The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 72 Psychodrama

I finally opened my solo practice in Scottsdale. I was intimidated to go out on my own, I admit it, but with daily exposure, I soon grew comfortable practicing alone. Now it’s easy for me to manage the people I see during a workday, from colleagues to office staff to clients. I don’t become overwhelmed from having to be around too many people for too long; I get to sit alone in my office, writing, or I become deeply engaged doing the intensely emotional and cognitively intimate work of psychotherapy. I’m never lonely. My work satisfies my drive to connect with people, and I get to grow along with my clients.

      To describe the boundaries between a psychologist and his or her clients is beyond the scope of this book—there are entire courses and books dedicated to the unique and complicated subject of therapeutic boundaries. To simplify it exceedingly in one paragraph: I am trained, experienced, and trustworthy, so my clients allow me to explore with them every level of their Levels of Intimacy, even level 1. They are safe to share with me because of my professionalism and confidentiality laws, which are similar to those protecting conversations with lawyers and clergy. The more and deeper they share with me, the better I am able to help them, because I compare their personal information with that of humans in general. I only share of myself what might be helpful to my clients, so it’s not the reciprocal sharing that we’d expect in a close, nontherapeutic relationship. It’s their therapy, not mine, and they are paying for my time and expertise, not my friendship or anything that will continue outside my office. The therapeutic relationship is unique, and I absolutely love it: it’s safe for my clients because I’m a trustworthy practitioner, and it’s safe for me because I’m extremely discreet regarding what I share of myself. I’ve had a thriving practice for twenty years, which tells me that I’m getting good outcomes. I know from my own experience that I find the intimacy quite satisfying and fulfilling. But this book is not about the therapeutic relationship; it is about every other relationship possible between humans.


I keep my acquaintances and colleagues at level 6 in terms of Levels of Intimacy. These are people who are in my life simply because we overlap in space and time, and we must work together and get along, an example being the office staff. I’m careful about sharing my emotions or being vulnerable with them because it may be professionally inappropriate or even hurtful to me or to my career. I’m friendly and authentic, but I’m not yet a friend. Everybody is safe, and we all earn a living.


My practice grew, I wrote novels in between cases, and I even published a handful of psychological articles and text chapters. I’d mostly realized my dream, except for one nagging detail: I had never actually published a novel. The one I wrote during those early years was entitled Psychodrama. It followed the protagonist from Also-Ran twenty-five years later, so I created a series the way the experts recommended. But as you might anticipate by now, Psychodrama went nowhere. This meant that by the time I turned fifty years old, I had attained a modicum of success as a psychologist, but I had begun to see the ridiculousness of pretending to be a fiction writer for so many decades with no published novel to show for my effort. It dawned on me that my stubborn pursuit had taken on the stench of pathos.

      So, I decided that I needed a bit of unconventionality to distinguish myself from the wannabe-novelist slush pile. I ignored an editor’s submissions policy, slipped my Psychodrama query letter past her screeners, and appealed directly to her. I justified my poor submissions etiquette (which I’d never before violated) by convincing myself that if I was rejected again, it should be by someone with real authority and not an imagined youthful screener. It was arrogant of me, of course, but I saw it as similar to making a surge at the end of a marathon, grabbing one last chance to distinguish myself from the crowd of unsolicited query letters. Yes, OK, it smelled desperate to have done that, but please understand this point: failing to publish a novel had always felt like slowly drowning to me, and a drowning man will clutch at a baby’s leg, if necessary.

      My behavior wasn’t appropriate, but humans can justify anything to be able to live with themselves. A bullied boy might feel justified going to school armed with steel; a brash young private might feel justified in puffing himself up in front of officers; and an increasingly desperate wannabe novelist might ignore an editor’s online guidelines. I had to be creative to be noticed, like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. I just didn’t know how else to keep my lifelong dream alive. I had nothing to lose, no “rep” to spoil, as the folks I appealed to were strangers to me.


On level 7 of the Levels of Intimacy is where I keep strangers. Obviously, this is by far the most populated level, currently numbering over seven billion people. I’m authentic and civil, and I don’t share myself deeply. I don’t know if people at this level are safe or not. Over time and with additional contact—and gradual mutual self-disclosure, as this is an interpersonal dynamic—they could move to another level, but before we can know whether they are future spouses or toxic people, we should proceed with reasonable caution. Now, I know I’m supposed to say something warmer here, such as “a stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet” yadda, yadda, yadda. I like that in theory, but in the real world, where I live and do clinical work that needs to be effective—and where I’m responsible for the advice I give—I provide reasonable, workable advice. My goal for my clients, my loved ones, and myself is to be safe, connected to the right people, and grow to be the best human possible. We should move toward most people but away from those who threaten our well-being. I also understand that people have varying degrees of introversion and extroversion—some are cats, and some are dogs—some do not enjoy small talk, and some do. That matters in determining how many select others we choose to connect with and how deeply. 

      Find your own comfort level and be comfortable in it; you do not need to be like everybody else—just be you. I understand that sounds cliché, but people who actually are consistently authentic are not cliché.

      Publishing this book makes me vulnerable to people at every level, but I’m sufficiently insulated and self-confident these days to withstand attacks. There will be critics, trolls, and haters. People will behave like people; I accept that. Self-disclosure is always risky. To me, it’s worth it. I’m unhappy living an emotionally shallow life; I just can’t do it. I get sad, and then I start running those loops about the meaning of life and eternity.


The editor called. Instead of praise, she berated me for not submitting according to her guidelines. Oh, I didn’t blame her, and I was quite apologetic. I’d been manipulative, and I deserved the tongue-lashing. After she had vented, she explained that she hadn’t called to upbraid me for my poor submission etiquette but rather to express interest in the Strider character from Psychodrama. Although the novel itself was far from something she’d publish, she said with a sniff, she wanted to read more about Strider to see how his story played out.

      I wondered that, as well. Strider Rhodes was one of my chameleon alter egos. He was the Steve Prefontaineesque track star I’d pretended to be when I was a competitive runner. He was charming and inflammatory, talented and arrogant. He succeeded spectacularly and failed in flames. As irritating as that kind of behavior can be, I respected it; bloodied and defeated in the arena, at least he fought. What I didn’t tell the editor was that Strider wasn’t the protagonist. I hadn’t made that clear enough in my query letter, so that one’s on me. The story she wanted, I hadn’t written, and it was nowhere inside of me. Still, the editor invited me to submit to her when I had anything in the future, and she gave me her personal e-mail address.

      So, the rascal still got to eat the cookie. I finally had the connection with an editor that’d lead to my big break into publishing fiction.

      But I wouldn’t write the book the editor wanted to see. You see, over the decades, I’d shifted away from the overly idealized, impoverished artist with whom I was enamored as a youth, and I now wrote for reasons other than the hope that writing would release me from unsavory jobs. Because I’d been forced to build a career that was not dependent on writing, I found myself in an exceedingly satisfying nonwriting career, not needing to write for money. I realized then why I wrote: out of passionate self-expression and love. I realized that at some unknown point, I had divorced my art from business. I concluded that if I wrote what the editor wanted to see, I would be a hack. I couldn’t bring myself to do it; I just couldn’t. I’d already tried becoming what I thought fiction-publishing professionals wanted me to be—to no avail or satisfaction. Now I didn’t need to compromise; they were free to continue not publishing me if my vision wasn’t a good fit. Perhaps I was still rebellious—or merely petulant. Was it artistic integrity? Had I grown in a way that I was only then becoming aware of? Regardless, I took my own counsel and did not heed the editor’s.

      I spent the next six months writing like a madman. I wrote something altogether different than I’d ever written before, a novel that expressed the wilder part of me when I was young, including the unfiltered voice that occasionally got me ostracized. At the time, I’d mistakenly concluded that my snarky and sarcastic writing voice was authentically me as a writer, and using it was coming full circle and would bring closure. (To clarify, snarky and sarcastic language is notauthentic. It is sideways anger, indirect communication, and an attempt to control—rather than to accept—another person.)

      I entitled the novel The Most Livable City. It was set in Scottsdale with a psychologist protagonist. His caseload included the local area’s most recognizable celebrities. (None was ever my client in real life.) They had horrific issues and poor boundaries.

      The novel was about the superficiality of materialism, money, and celebrity and how lack of authenticity led to low emotional intimacy and disappointment. These were good topics for me to write about, having lived in Scottsdale for over a decade by then, and having worked with many distressed clients who, on the surface, appeared to have enviable lives, but underneath, where I thrived, were lonely, sad, and anxious chameleons. That novel was much closer to my real life than anything else I’d written, but to be clear, it was still fiction and still an inauthentic voice. I crafted another query letter and sent it to the editor, using the e-mail address she’d given me.

      By the next morning, she’d responded. But the prompt reply wasn’t a desperate plea for the full manuscript or even the first three chapters. Rather, it was an eager rejection. Again, I received venom from the old pro. This time, she was furious that I went around the website-stated submission process yet again. Worse, I’d e-mailed her directly. (Why had she given me her e-mail address if not to use it?)

      Her latest rebuke removed my delusion. I realized in that moment—almost as profoundly as a peak experience, except in the opposite, hopelessness direction—that I still didn’t write well enough. I wasn’t just playing crazy all those years; I was downright delusional to have tried for so long despite getting the same poor outcome. I was indeed a sandwich quarter, a poser who pretended he was someone purer and more valuable than he ever was. I was the silly artist who would be better off if he put as much time into selling boxes as he did writing fiction. And everyone except him knew it. Didn’t the world already have enough starving artists? Did we really need another cliché? I was still the chameleon pretending I was a novelist. There was still a part of me, the part I put out to the public via creative writing, that I didn’t get quite right.

      I admit that this sounds like every unsuccessful dancer, musician, actor, painter, and writer you’ve never heard of. I’d be so embarrassed, but…

      Was that me? Had I become the nebbish Rupert Pupkin?

      Suddenly sane, I realized that pretending had only protected me from the sting of failure. Here I was, a licensed clinical psychologist with an independent practice in Scottsdale, who prided myself on my decades of hard work to grow more authentic and appropriate on the job and at home, yet I still had the vestiges of a chameleon when I wrote fiction. I still had a writing color—white and black with a big, red nose that honked. I’d envisioned my potential rather than accepting my actual talent. I’d acted as the unrealized Pulitzer Prize winner but had in fact only played the buffoon. It was hubris. Again. I’d never get past the gatekeepers. I should turn away from the high dive. My voice would forever be smothered by my dearth of talent and the surfeit of right-tail writers chosen ahead of me.

      I suppose I felt like a victim, even if it was to my own limitations. I didn’t submit The Most Livable City to that editor’s publishing house or anywhere else, and I deleted the editor’s contact information.


In Levels of Intimacy, the level furthest away from our core self is level 8. These people are toxic and are thus unsafe. People are toxic when they insist on seeing you as not good enough or flawed; when they drag up your past and won’t let you be different (in their minds); when they judge you, find you guilty, and try to make you feel ashamed; when they are critical, controlling, violate your boundaries, don’t respect “no,” enjoy your suffering, poison others against you, or make it all about them. They don’t own their transgressions or apologize, and they don’t care, support, or take an interest in what’s important to you or how you feel.

      Was I toxic to the editor? It felt as though she was toxic to me. It was at least an unhealthy interpersonal dynamic. I think it was disrespectful in both directions. I didn’t purposefully disrespect her, though I admit that I purposefully pushed against her boundary. I thought I was being an admirable risk taker. But again, I got slapped down.

      Here’s how I deal with toxic people, even when it’s my own fault: I share almost nothing with the few people at this level other than my outward appearance. Although I’m authentic and minimally sociable, it’s self-loving to protect myself from truly dangerous people (“dangerous” could mean physically, financially, emotionally, verbally, socially, sexually, and so on). I suppose it appears coldly professional, but I can’t seem to bring myself to fake more than lukewarmness with toxic people, because then I feel inauthentic. I’ll make eye contact and smile somewhat cordially; I just don’t let them close to my heart. That doesn’t make me a chameleon; it makes me civil and wise and not one to spread or tolerate toxicity. I try to be my best self even when everything in my gut wants to counterattack. I might even take a breath as Marsden did.

      As a chameleon, I kept too many people at this level. I’d learned that the social world was dangerous and that I needed to protect my core self with chameleon behavior. It was too all-or-none. Now I use the Levels of Intimacy model to manage each relationship, gracefully sliding each person into an appropriate level, depending on how safe he or she is and how close I’d like to be to him or her (and vice versa, of course). I keep this information safe and secret in my own head (but I will share it with people in the first five levels if they can be trusted to keep my confidence). I remain authentic in every relationship and in every environment, regardless of which level we have placed each other in.

      There is the danger of getting so wounded or irritated with so many people—or with people in general when they are too selfish or showing their beast-like predispositions—that we place too many boundaries on too many people and end up alone in a self-imposed box. But remember, I also strongly advocate lovingly allowing safe people closer to your level 1, loosening your boundaries for increased emotional intimacy; the Levels of Intimacy hierarchy has a bidirectional function. I had provoked the editor, but I’d rather remain unpublished than work with someone who showed such eagerness to diminish me.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 71 Scottsdale

Scottsdale, Arizona, “Beverly Hills East,” teemed with chameleons: enormous Santa Barbara-style homes with red, Mexican clay-tile roofs, manicured lawns, flashy cars, ubiquitous golf courses, bronzed body builders, breast reductions, breast augmentations, labia reductions, bleached anuses, plumped lips, Botox, facelifts, perfect children with secret eating disorders and opioid addictions, restaurants with white tablecloths and inflated prices, and lots of anxiety about getting your share of the American Dream and holding onto it. I liked Scottsdale, albeit the Albuquerque in me was always just underneath the surface of slick, fancy things: the glamor and glitz, overt consumption, and materialism. Still, it was clean and safe, and it provided lots of opportunity to grow as a psychologist. I felt good about myself in a way similar to winning a race, and I figured I could thrive as long as I didn’t lose my own grounding. Although I still sometimes felt like an imposter, I found it intriguing that my new role was to mingle with surgeons and anesthesiologists; psychologists and counselors; self-made millionaires; and skinny, beautiful people in designer clothes; and attend parties at homes with martini bars, negative-edge pools, and yoga rooms. I reminded myself that I’d grown a lot since my incarnations of Corporal, Timmy Two-Mile, or Ratty Snake. I had better social skills, didn’t blurt out the first thing that came to mind, didn’t think that unsettling others was as funny or cool as I used to think it was, and had increased self-understanding: I knew I was normal and good enough, which really helped when surrounded by successful and potentially intimidating people. Did these “1 percenters” (2 percent at worst) sometimes also feel small, vulnerable, and not good enough? Knowing that we all felt pretty much the same but merely hid it to varying degrees helped me to feel confident socially and to be more open about myself. My new friends only knew me as a middle-aged psychologist. They were oblivious to my past incarnations, held no grudges against me, and treated me with kindness and respect, which was what I reflected.


When I was thirty-nine years old, we had a baby. In the Levels of Intimacy hierarchy, I have placed our son, Gentry, on level 3, children. I don’t involve him in our level 2 spouse or significant other interactions, our sex life, or in adult issues that are inappropriate for his age. I love him unconditionally and let him know that he is wanted and lovable, and I model emotional intimacy for him. Being at level 3 means that we are still very close to each other’s hearts and vulnerable to each other. I’m doing things differently with him; I parent him the way I wished I’d been parented—called “reparenting” ourselves—which is nurturing for him and healing for me. We will always help him thrive as we guide him to grow into the best person he can be.


I spent six years finishing my training at a clinic in downtown Scottsdale called Psychological Counseling Services Ltd. (PCS), and got on staff. We did a bit of everything, but we were one of the leading outpatient treatment clinics in the country for “sexual addiction” or sexual compulsivity. I was often on treatment teams that saw celebrities. I can say that Academy Award–winning movie stars, Grammy-winning rock legends, national political stars (who insisted on sneaking in through the clinic’s back door), and superstar athletes came for help. What many of these high-profile people had in common was that their problems—usually inappropriate sexual acting out—were often caused and magnified by their celebrity status. It created opportunities for them to cheat on their spouses, and it created unique challenges to their personal boundaries. Their popularity made it more difficult for them not to impression manage because so many people paid attention to them. What were often lacking were appropriate boundaries with the people at each level.


Many of the celebrities did not have enough emotional connection with people at their level 4, relatives (and people as close as relatives are). People at this level love us, help us to thrive, and only want what’s best for us; they do not exploit us or do what’s only best for them. Sadly, just because someone is blood or a relative, doesn’t mean he or she is safe, has our best interests at heart, or should be at this level. Sometimes it makes such people the most dangerous of all because they’ll take us for granted, harbor unreasonable expectations of us (to meet their needs, not ours), and exploit us by leveraging our emotional attachment to them for their gain. Often, we allow ourselves to be manipulated because we fear conflict or we fear losing the relationship. Some relatives will use our long personal history against us by reminding us who we used to be before we grew to our current self-awareness. Sometimes they refuse to renegotiate a healthy adult-to-adult relationship. So, I keep the healthy relatives at level 4 and move the unhealthy ones further out. It’s not all-or-none; there are countless boundaries within each level for dealing with the minutiae of relationships. When relatives don’t respect your healthy boundaries, don’t lash back; just set a stricter boundary. Talk about it if you wish, if the relationship is important enough to you, and if the relative is willing to make behavioral adjustments too. Patience and tolerance make sense, but taking abuse does not.

      There’s something disappointing about this, of course; it is not what most of us imagined as children. We had no choice as children. We assumed our family of origin was correctly run and probably the best in the world. But as adults, we come of age, collect more information, learn what’s dysfunctional or healthy, and leave childish ignorance and fantasies behind. Then we create our own families the way we choose, preferably with healthy boundaries that keep us safe from those who would exploit or harm us but staying connected to those who merely wish to love us—or even to help us manage life.


Sometimes it was the unctuous behavior of the celebrities’ entourage and groupies that caused them to distance themselves from deeper, more authentic relationships in favor of the addictive rush of newer or shallower relationships. Often this led to affairs, and then they showed up in my office. I was impressed with how authentic and vulnerable most of them could be in psychotherapy, the biggest obstacles to treatment being their sense of privacy (from a watchful media and interested public) and their narcissism, which often had been fed more than normal and thus was overblown.


At level 5 are friends. Many of the celebrities, to better control their image, kept even potentially safe and authentic friendships too far away (or had the wrong people as friends, such as sycophants and employees who stayed close for more selfish reasons than having the celebrities’ best interests at heart). This left many celebrities lonely, despite their popularity, and not nurtured with good “cheese,” which made them vulnerable to affairs and other kinds of exploitation. I can tell you for a fact that some of the most desirable women on earth still had cheating husbands, and some of the most desirable men could do no better than manage their loneliness via sex, alcohol, drugs, or other dysfunctional ways to self-medicate.


This resurrects an old issue: Remember when I was young and fantasized a pyramid model for social acceptance? Fame, fortune, beauty, power, respect, and athleticism didn’t protect the celebrities from exploitation, betrayal, criticism, and rejection the way I’d fantasized that they would. Sometimes, because of others’ envy or poor manners, those attributes made the celebrities even more of a target for attack and exploitation. Fame and fortune hurt them. 

      Celebrities had the same childhood pain and slights as most of the rest of us. Often, their own narcissism, greed, and lust tripped them up and lured them into blunders, typically sexual escapades, which was why we saw them at PCS. I wondered what the endgame was, then, for chameleons. If it was total safety, acceptance, respect, and lack of criticism, then it was a lost cause, because if even people at the apex of their particular pyramid couldn’t achieve that, what chance did the rest of us have? Plus, people who are surrounded by “yes men” and who are more insulated from criticism do not fare better in terms of mental health than the rest of us do because they lose their grounding without the complicated give-and-take (i.e., reciprocity) of normal relationships.

      So, the endgame must not be some sort of perfect image that protects us from negative judgment and criticism, but rather, it must be authenticity—awareness and unconditional love of our core self—a goal that we can all attain if we keep working at it and reminding ourselves that we are lovable despite our mistakes, our deficits, our pasts, our acting out, and the ugly projections put upon us by others. We should also seek to accept other people as they are, rather than how we think they should be. We should not expect a rat not to be a rat, a dog not to be a dog, or a human not to be a human, with all the complications and contradictions that implies. Then we proceed forward in our lives toward greater self-actualization, but always with appropriate boundaries for the necessary emotional connections and safety. Isn’t that the loving thing to do? Are we right back to love as the endgame? Did I get it right in the hot tub?


All this stuff relating to the Chameleon Complex—Levels of Intimacy, boundaries, vulnerability, emotional intimacy, authenticity, self-actualization, love’s role in our lives, and the meaning of life—seems like common sense to me now. I deal with it every day because it’s true about all people; we merely are aware of it and embrace it to varying degrees. But if it could get past me, then it could get past other people who have spent less time thinking about such things.

      Often in therapy, good (but wounded) people will explain to me how awful humans are. I nod and agree because I live on the same planet as they do. Then, over time and as they are able to hear, I explain the same things to them that I’ve been explaining to you. We all know that people can be ugly, greedy, selfish beasts: look at history, current events, and the person currently trying to use you for his or her unfair gain. But people are also wonderful beings who naturally strive to overcome our baser instincts. We can learn to better navigate our social milieu to minimize people’s exploitation of us and maximize our rewards. When we do, our overall experience will be more pleasant. We can only change ourselves and hope to influence someone else for the better. Having been a teacher, psychologist, and writer, I know we can influence and even force people to pretend to change and improve themselves, but real change only occurs from within the individual.

      Sometimes I say things in therapy that seem so simple but are “Ah-ha!” moments for clients. Typically, it’s common sense backed up by science that resonates the most with people (though our relationship is the biggest factor in change—how emotionally connected we are, how trusting and accepting the relationship is; people need other safe people to truly know them in order to heal and grow toward self-actualization).

      When I began practicing psychotherapy, I thought my distaste for numbers (i.e., statistics) and the fact that my brain prefers impressions to details might hamstring my career. On the contrary, my clients never wanted me to recite stats and research. The impressions that filter through my brain help me uncover patterns, and I point these out to my clients, which can be quite enlightening for them. It’s natural for me. Actually, it’s a gift that I didn’t know I had until I saw my first client. Along with caring, offering unconditional positive regard, actively listening, normalizing, making accurate interpretations, and giving sound recommendations, I’m usually able to be helpful. I find the more I trust myself, the more common sense I have, the righter I am, and the better the outcome is for clients.

      In my formative years, I was taught not to trust what I thought, felt, and did. I was taught that my less-than-perfect cognition, uncomfortable emotions, and actual physical body were merely illusions; even worse than that, they were evil or “Error.” I don’t blame myself—I was just a boy—but if I’d intuitively trusted myself more from the beginning, many mistakes in judgment and failures of character could’ve been avoided. I trusted other people more than I trusted myself—as young children must—and it twisted my self-image. I became a chameleon. I think I always intuitively trusted that something about me was worthwhile, that we all deserved love and respect, and that I could be better than I was, which is the story that you are now privy to.

      This is all helpful to me today. In some sessions, teens and twenty-somethings are puzzled about why they have conflicted relationships. In general, I experience them as likable young people. What I figure out is that they are sharing some chameleon version of themselves with others and coming off as opinionated, insensitive, and not empathetic. They say, “But it’s the truth!” as if that excuses any consequences of expressing oneself. Sometimes a better option is to filter oneself more, to remain silent and wise. Ironically, I find myself recommending increased censoring of what an exuberant youth might honestly say. I never wished to be the Man telling passionate youth to dull down, but if they wish to avoid hard feelings, they should consider finding a balance between self-expression and sensitivity for others—better than I did at their age—and use Levels of Intimacy as their guide. The trick is to open up enough and hold back enough, depending on the level of each relationship. It’s a social art, and it gets easier with practice. 

      We should always be authentic, regardless of the role we play. That’s the secret. Actually, it’s really no secret, but we are often afraid to practice it. Remember; assess the level of danger, and if it’s not truly dangerous to you, go toward the thing you fear. It’s OK to feel the fear; just do it anyway. If you do it in a planned and prolonged manner and frequently, you will habituate and eventually feel fine—or closer to fine, anyway.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 70 Doctoral Student

After our Vermont year, we moved across the country again so Renni could begin her anesthesia residency at Stanford, and I entered the doctoral program at Pacific Graduate School of Psychology (now Palo Alto University). I again set my writing aside, this time for three years as I reentered my role as a graduate student. I studied all day, every day. Literally. I had a lot of catching up to do as a reformed English major. Although I knew that some people from university-based programs looked down on professional schools, I felt fortunate to get in at all. Remember, I was the guy who didn’t know his own phone number in junior high. I was the jock who rolled a lid into individual blunts to resell. What business did I have at the doctoral level at all? But what were people like me supposed to do? Give up? Not pursue our aspirations? I wasn’t sure if I was intelligent enough, but I was certain that I was determined enough. But would that be enough? It hadn’t been enough for me to become an elite runner or a published novelist. So I was intimidated. Perceived status intimidates many people, not just me, so they don’t even try, and then they never realize their dreams. I see that a lot. I guess I never wanted to be one of those people. I’d done scarier things, just not at such a high academic level.

      By then, I was a thirty-four-year-old ex-teacher with a master’s degree, so I thought I should be an academic leader. The thing was, I didn’t have it in me. I’d risen to my level of incompetence. Graduate school encouraged perfectionism and impression managing, which reinforced my chameleonism. Any grade lower than an A seemed like failure. The professors told us that they watched us, judged us, and even noted how we dressed. They judged our composure in class and throughout our practicums, and they even judged what they knew of our private lives. Every year, over 15 percent of my class either failed or matriculated elsewhere. I was terrified, because if I washed out, I didn’t perceive any career options other than returning to teaching for a third time. The faculty members were clear: they didn’t want any simpletons or flakes sullying the profession. I feared that I might be both.

      I was afraid I’d be discovered, the whole imposter-syndrome thing. I walked the circuitous way to class so I’d see fewer people and spend less energy faking confidence and brilliance and friendliness, when actually I felt overwhelmed with feared social judgment of my barely beneath-the-skin imbecility. Remember, I was labeled “stupid” in my family of origin. I think the majority of us fear, at various points in our lives, that we are not intelligent enough. Remember, we all start out knowing nothing, and everybody else has more information than we do. As we grow up, things generally equalize—unless we’re always moving up into pools of more educated people, which has a tendency to humble us. Some of the most intellectually arrogant people I’ve met have never spent an evening conversing with Stanford professors and anesthesiologists. What I’m saying is that back when I washed dishes, I thought I was pretty dang smart, but I have since become more grounded regarding how my intelligence compares with that of the general population, especially with those on the right tail of the normal IQ curve.

      So anyway, one day I was again avoiding people by walking the circuitous way to class, and a professor laughed at me and said, “You’re going down the wrong hallway!” It was a meaningless remark—I can laugh at myself today—but at the time, the blood rushed to my face. My year of isolation in Vermont had supercharged my social anxiety. Did my idiocy and anxiety make me unfit to become a psychologist?

      Every student was required to get psychotherapy so that we knew what it was like to be on the couch and to address our own issues. I learned that I suffered because I was too perfectionistic; I was trying too hard to appear competent to compensate for my feelings of inferiority. I thought I had to be the best, but I learned that I just needed to get the PhD to achieve my dream: to be a clinical psychologist in a solo practice and write novels between cases. I didn’t need to be the next Abraham Maslow. I couldn’t be the next Abe Maslow. That wasn’t me. I didn’t know at the time that the best I had to offer was myself, not an amalgamation of others lumped into some Frankenstein-like monster called “Me.”

      A professor commented that she enjoyed watching students come in the first year and, over the next six years, take on the guise of psychologists. We wore the professional clothes, bought briefcases and scheduling books, cut our hair, used words like “inappropriate” and “correlated,” and learned how to think based in research. Once it was brought to my awareness, I too observed our transformation. We were all chameleons, not just me. We were all morphing into something that people would eventually label “doctor.” I hung in there, no longer trying to win, just desperately determined to finish.

      As a distance runner, I had discovered my physical limits. In graduate school for my doctorate, I discovered my intellectual limits, which weren’t as limited as I’d believed or as boundless as I’d hoped. I was normal, which, to tell the truth, was a big relief. I use this lesson about normalizing our experience often when doing psychotherapy. It’s helpful to know when we’re normal, because then we can quit worrying that we aren’t. In graduate school, I hadn’t yet learned what was normal, and neither did I trust myself to be normal.

      When we studied psychopathology, I developed a bad case of “graduate student disease.”

Graduate Student Disease: Self-Diagnoses

Attachment Disorder

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Social Phobia

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Alcohol Abuse

Sexual Compulsivity

Major Depression

Dysthymic Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Histrionic Personality Disorder

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Avoidant Personality Disorder

      Not included: a long list of disorders for which I only met some of the criteria. Now that I have decades of clinical experience, I know that I didn’t have these disorders. True, I had a touch of OCD, but who doesn’t? It was helpful in distance running and in grad school. I just needed to channel it, the details of which I’ve already covered. I mostly feared that I wasn’t normal, but I have since learned, statistically, clinically, and anecdotally, that I am quite average, which actually makes me more confident and transparent because I know that I’m not weird. I can still act weirdly if I want to, but I generally no longer wish to draw attention to myself.

      I probably also suffered a degree of anxious attachment. There was plenty of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse when I was a child, and there was plenty of neglect due to the era and to cultural, religious, and family-of-origin factors. It made me anxious and distrustful, and I generalized my experience to all humans.

      On a physiological level, my brain’s limbic system—the part that controls basic emotions (fear, pleasure, anger) and drives (hunger, sex, dominance, care of offspring)—was poorly organized as a result of the trauma. My brain’s executive function (the ability to plan and consider consequences) was delayed, which looked like impulsivity, and so I identified with seemingly similar people, writers such as Kesey and Bukowski and the beats, and hippies.

      On a psychodynamic level, the people I needed to trust to be there for me when I was young were not there as much as I needed (“every dog for himself”), so I erroneously concluded that I was unlovable and that I couldn’t trust anybody to help me. My selfishness, even as a young adult, was due to the fear of not getting my needs met and thus not surviving. This made it difficult for me to connect with others. When there were more than two of us, my shyness would kick in, and I’d begin performing as if on stage. When people let me down, as people always do to a degree, I viewed that as confirmation that I could not fully trust anybody, which felt lonely and led to increased anxiety about being alone in a harsh world. At fourteen, I learned to use alcohol as a sedative for my anxiety and at fifteen, I learned to use pot, which helped relieve boredom and self-regulated my emotions. I may have avoided becoming an alcoholic simply by lacking the necessary genetics to become one.

      Fortunately, exercise and the rhythm of distance running helped my brain maturate. A good intervention to fix our brains is physical exercise, which grows the hippocampus’s volume. Running without headphones, which was typical of serious distance runners back in my day, was meditation (mindfulness) for me. So running saved my life socially, but it also saved my brain. The mind always seeks homeostasis. Perhaps this all came together in the hot tub and explained my peak experience—but that was not how Maslow would explain it. Regardless, by my late twenties, my limbic system had recovered and become well organized. I had better control of myself and what I said. I was able to teach and coach adolescents, and I eventually got my PhD.

      But all psychobabble and pathologizing aside, there were the nuanced manifestations of the so-called Chameleon Complex, from which I suffered. I was wounded, somewhat emotionally arrested, had poor modeling and guidance for my underdeveloped social skills, and became very defensive. We could use other words, too: acting, faking, morphing, adapting, and so on. The word we can’t use is “authentic” unless I felt very safe in a one-on-one situation, in which case I’d come off as quite sincere, because I was.

      Today, I don’t react but instead sit and just be. I do not become something or someone else. Boredom is because of becoming and not being present, here, now. I choose safe, trustworthy people to attach to going forward. I use Levels of Intimacy to connect safely with people in a more fluid and shaded way rather than using the all-or-none approach of viewing people as either totally safe or totally unsafe.

      There’s a pithy saying in psychology that the only “normal” person is someone you don’t know well yet. What that means for the human condition is that we all have issues; some people just hide them better than others do. It means we are all unique. What I’m concluding is that having issues is normal, and whether we have large or small issues, we are all more normal than we are weird.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 69 Freezer Boy

     We moved to the northeast for Renni’s internship and rented an apartment in a New England-style home in Winooski, Vermont, a suburb of Burlington. Excited about the first snowfall, we sledded on a piece of cardboard because we didn’t want to miss the opportunity. We didn’t know so much snow before Halloween wasn’t unusual. It wouldn’t melt for another five months. They piled all the snow into a corner of the church parking lot across the street, and the icy mountain remained all winter. I even learned a new word: “windrow,” which the natives called the snow pushed to the sides of the road. We didn’t use that word in New Mexico. We used words like “tumbleweed” and “dust storm,” which weren’t necessary in Vermont.

     Renni spent most of her time at the hospital, and I isolated myself in my so-called “garret.” Didn’t Kafka write in a garret? I wanted to be Kafkaesque. Actually, it wasn’t exactly a garret, but a second floor, 550-square-foot apartment. A resident in psychiatry occupied the actual garret upstairs. But I liked to view myself as the mysterious writer in the old house across from the church. Perhaps children spied on me from the grassy knoll in nice weather, or from behind a snowy windrow the rest of the time, hoping to catch an eerie image as I passed a window. Maybe the only Trick-or-Treater I’d get would be a Marsden doppelgänger on Beggar’s Night. I fantasized that someday tours would wind up the stairs to our apartment. The English majors, voracious readers, agents, and editors on leaf peeping tours would detour to run their fingers across my battle-scarred desk and imagine me sitting there like a hologram. That’s what I did when I visited Mary Baker Eddy’s apartment in Lynn, Massachusetts where she wrote The Science and Health

     The average temperature in January that year was negative two degrees, which gave me a good excuse to remain indoors. The more socially isolated I became, the more I wanted to pull away even more. It fed on itself. These days I’d call it “negative reinforcement,” in that taking something away reinforced me, like a rat leaping off an electrified grid. Taking away social stress—real or imagined—caused my thoughts to run loops without anything to distract me other than the made-up world I wrote about. There wasn’t much external input to disconfirm whatever I imagined, no way for me to reality test against other human beings. I didn’t know anyone in Vermont with whom to measure myself, to quiet my fears, or to ground me. So, I ruminated: What were people from my past thinking about me? I obsessed: What were the locals thinking about me? My inner-voice screamed LOOK OUT they’ll judge you! I related to the protagonist from The Shining, the writer Jack Torrance. All work and no play makes Tim a dull boy. My isolated situation gave space for the old OCD to reassert itself. I thought it was an ideal situation, safe inside, writing, warm and alone, pretty much the exact opposite of my army situation when I was forced to join in groups—except it fueled my neuroticism. I assumed everything I thought was real, when in fact they were only real thoughts. So, when anyone asked if I got lonely I just shrugged and didn’t even try to explain how liberating it was not to have to put up with other people. Did they whisper to each other after I told them I was a so-called writer? Isn’t the logical follow-up question, “What have you published?” Did they conclude that calling myself a writer was just a euphemism for unemployed? Didn’t “writer” mean I was unsure if my car would start? In Vermont no one knew me as anyone other than a reclusive writer with zero publications—unless I counted that poem in high school, that race article that was heavily edited, or my master’s thesis (Leftovers Again), none of which I figured mattered much.

     Remember, in theory I understood that isolating a human could be torture, how one could go mad. But I liked it. My isolation wasn’t torture, and my “madness” was so subtle as to be confused as mere introversion. I was reinforced not to endure the judgment of others, plus I got to write all day again like I had in the Knick-Knack house with Gigi the agoraphobic cat. I wanted to place aluminum foil on the windows and hunker down inside.

     Finally, in September, I crawled out of my hole for three weeks to become a wild game meat-processer. I flew to Douglas, Wyoming, “Home of the Jackalope.” My relatives had a plant in Douglas called “Tom’s Wild Game Processing,” named after my cousin. Dad had recently retired as a brigadier general, one star. He worked as a distraction while in the midst of an ugly divorce from his second wife, who sometimes became suicidal and fired off guns inside the house in the same bedroom in which my mother had died thirteen years previously. So, for three weeks, Dad and I were “Freezer Boys.” We put antelope meat into the huge, scary cold, walk-in freezer. My goals were to experience the gore of the plant and connect with my father. But when it was slow Dad found things to do, like policing up the parking lot. If someone had to hire either Dad or me they should hire Dad, because he’d get the job done and then find more to stay busy, whereas I’d probably just get the job done and then sit around connecting with people. So, when Dad policed the parking lot again, I got to know my cousin better.

     Cousin Tommy was a sweet man who sometimes became psychotic, crashed cars, and generally concerned his elderly parents. But most of the time he was sane, and hunters brought their kills to us, the guts already pulled out on the prairie. Tommy taught me how to weigh the animal, skin it, wash it, butcher it, add a little lard for flavor into the portions we ground into hamburger, and make the rest into steaks. I guess the thing that freaked me out the most was when little boys, eight or ten years old, out on their first hunt, presented us with dead fawns. I greeted them in my orange hunting cap, gory jeans, and a full-length apron like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sometimes the boys’ fathers were apologetic. “I dunno why he wanted this ’un,” they said, pointing to a small body about the size of a Schnauzer. There was almost no meat and not enough horn or cape to mount. The boys smirked and looked down at their hands. 

     I didn’t know why those boys on their first antelope hunt killed the youngest, smallest, and most vulnerable of the beasts. I wasn’t a psychologist yet, and just thought that it was mean-spirited, something I might’ve done at their age, except I drew the line at grasshoppers tossed into barbeque coals. Now I wonder if the boys projected the loathed parts of themselves onto those fawns. Did they hate their own vulnerability so much they wanted to destroy it in other beings, feeling it would somehow raise themselves up? Or did they feel competitive towards the other youthful species, and killing them was their yearning to win their father’s admiration? Was that what I did when I slaughtered other boys in foot races? I don’t know, maybe it really was just mean, something society needs to identify sooner and intervene better, you know, make killing not so fun or necessary for them, or just encourage their fathers to listen to them.

      I wanted to help my cousin Tommy more than just listening to how he survived with paranoid schizophrenia. He said not to worry, that he was fine so long as he stayed on his meds and his parents remained vigorous. But the thing was, everyone aged, his dad died, and his mother grew feeble and had to lock away Tommy in long-term care. We need to find better psychotropic medication for people like Cousin Tommy. I experienced him as very authentic. Sure, he lost his mind every now and then, but when he was lucid he was just who he was, with no pretense, which I liked. I mean, here I was entering his world of fresh kills and meat, pretending to be like him, and then I flew back to my pseudo-writer’s life in Vermont. Tommy’s life became an anecdote to mine, and it made me wonder who was crazier, considering I returned to my isolation and neuroticism and decided to try out vegetarianism.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 68 Memorial Psychiatric Hospital

     Although I continuously coached the high-school track team, I took another teaching position, this time at Memorial Psychiatric Hospital. They needed an English teacher for the adolescents hospitalized for extended periods. The kids got inpatient treatment, but also went to in-hospital classes so they wouldn’t fall behind in school. I liked the idea of working in a psych hospital like Kesey had when he was inspired to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

     My job description was to inspire the kids to enjoy reading and writing; there was no curriculum other than what I imagined. My classes ranged from one to fourteen students. Frequently a psych tech interrupted my lessons to pull a patient out for therapy, or a nurse came to administer medication. It irritated me at first; what could be more important than great literature? But The Hobbit was too far up their hierarchy of needs at that point in their lives. Who needed Bilbo when they wasted away from anorexia, cut hash marks on the inside of their forearms, were infatuated with guns, ropes, pain pills, and played “The Fainting Game,” where they choked each other out for the euphoric rush?

     We had a population of gang bangers, addicts, depressives, and neurotics. I enjoyed working with those kids; it was more intimate than the large classes I had at Manzano High. With fewer students, I built closer relationships with the kids. Having a positive relationship with at least one caring adult made a big difference in their behavior. It was profound how little psychopathology manifested once they had a trusted person, a safe place, and a set schedule. In my practice today, I often see previously mentally healthy people who have reacted to social stressors and developed criteria for mental illness. I buildup the healthy part of the person, encourage environmental and social adjustments, and usually the person improves. Which makes me wonder: is it truly unreasonable to go “crazy” when placed in a dysfunctional or untenable environment? It seems not only unfair, but also dangerous, that sensitivity is punished and insensitivity is reinforced. I know plenty of insensitive people who seem just fine. I guess it’s the rest of us who aren’t fine with them.

     One gangbanger was a large, well-built sixteen-year-old boy. He had impulse control disorder, a crappy childhood, and an even worse environment. I’ll call him “Bibbit,” after the stuttering boy, Billy Bibbit, in Cuckoo’s Nest, which is ironic because he was opposite that. While he was still up on the locked unit, he attacked other patients whenever they said something critical of him in group. I understood how nice it’d be to smack our critics right in the puss; but something more reasonable in me understood that society had to tamp down the violence, or at least medicate those defensive and violent impulses. After the psychiatrist found a cocktail that sedated the boy enough to stop trying to kill people we integrated Bibbit into our classrooms. He slumped at his desk in a medicated stupor, eyelids half closed, a long strand of drool connecting his lower lip to his book. With more tweaks to his meds, his personality came forward, and Bibbit became a pleasant teen. He ran after the other kids during games of Ultimate Frisbee like an overgrown black lab puppy. But I wasn’t able to teach him much because he was still fairly snowed on meds, plus he had low intelligence, and on his most lucid day he read at the third-grade level. But he never disrupted my class. Oh, sure, the psych techs and nurses loitered outside my French door, but they weren’t necessary. See how psychotropic medication worked? See how a safe and nurturing environment helped? See how strong, multidisciplinary interventions and strong relationships helped?

     For two years the hospitalized kids passed through my classroom: The idle rich kids who decided to dabble in drugs and burglary; the gangbangers who were given a choice between a psych hospital or juvy; the depressed kids whose faces looked like smudged charcoal drawings; the neurotics who became overwhelmed when asked to read aloud in class, laid their heads on their desktops, and sobbed into the crooks of their arms. A few of the students were brilliant, and other than boredom and acting out inappropriately, they really didn’t need to be in the hospital at all. They needed to learn how to cope in a society that ran slower than their minds. I played chess with those kids, and taught them how to devour books instead of other people.

     There were almost no discipline problems in my classroom, but some chose not to behave, and others couldn’t help themselves. Usually it was the addicts and gangbangers who, once they got used to their new environment, either ran away or stirred up trouble. None of them believed they needed hospitalization. To them it was just a nicer jail, like Randal Patrick McMurphy thought. I had the power of the pen, and after each class, I rated each kid on a behavioral sheet. It was very effective because it influenced their privileges and discharge date.

     But I also had the power of our relationship. I discovered I had an aptitude to connect and earn our patients’ trust. All I had to do was sincerely listen and care, like being a bartender. It felt more authentic to me, less like a rigid chameleon like I had to be while teaching in public school. For many of those patients it was not only the first trusting student/teacher relationship they’d ever experienced, but the first trusting relationship with any adult. I enjoyed the emotional intimacy even more than teaching, and observing what psychologists did at the hospital made me want to become one too.

     The scores of students I came into contact with at Manzano and Memorial helped me put my own life in perspective. The poor kids from Manzano with so many overwhelmed and unconcerned parents, and the kids in the hospital with psychopathology and dysfunctional families and hostile environments, had bigger problems than buying the Cook’s Special letter jacket or never taking state in the two-mile. That didn’t mean that my problems didn’t matter; they certainly mattered to me. And I did indeed become more grateful of what I had and what I’d been through. There’d always been enough, and there’d always been loving concerned people in my life (not necessarily the people who should’ve been there, but you get what you get, right, and then someone unexpected often steps in: a coach, a teacher, a cross country team). I realized that I didn’t have to be the best at anything, just my best self with those kids, and always seek to actualize my potential. That’s what I told the kids. I’d become something of a mentor by then, which was odd for me because it was difficult for me to see myself as someone to give anyone advice. Sometimes it still is. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is pretty good advice.

     On my last day at Memorial there was an awards ceremony. I gave my English students pencils with pithy literary sayings on them. To my history students I gave camouflage pencils. At the end of the evening I received a standing ovation. It was a good ending—it felt like denouement to my teaching career—and I felt ready to move on to a new incarnation, preferably one that looked more like George Plimpton and less like Walter Mitty.

     I kept in touch with the math teacher. She said that after Bibbit was discharged, he returned to the ‘hood and went off his meds. A couple local gangsters raped his girlfriend, so Bibbit trolled until he found two guys on the sidewalk and beat them to death with a baseball bat. Turned out he killed the wrong two guys. Since he was eighteen by then, they sent him to the Santa Fe Penitentiary. Inadequately medicated, he attacked a convict, took the wrong end of a shiv, and died.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 67 The Goldilocks Contingency

     Rent was our greatest financial burden. So we left our dark and seedy and totally wonderful apartment off Central Avenue and lived in a series of houses around Albuquerque for free as house sitters for the next three years. I called our lifestyle “The Goldilocks Contingency” and tried to parlay the idea into a guidebook for house sitters. The proposal was turned down because the editor said it wasn’t a book-length idea. He was right. Really you just put an ad in your local newspaper and you’ll start getting calls to move into houses while the owners are away. We stayed for three months to a year in each house, maintained the property, plants, and pets, and the owners kept their homeowner’s insurance current and property safe. We didn’t get paid, and took care of our own utilities, so we bundled up in the winter and sweltered in the summer. We still lived a much higher standard of living than when we paid rent; we just had to be nomadic. The hassle of moving so often was offset by the excitement of living in another beautiful home for free. It’s an adventure when you can move everything you own into a one-car garage. 

     No longer teaching, I wrote. First, I phoned Ken Kesey. He and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead were partying when I called. That was exactly how I imagined an author’s lifestyle would be. I interviewed my literary hero about his latest book, Caverns. But I couldn’t publish the article. Twenty-four years later I published it online, but I’m not sure if that counts as a real publication. Publishing today has a much broader meaning than in 1991. I kept in mind that people who experienced the most pain grew the most. Remember, I was one of those people who turned rejection into motivation to perform better.

     We got gigs in an elderly preacher’s house, a rocket scientist’s house, and finally in The Knick-Knack House. The owners of the Knick-Knack House were retired IRS agents who went annually to Guatemala for six months. It had dark, low ceilings, Guatemalan wooden antiques, and wrought iron bars. They also brought back candles, sculptures, and masks that appeared demonic. It was scary for me, but I didn’t tell anyone except Renni. She spent most of her time at school, so I was alone except for a black fourteen-year-old agoraphobic cat named Gigi. I caught glimpses of something in the shadowy corners and had to decide whether it was a phantasm, ghost, or the skittish cat. Gigi was too old and shy to be a good hunter, and as I wrote I heard scratching in the cupboards and walls. A metallic snap informed me that another rodent corpse awaited disposal, and was proof that evil spirits didn’t torment me but very material mice. I was relieved it wasn’t Murgatroyd, but felt bad about killing those mice. I justified it by the owners having set the mousetraps; I just followed orders, SS-style.

     Sometimes strange men peered inside through the iron bars, and then pretended they had the wrong house when I answered the door. Other times they sat in a pickup truck across the street and waited. It must’ve frustrated them to see me still inside that fortress guarding all that Guatemalan loot. Sometimes the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I spun around, but nobody peered through the window, only Gigi spied on me. I reminded myself that I was the interloper; she wanted me on the other side of those bars. Eventually I made peace with the old cat, and she curled on my chest while I watched Lobo basketball. I’m allergic to cats, but it seemed fairer to Gigi and not a terrible burden on me. So together we peeked out the kitchen window bars at the beefy men still in their pickup truck, fins circling.

     When the homeowners returned with more masks and candles, I told them their neighbors had all been burgled but their stuff was OK. Gigi was fine too, just hiding somewhere. “Oh,” they said, “is she still…”

     Yes, she was still alive, still haunting me.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 66 Slush Puppy

     I pretended I was a real writer for that year I took off from teaching. See, even though I taught writing, I felt phony because I hadn’t published. If number of books sold out of a major New York publishing house was the measure of success, then I was a failure. When I tried to be the kind of writer I thought I should be, I had lots of advice, but no pubs. I just regurgitated what I’d been taught, but added nothing original. That kind of writing advice dribbled out of me over the years. That was back when I was younger, of course, before I was worn down and eventually broken after decades of rejection. I simply wrote and submitted as my teachers taught me, what the books told me, what my writer’s group passed along. I took the advice given by people who actually had agents and editors, big-time publishers, won awards, gave creative writing seminars, taught writing classes in community colleges and universities, raised their eyebrows and smirked, smug with the mysteries of insider knowledge, and said things like “Oh, yes, she’s fah-bulous” and tossed in special words like “insipid” and “deconstruct.”

     Published authors were elite to us slush pile dwellers. They were lead-pack runners. Us slush puppies just made ends meet. We mowed lawns, shoveled snow, babysat, washed dishes, bussed tables, and built ripraps—as we honed our writing skills. We tossed pizza dough into the air and let the floury disk spin on our fists, ushered in a four-screen theatre, cut metal in a warehouse, drove a thirty-five-foot flatbed truck around the Southwest, cleared their coach’s farmland to make a cross-country course, and bartended—and wrote when we could and shared our prose with other unpublished writers. We waited tables, served in the military, set tile, instructed karate, and filed at Kaplan Education Center. But we also, always, wrote, because we had to write. We lectured in required English classes at a rough high school, coached track, taught in a psych hospital, processed dead antelope at a wild game meat-processing plant, were test subjects at the VA hospital, and practiced psychotherapy—yet kept writing despite the cruel silence. We were the great writing mass who hoped to get plucked from anonymity into the elite air of publication. So we endured the English majors that sniffed, “Shakespeare didn’t really write those plays” and graduate students informed us, “The Bible isn’t all that well written.”

     We endured disappointment year after year, and then decade after decade, yet remained in the slush pile. We wallowed in it and pretended we were almost real authors. We were just still in the poor suffering artist stage, the stage just before we got discovered. Every writer needed that stage, the one that tempered us, the stage we would one day look back upon nostalgically. There was something heroic about that, we told ourselves. The disinterest in our fiction could all end soon, as quickly as checking the mailbox. Yes, we’d always made our nut doing something other than writing. Still we called ourselves “writers,” arrogantly at first, as a noun, “writer,” and then shyly as a verb, “writing,” as the absurdity of it grew over the years, as in “I’m writing a novel but keeping my real job that totally blows but at least pays something.” 

     I didn’t want to be one more guy who talked big but couldn’t deliver. Those guys were so common. I couldn’t be an elite distance runner so I coached. I couldn’t publish so I taught teens trapped in my required high school English classes. I encouraged them to write for publication, yet I couldn’t publish.

     Personally? I wanted to blame the agents and editors. I wanted to say they were too snooty and elitist on the one hand, too dumbed-down and populist on the other. I wanted to blame the monolithic publishing industry for publishing drivel instead of my stuff, but the fact that I just wasn’t good enough moldered underneath. So, what should I have done with the calling to be a novelist when I wasn’t good enough at it? Was I a one-legged man dreaming of winning the Olympic marathon? Was I destined to remain in the crowd, unwilling to leap onto the stage and be shrill, right or wrong but at least with a voice? Should I have given up writing and white knuckled against the press to express myself like fighting an addiction? It was commonsense to quit, right? Or should I have only written for myself? Should I have made a conscious effort to not care if my words went nowhere, or into the trash, or got stolen out of my car’s trunk? I read the names on the spines of books in the bookstores and libraries and thought, “Now they, they are writers. I’m still a poser; a sandwich quarter.” There was something cruel about being a writer but lacking the talent to publish. The same thing that had happened to my distance-running career played out in slow motion in my writing career: I stalled out in the chase pack. Looking back, I was still thinking too rigidly; not willing to drop out of the race, but not doing anything differently either. I was stuck, injuring myself again with my tenacity, but didn’t know how to go about fulfilling my writing dream any differently. The fact was, things were different in 1991, and society and I both had some changes to undergo before I could achieve my goals. Another fact was that despite everything, I hadn’t yet sunk beneath the waves, but still treaded water.

     I hung in there because I felt as if my life seeped away when not writing. I needed to express myself. Not documenting my experience, even masked as fiction, made my life less relevant and without consequence. It felt like wasting my life. It was similar to psychology graduate school when they taught us, “If you don’t chart it then it didn’t happen.” Did I have to chart my life to ensure it happened? Writing somehow gave my life meaning.

     I understood even then that writing should be enough, just self-expression, art; it shouldn’t be about power, money, publication, or attention. Still I not only wanted to write, but I wanted an audience to appreciate my art. If I were a painter I’d want a show; if I were a dancer I’d want a stage. If someone else said any of this I’d respond, “Of course! It’s normal not to want to melt away anonymously, without being known, back into oblivion.” Yet I label myself a low-grade narcissist. Sometimes I think I’m too hard on myself. I hope so anyway. 

     Although I considered teaching and coaching young minds as arguably the most important jobs in the world, I still felt a smidge phony because I wasn’t writing. Is that weird? Moving towards self-actualization and love seemed the most reasonable reasons for human existence, and teaching facilitated that for others, so wasn’t that what Maslow had in mind? But writing still felt like my personal path towards self-actualization, an even better way for me to help others. Over the years it remained an unremitting press; it was obvious that I wouldn’t age out of it. I figured that if a corporal could help a few people, didn’t a general have a platform to help far more people? To me published writers were generals.

     Although I’m a long way from self-actualizing, I’m trying. Trying matters to a lot of people; when people don’t even try it’s sad to me. I see people who have given up. They’ve lost hope. They are drowning. I imagine they get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to their reflection, “I’m going to do as little as possible today.” I’ve known many people like this. Are they necessarily wrong to lack ambition? Are they lazy or just scared? They think they’re incapable. They think there’s no use for them. Are they enlightened or deluded? Personally, I understand, but I disagree. I have to disagree or be a fool. I put on my psychologist’s hat and say that overcoming fear and incompetence requires us to push into and then through the fear via baby steps and then keep doing it, you know, repetition. As your fear decreases your competence increases as you slowly move forward into your better life. You feel better. We call this “courage” and “perseverance.” We convince ourselves that it matters. I wanted to be courageous and to persevere with my writing as if it mattered.

     I couldn’t merely talk about writing and other writers, I had to write, and I had to publish. I didn’t fully understand why, only that it was true for me.