Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Therapy as and with myself, volume I.  §

This is an extended exegesis on me. Fair warning. If you’re not into that sort of thing (and there’s no reason why you should be), don’t bother. Why post it? Because it’s my blog, and I read it, too—and I’ll probably want to come back to these thoughts later. So here they are.

— § —

So the basic idea in a few branches of psychology is that for a lot of people, dysfunctional aspects of life are a matter of being frozen at a certain stage of human development. Usually, this is an age at which one experienced significant and novel psychological trauma or stress of some kind.

The individual’s development can’t continue until the issue is resolved, and if a resolution isn’t forthcoming, the person remains in some ways “stuck” at that developmental moment indefinitely, trying again and again to resolve the issue so that development can proceed.

The problem, of course, is that many aspects of human development rely on contextual realities that aren’t indefinitely present. People who were abused as young children by their parents, for example, remain stuck there forever trying to figure out how to get good parenting—only by the time they’re grown, there aren’t any parents around anymore to provide it, even if they were able to somehow “find the solution” to the problem and elicit good parenting.

They’re stuck forever along the primary pathways of development; to proceed, they need professional help to find and nurture an alternate pathway to development and to actually proceed along it, which can feel counterintuitive and counter to instincts (in the literal sense).

— § —

Luckily, I was never abused as a child. I got some spankings and things, but I’ve never felt as though I were stuck in some sense still seeking out a parent’s love.

Still, like everyone, I have habits that I don’t like that I can’t seem to shake. Relationship patterns that repeat that have never made me happy. I make choices that aren’t optimal at times—when I know that I can easily do better—yet I don’t rectify them. Since I was in grade school, I’ve been the person who “isn’t living up to their incredible potential.”

I mean, it’s been three-and-a-half decades of “not living up to my incredible potential,” and I know it. Sure, wrote some books. I got a Ph.D. But I did these things in the most subversive, counterproductive of ways.

© Aron Hsiao / 2000

I refused to do publicity for my books. I didn’t go on tours. I didn’t speak or appear on media, even though I’m not shy. Why? Sales could have been so much better. I was writing on hot topics at a time of their emergence. I could have parlayed it into a career. I refused to.

The same thing goes for my academic work. I published little. I could have and should have published a lot. I was ahead of my time and could have led a certain amount of the work that’s finally become hot today. Why didn’t I?

And of course anyone who skims through the two decades of material here will sense, if not discover outright, that I have had the same troubled love relationships over and over again in my life, the most recent one ending in divorce. This is enough of a pattern (and problem) as to turn me off of the whole love thing for now entirely. It’s just no good; it’s just no fun any longer. I know where it leads.

So I’ve always known that there were “issues” that lurk underneath the surface somewhere, and that if I’d been born into privilege and had tons of money, I’d probably have spent years in collegial therapy already “working through things” and coming to understand what was what. Only I wasn’t born into privilege.

— § —

The one experience that I do have with therapy came during my divorce, as I attended therapy with my ex. This was shockingly expensive for someone in my position and I’ll be paying on that debt for a few years to come, but it felt (and probably was) worth it at the time.

This was focused on the dynamic of the couple, but each of us got a certain amount of time to do soul-searching with the help of a clinical practitioner and Ph.D.

At the individual level, it didn’t help me much. I suspected then and have become more sure since then that this was because the therapist had me wrong in a way, or was blinded by bias built over the years of their own experience. They were looking for trauma with my parents, or close friends or family, in my early years.

The therapist asked over and over again for negative experiences with intimate contacts from my early years, and I racked my brain and came up with some. Then, they’d try to talk me through them in that “therapy way” with my ex present. But it never felt as though I was really either terribly troubled by these things or terribly helped by “talking about” them.

It felt, in short, like a lot of theraputic drama about the wrong things.

— § —

Since then, I’ve spent time wondering what I could discover if I could afford therapy. Trying to be my own therapist, as it were, and excavate what in my past might be affecting me today, might have affected me all these years. What’s the source of what exes have called “bloody-mindedness” and a determination to “do things the hard way,” of all that “not living up to potential despite being brilliant” all this time?

Sometimes, just as the workday is ending or just as I’m doing shopping, I’ve let the dogs out into the backyard or walked across a grocery store parking lot asking myself questions about my past, trying to answer honestly, and then usually, ultimately, getting nowhere.

Until today. I believe I know what it is. What the “significant and novel psychological trauma or stress” is, and at what moment of development I got a bit “stuck.”

It’s not early childhood. It’s got nothing to do with my parents. It’s got everything to do with school. Oddly enough, not with bullies, though there were times when I was bulled, as is relatively common. Not with teachers, though I certainly had more than my fair share of poor, asshole educators who basically wanted to wish me away in the public school system.

— § —

I’ve always had unusual tastes in film and television. My favorite films are things like Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, Last Year at Marienbad, and Barton Fink. These are dark, formalistic films with stilted relationships and characters that are unknowable, and thus never know each other. They’re fundamentally about categories and symbols, about confusion regarding or subversion of these, and about characters who reify and transgress them.

My television and fiction tastes have always been similar. And in all of it, there is always bias toward characters either in youth or early adulthood, grappling with things that are not “normal everyday grown-up life things.” I can watch kid dramas and high school dramas like Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why, but I’m absolutely bored with dramas on “adult” themes or with studies in deep, nuanced, communicative interpersonal relationships.

I’ve also always been weirdly revered in a lot of ways. The others at my University of Chicago graduate program called me the “rock star.” They didn’t mean this in an academic sense, i.e. the “academic rock star,” sadly. No, it was one third irony, one third wild admiration, and one third embarrassed pity. It’s not as though I haven’t always asked for this in a way. I have tattoos. I pursued the most rare in apparel and appearance. Green and purple hair, unorthodox or highly symbolic or period clothes, often chased down from the four corners of the earth. I’ve always been overly brash or inadequately communicative in precisely the right ways to always stand out.

My parents used to ask about all of this—why? My dad in particular. “Why are you always trying to do the opposite of what people think you should do?” This is not so far from the “bloody-minded” complaints that my exes have had about me, and not so far from my own deepest critiques of myself.

Why when opportunity presents itself, do I tend to shoot it dead? And why later, when there is no opportunity anywhere to be seen, do I suddenly find my determination in precisely the least favorable moment and wring a miraculous amount of blood from adjacent stones? Why not, as people have always suggested or at least implied, apply myself when it can do maximal good, and nurture my reserves when clouds hang overhead, rather than doing the opposite—dropping anchor in fair winds and then setting sail once again only when it’s most likely that I’ll capsize?

— § —

Netflix has been helpful in all of this. Because it causes me to interrogate my viewing habits. To ask why I, as a 42-year-old Ph.D. with a management job, am interested in watching films about kids, or about high school students, but not about adults doing adult things.

The questions about my film tastes have always haunted me, but Netflix has given me enough data, and enough granularity, to really draw into relief that my interests are odd.

I’ve been asking myself this question for about a year, in that “self-therapist frame of mind” that follows me around after hours.

“Aron, why do you think it is that stories about adults don’t interest you?”

There are a dozen other questions, but they all bear on the same thing, and this is the one that has been really gnawing at me since the divorce, and since the end of couples’ therapy, because I have been sure that it’s the on-ramp. It’s the most obvious, least nuanced, least polluted by human complexity issue in the set of issues that I can identify about myself that are odd.

— § —

School. But not the bullies. Not the teachers. Not the usual suspects. No one in particular, in fact.

Today, at the self-scanning machine, it came to me. I think it proceeds from watching my kids reach the end of the school year, and from my amazement at their happy, friend-filled lives and interactions. I’ve known since they got into school that they have something that I don’t and didn’t and never, ever did. I thought it was down to personality. Maybe some of it is, but not all of it. Not even most of it.

Today a light came on and I heard myself once again think something that I’ve thought over and over again for years, whose import has been right in front of my nose:

Very few people, if any, know me all that well. Very few people, if any, have ever known me all that well.

Me-therapist today asked, “How does that feel? And why do you think that is?”

And finally, I answered in a way that rang true.

— § —

Now couples’s therapist, back in 2015 and 2016, with the ex, had also gone down this road, but she went down it with a story in mind about me. It went something like this. Aron:

  • Had some early trauma in which he got hurt badly by a close relation
  • Has been trying since then to protect himself
  • Has isolated himself
  • Tends not to let people in
  • Tends to supress his emotions
  • Doesn’t get close to anyone as a result, causing relationships to fail
  • Experiences initial trauma of hurt-caused-by-loved-ones over again each time as a result

I get why this was the story that she was trying to get me to assemble about myself, under the impression that it would help. This is either a very common story or at the very least it’s a deep archetype in our culture. We’ve all seen this story told over and over again in song, in film, and in print. This would be the “stuck in infancy or early childhood” arrested development story.

But I knew it wasn’t me even as the couples’ therapist was working on it with me. Problem is that in couples’ therapy, you don’t have too much space or time to push back and get into complications without really derailing the entire thing. So I half went along with it, half pushed back, and it never helped me much.

But I finally got enough of a clue to return to these questions again with myself today, while in self-therapy mode. Here’s the actual story. Aron:

  • Had a generally happy, secure childhood
  • Was naive and rather innocent, in a pleasant way, along with his parents
  • Started school and was seen as someone(s) that he didn’t know or recognize in others’ eyes
  • Never got beyond appearing to others as a series of categories and presuppositions
  • Has generally been unseen as an individual
  • Has been trying to reconcile the categories vs. the individual ever since
  • Is drawn to people who see him in categorical terms and make presuppositions
  • And forever hopes to get these people to see a real person behind them
  • Feels compelled to elevate and defend the categories that define him
  • But also to subvert them
  • Tends to find people that don’t see him, yet believe they deeply do while merely seeing the categories
  • Works to subvert their categorical expectations, disappointing them and causing relationships to fail
  • Experiences initial trauma of being-seen-incorrectly-or-not-at-all over again each time as a result

This is the story. It’s also a common story, especially for youth, but in my case it’s exacerbated by the strange confluence of my characteristics and the place (geographically and socially) in which I grew up. This is the “stuck in first contact with non-family persons” arrested development story.

The “moment” that defines so many things in my life and life history isn’t an instance of childhood abuse. It’s the moment when I first left my parents’ home and went to public school as a taken-for-granted “me”—and that “me” disappeared immediately and permanently beneath other overpowering identities that at the time I didn’t know, understand, or even recognize.

The five-year-old that was once “me” still hasn’t resurfaced. That “me” never joined or gradually learned how to integrate itself with a community; it was submerged. The community interacted instinctively with something else(s) that lay over and obscured that kid, and that has remained the case ever since then. The bulk of my energy has been spent on this other, publicly-ascribed “me” over the years. The first “me,” the primal one, the natural one that was raised by two parents from birth—disappeared on the first day of kindergarten, or certainly during that first year, and has not come back. Yet.

— § —

There was nothing weird about me initially per se from today’s perspective, but in the time and place where I grew up—a working class, Mormon, overwhelmingly white, poorly educated part of Utah— everything was weird about me. From the moment I arrived on that first day of school, I was:

  • The “mixed-race” kid (this was simply not done then and there)
  • The “Chinese-looking” kid (this was wildly exotic then and there)
  • The “rich” kid (as far as this community was concerned)
  • The “educated” kid (first-day-K in the hood, I was reading; my parents had graduate degrees)
  • The “gifted” kid (the competition in the old neighborhood was weak; I became more and more a standout)
  • The “stuck up” kid (my parents tried to protect me from the “bad” influences everywhere)

Looking back, I remember intensely that sense of utter shock, when I arrived in kindergarten at public school. I’d always just been me, Aron. My parents saw me. My extended family saw me. I was a person, with thoughts and preferences and a personality.

From the moment I arrived in kindergarten, by virtue of being so unlike anyone else in my poor, ninety-nine percent white, country-and-western, coal miner’s daughter west-side neighborhood, I was a collection of categories, a group of signs and symbols, and overall a metonymy of one thing above all—the exotic unknown, regarded with that strange combination of fascination, horror, dread, approbation, and desire that the exotic unknown inspires.

Then, later on, when I had a breakdown in the fourth grade and was moved to what amounts to an exclusive private school for the gifted, I became:

  • The “west side” kid (only one in sight, driven cross-town from the hood every day)
  • The “poor” kid (a total inversion, now in a community of Porsche and private helicopter owners)
  • The “geek genius” (how many kids in 1987 had been programming on their very own computers since 1983?)
  • The “troubled weirdo” (try taking playground norms from the wrong side of the tracks to the elite set)
  • The “loner” kid (already it was creeping in)

Not so long after that, in middle school and high school?

  • The “dropout” (this is a big deal in a community of privileged, gifted kids)
  • The “early college” kid (after dropping out, I was herded quickly into university at 15)
  • The “double genius” (he’s been programming since 1983, he’s Chinese, he’s so smart he came from an “underprivileged” background yet dropped out of an exclusive gifted and talented program to go straight to college early and study the bewildering, cutting-edge field of computer science, instead of doing sophomore year with the other gifted kids)

In short, I never got to be myself again. It all just built up over the years. Always more of them. Even as an adult, I’ve been adding things:

  • The “author”
  • The “Ph.D.”
  • The “single, stay-at-home father”

I have sometimes bemoaned the fact that I’m no good at marketing myself, but now in a shocking plot twist, it looks as though, in a subversive way, I haven’t been doing anything but self-marketing for thirty-five years.

I am a massive bundle of things that, in the areas where I have generally been, have always made me the lone bald, dark-skinned, winged, predatory unicorn in a field of furry white vegetarian alpacas. Starting in kindergarten, I was no longer myself; I was a predefined quantity and a spokesperson who, thanks to psychological creep, came to understand myself as a spokesperson and representative—for the Chinese, for the educated, for the gifted, for the geeks, for the weirdos, for the authors, for the academics, for the single dads. I’ve done print, radio, and television interviews precisely as representatives of some of these things. As an ambassador for the categories that I embody.

After all, if this is what people understand you to be, particularly if people are ambivalent and vaguely threatened by these things, your first job in maintaining your status is to ensure that these things come off well. That they are defended. Even if you aren’t really in a position to acquit them well. Because they are you, as far as most everyone is concerned, whether you like it or not.

But always that leaves a hole in the universe where you, you the mere person once were, way back at five years old before that first day of kindergarten when you disappeared forever and became instead a set of concepts.

— § —

So contra the couples’ therapist a couple of years ago, I don’t think I’m playing out this incredibly common script in my life whereby I look for people who treat me very poorly trying through whatever means to get them to love me and treat me well to resolve the early childhood contradiction.

I think I’m playing out a script in my life whereby I perform the categories that I believe people see me to embody, and seek out people who are completely taken by (and usually both awed and frightened by) them, but who don’t see or understand me the person at all. Then, I try through a kind of schizophrenic paradox to resolve the early crisis—to both defend and elevate these categories, turn them good rather than bad in others’ minds, and at the same time to subvert these categories radically, hoping to bring them to break through the surface and see a person there—the person that my parents saw all the way back when I was five, and that hasn’t really been seen much by anyone else ever since.

In short, I find the person who is frozen in ecstatic, magnetic confusion by the fact, say, that I am a Ph.D. Then, I try to demonstrate how great and approachable and noble and okay a Ph.D. is—while at the same time doing whatever it is that I think is least Ph.D.-like, in hopes that they’ll be able to get beyond Ph.D. and see that there is something else in there somewhere—an agent, a person, a personality.

Of course, it never goes well—because when people are drawn to a set of categories in the first place out of their own combination of superficial admiration and approbation for them, neither the attempted performance of greatness nor the subversion of expectations goes well.

The worst suspicions are confirmed on every front. Obviously, “such people” are:

  • Self-important and self-aggrandizing
  • Distant and untransparent
  • Too difficult to understand
  • Not what you expect, never what you thought you were getting
  • Likely to confirm your worst fears about “such people”
  • Likely to betray your fondest hopes about “such people”

And in all cases—you remain, and are moreso—merely “such people,” and even less intelligible or relatable than they’d imagined.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

— § —

The one break in all of this: New York. This is why I loved New York so. Becasue for the first time in my life, there was enough going on around me—so very many categories everywhere represented in such numbers that they all become unremarkable—that I was effectively no particular identity or preconception when people first saw or knew about me—and so many of them were free to encounter me for the first time merely as a person. It was liberating. I was awkward, being completely untrained and unpracticed in this, yet it didn’t even matter.

But then again, in focused and close interactions, I still ended up seeking out those very few individuals—usually other new arrivals—who did attach first and foremost to my symbolic identities. Who talked about them. Admired them. Already had beliefs about them. Applauded them. Cursed them. In the first place I’ve been full of people who could easily have seen me for me, I spent my time finding people who wouldn’t.

Because I had so much to live up to, and so much to undermine.

In short, my own particular developmental self isn’t stuck trying find surrogate “terrible parents” to try to get them to love in my playpen, as is so often the case. My developmental self is stuck trying seeking out “dazzled and appalled” peers with strong preconceived ideas about me and who don’t and won’t see me at all, to try to get them to drop the “appalled” and keep the “dazzled” but make it personal and intimate and real.

What I lack isn’t the ability to individuate and self-soothe, as it is for so many people who had rotten childhoods thanks to their parents. It’s the ability to conceive of and convey myself as a nuanced, idiosyncratic, yet genuine person (in a notable Freudian slip, I had initially typed “persona” here), and to interactively build friendships from scratch on these bases—a skill, after all, that should have been learned and honed—you guessed it—in those years when and after I first got to school.

I can work a room and give a speech and dazzle professionally, I can be witty and urbane and a thousand other things, but one-on-one I don’t quite know the mechanics of relating to others, and I tend to select people for one-on-one interactions who aren’t really aiming to relate to me as me.

And while I can do all the things that would enable me to live up to my potential, I have too completely prioritized “subverting expectations and preconceived notions” to ever really do them regularly or well. Hence the “internal war” that has been recognized by so many over the years. Because I don’t want those preconceived notions and their confirmation to stand—because at some level I’m always hoping that if I break obvious rules, someone, somewhere will say “there’s more here than meets the eye” and will “keep searching more deeply” for the “real” me (never happens, not the right method), I can’t allow myself to do too often the things that—say—writers, or Asians, or Ph.D. holders generally do to be successful.

And so, for obvious reasons, I’m not all that successful. And the successes that I do have seem to come with an absurdly heroic expendature of effort and risk in the worst possible circumstances, when I can do them, too, as subversions of some kind.

In short, I suspect that at some level am the sadly stereotypical “rebel kid” crying out for attention, but receiving the “wrong kind” without knowing or having the proper skills to get the “right kind.”

That’s not all there is to me, of course. But we’re talking here about the things that hold a person back—the nagging problems that are there at mid-life and where they likely come from. And I think this is where they come from. They come from the fact that I have accepted and (quite literally) adopted “completely different” as my functional ur-identity and in the meantime as I was being seen that way early on, missed out on acquiring the skills for being merely an unremarkable part of the group—for being “the same.”

I have skills called “perform,” “impress them,” “awe them,” “high-level discourse,” and “subvert expectations.” I lack skills called “be everyday friends,” “get to know you,” “be genuine in socially acceptable ways,” and a few others akin to these.

Thing is, and going back to something that I mentioned earlier—where does one begin to acquire and practice these skills, once one leaves the K-6 educational system? I’d love a second chance.

— § —

Two interesting and relevant asides.

First, this is related to my legendarily odd relationships to food, my personal space, and even my body in certain configurations of health and fitness. I cling to certain forms of all of these because I am clinging to the remaining remnants of the kid that I once was the last time I simply was who I was. I am trying to hang on to the “real me” at some level, the one frozen it time all the way back then. The way that he lived, the things that were familiar to him, the things that he liked.

Second, this also explains my odd modes of self-definition over the years. In school, there are many occasions on which you are asked to tell people about yourself and your life. Whereas other kids peppered these with things that they liked (French food, horror novels, Scooby-Doo, etc.) and things that they habitually did (jog, garden, paint portraits, etc.), I always ended up making lists of what I was—lists of categories in the “I am” form, rather than lists of preferences in the “I enjoy” form. This is something that was noted with curiosity more than once.

Most people in a post-divorce mid-life slump proclaim that they need time to figure out “who they are.” I do not need time to figure out “who I am.” I have been playing that game for far too long and know very well who I “am.” What I need is to figure out “what I’m like,” and how to simply embody that with awareness and transparency in the world.

— § —

This has been long. But I’ve been looking for the “key,” for the “unifying thread” for a very long time, and in a lot of ways. And I’ve known that there was a story in my personal history, in this set of categories over time, that I needed to tell—not to others, but to myself. I’ve finally found it, by god. Today, I finally found it. I don’t know how many times I’ve written, just to myself, my little personal history, compelled, grappling for the insight that I sensed was there somewhere. It’s finally down “on paper” in a way that feels right, that feels like what I’ve been trying to narrate to myself for decades.

So what does all this mean and what do I do with it? What is the implied action that proceeds from all of this?

I don’t know. I’m still learning to be a self-therapist so that I can continue to do this self-therapy thing.

I’ve titled this as the first in a series. I don’t know when the next installment will come. Maybe in a year. Maybe in six months. Maybe in a week. Maybe never.

But this one is now here.

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