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.

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275. vergangenheitsbewältigung

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broken-mirror
According to a Buzzfeed video, vergangenheitsbewältigung roughly translates to in English: “to deal with the past and eventually overcome it.”

Thanks to X years of coaching German lied and picking up bits and pieces of the language, I can correctly pronounce this word without much prompting.

Even the umlaut.

Unfortunately, the concept itself seems to be one I have particular difficulty with.


Let’s start with an excerpt from an episode of This American Life:

Linda Perlstein: This is the time of biggest growth for a human being, aside from infancy… what happens in your early stages of puberty is this fast overproduction of brain cells and connections, far more than you actually need. And only some of them are going to survive puberty. This growth in your frontal cortex, it peaks at 11 for girls and 12 for boys. And then what happens is the cells just fight it out for survival. And the ones that last are the ones you exercise more.

Ira Glass: In other words, during those years, your brain turns you into you, the adult you.

This got me to thinking about my own adolescence and what was happening during the formative years Perlstein is talking about.

Puberty started around age 12 for me. For most boys, it happens in community with other young males. There’s competition, and cruelty, but also camaraderie. I experienced it in a vacuum as a homeschooled youth, with two younger sisters and parents who preferred to pretend nothing was happening.

I had to educate myself about puberty and adolescence by reading medical guidebooks that we had on hand at home, and at our local public library.

This was also where I first (inadvertently) learned about homosexuality.

Puberty was frightening, and deeply uncomfortable. I had no frame of reference to compare my own bodily experience against, and nothing with which to normalize it. Rather than evolving with my body and celebrating its masculinity, it became a symbol of shame and revulsion, something to be ashamed of rather than expressed.

It didn’t help that I was also learning in church that the body was a corrupting influence and a potential tool for Satan, right around the time that I was becoming aware of my own homosexuality.

Couple that with our community’s obsession with spiritual warfare and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety and hyper awareness that would destabilize the sturdiest of people.


Just over a year ago I wrote about watching Jessica Jones, how it deals with living with life-changing trauma, and encountering one’s past to find strength in overcoming it.

The character of Kilgrave was a frightening reminder of how much voices of the past are still taking up residence in my head, whispering, distorting and shaping perceptions, essentially pulling the reins of my behavior and choices for the last few decades.

Around the same time, I also got into another Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which I found surprisingly emblematic for my own experience of having been trapped in my own proverbial bunker for fifteen years.

This second season seems to deal more with the ramifications of dealing with the trauma of having had your personal agency stolen from you in those formative middle school years, when you’re supposed to begin dealing and coping with all those complicated adult feelings and emotions.


I had a pretty good session with my therapist today in which I finally came out to her about the four personas taking up residence in my head. Writing about them over the last few weeks was good groundwork in preparing to talk about it, because I was able to hit on a few insights while describing what is going on.

One of the things my therapist said today was that people raised in extreme religious environments often fragment their personalities in the way that I described. To make sense of what we’re told every day, we mentally the bury parts of ourselves that are problematic, sinful, and “wrong” in order to be accepted, or acceptable, and to survive.

While my forward-facing social, public self has developed and grown, the four parts that I described a few posts ago—the Dark Man, the Enforcer, the Rake, and the Child—all represent parts of me that did not. In order to stay safe, they went into a sort of mental cryogenic stasis, coming out only when needed, so they didn’t mature along with the rest of me. My child self is still eight years old, the age when I took literally the Bible verse that says to “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

The Dark Man is still the critical, judgmental, severe parent that fed my perfectionist nature when my flesh-and-blood parents failed to do so. He’s largely responsible for the sense I have of being overly rigid and inflexible.

Forbidden sexual feelings that I vehemently repressed for years, never being explored, realized, or integrated healthily into my personality remain detached and largely inaccessible to this day.

The Enforcer represents the desires and ambitions that I had to squelch and suppress every day, which then inverted into a dark, malevolent, amoral force that provided the energy to kill dreams that God/my parents didn’t approve of and bury my sexual self, but which has also allowed me to kill friendships and reject my family. This is where my black-and-white thinking largely stems from.

In short, these are survival mechanisms that took on a limited life of their own, but are holding me back from true growth and flourishing.

My therapist did have one piece of advice: to not make these personas out to be bigger or more than what they are, and to not grant them too much power or agency.

She also pointed out the fact that I’m actually aware of these parts of myself that are “stuck” is a sign of significant progress.

But all of this is a huge reason why I’m still single.

I’m not prepared to unleash the Four Horsemen of my Psyche onto some unsuspecting bastard.

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.

271. mythopoeic

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babadook

Story time.

Once upon a time in a land not so far away there lived a little boy with his parents and two younger sisters in a house on the edge of a corn field.

Although the parents loved the boy and his sisters very much, and made sure that they had food to eat and clothes to wear, their religion taught them that anyone who did not believe exactly as they did would burn forever in Hell.

This made the boy’s parents very sad, but also very afraid for their children.

From the moment that the boy was born, like Thetis burning away Achilles’ mortality, his parents studied and scrutinized every word and every action for signs of worldly corruption—any signs that Satan and his demons were masters of their child instead of god.

If he dropped food off his high chair as a one-year-old, they would shake their heads and sigh, saying, “There’s his sin nature.” Then they would spank him until he finally stopped dropping food from his high chair, because they read in their holy book: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”

Ditto if he didn’t go to sleep right away at night, or didn’t finish his oatmeal, or once when his father whipped him because he mistakenly thought he’d heard the boy curse god.


Unlike most children, the parents kept their children at home instead of sending them to public school, because public schools belonged to Satan. At home, there was no lesson that did not have a Christian moral—math, history, biology, etc—and the parents read the Bible and prayed with their children each day.

Yet while their intent was to teach them about the unconditional love of their god, the boy and his sisters learned little about it from their parents.

They read in the Bible that “man looks on the outward appearance, but god looks on the heart” while learning through punishment and rewards that conformity and knowing how to play the right part in public was what truly mattered.

Though lessons about sin were intended to teach them about the grace and the love of their god, what they internalized from being told every day that there was nothing good about them, that they couldn’t do anything good (unless imprisoned, enthralled, and ravished by Jesus) was that they were bad, broken, and hateful. No one would ever love or accept them.

For the boy, being the oldest, with the weight of expectation that the parents put on him to be the model sibling for his sisters, all he could do was retreat into his imagination, into books and fantasy, hiding from the weight of the guilt and shame he felt all the time.

By age eight, had stopped smiling.

It was then that the Dark Man first appeared.


Although the boy couldn’t actually see the Man (except in dreams), he could feel him creeping, always, at the edges of his mind.

The Man would whisper that feelings like love or happiness were poor, inferior emotions for the simple or the weak—only the strong could look at life head on and not flinch. Though he could not hear the words, their chill froze his heart.

So the boy locked those feelings in a vault buried deep in his mind. He tried not to listen as they cried out in the dark, and after a time he couldn’t hear them anymore.

When the Dark Man told him it was stupid to be childlike, piece by piece the boy threw his toys and games into the black vault, sneering at innocence and youth. Inside, he began to feel more like the Dark Man every day, cold, lifeless, scowling at the world and everyone in it from behind the mask he learned to wear.

When the boy made a mistake and his parents didn’t show the disappointment he expected, the Dark Man would scream and rail at him instead about how worthless he was, how no one would ever love him, that he would never be good enough for anyone.

And when the boy became aware of the feelings he had for other boys, a thing he had been taught was forbidden, he took those desires and locked them away in the vault too.

There, in the darkness, all the things he shut away from the prying eyes of parents, teachers, pastors, and friends grew twisted and pallid, like tiny homunculi in his mind, primeval gods of the elements of himself he had buried.

The love and happiness he had abandoned became a hurt and angry child–the boy who hadn’t understood why his parents couldn’t just love and accept him.

The desires and ambitions he was supposed to surrender to god curled and twisted into a cruel, cunning schemer that would do anything to get what he wanted.

And when the boy grew older, his buried sexual feelings became a monster of desire, a dragon who, when unleashed, sought to consume and devour all things before it.


With the Dark Man, these four stood behind the mask of self the boy curated to show to the world—a face that others expected to see. With the boy’s assent, they built a wall of suspicion, cool looks, and cynicism around him to keep everyone from getting too close. They stepped forward to take over in moments when he felt uncomfortable, fearful, threatened, or inadequate. The boy thought this part of his protean, kaleidoscopic personality.

When he finally left home, they went with him, silent guardians watching and waiting who cared little for distinctions between friend and foe. The Dark Man whispered that no one was safe, that everyone would hurt and disappoint him.

Yet a piece of the boy still remained, deep within the fortress of his mind who remained redeemable and hopeful, who longed to live free in the sunlight.

Free of his prison.


Please note: though based on real experience, this story is intended only as a metaphor and should not be interpreted as describing dissociative identity (formerly “multiple personality”) disorder.