Sunday, March 8, 2015

My Boring Inner Demons

Over the past year, I have grown increasingly angry.

This anger stems from events at work. I love my job - despite the past year's events - but I am not at liberty to talk about work, and that's part of the problem. Fortunately, for you to understand my anger, you only need to know that I've watched helplessly as my management has systematically applied the OSS Simple Sabotage Manual's rules to running our organization. (Particularly Timeless Tips #1 and #3.)

But events at work are not why I'm writing this post. They are just the catalyst that have propelled much of my behavior this year.

If you've known me and followed my blog for any length of time, you may be able to figure out how I deal with stress. Some people struggle with self-destructive behaviors, some people indulge in physical activity; others take solace in their religion. I indulge in my nerdishly obsessive hobbies. In extreme cases, the choices people make can upset their life completely and force them to start over. When that happens - when their entire life seems to go up in flames around them - either they or someone they hurt in the process will describe them as struggling with their Inner Demons.

I know enough to realize that everyone has some kind of Inner Demon to deal with - something within themselves that they struggle to control and steer into constructive work. Most people easily recognize that struggle when they see someone acting out in stereotypical ways. We've all known someone who destroyed their body and their relationships as they tried to numb their pain with excessive partying; we've all known a few people who have done the same damage chasing after salvation through a faith, through a lifestyle change, or through simply hitting the reset button and walking away.

Whatever you think about my characterization of people who use these different techniques, you have to admit that you understand them. These are ways that normal people deal with adversity - whether internal or external in origin. And those of us watching from outside can be very creative when it comes to figuring out why people choose those actions - that's why such a colorful and fraught expression like "inner demons" is used to explain them. It's useful to unpack that phrase and see how it simultaneously tries to put blame inside the person who is suffering AND blame some external force beyond anyone's control.

As someone who does not believe in literal demons, I fully appreciate the usefulness of the metaphor. It's easier to acknowledge that one is having problems if there is a kind of entity apart from oneself to put the blame on. I can point to my "demon" and say, "That's an unfortunate part of myself that I need to get rid of in order to be happy."

But the truth is, no one really wants to get rid of their demon.

In my case, my demons are not the young, attractive, Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style demons that you can kick in the face and turn to dust with a stake. I am not haunted by the sexy ghost of James Dean or driven to act out through excessive drinking, driving fast cars, pursuing damaged women, or any of the other socially discouraged (but secretly admired) behaviors that sell so many songs and movie tickets.  No, my demons are as nerdy as I am.

My demons drive me to obsessively focus on details. They push me to ignore basic, fundamental everyday personal maintenance and spend hours... days... digging through dry texts and looking for small truths. They compel me to catalog, sort, order, and process things that don't need to be ordered; and they do this at the expense of things that do need to be dealt with.

For me, the vicious cycle is not to drink away the pain, and then face the physical hangover the next morning with the "hair of the dog" - no, for me, the cycle is one where I spend my whole day pursuing records for obscure relatives and wake up Sunday morning having failed to do my taxes.

My inner demons, in short, are boring as shit.

And I hate that I allow this cycle to continue. I hate that I can sit here and analyze it, and know exactly what I'm doing (or not doing) and just helplessly go along with it. I hate that what I'm addicted to is some elusive kind of success that only my inner demon cares anything about. I already know that nothing I do will win me enough approval to make up for the things I keep neglecting.

And that adds to the stress.

And the stress fuels that demon.

The worst part is that over the years, I have been able to channel my energy into useful and productive pursuits. My success at work (until this last year) has been driven by my ability to dive into mountains of detailed data and come out with a compelling story. That same ability is behind my family history blog, and the projects I'm trying to work on there. I can even credit this inner demon with focusing my energy on the single-minded, obsessively detail-oriented things I needed to change in order to save my marriage. I managed to break away from the lifestyle of arguing on the internet to do that - and that was no small thing for me.

It boils down to finding the right way to escape from the stress and using the anger to do something constructive. I want more than anything to be good at what I do - in whatever context I am doing it. I want to be good at work; I want to be a good partner to my General; I want to be a good dad. But when I fail at those things - and all of the subtle ways that I fail seem to resist a solution - the pressure builds to retreat into my current obsession.

There are a number of things I should have been doing instead of writing this. I should have been doing our taxes. I should be sanding and painting our hall closet. I should have been planning and arranging some kind of 20th anniversary celebration. I should have...

but that's the problem.

As hard as I try to force myself to do things I'm not comfortable doing, and as hard as I strive to trivialize these tasks in my mind to reduce the sense of burden attached to them, I can't fool myself; I know that I'm terrible at these tasks. They will eat up most of my day and likely result in failure; it will also be a failure to not do them at all. And that double burden of failure starts the cycle. As soon as I am distracted, or my subconscious can find a reason to do Something Else, my Inner Demon will gladly "forget" what I was trying to do... and I will wake up the next morning with a back sore from sitting in my crappy computer chair, eyes red and tired from staring at the screen, wanting nothing more than to dive back in and chase the breakthroughs that will justify the time and effort of doing the research in the first place.

 But my point is not to ask for sympathy or to motivate myself to give up my hobby for the sake of housework. The point is to explain how doing dead simple things that a normal person should be able to do without a lot of drama and agony is a major victory for me. I want you to understand that when I manage to do these things and maintain the pretense that I am a normal, capable adult, this is a Big Deal. I may not be kicking an addiction, or performing some Walter Mitty style feat of achievement, but I am winning.

Because even though they are boring, and sometimes useful, my Inner Demons are still demons.  And it's still hard to kick them in the face.

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