What The Mentally Ill Need To Learn From Carrie Fisher And Her Dog.

Carrie Fisher had a therapy dog named Gary. The dog went with her everywhere – on the red carpets, on interviews with Stephen Colbert and Good Morning America, on the set of the new Star Wars movie.

Gary the Dog became such an icon that people forgot that Gary was first and foremost a coping tool.

So if you’re not mentally ill, let’s talk about how brave Carrie Fisher was to use that dog. And if you are, let’s talk about how smart she was to use Gary.

Because if you have mental illness, bringing a therapy dog out in public (and consequently having to continually explain the dog to strangers) feels like you’re walking big sign in front of you all the time – a bulldog manifestation of “I AM CRAZY.”

There’s a huge amount of bravery in saying to the world, “I cannot cope like you do. Take this away, and I’ll collapse under the pressure. So you’re going to have to deal with the weirdness of putting another chair on the interview stage for my dog, because that’s the only way I can deal with the weirdness of you.”

Because if you’re at all mentally ill, you know that people continually question your coping techniques, even if they’re much quieter than a dog prancing about your ankles. Well-meaning people ask whether you really need to take all those medications, or whether it’s good for you to leave the party when it’s just getting started, and yes, they know you have tried {therapy of the week} but you probably didn’t try hard enough, it worked for me, why don’t you give this new thing a shot?

And that #1 hit, “Are you sure you really need to cope at all?” Maybe you’re not really mentally ill. Maybe if you threw away all the crutches, you’d miraculously gain the strength to walk.

So for Carrie Fisher, that dog was a help – but also a firm sign saying, “MY MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT NEGOTIABLE. MY COPING STRATEGIES ARE NOT NEGOTIABLE.” She had learned what she needed to cope with stressful situations – and if the rest of the world didn’t understand them, fuck them.

(Carrie also swore a lot, God bless her heart. If you don’t think she’d tell you to fuck off, go Google images of her giving people the finger. They’re adorable.)

And that willpower is hard, yo. Admitting you’re weak takes an amazing strength. It would have been so much easier for Carrie to keep the dog in her trailer, and try to power through the bad times to seem “normal,” and probably break down more. The dog wouldn’t have been a continual bone (heh) of gossip among the celebrity rags, who used it as yet another piece of evidence that Carrie was nuts, nobody wanted to work with her, she was always about to go crazy.

(Even though Carrie was one of the best and uncredited script doctors of the 80s and 90s. Liked Hook? That was her. Sister Act? The Wedding Singer? Those too. Liked her dialogue in the Star Wars movies? There are scanned pages where you can see her marking up the script, and they’re far better for it. She only quit because she found the work unsatisfying. When she needed to keep it together, she did. She just didn’t hide the breakdowns.)

So if you’re not mentally ill, you have to realize the immense pressure that we’re under to hide who we are. Even mentioning that we need to cope is usually a sign for people to take a step back. Even if that unusual coping strategy makes us smarter and more capable than a quote-unquote “normal” person. (As it clearly did for Carrie.)

If you’re mentally ill, trotting Gary around is courageous in the way that you have to be to function.

Because I can already hear people saying, “Well, that’s Star Wars. She was on the runway for the biggest film in the world. I need to cope to go to a New Year’s Party. That’s… different.”

And I can guarantee you that Carrie Fisher would take you by the shoulders and shake you gently and tell you to do whatever it damn well takes.

Because the lesson of Carrie and Gary is that you are more important than the feedback. When you’ve finally done all the hard work and figured out what works for you, make that happen. Do not be afraid. Protect yourself with a dog, or the right therapy, or the right meditative techniques… and if your friends and co-workers don’t get how you need to take a calm-down break in order to get through the day, then be as brave as Carrie.

The world will not make space for your coping techniques. You must be your own Rebel Princess, saving yourself, widening the spaces so you and your coping techniques can squeeze through.

She was a big star, and some people thought she was a flake for needing a damn dog everywhere, and she did it anyway. And that dog allowed her to do things like star in more Star Wars pictures, and do PR tours for her books, and go on interviews. The dog widened her life so she could do things she couldn’t do without loyal, lovable, slack-tongued Gary.

Carrie understood that truth: She could be confined to the spaces where she could act normal. Or she could be weird and go everywhere she wanted to go.

Be Carrie Fisher.

Be unashamed.

(And if you’re wondering, as I was, Carrie Fisher’s daughter is now looking after Gary. He’ll be all right.)

(EDIT: The marked-up page from ESB was revealed as a hoax this morning (they were actually directorial edits) – but considering that Carrie Fisher did rewrite dialogue on Return of the Jedi, the overall point stands.

(Also, there’s some debate about the legal distinctions between types of assistance animals. Those are relevant in legal situations, and good to know if you plan on getting an animal for assistance, but not relevant to my larger point of “Do what you need to in order to cope, and don’t be ashamed of it.”)

One Voice, In A Dream

My Uncle Tommy died over a decade ago.  He was basically my brother; I confided everything in him.  And as I’ve learned with grief, you never really heal, you just reroute around the damage.

Last night, I was dreaming I was a teenager again for some reason, lost on the road in some grand adventure with a bunch of friends, and we had to call home.

I called home, and heard Tommy’s voice.

He said hello.

And that voice was so real, that memory so vivid, I half-woke from the dream, which stopped being about the grand adventure and turned into a meta-question of how could I talk to Tommy again.  Even then I knew it was faked, that Tommy was gone, but my memories had been so achingly vivid that everything in my sleeping brain tried to hear him the way I needed to remember him again.

I was up at 7:00 but I kept pushing my head back into the pillow, desperately clinging to thin dreams in the hopes I could hear Tommy say hello to me again, because I’ve been starving for years of that man and a taste of my Uncle’s casual friendship was enough to awake that painful separation.

I’m sleepy now, and slightly energized.  I feel vaguely blessed, even though I know I merely stumbled across some portion of my brain that knew how to recreate Tommy’s voice within me.

But I’m glad.

Somewhere within me, I still carry my Uncle’s voice.  Maybe it’ll come to me again in a time of need.

I can hope.



Maybe You Should Try Not Being So Much Yourself.

When I was a teenager, I bathed maybe once a week. I also didn’t believe in combing my hair. And my junk continually itched, so I’d have to reach down and scratch my balls from time to time, which – I am reluctant to say – I’d do in class.

I could not understand why I was so alone in high school.

And if life was a movie, what I would have learned after a whacky adventure was that I just needed to be more myself! Stay true to me, and friendships will follow.

Whereas the truth was that I stunk like a velour-clad hobo. And according to the social mores of the school, I’d marked myself as a weirdo.

Fortunately, as time went by, I paid attention to the signs. When I asked, “Why am I so alone?” I made note of the things that the bullies made fun of me for – and my unwashed hair and self-crotch-grabbing were top on the list.

After months of loneliness, I started to think, “….Maybe this is something that people care about.”

Because I wasn’t dodging showers thanks to some moral commitment – I just didn’t think it was all that important. My hair was uncombed because I never noticed anyone’s hair, so why would I notice mine? And while yeah, my balls itched, I wasn’t on a crusade to make people care about public testicular manipulation. I was itchy, so I scratched.

I couldn’t see how these irrelevant things mattered to anyone.

Out of sheer curiosity, I performed a scientific experiment: for a semester, I’d do these stupid things and see what happened. So I started to comb my hair. (Being me, I flipped to “combing my hair obsessively,” to the point where people made fun of me for my nervous habit of combing my hair, but hey, at least that was an improvement.) I showered more often – which had the unexpected benefit of making my junk itch less. And when I had to scratch the jimmies, I went into the bathroom like, apparently, normal people did.

You know what happened?

I discovered that people cared about really stupid things.

I won’t say I became the belle of the ball, but the average kids in the school went from “actively mocking me” to “ignoring me” – which, let me tell you, is a major upgrade when you’re getting bullied.

The science teachers taught me how old scientists had discovered tiny, invisible creatures called bacteria that nobody could see, but caused huge changes in life. I sympathized. Because in my Great Washing Experiment, I had discovered that there were invisible rules – things I utterly did not care about myself, but apparently made other people act in wildly different methods.

I came to realize that my personality was, in large part, an unconscious negotiation. Showing up in Cheeto-stained clothes told people something about how I was going to interact with them. They reacted accordingly.

If I paid attention to these invisible rules, I could change what people thought of me.

And as time went by, I discovered these rules weren’t “invisible” so much as “invisible to me.” My Mom had yelled at me to shower. My Dad had told me to stop scratching myself. But I had written all of these warnings off because I didn’t think they should make a difference to people, and so I’d just quietly erased the knowledge.

Over and over and over again.

So I quietly began renegotiating my personality – what did other people care about that I didn’t? It turns out that they didn’t like me changing the topic to something more interesting all that much. Nor did they like it when I raised my voice when I got excited.

Did I want to give up raising my voice when I got excited?

What elements were me, and what elements were negotiable?

“Who I was” became a careful dance. Because some things I didn’t care about – taking ten minutes to shower every morning felt like wasted time, but it really made my life better, so I went for it. Yet other things I did care about – I liked D&D, dammit, and if talking about my noble paladin Delvin Goodheart made me a nerd, then maybe I was a nerd.

I had to calculate costs for these invisible rules. People judged me by my clothing – should I put in the effort to learn how to dress really well, or should I do the bare minimum not to be shunned? (I dressed in nothing but black T-shirts and jeans for years because picking out the “right” clothing stressed me out – but that was enough to be acceptable in most places.)

I learned when you could get away with a good dick joke and when to let the opportunity slide – usually through paying attention to awkward silences and going, “Oh, that’s probably bad, isn’t it?” I learned what sorts of conversations made people uncomfortable, and what made them welcome.

I learned that paying attention was a skill. Those invisible rules? You had to look for them. People often didn’t tell you how you’d fucked up – you had to watch for the tensed shoulders, the glance to one side that said I am hunting for an escape from you.

Slowly, I became someone who was actually kind of liked. I’d become the sort of person who not only got invited to parties, but was actually welcomed at them.

And other unwashed nerds started to envy me. They’d corner me, telling me how I didn’t know what it was like, I was never really a nerd, I mean, look, people like you.

And I’d reply, “I know you think my personality is something inherent – but I used to be a nut-grabbing, unwashed outcast. You can get here from there, man – I know because I did it. And maybe it all starts from believing that there are low-cost ways you can change yourself positively to make a difference with other people. You jus have to pay attention.”

“Nah,” they’d say. “Some people just have it. And others don’t.”

And I want to tell them about the invisible rules. I want to tell them how yes, the way they stand too close to me makes a difference, and the way they arrogantly cut me off in mid-sentence makes a difference, and the way they forgot to wear deodorant this morning makes a difference. I want to tell them that yes, I know you don’t think it should make a difference, but there’s a distinction between the way you want the world to work and the way it does right now, and the sooner you can adjust to at least being aware of all these silly social customs, even if you never actually follow them, the sooner your life will start to change for the better.

But I remember me, back in the day. I remember Mom yelling at me that I had to comb my hair, and me going, “Who cares about that?”

A lot of people, as it turns out. And if I’d chosen not to comb my hair because I believed that my wild mane was important to who I was, and I had strode out to my eighth-grade class knowing that some people would think less of me for it, then that would have been an acceptable cost.

But I didn’t. Like these nerds haranguing me about my personality, I walked out with uncombed hair because I didn’t care, and because of that I blithely assumed that nobody else *could* care.

Alas. The world has an ugly way of teaching you lessons, even if you never learn them.

Threesomes Are A Lot Like Sex When You’re A Teenager.

When you haven’t had it yet, you feel like you’re missing out on something.

When you haven’t had it yet, everyone else seems like they have. Everyone has advice on how to make it happen, and yet the people with the most advice seem to be the most clueless about the actual act.

There’s a lot of people who claim to have done it and are, yes, bullshitting. Or at least bullshitting about how often it’s happened to them.

When you haven’t had it yet, your fantasies about what it’ll be like when you do have it are more influenced by porn depictions than you think they are. Even if you know porn is influencing you. Yeah, even then.

The people who’ve had it and tell you it’s not the be-all and end-all of experiences seem like they’re betraying some sacred trust. Everyone else wants this so badly! How can it not be a mystical, life-transforming experience? Shouldn’t they have given their shot to somebody else who deserved it?

It’s not the be-all and end-all of experiences, though. It’s just pretty good when it works!

When you have it, there’s a surprising amount of physical awkwardness involved. You’d think everybody would know where their hands are supposed to go and would never step on anything, but nope.

It’s not necessarily so earth-shattering that emotions cease to exist during the act. In movies and mainstream porn, when It happens, there is no giggling, and nobody ever feels insecure, and every feeling is carried away on tides of orgasms. But in real life, there’s occasional tedium as you wait for someone to get off, and uncertainty as you hope they like your body, and, yes, ideally orgasms.

It can be notably awful, too. There are times when you have it and you’d actually rather be elsewhere when it starts up, except it’s kind of awkward to leave. That’s really rare, thankfully, but it does happen.

That said, all these disclaimers make it sound like it’s awful. It’s not! When it works, it can be mind-searingly sexy, the hot experience you whack it to for years at a time. Most of the time, it’s like pizza in that it’s at least pretty good. But these unrealistic expectations that it’s got to be the BEST THING EVAR lead to a weird letdown, because when you’re expecting it to CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER and instead it’s merely a great time, people often come away feeling like they did something wrong. But they didn’t. That’s just the way it is.

The earth-shattering versions exist. They are, in fact, that good. It gets super-awkward when your first experience is the earth-shattering version and then you have a normal version and you really wonder what the hell you did wrong.

The first time is not necessarily the best time. You get better at this. It’s okay, this is an upward curve.

It’s easier to get than you think it is. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. But it gets a lot easier if you’re not so desperate for it that you’re clawing at every potential participant like a person grabbing at a life preserver.

It’s okay if you never have it. They’re fun. But people have gotten by quite happily without.

It’s okay if you don’t want it, either. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

A Brief Announcement About My New Novel, THE UPLOADED

If you liked FLEX/THE FLUX/FIX, well, Barnes and Noble just dropped the news:

Here’s the summary of my new novel, THE UPLOADED, which asks what happens fourteen generations after we’ve built a digital Heaven.

….I am apparently incapable of writing anything simple.

Anyway, it’s up for preorder at Barnes and Noble at the link above. And you can read a larger essays on what happens when we don’t think through the politics of the afterlife.