Alisa Valdes

Writer. Producer. Human.

Why “The Secret” is a Weapon of Privilege

Jun
06

 

I have written two screenplays in the past two months. One is artsy and historical, about a forgotten woman genius from Victorian-era Berlin. It was a passion project and I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of people about it. The other is an adaptation of my second novel, done at the request of my producing partner, for a Mexican TV and music star. That one, I’ve rewritten twice, from the ground up. Hundreds and hundreds of unsatisfactory pages tossed into the bin of discontent. Writing, they say, is rewriting. Man, is that true.

Meanwhile, my money is once again running out. It has been this way for the past ten years. I lurch from project to project, paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes I get paid once a year. Sometimes twice. Sometimes, not at all. I have to find a way to make the money last until I sell the next thing, and sometimes the timing is off because of a million unanticipated setbacks. This is one such time. I’ve got enough to last me maybe another month, and then – nada.

So I do what any artist with a kid does: I look for a day job. Those are hard to come by in Albuquerque. This is the poorest state in the nation, with the highest unemployment rate. Wages are low, and demand for my skill set is next to zero. I have been stuck here since my divorce 13 years ago, because I am not the sort of mother to take her son across state lines without permission, and my ex is not the sort of father to not care whether he sees his son regularly or not.

This morning, as I shared my frustrations in job hunting with a friend, I was dismayed by his response. He came at me with all this “quit your stinking thinking” bullshit. “Write the job and salary you want to get, on a piece of paper, and put it on the wall next to your bed. Put that energy out into the universe and it will come back to you.”

This is the usual nonsense spewed by people who adhere to “The Secret” and other magical thinking around prosperity and success. If you’re failing, the theory goes, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough to be shiny, sweet, happy and optimistic. It’s no coincidence that the person who told me this happens to be a white male working in the health care field and making a six figure salary. He owns three homes, rents two of them out for income. In his mind, my failure to find money is entirely my own fault, for just not trying hard enough.

The first problem with this pseudo-psychology/science is that it blames the victim. Most of the 7 billion people on earth live in extreme poverty and deprivation; by this privileged man’s “logic,” it’s their own fault. The entire third world just isn’t living up to their potential because of stinking thinking. This is nothing short of metaphysics, in the worst way, a type of prosperity religiosity that absolves society and community from the responsibility of helping those in need, by giving everyone permission to judge those in need as being just not happy enough to deserve success.

The second problem with “The Secret” and other such “advice” is that it isn’t advice at all. It is judgment, often uninformed and unfair, usually given by those who have more than enough and believe they deserve it. It does not take into account the very real issues of classism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, ageism, economic disadvantage. It ignores the prejudices of the world, and says, in essence, that those who have, have because they deserve it. This is utter bullshit.

The third problem is that “The Secret” is nothing but a grand experiment in confirmation bias, allowing people to extrapolate and see whatever it is that they want to see, without requirement of empirical evidence or, of course, compassion.

I’m not in this position because I am negative. I’m not in this position because I don’t work hard enough. I’m in this position for a host of reasons, many of them out of my control. My “friend” likes to think of himself as a Buddhist, but in truth he, like so many other new age adherents from backgrounds of privilege, misses the point. Buddha never taught that you could think pain or difficulty away. Quite the opposite. Buddhism gives people the tools with which to endure and accept circumstances beyond their control, without losing their minds or souls.

While it is certainly true that there are some people who find themselves in difficult circumstances because they lack initiative, that is not the case for most human beings. If “The Secret” were real, most of us would not be struggling. But it’s not real. It is nonsense. It’s no different than the idiotic claim some make that we bring about our own illnesses through negative thinking. Sometimes, motherfucker, you just happen to have grown up a block from a toxic waste dump and now you have fucking cancer.

How to Let Go of Everything You Thought Mattered

Jun
05
PREFACE: Last year, I got a nifty little certificate that declared I had graduated from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy program, meaning I was not longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for the mental illness that had sent me to the program in the first place. This did not mean I had been “cured” of Emotion Regulation Disorder (or, as the evil dwarves of the psychological underworld still like to call it, Borderline Personality Disorder), exactly. No, no. For ERD, there is no cure. There are, instead, therapies that teach people like me which of my everyday and, to me, benign behaviors are seen as Fucking Crazy Bullshit by Everyone Else. In DBT I learned new skills and behaviors that, when practiced with diligence for the rest of my damn life, will allow me, at best, to Fake Being Normal well enough to pass, most of the time. Each moment, it seems, is still a fight not to go slip-sliding back into that cold, dark hole where everything hurts. I’ve decided that the best use of this blog might be to talk about my post-DBT day-to-day life, the setbacks and successes. Hopefully these little stories will help those with ERD feel less alone, while shining light for normal people on what it is like to actually live inside the broken mind of someone with this severe mental illness.

If I’m lucky, I am, right now, at about the midway point in my lifespan. I am 48 years old, so probably I am more than halfway to the drop off. We do have longevity in my family, though, so, you know.

I spent the first half of my life as so many people do – figuring out how to GET stuff. An education, a career, a mate, pregnant, parenting skills, health, fitness, the right car, a nice handbag. Whatever. I was focused on finding and holding, on becoming the things I had always imagined I would be.

For the most part, I am happy to report I succeeded at all of it. I got almost everything I set out to get. A good education, a successful career, a husband, a child, a home. But then a funny thing happened, a thing for which no one had prepared me and about which I had never even stopped to think.

I lost it. All of it.

For the young, life is thought to be about getting and becoming. Live long enough, however, and you will learn that the real journey, the raw and incomprehensible reason for existence, is exactly the opposite of this. Life is not about getting and becoming; it is about losing and unraveling.

That great education? Was in two fields that are essentially now obsolete. The career? Also dead. And the mate? After a decade together he met someone better, left me for her. Our child? He’s growing up and won’t need me much anymore, and that is how it should be. The house? Lost it in the mortgage crisis, have another now, thanks to my mother’s generosity. Health? Comes and goes. Cars and handbags? Here and gone.

So, here I sit, a woman I never imagined I would be, when I was young. Single, unemployed, facing a soon-to-be empty nest.

So much loss.

You don’t consider, when you are in the frenzied act of accumulating your accomplishments, what, exactly, you will do once things change – and they will change, for all of us, in one way or another. At least I didn’t.  So when I finally realized that all of the markers to which I had gone to hang my identity out for the world see were no longer there, I was devastated. Depression hit and was not budging.

At least, not until I had a profound realization. I was not unique. I was not tragic. I was not unfortunate.

I was human.

And the human condition, should we all live long enough, is simply this: We are here to learn to let it go, all of it.

Life, by its very design and nature, is about loss. Everything that is, ceases to be. Everything that is, will become something else. We all lose everything, eventually. This can be a reason for terror and sorrow, or, looked at with compassion and non judgment, it can be the very thing that allows us to become open, tender, and curious about where we are right now. Not where or who we were; not where we’re going; not who we will become. What is, now.

Buddha taught that pain was inevitable but suffering was optional. So too, for loss. Peace comes not in accomplishing what you’ve always set out to achieve, but, counterintuitively, in releasing all attachment to everything.

Be open. Be a curious observer to your own life’s changes. Learn to let everything go. That is where peace lies.

 

Getting Over the Guy You Never Actually Had

Jun
03

PREFACE: Last year, I got a nifty little certificate that declared I had graduated from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy program, meaning I was not longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for the mental illness that had sent me to the program in the first place.

This did not mean I had been “cured” of Emotion Regulation Disorder (or, as the evil dwarves of the psychological underworld still like to call it, Borderline Personality Disorder), exactly. No, no. For ERD, there is no cure. There are, instead, therapies that teach people like me which of my everyday and, to me, benign behaviors are seen as Fucking Crazy Bullshit by Everyone Else.

In DBT I learned new skills and behaviors that, when practiced with diligence for the rest of my damn life, will allow me, at best, to Fake Being Normal well enough to pass, most of the time. Each moment, it seems, is still a fight not to go slip-sliding back into that cold, dark hole where everything fucking hurts.

I’ve decided that the best use of this blog might be to talk about my post-DBT day-to-day life, the setbacks and successes. Hopefully these little stories will help those with ERD feel less alone, while shining light for normal people on what it is like to actually live inside the broken mind of someone with this severe mental illness.

So, lately I’ve been getting over someone. I am always getting over someone. If I’m not getting over someone, I’m obsessively getting INTO someone else. There has always been a someone, since I was fourteen years old, and that someone has almost always taken up most of my energy and thoughts. That someone almost always falls very hard for me, because we with ERD can seem incredible, at first. Invariably, though, that someone will soon discover that loving One Of Us is like chewing sugar-coated razorblades, and they retreat. This is why one of the hallmarks for my disorder is tumultuous and unstable personal relationships. I piss everyone off. Friends, family, coworkers. I don’t realize I’m doing it, till it’s done. Usually I just think I’m standing up for myself, or educating them. Heh. Nope.

So, anyway. Lately, I’ve been getting over someone. He was a colleague and a friend, and we sometimes crossed the line into lovers. He is 18 years my junior and was clear from the start that any physical relationship we ever had would be “just for fun” and would never lead to more than that. “I will never be your boyfriend,” he said, very clearly. He is holding out for a woman “at the same stage I am, who fits my life and goals,” which means, basically, someone who isn’t one year into menopause and can have his children. Fair enough.

When I was emotionally regulated and reasonable, I could love without condition and accept what we had for what it was. I was open and caring without becoming attached. I was very Buddhist about all of it, letting him come and go as he pleased and never seeking to possess, knowing I was just a placeholder. But as time went on and we got to know each other better, and even threw the word Love back and forth, I became attached.

In my attachment, I did what many with ERD do, which is I created a fantasy world that did not look like reality. In that world, he would realize we were soul mates and meant to be. We would adopt babies and I would have cosmetic surgery and never grow old. He would stop looking for others.

That never happened.

What happened? He kept feeling exactly as he’d always felt, except less and less so as I obviously grew more clingy, needy and attached. One day, as we were working on a script at a bar, I grabbed his hand and asked him when he was going to just stop fucking around and be my real boyfriend. That was the beginning of the end. Things got more tense from there, and finally came to head with him telling me he didn’t love me, didn’t care about me, and had been with “many women since I started seeing you, all of them far more interesting than you.”

So, yeah. That was a wake up call. Now, I know it seems like he’s an abusive asshole. But people like me tend to push decent, honest people to the point of HAVING to say things like that, because unless it is spelled out, we just don’t get it. Even after he was super clear about this, I continued to roll around in my fantasy. He was perfect for me, and he’d come around. He’d realize it.

So, this is where I was when I finally realized I needed to STOP and DO DBT and FAKE BEING NORMAL until I stopped breaking my soul against the jagged rocks of his truth. I’ve spent the past week coming to grips with reality, using a skill DBT calls RADICAL ACCEPTANCE. People like me tend to ignore facts that hurt us, and create elaborate fantasies instead, then try to jam everyone into our stories. This has made me a very good novelist and screenwriter, but not so good at life.

My mind keeps wanting to go back to the comforting lie. Him, marrying me someday. Him, telling everyone how amazing I am. Him, looking me in the eyes and telling me he can’t live without me. None of that happened. None of that will EVER happen. I have had to mentally tell myself over and over and over to STOP fantasizing. I have made myself radically accept the truth – a thing that healthy people would have done automatically.

One of the saddest things about living in this elaborate fantasy has been that I have been emotionally and practically unavailable, for 7 months, to at least two very decent men with whom I might have actually had the sort of relationship I was pretending I’d one day have with the other dude.

Healthy people are able to accept that someone else likes them, thinks they’re beautiful and brilliant, and even likes having sex with them, but doesn’t think there is a future because of the 18 year age difference and desire for children. A healthy person doesn’t take this personally, but instead realizes that it is true, practical, and just the way things go. Someone with ERD, however, tends to derive much of their sense of self from other people, and therefore feels as though they will literally disappear and die if the object of their affections doesn’t want them. Knowing this, recognizing it’s happening, does not mean it doesn’t happen. It just means I get to start the difficult work of dealing with it.

A very important skill I’ve been using for the past two days is PUSHING AWAY. Now that I have RADICALLY ACCEPTED this dude will never be mine – and never was, even when he said he loved me – I must start to PUSH AWAY obsessive thoughts about him. Like? Imagining him with all those other, superior women, for instance. Or dreaming of losing 50 pounds and blowing his mind when I look better than every model or actress in New Mexico. Thoughts like that. Negative fantasies, positive fantasies, fantasies fantasies fantasies.

I’ve found that if, every time I start to indulge a thought of him or us, I instead turn my mind to running scales (I play saxophone) in my mind, visualizing playing the hardest of the scales (Eb minor? Hello?) then my biochemistry comes back to normal and the emotional pathways don’t get lit up all out of control. And it’s a good thing. When the pathways DO get lit up, I tend to do awful self destructive shit like compulsively text him, or call him, or try to figure out a way to get him “back” even though he was never mine.

When I stand back from it all, and write it out, and look at it, the conclusion is easy: From his point of view, I look like a lunatic. But I don’t have to. I can radically accept the truth, and push away the thoughts, and focus on doing things for me.

This is shit normal people do instinctively. We don’t. But I’m learning. Still.

Sigh.

 

 

In Writing Fiction, How Your Characters Talk is Just as Important as What They’re Saying

Dec
01

url-31In literature, as in life, the way people talk to one another can tell you more about their psychological issues than the content of what they’re saying. This is also true of fictional characters. The best writers create satisfyingly realistic characters by consciously and carefully choosing psychologically accurate unconscious word choices for them. These characters don’t just further the narrative with their dialogue; they inadvertently (to themselves, deliberately to the writer) reveal their psychological and emotional shortcomings and/or sophistication through the words they use.

Nowhere is this more true than in the use of “I” statements versus “you” statements in emotionally charged dialogue between fictional lovers, friends or family members.

A character who says “I feel hurt when you don’t return my phone calls” is revealing information on two levels – one, the other person didn’t call them and they were hurt by this; and two, they take responsibility for their own emotional state and are careful about other people’s feelings.

Conversely, a character who says, “You never call me when you’re supposed to, what is your problem? You make me feel so worried, obviously you don’t care about me at all,” is furthering the narrative in the same way as the first (the other didn’t call, the speaker was upset) but they are also telling the reader that they are emotionally unskilled and immature, likely to blame others for their problems and to create needless drama in their lives.

This difference in communication styles is one example of what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” in character development. You could write something like She was clueless about his feelings and always sounded like she was accusing him of a crime when she was upset, telling your reader about the character, or you could write dialogue that shows her doing this.

The reason showing rather than telling is more effective is that your readers will come to your story with their own psychological deficits and strengths, and each will relate to your individual characters in their own unique way. I have been amazed to hear from readers who related most to characters I’d created to whom I’d related the least, or even hated.

In the fiction-writing workshops I give, I often come across writers who, while technically proficient, create characters who feel flat or underdeveloped. These writers could greatly benefit from studying people – whether in a psychology text or in real life, and preferably both.