“Do not drink your chocolate with your fingers”

I recently attended a really wonderful writing workshop hosted by a dear friend over Zoom. They shared a powerpoint slide with a list of titles and talked about Erik Satie and his bizarre naming convention. We had thirty minutes to let one of Satie’s title’s to inspire us into unedited train-of-thought style writing. I thought of free-writing, journal style, and then of poetry, but I ended up writing a short story based on the piece L’Enfance de Ko-Quo, roughly translated to “Do not drink your chocolate with your fingers.” I thought I would share it with you:

DO NOT DRINK YOUR CHOCOLATE WITH YOUR FINGERS

Erik has always known he is different from the other kids.

“Do not drink your chocolate with your fingers,” his mother always says, “You must fit in! They cannot know you are different.”

But part of Erik wants them to know he is different. He is in the sixth grade and by this time he has seen the other children and how they interact with one another. They kick balls with their feet and wield jump ropes with their hands. They use their voices to sing songs and, strangest of all, they drink their chocolate with their mouths. Erik has no desire to fit in with such strange creatures but he wants to please his mother more than anything and so he plays their odd games and uses his mouth for drinking and his fingers for typing and his feet for running.

Erik knows his mother only wants to keep him safe. He doesn’t remember much about his father because was so small when they came for him, leaving his sobbing mother clutching baby Erik tightly to her breast. When she tells him this story, which she is wont to do every now and then, particularly when the weather is bad or when she is feeling especially lonely, she tells him how he didn’t cry. Erik thinks he didn’t cry because he was too young to understand what was happening, too small for there to be anything left of his father for him to miss. But when his mother tells him this story, she calls him her brave boy. She tells him how strong he is and elaborates on the tribulations through which her brave strong boy can survive. Erik doesn’t feel brave or strong. He is weak and scared all the time and he doesn’t know what tribulations are, but he certainly doesn’t want to face any and he also, even so young, desires more for his life than to simply survive. But whether it is bravery or compliance, Erik does what his mother says. He uses his eyes for reading and he sings with his mouth, and he never ever ever drinks his chocolate with his fingers.

Erik knows he is different from the other kids because his mother always tells him he has to fit in, but his mother never told him that he isn’t just different. He is special. Despite the frequency of her reminders that he keep the other children from finding out that he’s different, Erik’s mother is surprisingly vague about the nature of his difference. He understands that the other children might not have the ability to drink their chocolate with their fingers, but beyond that specific activity, he isn’t sure what else he should or should not be doing. Do other children use their eyes to lace up their sneakers? Do other children use a remote control to turn on the TV and change the channels? Do other children eat their breakfast with their toes or use their lips to kiss their mothers’ cheeks as they tuck them into bed each night? Since Erik is not privy to these and other private moments in the other lives of any other children, he really has no way of knowing what specifically makes him different, and so has no choice but to watch. He studies the other children intently at every opportunity he gets. He watches them in classes. He sneaks peaks at them in the cafeteria line as the load their lunch trays with square slices of cheese pizza or lasagna or American chop suey and the little brown and white cartons of chocolate milk that Erik does not drink with his fingers. Outdoors at recess, he sits on the grass with his back against the ancient willow trees and watches the children play hop scotch and kickball and climb the jungle gym and any other of a variety of alien behaviors. He studies them and he pictures himself one day doing the things they do, of being not invisible, of fitting in like his mother always tells him he must do.

Despite his best efforts to keep the other children from realizing he is different, the kids at school know Erik is different and they generally avoided him. They do not know precisely how he is different but they know from his awkward staring and inappropriate responses and militant avoidance of eye contact and his curious inability to decide what to do with his hands that he is definitively unlike them and he does not fit in. Thus, Erik has plenty of time to watch undisturbed in this wide berth they give him, of which none of them is consciously aware.

One spring day when the weather is beginning to warm, when wildflowers are springing up in the grass around the willow tree and its long flexible branches have started flowering little lavender fuzzies, the kids’ lunch period is extended into recess and the children are allowed to take their lunches outdoors. Erik stands in line with the rest of his class for a dry slice of pizza and a small brown and white carton of chocolate milk, which he carries on the red tray to the trunk of the willow tree.

Erik sits cross-legged and settles the red tray on his lap and notices a mousy pale third-grader with long braids that has caught his attention before. He can tell from her furtive movements that she is unaware she’s being observed and as he watches, she pries open her brown and white cardboard carton of chocolate milk, slyly dips her finger into the mouth of the container, and takes a slow satisfying sip.

Please consider this your trigger warning.

When I was between 12 and 14, I tried to kill myself by drinking floor cleaner in the bathroom of my church. While I don’t remember the specific incident that led to my decision to excuse myself from the church sanctuary where I, and the other children of the church, were rehearsing for an Easter performance, to go to the restroom, where I did go after a quick detour to the church’s kitchen to grab a toxic substance from under the sink.

What I remember is looking into my own eyes in the mirror over the bathroom sink and telling myself I was different and that I didn’t fit in. I remember studying my face and wondering how everyone else saw my face and wondering what about me and my face made me so invisible. I felt completely alone and hopeless and I blamed myself. I poured the floor cleaner into an eight ounce paper coffee cup and told myself, “I hate you.” over and over until the cup was empty.

I swallowed, and I felt the thick toxic liquid go down, all the while masking all of the pain and loneliness and unmet needs to be loved, seen, included, and taken care of in anger at and hatred of myself, my fourteen-year-old-self, too young and naïve to understand and process complex emotions, too dependent on the caretakers and religious leaders to direct my anger at them, too innocent to understand that the things I was blamed for were not my fault at all.

The self-hatred was quickly replaced with shame as the would-be poison forced its way out in a putrid vomit that spewed from my guts and into the sink. Now there was a mess I didn’t know how to clean up. I turned on the water and hoped everything would dilute enough to get down the drain and hide my sick regret. Then I slipped out of the bathroom and into the church sanctuary again like nothing happened.

Around the time I was 15 or 16, my church hired a new youth pastor and I immediately trusted him enough to share the deepest darkest part of myself I could recognize at the time. I exchanged emails with both him and his wife in which I talked through struggles with my religion, my self-hatred, my depression. I articulated as best I could the need to belong somewhere and also the frustration of never quite fitting in.

I remember what was intended to be a compliment at a cookout at the youth pastor’s house to celebrate the few of us who’d recently graduated from high school, when the youth pastor told me how far I had matured from the needy teenager who used to send such lengthy emails of petty complaints and tiresome whining.

I remember the sudden and destructive realization that someone I loved and trusted implicitly could tell me they were there for me and everything was going to be okay while secretly thinking of me all the things I was secretly fearing everyone was thinking.

This is the pattern that repeats for me. In my last relationship, I felt safe enough to ask for reassurance in my insecurities. I experienced some severe depression over the course of this relationship and I was constantly asking if I was annoying or exhausting or needy or too much and he told me he loved and I wasn’t and everything was okay. Then we broke up and he told me that loving me was too much work for him, implying I was too much, that I was needy, and exhausting, and annoying.

Logically, how can I ever believe that I am loved? How can I trust that I’m enough, that someone is taking care of me? How do I trust anyone?

I guess the takeaway is that I can trust myself when I’m feeling like I’m too much, even if that knowledge isn’t enough to change.

My executives are not functioning.

When I initially got laid off almost exactly two months ago, I thought of all the free time I’d have. Of course I was hopeful that I’d have another job within a few weeks, but I was also grateful for the amount of free time in front of me. Without any obligation to be anywhere, I thought this would be my opportunity to finally create something, to write, to sit down and let the words out, unfettered. I imagined myself finally putting figurative pen to paper and letting loose the boundless narratives that’ve been knocking around in here for most of my life. With so much to say, I thought surely this would be my chance. I don’t know why I thought things would be any different now. They are not.

Just like those moments where organizing words into a comprehensible sentence and then speaking that sentence aloud feels like an overwhelming amount of work, the fantasy of sitting at a keyboard and just letting the story unfold before me has been eroded by reality. Writing is hard work. Everything feels like hard work right now. In fact, I’ve had this page open in my browser for the last eight hours, distracting myself into doing other things and then coming back to stare impotently at the space where my words should go. I have so much to say but simultaneously can think of nothing to write.

My job search has been exactly as successful as this novel I’m writing. I have written exactly one chapter but I have done a lot of thinking about characters and plot points. I’ve also done a lot of thinking about what kind of work I want to do and what types of jobs I’m qualified for. I’ve applied for several jobs (23 at this point) with zero response. The further I get from my last date of employment, the less I see myself being qualified to do anything. I was making six figures and now I’m trying to figure out if I can pay all of my bills and still afford to eat. Spoiler alert: I cannot.

The most frustrating part is that I am watching myself lose value in my own eyes, as though I carry no worth outside of my role in capitalism. It’s all well and good to believe that capitalism is evil, to believe that things like food and education should be afforded to all people regardless of how much money they have, to believe that the individualism created by capitalism keeps us from joining together in community to create the world we want… but do I really believe those things if simply losing a job makes me feel worthless? Can I really say I believe all of those things when having that six-figure job made me feel like my life could finally be different? Capitalism needs oppression to survive. The “haves” aren’t special or distinguished if there are no “have nots.” And if I really hated capitalism as much as I say I do, why do I want so badly to be one of the “haves” for once? The lie is that I could be. I won’t. The mountain of debt is only getting bigger and now that I am not working…

What is wrong with me?

I had one really good week back in September. I felt on top of the world. My ADHD meds were working and I felt like my brain had undergone some intense spring cleaning. I had taken out a loan and paid off all my credit cards. I was showing up with my whole self to my relationships. I just felt good. Maybe that one week is all I get.

No words for today.

I woke up this morning and I couldn’t speak. Well, it’s not that I couldn’t. It just feels like too much work. I sleep with a fan on that’s controlled by Alexa but this morning I opened the app to turn it off so I wouldn’t have to talk to Alexa. This happens sometimes. It’s frustrating. I have so many words in my head, so many things to say! But getting the words out of my brain and into my mouth seems to be taking more effort than I am currently capable of. I know it’s me. I know my brain is broken. The words don’t have any objection to being expressed through my fingers. Let’s text. I’ll tweet you. I can write a whole blog. But speaking, today, just feels too hard.

I am less than the sum of my parts.

In 2014, Ingrid Michaelson released the album Lights Out and I listened to it nonstop for several months, as I am wont to do. Sometimes I hear a song or an album and it’s like my brain develops an itch that will only be soothed by those specific sounds. Sometimes the song I get stuck on is one I’ve heard many times before, even years old, and suddenly it will be the only thing I can think about. One time, I heard a song in a dream, and I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. I had recently ended a relationship when the Ingrid Michaelson album took over my listening and there’s a particular song I come back to at the end of any relationship and when I feel distance or rejection from someone with whom I used to feel close. The song, Stick, is about how we rub off on each other in relationships: “There’s a part of you that stayed with me someone else gets to know. Did any of me stick at all?”

Trying to decide how I want to articulate this, I’m overwhelmed by the complexity of emotions conjured by this simple chorus. Did any of me stick at all? I’ve always struggled to find intrinsic value in myself, outside of the space I’m afforded by others. I often struggle even to perceive myself separate from my relationships. (Cue another song lyric that’s indelibly etched in my brain courtesy of one Demi Lovato: “I can’t see what I am. I just see what I’m not.”) So, the idea of relationships being mutable, people moving in and out of my life, and me moving in and out of theirs, feels more like a constant sting of rejection. Do they ever think of me? Do they regret the separation? Are there things that remind them of me? Are they different at all for having known me? The problem with assigning my own value based on other people is that how I feel about myself is constantly in flux. I can see where I’ve lacked stability and consistent care in my life, particularly in those formative years, and it makes me err toward codependent. I get overenthusiastic in new relationships and scare people off. I need too much from other people and I fucking know that most of what I’m trying to get from them should actually be coming from me but I don’t even know where to begin even identifying my own needs, let alone meet them.

I am someone who gets flustered easily. My adult life has been spent working in corporate jobs where it’s often problematic (or at least counterproductive) to be flustered all the time, so I learned to adapt. I know now not to pay attention to the emotional reactions of my coworkers, and especially my superiors. I learned how valuable it can be to break a problem down into smaller pieces to look past the distractions to find the real problems and also how valuable it is to be the one in the room responding to chaos by identifying actionable solutions. I learned how to talk around my emotions so that they’re more palatable, and I also learned to mask my minor meltdowns with humor so that when I am freaking out, at least it’s entertaining and, if I’m making jokes or saying silly things, the people around me don’t know just how triggered I actually am. It’s occurring to me as I type this that perhaps these behaviors are what let to my current situation, (depressed, single, unemployed, financially struggling,) which I am starting to understand is a result of burnout. And yet, as I was maneuvering myself into six figures by exhausting myself and wearing away my defenses until there was nothing left but a raw nerve, my coworkers were commenting on how we always have so much fun at work.

I had a colleague tell me once, “My favorite thing is when you say ‘Oh, for the love!'” This is something that I tend to say in moments of frustration, like when the technology doesn’t work or I can’t find that thing that was just in my hand. It struck me that this would be someone’s favorite saying of mine because I often don’t realize I’m saying it and so I’m surprised that other people register it. I also say this when I’m getting triggered as a kind of pressure release valve. It’s a silly thing to blow off steam so I don’t get to the point where I just start screaming and bashing my face into things, like when someone cuts me off in traffic and I shake my fist at them instead of giving them the finger. Because how ridiculous would it be to look back and see someone shaking their fist at you like an old-timey shop owner cursing some mischievous kids? In any case, that someone would derive any kind of pleasure from witnessing this emotional state is either really hurtful or really validating that I have masked my sensitivities so well.

But, the real thing that bother me about this favorite saying of mine, is it’s not even mine. I used to work with this woman that I really liked and she had no patience. She was always frustrated with something and was not shy about verbalizing it. Working beside her was a constant stream of “Oh, for the love of Pete! Not that button, dummy!” and “Oh, for the love of Sam! That’s the wrong case!” and “Oh, for the love! Just let me do it.” Eventually I picked up on some of these phrases and how she was using them and adopted this little personality trait for myself.

There’s a meme I’ve seen going around that captions “Oh you like my personality? Thanks, it’s yours.” I have never related to anything more. In my struggle to figure out how to love myself—how to be emotionally self-sufficient, how to make room in my life for people I’m attracted to, not just anyone who’s attracted to me—I keep coming up against this concept of self, identity, me… and I kind of come up blank. My personality is an amalgamation of stolen traits and if I look closely enough, I can trace each one back to its owner. Am I crazy? Are all of our personalities just copies of each other? There has to be something in here that’s uniquely me. I feel like if I can just figure out what that is, I wouldn’t need to be so focused on trying to ascertain it from other people.