The Newsletter Thingy
The Sybarite Newsletter: Charlatans Everywhere
If someone promises you a quick fix for psychic pain, they are lying.
Apologies for the delay in getting this newsletter out, I’ve been busy wanting to die every time this guy waits a day or two to text me. I thought this was both funny and tragic, so about two weeks ago I wrote “Cause of Death: He Didn’t Text Back.” Most people responded by thanking me for the laugh, one person warned me not to sleep with men too soon (someday let’s do a longitudinal study on whether women who stick to this old-fashioned trope have better relationships than the rest of us who drink too much tequila and fall into bed on the second date). One gentleman showed up to tell me to stop sleeping with “Chad” — a term I later learned the incel community uses to describe some sort of mythical alpha male that gets a lot of tail.
The one response I’m still unpacking came in an email. Spoiler alert: what started out as a relatively nice exchange quickly devolved something pretty dark. But the exchange highlights the very reasons I started Sybarite, so let’s unpack it together.
A man emailed me and told me the following: 1) he thought the piece was funny 2) he has developed a method based on neuroscience to reduce my pain from Camaro Man’s failure to text me 3) this method takes only 30 minutes and is extremely effective. According to his website, it’s more effective than years of meditation. He usually charges for the service, but offered to do it to me (for me?) for free, to rid me of my pain from the Camaro Man shaped hole in my life.
My first response was nice. It really was. I explained that I have an extreme allergy to 99% of things that bill themselves as self-help, but I am especially suspicious of anything that promises to 1) reduce psychic pain 2) is “quick and effective” and 3) is monetized. I also explained that I would probably only try his method to write about it, and with my bias whatever I wrote likely wouldn’t make him happy. I ended with this sentence: “And pain is part of being alive!”
I threw that last part in because anyone who promises to reduce your psychic pain is lying. They are lying because relief from psychic pain can only occur if you actually sit with your pain and move through it, and this definitely takes more than 30 minutes. It might even take a lifetime?
But they are also lying because emotional pain is part of being alive, a integral part of the human condition, like breathing or drifting off to sleep. We shouldn’t want to get rid of this pain. (Disclaimer: I am not talking about treatments like EMDR for PTSD). When Camaro Man disappears, and I go into a spiral, it reminds me how alive I felt when I made out with him. If that make-out sesh weren’t so fantastic, there would be no pain. And if pain is the price of admission to being kissed like that, sign me up for recurring payments.
He wrote back thanking me for my transparency, and agreed that his method likely wouldn’t be effective with my self-acknowledged bias. But then he threw in the following snark: “Too bad for you, but if you prefer the pain then that’s okay.” Perhaps understanding the weird mansplainy, condescendingness of this sentence, he tacked this on: “Pardon me for being a little sarcastic but you don’t seem to have a problem with attitude so I hope you don’t mind.”
Let’s translate: You, Adeline, are stupid for preferring pain. But I, a man whom you don’t know, will allow it, and deem this preference “okay.” Also, you have an attitude.
I wrote back to say that I actually did mind the snark. I’m not sure why I bothered to do this — probably because I took the time to give him a fair warning, when instead I could have just done the session and then written a clickbait headline along with a hot take about lay people hijacking research on neuroplasticity for profit. (Please refer all the tween TikTokers who are suddenly ASMR experts). But I took the time to be honest and transparent and so yeah, I told him I was annoyed by the the snark.
This response was not well-received, and things went south fast. I won’t give you a blow by blow of his last angry email, but ever notice how self-help types are quick to anger? Me too.
I will report that he doubled down on the claim that his method was quick and effective, and he used an example of an emotional struggle from his own life that he apparently quieted/controlled/beat into submission with his method. That was sort of interesting, but he was otherwise a jerk in this final email and as I was reading it I thought, Okay, it is fucking on.
Before smoke this guy and his chicanery, let me be clear: I’m not entirely against self-help. I am, for instance, a fangirl of Pema Chödrön, who teaches us to be curious about our strong conflicting emotions and compassionate with ourselves in the face of them. She offers “self help” in that curiosity and compassion can go a long way to living with negative emotions, but I don’t think she’s ever claimed to offer a final “fix” for anything. The fix is that there is no fix.
I also loved Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser, which I read after a particularly bad breakup, at a time when I really did think I was going to die. Lesser writes that during difficult times we have a choice: To keep our hearts open or to allow them to harden. Keeping our hearts open and available to the world is more difficult than becoming a hardened bitch with an attitude, but worth the agony. Doing so allows us to continue to connect our own humanity and the humanity of others. You know, live.
And I absolutely believe in therapy, SSRIs, or doing whatever it takes to eventually stop feeling horrible or depressed on a long-term basis. Indeed, I’ve written about how the medical community doesn’t seem to take heartbreak seriously, when in fact it’s a real, true injury and we should probably try to do something about it.
Finally, I try to live by The Four Agreements, because it offers a nice organizing principle: be impeccable with your word, don’t make assumptions, always try your best, and don’t take anything personally. But I live by these guidelines not because I think they’ll magically or quickly improve my life, but because when I go to bed at night I don’t want to ruminate about whether someone misunderstood me or whether someone hates me or whether I could have done better.
So I’m open to improvement. What enrages me is the so-called self-help industry that makes promises that are too good to be true, and preys upon people when they are most vulnerable. Some people are in so much mental anguish, they’ll hand over wads of cash to anyone promising relief. This is not right. This is not ethical.
The right way to treat fellow human beings going through pain is to offer empathy, and to be honest about the fact that the only way out of mental anguish is to go through mental anguish. (Hat tip to Winston Churchill and his famous line: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”) Charging vulnerable people money based on a quick fix — which is how you know it’s a false promise — is as about as cruel as it gets.
That said, I do think there’s a possibility this guy believes his own bullshit. He probably believes he’s helping people. But if that were true, he wouldn’t get his panties in a bunch when people decline his services. If anything, he would be curious about the people who don’t buy in. That type of inquiry would likely make him a better practitioner, someone who could probably answer my central objection to the whole thing: why are we bothering to eliminate emotional pain at all? Where did we get the idea that we were promised a pain-free life?
Pain confirms that we’re still here, still participating in the shared human experience of sadness and joy. Not only do I not want to eliminate this type of pain, I often lean into it by reading about it, watching it. I remember finishing Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, sobbing in bed because of the way the main character treats her young son. I sobbed because I was mourning the relationship I thought I should have with my own mother, a relationship that I desperately wanted but knew I was never going to happen. The sobbing made me feel like I was part of a larger universe of people with cruel mothers, which was both painful and wonderful at the very same time. The same happened when I read The Red Pony at thirteen. My parents found me pounding my fists on my bed, crying hysterically, destroyed by the unfairness of it all. Was that moment pleasant? No. But did I feel alive and connected to the grief-stricken boy in the story, and to all grief-stricken people everwhere? Yes. I was alive.
I don’t know, I guess I’m pissed. I’m pissed that people flood the Internet with bullshit. I’m pissed that when I politely decline this bullshit I’m told that I have an attitude. I’m pissed that people are instructed to pathologize their pain, chastised that if they are in pain, they are somehow doing it wrong.
I started Sybarite to fight back against this type of messaging and its related hacks, quick fixes, fake expertise, and writing that tries to “improve” us. I first tried to explain the mission of Sybarite here, and again here. And if you’ve been following the newsletters for awhile, you know that I’ve tried to clarify that I want to publish writing about real experiences, luxurious or not. I actually do think we will come away with some deeper understanding of ourselves after you write about your favorite lip gloss, because while all essays answer a question, all great essays are ultimately about two things. So if you want to try writing something hard but worth it (I was recently outed by Medium as someone who can submit stories for boosting — how’s that for a carrot?), you should send something in. Just please make it real, make it alive.
Speaking of quick fixes, this is what I did this week when I was in one of my desperate moments: I made chocolate chip cookies from the recipe on the back of the Nestle chocolate chip bag. (This is the best chocolate chip cookie recipe in existence). I saved a lot of raw cookie dough and ate it with a spoon while I sat in my feelings and tried to not look at the phone. I snuggled with Fish, and got a pretty good night’s sleep. I didn’t become reactive, or do anything stupid. The next day I woke up feeling better. Not perfect, but better.
So before you hand over your hard-earned money to some trickster who claims he can “fix” you in under an hour, may I suggest buying that bag of Nestle chocolate chips, some flour, eggs, butter, vanilla, salt and sugar and mix all that up in a bowl. You’ll connect yourself to the woman who created this most perfect recipe years ago, and you’ll connect yourself to the rest of us who make these cookies during low moments.
And as you let yourself swallow a golf ball of raw cookie dough, wondering whether you might die from the raw eggs, you’ll remind yourself that you’re alive.
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