This is something that has been said to me, and about me, in the past. And there are a lot of stories on the subject out there. We want to believe that the people we love, and by extension ourselves, are people that are capable of being redeemed, of coming back from dark places in life into better, healthier ways of existing. Darth Vader pitching the Emperor into a pit to save his son. Boromir running to the rescue of Merry and Pippin after almost succumbing to the temptations of the One Ring. Tony Stark using a box of scraps — and later his vast wealth, creativity, and intellect — to solve problems he created and protect the world.
It’s a difficult thing to stare our demons in the face. Some of the mistakes that happen in our lives have catastrophic consequences. Knowingly or not, we can and often do hurt others in pursuit of our goals. Not everyone has the self-awareness or courage to face those mistakes, admit their fault, and accept the consequences. What makes Zuko’s story special is that he does all of those things, and begins making different choices. Nobody saves him; he saves himself. The only reason he takes the steps down a road to redemption is because he chooses to do so.
A lot of turning points in redemption stories come out of life-or-death situations. Anakin Skywalker’s rebirth, Boromir’s sacrifice, the creation of Iron Man — these all come to pass because the situation is dire and there’s no other moral choice. Zuko, while he endured many similar situations, did not have a dramatic “face turn” in the midst of one of them. Instead, each of his many defeats was a brick in a foundation for a new version of himself, one that he built with his own two hands, rather than the one that had been informed by the influences of others. While his uncle did attempt to guide him, in the end, the decisions he made were his own, both when he doggedly pursued the Avatar and when he decided, instead, to help his former quarry.
He began asking hard questions: what does “honor” actually mean to me? How do I want to make a difference in the world? How did my old choices lead me to failure? How can I make new ones that do make a difference? The answers to those questions, the choices he made as a result, are what lead him in a redemptive direction.
Here’s something you might miss: Zuko didn’t do this to prove anything to anyone except himself. He decided that it was worth the risk, for his own sake, to become a better version of himself.
That is how Zuko redeemed himself. That’s what makes his story powerful.
Because if Zuko, who we meet as an arrogant fuck-up, can redeem himself, for his own sake and on his own terms… then so can we.
There are some things in our lives that we don’t get to choose. I didn’t choose to be born bipolar or bisexual. People close to me didn’t choose how they were born, either. Naturally, others will treat those things as if they are choices, saying things like “just try being the gender you were born with a little longer” or “you just need to do X and you won’t be sad anymore” or “have you tried not being gay?” I hope there’s no need for me to elucidate on just how awful that ‘advice’ is. And I don’t want to make this about that. I felt it was worth saying from the outset, however, that with all of the words that follow regarding choices, I’m focusing on how we as individuals face the responsibilities that are ours every day, and the choices we make regarding those responsibilities. And while I can’t choose to not be bipolar any more than another person can choose whether or not to have been born in a body that doesn’t match who they are, when it comes to how we handle our day-to-day lives and our relationships with others, every single one of us does have a choice.
Everyone has a choice. Everyone can, and must, choose who they want to be. It may be one large overarching choice, or it can be a series of small choices that lead us to being who and what we are. There can be obstacles that make a particular choice difficult, or perhaps even obscure certain choices. At the end of the day, we are what we choose, consciously or not. And when we choose, there are ramifications of that choice, for better and for worse.
One of the biggest challenges that come with making choices is when we’re faced with choices that are new to us, outside of our comfort zones, or challenge our identities. There’s a lot of advice that people will try to sell you about not being afraid to make choices. You’ll hear things like: “Follow your dreams!” “Be bold!” “Seize the day!” Not unlike some of the other advice mentioned above, such pithy platitudes tend to be the opposite of helpful. It creates and reinforces the erroneous idea that these things are simple and straightforward. Sometimes they are — “do I toast a bagel or pour a bowl of cereal” is a pretty straightforward choice. So many other choices, though, may seem simple, when in fact they deserve at least a moment’s pause and consideration before we commit to the choice, and accept the consequences.
Clear, consistent decision-making isn’t something that we’re born knowing how to do. It takes practice. The more you do something, the better you become at it and the more ease you experience while doing it. Making decisions is, in that way, not unlike training to play a sport or learning to speak a language. It has to be done over and over. As we grow, decisions we make contribute to who we see ourselves as being, and the course that our life begins to take. And the more contributions are made towards that self-image, of both our present and future selves, the more the decisions that follow tend towards those selves.
So what happens when we try to choose something new?
Some of us fall into patterns that are bad for us. Others learn to play it safe — stick only with what “works”, what is known, even if that way doesn’t really advance any of your goals or bring you closer to accomplishing anything significant. Whatever it might be, our brains forge neural pathways associated with a set or series of choices, and our thoughts and decision-making fall into those pathways. They have their own gravity. Like the most well-worn groove on an old record attracts the stylus of a record player, our perceptions and analysis of our choices are pulled into familiar ways of thinking that, in my experience, can often lead us away from a better path forward and into stagnation or, worse, a downward spiral.
This is why it can be downright terrifying when we come to the conclusion that we need to try something new. It threatens our world-view and our state of mind. Humans are highly adaptable; we can adjust to just about any situation. We can acclimate to high altitudes, working in zero gravity, travelling to the deepest part of the ocean, and so on. Our minds are no different: given a state of affairs existing for a prolonged enough period of time, and the human mind begins to accept it as ‘the way things are’. We create a narrative for our present circumstances, and assign ourselves a role within it. The days roll on. The groove gets deeper. Our choices almost seem to make themselves.
And then, when something changes, when an event occurs that shakes things up, or there’s a moment of clarity regarding what was a toxic or untenable or stagnating situation, the idea of choosing something different, something new, rattles our cage and sets our teeth on edge. It feels like we’re doing something dangerous, something potentially catastrophic, just thinking about it. Hell, even writing on the subject somehow feels provocative, and the thought keeps occurring that maybe I should just pitch the whole damn thing and watch The Expanse again instead.
Our brains will actively resist us because the thought patterns are new and unforged. They’re not familiar. They’re not “safe”. Even if the current situation is ineffective or unsustainable, it’s what we know, and therefore it is “safer” than choosing something new. We may even find ways to reason ourselves into continuing to make those ineffective or unsustainable choices when it’s clear that making a different choice is either morally correct or will yield better, more progressive results.
That’s the thing. It’s the most frustrating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding aspects of working to make better, healthier choices for ourselves. We get to define who we are. In spite of the aspects of our lives that are out of our control, regardless of happenstances of biology or circumstance that were defined before we took our first breath, every day, every moment, is an opportunity to make at least a small tweak in the course of our lives. Some of those tweaks are more difficult to make than others; it’s the difference between “I’m going to have the spicy thai thing instead of a salad today for lunch” and “I’m going to be honest about something I’ve been ashamed of for a long time.” One is just a potentially scary experience for your tastebuds and may require a lot of extra hydration; the other could throw your entire life as you know it into upheaval.
But it’s still your life.
And as long as you are alive, you get more and more opportunities to make better and better choices.
You’re not always going to get it right. Because in addition to being alive, you’re human. Unless this is being read by some nascent upswell from the Singularity hidden somewhere in Amazon’s servers, in which case, hi we’re pretty wasteful and petty little shits most of the time but a lot of us are really nice once you get to know us so please don’t wipe out our entire race thanks? Being human means you’re fallible. You’re imperfect. And that’s okay. If you were perfect, there’d be no room for improvement. You’d have nowhere to go. And you’d be just as inscrutable to us mere mortals as we would be to you. But since so much of consumer culture tries to sell us on this or that image of “perfection”, we often find ourselves acting out of fear that we will move further away from our particular flavor of that illusion if we make some new or different choice.
And yes, you might experience a setback in pursuit of whatever it is you personally want to achieve. Hell, a choice you make might involve giving up that pursuit entirely, because it’s an unsustainable journey, or the path which would lead you there is unhealthy for you or someone you love. There are consequences to every choice we make. Even if the choice you make is to do nothing! “Nothing will happen right now if I do nothing, but I’ll keep feeling shitty and miserable.” Guess what, that’s still a consequence. Sometimes, doing nothing is the right choice, and it can be very difficult to make that choice in a situation where you feel morally or otherwise compelled to do something to make a difference. That’s all part of the horror and wonder of the human experience: seeing your choices, sussing out the consequences, and then committing to your choice.
Stepping out of the pattern of choices you know into uncharted territory can be a harrowing, earth-shattering experience. There’s a reason why a lot of people don’t do it. But if we don’t make the choice to challenge ourselves — if we don’t make apply our thoughts actively to weighing our options, considering the potential outcomes, and then making a choice that will move us in a better direction, even if it scares us to do it — what about us, and our lives, and our world, will change?
Here’s a simple question: what do you feel you are owed?
If you put in hours and hours of your time at a job, you are owed compensation for that time, right? That’s how jobs work. If your employer says they don’t owe you anything, you have rights. You can sue their asses. You earned that money. You put in the time, therefore you deserve the pay.
When people talk about entitlement, often it’s in reference to someone who quite obviously hasn’t done anything to deserve what they are after. Here’s a quick example from Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck:
Ever watch a kid cry his eyes out because his hat is the wrong shade of blue? Exactly. Fuck that kid.
There are a lot of people who, in one way or another, don’t grow up past that stage of their lives. The most obvious example is the male-bodied Internet denizen who’s acting pissed because a woman isn’t giving him the time of day, let alone nude selfies. “Look at this pathetic motherfucker,” you might say. “He’s so entitled it makes me sick.”
I’ve certainly said something along those lines in the past. I’ve also, in my own way, acted like an entitled asshole. I’ve acted like the world at large owes me something. I felt the world owed me special treatment because I was born bipolar, got bullied, lost a sister, and basically got emotionally and mentally more and more fucked up as time went on.
I was different. I was special. I felt like dogshit and I hated myself. I sought to destroy myself and sabotage everything good to prove that I deserved nothing good, especially the love of others, who in my mind should hate me too, for being such a disgusting entitled hairy nerdy weird-ass male. I was so wrapped up in hating my entitlement that I didn’t realize I felt entitled to special attention, in this case having women take turns to spit on my grave. And while I feel that, for the most part, I’ve managed to shake off a lot of that bullshit, there’s a part of me that wants to convince me that how I feel makes me somehow a special snowflake.
I feel frustrated. I feel lonely. I feel that I could have done more to not fuck up my life.
To which I say, to myself: “Guess what, dumbass, so does everyone else. And if everyone else feels that way, you are not special.“
Here’s the thing: if I’m not special, if how I feel isn’t different than how anybody else feels, what am I owed? What have I got to prove?
Not a fucking thing, is the answer.
Accepting that is more important than I can say. Along with my expectations, my other flaws, and my mistakes, once I accept this sense of entitlement, I can let go of it, and that leaves room for me to love myself.
In a previous post, I endeavored to explore and explain the root cause of the damaging, self-sabotaging, and toxic behaviors that lead me to my most recent hospitalization and the ramifications still being felt by those who were once partners, friends, and associates. I opened with a general apology, but did not dig into the specifics. That is an oversight that must be corrected, and that is the purpose of what follows.
It is not my intention to appear disingenuous due to the fact that I will not be naming names in what follows. The reality of the situation is that not everyone who has been on the receiving end of unjustified behaviors of mine is going to be receptive to an apology from me. There are those who will feel that apologies do not matter; that they are empty words. I can understand that perspective. That does not make it any less necessary for apologies to be offered when harm has been inflicted. Whenever possible, said apologies should be direct and, ideally, in person. And above all, apologies must be rooted in the facts and evidence regarding the incidents that are the topics of discussion.
Rather than lean into old habits of hyperbole and conjecture, my goal with this letter is to stick to the facts, examine what evidence I have available, and address my shortcomings and damage that I have caused to the best of my ability. An editorial note before I begin: the journalistic and straight-forward approach I am taking may come across as cold or detached. However, to present these facts in any other way would, in fact, be a disingenuous way of going about doing so. Coating what follows in language like “believe me” or “with sincerity” would lean into an old, ineffective behavior rooted in a perceived need for validation. Fuck that. Facts are what matter, here.
And the basic, fundamental fact of the reason these apologies are necessary in the first place is this: the nature of self-sabotage, especially if the ultimate goal is self-destruction, means that damage to other individuals and relationships are inevitably left in its wake. This damage is the result of choices. Deliberate choices were made, in word and in deed, that harmed other people. Some of them were people with whom I was very closely associated — friends or romantic partners. Others were people one step removed from those close associations. These are choices that I made that go back decades. And as much as I might want to, as much as any of us might want to, we can’t go back to the past to correct our mistakes. Things will never be the way they were before, and it is unhealthy to strive for such an impossible goal. What is possible, and healthy, is to look at those past mistakes and take action that is necessary now to actively engage in an attempt to make things right.
I’d like to take the time to run down some of those mistakes I’ve made, and apologize for them specifically.
It is a fact that I contain a great capacity for love. But rather than be up-front about that capacity, learn how to healthily share it, and take the capacities and comfort level of those to whom I was attracted into consideration when communicating it, I hoarded love. I actively practiced deception, breaking promises and cheating. Be it due to that fear of abandonment, a lack of education and self-awareness regarding the nature of the structure of polyamory that’s best for me, embarrassment or another nameless dread, simply not knowing how to love myself or accept the love of others, or a combination of the above, I willfully and knowingly deceived my lovers. For that, for breaking hearts that I did and still hold as precious and even sacred, I am sorry.
It is a fact that I have been questioning my own sanity and the foundation of my actions for a long time. I have, in the past, encouraged others to do so. It can be healthy to check and correct ourselves when it is appropriate. To my great regret and shame, I have on occasion leveraged that language to avoid an honest discussion about my behaviors. I did so in a way that made others, usually women, question their own viewpoints or even sanity. That is gaslighting, by its textbook definition. For that, for not imagining people complexly enough, I am sorry.
It is a fact that those who are uncomfortable with their own behaviors can project those behaviors on to others. Knowing that many of my toxic behaviors could, and in some cases did, constitute as abusive, and unwilling to admit even to myself that I could act in abusive ways, I would project. I accused others, those directly involved with me and those who are friends or lovers of close connections, of being abusers themselves. I projected outward, rather than looking inward. I made the problems I was facing into problems of someone else. I transformed my internal disease and its symptoms into external enemies. Rather than face what was within, I said “This person is an abuser,” when I should have been recognizing and correcting those behaviors within myself. For that, for these false accusations and the pain and doubt they caused, I am sorry.
It is a fact that those who bear insecurities can seek attention or validation from others. As important as it can be to check oneself and receive validation as well as correction, to rely overmuch on the attention and validation of others is neither responsible nor constructive behavior. It puts too much weight on other people to do the emotional labor of the individual. It’s never a bad thing to ask for help, but one must be committed to doing one’s own work when nobody else is around. I failed to do that, and counted too much on others to lift the weight that is mine to carry. For that, for making far too many conversations all about my problems, I am sorry.
It is a fact that human minds can often reach for the simplest solutions to a problem or question. Too often an individual will Occam’s Razor their way into a conclusion that does not include all of the facts, or does not take the perspective or experiences of another individual into account. Especially when it comes to thoughts born of anxiety, jumping to conclusions can lead to ineffective or even toxic decisions or behaviors. When your anxiety tells you that everyone secretly hates you and is eventually going to abandon you, you may jump to the conclusion that you might as well accelerate that process to get it over with. That was a conclusion I jumped to on more than one occasion. For that, for making assumptions rather than seeking clarification and facts, I am sorry.
It is a fact that a codependent or “people-pleasing” individual may not know when to say “no.” The over-reliance upon others mentioned above, as well as unhealthy attachment or expectations, may prompt an individual to be more permissive than is healthy when it comes to the requests or needs of others. They will step over their own boundaries, should said boundaries be defined in the first place, and move into ultimately damaging territory to meet a perceived need, or fulfill a commitment that is somehow implied where none might exist. For my part, I would too often adopt the notion that I had to please a primary partner and see to their needs “no matter the cost,” even if something I was doing to fulfill that was hurting me. I would act as if my needs or wants did not matter. That became a gateway for many of the behaviors I have already addressed and apologized for. I weakened myself, perhaps deliberately on a sub-conscious level, in the name of doing perceived good. For that, for not defining my boundaries and harming myself with a thousand small well-intentioned cuts, I am sorry.
I have, in the aforementioned previous entry on this platform, delineated the explanation and motivation behind these shortcomings and sins. That information is still available. They are relevant facts in the matters at hand. Yet, without the apologies and the commitment to get and be and do better going forward, it is mere bloviation, weightless words on the wind. In the past, I have offered apologies and stated a commitment towards recompense. While these sentiments were sincere, I failed to follow through, choosing to scratch the surface rather than dig deep. Instead of repairing damage done, it pushed me towards deeper recesses of self-sabotage and self-destruction. For that, for merely appearing to do the work and ultimately making things worse, I am sorry.
Every one of these mistakes that I have laid out was caused by damage and shortcomings within myself. No other individual bears the blame for them. While there may have been triggering situations or interactions that involved others, the ways in which the individual responds to triggers is solely the decision of the individual. It is through experience, education, and examination that an individual can cultivate better and healthier responses to triggers, and that has been and will continue to be the focus of my therapy and my work. I can no longer be satisfied with scratching the surface to deal with immediate emotional crises, let alone congratulate myself and prompt others to congratulate me for such shallow work that evidence has shown is detrimental to true progress. I must instead dig deep into the root causes of my flaws to discover the means to bring joy into the lives of those around me, rather than endanger them through my hubris and self-hatred. I want to learn to love myself, the way I love others.
My intent in all of this is to deeply explore and repair my internal damage for my own sake. While making the apologies above is an important part of contributing to my healing process, as well as the healing process of those affected by my actions, the fact is that you might not care. It might not matter to you. That is understandable. Feelings of hurt and betrayal and shock and disappointment are justifiable in the face of my previous, toxic behaviors. The fact that my explanations, and my apologies, may never reach their intended audience is unfortunate, but it is part of the consequences of my actions. I do not have the right to make the decision regarding the reception nor the acceptance of these apologies. I am sorry for my behavior, but I do not get to make those apologies to certain people for one reason or another. I just hope that those people are okay.
Trauma is not an excuse for toxic behavior. There is no excuse for abuse, full fucking stop. Even if one is abusing oneself, it is an abhorrent behavior. And there are always ramifications. I began this writing by saying we need to stick to the facts and examine the evidence. The fact is that when we set out to harm ourselves, we inevitably harm others. The evidence of those hurt and shocked and disappointed in the social circles on the other side of the bridges I burned directly speaks to that fact. I am unable, nor do I have the right, to walk up to each and every individual in those circles and say I’m sorry. But if an opportunity presents itself to do so, I will. Because I am sorry. I feel guilty and remorseful. And I’m working to ensure these things never happen again, to myself or to anyone else, to the best of my ability.
Penance does not have to be some grandiose public display. It does not have to be self-flagellation or self-isolation. Penance can, and perhaps should, take the form of rehabilitation, the difficult and deliberate work of kicking over the rocks of one’s soul and confronting that which crawls out from underneath. I will never ‘defeat’ the ‘enemy’ that is my trauma and the aberrant thoughts that dwell in my Shadow as a result of that trauma. I must learn to live with and above those constructs. And I will spend the rest of my life doing so. While those harmed and alienated by my previous behaviors may never forgive me — while you may never forgive me — the fact remains that I owe it to you, and to myself, to ensure that my life is not ultimately “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Thank you for your patience. I hope this finds you well.
It’s been a while. And I’m not sure we’ve actually met.
I don’t think this is comfortable for anyone involved. There are a lot of people, who saw who I was and tried to be there for me, that think of me or look in my direction and are completely baffled by or uncertain of who I am. For months I became more and more unrecognizable, even to myself, and confused those closest to me with decisions and behaviors that were, for lack of a better term, aberrant. It took a catastrophic turn of events, largely the result of my own actions. Some saw it coming; others are still reeling from the aftermath. For my part, it caused me to finally sit with myself, as I should have long ago, and look unflinchingly at who I am, and the gap that had been widening between that person and who I’ve wanted to be.
Let me state, for the record, that none of what follows is meant to be an excuse or attempt at exoneration for my actions. I own, and accept, that I made the choices that lead to so much disaster, shock, pain, and loss. Regardless of the influences and experiences that motivated those choices, I still made them, and the consequences for doing so are mine. I caused damage to people I hold very dear, violated boundaries, manipulated situations, broke trust, and inflicted emotional wounds. To those victims, for whatever it might be worth: I am so, so sorry.
Okay. Deep breath. We’re diving into this mess.
In the past, I have externalized some of my emotions and thought patterns and called them ‘head weasels’. Anger and depression and hubris and anxiety — each was their own entity. At one point, as I was trying to tell one from the other back in 2016, I started giving them their own personalities. I didn’t realize then, and perhaps to some extent couldn’t know, that each of them was part of something larger, something deeper, something far more sinister. Like a kraken lurking in the darkest of waters under an unsuspecting boat, it would reach up with this or that tentacle to push the boat off-course, damage it, even try to sink it. It didn’t just appear out of nowhere for no reason one day. I know why it’s there, and I know who set off the process that spawned it.
I was a smart kid, even from a young age. I was brought into a ‘gifted’ program in my elementary school. The teacher once told my parents that “Josh will never be accepted by his peers; he marches to the beat of his own drum.” She had no idea how right she was. My school was part of a district very big on athletics, football most of all. Most boys my age were being groomed for that — the cheering crowds, the scholarships, endorsement deals, NFL contracts, all of it. They moved in groups, developing swaggering machismo from a young age. They didn’t care about grades, and not much about what other people thought of them, either. They were, in their own minds and the eyes of their parents and the system, nascent golden gods. It seemed like everything was handed to them.
I never assumed that. My dad instilled in me the importance of working hard from the start. I always saw him working. On more than one occasion, I’d walk into the dining room at my parents’ old house and have to walk around to see him past the stacks of legal documents he had to parse through. I knew he was doing it for us, to show up at his job as his best self — I didn’t have that vocabulary back then to describe it this way, but I knew it deep down. And I wanted to be like my dad. I looked up to him and believed in him. So I worked hard at school, not just to get good grades, but to be a good boy. I talked to my teachers, I tried to help others in need, especially the girls around me. My sisters, one older and one younger, impressed upon me how important it was for me to treat others of their gender well. So I did the best I could.
I didn’t always get things right. I made mistakes – the sorts of mistakes all kids make, to one extent or another, when they see what they can get away with when their parents aren’t looking. Poking around areas of the house that one shouldn’t, or doing something without my parents’ permission. I even peeked under my parents’ bed before Christmas one year. And I was always terribly ashamed of those mistakes. I’d fib about mistakes I made to try and hide that shame. My mother always knew when I was fibbing. She tried to tell me how important it was to always own my mistakes, to be honest, and to accept responsibility for everything I did, good and bad. It’s a lesson that I should have internalized, and possibly would have, if something else hadn’t gotten there first.
I was ten years old. There were three of them — preening, spoiled boys raised on the vicarious expectations of their fathers and a steady diet of hyper-masculine 80’s action movies. I was walking down the hall. Two of them grabbed me, while the third pulled off my backpack. Holding me by the arms, they pulled me to the side of the hall. The one with my backpack opened the door to the girl’s bathroom, and I was tossed inside. They laughed.
“Yeah!” The third boy, their leader I guess, opened my backpack and threw it in after me. Books and papers scattered everywhere. “That’s where you belong, nerd!“
They walked away and the door swung shut.
I don’t know how long I was laying there, crying, before I stood up and started gathering my things.
A part of me stayed on those cool, pink, little square tiles for the next 30 years.
I never told my parents about it. Hell, I didn’t even remember it this clearly until recently. It got lumped in with “I was bullied” as a general statement, which usually was the beginning and the end of my description of events of my early childhood. But in that moment, on that floor, the thing in the shadowy depths of my psyche began to take shape.
You’re a nerd. You’re an outcast. You’re a loner. People hate that. You should hate it too.
It was the first time in my life that I wanted to die.
Somehow I’d failed in being a good boy, in being a person people liked. How? What had I done wrong? As far as I could tell, nothing; I’d simply had the audacity to exist. For two years I let other, less aggressive bullying, mostly in the form of ridicule and heckling, sink into my mind to reinforce the idea that every breath I took was somehow offensive, or a mistake.
The only person I told about this at the time was my big sister, Jen.
I came home one day from school and opened the kitchen cabinet. I looked up at the big knives Mom kept on a magnetic strip to keep them out of reach of us kids. But I was taller, now. I could reach the knives. I could stop hurting. Because it would hurt less if I used one of those sharp knives. Right?
I closed the door, walked upstairs, knocked on my sister’s door, and before she even finished asking who was there, I opened it.
Jen shrieked, because she’d been changing. I backed out and apologized, but didn’t close the door all the way. I just looked away and started crying.
She asked me to come in and to talk to her. She stood on the other side of her bed from me, sheet held up against her chest, listening to me. We talked for a long time; she told me that I was going to be okay, that those boys didn’t matter, that I was a good boy with a good heart that people really loved. I said I didn’t know how to keep going, that I just wanted to stop hurting so much. Jen told me that the best thing to do was to keep going forward, doing what I was doing. “It’s going to hurt sometimes,” she said. “Best thing you can do is suck it up and deal with it.” I remember her looking at me with this mix of sympathy and determination. “You do that by remembering that you’re loved, you’re smart, you’re funny; if nothing else, remember that I love you, and I don’t want you to quit.”
I stepped out into the hall to let her finish changing. She came out of her room and hugged me tight, and told me again how much she loved me.
I kind of fell in love with her a little bit in that moment.
When I was sixteen, she was engaged to be married. We had talked about her boyfriend, who I liked, even if a part of me was a little jealous of him getting so much of her attention. But I was getting used to it. I liked seeing Jen become more and more of her own person. I told her so, in one of the last conversations I remember having with her. She was so happy; she practically glowed. She told me that she wanted the same for me. She’d heard me sing, seen me act, read my writing. She asked me to never stop telling stories, because that was what I was born to do.
She was killed not long after that.
It was a horrible car accident. The bridge she and her fiancee were driving on was heavily fogged in. She was driving as carefully as she always did — well, unless ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was on the radio, which meant she’d hit the gas while she and I headbanged like idiots from ‘Wayne’s World’. This was anything but; driving in fog had always tended to make her nervous. She barely saw the tractor trailer in time to swerve. According to the police report, she swerved in a way that put her side of the car towards the trailer and aimed her for the other lane. She hit the trailer on her side of the car, and then another vehicle, an orange pick-up, slammed into her back end. Her little Plymouth was shoved even harder into the big truck. The rear fender, at about head level for those seated in a normal car, shattered the driver’s side window on its way towards her head. She was killed instantly.
Her fiancee got away with a bruise from the seat belt and some scratches from his glasses. And the emotional scars, of course. We all were our own wrecks in the wake of what happened. And like the girl’s bathroom, a part of me never walked away from where I’d been standing next to the cardboard box my mother was crying over, our last letters to Jen in an envelope slid under one of the thin straps holding it shut, ready to be rolled into where she’d be cremated.
I left my home the first chance I got, going to university an hour away, and then moving to the other side of the state after that. It hurt too much to stay. I wanted to be my own person, the way that Jen had been. And if I’d gotten into an accident of my own, I wouldn’t really complain. I did get into a few over the next couple of years, but I always ended up walking away, usually without a scratch. That didn’t seem fair. What made me special? Why was I still here, and Jen wasn’t? Like a black hole in my soul, my grief grew until it obscured all that had come before it, including the little boy still on the floor of the girl’s bathroom in that elementary school.
I wanted to die more than ever, but how could I make that happen? How would it possibly be okay if I did that? I was loved and supported; I couldn’t let down the people who still wanted to see me be my own person, to live up to my potential, to be happy.
Ah, came the logic from that slowly maturing and growing kraken. But what if you did let them down? What if you did something so heinous and selfish that they hated you, instead of loving you?
That would make it okay. That would mean they wouldn’t mourn you the way you do Jen. They’d throw a fucking party to celebrate.
And you won’t care. You won’t be in pain. You won’t have to keep trying so hard.
Again, this is something I didn’t realize was happening until much, much later. And even when I did realize it, the behaviors were so deeply ingrained that I couldn’t necessarily stop them before they happened. And then, ashamed of the actions I’d chosen to take to act on those thoughts and emotions, I’d lie about it. Which, of course, ended up making it worse. It created time bombs in my relationships. And when they went off, they went off in spectacular fashion. The ramifications of my actions fueled my shame and self-hatred, which pushed my thoughts back in a suicidal direction. Every time it happened, I came a little bit closer to doing something I couldn’t take back.
Along the way, I tried to understand what was going wrong, what I was doing wrong. At the time, seeing each of these individual tendrils as isolated feelings rather than realizing they were connected to a greater, central source of trauma and internalized toxicity, I failed to really get to the heart of the matter. This was especially true in the last year; looking back, I cannot help but admit that the harder I tried to do better, the more I failed and made things worse. The worst part was, I didn’t realize I was failing. I thought I was making progress, and I’d talk about the work I was doing, patting myself on the back and looking for approval or validation from others. I didn’t know, as ill-equipped as I was, and as deeply I was engaged in self-deception, that all of that work was merely scratching the surface. And all the while, the timers on those bombs I’d laid in my relationships, the best relationships I’ve ever had in my entire life, were tick, tick, ticking away.
Then, on March 28 2019, they went off. All of those lies, and all of the harmful decisions I’d made, from actively hiding or obfuscating communication to engaging in gaslighting behavior, came screaming into the light to drown out everything but one quiet voice in my head.
There. You see? You really are everything you claim to hate. Look what you did to these people you’re in love with, and the ones that trusted you, that believed in you. You broke their hearts. You showed them your true colors. Well done, good and faithful servant.
You’re the monster. It’s time to slay the monster. Go ahead. You won’t be missed. It’s okay. It’s the right thing to do. It’s time for you to pay for your crimes. Man up and get it done. The sooner you’re gone, the sooner everyone can get on with their lives. Prove that at the very least you’re not a fucking coward. Go on. Do it.
I almost did. My behaviors had finally pushed my emotions past their breaking point, and that turned my thoughts to a single goal: self-destruction. My behaviors then moved my body away from work, away from love, away from everything but that final, fatal act. It was only the intervention of strangers, whose names I wish I knew and whose faces I’ll never forget, that I’m able to sit here and write about how behaviors begat emotion begat thoughts begat behaviors.
Let me take a moment to expound on that interaction.
This triangle, a concept in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), illustrates the effect our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors have on one another. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and in an ideal world, there would be balance between the three vertices.
Part of bipolar disorder, as I’ve discovered, is that the mercurial nature of the emotions and perceptions that are generated and influenced by the chemicals in the brain can be difficult to predict or to control at times. Environmental factors, triggers, and the potential for rapid cycling all contribute towards when and how those chemicals are generated. The upshot of this is that the emotional vertex of the triangle above isn’t something over which we always have control or influence.
However, we always have control over our thoughts and behaviors. While our emotions directly influence both of these things, we can choose how that influence is interpreted and applied. When emotions are particularly intense, these choices can be difficult to discern. We may even feel that we have only one choice to make. This is almost never the case. Even if it takes more time or energy than we’d prefer, at the very least, we can choose to allow our emotions to simply be felt or examined, rather than allowing them to have a direct immediate influence on our thoughts or behaviors.
The importance of understanding this relationship, especially for those with mental illness, cannot be understated. It takes work and time devoted to self-exploration to understand it on a fundamental level and apply that understanding to our everyday lives. Personally, I would not be where I am now, in terms of showing up as a person whose outward persona matches their inner self, if I did not take the time to do that work, both in the past and in the present. I highly encourage you to look into this further, and it is a subject on which I plan on writing and speaking more in the future. I hope you’ll find that insight useful.
When I woke up in the 7-North wing of the UW Medical Center on the day after they’d brought me in, I made a decision. I knew I couldn’t trust my own mind, not as it was, and I had to find a way to do that, once and for all. I decided that this would be the last time I ended up in a place like that, the last time I punished myself for my actions to the point I sought my own death penalty, the last time I hurt and betrayed people I love so dearly. Nobody deserved what I’d done to them. I didn’t deserve to do these things to myself. If nothing else, it would be worth my time to once and for all find a way to not be so incredibly miserable all the time.
It’s only been a handful of weeks since that day, but the changes are manifesting themselves already in ways that I could not have anticipated. I was expecting to be in the hospital for a long time, but they discharged me in relatively short order. I didn’t get the impression they were trying to get rid of me, either. In fact, the reaction I was getting from pretty much everyone was that I was on the right track, and walking the right path, maybe for the first time. And I’m still getting that impression, from what I feel might have been the most unlikely of sources.
The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. Mostly it’s because “Walk” by the Foo Fighters is a very good song to describe what I’m going through right now. I’ve talked the talk before, about doing The Work. If and when you see me now, you’ll see me walking the walk.
And for the record, I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for me. Because I’m worth it.
We can’t go back to the past. We can’t undo the mistakes that we’ve made. We can only own them, admit to our part in events, and make the effort to get and be and do better. And the sooner we start that process, in and for ourselves, being honest with ourselves first and foremost, the sooner that effort we make gives us tangible results. I am sorry for what happened, what I did, and how much damage my choices caused. This was going to happen, eventually, and it happened in the worst possible way, and I’m sorry for that, too.
I no longer want to die. I believe in myself too much to want that. I have too many hopes for the future to want that. And at the end of the day, I’m far too stubborn to let a trio of insecure little boys who hated what they didn’t understand determine the course of the rest of my life. Now that I see these things for who and what they are, I can deal with them. Not fight them, not attack them, but deal with them.
And it started with me going into that bathroom, helping that hurt and terrified 10-year-old boy off of the floor, wrapping him in my arms, and telling him that we are going to be okay.
I tell him that we’ve stumbled quite a few times since he ended up in that bathroom. We’ve made some big mistakes. We’ve hurt people. And we’ve hurt ourselves most of all. We’ve hindered ourselves, gotten in our own way, even come close to breaking. But we’re not broken. We’re still here. And there’s still a world ahead of us, and we’re walking into it, one step at a time.
The most important thing is, every time I’ve stumbled, to one degree or another, I’ve managed to get back up. I had trouble in the past seeing what it was that had truly knocked me down. Now I see these things for what they are, and I’ve realized I was fighting back against them with one hand tied behind my back. And embracing things, accepting things, and committing to treating them and myself better works more effectively if one uses both arms.
I believe in that little boy. I believe in the teen who was struggling not to completely fall apart over his beloved big sister’s body. I believe in myself, here and now. I have it in me to right the course of my ship, run out onto bowsprit, glare down into the depths of the waters in the inscrutable face of all of the pain and trauma and self-hatred that wanted to destroy me for so long, that even now fights to survive and prevail over my better nature and my innermost Self, and say the words “I AM.“
In my mind, I then flip that eldritch abomination the bird, get back behind the wheel, and steer for warmer and cleaner waters. Forget living in the past and fuck wallowing in self-pity and misery. I have too many awesome things to accomplish; I can’t waste one more second doing any of that shit.
Radically accepting that truth isn’t the same as fighting the old, internalized aspects of my Shadow, viewing them as antagonists or monsters to be slain or destroyed. Doing that has caused more problems than it’s solved, and caused the people around me to become casualties of a war that raged entirely in my own head. Rather, it’s healthier and more constructive to sit with them, see them for what they are, understand where they came from, and allow them to exist as parts of me that have gotten in my way before and still could. Making the choice to move past them after accepting them in that way is not only the better choice to make, it’s an empowering one. Things only have the power we give them; when I make that choice, I’m taking power back for myself, to show up and keep moving forward, allowing me to be the person I am and want to be.
We can easily get hung up on the thought that we “must” or “are supposed” to be or act a certain way. Those thoughts are erroneous, based almost entirely on external influences. Our source of truth is within ourselves, and is sovereign and self-contained. Embracing that, and manifesting it in our everyday lives, allows us to succeed in being who we are, rather than failing in trying to achieve an erroneous or even unrealistic goal.
Things can get in our way in being able to reach that source. We can make wrong choices, act on incomplete or incorrect information, or fuck things up spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t better choices to make, even in the wake of a mistake, especially if we own the fact that we made that mistake, rather than denying, projecting, or trying to shout down the truth. There are always better choices to make.
It’s never too late to start making those choices. It’s never too late to start over, try again, to get and be and do better.
And that is a choice that, now more than ever, is the first and most important one I make every single day.
I’m standing on my own two feet, and I’m taking deliberate steps forward, one day and one moment at a time.