Embracing Resistance

In Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays, Hayden Carruth states, “Everything I know as a writer and critic, everything I know about poetry and life, tells me that the effort to analyze a feeling makes that feeling stronger, not weaker” (60).

As a confessional writer, I analyze my feelings often, but compulsive self-analysis can turn into self-judgement when I label certain feelings “unacceptable.” Debilitating sadness is unacceptable. I need to toughen up and become a productive member of society. Chronic anxiety is unacceptable. I need to loosen up and take charge of my life.

I assume that Carruth, who battled depression and anxiety for decades, understood the power of shame to compound suffering. Living with mental illness is hard enough. Fighting the stigma of mental illness, the shame I’ve internalized, is equally daunting.

Shame stifles my creativity and restricts my being. I write best when I acknowledge, without judgment, how I really feel. When I’m depressed, my body feels heavier than a pile of anvils. When I’m anxious, my body feels like a desert trapped in a grain of sand. I worry that sharing details like these makes me look bad, but if my depression and anxiety won’t shut up, why should I stay silent? To write freely, Carruth might remind me, is to heal.

But where my body is concerned, I’ll never have the last word. In the throes of a depressive episode, my body won’t get out of bed. Nothing and no one, not even me, can force it to rise. There’s an anger immune to reason flowing through me, a defiant inner child reclaiming his power.

When it’s fed up with the world, my body says no. It accepts that it doesn’t work right. My body owns what it lacks. Rejecting the false memory of a unity it never had, my body challenges society’s bogus requirement to always be rational, driven, and self-sufficient. My body pushes back against the double trauma inflicted upon it: the trauma of having a mental illness and the trauma of feeling ashamed about having a mental illness.

I keep using the word shame, but defining it isn’t easy. On my worst days I feel like my soul is damaged. I blame myself for being depressed and hate myself for hating myself. Hearing people I care about tell me they love me doesn’t stop my internal critic from judging me. I feel unworthy of love and acceptance despite the fact that everyone, by virtue of being alive, deserves both.

Depression is hidden; it doesn’t look like a broken leg or third-degree burns. People fear what they can’t see and judge others for exhibiting odd behaviors they can’t explain. We’re aware of the stereotype of the madman or madwoman. I know how alone they feel.

No matter how society tries to define me, I live my depression in my own way. I’m free to write that I feel like my soul is damaged, but I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that I have a soul in the first place. But writing that my soul is damaged is my (hyperbolic) statement; it is unique to me. Everything I write is an expression of my singularity. My resistance, too, is an expression of my singularity. Everything and everyone I resist, I resist in my own way.

If I wake up one morning and my body feels like a pile of anvils, the first step I should take to get out of bed is to not get out of bed right away. Stay numb. Be one with my mourning. When I feel depressed, to feel better later, I must do depression well.

It’s important to challenge negative thoughts, to take my meds, and to go to therapy, but it also helps to recognize that parts of me haven’t healed, can’t be healed, or refuse to be healed. My body is stubborn. I need to embrace its resistance.

The Sadness And The Nerves

This is a chapter from my story The Education of Chris Truman, which I’ve only just begun and may never finish.

In November 2019, after four months away from treatment, Chris Truman was glad to be back in therapy. He couldn’t manage his daily struggles with the Sadness and the Nerves on his own. Out of ideas, he hadn’t updated his blog, Creative Type, in a while. He feared the stories he told himself about himself belonged to someone else. He saw his face for what it was: a mask he couldn’t remove. As Jean-Paul Sartre might have said, Truman was what he wasn’t and wasn’t what he was.

A blog, like a psychological history, sees many revisions. Inspiration takes time. Truman sometimes went weeks without writing anything, but then, out of the blue, he wanted to share his entire life story with the world. His output depended on his moods, and his moods changed rapidly. A single thought could lift or crush his spirits. The ups and downs were exhausting. How would he ever make a living as a writer if he couldn’t write every day? Revising is important, but eventually a writer needs new material to revise.

Returning to therapy reminded Truman of his first hospitalization for mental illness, on February 21, 2003. After suffering a breakdown at work, overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of his position as a receiving clerk at a grocery store, Truman felt like his brain was on fire. His body, too weak to carry his soul, fell to pieces. Barely a year out of college, he couldn’t cope with the real world, which didn’t give a shit about how well he did in school.

After spending three hours in the emergency room, Truman found himself on Five Center, the psych ward at Woodview Hospital. Robert, a disheveled young man dressed in a pink robe, greeted him in the hallway.

“My moods have a mind of their own,” Robert said. “If I lived in a zoo, I’d be a bipolar bear.”

Truman didn’t care much for puns in his condition. He was too busy obsessing about his failures. He wasn’t a high school English teacher, his plan before college. He wasn’t a graduate student training to become an English professor, his plan after college. He was a writer, but his poems and stories were too self-conscious, too cerebral. Rather than expressing himself naturally, he tried too hard to sound profound.

After examining his thoughts and judging his choices, doctors determined Truman was an Existentialist with a serious case of the Sadness and the Nerves. They gave him medications that stifled his creativity. He was expected to return to society, which eventually he did, but not without questioning the merits of his discharge instructions. He was told to be a man, to work hard, perhaps in an office, and, above all, to be happy. Truman knew he couldn’t meet society’s demands to take charge of his destiny and reach his full potential. He knew that, in an act of defiance, he was going to write a book about his inability to lead a normal life—a book in which he’d try too hard to sound profound.

Recalling his experiences at Woodview Hospital got Truman thinking about Chuck Snoad, a fictional character who was really Chris Truman in disguise. Inspired in college by Henry Adams’s autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, in which Adams refers to himself in the third person, Truman created Snoad in 2001 as his literary double.

Whereas Truman graduated from Pinehurst College in 2002, worked at Gem Foods, and loved a woman named Penny, Snoad graduated from Elmhurst College in 2002, worked at Jewel Foods, and loved a woman named Jenny. Told from a third person limited point of view, Truman’s self-conscious (auto)biography, The Education of Chuck Snoad, gave him countless opportunities to mock himself for knowing so little about the real world.

Snoad was also a writer. His struggles were Truman’s struggles, and vice versa. They were the same person(a). Both tried to describe, in their own words, the ups and (mostly) downs of living with the Sadness and the Nerves—knowing full well that it’s impossible to speak of madness without going mad.

An Other-Fulfilling Prophecy

After just two months of going it alone, I’ve decided to return to therapy at my old clinic. I might have to wait six to eight weeks for a spot, so I’m glad I called and got my name on a list.

Not long after my last session with my former therapist, who left for a new job, I started feeling down and disconnected. Questions arose. Should I tough it out and manage my symptoms on my own? Should I go back to my old clinic or choose a different one closer to home? My mind went into hyper-obsessive mode. Knowing that I couldn’t make a “wrong” decision, I nevertheless struggled to make the “right” decision.

Perhaps I should’ve listened to Jean Baudrillard, who writes in Cool Memories V:

One cannot reasonably trust in the will, that rational strategy that works only one time in ten. One has, rather, to clear the decks around a decision, leave it hanging, then let oneself slide into it, as though being sucked in, with no thought for causes and effects. To be willed by the decision itself; in a sense, to give in to it. The decision then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (66)

Baudrillard would argue that my decision to return to therapy made itself for me ahead of time. It called me, seduced me. I simply had to give in to it.

The moment I told my former therapist I wanted to take time off from treatment, I knew in the back of my mind I’d be a client again somewhere soon. Two months later, here I am confirming what I suspected all along: I still need help for my depression and anxiety, and probably will for the rest of my life.

Therapy, of course, doesn’t benefit me alone. In treatment I can seek a happier, healthier me, or any me yet to be. I can challenge my impulse to isolate when I’m depressed, thus creating more opportunities to build new friendships and share my gift of writing with the world.

A socially conscious philosopher, Jacques Derrida writes in For What Tomorrow, “My decision is and ought to be the decision of the Other in me, a ‘passive’ decision, a decision of the Other that does not exonerate me from responsibility” (53).

Synthesizing Baudrillard’s and Derrida’s novel approaches, I see that my decision to return to therapy has already become an Other-fulfilling prophecy.

Double Vision

Below is the introduction to my 2018 book, Double Meaning.

Being Human

This is a brief introduction to a short book. I would’ve written more, but I strained my eyes searching for inspiration.

Three chapters follow this introduction. They contain revised posts (originally written between September 2016 and August 2018) from my blog, Sharp Left Turns.

To maintain flow, I made every word count. No throwaway lines or bloated paragraphs. Still, being human, I’ve made mistakes. Please forgive me for retaining here or there unnecessary words. Or adding dashes—sometimes mid-sentence—to impress you.

Double Reading

We can read “double meaning” two ways. First, “double” as an adjective. Second, “double” as a verb. A statement of purpose: I doubled meanings in Double Meaning to undermine Meaning itself—to fight the (t)error of systematic reason and question (my own) authority. This wasn’t a license to peddle nonsense. I wrote a book full of non-answers in which I tried very hard to make certain words mean something profound.

Vulnerable Position

This book puts me in a vulnerable position.

I wrote in my first book, The Intimacy of Communication, about enduring years of physical and psychological abuse, but I didn’t reveal the whole truth.

I’m ready now to share that I was sexually abused as a child. I’ve hesitated for years to share my story outside of therapy, but the #MeToo movement inspired me to come forward.

Without minimizing the experience of female survivors, I can say that male survivors of sexual trauma who tell their stories risk looking weak in the eyes of other men—and women.

We’re taught that a real man protects himself, defends his manhood, and hides his insecurities. There’s no hiding, though, from this fact: according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one out of every ten rape victims is male.

Loving Touch

Sexual abuse is a violation of touch. Adults abused as children often fear intimacy, which adds to their suffering. Survivors—compared to people without a history of trauma—need more touch in their lives.

I was blessed in high school to fall in love with a smart, caring, beautiful girl named Jenny. She provided the loving touch I needed in a moment of crisis.

I remember our walks together in the summer of 1995—the scent of her perfume on my shirt after a long hug goodnight.

In the midst of a winter I feared would never end, I found within Jenny an invincible summer I’ll never forget.

The Otherness of Me

My favorite thinker, Jean Baudrillard, writes in Cool Memories V: “There is reason to be jealous at being seen by others from the outside and having only that distorting mirror of oneself that is self-knowledge.”

I recognize myself in Baudrillard’s description of “that distorting mirror.” Despite the love and support of family and friends, I struggle to show myself compassion. I beat myself up for minor mistakes, discount my accomplishments, and blame myself for being abused.

Healing hurts. I can’t move on without acknowledging the shadow within me—the Otherness of me that, long before the birth of Consciousness, sprang from Nothingness to be me.

Dark fantasies, violent dreams, death wishes: I’m incomplete without my shadow, imperfect without my flaws, unoriginal without my sins.

The Spirit of Mystery

The search for meaning ends when we think we know ourselves, when everything is crystal clear, when every word speaks (only) for itself.

To keep the spirit of mystery alive, I need my shadow to mislead me, my double to deceive me. If I ever found myself, how could I go on living?

Blank Sage

“When you gaze for a long time into an abyss,” Nietzsche proclaims in Beyond Good and Evil, “the abyss also gazes into you.”

When I stare too long at a blank page, the blank page stares back at me.

I had an outline for this book, a series of visions and re-visions, but the book wrote itself with little help from me.

I’m nothing more than a blank sage.

Post-Traumatic Yes

Post-trauma, my body lost its sense of direction. I’m working in therapy to reconnect with my body, to feel what I feel without judgement.

Post-trauma, my soul lost Direction. I’m learning to identify and verbalize my values—lofty goals I’ve pursued in Double Meaning.

After years of saying no to life, I see this book as the start of my post-traumatic yes.

Going forward, I must accept that I will remain conflicted—that I will suffer but endure the burden of being a deep (over)thinker.

Going forward, I must accept that I will remain afflicted—that I will suffer but endure the burden of being human.

Insight: a glimpse into the mirror of one’s shadow inducing double vision.

Why The Moon Is A Wild Creature

Below is the inspiration for my latest poem, “The Moon Is a Wild Creature.” It’s a passage by Hayden Carruth from Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays.

Hat tip to Jacqueline Winter Thomas and her Tumblr page, heteroglossia, where I found Carruth, sad in the Universe, proclaiming:

I had always been aware that the Universe is sad; everything in it, animate or inanimate, the wild creatures, the stones, the stars, was enveloped in the great sadness, pervaded by it. Existence had no use. It was without end or reason. The most beautiful things in it, a flower or a song, as well as the most compelling, a desire or a thought, were pointless. So great a sorrow. And I knew that the only rest from my anxiety—for I had been trembling even in infancy—lay in acknowledging and absorbing this sadness.

A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote, “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

Hide And Seek Truth

In Please Follow Me, Jean Baudrillard sees a familiar game in a new light.

Consider one of life’s original situations: that of a hide and seek game. What a thrill to be hidden while someone’s looking for you, what a delightful fright to be found, but what a panic when, because you are too well hidden, the others give up looking for you after a while and leave. If you hide too well, the others forget you. You are forced to come out on your own when they don’t want you anymore. That is hard to take. It’s like turning too fine a phrase, so subtle that you are reduced to explaining it. Nothing is sadder than having to beg for existence and returning naked among the others. Therefore, it’s better not to know how to play too well; it’s better to know how to let others unmask you and to endure the rule of the game. Not too fast, not too late. (85)

When I was a child, an older boy who claimed to be my friend bullied and abused me when nobody was looking. For example, after defeating me in a game of basketball, he’d hold me down and call me his bitch. Things only got worse from there.

I learned that it is safer to not play at all—to stay inside and curse the game, resent the players, refuse to participate.

I can’t say if trauma caused my depression, but it certainly didn’t help matters. Whatever its origins, depression is my default state, and my body won’t let me forget it. I’m tired all the time and spend hours in bed, hiding in plain sight.

Still, there’s more to my distress than meets the eye. When life is but a dream, an eight-hour nap is an act of defiance, and I won’t let my family forget it. I play dead for (negative) attention. The sick role suits me (un)well.

Before new people in my life figure out I suffer from depression and anxiety, I end up telling them (by putting myself down or cancelling plans at the last minute) that things “aren’t right” with me. The thought goes: I’m going to fuck things up anyway; I might as well get it over with.

Therefore—playing on Baudrillard’s words—it is better to unmask myself, on my own terms, before others expose me and deem me unlovable.

Take off one mask, and three more appear. In college I wore myself out trying to be the perfect student, the perfect employee, the perfect perfectionist. I gained recognition for my academic achievements but needed others to verify my self-worth. If everyone liked me, then no one would hurt me.

Today I seek validation by composing (and obsessively editing) obscure blog posts that I hope family, friends and digital strangers will find profound. I cite sad philosophers and wounded romantics to demonstrate, poetically, the complexities of living with my depression. And then I write obscure blogs about writing obscure blogs to sound intelligent.

Layers folding into layers, thoughts unfolding into thoughts—my blog is a revelation hiding in plain sight. Under the guise of a wise soul, I use words to cultivate an (in)active being-towards-death. As a philosopher, I always assume the fatal position.

However safe my bubble feels, I can’t live forever in theory. I can’t practice my faith in philosophy without other people.

The chaplain at my mental health clinic told me that everyone needs human connection, but trauma survivors whose trust has been broken need connection even more. Yet out of shame they hide from the world, and no amount of love or support from other people can save them. Survivors must learn to love themselves again.

But hope isn’t easy. Despite the power of positive thinking, it’s hard to flip the script when your reality is inverted. Somersaulting your way through the world is bound to cause vertigo.

In the mind of a child grown up too soon, youth is a weapon. Innocence is self-defense.

An early violation breaks more than the rules.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

A previous version of this essay was published in The Intimacy of Communication.

Throwing Judo Moves

Originally published in French in 1976, Symbolic Exchange and Death finds Jean Baudrillard incorporating into his thought the work of Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist who studied gift exchange in primitive societies. Mauss wrote about rituals in which each member is obligated to give gifts, receive gifts and provide counter-gifts, all of which contain traces of the person’s soul. The “goal” of the ritual: a gift-receiver must overwhelm a gift-giver with a counter-gift so powerful no further counter-gift is possible. In the process of trying to one-up each other, tribal members deliberately waste excess resources to ensure no one accumulates too much wealth.

Baudrillard views these rituals as a radical form of symbolic exchange, a concept he uses to critique capitalism. Emphasizing community and submission to fate, primitive peoples put to shame American values like greed, self-importance and celebrity worship.

Civilized societies based on economic exchange retain elements of symbolic exchange that haunt modern life. Still, Baudrillard argues, if we wish to save what makes us human, we must challenge the homogeny of the capitalist system with a gift it can’t return. We must force the system to humble itself before the world.

Nothing is more spectacular or subversive than suicide.

Death as creative act. Suicide as counter-gift. This is Baudrillard’s private revolution against capitalism’s reign of terror. People in Western cultures don’t kill themselves, Baudrillard contends, because resources are scarce. They crack under the pressure of mandatory consumption, their bodies too weak to enjoy a lifetime supply of products and services they don’t need and never asked for.

Thankfully, we don’t have to die to issue a challenge. We can commit theoretical terror, like Baudrillard does in his writings, or we can sacrifice ourselves through super-obedience to the logic of the system, devolving into passive-aggressive citizen-robots. In both cases a duel commences in which the weaker party throws what Baudrillard calls “judo moves” at its much stronger opponent, turning the system’s power against itself.

Compassionate Anti-Violence

While I’m intrigued by Baudrillard’s provocative analysis, I’m here to issue him a challenge of my own. We live in a violent world rooted in socially constructed systems of power, oppression and abuse. We hurt, so we hurt each other. Rather than responding to violence with more violence, we must learn to forgive ourselves and each other for all our trespasses.

An understated but radical concept: forgiveness as the ultimate counter-gift.

There’s no reason to forgive someone who hurt me, just as there was no reason for him to hurt me in the first place. As a survivor who learns to forgive, I resist an impulse to give up. I can then devote myself to promoting an ethics of what I call “compassionate anti-violence,” which means fighting for empathy without punching people in the face.

This is not merely a personal healing. Survivors who acknowledge the truth of their ordeals are free to confront evil and protect others from harm, reducing suffering throughout the world. Poverty, slavery, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, terrorism, war: these are just a few examples of social and political traumas that threaten individual lives and the foundations of entire cultures.

Of course, anger and sadness are normal responses to injustice. I don’t deny anyone’s right to express outrage or disgust, but staying angry increases misery. To make matters worse, many survivors mistakenly blame themselves for events beyond their control. An inner-directed forgiveness has the power to heal self-inflicted wounds.

An Existential Burden

I live between extremes. One moment, I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. A few minutes later, I’m numb, disconnected from reality, an imposter in my own body—a classic case of depersonalization.

When I’m hypervigilant, I’m keyed up from living in protect mode. When depersonalization sets in, I’m desperate to confirm I’m alive. I find danger lurking in all directions, each step a trudge through the middle of imaginary battlefields.

There’s a reason for my distress: as a child I endured years of physical and psychological abuse. As a teenager, in addition to clinical depression, I received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, an existential burden no amount of medication or therapy will ever erase.

Everyone suffers. My attacker was hurting when he hurt me. I assume he struggles to make sense of his actions years later. I don’t want to compound my suffering—or his—by hitting back.

Of course, I’m no saint. I’ve hurt family and friends, even lashed out at strangers. One spring day in 2003, I took more pills than my bottles directed. This got me a date with an ER nurse whose name escapes me. She poured me a pitcher of soot water to neutralize the poison.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”

There’s a chart somewhere with my personal history. I don’t know if I thanked her for filling in the blanks.

Core Beliefs

Core Beliefs

my therapist says overthinking
can be a defense mechanism

overthinking can be
a defense mechanism

overthinking can be
an unfenced metaphorical prison

it’s not my fault
my therapist says

confessional poems
can be used against me

my therapist runs a mom & pop
Oedipal arrangements shop

with thirty-one flavors
of oral fixation lollipops

overthinking can be
a dense intellectual prism

a defense mechanism
defense mechanism

anxiety is a preexisting
human condition

paid for by a
state institution

my therapist ties
Freudian slip knots

to agoraphobics flying
kites in parking lots

it’s not my fault
it’s not my fault

I don’t believe
it’s not my fault

my therapist is the reason
I’m in touch with my feelings

c b snoad
2-13-17