So how far back in time do I have to go with today's story for it to make sense to new readers, I wonder? I suppose back to...oh, 2002, let's say, now that I'm thinking about it. Up until then, although I had had my share of unique experiences, in general my life was like most others' -- I had a list of a couple hundred acquaintances I saw from time to time, about half a dozen of whom I considered close friends, had sex on a regular basis, and tried dating one of these sex partners maybe about once a year or so, usually to comically disastrous effect like an episode of Seinfeld. I went out on a regular basis, spent holidays with groups of people, and would otherwise be what one would call normally socialized.
Then in 2001 and '02 two things happened in a short period that profoundly changed that: a woman I had been in a particularly serious relationship with broke up with me (or, er, I guess you could say that we mutually broke up with each other), a messy end to a messy relationship in general, and one that left me unenthused about getting into one again soon; and I left the performance-poetry community after almost ten years of being heavily involved with it, or perhaps you might call that "got kicked out of the performance-poetry community" depending on who you're talking to, but given that I really wanted nothing to do with any of those people anymore either, I suppose it's best to call that a mutual breakup as well.
That's where I knew almost all of my acquaintances and friends at the time, so I essentially lost 95 percent of them at the same moment; and this is when I had lost all excitement about going out on dates again too, so that's when I started a habit of engaging in hermit-like behavior that ended up lasting much longer than expected, somewhere between six and thirteen years depending on how you're defining it (but more on this later). And then in 2003 I ended up getting an opportunity to be a participatory sex columnist, which only added to the sense of emotional isolation I had established for myself; then in 2006 I embarked on a three-year process of finally fixing all my rotting teeth, which kept that period still going of me largely not engaging with the human race; then in 2009, literally three days after getting my last set of dentures and finally being completely finished with my teeth, I got hit by a car while on my bicycle and shattered my left hip and right wrist, so that was another month in the hospital and three months at my parents' and a year of physical therapy where I yet still continued to have little interaction with the human race, other than the perfunctory exchanges I needed to order coffee at a cafe, go shopping, run my arts center, etc.
There's a number of ways in my head that I refer to this period of my life (which for simplicity's sake let's just count today as a decade), although the succinct "Asshole Jason Years" will do, because that's what I was -- I wanted very little to do with the rest of the human race, had a pretty low opinion of humanity in general, and basically only watched out for me and what I needed in life, even generally refusing to engage in the inane small talk that makes most casual interactions in one's daily life come off as productive and polite. And it's...what it was, I suppose, neither a particularly great nor particularly terrible time in my life; although I certainly got in touch with my inner critical self in a profound way in those years, and spent about half a decade really understanding each and every terrible thing there is to know about me as a member of the human race. And that at least was very instructive, and let me really target for the first time some of my behavior in my teens and twenties that really got me in the most trouble back then, and were behaviors I was suddenly dedicated to dropping from my life for good.
So when did the Asshole Years finally start getting better? Well, it wasn't one thing that did the trick, but rather a series of events that slowly lifted the fog; definitely, though, it started with me spending a lot more time with my old friend Carrie and their twin sons, beginning in 2008 when Carrie's husband died and I started going down there a lot more just to help out. I've written about this before (and won't be writing much more than what I've already said in the past, because I made an agreement with Carrie not to talk about the boys online in much detail); but it basically brought the things to my life that kids usually bring to someone's life when they're not used to kids -- it was a big motivating factor in wanting (needing) to get my shit together more, a humbling thing when a little creature comes to admire you, emulate you, and come to rely on you.
That, though, only lasted for six months before my bike accident, when I was out of their lives again for another entire half a year; but the accident too was a mitigating factor in re-engaging with the world again, literally because I had to in order to achieve basic things like food and medicine, was quite literally surrounded by people on sometimes a 24-hour basis for a good four-month period of my life. And part of it admittedly was CCLaP continuing to grow in that time, and me needing to go out to more and more public events; and part of it was simply me looking and feeling physically better, and having things happen like getting my first-ever credit card (an offshoot effect of an offshoot effect of me receiving a rather large insurance settlement because of my bike accident), making it easier to do stuff like order tickets to live events, or like getting my new apartment in 2013, so that I could finally start throwing parties for the first time in decades.
But definitely, though, the one biggest single motivating factor was attending DevBootcamp last year (2015, that is), then deciding to change my entire life around so to become a 9-to-5 office worker again, also for the first time since 2002. I mean, let's not mince words, I was only okay at coding bootcamp itself -- I was the oldest, slowest person in the building during my time there, and if grades had been kept I would've easily been in the bottom third of my class. (Or, you know, argue with these opinionated statements if you want, but the objective fact can't be denied that out of my graduating class of twelve, I am one of only two people left who still doesn't have a job.) But for someone like me, DBC was not just an educational program, it was a trial by fire, a profound catalyst to my entire life that was slapped onto my schedule with no ramping up -- 14 hours a day, seven days a week, surrounded by people I was being forced to get along with under threat of failure, and literally partnering with a different random person for ten hours every single day for what's known in the coding world as "paired programming" (i.e. two people working on one computer, with two keyboards and two mice, coding a program literally through a collaborative process).
That's a lot for someone to take on at once who had just spent the last decade being his own boss at a one-employee home-based business, who no longer dated, who no longer went out with friends -- and so it's a bit of a fucking miracle that I even graduated DevBootcamp in the first place, which makes my so-so performance there sit a lot more comfortably with me. But then on top of this, an entire half of DBC is devoted to building what they call "engineering empathy" skills, like how to get along with co-workers better, how to handle confrontational situations better, how to understand yourself better, etc; and the way this was taught had the side effect of really teaching me about myself in this profoundly new way I've never really understood before, and that is letting me now re-engage with the world in an entirely different way at 46 than I did before the Asshole Years, in a much better and more productive way that lets me keep much more control over all the details (like who exactly I'm going to spend time with, how much time I'm going to spend with them, how I'm going to spend that time with them, what I'm going to do if I tire of someone's company, etc., all aspects of friendship that I never felt I had any control over when I was younger).
See, ultimately I learned two core things about my personality that sort of chain-reacted all the other realizations I made at DBC; or, I suppose they're things I've always known about myself but have had a hard time admitting until recently -- that I am a way more profoundly empathetic person than I usually let on, certainly at a much higher level than what the general average for the entire human race is; and that I am a way more profoundly self-analytical person than I would ever admit to myself, ironic given this ridiculously self-analytical journal I've been keeping online for almost twenty years now. And so that let me understand very interesting new things about myself in these specific exercises we'd do in our engineering empathy workshops; for one specific example, when we were presented a "relationship map" with these kinds of boundaries...
...and were asked to fill in interior lines based on where we thought specific relationships in our lives might lie (like our relationship with family members, co-workers, old college friends, the baristas at our local cafe, etc), while most people's maps looked something like this...
...mine came out like this...
And that, I realized, is because I have this natural habit of just enfolding everyone else's emotions into my own, being so naturally empathetic; and not understanding where good personal boundaries for this stuff should lay, since I'm so publicly confessional and brutally self-analytical about myself. And so when I was young -- high school and college, say, back when I had little understanding of just how dark the human soul can get -- I would clasp all the people in my life very closely to my chest, and their problems became my problems, and their frustrations became my frustrations. But then when I started getting hurt from being too emotionally close to these things -- like when I progressed into my mid-twenties, for example, moved to Chicago, got involved with the arts community in a large city for the first time, and started meeting many more damaged and dysfunctional people than I ever knew in college -- since I didn't understand that there was any other choice between tightly clasping such people to me and having nothing to do with them at all, I would simply let go of all those relationships when they became too much for me to handle, and would go through an ever-repeating cycle of pulling people in too close, pushing them away too far, pulling them in too close, etc.
So the thing I really worked on at DevBootcamp when it came to all this was to establish for the first time that inner ring you're seeing above -- almost at the same level as the one where I'm interacting with strangers, but just inside enough that I was legitimately concerned with how my fellow students' days were going, whether I was being a good pairing partner, whether there was something more I could be doing to make their lives a little better. But unlike a lot of the DBC students, I would never go out to the big group lunches that a lot of them went on, rarely went out for drinks or a movie like a lot of them would do on a Friday night, because I now knew how easily I would absorb these people's feelings and emotions by forming too close a relationship to them, and DevBootcamp is already just this emotional rollercoaster ride the entire three months you're there, one that I could barely handle just when dealing with my own emotional state, much less a bunch of random strangers who I had been randomly coupled with while there. And now that I'm out and life is less stressful, I'm hand-picking those DBC students who I especially got along with well, mixing them with the few people from my arts years who I legitimately like*, and am using these "Secret Society of the Green Turtle" dinner parties this year as an attempt to establish yet another new circle of interaction in my life -- not indiscriminate like how you kinda know the names of every person at your office, but not as intimate as a lover, someone whose hopes and fears about the world you know a lot about because of intimate experiences like dinner parties, and who you've drank with and laughed with and have sometimes been very somber with. And then as you can see, I'm also starting to date again this year, for the first time since w. and I broke up in 2002; so I'm hoping to establish a new baseline for that too, healthily close and intimate like a romantic relationship should be, but not suffocatingly close like so many of my past romantic relationships actually have been.
(*"Arts friends I legitimately like" as opposed to the near-strangers I would get drunk with every Tuesday night, but who I didn't necessarily like or respect or wanted to spend time with by choice, which unfortunately defined so many of the several hundred acquaintances I knew in the poetry community, which upon hindsight was a big reason I was so miserable in the poetry community, a cycle I'm trying not to repeat in the newest 21st-century post-slam Chicago literary community I'm now a part of again.)
I guess that's the main thing to emphasize today -- that age, experience, and my time with a therapist has made me realize that there's a lot more ways I can choose to deal with my overly empathetic personality, besides either having way too intimate a relationship with every person I know or to have no relationship with them at all. In fact, my therapist E. has a special interest in helping me learn these skills at defining better boundaries in my life; for apparently this is a common trait among therapists too, a highly developed empathic side (or the curse of "feeling too much," as some people put it), and that this is one of the first things a therapist has to learn too, how to form the proper protections against this empathy so that they don't also become depressed suicidal drug addicts like the most intense of the patients they're seeing on a daily basis. (E. has described it to me before as like forming a "semi-porous" bubble around oneself, so that your empathy for others' problems can filter out to where it's needed, but not all of their negativity filters back in to you.) Which, incidentally, goes a long way towards explaining why my casual conversations with my friends in the past have felt so much like the therapy sessions I now do here in 2016, and why I've had so many people mention over the years that having a conversation with me about something that's bothering them has "felt therapeutic" to them.
And so here we are in the new year, and I have to admit that I'm feeling like I'm completely and totally re-engaging with the world again, for the first time in years and decades, which was the impetus behind wanting to write this journal entry in the first place. And it's a good feeling, I have to confess, something that makes me feel again like a fully functioning member of the human race and society in general. I'm back into the habit of going out and interacting with people a good three or four days or evenings each week; I'm back to forming a circle of closer friends who mean more to me than just random strangers do; and I'm slowly easing back into the possibility of dating and having sex again, which both kind of excites me and kind of terrifies me. How long will it last? Will it continue going as well as it is right now? Will I continue being able to define all these relationships in a new way that works well for me in particular? Only time can answer these questions; but for now, I must admit that things are looking good.
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