This post was originally sent out via MailChimp in early 2018, back when this newsletter had a handful of subscribers and went by a different name. I'm thinking of it often these days, in the wake of a year that has transformed so many of us, a year in which we have died and been reborn again and again. A year in which everything stopped, and everything happened all at once.
I wonder who we will each be when we emerge from this season of transformation. Who we will be as a whole, as a community and as a society.
I recently had cause to acknowledge the ways in which people I've known in my past have changed since I last encountered them. They've lived for so long in stasis in my memory — as the people they were when we parted ways, after they touched my life and I touched theirs. A man who had hair when he hurt me is balding now; a woman who was cruel when I knew her has become kind; a tender, sensitive child I taught has grown up to be hard and mean. Their embodied selves and their interior lives have shifted when I wasn't looking.
It is startling and horrible and healing to remember that I am not the only one who has transformed with time. My memory of a person does not keep anyone in a state of permanence, except inside the attic of my skull. They're no less malleable than I have been.
Of course, I tint my own understanding of how I myself have changed over time with the myth of progress — surely I have improved with time, surely I am better now than I was. It's an inflatable life raft of a notion: necessary, but not too durable.
The temptation to abandon the dead self — to leave them in the grave of I'm Better Than That Now — is enormous. It's just as appealing as the prospect of ignoring the past year of horrors and grief, overwriting it and pretending it never happened. Revisiting the piece below, though, I find that I care less about improving on my past self than I do about honoring their memory.
Maybe there’s something to be found in the recognition of who we were before we changed. Maybe there's value in the great gaping gulf between the person we were and the person we are. Maybe there's a way to hang onto the notion that anyone can change, and be changed, and become something new.
Maybe there's hope in it.
I never liked whiskey before. I’ve always been a wine drinker. I like beer, and cocktails, too, if they’re citrus-forward and not aggressively boozy. People have always been surprised by the idea of me disliking whiskey, because I love cigars, and supposedly those two things go together. But until recently, whiskey has tasted to me like burning death.
And then suddenly, a little over a month ago… I liked whiskey. Out of nowhere. (I should have seen it coming: years and years ago, I didn’t like cigars, and then suddenly I did. The circumstances of my life at the time were almost identical to what they are now. But I didn’t see whiskey coming. I didn’t see any of this coming. How could I have seen any of it coming?)
I didn’t like whiskey until one night, a friend was drinking whiskey and gave me a little. I took a sip to be polite… and it was perfect. It was everything I’d always wished whiskey could be. I felt awake.
Now I go on whiskey-tasting adventures, finding out what I like and what I don’t. I walk into my favorite bar and ask for an education, and I learn about this new thing that I apparently love. Here’s what I’m discovering: I enjoy peat, but not too much. I’m a fan of vanilla and brown sugar. I could drown in the very expensive scotch that my favorite bartender accidentally poured me -- it was buttery and sweet and had a comet’s tail of smoke. (But I will never drink it again, because sweet jeepers, the cost would have been breathtaking if the bar manager hadn’t decided to discount it).
I like whiskey now. I didn’t before, and now I do. I’ve been trying to figure out what changed — but of course, the answer to that question is: everything. Everything changed.
When I realized why I suddenly like whiskey, I kicked myself. It was so obvious. As a long-time Doctor Who fan, it seems ridiculous that I didn’t understand all along what was going on.
The Doctor doesn’t ever precisely die; instead, they regenerate explosively, becoming an entirely new version of the same character. Once their skin is settled, they take a little while to find solid footing in a new identity. The Doctor is always the Doctor, but Eleven has different tastes than Ten does. Different clothes feel suitable; different foods taste appealing. Different jokes are funny. Speech patterns and favorite turns of phrase change. It’s not an immediate difference, because it takes time for the Doctor to become who they are going to be. Some things stay the same.
The memories are all there, and the person who answers to “Doctor” is a continuous person. But every detail requires reexamination as the Doctor figures out the answer to the question: “Who am I now? Who have I become?”
There is a thing that I learned over the years I spent processing trauma, learning to cope with the PTSD that had come to define the shape of my life. There is a trauma hypothesis, a strong one that has helped me to understand the person who I am today.
Trauma is a kind of death.
When a trauma occurs, there is a shift of the locus of one’s identity; a sudden, explosive loss of self. It’s an immediate death of id, so total that it leaves me uncomfortable using the word ‘survival’ to describe the things I have lived through. In the moment of trauma, the self who cannot endure makes a necessary exit — and a new self must grow to fill the vacuum left when the individual lives through unlivable circumstances. That is what trauma theory says.
I had the unique opportunity recently to test the hypothesis in real-time. It’s holding up better than I could have anticipated. In October, I experienced a fresh trauma — a bad one. It was bad enough to precipitate a sudden move from California to Oregon, to eat through my savings, to turn my world upside-down. It was a bad enough thing to let me apply the things I’ve learned about survival.
And because of the years I spent learning to understand the shape of trauma, I was able to watch in realtime as it reshaped me.
Trauma theory says that there is a death that comes with trauma. Reality -- the past three and a half months of finding out what clothes I like to wear now, what music I want to listen to, what flowers catch my eye at the market, what whiskey really tastes like -- says that regeneration isn’t limited to timelords.
Coming back is hard, but it’s better than the alternative.
The worst part is learning how to be a human being again. Reconnecting with communities I neglected while I was walking back to the land of the living. Remembering to eat and sleep. Figuring out how to pray again. Finding out who was willing to wait while I got the seams on my skin straight, and who was waiting to scold me for having been quiet. Learning to lean on people who want to offer support.
The best part, of course, is the novelty. This new person who I am -- they like whiskey. They can take naps without feeling off-kilter for hours afterward. They aren’t nervous on airplanes. They aren’t bored by roses.
I don’t miss the person who I was, mostly because I can’t remember what it was like to be them. I cannot even properly write them a eulogy: they are gone. Someone new is here. And I am going to find out exactly who it is that I have become this time.
So far, it seems that whiskey is my custard-and-fish-fingers.
I used to think that one is supposed to taste whiskey the same way one is supposed to taste wine. I’ve learned how wrong I was -- whiskey is the opposite of wine.
To taste a good wine, one holds a mouthful for a while, letting every part of one’s mouth come into contact with the flavors. A breath comes during the taste as well as after. The notes unfold throughout the life of the sip, and the lingering aftertaste is usually a fitting memorial to The Grape That Was.
Whiskey is the reverse. To taste whiskey, one must swallow as quickly as dying, and exhale as slowly as resurrection. Flavor comes in the breath, not in the mouthful; in the aftermath, rather than in the moment. It’s not that I was mistaken about disliking whiskey before -- I just didn’t recognize the flavor for what it is. But now that I know how to drink it, whiskey doesn’t taste so much like burning death. Now, it tastes like the experience of coming back to life new and raw. Now, it tastes like discovery.
Now, it tastes like regeneration.
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