Yesterday, digging through some old files, I found this piece I had written thirteen years ago today. Oddly I never did anything with it. Just another essay depicting the world I lived in and my frame of mind. With less than four years clean off drugs I was just learning to navigate the world again. So much has changed. Yet so much stays the same.
It doesn’t always make sense – these moments of depression that I get into – especially when there’s no rightful cause or perfect reason as to why they come and stay with me for the durations that they do. Some days when I’m just going about life like it’s all normal, like I’m one of those individuals that never has to worry about dropping off the deep-end into the dark. I think I’ve got it licked only to turn the corner and run smack into a head-on collision with a hefty bout of despair: waylaid, blindsided and bushwhacked. And then there I am shrouded in turmoil, lost to my fears, waiting for some happy thoughts to reappear.
Like those mornings I wait for hours before getting out of bed: awake, but not willing to admit to it, eyes tightly closed, the covers over my head. Those are the days I’d rather not talk to humanity, avoiding social interaction and personal contact: staying inside, the window closed, the blinds drawn. Ignoring the phone, the quiet knocking at my apartment’s door – listening instead to my neighbor’s sorrowing cries on the other side of the wall.
In the past sleep came easily whenever I was depressed, despondent or even slightly deranged. But as I’ve gotten older: another year, another day, I look up into the mirror and I’m tired, I’m grey. I often lay awake nights: the sounds of the streets invading my thoughts, the sounds of my neighbor’s antics trying my patience, the sounds of the bridge traffic testing my tolerance for living below a freeway. Only to have the morning arrive too soon, the night barely over, the dawning daylight too bright for tired eyes as the sun slyly tries to work its way into my room.
Yet back in those murky days of old there were those horribly long nights I’d lay in bed stressing over impossible stuff I had no control over, much of it a direct result of my inability to deal with life’s situations and circumstances that came about through bad choices and an unhealthy lifestyle. Making me prone to bolting upright, doubled over with anxiety, whenever a particularity gruesome ill-fated thought invaded my brain. However, due to perhaps not making such horrendous choices anymore, or the unenviable fact that I don’t sleep like I used to, I now almost never lay awake pondering anything that I can’t immediately take care of. Choosing instead to rid my mind of such unproductive matters and concentrate on the present situations that are at hand. Or that’s at least what I tell myself.
Unfortunately this fundamentally sound reasoning for not stressing doesn’t always work out as I can just as easily stress standing up waiting for the bus or walking down the street. It’s just that I don’t do it while lying in bed anymore. But still, nothing seems to keep me immune from depression.
Although there are those mornings, rare though they may be, I’ll be up a half hour before the alarm rings, one eye open surveying the new day, not dreading going to work – but still be depressed. Though more than likely it’ll be more like it was today where I want to do nothing but lay in bed, ignore the phone calls, pretend I’ve got nothing pressing I need to do. Mid morning, the sun is already residing in the sky; three different rap songs are playing simultaneously from different apartments converging together as one convoluted mass of noise coming into my open window. Making staying asleep impossible, though I have feigned doing so for the last two hours. Begrudgingly I get out of bed making my way to the sink to brush my teeth.
A cup of coffee and a newspaper are the only things that’ll make me get up and stay up on days like this. So I walk out the apartment, down the hallway, past the prone crackhead sleeping on the floor by the door to the stairs. Slipping down three flights into the lobby, there’s a commotion going on as always. Through the front plate glass windows I see two cop cars with their lights flashing as they sit outside at the curb. While the security guard and a police officer drag that short dirty little dude, the one everyone says is a child molester, although there’s never been any evidence to corroborate that rumor. Both of them holding one of his arms by the elbow lifting him off the ground, his small legs and feet swaying as they step out the front door and shove him into the back seat of the patrol car.
Around the corner on Third Street two drunks with a dog argue over where they’re going to go to finish off the bottle of booze they’ve got. One of then pushes the other who stumbles into my path, the dog barks, I move to the left expecting the blows to start flying any minute. The drunk whose blocking my way excuses himself, gestures with his hand the path is clear and then kicks the dog who doesn’t even yelp, obviously used to such ill treatment.
Stepping off the curb onto Harrison Street a small sports car nearly runs me over and with a screech of its tires is gone. The dust settling as I try to catch my breath, looking up I notice the traffic light is still green. Across the street another cop car is parked on the corner, inside an officer reads his paper oblivious to what just transpired.
At the coffee shop there’s a packed house of caffeine addicts manning all the tables: fiddling with their cups, reading their newspapers, the overflow of regular patrons spilling over onto the tables outside on the sidewalk. A group of overly dressed high-heeled women clutching their pocketbooks scan the pastry counter, asking for things that aren’t there, demanding decaf teas, wanting everything to be low fat. Quietly I work my way around them to order at the espresso bar, the woman nearest me scowls as I inquire if there are any more Sunday papers left – gripped tightly in her hands is the last one.
Walking home I pass the newspaper vending machine, with no quarters in my pocket I continue on. Going in the opposite direction is that rather disheveled gentleman from the second floor and as we pass each other he turns and says, “Sumpin goin on in the building, got the poh-lees there again.” He always refers to it as “the building,” though he’s lived there for almost as long as I have. But I don’t even acknowledge him as I’ve witnesses one too many times the sordid financial interactions he’s been up to with that lady down the hall from me. The one with all the piercings, the one that sells the coke he uses to lure hookers into his life.
There’s now two more cop cars, a fire truck and an ambulance out front. As I approach the entrance a uniformed paramedic asks me where I’m going. “To hell,” I tell him. Then push my way through the crowd of uniforms making it across the lobby and into the elevator. Upstairs in my room I put the cup of coffee down on my desk and get back into bed, rolling over, and pulling the covers over my head. Today can wait. There’s really no need for me to bother. It’s not like I’m depressed. It’s just that why should I even try when it’s like it is and everyone else seems to accept that? Eerily the knocking starts up again on my door, the phone rings once and then stops, and as I lie here in bed I can hear my next-door neighbor began to cry.
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It is hard these days to not get swept up in the caustic diatribe that daily modern dialogues and public discourse produces. There is a prevalence of fear mongering in everything. Whether it’s your side, or the other, no one is content to just stay with the facts. Our current president is one such obvious example. His language is so intensely ramped up into swaying the masses that the level of dishonesty is so evident that it is insulting to anyone with half a brain, or at least a decent memory.
Never before has the concept of merely stating something, regardless if it is questionable or problematic, been so readily accepted as a plausible means to sway opinion. The mere denunciation of scientific facts and historical reality appear to be the new norm of denial. As if the speaker is the authority on all things and we’re supposed to suspend our beliefs as their statements then become reality by the shear force of repetition. Often yelled loud enough to quell the doubt in everyone’s mind.
It is enough to almost make one shy away from it all. Become withdrawn and unsocial. The prevalence of desiring mundane activities increases and although one cannot just crawl under a rock and avoid it all, one can limit their exposure.
I am guilty of seeking out my avoidances. I tend to get much more involved in my own professions, writing and teaching, as a means to not deal with the world. I disengage from the angry rants on social media, I let go of needing you to believe in what I believe in, and I accept that there are some really irrational people out there with even stranger opinions. It is not the perfect solution, but it helps keep me sane.
Yet I find that even then the tentacles of the angry and disenfranchised will still seek you out. It is not enough to not engage. Because much like today’s political discourse, everything appears to be up for grabs as to whose opinions will rule. And if it is screamed loud enough, while gathering your forces, then you win. It is bullying. It is dishonesty. And it has become the acceptable norm.
Not so long ago I too found myself under one such an attack on social media. It came from out of left field, literally, and I was totally taken off guard. The hurt, the anger, the shame were overwhelming, yet I had done nothing but publicly express a belief contrary to another person. A person who used her position and community to then condemn and crucify me in public, ending ultimately with my losing a teaching opportunity, which of course hurt me financially.
But what actually affected me the most was where this attack came from. The woman who publicly attacked me is the managing director of a “San Francisco-based non-profit that… gives voice to innovative queer and outsider writers and artists whose work authentically reflects the LGBTQA community’s diverse experiences.” Ironically I have supported this organization for ages, I have read for their reading series on numerous occasions since 2009, and the founder is a personal friend. Yet it was at one of their readings that I apparently offended the managing director with a piece that I read about bondage sex, when I described a woman as: “slightly overweight,” and having a “flabby butt.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I had upset her. Which given the circumstances was an entirely odd proposition as their reading was labeled as “The Low and the Vile: an afternoon of low-down, vice-ridden storytelling as we salute the hedonistic outlaw legend of North Beach’s Barbary Coast at the infamous Vesuvio’s Café.” My essay described numerous past awkward drug fueled sexual encounters – which I thought would fit into the “vice-ridden storytelling.”
Yet censorship and prejudice can rear her head no matter what “political” affiliation or beliefs one might have. In her own personal bio this woman describes herself as: “one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image.” My use of descriptive language referring to the woman in my essay obviously caused a festering resentment, yet nothing was ever said to me, and I even read again for the reading series three months later when on tour for my memoir.
Now, segue to a year later, and I’m sending out a mass emailing offering an invitation to my online writing course that deals with writing about eating disorders. A subject I am all too familiar with, as I have suffered from anorexia and bulimia my entire life. This was not a therapy course, but a creative nonfiction writing course that encompassed all aspects of eating disorders, body image, and how they affect us. This is such a loaded topic that it makes for excellent writing material. I am not preaching a certain doctrine, or idea. Anyone may join. My mailing list consisted of every contact I have made throughout my writing and teaching career, reading series included, and even though I am hesitant to send out such an impersonal group emailing, I still need to attract students, and I hit send.
The next morning I see my name mentioned in social media. The managing director has reposted the link to my online course with: “I became really alarmed when I saw that Patrick O’Neil is teaching this course. The first time I heard him read he read from a chapter in his memoir where he tied up an “overweight” woman [sic] the ceiling, upside down so [sic] could give him a bj and then he just left her there so he could score drugs. He routinely writes about how disgusting he finds fat bodies and all the work I’ve heard him read from manages to work in fat phobia somehow. I just wrote him to let him know how alarmed I was that he was teaching this course, to inform him that many eating disorders are fueled by fat phobia, and that I worried about his working with people with ED and definitely about his working with fat people. I am so thoroughly flabbergasted and angered right now. Like I can’t BELIEVE that someone this blatantly fat hating would teach this course. And I don’t know whether it’s appropriate to call the university or what.”
She then rallied her followers to respond to her post by linking them, and they all in turn berated me and what I do: contact the university, boycott, sue him, etc. Somewhat nervously I opened my email. There was more of the same. I closed my laptop and felt shock and betrayal. My self loathing took over when my co-dependency went into high gear. Some of her words rang true. I am fat phobic – I have a deeply ingrained fear of being fat, and severe body dysmorphia because of it. I have been dealing with anorexia and bulimia since I was a pre-teen. I had a mother who was on a continual diet and despised fat people, never hesitating to comment and put them down. Her issues with food got passed down to me and became so intertwined with my desire for a parent’s love and then her ultimate abandonment that I spent the majority of my adult life denying it all with drug use.
Years later when I finally got into recovery I was once again forced to address my behaviors around body image and eating. In doing so I sought out therapy, 12 step groups, and public divulging my struggle through publishing essays. I followed the suggestions of others and became conscious of my body, diet and obsessive thinking. It is an ongoing struggle for me. But unlike my mother, the only fat person that I shame and hate is myself. I didn’t make up my program of recovery, I adopted a proven school of thought that the managing director and her friends apparently did not agree with.
Several emails were sent off to the university where I teach. A “certified therapist” and friend of the program manager claimed she would sue the school if I taught the course, although what she would sue about was vague. In each email I was misrepresented and slandered. My university labels itself as a “non-profit private liberal arts school” supporting “social justice… a sustainable environment and community partnerships” as well as “human dignity and dismantling ethnic biases, heterosexism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, and discrimination based on religious, cultural and political affiliations, and other forms of oppression.” Yet in today’s politically charged environment where it all comes down to public opinion and a dominant social media presence, they caved in. Wanting to avoid any unhealthy press, they canceled my course.
I was stunned, disappointed, and hurt. I had never set out to offend. Although I am not one to worry about being absolutely politically correct either. I was disappointed in my school for not supporting me. I felt attacked and misunderstood. But what really confused me was where this all came from. There was a time when those of us who were not “main stream” stuck together. We supported each other, and if there were differences we worked them out internally. Yet all of that is not how it is now. There is no “them and us” – there is only “us” and that is whatever faction you align with. It doesn’t matter who came before you, or what their beliefs may be. It doesn’t matter their experience, or demographic. If you scream loud enough you can drown them out so that only your beliefs can be heard.
I am not a “certified therapist” teaching a therapeutic course to heal eating disorders, nor did I ever represent myself as such. I recently taught a writing group in a California state prison. These were men that were mostly doing life sentences for murder. They wanted to write about their crimes, and in doing so feel a sense of cathartic relief. I do not advocate murder. I do advocate writing about emotions. Which is the same basic concept that I bring to all my courses, the eating disorder course included.
Also, another very troubling aspect in all of this is the managing director’s objection of language. Are we as writers no longer going to be able to use words that people find offensive in our writing? Because obviously, as she herself stated in her various posts and emails, she formed her opinion of me being “fat phobic” based on how I described a woman in a piece of writing that I read publically. Really? And you manage a reading series? Do all the authors you invite to read then need to get their work pre-approved to fit into your limited view of what is acceptable? If so I do believe there is a word for that, it is called censorship, and sadly this type of suppression is being played under the guise of political correctness.
But no matter how you label it, the bottom line is when people make these kinds of divisions and segregate one section from another they perpetrate their own form of oppression, and attacking people on social media is the new form of this oppression. Not being considerate of other’s beliefs is the new intolerance. Reverse shaming is acceptable if you feel your cause is just. Hate is the new medium of communication. They are just words strewn across the Internet. I don’t have to face you. You are nameless and you do not believe in what I believe in. Sadly, we once were allies, but now you don’t know me, or even care.
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Sunday, October 1st, 2017 at
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Let me start this off by totally clarifying my position by simply stating, “Fuck Nazis.” Okay, now that that’s out of the way let’s do this.
Until recently it has been extremely unclear as to where or what I’m supposed to be doing, supporting, or fighting within this “evolving” political landscape we all find ourselves in. Not “unclear” as in should I just reverse everything I believe in and start supporting the rightwing agenda. But still unclear as to where I fit in today. Technically I’m registered as a Green. But on all the BIG elections I end up voting Democrat because there is ALWAYS that last minute (and well calculated) fear-mongering that whatever rightwing candidate is running will win if I don’t fall in line and support the status quo: the Green candidate could never get enough votes, you’re splitting the ticket, blah, blah, blah…. And guess what? I voted Democrat, it didn’t fucking work, and we got a racist/fascist in the White House.
Now normally this is where everyone talks of taking the government back with grassroots getting the vote out and democratic change through the normal tried and true political process… Only the megalomaniac that won the election is systematically dismantling everything (but mostly everything his predecessor accomplished because, well, because Obama’s black) and the bigots are strutting around the henhouse large and in charge. Meanwhile what are the Greens and Democrats doing? Nothing. They’re wringing their hands and crying foul while doing shit all. But what’s really telling is that after the election Nancy Pelosi was asked what the Democrats were going to change in order to come back from such a huge defeat of losing the senate, congress, and the presidency and she said, “I don’t think people want a new direction.” Shit, hearing that just knocked what little hope I still had right out of me. Unfortunately the Greens suck just as bad, Jill Stein is still pointing fingers of blame and completely ignoring what is really happening. And if you’re waiting for the Republicans to suddenly come to their senses and find those “Christian values” they are always yammering on about then you’ll be waiting a very long time. The Grand Old Party is so goddamn stoked to be doing their masters’ bidding they’d let Satan himself run the country and call it God’s work.
Sadly after the election I stopped reading newspapers, which was something I have done everyday for my entire adult life. I just couldn’t stand to see what atrocities were being implemented against the American people on a daily basis. And then there’s the president’s pompous face, his bullying demeanor, calculated inflammatory statements, and condescending attitude, and I just couldn’t start every morning looking at that. If I did my day was ruined. I wallowed in depression, and EVERYTHING felt futile. So my reasoning was that if I just ignore it all I’d be okay.
But when you have an avowed racist in charge and the media sucks up to his untethered fascist swaggering and the opposition cowers… well, it emboldens all the other racists that usually hide behind hoods and websites. Plus it further empowers the already empowered racists, the ones with money and political influence, or the ones in government, or that have infiltrated our police forces and local communities. Not that they weren’t always there. But with the president’s endorsement they now feel comfortable enough to come out publically. And when those images of tiki torch bearing angry white guys burst onto the media it was a total symbol that this had gone from obscure fringe to fully becoming a dangerous element that should not be ignored. As ludicrous as those images were—grown men in matching polo shirts and khaki pants fervently screaming about how their heritage and civil rights were being attacked—they brought home the message that the Nazis are here and worse, they’re feeling bold enough to show their faces.
So how did this happen? A moment I can’t get out of my mind was a conversation I was having with a friend of mine at a local literary event. We were talking about the elections and how racist America really was and I said, “I didn’t realize it is was this bad.” And the look of disdain on my friend’s face was like a punch in the gut because what I was really saying was: as a white person America’s racism isn’t affecting me personally—which is literally the definition of white privilege. Looking into her eyes I saw myself and it wasn’t pretty. How had I gotten so complacent, so avoidant, so uninvolved, so fucking milk-toast-middle-of-the-road-can’t-see-it-from-my-house indifferent? Because that’s “how it happened.” You stay silent when you should speak up and act against. No, let me rephrase that; “I stayed silent when I should have spoken up and acted against.” I left that event questioning what I could do to make a difference, to instigate change, and not sit back and avoid it all until it was too late.
Which brings me right back to where I fit in politically. Up until recently I haven’t been secure enough with my legal status to be politically active. I realize that this might sound like an excuse to many of you, but I’ve been in the firm grip of the criminal justice system before and I do not trust them enough to have my best interest if a demonstration did go terribly wrong and something violent or illegal happened and I was accused and/or involved. So I haven’t been there for Black Lives Matter, or immigration marches, or pro-LGTBQ rallies, or Occupy Wall Street, or anti-Trump demonstrations, or any public displays of civil disobedience. Yet what was self-preservation before had turned into complacency. But I wasn’t always like that.
In the early days of punk rock I worked for a lot of bands that for the most part were radically left wing and politically charged. Our shows were flashpoints for confrontation with the authorities, but also Nazis and skinheads, and I was in physical confrontations with them on a nightly basis. We didn’t tolerate their shit. We fought back. We shut them down.
Years later I was incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections and once again experienced racism and white supremacy on an entirely new and intenser level. The criminal justice system is teeming with white power gangs, prisons are segregated, mixing of the races forbidden, and the pressure to join in is intimidating. Out of the need for support and solidarity I sought out like-minded-non-racist cons, joined a writing group, attended recovery meetings and sat in meditation sessions, all of which were not segregated. In the words of one of my colleagues, “you leave that shit out in the yard.” By not participating in the CDC’s race baiting discriminatory policies I opposed the system and stayed sane, although it took some time to get my head right afterwards.
So really for me this Nazi shit is nothing new. It is just unnerving that right now this very vocal and visible minority feels so empowered. But yeah, if a left-wing anarchist was running the country I’d feel empowered too. Only she’s not and we’re fucked, and I’m stuck looking at images from South Carolina of neo-Nazi storm troopers with shields and clubs, and that shit sends a chill up my spine, and I’m in fear for those I love and hold dear. My community is vast and diverse; a multitude of races, genders, sexual orientations, identities, religions, and beliefs. My wife is of Lebanese descent, which translates to A-R-A-B, and for a lot of those racists, Arab is the hated flavor of the moment, and now this Nazi agenda of hate is coming at me in a multitude of levels, personally and globally, affecting those near to me that I love and surround myself with—and I’ve had enough.
During the election I posted a video on social media where this new Amerikkkan Nazi spokesperson was speaking to the camera and got sucker punched in the head and I immediately received several condescending comments and numerous private message—interesting that most closet racists want to talk to you in private—that basically said this is America and you can’t punch people for their beliefs. Ironically I was horrified by this misconception of what it is we’re actually dealing with here. Yes we have the 1st Amendment. But what part of history has shown us that Nazis just close up shop when logically reasoned with, or given a warm group hug? This is not the time for amicable communication because they are not listening. I have friends who are pacifists. I respect them; they’re beliefs, and their peaceful protest. And while it is good to get out there and represent, I’m convinced that with this new era of white nationalism we’ve got to be more proactive.
So if that’s the case, then what is the solution? For me, right now, it’s using my white privilege for the right reasons, making a stand, speaking up, and sending the message that no matter what name you label this racist faction it’s the same old diatribe of hate and it will not be tolerated. If you preach that fascist shit, you act out in violence, and you inflict your will and beliefs on others I will not stand by silently. I am not afraid of you, and you do not represent me or my values and ideologies. I am not under the illusion that we can all live together when your agenda preaches exclusion, fear, prejudice, and genocide. So do not be under the illusion that because of the color of my skin I’ll hesitate, for even a second, to confront you with whatever means necessary. There are too many people I love, respect, and believe in that you are threatening and when you threaten them, you threaten me. As for those that say, “okay, but what about the big picture, what do we do about the Republicans in charge?” Well, this Nazi shit IS THE BIG PICTURE. We take them out. Then deal with the aftermath. But being silent, letting or hoping that someone else will deal with it, and waiting for it all to just go away, is not the answer.
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