Your Superpower Is A Compensation For Old Trauma

My partner picked up on my moods long before I was even aware, intuiting a subtle discomfort from the shift of an elbow. “Is everything all right?” she’d ask from the far side of the couch, her head perking the instant I stumbled across a knot of complex code – or, in bed, she’d sense which muscles cried out for touch and when, moving to synchronize with my desires until I was left breathless.

Her talent was a flat-out superpower – being so attuned to my concerns that her understanding felt more like magic than body language. I envied her; I too wanted to be able to sense polite lies the way they did, to be certain when someone was genuinely joyous, to see the world as they did.

Yet as I got to know her better, I realized that superpower had a dark origin. She came from a place where her genteel caretakers could turn abusive at a moment’s notice – so she’d had to sense a violent turn coming long before anyone said anything.

I envisioned her skills as a superpower. But to her, I think, it was closer to eternal hypervigilance; she’d see me frown as I programmed and think, Is this something I need to flee from?

I think that’s a lot of superpowers, really.

Likewise, I’ve acquired a small following in part because I write a lot about relationships – how they come together, how to heal them, how they fail. People have been thanked me for boiling complex concepts down into an 800-word essay they could hand to a friend.

Yet I always reject it when someone calls me “wise.” I’m not wise; I’ve dated well over a hundred people, and most of them have left me, so my relationship skills are little more than sifting through the shattered remnants of past stupidity.

That’s not just me, though; there’s plenty of people with a lot of “wisdom” acquired with that especial frisson you get when you’ve bloodied your face running head-first into a brick wall.

So why, of all people, am I driven to write about it so thoroughly?

And for that, you have to look back at my origins – a lonely Ferrett in his bedroom, with no friends and no hope of friends, living in companion-free isolation during his formative years. I had my family, and they were some consolation – but every day I returned home from a school where the best I could hope for was literally to be ignored, so thoroughly were the bullies after me.

I sat in a room, reading books. Knowing my future was empty. I would get a job, slump home to an empty apartment, eat spaghetti and watch television, then go to bed – lather, rinse, repeat until I died.

That was my reality, and I only narrowly escaped it.

Now, the reason I publish the essays on my failed relationships is because I honestly want to encourage people to do better – if you’ve ever avoided any pitfall because I told you to watch out, well, I’ve earned my place on the planet for a day.

But the reason I analyze those failures that closely is because deep down, I realize that every relationship I’ve ever had could be my last, one mistake and I’ll be locked back in that lonely teenaged room stinking of body odor and despair, and I have to study what went wrong because oh my God I lucked out but the next time nobody will love me ever again.

It’s a superpower. But not one I’d want to inflict upon anyone.

Which is, I think, the source of a lot of unfortunate truth – if you survive some trauma, you often get what, to others, would appear as a superpower. You developed some inner strength to navigate this horrific world you got cast into it, and that strength sets you above others.

The trick is, you never wanted that superpower. It’s not like Superman, where you get to lift skyscrapers because you’re pure of heart – it’s more like Batman, where your parents got killed and the only way for you to survive was to bury yourself in self-improvement until you convinced yourself that you were so ready for the world that they could never take your parents from you again.

Maybe you have a superpower. It probably helps you. But it doesn’t make you feel better.

I hope you live in a world where you don’t need it.

Getting Ice Cream With My Therapist

In December, my wife chided me for playing a YouTube video too loud. My response was to exit the house in silent despair and drive for forty-five minutes in a random direction, unsure what I was doing with my life.

It was a complete overreaction, to be sure, but that’s how December was going. I was all out of cope. Even the tiniest things seemed overwhelming. The only mercy was that my wife fell back to sleep and had no idea I’d left at all.

Time to do a lot of therapy.

My wife suggested I join her in trying The Artist’s Way, which seemed simultaneously a little woo-woowy and also aimed at people who didn’t make a whole lot of art. (I don’t need a whole chapter to convince myself I’m creative, thankfully.) But I didn’t have any better ideas since my therapist was on her own relief leave for the winter, so I joined her.

And I’m glad I did.

One of the things the Artist’s Way has you do is to write three pages, every morning, on whatever pops into your head. It’s a form of automatic writing, where – if you’re like me – you write freeform enough that thoughts bubble to the top of your head. My first three entries were brutal revelations with what I thought about my low levels of fame (I don’t like it much), how I’d settled into a rut of writing – and only writing – because I feared failure, how terrified I was of audiences.

And over the last months, driving by the morning discoveries of how miserable I’ve been as a creator, I’ve started restructuring my art.

Right now, I think of myself as this Cronenbergian slurry encased in a protective cocoon – visceral smeared remnants of caterpillar stewing into wet pieces of butterfly, but not quite there yet. I’ve promised myself I’ll put my new projects public come Lent – because, well, might as well pretend God’s making me do these things – but at the moment, I’m spending weekends consumed by making podcasts, videos, new styles of essays but I’m not quite sure how I’ll be distributing those things to an audience.

(Nor am I sure what my relationship to my audience will be, but that’s another challenge. Oh well, got a month to ponder that.)

But as I sat down to do my morning pages today, there was nothing. My delving was doodling – no introspective visions, no realizations, just a happy doot do doo as my brain went blank.

I started to panic. I was supposed to be pushing the envelope. These morning writings were there to guide me. And now the muse had left, and I was all alone…

As if on cue, my hand wrote:

Ice cream with Don.

I didn’t quite understand that, but I knew the memory.

When I was in middle school, I got bullied so severely that my parents and guidance counsellor thought it was best for me to switch schools. And my mother and father, realizing I was pretty fucked up from all this abuse, got me into therapy to see if they could find me someone to talk to.

That person was Don – a kindly man with a huge crooked nose, huge blue eyes, and stubble that never went away no matter how much he shaved.

Don was quiet, but incisive when he spoke. He led me to understand that part of my problem was my isolation – I liked reading books, not so much talking to people. And yet I really needed people to get by, so slowly he convinced me that people were interesting – as much a challenge as any fictional character, really.

It was a lot of work, especially because I was both stubborn and smart – a terrible combination that lets someone justify terrible habits. But Don was persistent, slowly prying me away from my old ideas, and that first year in therapy was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life.

And then ice cream.

One day Don said, “You’ve been doing some good work. What do you say we take a break today and get some ice cream? I know a good place.”

As an adult, I am horrified – do you know how much my parents were paying per session? Get on the couch, kid – but Don took me to a place in Westport that he knew, and let me get the biggest ice cream I wanted, and we just sat down and talked like friends for a while. About my life sometimes, but about movies or books or whatever.

When you’re thirteen, having a grownup treat you like a grownup is that rarest of tastes. I craved it. I wasn’t a patient, then, just a dude hanging out with another dude.

We didn’t go out for ice cream often, though I always wanted to. I thought the ice creams would come the week after a big breakthrough, but no, we had more work to do.

The ice creams came when I’d managed to be calm. Placid. When there wasn’t much to report on because the work I’d done had let me sail straight for a week or two, and maybe we didn’t need to dig deep this week…

But we did need to relax. To appreciate the moment.

I got ice cream.

And today, I realized that Don’s still there, because here I was, frantically thinking I had to batter down the walls of my artistic limitations, and today’s writing was ice cream. It was okay to have nothing much to say. It was okay to just write doot do doo ideas, plotting random novel fragments, because I’d done the work and it couldn’t be all arms aching, slam-the-pickaxe-into-the-shale kinda work.

I was okay. For today.

Let that okayness flow.

Later on, I got a car. I figured out where that ice cream stand was in Westport. And I drove by it a couple of times, thinking I’d get ice cream, but… I never did. It didn’t feel right to pay for my own ice cream there. Don had to buy it for me.

It’s been, what, thirty-five years since then? But in my mind that ice cream store is still there, even in pricey, snooty Westport, waiting for a kindly therapist to pull up in his fancy car to get a kid some chocolate marshmallow ice cream.

Thanks, Don.

Ya taught me good.


It’s 2021, and the tarnish is blooming on those New Years’ Resolutions. The diets are giving way to pizza and sugar, the workout plans collapsing into sleep. And there’s a lot of reasons those good intentions collapse into tangles of soggy dreams, but here’s one you should know:

You can’t be addicted to progress.

Which is to say that when I started working out three years ago, I showed up at every sessions expecting MASSIVE GAINS. I’d go in there with a pep-me-up-coach-I’m-ready attitude, expecting to make some huge breakthrough.

This happened more often than not at first. Not that I was overhead-lifting refrigerators, but I walked out of each session with a new posture, some new technique I’d learned, something new and exciting.

But those soon dissolved into days where I just, you know, showed up.

I didn’t do much those days. I didn’t beat last week’s lifting record. I didn’t do more reps. I just showed up like some schmuck, did a task I’d done five times before, and left wondering why I bothered.

Let’s be honest: It’s hard to show up if you’re not pushing forward.

The trick is, some days you’re stopping yourself from sliding backwards.

Those days weren’t satisfying, but they kept my rhythm up – here I am at the gym again – so not going would feel weird. And they kept my body stable – I wasn’t making great strides, but I wasn’t tumbling backwards into couch-and-Cheetos-dust Ferrett from 2015, either.

No, my body wasn’t making progress that day. But it was creating a stable platform for future progress.

But looking at all my past brushes with fitness, that expectation that every time would be magical is what stopped me. I wanted every workout to be exciting and fresh, with some stunning surprise that would wow me… and when I didn’t get that, I assumed something had gone wrong and I wandered off.

Trick is, some days you just show up. That’s it. That’s all you get.

Waiting for the fireworks is actually what will cost you the real Fourth of July.

And that’s true in almost all areas of life – I used to only write when I was INSPIRED and READY TO WRITE THE PERFECT NOVEL, but it turns out that regularly putting in 500 words got me a lot further than these mad days of 3,000 words.

(Plus, as an added bonus for creators, the correlation between “How I feel about my art that day” and “The quality of my art that day” is a lot looser than I’d suspected, with some of my best work coming on so-called “crappy” days and some of my magnificent inspiration leading into useless corners.)

I used to think that every day in a relationship had to uncover something NEW and DELIGHTFUL about my partner, or else the relationship was surely on the backslide. We had to be continually propelling ourselves upwards, like a rocket fueled by pure love! Except after twenty years of marriage, I’ve discovered that some days – some weeks, some months – are just comfortable living, where you look for breakthroughs without panicking if you don’t find them.

(Plus, as an added bonus for lovers, that pressure to EXTRACT A NEW AND SPECIAL FORM OF LOVE out of your relationships with every date can lead to intensifying relationships that are not fundamentally stable enough to withstand the searing dragonfire of ultimate intimacy. Sometimes you let it go slow because you’re carefully putting weight on the bridge between you to see what’ll hold.)

Point is, a lot of life is just maintenance. It’s not exciting, watering the flowers. The flowers themselves can be exciting, but it’s not always gonna be spring bloom time, and you still have to watch after them even in the dead of winter if they hope to come back.

A lot of what you’ll do is just showing up, cranking out some effort, and then going home. There won’t always be shooting stars or headsplodey revelations. But if you learn to wean yourself off of that idea that this isn’t worthwhile unless you’re continually unearthing MASSIVE PROGRESS, well, you’ll often skip past all those mundane intermediary steps that aren’t a trip to Thrillsville but they are the left you hang in Albuquerque to get to Thrillsville.

It’s three years of regular fitness. I am not a muscle-bound dreamboat with cumgutter abs and biceps that could strangle pythons. But I don’t have back issues any more, I lift heavy pieces of wood in my shop from my core, and I sleep better.

That’s worthwhile, even if it’s not the Schwarzenegger dream.