The Mirror in the Abyss
How I stopped sabotaging myself
In my solstice letter, I mentioned something that deserves a longer essay:
It’s hard to read all of that and to still hold space for the utter fear and personal misery which such rhetoric conceals. None of those aforementioned have anything approximating stable lives. Some of them are often suicidal, many of them are constantly in dire financial straits and are constantly begging for donations to fund such extravagant endeavors as buying groceries and paying their rent….
The most radical of my former friends, the ones most devoted to changing the world and shaking from the thrones of the earth all the false gods that oppress them, have always also been the most unhappy.
The reason it needs a longer essay is because of something quite personal. All those words could have truthfully been used to describe me a few years ago, too.
Someone who knew me well, more than a decade and a half ago, had a rather interesting way of describing my politics back then. We were at a party, and someone was talking admiringly about my political work and extensive knowledge of anarchist and critical theory. He smiled approvingly, and then said, “Yeah, and his politics are indistinguishable from his coping mechanisms.”
He hadn’t meant it as an insult, actually, and I hadn’t taken it that way either. In fact, the person with whom we spoke agreed that such a way of going about politics was probably the most integrated thing one might do. After all, “the personal is political,” and so therefore the political is personal, and why shouldn’t they constantly inform each other?
What that actually looked like was something quite personally destructive, but it took me just until a few years ago to see this.
To recount everything this way of being entailed would take an entire book, one perhaps some day I’ll write. To trace precisely where this started would also need an amount of words I’ve no time to write. So the best place to begin is from the end, from the moment I finally understood I had been sabotaging myself for decades.
That end came almost four years ago now. I was dodging thrown books and a hurled laptop while trying to step barefoot over broken glass. It was 4am on a rainy December night. I was desperately tired, and terrified, and also wondering how the fuck I’d gotten myself in this position again.
What happened was that the physically and mentally abusive man I’d been been with for the previous year and a half was having another psychotic break. He’d stopped taking his medications (primarily ones for sleep) because they were “oppressing” him, and since I was “causing” his current anxiety he was attacking me.
This wasn’t the first time. He’d kicked me before, and punched me several times, and one night woke me up by dumping a very large amount of dirt on me while I slept. And of course there were many, many, many other such incidents, but I think you probably already understand that it was generally quite awful.
As I said, though, this wasn’t the first time I’d been in such a position. He wasn’t the first lover I’d had who’d attacked me. Another, six years before this one, smashed everything in the room we shared, including pulling down all the drywall from the walls and punching out the windows and a very large mirror. I’d had nowhere else to sleep that night, so after he left I swept off as much broken glass and drywall as I could from the bed, wrapped myself in a blanket, and cried myself to sleep.
Those were not the only two really bad relationships. A third previous one was with a man addicted to crystal meth. Something he did to me despite my protests (I’ll spare you the details) meant I couldn’t have receptive sexual relations for almost two years afterward.
When something like that happens once to you, it’s awful. When it happens multiple times, it’s a pattern. The final relationship was the perfect storm of all my shitty beliefs about myself. While that guy was extremely awful, this time I couldn’t deny that I’d actually walked right in to the situation and closed the cage door behind me.
That’s what I told the therapist I started working with after the last incident. I’d fled from France to my sister’s home in Luxembourg to get away from him, and after about ten days staring into the abyss that had become my life, that abyss became a mirror. Every single stupid belief about the world that guided me into such traps stared back at me, and I finally understood I was an unwitting but nevertheless active agent in my own suffering.
That therapist was damn good, by the way. Like all good ones, he was adept at creating a space where you constantly answer your own questions and become really impatient with all the ridiculous ideas to which you’ve too long clung.
Here are a few of those ideas:
I take up too much space in the world because I am different from others. I believed that the “real” me was too much for other people. Others who seemed to be able to act authentic or to move about the world without feeling the need to apologize for themselves were either people without real depth or indifferent to the needs of others.
There is never enough for everyone, and so it’s best to wait until everyone else has what they need first. This belief was clearly rooted in my childhood poverty, when there literally was not enough to eat (sometimes there was just toast with margarine for dinner). This later manifested in the belief that my own needs, problems, and desires needed to be postponed until everyone else’s were met. And while this all sounds noble, the result of this way of thinking is always deep resentment at others who don’t do the same thing.
I can only react to miserable conditions, rather than create better conditions for myself. Again, this obviously came from my childhood when I was literally unable to create better conditions for myself. It took me more than 20 years of adulthood to stop acting like I was still a defenseless child, and especially to let go of the sense that others were responsible for making things better.
Suffering is a symptom of injustice and has an external cause. Rooted as above, but here’s where the particular form of political ideology I embraced (anarchism and later Woke Ideology) became indistinguishable from my coping mechanisms. When bad things happened to me, I was powerless to do anything about it until some great other (a system, an employer, an imagined oppressor) was held to account.
This last belief deserves a lot more attention, as it’s a core feature of the mechanism of ressentiment in Woke Ideology now. Consider how the accusation of “victim blaming” shuts out all agency from the victim. If anyone even cautiously dared point out to me that I seemed to have a pattern of getting into abusive relationships, and also a pattern of staying in such relationships long past the point that I understood they were not good for me, I could easily have called their observation “victim blaming.”
It is fully true that is was others who were acting abusive to me, and I was not asking for the abuse nor causing them to be abusive. But that’s not the entire story, because I realized that I kept getting myself into such situations. While I was not the cause of the abuse, I was absolutely responsible—and was the only one with that agency—for the decision to enter into those relationships and to stay in them. Sure, there were practical, material concerns involved (immigration status, housing insecurity, etc), but looking back now I understand that my view of what other options I had was also self-limited.
The political problem here, which is also a social and cultural problem, is that we have stifled our ability to talk about personal agency in favor of a cult of victimhood and an esoteric belief in structural injustice. We can only ever see causation occurring in one direction, and seethe with righteous fury when anyone dares suggest a person might be able to affect their own circumstances.
Worse, we then encourage those in such situations (ourselves and others) to see victimhood as virtuous. This is what Nietzsche meant by the “slave morality” and ressentiment, a psychological turn in which we try to compensate or cope for a feeling of injustice by convincing ourselves that suffering is sacred and morally good. Especially in the current social media trend to elevate behavioral and mental disorders and disabilities (ADHD, for example, and even schizophrenia, as well as the more extreme ends of the “fat-positivity” movement) to something cool or unique about a person, or in the ritualistic celebration of oppression identities, we raise shrines, temples, and idols to suffering itself. Victims become the chosen ones, the elect, the favored of the divine, and it almost becomes embarrassing to admit that you have not suffered as others have.
Those were once my own politics, which were actually also my coping mechanisms. I actually didn’t want to be poor, I didn’t want to be in abusive relationships, I didn’t want to suffer so constantly from depression or from the consequences of my ridiculous beliefs about the world. So, adopting a political framework that told me it wasn’t actually my fault was the worst thing I could possibly have done for myself. It was worse than all the abuse, worse than all the poverty, worse than all the suffering, yet nevertheless it felt better than actually looking into the abyss.
When I finally got out of that last situation and started unraveling those beliefs, I lost lots of friends—and fast. This is clear to me now but it never was before: I had actively pushed away from my life those who could help me out of these messes, and instead sought out only other broken and miserable people full of the same ressentiment as I was. It was easy for us all to find each other, of course, because we styled ourselves activists and dropped hints in our speech with cues like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘structural injustice.’ It’s the same way white nationalists—who are just as full of ressentiment as the Woke—find each other other, but they use other words.
I’d regardless managed to keep a few authentic friends throughout those years without pushing them away. The rest of them—all with happy lives and stable relationships and an outlook on life that didn’t involve blaming everyone else for their own problems—had wisely given up trying to be my friend, and in their withdrawal they’d left one final gift. They’d departed because they had good boundaries, had cared enough for their own happiness and health to cut out someone they liked but whom they nevertheless knew would be a destructive element in their lives.
Again, that was a gift and a kindness, because when I finally looked into the abyss, I then needed to do the same kind thing for myself.
So here I am now, a few years after I finally decided to stop all this idiocy. Ressentiment is a bitch, though—you don’t easily undo decades of shitty thinking immediately. There are still sometimes I catch myself blaming some external force or person for something I actively let them do in situations I willingly got into. Occasionally I look at the success of others and tell myself I cannot have the same thing, that I am somehow different from them. Sometimes I fear taking up space in the world and hesitate before asking for what I want and need. And sometimes I’ll let something miserable continue rather than applying the often very slight effort required to change it.
Of course, I’m quite damn happily married now, and to a man who fortunately hadn’t even heard of Woke Ideology before he met me. He’s never had any patience for ressentiment, either, once telling me that I should either stop acting like I cannot become what I want to be or I should consider our relationship over. The friends I’ve made since then also have no tolerance for such ridiculous beliefs, and they’re also much kinder and much more fun to be around than any of those I had to jettison a few years ago.
I imagine the stability, joy, wealth, and deep feeling of agency I have now all would be labeled as “privilege” to those former friends. And though I know they’ll write it off as “victim blaming” when I say this, I’ll say it anyway:
You don’t have to be miserable, and you have much more agency over your own life than your wrong beliefs about yourself and the world allow you to see.
There is no virtue in suffering, and it is cruel to yourself and others to pretend otherwise.
Your politics should never be your coping mechanism, and your coping mechanisms should never be your politics.
And also, seriously: don’t ever let someone abuse you a second time. The first time is fully on them, but the second time is also on you. Get out of there, no matter the cost.