May 9, 2020
“Welcome one and all to The Work Of Wrestling podcast where professional wrestling is analyzed and celebrated as an artistic medium…”
I first recorded those words from inside a closet in December of 2014.
I thought being in a confined space would improve the audio quality. I also, secretly, liked the idea of being able to one day tell this story; the auditory-equivalent of Silicon Valley’s legendary garages. Turns out getting a better microphone was the key to better audio.
Five years later, I could still do better in that regard. I know my levels are too low. I continue to not buy equipment and not build a custom sound proof box, all of which would improve the sound quality of my show. I imagine actual audio engineers, broadcasters, podcasters, and filmmakers listening to my show and cringing at every slight smattering of saliva or "popped p".
These phantoms and their judgments may or may not exist.
That doesn’t actually matter.
My choice to believe in them, to take their judgments to heart, definitely exists. In trying to figure out why I don’t take such simple, calms steps toward improving something I know can be improved, I jump to conclusions like “I’m just too comfortable” or “I’m just too lazy” or “I’m just not technically gifted”. Such thoughts apply to more than my podcast - they apply to anything I want to do with my life.
These are the negative judgments of the inner dictator - the angel and devil on our shoulders. Only, for human beings, they're usually both devils and their advice is reliably terrible. The default mode of our internal, evaluative system is negative. And it’s emboldened by our external reality. We are bombarded with phraseology and imagery, hourly (not just daily), that suggests something about us is off or somehow wrong (and it just so happens it can be fixed for the low monthly price of…).
There are times I look in the mirror and I just think, “Ugh”.
I actually hear that sound in my mind.
There are times I’m in the shower and I remember something embarrassing I did in high school and I let out a muted scream, “Ahhh!”
Phrases like “I’ve really let myself go” and “I need to lose weight” and “I need to start exercising again” are always right around the corner. I don’t usually ruminate on such phrases. They’re just in there. Always. The sort of thoughts I file in the “normal” category, thoughts that don’t rise to the level of immediately troubling. They just quietly chip away at the self-esteem, like a horde of microscopic zombie-insects feasting on the pink matter between my ears. The thoughts that do inspire rumination, the thoughts that do rise to the level of immediate “Red alert! Abort! Abort!” are more destabilizing. They’re usually not as catastrophic as you may imagine. It can be as simple as, “Are they mad at me?” and the day is over.
Before last year, when I finally started going to talk-therapy, I firmly believed, “Well…this is my life. This is me. There's no making it better. Tortured artist and all that.”
I likened depression and anxiety to a lifestyle choice - as germane to being an artist as smoking or wearing black (guilty of both). Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know I believed this because I had to cope. I told myself a story that made depression and anxiety more bearable in my twenties, before I had any conscious tools for living with it.
That closet, where I recorded that first episode of The Work Of Wrestling, was not unlike the state of my mind.
Compact and cluttered, a small, hopeful voice floating in the dark, desperate for air.
Eventually, the tortured artist myth became useless.
It started to feel untrue (because it is), and it didn't help me navigate life in the slightest.
I wasn’t depressed and anxious from 1995-present because I’m an artist.
I’ve been depressed and anxious…because I have depression and I have anxiety.
There is a gulf between those two understandings and acceptance is the bridge.
It’s only when I decided I really needed help, sought help, and accepted the “tortured artist” myth wasn't helping, that I was able to do the real work of living with myself.
And it is work, and it never ends.
It would be lovely to let the credits roll after that last sentence about “acceptance”, but there are no tidy endings when it comes to living. It’s incredibly difficult. I still occasionally groan in the shower. Thoughts like, “Ugh” and “I hate myself” pop like fireworks in my skull. I still get intrusive thoughts. Just last night, I was beset by a cloud that, even now, I can’t quite articulate - I just felt tired and overwhelmed and like there was no way I’d ever “get everything done”.
The only difference between my twenties and now is that I do have a few conscious tools for living with it. Also, I now think these thoughts inside a nice room populated by pleasant imagery and warm memories of all that I love, rather than inside a shadowy little cave.
In my twenties, I didn’t know that was possible. I unconsciously believed my external must always reflect my internal, and that one could not positively inform the other.
I didn’t know it was okay to “take care of yourself”.
Even writing that phrase makes my skin crawl a little bit.
That’s how fused I am with the idea that life is meant to be hard and taking care of one’s self is, somehow, a sign of weakness or extremely selfish given all the suffering in the world - all the people less privileged to be surrounded by “pleasant imagery”.
That’s my dictator, hard at work.
He’s not wrong about all the suffering in the world or the fact that I'm privileged...but he’s also not doing anything about it.
He’s adopting a posture of self-indulgent superiority; a disingenuous tactic not unlike a Twitter troll because that's where he feels safe. He’s weighing my every action or thought and finding some way to make me feel bad, which, ironically, puts me less in a place to help others. Even now, he has real reservations about publishing this (he doesn’t know I’ve already decided for the both of us - I’m going to break it to him gently and help him through it).
Why does my dictator do this? What gets in the way of those calm steps towards improvement?
If I’m being completely honest, seeking an answer beyond the negative inner monologue, it’s not comfort or laziness or lack of talent.
I am afraid.
I don’t always know what I’m afraid of or why I'm afraid, particularly when it comes to art, but I’ve come to learn that “what” and “why” are not as important as simply accepting the feeling (which is anything but simple). Considering what life is and what's in store, fear is an appropriate response. It only becomes a problem when it rules our actions and gets in the way of accessing more helpful emotions.
When I think back to the early days of my podcast, particularly the literal spaces where I recorded, I’m reminded of my twenty-something fears. I refused to buy “real furniture”, because I’d learned that the twenties were transitory. Even after moving into my first apartment with my then fiancé (now wife) in October 2013, I was convinced we wouldn’t be there long enough to make “settling” worth it. I lugged my dorm room futon, my rickety TV stand, and my bins-as-end-tables up four flights of stairs, into that one-bedroom, and there they remained…for four years. The desk where I podcasted was too small for me and made of particle board.
I didn’t want it anymore, but it was the last thing my father bought me before he died.
I feared that getting rid of it would continue the process of getting rid of him.
So there I sat (after moving out of that closet) for the first season, podcasting at an uncomfortable, decaying desk, seated in a lawn chair, in a sparsely decorated room (small signals of the future revealed in a stuffed animal here, an action figure there).
If I’d been content with that space, then there wouldn’t have been a problem.
But I wasn’t content. I didn’t like it, yet some part of me believed I didn’t deserve "nice things", that I didn’t deserve what I really wanted. The room, which was beautiful on its own, was a manifestation of my anxieties. I was terrified to establish roots, to embrace the onset of adulthood and “real life” even as it was happening to me.
Then, one day, in 2016, I saw a picture of a friend’s office desk. He’d arranged little toys and memorabilia on it, creating a pleasant, human space defined by his personality. It was impossible to look at it without smiling. That image, combined with a mounting sense of utter dissatisfaction with myself, jostled something loose in my head. That February, I bought and built a new desk.
I remembered my love of action figures and started collecting.
The podcasting space continued to evolve, becoming more comfortable, more me. The depression and anxiety remained, of course, ebbing and flowing with the tide of life, but it wasn't alone anymore.
Then, in the Fall of 2017, our lease was up and we had to move.
It was a nightmare. Those first months in the new apartment were defined by confusion, stress, and love. I distracted myself (and, at times, added to my wife’s stress) by building us "real furniture". I was determined to “make it nice”, even if the sound of banging hammers and under-the-breath cursing is anything but. I’d witnessed the positive affects of putting time and effort into a space, and I knew too well the negative affects of neglecting it. I decided that I would learn from every mistake, and ensure we had everything we needed in our new apartment in order to live well and comfortably.
I saved my office for last - for the first few months, it looked like a small dump. Little by little, I pieced together a new podcasting station.
The first iteration of this room had the lingering touches of a dorm: plastic TV stand, a futon, an inelegant sensibility.
I kept at it, my aim to create a space that serviced the following needs: a comfortable place to sit and think privately, a comfortable bed for guests and naps, a good desk for writing, podcasting, and displaying figures. I spent years denying and avoiding this part of me - always thinking it wasn’t worth it, that I’d be losing something, that it was selfish, that I was bad for some inexplicable reason...
In truth, establishing roots, even in the form of a good desk, has helped.
When you enter a space that is the literal manifestation of the best parts of you (the things you love), you let your inner dictator know, “See…we’re not so bad, after all”.
The more time I’ve spent watering these roots, the more I’ve noticed an improvement in my overall mood and productivity.
My podcast has traveled from the confines of that angst-filled closet to a warm, thoughtfully curated representation of my personal history.
I can detect that transition in the tone of my voice, and the focus of my episodes, even if listeners can’t (though I suspect some of them can).
I’m not “cured” just because my room is nicer and I’m honest about the fact that I love action figures. There is no cure. There’s always more I could do, but fusing with that thought ignores a larger trajectory of progress.
We are, each of us, finding our way through the cave, clutching at our torches, eager for a crack of sunlight.
Sometimes, the best you can do is reach out for a helping hand.
There's a good chance, given how many of us are in there, you’ll find one reaching back.
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