Gratitude: Reflections on ReAsonCon 3

Gratitude: Reflections on ReAsonCon 3 April 27, 2017

‘Cause one day my memories will all be gone
Not a single one of all whom I love will go on
I’m afraid of the end, yeah, I don’t want it all to
But it won’t take away from my gratitude

And it’s almost too good to be real
And while it’s hard to define the transcendence we feel
I don’t believe in a great power to say thank you to
But it won’t take away from my gratitude

-Shelley Segal, “Gratitude”


[Content note: Contains references to emotional abuse and its effects]

This week in therapy, I cried tears of joy for the first time in years. My therapist cried with me. For the first time since I had started seeing her in October, I was able to recognize my own worth and fully accept that I have — and deserve to have — love.

It was because of you.

If you follow my content, you are most likely aware that I struggle with perfectionism and low self-worth. Being raised by an abuser who punished me for any deviation from her idea of how I “should” be, and scored my value primarily by how highly achieving I was (in other words, how good I made her look as my parent), left me with a hyper-critical inner voice. I’m not good enough, it tells me. My work on X wasn’t perfect, so it was terrible. I’m not as funny, smart, or important as Y, so I’m not as good of a person as they are. When people say nice things about me, they’re just being polite. Or maybe they’re mistaken about the kind of person I am, so they really believe those things they say.

There’s a reason why I’m well-known in the community for my discomfort with receiving compliments — I don’t feel like I deserve them. I’d almost always rather someone lovingly rib me than sincerely and genuinely praise me. I’m not worthy of praise. I’m not worthy of being listened to. I’m not worthy of love.

Even when it comes to my contributions to The Gaytheist Manifesto, I battle constantly with imposter syndrome. Perhaps because by definition the information and perspective I share on the show are things I already know, I often feel like I’m not relaying anything new to listeners. I feel as if I’m simply repeating information others have already stated elsewhere, and much better than I could. I tell myself that the audience would be better served if someone more interesting, more important, more eloquent, and overall more competent were to take my place.

ReAsonCon 3 changed that for me.

I expected I would have fun. I knew I would get to spend more time with friends I had met before at previous events, and I was hugely excited about meeting friends in person for the first time who I had only spoken to online. I knew I would probably meet a few listeners I hadn’t talked to before, too. In my mental image, they would tell me reservedly, “You’re Ari Stillman? I like you on The Gaytheist Manifesto.” I’d smile stiffly and say, “Cool, thanks,” and give an awkward thumbs up to try to distract from my discomfort with humor. Then we’d move on to chatting about small talk, politics or atheist community goings-on.

I was not prepared for what actually happened. I did see my friends as I knew I would, but the smiles were bigger, the hugs were longer and stronger, and the joyful shouts of, “Ari!” from across the hall were more vibrant than I could have predicted. I did meet my online friends for the first time, but we quickly became like old friends with one another, laughing together and exchanging enthusiastic, loving hugs whenever we had the chance. (At one point on the first night we formed an impromptu “cuddle pile” in the hotel lobby, a photo of which can be found on Facebook.)

But the thing that really floored me was the number of people I had never met before — never even talked to online — who approached me to tell me how much they enjoyed, appreciated and learned from my contributions to The Gaytheist Manifesto and other podcasts I’ve spoken on. They were bursting to express what the show means to them, talk about what they’d learned, or ask some questions about the topics I’m knowledgeable in. I was honored that they would choose me, whether it was to help them better understand gender identity, to ask how support their queer, trans or intersex loved ones, or to share how the show helped them feel less isolated, less alone, less different… more belonging, more valid, more needed, more loved.

These people went out of their way to find me and make me aware of their gratitude for things I’d said or done that I’d convinced myself weren’t good enough, funny enough, educational enough, well-spoken enough, nuanced enough, important enough, just not enough on any conceivable axis. To me, the things I did and said weren’t perfect, so they were nothing but inadequate.

And here these people were, a few inches away from me, telling me in person — where I couldn’t run away or ignore them or minimize their words — that what I did was more than just enough. It was important to them. It was perfect to them, because it was exactly what they needed to hear, what they needed to learn, what they needed to make them laugh at that moment. I could not pretend I didn’t hear them. I couldn’t tell them they were wrong, or play it off with a hand-wavey, “Oh, no, that’s not true.” What could I do, tell them they’re wrong about their own thoughts and feelings? Tell them that they DIDN’T really appreciate or learn from what I do, and actually it wasn’t anything great and they should ignore me and listen to someone else instead? So I tried my best to swallow my protestations and tell them sincerely, “Thank you. I am so glad it helped you. It means a lot to me to hear that.”

And I had to sit with the knowledge that despite what my mind wants me to think about my worth, I really meant something to them.

I was unprepared for how emotionally healing that would be. I’ve spent so many years convincing myself that if I feel like a bad person, it must be because I am a bad person. Why would I feel insufficient if I wasn’t? If I were okay, wouldn’t I feel okay? My therapist has taught me (through many, many repetitions) that that voice inside constantly tearing me down isn’t my voice at all. It’s my abuser’s voice, internalized after 23 years of brainwashing me to be dependent on and obedient to her. My therapist has shown me how to be more skeptical about my own self-talk, to start to distinguish between my own voice and the voice purposefully planted there by another. I may feel like I’m not good enough because of that intruder in my mind, but the evidence shows otherwise. There are many people who want to be around me; who appreciate what I have to say; who think I’m funny, smart and important when I feel burdening, useless and invisible.

ReAsonCon was the first time I was able to internalize that. It was the first time I caught of glimpse of who I really am when the self-protective curtain starts to lift.

It turns out I love hugs. So many hugs. (All after obtaining consent, of course… Don’t forget, ReAsonCon in Hickory, North Carolina is an uber-lefty SJW convention where they force you to do communist stuff like respect fake pronouns and not sexually harass people.) I love walking down the hallway, seeing someone I love, executing a swift drive-by-hugging and exchanging smiles as they turn around and see who it was. I love being with people who make it easier for me safely feel, people who want to hear my story instead of thinking of me as weird or oversensitive or broken, people who really listen and support me when I feel overwhelmed and vulnerable and afraid of feeling anything for fear that my emotional armor will falter, and I’ll be overtaken by the trauma and never be okay again.

I learned at ReAsonCon that most people aren’t like my abuser. (I think I owe my therapist an apology for refusing to believe her about that for the last 6 months.) I learned that I can be vulnerable with people and not only not be betrayed, but be validated above and beyond what I ever would have expected. I learned that emotions are a huge part of who I am as a person, and that expressing them helps not only me but everyone around me. I learned that family is a real and meaningful concept separated from both biological relatives and friends, and that it’s not just a hokey label you find in movies and books… and that I have one. And if you’re reading this, you’re part of it.

So I told all this to my therapist in session this week, and she saw my protective armor starting to come down for the first time as I accepted others’ love for me for the first time in my life without pushing it away and shutting down. We both cried, me from happiness and gratitude and her from pride. I’m not fully healed, or “cured” if you want to use that word. I’m still very much in the process, probably just in the beginning stages. I still worry that my work isn’t important or helpful, and that no one cares what I have to say (even in this very article), and that I’m really not loveable. But that voice got a lot smaller this weekend. This was my first glimpse of what life will be like for me when I don’t hold my feelings in anymore for fear of being a burden, or being too vulnerable and thusly open to be hurt. I’m starting to find out who I really am.

I don’t have to be perfect. I can be good enough, and be loved. Thank you for teaching me that.

I am moving to Colorado for grad school this fall, and I need your help to get there. Please consider contributing to my moving fund if you are able.

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