Slouching Toward Agoraphobia

Slouching Toward Agoraphobia

I’ve put off writing this a few times.

Perhaps it’s because it reeks of privilege and ego. Or perhaps because being honest about how we feel, especially when it comes to pain and mental illness, is frowned upon. After all, aren’t we all supposed to be happy and smile?

Questions assault me as I sit down to write this:

Who cares about an unknown writer?

Why bother everyone with your problems?

I think that I should just keep this stuff in, unless of course I want attention.

Then again, maybe owning up to how I feel can make me a better person.

I have the unconditional love of a partner who supports me at every turn. Yet, I don’t love myself. I see myself in the mirror and I cringe in horror. I hate my face, my body, my voice, my words––perhaps even down to the very essence of the self.

I realize it is popular to imagine that artists are awash in self-loathing, but there is something to be said about sinking into a vortex of emotional and mental refuse that drags you down like quicksand.

Great art comes from great pain: We’ve all heard this clever turn of phrase.

And maybe you’re wondering what a middling writer knows about the pursuit and labor of great art. That’s a fair question. I do know that seeing only the worst in yourself creates an internal world full of doubt and mistrust.

So what does this have to do with agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is “an extreme or irrational fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one’s own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult.” As I sat drinking coffee on an objectively beautiful day, I realized how uncomfortable I was. Even though I was dressed comfortably and spending time with someone who loved me, I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt disgusting. It didn’t matter that my partner was supportive and complimented me; I still wanted to disappear.

How did this happen to me?

In that question, I suppose I realize there is a cascade of choices that led me here. It didn’t happen to me; it arose from the consequences of a series of choices. I moved from one place to the next, not bothering to form new social relationships and instead leaning into a virtual world that offered convenience and a comfortable distance from my work.

 

Living Remotely

I’ve moved around most of my life. As an adolescent and a teenager, I went to a different school every year from kindergarten until I graduated high school. Once I was on my own, I lived in six states and eight cities more. With each subsequent move, the pool of close personal connections diminished. And once I was done with graduate school and moved from northern California to Portland, almost a decade’s worth of friendships were dissolved simply based on distance.

I would move twice more after Portland to Arizona before settling in Las Vegas. Whatever friendships I forged along the way were gone. I had a handful of close friends spread out across the country, but I rarely saw them.

The allure of social media made it seem like I could continue to maintain and perhaps grow those relationships, but it proved to only be a slow obsolescence of social interaction. What replaced it was the pursuit of connection most accurately described as screaming into a rainbow-colored void. You could search for people who had similar interests, but most people still formed meaningful relationships in the real world.

I had marooned myself on an island of my own creation.

When I spoke with those friends who survived the flurry of moves over the almost four decades of my life, I feigned joy. I pretended that this isolation was really a form of literary utopia––a fantasy-land where a writer was free to focus on writing without the niggling social responsibilities that impeded progress.

It was a fiction of course.

It continues to be a lie I tell myself with a self-assured smirk. I tell myself that I don’t like going out because I have food allergies or joint pain or some other subjective reason. However, the real reason is that each time I go out I feel uncomfortable and awful about myself, and that simply confirms my desire that staying in is the better choice.

Truthfully, it is easier than ever to work from home as a writer. So I lean into it and choose to rob myself of possible social relationships. I do myself greater harm in the pursuit of convenience by isolation. I’m thankful for the relationships I have maintained, and I mourn for those that were never given life.

 

Functionally Unhappy (Or How I Learned To Exist)

Unhappiness by way of over-analysis is not uncommon. I’m not special. The idea of a perfect life haunted me for years. I thought I needed to look a certain way and achieve certain things in order to be the kind of partner who would be worthy of love.

In theory, I understand why that idea is foolish.

The idea of a perfect life is a lie.

However, the pervasiveness of undermining myself and doubting what I have to offer is overwhelming. Despite doubting myself at every step, I stay productive. I write books; I publish books. I secure writing and editing contracts.

And despite the forward progression, I am functionally unhappy. I work through the self-doubt and pain. I internalize the hateful feelings instead of sharing them because that is my legacy. That is the toxicity of a learned behavior spreading throughout my being.

I don’t have any answers. I’m leaning into honesty to see what it yields. Perhaps by owning up to these ideas about myself, I can finally exorcise them. I do know that in doing this necessary thing and being honest, I am also being kind to myself, even if the ideas themselves are unpleasant.

So maybe I’m agoraphobic––maybe not. I really don’t know.

But I do know that without reaching out, I will continue to sink into an abyss.

 

If you or somebody you know is struggling, there is help available.

On Strong Female Characters, Face-less Heroes, and Myriad Personalities

Sixth Prime

When I started writing Sixth Prime, I decided early on to do something very deliberate: I would make half the main characters women; I would make sure the personalities better reflected the myriad of the human experience; and I would describe characters without using skin color or any physical identifiers.

You might be wondering: what exactly is the point of that?

Women represent half the population

I would be remiss if I ignored the statistics right in front of me. More than half of the world’s population is female, so why wouldn’t I include a representative number of female characters? I’m talking about adventurers and villains, scientists and soldiers, and everything in between. The goal should be to tell the best possible story. I waited until I had outlined everything, and then randomly assigned characters as men and women (this includes romantic relationships as well, so buckle your seatbelts).

Personality guides behavior and decision-making.

I went to graduate school for psychology, and as such I’ve always had a fascination with why people do what they do. This, naturally, translated into thinking about how I could smuggle personality psychology into a narrative. The Prime saga, beginning with Sixth Prime, is an attempt to do just that. I wanted readers to feel like they were represented by one of the characters in such a way that the decisions and consequences felt more real to them.

The reader should decide how the characters look.  

I know it’s a long shot, but maybe (just maybe) the Prime Saga becomes a movie or limited series. I bring this up because nothing is worse than people arguing how characters should look or the kinds of actors or actresses who should play them. Really, even if an adaptation is not in order, I love the idea of people coming to their own conclusions about how a character should look based on their choices, personality, and behavior. I want the characters to be defined by how they make readers feel; I want a reader to be able to see themselves in the character and as the character.

 

Here is the working teaser:

2.3.5.7.11.13.

A war brews as a galaxy struggles to maintain a peace treaty signed in haste. The Commonwealth boasts sprawling cities built upon slums. The Sovereignty has placed the yoke of industry upon its citizens. Sixteen men and women are connected in a way they cannot yet understand. A murder of a prominent artist begins a chain of events that will ultimately determine the fate of the universe.

Only thirteen will remain.

In the end, there can be only one Prime.

Are you a Prime?

 

Interested yet? I sure hope so. If you are, then how about a brief excerpt? Check it out at: https://authordanobrien.com/2016/07/28/preview-of-sixth-prime/

Perhaps you want to grab the Kindle version for only $2.99? http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01ENLPOVG

 

 

Why I’m A Coward

04fWe all have something that we really want in our lives. Perhaps it is a dream that we actively and purposefully ignore; maybe it is something just on the periphery of our awareness. In my opinion, either we are honest about what we really want or we allow ignorance of it to guide our actions.

For me, it is wanting to be a screenwriter.

I’ve found a way to work on my own terms and make money; I’ve created a universe where I can write novels and short stories, while working freelance, without having to show up to a traditional 9-5 job. Even so, if I’m being honest, I have failed to really pursue what I want to do.

It is right there, in the forefront of my mind, when I wake up every morning.

It is right there, within reach, in everything I do.

But I don’t go after it.

Why? Fear.

I’m afraid of what it will cost me to pursue it.

Or at least what I think it will cost me.

I make excuses about not wanting to move to LA or put my wife in the position of us not making enough money. I talk about wanting to be able to provide a standard of living as a means to not jump in with both feet. The reality is that it is achievable if I wanted it bad enough; if I wanted more than I wanted comfort, more than I wanted to succumb to fear and let it guide my behavior.

I’m a chicken-shit when it comes to the thing I will regret as I lay dying.

Sure, I’ve published a lot of books and I’ve manged a modicum of success. However, I talk about becoming successful enough with my books that Hollywood will take notice. If I were being truly fearless, I would doggedly pursue that dream, hustling and working toward it without regard for failure. I wouldn’t wait for my success and my dream to overlap. I would go out and get, leaving nothing on the table when I do.

I wanted to end this with something powerful like no more or  I will pursue it now that I have laid it bare. But really, I remain afraid of upsetting what I have. I will continue down the path of least resistance, holding the idea with me each day that my dream will remain beyond my reach as long as I don’t pursue it. I will continue to be honest about not pursuing it, but will likely remain afraid to go after it in some misguided notion of homeostasis.

I will live a great life with the woman I love, but I will always know that I was too scared to pursue the personal goal that, objectively, would not have upset my life, but more than likely given a rich texture to it I would have cherished.

I will continue to be a coward hiding behind a veil of simpler personal success accented by easy-to-attain personal goals that are easier to recover from if I fail.

I can do better.

You, dear reader, don’t have to be a coward like me.

Take chances. Chase your dreams.

The Psychological Advantage

Business-Psychology-Learning-how-to-Make-your-Products-Stand-out-to-Potential-CustomersAccording to Forbes, 39.2% of psychology majors coming right out of college had an offer for a job somewhere. Of course, the knowledge and skill base of your average graduate is pretty variable, but it does speak to the utility of a background in psychology. Most companies, at some point or another, fall into a trap of the latest psychological-metric trend guaranteed to increase growth and productivity, or lend a hand to HR in order to hire the right folks.

However, let’s talk about using psychology to your benefit.

Watson and Skinner, the pioneers of behaviorism, taught us a lot about human behavior and how to understand behavioral contingencies. It was Skinner, however, who gifted us operant conditioning and a quick path to behavior modification that could yield actionable goal-setting (and adherence) behavior.

Alright, let’s back up.

That was a lot of jargon coming at your fast.

Understand the behavior. So what is that you are trying to do? Be accurate and honest here. Are you trying to write more every day? Do you want more conversions from your marketing campaign? Do you want to be more productive and complete more things on your to-do list? Whatever the thing is that you want to do, define it, and describe it well.

Salient, powerful reward. This is really the tricky part for program adherence. When we think of rewarding ourselves, we generally land on something that we could do without, or something we have a lot of ways to get. What you want to do is choose something specific, salient, and powerful; and by that I mean something that you couldn’t go through the day without. How about an example? A good friend of mine really wanted to finish the novel he had been talking about for a decade. The problem was: he didn’t make the time; and he lacked the discipline to stick to a writing schedule. He asked me what he could do differently since I am a productivity and discipline junkie. I asked what he did every day; he shrugged. As we were sitting over coffee, I noticed that he checked his phone a few times. I asked him what had captured his attention. Apparently, he had become addicted to one of those app games where you built little towns and went to war with other players. He explained that if he didn’t check in often, his town and little digital population would be decimated. That was the a-ha moment: I had successfully found what he couldn’t live without. The solution was simple. He would have to write a certain amount of words in order to check on his digital world. Lo and behold, the strategy worked because the reward was very clear.

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Volume. Behavior change takes time; as such, you will have lots of opportunities to fail (which is the currency of success), but, more importantly, you will be able to repeat the behavior-reward dyad enough times to truly turn it into a habit. The actual amount of time it takes for this kind of habituation varies based on psychological makeup, the task, the reward, and a host of other things. Some estimates put it as low as 10 days and more conservative suggestions put it at closer to eight weeks. Either way, volume is your friend; when in doubt, keep working that behavioral contingency.

Make the behavior as easy as possible to guarantee program adherence. Human beings like to complicate things. We want difficult explanations to simple problems, because we can’t imagine that the answer shouldn’t be multi-faceted and complex. You might talk about looking for a simple solution, but what you really mean is you want an easy answer, which is not the same.

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Psychopaths, Sociopaths, and Assholes

I love Sherlock Holmes. I adore Benedict Cumberbatch as the modern interpretation of the classic sleuth; Mark Gatiss’ writing (and his turn as Mycroft) are wonderful. However, I think we have confused some very basic ideas about the human condition. It is not uncommon for us to use words incorrectly for long enough that they become part of a subculture vernacular that we are inevitably share.

Here are a couple I am sick of hearing:

Psychopath

This terms conjures up images of a serial killer wearing a victim’s skin like a windbreaker, but in a clinical setting, and according to the DSM-V, the term Anti-social Personality Disorder is a more apt description. Here is a definition drawn from http://www.mayoclinic.org/:

“Antisocial personality disorder is a type of chronic mental condition in which a person’s ways of thinking, perceiving situations, and relating to others are dysfunctional—and destructive. People with antisocial personality disorder typically have no regard for right and wrong and often disregard the rights, wishes, and feelings of others.

Those with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate, or treat others either harshly or with callous indifference. They may often violate the law, landing in frequent trouble, yet they show no guilt or remorse. They may lie, behave violently or impulsively, and have problems with drug and alcohol use. These characteristics typically make people with antisocial personality disorder unable to fulfill responsibilities related to family, work, or school.”

It should be difficult to see that few people who you maintain stable relationships in your life would fall into the category of anti-social personality disorder. And if they do, stop reading and seek professional help for your friend. If your friend has a partner or a job, it is likely that being a jerk and becoming behaviorally addicted to being cold is more likely.

Sociopath

According to Psychology Today, which I would not reference were this a peer-reviewed article, here are some pretty basic characteristics of a sociopath:

  • Superficial charm and good intelligence
  • Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
  • Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations
  • Unreliability
  • Untruthfulness and insincerity
  • Lack of remorse and shame
  • Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
  • Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
  • Pathological egocentricity and incapacity for love
  • General poverty in major affective reactions
  • Specific loss of insight
  • Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
  • Fantastic and uninviting behavior with alcohol and sometimes without
  • Suicide threats rarely carried out
  • Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
  • Failure to follow any life plan

What is important to note here is that if we are to really know whether or not a friend is a sociopath (which, again, is best described in the anti-social personality spectrum), we can’t simply pick and choose from this list of characteristics and declare them a sociopath. We all, at one point or another, will manifest some of these characteristics. We may not feel shame for something because we are proud instead. We might not have any life plan because we are still in a transitory period of our life. We will lie and be insincere to save face.

I can hear your you protesting now: but, I know so-and-so is a sociopath.

How exactly do you know that? Have you conducted a battery of tests that are both reliable and valid and compared those with other measures to see if they have convergent validity? Are you a board- or state-certified therapist? No, you just like to tell people that you’re friend is a sociopath because they act like a robot or treat people like objects.

Welcome to the word: people have been marginalizing entire populations for generations and wasn’t just from sociopaths. Just ask women. Being a jackass and violating social norms is par for the course when we are conforming to being a group-think jackass.

Which leads me to the final category….

Asshole

The guy who touts being a sociopath (or psychopath) without the relevant characteristics is simply a callous jackass best described as being an asshole. He can easily be distinguished because they want your attention, but love the mystery of being labelled as one of the above (with the requisite high functioning caveat) because he thinks it makes him like a fictional character. Want to meet a real sociopath or psychopath, peruse mass murders and current inmates severing consecutive life sentences for crimes, not for a socially acceptable slip that makes them seem cool.

Just stop already and call them on being an asshole and move on with your life.

Rant over.