Fire up the trigger warnings for self-harm, suicide, depression, self-loathing, body dysmorphia, overdose, anxiety, paranoia and shame.
I made some mistakes today. I’m sure we all have days where that happens, and maybe it’s everyday or maybe just some afternoons, but whatever, I wasn’t perfect today. Without giving too many details (especially since I’m going to give tons of details about more things in later paragraphs), I’ll say that I finished working on a really high-profile thing for a really high-profile company and really want to be relevant to them and really be thought of as good at what I do, so I still get opportunities to do more things. I will admit I felt really pressured by a looming deadline, I was stressed by trying to anticipate writer-feelings and I was rather obsessively trying to make it the most perfect manuscript that’s ever been manuscripted, even though part of my brain knows that this copy is for testing, and very likely lots of bits where I made mistakes are going to end up changed, and I’ll have another chance to improve and try again later.
Perfectionism is the boogeyman for me. I want a thing (a manuscript, an outfit, a conversation, a date, a recipe, a whatever) to be perfect so that people-who-aren’t-me tell me I’m good or that they’re proud of me. In a nutshell, I didn’t hear a lot of that growing up (and what I did hear was sarcastic or insincere), so I don’t have the best internal sense of “Yeah I’m a good person who is capable and successful”. In fact, I have a pretty deficient sense of it, and routinely expect my efforts to not just fail but fail spectacularly in such a way that anyone around me is caught in some kind of area-effect blast zone of failure. I don’t want to be a roving miasma of failure, I’m very happy to be isolated from all the people I assume are by default exponentially better and more perfect without even trying. It’s just that this is how I am, and while I’m working every day to change it, it’s one of the hardest thing I’ve ever gone up against.
I’d like now to tell you a story that not many people know. I’m going to omit a few details and names for personal reasons and privacy, but I’ll make sure to include the majority of the big stuff. I want to tell the story of how perfectionism almost killed me.
It starts in winter. Most of my terrible true stories take place between October 1 and April 1, because that’s when I believe the sun vanishes and takes my happiness along with it. No, we’re not just talking seasonal affective disorder, we’re talking polarizing extreme depression. The kind where it takes incredible energy to do anything beyond laying very still, breathing and blinking. Forget meals. Forget socializing. Showers are luxuries. Shaving is a double luxury.
This story takes place on a Saturday, and let’s go one step further and say it was the Saturday right before a major sporting event known for its commercials and entertainment spectacle that occurs between the first and second half. I came across one of these commercials that promoted body positivity in women, carefully veiled in soap sales (or maybe the other way around?), and it had a significant impact. Significant like the way the asteroid really improved the quality of life for dinosaurs.
Now, so you better understand why a commercial about young girls taking photos affected me, I will point out that I have a pretty firm belief that I weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 450-495 pounds minimum, and that my scale only says 217 at the time of this writing because my bulk broke its sensors and it just can’t show any higher number. I’ll also point out that I’m pretty sure I’m blimp-shaped and that my skinny arms and knobby legs are like strange sticks poking out of a potato in a child’s science project. To put a point on it, I am unattractive to the max, yo. As further evidence of this, I point to months of solitude, dating misadventures and an inability to find happiness.
So on this February night, the weight (heh, size pun) of just how not-perfect I am smacks me around in moment after moment of young girls in a video smiling and looking pretty and receiving compliments. It doesn’t matter that I’m two decades older than some of these girls, it strikes me rather intensely that these girls are beautiful, and I’m not even on the scale for beauty. This is worthless compounding worthless, and I’m a waste of space and I’ve accomplished nothing in my life. No kids, no long career, no wife, no masterworks of literature authored, no accolades for speaking or editing, just some super-less-than-mediocre fat creepy man who doesn’t need to be here anymore.
Things in this story get very fuzzy, but that’s what happens when you try to kill yourself. And carve a word into your forearm that you spell wrong because you’re doing it upside down. Let’s fast forward a few days and some stitches later.
I wanted to be perfect, which is not so much the 100% A ++++ that you get in school, but rather I wanted to clear the chasm that seemed to separate me from everyone else. It seemed bigger than the Grand Canyon and I had no idea how I was going to just get through the next minute. Everything hurt. The potential fear and frustration of future minutes hurt too. I could not be perfect. I could not live perfect. I could not even die perfect. I was trapped in some failure pit and would stay there until I either figured out how to die better or until my body just gave out from under me. I wasn’t going to write a novel people would want to read. I wasn’t going to get hired to work in television ever again. I wasn’t going to find love. I couldn’t even get flirted with. No woman would pay attention to me. I was some carcass with a thready pulse and bandages. That’s not perfect at all.
And when you find yourself in emerald scrubs and under observation, and you spend a few days with an IV in you and your skin is the color of grade school chalk, you’re just so tired. You don’t sleep so much as you’re just less awake. Perfect is no longer some social construct, perfect is just when the pain of life goes away.
Little by little, you regain bits of a life. You get to use a phone. You get to check your email. You play with your dog. And then the worry, which might have gone out for coffee, comes back. You start worrying that word of your most recent “episode” or “incident” will take away what friends and what work you do have some feelings for. You start worrying that even if you get lucky enough to have some kind of existence, it would have to be even more cut off from everything, because in trying to die, you’ve just made it that much harder for people to love you. And all you really want to do is not be perfect, but to be loved. To be cared for. To feel safe. To feel secure. To not hurt so much.
You stuff that worry in your pocket a little while longer, because the act of regaining that life has brought you some interesting experiences. You have a renewed appreciation for how food tastes. You discover a weird almost aggressive pleasure in talking about your problems and getting feedback on them. You come to see that when you have to start over, you always do so fresh, and you can pick and choose what goes and what stays in this new rebuilding of your life. You start to think that maybe you can build a life where it hurts less than the last one. You don’t hope, because hope is for suckers and children and romantics, and you have to believe in something to be any of those things. But you hear enough people tell you that it’s possible, and given that the alternative is to hit the bottom of a hole that you’re only a few inches above in the first place, you try.
Perfect sort of factors in here. You want to try your best, whatever you can muster, because maybe if you do XYZ perfect and without error, a little of that pain will go away. You won’t be so lonely. You won’t feel so worthless or stupid or fat or forgotten or unimportant because you can XYZ now. And when you pressure yourself to do XYZ, whether that’s squeezing a racquetball in your hand or drive a car to Wendy’s for a cheeseburger, you have zero mercy for yourself when you need to correct yourself. You drop the ball because you’ve been squeezing for six straight minutes? You’re a fuck-up. You exceed the speed limit just because you’re thrilled to feel the wind on your face for the promise of melty meaty goodness? What the fuck dude, don’t ruin this. It’s no longer about like everyone else, you just want to do things so you don’t hurt.
Time passes in this story, and you find yourself back in familiar spaces, but everything’s different because you’ve spent weeks in your head ripping out problems and installing new tools. It feels strange and foreign, the way it does when you take cold medicine, but when you’re not quite unconscious and drooling from it. You’ve talked to people, and they seem supportive, but you figure they just don’t what to tell you and you think that maybe if they say anything other than nice things you’ll shatter like a brittle pane of glass.
Still with me? Don’t worry we’re coming out of the bad part.
For a while, you give up perfect. It goes on some virtual shelf alongside the plans you’ll do “later” or when “you’re feeling up to”. This is a tremendous reprieve, as if two thousand tons just evaporated away, and in its absence, you find joy in things. Showering undisturbed (with hot water). Cooking. Fresh sheets. Even porn and croutons and clipping toenails become joyful. Perfect is on the shelf so it’s not something to deal with – you’ve got to get better before you can even have the mental energy to take on perfect. The activities you’d grade yourself a D in previously all turn into high A’s.
I better jump back to first-person here, because we’re up to the good part.
So I was rediscovering the small joys and feeling like some things didn’t hurt. I didn’t worry about my size. I didn’t worry about who I was going to date or who would kiss me or where I would go for some holiday months away. I just was wherever my feet brought me and I was doing whatever that moment needed me to do. Speak? Sure. Set up a conference room with tables that gave me wicked splinters? Yep. The funny part was, without perfection hanging like a weight around my neck, I just didn’t care about anything other than expressing myself. Someone casually implies they’ve gone a long time without intimacy? Tell them how long it’s been since I had anything meaningful that wasn’t my own hand. Someone talks about what they want to do? Simply tell them that all you’d really like is a Coke and to sit very quietly. What they don’t know, or what you don’t think they can perceive is that you’re talking about activities where you don’t hurt. Where you don’t have to be perfect, you just want some physical attention, a Coke, or a place to sit down.
In doing all that, in letting go of perfect for a little while, I discovered something that I thought I compacted and buried away. I discovered how passionate I am about things and how when I can express that passion, I don’t hurt. Sometimes, and don’t tell anyone I said this, sometimes when I express passion, I’m even a little proud of myself.
Without lying, I can tell you that I never thought I’d connect with another person ever again that cold winter night in February. I thought that if I didn’t die, I’d forever be the puzzle piece that doesn’t belong in the box, but somehow ended up included. I never thought that being me, broken, really disliking myself and worn down from trying to catch perfectionism as it ran faster away would make anyone want to have anything to do with me. And I don’t just mean date me, I mean sit and talk to me. Hold my hand. Tell me it’ll be okay. Tell me they care.
I’m beyond lucky to be able to tell you that after all that perfection chasing, I finally found one of the things I have wanted since I was 19 and writing “JA + ??” in black sharpie on bunkbeds in a college dorm – I found a woman I truly and absolutely connect with, click with and mesh with. She listens. She cares. She supports. She laughs. She makes faces. She calls me on my shit. She loves me, and more and more every day I believe her when she says it.
Though, she isn’t perfect. See, I dated women before who I thought were perfect, either because they were so different from me, or because I inflated their appeal (boobs, butt, sexual prowess, access to stimulants, money, etc) to make them perfect. That’s not the case this time. She smokes. She has hobbies I don’t really understand or like sharing. She’s so fiercely her own person that sometimes I have to say out loud, “Let’s do something together.” She can’t even cook eggs. But for all those problems, for all those things that used to be reasons NOT to be with a person, here I am, about I-think-its-gotta-be-but-I-suck-at-math ten weeks into the most complete, communicative and healthy relationship I’ve ever had. It’s so unlike all the others – sex or booze or whatever isn’t the escape of problems, we talk instead. We make plans to do things. I actually leave the house and attend social functions. I wear shirts with buttons and I even catch myself saying, “I’d like to have _____ experience.” She’s not perfect. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but it’s exactly what I need.
So on days like today, where I muck up work and feel like I can’t even show my head on social media (I do a pretty good job of John-shaming), I stop and figure out if what I’m doing is me looking for perfection again. And then, when I see that it is, because what I’m really looking for is praise and continued work relationships, I remind myself that some of the best things in my life have come when I put perfect on the shelf and just did whatever the moment needed of me.
I don’t know if I’ll always be able to say I can do this. I don’t know if I’ll even remember writing this much about it come next winter. But I can do it now, and I see the dividends it’s paid me. I have made new friends. I have found another human I can share my life with. I leave the house and do stuff. I get hugs. I laugh again. I take on challenges rather than run.
Another benefit is professional. I fell apart and rebuilt my life and found that I really want to do more things and take on more challenges, because I see my friends getting new amazing opportunities and I’m envious. And it’s a lot healthier for me to say, “I want to try and have something like that happen” than say, “Something like that will never happen to me.” Because eleven weeks ago, I never would believe anyone if they told me I was going to make a joke combining sex puns and game mechanics and have that catapult forward into a stable, communicative anything, let alone a deep and meaningful partnership with an amazing person.
Routinely I hear, “You don’t have to be perfect, you have to be you.” This is hard for me, because I’m not always a fan of myself, and I get really critical about myself. But being me means I get to admit that rather than hide from it, and with that admission comes more freedom from expectations that I have to be a certain way or do certain things or reach certain milestones in life to measure up to others. It’s done wonders for my writing voice, and while I’m writing less frequently, I’m writing for longer stints when I do. The reason I’m writing less? I’m doing more – I’m editing more, I’m consulting more and I’m looking for new opportunities to reach writers and schools and students and anyone who will listen. I think that’s a pretty good trade, when I remember to put perfect on its shelf.
My advice to you, wherever you are, whoever you are, is to remember that you are greater than perfect. You are not measured by what you do or don’t do well. You define your own measurements. And do your best, even if only for a few minutes everyday, to put perfect on its shelf and find something or someone you enjoy and engage with them. Talk to that person. Play a game. Turn up some music. Eat something. Walk outside. You don’t need perfect over your shoulder. You don’t have to be perfect, you have to be you.
Happy writing and being.