I was in such a hurry that I parallel parked diagonally: one tire on the curb, the other out into the lane. I didn’t mean to box in the car behind me, but I was running late and its windshield was so shattered it was no longer roadworthy.
On my way toward the church I noticed the neighborhood was in state of transition. There were Christmas wreaths, Easter egg shards, and Halloween gargoyles on every other lawn, pink papers nailed to every other door, and the windows were a mix of bars and boards.
I zigzagged down the sidewalk to avoid the dog turds, condoms, and shell casings that lined the way.
A scarecrow of a man stepped into my path. He wore a football jersey with a starter jacket tied around his waist. His hair was a bundle of straw, with a halo of split ends bleached blond by the sun. His face looked like a topographical globe in a vice: the forehead was cracked, the eyes were sunken ravines, and the lips were little mountain ranges.
Before I could check his fingers for something shiny he opened his hand and extended to me. His palm felt like sandpaper.
“Hey big guy. Do you like football?”
I shrugged in the type of nervous way that could be mistaken for a nod.
“Of course you do.”
He waved a laminated form in front of my face, too fast for to read, just slow enough to see the cartoon football in the header.
“I’m taking pledges for a program that helps get kids off the streets and onto a football field–”
I put my hands up as though he had actually pulled a knife. “Listen I’d love to donate, but I don’t have any cash on me and I’m late for a meeting.”
The scarecrow tongued his cheek. “Really? Why don’t you just check your wallet?”
I kept walking as if he hadn’t said a thing, glancing over my shoulder in case I needed to start running.
The scarecrow shouted, “God bless you!”
The bible says that when you give to the needy you should do so in secret. I read this to mean that if I claimed no earthly reward I’d get a bigger one in heaven. This didn’t seem altruistic. It seemed like an investment strategy. The value of a good deed built interest. God wasn’t telling me to be humble so much as he was telling me to add assets to my portfolio.
When I helped my mother lift the couch into the Salvation Army it wasn’t an act of charity. We were buying shares into heaven. When mom put cash in Santa’s bucket I knew she was just securing our ethereal assets. The collection plate wasn’t for donations. It was hush money for our indulgences.
The bible taught me that there was no such thing as altruism just karmic capitalism.
I’d left the church after confirmation. I hadn’t been back until I started going to these meetings.
The temple sat on the boarder of civilization and nature. We called it “The Garden of Eden” because of the vines growing up the sides of the building. Leaves dangled from the chapel ceiling, thirsty weeds lined the pipes, and stems sprouted through the tiles in the basement. This was where we met.
Every church has an AA meeting, but if your ailment was as nuanced as ours you had to go to the Cash for Gold part of town.
Friday night meetings at The Garden of Eden started as an experiment to help patients suffering from Illness Anxiety Disorder.
Dr. Mallard was a quack psychologist quick to label his patients hypochondriacs. He sat at the center of room, with his little notepad, and had us describe our symptoms. He asked question after question and if one of us so much as stuttered he’d hone in.
Dr. Mallard hoped we’d hear the holes in the others’ delusions and see the gaps in our own. Instead we learned that he was grossly incompetent at diagnosing patients. We barred him from our sessions, and created a support group for people suffering from medical conditions that were too difficult to determine.
This was a safe place for people to vent about the hardships of pleading for special considerations in their daily routines. We had no casts, crutches, or handicapped stickers to illustrate our afflictions. Our ailments were abstract. On the outside we seemed fine, but each of us swore that we were suffering.
I came down the church steps, careful to avoid the railing, because I didn’t want to be the one to set it up again.
Joe was speaking. He lay between a pair of folding chairs, with his shoulder blades on one and his ankles on the other. “People think I’m lazy, because of my high functioning narcolepsy. I get in trouble for spacing out. It’s like my boss would be more sympathetic if I was snoring at my desk. I tell him it’s like I have jet lag all the time. Bastard just rolls his eyes.”
Collin cut him off. “People think I’m rude because of my late onset Tourette syndrome. So what if my ticks aren’t always consistent? I could call someone a ‘douche bag’ one second and an ‘ass hole’ the next. It’s not my fault if the person happens to be both of those things.”
I found a spare chair in the coatroom and joined the circle on the outer rim.
Kristen’s phone chimed. Her eyes lit up. She held it to her chest like a winning poker hand. Germain raised his chin in her direction.
“Kristen, do you mind sharing something with those who are new to group?”
Kristen nodded. “I get slut shamed every time the leaves change.”
Germain spun his fingers to unwind the words out of her.
Kristen set her phone in her skirt. “I have seasonal attachment disorder. My relationships only last three months. I set that expectation with every gentleman and each one thinks they’re the gent to break the pattern. The snow melts and they’re surprised when I have to migrate again.”
We nodded. That made perfect sense. Every ailment did.
“People think I’m a jerk when I cut in line at the post office, but the only thing that soothes my restless leg is constant forward momentum.”
“My husband thinks I’m underwhelmed with the marriage. He takes me on all these trips, and sure I look bored, but my persistent psychogenic déjà vu makes it feel like I’ve experienced everything before.”
“My wife keeps pressuring me to use the treadmill despite my oxygen-induced anaphylaxis. I tell her if I step on that thing I’ll suffocate, but does she listen?”
We had a man with Oppositional Defiant Disorder that couldn’t help but challenge whoever was leading the meeting. When the responsibility fell to him he challenged the notion of having a leader in the first place. We used reverse psychology to keep him participating.
We had a woman who was an Agoraphobic Claustrophobic. She always came late and left early because she felt uncomfortable wherever she was. Sure someone might be in the middle of unburdening their soul, to her directly, but when she had to go she had to go.
We had a man with Involuntary Expression Disorder. He couldn’t help but laugh at our misfortune. His condition manifested the most whenever new people were speaking.
Everyone of us were dealing with ailments that were difficult to pin down. Our conditions didn’t conveniently conform to their Wikipedia definition. The only thing we knew for certain was that society lacked the sensitivity to respond to our needs. We were entitled to make amendments to the social contract. We met every Friday night to reassert that right.
Germain was one of the better leaders, he was a portly gentleman who wore his greying dreadlocks up in a bun. His mild manner, lime green cardigan, and leather patches, made him seem like a professor in the eyes of his peers.
The meeting was a minefield of micro-aggressions, triggers, and flashbacks and Germain navigated around all of them. Like a good English teacher, he had a way of incorporating interruptions into the lesson plan. Oh, that’s a great question…
Germain spoke with a soft even tempo so as not to set off anyone’s Misophonia. He was gentle with the introverts and engaging with the extroverts. He asked interesting questions to keep anyone with attention defects from wandering, and he never judged anyone for texting, pacing the room, or talking out of turn.
Germain aimed his spectacles in my direction.
“Julius, thank you for joining us. There are quiet a few newcomers tonight. Would you mind sharing your reasons for coming to group with them?”
My name is Julius, by the way.
I was being strategically reserved. Not because I didn’t want the group’s attention, but because I wanted all of it. Just as our group’s members needed special privileges in the world I needed special privileges here.
I stood with a sigh. None of the other speakers bothered to stand, but I needed all the sympathy I could wring out of them.
“As many of you know I suffer from pre-traumatic stress disorder. This is when someone is hyper aware of all the things that can cause post-traumatic stress so much so that they see them everywhere.”
The group leaned forward, crossed their legs and nodded in unison. Each of them had a working knowledge of clinical psychology, so naturally they believed me.
“Like many of you my condition makes it hard for me to stay anywhere too long. I have a talent for spotting death traps: rampant movement, loose equipment, and sharp edges. I put the pieces together and see Rube Goldberg machines set to kill me.”
Newcomers looked around the room, noting the loose ceiling tiles, fractured support beams, and puddles near the outlets.
“Everybody gets intrusive thoughts, flashes of terrible outcomes that make us wonder why we’d ever think such things. Well, mine come on like PowerPoint presentations. One look around the room and my mind makes bullet points of the damage that could be done. This is why I demand priority treatment.”
The group looked on with empathetic eyes. Everything I’d said made sense so far.
“If I’m at the Genius bar it shouldn’t matter how many people checked in before me. My battery is behaving erratically. It’s bulging through the case, primed to explode at any moment. I could get a hand full of shrapnel. It’s happened. I’ve seen pictures.”
Kristen slid her phone into her purse.
I pointed to the calendar on the wall. The November election was right around the corner.
“I shouldn’t have to wait to cast my vote in person. Don’t you know how polarizing this election is? There could be riots at the stations. I don’t want to be there when the Molotov cocktails start flying and the pitch forks start skewering.”
I pressed my hand to my heart. Not a solemn vow so much as I was bracing for a heart attack.
“Of course I need to get in and out of the DMV immediately. It’s a government building a prime target for terrorists. The moment I’m made to take a ticket is the moment I hone in on an unattended backpack. I can see the room bursting in all directions, like a kernel of popcorn filled with concrete.”
I held my hands out in front of me, imagining the flesh cooked to cinder.
“I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to survive something like that and see the aftermath. All those flame broiled bodies with cinder blocks for heads. That’s not something I need in my book of memories.”
I counted the nods I was getting. This was a good place to segue into the weird part of my story.
Pre-traumatic stress has yet to make its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but I assure you newcomers that I have it. Like many of you on the anxiety spectrum I’m pitch black.
I wasn’t always like this. I used to be an entitled asshole with a talent for self justification. I unlocked the world with my silver tongue. I claimed mental disorders as a means to an end. All I had to do was keep up with the literature.
When I got caught stealing from the office I convinced human resources that I had an impulse disorder triggered by workload pressure. I said there was a correlation between our crunch deadlines and my actions. I hadn’t stollen out of greed, but out of a need to assert control. The board ruled that I wasn’t selfish, I was suffering.
When I got caught cheating I convinced my girlfriend it wasn’t a betrayal, because I had Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder. I told her that I would’ve self medicated with porn, but she’d frowned upon it. I told her that I tried to make my needs clear in the bedroom, but she refused to experiment. My actions were really the inevitable consequence of her insensitivity.
When I got caught driving drunk I told the patrol officer that I had auto-brewery syndrome, that the yeast in my gut converted sugar into alcohol, and that’s why I blew a 0.3. I did get my license suspended for that one.
Still, I never learned shame. It was something that was impressed upon me.
I used to pass a bus shelter on my way between the parking garage and the office. The shelter was on the boarder of the vacant lot and strip club districts. A pair of neck-tatted trolls made it their cave. They charged a toll of anyone who made the mistake of using the shelter for its intended purpose.
I gave them nicknames based on their facial hair. There was Chinstrap, with the thin strip running the length of his jawline, and Teen-Stash-Hitler who would’ve looked like a Neo-Nazi had the peach fuzz on his upped lip come in thicker.
That day’s victim was an elderly woman cowering beneath a shawl she’d probably knit herself. She quivered as Teen-Stash-Hitler biked around hammering the glass, and Chinstrap pecked at her like a vulture.
Chinstrap clutched the shawl with his free hand (he needed the other to hold his pants up). The poor old woman pulled back with both hands. She looked around for anyone to help her out of this predicament. That’s when her gaze turned to me. She looked at me pleading. One of her eyes was a washed out grey-blue. The other was emerald green.
Now I’m 6’4″ at a healthy 220 pounds. I’m not cut, but when I cross my arms they bulge through my work shirt, but on that day I just stood there, smoking my cigarette, letting the boys be boys.
Chinstrap pried the shawl from the woman’s grip, yanking her off the seat with it. She fell into heap.
Chinstrap tossed the shawl to Teen-Stash-Hitler. He threw it over his shoulders, like a cape, and biked off. Chinstrap spat on the woman then looked up to find me smoking, ambivalent. He winked and skipped off.
I walked around the bus shelter to help the old woman onto her feet. Her pantyhose were torn. Her knees were skinned and bleeding. I offered her a hand but she shooed it away. She was feeling around the pavement for something. It turned out the emerald eye had rolled out of her socket. She caught it, swished it around in her mouth, and rubbed it against her blouse. When she put the eye back there was a clear gash across the iris.
She exhaled with all of the fury of a substitute teacher who’d sat on a tack. “Why didn’t you help me?”
I shrugged. “I have pre-traumatic stress syndrome. I turtle up at the sight violence.”
She grit her teeth. “You seemed pretty loose to me, smoking your cigarette like nothing was happening.”
I flicked my filter into the street. “You couldn’t see, but that kid on the bike was packing heat. Even if I had a moment of bravery, my pre-traumatic stress would’ve kicked in and neither of us would’ve walked away unharmed.”
The old woman extended her crocked finger at me. “You sir are a liar.”
I shook my head with a shit-eating grin. “That’s ignorant. As someone suffering for a debilitating condition it’s my responsibility to fight that stigma. You madame are prejudiced.”
She whispered something under her breath. I wasn’t sure if it was French or Russian. I only caught the part that was in English.
“I curse you. I curse you so that your wisecracks becomes facts, so that your musings become bruisings, so that your admission becomes a condition. I curse you to burn with the flames of your claims.”
There was a joke forming on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it back down. I found myself fraught with the fear that the trolls might return. They’d always been indifferent to me, but now I wasn’t certain they’d take an interest. I saw a vivid image of Teen-Stash-Hitler draping the shawl over my head while Chinstrap came at me with a bat. I could hear them singing Queen’s We are the Champions.
The old bag must’ve caught the change in my demeanor because she cackled as I fled.
“For the longest time, I believed none of what I was expounding. I created phobias because I didn’t feel like waiting my turn, but now, after I’ve been cursed, I believe all of them. I am devout in my fear.”
After I told the story many of the new members swore they’d seen the emerald-eyed woman around town, sitting at bus stations, knitting in silence. A few claimed she muttered something similar to them. By the end of the session we’d gone from sharing psychiatric conditions to telling stories about the spiritual warfare each of us were enduring.
Germain, with his calm and collected tone, couldn’t get the meeting back on topic. The group was too busy pinning their conditions on witches and demons. 150 years of psychology and I turned it back in an instance.
At a certain point I had no choice but to rub my muzzle to hide my smile. Maybe I just felt like being a lion amongst the wolves.
The scarecrow was still out there when I walked back to my car. He gave me his whole pitch again as though he had no recollection.
He said inner city youth needed something to help keep them off the streets, that something was football, and this eighty pound scarecrow was the man to coach them, if only I made a donation.
I opened up my wallet and held out a crisp twenty dollar bill. “I’ll give you this if you do one thing for me.”
The scarecrow cocked his head. “What’s that?”
“Tell me your whole football schtick is bullshit.”
The sun caught the twenty’s security thread. It twinkled in the scarecrow’s eyes.
I nodded. “That’s it, but you have to say it.”
The scarecrow tongued his cheek and looked over his shoulder. “My whole schtick
I yanked the bill back before the scarecrow could snatch it, set it my wallet, and stomped off.
The scarecrow shouted. “Hey dude! The hell? You promised.”
I looked over my shoulder. “Then I guess we’re both liars, aren’t we?”
There was no such thing as altruism, gypsy curses, or Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder (at least not the way I said I had it). There were no emerald eyes, only silver tongues.
I went to the meeting at The Garden of Eden for one reason: to reinforce my certainty that everyone and everything was bullshit.
This story was inspired by Philosopher Aaron James’s book Assholes: A Theory. James expertly defines the entrenched sense of entitlement that assholes use to excuse the above behaviors. I highly recommend his book if you need help managing an asshole in your life.
I got other ideas for this from Chelsea Fagan’s blatantly honest article You’re Anxiety isn’t an Excuse to be an Asshole. Like Fagan had with her anxiety, I used my depression as an excuse to get away with being a dick. There was a lot more self examination in the above story than observations of the world around me.
This story was also inspired by the work of author Chuck Palahniuk. Ever since publishing Fight Club Palahniuk has been known for writing nihilistic poetry in the first person. He taught me the value of writing from the perspective of deeply unlikable characters (so long as I make them interesting).
I was just telling a friend that Silver Tongued Devil was probably the most Palahniuk thing I’d ever written so I figured I owed him props for this one.
My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!