We learn the art of self-sabotage from a world that tells us it’s in our best interest to be hard-edged and alone.
“Sometimes dutifully falling and getting out, with
perfect fortitude, saying, ‘look at the skill and
spirit with which I rise from that which resembles
the grave but isn’t!’”
From 2009 to 2012, I ended most of my nights dead drunk, stumbling home, falling face-down on my bed, and sobbing violently until I fell asleep. I often felt like some hideous creature was trying to break out of my skin. I’d heave and labor to release it before losing consciousness, and wake up throbbing in the dull morning, untransformed.
The hours and days leading up to those moments were always the same. I attended to keeping myself alive in a haze of anxiety and self-doubt, pretending I was having a good time and compulsively reaching for a drink to ease my consciousness until I’d had enough that the fog lifted and I could finally laugh or dance or hold a conversation without rubbing against the electric fence of my insecurity and brutal inner monologue. I’d have a good couple of hours at the bar or the house party or the basement show until a heavy curtain would close around me. Everything slowed down then. It felt like being underwater, way down in the dark part of the ocean with the crushing pressure and the giant squid.
I drank to feel nothing, and nothing felt like a small, dark cave that I couldn’t see my way out of. In that state, I hurt myself, I said awful things to people I loved, I destroyed my friends’ houses and prized possessions for no reason but to appease this creature raging inside of me. Then, I went home and cried. I didn’t understand why I kept doing this. It seemed like every time I had something good in my life, I would ruin it in some inexplicable act of self-sabotage.
A few years ago, during a period of sobriety I hoped would be permanent but wasn’t, a friend told me about something their housemate had seen, a black-clad figure dancing with a burning knife on their front lawn. Yes, really. It was unclear whether this was an act of vigilante performance art or some sort of spiritual vision. Regardless, my friend was a little freaked out.
That night, I got home from class and found the same figure in my bedroom. Yes, really. I knew it was not a physical being, but a spirit that had somehow found its way in. A spirit, a memory, a manifestation of trauma, a projection of my shadow side, whatever. There it was, in front of me. It was a vacuum-black humanoid with red and white markings on its face. I was terrified. I did everything I could think of to make it leave. I burned sage. I prayed. I wept. It laughed in my face. I hung a piece of obsidian, a stone with the ability to pull out the truth in all situations and give us the strength to face it, around my neck. The spirit said, “You need me here.” I took the necklace off and threw it across the room. The spirit dissolved and reappeared in the corner, as though waiting for me to go with it somewhere. Finally, I gave up and went to bed. It hovered over my body as I slept.
The next day, following the advice of a friend who I knew to have had similar experiences, I tried a different strategy. I looked it in the eye and asked its name. It answered that it had no name. I asked what it was there for. It said again, “You need me.” I asked what I needed it for. “Protection. It’s not safe. You’re not safe.” The words overlapped each other like echoes. Feeling hypnotized, I assented, wordlessly, and for a moment the borders of my body blurred and rearranged themselves. The spirit wedged itself into my chest, where it grew several sets of hands that enclosed my heart like a sepal around a developing bud.
At first, I did what it said. I called on this spirit when I felt afraid, when I needed strength to carry myself through trauma, when I had to fight to keep myself safe. It was right there. It came through, solid and powerful and dark. Over time, the process became automatic. It was like the spirit’s hands deflected fear before it reached me. Where alcohol had failed, this dark spirit succeeded. I was closed in.
The problem with suppressing fear is that you don’t actually know when you’re safe and when you’re not. It’s been almost four years since that night. In that time, I’ve wondered with increasing frequency if I made a bad deal, if I can really trust the power I’ve allied myself with. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to rid myself of the emotions I associated with vulnerability. It took me this long to realize that that is exactly what put me in harm’s way.