going to achieve full integration of those aspects of my psyche that are compartmentalized and currently inaccessible.

… that I’m never going to fully reconnect with my sexual self, which will cause future boyfriends to lose patience and dump me, and that I’m never going to find a partner.

Of course, these are irrational fears to varying degrees. Do I really know what I’m doing in healing from religious trauma? No. But did my therapist show me how to turn on the flashlight I already had to illuminate the path in front of me? Sure.

Yes, it was nice to unburden myself with someone who could restate and rephrase my words and remind me that things aren’t as bad as I make them out to be.

Maybe it’s time to do that for myself.

273. factitious

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That first night when we sat on the trunk of my car and looked at the lights above the Arby’s? When I got up to leave, I looked at you, and I tried to think of how to say everything I was feeling. But I’ve never really been good at describing feelings. I’m only good at describing facts, and love, love isn’t a fact. You know?

Love—it’s a hunch at first and then later it’s a series of decisions, a lifetime of decisions. That’s love. And I didn’t know how to express that and so I just said: “I’m glad I decided to call you.” And now, tonight, I say I’m glad again, for this decision and all the decisions that will come every day after.

Which is to say, scientifically speaking of course, speaking from the point of view of mere facts and logic and you know, what with the science and all… I just thought that it was time for us to make a life together.
Episode 100 – Toast, from Welcome to Night Vale¹


no-face-png

A few days ago justmerveilleux commented on a previous post that it was “much too cheerful.” I’m endeavouring to bring the tone of this one back to my usual stark, grim, crepuscular realism. 😉

The last few weeks for me have been spent weathering feverish bouts of anxiety as we learn more about the Drumpf administration and what he, his cabinet, and the Rethuglican Congress have in store for the world over the next four years.

Basically, every time I scroll through New York Times or Guardian headlines, it’s a brand new something to haunt my dreams:

  • The planet is going to be trashed, sea levels will rise, and resulting droughts will bring about starvation and catastrophe.
  • We LGBTQ+ Americans are going to see all our civil rights gains taken away thanks to ultra conservative Supreme Court justice replacements.
  • With the almost certain repeal of Obamacare looming, the future of my health insurance is uncertain.

It’s been interesting to compare my reaction to this election to the one in 2008, and look at how much I’ve evolved since then. In short, where I once feared what Obama might have done as our first socialist President (which turns out not to be true—Hoover, Johnson, FDR, and even Nixon were just as Socialist, if not more so), we have a fairly clear idea what Drumpf is going to do. He has filled his cabinet with cronies, homophobes, and bigots who want to enact a theocratic, Objectivist agenda of revenge on this country, regardless of who suffers.

My nightmares don’t seem like a matter of “if.”

More like “when.”


I had a brief exchange with my youngest sister a few days after posting blog # 271. In short, we both feel similarly fragmented, made up of disparate parts, the result of decades of living in fear of our parents, their omnipotent and omniscient god, and a judgmental community of holier-than-thou Christians.

Okay, time for gross generalizations.

From what I’ve observed about most people, I gather that they function largely as a holistic whole, different modules and pieces of their psyches that work together in their functioning as a person.

For me, growing up in secret for nearly three decades feels like being a lump of coal trapped underground for thousands of years, under enormous heat and pressure, until suddenly ripped out of the Earth one day as a diamond.

I grew up managing a complex bureaucracy of desires and needs, making sure none of them drew the notice of anyone who could make my life unpleasant or difficult. I couldn’t be too ambitious, too needy, show too much self-efficacy, and certainly not any of my deviant sexual desires.

Now, nearly six years out as an atheist, I’m still living with disparate parts of myself that don’t talk to each other.

For most people (again, making gross assumptions here), when they want something, they think it and their cogs and wheels work out the specifics. Their child selves talk to their adult selves, sharing memories between them. And when a man is attracted to someone, he feels desire and the rest works itself out.

With me, none of those parts communicate. It is sometimes a daily inner civil war just to decide what I want for dinner—or to decide that I deserve to even want to eat.

I rather feel like No-Face from Hayao Miyazaki Spirited Away, an otherwise neutral being that absorbed the desires and intentions of those around him, a friendly mask disguising a dark and dangerous mess underneath.


When I fully, truly, came out in 2009, after breaking up with my first boyfriend and deciding I needed to “experience” everything I’d been missing, sexually speaking, I was still largely in the mindset of needing to be who I perceived everyone wanted me to be.

It’s how I survived evangelicalism as a gay teenager—by blending in, adapting, never being myself.

The hesitancy and emptiness I felt in hooking up—engaging in casual sex with guys who I knew weren’t going to be boyfriends or long-term partners—I chalked up to a puritanical upbringing; remnants of a lifetime of being told homosexual desires were evil, perverted, and sick.

I just needed to push through that to become the liberated gay man I knew was there, somewhere.

It never occurred to me that my reticence was the result of the reality that I experience sexual and romantic attraction through emotional intimacy rather than my pelvis.

The frustration in being a demisexual is feeling no control over who I’m attracted to. It happens suddenly, mysteriously, and very gradually.

I see couples at Target, holding hands and buying produce or a birthday card, and long for that kind of domestic intimacy. Granted, I have no real frame of reference. It’s academic, but still an abstract direction I’m aiming for in hopes I stumble onto something concrete.

I don’t want spectacular romance. I don’t need suffocating togetherness.

I’m not entirely sure what I want from a boyfriend/partner. Yes, I want companionship, the usual trimmings of a long-term relationship.

It’s more than that, though.

I want the significance of a look shared between two people experiencing something special and beautiful—a sunset, a moment in a Mozart opera, seeing something that reminds them of a moment five years ago before they knew any of it meant anything.

I’m suspicious of the fire, the passion, the Sturm und Drang of the early stages of a relationship. I want the quiet certainty of sitting on the hood of a car, staring up at the lights above the Arby’s, and am glad that I called someone.

These are the cares of a time traveler who lives in both the past and the future, knowing that everything that happens between is uncertain and surprising, but inevitable, unchanging.

Unchanged.

“The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”²

I’m not hopeful that I’ll ever get any of this, but a fellow can dream.


Works Cited

¹ Fink, J., & Cranor, J. (2016, December 15). Episode 100 – Toast [Audio blog post]. Retrieved from http://nightvale.libsyn.com/100-toast

² Nicholson, W. (1989). Shadowlands. New York: Samuel French.

270. incipient

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denethorIt’s about time for this monthly check-in with the blog. It has been over a month since the last one, after all.

The combination of working full-time plus the wind-up to the end of this semester has been kicking my ass recently. Perhaps it’s the research methods class I’m taking, or enduring a contentious and divisive election for almost two years, but I’m feeling pretty run-down.


What I have been planning to write about is the increasingly clearer picture of one of the dominant psychological constructs in my mind.

Let’s call him “Talos.”

He started out as a sort of mental protector figure—an internal proxy father in place of the one I didn’t entirely trust or feel safe around. He was a distant man (who himself had had a distant and sometimes physically abusive father) who tended to work a lot. He tried to do things with us: take us to parks, teach us to ride bikes. But it was clear he didn’t really know how to do any of the “traditional” things one expects from a father.

As we got older, the desire to connect with my sisters and me manifested in various ways (such as going to baseball games with my younger sister, or going to concerts with me), but so did his critical voice. While his intent was probably to help us by pointing out our mistakes, he had a way of turning compliments or feedback into backhanded insults.

Following one of my piano recitals as a teenager (which I thought went pretty well), we were driving home afterwards and after a moment of silence between us, he mentioned how some of my ornamentation had been slightly off.

In college, following the performance of one of my songs in a colleague’s recital, he said later that he thought a song I’d written previously had sounded more “true” to my style.

This was the state of things growing up. Some of that came from their theology, such as where Paul writes in Romans that “everyone among you [is] not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3).

Praising or encouraging us would’ve given us big heads, I guess.


A few weeks ago I was catching up on the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast, and Julia Sweeney was on. At one point they talked about growing up with an alcoholic parent:

MARC MARON: See, I’m projecting because what I was gonna say is that the children of alcoholics either become alcoholics and drug addicts, or control freaks.
JULIA SWEENEY: Oh, really.
MM: Well, yeah.
JS: I wonder if I’m a control freak.
MM: You don’t feel like one… Usually it’s because you’re in this position with a grown person that’s completely out of control all the time, and you’re constantly—you can’t do anything about this primary situation in your life, so when you get out of that you’re like, “I’m gonna keep it tight.” You know what I mean? There’s a reaction.

And that got me thinking about growing up in a rigidly-controlled religious household where one never felt entirely secure. Some flip out once they leave home and become totally debauched.

Others become control freaks.

Guess which direction I went.


For me, the gradual appearance and rise of Talos began as an internalization of those parental admonishments. After all, to a child, the sun rises and sets with their parents. It’s biologically wired into us to unconditionally accept what our parents tell us. Skepticism carried no survival benefits.

It started as anticipation of disapproval—of observing, learning to predict what behavior would result in a spanking, or a lecture, or a threat of burning eternally in hell.

As I got older though, Talos grew in size and scale. He was the internal eye, standing over my shoulder to criticize everything I did. And nothing was ever good enough. I’d practice piano for 3-4 hours a day to get one section of a piece just-right. I’d edit and rewrite papers until they felt perfect.

He also commented on the world around me, evaluating passing glances or turns of phrase.

“They know what a horrible person you are.”

“Nobody here likes you.”

“What a miserable disappointment.”

“You’ll never be good enough.”

This goes beyond stunted self-esteem.

It was crippled self-worth.

I was trying to come up with a face this week to put with Talos, and John Noble’s Denethor from The Lord of the Rings films came to mind. There’s this scene in particular:

It was a self-protective impulse turned inwards on itself, like a black hole. And once I became aware of my sexuality, that mechanism went into overdrive, controlling every thought and mannerism lest anything give me away to my parents, who were big fans of James Dobson and Focus on the Family.


I’ve also been considering how this has impacted my romantic life, and my attitude towards myself and my demisexuality.

Specifically, is this sexuality an inborn trait, or is it the result of this darkly controlling inner force that looms over everything?

Regarding my orientation, of only being sexually attracted to men I have a close connection with, that has always been there. The more I got to know someone, the more attractive he got.

But would I feel more comfortable being more sexually and romantically open if Talos’ shadow wasn’t everywhere? Would I feel less pressure to find romance?

Who knows. But no wonder I stopped smiling around age eight.

But even non-sexually/romantically, would I feel less anxious in social settings if Talos weren’t threatening me not to fail, to say the wrong thing, to not let everyone know how stupid I am?

Though I’m now an atheist, the pressure to be perfect is no less overwhelming. I’m constantly analyzing social situations, draining my mental CPU.

The curious thing is that I became my own jailer.

So how then to unlock my own cell?

269. titivate

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shadowTime for a monthly check-in, which is about all I can manage right now between school, work, and attempting to manage my ever-growing stress level.

All that to say, this might be a little scattered.

It’s Halloween and my social media feeds have been filled with photos of people’s costumes—or, in the case of many of my gay friends, technically just enough clothing to constitute a costume.

Halloween and its importance to gay men is one of many things that perplex this young-ish curmudgeon’s heart. I understand the historical underpinnings of the holiday and the appeal, but as someone who doesn’t even wear shorts in the summer, is currently wearing three layers, and finds unfocused sexual energy uncomfortable, it’s a weird festival.

Here’s what comes up when one Googles “halloween gay.”

gayhalloweensearch

A Pride.com article calls Halloween “every LGBT person’s fave holiday,” opining that “Gay people just love Halloween now, don’t we?”.

Search the hashtag #gayhalloween on Twitter or Instagram and decide whether or not to temporarily enable SafeSearch.

Samantha Allen at The Daily Dot wrote a great piece on how Halloween became the gay Christmas which is highly recommended. Basically, like Pride, it was a post-Stonewall response to living in a highly repressive time in the States for LGBTQ people. Allen writes:

On October 31, the curse of being queer in a straight world is temporarily lifted. All bets are called off, along with all the shame and fear we have been made to feel. For 364 days every year, many of us try to blend in but, on Halloween, we can proudly stick out…

It’s still the only night when acting gay is not only OK—it’s downright de rigeur.

So… I get that. I understand that for many LGBTQ people, reappropriating “queer” for themselves was empowering and liberating. However, for myself, I find conflating “queer” and “homosexual” problematic.

In my day-to-day life, I don’t try to blend in. I don’t play a role 364 days a year. I’m not effeminate, flamboyant, or gender atypical. To paraphrase David S. Pumpkins slightly, I’m “[my] own thing.”

I’m one bushy moustache, woodworking shop, and XL polo shirt removed from being Ron Swanson… if Ron were a liberal Democrat, vegetarian, and weighed 150 pounds, that is.

And frankly, twenty-eight years of my life was spent pretending to be someone else and I’d rather work at getting comfortable in this skin, doing any exploring of gender or sexuality on paper and in writing.


My therapist has observed on several occasions how much of my identity is based around being an outsider, an outlier, an “other.” It makes sense that this would be unconsciously incorporated into my identity as a out gay male, although it’s cultural institutions like Halloween and Pride that make it difficult for me to identify as a gay male. I don’t really fit in with the hypersexual boy culture that seems characteristic of many of my peers.

I’m more comfortable with the descriptor “homoromantic demisexual androphile” because at least that tells you something about my orientation(s). Physical attraction really only occurs when I deeply connect with someone. I’m a male who is sexually and romantically interested in other males with whom a strong emotional bond is shared. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that hookup apps like Grindr or Scruff are conspicuously missing from my phone.

In fact, two weeks ago on October 18 marked the one-year mark of the last time I actually had sex. I simply haven’t been attracted to any guys who would be attracted to me.

It’s all very confounding.

There is so much pressure in the gay community to hookup with anyone who is available, to be slutty, to radically eschew heteronormativity. That doesn’t leave much room for people like me who are primarily emotionally rather than sexually oriented.


I’ve known for a while that there are a number of well-defined psychological personas within me. These are at least four aspects of my personality that emerged and solidified over the years in response to different perceived threats or challenges.

There’s the tall, dark, quasi-menacing father/protector figure who becomes furious when I make mistakes or fail to achieve to his expectations.

There’s a morally ambiguous figure who is highly driven and a little bit sociopathic who pushes me to be ruthless with myself and others.

There’s an emotional hurricane figure who is an embodiment of my more animal instincts, who gets upset easily and easily flies into panic and/or rage.

There’s also the hurt, confused, and wounded child.

All four of these constructs interact with each other in different ways and would rise to the top of my consciousness to take control depending on what the situation called for. In this way, by separating and compartmentalizing these different aspects of myself, I could take control and protect myself.

Trouble is, after nearly 30 years of this I’m essentially walled into a mental fortress with four potentially volatile people.


While thinking through some of my motivations for wanting a boyfriend/partner, it finally occurred to me last week that the thing I really desire most is a sense of warmth that has historically been lacking from my most intimate relationships. Growing up, I don’t recall ever feeling that way about my home life or my parents. Mostly, home was associated with anxiety, fear, and suspicion.

So there are the usual things I’d want from a relationship: a sense of belonging, home, acceptance, and yes, a primary sexual partner.

But it was this desire for sense of warmth that expressed itself recently which took me by surprise, because I realized that so much of my life has indeed felt chilled, as if I’ve spent most of it wandering alone on a windswept moor or something similarly Brontë-esque. For once it would be nice to find someone with whom to share a hearth.

However, in observing interactions and pairings, it appears to be so easy for everyone else. And frankly, one doesn’t find a relationship at my age and station in life.

261. puissant

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cir_animacion_1Just came from an encouraging session with my therapist.

I’m often left a bit dubious or even suspicious whenever things go positively. Maybe I’m carrying around the notion that therapy must be fraught with powerful emotion, or the measure of work in therapy including profound revelations, breakthroughs into the nature of what brought one to therapy in the first place.

I’m trying to rid myself of those notions.

They’re not helpful.

The main takeaway from today was that over the past couple of months I’ve been becoming more conscious and intentional about how I manage reactions to various emotional stimuli. I’m slowly rewriting the old, broken narrative of victimhood to the cruel winds of life and of my religious upbringing, bringing personal choice and agency to the fore.

Something my therapist brought into the conversation today was a reflection on the root of responsibility, what it means to be responsible, and what it might mean to actively choose what we respond to—and how we respond.

One thing that immediately came to mind was this recent video from The School of Life:

When we carry a background excess of self-disgust around with us, operating just below the radar of conscious awareness, we’ll constantly seek confirmation from the wider world that we really are the worthless people we take ourselves to be. The expectation is almost always set in childhood where someone close to us is likely to have left us feeling dirty and culpable, and as a result we now travel through society assuming the worst—not because it’s necessarily true or pleasant to do so, but because it feels familiar, and because we’re the prisoners of past patterns we haven’t yet understood.

The second half of the video talks about approaching people with the same poise and graciousness we afford children. We usually don’t assume the worst about an infant or toddler—that they’re plotting against us, or deliberately acting out of spite or cruelty.

We reach for the most benevolent interpretations. We probably think that they’re just a bit tired, or their gums are sore, or they’re upset by the arrival of a younger sibling.

This struck a chord with me instantly, because it brought to mind how much I wasn’t raised in this way.


A few months after I left Christianity, I was having a post-Easter lunch with my family. My nephew had just turned ten months old, and was in the development stage of dropping things off his high chair to observe the results. Exasperated, my sister sighed, “There’s his sin nature showing.” Everyone else at the table nodded sadly, as if this child who wasn’t even a year old was showing signs of some fatal disease.

This assessment might seem innocuous or even silly, but to me hearing my sister utter those words is still a chilling reminder of how ungracious and meager my parents were towards us as children. The sum of the following verses and other like them formed the basis of my parents’ parenting philosophy:

  • For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of god. (Romans 3:23)
  • I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)
  • The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. (Jeremiah 17:9)
  • Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. (Proverbs 22:15)

Basically, their three children were little engines of depravity and rebellion that needed stern, emergency correction to save us from toddling straight into Hell. Every misdeed was scrutinized, treated as a symptom of the rotten heart that surely lurks within all humanity.

The cure was swift and sometimes brutal punishment, from spankings to locking in the basement until we repented of our sins. Oh, and Bible quoting aplenty.

I realize this depiction makes my parents look crazy and abusive, and yes, there were times they lashed out in anger and frustration, reaching for the “parenting by fear” card rather than by compassion or understanding. There were happy times, too: reading books out loud, outings to the library or the zoo, helping my mom cook in the kitchen.

But they didn’t show much compassion when it came to normal unruly child behavior, and from that we learned that we were bad, broken creatures—loathsome insects that god holds over the pit of Hell, as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous 1741 sermon.

We learn to engage with the world through the model of our parents’ engagement with us as children. We form our expectations of other people through the prime example of how our mother and father treated us.

I learned to fear other people, that everyone was secretly scrutinizing me in expectation of finding the worst, that I deserved their disfavor and disapproval. As my mom once sniped, “If people knew who you really were, they wouldn’t like you.”


That’s what the old, broken narrative for my life is built on. Fear, victimhood, self-hatred.

What I’ve been practicing over the past few months is an awareness of those voices from the past and actively choosing how I’m going to respond to them as a perceptive adult instead of as the hurt child.

It looks so easy written out, and it’s anything but. Emotions are messy. I revert to frightened child again.

My grim inner Protestant winces at the notion of self care, insisting that it’s selfish and wasteful. It’s extravagant—a day at the spa, taking a hot bath, meditation, making my favorite food.

For me, self care has become much simpler.

It’s turning off and tuning out the news—really, anything that unnecessarily upsets me, that I can’t do anything about, that I don’t actually need to listen to.

It’s stopping the kind of downward-spiraling mental rumination over, say, a troubling news story that leads to anger or emotional unrest.

It’s my declaration of independence, of emancipation.

It’s choosing to show myself the compassion that my parents weren’t capable of.

258. somaticize

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Isolation, by http://jessica-art.deviantart.com/

It is June 7. How did it get to be June 7 already? This year is moving way too fast, although not fast enough for the American electoral season to be done. That nonsense seems to be inhabiting its own putrid timestream.

School is finally over. It wrapped up just eighteen days ago, though as a group of us agreed last night, it’s seemed longer than that.

Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to figure out why this semester felt so much more difficult than others. Objectively, this was actually one of the easier terms I’ve had as a master’s student. A final paper for one class was literally a 4-5 page narrative reflection on an internship, which felt almost obscenely light. In the other class, we spent the first month trying to overcome technical glitches to get the platform we were using for a digital library to work.

In retrospect, this was a difficult semester due to several things:

  1. It really didn’t feel like that much was actually demanded of me (as per the 5-page final paper in the one class).
  2. There was a marked lack of structure and clear expectations in both classes.

Now, to the latter, I get that this whole graduate experience is, in some ways, the antithesis of the undergraduate degree. There’s a lot less hand-holding, and especially in a career-focused program like mine, one is expected to start thinking and behaving like a professional. I like this about graduate study because it’s less about the grade and more about proving that you know what you’re doing.

Of course, professors still need to lay out clear expectations for their students and communicate things like due dates, and changes to due dates and course content. Still, a major aspect of graduate-level study is directing one’s self and becoming more of a stakeholder in your education and career. In essence, graduate study asks students to set their own schedules based on what is demanded of them.

As Millennials would say, this is “adulting.”


The day after classes ended, I submitted my final paper and hopped in a car with a friend of mine to embark on a five-day camping trip. This is something I’d been looking forward to for weeks leading up to it, and to finally get away from the city and my job and school, and just be in nature, was lovely.

I did encounter one brief meltdown on the trip, which was followed by a rare breakthrough moment—rare in that it occurred in close proximity to the emotional event, which is a new thing for me.

It happened over the course of one hike that involved several river and stream crossings. I’ll say in advance that I experience serious anxiety over cleanliness and hygiene issues, so just going into the hike knowing about the crossings was hackles-raising enough. My friend went first each time as he wasn’t as bothered by either getting wet or muddy, but even he was a bit surprised by some of the stream crossings.

In brief, after getting stuck briefly during the third stream crossing, I was in the grips of a full-blown anxiety attack. It might not have been so bad had the water been clear, but it was muddy and somewhat deep, and I got stuck in the muck several times.

Here are a few symptoms from AnxietyCentre.com that I experienced that afternoon:

  • A feeling of overwhelming fear
  • Feeling you are in grave danger
  • An urgency to escape
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Inability to calm yourself down
  • Nausea
  • Pounding, racing heart

For the next forty minutes or so, as we continued the hike, I just focused on breathing and bringing my heart rate down. Eventually, the calmer parts of my mind were able to start deconstructing that reaction, and the realization I had is that that anxiety attack was a concentrated version of how I feel all the time.

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The view on one part of the hike.

Basically, I’m afraid all the time. Not consciously, in a phobic sense. More an undercurrent of constant anxiety and fear. I’m afraid I’m a complete failure, that I’m never going to amount to anything, that I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life, that I’m a mediocrity, that I’m fundamentally worthless and unlovable…

The usual.

What I was gradually able to unpack was that this feeling stems from early childhood, where my fundamentalist Christian parents over-reacted to what otherwise normal child behavior as if it were signs of moral depravity (which, in hindsight, is likely exactly what they thought).

A few months after I became an atheist, I was having lunch with my family, including my nephew who was less than a year old and kept dropping food from his high chair onto the floor. My sister (his mother), exasperated, commented: “There’s his sin nature showing.”

That was essentially how my sisters and I were raised.

Along with this was a reluctance on my parents’ part to allow me to fail. If I struggled or faltered in a pursuit, they generally stepped in to help. Since we were homeschooled, I never developed the coping mechanisms most children do for handling failure or dealing with normal challenges. So I panic, have an anxiety attack, feel like the world’s ending.

Being cognizant of this, however, I also feel stupid for feeling so out of control, for being so irrational. I also felt like a bad friend for ruining an otherwise pleasant hike.

I also realized that this fear and anxiety was holding me back—from my career, from dating, from achieving goals, etc.

About an hour into the hike, during all of this emotional unpacking, I had a moment of clarity. An inner voice said: You have a choice. You don’t have to let this fear control you.

And for a moment, I had a vision of myself crossing the river and actually enjoying the experience without freaking out.

That’s the direction I need to head.