Battle Scars

I’ve been slowly upgrading my wardrobe, one article at a time. Got a couple good items so far, like sneakers, coats, and what my friend affectionately refers to as my “ass pants.” I don’t like to rush my clothing decisions because there are too many hypebeasts who buy whatever new trend there is and look terrible. They don’t wear their clothes, but the clothing brands wear them. That is, the clothes don’t enhance their personal look and style, but the people wearing the clothes enhance the brand’s value through their endorsement. The next item I was thinking of getting was something in camouflage, and in my nerdy way, I wanted to read up on the subject before landing on a pattern, colour scheme, and which article to get it for. It’s a pretty fascinating subject. There are different domains for animals and military vehicles to hide themselves, like the water, sky, forest, desert. There are different methods of achieving this depending on the milieu, like trying to not cast a shadow, trying to blend in with your surroundings, trying to hide your tracks. Fish will countershade by having a bright belly and a dark top, so predators looking from above and below have a harder time seeing it. There are planes that can avoid detection by radar or other sensors, and animals mask themselves to bypass the physical senses of the prey or predator. Interesting stuff.

It made me ask a few questions. What does it mean to pay homage to the military industrial complex which forced my parents to leave their home country? What does it mean for me to camouflage myself as a human? What purpose will the camouflage serve in my survival? Physically, I stand out from the people around me because of my skin colour. Not only that but I was blessed/cursed with this quick brain, so even if I could look the same as people around me, I sound and act different. That’s something I’ve accepted as I’ve gotten older, that there really isn’t a chance for me to blend in. That being said, I have always been a little secretive with my goals. I generally try to present as plain and unassuming, but in the background, I’m actually working really hard to level up. It’s like the zebra’s camouflage. It’s very easy to spot them, but their striping makes it hard to see where they’re going. If you’re chasing one, it’s hard to tell by looking at it whether it’s going to suddenly cut left or right. For the longest time, I would work my regular job and finish the work assigned to me in an orderly fashion. But outside of work, I’d be reading up on industry trends, researching the next technologies, comparing how different regions handle our company’s problems, not the typical concerns of a worker bee. I was in power transmission, providing power quality reports, but I was reading stuff like how electrical vehicles would impact the country’s infrastructure and how billing would work on a smarter grid, especially as many Canadian parking lots already have some sort of free electrical outlet for block heaters. I tried to make it look effortless, like I just knew this stuff because it was common knowledge, not because I was ambitious and obsessively curious so I could get ahead. As far as clothes go, I’m trying to look more like the streetwear folks, so even by the simple fact that I’m dressing like them, I’m camouflaging to blend in like the kids these days. Maybe I don’t even need the camouflage pattern at all.

There are several ways that I blend into my surroundings. I use my language to sound like a Canadian. I try to be well-read so I can understand what people are talking about. I dress like people here. Nevertheless, I’ve always stuck out my whole life. I’m a person of colour in a province that’s only some 25% visible minorities. Growing up in church, I was the pastor’s kid, so right off the bat, I was different. There was a pretty clear delineation between kids of different ages, and there was only a couple people the same age as me. There were multiple families which shared the same few grandparents, so I stuck out because I wasn’t part of the fam. I was always the smart kid up until high school, where everyone was quite smart, but until then, I stuck out because I got good grades and didn’t struggle as much as my peers academically. Most of my junior high friends went to to high schools with their friends, but I went alone to a different one. Although I later studied engineering, the way I got there was a bit odd because there was my first year where I had to take the Faculty of Science equivalents of the Engineering courses before I could transfer over for second year. When I was 21, I started dating Carrie over long distance for 3.5 years, so there weren’t a lot of people I could relate to for relationship advice. My experience with my family of origin is super unique because there’s probably under 1% of the population that suffers from narcissism, and even if narcissistic family members are bothersome, there are still many people who stay in contact with them. I don’t mean to sound like I’m playing a tiny violin for my pity party, but over the last two weeks thinking about this topic of camouflage, the thought keeps popping up that I can’t really blend in.

Another important theme in camouflage is whether I am the predator or prey. I would say that I’m the latter because most of my significant experiences amounted to me getting away from people trying to attack me. I fought back against the man who sexually abused me as a child. I escaped my father who tried to bleed me to death slowly through emotional abuse. I quit a previous job when HR wanted to play chicken with my mental health. These days I try to just mind my own business. It’s not like I’m from a wealthy family that flipped businesses or homes, swallowing up the little guys, running the show. I have friends who are sharks, making tons of money, pushing their way to the top of the corporate ladder, overtly and aggressively asserting their power and influence to get what they want. Me, I try to slip through amongst the shadows. If I’m ambitious, I play my cards very close to the chest. I’m hyper vigilant due to my trauma, so I notice lots of minor details that most people miss, which I use to sneak around undetected. When I do reveal myself enough to make a move, it’s kind of confusing to most people. These days, people ask me why I work in retail when I’m an engineer. I tell them I do a lot of nothing at home to rest up from accomplishing too much too fast in my youth, which is true, except that I’m really resting up as much as possible so Carrie and I can blaze forward and survive. It helps us a lot when I can do some of the house chores which just require time and a little concentration, so working less and being a house spouse is truly an outworking of my extreme ambition. That doesn’t mean that I’m trying to run this town one day. My goal is still to slip by undetected.

Despite my use of camouflage, I’ve still collected some battle scars along the way. It increases your chances of survival, but it’s not a perfect defence. There are some frightening, lasting effects of abuse that I’m still working on. It’s hard work taking on the predators of this world and trying to escape unscathed, and I’ve taken some big hits along the way. At this age, it feels like there’s a direct trade-off between well-being and financial stability. I know people who got their paper but they’re not happy or well. We’re on the other end of the spectrum, where we’re emotionally and mentally stable, but our money ain’t right. Considering what we’ve been through and where we came from, we’re doing really well. It’s my feeling that with my upbringing, I wasn’t really meant to be happy and healthy, that the chances were really slim that I could live a fulfilling life. Things have stopped getting much worse, and we’re close to a standstill. We’re slowly climbing our way back up, but it’s a week by week process. Every little thing we do needs to be scrutinized, and now’s the time to do it. Any kind of debt should be treated as an emergency, so we’re getting ourselves organized before the long and arduous journey up from this valley. Making more money isn’t exactly a viable option right now, so we’re left with having to cut costs and change behaviours. There is hope. We could always sell our home or sell 3D prints in my new shop. We’re both very employable, so now it’s about reducing the frequency and size of our mistakes and avoiding unforced errors. I can cook like two or three dishes pretty well, and it hasn’t gotten boring yet. Financial responsibility is like 20% knowledge and 80% behaviour, so I’m taking better care of myself so that we can turn this ship around. There are a lot of good resources out there like Mr. Money Moustache, Dave Ramsey, Reddit Personal Finance Canada. Tax returns came in already, which helped us get over a recent hurdle, and now we’re on the right path for the long trek back up to zero. Week by week. Years back, we could have decided to stick with the money instead of our well-being, and we would have crushed our debt by now. Who knows if we would still be together though. It’s going to be really difficult, but it’s possible.

That all being said, there are a couple qualifiers I’d like to attach to our new project. As much as we’re focusing our attention on debt, I don’t want to talk about it all the time. I’m writing about it here so that it helps to process ideas and emotions on the topic, but I hate when money dominates a person’s life. You know those people that are always talking about money, when their life falls apart when gas goes up by half a cent per litre, when they complain about every extra penny they have to spend. I don’t want to be like that. And as much as we’re trying to treat it like an emergency, I’m trying to keep a cool head about it. There’s no use in panicking and worrying about it constantly since that leads directly towards making more mistakes. Staying calm and collected doesn’t exactly make a ton of sense when you look at the amount, but it makes perfect sense when you keep it together enough to consistently make progress on it. Life is more than just money, though money management is an essential part of life. We’re giving ourselves grace and being strict at the same time. We want to use up everything we’ve already bought. We’re saying no more often to all those little $5 to $20 purchases which evaporate your money so easily. There are a lot of direct and indirect moves we’re making right now to slowly inch our way towards stability. We’re doing our homework by budgeting. We’re keeping each other accountable with spending. We’re reaching out for support where we need to. Even being able to talk about it openly helps to take off some of the pressure so we can see a bit more clearly. That all being said, I really wouldn’t have done it any other way. I would rather be in this situation than to owe anything to my family of origin. I think it’s a clear difference between millennials and the previous generation where our parents would rather work and be miserable so they could save up for retirement. Millennials live more for experiences, and they take foolish risks like quitting a well-paying job. Being emotionally stable now allows me to have better judgement, whereas I was making tons more money just a few years ago but I was making way worse mistakes because my emotions were highly volatile and sometimes unpredictable. Money is very important in regards to having a self-regulating existence, but cash doesn’t rule everything around me. My debt doesn’t own me, I own it.

When looking for the next clothing item to buy, I did a little reading on camouflage in hopes that it would inform my purchase. It got me thinking about how I’ve masked myself from detection in my life, and though I had great success in certain areas, I also accumulated some serious battle scars along the way. My emotional and mental health were impacted by my family’s dysfunction and my childhood sexual abuse, and while it took some time to sort that out, now I’m turning my attention to our financial situation. It takes a toll when you have to quit your job unexpectedly, when you have to stand up to your attackers and choose the hard path to go out on your own. Even though it’s not such a great look, I’ll wear my battle scars with pride.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le