A Side of My Own
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A Side of My Own

What Are Broken People Worth?

Falling Apart on a Burning Planet

Mental illness is linked to time and distraction. Time passing too fast, or too slow, all in bad ways. Time disconnected from the world, distracted by an interior landscape. It’s about time lost, time left, time that can be productive, time that is unproductive, the slow passing of painful time. It often precludes what people think of as useful time, all while life is passing and being lost forever.

Last time I tried normal corproate work like life was many years ago. I gained 30 pounds and became suicidally depressed. I quit that job after a nervous break down and an attempted hanging, but someone from that company hired me on to their start-up a couple months later. That last last time, brief though it was, was the best office job I’ve ever had — the company was mostly women, somewhat queer and Jewish, and my manager was a genuinely kind human being. After about a month, she began to talk a lot about how office jobs weren’t for everyone, that her sister was an artist and that was fine. She’d assure me when I got upset and confused that a life hanging out on the beach was a worthwhile life, even if I hadn’t been talking about the beach. She liked me, and I liked her, but trying to fit into Corporate America not only made me miserable, I was casting an area of effect madness on my sweet coworkers.

They didn’t even fire me. The company died in 9/11, one of the many economic and logistical casualties of that moment. But I finally took the hint and started looking for other things to do with my life.

That’s how long it’s been since I had a straight job.

Earth at night
Look at all those people working

Society has decided that jobs are the first measure of worth. In a way, this makes sense — what each person contributes to the society versus what they take away describes the fate of the world, and if there will even be a future for the society of humans. But the natural world and the precarious environment we’re facing seem to be suggesting that jobs may not be the contributions we thought they were, and that we’re not counting the costs correctly at all. Still, for now, jobs are where it’s at, where life is possible. The office jobs with their morning hours and boring suits are best of all. That is the life we’ve decided indicates the most consequence, the most high status. It assumes a great contribution and with that, a greater portion of the world which is yours to consume. If that’s you, the world loves and respects you, if it’s not, you’re fated to live as a less-than, or an economic bauble — a high-status exception because of the love the people in suits have for you.

I’ve always been terrified and ashamed of the fact that office jobs with regular requirements didn’t really have room for my bizarre and mangled existence. After I gave up normal jobs in 2002, I had a kid, then became a writer, which is what I’d always wanted anyhow. I found my home as a freelancer at WIRED, where I could pitch, or not, and the people were pretty accepting of my deep crazy. One time, I called my editor from a bathroom at a conference I was supposed to be covering and said he needed to bring in a stringer. He was understandably annoyed, but then I told him I’d locked myself in a bathroom because I was suicidal, (I was going through a divorce, and also am chronically mentally ill) and he just told me to take care of myself, not die, and he’d call a stringer. When I got back, I still had my “job.”

I’ve never pretended to be something I’m not since that last attempt at office life in 2001, because I will get caught. I will be weird, I will be awkward, and sometimes I will be irredeemably lost and sad. I also disassociate. For people who don’t know what that is, being around someone who is disassociating can be terrifying. We’re there, but not quite there. We look normal, but as if we were in another place and time. Something invisible is happening to us which we may be able to talk about, but not well. In some cases, we may even be trying to interact with what is going on in our heads. For me, disassociation is almost universally terrible. Something awful is happening to me, and I may or may not be able to talk about it. Honestly, for those around me, it’s usually better if I don’t talk, but also harder to break out of that state if I don’t explain to someone what my head is doing. I worry about traumatizing the people trying to help me by telling them what’s happening to me, and that worry is not unfounded.

Also I sometimes wander into traffic by accident. Not often, but enough that my friends and family keep an eye on me.

How do you call that into the office?

The Scream
Sometimes my world really does feel like this.

In the parlance of our times, I suppose I have a disability caused by mental illness. But in my head I always just think of myself as a bit fucking crazy. It’s not every day, and I have a lot of coping skills now; I self-manage and communicate well with those around me. But there are times — usually in the summer — when my functioning is minimal. I still take care of my family, eat, clean, shower occasionally, and so on. But I can’t live life like other people. I can’t just sit down and work. I can’t do normal things, like go to appointments, without help. I get lost grocery shopping. I cry in public, and most of my energy goes to an internal world dissolving into hellscapes of arguing with dead people, re-experiencing horrible moments of my past, and being unable to imagine a future beyond and endless angry grey landscape where people violently attack anyone different, which always includes me. That last one might just be the internet though.

So for some part of the year, I vanish. Because I can’t contribute on a predictable schedule, my vanishing into mental illness is always accompanied by shame. Because our society has so little room for me that I have to live in shame, I get angry at everything for making me feel that shame. I try to stay with the anger and indignation sometimes, because this is an objectively a pretty stupid way to structure a society. But there’s always the danger of falling into self-pity. Self-pity and shame are the road to death.

Sometimes I call the part of the year I vanish vacation afterwards, because that’s socially acceptable. But I don’t have much fun. It’s a covering tactic — I went on a vacation to Hell, and forgot to tell you in advance that I was going. There’s times when I work, times when I don’t have work, and times when I can’t work. But the part about vacation where you relax and recharge, I don’t have that. I mostly just survive my summers, and other times when my mind decides reality just isn’t quite horrible enough.

Not something you can drop on the team calendar.

Something strange happened for people like me during the pandemic. Because everything was remote, people with PTSD, depression, autism, ADHD, or any of the mental illnesses that don’t really work well in polite society, people who couldn’t walk or looked weird, people who were missing bits or had too many bits or both, could… in theory… just work from home. We wouldn’t have to make ourselves presentable, or hold it together in mixed company or try to, gulp make small talk. We could contribute. That was new and interesting.

For a moment there, I considered trying to get a corp job again, and some of that sweet sweet living wage I’ve seen so rarely in my life. Eventually I let the idea go, not just because of mental illness, but also my total lack of formal education, paper-friendly qualifications, and a work history most notable for being cancelled multiple times. If I ever have another business card it’ll just say my name, number, and FOR GODSSAKES DON’T GOOGLE ME on it.

But for thousands of other people, the concept of getting a straight job was suddenly possible. They could participate in the office thing, even without being able to fit a normal suit around their body and mind. Employment for people with disabilities fell off a cliff at the beginning of the pandemic, but now, in the US, it’s at a slightly higher rate than it’s been in more than 10 years. This is a good thing, but also kind of the sign of a larger bad thing — that our culture so often leaves the misfits out.

One of the things that’s always been terribly silly about the way we’ve structured society is that if you can’t do the thing(s) you do to contribute to the world on one of the few and particular regulated schedules we’ve mandated, in the right places, wearing the right clothes, and using the right fork, you’re not allowed to participate in society. Whether you’re disabled, or have kids, can’t function in the mornings, or whatever makes you weird, there’s few places to fit into society in a constructive way. It’s so fragile! Why did we make participation in society so fragile?

The places for weirdos that do exist tend to be filled by people with enough money and inter-generational status to find the spots where misfits can exist comfortably. For the rest of us — we teeter at the edge of being a member of the workforce, or depending on who you ask, even a human worthy of the resources that sustain life.

When you don’t fit in and you’re not rich, the system lets you know. The guidance counselor in my high school scheduled a meeting with me to tell me I wasn’t the type that went to college, and that I needed to accept that and find a job I could keep. The goal was for me to not end up addicted to drugs and/or in jail. I was straight edge in high school, and constantly teaching myself college-level topics. But that was the last thing I was going to be able to explain to this purveyor of low expectations. She was right though, I never did attend university. There was just no way for me to get there. As a teen and 20-something I snuck into university classes on occasion. I miss that.

I did eventually teach as an adjunct in a major university. I enjoyed it very much, but had to give it up because it paid too little for me to live.

The problem with the weirdos and the mentally ill is that we need things. Need is guilt, shame, and by turns, indignation. To express need is to place yourself above something, possibly above those not expressing need. It’s petulant and disorderly. Need is the object of disgrace; it is a kind of social ungrace. Need imposes, requires attention, gets in the way of smooth flows, is aggressive and hateful in turns. “I need” begins with an imperative I, the I that sucks the air out of a room, the I that exists loudly, unsettled and unresolved. It feels petulant and selfish to be less than perfect, especially far less. Better to half exist, edge exist, pass in and out of existence, than to impose on the space with your needs.

I live in a paradoxical space in our society, like many of the more imperfect people. I have needs, but also keep asserting that I have important contributions to make to society as well. Can I have it both ways? Can I be extreme in my needs for mental and physical investment, and still be a person of consequence?

What the hell is a person of consequence?

Random crowd shot
There’s just so many people in the world! So many! Do we matter? Can we?

As a global society we’re still trying to make the transition from the idea that most people are disposable, and exist to prop up an elite of people who matter, to understanding how amazing each human life is. This is the biggest and strangest change of human life in our history.

With the rise of near-universal literacy, and an ever-increasing genres of human expression, we’re trying to grapple with the fact that humans are the most complex, flexible, and capable things that we know of in the universe. Every life that can’t reach its potential is like throwing a super computer cluster off a cliff into the sea. The idea of non-elite imperfect people being highly valuable doesn’t have a cultural place yet. You may understand it for yourself, or people you know, and feel undervalued. But you might not understand it for some kid dying in Madagascar’s climate change famine right now, or an old man who has watched the Siberian Taiga change through his life, and may be about to take some of the information we need to keep our planet hospitable to his grave. Trying to understand it on that level just feels like to too much, too much, far too much.

We are still looking around to figure out who matters because “everyone” is just too overwhelming of an answer. But it’s also the true answer. Everyone matters.

Everyone is important, everyone is needed to get to a world that can sustain us and be sustained by us. That’s the actual answer. But it’s not an answer we can act on right now, not even an answer that we can accept, even though it’s true and correct. We are, each of us, both wells of infinite solitude and keepers of vast cognitive power. We are the most complicated things we’ve found in the universe.

It’s just too much to admit, too much to contemplate.

I’m still looking for mental health treatment. I’m generally triaged to last because of my trauma, effectively black-tagged by medical systems that have too many easier wins they’d rather deal with first. In a way, I can’t blame them. A competent mental healthcare professional can probably get several people back on their feet in the time it would take to figure out if they could do anything useful for me at all. I’m complicated, and from the efficiency perspective, probably not worth treating. But at least, when they black tag you in the ER, you’re probably not going to be there for long. I… well, I just keep existing.

I went to a beach for a day this summer, swam in the water, sat on the sand. That helped a lot. My old boss might have been onto something. If I can’t get medical care, maybe I should at least move to somewhere with a beach.

Fire from space
It’s not just me, we’re all not doing so great.

Every time I try to get help and fail, I have to crawl back from a real dark place. But every time I do crawl back. Don’t worry (too much) about me. Being broken means everything is hard, so by definition, I can do hard things. When landscapes are shifting and everything is painful and unpredictable, well, that’s just my world. I can navigate that. These days it isn’t just we need the skills and resources to fix broken people, but to fix a planet we’ve broken. Fixing it gently, holding it, enduring the pain. Finding the small hopes in our systems, building on them.

Picking up the pieces of a broken world and slowly putting it back together? That’s my jam, friend.

Eventually, the office job thing isn’t going to work out. The besuited can’t keep consuming the world the way they are, and the lifestyles that come with money and status will end, one way or another. Hopefully one way, and not the other. The highly valued skills and temperaments of today will inevitably become foolish — weird historical facts that will seem like they would have been nightmarish to live through, which I can confirm they are. Whether you think the world of work and worth as we have constructed it is good or bad, it is a dead man walking. It will end, because that’s what this word we kick around now — unsustainable — means. It means this cannot go on. Not because someone is coming to take away your burgers or cars or nice home with the AC, but because those things are simply going to go away on their own, possibly catastrophically, hopefully not.

I believe, perhaps self-servingly, that weirdos and misfits are vital in the world that comes after this one. That you people with good jobs and normal brains and limbs that boringly just do what you tell them to are going to need us: the crazy, broken, night people, because we know a lot about adapting to a world of all hard edges.

We know recovery and compromise, and letting go of what just can’t be, at least for now. We know the sadness and shame that’s coming for the world, and we’re not dead yet. In fact, sometimes we have a kind of unfragile joy that comes from living through, from knowing that we can live through. We know the joy of building against the tide, and then building back.

This is the joy of the world-to-be.

Thanks to my Patrons, who make this possible. If you’d like to support this work, head over to my Patreon account.

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Saying unexpected things since the 1980s. I often don’t fit into the political milieu, and people sometimes get angry. But even when I’m right, it never helps.

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Quinn Norton

Quinn Norton

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.

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