Looking For Love in All the Dark Places: Self-Harm, Romance, and Sheep Centaurs

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I want to tell you about a very stupid and embarrassing thing I did this morning. (If my shame list was still being written, this would be on it.) When I got home from Milwaukee last night, I squeezed ketchup and mustard all over my face and took some pictures of the aftermath in one of many personal attempts to challenge aesthetic conventions. And then – big mistake – I posted it on social media. It went mostly “unliked” and, feeling humiliated, I deleted it. I do this quite often. I post a photo, wait to see if it’s worth any social capital, and, if it’s not, I virtually incinerate it. I then spend a few hours fighting the urge to put a Jewel-Osco bag over my head.

How’s that for an unflattering truth? I’m mortified to confess that I’ve enlisted myself in this battle for online attention, but I’m doing it because you’ve probably enlisted yourself, too.

It’s hard to love yourself in a world that tries to knock you down, milking you of your potential in exchange for paper bills, encouraging envy via social media, and exorcising you of any intricacies that seep outside the mold, all the while screaming, “DO BETTER. FIGHT HARDER. PRODUCE MORE.” We’re taught to feel worthless, insane, and inadequate and then we’re told to be silent about it. When we’re kept silent, we’re shielded from interconnectedness and the potential for empathy. When kept shielded, we’re kept small. When kept small, we’re prevented from bringing this system to its fucking knees.

And that’s the point. We’re not supposed to challenge convention. To do so would threaten the smooth functioning of capitalism. Being true has the power to disrupt the flow of income into the weight loss industry, cosmetics brands, cigarette companies, booze producers, sugar pushers, and psychiatric drug dealers. The motherfuckers want you to be sick and stay sick. They pay a lot of money to make that happen.

I am not immune to this illness.

I want to be my freaky self and dump condiments on my head, but I’m terrified of being rejected. I talk about fisting in public, get a weird look, crawl back into my shell. I rub Frito grease on my tits, gross a friend out, die a little bit. I’m realizing that I can’t always be myself and be accepted at the same time. I can wear my sheep suit and choose to be herded, or I can streak through the field and spit on the shepherd. Right now, I’m a sheep/freak centaur with two ass ends. It’s not optimal.

The other night, my friend Mooney Jaymes and I walked home together from a Milwaukee bar after an awkward encounter with someone who’s holding a jealous grudge against me. I told Mooney Jaymes that in the last few weeks, I’ve sensed some massive changes in myself. “I’m trying to embrace my hypersexuality and sluttiness,” I told them. “I’m tired of living as a serial monogamist for the sake of stability. I want to have lots of sex with lots of people, but there’s still so much shame attached to it.”

The situation that led to our departure from the Milwaukee bar (where I chewed nicotine gum and did not drink, duh) was this: One of the men with whom I’ve explored my slutiness has an ex-partner who isn’t happy about said exploration. His ex-partner showed up at the bar, saw me sitting next to him, and confronted him. I felt my middle school self emerge and curl into a ball as his ex joined her group of femme friends. I assumed they were talking shit about me, laughing at me — that I would be pushed out of Milwaukee for being careless with my sexuality and not catering to possessive exes or other people’s jealousies.

(I’m in sixth grade. The popular girls have been letting me sit with them at lunch, despite the fact that I wear Spongebob pajama pants to school. Then, during gym, I call Clara a bitch. The popular girls stop letting me sit with them. I’m the chubby freak with the foul mouth again.)

(You’re an emotional bulldozer, Leif.)

Mooney Jaymes listened to me, nodding along to my verbal lacerations, then said, “You have to start advocating for yourself. I’ve realized that this world doesn’t have room for the person I want to be, so I’ve had to create my own space.”

I’m at the edge of the forest, staring at the path I’ve been circling for 25 years. It never changes. This concrete bridge from one expanse of nothingness to the next looks the same as it did yesterday, last year, the year before that. I’ve stopped paying attention. The trees are a blur now; the bird songs, white noise. I can’t remember why I’m walking anymore, but I remember the warning: “If you leave the path, you’ll never find your way home.” I’ve peered into the forest a few times — even left the concrete to get a closer look at the blurred trees — but there are brambles and spiders and wolves and what if I die?

Really, though, what’s scarier: Circling the same path without purpose for another 25 years? Or pushing past the brambles and swatting the spiders and befriending the wolves in search of freedom?

(I hope that answer feels obvious.)

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Truth moment: I often Google my problems, hoping to find a side path that leads to a big field of empathy. My previous searches include, “when to say i love you,” “how to play hard to get,” and “why do i obsess over men who reject me.”

What I’m looking for is a human being with shared experiences. What I usually find is a lot of nothing, with a few exceptions. Maria Bamford normalized intrusive thoughts for me. “Guys We F****d” has helped me embrace slutiness. Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery helped me make sense of my symptoms and showed me the parallels between C-PTSD and borderline personality disorder. 

But many of my questions remain unanswered. Can I tell someone I love them within a week? Can I want sex with boys, but romance with girls? Can I have sex with my friends? Can I have sex with their friends? Can I do these things without being considered a pariah // homewrecking bitch // unpaid prostitute? (That’d be rad, thx.)

I know I’m supposed to answer these questions for myself. My personality is loud and bright and sometimes drips over the edges of the concrete, and I need to start hacking at the brambles in search of my own path, my own truth, my own happy reality. That’s where Big Mouth comes in. This is my attempt to answer my own questions in the hope that some of yours are answered in the process.

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I want to share two little encounters I’ve had in the past week:

The first: I’m in the car with my mother on our way to Autozone and she’s reading an email I’ve just received from my most recent ex. It’s angry and a bit melodramatic — probably informed by undealt with alcoholism. When she’s finished reading, she says, “He sounds very unhealthy.”

“I’m pretty healthy, right?,” I ask.

“Yeah, you’re healthy,” she says. “I think you just make bad choices about men.”

(Fuck.)

The second: I am alone in the woods of Michigan, reading both a book of Rumi poetry and a shitty article about chasing after bad men. Something foreign invades my system. I write in my journal, “What if I touched myself like I touched him?” I don’t mean this in a sexual way. I mean to say, “What if I offered myself the compassion/forgiveness/gentleness that I offer him? What if I saved the energy I expend on shitheads?”

I keep coming back to these countless manifestations of my biggest and longest standing pattern: my tendency to gravitate towards people who treat me like shit.

From Rome Pt. 2: “I’m addicted to the addicts, the alcoholics, the emotionally abusive, the eternally confused, the self-loathing, narcissistic, nihilistic boys for whom I come second. Or last. Or never.

I want the broken boys. I want the emotionally wounded boys who emotionally wound me as a result. I want to repeat the patterns I’m familiar with — the constant oscillation between chaos and stability, the unpredictability.”

My therapist once suggested that this is a form of self-mutilation — that maybe I chase people who validate the horrible things I think about myself. I look for boys who assure me that, yes, I am dirty. Yes, I am unlovable. Yes, I am fucking pathetic.

I’ve known and lived and analyzed this pattern in my songs and journals for more than ten years. Here’s a verse from a song I wrote in 2014: “Last night I wrapped my hands around your neck, cuz I hate being treated with respect. I want to make you angry, boy, I want to feel you hate me. Kick me to the curb and I will crawl right back.” And a verse from 2009: “You seem so far away, you are a dream, you keep me sane. You star in fantasies that I create to block out uncomfortable pain.” And then, “I can’t stay here, I need your ghost. You’re the physical manifestation of my misery.”

These men aren’t just reflections of my brokenness — they are my brokenness. Perhaps in loving them, I’m attempting to fix myself. Perhaps I’m attempting to befriend my own darkness. Perhaps these internal intentions are good. Regardless, I always end up suffering at the hands of these men and, by extension, at my own.

An excerpt from an essay I’m writing about a friend: “Men are my virtual reality games – they are versions of myself that I interact with according to how those parts of me want to be treated. I love the wounds in them that I identify with. Meanwhile, my own wounds continue to bleed, developing infections that prolong the sickness inside of me. And, of course, the men always leave. I make them leave. They reveal themselves as mortals and I flee.”

The truth stings, but it’s a nebulous thing. I’m not always the broken girl gazing at cracked mirrors and the men I love don’t always hurt me. There are men I have sex with who respect me. There are parts of my sexuality that are liberating and healthy. These parts of me need to be seen.

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I’ve been playing with this blog for a few days, jotting down thoughts about the oscillation between narcissism and self-hatred, about trauma cycles in relationships, and about coming to terms with my own sluttiness, but these posts always — inevitably — escape the concrete and lay paths of their own. Tonight, I am hurting. I’m alone in the suburbs with my computer and my cell phone. I feel compelled to text all of my friends and make sure they still love me. I feel like I owe the entire world an apology.

I said this to my friend the other day. He said, “The world owes you an apology, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Yes, I’m hurting. 

I feel honored to be someone whose work is read and appreciated, but you should know that I’m often frail, scared, and suicidal. I wake up with quivering arms, souvenirs from sleep paralysis. I dissociate while driving, while having sex, sometimes even while writing. Lord, I loathe so many things about myself. I hate hearing myself brag about mundane accomplishments. I hate feeling myself shut down in the face of criticism. I hate how many times I refresh Facebook in search of more validation. I hate that I’ve never successfully lived with people as a result of mental illness. I hate that I’m selfish. I hate that I don’t offer more of myself. I hate that I act ungrateful and self-important and … oh motherofshit, Leif. Everyone feels these things.

I hate that I’m so mean to myself.

From Mooney Jaymes, earlier this morning: “You contain unconditionality that causes others to feel safe n accepted but don’t seem to experience it nearly as often as you share it w others. Imagine speaking a language you don’t fully understand but those around you do and think yer brilliant but you don’t know why bc there’s no translation that does justice. The language is unconditional love n acceptance. I feel it from you, but you as the source who originally contained it need to allow yerself access, too. To yer own unconditional love n acceptance.”

Damn.

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The world wants to keep us sick. We must refuse to let it.

Fuck the assholes who excluded you in middle school. Fuck the kids who called you fat and queer and racial epithets. Fuck Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers. Fuck Marlboro and Budweiser. Fuck Prozac and Zoloft and the pill-pushing bastards who give them to us. Fuck the gossip and manipulation and emotional abuse. Fuck jealousy, fuck envy, fuck Facebook and Instagram. (Fuck these goddamned voices in my head.) Fuck the suicidal nonsense. Fuck giving a shit. Fuck anyone who takes advantage of kindness. 

The world owes a lot of us apologies.

(But don’t hold your breath.)

You’re better off breathing, darling.

 

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6 thoughts on “Looking For Love in All the Dark Places: Self-Harm, Romance, and Sheep Centaurs

  1. Oh Emily. Once again, a post laden with truth and honesty. I can’t tell you how much I relate to your stories of being a freak while you watch with one eye to see how the world is reacting. If the reaction is negative, or worse, indifferent;, you slink back home, tiny and smaller than ever, feeling forever broken and exposed. It hurts. Please, for the love of God, keep being a freak. Put condiments on your face. Post photos. They are art. Graphic and pure. They are raw emotion. Emotion. E-motion. I don’t want to keep telling you how smart/talented/attractive you are. That’s not the point. Even though you may crave the compliments, you don’t need them. You are already enough. Covering your face with condiments is you. Is it me? Not today. Is it most people? Prolly not. But who gives a fuck, because IT IS you. PLEASE keep experiencing, please keep processing and please keep sharing. The fierce bravery with which you expose yourself here is such a gift to all who happen upon these pages. In exposing your truth, you give us all premission to expose our own. It is such a gift that you give us.

  2. As the saying goes…”Being different isn’t a bad thing. It means you’re brave enough to be yourself.” That kind of bravery is becoming rare, something to be admired. At least I believe that to be the case. It isn’t necessarily the easiest path though. Take good
    care of you and your uniqueness.

  3. Thank you for this. Both you and Mooney Jaymes are forces to be reckoned with, but their last quote, that was a surgical knife! I love how your posts have powerful soundtracks. You’re also braver than I am (my piercings, intelligence and curiosity make me an outcast in most mainstream places). I have never posted any more extreme than photos in a bow tie and a septum. Fuck social constructs that don’t allow us to evolve as humans and make people fear us. I’m tired of that crap.

  4. First let me say the words, “I can wear my sheep suit and choose to be herded, or I can streak through the field and spit on the shepherd,” are so fucking perfect and brilliant. Also let me say the accompanying photos are so brave and emotional. Breathtaking.
    Have you read Slut! by Leora Tannenbaum or The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti? I think you might find either compelling.
    Thank you again for the raw honesty of your work. You are an inspiration to me🌻

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