Happy belated birthday

2 Mar

Last week I got a birthday card from Roxy, five months after my birthday, three months after her death. Earlier that day, at lunch, I had been saying how much I wished I could write about the good memories, the nights we spent eating too much and laughing too hard over the kind of inside jokes that best friends accumulate over nearly a decade of being best friends.

I’m not there yet. It’s still too fresh. Her absence cuts too deep. And while I’d like to look back and smile — and I do! sometimes, I actually do — I can’t enjoy the memory and share it, because I’m distracted by the way her story ends.

The card encapsulates that perfectly, I think, because it’s ridiculous and funny in a way that Roxy appreciated. Which is to say that it’s a giant talking pickle that spouts out awful puns when you open it. But it’s also almost too upsetting for me to look at. Even having it in the house — I keep it next to the program from Roxy’s funeral — is bittersweet. I’m so grateful for this tangible heartfelt message, but its mere existence brings the loss into focus.

And so I’m left with the same hope I mentioned before I got the card, that eventually the sadness won’t be so overwhelming that it dwarfs the joy. One day I’ll be able to blog about Roxy and it won’t be the same mournful dirge. And I’ll appreciate the card for its sense of humor — so distinctly Roxy in my mind — without feeling the lump in my throat that comes from the words inside. I want it to become the kind of reminder that keeps me warm when I’m missing her, and not something I’m almost afraid to touch.

Because eventually the pickle is going to stop talking. That’s maybe the most ridiculous concern I’ve ever had, but the thought of it has made me well up on more than one occasion since I got the card. Once that happens, I’m worried I’ll feel even more alone, left with only the words. They’re good words, and they’re Roxy’s, but I don’t know when they’ll stop feeling like a punch in the gut: “Every year since we’ve met, we both get better and more fabulous. I look forward to who we’ll become and celebrating more birthdays with you.”

At least now, the pickle’s still rattling off puns — “Oh my gherkin, it’s your birthday! Hope you relish every second of it” — so I can smile through the tears. I’m not sure what happens next.

Addiction and free will

2 Feb

No one chooses to be an addict. Addiction is a painful, relentless, life-destroying force. The idea that anyone would make a conscious decision to live life that way — constantly in search of the next fix and an unattainable high — is absurd. Calling it a disease always feels limiting to me: “Disease” implies that there’s a cure. No one who picks up a cigarette or a bottle or a needle thinks that this will become the thing they can’t control. Addiction builds and it takes hold of you so suddenly you don’t notice it happening. By the time you realize how deep in it you are, you’re already stepping it up to harder drugs and dreading the agony of withdrawal. No one chooses to relinquish control.

No one chooses to stay an addict either, because once you’re an addict, you don’t have that kind of choice. Getting treatment isn’t a choice so much as a battle for survival, and it’s always easier said than done. A stint in rehab teaches you coping skills, but it doesn’t make the cravings go away. The program works, but you have to work it, and that takes a kind of strength many of us don’t have. Sobriety doesn’t fix the emptiness that until that point you’ve been self-medicating. It’s a coping mechanism for a world that is scary and fucked, for brains that are scary and fucked. No one chooses to need drugs to feel whole — or just to feel normal.

And no one chooses to die. Even those who take their own lives are fighting against depression so severe that suicide feels like the only option, and no one chooses that unbearable misery. Death is fucking infuriating, which is why we’re so eager to assign blame. To an outsider, death by overdose looks selfish: You chose to get high, you got careless, you died and left your family and loved ones behind to deal with your absence. But selfishness suggests free will, and addiction robs you of that. No one chooses to give it up willingly, and once it’s gone, it’s a fucking endless struggle to get it back.

Stop using “free speech” to defend bigotry

19 Dec

“I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment,” said Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal in a statement defending Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s right to homophobia. Believe it or not, I sympathize with Jindal’s frustration: I remember when politicians understood the First Amendment.

Sarah Palin also weighed in on A&E’s decision to suspend Robertson from Duck Dynasty indefinitely: “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”

This is nothing new. When Alec Baldwin was fired from MSNBC after calling a photographer a “cock-sucking fag,” he blamed the “fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy.” Baldwin supporters called GLAAD’s behavior “bullying.” And so, the words that the LGBT community was once forced to defend itself from — “fundamentalists” and “bullying” — are turned around on it. LGBT activists are challenged on their “tolerance.” The unsubtle implication is, you gays are just as bad as the homophobes you’re always complaining about.

That just isn’t the case. The worst thing that will happen to Phil Robertson is that he won’t get to appear on his reality show. He will not be physically assaulted for his views on gay people, the way that gay people might simply for being gay. The same goes for Alec Baldwin, no matter how sincerely he views himself as a victim. He may have lost his MSNBC series, but he won’t get brutally beaten while enduring an onslaught of gay slurs — “cocksucking fag,” perhaps.

For people who have encountered actual intolerance — in the form of schoolyard bullying, workplace discrimination, or physical violence — the perversion of these words is that much more repugnant. But the point Palin and Jindal are trying to make, however misguided, is one that comes up again and again: The “real” intolerance is in censoring people who have opinions that are not “politically correct.” Bigots should have a right to air their bigotry without consequences, because that is what this nation was founded on.

The truth is, “free speech” has never meant what A&E’s critics would have you believe. When you air your bigotry publicly, you are subject to repercussions. You have every right to rail on against the minorities you feel most victimized by — but don’t be surprised when you lose friends, respect, or your job.

And yet, there remains a concerted effort to turn the conversation in on itself. People like Palin and Jindal hope that they can distract from the truth with cries of “free speech” and “politically correct.” What really happened is that a reality show star made comments that were dangerous and shameful. His employers decided to suspend him. And two politicians attacked those employers, because in their minds, it’s more important to propagate a misunderstanding of the First Amendment than it is to engender a culture where LGBT citizens feel safe.

The five stages of grief

26 Nov

Denial:
I read the email with the subject line “Really bad news” over and over again, pulled over on the side of the road. And even when I was screaming and sobbing and literally gasping for air, I was still sure that it was the worst practical joke of all time. Obviously I knew it was true, because I can’t remember the last time I cried so hard, or if I ever have, but I was equally sure that there had to have been a mistake. That I would get a follow-up email explaining that she was a medical mystery but alive and well. Or that Roxy would call me and tell me that herself.

The more people I called to tell, the harder it was to not believe it. And with every incredulous response, I had to be the one to say, yes, really, it’s awful but it’s true. You say that enough and you can’t deny it any longer. The numbness sort of melts away and the pain sets in. When I called Alex and he told me what happened, I could see it perfectly in my head, even though I didn’t want to, and there was no doubt any longer. Still, there are moments when I wake up from all-too-frequent naps and think, wasn’t that a fucked-up dream I had. I can’t wait to tell Roxy about it.

Anger:
This, I internalized. And I’m still having a hard time letting go. I’m not angry at Roxy for leaving or at a higher power for taking her — though please, I beg of you, don’t talk to me about God’s plan, because if God has a plan, it’s being an asshole — I’m angry at myself for not being a better friend. And I know that sounds like I’m being too hard on myself, which I maybe am, but you don’t know how bad I could be about keeping in touch. I looked at our last IM conversation: She was just checking in and I said I was too swamped at work to talk. That was true, but I never got back to her. So fuck me, really.

I didn’t know she was suffering, and I should have. I didn’t make the time to see her when she was in town — because yes, we were both bad at making plans and following through, especially over the last couple years, but couldn’t I have tried a little harder. She had a birthday card for me that Alex has now, and I’m still so angry at myself that in my darkest moments, I don’t feel like I deserve it. I’m worried that by admitting all of this, it sounds like I’m seeking reassurance, but the truth is I know I fucked up. As time passes, I will accept that I fucked up because I’m human, not because I’m a bad person. I won’t let myself off the hook, but I’ll at least be less pissed off.

Bargaining:
I’m not sure about this stage. Apparently it’s about trying to regain control, but all I feel is helpless. There is a part of me that will sit here and say, I could have been there for Roxy more and helped her through her depression, and then maybe she wouldn’t have needed the medication, but that’s absurd. I know how depression works, and it’s not simply a matter of cheering up. I remember in high school, she would start to feel better and then stop taking her meds, and the dark feelings would come back, and I would say, “It’s not just a mood. It’s your brain chemistry, and you have to treat it like a medical problem.”

But do I wish I could go back in time and stop all of this from happening? Of course. I keep having the fantasy of calling her a week ago and saying I had a premonition and she needs to see a doctor immediately. They would find out what was wrong, and treat her accordingly, and even though she’d still need to find a new regimen to deal with her depression, she would be alive. These are pointless thoughts, and I resent even having them. There’s nothing any of us could have done, realistically. But what if, what if, what if.

Depression:
I’ve been medicated for years, so I’d almost forgotten how bad I could feel. Since getting on Prozac, I’ve found that in those dark moments, I’ll experience a sharp pang of sadness and then feel it subside. I’ll exhale and wonder if I’m numbing myself too much, but I’ll be grateful to feel OK.

Only know it’s not subsiding. I feel fine when I’m distracted enough to forget, and then it all comes rushing back and I’m crying again. I’m afraid to leave the house, not that I want to, so I just sit here and watch bad TV and eat junk food under a blanket. I know it’s important to feel, but I’d forgotten how wretched these lows are. And while I believe that I’ll be normal again, eventually, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to hear “Cavanaugh Park” without crying or see a photo of us without burying my face in my hands and trying to shut the world away. I’m told this is just how things are from now on.

Acceptance:
I’ll let you know.

Roxy

24 Nov

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Roxy is gone, and I don’t know what to do except write.

We got set up on a blind date, if you can believe that. I was 16, still very much in the closet — even to myself, really. We got Thai food, and I felt awkward because I knew things were never going to work on a romantic level, so I was kind of a dick to her. She probably should have written me off as an asshole, but she didn’t. I think she recognized a kindred spirit, something I soon picked up on as well. As weird as it was to imagine dating her, it was even weirder to think of her not being in my life.

High school was not easy for either of us. The more we talked, the more we realized we liked each other more than almost anyone else we actually went to school with. At one point, we were spending so much time together that I look back now and have to remind myself we attended different schools. Because she was there when I needed her: She got it, and she got that nobody else did. And while we weren’t the only people in each other’s lives, sometimes it felt that way — like we were two outcasts against the world. I had never read Perks of Being a Wallflower, because that was the kind of book we’d make fun of, but I knew what it was about and secretly related. Being a freak sucks, and then you find another freak to spend your time with. And fuck everyone else.

We had two main anxieties: being single and being overweight. We couldn’t fix each other, but just sharing our insecurities made it all a little easier. I keep saying that I don’t know what I would have done without her, because it’s unfathomable. She was my therapist before I had a therapist. We actually argued a lot, probably because we had so much in common, but also because there was so much pain shared between us. I remember nights we spent driving aimlessly, screaming along to Something Corporate, which we knew was ridiculous but helped us forget the things that actually made us hurt.

Our favorite movie was Ghost World, because of course it was. We quoted it endlessly, and that summer before college, when we spent nearly every day together, it took on a new weight. I worried that we’d drift apart: She was staying in Los Angeles, and I was going off to Berkeley. And while we rarely, for whatever reason, acknowledged how much we meant to one another, I know the thought of separation scared the shit out of us. I bought two dolls, Enid and Rebecca, and I gave her Rebecca and kept Enid for myself — I guess because she was blonde, or because I’m selfish and always liked Enid better — and said something corny about how we’d always be connected. We hated being corny. We hardly ever even hugged.

And I think about that and wish I’d told her that I loved her more often than I did. But I also have to believe she knew.

Distance made keeping in touch hard sometimes. We were two anxious people who often got caught up in our heads. When she eventually transferred to Berkeley, it felt too good to be true: We’d finally be at the same school. She was already a part of my college experience, with her phone calls and visits, but I’m so glad we got to really have those two years together. And I’m grateful that she got to know all the friends I’d made in college — so many of them a little bit awkward or different — because they were our kind of people. On the surface, we probably seemed cooler than we were at 16, but we’d still admit to one another that we never really felt comfortable in our own skin.

When I think about college, it’s honestly a bit of a blur, and no, that has nothing to do with drinking. But I’m glad I can remember plenty of moments with Roxy, because that’s what I want to hold on to now. I remember going to dinner at a Persian restaurant — it was my first time, even though she had dubbed me an honorary Persian years before — and watching in awe as she ate raw onion. And then sitting on her bed and watching her play Animal Crossing and laughing, because that’s a ridiculous game, but also I was very stoned. I remember the night after my 20th birthday party, two weeks after getting dumped by my ex, when she came over and watched Phat Girlz with Melody and me. There’s a lot of pathos in that film. You’d be surprised.

Of course I remember the dark times, too. There were so many tears over boys who didn’t like us and — perhaps more to the point — over not liking ourselves enough. But we both let go of that adolescent angst, so there’s no real reason to revisit it. I’m just glad I didn’t go through it alone.

Besides, that’s not who Roxy was over the past few years. I was so proud to see her blossom (and again, so regretful that I never told her more often, so please, please tell your loved ones how you feel) into the brilliant, gorgeous, confident woman I can’t believe we’ve lost. She found the courage to love herself, and the results were incredible. I saw a Roxy that neither of us could have imagined at 16. She was vibrant and powerful, unique in a way that didn’t mean standing off to the side. It’s no surprise that her boyfriend Alex fell in love with her, because how could anyone not fall in love with her?

Since I found out that Roxy passed away this morning, I have gone back and forth between feeling numb and sobbing, which I think is normal. I don’t really know — I’ve never lost someone so close before. I want to feel everything, but I also don’t want to feel at all, because even acknowledging that she’s gone is unbearable. More than anything, I wish she were here, sitting next to me on the couch. I’m thinking back to one New Year’s Eve we spent together, watching reruns of Degrassi and not even noticing the clock had reached midnight until the DVD ended. It was kind of perfect, and I wish I could have that back.

We used to talk about Enid’s Ghost World fantasy, getting on a bus and disappearing somewhere. It was an attractive notion when we were in high school, but I promised her that if I ever did that, I’d let her know where I went. I couldn’t imagine either of us leaving the other behind. Now I feel like she finally did it and forgot to tell me. And I’m closing my eyes and thinking about sitting on that bus stop and waiting for her, because I don’t know what else to do.

A brief note on timing

14 Jul

Obviously the Zimmerman trial verdict speaks more to the sad state of affairs in this country — from the flawed legal system to the institutionalized racism — than the death of a young actor.

But how dare you suggest I can’t be upset about both, or that I’m treating the two as equal. Does it help that I cried over the Zimmerman verdict but not over Cory Monteith’s death? Is my reaction appropriate? I find it so fucking insulting — this implication that the mere mention of Cory Monteith means we have forgotten Trayvon Martin.

Because no, on a larger scale, it’s not that important. But as someone who has sought treatment for drug addiction, yes, the death of an addict hits hard. As do the comments that he deserved what he got because he was an addict, or that he knew what he was getting into, or that his friends should have done more to help. It’s callous and shameful.

So I will mourn Cory Monteith and feel depressed over a problematic cultural perception of addiction that places full blame on the addict, who is often helpless in the situation. At the same time, I will mourn Trayvon Martin and feel outrage over a disgusting verdict that sets a dangerous precedent and reinforces a tragic perception of young black men in this country.

I contain multitudes, asshole.

The “P” word

3 Jul

The other night I tweeted what I thought was an innocent joke: “I’ve met some interesting heterosexual men, but they’re certainly not the norm.” It came from an actual thought I’ve had — that I’m glad I’m gay because I’d make such a boring straight guy. But it was also designed to be ironic, the kind of sweeping generalization someone might make about a minority group. The difference, of course, being that heterosexual men are far from the minority.

And while I think most people got the joke — or at least, the spirit in which it was intended — I ended up having a rather ugly debate that resulted in a mutual unfollowing of someone I’ve known on Twitter for years. I rolled my eyes at his claims of anti-straight bigotry, as I always do when someone brings up the concept of heterophobia. (Or misandry. Or anti-white racism.) When another friend asked if it would be OK for him to make the same joke about gay people, I wanted to shake him: Can’t you see the difference?

If I tell an anti-straight joke (and I’d still argue that’s not what I was doing), I’m obviously being ironic. Because while I’m sure there are at least some people out there who legitimately hate heterosexuals for being breeders, the vast majority of society promotes heterosexuality as the ideal. There’s an enormous difference between making fun of a marginalized group and making fun of the dominant group in power.

But let me put it in different, blunter terms: When you tell a gay joke, I worry you’re going to beat the shit out of me. However irrational that sounds to you, it’s the reality I live with. This is the nature of privilege. Straight people don’t live with the fear of being bashed — they can hear a joke about straight people and not worry that it’s the precursor to violence. Gay people, who have a long history of persecution, do not have that same privilege. There is always a threat there, whether or not it’s realistic.

When I tweeted that joke, were you really worried I hated straight people? Were you worried I would ever act on it? Because that’s my fear when I read or hear a joke about gays. How do I know you’re not actually hateful? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Even if you consider all jokes to be harmless, you have to understand the different weight they carry. A joke about straight people is easily shrugged off; a joke about gay people brings up an actual history of persecution and violence.

I’m gay, but I’m also white and male, so my understanding of privilege is limited. Here is what I will say about privilege on a larger scale: it is a difficult concept to grasp. That’s why, if someone from a marginalized group tells you that a joke makes him or her uncomfortable, you take his or her word for it.

Let’s take the example of rape jokes, a popular topic of late (and always, really). If you’re a man, you are in a position of privilege: you don’t know what it’s like to live with the fear of rape the way a woman does. (Which is not to say that men can’t be victims of rape, or that all women live in fear.) Every time someone tells a rape joke, it brings to mind the horrifying statistics about rape, and a culture that too often condones it — if a woman feels scared or angry, it’s because she has reason to. From my position of privilege, I can only understand that on an intellectual level. This is the best explanation I can offer.

It might seem like I’ve gone off on a tangent, but this goes back to my defense of that silly tweet and my confusion over the backlash. I have no problem making straight white men a target for my humor, and if that bothers anyone, I’d love to know why. Taken as a whole, straight men are not victimized. Therefore it’s not a double standard for me to say jokes about straight guys are OK while jokes about gay guys are not. For the same reason, I find the “I make fun of everyone equally!” argument to be a load of shit. Everyone is not treated equal by society.

Before you debate me on any of this, please think about your own privilege. Try to understand where you’re coming from, and where I am. Unless you’re willing to accept that life is easier for you if you’re white or straight or male or some combination, we’re never going to see eye to eye. I am doing my best to be anti-racist and feminist, and I know I’m still lacking. I also know that I have had it easier than many others. Admitting privilege is not weakness — it’s an essential starting point to the conversation.

One final note: Don’t even think about bringing censorship into this. You won’t find mention of it anywhere else in this post, because it’s not something I’m advocating. Say whatever you want about whomever you want, and deal with the consequences. That’s free speech.

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