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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Identity

When I was twelve, I entered what I called a “quarter-life crisis.” My math wasn’t bad; I was simply convinced I wasn’t going to make it into my fifties. Like most humans on the cusp of teenager-hood, I struggled with questions of identity and purpose. My mother emphasized school above all else, implying that I was either a good student or a waste of life. Teachers, on the other hand, cautioned that we were not our grades, standardized test scores, or audition results. No doubt this was intended to be reassuring—but to me, it was terrifying.

I thought I might be able to define myself with a career, but I never had a firm idea of what I wanted that to be. I toyed with pursuing music, writing, pharmacy, mathematics, law, astrophysics, firefighting, and more. Nothing stuck. People close to me have probably gotten sick of hearing me talk about Sylvia Plath’s fig tree so much, but it always resonated so powerfully with me, and still does. It made twelve-year-old me profoundly nihilistic. What was the point in trudging forward in nebulous blackness, toward more of the same? Wouldn’t it be better just to end it all now? Who would care about this loser who would never amount to anything?

If academic skill didn’t grant me purpose, then I needed some deep introspection to find something that would. Fearfully, I concluded I had nothing else going for me. I wasn’t the cool kid who always came up with fun ideas and got invited to everyone’s parties. I was a condescending asshole to kids who didn’t coast through classes as effortlessly as I did. I wasn’t the nicest or funniest or trendiest, or even the smartest. I had trouble maintaining my own opinions and wants, collapsing instead like an ironing board in the proximity of others’. I also had palpably abysmal self-esteem from believing myself ugly. I didn’t think confidence or lack thereof could be so obvious to others, but when a friend walked up and told me out of the blue one day, “Hey, you’re beautiful; don’t forget that,” I realized with a stab of embarrassment that my eyes told their own pathetic story in large neon letters. I hated being inside this skin, I didn’t talk to my family, and I didn’t want anything to do with anyone. I was an existential nightmare and waste of life.

It lasted for nearly ten years. And still returns for a periodic haunt.

When I started working full-time, I felt better. I like the feeling of productivity and contributing to a collective. Even if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it, I think it would have at least kept my mind too preoccupied to tip into the darker stuff. But Fight Club and anti-capitalists tell us we are not our jobs, either. We are not our mortgages, furniture, or kitchen appliances. Plus, work has been distressing lately, to the point where I’m questioning everything and feeling broken. So now I have two problems:

  1. I still don’t have a sense of self outside of work.
  2. When work goes poorly, my sense of self begins to dissolve again.

Harry Potter suggests that identity is a choice. You are in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin because that’s what matters to you and that’s what you strive to be. This feels one-dimensional to me, however. I’m a lot more than a character trait. I’m also a lot of things that I don’t care to make into a Big Deal or factor into Who I Am. I can’t even test consistently into one Hogwarts house; it’s always a toss-up between Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

Are we to be our experiences, then? I don’t want to be my depression, androgyny, or queerness. I don’t want to wrap my identity around being a former smoker, drug user, alcoholic, and rape victim. But in a weird way, I sort of do. Two of my friends went out for dinner today to talk about mental illness and writing. Hey, I know about those things and would love to talk about them, too, I wanted to say and invite myself. I held back because I didn’t want to issue a “claim.” Tons of people take these sorts of things and are wildly successful at deriving artistic inspiration from them and making names for themselves, but I don’t want the labels. Maybe what I really want is the sense of community around pain and conflict, without having those seep into my individual self. Maybe it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome, too.

I’m not supposed to be my job, but I loved it, and now I don’t know what I am without that love. I do have a stronger personality now: wiser, bolder, kinder, more equitable, more caring and generous, and concerned about what’s best for the big picture and the long term. I am a writer, musician, gamer, exercise enthusiast, and significant other. Most days, that feels like enough. When put to text, it certainly looks like enough! I’m still figuring myself out, though. It’s been a long, arduous journey of healing to get to this point, and I’ve still got a ways to go.

Jobs

I had a hard time understanding work when I was a kid. Not the semantic meaning of the word, but what people actually did when they were “at work.” My father has been a pharmacologist for over twenty-five years, but he didn’t tell me his title until I needed to enter his occupation for college applications. Until then, all I knew was that he worked at a drug company. I jokingly wondered if that meant he was a drug dealer, but knew he was too nerdy and goofy for it to be true. Whatever he did, he seemed to have a lot of free time. He liked looking up NBA statistics and potential universities for me to attend. Since the office was less than twenty minutes away, he frequently came home for lunch and a nap. My one memory of Take Your Daughter to Work Day consisted of a hazy image of a dry-ice freezer and little else.

The jobs I understood reasonably well were doctor, dentist, teacher, firefighter, musician, actor, athlete, chef, and taxi driver. My mother said I was too squeamish around blood to be a doctor, though I didn’t consider myself so. Musical employment was too capricious and therefore out of the question. Instead, her dream was for me to be a lawyer. I didn’t feel particularly enthused about this because I didn’t know what it entailed on a day-to-day basis, and she couldn’t say, either. So I went through high school and even college trying to get through classes just for the sake of getting through them, with no end goal or career trajectory. The concept of life after school confused and terrified me. 

Unsurprisingly, then, my first job out of college was at Starbucks. For a year, I wrote orders on cups; “hand-crafted” lattes and Frappuccinos; and plastered on a smile in the face of complaints, insults, and demands for free stuff. I heard one could make a good salary after a few years of climbing the store ranks or transferring to corporate, and wondered dully if this was going to be it for the rest of my life. One supervisor who was a couple years my senior had already been with the ‘Bux for six years, supporting her disabled mother and sister on this income. A middle-aged woman joined the team when she lost her office job and the recession made it too difficult to find a similar replacement. Another barista had worked there for three years, quit to pursue a dream, and returned a few years later when it didn’t work out. 

These people were hardworking, bright, hilarious, passionate, and team-oriented. Their struggles, and those of other colleagues, inspired yet frightened me. After an insular, middle-class upbringing and expensive liberal arts college education, this was my first time really getting to know folks like this. We were all in this together, dealing with this job that was far from ideal. We just didn’t know how else to pay the bills, get affordable health insurance, and make it to the next month. Survival had never felt so overwhelming. It was eye-opening, to say the least. And though it was embarrassing to have my own naiveté smack me upside the head, I was extremely grateful for the experience. 

I got a massive break when one of my closest friends gave me a life-changing opportunity that set me on a career path I could actually feel excited about. For the first time, I felt a drive to succeed for my own sake, not for the amusement of besting others. I had tangible goals and felt capable of contributing something real to a business. I finally felt worthy of ambition. With this job, I was busy, productive, no longer on my feet all day, and making an annual salary that would have taken multiple barista years combined to match. For this, I will always be grateful to my friend.

The thing about ambition, though, is a tendency to feed on itself. The more I learned and achieved, the more I knew I still had much to learn and achieve. Once adrift at sea with no concept of what land looked like, I soon not only found it, but wanted to leave my personal flag on it and even reshape it. I started experiencing brief spells of discontent, doubt, and obligation regarding my career path every few months. I wondered if this was truly the best application of my talents, if I was truly helping anyone. The scope of responsibilities and accomplishments felt trivial. My employee presence was merely a cog in a colossal machine, a voice shouted into an abyss. The money was never enough. I should have been an engineer. I should have been a doctor. 

Two weeks ago, I attended a Meetup about colonization of digital spaces and structures, hosted by the group Ethical Tech. The panelists led a fascinating discussion about a broad span of topics, and it was one of the best Meetups I’ve attended to date. The gist was that modern technology has been trending white, male, and English-speaking. How many of the rest of us feel empowered and helpful in the industry? How does this affect potential development, innovation, and contributions from others? How does this distort other cultures and worldviews? What can we do about it? Does it really matter? As I walked to Penn Station after the session, my head swam with insights, reflections—and renewed guilt over the nature of my full-time job. 

When did you become such a capitalist drone? admonished my inner social justice warrior. All you’re doing is helping big corporations save some money so they can get even bigger. 

It doesn’t have to be such a bad thing to enjoy this kind of position, another side retorted. People should contribute to the betterment of society however they can. We’re not all cut out to be protesters and rioters. Right now, your job gives you free time to push social messaging through your writing. You’re gaining experience, influence, and wealth to use someday to effect more powerful change.

Not like those social justice groups have been offering to hire you, anyway, a drier voice remarked. 

The existential unease has been harder to shake this time. I guess what it comes down to is: do you work to live, or live to work? I’ve grown to prefer the latter, so it pains me to feel my work isn’t meaningful. One of my patriarchy-smashing, anti-capitalist friends from college would say, “You are not your work. Productivity does not equate to happiness.” Oh, but it does—at least for me. It’s wild, how much of a role jobs can play in people’s self-esteem, happiness, relationships, life goals, and more. When I think back to my aimless days, I’m surprised and pleased by how much I’ve changed. Yet there are still days when I feel aimless in a different way. All I want to do is change the world, you know?