The Appeal of the Dollhouse

Last night I decided that I would rewatch Dollhouse. The first time I went through the series I whizzed through it, so my memory of some episodes is hazy. I know I loved it, so I want to recapture the feelings I had the first time around. Watching the first episode, I was struck immediately by why I was so drawn to the character of Echo in the first place, and why the setting of the Dollhouse always makes me feel transported from my own life. (note: there will be spoilers here)

At the end of episode one, Alpha is sitting in a house watching a yearbook video of Caroline before she becomes Echo. In the video she says that she “just wants to do everything”. There’s an interesting juxtaposition between her youthful joy at the possibilities of life and the shots of her as a doll after a day of doing things no one else could imagine, empty and numb. I suspect that this is supposed to be creepy and unsettling for viewers, but I have to be honest: to me it is simply appealing.

Because that’s the secret of the Dollhouse: even though you are no one, you get to do everything. You get to be everyone. You get to have every dream you could imagine. Even better, you get to be perfect at all of them. You are created to be ideal and if you aren’t ideal, it isn’t your fault. All responsibility for your failures is lifted from you.

Of course this comes at a cost: the loss of your own self. For many, that’s the terror of the Dollhouse, the dystopian element. But there is another way to see this. Echo’s mind is quiet. At no point do her thoughts roil and catch, never is she troubled by things left undone, but she is not stupid: many times she is smarter than anyone else in the Dollhouse. She has adventure in her life, amazing adventures, overwhelming adventures, but she is never left with the aftermath. Is peace too high a cost for the loss of self?

Something about these two elements of Dollhouse speak to what I see as the collective consciousness of Millenials: an intense drive for perfection, accomplishment, and activity, coupled with an expectation of constantly being “on”. Nearly everyone I know who’s my age has intensely high expectations of themselves: they want to do something that no one else can do. They desperately want to be needed. And many of them have passions ranging across the board, from theater to science to crocheting and they want to be the BEST at each of these things.

Of course this is impossible. Unless you’re a doll. Unless you can be someone else each day. Unless you can emerge two years later and know that you accomplished impossible things, even if it wasn’t you. Something about this power is intensely appealing.

The flip side of this is that Millenials know the cost of perfection: hours of anxiety, work, self-hatred, low self-esteem. You constantly beat up on yourself in an attempt to be better. Harsh self-criticism. Our brains do not leave us alone. They do not shut up. They have been filled with the message to “be all you can be” and if you spend any second of your life not doing that, you’re not living up to expectations. Imagine how quiet it would be to save the world and come home to an empty head, to trust those around you to take care of you, to have no questions and worries about how you performed or what you should be doing tomorrow. Imagine the zen of simply being without a single thought.

Imagine the beauty of a world where you can accomplish all of that without the cost.

Many main characters in movies are considered idealized versions of what people wish they could have, superheroes in particular. We see people who are strong, who are intelligent, who have lots of money-these are the things we want. Echo is the superhero of this generation: she can become anything and do everything, but has peace at night.

At first glance, the world of the Dollhouse looks egregious. But the draw of it is that many elements of it are exactly what we want. The realization of this ambiguity of the Dollhouse is what I love about the show, but also says something about the struggles that we face at this moment in time. This kind of hero is very different from the muscle man or the detective of the past, and illustrates what kind of strength we feel we need right now.

Art reflects life. What can we learn of life from this reflection?

The Things I Carry

WARNING: Emo poetry ahead. 

 

Every morning when I wake up, I know there are things I must take with me

No matter what I am doing, I fill my pockets and my pores with the things I carry

When my feet touch the ground as I stand up from sleep

I know the weight of them.

 

Before I rise, my mind is full with the List.

It steamrolls over me and leaves its imprint:

What You Must Do To Be Acceptable.

I pick it up and pull my body skywards.

 

I walked from my bed to the bathroom and add the pills I take each day

settling in my stomach

Next to the heaviness of the breakfast I will not eat

I dress, placing the anxiety of eyes over my body

I have my bare essentials.

 

Today I carried a backpack.

A simple case for:

A laptop to channel words that build and build upon me

Reminding me that I never have enough words

A book of memories

joyful things I forget to read

A wallet, heavy with emptiness

A notebook, filled with fragments of days that I forgot to live.

They repeat themselves and I don’t remember to move

The loss of time on my shoulders

 

I remember to pick up my lover from his slump on the floor.

His sadness is large, black

But his legs don’t work today and so he uses mine

 

With my keys, I take the criticisms I heard yesterday and the day before and the day before

stretching back before memory.

Things begin to get heavy now, but it’s early

Before I leave, I turn back and pick up the hours of therapy I own

Each week

A prize for the size of my waist.

These are the things I take from the table before I begin.

 

As I walk through the day I collect things to put in my pockets

The letter from my landlord, rejecting a request

A note from the insurance, ending my benefits

The phone call from my mother, revealing secrets I didn’t want to know

They swell to bursting.

 

It is noon

I pull on my running shoes, and I feel the minutes I sweat falling on me

The time I am alone in my mind

The ripping breath I cannot end

Each mile is a requirement that I must complete, or I will drop everything

These are the rules, and I know that I cannot put down the things I carry.

 

Back to work, and my anxiety is large

growing and growing on the angry words that fly

A friend calls. I struggle to pick him up.

My legs are becoming weak.

 

As I walk from work, I take the knowledge that my hours were not enough

I have not, I have not, I have not-

done enough.

 

An hour with my therapist, and I know I have not been Good Enough to myself

I pick up the diary card

The numbers are wrong

Bad numbers go in my pocket.

 

When I get home, I tumble, headlong into bed

Dropping everything.

I carry too much these days.

Random Writing

These bits of writing aren’t exactly about anything or for anything, but they’ve been floating in my head and I need to get them out. Here they are. A bit of what it’s like with anxiety and depression.

 

It’s hard when you have a bad day when you’re depressed. When other people have a bad day, they go home and they rant about the things that went wrong. But when I go home on the verge of tears and someone asks what happened, and if I want to talk, I have no words. Nothing happened. I woke up, a little tired as usual, I went in to work, did my usual things, had a therapy appointment, came home and took a nap. I purged. I had dinner. I went back to bed. That’s it. Nothing happened. But that doesn’t stop the weepiness from showing, that doesn’t stop the tightness in my chest, that doesn’t stop my hands from bunching into tight little fists whenever I stop moving. It doesn’t stop my thoughts from whirling around and around. It doesn’t make sense.

Last night, when I got home, I did all the appropriate Self Care actions. I let myself rest, I put on fuzzy pajamas, I watched a TV show I like. I finished an episode and something hit me all at once. The air went out of me, and it felt as though something was being pulled from my chest: my heart or my soul or some other unnamed bit. When it pulls, I can feel my jaw and my tongue aching downwards. Tears are pulled from my eyes and onto my chin. I shake and I don’t know why, but no matter how many times my face contorts into some disturbing silent grimace, I can’t still my heart or my mind. I won’t make a sound. No one needs to know because I won’t be able to explain, because it came from nowhere, because there is no reason or purpose except that everything is wrong and my ribcage is empty and my muscles can’t contain all the hatred and fear that’s inside of me. There’s a claustrophobia to it, as if there is not enough space for me, so I scrunch in on myself and hug my legs and rock, hoping that I can expand the world past my toes again. It never works. Somewhere in my mind, I notice that I’m having a panic attack, that there’s ways to deal with this, that I could go find some ice and put it on my face, but me, the me that feels and exists in the here and now has no time for that because breathing is taking all of my time and if I stop then my body might rip itself apart.

It hurts. There’s shooting pains down my chest and across my collarbone, cold like when you chug ice water too fast. My head is stuffed. I know it’s thanks to the mucus filling my sinuses, but it feels like all the thoughts have taken physical form and are now living below my eyes, tramping and stamping and pushing their way outwards. I am not vessel enough for them. They want their own life now.

I don’t know when it will stop. I don’t know if it will stop. If it does, there’s a hollowness to my face, filled to the brim with snot and pain and confusion. My mind has gone numb and I cannot come back. You are all very far away today. I try to smile though. That’s what I’m to do, isn’t it?

 

People are rough. They’ll rub you raw and then walk away with no further thoughts. Some of us blister and callous until the skin grows thick. The sharp edges no longer puncture. But my skin does not grow back. Every day I lose a layer of myself, and I’m down to scraps today. I’m trailing grated skin behind me: you can follow my path back to the party, to the first tear. It couldn’t be avoided. And since the first rip, each word has pulled and pricked and rubbed until I am left losing myself with every movement. How do I grow a new self?

Losing Reality

I haven’t spent much time on this blog, or really much of anywhere talking about body image. Obviously I think about it: I don’t like my body and I never have. I have issues with my body that I take out on it through violence and starvation. But body image is simply not one of the aspects of my eating disorder that I find fruitful to write about, and generally when I bring it up in person I just get frustration and straight out disagreement from my audience. While I understand the impulse to tell me “YOU’RE WRONG” when I call myself ugly, there are times when I want to be able to express and explore my feelings about my body without being immediately shut down. This is one of those times. This exploration may not have a clear point, but I think it’s important to give voice to the thoughts and feelings that are a part of the disorder.

 

Lately my bad body image has been acting up quite badly. I’ve increased my food intake and put on a bit of weight. This means discomfort in my clothes, discomfort in the mirror, discomfort when I eat. But the worst part of it is that when I worry about my body image, I often find that I cannot accurately identify reality.

 

No, this does not mean that I hallucinate. I don’t see my body growing larger before my eyes, I can tell that I’m smaller than many people. However despite all this, I cannot understand what the truth is about my body: is it acceptable or not? Is it too skinny or not skinny enough? Is it healthy, or do I need to lose weight or gain weight? Now most people would find it fairly easy to figure out the answers to these questions by consulting a doctor, by looking at their weight in numbers, by assessing their current diet and activity level, and generally thinking about how they feel in their skin. However when I do these things I am left with strong evidence for mutually contradictory things. The scale tells me that my BMI is a certain number. That number is within the healthy range. Certain magazines tell me that the number is unacceptably high. My dietician tells me it’s acceptable but that I’m still not getting enough calories and need to increase my intake. My eyes and emotions tell me that my body is hideous and fat and horrible. My mind flicks between sources, trying to decide who is the most right, who I should believe, what combination of sources are right, where reality is.

 

It’s enough to leave anyone feeling as if they’ve completely lost their grip on reality. When that happens, all I can do is meltdown. When you don’t know what reality is, you don’t know how to proceed. You are left with no appropriate steps. When faced with a meal in this state, every choice feels wrong and every choice feels right. It leads me to a deep feeling of self-hatred that I cannot figure out even the most basic question of whether or not to put food in my mouth. The reason my body image drives me up the wall is not just because it’s bad. It’s easy when it’s just bad. What’s hard is when it disconnects me from any sort of rational thinking. For someone who prides themself on intelligence, skepticism, and clear-headedness, it destroys my concept of self.

 

It leaves me feeling like my concept of myself is a battleground between different messages of what’s appropriate and what’s not. I don’t want to live in a battleground. I don’t want to live in this body.

Fiction Free For All

From the day I was born, the right side of my body was broken. I was marked from the womb by an eye that would never see, bright and baneful. The right eye. For most, the left is the sinister side, but my right took that title. I am right handed, and yet my right has always let me down. My arm never throws the way it should. My right ankle gives out unexpectedly. I begin a dance step on the right and my foot falls out from under me. Last year I fell and twisted my right ankle. It has been swollen ever since, leaving me always imbalanced.

 

My right is branded by an eye that exploded into shards when it should have grown into sight.

 

This morning I changed my skin. My symbols are different now. I walked into the tattoo parlor, clutching the paper with two long curves. I pointed to my right hip, the place I began cutting. The place I had tried to rip off the curse of my right side.

 

My right leg still has red scars like little caterpillars crawling up it, but I knew I needed to start at the beginning. They took my picture and pressed it against my skin, leaving a dark imprint. I lay back in the chair and breathed deeply. The needles pressed into my body, a sharp, digging, pulling sensation that left me gritting my teeth. But I had chosen this pain. I had chosen to write over the scars until my skin was fully formed. This pain was the inscription of my own will upon my body. I was writing over the broken right side I had been born with and changing the words I saw there.

 

This is mine. This is beautiful. This is right. I will protect this space. I am not broken when I choose my own signs.

 

Drabble: Purple

She was sitting on his floor in her underpants and one of his old tshirts, her legs splayed unabashedly in front of her like a child. She was surrounded by mess of angry creation. Oil pastels had split in half under her pressing hands, and when she looked up at him, her hands innocently forward, they were coated in oily color. The page had bled purple on the floor and stood out harsh against her pale skin.

In contrast to the childish scene, her face looked old.

“I wish I could feel the colors” she said as her wrists dripped.

 

Winter

The shape of the world changes when the snow falls, my mother used to say. As we drove through the park near our house she’d call it a fairy world. I could see what she meant, with the snow clinging to each branch, outlining the dead in a delicate white. We used to build new worlds, my mother and I. We would pile snow high into magical forts, or create men and women out of the blankets of white. The shape of the world has changed again, and winter does not seem so beautiful anymore. My mother cannot speak anymore.

 

Telling the Truth About Shit

There’s something that I’ve noticed a lot lately, particularly around graduation and friends who are graduating. Oftentimes when we talk about college we hear things like “it’s the best years of your life”. But Miri’s post about her college experience got me thinking: for a lot of us it isn’t. Unfortunately when we try to say this, people often tell us all the good things that happened, try to brighten us up, or censor our experiences in some other way. This is in no way appropriate, but it is so common that it needs to be addressed.

There is a tendency in our culture to not accept negative experiences. We either want to problem solve, or look for a silver lining, or spin our negative experiences in some way. Many people say things like “you can always choose your attitude” or “you grew from the experience”. We want to convince ourselves that we haven’t wasted our time, money, or energy. And other people don’t like hearing someone in pain or unhappy, so they try to reframe a bad experience to fix the negative feelings. This is particularly true around things that are culturally viewed as “good”, or simply high-investment, like college.

Unfortunately, I think this means that we as a culture often ask individuals to quash their individual experiences and almost lie to themselves about what they truly felt if their experiences don’t fit the cultural narrative. It is highly important to be able to say what hurt you and that you are hurt. This helps you process it. This allows you to then move on from whatever fear, loneliness, sadness, or anger you were holding. If you can never openly say what hurt you without someone chiming in and saying “But what about the silver lining” your feelings get invalidated repeatedly. You’ve been told that you can’t actually know what you’re feeling because there must be a positive to your situation.

This can lead to lots of personal confusion about identity and emotions, it can mean you don’t trust yourself fully, and it means that the experience will likely to continue to hurt you. We as a society need to learn to be comfortable with some radical acceptance: some things suck. They happen and they suck. There is nothing that makes them better or ok or worth it. They just suck. Sometimes you need to talk about them and recognize that they suck, accept that they happened, and then move on as best you can. It takes radical acceptance to not question someone else’s experience.

So I want to own up to something publicly that I’m not sure I’ve ever really said in so many words before: I hated college. College was incredibly bad for my mental health. College was where my eating disorder, anxiety, and depression flowered and took over my life. I had very few friends through most of college, and lived through an emotionally abusive relationship. I did not enjoy my academics. There were positive elements, but they were absolutely not enough to make up for the intense amounts of pain I went through. That happened. I left early because I hated it so much.

But even saying that isn’t enough. It’s not enough for me to own up to a watered down version of what happened. It might sound like I’m being overdramatic, but I want to be clear about how bad the experience was for me and that when people tell me it was worth it or great or that they’re proud of me they have no idea what they’re talking about, and they’re on some level telling me that the shit I went through was good and worth it.

It started nearly immediately after moving to college. My freshman year of college I probably halved the amount of food I ate from the year before. I never ate two days in a row. I can count the number of times I ate that January on one hand. That spring I was so miserable that I literally began bawling because my brother was a half an hour late to pick me up and bring me home for break. I could not stand to be on campus one minute longer than necessary. I had friends, but I felt distant from them. They didn’t share things with me. The passive aggressive nature of the campus and covert racism and sexism made me highly uncomfortable. I was bored with my academics. I finished my first year eager to go elsewhere.

The summer after my first year I was on campus taking a class and working. For most of that time I ate approximately once a week. I was exhausted, lonely. I would drag myself through class and work, and then desperately try to find someone to talk to because the alternative was sitting alone in my room for the next five hours. My work was monotonous, dull, and required no thought. I was intensely depressed. I began to realize that the friends I had made over the year ignored me all summer and had no interest in my life or my difficulties. Coming into my second year, I started to feel as if they ignored my needs and struggles completely, and placed themselves above everything else. I was beyond lonely.

My second year I cut for the first time. I was deeply ashamed. I was living with three girls who ignored my repeated requests to turn off the lights earlier, and I spent a whole semester deprived of sleep, uncomfortable in my own space, hiding in study rooms and common rooms. I cried often, sometimes in public, running to a bathroom to try to hide it. At this point I felt I had no friends, no one to talk to, no one to trust. I went through my days in a pattern that felt exactly the same every day, and while I was learning I didn’t feel engaged. Every morning it was a struggle to get out of bed because I knew the day would replicate the previous one exactly. I was spending hours of every day thinking about food, fighting with myself about eating, poking at my body and hating it. I kept trying to force myself to exercise more and more but I was tired all day every day.

Throughout the summer after my second year, my self harm got worse. I experienced bad relationship troubles. By the fall of my final year I had broken up with someone I cared greatly about and spent the better part of a month nearly suicidal and going through each day just wondering when I could get back to my room to cut again. It was all I lived for, and it wasn’t much. The only reason I did not kill myself then was because I kept wondering who would find my body, and I felt too guilty to do that to anyone. One night, a friend of mine broke into my room and stole my razors. I was terrified when I found out because I didn’t know who it was. I spent the next hour searching my house for something sharp and ended up sitting in the corner of my bed crying, rocking back and forth until at least 3 in the morning because I was afraid someone might come into my room.

Following this I entered into a relationship in which I was pressured for sex, emotionally manipulated, guilted, and shamed. I had begun to find the glimmers of a few friendships after my previous breakup, but my new boyfriend cut me off from everyone and demanded all my time and attention. He began to hurt himself and blame me. He pinned his whole life on me and made it my responsibility. I collapsed under the pressure.

Through all of this I felt that I was not doing enough academically, despite graduating with honors, that I should be keeping up more extracurriculars, working out more, and volunteering more. I was in a constant state of self-hatred for not living up to my own expectations. I was bored out of my mind with most of the academics. There were classes here and there that engaged me, discussions or professors that were wonderful and kind, but overall I found myself disengaging with class because I felt condescended to with the material. Boredom is a huge trigger for me. It makes me anxious, worried that I’m doing something wrong, worried that I am not accomplishing. Nearly all of college I was bored with my classes and frustrated with my classmates.

After I graduated I chose to pursue a second degree at another institution because I didn’t know what else to do. The loneliness of being at a big school led to some of my worst self harm to date as well as the beginning of purging and bad exercise addiction. I would go days without speaking to anyone. I spent most nights crying. More than anything I just wanted to stop, but I couldn’t bring myself to drop out because that would have made me a failure.

College was horrible for me. I was lonely, guilty, self-hating, and judgmental.

I have been bitter about college since I graduated. I have envied the experiences of those who had a positive experience. And I have tried so many times to see what I got out of it. I have thought about what I learned, the good relationships with professors, the books I read, the sports I did. But none of that makes up for what I went through, and all it does is ask me to forget or spin the pain that I felt.

Today I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to learn and grow from the experience. I want to validate to myself and in front of others that it was bad and it was not my fault. It has made me who I am, and all I can do from this position is simply try to move forward with the tools that I’ve got, but one of the tools I have is honesty and I honestly want to say that the best lesson I can learn is to never put myself in a similar position again.

I want the people around me to acknowledge how bad it was. I want to be able to own the hurt so that I can move on and I don’t want to continue having to smile to people and lie about my college experience because people don’t want to hear you say that you were miserable. I’m tired of feeling pressured to put a smile on my face because college has to be a positive growth experience. I have done this for years. Every time a friend or relative asked me how college was I lied through my teeth because it was expected. I’m done with those expectations because they have made me bitter and they have asked me to keep carrying this pain all alone.

I’m done with that. I hated college. I wish I had done it differently. I can’t, I survived and now I will move the fuck on.