My Birthday, Like Winter, Is Coming

Big trigger warning up top for suicide, suicidal thoughts, emotional abuse, body shaming, guilt, disordered eating, body dysmorphia, loneliness, addiction, codependency and shame.

 

This goes through my head every day between now and August 6th

 

This didn’t start as a post. It started as medium-length Facebook update, but it grew into a post once I started putting words together.  And if we’re going to get into this like I want to get into it, then I need to express to you my enduring memories from past birthdays:

  • The time I was in maybe third or fourth grade and one of my classmates couldn’t attend my party and I felt so useless, as if someone who I thought was my friend didn’t think I was good enough.
  • The time I was thirteen, and how so many family members told me I was on my way to being a man now, and I sat awkwardly on a lounge chair, and became acutely aware of them staring at me, as if I’m supposed to say something. When I couldn’t find the magic thing to say, and sat there uncomfortable on the verge of tears, I remember them not understanding that I seriously wanted to be left alone and did not want to be pressured by their gaze.
  • The time I was in my twenties and got completely trashed, and had quite a few people tell me I was the ugly friend in my friend circle, as if I was not aware of this. The fact that they all then went off to hump the rest of my friend circle in the room I was sleeping in, did nothing to help.
  • The time I was in my late twenties and had boxed myself into a go-nowhere relationship because I was too afraid to be alone, and yet all I wanted was to be alone.
  • My birthday last year, when I was worried I’d be alone forever, that even the dog would die eventually, and I’d end up like some Byronic man on a bluff watching stormy melodramatic skies.

This of course doesn’t count any of the suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts or any shame I associated with them. This doesn’t count the times I would be sternly lectured about not being happy on my birthday, how I was letting down all the people who came to see me and give me things, how ungrateful I was or how, if I kept up like this, I’d have something else to really cry about.

This doesn’t count any of the times I was told to enjoy that cake, but not too much, you don’t want to end up with a fat gut, because I’m pretty lazy.

This doesn’t count any of the times I was told that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, because no one really ever gets what they want, so it’s foolish to ask.

This doesn’t count any of the times I got gifts that people thought I should use to do the things they wanted me to do (go to school, get an office job, that sort of thing), rather than you know, asking for something that had some meaning in my life or even just a simple thing I wanted. Like a poster. Or a t-shirt. Or whatever a kid would want for themselves.

This doesn’t count any of the times (over 20) that I decided it would be wiser just to be numb on my birthday, just fake whatever emotion I thought people expected me to have, and then later, when no one was looking, I could do something reckless or suicidal or self-harming and escape the hurt.

I can count on one hand the number of gifts that I actually treasure. Ignore completely that a few of them came from absolutely unhealthy relationships. I like to look past how screwed up I was, or we were, or they were, and see that just for a moment, someone gave a shit about me. (The answer is 3, by the way)

See, I grew up in a place and around people that existed in this sort of conflicted state where you weren’t supposed to be demonstrative, you weren’t supposed to hug or show emotions, but birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions. Let me map out what a typical birthday included for me:

  1. A group of people who didn’t like each other would gather under the pretense of giving me things, remind me that I was a “miracle baby” (born months premature, one of those babies that science saved, etc etc) in case I had forgotten, and sat around complaining about anything not nailed down, except when they had to make eye contact with me, which is when they plastered on some ridiculous smile and nodded. Then I was told in what order I was to open what gifts, and that I shouldn’t ruin the paper. On the occasions I did tear the paper, I’d get yelled at later. When there wasn’t yelling, I was just made to feel guilty.
  2. This group of people would gather and stare at me, as if expecting me to deliver some wisdom or to do more than meekly thank them for coming, as I hoped that if I thanked them, they’d go away. They didn’t. The non-demonstrative people attempted to be demonstrative, and it would make my flesh crawl.
  3. Someone in this group would ask me how my birthday dinner was (if they weren’t there for it), and I’d have to lie to say it was wonderful and very nice. Lots of things were very nice. The part where my father would complain about how expensive it was to take me out was very nice. The part where I had to have a toast in my honor when I instead wanted to either vomit or run was very nice. The guilt of making my father spend money, of being seen doing this, of being some burden was all very nice.
  4. I’d receive about 5% of what I asked for, having to lie profusely about how I had secretly wanted pants or socks or the ugliest shirts known outside of leisure suits and just didn’t think I’d get them, so I didn’t ask. Forget the times I asked for a video game or a book or a new stereo. Obviously when I said “stereo” I meant pleated-front Dockers that make me feel fat. Naturally. I’d also have to lie that really what I had truly wanted was a nice crisp ten dollar bill. I mean, especially when you’re in your late 20s.  Or that time it was suggested I use the money towards a gym membership to “work off that gut”.
  5. Anytime I felt awkward or embarrassed or really any feeling at all, I was told to “shut up and get through this” and “you can go be miserable later”. I’m not sure people understood that over time ‘miserable’ became code for “try and kill yourself; try and puke up the meal so people don’t call you fat; cry hysterically for hours because no one even really asked how you were feeling or seemed to give a shit when you said anything or than “I’m fine.”; or a host of other completely terrible things that detailing out now would only make me cry.

Every birthday from about age 13 has some variation on these things. Even now. Sure, now a lot of this can be dodged with phone calls, but at some point, people show up to my house and I have “family obligations”, and when I say, “Okay everyone can leave now.” they just laugh because oh that John, he’s a kidder.

I don’t know how to be on my birthday. I have spent so long being however other people want, or how I thought other people wanted me, that I just don’t know how to enjoy my birthday. Am I supposed to drink and fuck and sleep all day? Am I supposed to host some party in my own honor? Am I supposed to just sit and watch cartoons? No, sincerely, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, so that when people ask, “What do you want to do?” my first answer is “I don’t know, what do you want me to do.” I don’t even get to say “Nothing” until AFTER someone tells me that it’s my birthday so I’m supposed to have an idea.

No, I’m not sure if I like my birthday. I know this year I’m committed to not wanting to die on my birthday. I know this year for my birthday, I’m pretty sure at least one human on the planet gives a shit about me in a way I can actually perceive it. (Oh, that’s the other thing – the “nice” part about growing up as I did, I have no idea if people are being sincere or if what they’re doing is some forced social obligation). I know I’m *supposed* to like my birthday, that I’m supposed to scream “Woo!” and go do some shots at the bar or wear a stupid hat and be sung to by people who allegedly love me, but really in truth, I don’t know.

There are times when I feel worthless. Times when I feel like I’m not worth making a fuss over. Times I feel like I’m just making everything worse by even having a birthday. To go through familial obligations, to endure dramatic productions of passive aggressive and abusive nature, to be told that any feelings I have are worthless, it’s frankly worn me down.

There are times I feel guilty. Times when feeling as I’ve just described for the past 1500 words or so makes me feel like I should hide it. Like me having these thoughts is ruining other peoples’ fake good time with me. Like I’m only making this all worse.

The love of my life is a social butterfly. I consider this a great irony, that the perfect woman and soulmate of mine should be someone who adores groups and is demonstrative, and I’m forced to confront all these feelings and fears and figure out what to do with them. She loves parties, and I love her, but parties … I immediately think of being stared at, of not laughing, of not being happy. I talked to her about this and I worry I’ve kicked her puppy. I’m many things but I just don’t know if gregarious party bon vivant is one of them. I feel like it should be. I don’t want to let her down.

My birthday is coming and I’m sitting at the desk writing, my stomach in knots, the taste of vomit rich in the back of my throat. I should have been in bed 30 minutes ago. I could be asleep right now.

Birthdays aren’t supposed to hurt, right? They’re not supposed to be things that send you running to a toilet when you think of them, yeah?

This is not to say I’m not proud of myself. I have climbed out of some deep dark places in the last 6 months or so, and I’m so proud of myself – I just don’t know how to show it, but that’s probably a blog topic for later.

I have every confidence in her when she says she loves me and she’s planning something nice. I have less confidence in myself. I should probably work on that.

What’s that, you say, how can you help? Well, for starters, don’t give me shit about my birthday. Past that, once we get past the “Oh John, cheer up” and similar helpless advice delivered when depressed, you can go have a good day on August 7th. If we interact, sure, yes, be sincere and say something nice. But that day is just as much a day for you as it is for me, so take advantage of it, and do something brilliant.

I should probably try sleeping. Let’s talk again soon.

How Much Is Too Much?

When you’re creating something, whether that’s a new life or a new book or a new workflow, you have to remember you’re human.

Seriously Luke, you're just a person - more man than machine.

Seriously Luke, you’re just a person – more man than machine.

And part of that humanity is a recognition that we have limits. There’s only so much we can lift. There’s only so fast we can run. There’s only so much we can do in one day, if we’d like to do tasks with a reasonable amount of skill. Sure, yes, you can train yourself to lift more or run faster. Sure, okay, you can breeze through a lot more tasks if you’re willing to sacrifice details like “thoroughness” or “objectivity”. But even if you add more things to your plate, the fact that the plate can still be filled is inescapable.

For me, the idea of a full plate represents a few things:

  1. That I’m not a failure (because, look, I have all this stuff I do)
  2. That I’m not useless (because, hey, people are counting on me to do these things)
  3. That I have a value to others and am not worthless (if I were, I wouldn’t have so much to do)

There’s a point to me saying this – because more often than not, what I’m not telling you is that I have had for the better part of 18 years, a default setting of worthless, useless and valueless. Now, okay, I didn’t start out that way. But thanks to a father who told me those things in a variety of forms every day (or sometimes every other day, as to build tension in the moments where nothing got expressed), and who remains one of the least demonstrative or praising people I know (praise comes with strings – “You did okay, but you could have done better if …” is still a popular statement ), one of the only ways to know that I’m fitting in, doing well, or am loved and accepted, is when I’m doing stuff for other people. When my plate is full with work. When I’m making my future wife happy. When I’m getting my blood pressure up past 130/95 with anxiety and cold sweats and the shakes trying to make Noir World the best World game written by someone who isn’t as smart as Rob Donoghue or as talented as Brian Engard.

I learned that if I’m not doing something, if I’m not busy, then I have zero value or worth to anyone, in any circumstance. I learned that you’re only as good as your work. I learned that when praise comes, it has strings, even if they’re invisible or time-delay. I learned that your two best friends in creating stuff are “a pervasive sense of stupidity” and a “nearly firm knowledge that you’re not good at anything”.

If you’d like to duplicate this abuse, I have a pretty handy step-by-step guide:

  1. Make sure you keep the number of times you tell someone you’re proud of them under double digits for the duration of the time you know them.
  2. Make sure you have physical contact with them past maybe a handshake.
  3. Make sure that any positive comment you give is laced with enough doubt or complaints that you’re confident the other person won’t start thinking they’re capable at whatever you’re talking about.
  4. Make sure that any actual positive things that the person experiences, you play off as less important than what you’re doing, or less “legit” or “real” because what they do is different than what you do.

What’s the end result?

You build a person who doesn’t know their limits. Who doesn’t know how to take any praise or compliments. Who doesn’t know any measure of “good work” unless there’s a paycheck in hand. You erode their confidence, their courage, their sense of self and their sense that they’re knowledgeable or credible all without even touching them, so it can’t possibly be abuse if you never hit them, right?

This desert of support turns anyone who does say anything good (of any size) into an oasis you never want to leave. Whether we’re talking the significant other who makes some benign comment about kissing or humping or whether we’re talking about a soon-to-be spouse who uses the phrase, “Holy fuck honey, you’re fucking brilliant.” or whether we’re talking about an employer who says, “Yeah I’m gonna work with John for a long time.”, these things are huge moments, craved into the stone of the memory landscape.

Just not for the reason you think. Not for the positivity of them. But for their uniqueness. The aberrant positive statement flies in the face of the negative status quo, and as soon as that possibility of “Oh maybe I am an okay person” creeps back in, the swift reprisal and crushing of that confidence is expecting. Criticism and doubt are eternal. Positive things are ephemeral. There’s your terrible cycle.


 

On a sidebar, if you understand this cycle, you can tell some really juicy stories with an amazing depth of tragedy.


 

The reason I stay so busy, the reason I tweet for work all the time, the reason I have 4 health professionals actively telling me to slow down, learn to be positive, try to de-stress and remember to eat and breathe, is for the very simple reason that pre-February 2014, I was one good failure away from a fatal heart attack (let’s take the suicidal depression off the table, just for a second). The consequence of being so high strung, of being so hungry for support is that I was KILLING MYSELF by working-for-praise. (Is it irony that I was also trying to kill myself anyway? No clue.)

When I talk to writers, especially new ones or the ones who are insistent on being published in one particular fashion because of “legitimacy”, I see that working-for-praise come back. They want to know if the work is “good enough”, they want to know if I think someone will like it (this is usually dependent on my saying that they have to show it to someone first). It’s a trepidatious first set of steps, new feet finding purchase in unfamiliar territory, and all too commonly, people think the best course of action is a marathon, not toddling.

On the first night I met the woman I’m going to marry, she put her hand on my chest. It wasn’t overtly sexual. It wasn’t anything more than a hand on a chest while sharing a moment and making plans for a first date. But in those fingertips, I felt an emotional pull stronger than really good drugs. It felt good to be touched (and I’m someone who has come to loathe hugs because I don’t trust them), and I didn’t want it to end. I wanted more. More touching. More time with her. More activity. I wanted to spend all night in that moment, regardless of it being 3 in the morning in the cold winter. I wanted to marathon. I thought that if I didn’t take it all the way past super-maximum levels, that it would evaporate, because positive things are ephemeral, right?

Don’t let this be your case. Don’t think that your creative process isn’t legit or good enough because other people don’t think of it the same way you do. I work in a gaming industry that gets called “nerdy” or “a hobby” or “childish”, but it isn’t any of those things to me if it makes my friends happy and puts food on my table. It’s as much a livelihood as being a tax attorney or a dishwasher repairwoman. I work with authors on creating written work that span all genres and media, things that get called “avant garde” or “strange” or “derivative”, but when I hear the excitement in an author’s voice that someone liked their work or that they sold a copy, the sound of their joy makes it seem very much worth it.

I wish I could tell you I cope well with this. I wish I could tell you that this is me talking about John of the distant past. I wish I could tell you that the cure for all these ills is furious masturbation or copious drinking or a particular video game or film. But it isn’t. The best treatment for feeling worthless, useless, stupid, or like a failure is to pursue what you love. Not with the tenacity of a thousand racehorses, eager to prove someone wrong, but simply to do it because you love to do it.

And tell yourself that “too much” is totally a thing, that you don’t need to fill the holes in your heart, guts and soul all at once, and that sometimes, you do actually need to step back and recognize that you have value. Even if that value is in writing a blogpost you assume never gets read. Even if you assume that value is in applying for a job that you want so bad you can taste it. Even if you assume that value comes only in the interactions with just one person, and even then only when you’re alone with them. Value is value is value is value, and existence dictates it, not the alleged strings other people want you to believe exist.

You gotta love yourself, or so I’m discovering. And it’s tough, because I spent over half my life thinking no one does, did or ever could. But here I am, one day at a time.

Happy living.