Toil and Trouble

TOIL & TROUBLE #2: There is nothing out there that is you-er than you.

youestyouArt by witchsong’s very own Grace.

QUESTION #1: i have a fear of being wrong that makes it very hard for me to talk with people about anything that could lead to an argument. i think it stems from having parents who were very often verbally abusive and ingrained in me this idea that every conversation was something to win or lose. it also terrifies me whenever i feel like i’m being called out for my beliefs. i’m stressed and upset at myself and upset at other people and i don’t know how i can begin to unlearn my fear.

TROUBLE: The first thing I want to say is that I think you are right to link this fear to your background, and I hope you recognize how monumental that is. It might not feel like much, because just realizing where the damage comes from doesn’t heal it over, but you’ve given some coherence to the narrative of your life, and you’ve done so in a way that takes enormous courage. It’s so hard and sad to confront the ways people who were supposed to keep you safe instead were a source of danger. There’s tremendous grief in saying, to quote Kelly Clarkson, because of you, I am afraid, but there’s power, too. In fact they’re entwined: you give a piece of your heart back to yourself when you respect your lingering sorrow, your unfixable hurt.

I’m starting here because you say “I’m stressed and upset at myself” and you are never going to unlearn your fear while that’s the dominant thread of your self-conception. This is how I’ve learned to think about it for myself: growing up with profound fear freezes a part of you in time. You carry a little ghost-self as you grow older, as you mature, as you survive. The terror you feel during or even thinking about arguments, or feeling “called out”–that’s the scared child in you, making itself known. I’m not calling you childish; I’m saying this coexists with you, still living that moment, those many moments, where what it knew first and most primally was I am not safe.

If you saw a child crying, scared, would you be “stressed and upset” with them? Would you try, in their moment of fear, to rationalize away their feelings, using the kind of neat logic you’ve presented in your letter? Would you tell them, with increasing frustration, you’re safe already, just stop being so goddamn afraid? Would you expect any of those things to work?

I think if there is any hard wisdom your past has brought you, it is the certainty that the answer to those questions is no. You are kind and compassionate and you would never treat a child like that. I think you would try to comfort them. I think you would ask if they wanted to hold your hand, and nod and say I know, I know. I know you’re scared. I know it’s hard. I think you would tell them you’re safe without getting angry if it took them a while to believe you. I think you would try to ease their heart without pushing them to stop feeling before they were ready.

This is how you have to treat yourself: like you should have been treated long ago. Gently, patiently, with compassion and understanding. Not logical understanding–you’ve got that down, and that is huge. But fear doesn’t respond to logic. You have to spend some time making peace with your younger self, maybe with a therapist, maybe with a journal or a canvas, maybe in a kickboxing class, maybe crying and listening to Because of You over and over, letting the grief of it sweep you away like a storm, a force of nature, something you seek not to control but to survive, something which is brutal until suddenly it isn’t so much, anymore. Because of you, I am afraid. It’s not your fault because it wasn’t your doing. And its undoing begins with finding the courage to feel the weight you’ve been carrying, and forgiving yourself for struggling with the burden.

That’s big-picture. That’s the long process of learning to feel that you step on solid ground, of solidifying yourself so that you don’t feel a sharp wind as a threatening attack. While that’s going on, you can also start to build in some scaffolding to help you through those moments when conflict in necessary.

I know I said above that you need to address this issue with something beyond logic, but if you’re temperamentally someone inclined to use logic, it can help sometimes to use it to a point that feels almost silly, spelling out in small words the reasons what you need to say is legitimate regardless of the outcome. “I need to raise this with X person because my feelings are being hurt and I do not deserve for my feelings to be hurt. Because X is a person who cares about me they agree that my feelings should not be hurt and might feel weird but will probably want to fix the situation. If they do not want to fix the situation that is not because I said the wrong thing or do not deserve to be respected, it is for some other weird issue in their head that is not my fault.” God, that’s so tedious. But it can help. If you get trapped in recursive thinking, stuck on panicking about their reaction, it can help to write it out, at dull and exhausting length, to get you through to the end. If you have trouble believing you do not deserve to have your feelings hurt, or generally trusting your own instincts, a therapist or counselor can be really useful. When you’ve grown up with an overactive danger detector, an external voice can help you talk through what is safe and find mantras to ground yourself when you need it.

It might also help to reword your goal a bit. I don’t know if it’s always possible to really unlearn the kind of fear you live with. God knows I haven’t, and I haven’t seen the person who instilled it in me in a decade and a half. I still feel that familiar full-body flame, so strong my skin almost hurts, when something happens that sets off the YOU DID WRONG alarm bells in my head, in my body. When it happens, be kind to yourself. Breathe deeply and slowly and try to name what’s happening (I’m scared, I feel guilty, I hate this) without jumping to conclusions about what it’s mean (I’m bad, I’m worthless, I lost). If you can cultivate that habit (seeking support if you need it), you might be able to reach a point where the fear exists as something you can work through without breaking down, because you will have built up a file of evidence that fear is a survivable experience. Like rain, or this heinous winter we’re all somehow living through.

That’s the last thing I want to tell you, I guess: when you picture something brighter for yourself, it doesn’t have to be this fearless, unshakeable, godly creature. That can be inspiring, but it can also be alienating because it seems so impossible to reach. The bolder version of you can still tremble and cry. You can do those things at the same time as you stand your ground. You don’t need to be fearless to be brave. Brave is something you already are.

QUESTION #2: I’m 17 and have known I was gay all my life. Lately I seem to have forgotten how it feels to be attracted to anyone. Like, same as before I can still look at a girl and recognise that they’re hot, but my entire inner monologue has turned into a stream of “Do I like her; why don’t I want to kiss her; how is it so easy for me not to stare at her; why don’t I like her; what is my problem??!!?!???” and I have no idea what I’m thinking or feeling. I also constantly feel guilty for even worrying about something that seems so inconsequential. I’m haven’t been able to talk to anyone about this for fear of being outed as a ~fake lesbian~. This has been stressing me out for months. Thanks so much for letting me vent, xoxo

TOIL: Hello darling! Here is the first, and maybe only thing I have to say to you: you are not broken, or wrong. And this stuff isn’t inconsequential–how many songs are written about sex, commanding it to us? It might not be consequential, in that you can be lovely and healthy and happy without it, but it feels big. It feels like carrying a sack on your shoulders.

You are waiting for a feeling that is not coming. That is not to say that it will never come, but it is, for the moment, on a break. How Soon Is Now is a particularly perfect song for you. You are feeling like the son and the heir of nothing in particular. You are a human and you need to be loved, just like everybody else. The difference here, maybe, is that attraction and sex and sexuality are all tied into one particularly messy knot. I am always happy to bust out my queer educator persona, and this seems like a particularly fitting time. There are basically three spheres to anyone’s identity: gender, sexuality, and romantic attraction. It’s better not to make this poetic. You may already know all of it, but I’m going to say it anyway, just so we’re looking each other evenly in the eye and hold the same cards. You have a sex, that describes your genitalia as understood by the doctors around when you were born. Then you have a gender identity, which is most commonly given to you at birth based on your sex, although you are always able to decide that that assignation doesn’t fit. Your sexuality determines who you are attracted to. Last, but not least, but most overlooked, there is attraction. You can have a high sex drive, or a low one. You can like sex, but not experience romantic attraction. You can also just not experience sexual attraction at all. All of these things are perfectly legitimate. They’re lumped together because a lot of people experience them. It’s just the way that people’s brain’s work.

You might balk at the idea that you might be asexual. I also am kind of balking at the idea that I should attempt to tell you “what you are”. But let’s borrow the most hated phrase in the queer dictionary: “it’s just a phase”. No way am I saying that this is a phase for you. No way that I’m saying it isn’t- only time and you can figure that out. What I’m saying is, what’s wrong with a phase? Like, honestly, how dare people try and get in the way of someone’s self-discovery? I am particularly bristly about this, since it is something that is thrown at bisexuals every damn day. Did you ever get told this when you were discovering your sexuality? Did you have to grind your feel into the dirt and scream this is what I am even when you had moments of doubt? I hope not. I generally try not to be an asshole, so I wouldn’t wish that on people. People can be Asexual for a lot of reasons. It can be reactionary to a traumatic event, it can be a shift in the makeup of your brain chemistry, and mostly, it can just be what is happening to your body. The most important thing is that you are frustrated, and afraid, because you don’t know what is happening to you. You are a thing without a name. I will not command this name on to you; I get very frustrated by definitions. Your label is your name. You are you. There is nothing out there that is you-er than you. What is with the vindictiveness with which we say “just a phase”? We are not fixed states. We are not rooted. wanted to be a fireman, now I lost the desire man. There’s never been a worse feeling than putting yourself in a box because someone told you to (my apologies to my dog, but we had to take that road trip). It is time to let yourself breathe. There is nothing wrong with not feeling certain feelings. There is nothing wrong with you.

TOIL AND TROUBLE #1: You can rise, rise, rise.

Photo by Tina Curiel Photo by Tina Curiel

When your heart is caught again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain
When the aching won’t be gone
When your battle’s never won
TOIL AND TROUBLE will guide you fair
Steer you through the fog to clearer air.

(We’re an advice column, with music. The weird sisters are on your side this time.)

QUESTION: The thing is, I wanted to start this out by painting a morbid picture of my gravestone, which has a giant YOU TRIED star, in Comic Sans. I have the rose bush that fails to bloom. I’m the one that runs out of lead on an important test. If I was a song, I’m Alanis Morisette’s Ironic. I have anxiety. I’m a giant bundle of nerves that tries very hard but never gets anywhere. I’m inept. I want a million great things. I’m a rocking chair. I’m me and I don’t want to be me. How do I stop being me?

TOIL: To start out my reply, I want to start this out by painting you my own picture. My name is Toil. When Trouble and I talked about picking our name, she suggested we be called Toil and Trouble, as a reference to many things. We’re pretentious enough that we like the reference. We’re cute enough that we……want to be cute. And finally, needing advice means you’re in trouble and some hard work is what you’re going to need to get you out of it. Perfect. A+. We’re great, etc. However, we couldn’t decide which name went to whom. We finally decided that Trouble was Trouble for various reasons (hint: Louis Tomlinson), and I became Toil by default.

Another however: Toil fits me. Despite having everything in my life, I am always convinced that I am in trouble, that everything is falling apart. I am so privileged. I do not want to toil. I am confused and upset by work. When depression hit me, I collapsed instantly with a round thud, like dropping a brick into the ocean from a great height. I live in extremes, and I went to the farthest one. I did not understand how life was forcing me to worklike so many things, giving death words made it real. So instead, I framed it obtusely, adjacently, off in corners. I do not want to die, I do not want to exist. I do not want to not exist, I just want to exist different. I do not want the effort and struggle of death, I just want to vanish into a blank plane. I do not want to die, I just do not want to be me any more.

A year and a half later, I will tell you, obviously, I am still here. And I am still me. I’m not going to say it gets better because  it is a lie. Sometimes it does not. And when it does, it might not be because of anything in particular. It might not be because of something you can control, so saying “it gets better” is like waiting for your Daddy Warbucks to transform you; it is like waiting for your Fairy Godmother, or, most importantly, your Caine Wise (GO SEE JUPITER ASCENDING. IT MIGHT NOT GET BETTER BUT FOR TWO HOURS EVERYTHING WILL BE PERFECT). “It gets better” happens to the chosen few, and it happens to the patient. Therapy, also, is possible for a chosen few, although I will say that a random phone call to a suicide hotline (literally regardless of how you happen to be feeling about suicide) is a very effective 15 minute free therapy session.

Here is what I can tell you: you are clearly used to living in shades of grey (LORD do I hate that book for ruining such a useful phrase), but pay attention to your cloud. You are clearly a very good writer. I am, in particular, struck by the phrase “I am a rocking chair”. What a good phrase! What satisfying words! So, you have a talent. Do not write this off as “I am not the most talented” or “these words are not important” or “I have other things to do”. Accept is for what it is: something you are good at. Start collecting those things, like a butterfly jar. Start writing them down and folding them into origami stars. Repeat after me: no one is worthless. I might be wrong, but a lot of the urge to self-erase comes from a feeling of inadequacy. It sure did for me. I don’t know you. Maybe it’s friends. Maybe it’s family. Maybe it’s the awful ache of comparison. Maybe it’s nothing! Maybe you have anxiety and it is pressing down on you until your skin bloats and that’s not something you can control.

Regardless, erasure is a terrible, terrible thing. I won’t compare it to suicide, because there are a lot of ways to erase yourself, of which suicide is only one, but they all are simply awful. When you are no longer you, it is not just the bad parts of you that you are throwing away. You are throwing away everything. It might sound good right now, but trust me, it is not, because it is impossible. This is how it went for me. I want to cut my stomach out, but I would miss the precise color of my skin when I’m driving my car in the California sun. I want to be Taylor Swift but I would miss the way I walk, bow-legged and masculine when I’m feeling confident. I want to be smooth and wrinkle-less, but I want to be able to crinkle my nose.

We are all scales, in a way, of things we hate and things we love. I think it is very rare (impossibly rare) to have your scales balanced all the way to the “good side”. But gradually, millimeter by millimeter, I would encourage you to even your scales.

TROUBLE: Here’s another reason it seemed right that I be Trouble, even though, truly, I am very demure and law-abiding, as withered millennia-old crones go: as soon as I said the words out loud, I had on loop in my head the refrain of this old bonus track, Britney sing-stuttering Ain’t nothing wrong with a little bit of trouble, trou-uble, trouble. This is something I’ve built shakily and stubbornly into my worldview, because I’ve had to, because I’ve made a few too many times the mistake of thinking trouble is something that can be outrun. Trouble is what brings you to our door, but trouble is also a part of life, one that can be read like tarot cards, to teach you about where you are and where you’re headed.

I am not saying: hey, cheer up, there’s nothing wrong. Your problems are real and the pain they cause you is valid. What I am saying is: let’s shift the lens a little bit. You’re turning a story about how you feel–anxious, frustrated, tired–into a story about who you are–inept, broken, doomed. What I’m saying is: there’s nothing wrong with you. Toil is right: you can’t erase yourself, and that’s a good thing.

I’m not expecting that to be comforting. I know–I know–that it can be the hardest thing to hear when you’re choking on I don’t want to be me, drowning every day in your own unwantedness. You want a magic spell to rewrite each cell in your body, turn you into something bold and clean and fast and steady, but think about how those stories end. Do you want to be voiceless, dancing on knives? That’s what happens to Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid, and that’s what it feels like to live fighting against who you are: a stopped throat and wounds that never close.

Right now you’re at war with yourself, and you need to find a way to make peace. Many people do find therapy a valuable tool in that process, and that’s both a recommendation if it’s an option for you and a dose of perspective: you think you are saying “I am dead already,” but what I’m hearing from you is “I am human and alive.” Which is terrifying! Help, I’m alive! sings Emily Haines, and the echoing, cavernous dread is so much more believable than the thin falsetto lightness of my regrets are few. But, also, it’s just life. I know I’m that I’m being hateful, but that ain’t nothing / I’m just jealous / I’m just human / don’t judge me, Beyoncé says, and you need to channel that idea for yourself: call a truce on your hatefulness, your fear, your thorns, your wilted blossoms. Declare a ceasefire on your difficult humanity. I’m telling you this because you deserve to believe this, but also because the only thing I have found that grounds me when I feel nervousness climbing up my skin like ivy is saying to myself, I am experiencing anxiety because I am a human being and this is a thing human beings experience. I don’t know if that will help your in-the-moment anxiety, but I know that more broadly, the more I make space in my life to name and observe the things about me I wish weren’t true without trying to cast them out, the more livable they become. The less energy I spend fighting them, the more I have to build up the other parts of myself. This is the trick: not to become less you, but to become more you, to inhabit more fully your skin. In making room for the painful parts of you, you give the rest of you air to breathe. This is slow going, and frustrating, like gardening, like anything involving living things. But you can do it.

TOIL: You wrote to an advice column, and you wrote in a clear, beautiful voice, about how you can erase yourself, and you opened with “I want”. You wanted to control how we saw you. You had your own desires. You had an image of yourself in mind, an image that you felt was true. Somewhere in you, you do not want to be erased entirely. I could tell you how to stop being you. But, as you may know, nothing is going to stop you from being you, apart from those unspeakable words. And they are never, ever, worth it. It may not get better, but you might love yourself for it more.

TROUBLE: YES! I am so, so moved and inspired that even feeling so desperate to shed your skin, you dare to want great things and you dare to call them that! If there’s one thing I want for you–and I want a lot of things for you, I want you to find love like you deserve and peace like you crave and a thousand glittering dreams–but if I have to pick one, I want you to never stop believing in the greatness of your desires. You say you’re trying, and I believe that, and god, it can be so exhausting to roll and roll till you’re out of luck, again and again. When you’re so full of longing, it’s easy to read it as the story of the million things you don’t and maybe will never have: I’ve got a feeling deep inside / it’s taking, it’s taking all I’ve got. All your strength, burned up in the furnace of your failures. But we’re shifting lenses, remember? Can you try to believe in the bravery of your wanting? I roll and I roll till I change my luck: same story, new ending, all because you had the courage to keep showing up. And look, I’m not a psychic: I can’t tell you when your luck will change, or if it will be in the way you want now. I can only encourage you to look for beauty in the game.

You need to build that beauty into your life if it’s not already there. This is partly a logistical matter: STOP BEATING UP ON YOURSELF, as an isolated directive, is about as easy to follow as DON’T THINK ABOUT A WHITE BEAR, so you need to find a place to redirect that energy you’re currently hurling at your spiritual scabs. This isn’t the same as distraction, which is another way of trying to outrun yourself. I’m talking about spending time on things that make you feel nourished, more whole. I don’t know what those will be. Maybe it’s something physical, to remind yourself you’re not just a series of heartaches floating through the ether; maybe it’s a craft, something where you can hold tangible results of your own learning. Maybe you’re gonna get real weird about a boy band, or become an expert on the Civil War. You’re good at wanting; I believe you can follow your heart to its own lifeline. What I’m here to do is to tell you to cherish it, even if you think it’s not “productive” or doesn’t “count” or isn’t “meaningful”: believe in the magic of something that makes you want to be alive. Believe you are worth nurturing. Easier fucking said than done, I know! It’s hard, it’s so hard. One of my favorite things about Cher Lloyd’s “Human” is that she follows up a declaration — I decided tonight that I’m breaking all the chains on my throne of perfection — with a question: could it be that easy to let it all go? Listen and think about that tension between boldness and uncertainty, about epiphanies that slip like water through your fingers, about how it feels awful to make the same decision over and over again but it’s better than the alternative. You know I’m just human, human, human after all. I promise you, that’s enough if you let it be.

TOIL: I would also recommend that you listen to Meditation from Thais. We don’t do much classical (or we haven’t yet) here on witchsong, but I love this piece. It’s a lament. It’s a phoenix song. You are at a juncture here. You can lie to yourself, and focus on the negative sides of your scales, and you can make minuscule changes, day after day after day, trying to wipe off your canvas. It will not work. I can tell you with complete confidence that it will not work. Everyone runs out of pencil lead. Or, alternately, you can write out your feelings until you run out of words. You can sit in a rocking chair and roll back and force until your bones are shaken loose from their clenching. You can write down on your arms the things that you are good at: you can write down both sides of the truth, the good with the bad. You can rise, rise, rise. This song will make you cry but it will be worth it. As it climbs scales to its crescendo, think to yourself, isn’t it ironic? Isn’t it ironic that evil succeeds when the good is so obvious? You can rise. Please write back at any time.