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.

Prepare For Pain

I went to the dentist recently for my six-month checkup. I was anxious days before my appointment. My teeth are healthy, which is great, and I don’t go back until December. The visit reminded me of something I told the members of my Coping with Anxiety therapy group last year: suffering from an anxiety disorder feels like every day is a trip to the dentist.

One woman said she never thought of her anxiety this way. I was spot on, she said, and she wanted to share my analogy with all the non-anxious people in her life. I was happy to help her see her struggles in a new way. Group therapy has given me opportunities to share my experiences and offer advice. My therapist told me that other group members looked to me for wisdom and guidance. I appreciated his kind words.

Two weeks ago, I spent an hour at the dentist, paid my bill, made my next appointment, and drove home. When I’m super anxious, there is no home. I have no peace. Every day it’s the same drill: prepare for pain.

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.

So To Speak

I can’t write anymore. I hire an editor. She recommends a therapist.

I arrive at the front desk. I share a recent dream in which I tell a stranger nobody understands what I’m trying to say. The stranger agrees but this resolves nothing.

The receptionist says she’s not a therapist. She will be with me in a moment. I give her my name. She looks thirsty. I’m talking about the receptionist. I am told in no uncertain terms to keep my voice down.

I author a book from front to back in a waiting room. I quit dreaming.

I tell a stranger I’m vulnerable. I don’t recommend announcing this in a dark alley after midnight. Or on a first date if you’re into meeting people. A blog is fine. I’m done with books.

I am vulnerable. I write books nobody reads. Books nobody bothered to write but me. Nobody understands what I’m trying to write. Books aren’t blogs aren’t dreams. I fire my editor. This resolves nothing.

I enter a stranger’s dream and say nobody understands what it’s like to tell people on the internet you’re vulnerable. He’s angry with me. I bite my tongue. He throws his voice.

Books are for dummies. I buy mine on Amazon. Books are finished.

A stranger tells his therapist in my dream I don’t understand what I’m trying to say. I agree and this resolves everything. I decide to write cryptic blogs to throw off people on the internet.

I fuck my editor in a dark alley. She says I’m a bad writer. Repeat after me. I’m a bad rider.

I take back my book. Every word.

I write what I know. I quit therapy because I’m too smart for this shit.

I am dumber than a blog post. Someone buys my book and it arrives by drone.

I am thirsty. An author waiting for my therapist tells me he can’t write any more. I ask him to elaborate. This adds words to the universe. Words aren’t people aren’t drones. I see right through the universe. My book drops. Nobody picks it up.

A stranger will see me now. My therapist asks me to elaborate at the same time I ask her to elaborate. She doesn’t get paid to analyze dreams.

I ask my therapist for water. She gives me a voice. So to speak.

She says I am valuable. Repeat after me. I am vulnerable.