A New Voice, Rising

“Find a picture of yourself as a young child – one where you were happy. Somewhere around eight or nine, before you really understood the world. And I want you to focus on that child, to consider that child as something worthy of being protected, and then give him the advice you would have wanted you to know back then.”

I’d gone to a therapist to get new opinions.

This sure was fucking new.

“The problem is,” she continued, “At some point you started to hate yourself for not knowing what to do. And that cascaded through adolescence, where you felt like you should be able to have a handle on a really complicated world, and you blamed every screwup on yourself.”

“But I am culpable for those screwups,” I protested.

“Is that what you’d tell other young kids? That they’re responsible for controlling every mean person who hurts them? Or would you tell them that they were doing the best with the knowledge they had at the time, and now they know better?”

Every time I thought my therapist’s ideas were a little too woo-woo for me, she’d score a really good point on me.

So I found a favorite picture of me as a kid – me with my Aunt Peggy and her dog Goldie, me as innocent of the upcoming meatgrinder called “middle school” as I could be. And I focused on it, and I talked to myself in an embarrassed mutter, making smalltalk with an imaginary version of myself as a kid.

It didn’t go well. The kid didn’t have much to say back.

I told her that. “The goal,” she said, “Is to create an advocate within yourself. A countervoice that grants you the compassion you so freely give other people.”

Yet after a couple of months, the photo stayed on the shelf, thoroughly untalked-to. I walked by young me, occasionally giving myself a sideeye as if I expected young me to give me a judging look – shouldn’t we be talking? – but no, young me was eternally happy as ever in his frozen little frame.

I wondered what it would be like to have an advocate. All the voices in my head were hateful. I’d leave a party, and they’d barrage me with all the charmless things I’d said. I’d look in the mirror and the voices would remind me how ugly I was, how fat, how bug-eyed. I’d hold hands with my wife and the voices would tell me that she didn’t really want to hold hands with you, you were grasping and needlessly controlling and Gini hates PDAs why are you putting her through this at the movie, for Chrissake?

The only time the voices were silent was when I wrote.

I knew how to write. And if the voices spoke to me then, they were critics intended to make me into a better writer, so when I was overwhelmed I retreated into writing projects – brainstorming plots, pondering revisions.

Writing was as close to silence as I got.

Yet though the picture gathered dust, my therapist and I kept having productive sessions. She was relentless in maneuvering me into giving myself the benefit of the doubt – yes, you screwed up in that interaction, but did you mean to? No, intent isn’t a magic wand, but it doesn’t have to be a club to beat yourself with either. Can you learn to do a better job next time without flagellating yourself with self-hatred?

Can you screw up and still forgive yourself?

And with it all came those realizations that I was too powerless to blame the bullies in middle school, so I’d taken all the control upon myself, and internalized a potent self-hatred that whipped myself into improvement. I’d hauled myself out of my social pariah status and learned to be clever, learned to dress better, learned how to make friends, and every lesson was backed by that deep fear that if I screwed up I’d be friendless and in seventh grade again, not so much despised as forgotten.

That terror had gotten me a long way, but now it was the engine of my self-destruction.

And still my therapist kept forcing me to view my current fuckups in a more measured light – okay, you were stressed and said something thoughtless to your wife, but can you repair the damage without having to inflict a day’s worth of regret upon yourself? Can you not self-spiral?

I was in the bathroom, washing my hands, when I had two shocking revelations:

One, that I was muttering to myself when I was alone. Which was something I knew I did, but I kept self-erasing the memory of it because I knew it was a sign of my mental illness and I didn’t want to think about it that much. But when I was having a bad day my voices would be externalized and I’d actually tell myself, “Nobody likes you, everyone hates you, nobody likes you.”

I had, I realized, been literally talking to myself for years. Probably decades. I’d just forget that whenever I wasn’t alone, or in a decent mood.

But the reason I realized that is because another voice spoke up – also me.

“That’s not true, Ferrett,” I said to myself. “Your wife loves you, your girlfriend loves you, your parents and your kids love you – and you’re worthy of that, you know that, right?”

I stood, stunned, unsure of that voice. Because though it was contradicting me, it was also deeply concerned for me, not so much telling me off as it was asking me to ponder the evidence and decide because it knew I could do better.

I didn’t know what to say. To either voice.

But I went back out into the dining room and looked at the picture. It was not my eight-year-old self speaking to me so kindly, but instead another version of me to counterbalance the self-hatred, a version of me that I hoped to be one day.

I thought if I ever had a voice being kind to me it would be my therapist, or my Uncle Tommy, or maybe Gini, but no – this was actually my voice welling up from within, asking me to cut myself some slack.

I suppose in a movie, I would have had some triumphant moment where I raised my fists to a sunny sky and roared in triumph.

Instead, I simply muttered, “Huh” and went back to work.

And that compassionate voice is still low. It doesn’t come out every time the hateful voices do. But it comes out sometimes, and when it does it chases them away – it makes me realize how baseless they are, and how much more powerful forgiveness is than ritualized abuse.

The voice is low. But it’s growing. Growing in strength.

I’m just still astonished it’s there.


(In case anyone’s interested, my therapist is Cherish Dorrington, and she does take Skype appointments. I’m not selling her services, but it seems disingenuous to discuss a good therapy practice and not let people know where it is.)

“We Cut A Board”: On Writing Drafts

We were novice woodworkers, and it was a very bad table saw, and I don’t know why I’m making excuses this early, because nobody lost a finger. When you’re just starting out with power tools, “Keeping all your appendages attached” is a triumph in and of itself.

That said, every Wednesday I’d go out to the garage with my friend Eric, and we’d build something. Or part of something. Or we’d learn how to use a tool that could build part of something.

But the best part of the Woodworking Wednesdays was sharing our work with Gini. Whenever I got back to the house, my wife would perk up and say, “So what’d you do tonight?” And I’d tell her all the cool things we’d done that evening, bubbling over with enthusiasm, and she’d be thrilled that we were making progress.

Until that Very Bad night.

“So what’d you do tonight?” she asked.

“We cut a board,” I said glumly.

And I watched her face as she did the calculations – yes, we’d been out there for three and a half hours. Yes, she’d heard the power tools running on and off all that time.

Her brow creased as she realized we’d spent an entire evening trying to cut a board square, a ninety-degree cut across two parallel sides, for a bookcase we wanted to build – and it had taken us three and a half hours to accomplish that trivial feat. I saw her correctly imagining us starting out with a project that required a 36″ board, then settling for a 35-3/4″ board, then cursing as we adjusted the measurements down to a 35-1/4″ board, continually trying to get the tablesaw to cut that perfect right angle…

“Well,” she said, brightening, “At least you – ”

“We cut it wrong,” I said, admitting total defeat before traipsing back into the bedroom.

Now. The evening, as it turns out, was not a total waste. We learned a lot about compensating for wobbly fences, and how to correct (or not correct) a bad cut that we made. We figured out all the ways in which our bad saw was tetchy, and come the next week we used all of that effort to make a good cut in only half an hour or so.

It was not a pleasant evening.

But even though we finished the night with zero results, we came away with a great deal of knowledge about what not to do, which in some cases is more valuable than a completed product.

The reason I’m telling you this is because last night, I went downstairs to write the first chapter of my new novel. And I spent about ninety minutes massaging the 500 words I’d written the day before, fine-tuning the exciting opening of an hyper-competent techno-genius breaking into a prison cell, before realizing this wasn’t the story of a hyper-competent techno-genius, this was the story of someone scared but competent doing something they’d never done before.

And with that, I realized everything I’d been doing for the past three nights was completely wrong. I’d been starting the novel from the wrong emotional beat, because I’d been focusing on the wrong aspects of this character, and needed to come up with a start that emphasized this person’s vulnerability, not their flawless planning.

Which happens a lot, particularly in writing, particularly if you just wing things like I do. You get a couple thousand words in and realize it’s the wrong character, or the wrong plot development, or the wrong tone.

And because people are always sharing their daily word count, there’s that temptation to think that all that writing was wasted energy. But it wasn’t. You learned what didn’t work, which is equally valuable. You had the humility to walk away from the sunk cost fallacy, the wisdom to stop polishing a turd, and the faith in your own voice to find the story you’re excited about telling instead of the story you accidentally wrote down.

That’s all progress, even if it’s not as tidy as “+1,000 words.”

So when I slumped upstairs after realizing I’d have to scrap everything and start over fresh tomorrow, Gini asked me: “So how’d the writing go tonight?”

“I cut a board,” I said, and she nodded.