Written Wednesday, April 8, 2020

I turned 34 years old yesterday.

As may be obvious from the contents of this site, introspection (often leading to the public transcription of those thoughts) is a deep part of who I am and how I live. A birthday - especially the first birthday I have ever actually voluntarily observed (let alone celebrated) - is a fantastic occasion for introspection.

On many levels, I am ridiculously fortunate. I have friends, an astoundingly and unexpectedly supportive family, an amazing career, and considerable financial security to go along with a heaping pile of assorted privilege.

In the waning hours of this birthday, though, something finally broke free - a sort of lingering half-realization that has tried to breach the surface many times before, but only now has actually become something that I cannot avoid any longer.

To really explain it, I need to talk about some things plainly. I must stress that I am keenly aware of how this may sound, and that is in fact why I have to say it. My own fear of being perceived as arrogant, prideful, or even self-assured has long prevented me from owning this in the way I need to now.

In virtually every connection I have with someone (or within a community) that lasts more than a trivial amount of time, I end up trying to take care of people. More importantly, the longer I interact with anyone - or any set of people - the more I tend to become a strong source of support for them.

The friends I have are, to a soul, stunningly wonderful human beings. From the light but genuine acquaintances in various online communities, to the childhood friend who still stays up late into the night talking on the phone with me about all manner of random nonsense; from the internet-equivalent of long-term penpals to the colleagues who have become close traveling companions in life.

There is not a single person I'd consider a friend of mine who I have not, at some point, tried to help in some relevant (and often significant) way. I have helped them all with money, with life advice, with career guidance, with time and physical labor, with arranging connections to other people when I cannot personally provide what is needed.

I've done the same for my family, even in years past when we barely interacted at all. Even on the brink of total estrangement.

My job is something I try to keep fairly contained, for a number of reasons, so I will be slightly vague on this point - but it is no exception to this pattern. I am constantly looked to for advice, for key decisions, for technical expertise, for managerial expertise, for snap judgments in the middle of urgent situations, and for long-term strategy that affects hundreds of people and their own jobs and lives.

On any given week I will be involved in every single one of those areas of work, and any one of them is demanding enough in isolation. The mental gymnastics needed to handle that broad of a range of skills - especially to fluidly move between years-long planning and down-to-the-moment incident response - are nothing short of exhausting; and I am, unfortunately, a consummate perfectionist. Screwing up is not an option I often permit myself.

I have, at several points in my adult life, been completely broke - zero money, overdue bills, cancelled utilities, foreclosure and eviction threats. That's all a long ways behind me now, and I am constantly on the lookout for ways to help people who are not as materially fortunate as I am. Budgeting techniques and habits I once cultivated out of harsh necessity are now tools I use to determine how much I can give away.

Like I said, this is not something I usually would say so plainly. Nor is it something I would ever spell out all in one place. I am not the kind of person who likes to talk about my positive attributes, my success, or my patterns of behavior in the realm of trying to help people.

I have long insisted (privately to myself, of course) that I would prefer to simply do the things I find important, and let everyone else reach the conclusion on their own that I must, in fact, find it important to help when I can. I still stand by that.

The advantage I have gained from thirty-four years of life experience is the realization that I have left enough data in the world now that nobody is going to read this and think I'm making shit up.

This is me.

There is an old wisdom about buildings on fire and sinking ships: until you have found yourself in a situation like that, you never really know how you will respond. For many people, it will never be more than an impossible thought exercise.

I have neither been through a fire nor on a failing boat, but I've been through enough analogous disasters to know exactly how I would respond. I'd go back for whoever was left - because that is what I always do.

I doubt that part of me will ever change. I know I wouldn't want it to change anyways. But through all of that, there is a single consistent thread of heartache. Most people see only small subsets of who I am and what I do. My friends outside of work are generally not aware of the kinds of things I face on the job - sometimes that's because they aren't interested in the technology side of things, but even for those who are, the realities of confidentiality make it impossible to really be specific in the first place. And because of the nature of my role, there is a necessary distance between my colleagues and my personal life.

Even outside of that, I have very distinct pockets of community: groups around mutual interests, or common experiences, or just accidents of history where we stayed in touch afterwards. There are overlaps between many of those circles, which is certainly a nice way to feel interconnected - and yet it also highlights a crucial flaw in how I have approached community so far in my life.

Compartmentalization is a very powerful defensive response to certain forms of trauma and stress in life: separate the damage until it is safe to try and heal it. This happens on both a physical and mental level for wounds of all kinds. The body is remarkably adept at isolating damage, allowing us to easily sustain certain kinds of injury until they can be treated properly. In fact, sometimes the natural protective behavior of our bodies is so effective it can actually hide the existence of any form of damage at all.

The mind and heart are much the same. Trauma care providers have long understood that sometimes the worst stuff has to be buried for a while until it is safe to address it. Often, that requires distance from the bad circumstances, as well as time to personally grow stronger.

Much like repeated bodily injury produces excessive scar tissue, excessive emotional trauma inevitably produces compartmentalization habits in other, non-problematic areas of life. Separating things, keeping them in safe little containers and never letting them mix... it's a habit that, on a deeply intuitive level, we know works for protection and preservation. So it becomes something we simply do all the time.

Problem is, after a while, nobody gets to see a person anymore. All they get to see is carefully selected masks, fragmented subsets of who we really are.

That's the situation I find myself in now. I learned as a child to present myself differently in different circumstances: a small white kid in Asia needs to behave in one way. A small white kid coming back to middle school in the suburban United States needs to stop speaking foreign languages and act a different way. A nerd with a passion for computers and video games needed one operating mode around friends in high school, and a different and more guarded demeanor around everyone else who used those interests as fodder for what frankly can only be described as abuse.

Even now, the mental switch is a strong and well-practiced habit. We have been working from home for a few weeks, which has made the contrast in my behavior incredibly hard to miss. I can walk away from my home-office desk and within seconds be acting like a completely different person. All the professional context just melts away. Being able to "turn off work" is incredibly important as a skill when "work" is in the same room as the rest of your life.

For a long time I didn't even bother trying to contemplate this kind of pattern in my life. Even recently, it has been hard to think of it as anything besides a useful trick. But for all the temporary protection it may have offered in the past, it's time for those compartments to go away.

Whenever I am only a subset of myself, regardless of the circumstances or environment, I am - by definition - losing something. And it is abundantly clear, now, that often the things I am not accessing are things that would be incredibly useful in situations where I typically do not allow them to be present.

I think it is telling that I am tempted to express this in terms of how I can better help other people. But that's the wrong direction. In truth, that's exactly what I need to not do right now.

I know I'd go back into the building, fire be damned, and pull people out. I've known that for a very long time. What I have only recently begun to realize is that, in many ways, I'm the one stuck in the burning building. If I could get out, by myself, I would have. The fact that I am still here leads to one inevitable and scary conclusion.

I need help - far more of it, and far more often, than I suspect anyone could ever know.

Being only a portion of myself means that I can control how much fallibility and fragility people see in me. Showing a subset of who I am is - and always has been - a way to hide weaknesses and vulnerability.

Three decades of habits, developed in response to often violently-learned lessons, will not go away overnight. But it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is right here, right now.

The art form of mosaic is something I know almost nothing about, save for one crucial aspect of how it is practiced. A masterwork of mosaic is a larger perspective composed of thousands of tiny pieces. If you look very closely at individual pieces, you may see lovely stonework, ceramic, metal - any number of exquisite building blocks. Glance the tiniest bit in any direction, and you see breakage, the lines and gaps that distance the blocks. From inches away, a mosaic can be an incomprehensible or even heart-rending jumble of shattered beauty. To really know what the piece is about, you have to see the whole thing.

It is time to stop showing only the polished, cut, and crafted pieces. It is time to stop guiding the eye away from the gaps and missing, unfinished patches.

This is me. All of me.