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Confiding in the Void

We’ve reached the 11th month of 2018, so I can say that the theme of this year has been community. From my perspective.

What does the average specimen of Homo sapiens need to be satisfied with their group and their own prospects within it? What are we currently lacking, we atomized modern creatures? (Please read the whole Samzdat series.) I’ve been trying to figure that out, and although I’ve gained some insights, I can only speak authoritatively for myself.

The following is a personal account of anomie.

As young as I am at 24, I’m still astounded by the amount that I learn over relatively small timespans. Human nature has long fascinated me, but during the past year I have dealt with it more intimately and dwelled on it more deeply than in the past.

Notice that I use the word “it” and refer to human nature in general, rather than citing specific connections with individual people. I have deep emotional relationships with my fiancé and immediate family, but my friendships remain primarily intellectual. Even with my dear partner, I struggle to be raw and vulnerable when I’m not intoxicated. Alcohol loosens my tongue and enables me to express the sentiments that scare me.

I would say that I love my friends, and they greatly enrich my life. Yet I remain puzzled by the easy camaraderie and affection that people seem to share with each other. I don’t know how to put this into the right words, the words that would properly convey what I mean. It’s a discomfiting sensation because words are supposed to be my forte.

Over the past couple of years, I have become more familiar with that which I cannot articulate. I’ll try anyway.

Here’s what I want to tell you: I remember the profound closeness of my childhood and teenage years, when platonic intensity bound me to a handful of other girls. I didn’t fully appreciate those friendships at the time. I feel their absence acutely, and it hurts to remember, because I know what I’m missing. I still haven’t figured out how to make true intimacy part of my adult life.

I used that word earlier — I said that now I understand human nature “more intimately.” I wasn’t wrong, per se, but my peer-to-peer connections are anchored by shared curiosities rather than bare feeling. My friends and I have little bearing on each other’s hearts. If we hold more than that between us, it’s hard for me to see.

Again, I sincerely love my friends, but I don’t think that we know each other at the core. We rarely offer that level of exposure, although I suspect that most of us would readily accept it from someone else. Tossing around ideas is safer than revealing angst in less-than-sardonic terms.

I come across as an open person, as far as I can tell. People have commended me on it. I don’t think that I give the impression of being reserved. But I am; I have secrets that fill me with inexpressible shame. That’s normal. Usualness does not reduce the burden.

I think that my brethren — my fellow thinkers and discussers — tend to be afflicted in this way. We prize cleverness and abstraction to the extent that we suppress our yearnings for human-to-human communion.

On the other hand, I could be committing the typical-mind fallacy. (Is it ironic to include that caveat?)

I have a guess about why I’m pondering this subject, why I feel bereft of true connection beyond my partner and family. It’s probably because I’ve reduced my dose of psych meds. The underlying realities are the same, but how I weigh them has changed.

I’ve been taking venlafaxine for five or six years, since I was a teenager. The drug saved my life; I would be an addict on the streets or otherwise miserable without the boost that it gave me. At a time when I was mired in despair, venlafaxine restored my energy and optimism enough for me to drag myself toward adult functionality and eventually happiness.

Granted, the upgrade was accomplished with plenty of support. I still resent my parents for creating me without my consent, but the anger has lost its potency. I owe them an incalculable debt for helping to transform my life into a good one. My fiancé deserves gratitude as well.

Despite all of the complaints above, I am cheerful most days — often productive! I love my job, am thankful for my luck in finding it, and cherish the belief that I am helping to build a future where autonomy is paramount and accessible to all.

I hope that the trend will continue. I want to believe that my brain is going through some kind of chemical adjustment period and I’ll be able to come to terms with a self that has emotions surging under the skin. I want to feel what I feel without being overwhelmed.

It may turn out that I need to stop tapering. I may decide to jump back to 225mg daily instead of my current 150mg. I can’t pinpoint why I hope that my mental health won’t require a reversion.

As a transhumanist, in principle I see nothing wrong with relying on medical technology to feel okay. Apparently despite my beliefs I’ve been nursing a latent hope that venlafaxine actually “fixed” me over the past five years, as opposed to being a treatment that I will need… forever?

In conclusion: I’m glad that I wrote this blog post, but I’m slightly fearful of the reactions. Despite my trepidations (or perhaps because of them) I’m going to solicit thoughts from a few of the people I like and respect. It’s a way of being intimate — there’s that word again! — without addressing them directly.

Am I being cowardly or brave? I think the former. Laudable courage would be publishing the secrets that I mentioned before. Alas, that is more than I can offer, although I would readily accept such disclosures from others.

Your Emotional Support Animal Needs Emotional Support

When I attempted college for the first time, it took about a month for everyone involved to figure out that I was not ready to live on my own, away from familiar surroundings and my support system. I had a nervous breakdown, sobbed on the phone to my mom, and that was that. The next day she drove twelve hours from the San Francisco Bay Area to Reed College in Portland, OR, then drove twelve hours back with me and all of my stuff in the minivan. I’ve been at home with my parents ever since, for three years now.

During the month that I spent trying to Be A Real College Student, I got a pet rabbit. My dorm allowed small animals, and I was incredibly lonely, on the shy and timid side. In other words, I was desperate for comforting companionship. I looked at Craigslist ads, emailed a guy advertising baby Rex Rabbits, and paid him $25 as the adoption fee, plus $10 for the cage. Then Doof was mine! (His full name is Doctor Doofenshmirtz — I named him after the villain from Phineas and Ferb. Everyone hassles me about this because Doof is a very elegant rabbit whose proper name should be Shadow Prince or something like that.)

Collage of a bunny rabbit.
Collage of Doof (the black rabbit) by Sonya Mann.

This new little creature was small and very scared and velvety black. I left the door of his cage open, and eventually he hopped out to explore my room. Soon he discovered that wainscoting is a great thing to chew on, as are rain boots and backpacks and especially laptop chargers. During the following days I learned that he enjoyed munching on leaves and grass, as well as peeing on things outside of his cage, like my bed. A little harness-and-leash dealio from Petco allowed me to take him for walks on the gorgeous green campus lawns. My fellow students were very enthused about this. Who wouldn’t be enthused about an adorable, curious baby bunny exploring the bushes and gamboling on the lawn?

Doof was my emotional support animal, although I didn’t know this vocabulary when I bought him. According to the ADA National Network website, emotional support animals “provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.” (A psychiatric service animal performs similar functions, but does have the specialized training, and a different legal status.)

Here’s the hard truth, the truth that I’m ashamed to admit: when I got Doof, I was not equipped to care for him properly. I had the money for his pellets and hay, but I didn’t do enough research about rabbits’ needs. More crucially, I didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with getting a wild animal situated. Rabbits are domesticated in terms of appearance — selective breeding has made them damn cute and fluffy — but on the inside, centuries of evolution carry far more weight.

Rabbits in the wild are busy busy busy: foraging for food, keeping track of territory (yes, they’re highly territorial), and maintaining a social hierarchy with the other bunnies in their warren. Pet rabbits get bored, like the unfortunate dogs who are left at home alone all day. Without appropriate stimulation, bored animals will destroy your stuff. More importantly, they experience stress, and even anguish.

Unlike dogs, rabbits are prey animals, meaning that they are cautious and easily scared. To form a mutually beneficial relationship with your bunny, you have to be patient, learn to express affection the way rabbits do, and sort of individually domesticate your pet. Doof and I developed a very sweet relationship — he would lick my hand and I would rub his cheeks — but I wasn’t successful when it came to providing an environment with enough activities. I couldn’t live up to the responsibility that I had taken on.

Collage of a bunny rabbits.
Collage of Pumpkin (left) and Doof (right) by Sonya Mann.

Things turned out okay, because my mom came and rescued me. Now Doof and his friend Pumpkin live in my backyard along with our chickens, happily eating fallen leaves from the old apple tree, digging worrisome tunnels toward the fence, and bossing each other around. I miss living in close quarters with my bunny, getting those tiny bun-kisses, but the relationship we have now is much more satisfying to both of us. I know that he is able to fulfill the crucial desires so deeply encoded in his brain. It gives me a rush of joy to see Doof grooming Pumpkin, because I know their bond is precious to them. (In the wild they would be mates, but all of the rabbits I’ve owned are neutered, and yours should be too.)

I’m not trying to scare you away from getting an emotional support animal. I’m saying that an emotional support animal is a serious commitment. Whenever you get a pet, you are making a promise to that animal. The promise is, “I will take care of you, be kind to you, and do my best to make you happy.” Each of us has to seriously assess what “my best” is. If you’re brutally honest with yourself, your best effort might fall short of what the animal requires. You may need to get yourself to a healthier place before you can give a vulnerable creature what it needs.

sweet young bunnies
Photo by Jennie Rainsford.

Emotional support animals provide the emotional support in their title because you must cherish and care for them. There are days when you can’t tell yourself, “I want to live,” but you can say, “I have to live because someone needs to feed Sookie and she’s bonded to me.” In my own struggle with debilitating depression, animals have been immeasurably helpful. They remind me that food is the most important thing, that well-placed scritches are also important, and that digging holes is a good thing to do any day of the week. Animals lead comparatively simple lives. When their needs are met, the satisfaction is pure and strong, for both the pet and the caretaker. Meeting their needs is the essence of a positive human-animal relationship.

If you intend to get an emotional support animal, or any kind of pet, here are some things to remember: Adopt instead of buying! Don’t be like me and get a baby animal — rescue one of the thousands of older animals who struggle to find a home. Do a TON of research beforehand. More research than you think you need to do. Look up what the problems can be with the species that you’re considering. If you’re interested in bunnies, I recommend the book Understanding Your Rabbit’s Habits by Tamsin Stone. And hang in there, okay? Remember that emotional support can come from humans too. We’re all rooting for you.

Posted in commemoration of Doof and Pumpkin, two sweet deceased bunnies.

I Remember the Circumstances that Led to Her Existence

beautiful portrait of mother and child
Photo by Matteo Bagnoli.

I want to share a thoughtful email response to my recent post about anti-natalism. The author gave me permission to publish her thoughts, provided that I conceal any identifying details. Accordingly, I changed a name. Everything else is unedited.


First of all, I completely agree that adoption is the way to go in this day and age, what with the scary uprise in world population. We need to take care of those that already are, and focus less on creating new life when we have very limited resources. If we were talking about just a few hundred children, this wouldn’t be an issue, but when there are a billion more people in the world than there were 15 years ago, it’s an issue. (And it’s difficult to fathom that number since it is so vast!)

Secondly, I wanted to share why I chose to have a child. I was in an abusive relationship and I thought that having a baby would bring him and I closer together. I wasn’t allowed to have friends, or talk to my family. I was literally at home all day long with no internet, and he was the one that had access to the phone. I definitely thought that he was the know-all and be-all of life, and I thought that I was too stupid to be able to leave him. I was convinced that I couldn’t be loved, because he told me that I was unlovable. In this case, choosing to have a baby with him was not a good decision, since he actually became more abusive after she was born, and then I left him when Stacy was five months old.

motherhood in nature -- illustration by Baird Hoffmire
Birds & Bees by Baird Hoffmire.

It’s this weird state to feel regretful but not regretful at the same time. I have a beautiful little girl that I love so much, but then I remember the circumstances that led to her existence, and I am sad that one day she will learn about her father, and she will develop her own feelings about why he chooses not to be a part of her life.

Sorry if this seemed like over-sharing, but I really wanted to put my voice out there, since I can relate to what you posted. It’s difficult to speak out on this topic since it’s one that a lot of people are sensitive to. Whenever someone asks me if I am going to have another kid, I just say no. There is no way. I just couldn’t handle the stress.

My ex’s step-mom told me that when she gave birth to her son, she couldn’t help but think in those moments, “What have I done? Why did I bring this person into the world?” She said it was simultaneously heart-breaking and beautiful.

I think back to what my mom went through as a single parent with me, and I am just flabbergasted at how well she handled such a stressful situation. I was in and out of the hospital for mental illness and self-harm, and yet she didn’t fall under the weight of it all and took care of me.


babies at bath time!
Photo by Big D2112.

Thank you, anonymous contributor, for sharing your experiences! Here’s what I wrote back:

From my perspective, you are a great mom to Stacy, and you’ve taken care of her and yourself in the best way you had the resources to do! Abusive relationships are no joke. I’m glad that you and your daughter are safe now. Regardless of anyone’s feelings about the ethics of reproduction, I don’t think you should feel bad about your choices.

To be clear — and this definitely wasn’t apparent from my original post so I’m going to go back and add a disclaimer — I don’t think parents are bad people. I recognize that my perspective on this is totally different from most people’s. The reason I usually don’t write or talk about it is that there’s zero chance of substantive change — at best I offend people I like (e.g. you, although you don’t seem offended). Sometimes my editorial self-control gets away from me, though.

I’m still interested in additions to this general discussion, so feel free to get in touch.

First Day Back & Anti-Natalism (Podcast Review)

First Day Back podcast by Montreal filmmaker Tally Abecassis
Check it out on iTunes.

Edited to add this disclaimer: I don’t think that people who have kids are bad or evil. It’s way more morally ambiguous than that, and I recognize that I have unorthodox views on this topic.

The inaugural season of the podcast First Day Back just finished. I loved it! The episodes were short and poignant; I made sure to listen right away whenever a new one auto-downloaded on my phone. (No other podcast has provoked the same devotion.) Driving to work in the morning, I listened. Brushing my teeth at night, I listened. I listened while walking my slow, old dog in the afternoon. First Day Back fit right into my life, and right into my heart. It sounds cheesy but it’s true (like many things that sound cheesy).

The creator and protagonist describes her project thus:

“a documentary podcast that follows filmmaker Tally Abecassis as she faces the challenges of picking up her career after an extended maternity leave. The narrative takes a real-life look at motherhood, gender roles, and work-life balance in a voice by turns serious, funny, and sometimes touching.”

Abecassis explains her topic accurately. Throughout the podcast she is candid and vulnerable, unafraid to reveal rejections or embarrassments. It’s a wonderful piece of work.

Portrait of Tally Abecassis by Claudine Sauvé via The Timbre.
Portrait of Tally Abecassis by Claudine Sauvé via The Timbre.

And yet… I don’t feel wholly positive about First Day Back.

I believe that having children is fundamentally violent. When you spawn new people, you risk that they will be born sick, blighted, or mentally ill. Not everything can be fixed — I know this from observing family members and coping with my own depression. I’m okay now — because I’m lucky. Because therapy and medication have worked for me. If I had different brain chemistry, or if my parents didn’t have money, I would be dead. Maybe homeless and/or addicted to a self-destructive substance.

Yes, it is human nature to want to bear offspring. Feeling the desire is okay. However, yielding to that urge is selfish. Wanting to be a parent at all, in any capacity, is selfish — it’s about serving yourself, not the child. It’s also human nature to punch people, but we strive to resolve disputes without fighting because we want to be better than our animal instincts.

“I think it’s really comfortable to lose yourself in motherhood, in a way, because it’s almost impossible to screw it up. I mean, even if you become an alcoholic, whatever, shitty mother. I mean, you’re still your kids’ mother, and they’re still going to love you, as fucked up as you are. […] It’s like, when you’re looking for validation, your kids are going to validate you.” — Tally Abecassis interviewed by Eric McQuade

I’m not an idiot — I don’t expect people to stop having kids just like I don’t expect war to die out. But I still think it’s bad, and I won’t participate. No, I don’t throw rocks at pregnant women or even try to convince people not to have babies. Why stage fruitless arguments? There’s no point in making people hate me without changing their minds. (And yet here I am, writing this…)

Infancy as defined by Shakespeare in As You Like It, via the Boston Public Library.
Infancy as defined by Shakespeare in As You Like It, via the Boston Public Library.

In answer to the obvious question, I plan to be a mother at some point. Because I can adopt! There are far too many children in the foster system, stranded without loving family homes. When I’m financially and emotionally ready, it will be a delight to provide a safe haven and usher a young person into adulthood. My motivation is just as selfish as a biological parent’s, but the odds are better than the child will benefit.

Listening to First Day Back made me like Abecassis so much. She seems very good-hearted. Her desires and inclinations line up well with mine — she’s a creative woman muddling through life, which I obviously relate to. The conflict is that I am fundamentally opposed to the choices Abecassis has made. I also think it’s ludicrous to expect to have it all — you can’t be a hands-on mom and have a full-fledged career. There is just not enough time in the day or energy in a body. Choices always involve trade-offs and it is profoundly arrogant to pretend that they don’t.

So. All of the above is my raw, mostly unfiltered, and probably crazy-sounding opinion. As I said in the beginning, I love First Day Back and I’m excited for the second season. I also feel very uncomfortable and angry about the portrayal of biological motherhood as a deserved and even virtuous condition.

What do you think? (I’m definitely apprehensive about the Facebook response to this. YAY.)

Follow-up from a reader: “I Remember The Circumstances That Led To Her Existence”.

My History of Alcohol

Multi-language beer bottle. Illustration by Xochitl Castaño.
Illustration by Xochitl Castaño.

I’ve been twenty-one for two months. A little more than two months. The day after my birthday, my boyfriend and I ordered draft beer and crab cakes at a local pub. I was affronted because they didn’t card me.

I’ve been drinking intermittently since the end of eighth grade — June of 2009, when I had just turned fifteen, or was about to. Of course, for the first three years of possible alcohol imbibition I hardly ever did it. Maybe that’s not “of course” — high-schoolers get fucked up too, I suppose. The problem is availability. Sure, I drank during high school! But not frequently.

blurry tequila shots
Photo by Ben Sutherland.

I shouldn’t admit this but one time my friend and I shoplifted pear-flavored vodka from the Lucky store in Hercules. We brought empty water bottles and a big purse. Nipped into the bathroom to commit the crime. I was an incredibly dumb kid.

My real bad-choices drinking happened the summer after I turned eighteen, when I briefly lived away from my parents. I like to tell this funny-but-embarrassing story about how I vomited on a girl — it was our first date! — because I could not handle myself and how she was really nice about it and we kept romancing until she went back to school in late August.

smudgy illustration of a girl toppling over
Illustration by Mike Lay.

Probably the same month I kissed a friend out of the blue at a party and it was so awkward. Earlier, or maybe later, I invited some dude from OkCupid to visit the apartment; he assaulted me on the elevator when I made him leave. Ugh. I was only brave enough to berate him over text the next day. Those incidents made me calm down and abstain more. I learned that I should stop mixing drinks once I feel buzzed. Since then I’ve tripped up a couple of times and gotten stupid, sloppy drunk.

beer in a glass
Photo by Rob Nguyen.

Only a couple of times. At the Andrew Jackson Jihad concert in San Francisco, but I don’t remember doing anything to be ashamed of. A weekend in May while watching TV with my boyfriend and his roommate, who I harangued about Mad Max for hours (among other topics, including his business). Hindsight is twenty-twenty and memories are mortifying.

Despite all that, so far I have managed to keep my relationship with alcohol healthy. It’s a miracle because depression runs in my family — it ran right into me — plus alcoholism afflicted one grandfather and at least one great-uncle. I see my peers use alcohol as an oblivion accelerant. When I “party”, I do the same thing.

classy illustration of gin and martinis
Illustration by Adam Grason.

I would get drunk a lot more if I were less stingy.

Today I got home from work and went straight for the shandy in the fridge. I drank two cold bottles. I drank a glass of lemonade — just regular lemonade — that my dad made. I contemplated all of this, my emotional relationship to alcohol and how I have to be careful not to drink every night, not to let it become my default way to soothe frustration. There is too much frustration for a habit like that.

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