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Surviving the Unendurable
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I was going to post an essay I wrote about personal ‘radical’ responsibility, and maybe I will next week, but instead I wanted to write about shame. Fear. Demons. My demons, specifically.
Demons: We all have em, to one degree or another. I’ve had the same ones—more or less—my whole conscious life. Mainly the demons are this: Eternal fears that I am A. A bad person; B. Not worthy of love; C. A complete and total fraud in every way imaginable.
Pretty harsh, huh? Where, you might ask, does this stem from. Interesting question. Some of it comes from emotional childhood trauma. Feelings of abandonment. Feelings of misplacement. Feeling like I was born into the wrong family, or no family at all. Feeling weird, freakish, different.
Some of it, certainly, must stem from a broader sense of familial trauma: What my parents went through in their own childhoods; what they to some degree passed on to me.
There’s of course genetics, too, the clinical depression and alcoholism in the family.
During my drinking years (17 to 27) I did things I’m not remotely proud of. (And some things I very much am.) I hurt people I cared about. I hurt myself. Sometimes I hurt strangers. I was brutal to many, many women. I broke many laws. I tried to escape my own pain by making everyone else around me suffer in the same way I was. My suffering was nasty and grotesque; it filled my insides like maggots fill an open, rotting wound. I was angry, broken, lost.
I got sober in 2010. I did the twelve steps. I made amends with people face to face. I took responsibility. I changed. An evolution took place within me. A budding. A metamorphosis. From pupae to butterfly. I flew.
And yet, like all of us (at least I tell myself this)—I am far from perfect. My mind still can be filled with fear, rage, deep insecurity, crippling self-consciousness. In many ways I am a selfish man. Not totally; not always; not in every way. I do love others and try to help people out when I can. But I still cling to some degree to the delusion—and it is a laughable delusion—that I’ll be ‘understood’ some day. I am unique, just like everyone else.
It’s true I’m a bit of a tortured artist. Not mad like Van Gogh. Not wild like Kerouac. Not violent like Hemingway. Not alcoholic and cracked like Fitzgerald. Not suicidal like David Foster Wallace. But. Still. I stew in the dreaded existential soup that is life. I see life as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because, Wow, what a fantastic, superlative gift this opportunity to exist is. A curse because of our metacognition. We’re aware of the fact that we’re aware; of the fact that we die. Of the truth of our complacent temporariness. And that is both beautiful, strangled and painful.
You don’t have to be tortured to be a writer, or an artist in general. Elizabeth Gilbert deconstructed that myth quite convincingly in her craft memoir, Big Magic. But let’s face it: Many artists suffer. We struggle because we’re different. Because we’re highly sensitive in an insensitive world. Because we don’t fit into the conventional role. Because we’re deep, deep thinkers. Because we want, crave, need to be understood. Because art itself is the notion of deconstructing What Is. Because we ask the tough questions. Because we’re afraid to live fully. We express ourselves to grasp truth.
I’m currently reading a biography on Paul Gauguin, the 19th century Impressionist French painter. He suffered. He had everything material you could ask for—he was a stock broker—and he left it all for the poverty of the artist’s life. No: you don’t have to be poor to be an artist. My point is: His livelihood meant little to him because his soul belonged to art. Say what you will about Gauguin—and he wasn’t the most upstanding man—but he lived his life solely for the sake of expression. That I admire.
I struggle with OCD; I take medication for it. The meds help, for sure. But I can’t ever escape fully the great white hot fear of Death. Mortal death scares me least. It’s emotional death—death by social shunning, which scares me most. The idea that I’ll be hated. Rejected. Spit out of the kingdom. The idea that I really am a bad person crosses my mind frequently. Surely, it is grossly false. I am not a bad person. I am certainly far from perfect—flawed, weak, selfish. But mostly that makes me human. I know this logically; intellectually. But I somehow don’t entirely believe it emotionally; spiritually. Perhaps that’s because I still hold shame in my heart, from my past behavior, from my own sense of failure, from not achieving everything I thought I wanted or needed. From the way I treated my parents when I was young. The anger. The confusion. The violence.
In the end I expose myself because I am worthy. Yet I can’t really completely convince myself of even this. All my life I’ve been excited by and afraid of life. Of love. Of freedom. Of Truth. Of myself.
I want to release myself from myself. The past twelve years of sobriety I’ve hurt people, too. And myself. Not in the gnarly ways I did back then. No, thank god. In more subtle, refined, sophisticated ways. More nuanced ways, perhaps. But it seems since I was a boy there’s always been a cliff I stand over and almost leap off. But I never do. I see the valley below. The lush green of the valley floor; the sparkling river running through the bottom. And still I can’t jump.
I think this jumping is called self-forgiveness.
One day I will smile and leap.
But I am not there yet.