isaac black

isaac black writes

The healthier I become emotionally, the more I realize how much of my life I was living in emergency mode. I was very high-functioning. But I realize that I was living in a kind of manic state, where a number of defenses kept me from risking the disapproval of others. Commonly, I would use some artistic endeavor to justify my isolation, an attempt to communicate how I was feeling by speaking for how everyone feels, a quixotic effort that embarrasses me now.

And then I would wear myself out and become depressed. It was a cycle that I couldn’t identify, even as in its throes I felt thrashed around and abandoned by God.

Taking God out of the equation helped; it made the cruelty of life feel less personal. Seeing a therapist helped immensely. The first two months during our sessions I could hardly speak for crying. The biggest victory was finally feeling that I deserved a voice. Me, not some ur-narrator. My therapist helped me identify where a lot of things were coming from. She approved compassionate practices for myself and helped me avoid counter-productive, passive aggressive strategies. I’ve continued to learn about myself since discontinuing our sessions.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how my fear of commitment, my anxiety, my tendency to withdraw from relationships, all stem from a fear of inadequacy. Inadequacy ruled my young life. It ruled my 20s, and I’m only recently learning how to validate myself so I don’t seek out validation from romantic partners based on some version of me tailored to fit their tastes.

The fear is so deep that it feels appropriate to say that it comes from trauma. I don’t use that word lightly, and it feels strange to use it to describe my childhood. I was the youngest, the spoiled golden child in my loving, upper middle class Mormon family. I was racked with teen angst and resented my mom for babying me, but, I thought, wasn’t that normal? Even then I felt that I was being dramatic and that I should have been more grateful for what I had.

But the inadequacy was there, intensely, during my teens. High school was when I learned my habit of pining after some idealized crush, only to loathe myself when she rejected me or, heaven forbid, started dating someone else. An implicit rejection. I earnestly believed that X really understood me, that she could take away my loneliness. When she went for someone plainer, someone simpler, it felt personal.

I can’t pinpoint the age when I began to hate myself. The first day of 6th grade when I realized my friends from last year had graduated into a tier of popularity that I hadn’t? Earlier? Sometimes I wonder what memories of my childhood I may have repressed.

I do remember being no older than 7 or 8 and chasing the neighbor kids, friends of mine, off our sidewalk because they were selling lemonade there without paying us rent, swinging a wiffle ball bat at them with tears streaming down my face. It was the unfairness. My mom gave me the idea that they owed us something and didn’t change her tune even after seeing my inexplicable reaction.

The person in this world who I’ve felt the strongest connection to, my ex girlfriend, was the victim of childhood abuse at the hands of her delusional, bipolar mother. We understood each other’s emotions in an intuitive way. She won’t talk to me anymore, but I even understand that. The fact that she had gone through trauma made me try the word in my mouth: abuse.

I don’t believe my parents actively abused me. They both spanked me, though my siblings and I only took my dad’s spankings seriously. He administered spankings at my mom’s request when he came home from work. Not in anger. Afterward he left us alone to cry, coming in five or ten minutes later to give us a hug.

Maybe it was the hug. The hug was for him, not for me. None of it was for me. My feelings at the time probably knew that, even as my parents’ words said otherwise. Maybe that was the beginning of my tamping my feelings down, making room for my parents’ anxiety about being parents.

Maybe it was the time I hid in bed after losing to my brother in Risk, he following me there to continue talking shit. I yelled for my dad, and he stormed into my room to physically kick my brother out. Thinking he had come to save me, I smiled and said thanks as he put his fearsome face in mine and yanked me out of bed to spank me, telling me that he wouldn’t have a sore loser in this family. My brother glared at me through dinner.

I used to joke about that story when recounting it. I can appreciate the comedy of it–a game of Risk can be brutal. I can also see the humor in a boy chasing neighbors off “his property” with a yellow wiffle ball bat. But when my therapist asked if my dad had ever hit me, I told her the story, beginning it light-hearted and ending in tears. Thinking about both stories brings up very dark feelings in me. It’s a disorienting tangle so thick that it makes my throat feel physically constricted. It’s so dangerous that my body, still, chokes itself to keep whatever that feeling is from being expressed. When I talk about my feeling of inadequacy, it’s more than that; it’s a black void where I feel alien, rejected by normal humans for not understanding how they work.

My parents’ mothers both died in their youth. My mom was 7. They kept her and her twin sister in the car at the cemetery when they buried my grandmother. The family thought it would be best for them. My dad thought it would be best for me if he hit me, if he socialized me to be tough. They didn’t know it and still probably don’t, but they also socialized me to keep all my feelings to myself by responding to any emotion with anxious behaviors–my mom prattling on about someone she knows that I don’t know or care about, my dad barraging me with superficial questions and then offering a tidy answer as if he solved the problem. Both put our family to the foreground of their lives in such a way that their failure as parents would devastate them. Again, I don’t know at what age that I learned this, but I grew up removing my feelings from the fraught tension that existed just below the surface of our family dynamic. I will not hit my kids, but I don’t think that’s where my trauma comes from. “Abuse” doesn’t sound as accurate as “neglect.” Precious few of my feelings were validated until adulthood.

My dad was the son of a train engineer, a blue collar job–hard work with little pay. After retiring he sold shoes. He owned a little house and raised three kids, but whatever my grandpa took home from that job wasn’t enough for my dad. My dad became a different kind of engineer. He went to college and chased the highest salary he could by moving to Minnesota with his young bride. And they pinched every penny. My parents are retired now, with something in the ballpark of a million dollars in assets. They’re accruing so much from my dad’s investments that they can’t spend it fast enough, even while going on three or four cruises a year.

My mom was always helping and never accepting help. She’s the one in the neighborhood making casseroles and banana bread for all the neighbors, keeping up with everyone else’s life and never talking about her own. But she would let some complaints slip when her schedule, packed so tight as to never let herself feel anything, would become too much for her. She would demand my help, right that second, and then criticize me for setting the table wrong and redo it.

When I was 25, I was living with them. I had been working an agonizingly boring job for eight months. I couldn’t drag myself into work anymore. I confronted my dad, crying before I even started the conversation, telling him that I was quitting, asking to continue living there rent-free. He wasn’t happy. “You can’t just not work,” he said.

He always wanted to give his family a good life. That’s why he came home stressed and unhappy most nights. That’s why he moved to Minnesota, then Alabama, then South Carolina, not knowing anyone. But after he gave us that good life, he envied us for it. “You can’t just not work.”

I realize that materially I grew up with much more than most. I never starved and I never froze. But that fact was used as one of several cudgels to keep me from expressing myself. These material things were for me, supposedly, but they didn’t come without strings attached.

I became depressed my last year of college. I was going to graduate without finding the person who would make my life make sense, and I had no career plan. Moreover, I had no idea how much I needed to make to get by. $40k? $50k? I needed to save for a house, for retirement, to pay down student debt. In my early twenties I had become more attractive to women and got good grades, and I used those successes to delay thinking about the future. When I had no choice but to face the uncertainty it inspired such feelings of worthlessness that, after accosting God for not caring about me, I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel anything.

Sometime prior to this night I freaked out on my parents. I skipped a family function because I was wracked with anxiety and unable to project the stable false self they expected of me, but I blamed it on being sick. They wouldn’t stop calling to “check up on me,” until I felt so claustrophobic that I returned their call to yell at them for treating me like a child. My dad offered a non-apology: “We were just concerned about you.”

When I would tell my mom I hadn’t asked for what they gave me, I would usually add that all I wanted from them was to be left alone. I wanted independence. I finally achieved it, and there’s something to be said for that. When I found a job that paid me well and that had enough variety to keep me from getting bored, I felt satisfied and settled. My anxiety and depression abated.

During the summer before I quit, I had been working from home once a week. Let’s be honest–I wasn’t doing a lot of work from home. My boss naturally caught on and sent me an email saying as much. I panicked. I thought I was going to be fired. Anytime I sense any displeasure from anyone around me–and I have a very sensitive antenna for it–I internalize it and automatically assume the worst. I am, in my thirties, learning that sometimes when people are mad at me, it’s not my fault. Or that it’s not a big deal.

I tend to default to thinking that I’m going to fail unless I manage to convince myself otherwise. A cloud of embarrassment and regret always hovers just out of my peripheral vision. My anxiety comes from my mind trying to figure out the myriad scenarios in which I will fail and draw the disappointment of everyone around me. I have such a visceral fear of it that my psyche will do almost anything to avoid it–becoming depressed, diving hastily into exciting romantic adventures, overeating, or checking out completely. After the reproach from my boss, I checked out from my job because the thought of feeling inadequate and getting fired terrified me.

But as much as it scares me, I’m very attached to that cloud of inadequacy. It’s been my survival strategy, and letting go of it feels like letting go of a trusty knife. My psyche tells me, when I try to encourage myself, that I’m lying to myself, that failure is more true. I feel vulnerable when I feel good about myself, like any second the cloud of inadequacy is going to fly in and leave me feeling stupid and embarrassed.

In a sense, living off of savings like I’m doing is a perpetuation of using independence as a defense. But it feels therapeutic, when I don’t drop everything to finish a contracting assignment as soon as humanly possible, to remind myself that I don’t need that gig. I am beginning to feel autonomous in these kinds of relationships, to feel like I can assert and negotiate for my needs and well-being, that I can accept or reject things on my own terms.

Being healthy and well-adjusted means depending on other human creatures for, at the very least, understanding how to interpret social cues. I have lacked that understanding for most of my life because of a family environment where my feelings weren’t appreciated, because of my devotion to a church whose only prescription was more church, because of my kneejerk superiority and sarcasm. My therapist, two years ago, was among the first to give me the permission to feel, and I’ve come to learn that I have many friends who will give that to me as well. I’m beginning to let go of the knife.

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Posted this on Medium.

Here and here is the context for the post.

Props to the Trib for the great reporting and this op-ed! Will be a sad day when the paper is no longer around.

The latest on this case since I posted my thoughts are that the DA in Utah County walked back everything that his deputy said in the story. It was the DA who dropped the charges of retaliating against a witness against the cop and the accused rapist, who retaliated against a witness.

BYU issued a completely non-committal response.

Here is the petition from the rape victim for BYU to stop punishing victims.

I decided there’s no reason why I can’t take the rest of the year off, so I’m going to. It’s only three months more than my original plan, but it makes me feel more confident about what I have going on. I’m meeting with an advisor at the U of U about a masters program in History this week, and I’m getting closer to getting my hot sauce business off the ground. I also got a writing assignment for a local news blog. None of these things quite add up to financial independence, but they don’t mean a 9 to 5 behind a desk either.

Not having the stress of a full time job has allowed me the capacity to confront a lot of emotions in the past month. I had two intense conversations with the woman I’m dating, which investigated a lot of my own dysfunction in relationships. The conversations went well, but I wonder with the stress of not getting enough time to myself to process my feelings if I would have engaged or just drifted further into my own world and ended things. This has been a really important project for me.

I’ve also been investigating my own sexism, partly because of some blunt feedback from the writers group I’m in. This has been tied up in the rest of my emotional journey because of my history with guilt. At the risk of emboldening any anti-PC mouthbreathers who may be reading this, social justice concerns can take on the weight of religious dogma. Its adherents can become fixated on their own ritual purity. Because I have every privilege imaginable, I fell into a vestigial pattern of invalidating my own feelings because of my imperfection. I haven’t completely resolved this, but I’ve made big steps with help from a woman friend as well as the woman I’m dating. I realize that I have blind spots toward misogynistic oppression, but I try to listen to women and I go out of my way to study feminist theory. I can’t expect myself to have a woman’s lived experience. Besides, I have my own perspective about the adverse effects of patriarchy that are worthwhile. Regardless, I realized that I don’t have to devalue my feelings for any reason.

Anyway. Summer is coming, and it’s been a snowy spring but I’m getting myself ready to take some fun trips. Hopefully I can get some more good work in on my novel before I start partying.

why mormons don’t like trump

A poll of Utah voters back in December showed Trump was the fourth most popular candidate in the state, trailing Cruz, Rubio and even Ben Carson. Though he continues to lead the Republican field, he recently inspired Mitt Romney, the archetypal Mormon politician, to summon all his civil, good-natured bluster in taking him down a peg.

While Trump has considerable support among evangelicals, he has failed to win over similarly devout LDS Church members. He’s clearly not religious, despite his fumbling attempts to demonstrate otherwise, and while Cruz, Rubio and Carson have talked more openly and convincingly of their faith, it seems strange to me that evangelicals would be significantly more forgiving of Trump’s lack of churchiness than Mormons. Rubio, who enjoys more support than Trump in Utah, is an “inactive,” i.e. lapsed, Mormon, a religious status considered worse than being a “non-member.” Additionally, Trump is the most pro-choice candidate, something which would seemingly upset evangelicals more than it would Mormons, whose church’s abortion policy is technically pro-choice.

I can’t speak to the evangelical mindset, though when considering Mormons’ lack of enthusiasm for Trump the Mormon concept of “the world” is useful. “The world” is something like the Babylon of Rastafarianism, a mindset typified by wanton, selfish living and sexual license. Mormons are constantly reminded to live “in the world but not of the world;” i.e. to be a part of the broader society without adopting its moral permissiveness. Mormons are very attuned to cultural markers of worldliness, which can speak louder than a person’s actual or stated beliefs. Mormons are known to boast of spotting fellow Mormons by their “countenance,” a kind of beatific image which comes from “living the Gospel.”

This attentiveness to others’ lifestyles isn’t merely Mormons’ being busybodies. There is a pervasive insider/outsider dynamic to the culture which comes from a history of being driven out of their homes, even having their murder sanctioned by the governor of Missouri. After settling in Utah, Mormons were investigated by the federal army. Mormonism eventually gave up their cherished belief in polygamy at the threat of having the church’s assets seized. While the last of these events occurred nearly a hundred years ago, the suspicion of outsiders persists.

Trump reads socially liberal. He’s a brash, New York media figure who carries with him the reek of sexual scandal. He’s expressed pro-choice views in the past (something which, along with support for equal marriage rights, has earned the active Mormon Harry Reid the distrust of many of his Mormon peers). Family is very important to Mormons. Donald Trump treated Ivana like an employee, pressuring her into a pre-nup which specified an income and offering her a cash bonus for bearing children. He also raped her.

On top of it all, Trump’s comments about shutting down mosques and barring Muslim immigrants didn’t play well with Mormons. Mormons show an affinity toward Muslims, possibly out of sympathy for another maligned, misunderstood religious group formed by an iconoclastic prophet. In the wake of Trump’s comments, the LDS Church issued a statement affirming its support of religious liberty, and chapels opened their doors to invite Muslims to come pray.

Naturally, the Mormon community is not monolithic and each voter will have her own reasons for liking or disliking Trump. But based on my experience in the Church, these concepts are important and may help to explain why Trump’s wave of appeal has hit a breakwater in Utah. My prediction for the primary in June is that if Rubio is still in the race, he and Cruz will split a plurality of votes while Trump will trail in a distant third.

I’m a couple weeks away from the six month anniversary of my joblessness. Even though I have enough savings for another cushy six months I’ve started becoming anxious about where I’m going to get an income after that. I’m a little worried about how fast time has gone and how accustomed I’ve become to spending most of my day taking care of myself and reading. I’m anxious about the thought of taking another desk job out of necessary, only to have my psyche reject that lifestyle like a disease after three months.

I applied for a health insurance subsidy because Utah has no Medicaid program available for non-disabled people with no dependents. There is no federal subsidy for people below the poverty line, so I had to claim that I would make at least $11,770 this year. I think I will, but I have another six weeks to provide my insurance company with some kind of documentation to prove it. I don’t have a steady income, so it may prove tricky. I may have to end up paying back the subsidy, in which case I’m just going to go without insurance because I can’t afford $160 a month for the most basic plan. Health insurance is important, but to me this is another way in which our system is designed to keep people working, even if it’s at jobs that they’re not very well suited for. Capitalism requires cheap labor, and a glut of available labor benefits capitalists at the expense of workers.

I hope by the end of this year I will have something pan out. Even though it sounds like a pipe dream my best bet so far is in selling a screenplay I wrote a couple years ago, but I wasn’t even a quarter finalist in a contest that I entered. I entered a few others, so I’ll wait and see. I’m in the planning stages of starting a hot sauce company. My friends like my recipe, but my napkin calculations indicate that it won’t be fully profitable by the end of this year, barring some miracle. What I want to do is focus on my novel, which I’m feeling very optimistic about. I’m rewriting a section which I felt was weaker than the others and feeling encouraged by how well it’s going. I’ve gotten good feedback from the writers group I’m a part of. But this still feels like the longest shot I have. Beside, I’m still two to three months from finishing the first draft. Add three more months for revisions and writing a query, three months for hearing back from agents, and assuming I’m lucky enough to get representation there will be the process of getting a publisher interested.

I helped a friend with some copywriting, and now a colleague wants to get in touch with me for some work. That may turn into something. I also may be doing some more temp driving work in May. I’ve got a tax refund due. These are the kinds of things that may add up eventually to a living, but right now they’re hard to bank on. Still, a friend who was in a similar situation last year told me that the longer he was jobless the more opportunities presented themselves. It is true that I’ve had opportunities come up, and I haven’t even been looking.

What anxiety looks like for me is my brain turning a thought over in my mind without my control, looking for all the bad things associated with it and fixating on them. When it comes to not knowing how I’ll make money in the future, I automatically think of all the bad things that can happen and the ways that they’ll play out. Interestingly enough though, this way of thinking actually helps me write. Because I don’t have to put any conscious effort into this, I come up with a character or a scene and my brain goes to work on examining them from all angles, coming up with quirks, flaws, or different dimensions. Not writing is sometimes is more productive than writing because of this.

The other big source of my anxiety is my romantic relationship. I wouldn’t have considered this as big a focus when I was working, but a sizable portion of my time and energy goes toward the relationship. Specifically, I try to work up the courage to be expressive with her while countering with logic all of my inner avoidant tendencies. The back and forth going on inside my head is keeping up at night, and when I sleep I’ve been having vivid, stressful dreams. There was the one where my nephew or cousin killed himself in the bathtub of the vacation home where I was staying with my family, and I had to inform his mother (who I was attracted to; it’s worth noting this is not a real person OR a blood relative in my dream). There was the dream where my car got towed while I was walking around in the snow in my socks. When my socks disappeared and I couldn’t remember how it happened I told myself, while dreaming, that I wasn’t dreaming and that I must be going crazy. There was the dream where I had befriended a young black man and possibly been an accomplice to some kind of homicide, then tried to deescalate the situation when the FBI found where we were hiding, knowing that he was likely to be shot on sight. Then there was the dream where I worked all day at an organizing job without a meal, and by evening, with several hours of work left, I was exhausted and wondering how I was going to keep doing that job for the next ten days, or whatever the schedule was.

I’ve mentioned this before but the paradox I’m falling into is that because all my time is free time, I don’t schedule myself any free time. My relaxation feels like procrastinating, because what I should be doing is working on my novel, working on my hot sauce, or spending some intentional time with friends or the woman I’m dating. Even when I’m reading a book it often feels like homework. The challenges of joblessness may be trivial and beautiful, but they exist.

I’ve worked eleven days in the last two weeks, and I feel like I can’t sleep or snack enough. I drove filmmakers to their screenings for the Sundance film festival, waking up at 5:30 too days in a row and getting home at 1:30 am on a few nights. Despite the schedule, which often included killing time for hours in the middle of the day, it was actually fun. I made new friends and got to see several very good films. And I made enough money, including tips, for more than a month’s budget.

Yesterday I went back into my old office for a few hours to do some contract work. My old coworkers clapped when I walked back in, but despite the warm welcome I held plenty of ambivalence toward that old social context. I worked at a “cool” company, the scare quotes indicating the startup mentality which invites employees to dress up corporate professionalism with their own superficial flair. Our CEO asked us to write the goals we had outside of work for the year on a magnetic rectangle to hang at our desks. The intended effect was, I guess, for us to bring some of the passion we had for things outside of work into the labor we sold to the company. In the era of “campuses” instead of workplaces, where unemployment is tenacious despite an average work week of 47 hours, where email on phones makes everyone effectively on-call, companies increasingly want to monopolize what meager shreds of identity are left after clocking out. At my “cool” job, I was encouraged to banter and get drinks with employees, but I still felt sheepish about being anti-capitalist or posting about UBI on my facebook page as more and more coworkers discovered it and added me, and when my coworker with anger management issues called me a pussy I didn’t take it to HR. It was a little uncomfortable inhabiting that old persona, but at the same time it was somewhat cathartic knowing that I’m a freelancer and that if they don’t like who I am for whatever reason I don’t need them. Still, I used to spend forty hours a week in that social context, which is more time than I spent with my friends or family, and that persona was inauthentic.

I had a headache within a few hours, which made me remember the headaches I would get about once a week in the afternoons. It was possibly from the bright natural light in the office, which is a good thing! I also made $60 an hour, so I’m sorry to anyone for whom my bitching is disrespectful. My point is to push our collective imaginations forward to a world where workers have autonomy, where livelihoods don’t require prioritizing jobs over relationships.

After I quit, it felt a little like I was enjoying the last few months of my life. I was dealing (barely) with a breakup, so that contributed to the feeling, but I also think it shows how deeply I had internalized what I “do” as who I am. Not only is an income required to keep myself alive, it serves as a public avatar of self. And with resigning from the faith I was raised in, I had erased myself from two very important societal institutions.

In that light, maybe it wasn’t so deliberate that I shifted my emphasis to my relationships. Maybe I needed to do that to compensate for the social ties I had severed, ties which helped define who I am. At any rate, focusing on those relationships while being more authentic has predictably been much more fulfilling, even though it can also be draining and require downtime.

On the converse, I have two friends who seem to seek out extra work, only partially for the money. This is a very surface level interpretation on my part, but they are both women who are social to the point of spreading themselves thin. Maybe getting more jobs is a way of anchoring themselves to a fixed identity.

It’s been about four and a half months without steady employment, and it’s been the best thing I could do for myself. But even with enough savings for at least eight more months, working has jarred me out of my complacency. I’ve been thinking more about what I need to do to start a hot sauce company, which of course assumes that my forays into writing don’t pan out, or don’t pan out soon enough. But I have managed in a few months to knock loose my assumption that I need a steady nine-to-five in order to get by. Progress, I guess.

For today–resting up while also trying to kick the writing part of my brain in the ass enough to finish the chapter I’m working on.

I went over budget again, this time because renewing my car registration cost $100 more than I expected and because I can’t stop buying records. 

After three months I’ve realized that sleeping enough (I feel despair creep in more readily if I get less than 6 hours), talking to friends, reading a bit, and making my own meals is a full day. I’ve realized that writing a novel and perfecting my hot sauce recipe is a full slate so I’ve put my website idea on hold. When people ask what I do I tell them “nothing,” but that’s partly because I am keeping my novel close to the chest and partly because it’s hard to explain how much time it takes to take care of oneself and one’s friends. 

I haven’t felt lonely the last couple months. (This is not to say I don’t miss my ex girlfriend. I think about her regularly.) But I’ve gone to bed wishing I had someone with me so many nights in my life I hadn’t considered I could feel otherwise without someone actually being there. I’ve learned that different people draw different things out of me, and I’ve been enjoying going on dates while also focusing on long term friendships with people I trust. 

Last week I hitched a ride with friends to the Oregon coast, via San Francisco, to spend some time with a friend having relationship trouble. In northern California I got high in a redwood grove. A mist-filled clearing glowed through the trees, reminding me of an old fantasy, a conflation of the creek behind my childhood home and a story I read without an ending about an enchanted forest. I had forgotten that part of myself. My hopes, memories, and fears were airing out within me. 

I recently sent an email to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requesting they remove me from their records. I talked to the bishop of the ward I am in before my trip, and he was supportive and understanding despite his loyalty to the organization. But my own superstition flared up in light of my existential unaffiliation. I was now unclaimed. I began to remember times I embarrassed myself by making careless mistakes toward people. I fretted that with the Holy Ghost no longer my companion I was headed for disaster. Life, existence is fearful and overwhelming. And much too soon it will be over. 

My friend and I drove north along the Oregon coast on the way back to Utah, a detour of four hours or so tacked onto a fourteen hour day. The rivers swelled with rain and the ullage flooded the roads. The tide was so high on Cannon Beach that we couldn’t walk on the sand. The Columbia River Gorge reminded me of the Norwegian fjords as clouds disguised the mountains and waterfalls poured spontaneously through the foliage. We made it home at 3 am, technically Christmas Eve. 

Lately I’ve heard several stories of the church superseding relationships, including my friend’s. But this morning I opened presents with my parents and consider myself very fortunate that even though they can no longer expect to be with me in the next life we’re together in this one.