CW: detailed discussions of mental illness and brief mention of suicide.
i can’t sleep, most nights. particularly recently. my boyfriend is an early riser with a physical labour job who prefers to be in bed before midnight — fuck him!!!!— which means that until around 4 or 5 am nearly every day, i live in my head, grounded only by the spring rain pittering outside my window and the rhythmic soundtrack of his breath. it’s then when i’m forced to be alone with myself; it’s then when we have our little chats.
in theatre, a monologue and a soliloquy are different but oft-confused: a soliloquy is a speech addressed to and typically heard by no one, while a monologue is always addressed to a viewer. i’ve always felt like the term “internal monologue” is particularly apt for this reason, more apt than it’s perhaps meant to be — even within my own mind, there’s always a palpable other who listens to my diatribes, observing, judging. sometimes, particularly at night, the monologue splits into a dialogue between two voices. we have our little chats. i think this experience is quite common, if not ubiquitous, but let me clarify that i’m not talking about dissociative identity disorder, hallucination, or schizophrenia. it’s more just that i can’t leave myself alone.
this is how my nights are occupied, usually: arguing with myself, listening to me argue with myself, being unspeakably cruel, begging me to stop, apologizing. sometimes i have to say something out loud to stop the yelling, like stop or please leave me alone, which makes me feel very crazy. the nights have been getting too much to handle lately, if i’m being honest — i’ve been in a lot of pain and haven’t been able to make sense of anything. and so, like any good writer would, i got myself to agree to go on the record. this interview is a relatively faithful transcript of my interactions with myself, over several nights, between the hours of 1-4 am.
this is an interview, not an essay; it contains contradiction and imperfection. my next guest needs no introduction…
RFQ: hey. you look nice.
RFQ: i look like shit.
RFQ: no one wants to see us have this debate again. it’s more of a morning thing, anyway.
RFQ: yeah. i appreciate you sitting down with me to do this.
RFQ: of course.
RFQ: it feels embarrassing to mention — i feel pathetic just talking about this stuff to myself, to you. but i’m just in so much pain. i can’t sleep. i can’t write.
RFQ: it’s not pathetic to be in pain, and it’s not pathetic to express that pain, either. it’s a stereotype, maybe, but that’s not your fault. women are forced into pain, but it’s no longer in fashion for intellectual, artful women to talk about it, lest you be labelled self-pitying or navel-gazing or worse, earnest. pain is fetishized in women, and that causes pain in and of itself — but when women express that pain, they’re told they’re feeding into the fetishization of women’s pain by existing as a woman in pain. jesus. nobody will tell you this, but what everyone really wants is for women to be in excruciating pain and then kill themselves quick, before they can complain about it too much. no one likes a woman who keeps on living. nobody wants to look at your broken and tired body once you stop being sad in a way that makes you skinny; once women turn 30 we start calling them crazy in a way that doesn’t imply wanting to fuck the daddy issues out of them. they’d rather we be sad and then dead, quickly, so someone else can write about it. we’re meant to be mythology without autonomy.
RFQ: isn’t it sort of pathetic to write something so unabashedly fixated on your suffering? don’t you think it’s a bit embarrassing to dwell on the self so obviously?
RFQ: i try not to be love with my own pain, but it does exist. i can acknowledge something without wanting to fuck it. women are accused of eroticizing everything we write about — sometimes we do, of course, and criticisms of that romanticization are necessary, but sometimes i just think our sexual objectification is so complete that everything we express about our interior selves is made erotic upon interpretation. and why is there such a uniquely vitriolic hatred in the culture for the woman who is said to be obsessed with her pain, anyway? there is so much disgust, such unencumbered disdain for the woman who is sick and doesn’t roll her eyes about it. here’s what i think: anyone who makes a huge, constant show of not being a victim or not dwelling on their pain is still obsessed with victimhood and pain. they’re just not being honest about it.
RFQ: it’s not that simple. women are conditioned to eroticize our interior selves, and so we often do — that’s not really our fault, but we aren’t just being projected upon.
RFQ: you’re playing devil’s advocate. sometimes we do. maybe we always do, to some extent. i don’t think trying to nail that down really matters. i don’t like watching people buy into the aestheticization of their perpetual sadness and self-destruction, and i don’t like it when i do it, either — as i said, it’s worthy of compassionate criticism. but we receive the same judgement no matter what we do, and most of the criticism isn’t compassionate.
RFQ: i’m still tired of being a stereotype, though. i want to think about pain without being part of a zeitgeist. in the grand unified theory of female pain, Leslie Jamison writes: “I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the “hurting woman” is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.” this is how i feel — i’m so tired of the archetype of female pain, but i can’t seem to stop myself from being in so much fucking pain. i’m almost pre-maturely exhausted with external perceptions of my own pain before i’m even done being exhausted with the pain itself. i haven’t even started crying before i start thinking about whether i’m performing it.
RFQ: she says this in the essay, too: pain that gets performed is still pain.
RFQ: okay, whatever. my pain is real. i still don’t know what to do with it — i feel like i’m dying. and everyone’s always saying that women are born with pain built in.
RFQ: it’s the catholic in you who thinks that, not the feminist. undeniably, women are in pain — undeniably, some of us are in pain from the day we’re born. some feminists seem to want to believe that was predetermined; others insist that womanhood is divine, pure, biologically sacred. again, this is a gospel that religious zealots and online proto-feminist influencers seem to share. but i don’t think that we’re any holier or any more damned than anyone else, or, at least, i don’t think it’s useful to you to make that belief into a religion. self-mythologizing makes good television but makes the worst of everything else. and a lot of your pain doesn’t come from womanhood, anyway — although i suppose it feels like that pain is built into you too.
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RFQ: i think, maybe, i don’t want it to be my fault. and it’s not like there’s no case for determinism, anyway. think of everything that’s happened to me.
RFQ: i’d rather not! but community organizing gives us our answer here, i think. both in politics and in relation to the self, one of the most radical ideas one can internalize is it doesn’t have to be like this. it doesn’t have to be like this, it doesn’t have to be like this, it doesn’t have to be like this. likewise, the most dangerous thing you can believe is that the current condition is inevitable. even if everything is all predetermined by the shit that’s happened to us, we just have to act as if it isn’t. the scary thing, of course, is that this gives us an impetus to act.
RFQ: do you forgive me?
RFQ: yes. i don’t know. yes.
RFQ: i just want to know when the pain will go away. i want the void to fill.
RFQ: these are hard questions. i thought this was going to be more like Kimmel or something. i don’t know. you were, like, eight years old the first time you begged God to ease the suffering that consumed you.
RFQ: okay, jesus. save it for the book.
RFQ: all i’m saying is, maybe this is just the game. maybe this is just what it is. you weren’t born on a straight shot to existential comfort. i don’t know if there’s a point in trying to wait out the clock anymore.
RFQ: what if the pain becomes too much to bear?
RFQ: well, that part’s easy. you go on.
RFQ: that doesn’t seem fair.
RFQ: it isn’t, but it’s also the only thing to do.
RFQ: you’re usually not the type to resort to bland platitudes about Soldiering Through and Choosing Happiness.
RFQ: it’s not a platitude. i said you’ll go on. what that really means, of course, is that you’ll go on until, for some reason, whether it be physical, circumstantial, or internal, you won’t anymore. you’re like everyone else on the planet that way. let’s not catastrophize. maybe the pain will become too much to bear — probably it will, at some point, and you’ll stay living just to inflict it on yourself, and then it will ease. you’ll look at a sunset and forget all about it and it will have been worth it to continue. you’re lucky you’re a masochist.
RFQ: you’re dangerously close to revealing what you really think about suicide. let’s switch topics.
RFQ: hahaha. some things stay between us! one last thing, though: i don’t think the absence of pain fills the void. i think you’re operating from a false premise. you’re talking like you think your ultimate goal is the absence of pain, which of course makes sense, but i don’t think ending the pain and filling the void are comparable or even related. i think — and i’m not sure, because i’m just you, but i think — that if you keep waiting for the pain to end before you try to become whole, whatever that means, you’ll be waiting forever. think of your mother. she’s been in terrible pain for every day of the last 20 years, and she’s pretty happy. she goes to therapy and gets excited about making soup. likewise, there are lots of people who aren’t really in much pain at all but still feel empty.
RFQ: i knew you were going to bring my mother into this.
RFQ: its just because i think she’s so hopeful. i don’t know. i said it before. i’ll spend a week wallowing in my pain, bedridden, convinced that i’ll suffer for the rest of my life and that i’m doomed to misery and failure, and then i’ll look at a nice sunset and feel the thought pop into my head, cool and certain and gently surprising — oh, it’s worth it. you know? oh, i get it now. it’s all worth it. why didn’t anyone tell me before? it feels new every time. it doesn’t make any sense, but it’s true. and then i’ll feel bad again, and then i’ll see another sunset. like i said, maybe this is just the game. there are worse games.
RFQ: my misery isn’t contained, though. i’ve done bad things. i’ve hurt people.
RFQ: yes, like many of us.
RFQ: i can’t change the fact that i did, and their forgiveness is not guaranteed.
RFQ: i don’t like that. it makes me feel bad.
RFQ: i feel so much guilt. every second of my life, i feel guilt and shame. and when i step back, i don’t even think i’ve done anything worse than the average person, but the guilt stays there. and it’s not fair — i was mentally ill. what’s the point of knowing i’m mentally ill if everything i do is going to be judged the same regardless?
RFQ: you know this. diagnosis is a tool for empathy, not abnegation of responsibility. it wouldn’t be respectful of your autonomy to say your illness means people shouldn’t treat you like an adult. your diagnosis can help people recognize that you didn’t hurt them because you’re a spiteful, evil, selfish person. it can help your roommate understand why you haven’t done the dishes, but eventually, you still have to do those dishes. it explains your behaviour, but it doesn’t mean that they have to put up with it forever. i don’t think you actually want to be loved like a dog that shits on the floor.
RFQ: what do i do with the shame?
RFQ: what do you mean?
RFQ: the shame. the dog-shitting-on-the-floor shame. the pit in my stomach. i don’t know what i’m supposed to do with it.
RFQ: i don’t know. i’m 20. make art or something. and i think maybe shame is like grief, or a scar — maybe part of it will always be there, but you’ll grow around it until it’s smaller in comparison.
RFQ: i don’t know. i have OCD. i’m scared of, like — i’m scared i have something bad inside of me. i always feel like one day i’ll wake up and i’ll do something too terrible to fix.
RFQ: this is what i mean. the problem for you isn’t the hurt, or the void, or the pit in your stomach that never leaves. i think it’s your fundamental lack of faith in yourself to adapt to an uncertain future. you think you’re crazy —
RFQ: i feel crazy.
RFQ: spare me. what i mean is, you’re convinced that the second things get too hard to bear — whatever that means — you’ll lose your autonomy. you have no faith in your capacity for goodness or self-control. you’re scared that one day you’ll surrender yourself to the dark, depraved impulses that you’ve convinced yourself are lying in wait inside you, and that you’ve spent your life waging a one-sided war against. your impulse is to spend your life in self-imposed isolation for a sickness that you don’t even know if you have, because you don’t trust yourself to go outside and face the future as it happens to you — but outside is where all the meaning is. i think maybe that’s your void. and maybe the dark impulses don’t even exist. it’s possible you’re just mostly normal, if a little self-obsessed.
RFQ: you don’t know that.
RFQ: i just don’t think the pain is your problem, inherently. you worry so much about the pain. i don’t think you’re in love with your pain, but you might be obsessed with it. you live your life in perpetual fear of it. you think it’s the thing that’s built this hole inside you. but most people feel pain a lot of the time. i know you don’t think pain is a damning thing. i think you just don’t have faith in yourself to handle anything.
RFQ: i’m sorry.
RFQ: it’s not your fault.
RFQ: that’s a platitude.
RFQ: i’ll see you tomorrow. sorry if i was sort of an asshole.
RFQ: hey, that’s the way it goes. you should go to sleep.
RFQ: yeah. david said something so sweet and perfect today: he said “your job isn’t to change how you feel. your job is to take care of someone who doesn’t feel good right now.”
RFQ: we are each other’s house.
RFQ: i love you. sleep well.
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“If you keep waiting for the pain to end before you try to become whole, whatever that means, you’ll be waiting forever”
I started crying as soon as I read that. I’ve been waiting since I can remember to feel ok. After I look this way, after I have enough friends, after I’m in a relationship, after I paint this, I’ll feel proud of myself. And it never fixed anything, maybe a temporary bandaid at best. I’ve been watching the sunset a lot recently, and it helps me feel whole. I’ve taken walks and looked at the trees and felt the sun and I’ve felt whole. But what about when winter comes? How much can I really romanticize when I can barely stand being outside? Even as summer goes on, the sun shifts from comforting warmth to exhausting heat and I crave the winter. Maybe the only wholeness we can find is in our own thoughts and nature is there as a crutch. But anyway thank you for sharing this and I hope you can sleep well soon.
this was really beautiful. i wrote a piece similar to this, back in high school, as i was coming to terms with indulging in my own pain and what that meant for me and how bad it was or is or could be in love with my suffering. there were so many times i really relished in it (really resonating hard hard hard once catholicism cropped up) and felt like i couldn't have an outlet without hurting more but being told to hush it down.
I called my piece "sit down with your demon" because in my head, it was everyone, but very few resonated, and i had semi-monthly visits with the guidance counselor afterward (hehe)
i've never commented on anything like this before, but this really touched me-- I see it touched many people. I feel bad for the pain I have and I feel bad that I feel like a stereotype for the pain I have and how I treat it. but it's mine to have, it's my demon. your pain is yours, too. I'm glad you shared this conversation. having support is important, but in those quiet moments, it's really just yourself and yourself, and you have to hold hands and say love you and say see you tomorrow, and it's a grace that's important. i'm rambling and i'm in tears.
thanks for writing what you do. it sparkles