Part Four: Metagaming

When you tell a story, you don’t have to explain why you’re telling it. We tell stories to tell stories. It’s part of living.

But when you are the subject of the story, you’re telling it for a reason. There is some nugget or morsel buried under all the dross and dressing that you’re trying to get to, and for whatever reason, you can’t just come out and say it.

Hanging over all of this is the word I adopted, subjunctivitis. I’ve intentionally left it out of the other sections because I was worried about bogging them down with unwieldy extrapolation.

I started using the word to describe my own confusion or blindness, whenever I felt that I was hiding something from myself and consequently hiding it from other people. Extended periods spent suffering from it could easily put me on tilt as evidenced by the none-too-fanciful conceit of Parts One, Two, and Three.

For instance, it isn’t actually a crisis of identity to wake up one day and realize I’ve outgrown my favorite band, but subjunctivitis can make it feel like one. There’s a lack of perspective that gets the whole identity crisis train of thought going. It hides what really matters and gives disproportionate meaning to things instead of people.

Heathcote brothers Christmas 2011

Thinking back, it’s not really surprising that my brothers and I started playing video games and listening to music in earnest soon after our dad left. We had to turn to each other, and those things created a suitably relatable pastime.

Similarly, when I got to high school, not many of my friends from middle school carried over. I ended up with a group that I could bond with via a familiar activity. Smash was just how I got my foot in the door, though. I did the rest once I was in there.

This is supposed to be obvious, but I end up running a mental maze instead. It starts once I’ve asked myself “Why don’t my brothers and I listen to Metallica anymore?” and has to pass through loop-the-loops, corkscrews, and dead ends just for me to realize the band isn’t what’s important, don’t get hung up on the band, it served its purpose. I ask “What will I do without friends to play Smash Bros. with?” and eventually conclude that I don’t need a game to craft meaningful relationships with other people. Sure it helps, but there’s more to me than that. I hide myself behind what I’m interested instead of using my interests to better represent who I am.

The second-most prominent example of things I’ve hidden comes from Part Three. I have been communicating with people over the internet since I was a sophomore in high school, yet it’s something very few people know about me. Why?

Corresponding with people half a world away is not uncommon these days. Yet I still felt a need to hide friends from other friends and family. All it boils down to is finding people that were into the same things I was when I couldn’t find them anywhere else.

In any situation where it could have come up before now, I would always feel a certain sense of shame, which I’m no stranger to in this arena.

Connection Lost Carey Pietsch
Image: Carey Pietsch

There’s a short comic called “Connection Lost” by Carey Pietsch that explains what I mean. In the comic, I sympathize with the character of Chris who is forbidden from returning to a forum that he frequented for a number of months. While the world at large might have embraced the internet as the be-all to end-all of connectivity, in my house it still wasn’t trusted.

Parents have some cause to be concerned about whom their children are talking to over the internet, within reason. It might not all be harmless fun, but neither is it all shadowy figures out to manipulate naïve youths. So when I was told over and over again that I wasn’t to go back to that message board and that those people that I talked to every day were not my friends, I was discouraged. It was frustrating not being able to convince my mom that I wasn’t in any danger. I couldn’t get her to trust me, much less trust them.

Via defiance and discretion, I continued my online correspondence straight through until college. Once I got a computer of my own, the issue wasn’t as contentious. But because I disobeyed and because I concealed, I built up in myself this notion that I wasn’t to be trusted in the first place. It created this perpetual nagging, a self-sufficient shame engine that had me going in circles. There I was again, stuck in the maze.

Now I wonder if Mom didn’t fear the internet as much as she feared the effect it might have had on my social life. She might have been more justified there, but it never had any negative impact. I compartmentalized my friend groups, but I never let one predominate.

It could be that I also worried. There was the stigma that everyone who makes friends online is some sort of loner who can’t make friends face to face. Maybe I thought that if my friends at school learned I had this online connection, they would desert me as some kind of pariah. Maybe I didn’t want people to think I was taking refuge in the internet. It’s strange to think I was hiding it because I didn’t want people to think that I was hiding.

I don’t know. It’s just another one of those things that doesn’t make any sense when I examine it now. Past motivations can be so evasive, and often the layers of contradictions just keep piling on.

What I can see is that I was the one who ended up with a deficit of trust. Whether it was by reflection or assumption, I didn’t trust my friends to empathize and say “Oh you have friends in England that you met online? That’s cool.” Or better yet, they could have just shrugged because aren’t we all just a bundle of strange connections? I was so afraid of being misunderstood that I couldn’t bring myself to give people that chance.

Excuses upon excuses. Under different circumstances, I would have told more people about my internet adventures. I certainly could have told more people sooner than I have, and I should have because who knows what kind of broader connections I might have made by doing so? So much wasted time, so much extra stress, so much phantom anxiety.

The real thing is far more Escher-esque.

The longer you hide something, the harder it is to talk about and the easier the excuses come. You get dropped into the labyrinth so often that you excel at finding the way out, but it’s a lie. You’re not supposed to run out of the maze, you’re supposed to go to the very heart of it and kill the minotaur waiting there. Then the walls crumble and you can truly be free.

It takes courage, and for such a long time, I didn’t have any. I grew up carrying a vague sense of shame, one that grew more acute the older I got. By the time I understood, I had already gotten used to running.

Now, that’s over. Now, I can say it: I’m gay.

Hiding it is both embarrassingly easy and devastatingly difficult. I’ve wanted to be open, but the excuses for remaining otherwise auto-generate and self-perpetuate, working as a vestigial defense mechanism. Here’s an abridged list of the ones I’ve used over the years:

“What? No, I’m not. No no no, I’m not even going to entertain this line of thought.”

“Really though, I’m definitely not. I was raised better than that.”

“Ok, maybe I am, but I don’t have time to dwell on that right now. I need to focus on school.”

“Fine, I guess I am, but I’ll never be able to act on it, so what’s the point in telling anyone?”

“Yes, I am, but the people I live with wouldn’t be ok with that.”

“Yes, I am, but the people I live with wouldn’t be ok with that (still).”

They never had to be good excuses. That wasn’t the point. They just had to be plausible explanations for why I couldn’t be honest at a given time based on where I was, who I was with, and what I was doing. It was something that had always been true about myself, something I could never control, and it’s gone from being something I denied outright, to something I assumed I would never be able to act on, to a thing that I’ve just had to hide until the right moment. And still I could keep waiting because that perfect opportunity never comes, not unless I act.

Lying every day takes its toll. That part of myself isn’t a hole that’s missing. It’s right there, dense and heavy. It’s supermassive, drawing me in on myself.

In a TED talk, Ash Beckham likened it to a grenade that you pull the pin on and hold to your chest, too scared to let go for fear of hurting yourself or others. In his coming out article in Sports Illustrated (which isn’t on their website anymore), Jason Collins said that some people just need a little more time in the oven before they’re done baking. I say that no matter how much it feels like a walk-in closet at first, eventually you start to feel like someone converted it to a linens cupboard, and you’re folded up and shoved into the corner of the top shelf back behind the flannels.

I’m tired of carrying that weight. I’m shouting “Fire in the hole!” I’m burning up. I’m all sorts of mixed metaphors of ready to get out and get on with it.

I’ve reached the point where each passing day feels like something abstract and heavy slipping from my grasp. Looking back is folly because sunk costs are sunk. Instead I think in the subjunctive mood. If I wait one more day, what would I miss out on? How many steps toward finding out where I want to be could I take in a single day? What connections are withering on the vine while I keep part of myself in the dark? It’s essential that I stop hesitating and find the answers to these questions while it is still relevant to ask them.

Most of all, I’m done being afraid, and I’m done hiding. Through this whole exploration, I’ve explained how my bond with other people and my personal growth comes from being selfless and shameless with my passions. So if that’s the case, I cannot possibly continue to grow as a person without being forthright about all that I am.

at subjunctivitis
I said I’d been lying every day, but the truth is lately I’ve just been quiet. I have a close circle of people who I’ve told over the past couple of years, including my brothers, my mother, and most of my best friends. Also, the nice thing about having a semi-anonymous presence on the internet is I can be totally open online. I wouldn’t have gotten this far without these people, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who has helped me.

Quiet isn’t uncomfortable, but it isn’t good enough either. Us wannabe writers talk an awful lot about the struggle to find our voice. We take classes, we read books, we study all manner of media searching for it. At the end of the day, the only way you find a voice is by using it.

They say you’re stupid when you’re young,
but it’s the only time you’ll ever live.

“Allen’s Song” – Braden & Brother

Every time the new year rolled over when I was in college, I started a word document called “journal” or something like that. I was always resolved to write more than I had the previous year, and they say the best way to do that is to keep a diary. So each year I made one and every night for several weeks I opened it up and banged out a few words. I tried not to hit on things I had necessarily done during the day, but instead on things I had thought about. It was supposed to have a higher purpose, to really flex my mind and get me in the habit of dissecting things with my words.

Gradually my entries would grow farther and farther apart, and around May many would start with “It’s been awhile since I journaled, so I have a lot to catch up on….” By late summer all entries would cease.

After graduating, I started a blog because I was going to shrug off my power limiters, break all sorts of chains. I joined an online literary and arts magazine because that was supposed to force me to write and produce work. At this point, I am a contributor in name only for Should Does, a collective of kind and brilliant people who are very understanding about deadlines.

By now I know better than to tell myself I’m going to write more and more often. That only gets done when I make myself do it. Instead I’m resolved only to post this. After months spent working on this, could I ever withhold it? Maybe. There’s been lots of interim time where I would go weeks without opening the document. I would lie awake and wonder if it was worth it, or if it was necessary.

Worth and necessity don’t actually factor into it, though. I wrote all of this down because I wanted to, and I’m sharing it with the same outlook I always have, one of low expectations and high gratitude.

I said I wanted to talk about subjunctivitis, and I’ve done that, but I haven’t really come any closer to defining it. I realize this is a feature, not a bug.

Subjunctivitis is a theme, not a bullet point. It’s my urge to complicate simple things. It’s my instinct to obfuscate and deflect.

Subjunctivitis is my attempt to lump all the problems of conscience that come with being young, inexperienced, and uncertain under one heading. Its definition will grow with every post that I make to this blog, just like me.