Category Archives: Relationships

How I Left The Cult

I was raised in the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I stopped attending meetings and ceremonies when I was 16.

TL;DR I didn’t actively leave, my mum broke some rules and the family sort of drifted out. But I spent a long time, from ages 16-27 “de-programming” myself. If you’re wondering whether to leave something, you probably should.

Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a late 19th Century Christian sect, originally from the US.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are Millenarianist in that they think an end time is coming, and  Millenialist which is an interpretation of Christ being installed in a 1,000 year reign over Earth, before the final “end time” occurs.

They hold a fundamentalist view on the Bible, meaning they take the words of the bible literally, rather than as metaphor. Their interpretation differs from other sects, partly because of their founding leader Charles Russell, and partly because they use their own translation of the bible.

Famously they believe in the Old Testament doctrine prohibiting the imbibing of blood, so they refuse blood transfusions, however they do not practice kosher eating. They also do not participate in birthdays, Easter, Christmas or Hallowe’en celebrations, considering these to be pagan festivals with no basis in scripture.

They refuse military service, do not vote, and are famous for going door to door preaching their religion. They reject the notions of an eternal soul, the existence of hell and the “holy trinity” doctrine.

They have strict social and interpersonal rules, mostly inspired by the moral values in the late 19th century US.

See the wiki link for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah%27s_Witnesses

My History With The J-Dubs

There is a family photo of me as a 5 week old baby, taken “at Twickenham”, a stadium which is famous for rugby but which Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes use for their annual “district assembly”, massive weekend-long gatherings for JWs that occur in sports stadiums. They are primarily outside, with folks sitting on the concrete in the summer sun (and rain!) for three days straight. While comfort provision is made for members at the event, it is nonetheless quite an undertaking to take a newborn along.

This canonical family photo illustrates to me that I really was raised for my entire childhood in the JW religion.

Some time before, the J-dubs had knocked on my parent’s door, as so many people around the world have an experience of, and my Dad was the kind of guy to say to them, without irony, “hmmm, sounds interesting, please come in”. He found the religion appealing, and for some reason my Mum agreed to join as well.

I assume this is because her own mother and older sister had converted some years previous, and for a short time as a teenager she went along to JW events with them. She had grown up and moved out before she married my Dad at age 20, so presumably she’d left it all behind for those years. However when her new husband became interested in what the JWs had to say, I guess she found it familiar. The JWs place great emphasis on a wife obeying a husband, so the two of them became Jehovah’s Witnesses together.

A few years later my parents’ marriage broke down (I was 3 and my sister 2). My mother divorced my father. My mother continued to raise me and my sister as Witnesses after the divorce. I think she partly used his faith, and conviction that we should be “saved” at Armageddon to ensure she got custody of us during the divorce (my father was expelled from the religion, so could not make sure we were saved himself). But to her credit she made good on her promise to make sure we were indeed raised as JWs until we were adults.

We ended up living with my gran, who had been a devout JW for decades. My gran was my caregiver because my Mum worked full time. It went without question that all four of us would be JWs and attend all the meetings without fail.

My father quickly remarried and subsequently raised his children from his second marriage as Jehovah’s Witnesses too. (He had been expelled for the first divorce but when the JWs came knocking again in his new town they let him back in.) So myself and my sister, plus my half siblings (a brother and sister) were all raised in this weird Christian fundamentalist religion.

Being raised a JW

It’s very hard to describe what it’s like to be raised a JW. I will give at best a patchy version of my experiences here.

One of the major things I remember is that, because of their “socially separate” policy and their beliefs in general, I was marked out as different to everyone else literally every single day at school.

I was not allowed to attend the 5 minutes of morning assembly that was “religious” (all they did was sing a hymn or something), but I was supposed to listen to the school announcements etc. So halfway through assembly I had to slip in through the door at the back of the school hall. Every day, their would be this weird pause between the hymn and the notices and the whole school would turn around to look as me and the Jewish kid filed in at the back. Every. Single. Day.

Then there was the No Christmas, No Birthdays, No Hallowe’en, No Easter thing. This comes up a lot at school when you’re younger. Almost every week is one of these holidays and the teacher is taking a break by just having everyone make cards or decorations, but I had to be given some non-religious ‘alternative’ task to do. Either that or sit in silence when people sang happy birthday, or leave the room altogether if Christmas carols were being sung.

Couple that with being a teacher’s pet (grades were the way to get love in my household) and you have a child who is so unutterably different that I was bullied by absence. I was tainted, and to even speak to me was to risk contamination. The social isolation was profound.

The witnesses have a perfect circular reasoning trick for this. Somewhere in the bible Jesus warns his followers that they will be hated for spreading his word. So the more JWs receive grief, the more it confirms that they are on the right track, and following Jesus correctly.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a lot to say about sex. No sex before marriage, obviously, but some kinds of sex are restricted during marriage (anal), no masturbation for anyone but especially teenagers and of course, it’s not ok to be gay.

These points were raised explicitly and regularly to make sure everyone “stays strong”. These teachings contributed to me feeling guilt, anxiety and repression about sex both in childhood and in adult life.

The witnesses take a similarly draconian view on drugs, smoking, tattoos, sex or violence in the media and bad language. They also ban members from watching movies with too much magic in it (Harry Potter), or something that may be influenced by ‘demons’ (Lord of the Rings). They believe ‘demons’ to be invisible, and mostly don’t believe in possession, but nonetheless think they are very real.

We weren’t allowed posters on our walls (idolatry), or pictures of magical animals (demons), to have friends outside of the witnesses (bad associations), or to listen to certain music (bad language/demonic) or to celebrate birthdays or Christmas (pagan). The Kingdom Hall itself (the church building), had no decorations at all, but it was kept spotlessly clean. Many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about how bland and lifeless the religion is.

The organisation itself acknowledges how hard it is to hold strictly to 19th century protestant moral values late in the 20th century and there’s a lot of talk of sacrifice and trials and the hard road and keeping on the straight and narrow, in order to stay true to God. I believe this created a strong anhedonia in me, whereby I restricted all of my thoughts and feelings by default, even for things that were “allowed”, because holding back, buttoning down and waiting were so valourised.

How I got out

Passive leaving

I didn’t, really. In the heady days of internet relay chat my mum met a man on the internet, then met him in real life and one day in the summer after I turned sixteen my mum told me the news that she was pregnant.

Having sex outside of wedlock is a pretty serious offence to the J-dubs and so my mum was temporarily suspended while they considered what to do.

Mum usually drove us to the meetings, but without her taking us, myself and my sister just by default didn’t go along either. Our gran’s faith was always a powerful force in terms of keeping us in the religion and attending meetings every week, but I’m not sure if she kept going during this period or not. 

Without any external drive to keep going along to the meetings, I remember clearly that it felt like a spell being broken. All my week nights and weekends were free. It felt like bliss coming from an absence, like the silence after an annoying noise finally stops. My life was empty and silent. Calm.

Later I would reflect that going to the meetings all the time, and it occupying so much of your life, is one way they keep members in thrall to the religion.

There was also an oppressive silence between all the family members,  like a held breath. It was very tense, but I tried to stay out of the house as much as possible and be with my boyfriend instead.

After about a month, I got back from a weekend at my boyfriend’s house to learn that mum had been in hospital because she’d had a miscarriage. Even though the weekend was dramatic and scary, it was obvious that this baby not existing was a huge relief to everyone. Not long later I learned that the elders had decided my mum could return to the Witnesses if she showed repentance, but we never went back. It was an entirely unspoken thing, as was always the case with my mum in those years.

At the time I barely mention these goings on in my diary, instead I’m mooning over the latest boy, but a bit later I repeat several times “I’m never going back to the meetings”.

So for my entire life I had been in a cult, which shaped my entire mental and emotional landscape from birth, attending three meetings a week, every week plus occasionally door knocking on Saturdays, and then suddenly I just… wasn’t. I got out of the cult passively, the spell was broken, and what remained was a void.

Active leaving

In my diaries a bit later I say “I’m never going back to the meetings” and I sound as though I’ve made an active decision. In my self-narrative nowadays, I normally tell people that I had my suspicions about the religion by the time my family left, but was sort of ignoring them, and waiting to be older to find out what it all really meant.

An ex-JW friend I met much later would describe it as the “after armageddon box” – a place where you put your doubtful thoughts about the religion and god ready to be asked later, when we might have access to god or Jesus after the end times have happened. Eventually his “after armageddon box” was so full that he began to doubt the religion a lot.

I normally say that if my family hadn’t drifted out when I was 16, it wouldn’t have been much longer before I left myself. My general goal with life at that time was just to hang on until age 18 and finish school, finally be an adult, and get out from living with my parents as soon as I could. Even though they practice famously severe shunning of any ex-member, I’m sure I would have left the religion behind too.

However, that’s not what happened. We left when I was 16; when I was 17 I moved in with my Dad (mum had been threatening to throw me out for months) and he and his family were all still very much in the faith. Since I had never been baptised as an adult, I was considered a “prodigal son” and should be gently cajoled to return to the religion rather than fully shunned, so they were allowed to talk to me.

Despite being encouraged to go to the meetings for the whole time I lived with them, I stood firm that I wasn’t going to go back. That much was very active on my part. I “ran away” from living with them when I was 18 (my stepmother read my diary and point blank refused to talk to me again), just after I’d finished my school exams. I lived with my Mum again for a short time, and as soon as I saved up a few paychecks, I moved out forever.

Deprogramming

Some problems

When we first drifted out of the religion, I decided to sleep with my boyfriend. The moment my mum told my 16-year-old self that she was pregnant I had the crystal-clear thought: “you don’t get to tell me what to do any more”. I lost all respect for her, because of everything that her pregnancy implied, both secular and religious. So yes I had sex with my boyfriend (but I was sure to get on contraception first!)

That year I also had my first experience of celebrating Christmas with him and his family. In the few scholarly texts that mention Jehovah’s Witnesses, they say that ex members are often socially awkward around the giving and receiving of gifts, which I empathise with.

However apart from those two things I didn’t immediately deprogramme from the thoughts that the religion had inculcated. My life was a tire fire from ages 16-19 and I had little time or stability to do any reflective thought.

But as soon as I moved out and had a stable boyfriend at around age 19, I began deprogramming in earnest. I realised I needed to systematically check all of my beliefs, not just the ones about God. My boyfriend of that time helped by walking me through the more obvious things like creation vs evolution. He also helped me try weed and later, other drugs.

Then the problem was sex. I had huge guilt around it, and weird thoughts like I must intend to marry my sexual partner, if not actually be married, in order for it to be ok to have sex. I had a very low sex drive, partly due to repressing pleasurable feelings.

I also had very low affect, my emotions were numbed out, though I think that had as much to do with my family life as the religion. Relatedly, I still have issues with finding enjoyment in things, which makes decision making surprisingly hard.

I now think I was also developmentally stunted. I was extremely smart, but condescending, arrogant and dismissive with other people. I had no empathy, even with friends. My boyfriend had to keep reminding me “you can’t treat people like that”. In the terms of the psychological theory that I mention on my philosophy blog, I was still in Kegan stage 2 – a non-empathetic stage normally traversed in early teens – at the age of 19-20.

I believe the move away to my dad’s house is a pertinent example. My dad’s home was around 200 miles away from my mum, and so there was no possibility of seeing my old friends when I moved there. I left without telling anyone I was going, it all happened during half term.

I eventually heard through my mum that my best friend was very upset. I was confused by this, because we always talked about how we would like to move out from our mums to live with our dads (she was from a single parent household too). I thought she would realise that I had made it out and gone to a better place and be happy for me. I just could not understand why she would be sad or angry. I remember being confused and then not really thinking about it afterwards. I was 17 at the time.

It was only years later, in my early 20s, at the earliest, that I realised that of course she would be upset. She might miss me, or be upset that everything was so sudden, that I didn’t care enough to give her a quick message of some kind, or that she might be jealous that I’d moved away or indeed have any number of strong emotions about what happened.

Some solutions

Living with dad helped a few things. He and his kids were naturally more touchy-feely than my family, which I appreciated. He forced me out of my tendency to go silent when I was upset or crying. It was a revelation to me that he actually wanted to hear what was wrong, and actually try to help. I had to deal with being a snotty mess in someone else’s presence. An almost unbearable form of being ‘seen’ at the time. Being in a totally different family held a mirror up to some of my assumptions, especially around the “fair” distribution of chocolate biscuits. He also answered all my questions about why he and my mum got divorced. A classic case of there being at least two sides to every story.

Once I’d moved out away from parents, I read some self help books to figure the emotional and sex stuff out, and Oliver James’ ‘They Fuck You Up’ book was particularly useful for this. I wrote pages of self reflection on an A3 notepad. I also kept writing in my diary. I was a prolific poetry writer too.

I ferreted out cached beliefs one by one. Sometimes I did things just because JWs ban them so I went and voted (JWs are instructed to be politically neutral).  I carried a lighter in case anyone who smoked asked me for one. I placed a bet on a boxing match (gambling also forbidden). I took a certain joy in doing things that would shock JWs, or my parents in general. I still have that joy. I also tried to detect much more subtle discriminations. I occasionally caught myself being judgey about people, and asked myself: why? One example I strongly remember is disliking people who had tattoos, only because the Jdubs sneer at them. I decided to throw those thoughts in the bin.

I read a lot of books, absorbing how other people feel about life, which helped me to figure out the range of things that people can feel. I read Sylvia Plath’s diaries, Anaïs Nin stories, Henry Miller novels, a psychology of self harm book, Kathy Acker’s punk feminism, Alan Moore’s ‘Lost Girls’ graphic novel. I would read anything, especially fiction and science fiction, but I was drawn to books about sex and books about or by depressed women.

I read pages and pages of books. I also watched hundreds of films, got stoned every day and got into music. I have an enduring love for art that is bleak or nihilistic.

My life at the time was a continuous struggle with poverty. I never had any spare money, although I felt great because I lived in my own place. I worked at a library and got all my books and films from there. Being poor takes a lot of time and energy, so the progress was quite slow. Eventually, at age 21, I went to university.

At university I discovered equal rights and feminism. I also got into philosophy by the sideways route of doing an art degree with no prior experience with art. The art library had lots of philosophy books, because art and life inform each other. I wasn’t that great at making art, so I would read instead. I became a Sunday manager at the nearby public library while I studied, so I still had access to public library books too.

I had a tiny bit of NHS therapy during uni, because at age 23, after feeling I’d done so much work to deprogramme myself, I developed an acute anxiety condition. It was triggered by thoughts of death, a concept I had until then not really thought about, because the JWs believe in immortal life on earth. I also had wind: trapped air in the digestive system. It’s easily cured but it makes you feel short of breath and in pain when you eat. It is funny now, but it contributed to me having several panic attacks. I spent my entire last year of uni in a haze, feeling like I was watching myself on a screen, and worried I would have more attacks. I started to feel better after about a year. Over a decade on, my fear of death and the anxiety I get from that thought still haunt my evening times, because it’s not easy to rationalise.

My work as a librarian helped me to develop empathy. I’ve always been hard on myself to be true to my principles, and I really believed in doing a good job and in intellectual honesty. I had to work with people who were homeless, very old, very young (and unsupervised) and / or relatively mentally ill. I wanted to truly help them ‘fairly’ which meant I had to really pay attention to what they said and how they thought. Trying to teach a paranoid schizophrenic 50 year old how to use a computer is a humbling experience.

I was with the same boyfriend all through this time, he helped me a lot. He constantly scolded me for not considering how other people felt. It must have been because of him that I finally figured out my friend’s feelings about me moving away.

But my relationship with him is also a story of lack of empathy. I believed we had a great relationship and were mostly happy through our 7 years together. But I found out after we broke up that he felt a lot of pain throughout those years because of things I did to him. I’m not sure of the details because I heard it through mutual friends.

He never seemed to tell me about problems at the time, but maybe I didn’t hear it. Probably I dismissed things that weren’t expressed clearly and forcefully. I still tend to do that. But even if we allow for the fact that someone who keeps too quiet in relationships often ends up with someone who pushes forward and is decisive, it was a shock to me that he was so unhappy but I didn’t know. So even though I was developing empathy I clearly wasn’t applying it well in my home life and now when I look back I still think it was a shallow empathy, with not much mastery.

Completing Deprogramming

In my mid to later twenties I had a number of life milestones. I came out as bi (after reading a book, of course). I joined an active feminist group and did many activities with them. I founded my own bi group. I became polyamorous, at first with my partner of all those years and then I continued after we broke up. We had moved to a new city by then and I was trying to make new friends. Friends who were lesbians, feminists and weed smokers. ‘Bad associations’ indeed! After the breakup I moved out into a sharehouse of strangers; I was finally living on my own.

Around the age of 27, after living in that sharehouse a while, I realised I felt like I had reached a point of being more “normal”, by which I mean normal levels of fucked-upness, rather an extraordinary and weird levels of fucked-upness.

I had made a point of being more independent. I had had lots of life experiences, from uni to management jobs to rolling my own joints to storming police lines.

I’d examined and binned so many ideas. First from the JWs, but then I’d also completely overshot and was examining and binning conventional ideas from “normal” society too.

Binning the ideas from the J-dubs was helping me heal, but binning “normal” society was also helping profoundly. For example, a strange side effect of trying polyamory was that it unlocked my ability to do social touch with friends. I’ve no idea why.

So by around this time, I felt normal.

And slightly to my annoyance, I was starting to see that my experiences, knowledge and confidence were having an effect on others. The unusual ways I lived my life were intriguing to people. When I spoke, everyone would fall silent and listen, which never used to happen.

Without me really wanting it, people were looking to me for advice on how to be, wheras previously I had always been the student of that. It was ever clearer that my project of ridding myself of indoctrination was over. The work of choosing how to live had begun.

Lasting effects

It’s been 7 or 8 years since I reached “normal” and then completely overshot. I now live a life that is in many ways extraordinary and probably to most people, very weird.

But, I still feel the effects of things from childhood.

I still feel that relationships with others is my biggest weakness.  I have an extremely spiky personality, a defence against always being the outsider, never being accepted. Although acceptance is something I obviously deeply crave.

I still have intermittent anxiety, I still worry about dying.

Despite appearances I still have very conventional sex and not lots of it, but I’m proud I can have sex at all, considering.

I have an abiding deep suspicion of “knowledge” or “truth”, of people in “authority”. The study of how we know what we know will always fascinate me.

It’s very hard to disentangle the effects of the religion from the effects of my general family life. It’s tempting to think that actually perhaps most of my problems, if that’s what they are, would have come from family dynamics no matter what religion we followed, if any. A child with essentially absent and emotionally distant parents was always going to have trouble with empathetic relationships. In a way this post is merely about “how I left my family”, rather than how I left a cult.

However it’s kind of a chicken and an egg. The religious flavour is important. My parents were exactly the kind of people to be drawn to this particular religion thanks to their own traumas. They are the kind of people who want to be wrapped up tight by strict rules and be soothed by being told exactly what to think, from people who know exactly what is happening and know exactly what to do to make everything ok. If they were not scooped up by this cult, it would have been another one, or some other paternalistic system. The details may have been slightly different but probably the neuroses in me would have ended up exactly the same.

I was raised by people who can’t handle the world as it is, and that makes me very sad for them. Strangely enough for me, after being raised believing that humans are evil and our civilisation has reached a nadir so bad that god is going to smite it all away, I’ve come to find a great joy in the fact that humans are actually just apathetic or greedy or damaged.  And also creative, generous and joyful. I trust myself and my decision making. I feel I do understand the way the world works, and find that comforting, even though the drive to understand came from pathological roots.

Advice for others

If you’re wondering whether to do something that will really shake your life up, especially if you have to leave something, I would encourage you to do it. You can’t un-see whatever it is you’ve seen. The worry you’re feeling now is probably not actually about whether leaving is a good or bad decision, because you already have one foot out of the door. It’s more about feelings of grief, grief that you used to feel tightly embedded in something, and now you don’t.

No-one likes changing, but change happens to us, whether we like it or not. It’s a bit of a slog, but learning how to change, and not being scared of it, is a massive life skill that eventually brings a ton of its own comfort, and success.

If you feel you’ve been kicked out of a plane and are falling backwards, arms flailing, watching the plane get smaller and smaller in your vision and feeling scared, picture this: you might as well roll over and face the ground. You can direct the fall, watch the view, even go sailing around like a bird in the wind. Feel the rush, try to enjoy it. The entire world is literally in front of you, you might as well direct where you land.

Once you’ve left, you’re going to need information. Religious cults in particular restrict information, so read books (or listen to podcasts), read the internet and figure out how you think things really are. Lots of people just substitute one belief system for another, try not to do that. Instead try to figure out why you don’t trust your own intuition about what to think.

Three things:

Fiction is just as important as non-fiction, especially for emotional work. Art of all kinds is very important, and comedy.

While approaching at your own pace and using caution, you should definitely, definitely take drugs. See which ones call to you, any will do. Then don’t overdo it.

Finally, enlist other people. Cults are deliberately isolationist, to remove any chance of “wrong” information reaching you. Other people are a mirror and a support. Try to meet and get to know a broad range of people. Their example can help you figure out how you want to be.

Finally:

Everything is going to be ok. I promise.

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Reflections 2018

I love doing reflections at New Year, but I still find it very weird to use a few days after Winter Solstice as the dividing line. None the less we must proceed:

This year has been so varied and so intense. I’ve experienced some new things, both good and bad. Have met heroes and achieved dreams but lost people, plans and projects such that I felt utterly crushed.

For the first time ever I experienced grief. A deep dark chasm of sadness that pulled my natural emotional average down by its weight for several months.

Much of it was the first half of the year and it’s been better since spring, but the sadness keeps orbiting back around with the loss, and the ramifications of that loss.

So what actually happened?

Winter

In Jan/Feb some longterm housemates who had been long term dissatisfied with living in the house had various degrees of blowup. We had round upon round of sharing circles, trying to be our best selves, but in the end people lash out. Both times at me, because I’m the most vocal when I think problems are happening. Maybe I could do it better, maybe I should shut up, I don’t know, but it hurt.

Coupled with trying to find work but suffering a few setbacks, such as a code test I just wasn’t up to, I felt beaten down personally and doubting my skills at work. I played video games for nearly two months solid to escape the emotions.

Eventually, I managed to get two weeks of work, and buy a new laptop. Thank god! The weather was grey and wet though, and the office time depressing.

I also discovered that one of my ex-lovers, a woman three years younger than me, had died. I’ve never had a friend die before. We were no longer close and she died of unknown causes, so it felt more surreal than anything else.

Spring

Then in March a sudden cold shock. We were all lined up for a Portugal trip that eventually we decided to cancel (too much rain) but I suddenly realised for myself why the team had been gradually drifting away. On a series of key decisions I was consulted, but not listened to, as if I was an advisor but not a team member. Our Land became His Land. Our House became His House. Cue another several rounds of sharing circles and meetings within which came a truth I’d been blind to for this whole project: it was no longer communal. Our investor was taking full control, despite my warning that I cannot be on a project that’s not built from a team. I was very explicit about that, about the ways it would need to be to be truly communal, and it was explicitly rejected. He just couldn’t get past needing to control.

So I lost Portugal, the Land, the plans for the next 3-5 years of my life, my hope for a new community home and worst of all, my best friend. I felt stupid for thinking it could be any other way.

Around this time it was my birthday. I had been lifting for 8 weeks to get in shape for the TopGun theme, and everyone who came said it was their favourite party so far. Indeed by the evening when I lead half the guests in a mini lifting routine on our home-made indoor beach volleyball court, I was laughing and enjoying the party. But I had started that morning crying my eyes out because nothing was going to plan, and I no longer had my best friend to help me.

Over this time I’d been having tiny moments of contact from the little “smarty pants” twitter community I inhabit, small rays of light in the dark spring. The beam of hope on my horizon was flying to SF to meet my blogging hero, and maybe some friends/lovers too.

That was due in April. I was pretty crushed to discover that my hero was having a hard time with life, and recommended I bring along friends when I visited because he would be too tired to really talk. At the same time the intended friend I was going to bring along also let me know that they were unavailable, meaning I could see neither of them.

I felt devastated, and I thought hard about why. I was really desperate for validation and encouragement in this area of my life (philosophy) that few friends can engage me on. I craved peers and importantly I craved elders.  I tried to resolve some of my needs for myself with some success. But this was when the grief started

And none the less I rallied, and resolved to meet other people in SF instead. I reached out a bit on Twitter and decided to swallow the financial cost of accommodation. I settled in to the plane, began to watch a movie and as the delays stretched from minutes to hours I listened in totally numbed disbelief that we should all get back off the plane into the terminal because the flight was cancelled.

This final twist was at least making my year so far laughable as well as simply deeply depressing. I just became numb. I stopped making any plans, stopped assuming I knew anything about what was going to happen next.

I reached out in small ways. Improved my house, offered my web dev skills to friends. It helped.

My friend’s funeral finally happened, and I found it to be affirming. I think funerals can be, but it also shows you the kind of time I’d been having up to then.

Summer

In May, my year pivoted around. I took intense driving lessons across just three days, with my test on the fourth. I cried every day of lessons and barely slept, but I passed with three minors. Thanks to assistance from one of my newer housemates, I had my own (shared) car by the very next week.

The rest of the unusually hot summer was spent in a mixture of short work contracts, driving around and outdoor swimming, a new and unexpected hobby.

I helped with Bi pride, where we had a float and went to BiCon which I enjoyed very much. I have volunteered for a small role organising next year!

In my final contract of the summer though I was fired without notice from a contract I’d been working. It was pretty obviously unfair and some sort of personal power play, but it knocked my confidence yet again.

Also, a beloved housemate moved out. I’d been toying with leaving my houseshare entirely and starting a new one, but her room was amazing, so I moved into it. I left behind my home-made cube room, and the ground floor previously shared so closely with my ex-friend.

I made a new plan to work, to save money, to get up early and to be my own investor in community projects, and leave these stupid boys behind.

At the same time, 3 housemates moved out and 3 new ones moved in, in quick succession. It has been a long road to integrate and help them, but also keep the house together/cohesive. This is probably what I did all September.

Autumn

Despite my enjoyment, the summer contracts had not nearly been enough. I wasn’t covering my expenses, let alone earning enough to save. I had a few bits and pieces in September but my luck changed in October and I landed a sweet deal that had me working all the way up to Xmas, and will continue in 2019 as well.

Around that time I had the great pleasure of meeting my blogging hero, who had finally managed to visit the UK, and so I met him in my very own kitchen. He was still extremely tired, but we hung out a few times and taking him along to our local London thinky meetup made me feel like I was escorting a rock star. Fuckin’ ey.

…and just to keep me from being too smug about my positive emotions my friend and housemate, the one who is funding the Portugal project, announced he would move out from our house to Portugal to live there on his own. It felt like he had chosen that place over our friendship all over again. We’ve been so close for so long I seriously feel lost in every aspect of my life without him. From coding work to business in general to running this entire shitshow we call a warehouse, to my hobbies, to talking about guns, politics, sociopaths and everything else no-one will talk to me about. It’s a big loss. It still makes me cry. And all because of doorknobs.

Gah.

Apart from that, I have almost no life news for the rest of the year. I simply worked, kept my head down, opened savings accounts and worked some more. My ability to think drained away, and I missed my Reading Challenge target.

I’m now dearly missing thinking, and reading, and investing in new relationships and getting up whenever the hell I want. But I did feel a huge lift of anxiety as the money started rolling in.

Relationships

One relationship ended this year and their feedback was vague but negative and so knocked my confidence. I slept with a few new people this year, but just as one-offs. Multiple people I fancy have turned monogamous or are work colleagues who ignore me romantically, while people who I fancy for something beyond superficial reasons seem few and far between indeed. I would like more romantic and sexual partners and feel that those avenues don’t exist or get closed off. It is a source of sadness for me this year.

My one long-standing partner is still going strong though and is a source of much needed comfort, though the balance of that seems increasingly like I’m the responsible one who dishes out help more than receives it.

Mental health

Despite the awful year I suffered those shocks quite well. I feel I’m at baseline now that money has been relatively stable. Baseline still means occasional death anxiety, maybe once a month disturbing my sleep. I still worry too much and plan too far ahead. Now that I have money I am considering therapy.

Work

This autumn contract has really powered my savings goals, and summer was ok too. I’m quite glad I got to have lots of summer fun (and work in air conditioning when it was simply too hot!) Looks like when I make a decision, lag time to achieving savings goals is only a few months. Could work on improving my day rate though.

Thinky Work

I’ve written just 6 blog posts this year. A friend made his own version of balcony philosophy and I enjoyed being part of that. I met some people from Twitter, including the Ribbon Farm founder – swanky! I’m also part of a Slack for fluidity-types, although it’s gone quiet now.

Now

Reflecting at this time of year seems weird, as I’ve said. I feel the first half of last year was one thing, and now I’m in the middle of something else. I’m looking up interest rates for savings and options for investment returns. It’s all very unusual but hopefully the direction I’m headed.

This post has already taken far too long, let’s publish now and get it out there.

Time changes

My sense of time has changed. I’ve come to notice this by being around people who are still in their twenties (I’m 33 now).

My friend Jo is 23 and to them, 6 months is an absolute age.

I’ve recently connected with a new partner who is 26. He is going away for four months, and hopes to stay away longer. He has more anxiety than me about the future of our relationship.

I recall being about 28 or 29 and realising, through polyamory, that my relationships will probably no longer follow the meet-date-acrimoniousbreakup pattern that was an unquestioned way of things in my “20s monogamy” phase. Rather, relationships can have ups and downs, recesses, corners, timeouts and timeins. The older I get, the longer relationships can be and the more they’ll morph.

Around this time I started saying “the future is long”, meaning that whatever stage a relationship is in now (normally just broken up), it will change over time and the change will happen quicker than you think. There is always the possibility of: -getting back together -becoming friends again -being thrown back into a life situation together -actually not really caring about them anymore.

Some of my longer-term relationships, like family and early boyfriends have followed so many twists and turns it’s now not very easy to describe them all. The swings from love to hatred to indifference to betrayal to empathy to love again have been numerous.

I’ve had a monogamous friend with whom I could have sex only when he didn’t have another partner. I saw several girlfriends come and go, and didn’t really feel particularly deprived when I wasn’t allowed to have sex with him for a while. The friendship was clearly going to endure much longer than these partners.

There is security in patience.

(Post-script: I am aware that one day, the longer I live the more likely it will be that my relationships with others will end. Time will speed up again. Relationship needs will be more urgent. I’m sure it will feel like a blink of an eye since I was here, now, saying these young things at this young age.)

 

 

Polyamory as stage 4 bridge

Required reading

This post uses a key framework: Chapman’s version of Robert Kegan’s theories of emotional, cognitive and social development, it is summarised here.

This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.

This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.

Pathways to Stage 4

Chapman outlines some ways for young adults to reach stage 4 through societal structures. They are: higher education and employment. Much of his post outlines the ways that the stage 4 bridge for humanities students is in a very bad way because ‘Postmodernism’, a critique of stage 4 structures, is now taught in higher education well before young adults have had a chance to master stage 4 systematicity itself, thus hijacking their development before it can begin.

The situation is less bad for STEM students, since systematic thinking and structures are still thoroughly taught as the major component of higher education in these fields. Chapman’s post goes on to outline ways to help potential stage 4.5ers who have no societal support to reach stage 5.

Before I get to that discussion, I wish to outline one of the ways I think stage 3 humanities students DO manage to reach stage 4, which is not sanctioned by society. That pathway is through relationships, specifically non-monogamy.

Nothing special

Polyamory is not in any way special or better than any other way of relating to others, it just happens to be enjoying a useful cultural moment. It is still ‘alternative’ to the mainstream, but it is easy enough to discover, making it edgy but also accessible. I suspect that if it ever becomes normalised, its intrigue and usefulness might subside, in fact, it may have already passed peak ‘cool’.

None the less, the tenets of polyamory focus on excellent relationship skills as a pre-requisite (otherwise everything explodes rather quickly) and makes explicit both skills and practices that are integral to stage 4 living.

Poly as Stage 4

Polyamory requires a re-examination of relating to others that explictly moves away from Stage 3 communal mode. It requires new skills and beliefs:

  • one must have ownership over ones own feelings and histrionics is no longer the way to express them
  • one is not responsible for other people’s feelings, each person is resonsible for their own
  • one must have a good sense of self, ones own desires, preferences, boundaries, and how to express them appropriately
  • expressing feelings or needs no longer requires the  listener to immediately change their actions based on those feelings
  • there is a word for the feeling of “falling in to each other”, and that sensation is a phase that ends. The main part of the relationship is what comes after.
  • it is no longer good enough to prioritise relationships based on type, eg romantic, family, friends which can trump each other. There are now multiple people in the same category, and old categories no longer work
  • it encourages systematising scarce resources. For example managing free time by using calendars
  • relationships are about a system of agreements. These are flexible and change over time.
  • different ‘roles’ in different situations are explicit
  • a person has feelings or needs, and polyamory is a system to meet those multiple needs from multiple relationships in a flexible way
  • one has a separate value that is distinct from the sum of one’s relationships
  • asymmetrical relationships are explicitly addressed
  • the apparent coldness of stage 4 thinking is mitigated by the promise of more and closer relationships

Polyamory is partly so successful at delivering on stage 4 goals because it is not the norm in society. This makes it frightening, risky, but also ‘edgy’ and exciting. It can have a higher initial cost, for example questioning relationship norms that were so taken for granted makes someone also question every norm they’ve ever learned, which takes a while, and in relative isolation from friends and family.

However, the rewards offered by polyamory are fairly big – more satisfying relationships, and more of them (and yes, potentially more sex, which is great if you want that). So there is a big incentive to overcome that high initial barrier. Once the new skills of polyamory are learned, they are very thoroughly incuclated and it can be a revelatory change. Overcoming big fears successfully for high reward is deeply satisfying and can lead to embracing further personal change in the future.

Personal Anecdotes

I came to polyamory long after higher education and found it relatively easy to adopt, wheras my memories of university involve very slow progress with understanding basic systems politically, eg grasping what feminism was all about, and I did not attend until after the age of 21, graduating age 24. Poly arrived aged 27.

I’ve observed people arrive at poly during their higher education years and take much longer to grasp it, making many mistakes along the way. I don’t know if they’re eventually successful. I have a personal assumption that anyone younger than around age 25 will struggle with poly, though I know of some exceptional people.

None the less, I feel polyamory is one possible route to stage 4 for humanities majors, who might be drawn to social / relationshippy type things more than STEM majors.

I have a friend who runs support events for non-monogamously inclined people whose audience is largely young adults direct from top level universities (around 50%). I recently scoffed at the idea of tailored resources for these people, because they are too used to being spoon-fed with what to believe. Having written this post however, perhaps I should support him more as a facilitator for transitioning across stages which is now absent from some parts of higher education.

Wild

This post may be more of a winding rant than a structured argument.

I have just added “Work” as a category for posts on this blog. I worked a little throughout the year off travels, but of course I’ve been static and working for some months now.

I work.

Perhaps it feels so revelatory because I don’t feel that I work. A testament to the habit I’ve gained of only doing work that I enjoy. A habit I can cultivate only because I’m lucky, have kind friends and I’m good at being very poor.

But this post is actually about feeling wild, and being in love.

Partner A and I have been together for about a year and I’m in love with him. It feels different to other times I’ve been in love. It smacks of static and the smell of ozone. It has caught us by surprise. There is an immanence to every aspect of our relationship, but I think it will not get a sudden release. The constant threat of leaving forever brings the present moment into sharp, painful, glorious focus but the assurance of a few more months on the horizon, that have been on the horizon, ever since we started, which softened the present with small consolations, can now be counted in years.

Imagine living in a heightened present for years.

In these past weeks we have been trusting each other increasingly. Behind me is a past within which I was constantly “present”, growing with and straining against this other person. Now I feel wild in this connection.

As if I now know there is a year long bond fusing us together, such that nothing will dislodge it for now. I can be unrestrained and our fused limb will take no damage.

Wildness expressing itself through sex, of course. And it feels new. New things with a new person, but I am new as well. Last time I fell in love I wasn’t this that I am now. I am a year or so further down the line of growing in strength, security and self-knowledge. And now I am surprised to find I am able to dive deep, desiring to inextricably tangle my animus with theirs.

Let this be a testament to those people who think that poly cannot produce the intimate relationships of monogamy. Monogamy only has time on its side, and it is not necessarily time that cleaves human beings together.

Partner A has recently been dating someone new, heightening his sexual needs. This is perfect timing, right as myself and him were ready to start forging deeper into sexual abandon.

Poly can speed things up as well as slow things down.

I’m feeling his absence very strongly this time. When things become quiet in the night, I can hear myself keening for him. This is why I like being premenstrual, I love actually feeling things, with minimal intervention from that ego monologue.

I hate being interrupted when I’m writing blog posts, it makes it impossible to think of an end.

Life Isn’t Hard

In numerous ways, I have come to observe that people think something is more worthwhile if it is difficult to achieve, or even more strangely, if it is painful to achieve. Additionally, if ‘the norm’ is to do one type of thing and someone comes up with an easier thing that achieves broadly the same goals, people caught up in the norm will not leap to celebrate and change their lives, rather they will mock and criticise the person who has found an easier way and enjoin them to come back to the hard way.

The first example I observed referred to jobs and working. Since I was homeless, jobless and drifting I had opportunities to hang out with other people in similar situations. I visited some squats, and I was struck by the industry of the people living in them. Everyone was either studying, volunteering, fixing things or making art. Their mental health levels seemed very high. When I was on a protest against the current government’s austerity measures, the most common shout hurled at the people protesting was “get a job”.

If the intent of this request was “be a useful member of society” then the speaker is simply wrong to think that these people were not doing so. I think, however that the speaker did not desire the person to be a useful member of society, they actually did expect the protester to get a job. And not because that’s the ethically correct thing to do, but because everyone else ‘has’ to, everyone hates it, and it’s not fair if some people can get away with not having to. Of course the penalty of not having to is living in insecure, frightening housing circumstances with few utilities or comforts, in all weathers whilst living outside of a society so frightened of them that they are actively legislated against as a group.

It seems to me that creating some kind of system of very basic shelter for extremely low rent would enable many others to be able to not have a job. This may involve changing what we value in our society (such as art and caring for others), which of course would enable the emancipation of disadvantaged groups, particularly women. But no, if ‘the norm’ is to toil and suffer, then we all should, according to popular wisdom.

I feel there are echoes of this argument when people question me about non-monogamy. I often hear the assertion (or its implication) that a non-monogamous person is not truly committed to their relationships or is in some way losing a level of depth or intimacy by having more than one partner. I normally reply that time is a factor, so it might take longer to reach the same level of intimacy with one of my partners as a monogamous couple might do (although, I work very few hours and spend much more time with my partners and friends than people who are full-time workers).

After this argument of taking slightly more time, the defender of monogamy normally has a perplexed look on their face because they want to put into words the feeling that exclusivity is somehow more committed. I think it’s because they are trying to indicate that monogamy involves sacrifice. Monogamy involves shutting off certain parts of yourself and your life, in favour of the relationship  (this can happen in poly too, of course, but we’ll continue to examine the point). If you are willing to do that for a person, you are ‘committed’, you must ‘really’ love the person. And this sacrifice somehow gives you something in the relationship. Well, if this psychological state gives you other benefits, then perhaps, but I don’t believe personal sacrifice on its own confers any specific benefits, it just feels like it should because it is hard, and painful. People often believe that if something is hard or painful, it must be better than something that isn’t.

Not only that, but when people are presented with a better way of doing something that really is easier and less painful, they become angry or resentful. There are several psychological factors in play which create this response including: embarrassment, attachment to the past, resistance to change and feeling their efforts have been devalued. It is much easier to reject the new idea than change their own.

Indeed, psychological factors can go far deeper than that. I was raised in a religion that encouraged extreme sacrifice in the present for a promised rosy post-apocalyptic future. I think this particular religion is successful because of the difficulty of the present-day sacrifices, rather than in spite of them. Pain and suffering seem worthy because they seem real. Like the self-harmer, many people feel tossed around by whirlwinds of emotion, hormones, depression or even imagination and seek to ground themselves in reality with pain.

In addition, the matrix of protestant work ethic perpetual expansion capitalism implies that anyone who toils will receive their just reward, which unfortunately is simply not true. Toil and pain for its own sake will not automatically earn benefits.

Some things are hard and painful but also have a tangible benefit, like working hard at a skill or sport, or (perhaps) putting money in a high interest savings account, but the level of difficulty or pain involved in a project does not automatically indicate its worthiness or utility. As with anything, a quick check on your assumptions about things is often a worthwhile exercise.

Some things are really easy, and fun. Some things that seem difficult don’t have to be. In the affluent parts of the world in particular, life isn’t pain. Life isn’t hard.  Don’t bring down the people who have found a better way; copy them.

Sex is hard to talk about

I recently watched an old Dan Savage video where he answers the question “do threesomes ruin relationships?”. He answered that if there is a problem or some kind of lack in a relationship then adding another person into it for a charged sexual liason might very well ruin a relationship, but successful threesomes happen as well. It’s just that you don’t hear about the successful ones. The people having successful threesomes are not running around telling their friends and family about their hot three-way over dinner; they are not “out” about it.

Over the course of the last year, certain features of my life have enabled me to have regular fulfilling sex – including group sex – in the context of varied yet stable and emotionally fulfilling relationships. These features include being bi, being poly, having good communication skills to establish consent, having bi poly friends and places to hang out together. Safe sex is a top priority, as is consent, as is communicating openly about needs and preferences. If someone finds a new partner, this news is greeted with joy and maintaining other relationships and activities outside of this friendship group is also a priority.

The nature of this sexual contact is such that we find ourselves talking about being happy, being fulfilled, finding positive effects on our mental health and overall wellbeing.

Personally, I have been on a deliberate journey to make sex as positive an experience as possible due to starting from very negative beginnings. The success of this journey is a source of happiness and pride for me.

In the context of the wider world it seems clear that the more sex is talked about with children and young people in an open and honest manner the better their subsequent choices are and the more healthy they can be. Sex can and should be a topic of conversation that is as normal and natural as one’s other activities and hobbies.

As an activist, I would like to be ‘out’, especially about the benefits of group sex, which I have spoken about before. But when I imagined going in to work and someone asking me about my weekend and my reply being that I had a birthday party that involved a select guest list of comfortable friends and we all had amazing sex, I couldn’t see that being taken as an acceptable detail of conversation, even though I’m out to my colleagues in every way I can think of.

I have someone in my life who takes great pains and great pleasure in pointing out that I don’t know what the boundaries are of “normal” conversation and regularly go too far with what I’m willing to say. I find it emotionally draining to trigger someone else’s sense of discomfort (much more so than dealing with my own), even though in most cases of people being ‘out’, it is very much to the greater good that people are exposed to things so that they start to perceive them as normal, or everyday.

It is to everyone’s benefit if we can talk openly about sex (including lack of it), but the social pressure in the UK that bears down upon anyone who wants to start the conversation is weighty indeed.