I am no stranger to spiritual states. I have sought them since my youth. I have used prayer, reading, writing, masturbation, drugs of varied types and strengths, sex, danger, meditation, magick, pain, Shibari, erotic asphyxiation, and finally love and motherhood in my pursuit of grokking the Universe/God/god/one-ness. But, I didn’t see my latest epiphany coming—at a science fiction and fantasy symposium—in Provo, UT—listening to author Kelly Barnhill’s keynote speech.
I have always been a voracious reader and was, in my youth, a prolific writer. I would tap into my tween angst and summon forth words detailing dramatic feelings and experiences I had never known. I felt them deeply, profoundly. I couldn’t sleep at night for worry of other people’s problems or ones I imagined out of thin air. I couldn’t control when they came or how deeply I was affected. I was fully unprepared to deal with these feelings, and ultimately sought escape.
I don’t know which came first: cutting myself or setting things on fire, but I do know that destruction was my solution to the rampant craziness running through my head, impeding my focus, inspiring my words, impelling my disastrous choices. I carved invocations in my flesh and released desires in flame and ash. I turned to drugs and, shortly thereafter, sex. I left school, full of ennui.
I didn’t have to feel all those hard emotions and that societal judgment, I could escape into a state of bliss, uniting with my opposite and equal, or chemically exciting every cell in my being and uplifting mind and spirit.
A funny thing happens when you serve up select and limited emotions on a platter. You don’t gain experience with the emotions you have rejected. You stunt your own emotional growth. I assume this is why they say drug use inhibits emotional maturity, though it doesn’t take anything as strong as controlled substances, only stubborn indifference.
I ultimately pulled myself out of this downward spiral—somehow—and it wasn’t until recently, while I listened to that unparalleled storyteller, that I glimpsed that subtle influence that had served as my lifeline, that could in fact be the answer to fixing those out of whack within our own orbits. When I realized the implications, I had a transcendent moment. I had come to the conclusion that as it had kept my brain sharp between testing out of school at 16 and attending college at 24, reading more than regularly as I did, had also enabled me to retain the knowledge of the experience of emotions and how to put myself in the shoes of others.
Before I settled into a mildly numbing decade of sex and marijuana, putting behind the amphetamines I had loved so well, they had given me my out—a near death experience on the heels of a traumatic opportunity to rediscover empathy. I had stopped writing around the time I began stabbing myself for intense moments of pleasure. I was no longer capable of entering into the melancholy of my muse, knowing only ecstatic bliss and hallucinogenic blackouts.
Sometimes the people around me took on different forms or identities until a lull in my state. So, perhaps I can understand how it wasn’t until one summer morning of my 23rd year after a multi day meth binge that I realized that I was partying hard with a young woman who was barely twenty-one and eight months pregnant with the second child she might or raise. Having experienced the heights and depths back then, I can bring myself to understand how this could occur, but I do not expect anyone else to understand. Know only that it lead to a more intense bout with my demon, and after an insane ride I stopped breathing and beating lying still on the floor, and came-to to the slaps and pounding of a boyfriend I would never see again after that night, to then run away to a new city with a stripper who wanted a different scenes well, where I vomited myself clean and learned to love marijuana and suffer “normal guys.” I also learned to hold down a job.
Why couldn’t I be normal? Just because I never had been before, or couldn’t remember a time I was, didn’t mean I couldn’t accomplish such a feat. It just meant I didn’t yet know how. So, I just kept reading and watching the suburbanites around me, and kept score at my boyfriend’s softball games and pretended I was normal until I had an abortion and an identity crisis, and went on a tear with an 8-ball and my boyfriend’s (not) best friend from high school. The former me almost came back right then: the queen of bad decisions came to the threshold of my secret door, and she rode that convenient diversion through jack shacks and the bathroom stall at Madison Square Garden, with no regard for the guy at home (also cheating, it turned out, not that that matters). But, I knew her game, and kicked her to the curb, along with the whole suburban life and upstate WASP community. Neither were who I wanted to be.
I longed to realize my new and improved identity, but it was still in formation. I experimented with euphorics and decided to move to Massachusetts and continue college adding philosophers, classic literature, and magick to my library. I extracted dextromethorphan from cough syrup and took LSD to metaprogram myself. I chanted my new mantra over and over: “Fake it, until you make it.” One particularly poignant night, on the eve of the new millennium, December 31, 2000, I took several hits of acid and sought through serendipity to find the solution to my inability to emotionally deal with whatever life threw me. I opened “The Portable Nietzsche” seeking the answer to my spoken question, and found the parable of the diamond and the rock. I decide to be the diamond. To harden my heart to others so they could no longer affect me. I shake my head in disbelief today.
I met, fell in love with, and joined Ordo Templi Orientis, an organization devoted to joy and beauty and truth and transformation to your ideal self, yet I had hardened my heart to the experiences before me, to the people around me. But initiation brings internal awareness and I began to see what I had done. Better that I be content in my soft and malleable nature, rather than present this bright and shiny crystalline wall to the world. Again, I read and read and worked to be my better self, and learned some coping skills, and left school to work and thrive, and undertook rituals to learn to love and trust and to discipline myself, to know love under will, lest I be so horribly used or use others so hardly again.
Whether through my initiatory and ritual work, deep self reflection, or through a decade and more without hard drugs in my system, I suddenly became a cryer. I mean I was a wreck. Every sentimental movie made me cry, books made me bawl, a tender cat food commercial touched my heart and brought the tears. To this day, I have deeper emotional relationships to characters from “Deep Space Nine” than I do some friends and family after watching the entire series both before and then again after my transformation. One peer suggested I had finally matured emotionally and just had a lot of emotion for which to make up. A decade or more later I am still a cryer. You know what else came back? My writing.
Kelly Barnhill spoke of the circuitous routes we take to come to our craft and how inspiration comes from the strangeness of life and accepting it in ourselves and those around us. That when we combined these strange practices with the flame of inspiration we would tell unforgettable stories. Stories with characters with whom readers live and love and bleed. That this level of storytelling requires the arts of paying attention and experiencing radical empathy.
A good writer needs to be a good reader, they say, and I had been, and that I believe was why I could become a worthwhile person after everything. After all the bad decisions and broken hearts. Because when the capacity for experiencing emotions came flooding back, I was primed to empathize with others. The neural paths hd been lain in the years intervening. The only thing I had been with any regularity was a reader.
But radical empathy can give us so much more than good writers. It can give us worthwhile humans. If a self-destructive, self absorbed disaster could learn to love those outside of her self induced nightmare, and could find the power to share those experiences for the empowerment of others, then every xenophobic bigot and misogynistic hater we are hiding in the dark canopy of our family trees can be redeemed through the power of reading and envisioning themselves in the story of the Other.
We are all storytellers. Every memory we share is part of the narrative. Memory is nothing but cold storage, we have to remember it to share it and that is storytelling first to ourselves and then others. By sharing of ourselves and our experiences, the lessons we have learned and the mistakes we have made…or caused. By reading about the lives of others, real or fictional, we burn into ourselves an increased capacity for understanding. By sharing this skill for radical empathy with our friends and family and coworkers and acquaintances, we could uplift humanity, and that is why I had a spiritual experience listening to an author tell her circuitous route to radical empathy through tales of ghosts, carbon monoxide poisoning and inspired taxidermy.
Thank you, Kelly Barnhill, for answering my whys and inspiring me to greater heights. May I pay it forward.
(c) 2019 Hattie Quinn
Hattie Quinn is an author of short stories, poetry, and one small being of light. She lives in Texas with her husband Satyr in a small menagerie called the Wildwood. She was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology 2017 for her story, “Good Works, After Bad”, published by poeticdiversity.org, and has devoted her life to uplifting humanity, beginning with herself and her family.