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.

A Work In Progress

I said goodbye recently to my therapist before she left for her new job. I know she’ll continue transforming lives, including her own. I’m taking a break from therapy now to clear my mind. I can resume treatment with someone else whenever I like.

Childhood trauma, I’ve learned in therapy, has altered my relationship to time. It’s been hard as an adult to maintain a coherent personal narrative, an uninterrupted story of my life. As a creative writer, however, I’m free to fill in the blanks and disconnect the “not’s”—those self-defeating thoughts telling me I’m broken, useless, and lost.

My imagination is a powerful tool of persistence. Showing myself compassion in reverse, I write a story, in present tense, about consoling my past self as he struggles to survive. In the same story, I write about consoling my future self as he continues his recovery, thanking him in advance for being gentle with me now and encouraging me to stay alive.

Whether I’m prewriting, writing, or rewriting, my life story remains a work in progress.

My Life Goes On Without Me

At some point I lost my life but didn’t die. My life walked out on me in the middle of the night.

If there were a term for my condition, it would be a combination of the phrases here and there and neither here nor there. In the end, I’m left without my life, yet “alive” enough to watch my life go on without me.

At some point either my life will fall back to me or I will catch up to my life. At some point I will question my life. Is my life happier without me? Who’s in charge of my life?

This infernal monologue, this self-inflicted doom: this is depression. This is me.

Trauma And Creation

In Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living, Anne Dufourmantelle tells depressed people looking for a quick fix that “medication only patches up the desire to live, or the heartache, or the professional failure, or the feeling of inadequacy; for nothing can sew up such a wound. Nothing except creation, what reopens the wound elsewhere and differently, but on less shifting ground” (86).

Three months ago, I published my third book, once again creating and re-creating myself through words. In the introduction I recall the pain of childhood traumas, (re)opening—in the pages of my book—old wounds that refuse to close for good.

Confessional writing is cathartic, but sharing my story reminds me how vulnerable I am, how lonely I still feel. I crave connection but worry that people outside my family won’t understand my depression. After years of living in protect mode, letting my guard down takes time.

Aware that trauma survivors—especially those abused as children—deal with trust issues, Dufourmantelle offers encouragement and hope. “When we are seized,” she writes, “by the feeling that nobody will ever come to us, that this solitude will not loosen its grip on us, ever, we must still find the strength to extend our arms, to kiss, to love” (98).

People live with pain in different ways. Some become artists. I am one of them. My books are an extension of me, a reaching out, a kiss. My writing is an expression of loneliness that challenges but never defeats loneliness.

Numb Poetry

As a kid I wondered what would be here if the world were not here—if God, in the Beginning, had nothing to live for.

Traumatized in high school, I wrote numb poetry, without irony, already finding ways to reverse my birth through verse.

I was a missing person in my own backyard. An absent student with perfect attendance. No one, except God perhaps, noticed I wasn’t (all) there.

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.

Voice Recognition

A young psychoanalyst named Fliess once asked Freud how a therapist knows when a patient has been cured. “When the patient realizes therapy never ends,” Freud said.

I’ve been thinking about taking a break from therapy in the near future. After at least one monthly session for the last decade and a half, I’m ready to move on.

We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, each of us simultaneously a personal expert and unreliable narrator of our lives. We awake each day in the same body we went to bed with, but our worries and neuroses, played out in dreams or nightmares, don’t disappear overnight. Our core conflicts persist but manifest in different ways according to our moods or external stressors. Yet every morning we begin again in the middle of things, psyching ourselves up for the inevitable challenges of facing the world in front of our mirrors.

My personal narrative includes memories of individual therapy sessions spent crafting and revising an inconclusive autobiography, therapy itself a series of stories-within-stories, a self-reflexive automatic writing of the soul.

There’s no cure for the trauma I’ve suffered, but I’ve learned to recognize the sound of my own voice again, which speaks to the kindness of my therapists. A kindness I’m now showing myself.