How to Try to Tell the Truth

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 34 of 100.

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Is it depression when you’re a 5/10 every day for weeks and weeks? Just an unfluctuating 5/10? Or is that how people normally are? Is average really average? You know?

I’ve been a 5/10 since August 9, when I was a 1/10. I got an email that made me feel like dirt, but not in the good way that sometimes I talk about when I’m in a spiritual mood — not in the dust-to-dust way. It made me feel like dirt as in, lower than the ground; mashed up in the ground; even a little bit underground; just totally and completely undone and ground-like. I got that email and then I went camping.

The one wasn’t the causation for the other. The camping trip had been planned. The email, at least on my end, was spontaneous. It was a canoe camping trip with a big group of mostly strangers and Rachel, and it was a nice distraction. There were parts of the trip where I forgot about the email, almost, and that brought me up to a 5/10.

I’m being vague about this email, huh? I don’t want to talk about it. I wrote back to it immediately so I wouldn’t have to look at it ever again. (You know how those things hover in your Inbox until you respond and Archive. I felt I needed to respond, but more than I needed to respond, I needed to Archive.) It wasn’t particularly mean, which made it more heartbreaking. And it shouldn’t have been an email. It should have been a conversation. But just because something should have been something else doesn’t make it become the something else that it should have been. This post has gotten very A. A. Milne all of a sudden, ugh. Look: Just imagine receiving an email that would gut you in a very personal (i.e., not work-related) way. Do you have it in your mind? It was that email.

Since the camping trip (thanks Rachel and mostly strangers), I’ve been basically a 5/10 every moment of every day. There are some exceptions: I have been a 7/10 while being with students, who basically always make me feel better about the world in general. I have been a 3/10 on public transportation, and when I looked at new headshots Luke took of me. I wanted new headshots because I hate how I look in my old ones, not because they were photographed poorly (they were photographed beautifully), but because I think I look round and pasty due to my own body and face. Now I am 20 pounds lighter and I have a tan, so I thought I would look less round and pasty, but no. That’s just my body and face. And then of course there’s the spiral: “Why does this matter to you? Don’t you just want everyone to love themselves as they are? Shouldn’t everyone just basically strive to be Lizzo? Why are YOU such a failure at this self-love? You stupid, stupid, ugly, weird, broken failure, you.” That’s my own inner monologue, in case it wasn’t clear.

Prior to receiving this email, my inner monologue had been fairly silent for a little over a month. I can’t begin to tell you what a relief this was. That mean voice had been on FULL THROTTLE for the entire spring and the beginning of the summer. I woke up with it. (“You’re too dumb and bad to get out of bed, you stupid, ugly, dumb, bad piece of rotten lettuce.”) I went to sleep with it. (“Good luck going to sleep, you stupid lettuce. BTW, everything dies, everyone you love will get sick and die, you will get sick and die, and life itself is utterly meaningless.”) (TBH, my brain doesn’t call me a rotten lettuce. It has a WAY MEANER NOUN that it calls me. But this is a family blog.)

I had a day of reckoning in early July where I sat in the garden and wrote on my internet-free word processor until I concluded that I needed to stop lying. I concluded that if I could stop lying, I would no longer be the bad person this inner monologue insisted I was. I wrote down the most heinous and terrible lies I’d ever told. They were truly, truly bad. They were unforgivable. In writing them down, I decided something for sure: The Sophie who told these lies was going to have to die. Her death was swift. In the garden, I re-emerged as a baby. I started referring to myself (only to my dear friends and my sister) as Baby Sophie. 

I KNOW HOW ALL THIS SOUNDS. I have not written about it because (1) I don’t want to have to answer for the lies I’ve told in the past (and, for the record, I’m not going to); (2) I can’t talk about being reborn with a word processor in a garden without sending up some major “is-she-ok-though?” red flags; and (3) honestly, Baby Sophie felt like a sacred, non-internet thing. The inner monologue was quiet. I felt like an anvil had been removed from my chest. Truly, I was blissed out.

But that was before this email, and before the beginning of the school year, and before the camping trip, and before I went out regularly. In July, I had all the time in the world to read books and look at chickens and not talk to other human beings besides the ones I most deeply and intimately trusted. And now everything is different.

Baby Sophie’s whole thing was that she was going to tell the truth. This felt like a total re-imagining of how to be in the world. I grew up truly believing that lying and lying well was integral to happiness, success, and functional relationships. Everyone fudges things on their job applications, right? And if you cheat on someone, you shouldn’t tell them, because telling the truth only serves to relieve the cheater and hurt the victim. And there are very few actual reasons to be sad, so if you’re visibly sad, you need to come up with a good excuse, or people will label you as overreactive and emotional. 

But Baby Sophie tried to slow down and be honest and accept compliments when they came and never exaggerate. One day, Baby Sophie didn’t get enough sleep, and she told Bethany, “I only slept four hours last night.” But really she’d slept six, which was a reasonable number of hours, if nevertheless not enough. And when she realized her error, Baby Sophie texted Bethany and told her that she’d lied and told Bethany the truth. Bethany, who is a good and supportive friend, forgave Baby Sophie.

I’ll stop writing in the third person now. But seriously, this version of myself FELT like a new person. I felt different. I wanted to be able to indicate this difference with language. I really like the word “baby.” I think it’s a funny word. Another word I think is funny is “egg.” Another word I think is funny is “boot.”

Telling the truth to Luke, Bethany, Alexis, and Ari was difficult. It was difficult, but it was possible. But after a couple of weeks, I had to start adding more people, because life is not just four people. Life is lots of people.

In public, among the many many people, the lies were reflexive. And with strangers or near-strangers, doubling back and saying, “Oops, that was a lie; I don’t really have 45 sets of colored pencils, I only have three,” is less safe. The strangers or near-strangers might say, “Wait, so why did you lie?” And then there you are, telling the strangers or near-strangers your theories about your own personal psychology and your childhood and the things you are needing to unlearn, and honestly, not everyone has earned that information.

And then there are more complicated questions about lying. Like, if you walk into a room and you don’t want to talk to the people in that room, but they start talking to you, and you talk to them because it is polite, and you keep talking even though you hate talking and all you want to do is go lie in your bed and watch “Private Practice” (because yes, you watched ALL THE EPISODES of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which you agree is impressive, since there are 15 seasons and you watched them all in less than six months), is that a kind of a lie? 

If you say, “I enjoy reading more than I enjoy ‘Private Practice,’” and really, the enjoyment is just different, is that a lie?

How much can you omit and still be telling the truth?

A lot of people I’ve talked to about this have said some version of, “There is a degree of lying that is necessary to function in the everyday world.” This may be true. But for the purposes of this total life transformation, all lying feels dangerous. It’s like I’m trying to quit something deeply addictive — say, Oreos — and even engaging with VERSIONS of the thing I’m trying to quit — say, Chips Ahoy — is a slippery slope.

The world is not built for Baby Sophie. Liars are rewarded, over and over again. Every time I’ve lied and not gotten caught — let’s say 90% of the time — I have been rewarded. I have received love, or sympathy, or lenience, or praise. But all of those life-sustaining forces were unearned. So of course I have a nasty voice in my head chastising me for being a bad person. 

I don’t think it’s my fault that I told all these lies, or that it’s so difficult for me to quit. I do think I learned to do it;  I was rewarded for doing it. In my reply to the mean email, I tried to explain some of this transformation to the recipient. I told the recipient not to write back. The recipient did not write back. I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t have disclosed all this. Maybe this person hates that I’m always talking about myself.” And then my inner monologue: “I hate that about myself, too.” Ugh. There’s THAT again.

Last week I pitched a column to a publication I like a lot, and the editor (who I like a lot) rejected it because, among other reasons, there was no sense of conclusiveness to it. I have a great aversion to conclusiveness lately. If you’re a regular reader, you know this.

But at this very moment, I truly, deeply believe these things: 

  1. Telling the truth matters and is good.

  2. It is incredibly difficult to know what “the truth” is, a problem by which, tangentially, journalism is eternally plagued.

  3. Most people, if not all people, lie.

  4. In my past, I have lied more than most people.

  5. Lying is unfair because it is a way of taking control away from others, out of a lack of trust that others can handle that same control. And often, that lack of trust is justified.

5a. For this reason, lying is an important defense mechanism, and it’s used most often in cases of abuse or maltreatment. And so,

6. Liars are not inherently bad people. Everything around us tells us to lie.

7. Although it’s not culturally normed, we should model telling the truth. We should do it precisely BECAUSE we need models. Children need to see grown-ups telling the truth. 

It’s unfair that telling the truth is so vulnerable and puts the truth-teller at risk. The person who says, “I slept in accidentally, I’m sorry,” is at greater risk for punishment than the person who says, “My dog got hit by a car, so I had to take him to the vet; he’s going to be ok, but I’m late,” when really they slept in. This latter person will likely be rewarded with sympathy and praise. And yet.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t know for sure if I’m depressed. I’m a 5/10, and that’s fine. The inner monologue is back, and that’s horrifying. I’m completely functional, but I’ve had three cigarettes in the last week. That’s unusual.

I’m trying to tell the truth. The truth is less glittery than whatever the lie version of this post would be. But I’m trying to tell the truth.