Life in the world of monsters

Hey, all. My life has gone to hell the past few weeks. I want to put the sword down and take a nap for a while … said every hero ever.

So, here. Have a post on why singular they is grammatically correct, thank you very much, before I get started on the monsters.

Yes, I’m still riffing on the hero themes. What can I say? If the universe gives me lemons, do I decide to not make lemonade, lemon crepes and lemon tarts? Fuck no, I’m making baked lemony goodness.

I submitted a piece to the upcoming issue of Platform that is a snapshot through quotations (the things people have said to me) of my childhood/teenagerhood. It’s essentially an exploration of why the bullying I endured (and how it was handled) was so psychologically damaging. The editorial team read it, of course, and one of the team members made a very nice comment that he was sorry I had to endure a shit childhood, but I’m (quote because topical relevancy) ‘slaying’ now.

My issue isn’t with the comment but with my reaction to it. Not what I said – I said thank you and that I really appreciate it when people take the time to acknowledge my strengths, because the one thing I’ve learned in therapy is that the only appropriate, non-rude response to a compliment is to say thank you – but how I felt. What I would have said if I hadn’t been in therapy long enough to know to keep my mouth shut/fingers still when the Brain Demons of Low Self-Esteem start to gnaw on my thoughts.

See, I felt like a fraud.

I still do.

This is my reality I’m writing about. I’m not exaggerating and I’m not inventing (although I am paraphrasing and interpreting): these things happened to me, this is how I felt about them, this is how much they damaged me, this damage is why engaged teachers and parents matter. I want people to read it and realise how important it is that a caring adult is there to support, validate and nurture every bullying victim – because without it bullied kids become damaged, broken adults unable to trust people, form relationships, live their dreams, speak their own words. In a world where the media still gives the old ‘children will face bullying in the workplace and need to learn how to deal with it now’* line airtime, this is important. Hell, I’d like to see some plain speaking on the matter: bullying is abuse. Why do we call abuse by another name in this instance?

(* No. Children shouldn’t have to fight monsters. The best heroes aren’t heroes ground down into brokenness, despair and low-self-esteem before they’ve reached adulthood, and that’s what happens to child monster-fighters if we hand them a sword and the cultural Western expectation that they need to defend themselves. If we consider the fact that children are too young to vote, drink, fuck, marry and do just about anything on their own, that it takes a long time before they gain the development to do many things, why the fuck are we expecting children to fight monsters – to do something many adults can’t even manage? The depressing answer is, of course, that adults look at these monsters and see only mosquitoes, house flies and cockroaches; it’s reasonable to hand a child of a certain age a fly-swatter. No. They’re monsters, not household pests, and who the fuck hands a child a sword?)

I hope this piece is accepted to print because it is my truth. I believe that, and I am all about speaking my truth. It’s why I’m a broke writer. The words that come to my mind, though, when I read that comment?

‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad.’

‘It wasn’t like that every day.’

‘There are so many people who have it rougher than I.’

‘At least I had a roof over my head and some My Little Ponies to play with.’

These are lies. It was that bad. It was like that most days because providing a roof and a few toys isn’t good parenting: it’s the bare minimum standard for being a parent in Western culture. Mum, I love you, but it’s not something that makes you a wonderful parent. My sister has lived in the same house as me and not spoken a word to my face for months. My father has screamed at me because I cried when he screamed at me for writing a phone number on a GP’s referral. I’ve run away from the house in tears on more than one occasion. I’ve faced threats, slurs and names at school, and I’ve had to get up, get out of bed and go back to school to face those threats, slurs and names all over again.

There are black holes in my memory, not all of which were filled in during my first year of therapy. (The process of remembering some horrific things that I’d forgotten happened to me, and actually feeling the emotions I should have felt at the time ten or fifteen years later, isn’t something I care to repeat. I’m not even done, not really.) The only days it wasn’t like that, in fact, were days in which I successfully managed to shut down and mimic the behaviours that didn’t see me teased/bullied/abused by people in my school or my family. There’s this pervasive lie that if you’re not being called names every day it’s not chronic abuse (and for months on end I lived in a house where the pets got more love, affection and basic human recognition than I did); if you’re not being bashed into the lockers, or spat on, every single day, it’s not chronic abuse. The monsters are household pests, not monsters.

It’s not abuse, they told me. They put a sword in my hand and they sent me off to fight monsters with a sword too heavy for me to raise, but in their eyes not only should I be able to lift that sword, the monsters aren’t even monsters.

Of course I failed at that. I was a child asked to be a hero with no special powers, no sidekicks, no wise-mentor figure. I had none of the things heroes need to be heroes, but I was expected to jump in and fight anyway.

The monsters looked at my wobbling arm and too-big sword, and they laughed at me.

My parents and teachers looked at my wobbling arm and too-big sword, and they despaired of me.

I was told by my parents that I was loved, that I was lucky, that I had a fantastic family, that my childhood was amazing, that the things that happened to me were of no account, easy to ignore, only damaging because I let them hurt me. These parents, though, like my teachers, gave me a sword and expected me to fight house flies, and then stood back in confusion when it happened that I was in no way capable of lifting the sword, never mind decapitation or stabbing. They spent my late teenagerhood/early adulthood positively mystified by the fact that I spent my life in my bedroom avoiding everything and everyone. Oversensitive, they called me. It’s a word I’d love to see excised from the English language: it’s caused me more harm than any of the slurs I’ve had hurled at me. I can laugh those off as hatred. Ridiculous, in fact. This is more insidious.

I bought the lies because I was a kid that still believed parents are everything society tells us parents are supposed to be. I bought their wisdom, their intelligence, their maturity, their compassion. I bought the idea that they know best. I bought the idea that the monsters they dismissed as mere house-pests were never monsters at all. I bought this so much that I’ve spent the last five weeks dealing with enrollment, rental, health and service-supplier issues and feeling like I fail at everything that is adulthood because my parents tell me – not in so many words, but in all their questions about remembering my keys or wallet, or telling me to just complain to the property manager they’ve never met because that will magically get my unrelated internet service fixed the way they think appropriate – that I am not responsible enough, I am not mature enough, I am not capable of making good decisions about when to fight and when to retreat.  (In point of fact, I needed my psychologist to bring this to light.) They look at the child that could not fight monsters, and they judge me by that child’s failure because in their eyes those monsters were never monsters at all, and they look at me now, an adult monster-fighter with a blood-pitted sword, and they see the child with the wobbling arm. They don’t see my courage and my strength and the sword I am learning to use, and because they don’t see those things, I don’t see them either. I too see the child that failed.

When someone tells me that my childhood was horrible, I hear my parents telling me that it isn’t that bad. That’s all I hear. I am a liar. I exaggerate, blow things out of proportion, feel too much, put too much on it, am oversensitive.

It is a cruel and monstrous thing to say these words to a child.

Unfortunately, my damage doesn’t begin and end with the feeling that I am committing the unforgivable crime of calling my monsters for what they are.

It is natural, of course, that monsters say these things, do these things: my sister in all her silence is a monster, my father in all his aggression is a monster, and my mother in all her despair that I can’t hold a too-heavy sword is also a monster. The teenagers that pushed me into lockers and the teachers that told me not to cry are monsters. People who expect a child to fight an adult’s battle are monsters. I grew up in a world of monsters. Some of them were recognisably monstrous. Others, though, looked human. They say they’re human and they come with a background of social authority that insists, regardless of the things I observe and feel, that they are human. When the whole world insists that these people are human, who am I, a battered and broken child-warrior, to say that no, these people are monsters in human masks?

I didn’t know my family were also monsters, but like any child who grew up in a world of monsters, who survived, I developed instincts I didn’t understand. I avoided the world as much as I could. I started assuming that anybody could and would be a monster. I became withdrawn, dysfunctional, wary, highly sensitive, quick to arouse, alert, distrusting, independent, self-sufficient, reclusive.  I have no ability to trust that people can look after me, help me, support me. I operate on the basis that the world is inhabited by monsters, and it terrifies me beyond words every time I have to reach out towards one of those monsters for help with something I can’t manage on my own.

This is a horrible thing to admit: it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, in fact, for who isn’t going to become a monster when they realise that I can’t trust them to be human?

I survived, and the cost of that survival is a soul-deep mistrust. I am broken. A thousand things people take for granted in their day-to-day lives are frustrating, difficult, distressing and confusing for me, because to do them I have to act counter to the monster-detection instincts I have, instincts developed over twenty-six years of living, studying and working with monsters. I have to crawl out from under my bed, leave the house, talk to people who may be monsters. I have to stop protecting myself in the only way I know how, because I don’t see the adult who now knows how to fight monsters: I see the child who can’t hold a sword. I see myself as fragile, weak, helpless, pathetic. I have to step out, unarmed, into the world, and pray I don’t get hurt while carrying the expectation that this time the monsters will kill me.

(The monsters call this crazy and irrational, despite the fact it is an entirely rational response to monsters, because they are monsters. What monster is going to consider another monster’s behaviour monstrous?)

The problem is that I’ve gotten it wrong, now that I’ve stepped out of the narrow worlds of home, primary/high school and my old job, now that I’m a hero on my journey into a much larger world, now that I’ve seen things I didn’t know existed. There are worlds full of monsters, oh yes, but the universe – the universe is something larger and complicated, and it’s full of people, people who make mistakes and fuck up, but people who are also capable of love and kindness and warmth, people who would never hand a child a sword and tell them to go fight monsters. Everything I know about what it means to be human is irrelevant here, useless. I’m a broken monster-fighter who draws my sword when my new-found companion just wants to give me a hug. I’m the broken monster-fighter who sees her approach, forgets my sword and runs, never to return, because that’s the only way I know how to escape monsters.

In my old world, the people who hugged me were monsters.

I’m actually writing the second lead in my novel as a character who takes a Hero’s Journey from a (metaphorical) world of monsters in human skin to a world where people are weird and strange and sometimes human, and while he can fight any monster that crosses his path, he has no skills for doing just about anything in the human world. He has to make friends, trust people with power over his fate and figure out a way to run a revolution, but there is nothing in his life that has prepared him to do anything more than mistrust, loathe, avoid and fight people. I’ve got a few scenes where we see him in a kitchen filled with a close-knit family who interact with him on the expectation that he too was raised in a world of humans, and he’s got no fucking clue what to say or why they’re acting the way they are: they make no sense to him. It’s funny, distressing, crazy, triggering … and the encapsulation of everything I feel whenever I deal with people who are actually people.

Even the most caring of humans can still make it a weird, absurd, out-of-normal experience. I don’t have the same touchstones in common. My family stories are ones that make people awkward. I say things that don’t quite fit, don’t sound right, disrupt the mood. I don’t react in the expected ways. My black humour can be too black even by Aussie standards, and mate, we can make things as black as the fucking ace of spades. Things they say, do and expect as normal human behaviour take me by surprise or make me uncomfortable, and because I lived in a world of monsters that didn’t take expressing any of this well, I often don’t know how to communicate any of this, in the moment, to the people around me. In fact, most of the time I feel as though I am trying to navigate an adult world as a shaking child. I have to figure out how to be an adult human being – I know how not to be a monster – and I’ve got no fucking idea.

(I know a few people who are like me, and being in a room with them is liberating beyond belief. This is where I feel safest, most comfortable: we have more of those touchstones in common, and it is easier to communicate all the little things that trip me up around other people if I have to communicate them at all. They are my fellow refugees from the world of monsters, and we have a language all our own, spoken by neither monster nor human – the words the monsters denied us, the words we struggle to apply to ourselves. We know those halting words and we know they’re hard to say. We know they feel like lies, we know the guilt and shame, we know the strength and courage we see in others but not ourselves. We know our own.)

All of this, everything I’ve said here, is why it’s so important to tell stories. Not for the humans in the wider world, but for the refugees that stumble from the monster worlds, alone and confused, bewildered, lacking every vital skill needed for a place where there are options beyond fighting and running. We need to know we’re not alone, not crazy, not useless children too pathetic and broken to be of use in the world.

The very thing that makes those stories so important to tell is what makes them so hard to tell.

Every time I try to tell these stories, I am afraid. I’m afraid I’m exaggerating, inventing. I’m afraid I’m being irrational, overemotional, oversensitive, crazy. I’m afraid that people will tell me I have no right to say and explore the things I do. I’m afraid I won’t do it right or well enough, that I’m just the pathetic child with the shaking arms who can’t lift a sword. I’m afraid of everything the monsters ever said to me that made me second-guess my emotions, my strengths, my capabilities. I’m afraid that someone’s going to read my story and say the things that kind person said to me, and I’m going to have to face down, yet again, the fear I’m really just a liar.

There’s only one way to survive the monsters when you can’t fight them, when you can’t even outrun them: surrender.

I do not surrender with grace or power. I surrender when I am cut down and bleeding, when the choice is between surrender and death. I surrender with violence and despair, and that is no way to choose to live.

The cost of surrendering to the monsters, though, is becoming them: I took on their words, their thoughts, their opinions. I say them to myself as loudly as they ever did. I don’t just get out of bed and go about my day fighting the monsters I inevitably encounter. No. To do that, I first need to fight myself, the monster I’ve become, and this isn’t a monster that stays dead – no, this is a monster that leaps up and strangles me a barest instant after I stab it in the heart. As I get better, as I travel longer in the wider world, that monster stays dead a little longer, sometimes long enough for me to breathe a moment or two, but it always rises. Always. Nor is this a steady incline: one month I think I’ve conquered the monster as much as I can, that now I can go an hour or two without fighting it, and the next month I’m fighting my monster every minute of every day while I wonder what the hell happened to me … and this sense of failure feeds into the doubt and gives my monster a second row of fangs and venom-tipped claws.

This past month, I’ve gotten to see those extra fangs, that dripping venom; I’ve had to face the terrible truth that there is nobody on this earth that hates myself, that wants my failure, that rejoices in my pain, more than I.

This too needs to make it to the stories. My character spends most of his time in conflict with himself or the projections of himself-as-monster that he places on the people around him. The tragedy of his story is that he’s escaped the monster world only to wind up in a kinder place, but no, he still can’t put down the sword, because the monster he became followed him out into the human world, and this monster never leaves, never stays dead, never lets go. Even when he starts to learn what it is to be an adult human, he’s got to do it in the company of his own personal monster. Those scars never entirely fade. The sword is never left under the bed to gather dust. His journey is to try and find some measure of acceptance with the fact that he is never going to quite fit in the world, that his monster is the price he pays for surviving – but maybe, just maybe, the perception he learned in the world of monsters has its uses, even here. Maybe, just maybe, the insights he’s gained make him a better person than he might have been if he didn’t spend seven years in the world of violent monsters.

I believe without hesitation that every child should be raised by parents and taught by teachers who are capable of support, nourishment, compassion, protection. I wish every person who has and will have a child could access enough counseling and training that they can avoid, as much as is possible, the projection of their own Shadow on their children. I want every child to enter adulthood as whole as is possible, comfortable in the world. I don’t want anyone to pay for their survival with the loss of self-esteem, confidence, acceptance. I don’t want anyone to struggle the way I do. I don’t want to ever see another child broken the way I was. I don’t want to see another child hide in their bedroom, wrestle with depression, attempt or commit suicide … or survive at the cost of becoming the monster themselves. No child deserves that. I hope the stories I tell do something to create a world where fewer children know what it is to live among monsters.

But sometimes I’m not sorry I’ve walked the path I had.

I wish like hell it was easier for me to write the stories I know need writing. I wish I didn’t have to fight myself to do it. But if I could trade the things I see and feel for self-esteem and comfort? I don’t think I’d make that trade.

I have a blood-pitted sword I am learning to wield. I have the ability to put words together and tell a story in a way that has meaning. I have the kind of compassion that comes from pain. I have the kind of perception that comes from suffering.

Maybe I am slaying. Maybe one day I’ll be better at facing down the Shadow that whispers the vile words of monsters, and maybe one day I’ll see myself for who I am, free of monster-tinted glasses. Maybe one day I won’t be fighting the part of me that cringes whenever I write anything that resembles the above paragraph or acknowledges my own heroic qualities … or maybe I’ll be always fighting it, but I’ll have come to accept that fight. Maybe one day the Shadow and I will be old friends, fencing out of habit rather than spite and desperation, just to keep each other on our toes – it’s good not to get complacent or arrogant, after all, and who better to see to that than the Shadow?

I realise, at the end of this, that I’m not sorry, not while I can tell stories about what it means to be human.

I’ve got to fight harder to bring these stories to life, sure … but this child with a sword has had a hell of a lot of practice when it comes to staring down monsters. This child was no less brave because they were given a sword that was too big to wield. This child was no less courageous because they were too young and ill-prepared to win the fight asked of them. This child was no less strong because they failed.

One day I will call them all by their monstrous names without quailing, and until then I will tremble and do it anyway.

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