When I was 24, I took mushrooms at a party in a seedy part of Hollywood and got it on with a bunch of strangers in a hot tub. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mushrooms + strangers + hot tub + heeeey, but the situation was wrong for me, because I wasn’t really enjoying myself. My focus was on putting on a show and making other people happy, not myself. And these were spectacularly gross people—anyone else could have seen that, tripping or not. But the craziest/saddest/worst part of the whole evening wasn’t that I was faking moans for people who couldn’t have cared less about whether I was enjoying their drunk fumblings, it was that I ran into someone from high school in the hot tub. Do you understand? I was naked and tripping and groping and being groped and through the fog I heard someone say, “Hey! It’s John from CHS.”
The hot tub incident came towards the end of a time in my life, between ages 12 and 24 approximately, when I was really into being performatively crazy. The thing people say about young women who flaunt their sexuality the way I did is that they’re like that because their dads were dicks. I know that isn’t the case for everyone, but it was for me. My father, as I’ve chronicled here, here, and here, was a dick. Though he was successful, erudite, and often quite charming, he also taught me to hate myself, mostly by calling “stupid” and then calling me “crybaby” after I started crying because he called me stupid.
I didn’t consciously decide to turn into the kind of person who ended up naked in strangers’ hot tubs, but when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I must have subconsciously thought, “I’m not worth much to my dad, but maybe I can find a way to be worth something to someone else.” I wanted someone to love me and tell me I wasn’t terrible. I wanted to be distracted. So I started doing whatever I could to get some validation and attention, mainly dressing like a “slut” and being promiscuous, torturing guys who liked and loved me, and chasing guys who were sure to affirm the terrible things I thought about myself.
I managed to get through high school without causing too much damage to myself, probably because my dad was killed in a car accident halfway through. Once he was gone, I felt like I could finally start giving a fuck about my life. When I got to college, I started achieving all over the place, shocking everyone, including myself, and I ended up doing really well, going to Oxford, and scoring a fellowship with the government. But though I was busy achieving, I was still all-the-time propelled towards men, shitheads specifically, and I got together with a whopper at the end of college, and allowed him, maybe even begged him, to destroy me.
I should have seen it coming—after all, he was living with/off his rich girlfriend when we started hooking up. I guess it was a frog boil situation. Things were “great” with us at first because I was so much cooler than his girlfriend—there was nothing I loved more than lying naked with him and laughing as he complained about her being jealous and insecure. I felt totally safe. Then he actually dumped her, and flash forward a few months…guess who was “jealous and insecure,” and being yelled at for it? I broke up with him and crawled back many times. Over two years of this, 9 months of which were spent in Africa together — I was working, he was hanging out — all the self-worth I’d managed to hoard since my dad’s death gradually drained away, until finally, it was as if it had never existed.
When I stumbled out of this relationship, my brain was so broken that I no longer understood how anyone lived. How did people get real jobs, eat, or find an apartment? I couldn’t do any of those things. I didn’t have any idea how to take care of myself, and I decided that the only thing I was capable of doing for money was let weird dudes take pornographic pictures of me for $50 an hour.
Doing well in college had been the result of an enormous effort on my part, and was its own temporary triumph over the self-hatred I’d brought with me, and I let this guy obliterate everything I’d accomplished. Funny how fast things can fall apart when, not so deep down, you don’t believe you’re capable of living, even when you’ve demonstrated that you’re pretty much okay at it. I was doing well! And then I was doing very badly.
I couldn’t ignore what felt like the inevitability of my situation. It was fated, but not because my father created a need in me to self-destruct. It was fated because I was just destined to fail. My father had correctly identified that something was wrong with me, something big and fundamental that I couldn’t fight. No matter how hard I fought or worked, everything would always go to shit. I’d felt doomed my entire life, so when I reached my lowest point, I just wasn’t surprised.
Now, almost ten years later, I often still feel this way, even though now I know so much better. There’s still a gulf between what I “know” and how I feel, and sometimes it seems like there always will be.
It took years, but I eventually recovered from that shitty relationship—the one with the boyfriend, not my dad. I went to Burning Man during my post-break up meltdown, and even though the shitty ex-boyfriend followed me there (our codependency was truly awe-inspiring), I had a by-the-book amazing time and decided to exile myself from New York and move to Venice Beach, where various aspects of my new West Coast life allowed me to heal (That word’s a little gross, right?). The it’s-all-goodness of California was revelatory, as were the mostly helpful but sometimes ridiculous (to me) “spiritual” approaches to personal growth, which I would have never been open to back East.
It was during this period that I gradually began to tone down my crazy-girl ways, but I don’t think it was because all the meditating and sewing up of aura holes, etc., was effective. The reason I stopped walking to the beach in my bikini (the beach wasn’t really that close) was because I started seriously pursuing writing and other creative projects. Once I committed to being creative, I changed.
At least kind of.
For a long time, everything was okay, and getting better. I loved spending hours and hours on my projects, just like I’d loved spending all night writing papers in the computer lab in college. I loved the focused solitude, the possibility and even the frustration. I loved exhausting myself. But what I probably loved the most was that, when I was being creative, nothing else mattered. Certainly not men.
I devoted myself to all kinds of writing and multimedia projects like a crazy person, like an alcoholic who’s addicted to AA meetings. I was still impulsive—I’d decide to, say, write and produce a photo-illustrated children book without stopping to consider if I was capable of doing it, or if my idea was strong—but at least my energy was going in the right direction.
But I wasn’t just creating to create. I wanted my work to mean something to other people. Soon, I found myself needing validation for my work, just as I’d needed validation for my existence for so many years. People didn’t need to love me, fine. (But I really wanted them to, and if they didn’t, it kept me up at night.) What mattered now was whether or not people liked my work.
Now I’m at a point where I’m getting some things published, but I’m getting a lot more things not published, and it’s impossible to ignore how badly I need validation. Having my work rejected feels as bad or worse than the romantic mutilations I’ve dealt with. And how different are creative and romantic pursuits, really? Okay, dumb question, they are pretty different. But also not: love my work, tell me it’s not terrible.
Needing superficial validation isn’t healthy, and needing my work to be validated as badly as I do isn’t great either. Still, I prefer my new dependency on the latter over my old addiction to the former; it feels like evolution. It’s not just that pursuing art distracted me from my need for attention/love/validation from men, it’s that the redirection of this need also saved me from the bullshit sway that receiving that kind of validation had over me. Flirting or receiving compliments generally make everyone feel good, but they used to make me feel too good. Like, “Suddenly I feel optimistic about life because a cheese monger/bodega owner/bus driver indicated they find me cool/cute/charming. Yeah, I can do this!” (this = life).
These two sources of self-worth do get muddled together, though, and I still beat myself up for needing either of them, which also can’t be a good thing. I will find myself in a great mood and not remember why I’m happy, then remember that some random flirted with me, and have to remind myself that really, there’s nothing to be so happy about because my work should be going better, and that’s what I should be focusing on. I shouldn’t feel better because someone smiled at me. That has nothing to do with anything. I should feel better when I’m producing writing I’m happy with, and when someone says they like something I wrote, and means it.
I’ve been thinking about this because I haven’t had time to work on my writing projects and have been feeling too unmotivated/beat down by various failures to get fellowships, etc. to “create time,” and I’ve noticed (or imagined) a corresponding increase in people flirting with me, and how much I notice or care about it. I’m sure this sounds crazy, but I swear, people have been very flirty lately, and even though I know better than to care, I’ve been caring. Since I’m getting minimal validation in the creative world, the need for superficial validation is creeping up again. I’ve realized that I’m still very capable of being distracted and often still want to be, and now I have much bigger goals, ones I shouldn’t be distracted from. It’s scary to be so…easy.
I once did a silent retreat at a Buddhist Temple in New York, and the one moment I spoke was when I asked the Zen Master/guiding teacher a question during our private meeting, an opportunity I didn’t know I’d have because I’d done zero research about what I was doing. I was nervous I’d do something wrong during our meeting, and I did, of course—I messed up the very specific way I was supposed to enter his room and approach him, and instead of asking him a simple question, I asked him a rambling one. I asked how it was possible to invest myself in my writing without caring about what happened to it. If I care about something deeply while I’m working on it I can’t help but be invested in, or attached, to its success. If a story of mine is accepted somewhere or complimented, I feel amazing, and I feel the work (and the world) is good. If it’s rejected or criticized, I feel that the piece is bad, and I feel terrible. I told him that I felt that I cared too much, but caring less seemed like a bad idea, and something I didn’t know how to do anyway. He smiled at me as I spoke, and when I finished, he said, “You know that Nike commercial, ‘Just do it?’” I nodded, confused, and he started talking about…I don’t know. I couldn’t follow what he was saying because I couldn’t get past the Nike reference, and also because I just couldn’t follow what he was saying. I sat there until he was done, and then I left at least as confused as I was when I walked in. I still mull over “Just do it” like a koan, but I haven’t gotten very far with it.
When I was younger and in need of attention from people, mostly guys, there was an obvious correlation between that and my relationship with my father. But now I’m wondering if I need people to love my work! so badly because my father paid the wrong kind of attention to me, and my mother stopped paying attention to me because she was drunk all the time.
The idea of eternally trying to please your eternally dead parents is sad, sad, sad, but I swear, I’m not after their love, I’m after everyone else’s. And I don’t want it for me, I want it for my work. Is that pathetic, or misguided? Perhaps. It also might be so normal that it’s not even worth talking about. But I’d really like to know how I’m supposed to not need love, or attention that pretends to be love.
I’m 34 now, and I actually just noticed the relationship between needing guys’ love and needing my work to be loved, and that as my creative pursuits became more important, men became less.
When I am happy with my work, or even just working on my work, I think I don’t need anyone at all, and I can convince myself that I want, or need, to leave everyone behind. But when things aren’t going well, or when I consider them never going well at all, I think that I can’t cut my ties, because if no one loves my work, I’ll definitely need someone to love me.