Pinpricks

There is a scab on my upper lip. I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but one can only assume I cut my lip at some point. I am used to these random, little physical annoyances: scrapes, bruises, aches, rashes. A finicky inner ear, a penchant for brusque movements, and a fussy immune system have made these an inevitable fact of life. Shit happens.

But this past Sunday, I was to have dinner with my parents, so this shit was bothering me more than it did on previous days. I knew my mother would comment on it and take it as evidence that I’m an irresponsible monster who fails in at least three fundamental ways to take proper care of herself. She wouldn’t have anything to ask about my work or say about current events, but she would likely find a couple more things to mention about my appearance when she was done with the scab. This sense of dread clouded over the hours before I headed out to meet them, making me anxious and restless and irritable.

Scab or not, this is pretty much how I feel every time my mother and I make plans. Fortunately, I see her fewer than a dozen times a year.

I have been reading the subreddit /r/raisedbynarcissists and finding it so fascinating. Though I am loath to apply this label to my mother, I can still relate to a lot of the discussions being held there. Children of narcissists internalize a lot of damaging treatment, and don’t realize until they are (sometimes much) older that none of that garbage was normal or acceptable. I feel I had it relatively easy—hence my reluctance to brand my mother as an outright narcissist—but it’s ridiculous how something like a scab can still ruin my entire afternoon before a dinner reservation.

As a kid, whenever I fell ill, my mother would reprimand and blame me. It was my own fault for not eating enough vegetables, not taking enough vitamin supplements, not sleeping enough. When I had menstrual cramps violent enough to induce vomiting, it was my own fault for being so weak and pathetic (and I had better toughen up if I ever wanted a baby, because pregnancy would be ten times worse!). To this day, I still hate letting anyone, especially anyone’s mom, know when I am sick or suffering. When someone asks if I am feeling unwell, I get this jolt of simultaneous fear and touchiness, and a reflexive urge to deny, deny, deny in my congestion-muffled, cough-accented, dead-giveaway voice.

I call these words or events “pinpricks,” moments that dampen your day or fill you with half a second of apprehension due to negative associations. Like PTSD triggers, only not so severe.

Outlook sounds are pinpricks for me, too. Yes, as in Microsoft’s email program. I don’t use it anymore, since my current job has us all on MacBooks and G Suite. However, my husband occasionally uses his work laptop at home, and gets calendar reminders and new emails while doing so. Every time I hear those notification chimes, I freak out for a flash because I feel as though I’m about to step into a meeting with my old manager or read an infuriating message from him. My old manager was a textbook embodiment of professional insecurity, hired for a job he had no idea how to do. He took it out on me constantly. I started staying home most days to avoid him and stopped working hard; I spent my workdays watching Netflix and playing video games, instead. My life became pretty comfortable this way, yet I would cry every Sunday night because of the impending work week. It’s been a year, and those trifling noises still get to me. It’s kind of funny, but mostly weird and unsettling.

I think I would actually deal with the noises better today if I did continue to use Outlook at work. By avoiding them, I’ve kept them frozen in my mind with all their old, sinister overtones. I haven’t had opportunities to override those associations with new, positive ones from my current job. I’m not saying this is the way PTSD victims should deal with their traumas—obviously, I’m no psychologist—but in my personal case, with my pinpricks, facing the music would probably be more conducive to healing.

Which is why I still continue to see my mother whenever she is in the country, despite all the chafing and discomfort. I have been more vocal about her inappropriate behavior and she has surprisingly been getting better about it, slowly but surely. That Sunday dinner, she didn’t wind up saying a word about the scab on my upper lip. We even managed to make some real conversation. If she can get better, then perhaps there is hope for me, too.

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Friendship

I am a lousy friend. I don’t often contact others to ask how they are doing or invite them to social activities. When we are together, I don’t know what to talk about. Half the time, I can’t remember what you told me last time—did you get a new job in Flemington or Florham Park? Did you move into a new apartment last month or last year?—and feel stuck in this limbo where we never grow or learn anything new from each other. I try to be a great listener, but my memory doesn’t usually cooperate. If we were in the Sims, our friendship meter would hover perpetually around 65 out of 100, cordial and lukewarm. Sorry, I suck.

I always have ideas for places to go and things to do, but don’t like to invite others along because I don’t know if those plans will be disappointing. I hate taking people to restaurants and hearing them complain or seeing sour expressions on their faces because the food isn’t to their liking. I hate the sinking feeling I get when, despite my thorough research efforts, we travel an hour to find the museum’s hours have changed, the park is closed for maintenance, or the special event was canceled today just because. I hate that whoever originally proposed the outing also tends to be responsible for contingency plans—your idea, your day, and your fault if you don’t come up with something else to save it. This probably sounds like some real passive-aggressive shit, but I assure you, it is 0% about anyone in particular and 100% about my own perpetual insecurities. I have always been paranoid, and I have always hated letting people down.

Once upon a time, I could talk your ear off about anything. I’ve written before about mysteriously losing that ability. Thinking about it further, I think I just can’t relate to most people anymore. I am the only one I know with my kind of job, so I can’t share daily little triumphs with a friend. I am the only classically trained musician serious enough to play paid gigs, but not to make a living off music. I am not the only writer, but I don’t like talking about works in progress, and you can’t really discuss the art itself with a group of largely non-writers. We don’t read the same books. We don’t watch the same movies or listen to the same bands. I don’t follow any sports (beyond the bare minimum for gambles). I no longer play any popular video games. And at the intersection of my gender identity and politics, I feel starkly alone, too. What else is left? Do you want to tell me about your personal projects, fears, regrets, dreams, ambitions? Hard to get to that in social settings. Or maybe you just don’t feel comfortable enough with me to go there.

It’s understandable if you aren’t. I can be fickle. I have no tolerance for any behavior I perceive as fake. I don’t like when people “out” my personal business to others I barely know. I’ve lose respect for, and interest in, people I witness saying contradictory things to different audiences. Even if they aren’t lying—as long as they don’t take the time to explain themselves to me, then I assume they are, and it makes me uncomfortable. I get frustrated by imbalances in offers and exchanges: I always share information with you, but you never tell me anything. We always only go where you want, never where I propose. I don’t even bother to confront anybody about this, because I don’t respect our friendship enough to try to save it. Instead, I try to act chill, but I’m sure it affects my demeanor in subtle ways. Funnily, that probably makes other people think I’m fake.

Because of this, I suppose, I am rarely on people’s short lists to call or text. I am seldom part of the sub-clusters that form within larger social circles. I know plenty of people like me enough, but I am not widely beloved. Sometimes I can’t help but wish I were one of Kerouac’s glowing firecracker people, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.” That others shouted my name in joyous chorus when I arrived at the party, scrambled off their seats so I could sit among them and share my latest exploits. That they watched or listened to me in the midst of something incredible and exclaimed to each other, “I love her!” At heart, I know I am too introverted to revel in that degree of attention. I would honestly make for an unnatural life of the party. I just wish—sometimes—I knew how to be different. I wish I could stop being so easily irritated, at least, and simply be carefree.

I once went to an event where participants pitched ideas for a new technology application and then assembled teams to brainstorm how to execute them. At the start of the recruiting free-for-all, I had a dozen attendees crowding around me, clamoring to tell me what they had to offer and why we should work together. I was so excited and wanted to sign them all up. By the end, about fifteen minutes later, I had a team of four. What happened? Where did everyone go? “I thought you were already too popular,” someone admitted afterward, a woman I’d sort of befriended while waiting for the event to begin. I felt slightly betrayed. Though it was my first time attempting any activity like this, it somehow felt familiar, a pattern of my life.

The older and wiser you get, the more capable you become of assessing yourself objectively. You become more aware of your own true strengths and limitations. For me, this has meant realizing I am not nearly as great as I thought I was at a number of things, and likely never will be. I am not the best employee in my company, or even my department. I will never be the best writer or flutist I know. And—to my bewildering heartbreak—I am not the most fascinating person or the warmest friend. Is it too late to change? I know that, if it’s possible, I would need to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone to make it happen. It feels awkward and contrived when I try to be more outgoing or bubbly or laidback, but damn it, I want to be better.

Gifts

The other weekend, I went to the local thrift store with a large, overflowing cardboard box. I poured its contents—shoes, clothes, handbags, books, toys, even jewelry—into a gigantic bin by the entrance. The Lupus Foundation gained roughly $100 in value. Meanwhile, my apartment gained about three cubic feet of space, free of miscellaneous objects that had been collecting dust. Most had been gifts.

This whole post is probably going to make me sound bratty and ungrateful, but I have never been big on presents. For one thing, I am not a materialistic person. I don’t want or need many objects in my everyday life to feel happy. When playing The Sims, I always got annoyed by the characters’ need to surround themselves with impractical possessions for a positive Room score, because I couldn’t relate. In the financial spreadsheets I have maintained for several years, luxury spending has consistently placed near last. If something serves no utility, then it is likely wasting space.

I wasn’t always this way. When I was a child, my parents had many family friends who would visit. They often came bearing gifts, some of which I actually quite liked. However, I was almost never allowed to keep them. The gifts would be stashed away in a closet, to be given to somebody else later. Knowing which closet it was, I would sometimes open the door to stare longingly up at the shelf of forbidden presents.

This is not to say I had an utterly deprived childhood. I did receive birthday and Christmas presents, but they were never what I requested in my petitions to Santa. They weren’t even as good as the family friends’ gifts, which I never understood. If it was a matter of economics, why couldn’t I keep their presents, and my mother purchase her own presents for the other kids?

The main issue with my mother’s gifts was that they were often very feminine things: sparkly outfits, delicate necklaces, fashionable purses. They tended to hail from popular brands, which didn’t fit the anti-mainstream aesthetic I started cultivating at an early age. More importantly, they made me uncomfortable because I didn’t—and still don’t—feel like a girl. They were constant reminders that my mother didn’t care about the person I was, and that she preferred to keep pushing me to become someone else.

Gift-giving, I soon realized, must be an inherently inefficient process designed to leave both parties less than satisfied. This belief was reinforced by guys I dated. As you could probably guess, this is the only “love language” that does not resonate at all. For some reason, when I tried to tell them I didn’t want to do presents, they didn’t believe me. Every generic necklace and handbag thus said three things: they also wished I were a woman, they still didn’t know me, and they believed in persisting inefficient processes.

Lots of people are lousy gift-givers, even to recipients without gender issues. Half the time, they pick one thing everybody knows you like, and get you something superficial pertaining to it. Posted a few cat pictures on social media? Next Christmas, you’ll be inundated with cat pens, posters, and paperweights. The rest of the time, they get something they would like, without considering whether you share their tastes. It’s not something you ever talked about, and nothing they know about you indicates you would be interested in it—but it appeals to them, so it should appeal to you, too, right?

I like to think I am more thoughtful with my gifts than most, but honestly, I have insufficient data for such a claim. This is the other thing that bothers me: the lack of outcome tracking. As a kid, when I gave my parents handmade arts and crafts or little mall purchases, I either spotted my offerings in the trash afterward or never again. How naïve of me to expect they would have decorated the refrigerator or nightstand with them.

I gave someone an audiobook on a topic with which he was obsessed, and I’m confident he never listened to a word. I gave someone else a necklace; after months of never seeing her wear it, I felt stupid and hypocritical for doing so. I gave someone else a robot vacuum cleaner; over a year later, she asked curiously at a party whether those things really worked, clearly never having tried running one.  For all I know, those presents—and more—were also stashed away in a closet to be re-gifted in the future. I can’t believe more people aren’t disgruntled about spending money on things that evidently never wind up seeing the light of day.

The only times I see it succeed truly and consistently are through crowdsourced efforts. When friends band together, each chipping in feedback and $20 for a substantial gift, it works satisfyingly well. I’ve learned my lesson and made decisions. I won’t be participating in any more holiday gift exchanges. I won’t buy anyone souvenirs anymore unless explicitly asked. If a couple getting married doesn’t have a registry, I’ll stick to giving them cash. But if anyone wants to join forces for a low-risk idea with high expected value, do still count me in.

Creation Story

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of doing a reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop. My friend Eileen curated the event, which was about using fortune cookie slips as writing prompts. I got to share a stage with several incredibly talented, inspiring, humbling Asian-American writers (including Eileen herself)! Here is the short story I wrote for the occasion.
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Dating Archetypes

The Abuser

The Abuser does not value or respect you as an equal. His own thirst for control takes priority over your health, happiness, and well-being. You find yourself doing things you would have previously believed to be out of character, and never in a good way. Apologizing for having the nerve to go out with your own friends for once instead of his. Crawling for his forgiveness after spilling the beer and making him hurt you. Needing to prove your love in various ways from which he himself remains curiously exempt.

(There are plenty of existing studies and literatures that describe abusive behavior far better than I am qualified to do, so this description is by no means comprehensive.)

You stay with him because he is uncannily manipulative and knows how to charm you into believing he is not a monster even after you’ve felt his claws and fangs.

The Loser

This type of partner offers little to no value to you in a relationship. Although he does not actually hurt or manipulate you, he is still a burden who drags down your sense of self-worth lower than it would be if you were simply single. He is a leech and perpetual work-in-progress wholly uninterested in making an effort.

Be careful not to assume someone is a Loser simply because earns a lower salary or does not know how to cook. A partner can and should improve your quality of life in many other important ways: emotional support, quality time, exposure to new interests and experiences, humor, assistance with chores, and so on. A Loser may achieve some of these from time to time, but the overall picture is bleak.

You date him when you think you don’t deserve any better.

The Oscillator

When the circuits are on, this individual can be a great Friend—maybe even a Saint (see below). He spends tons of time with you, makes you laugh, and remembers key details. When they’re off, he is cool and distant, leaving you wondering what he’s up to or what you might have done to push him away. This fluctuating, unpredictable behavior can make him seem addictively mysterious and intriguing to the unseasoned dater. Furthermore, because there seems to be so much potential for a real relationship, you can’t help thinking you might be able to change him and/or get him to fall in love with you someday.

You see him when you crave those intense intervals of passion. When you become surer of yourself and what you want, the lack of communication and commitment becomes unacceptable.

The Friend

This is not about the “friendzone,” a fallacious concept typically popular with immature, disgruntled victims of unrequited infatuation. Rather, the Friend is someone you date because you have a lot of things in common and get along well. You both love outdoorsy activities, evenings of wine and board games, and the HBO show Westworld. You have generally similar worldviews and life goals, though some of the nuances may differ or even conflict.

Occasionally, you may undergo periods of restlessness and wonder if there should be “more.” Maybe you should be looking for someone with a value system that aligns more closely with yours, or who inspires more passion and drive. You then dismiss these questions as side effects of having heard too many fairy tales as a kid.

Ultimately, you stick with the Friend since he is loyal and has never done anything wrong, and you do not know if you would be able to find anyone better.

The Saint

The Saint is infinitely, mind-bogglingly patient. He is always kind, understanding, and respectful. He is never angry with you when you forget “one last thing” on your way out the door, lead him several blocks in the wrong direction in search of a restaurant, or accidentally punch him in the stomach in your sleep. He makes you feel motivated, energetic, and stronger.

Dating the Saint is undoubtedly easier and better than the Abuser or Loser, but it comes with its own surprising set of difficulties. You feel ashamed for being annoyed at him for trifling matters because you know he would never do the same to you. When you hurt him, the awareness inflicts deeper pain within yourself than any rage-filled screaming match. You are forced to reflect upon your own faults and how to become a better person.

You hold onto him because he is the embodiment of grace and unconditional love.

Dating Advice

“What you order at Chipotle says a lot about the type of person you should date,” read a friend’s Facebook post. I paused in scrolling through my feed of recent updates to give this some thought. Horoscopic and facetious for sure, but could it mean anything regardless?

Could there be an underlying personality trait motivating someone to order a burrito versus a burrito bowl? If one person preferred chorizo and the other tofu, was their relationship doomed? Or was this more about the options and add-ons: double meat, brown rice, that extra $2.75 for guacamole?

I liked pretty much everything at Chipotle, so I wondered if this meant I would be compatible with pretty much everyone.

I always imagined myself capable of “making it work” with most people. Another friend once wrote on her high school blog, “The three things that matter in a relationship are timing, location, and personality—in that order.” This stuck with me ever since, and I was reminded of it again now. You could meet the same person at multiple points in your life, and whether a bond developed could depend simply on whether you both happened to be in the right emotional place for it to happen. Whether you were both at Chipotle, so to speak.

Many relationships fail due to unrealistic expectations of romance and love. Those who haven’t been brainwashed by Disney movies agree, “Love is a choice.” I didn’t see why two people couldn’t stay together as long as they shared similar goals and tried to be kind to each other. Tolerance, acceptance, and compromise were more important than sparks and red-hot passion.

Maybe liking all the menu items at a fast food restaurant was comparable to being open-minded about giving chances and trying to make things work in a relationship.

~

My first boyfriend was a chubby white Japanese major I met at a party in my first semester of college. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, but neither was I, so I figured it would be hypocritical to be shallow. At least he had nice eyes.

It didn’t occur to me that he had a creepy Asian fetish. My best friend at school looked like an eighteen-year-old Nicole Kidman, and I was flattered that he focused on me, instead. (After we broke up, he dated a series of other East Asian women, eventually marrying a Korean who barely spoke English.)

He sometimes cracked jokes that made me uncomfortable, but I went along with them because I wanted to be cooler and less uptight. When he took his shirt off, I thought about the funny feelings I would get from looking at pretty girls and wondered if I would ever get them from a guy. Sometimes I agreed to sex when I didn’t really feel like it, because relationships are about compromise.

I believed I loved him because he was kind to me and called me beautiful. In the back of my mind echoed a line from The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

~

It was a weekday, but I did not go to work. I was lying on the couch at home and watching a romantic comedy on TV called This Means War. Reese Witherspoon was struggling to choose between Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, unaware that the two were friends and coworkers at the CIA. The movie was formulaic, but entertaining and well paced. Good enough for passing time when I was too depressed to move or think.

When Reese’s bawdy best friend (played by Chelsea Handler) advised her, “Don’t choose the better guy; choose the guy that’s going to make you the better girl,” I started sobbing. I don’t usually get emotional during rom-coms, but I must have been the first and only viewer to cry during this one.

My boyfriend came home a few hours later, at around seven in the evening. He headed straight to his computer, asked me to tell him when dinner was ready, and started playing a game.

I met this boyfriend, my third, through a mutual friend. At the time he was a financial analyst, but he quit because he “wanted a long vacation.” He worked temporary gigs for two years, until he signed on to a secretive new job that paid under minimum wage and turned out to be with a multi-level marketing company.

It never occurred to me during our three years together that he was supposed to inspire me to be better and stronger. When we moved in together and I had to do everything his mother used to do at home, I accepted it as part of “making it work.” That he cared more about partying with his new cult than spending time with me felt like a natural progression of a relationship long past its honeymoon phase. That I was more or less the sole source of income seemed to be a reasonable, if less than ideal, result of feminism.

Something in me finally clicked into place that day, after over a decade of contemplating a myriad bits of relationship advice. In all those years of following what I thought was expected or obligatory, I never truly considered my own wants or needs. I could do better—even if it meant being alone.