Surviving the social work profession ultimately comes down to the self-care habits you establish in social work school.
The strongest habits reflect an understanding of priorities. Amid all the competing demands of school, you may ask yourself which to put first.
Is it school? Your placement? Your job? Your family? NOPE.
Your number #1 priority is—and always should be—you. Because without health and wellbeing, you can’t properly attend other all the other priorities.
Many folk regard self-care as a nice “add-on” to their daily routine, such as a kind act towards one’s self, like taking a bath or getting a massage.
Such acts certainly matter, but self-care most importantly is ensuring you are getting the necessary sustenance for your body, mind, and spirit.
I’m someone who considers myself to be fairly well-versed in self-care principles. But even so, I still struggle to practice it.
What doesn’t help is that I, like most, have certain gaps in my knowledge of self-care principles. For example, it was only in my late 20s that I found out about sleep hygiene, a practice essential to getting a good night’s rest.
If you’re short on time, consider doing a YouTube aerobic class. Failing that, try for a 20-minute walk around the block.
4. Staying social. It’s crucial that we dedicate time every week to enjoying the company of friends, family, peers, and partners. It’s all too easy otherwise to find ourselves caught up in an endless cycle of study.
5. Limiting intake. Sure, caffeine can help us shake off tiredness. And alcohol may help ease stress. But taken in excess, they may do us more harm than good.
The same can be said of highly processed foods. When we’re strapped for time or low on funds, it’s all too easy to reach for a packet of potato chips or a can of soft drink.
Try to stock your pantry and bedroom with healthy snacks. The proximity of these snacks can help you with resisting the urge to splurge on junk food.
Enhancing mental resilience
Laying the foundations for good health has the added effect of supporting our mental health—a quality crucial to survival in this profession.
Given some of us come to social work with a history of our own, stress can have the effect of triggering existing anxiety, depression, and/or emotional reactivity.
The good news is that these challenges can be addressed with time and daily effort.
Here are some techniques that can help with maintaining your mental resilience.
1. Meditation. This can be either guided or self-guided.
5. Gratitude. A gratitude practice can include keeping a daily journal. Consider also writing down five things you’re grateful for on a regular basis, and/or sharing them with an accountability partner.
6. Affirmations. If you’re stuck on how to practice affirmation, consider using prompt cards.
My goal is not to cure this client today. No one expects me to. My goal is to establish a good relationship, to inspire hope, to identify what’s really important to the client, and perhaps to figure out a step the client can take this week toward achieving his or her goals.
What Beck is stressing here is that the only true measure of professional success in this profession boils down to a single factor. And this factor is our willingness and ability to meet our clients where they are at.
If you’ve found any of the self-care advice I’ve shared here useful, let me know in the comments.
And if there’s anything you’d like me to cover, reach out and I’ll do my best to address it in a future blog post and video.
What is autism spectrum disorder? To fully understand this phenomenon, we have to employ the medical model.
Big disclaimer: the medical model is far from perfect.
According to this model, there is something inherently wrong with autistics. Historically, this rationale has also been used to marginalize and oppress us.
For most people, the social model is preferable, as it argues that the issue lies not with neurodiversity, but with society’s failure to accommodate it.
The social model aims to destigmatize autism, whereas the goal of the medical model is to diagnose and treat.
Pathologizing aside, getting an ASD diagnosis can open the door to disability-related legal protections, supports, and services. This is one example of how the medical model can be of use to those with autism, and their loved ones.
So, what is autism spectrum disorder?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological developmental disability.
Autism is characterized by ongoing deficits in social communication and social interactions in a range of contexts. Other criteria for autism include “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”. 12
Autism symptoms manifest in the early development period and typically cause clinically significant impairment in key areas of functioning.
To receive a diagnosis of ASD, these symptoms must not be better explained by the presence of intellectual disability or global developmental delay.
A diagnosis of ASD is typically accompanied by a severity measurement of “Level 1”, “2”, or “3”. Level 1 means the individual requires very support, Level 2 substantial support, and Level 3 very substantial support.
(Remember how I mentioned the medical model is pathologizing? An example of this is the DSM-5 terminology I just used, such as “disability”, “deficits”, “symptoms”, “impairments”, and “severity”.)
Autism often appears alongside other conditions, such as epilepsy, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, sleep problems, gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety, and depression.
Who gets diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder?
Males are diagnosed with autism at three times the rate of females, but this doesn’t necessarily mean autism isn’t as common among females.3
One study found that autistic females as a population are better than males at hiding their autistic traits. This results in fewer diagnoses, later diagnoses in life, and misdiagnoses.
It’s also been argued that autistic females may present autism in a way different from their male counterparts.4 And due to many measurements being male-centric, females may be overlooked by current diagnostic measurements.5
Additionally, autistics from racial minority groups are typically less likely to receive a diagnosis of ASD.6 Instead, they are more likely to receive other diagnoses such as ADHD and conduct and adjustment disorders.7
Many conclude that reflects medical disadvantages experienced by minority groups as a result of structural inequality.8 But it’s important to note that autism traits can also go overlooked or can be misinterpreted, depending on the sociocultural context. 9
Why are some people autistic and others not?
There are no clear answers here, however, some studies point to a range of environmental risk factors and protective factors.
These include advanced parental age, low birth weight,1011 fetal exposure to the epilepsy medication valproate,12 intake of certain vitamins,13 maternal autoimmune disorders, environmental toxins, and breastfeeding.14
Links have been made between unique gut microbiota compositions and the development of autism. Other studies have indicated strong genetic influences, concluding that autism is highly inheritable.151617
How does one get an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis?
To get an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, you need to be screened by a trained professional.
For children, there’s a range of tools. For example, the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers Revised, the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, and the Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers and Young Children.181920
For older adolescents and adults, the gold standard for autism diagnoses is the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) module 4.21 Professionals typically use this tool alongside direct observations and taking patient history.
The Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) is another gold standard autism diagnostic tool that is suitable for both children and adults.22
Again, I want to point out here that these diagnostic tools may be gender-biased and thus more likely to detect male autistics than female autistics.
When seeking out a diagnosis, it is worth checking to see that the person doing the assessment is using the most current, research-backed screening measures.
If seeing a professional is not an option, adults can also use self-reporting tools such as the Social Responsiveness Scale, Second Edition: Adult form (SRS-2).23
Additional tools are available for assessing how autism is impacting one’s activities of daily living and quality of life.
How is autism spectrum disorder “treated”?
There is no biomedical treatment for autism spectrum disorder, however, psychotropic medications are available and often prescribed for those who are experiencing symptoms such as anxiety or depression.242526
For autism specifically, there is a range of therapies, the most commonly used being Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).27
ABA is designed to help autistic children with the development of social, communication, and expressive language skills.
The dominant strain of ABA has been heavily criticized by autism advocates for violating individual autonomy and even doing direct harm to clients.28
Critics have also pointed out that there are conflicts of interest among researchers who publish scientific literature in support of ABA as an autism intervention.29
Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to current ABA intervention. However, ABA is one of the few treatments that remain widely accessible.
In many US states, health insurance providers are required to cover ABA-related expenses under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
One alternative to mainstream ABA is Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions (NDBI). NDBI is more child-directed and provides intrinsic rewards for learning and participating.30
Other available interventions support the development of core skills among autistic children, such as social communication.31
Additionally, programs exist for young adults, such as the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®).32
For autistic young people and adults, psychotherapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are recommended for those who experience comorbidities such as anxiety and depression.3334
These are available in both individual and group formats.35
So there you have it, my brief introduction to autism spectrum disorder.
Again, I want to stress that much of the content I shared is presented using the medical model.
But remember: viewing autism exclusively through this lens is not only limiting—it also fails to give consideration to some of the strengths of being neurodiverse.
Disrespectful people, pushy people, abusive people—chances are all of us have at one point in our lives encountered such individuals.
Sometimes we skate by, unharmed. Other times, the encounter is unpleasant enough to leave us with a sour taste in our mouth, bruised feelings, and an acute sense of injustice.
Autistic individuals I believe are especially vulnerable when it comes to being bullied and manipulated.
It begins with the fact that many of us have low self-esteem, resulting from living in ableist societies in which neurodiverse folks are treated as inferior.
Autistics additionally have been found to have a more deliberative (and effortful) thinking style. This can impair our ability to rapidly and automatically intuit others’ intentions.1
Our willingness to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt—to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us—puts us at even further risk.
Turns out it’s no accident that toxic individuals are drawn to us like metal filings to a magnet. Rather, it’s the result of our fundamental struggles with knowing when and how to say “no”.
Low self-esteem: a recipe for exploitation
Low self-esteem can render many autistic individuals unwilling—or unable—to set boundaries and to push back when the situation calls for it.
This largely has to do with the kinds of negative reactions we might expect, reactions we have often endured due to our “weird” autistic traits and behaviors.
Others’ reactions in turn lead us to adopt negative narratives about our own supposed unworthiness and unloveable nature as autistics.
This erodes our self-confidence and undercuts our ability to be self-reliant, while also signaling our vulnerability to potential bullies and manipulators.
Another component of this is our tendency to second guess our own feelings and thoughts when confronted with difficult situations.
Many of us are often told that we’re in the wrong. We act with good intentions, only for neurotypicals to tell us that our intentions don’t matter.
All of us have at one point either been told we are too honest, too blunt, too insensitive, too difficult to follow, or too weird. It’s dismissals and criticisms like this that leave us prone to self-doubt.
Thus when challenged, many of us may spiral into helplessness and fail to stand up for ourselves.
Why confronting difficult and toxic people is so hard
It takes courage to speak our feelings of pain, helplessness, and anger. Having low self-esteem, therefore, means we are forced to fight battles on not just one but two fronts.
Firstly, we must validate our perceptions of a situation. This requires an acknowledgment of our worthiness, which can conjure guilt, shame, discomfort, and anxiety.
Secondly, we are standing up and demanding respect. There is always a fear that we might not be heard—a fear that is often borne out in day-to-day life as a marginalized minority—thus reinforcing our negative core belief of unworthiness.
Then there is the concern that the person we are confronting may retaliate—a concern, however wellfounded, that enables abusive people to remain in positions of power.
Low self-esteem can make us a target
When we speak out, the person aggressing may listen and adjust their behavior.
Those who harbor ill intentions alternatively may also decide that we aren’t worth the effort after all, and move on.
But should we fail to speak out—or if our “no” is not forceful enough to effect a change—toxic individuals can linger on.
If you’re dealing with someone with a taste for manipulation, they won’t surrender control so easily.
There’s always the possibility they may redouble their efforts, draining your emotional well and tainting the waters with negativity.
The seven ‘buttons’ used by manipulators
So, why you? What is it about your person that clues these people into your weaknesses?
In Who’s Pulling Your Strings?, Harriet B. Braiker describes seven behavioral “buttons” that manipulators routinely use to pressure and coerce their victims.
It is only by becoming aware of those buttons, Braiker argues, that we stand a chance of resisting manipulators’ control tactics.
1. The disease-to-please: People with this challenge have made their self-worth conditional upon their willingness to do what others want or expect of them.
Resisting the disease-to-please is likely to trigger guilt, a fact manipulative folk use to their advantage.
2. Approval and acceptance addiction: Are you overly nice? Chances are your efforts are motivated by a fear of rejection and abandonment.
Manipulators leverage this fear, withdrawing approval and acceptance to force you into complying with their demands.
3. Fear of negative emotions: Experiencing anger and sadness is fundamental to the human condition.
Trying to avoid negative emotions is next to impossible. Moreover, expressing them can be key to maintaining healthy boundaries.
Those with this button try to bury and avoid negative emotions thus leaving them wide open to attack by manipulators.
4. Lack of assertiveness: People-pleasers struggle to say “no”. As such, they may struggle to stand up for themselves when the situation calls for it.
5. The vanishing self: Manipulators have no qualms about twisting those with an unclear sense of identity and core values into fulfilling their own needs and desires.
6. Low self-reliance: Distrusting one’s perceptions drives us to seek the input and advice of others, leaving us vulnerable to external influence.
7. External locus of control: Those with an external locus of control believe that forces outside of themselves are ultimately responsible for shaping their lives.
This ultimately results in learned helplessness and an inability to assert one’s self in the face of manipulation.
From low self-esteem to high self-esteem
Manipulators as indicated capitalize on low self-esteem, which has the effect of only reinforcing their victims’ negative self-perceptions.
One could observe that the degree to which we can suffer low self-esteem is relational. Others can damage, but also repair it.
Confrontation, however frightening, is sometimes necessary. This may be as simple as making explicit requests and seeking commitment.
“I” statements are helpful here. For example, “I feel disrespected when you name-call. I’m asking that this behavior stop.”
Remember, you have a right to make reasonable requests and for them to be acknowledged. You are under no terms required to explain or defend yourself.
What you want in confronting a manipulator is some sort of change. That said, your demand needs to be framed as a win-win proposition.
If, however, the other person won’t refuse to accept anything short of win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose, be prepared to pivot.
Try these magic phrases
Some aggressors respond to feeling threatened by double-downing or escalating. This may take the form of deflecting, projecting, shaming, verbal abuse, and overly dramatic reactions.
Know these individuals may try to confuse the issue, gaslight you by playing the victim, and/or evading any responsibility.
Many individuals feed off conflict, and anything you say or do that plays into this will count as a win in their books.
Be sure to name any attacks on your person the instant they happen. Send a clear message to the aggressor that you won’t stand for poor treatment.
Hold fast to your conviction that no harm has been done by your speaking up. Your goal here is to protect yourself, not the manipulator’s feelings—which probably weren’t in jeopardy to begin with.
Do not be drawn into a point-for-point debate. Instead, assert yourself by saying: “That doesn’t work for me.” “That’s not fair.”
Resist any attempts by the manipulator to wrangle for control by delaying your response: “I need to think about it.”
If they try to force an argument, disengage: “This conversation is not productive. I’m leaving now.”
If you’re feeling thrown off balance by the manipulators’ tactics, it’s okay to break off the exchange by telling them: “Actually now is not a good time.”
A straight “no” will even suffice, followed by your departure.
And it’s perfectly acceptable to shut down the lines of communication until the other person agrees to follow rules of common courtesy.
If you’d like to try out some of these lines but are worried you might fumble the delivery, practice them in advance until you feel 100% comfortable saying them on cue.
Reappraising low self-esteem
These kinds of situations and encounters can inflame existing feelings of low self-worth among autistic folk, especially when bullies respond with escalation and accusation. You can address this head-on by taking stock of your actions immediately afterward.
Check in with yourself. How are you feeling about what just went down?
Were you fair in your conduct? Did you really behave unjustly, as the manipulator would have you believe?
Imagine for a moment it was your friend making the same request of you. Imagine they told you that your behavior had hurt them.
Would you have listened to them? Would you have been open to change?
If your answer is “yes”, then it’s reasonable to assume that it was a fair request.
The bully may accuse you of being equally at fault, but what they probably are trying to do is avoid culpability by muddying the water.
Refuse to take on any of their accusations and combat self-doubt. Conduct an inventory of your alleged character flaws and use humor to inflate them.
Have you, for example, failed to be perfect enough? Are you insufficiently conscientious? Are you an extremely poor people-pleaser?
Now try to name some appropriate punishments for these crimes. If the ridiculousness of it all doesn’t stop you in your tracks, then take it as proof that it is you—above all—who deserves the break.
If these encounters leave you feeling stressed, consider practicing some of these self-care techniques, specifically devised for autistic folks.
Emerging from a sherut—a minivan taxi—I was ushered along the pebbled path, past rows of cypresses, towards a stately mansion with an air of quiet repose.
The path ended at an elegantly carved oak door, a view I had glimpsed countless times in the front page of prayer books bearing the irreverent scrawls of my three-year-old self.
But once I was within the Shrine and kneeling on the carpeted floor, I found myself desperately trying to conjure a flame of faith.
Here I was, at the symbolic center of the Baháʼí Faith; the point of devotion towards which all Baháʼí’s turned during prayer.
The Shrine was the final resting place of the prophet Baha’u’llah, who had been tortured, imprisoned, banished, and betrayed in the name of his Faith.
What right did I have then to feel as I did, like a gourd carved clean of its meat and left to fester in the sun?
Just who was I to squander this chance to connect with the Transcendent on His home turf?
Yet for all my knowledge of the spiritual ocean that surrounded me, for all its lapping at the walls of anger around my heart, I was not yet willing to surrender them.
For I had built these defenses, brick by painful brick, against the cruel vagaries of life. They had served as sole protection against the frightening, unpredictable world beyond.
And yet they had also kept me in a kind of half-life, an open-eyed slumber from which I now struggled to wake.
Losing my faith
From a young age, I was stricken by a profound sense of grief. It was as if both my parents, who were alive and well, had died.
Their assurances of love seemed only that—a kind of parental lip service I feared may not be true.
The closeness and understanding I craved I knew could never be possible. For a vast unnamable gulf stood between us, a gulf born of misattunement and intergenerational trauma.
The belief in my own inherent unlovability was the first of many unexplainable secrets I carried with me into my adulthood.
Then there was the fact that I forever felt like the odd one out. School classrooms were a sensory overload prison. A background hum of social anxiety pervaded each day.
My need to escape drove me away from people and into rumination. I took up residence inside inner worlds of data collection and categorization.
Unsurprisingly, the resulting isolation made me easy pickings for the schoolyard birds of prey.
It would not be until after my 26th birthday that I’d receive an explanation, in the form of a diagnosis with Asperger syndrome. The upheaval this would bring, however, was still many years away.
The third secret involved a brother who in my teen years came to rule our home with his fists, baldfaced lies, and crocodile tears.
When my brother “disappeared” first my CD player, then my pet parrot, my parents did not so much as speak. For what could be said to appease this neverending rage that drove my sibling-turned-stranger to break windows and blacken eyes?
After too many years of handling a searing lump of coal with kid gloves, my parents bandaged their hands and retreated into silence.
My family, once as solid and seemingly invulnerable as an iceberg, ruptured, individual pieces carried slowly away by the currents of unresolved tensions.
We drifted, until at last, one final conflict forced us completely apart. At age 17, I came out as gay to my parents.
Mom and dad’s response was curiously devoid of emotions, but their fear and resulting anger were all too clear.
For a decade, I made film after film and wrote novel after novel. I collected degrees, notching my belt until there were more holes than leather.
I wandered through a kind of phantom existence, forever evading the seemingly unspeakable facets of my past, secretly resenting my Maker for His apparent role in predestination.
Soon, however, everything I had fought so hard to keep buried resurfaced. The three secrets I had been born in silence took physical shape as anxiety, depression, and a digestive ailment I would later discover was irritable bowel syndrome.
A ‘world of illusion’
The Baháʼí writings tell us that we live in a “world of illusion”, a “mirage rising over the sands”.
Baháʼí leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advises us to abandon our attachment to this world, warning that “the repose it proffereth only weariness and sorrow”.
The Baháʼí writings explain that calamities and afflictions—whether of our own creation or the will of the Almighty—are a crucible for spiritual refinement.
Our difficult experiences, we are counseled, only offer proof of the necessity of spurring the mortal world; remind us to focus our energies instead on service to humanity, and preparation for a spiritual afterlife.
But to the walking wounded, promises “of blissful joy, of heavenly delight”, of an exalted station in some “celestial Paradise” are only that: words.
Heaven emerges from the Baháʼí writings only as a half-sketched marvel in the far margins of human comprehension; insubstantial balm for very real pain.
Any surprises then that my ego rebelled against the writings, rejecting the idea that I should find contentment in God’s apparent will; in treading the “path of resignation”.
And yet I what was my ego, except a result of the mortal condition—a condition without which my suffering as well simply would not exist.
The turning point
For a decade, I found myself theologically adrift, tethered to the Baháʼí Faith by the thinnest cord of belief, yet clinging to it all the same.
Then at age 30, the grief crescendoed and I found myself at a crossroads. I could remain where I was and be crushed by the tangled accrual of trauma, or I could begin cutting myself free.
I chose the latter, undertaking therapy, exploring books on spirituality and self-betterment, and committing to daily meditation.
Frozen emotions thawed. Long-suppressed grief flowed. And an informal truce was struck, the cold war between religious obligation and bitter experience drawing to a quiet close.
I found myself once more seeking solace in the Baháʼí writings, reciting prayers that were always met with silence.
And yet…there was always a kind of answer to be found in the immediate calm that followed; in the finding of unexpected composure.
From faith to ‘betterhood’
My return to the arena of life was not as a man garbed in the armor of blind faith.
For as a compassionate being, I could not help but continue to question the suffering that defines the human condition.
Still, as one who has suffered and saw survived, I no longer saw the words of prophets and other luminaries as simply indifferent and tone-deaf.
Rather, they carry a certain charge. They offer consolation. Like swatches of color in a monochrome world, they offer a vision of “betterhood”.
Betterhood inspires hope. It propels us towards a higher calling. Betterhood is what I credit for leading me to advocate for others, through documentary filmmaking and the social work profession.
Today, the million dissenting voices of doubt remain as present as ever. The dialogue between the instinct to resist and the desire to surrender to some higher power continues.
But it is a dialogue that needs not end. To question is fundamentally human. And it is the necessary preface to true belief.
After 10 months of trying to evade COVID-19, the virus finally caught me.
No—I had not been flagrantly breaking coronavirus restrictions. While others attended social gatherings, held parties, and failed to honor COVID-19 safety guidelines, I scrupulously stayed in my bedroom.
When I did emerge, it was only to exercise, shop for food, and spend time with my partner. But wearing my face mask the minute I walked out the front door and keeping my distance was not, as it turns out, enough.
COVID-19 numbers in Los Angeles hit new highs in December 2020, and as an extra precaution, I took to avoiding my roommates and wearing a face mask whenever I stepped foot in communal areas.
My immediate social circle shrank from two to one. Seeing just my partner seemed like a fair compromise to make, even if it flew in the face of rules not to mix with members of other households.
Two weeks later, my partner came down with COVID-19. By the time we received the positive diagnosis, it was too late: I too had been infected.
Until this point, I had steadily nursed anger towards those whose reckless actions were fueling case spike after case spike—the same people, undoubtedly, I saw walking the streets without a mask.
But catching COVID-19, I found myself suddenly wondering if I was no different to those I had so harshly judged.
Even as I succumbed to the tidal pull of illness, I was sliding down a spiral of another kind entirely: shame.
How ‘COVID fatigue’ is fueling a COVID boom
During the subsequent days spent in bed recovering, with only self-doubt for a companion, I began conducting a moral inventory of the (deeply questionable!) actions that had led me to this point (spending time with my partner).
But could I really be to blame for seeing a loved one, even when that decision was taken against the advice of health authorities?
As a Los Angeles resident, I had been living under a dark cloud of COVID-19 isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty for the better part of a year.
Infection transmission and financial security remained a constant concern and watching the cyclical surges in case numbers was enough to leave most people stricken with helplessness.
If the public and the authorities weren’t willing to take the necessary measures to stem the tide of infection, then what hope did we ever have of getting the pandemic under control?
In my imagination, I saw these individuals poking holes in a liferaft the rest of us were frantically trying to bail out.
Certainly, in refusing to get tested, communicate their status, social distance, and take all the other necessary precautions, these people were acting as saboteurs.
But after so long spent in lockdown amid a national and global climate of chronic risk and uncertainty, was it really fair to fault people for wanting to spend their holidays with family?
Seeking soothing in a time of disaster stress
“COVID fatigue” (not to be confused with the actual COVID symptom) refers to a feeling of exhaustion with “being cooped up…being careful…being scared”. According to a UC Davis Health psychologist, it’s just another name for long-term disaster stress.
Psychologist Deb Dana describes co-regulation as the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states” through social relationships.
It makes sense therefore that people burdened by disaster stress and long periods of isolation might want to seek the company of loved ones.
Video calls thus far have been the closest approximation for in-person companionship. Poor a substitute they may be, they are also a necessary evil when it comes to safeguarding loved ones against COVID-19 transmission.
Even so, why are people still taking risks?
How ‘optimism’ grants immunity to COVID-19 shaming
For the better part of a year, Los Angeles residents have been in a holding pattern, care of the ever-shifting restrictions and lockdown conditions.
Staying home and alone for such a long period is enough to exhaust anyone’s limited store of willpower. Given the high reward involved—reclaiming a former freedom—it’s no wonder some people might choose to stop adhering to COVID restrictions.
These people may be further motivated by optimism bias—that is, the belief that we individually are less likely than others to experience an adverse life event, like say, catching coronavirus.
There are also conflicting feelings around being told not to fulfill a personal right which, under any other circumstance, would be socially sanctioned. That is, spending time with family and friends.
Those who self-medicate with substances, compulsive sex, and other forms of self-gratification, are being abruptly forced off their hedonic treadmill, and this can be enough to trigger a state of collapse.
Survival in this sense is tied to the endless pursuit of distraction. For without distraction, there is introspection, and realization of buried trauma and identity shame.
When confronted by the condemnation of others from within our own community, we’ll feel only more compelled to seek distraction; to maintain our place atop the treadmill.
COVID-19 shaming in such instances is limited as a mechanism for change, and may in fact have the opposite effect.
Seeking peace through compassion
If this situation tells us anything, it’s that our anger over this kind of behavior is an attempt to regain some sense of control and fairness in a world that currently seems void of both.
The low-FODMAP diet involves restricting the intake of certain carbohydrates known by the acronym FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols).
FODMAPs are present in anything from bananas to yogurt, to tea and garlic. Consuming more than the recommended amount can cause unpleasant symptoms, including diarrhea, constipation, cramps, gas, and bloating.
Some of the more well-known FODMAPs such as fructose and lactose are even known to trigger reactions among those without IBS.
Three meals maximum within this period I have found to be usually sufficient at keeping my appetite sated. I try to evenly space the meals out, with one meal at the beginning of the eating window, one in the middle, and one at the end.
If you’re eating foods with moderate amounts of FODMAPs, be warned that eating overly large portions or snacking in between can slow the transit of food through your system, resulting in FODMAP build-up and symptoms.
A low-FODMAP tea is helpful with managing your appetite during “off” hours. White, green, peppermint, mint, rooibos, honeybush, and licorice are all listed as safe.
Consider also adding a sweetener such as stevia if required. It’s zero-calorie and won’t break your fast.
Resistant starch: Resistant starch (RS) is a naturally occurring fiber. Some IBS sufferers report finding it can help with symptoms.
RS can be found in some milled grains, legumes, underripe bananas, cooked and cooled bread, potatoes, rice, and pasta, to name a few.
RS ferments slowly in the large bowel, compared to the rapid fermentation that results from eating FODMAPs, leading to the usual symptoms.
There are multiple forms of RS and your tolerance to each kind can vary. RS has been known to produce symptoms in some IBS sufferers.
RS as it turns out is my personal nemesis; nevertheless, I have found I can mitigate some RS-related symptoms with the help of the herbal remedies listed below.
Spicy foods: Spicy foods are a well-known IBS trigger. Chile is completely out for me, though I’ve found I can tolerate pepper and mustard.
Acidic foods: Vinegar is a big culprit here, to the extent that I’ve had to stop eating salad dressing.
Citric acid is another culprit that turns up in a variety of food, from candy to canned tomatoes. These days, I avoid it completely.
Peppermint oil: This product is available in capsule format and can treat IBS-related symptoms. On the rare occasion I dine out, I’ll take two pills to minimize the impact of eating high-FODMAP ingredients.
When consuming foods high in resistant starch I usually take half a teaspoon of a similar three-seed combination: ajwain, dill, and anise.
As Shirazi thyme is not widely available online, I decided to sub it with anise seed, another carminative.
Note that the exact FODMAP content of these seeds has not yet been measured. It is possible that consuming them could cause you to exceed your FODMAP limits.
Activated charcoal: There is some evidence that activated charcoal can help with the absorption of gas in the bowel. I take 3x 780mg charcoal pills, twice daily, along with the three-seed combo described above.
Digestive enzymes: Broad-spectrum enzymes may support digestion among some IBS sufferers, but again more studies are required.
The good news is that there are commercially available enzymes targeting select FODMAPs: xylose isomerase (for fructose), alpha-galactosidase (for galactooligosaccharides, or GOS), and lactase (for lactose).
Yes—coronavirus has cost many their livelihoods…and even their lives. But in the West, as countries were locked down and stay-at-home orders were issued, the wheels of a “Quiet revolution”—to use the term coined byauthor Susan Cain—were turning.
While countless extroverts bemoaned the lockdowns and the loss of freedom, some introverts viewed social isolation as not deprivation, but rather as an opportunity for quality time activities and peaceful reflection.
An introvert living in an extrovert world
In her celebrated book on introversion, Quiet, Cain notes that Western cultures tend to favor the Extrovert Ideal:
“the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.”
Consequently, when we introverts are measured against the Extrovert Ideal, we are often found to be lacking:
“Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” (Cain, 2012)
Growing up in societies that celebrate the Extrovert Ideal and mislabel anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that Ideal as “antisocial” has left many of us with feelings of inferiority.
The rise in remote working has put a pause on the much-loathed commute. Where before we introverts may have felt forced to spend a lot of our downtime recuperating from these various stresses, we can now apply ourselves to our activities and interests with renewed energy.
Meanwhile, social lives that might have once entailed exposure to overstimulating circumstances have also been placed on hiatus.
Introverts can now pick how and when they engage, measuring out social interactions in thimble-sized doses, over the phone, instant messages, or at a socially distanced hangout.
Extroverts living in an introvert’s world
Separated from the social contexts in which they have long excelled, many extroverts have understandably floundered.
Those who previously maintained their sense of self—and in turn their personal wellbeing—through social interactions have been forced to adopt a more solitary lifestyle.
This phenomenon I believe is less an act of social performance than proof of the extrovert’s continued existence. It speaks as much to an existing sense of isolation that predated coronavirus (and which was accelerated by the rise of social media) as it does the degree to which that isolation has since grown.
But extroverts alone are not suffering from the side effects of our new lockdown culture.
As a teenager, I was anxious, isolated, and afflicted with insomnia.
Most days I spent indoors, indulging in geek interest escapism. Sometimes I would craft elaborate fantasy and science fiction stories. Other times I would voraciously consume books, movies, and video games.
Refuge could also be found, of all places, in hammering out essays at the computer. (That such projects could bring order to my otherwise unpredictable school and home life probably speaks to the systematizing nature of my autistic brain.)
The downside of my constant computer use was that relaxing became difficult. A day spent glued to my screen would inevitably leave my mind restless, my sleep broken.
Without friends, family, and a community to ground me, my self-worth became proportional to my productivity. There was always more to do, one more task needing completion.
Trapped in a vicious circle of feeling isolated, I sought reprieve in workaholism, which in turn only exacerbated my loneliness.
Living with constant internal pressure was motivating and could even be affirming. Just look at how productive I was being! So what if my peers at school bullied me – just look at these shiny achievements, these notches in my academic belt!
But rather than slowing down, I ramped up my commitments. At the height of my workaholism, I found myself juggling a full-time job, a feature documentary, a web series, a novel, and organizing two research trips abroad.
Getting to, and staying, asleep by this point had become an elaborate, multi-staged ritual, beginning with a double dose of Benadryl, followed by an hourlong walk around the neighborhood while I waited for it to take effect.
Sometimes I would end up at a 24-hour gym, working the elliptical until the fatigue hit me…unaware that all this activity was probably only making my objective all the more difficult.
When I got home, I’d pull my blackout curtains, slip on an eye mask, put in my earplugs, fit a pair of headphones, cue a soothing audio track, and lie down on a makeshift bed on the floor.
This, of all places, was the only place I was guaranteed to nod off, for reasons I still don’t understand. After many a tossing, turning and blanket adjustment, I’d doze off, only to wake a short while later.
Climbing into my real bed, I’d return to sleep, to rise the following morning, still tired but wired, ready to chip away at my ever-growing workload.
Some nights, however, I would doze off, only to be woken by a hypnic jerk, a kind of whole-body twitch typically preceded by the sensation of falling.
Again and again, I would doze off, only to be jerked wide awake. The steady background hum of anxiety would be cranked up into a shrill roar, putting sleep still further out of reach.
The journey towards recovery
Self-generated projects until this point had been the main source of meaning in my life, and yet they were as much a palliative as they were problematic.
The comparative ease with which others were able to accomplish sleeping – a basic bodily function – told me that something in my case had gone awry. Believing there was no recourse, however, I kept up my unwieldy sleep routine for years.
My mother’s staunch opposition to any form of dependency made prescription medication seem like a false option. Sure, I was already relying on Benadryl, but then again antihistamines weren’t habit-forming drugs.
And even supposing I could scrape together enough money to get a proper diagnosis, I would have to contend first with the fear that the professional I saw might dismiss my problem outright.
The situation reached a tipping point one night while I was doing my regular insomnia shuffle around the neighborhood, I became caught in a rainstorm.
Any sensible person would have run home, or at the very least ducked under the cover of a tree. But to return home before the Benadryl took effect would mean yet another sleepless night. So I pushed on.
The wind picked up, turning the rain horizontal. Next thing, it was inverting my umbrella, leaving me exposed to the elements.
After about half an hour of this, I surrendered and trudged home, sloughing off my dripping clothes and climbing into bed.
When sleep did not come, I grew increasingly anxious. The anxiety snowballed into hypnicjerks, which in turn fueled the anxiety.
The night stretched on, each hour punctuated by an anxious glance at my phone screen to check the time. Heavy with the dread of facing a new day unrested, I lay there, waiting for my morning alarm.
Come the following night, I still couldn’t sleep, and my insomnia ballooned into a record 50-hour spell that only ended with a no-refill script for Valium.
The doctor I saw granted me this small mercy on the condition I see a sleep specialist. The specialist in turn requested I visit a sleep clinic.
Two weeks later, I packed my bags like someone preparing for a red-eye flight and drove through the dead of the night to the evening ghost town of a local business district.
Strolling through a deserted highrise lobby I was overtaken by the peculiar feeling I was participating in some secretive, perhaps even illicit activity.
The elevator opened to the clinic’s front desk, where I was greeted by a man in scrubs who directed me to a sleeping cubicle.
After having changed into my pajamas, I stretched out on the bed as countless electrodes were attached to my head and chest until I resembled some primitive robot trailing electrical cables and hydraulic tubes.
Just how exactly did these people expect me to get to sleep?
The thought of it alone caused my anxiety to surface. Palming a pill, I settled into bed and waited for the heavy embrace of drug-induced sleep.
Seven hours later, I woke to the nurse removing electrodes. Hollow-eyed, I dressed then shuffled like a zombie from the room.
“So far as I can see,” the sleep specialist said, poring over my results, “you have a perfectly normal sleep cycle.”
I frowned my disagreement.
“So why am I struggling to fall asleep?” I pressed.
Alas, the specialist had no answer for me. Instead, he suggested an alternate treatment for my anxiety, something known as biofeedback.
A round of treatment would cost something in the range of five thousand dollars – an expense my insurance company was unwilling to subsidize.
With my wallet still smarting from the cost of other, unrelated illnesses, I turned to my final recourse: pharmacological treatment.
Explaining my long-standing problem to my psychiatrist, I caught myself making excuses.
“I don’t want to rely on drugs,” I said, “but this problem has gotten way out of control.”
“Well, it sounds like you’ve tried everything else,” my psychiatrist replied. “Don’t you think you deserve some relief?”
“Maybe,” I thought, feeling nevertheless that I had, in some unexplainable way, compromised my integrity.
With there being no one-size-fits-all medication for anxiety, I would now have to navigate a gauntlet of medications.
The most popular option was selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Think Lexapro, Prozac, and Zoloft.
Mainstream SSRIs however come with certain unpleasant side effects. After a couple of doses, my libido took a total nosedive.
The next recommendation was an antipsychotic medication that left me foggy-brained. One morning, while still under its spell, I pulled out into traffic, miscalculated my timing, and was almost hit by another car.
Fearing I might not be so lucky next time, I switched to a combination of antidepressants and antianxiety drugs. Thirty minutes after taking my first dose, I fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke eight hours later, it was to the discovery that the insomnia problem I had been battling for more than 15 years was, more or less, gone.
No more frazzled nerves, poor concentration, and feeling dead on my feet. As for the constant companion that was my anxiety? His hands had now been prized from the steering well and his butt relegated to the backseat.
Before, sitting down for 15 minutes to meditate had been an exercise in self-torture, my thoughts flinging themselves in every which way in a bid to escape any semblance of control.
With the current chemical cocktail, however, I was suddenly able to achieve some degree of focus.
Insomnia is a modern epidemic
Sure, these pulls could put a cap on my anxiety and insomnia – but they couldn’t completely suppress it.
In moments of stress and overcommitment, my mood disorder would flare up again, offering proof that if I wanted to truly get better, I would need to take a more holistic tack.
This in short would involve psychotherapy, undertaking a regular meditation practice, and making daily relaxation time a priority.
It also meant addressing ongoing insomnia triggers, such as an overreliance on digital devices, and workaholism as a coping mechanism for social isolation.
Even when faced with the physical and psychological manifestations of our stress, we often try to ignore them – much to our detriment.
Finding a solution that works for you
If there’s anything my journey to overcome insomnia has taught me, it’s that we can’t ignore our problems or rely on Band-Aid fixes.
Those of us who are looking to kick our sleep woes to the curb can find some relief by adopting one or more of the following changes:
Restricting device usage: Use the wellness feature on your Apple or Android devices (sometimes referred to as “night light”). This reduces the amount of blue light emitted around set times. This light can have the effect of keeping your brain in “awake” mode. It’s also worth turning on your phone’s do-not-disturb mode and enforcing a no-device usage rule around bedtime.
Practice good sleep hygiene: Create ideal conditions for sleeping. Go to bed and get up at a regular time. Ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and comfortable. As an addendum to the first point, try to remove electronic devices from your sleeping space. Employ blue-light-free bulbs. Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before rest. Use your bedroom exclusively for sleeping. More tips here.
Consider psychotherapy: Therapy can provide a safe outlet for pent-up emotional tension, which can in turn affect your ability to sleep. Therapy can also support your efforts to develop coping strategies.
Make relaxation a priority: You can’t be productive if you’re feeling depleted. Replenish your inner reserves every day with fun and enriching activities. Catch up on your favorite TV show, take your dog to the park, or try a new recipe. Consider doing meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga to help you unwind. Adopt what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls a “non-striving” attitude.
Consider natural remedies: While Benadryl can assist with occasional insomnia, natural treatments like melatonin, valerian root, magnesium supplements, lavender, and passionflower extract may prove equally effective.
Explore additional help: Attend a sleep clinic. Explore alternate therapy options. Seek the guidance of a psychiatrist. Investigate prescription medication.
Millan highlights the fundamental error owners commit when adopting dogs. Specifically, our habit of trying to understand them from a human-centric perspective.
Dogs may share our mammalian heritage, but their needs and priorities are inherently different from our own.
And it’s when these needs and priorities clash with our own that problems develop.
Cesar’s Way: Exercise, discipline, affection – in that order
One of Millan’s key points can be distilled into the following statement: dogs require “exercise, discipline, affection – in that order”.
Too often these priorities are placed out of order, with affection first.
Consider the owner who matches their dog’s over-excited response upon returning home.
Believing that their dog has suffered through loneliness or even the perception of abandonment, s/he may over-empathize and lavish them with attention.
The problem of course is that this is a very human attempt to interpret a distinctly non-human thought process.
As Millan points out in Cesar’s Way, dogs don’t necessarily live in the past or future as we did, in remembering and anticipation. They don’t construct causal narratives about their relationships.
Rather, they dwell in the present, responding less to memories than to prior conditioning.
As gay men, many of us have all experienced some measure of abandonment, if only as a result of our sexuality, be it from friends or family members. It stands to reason therefore why we act so lovingly towards our “fur babies”.
Yet the downside of giving affection first is that you may be unwittingly reinforcing whatever behavior the pet is engaging in at the time.
In this case, the owner is conditioning the dog to work itself into a state every time they leave or return, thereby intensifying their emotional response and instilling greater and greater levels of separation anxiety.
Take for example my habit of greeting Cash with squeals and baby-talk. In time, my dog came to connect my response with his feelings. Very quickly, my infantilizing patter began setting him on edge.
Any wonder then I never made true headway with easing Cash’s separation anxiety.
The importance of being active
From day one, Cash was bursting with excess energy. When I stood up from my desk, he would rocket to his feet, n preparation for what, I never knew.
Our daily walks involved Cash tugging me behind him, like a freight train climbing a mountain.
Three 20-minute walks each day was, in my books, more than sufficient exercise. Not so in Cash’s.
Even after hours-long hikes, my dog still somehow found the energy to chase me to the door.
Suffice to say, my largely sedentary lifestyle was not working for him. Being cooped up in my apartment went against his very genetics as a Husky-Corgi.
As a result, Cash remained perpetually anxious, freaking out when left by himself or exposed to other dogs, barking incessantly, snarling when they got too close, and trying to mount them.
If my squeals had only fuelled Cash’s anxiety, his anxiety only fuelled the conflict he’d anticipated fear, my dog’s aggression inevitably drawing retaliation.
It didn’t help that during my visits to the dog park I was, as Millan terms it, “punching out”. Rather than actively monitoring my dog, watching his body language, intervening early, and correcting undesirable behaviors, my attention went instead to a book or laptop screen.
Suffice to say, adjusting my lifestyle to better accommodate my dog would have gone a long way to remedying the situation.
Setting and following rules, boundaries and limitations
Shelter, food, and affection – none of this guarantees your dog will necessarily respect your place as head of the household.
However hopelessly dependent your dog may be upon you for their survival if given an inch, they most certainly will take a mile.
As Cesar Millan notes, dogs are pack animals. They seek to establish hierarchical relations. When human beings treat them as their equals, dogs may respond by attempting to assert dominance.
They may, for example, disobey you, or engage in other less obvious behaviors, like insisting they be the first to go through a doorway.
In Cesar’s Way, Millan argues that your dog doesn’t necessarily want to be the leader. Their response is simply an attempt to fill a perceived power vacuum.
Feeling forced to take the job of “top dog” can have the effect of creating anxiety for your pet, not to mention frustration for you.
By employing discipline – setting rules, boundaries, and limitations – however, we can avoid this situation entirely.
While regular obedience training can certainly help, if you fail to apply the same discipline to other facets of your dog’s life, there’s a good chance the training won’t take.
What’s important here is consistency. A dog is more likely to be happy and stable if it knows =what to expect to you. This means being firm with not just enforcing rules, but ensuring that you yourself uphold them.
For example, Cash only dragged me during our walks because I had failed to set clear, consistent rules about his role and place in the pack.
By removing food bowls after a certain amount of time had elapsed, and always ensuring I was the first to eat, I managed to quickly communicate my role as pack leader.
A no-pull halter also had the effect of stopping all attempts to dive through doorways, while forcing my dog to walk at my pace.
But most importantly, it communicated to Cash that he no longer needed to take the lead.
And for all my dog’s dislike of the halter, I sensed immediate relief on his part, as he no longer felt compelled to play a role for which he was not able.
When to use positive reinforcement
According to Cesar’s Way, we should give attention only to those behaviors we want to positively reinforce.
As for undesirable behaviors? Millan says they should be corrected immediately, by providing a replacement activity indicating what it is you would rather your dog do instead.
Affection is a form of positive reinforcement and is best earned, for example, when the dog respects a rule or obeys a command. Even then, Millan says we should only offer it so long as our pet is calm and submissive.
There are times as well when affection should be withheld: “When your dog is fearful, anxious, possessive, dominant, aggressive, whining, begging, barking – or breaking any rule of your household”.
By clarifying and reinforcing your expectations of them you condition your dog to behave in desirable ways. This not only encourages obedience but establishes your pet’s place in your household’s “pack”, thereby strengthening her/his sense of purpose and wellbeing.
This is key to dispelling the anxiety Millan notes dogs can develop as a result of living with human beings and is the cause of many of our difficulties as owners.
For those of us with firsthand experience with highly-strung dogs, the Cesar’s Way philosophy thus offers a clear path to a more balanced and content life, not just for pets – but owners as well.
“I think we have good energy.” I stared at Derrick, trying not to laugh.
“You realize horses cost a lot of money, right?”
“A few thousand dollars, at most,” Derrick replied.
“Really,” I said. “And where would you keep it?” Our tiny apartment was hardly big enough for two people and a dog as it was.
“At the stables,” Derrick said. “See, I think it would be a great investment. I could rent it out to other riders. Before long the costs would cover themselves. I’d even be able to turn a profit.”
I was on the verge of disputing the claim when the pointlessness of it all struck me.
Derrick was mercurial when it came to life decisions. This I figured was him trying to persuade himself as much as me.
And sure enough, when Derrick returned from his riding lessons a week later, he was under a cloud.
“Bitch,” he muttered. I gave him a look. “The trainer,” Derrick added. “She quoted $12,000 for the horse. Can you believe it? Then she had the nerve to ask for a commission.”
I knew better than to rub vinegar into my boyfriend’s wounds. But still, I had to ask the question.
“So…are you still going to buy a horse?”
“I’m not giving her a damn cent!” Derrick said, storming into his room.
Reality had dealt his modest dream a death blow. But by the next day, his mood had changed.
“Good news,” he said, bouncing through the door. “I’m going to buy a motorcycle.”
“You’re- What?” I replied.
“I sat on one today,” Derrick explained. “It was so cool. Look.” He showed me a photo.
“But you don’t even know how to ride,” I pointed out. Derrick scowled.
“I’d learn,” he said.
Still, I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for this latest obsession. Last time it had been a trip to Coachella. And the time before that, an overwater bungalow in Tahiti. Derrick was quietly treading the waters of a mid-life crisis.
I made myself a bowl of cereal. Derrick’s expression got all furtive.
“So… How’s your therapy going?”
It was a fishing expedition – I was sure of it. I tried to keep my tone neutral.
“Pretty well so far.”
“Have you told her about us?” I hesitated.
“No, not yet. See, she’s Christian,” I said. “I’m worried she’ll pass judgment. You know, about us.”
“You should really tell her,” Derrick insisted. As if doing this might somehow help crystallize our relationship.
Right now, Dr. Kukosian was impartial. Trying to keep your private life private while stretched out on a therapist’s couch might sound like a losing battle, but the last thing I wanted to do was incite her prejudices.
Defending one’s “lifestyle choices” was not a task I particularly looked forward to, especially when it might result in me being more or less kicked out of therapy.
The therapist pickings were slim. Los Angeles was a city ripe with dysfunction, with not enough sympathetic ears to go around.
Though if I was being honest with myself, Dr. Kukosian’s religion was an excuse, and Derrick had good cause to be worried.
Dr. Kukosian’s office was on the ninth floor of a high-rise at the heart of Glendale. This floor, I eventually learned, had been rented to a private Christian college. The doctor’s counseling room – more of a booth, really – occupied a far corner.
Dr. Kukosian sat in an armchair, clad in a cardigan, capris, and an unfaltering smile, listening patiently as I ran through the week’s events.
Fifteen minutes into the session, I ran out of things to talk about. Dr. Kukosian’s encouraging smile loomed before me.
Her non-directive therapy style had left me with a chronic fear of silence. Broaching the subject of Derrick was no longer a choice, but a necessity. It was time to let the homo out of the bag.
I opened by mentioning that I had a partner. Then I casually slipped in a masculine pronoun, carefully watching Dr. Kukosian’s face for a reaction. Nothing.
“So you moved in with him after only two months of dating?” she asked. Her lack of disapproval was anticlimatic…disappointing, even.
“Well, my lease was up at my old place,” I said. “He had a spare room. The rent was cheaper. I wanted to save money.”
Here I was, trying to justify my decision, less worried about being condemned for being gay than I was for being, well, reckless.
“Seems like that happened very quickly,” Dr. Kukosian observed.
“Anyway, it’s just temporary,” I said, hearing a criticism where there wasn’t one. Dr. Kukosian processed this with a sagely nod.
“And how are things between the two of you?”
I considered how best to respond.
“Well, he has an anxiety problem,” I began.
My therapist would have to be deaf not to hear the irony of this. I was here, after all, because my own anxiety had recently migrated to my face, leading to weeklong bouts of jaw clenching.
“Derrick’s a workaholic,” I continued. “He’s often go-go-go all day, night, and weekend. We don’t have any time together. He forgets all our couple’s appointments and blames me for not reminding him. I’ve basically become his maid and dog-minder.”
“And how does that make you feel?” Dr. Kukosian asked, perhaps sensing my exasperation.
“Like I’m a…a fixture in his household,” I said, grappling for a metaphor. “Like a lamp or a chair. Like my needs don’t matter. The dog isn’t mine. She shouldn’t be my responsibility.”
That, however, wasn’t the worst of it. I’d known from the beginning that Derrick had anger management problems.
Early on in the relationship, he’d mocked my taste in music during a car ride. I’d mimed slapping him and an instant later his fist connected with my face.
It had not been deliberate, but rather a knee-jerk (or should I say elbow-jerk?) reaction. Still, it had made me cry, and in an unexpected show of contrition, Derrick had pulled over and gotten down on his knees to apologize.
A few days later, on the return drive from a visit to see his family in Sacramento, Derrick had woken from a nap to hear me telling his dog, who was misbehaving at the time, that she was “out of control”.
“Maybe you’re the one out of control!” he shouted, before turning over and promptly falling back asleep.
At first, I was bemused. But the outbursts had continued, eroding my sense of security.
Another time, we were driving through his friend’s neighborhood while he was in the car. I made what I believed was an inoffensive observation, noting that the houses around us looked “rather squat”.
Perhaps Derrick thought I was, by extension, insulting his friend’s home, because his reaction had been to snap at me.
“Just shut up, okay?”
And when Derrick wasn’t taking his frustrations out on me, he was usually humblebragging.
As a manager at a tech startup, Derrick had crossed paths with more than a few industry luminaries. But after weeks of namedropping, I’d taken to joking about Derrick’s claims to fame.
“Elon Musk and I are totes besties,” I’d once exaggerated. “You don’t believe me? I’ve got his father’s number on my phone. Look, see? Wes Musk. We’re on great terms.”
Derrick retaliated by threatening to kick me out of his apartment.
Derrick was in his 40s, so my expectations had admittedly been skewed towards him possessing a certain degree of maturity. Skewed, if not faulty.
Over the course of months, Derrick had gone from charm offensive to lashing out at random, until finally, I’d withdrawn into my room, taking with me all my goodwill.
Our lives from then on had been parallel, occasionally crossing but never connecting. When my attempts to bridge the divide had been ignored and even scorned, parting ways had seemed the inevitable conclusion.
“It sounds like a very stressful situation for you,” Dr. Kukosian said. “Maybe for the sake of your relationship it would be best if you just moved out?”
Later, after the session, as I stood at the university urinal relieving myself, I noticed a poster taped to the wall.
“I am sending you,” it read. It was a quote, attributed to none other than Jesus Christ.
Sending me where, I wondered? And more importantly, why?
I considered the Korean characters beneath the quote. Supposing this wasn’t just a mistranslation, the phrase could have once made sense, in some other time and place. It was also equally possible it never had, and never would.
All the same, I decided to take it as a sign. Jesus or no, I was going to leave Derrick.
The following day, Derrick asked if I would be willing to volunteer my services as a personal assistant at his startup.
The business was short-staffed, and given Derrick had helped me with picking out my first car, I figured I owed him the favor.
But shortly after I arrived, I witnessed Derrick ball out another manager in front of several other employees.
Over lunch, I hinted to Derrick that I was worried about the possible fallout.
“Perhaps it would be better next time if you just walk away?” I suggested. Derrick glowered.
“Well, maybe next time I just won’t ask for your help,” he replied.
I studied my lunch. For the better part of the morning, I had been running around doing errands on Derrick’s behalf. Was this his idea of gratitude?
That night, Derrick missed yet another couple’s dinner, returning home hours later to find me practicing yoga. Trying to look as defiant as I possibly could from my position on the floor, I announced I was moving out.
“Okay,” Derrick said. Uncertainty flickered across his face, hardened into something else entirely.
“I don’t have any hard plans yet,” I said, trying to soften the blow, “but I have started looking around.”
I braced myself. Having laid the groundwork, I figured now was as good a time as any to pull the trigger.
“I was thinking,” I began, “it might be best if we both took some time out from the relationship.”
The subtext being forever – not that I was going to spell that out. Right now, Derrick was a powder keg I had no intention of lighting.
Derrick leaned back on his heels.
“I think that’s a good idea,” he said.
“… You do?”
“I’m pretty busy right now with work,” he said, playing it cool. “And you want more than I can give you.”
Was that a jeer I heard in his voice? If Derrick was hoping I would rise to the accusation, he was going to be sorely disappointed.
“Are you sure you’re okay with it?” I pressed.
“Fine,” Derrick insisted. His refusal to meet my eyes told me he’d suspected this was coming.
And really, how could he have not? I’d told Derrick on multiple occasions how his behavior was driving me away. His response had been to label me “too sensitive”, or worse still, ignore me completely.
Fearing my short credit history and lack of savings would hinder me in my search for a new apartment, I’d dragged my heels. But then my mental health had taken a turn, and moving out had become a matter of survival.
Over the next week, Derrick wavered between anger and brittle formality, staying away from the apartment. I began to walk on eggshells, fearing that if I wasn’t careful, Derrick might try to evict me on the spot.
A friend heard I was looking for a place and asked if I might want to take over his lease. The studio proved tiny, but it had recently been renovated, with exposed brickwork and a kitchen sink the size of a drydock. Cute, serviceable, and – most importantly – available right now.
In less than 24 hours I’d signed the lease, packed my belongings, and booked a moving truck.
Moving day rolled around and I received a text message from Derrick, stating in precise detail the condition in which he wanted my room left.
“Make sure when you move out to vacuum,” he wrote. “I want you to clean all the dust off the skirting boards.”
This, from a man whose idea of cleanliness involved letting his dog defecate in the house while the Rumba was on.
All week conflict had been brewing. And soon it would explode.
At 9.30 pm, I made my final trip back to the house to collect some potted plants. While collecting the last one, I spotted movement through the open front door.
After a day’s absence, Derrick had returned home. His earlier silence over text told me he was itching for a fight.
I leaned over the threshold and dropped the keys on the TV stand.
“Here’s your keys!” I called, turning to leave. Derrick poked his head out of the bathroom.
“Wait a second,” he said, drying his hands and hurrying over. “I want to talk to you.”
“Really – I have to go,” I replied. My friends were waiting outside in the car, and we were long overdue for dinner.
“That’s fine,” Derrick blurted, using a word I’d come to associate with its exact opposite. Then he launched his opening salvo: “You need to stop talking shit about me.”
I stared, deadpan. Derrick forced a smirk.
“It’s actually kind of sad, the fact you need to go around talking about other people behind their backs.”
Yes, I had complained to a mutual friend about Derrick’s emotional abuse. So far as I was concerned, I could shout my story from the rooftop if I wanted to.
Suffice to say, Derrick didn’t really want an apology. He wanted a scene. But I was not going to give him one.
“Bye,” I said. And off I went, bounding down the front steps. Derrick rushed out onto the landing after me.
“Good luck with your writing career!” he screamed. “I hear it’s going really well so far!”
It was a knife twist out of some soap opera playbook.
Giddy with the ridiculousness of it all, I launched myself into the waiting car.
“What happened?” my friends wanted to know.
I looked back at the security gate to Derrick’s apartment complex. Any second now I expected him to burst into view, a spurned lover set on shrill revenge. The idea left me torn between laughter and mortification.
“Just drive!” I said. “Quickly!”
The next day I received a text message from Derrick, written in the frosty prose of a job rejection letter. I was hereby notified he would be invoicing me for all outstanding bills. Derrick also demanded I remove myself from our shared auto insurance plan.
“Well ahead of you there, buddy,” I wanted to reply. Derrick was so out-of-touch he hadn’t even noticed when I’d cut the tie two weeks prior.
If I’m being honest, the relationship had been a slow-motion train wreck.
It was not the first, and as circumstances would soon prove, it would not be the last.