My fourth book, Creative Type, is now available on Amazon. Please see links below. So happy the book is out in the world.
People across the globe are suffering the collective trauma known as COVID-19. Life is far from normal. At some point, though, we’ll be free to leave our homes, greet our neighbors, and hug our friends and family members. We’ll all be trauma survivors.
I’m always in the mood for philosophical discussions, but today I’m especially interested in thinking about the meaning of life. I found a quote from Keith Ansell Pearson’s How to Read Nietzsche particularly helpful right now.
Describing Nietzsche’s approach to life after trauma, Pearson writes, “It is certain that our trust in life is gone, and gone forever, simply because life has become a problem for us. Nietzsche counsels us, however, that we should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes us gloomy. Love of life is still possible, but we now love differently” (38). According to Nietzsche, rather than giving up or succumbing to despair, we must remember to appreciate the gift of being alive, no matter what life brings us.
Stuck inside, we already love each other and ourselves differently. As long as we’re here, let’s acknowledge our pain and cherish our joy.
There’s no distinction anymore between my thinking and my writing. I think as I write and write as I think. Sometimes I stay up all night and think-write so hard I lose touch with my body. By morning, which for me is often darker than night, I become an untethered mind with nothing but emptiness inside.
Emptiness is out of this world. Emptiness is divine. I can’t, however, remain an untethered mind. I need my body to survive. When I repeat nothing zero times, my mind and body reunite, and I leave the kingdom of emptiness behind.
If I ever publish a (meta)physical essay about the joy of temporary body loss, I’ll declare in the last line that think-writing, a gift from God, brings me comfort from time to time.
In Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays, Hayden Carruth states, “Everything I know as a writer and critic, everything I know about poetry and life, tells me that the effort to analyze a feeling makes that feeling stronger, not weaker” (60).
As a confessional writer, I analyze my feelings often, but compulsive self-analysis can turn into self-judgement when I label certain feelings “unacceptable.” Debilitating sadness is unacceptable. I need to toughen up and become a productive member of society. Chronic anxiety is unacceptable. I need to loosen up and take charge of my life.
I assume that Carruth, who battled depression and anxiety for decades, understood the power of shame to compound suffering. Living with mental illness is hard enough. Fighting the stigma of mental illness, the shame I’ve internalized, is equally daunting.
Shame stifles my creativity and restricts my being. I write best when I acknowledge, without judgment, how I really feel. When I’m depressed, my body feels heavier than a pile of anvils. When I’m anxious, my body feels like a desert trapped in a grain of sand. I worry that sharing details like these makes me look bad, but if my depression and anxiety won’t shut up, why should I stay silent? To write freely, Carruth might remind me, is to heal.
But where my body is concerned, I’ll never have the last word. In the throes of a depressive episode, my body won’t get out of bed. Nothing and no one, not even me, can force it to rise. There’s an anger immune to reason flowing through me, a defiant inner child reclaiming his power.
When it’s fed up with the world, my body says no. It accepts that it doesn’t work right. My body owns what it lacks. Rejecting the false memory of a unity it never had, my body challenges society’s bogus requirement to always be rational, driven, and self-sufficient. My body pushes back against the double trauma inflicted upon it: the trauma of having a mental illness and the trauma of feeling ashamed about having a mental illness.
I keep using the word shame, but defining it isn’t easy. On my worst days I feel like my soul is damaged. I blame myself for being depressed and hate myself for hating myself. Hearing people I care about tell me they love me doesn’t stop my internal critic from judging me. I feel unworthy of love and acceptance despite the fact that everyone, by virtue of being alive, deserves both.
Depression is hidden; it doesn’t look like a broken leg or third-degree burns. People fear what they can’t see and judge others for exhibiting odd behaviors they can’t explain. We’re aware of the stereotype of the madman or madwoman. I know how alone they feel.
No matter how society tries to define me, I live my depression in my own way. I’m free to write that I feel like my soul is damaged, but I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that I have a soul in the first place. But writing that my soul is damaged is my (hyperbolic) statement; it is unique to me. Everything I write is an expression of my singularity. My resistance, too, is an expression of my singularity. Everything and everyone I resist, I resist in my own way.
If I wake up one morning and my body feels like a pile of anvils, the first step I should take to get out of bed is to not get out of bed right away. Stay numb. Be one with my mourning. When I feel depressed, to feel better later, I must do depression well.
It’s important to challenge negative thoughts, to take my meds, and to go to therapy, but it also helps to recognize that parts of me haven’t healed, can’t be healed, or refuse to be healed. My body is stubborn. I need to embrace its resistance.
This is a chapter from my story The Education of Chris Truman, which I’ve only just begun and may never finish.
In November 2019, after four months away from treatment, Chris Truman was glad to be back in therapy. He couldn’t manage his daily struggles with the Sadness and the Nerves on his own. Out of ideas, he hadn’t updated his blog, Creative Type, in a while. He feared the stories he told himself about himself belonged to someone else. He saw his face for what it was: a mask he couldn’t remove. As Jean-Paul Sartre might have said, Truman was what he wasn’t and wasn’t what he was.
A blog, like a psychological history, sees many revisions. Inspiration takes time. Truman sometimes went weeks without writing anything, but then, out of the blue, he wanted to share his entire life story with the world. His output depended on his moods, and his moods changed rapidly. A single thought could lift or crush his spirits. The ups and downs were exhausting. How would he ever make a living as a writer if he couldn’t write every day? Revising is important, but eventually a writer needs new material to revise.
Returning to therapy reminded Truman of his first hospitalization for mental illness, on February 21, 2003. After suffering a breakdown at work, overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of his position as a receiving clerk at a grocery store, Truman felt like his brain was on fire. His body, too weak to carry his soul, fell to pieces. Barely a year out of college, he couldn’t cope with the real world, which didn’t give a shit about how well he did in school.
After spending three hours in the emergency room, Truman found himself on Five Center, the psych ward at Woodview Hospital. Robert, a disheveled young man dressed in a pink robe, greeted him in the hallway.
“My moods have a mind of their own,” Robert said. “If I lived in a zoo, I’d be a bipolar bear.”
Truman didn’t care much for puns in his condition. He was too busy obsessing about his failures. He wasn’t a high school English teacher, his plan before college. He wasn’t a graduate student training to become an English professor, his plan after college. He was a writer, but his poems and stories were too self-conscious, too cerebral. Rather than expressing himself naturally, he tried too hard to sound profound.
After examining his thoughts and judging his choices, doctors determined Truman was an Existentialist with a serious case of the Sadness and the Nerves. They gave him medications that stifled his creativity. He was expected to return to society, which eventually he did, but not without questioning the merits of his discharge instructions. He was told to be a man, to work hard, perhaps in an office, and, above all, to be happy. Truman knew he couldn’t meet society’s demands to take charge of his destiny and reach his full potential. He knew that, in an act of defiance, he was going to write a book about his inability to lead a normal life—a book in which he’d try too hard to sound profound.
Recalling his experiences at Woodview Hospital got Truman thinking about Chuck Snoad, a fictional character who was really Chris Truman in disguise. Inspired in college by Henry Adams’s autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, in which Adams refers to himself in the third person, Truman created Snoad in 2001 as his literary double.
Whereas Truman graduated from Pinehurst College in 2002, worked at Gem Foods, and loved a woman named Penny, Snoad graduated from Elmhurst College in 2002, worked at Jewel Foods, and loved a woman named Jenny. Told from a third person limited point of view, Truman’s self-conscious (auto)biography, The Education of Chuck Snoad, gave him countless opportunities to mock himself for knowing so little about the real world.
Snoad was also a writer. His struggles were Truman’s struggles, and vice versa. They were the same person(a). Both tried to describe, in their own words, the ups and (mostly) downs of living with the Sadness and the Nerves—knowing full well that it’s impossible to speak of madness without going mad.
Stuck in the past, I go from happy to sad and back again in a flash. I feel too much, much too fast. I have poems to write but not enough rhyme.
Robert Frost is on my mind. There are two trains at my station but only one for me to ride. I can’t, for the life of me, decide between them side by side.
Beyond the blue horizon lies a sky within a sky. I can’t see myself on either train with either I.
When I was teaching, I tried to induce among my students a functional understanding of the distinction between “lay” and “lie,” or between “who” and “whom.” I tried to show them the advantage of learning grammar and using a dictionary. But many of even the most intelligent writers in my graduate workshops, and for that matter many of my colleagues on the teaching staff, could not take it in. Why? they would say. What’s the difference?
When I told them that love and devotion are the root of it, they merely looked askance.
You choose correctly between “street car,” “street-car,” and “streetcar” not because the choice makes a substantive difference—it doesn’t—but because you care for language, you are in love with it. A good carpenter cleans and puts away his tools properly, so does a good gardener or a good cook, and no one will ever convince me that a worker who ignores his tools will do satisfactory work.
–Hayden Carruth, Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays
Like Carruth, I choose my words carefully. As a writer, I’m imperfect but never sloppy. Every human(e) word I use, in the end, is the Word of God. In my writing, however, I’m not seeking the Truth but speaking my truths.
After just two months of going it alone, I’ve decided to return to therapy at my old clinic. I might have to wait six to eight weeks for a spot, so I’m glad I called and got my name on a list.
Not long after my last session with my former therapist, who left for a new job, I started feeling down and disconnected. Questions arose. Should I tough it out and manage my symptoms on my own? Should I go back to my old clinic or choose a different one closer to home? My mind went into hyper-obsessive mode. Knowing that I couldn’t make a “wrong” decision, I nevertheless struggled to make the “right” decision.
Perhaps I should’ve listened to Jean Baudrillard, who writes in Cool Memories V:
One cannot reasonably trust in the will, that rational strategy that works only one time in ten. One has, rather, to clear the decks around a decision, leave it hanging, then let oneself slide into it, as though being sucked in, with no thought for causes and effects. To be willed by the decision itself; in a sense, to give in to it. The decision then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (66)
Baudrillard would argue that my decision to return to therapy made itself for me ahead of time. It called me, seduced me. I simply had to give in to it.
The moment I told my former therapist I wanted to take time off from treatment, I knew in the back of my mind I’d be a client again somewhere soon. Two months later, here I am confirming what I suspected all along: I still need help for my depression and anxiety, and probably will for the rest of my life.
Therapy, of course, doesn’t benefit me alone. In treatment I can seek a happier, healthier me, or any me yet to be. I can challenge my impulse to isolate when I’m depressed, thus creating more opportunities to build new friendships and share my gift of writing with the world.
A socially conscious philosopher, Jacques Derrida writes in For What Tomorrow, “My decision is and ought to be the decision of the Other in me, a ‘passive’ decision, a decision of the Other that does not exonerate me from responsibility” (53).
Synthesizing Baudrillard’s and Derrida’s novel approaches, I see that my decision to return to therapy has already become an Other-fulfilling prophecy.
Below is the introduction to my 2018 book, Double Meaning.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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-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.
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.