On Fear

“Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live.” – Dorothy Thompson

Since returning from San Diego Comic-Con, I have been deeply into one of my more inward-looking phases. I am working on a much longer written piece, to accompany an illustraton I have been slowly inking. I also have been focused on cleaning up the minor accumulation of “mess” in my office since earlier this year, and picked up where I left off last fall correcting my book-keeping.

My book-keeping is/was the last major obstacle standing in my way — while I am not really afraid of it, it had snowballed into quite an intimidating problem. The difference after being on ADHD medication for half of a year is incredible. This overwhelming task that has been dogging me for years, which I had put off time and time again due to honestly being unable to handle it — Sunday, I said, “It’s time!” sat down, and bulldozed most of it within a few hours.

I really do not think it is possible to adequately explain to someone, who has not experienced it — how life-changing it is to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. To not be slave to your own thoughts and distractions like a puppet on a string, or constantly at battle with your own impulses.

In the spring of 2018, on one of my regular trips to the Goodwill, I found this jacket printed with butterflies. “This is important,” I thought, like the mashed-potato-guy in Close Encounters. I have had a mild phobia of butterflies since I was a child, which is obviously ridiculous — what better reason then, to place myself into an uncomfortable predicament for your amusement? So, my friend Jon Heller and I set out to the Minnesota State Fair butterfly house, where I spent about half an hour among mostly Blue morpho butterflies.

I was chuffed at the number of compliments about my video-editing.

I love to sing. I have always loved to sing. When I was in grade school, I was considered “gifted” — breezed through classes, could draw, studied multiple musical instruments. When you say someone has a “thing” — so-and-so likes basketball, so-and-so loves to ride horses, so-and-so excels at math — I had a lot of “things.” My younger siblings had many fewer “things” than I did, one of them being singing. This entitled my family to belittle my efforts at singing, openly and frequently enough, that eventually I developed a paralyzing fear of doing it at all. Singing became relegated to the safety of my vehicle, and a few suspect audio recordings on cassettes or shared from behind a computer screen. Thus it was something of a Big Deal when I managed to first record a video of myself singing in 2016. It would take two more years, in late 2018, before I became daring enough to belt it out. And it would take another year after that, and one aborted attempt, before I participated in karaoke.

And it took me more than an hour before I finally stepped up.

I share this not because I believe it is good, but because it does not have to be. This is not about the simple act of singing, but about having the courage to follow your heart’s joy and be true to yourself, even in the face of fear and potential judgement. I believe that embracing one’s faults and imperfections is essential to the growth process. It is a core component of happiness, and of human wholeness. If you are “never wrong,” you will never be right.

Some people make fun of me for my videos, but that is okay.

“I am one of the only people I know,” I told my therapist, “who regularly puts themselves into situations where I know I will have to confront my fears and weaknesses.” “I think there is an admirable quality to that,” she replied.

There are, of course, people I have feared at times in my life, beginning with my parents. I think, on reflection, that an unconscious desire to confront and resolve those fears was part of what drove me to revisit the relationships of my past starting in 2014. I needed answers from the people who have hurt me. I needed to understand why. But once you have stepped through this Matrix and can see the fear and insecurity at the root of hurtful behaviours, it becomes almost impossible to not have compassion, even when compassion is probably undeserved. Perhaps especially when it is undeserved.

The world is changing and we need now, more than ever, to become greater than fear; to rise above fear, and make a conscious effort to understand each other. If we cannot work together, then there is no hope for the future.

I encourage you to step a little outside your comfort zone today.

CATEGORY:

On Empathy

People that get to know me usually learn quickly that I loathe most television and movies. A strong component of this, until recently, has been the ADHD. I struggle to sit through a movie in the theatre when I cannot get up and walk around, pause it, or do something else simultaneously. It might also explain why I generally have an easier time watching cartoons and movies designed for children, with their shorter runtimes and faster-paced editing. Shows with repetitive music and laugh tracks also make me feel overstimulated.

Some recent experiences have caused me to take a deeper look at this.

When I emerged from my zombie-like depression in 2014, one of the issues I was consciously working on was empathy. I felt at that time I suffered from a lack of empathy; however, thanks to my therapist and the MMPI test, I better understand that I am/was burdened by egocentrism. Egocentrism, plainly put, means that it is difficult to distinguish the self from others and to view things from another person’s perspective. I think most people are egocentric to one degree or another. It becomes an issue when it interferes with your ability to function, or to maintain healthy boundaries within relationships.

I have lived a very isolated life, having few meaningful friendships or people I could trust to be myself with or honestly confide in, especially in my formative years. My parents violated my trust irreparably. Friendships with women have suffered due to lack of common interests, often, and male friendships tend to eventually deteriorate due to sexual attraction or romantic feelings. So other than my limited exposure to fiction, I spend a lot of time in my own head.

Now, I have been sort-of passively watching the series Mad Men on Netflix for the past few weeks, on one of my monitors behind my drawing tablet while I work. I am not going to spoiler a show that ended in 2015, so bail now if you must. There is a scene near the beginning of the show where Joan, the office manager, is pushed onto Don Draper’s office floor and raped by her fiancĂ©. In a later scene, she is coerced into having sex with a potential client for the ad agency in exchange for his car company’s business. Though neither scene is filmed in graphic detail, there is enough footage book-ending both acts that your mind is able to imagine the rest. Both of these scenes left me crying and nearly shaking with rage. It was after that I began to notice how emotionally-drained and exhausted these dramas made me, and I realized that the other part of not enjoying them was too much empathy with the characters.

For similar reasons, I cannot tolerate cringe-shows like The Office, where I am supposed to laugh at someone embarrassing or humiliating themselves.

My current job requires compassion and empathy daily, and has even offered me a unique window to compare my interactions with those of my coworkers. It is easy to distinguish those for whom care is “just a job” versus those who actually care about the residents. And through my observations I have seen that, other than sometimes missing social cues, I am relatively normal.

It has been painful to observe people I have known be repeatedly abused by their partner, or engage in self-destructive and self-defeating behaviour. Here I have had to learn to maintain better boundaries, or simply walk away.

And in other instances, because I cared more about not upsetting someone, or put someone else’s happiness before my own, I have endured behaviours that made me profoundly uncomfortable, or left me feeling used and violated. I have allowed other (equally, or more dysfunctional) people to tell me what is “wrong” with me when I reacted poorly, or even reasonably, to abusive or unhealthy behaviours. The further distance I am from these relationships, the more clearly I can see their toxicity; not just my own, but from the other side. I have been burdened and weighed down by a mind-breaking amount of guilt and shame that was never really mine to begin with. And for the most part, I have bitten my tongue, due to fears of retaliation or retribution. I have been fighting this dissonance between my reality as I perceive it, and what I have been told or manipulated into believing my reality “is” or “should” be.

I am wise to this trickery, and it will not work on me anymore.

I have made significant progress in recognizing and eliminating my own toxic behaviours. The quality of my close relationships has improved immensely.

Through building professional relationships with colleagues I respect, positive feedback, and constructive criticism from unbiased sources, I have gradually repaired the damage dealt to my self-confidence. I am good and have value. My work is good and has value. No one can take that away from me.

I am getting better and doing better every day.

CATEGORY:

The Road to Self-Actualization

[ Listen to this post. ↗ ]

“The key to Maslow’s writings is understanding that there are no quick routes to self-actualization: rather it is predicated on the individual having their lower deficiency needs met. Once a person has moved through feeling and believing that they are deficient, they naturally seek to grow into who they are, i.e. self-actualization. Elsewhere, however, Maslow (2011) and Carl Rogers (1980) both suggested necessary attitudes and/or attributes that need to be inside an individual as a pre-requisite for self-actualization. Among these are a real wish to be themselves, to be fully human, to fulfill themselves, and to be completely alive, as well as a willingness to risk being vulnerable and to uncover more “painful” aspects in order to learn about/grow through and integrate these parts of themselves (this has parallels with Jung’s slightly similar concept of individuation).” – from Self-actualization, Wikipedia

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

It is May 22nd. It has been cool, rainy, and silent except for the low drone of my computer fans and steady stream of passing cars outside. The breakneck pacing of the previous six months has come to a sudden halt with the end of MSP Springcon. I slept almost twelve hours Monday night. In between bursts of writing, I have been sluggishly counting books and unpacking merchandise in the solitude of my office. I have been gnawing on leftover steak.

My mind wanders to my parents often, this time of year. It was almost exactly three years ago that my estranged father committed suicide. He refused any help, and never recovered from my mother’s death. He entered a relationship with a woman two years my junior — a waitress at the restaurant where the three of us often ate before my mother became too sick and weak to go out. I disapproved, and that was the last straw that estranged us. She bounced between my father and her husband in/out of prison. She took advantage of my father. He spent nearly every penny he had trying to keep her happy, until he was in massive debt. He should have had a comfortable retirement. After his death, my siblings discovered that my father had rented an apartment in his name for her, her child, and her husband, because he did not want her to be homeless. For all my father’s faults, selfishness was never one of them.

Like my father, I sometimes try too hard to help those I should not.

Toward the end of 2018, due to some threats I no longer felt physically safe or secure at my day job. Out of an abundance of caution for both myself and my coworkers, I left my work as a custom picture framer which I had known and loved for twenty years, and sought to begin a new career. Based on my experience caring for my mother, I was quickly hired on at a facility as a Home Health Aide. It turned out to be a fairly serendipitous turn of events, as other than trouble with scheduling — I was not able to get any additional time off for convention season prep or Springcon, which meant a lot of shift-trading, over-time, and very, very long weeks — I enjoy the job, and leaving retail has been refreshing. The job has also, I feel, been very good for me — helping to pull me out of my own inner world to focus on others’ needs, learning to ask the right questions and use nonverbal cues to assess those needs, gaining a new perspective of what is really important in life, and exposing me to a wide variety of histories and experiences through my residents. I fancy joking that, “I wipe asses during the week, and sign autographs on the weekend!”

One evening, I was attempting to care for a late-stage dementia patient who is frequently combative, refuses medication, is resistant to his cares, is often violent, and largely non-verbal (the things he says make no sense or are not words). However, he is responsive to music. While attempting to assist him, I began singing O Danny Boy. He grew still, then silent, and by the close of the song was singing along with me. He then allowed me to admin his medication and help him. We shared a moment together. For him, it would be rapidly lost to the ravages of his disease — but for me, I will not soon forget.

My days are filled with hugs and small tender interludes — a warm “Hello!” to someone excited to hear their name, listening to proud tales of children and grandchildren, remembering how someone prefers their coffee, small favours not on my worksheet, the thankfulness whenever I can spare a few minutes to chat, appreciative families. Songs during showers, where no one cares if a melody is carried imperfectly or a voice cracks. Holding a hand. Offering words of comfort. Health and youth take so much for granted — even bending down to pick up an item from the floor can be life-threatening if a fall occurs.

Not to paint too rosy a picture, my days also frequently include mild physical or verbal assault or abuse, and casual racism. Sexual harassment and sexist abuse from male dementia patients seem to be extremely common. They do not really prepare you for this during the interviews and training classes.

I have been told I am good at working with dementia patients for someone that has not being doing this sort of thing for very long. Perhaps it is because I can inhabit their worlds almost as easily as I can inhabit my own. Perhaps it is because they rely so heavily on body language to communicate, and mine is unusually exaggerated and expressive. Perhaps it is because I have in me a well of patience that I never fully recognized or knowingly tapped into. The repetitions and odd requests that irritate many of the other aides just do not really register with me. Maybe that will change months or years from now.

Anger is something of a last resort emotion for me. Before I become angry, I usually have to exhaust an ocean of excuses and rationalizations about why I should not be. The only part of my MMPI results that genuinely surprised me was my therapist’s recommendation for assertiveness training. I have never put much thought into the degree to which I learned to suppress my anger, desires, and needs growing up. I lived in a very much “my father’s way or the highway” household. I can see now how my inability to accept my anger as a valid emotion has undermined me. My relationship with Stephen is unique in that it is the first where I felt safe enough to “fight” — that is, we disagree, things might get a bit heated, then they are eventually resolved. My aversion to conflict has lead me into mostly-dominant or mostly-submissive roles.

During the process of getting divorced, I was briefly in a relationship where I allowed my budding confidence, enthusiasm, emerging identity, and sense of self-worth to be gradually ground into a pulp over months of controlling rules and demands, moving goalposts, being made to doubt myself constantly, and attempting to please the unpleasable. This is where the title of my new book, Queen of Assholes, originates from. When a new partner begins calling you an asshole after barely a month, any individual with a healthy self-esteem would be out the door. I did not have that, and did not do that. It has taken years of flopping around like a fish, trying to reconcile my admiration with personal experience, grasping to understand why I was treated that way and “fix” my mistakes, and conciously building relationships with secure and well-adjusted individuals who genuinely care about me to help me discover my own worth. My (mostly female) coworkers have been invaluable in this process of helping me learn what kind of treatment I should not accept. And I am under the care of an impartial and competent therapist to help me remain true to myself.

That relationship broke me in exactly the ways I needed to be broken.

More will come into focus as Queen of Assholes unfolds.

This weekend was the MCBA MSP Springcon comic convention. Since arriving in Saint Paul, the convention has not only helped to give my career its second wind, but in many ways, it and its volunteers have become the family I never felt I had. The fall before I came onto the scene, the main personality running the convention, Nick Postiglione, passed away unexpectedly. He was greatly loved by all accounts, and this left not only a gigantic hole in people’s hearts, but also in the leadership of the convention. Three volunteers were selected to take his place, and in the years following Nick’s death in 2014, everyone has developed their roles to move together as a team. I began volunteering in the spring of 2016, as soon as I learned about the volunteer activities. As time went on, I showed to participate in every volunteer activity where I was allowed, except during the convention itself. I am there when the tables and tablecloths go up. I am there until the last corner of the Grandstand is swept, and the doors are rolled closed on the loaded truck. Last summer, I obtained permission to start up an Instagram account for the convention, and with the help of friend-photographers, I work almost daily to promote fellow creators and engage with the convention’s audience across all of its social media.

I do these things because I choose, rather than to criticize the convention or its management, to be an active and positive force toward helping it not just grow, but thrive as the landscape changes moving forward. The convention does not exist to be a feather in my hat or “boost my ego,” I exist to serve it. The convention does not owe me anything more or less than the free T-shirt I am promised as a volunteer. If I am granted a featured artist placement, or a free table at which to sell my books, and meals to eat, that is a gift — and for what I am given, I will be grateful. There are more creators wishing to table than available spaces, it is run completely by volunteers, and this convention is the most generous I have ever seen. I am committed to its success.

(Fellow creators, feel free to reach out to me!)

Steve has been a volunteer for the convention for over twenty years, himself, and it feels like this is the first show where we have really gelled together as a team — between volunteer work, my booth, and his small comics and toys business. Comics and conventions are my life. Sharing that is important.

All that being said, I had an excellent show this year. My table remained busy nearly the entire weekend, and we sold between 30-40 books plus a healthy amount of merchandise. My lovely assistant Jessica decided she would rather take original artwork and books in lieu of what I usually pay for the weekend, so my net for the show was about the same even though I sent some of my business upstairs to the Charity Art Auction. And my auctioned piece received the third highest bid, raising $225 to be split between the Hero Initiative and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. I donated to the Garage Sale myself.

This week I am taking a bit of personal time for rest, and inking the Deadwood piece I started. After that I will be shifting into comics production. I would like to have a Have Tablet, Will Scribble book ready for this fall, and the intro issue of Queen of Assholes ready for next spring. Both of those will be primarily new material, but now that I am getting proper help, I believe I can do it.

CATEGORY: