Molecules and Bonds

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- Me, if I were a YouTuber

Wow, it’s been almost a year since I last wrote for this blog. So much to catch up on, but who knows how much energy I have for all that. Let’s try to breeze through the highlights.

About a year ago, I started looking for a new job. In November, I left Apple for a small company that manufactures electronic equipment. I wasn’t super qualified for the position, but I did have some skills they were looking for, so the following six-month probation period was filled with me working my ass off to learn the technical side and basically ensure I kept the job. In the same time, Carrie started a new job, studied for a few months for her licensing exams, quit that company, and went full-time into her private practice, which was the completion of a 10-year effort, roughly. To say the least, we were both very busy during that time. While we had three sources of income, we splurged on ourselves to compensate for the rough couple years prior, but since then, we’ve paid down debt, restructured some of it, and have begun to live more sensibly. Things are comfortable again, though we still have our struggles.

I started therapy again back in the spring. I had to take a break a couple years ago so that I could shift the focus from my emotional and mental health in favour of my financial health. Carrie carried us through a lot of those years with her income, so it was time for me to begin contributing again in a meaningful way. Now that our finances are back in order, I’m slowly dipping my feet back into the psychological waters, with the main difference being to sustainably balance all the areas of my life at the same time. It’s like when you walk a tight rope and lose balance. You have to shift your weight all the way to the right, then to the left, and slowly you have smaller shifts and swings back and forth until you reach that balance in the middle. From my monthly appointments with my psychologist, the contents in my mental pot have all gotten stirred around again, so I need to start externalizing my thoughts again in order to make sense of the mixture. It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve heard from a couple people recently that they missed my writing. With that quick recap, let’s dive right back in to see what’s on my mind.

An idea that I’ve been chewing on is about two aspects of our relationships with each other. You have to make judgements about both the person’s character and your connection with that person. Using my fuzzy memory of high school chemistry as an analogy, you study characteristics of different molecules on their own as well as their bonds with other chemicals. There are well documented properties shared by all kinds of chemicals, like melting point, colour, texture, reactivity, density, and mass. In addition to that, there are also well-known interactions when they are placed together with other substances in certain environments, like the reaction when dissolving in water or alcohol at standard atmospheric temperature and pressure. Without dwelling too much on the analogy, there are certain types of characters when it comes to humans, as well as known interactions between these types of people. You have the best friend relationship, the parent-child dynamic, employer-employee, classmates, the frenemy. I’ve been taking inventory of my relationships by examining not only how I get along with another individual, but also what kind of person they are as well. I don’t mean to say that I typecast people into rigid categories, but it is worth evaluating the nature of the person with whom you’re in a relationship. Are they honest, mean-spirited, ethical, self-centred, hard-working, interesting, open-minded, considerate, troubled? What’s their schedule? Where do they live? What’s their energy like? What’s their vibe? These are all questions we inherently answer for the people in our lives, so it’s worthwhile to make it explicit and to be conscious of what those answers are and how they change with time.

Why am I thinking about relationship dynamics and people’s characters? Oddly enough, it stems from my recent commuting experience to my current job. I drive to and from work most days now, some 15 minutes per direction. I’m fortunate in that sense because it’s in the opposite direction of most traffic in the city, so I can drive quite quickly with minimal cost relative to the people sitting in bumper-to-bumper gridlock on the other side of Deerfoot Trail. I used to be quite ruthless on the road, driving quickly, tailgating, cursing, zooming around people, retaliating against those who tried to skirt the unwritten rules of the road. Now that I’m a bit older, I don’t have the energy to get so upset at people. I actually don’t enjoy driving anymore, which has become such a chore even with my easy route. The main insight that got me thinking about relationships is how I would so quickly and permanently judge someone based on their maneuvering on the road next to me, while I was also making mistakes and being rude to others at the same time. These days, I’m actually quite anxious on the road, fairly conservative relative to Calgary drivers with my speed, and I’m mature enough to see how I would sometimes hate driving behind me if I were in those drivers’ seats. I’m no longer the young, hot, brash male driver who needs to be in the fast lane to get to my destination two minutes earlier. I can take my time, let others pass, even show up late, and accept that I’m not a race car driver despite winning a race against coworkers at go-karts once. I’ve judged people harshly on their driving, but I realized how I wouldn’t want to be judged that way, based solely on a single aspect of my entire being during a short timespan on the road with another person. 

Not long ago, I was driving in the fast lane on my way home after work, changing the music on my phone to suit my stress level, when I noticed a coworker driving behind me. He decided that I wasn’t driving the way he wanted me to, changed lanes to pass, looked over, and was a bit shocked to see that it was me. After changing my music, I caught up to the normal speed and passed him, but that moment gave me pause. What would he think of me? Did he really notice it was me? Did I undo my faux-pas when I sped back up to everyone’s speed in that lane? Would he judge me forever on that one moment and interaction?

More seriously, I realize that the way I’ve interacted with people in the past could deem me in one moment as the most evil person they knew as well as the kindest angel on earth in another. For example, when I was working in the Genius Bar at Apple, there were many moments when I made a customer so happy they were in tears, later emailing my managers about the depth of my empathy and humanity, while in the same hour I could have been another customer’s worst, rudest customer service representative ever who would later turn them off of the company’s entire product line for the rest of their lives. Both of them could have been correct about me. Now, would it matter to them that I think I’m really a nice guy? Would it matter to them what my overall score was on customer surveys and coworker feedback? That’s also one of my fears in writing for this blog, that someone would take a single line or post out of context, vilifying me irreversibly, judging me accurately or otherwise without considering the other data points of who I am. That’s the inherent risk and asymmetry of this kind of interaction though, so I have to own that. Once upon a time, I was a bully in elementary school. Would any of my victims care to know that I was bullied at home? Does it undo the damage that I did or pay for the ripple effects I contributed to in their future relationships? Would it matter to them that I no longer behave that way, that I sought treatment and processed the negative and toxic influences in my life to seek to help others much later in my life? 

Carrie and I have been talking lately about the impacts of today’s Cancel Culture, where someone is completely written off today for a previous mistake. Cancel Culture says that anyone can be silenced at any time for an oversight in the past, which is at the same time the best and worst policy depending on how you feel about who it’s pointed at. Is that fair? Is there room for growth? Can I disavow my past self for doing or saying something I now regret? Can I apologize and ask for forgiveness even when I don’t deserve it? If you’ve followed my blog for a minute, you know how I stopped talking to my family because of how our dysfunctional system drained the life out of me. Was I wrong for cancelling them? Should I allow them back in my life if they apologize? Should they cancel me in return for missing recent weddings and funerals? Should I cancel myself?

I do miss my family, at least the aspect of the bonds we shared. It’s hard to replace, having people who have known you for so long, who have your history, who aren’t afraid to call you out. However, the big turning point for me was when I looked deeper at what kind of people/molecules I was interacting with. Asian culture can strongly emphasize the family bond at the cost of everything else. I’ve heard numerous stories of families sweeping major crises or scandals under the rug. That’s a value that was often repeated to me when people commented on the dirty laundry I aired, that family comes above all else. However, I couldn’t carry on with my immediate family relationships. There are people whose characters are asbestos, nicotine, poisonous lead. There are those that are highly reactive and volatile, weeds that behave like grass but suck all the nutrients out of your environment. There are species that eat their own young. I didn’t base my decision on a single interaction or moment, but there has been some decades of both good and bad times. I also don’t cancel relationships when friends do bad things. I have close friends who have committed egregious acts in their past, while their other friends have cancelled them, based on those very sins. I continue to stick beside them because I’ve seen who they are across numerous scenarios and situations. I know them as much as I’m able to with the time given us.

There’s more to an individual than a single decision, but admittedly some are much worse than others. My point is that we need to make these decisions on an objective level, not solely on how great our dynamics might be with certain individuals. I can’t be friends with someone who is actively evil and oppressive just because we can laugh at the same jokes. But I also need to take into account that we’re all human, that we all make mistakes. And though we should all be allowed to be imperfect and have room to grow and change, we cannot blind ourselves to the need to judge ourselves and others based on the content of our character.

Unmaking a Narcissist

This year is when I felt like everything started making sense. All the work I put into my future, whether that was my marriage, career, personal development, it’s all coming to a head right now, and moving forward, I feel like I can live a fulfilling and meaningful life. The combination of the privilege I enjoyed, the suffering I endured, and the choices I made all seem to have converged into this state of balance. Everyone’s “age of convergence” is unique. Even within families, it can differ because of each person’s unique experiences and personalities. I think parents like to think they love and treat all their kids equally, but we all know that’s not true. Looking back, getting it together meant that I had to process what it meant to grow up in a narcissistic home and then to choose how to reconcile that in my own life moving forward.

What does it mean to “get it together?” It’s pretty subjective, but you could relate it to Maslow’s self-actualization. You know what you want to do for a career. You get the education and training you want. You know where you want to live. You have the friends and support you need. One of my mentors said they found their thirties to be their best decade. All the awkwardness and silliness of their teens and twenties was behind them, so their thirties were simply focused on staying the course and smoothing everything out. 30 is not the new 20. I can relate, as many things have lined up for me recently: hobbies, marriage, friendships, living arrangement, work, health.

Some people’s lives never converge. Some kids are shot and killed in gang fights. Children of anti-vaxxers suffer an early and easily preventable death. School buses full of children are blown up by missiles in wartime. Victims of abuse may never find the right balance of treatment, therapy, and other supports in order to survive and live a life of dignity.

I played a lot of catch-up in the last few years. I felt like I was falling behind in a lot of ways because of my dad’s over-emphasis on my success in my career. I was socially awkward, self-sabotaging, mentally and physically unhealthy. Going into therapy and quitting my job all contributed towards me catching up and reaching a balance earlier than fate had in store for me. Essentially, it meant untangling all the implications of living in a home with narcissists, including removing those tendencies within myself.

Normally, I try not to think about my family and their problems. That’s kind of how I grew up, taking on their issues since they didn’t take responsibility and spilled them all over the place, so nowadays I try instead to focus on my own stuff. As one does these days, Carrie was bored, so she went on YouTube looking for something to watch. I don’t know why YouTube’s algorithm suggested it, but there was a video that popped up called “Dating a Narcissist.” She shared it with me, not because one of us is a narcissist but because it shed light on what it felt like to be in a relationship with my family.

One of the lessons I learned from this video is that narcissists are made, not born. One of the conditions for making a narcissist is when a child is both overindulged and underindulged. A parent will cheer on their child at their team’s sporting event but won’t get involved with the more mundane, daily activities of the relationship like helping with homework. It’s both too much emotional involvement in one moment and too little in the next. We felt that in our childhood home, with both my parents working a lot to provide a good life for us. There was always a vacuum for attention. No one was getting the support or quality time they needed. With so many people in the house, and as the kids entered their teenage years, our individual schedules started to fluctuate and diverge. Dad was always away on mission trips, Mom was stretched between working at the hospital and taking care of the home, we mostly attended different schools in any given year. Being the pastor, my dad would always take people in if they needed a place to crash for a while, anywhere from a night to a couple years. It wasn’t all bad, but it certainly contributed to most of us feeling neglected and unheard. My personality developed as the peacemaker, often volunteering to step out of the situation so that others could get their needs met, usually by lending a listening ear, so being ignored is a veritable sore spot for me.

Narcissists feel empty inside. They don’t have a rich inner life where they process emotion in a healthy way and accept who they are and who they aren’t. There isn’t that sustainable, dependable emotional feeding that happens like in normal people, so there’s this feedback loop that grows the emptiness inside while simultaneously increasing how much praise and validation they cultivate from others. You could see this trait in my family through our interactions with strangers, especially with those from the service industry. Because of the natural power dynamic of receiving service, my brothers and I would hold these poor folks hostage with our awkward small talk, pressing and reaching until we received validation that we were funny or charming or witty. When we were in university, many people would say “Oh, I know your brother!” Chris, Josh, and I all had our own forms of popularity, with my circle of influence being the smallest of the three. We became known as The Lê Brothers, an identity I began to shun after I graduated as I started the process of ghosting and eventually ending contact with my family. Even these days, I struggle with this reflex, this learned instinct to demand more attention for my accomplishments. A sentiment that was often repeated in our home was “One day, they’ll see. They’ll all see.” It became ingrained into our psyches that there was this unjust absence of recognition, which I think a lot of us can relate to in this noisy world. However, repeating this mantra too often can over-inflate the ego and turn it into this superhero complex, hence why narcissists’ self-identity can never be fully fed.

I had to shed many of my narcissism early on in my relationship with Carrie in order to keep her around, but there are some bits that remain. Much of the work that I did has been well-documented on this blog over the past three odd years. I still have delusions of grandeur, fantasizing about being famous or world-renown for something, giving interviews like I were a celebrity promoting their latest product. I still struggle with needing far too much praise from those around me. Far too often, I’ve done so much to impress others only too find that their appreciation and praise of me was lacking. In a classical conditioning way, I learned that the only way to get love and affection from my dad was to do and be what he wanted, so I sought that validation in others as well. I’ve written a few times before about how I would fish for compliments from people, and then when I got them, I wouldn’t be able to internalize or accept that praise. Even when Carrie tells me how much she loves me, sometimes my walls shoot up and I emotionally shut down. It’s a reflex where, due to the fluctuating emotional support I received as a child, I have a hard time trusting what people are saying about me. I’m afraid of it being true, that there are people who love me and have good feelings about me. Growing up, my core belief about myself was that I wasn’t good enough, where my dad constantly reminded me that I didn’t meet his expectations. Even though it feels way better to accept these compliments, the skepticism and hesitation comes from the disagreement with my core identity. I’ve struggled over the past five years to change my core identity, so it’s getting easier to accept those compliments. I know in my head that I’m worthy of love, but it’s harder to convince my heart that it’s true and to integrate that belief into the entirety of who I am. It sounds weird, but it can be terrifying to feel good about myself. I think there’s a lot to like about me.

According to Dr. Ramani, she’s rarely ever seen a narcissist turn things around, let alone seeing a relationship with one survive. If you remain in a relationship with a narcissist, she says you have to really lower your expectations from that person, plus you have to get your emotional support from everyone else around you. In my situation, it’s not worth the trouble; I don’t have the energy for them. It’s been about two and a half years since I stopped contact with my family. My parents have been reaching out lately, probably because of our wedding anniversary. People still want us to try to patch things up with my family, but it’s not happening. We were asked if we’d remain no-contact even until my dad dies, and the answer is yes. He’s been dead to me ever since I was a teen, so not much will really change once he physically dies. I will be sad, I might cry, but it’s been over for a long time. They’re not changing. I’d be open to letting them apologize if it were genuine and not just lip service, but even that’s just not happening.

I’ve gotten my shit together lately. My life has converged in a way that I like, and I’m quite happy about that. Many of the components have fallen into place, and the larger theme running through them is how I handled the narcissism I lived with around me and inside me. It’s been some two and a half years since I stopped talking to my family, and nothing’s about to change. I’m still working on the narcissism within myself, and the simple yet terrifying way I’ve been doing that is by learning to accept compliments and to feel good about who I am. Ya, I’m pretty lovely.

Ode to a Dishwashing Machine

I’m no longer overextended. I’m able to truly rest and take on extra things only when I’m capable. It’s amazing. I don’t have so much to untangle or juggle or multitask or squeeze. Everything happens more or less in its own time, and it’s a welcome change. I haven’t been this free in probably five years.

The main reason for my new freedom is because we just got a portable dishwasher. It’s perfect. Normally I would take care of buying home appliances as a house spouse, but Carrie took the initiative. Our place is too small for a traditional one, which left us with only a few countertop options. We were prepared to spend $300 to buy it brand new since there weren’t many listings on Kijiji. However, Carrie found one going for $200. The seller was super nice too. They’d used it for a short while but didn’t need it anymore. They even included the little faucet adapter, and they communicated clearly over email and in person. It fit perfectly on our countertop and under our cabinets, and it’s surprisingly spacious inside. Noise is a huge factor for us too since we live in such a small space, and the dishwasher runs super quiet while we sleep. We had a bigger one in our old condo and it was noisy as hell, even with the bedroom door closed. Everything about this new one is just amazing.

As an engineer and technology enthusiast, I feel strongly about automating basic tasks to the robots. Computers and machines taking over menial tasks for humans unlocks our potential to do better things. Hans Rosling discusses how he could receive an education because the washing machine took over laundry duty for his grandmother, who then taught his mother how to read. I highly recommend watching his talk.

Picture Carrie washing almost all of our dishware for the last 5 years while I put them away once they dried. I probably helped to wash them about 10%-15% of the time. Throughout Carrie’s full-time work and school, she would still wash dishes for 30 minutes to an hour every day while simultaneously pushing out 80-100 hours of labour every week. I’m a great husband, eh?

I have lots of little issues with dishwashing. I hate getting my hands dirty, even if it’s to clean. Putting on rubber gloves doesn’t really help either because it gets hot and uncomfortable and tight, and I’m slightly claustrophobic and hate confined spaces. The amount of dirty dishes we generate is quite a bit for a family of two since we cook and eat at home more nowadays. The corner where our kitchen sink sits isn’t spacious, and it’s not terribly well-lit either. I’m not great at stacking dishes in the drying rack. I also generally like to over-clean them, so I take extra long to scrub simple things like chopsticks. These speed bumps can all be overcome, meaning it just takes a lot more energy for me to approach this particular chore, but there’s a larger reason why I hate it. Surprise, surprise, I have some childhood issues around dishwashing.

The first time I tried to help my mom wash the dishes was when I was around five or six years old. I wanted to help her clean up after a meal, so I asked if I could wash some bowls. I scrubbed them down, rinsed them, and put them in the drying rack, very proud of myself for helping out the family even though I was just a kid. Then my mom did some quality assurance inspections on my work and found that there were some defects. She pulled me over and pointed out the soap bubbles still sliding off the white bowls.

“Why didn’t you rinse these bowls?”

“I don’t know. I thought I did. I can do it again.”

“Why did you do this? How come there’s still soap on the bowls?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see it. I’ll do it again.”

“Do you want us to eat food with soap in it?! Is that why?!” she asked, pulling me by the arm to the drying rack so I could see my handiwork.

“No! I didn’t know. Please just let me fix it.”

I cried and never forgot that experience. I never fully processed it over all these years, so it has come up several times in unexpected outbursts. My mom has no recollection of it. That’s just a heartbreaking image to me. A child trying their best to help out their parents and then getting absolutely fucking reamed out for a little mistake. As a result, I’ve always hated the chore my whole life. I get that my parents were probably stressed while raising us, stretched too far due to being poor refugees raising four little devils. I still want to know why my mom treated me like that. Even to this day, if I have to wash the dishes at home or at a friend’s place, whether by hand or by loading the washer, I have flashbacks to that day in the house where I grew up in Edmonton. I can see how tall the countertop was relative to how short I was. I can see my mom looming over me and shouting at me. I can still see the white bowl, covered with bubbles.

Corelle Butterfly Gold, the dishware that we and everyone else seemed to have in the 90’s.

Corelle Butterfly Gold, the dishware that we and everyone else seemed to have in the 90’s.

Some will argue that this is the best way to teach children. Bring the hammer down on them early on, and they won’t forget the lesson. I think that’s true, but there are certain scenarios where it’s more appropriate. Studies show that encouraging young children on their efforts rather than their intelligence teaches them to work hard and keep trying, having a growth mindset and learning how to learn, whereas the inverse causes them to perform worse long term. You could crack the whip on your kids to produce immediate results, but you pay the price by testing the relationship and weakening the child’s long-term adaptability. I was always told by my dad and others that I would understand their lessons once I was older. Well, I’m 30 years old now, and I hardly ever washed dishes until I got this dishwasher. How much older do I have to be for them to admit they were wrong on this one?

It didn’t help that over the years, my brothers and I fought over chores all the time. My parents had to cook elaborate meals for four growing boys, so there was always a mountain of dishes every day. If we weren’t forced to do it, we would leave them alone, though that was our general attitude to most of the home chores. After I moved out and before I stopped contact with my family, I visited maybe every couple months. Some years ago, they actually got a dishwasher installed, after probably 15 years of having a cutout under the counter specifically made for one but left empty in favour of storing things like the garbage and various cleaning supplies. I was beyond enthused for the household. “This,” I thought, “would finally end all of the strife over this chore.”

Wrong.

They still forced the kids to wash dishes by hand. At this time, my younger cousin had moved in, and she was made to spend a lot of time at the sink. My brother and his girlfriend were living there temporarily as well, and she also was made to help out by scrubbing dishes, amongst other things. Even Carrie had to help out whenever she visited, which was a misguided effort by my parents to teach the girls how to be responsible wives. Both women were already far more mature and responsible than the four of us boys. Seeking to put an end to all this misery, I tried to encourage/force my parents to use the dishwasher. I thought they just needed someone to teach them, so I showed them how to load it and run the cycle. Nope, didn’t take. Okay, so maybe they were just older and need time to adjust because they had older habits carried over from decades of momentum. Hm, well, they took really strongly to their iPhones and learned quickly how to take photos and send emails and texts, despite the larger learning curve, so clearly they could learn if they were properly motivated. Okay, so maybe they were just old school and distrusted machines doing a proper job versus good old human dexterity and skill. Well, I don’t know, my mom had so much back pain from working on her feet for 30 odd years that she used the massage chair almost every day. So no, they didn’t have some distrust of machines. I thought maybe the prices ere too high for all the detergent and rinse aid, so Carrie and I bought them a few large tubs to get them started. They appreciated it a lot. Probably one of the better gifts I ever bought them since it was practical and they didn’t like receiving decorative or fancy things. Well, that still didn’t get them into the habit of using the dishwasher. I shared studies and facts about saving water, how much cleaner the dishes would be since humans can’t handle the higher temperatures and stronger detergents and higher water pressures, how immigrants associated hard labour with soul redemption, and on and on until I was blue in the face. Couldn’t convince them through logical arguments either. So what was the hold up? Why wouldn’t they change their ways to make the home a much happier place?

Power and control. The patriarchy was alive and well in this house. Since they couldn’t really vocalize their objection despite me constantly peppering them with questions, the only thing left to conclude was that they delighted in making the kids do the hard work. Part of it is from receiving that treatment when they were children. They must have been forced to do all sorts of crap jobs because that’s the social structure in Vietnam. Chores were used as punishments, so maybe that’s why it was impossible to transition them to using the dishwasher. Sometimes my dad wouldn’t even let us help each other out by splitting up the jobs between rinsing, scrubbing, and drying. It was the one lever they could pull to remind the kids who was in charge, and it worked. My parents cooked, paid the bills, so the kids damn well better wash the dishes. It’s the least we could do! The unfortunate part is that the argument worked. I was the only one who really wanted to rebel, which was easier since I didn’t live there anymore. I came in and rocked the boat, told my parents to use the dishwasher so the kids wouldn’t have to suffer. I think the suffering was the whole point of the exercise.

Everyone has to decide whether to pass on the pain they experience or to prevent it for others. When driving, I’ve personally given up on moving out of the fast lane on Deerfoot Trail. There, I said it. It isn’t enforced here (as far as I know), and there are jurisdictions that ticket you if you drive slow in the fast lane. I get that by driving slowly in the left lane, I create an unsafe driving condition because people that want to pass me have to change lanes, zoom ahead, then get back into the left lane. On the other hand, every time I move out of the fast lane to make way for the speeders, I encounter five other people who’ll never move out of my way when I’m in a hurry, even though I politely keep my distance and avoid tailgating them. I’ve driven tens of thousands of kilometres on the highway in my 15 years on the road, and I’m just fed up with people not reciprocating my proper road manners. Even more, it’s a systemic safety issue for the government and traffic law enforcement because they haven’t created and maintained a culture of consideration, with driver re-testing and public service announcements and enforcing the numerous signs they put up that say SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT. In short, I have often acted safely on the road by moving out of the fast lane when people want to pass, but since almost nobody does it for me, I just maintain my speed in the fast lane now, even if big, mean-looking trucks tailgate me aggressively. That is, since I have to suffer behind slow people in the fast lane, I pass on that suffering to people behind me. So I understand where my parents are coming from with the chores. They grew up in an extremely strict, conservative environment. Now that they’re older and in charge, they’re relishing the opportunity to force the kids to do their bidding.

Every one of our parents does considerable emotional damage. And from what I've heard, it just might be the best part of being a parent.

Dr. Perry Cox

Stopping the spread of suffering. This is where I try to demonstrate that I understand both sides of this coin. I’ve done a lot in the past few years to ensure that I don’t pass on the suffering I endured. I had this massive ego cultivated in a narcissistic environment, and I’ve done a lot to humble myself and to try to see myself more clearly. That way I don’t hurt the people around me because now I have a smaller, more accurate boundary around my self-identity, and those boundaries aren’t violated as much since they don’t take up as much room. Growing up, I was mostly praised for what I could produce instead of for who I was, so now I’ve switched up a lot of my work and hobbies to be an outpouring and reflection of my intrinsic value rather than a perpetual pursuit for meaning through my productivity. Again, I did this so that I won’t require so much validation from the people close to me for my acts of service because I’ll help out from a place of love instead of neediness. Further, instead of constantly asserting my brains and wit over everyone to remind them how much better I was than them, I’m learning to hold my tongue and to let others shine. I take on mentorship and coaching roles whenever I can because I felt so lost growing up as a kid, with no one really taking me under their wing to develop and nurture my potential. I’ve chosen my relationships over my work, time and time again, ensuring I don’t repeat the devastation my dad caused on our family by picking his career over us. I know that, in their own way, my parents worked hard to give us a better life than they had. They worked very hard to give us a large and comfortable home, vacations, cars and fuel, and an education. However, I would have traded it all just to spend more time with them. Now that I’m a little older, I see some parents provide that same type of lifestyle to their kids as a form of overcompensation, when really the children are happy to just have their parents’ time and attention. Maybe that’s all my parents could manage in their own version of protecting us from the suffering they faced, and I’m just an ungrateful little prick. This is just another example of how we couldn’t get along. Maybe it’s not a dealbreaker on its own, but I fought unsuccessfully to protect my siblings from my parents torturing them with a chore when it was completely unnecessary. Regardless, I have my own family to protect from suffering, and disconnecting from them protects me and Carrie, as well as our future children. Having a dishwashing machine is another way I’ll protect my family from suffering.

When I shared the news of the dishwasher with my friends, some of them were confused why it was such a big deal. When you’ve always had a dishwasher, it’s hard to empathize with those who’ve struggled without one for years, so I can understand why they couldn’t match my enthusiasm. However, for me, buying the dishwasher was a big blow to the mental and emotional complex I had surrounding that particular chore. It’s a rebellion against the power and control my parents always sought to have over us. I tried to free my siblings and cousin from it during the few years of contact I had with them after I moved out, but my parents weren’t having it. I hope I’m wrong about them. I hope they’ve shifted to using their own dishwasher more often, changing the arguments from who will wash the dishes by hand to who will load or unload the dishwasher. I don’t even know who lives in that house now anymore, so maybe it’s a moot point altogether. I sincerely hope so. Maybe my approach was entirely wrong, trying to change the house rules when I wasn’t the one paying the mortgage. Maybe it’s only okay for them to deeply violate my boundaries and maybe it’s not okay for me to do the same to them.

This dishwasher is saving our lives these days. I feel grateful to be able to hand over some grueling chores to the robots. It’s addressing some deeply painful experiences from growing up with my family, from a traumatizing first attempt at helping my parents wash the dishes as a kid to the frequent arguments and struggles every week with my brothers over who would take the dishwashing bullet for the team. For some reason, my parents really wanted us to do them by hand even though there was a perfectly functioning machine that could do a better job and provide some peace in the home, but I can only think that they wanted to exert their power and control. They must have needed to pass on the suffering they experienced as kids, even as they protected us from other forms of suffering in their provision as parents. I can’t really know since they could never really explain why anyone had to be miserable washing dishes in the sink instead of delegating to the robot. It doesn’t matter anymore since I’ve stopped talking to them. Now Carrie and I spend more time together at night, saying how much we love each other and our new dishwasher.

Moving On

We’re managing really well these days, and it’s mostly because of my down time. It may not look like we’re thriving, but we are. Most of our recent financial challenges are behind us now, we’re showing up for our friends and family, we’re getting enough sleep, we’re eating well, we’re getting out and partying with our friends plenty. We haven’t moved the line much on our debt, but we stopped it from growing, a worthy accomplishment on its own. To the untrained eye, it may look like we’re leading a fairly normal life, but we’re accomplishing quite a lot with what we have. Sometimes we’re tempted to just cut back on enjoying ourselves, like not partying two or three nights a weekend, but that’s a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t really help us long term. People also get really caught up on the fact that Carrie makes most of the money while I make so little working part-time. We’re non-traditional. We do what we want. I work full time, but I only get paid for about half of it. Being a house spouse is a job too, but like Ali Wong says, there are no coworkers and I don’t get investment matching for my retirement.

Lately, I’ve been trying to quantify how much nothing I need to do every day. Not all down time is made equal. Sometimes I’ll close my eyes and sleep. Other times, I’ll let my thoughts roam and wander. Deep breathing is key too, which does something to my parasympathetic nervous system and lets the rest of my body know that everything is going to be okay. It’s almost like I’m wrestling myself every morning, and I win by slamming my body onto the couch or bed and staring out the windows at the sky. I wouldn’t quite call it meditation, which I understand to be quite focused. My down time is usually aimless and wandering. Sometimes it’s five minutes at a time peppered throughout the day. Other times it’s a single session for multiple hours. People tell me it takes quite a bit of discipline to do, which never really occurred to me. I get that it’s hard to get around to it, but the word “discipline” has come up three times now. I’ll have to unpack that eventually. In my mind, the benefits are so clear that it’s crucial. Non-negotiable. Both our lives right now are hinging on me taking down time. I’m so busy that I urgently need to do a lot of nothing. When my anxiety pushes me to do too much and I don’t know how to proceed, I lie down. I’ll only get up once it becomes clear how to proceed. An important milestone once I’m laying there is feeling like I’m returning to my true self. It’s like I snap back to reality. That’s partly why I’m not writing so much these days. I’m not so mixed up emotionally, so doing nothing is often a better use of my time than writing. I can’t write unless I create space by doing nothing. Half an hour a day seems pretty good. I stop when I get bored. This practice is all based on the underlying assumption that I’m always trying to do too much, so if that ever changes, then this system stops working. An hour a day is a fine goal. Half an hour a day seems attainable, though each day is so different that an average is practically meaningless.

Money is still kinda tight. I don't like to be stingy because it's usually a short-term improvement that costs us again in the medium-long term, but it's hard to argue when you need to squeeze every dollar. Considering our cash flow is pretty decent, we resort to penny pinching a surprising amount. These past few months, we’ve made a lot of behavioural changes like cooking more, using what we have, saying no to new purchases, cutting our grocery bills, checking insurance plans and details so we can maximize our benefits. There was a point where I had become so fixated on activities like skipping snacks at work to save money that I started to lose sight and feel discouraged. It didn’t really feel like we were moving the needle in any meaningful way, and then randomly one day, Carrie asked how much I weighed. I hadn’t stepped on the scale for months because I made a decision a while ago to stop focusing on getting healthier, so I thought it was pointless to check. Alas, after ignoring my weight for a couple months, I lost 10 pounds! I haven’t weighed this little since 2014. That was a nice feeling. I’m not even really that unhappy with the way I look or feel, but it showed that we had made some progress somewhere. Looking at our budget as well, we’ve cut a ton of costs and made much smarter purchases, and every little bit counts. Sometimes we treat ourselves to candy or a bag of chips, but I think that’s okay.

There are lots of ways where I’m not fully healthy. There was a time where I stopped everything just so I could focus on working on myself, which I refer to as The Struggle, but nowadays I have to move on and manage things along the way. Here are some of those things I have to manage.

I’m still more extrinsically motivated than I’d like to be; that is, I seek external validation more than I think is healthy. I’m taking better care of my body, but I’m doing it for other people’s approval. I exfoliate, moisturize, and groom mostly because I want to look better to others. It’s not because I care about taking better care of myself and to live longer and to nourish my skin because it’s my largest organ and needs so much care to continue functioning. I want to have a very muscular build, even though I’m not going to the gym right now. I think it’s normal and healthy to want to improve our appearance to be more appealing to others, but I know the way I’m motivating myself now is not sustainable or ideal. I’ve kept it a little too real in the past, which wasn’t great either because I would feel bad about my appearance. It’s currently not a balanced mix of doing it for myself and others. There are some areas now where I’m solely doing it for external validation, so even if I have some work to do here, it’s not so severe that I have to pause my life to work on it.

Anxiety. Right now I picture how much energy it would take an emotionally healthy person to perform a task, and then I imagine that I have some 10-15% tax on it that makes it harder for me. Sometimes I have to check information a dozen times. Whenever I start or end anything, I like to take my sweet precious time to transition smoothly between activities. Take laundry as an example. I’m very particular about the order in which I perform certain chores. I like to have all the dirty clothes with me, already separated into different loads. Then I start the water, grab the detergent, open the laundry machine lid, put in the detergent, close the lid, put the detergent away, open the lid again, put the clothes in, close it again. I like for the detergent to disperse in the water so that it’s more gentle on the clothes, and it takes some time for the water to fill up enough to spread it around. That doesn’t seem too different from other people’s laundry routines, but the trouble comes in when I curse myself for doing things out of order. Sometimes I toss the clothes in, start the machine, then grab the detergent. No, that doesn’t work for me. Sometimes I want to start the machine before gathering up the clothes. No. I yell at myself, and then I have to step backwards to start over again. That’s my anxiety requiring extra control of my behaviour because I have too much fear around doing it wrong. This goes for other things like making coffee, cooking, cleaning, my morning routine, traveling. The anxiety tells me that there will be life-altering consequences if I do things in the wrong sequence, but even if I know in my head that those fears are patently false, I can’t always fight the voice. You know you’re not supposed to scratch those mosquito bites, but sometimes you have to, even if it causes more bleeding or damage to the skin. It just feels good to give in sometimes, and that’s how I live with anxiety. I can’t fight it all the time, so I have to take it along for the ride.

I also have this pervading feeling of defeat, of brokenness. There were multiple large battles that I fought during The Struggle where I feel that I mostly came out on top, but you can’t help but take some painful blows during a war. Nowadays I can barely raise my hands in protest when I know I should. I can’t even haggle or barter for simple things like buying and selling secondhand items. Right now I just hope and pray that conflict doesn’t come my way because I know I won’t win the fight. I have so little energy that I categorize most conflicts as “not worth the trouble.” That isn’t to say that I can’t or don’t fight back at all. I do, but only on essentials. I still have to hold a really hard line with my family of origin because sometimes they try to contact me even though they haven’t changed. I’ve blocked or filtered them from most possible means of ingress, but they still come knocking despite not doing the work I need them to do. Every once in a while I’ll miss them too and think to reach out. Then I have to give my head a shake and cuss myself out. That doesn’t leave much nerve or audacity to haggle over $20 with someone from Kijiji. It also takes a lot of risk to keep an open posture. Not just a physical one, but an emotional, mental one, an attitude of openness to the possibilities left in life. It’s easier for me to be bitter, to feel betrayed and think that the world owes me. It’s also a dark and lonely place that isolates me from the goodness and joy in my everyday experience. I used to live in a perpetual pity party, and it only feels good for a short while. I think the only way I can respond to injustice and pain is through art. I have to talk, write, and dance it out. Retaliation isn’t the answer, tempting and satisfying as it is. All these things leave me feeling too drained to sweat the small stuff, so I have to keep on.

I’m still very much traumatized. I still have these vivid moments of dissociation where I visualize myself in grave danger when there is clearly nothing threatening me in that moment. I’ll walk around the corner, and I’ll imagine that someone is lurking there, ready to stab me to death, and I have to figure out a way to defend myself and disarm them. Sometimes I’ll host these ridiculous arguments in my head, where my opponent randomly comes up to me and shouts obscenities, somehow knowing all my weaknesses and saying everything I would hate to hear about myself. I know those are echoes of my family, taking logically absurd stances in shouting matches just to get their way. That’s not really going away, and as far as I can tell, I would need to go back to see a therapist in order to settle some of that stuff. Is that PTSD? I’m functioning, but functioning, or even succeeding, isn’t ideal given the news of people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. It’s possible to be successful and have mental health issues. To be confused about that is like wondering how successful people can still break their bones. That’s what I focused on mostly during The Struggle, disarming the trauma so that I could carry on with a “normal” life, like having a job and maintaining my marriage. It’s not all gone, but it’s at a level where I can keep an eye on it week by week.

Obsessive cleaning. I never really knew it was a problem, but when I was in counselling, I would have to fill out surveys (also called scales) every four sessions so they could track my progress. One of the questions asked if I washed my hands too much, which I thought was a bit odd, but I figured they probably had a good reason to ask. Fast forward to reading the book on “Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families” these past months. They mention that obsessive cleaning is a byproduct of dysfunctional families, needing to control your environment when you’re feeling uncomfortable. I tend to hate getting things on my hands. I hate washing dishes, I don’t like wearing my wedding or engineering rings, I hate putting wax in my hair, and I tend to wash my hands a lot throughout the day. I’m not quite OCD, as I understand it to be quite debilitating, but it’s probably another symptom of my anxiety. From a moral stance, there could be an aspect of feeling guilty and wanting to wash the sins from my hands. From a biological perspective, the hands are one of the most interconnected body parts with the brain, so they’re a pretty good indicator of what’s going on in the old noodle. When I wash my hands with the expensive, smooth, and fragrant lemongrass self-foaming hand soap, it allows me to wring my hands together, which is one of those behaviours you associate with people who are terribly worried. This area probably deserves its own treatment, so I’m not really gonna work on it for now.

To keep balance, I party a lot. Even though I talk a lot about feeling the squeeze with money, we have a big line item in our budget reserved for going out with friends, boozing, and traveling to and from parties. It doesn’t look like it should fit into the overall priority of saving money, but this is how I live my best life. I work hard, I play hard. I work full time like everyone else, but I only get paid about 20 hours a week. House spousing ain’t easy. Partying is necessary, and apparently I’m not slowing down even though I’m an old man.

When in doubt, it’s better for me to be safe than sorry. I take the lower risk option. We’re currently committed to getting Carrie through this next year to become fully registered. Trouble’s gonna find me regardless, so I need to do what I can to not find any more. The trade-off when I take the safer route is that I sacrifice potential gains. It’s hard for me to choose to be less efficient in the moment, but with everything on my plate at the moment, things are more efficient in the grand scheme.

Now that I’m embracing being a house spouse, housework is more liberating and fun than it used to be. Feels weird to even say that. I take pride in my work, which enables me and Carrie to work a lot and party so hard. It allows us to show up for the important people in our lives. I know my purpose in doing such menial tasks, which makes it more fulfilling. I’m sure it’ll get old again with time, but it’s interesting feeling so rejuvenated by chores by dedicating myself to this supporting role. I’m having a lot of fun with our new dishwasher, which will require an entire blog post of its own. I’m surprised at myself for enjoying housework so much now that I’m embracing being a house spouse. It restores me.

If I’m not working on my problems so much, what am I doing with all that extra space I’m creating?

After months of doing nothing each morning, it feels safe to start processing The Fiasco. I had to pause the emotional processing about a year ago, but now that I’ve quieted my life down again, I realized that it was safe to engage in it again. It’s very densely layered, mixing in shame, sadness, self-hatred, self-esteem, betrayal, trauma, all the hits. Thus, there’s a lot of repetition while I process it. I have to just keep revisiting the thoughts and feelings, and slowly they’ll fade out of existence as I bleed them dry by letting myself feel overwhelmed for a short time every day. An important aspect for me to experience is letting my body feel the pain. It’s not simply a mental exercise. It’s a full body experience, feeling tingly all around my arms and neck, down my back. Tuning in to the alarm bells that have been ringing in my head ever since. It’s a delayed reaction, but you can’t delay it forever. I used to think it was so terrible when I would lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, and all sorts of embarrassing memories would pop up in my mind, out of the blue. Now I understand that to be my brain releasing some of the unnecessary emotions bottled up inside, which creates room and capacity for future potential. Pain is weakness leaving the body, and now it’s time for The Fiasco to stop taking up so much space in my body. It’s different from wallowing in my pain. It’s not the same as marinating my brain with toxic emotions. It’s about slowly releasing these powerful feelings in a sustainable way so that I can gradually open myself up to the randomness of life in the present and future. I’m letting go of the past in a way that doesn’t make me crumble. Suppose for a second that I had been able to go to therapy years ago before I actually did. Then maybe the pain wouldn’t have overlapped so much with Carrie’s schooling, which was a challenge enough on its own. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to quit my job unexpectedly. That’s what I’m trying to avoid in the future. We have many challenges to address, like having kids eventually, moving into a new home at some point, and who knows what. If so much of my emotional capacity is tied up with The Fiasco, then I won’t be able to adjust to the wild mood swings of this world.

With some urgent bills behind us, we’re settling down and getting things sorted out. Budgeting, taking down time, having lots of fun, and even unpacking The Fiasco. This time around, I’m able to sustainably approach my own form of recovery, and part of that means living with whatever is “wrong” with me. I’m still anxious, traumatized, defeated. Carrie will be provisional for another year, which means we can’t take big risks right now. Therefore, instead of stopping everything to address some of my trouble areas, I’m moving on, and it hinges on me doing nothing for as long as possible.

Recovery Mode

It’s spring, or somehow in Alberta we skipped it and went straight to summer weather. Sadly, it’s still allergy season. I can barely breathe, and I’m always mere moments away from sneezing. Plus constantly scratching my new mosquito bites.

A couple weeks back, I quit Facebook, and it feels great. I don’t miss it at all. I never have that worry or fear of missing out, even if I am missing out on something. If there are important events, people will find a way to tell me. I’ll take all that energy back so I can hide away from the world and mind my own business.

Went to Edmonton for a friend's birthday, then went to see Gareth Emery. It was an amazing show, and I was with amazing friends. And yet, there was this moment where I felt my heart weighing me down heavily. Whenever this happened in the past, it was because of a specific event or painful memory, so I would process all the emotions and thoughts surrounding that memory, letting it all out while I danced like a maniac. This time, it was a generalized pain. Nothing popped out at me, no deeply hidden experience from my past. Just a heavy weight in my chest. A slightly younger version of me would have embraced it and dove in head first and ripped the wound open, but instead, the 30 year old me just let it be. Didn’t get too invested and didn’t run away either. The moment passed, and then I kept dancing like normal. This followed several days of going out late with friends. These feelings only seem to burn and pound in my chest only when I'm in the safest place I can be — the dance floor. It was a grounding moment to remind me where I am in my progress.

Recently, I applied for a new job, but I realized in the interview that I didn’t really want it. I made a calculated step to test the waters, to see how I would feel if I tried to take on more work, and the experiment provided a very clear answer. It’s hard for my ego and identity to accept, but I have it really good right now. I make enough money to pay the mortgage every month, and all things considered, I probably have the best part time job I could ask for. I have good friends at work, I have my availability and schedule just the way I like it, and I have enough time off to perform my main job as a house spouse. I’m so used to being a workaholic that it’s been a hard transition for me to be comfortable in my current situation. Normally it takes me six months to settle in to a new role, but it’s taken me about a year for this one. In preparing for the interview, I reflected on my time at the company so far, and it slowly dawned on me just how great of a chasm I crossed in getting here. After about 10 years of corporate office work, it’s been a big transition to retail. It was a big change having to punch in and out on time for work. Even while I was working in engineering, compared to some of my coworkers, I only had to report exception time, meaning I only had to file my hours when I was either on vacation or working on a specific project. Otherwise it was always assumed that I was at work on time, doing what I was supposed to do. As well, I’m so accustomed to working with the same 10 or so dudes, but this job is all about customer-facing work, and every day is a new mix of coworkers too. I have a ton of variety in my day, which I enjoy and prefer, but my mind has been solidified in the Dilbert routine for the last decade. As a result, in this past year I’ve grown personally and professionally at a rate I never have before, and I love it. I’m working on parts of myself I never knew needed work, and I’m even finding skills I never knew I had. After a year, I’m only just now getting settled into this job, so I shouldn’t be so quick to rush off and start new adventures just because of my pride. I should sit down and be humble.

Is there anything left for me to do now that I’m trying to stay out of trouble? Of course there is. There’s plenty.

This year I’ve embraced my responsibilities at home as a house spouse, and now that’s starting to pick up. As Carrie gets busier with her private practice, there’s more for me to do around the house, especially as we try to get out with the nice weather to see friends. I’m cooking more and experimenting with new recipes and cuisines. Supercook is a life saver right now, filtering recipes by what ingredients I already have instead of me starting with a recipe and going out to buy more ingredients. It’s spring cleaning time, so with the added daylight, there are tons of things we need to do to prepare for the summer, like flipping the closet or changing filters or killing bugs (eek!). Just finished up the last bit of car repairs for a long while (I hope), which has cost us a pretty penny. We just went through a small bout of financial emergencies for a couple months, but things are levelling off finally. We’re changing a lot. Not buying so many things on a whim anymore, making lots of little decisions that hurt in the moment but give us more oxygen in the future. Tightening the belt during the week and responsibly letting loose on the weekends.

It’s been six years since I started working on my posture, and I’m finally starting to see some progress. All those years of school and office work turned my back into a crescent moon, but now I’m catching my bad posture more frequently at the source. I remember to pull my shoulder blades down and together, arching my spine in the right direction. I’m doing a lot more stretching and strengthening of various muscle groups so that my baseline posture is closer to the ideal position. I’ve also been getting monthly massages for almost the entire past six years, which helps to reset most of my muscles because stretching on my own can’t cover everything. It’s an interesting project that’s stuck with me through all this time, even as I went through the Struggle and my New Three Years Resolution. Even when I hit rock bottom and during my time unemployed, I was still trying to work on my posture. Existing is such a painful experience for me sometimes. While I was writing about the worst emotional pain I had ever experienced, I was trying to sit up straight in my office chair, correctly aligning my elbows and forearms with my desk at a 90 degree angle. Feels good to finally see some improvement.

With the passing of my birthday, it’s also really nice to know that I have love. Abandoning my family of origin and creating my own family of choice has been a long and painful process, but I now have people who I can count on to show up for me when I need it. After recently visiting some in Vancouver and Edmonton, it’s reassuring to actually feel the love after years of cultivating a mass of relationships. I made a lot of those new friends after meeting them through mutual friends, and I’m still able to make new friends even now, with all the challenges of adult relationships. There was a time when I felt stuck with the same miserable people in my life, which was a very depressing fate to encounter. However, by sharing my experience openly with others after moving away from home, I learned from my peers just how dysfunctional and bizarre my childhood experience really was. I worked a lot on myself, and consequently, I started attracting different people. I have a full roster of people who stick by me, and Carrie still seems to like me despite all of my strong odours and weak puns. I am loved.

Even though I sorta just finished my New Three Years Resolution, I have to put myself on ice again for a few more years. I'm not back to a position of strength. It vaguely seems like I still have a few years left yet before I stop feeling so vulnerable. What's the rush? I have nowhere to be, no one to impress, nothing to prove. I've already shown up to the critical battles, and now's the time to eat and sleep. Doing nothing each day is the best, whenever I can get around to it. I'm an old man now, at the ripe old age of 30. I've been through some shit, a sentiment which Kendrick captured in the song "Mortal Man" with an interview he staged with Tupac. He puts it like so:

In this country, a black man only have like 5 years we can exhibit maximum strength, and that’s right now while you a teenager, while you still strong, while you still wanna lift weights, while you still wanna shoot back. 'Cause once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a black man in this country, and you don’t wanna fight no more. And if you don’t believe me, you can look around. You don’t see no loud mouth 30-year-old motherfuckers.

Tupac Shakur

Obviously there are huge differences between the African-American experience and my own, but that passage hit me hard. Everyone has the potential to do the impossible. On one end of the spectrum, some kids can launch startups in their teens and make millions, and on the other end, they quit school to find work and feed their families. I don’t feel bad for myself as though I never had that potential. I tried to start businesses numerous times, unsuccessfully. I juggled far too many activities at once while I was in school, and once I graduated, I worked extra hard at my jobs so I could feel better about myself. As a result, I don’t have that same energy anymore for getting ahead, to leapfrog the competition. I don’t have the energy to go back to school, or spend my spare time developing my skills using free online courses. Even though I heard about Bitcoin a long time ago, I didn’t have the risk tolerance to make the leap and invest even if I wanted to. I feel like I spent my best years trying to survive, and this is where I ended up, which is great by all measures. Still, it's a struggle for me because I always pictured having more by now, but the problem with those expectations is that I never calculated the impact that years of abuse would have on my trajectory. I'll always have this rebellious spirit, thinking for myself and standing up for what I believe in, but I don't have the rocket fuel anymore. I know life isn’t over yet, that there’s still hope for me, as all the recent graduation announcements for people in their 50’s to their 90’s have shown on Twitter. It isn’t the end for me yet, but now is not the time for getting ahead. Now is the time to stay put.

All I wanna do now is stay out of trouble, get by, and have fun with my friends. Who knows how long I need to recover? That's Future Jon's problem. On today’s to-do list is popping some anti-histamine pills and going outside to enjoy the sun and mosquitoes.