You know that phase you go through — the one where you want to just murder everybody, all of the time?
Well, it came to my attention recently that not everyone goes through that phase, so let’s talk about it. I’m not saying I ever actually made plans to shoot up my high school, I’m just saying I used to soothe myself to sleep at night fantasizing about it as a teenager, the way I sometimes imagine myself having to break up a naked catfight between Karen Gillan and Isla Fisher in Idris Elba’s hot tub. So this goes out both to those who’ve been to that dark place (or, you know, are still there) and those who struggle to understand them.
I’ve tried to go back and retrace those steps, decades later, to map out how I got to that social/emotional zone I now think of as the Shit Pit and how I left it behind to become the perfectly serene and well-adjusted person I am today. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
#7. At Some Point, You Realize All Social Interaction Is Based On Lies
I have no doubt that I was and still am an asshole — don’t let me paint myself as a victim. But, what I perceived was that after a normal and happy childhood, all at once, the rug got yanked out from under me socially. I didn’t become a weird teenager, goddammit! I stayed the same, and everyone else got weird.
The first thing I noticed was that when we hit the middle school years, some guys had mastered the art of being phony. They had, for example, perfected a fake laugh to use when a joke was terrible, but told by someone whose ass they wanted to kiss (usually a pretty girl). That seemed monstrous to me. Aren’t you devaluing your real laugh by giving out a counterfeit one? Wouldn’t she be offended if she knew you were just patronizing her? Isn’t that a form of lying? It’s like playing a game with them and letting them win — a demeaning insult. If you want me to laugh, strumpet, earn it.
“Why would six be afraid of anything? Numbers have no feelings.”
Then, I think around age 11, I saw a pretty girl in class drop her pen, and three different guys went diving onto the floor to pick it up. If I dropped mine, they would intentionally kick that shit under the radiator. If the fat girl with the bad skin dropped hers, they wouldn’t even look up from the dicks they were drawing on their notebooks — their ears were only tuned to the sound of cute girls in need of minor favors. This bothered me even more. Why weren’t the pretty girls offended by this? Didn’t they see that the rest of us weren’t getting doors held open and constant offers of help with homework? That all of the “kindness” was due to their hair and skin and pretty eyes? Wasn’t it obvious what these assholes were doing?
“How could anyone tolerate this sham?”
I swear it happened overnight; the whole world suddenly ran on lies. False compliments. False sympathy. False generosity. The popular kids, to my eyes, were simply the ones who were the best at faking it. It drove me nuts; how in the possible hell could I be the one who was wrong there? It’s not just that all of the rules had changed, it’s that the game itself had changed into one I had no desire to play, like if the second half of Dead Space had just been that tedious asteroid shooting minigame.
#6. Then, Popularity Seemed To Be Awarded Based On A Nonsensical Set Of Rules
You know how some tribal cultures have a “rite of manhood” where, at a certain age, you have to run an obstacle course or some shit, or kill a rhino with a sharpened stick? Then, if you pass, you’re a man. But, if you fail, you have to keep practicing until it’s time to try again. I like that — the idea of knowing exactly what test needs to be passed in order to progress and getting a little badge when you do. The way we do it now is a completely random, nebulous process by which you just wake up every day to a teacher, parent, or social group sounding a shrill buzzer to announce you’ve failed again at being a teenager. “How did I fail?” you ask, thinking it’s a perfectly reasonable question. “Not knowing,” they reply, “is your failure.”
Now, for me, sports was the rite of manhood I didn’t pass. I suspect it’s different for everyone; for some young girl out there, it’s the sudden expectation to wear makeup and dress a certain way, while, for some guy, it’s the inability to develop a sense of humor. The point is, one day, you run into this filter that you can’t squeeze through, no matter how hard you try.
To this day, Brockway hasn’t even motorcycle jumped one flaming school bus.
So, in my case, when I was in elementary school, we had recess in the middle of the day, and you were pretty much just running around for 45 minutes doing whatever. Jumping rope or playing hopscotch or just making up a game by using our imagination (I think it usually involved hitting each other with sticks we found). Then, somewhere around sixth grade, they had us start playing organized sports, and everyone started taking it really seriously. Recess was replaced by gym, and I’ll never for the rest of my life forget the gym teacher getting enraged when I dropped a pop fly during softball, allowing the winning run to score. I mean, it ruined his freaking day. He stared at me like he wanted to murder me — it was a look of loathing. The fact that I hadn’t spent my spare time getting good at softball meant I was a worthless piece of shit and that I had failed at life.
I thought he was just a psychopath … then saw that everyone else was on his side.
“We’re a team, and we’re going to go out there, as a team, and shit
on your weakest teammate. Teamwork on three!”
Just like that, play time went from fun to competitive, from inventing reasons to laugh with your friends to participating in a tense, hateful contest that made participants so enraged that they would physically fight over disputed calls and narrow losses. And then, I saw that suddenly everything was like that.
The goal of life was no longer about having fun; it was about dominating others to humiliate them and establish a place in a hierarchy that just one year earlier wasn’t even a thing. If you’re late to that party, guess what: You’re automatically at the bottom, and the only way to climb up is to dominate someone else. There is no such thing as merely scoring points; points must come at someone else’s expense. Their shame is your pride and vice versa. The longer you wait to start competing, the farther you fall.
And once again, I walked around school every single day feeling like I’d missed a memo. Because all of those cool, handsome kids with all the friends? They were magically good at sports, too. They were the ones who could look cool while fielding ground balls and dribbling basketballs and catching footballs, like they had been doing it since birth. I went to a birthday party at a roller skating rink for the first time (that was big in the ’80s), and these fuckers magically knew how to skate! How? It was like everyone else was taking night classes in how to be cool. And yes, my perception at the time was that it was literally everyone but me.
This was my perception of everyone but me at the skating rink.
Up until then, I had in my head this unspoken assumption that there would be this transition period when we would all learn these things together. That we would all go out and fail at baseball and laugh at how clumsy we were and kind of figure it out. But, I didn’t realize that other kids had an incentive to leave me behind, because of this zero-sum game that said my failure was their advancement. However they were magically learning to be cool, they sure as hell weren’t going to share it with me.
#5. Suddenly, Everything Is Shameful
As a little kid, I only remember feeling the emotion of shame when I had done something wrong, such as if I got caught fighting with my brother, got careless and broke something valuable, or made a crude joke in Sunday school. Despite my objections (grown-up shit is so breakable! And Sunday school is when crude jokes are best!), I knew why I was in trouble — and understood.
But, by age 12 to 13, everything about my being was suddenly shameful, according to everyone at school. I was overweight, apparently, and didn’t bathe often enough (though nothing about my habits had changed, and this had never been brought up as an issue before). I wasn’t combing my hair often enough, my clothes didn’t fit right, my glasses looked weird, I had bad skin, my parents had money trouble (though I can’t claim I was poor, not in that town — there were kids who didn’t have running water). These were all things that either seemed to be out of my control or picked at random. Why would any of this shit suddenly matter?
“So what if my rhymes aren’t the freshest? Who cares?”
In those days, the notion of suicide that bounced around my head wasn’t this momentous, dark cloud of fatal thoughts. It was just a vague urge to escape and take shelter from a battering storm — the constant, stinging reminders that I was so utterly, shamefully terrible, with no hint of how to fix it. I thought the clothes the cool kids wore looked stupid, and I got mine for Christmas and during back-to-school sales while shopping with my mother. My mom cut my hair; I didn’t know how to tell her to do it differently or what it should even look like. (And by the way, it looks exactly the same now, and nobody seems to care. At least, nobody mentioned it at Sundance. I freely and confidently post photos of myself on this site, knowing that I am immune from any insults.)
My hand-eye coordination lagged way behind everyone else’s. I fell down a lot. I spilled drinks in the cafeteria. I was constantly forgetting things — I’d come to school and wouldn’t have a pen or the right homework assignment. I made jokes, and nobody laughed, because my jokes were referencing shows they didn’t watch, games they didn’t play, or books they didn’t read. They joked about drinking and hunting and sex, and I just stared, at which point they took my lack of laughter as a direct insult (again, I had no fake laugh). Their idea of fun involved breaking some rule, or fighting, or doing some kind of mindless property damage. If I backed out, I was a coward or a narc.
“Your juvenile record gets expunged at 18, pussy.”
This kind of searing humiliation is rare for most adults: You accidentally copy an embarrassing email to the whole company, or your spouse has a very public affair with a rival. But, in those teenage years, those gut punches happened daily.
The sheer volume of shit I had to keep track of — between schoolwork and all of these new social rules — had multiplied a hundredfold overnight. I haven’t been through anything remotely like that since. Going from high school to college was a breeze by comparison. Going from college to a job, no big deal. Transitioning from a job to a career and from a career to excelling in my field and hitting the bestseller list … minor, in comparison. Nothing has been as hard as that brutal obstacle course of adolescence, with hot coals of shame scorching my feet with every single misstep.
In a coming-of-age movie, here’s where our beaten-down nerd gets a makeover or finds their soulmate. But, in real life …
#4. It Becomes A Self-Sustaining Cycle Of Shit
Here’s something that every asshole knows, but refuses to acknowledge, because they’re assholes:
Everyone you look down on — everyone you mock because of how they live their life — has busted their ass to not be like that.
You tell yourself that can’t be true, that the homeless guy never really tried to get a job, that the fat girl never really tried to diet, and that the nerdy kid never really tried to be cool. You have to tell yourself that, because the alternative — that is, the indisputable truth — is almost too terrifying to ponder. The reality is that the Shit Pit is actually full of quicksand, and the harder you struggle, the faster it sucks you down. It’s just called the Shit Pit because of how awful it is and also lots of people shit in it.
“You want to apply for a job? Sure, first I need a valid mailing address and phone number …”
So, the harder you try to strike up a friendship or get a date, the harder people push you away — you’re too desperate, too clinging, too unaware of how your annoying mannerisms come across. That last one is due to lack of experience and feedback, which is the even shittier part: It turns out that the first requirement for making a friend is to already have a lot of friends. The whole thing is a Catch-22. The key to being “cool,” they say, is to be loose and fun and willing to “put yourself out there” — to always be trying new things and to be willing to risk looking silly. Let your guard down! Open yourself up! These are the guys who are willing to actually dance at the dance, to try new fashions knowing they might not catch on, and to approach girls while knowing they might get shot down.
But, the reason that kind of risk-taking is attractive is because a willingness to look silly indicates that they have enough social capital to do it — they can risk looking uncool specifically because they know their coolness isn’t in question. Telling the nerd that he just needs to let loose and take risks is no different from telling the poor kid he just needs to get some designer clothes and make sure he has a sweet car when he gets old enough to drive.
“You know, I bet you could afford nicer shoes if you went and got yourself a lot more money.”
I’m not saying that jumping from one social status to another is impossible; I’m saying that it absolutely seemed impossible from the inside. The message I was hearing was that in order to get out of the Shit Pit, I first needed to prove that I was never in it.
And here is where you find out that other people depend on you staying there. The social hierarchy needs punching bags; the easy victories for the bullies and popular kids to rack up. That part is still true — in every social circle, every economy, every workplace. Those at the bottom are given zero margin for error. The prom king/queen could get drunk at a kegger and shit their pants, and it’s a hilarious story of how totally crazy and out of control their rebel life is. The nerd gets diarrhea from tainted meat in the cafeteria and is tagged with a demeaning nickname for the next 10 years.
And said nerd will find that when they try to date, they’re radioactive. After all, everyone you approach knows that dating someone low on the social hierarchy means losing their own position. They can’t risk getting sucked into the Shit Pit with you. Then, Squirts McGee gets to watch as his dream girl falls into the arms of one of his tormentors. That’s because …
#3. Popularity Starts Being Awarded Based On Actively Awful Things
Cruelty is attractive. As long as it’s not aimed at you, of course.
It’s true in our friends, sexual partners, and idols. You think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is at his sexiest when he’s delivering withering insults to everyone around him — that’s when you most want to bang him or be him. It’s the same with Tony Stark and the same with Dr. House. All of our heroes don’t just win; they also make everyone else look foolish in the process, including their allies. It’s attractive because, deep down, you want to be that one person who’s not in their line of fire and to have that cruel strength on your side, working for you.
In real life, the asshole doesn’t strap on a suit of power armor and save the world. He just becomes a bigger asshole.
So, yes, when rumors started flying that some guys in our class were having sex, I didn’t miss the fact that all three of them were bullies — rough types who smoked, who matured earlier, and got chest hair sooner. They tortured kids in the locker room and extorted lunch money, and they got rewarded with sex. I’m not mad at the girls, not now — they were 14, what did they know? They only knew that those guys were “cool,” the way today we think of Walter White or Star Lord as cool. Renegades. Rebels. Badasses. The fact that they don’t obey the rules must mean they’re strong and brave.
I just saw them as lumbering meatheads, eyes full of dumb animal meanness. So, yeah, seeing them get rewarded made me angry — at them, at the girls, and at the system.
Then, around eighth grade, guys started sneaking beers into birthday parties, campouts, basketball games … all the gatherings that used to be kid’s stuff a couple of years earlier. This, I didn’t know, was another rite of passage. It was dangerous and forbidden, therefore doing it took courage and therefore anyone who didn’t partake was a coward. A pussy. And where there was alcohol, there were hot girls.
They didn’t even need good alcohol.
This was yet another brick wall for me, the equivalent of some kid sneaking in a live rat to eat and everybody drooling over their first chance to take a bite. I didn’t grow up thinking of beer as that stuff in the commercials that makes everyone laugh and play volleyball on tropical beaches with hot babes. I thought of it as that stuff that made my dad really sleepy and/or enraged. This was the poison that was slowly killing him and the reason bill collectors were threatening to take our house. Drink it? I wanted to burn down the liquor store.
But, at that time, in the rural midwest of the 1980s, it’s all there was. When asked what guys were going to do on the weekend, the answer was, “We’re going to Bobby’s house to drink.” That was the activity, not “We’re going to go play video games, and also Steve is bringing beer.” I hated everything about it — not just being a sober person around a bunch of drunk kids, but being a sober person around a bunch of people who were pretending to be drunk. They’d take one sip, and they were suddenly screaming with laughter and wackily falling down. It was so transparent what they were doing: “For the rest of the night, we all agree that there will be no consequences to what I do or say, even though we both know I’m not really that impaired.” It was yet another one of those shared lies that I couldn’t get the hang of.
It also made me angry. Everything made me angry.
#2. Then Comes The Rage
Confession: If I were 17 again and my first exposure to feminism was a bunch of conventionally attractive girls on Tumblr snarking about how I was a monster because I felt “entitled” to female attention, I would have redpilled so hard it’d have crashed the Matrix. I’d have GamerGate tattoos on my face. Their talk of me being part of the power structure or “rape culture” would have seemed like one more cruel device in their torture kit. At the time, I’d have killed to have spent one hour getting the attention they got.
At the time.
But, I do remember.
Now, you turn on the news and hear about a dude shooting up his office, or you come home to find some stranger has spray-painted obscenities on your house, or you try to play a multiplayer game and find it overrun by teenage trolls mindlessly trying to ruin it for everyone else. And you tut and shake your head and marvel at how people can do something so senseless.
But, it’s not senseless. It makes perfect sense, from inside the Shit Pit.
Pro Gaming Tip: The guy calling you a stupid cocksucker because you lost a
C.O.D. match for your team probably doesn’t have the greatest personal life.
All it takes is a person who one day finds he or she is slowly getting starved to death. As a social animal, you have a hardwired hunger for friendship and intimacy and a group that you can belong to. Psychologists say you want approval or validation, but you don’t want to be treated like a rock star — you just want to be treated like a human. You want people to meet your eyes instead of looking through you. As time passes and you get deeper in the pit, you find yourself desperate for any morsel of affection. And if not affection, then some kind of acknowledgement that you’re alive and that people think about you. Anything.
And as you get colder and lonelier and more powerless, you decide you’ll find ways to be powerful. If the system is going to try to ignore you in hopes you’ll just wither away and die, then you’ll make yourself impossible to ignore. If that means throwing a brick through a window at school, that’s what you do. If it means getting really good at insulting people, or fighting, or stealing, then so be it. When you’ve been frozen out of the system — or perceive that you’ve been frozen out, to the point that swallowing a bottle of your grandma’s pain pills seems like a reasonable exit — what else do you have to lose?
“A lot, I know, but if there was someone around to tell me that,
I wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.”
“I just don’t understand why he would do such a thing!” says the conventionally attractive, middle-class bystander.
Oh, fuck you.
“He was so quiet. He just kept to himself.”
Uh huh. I’ll bet he did — in the way that a cancer patient keeps the tumors to himself.
“It was such a cowardly act.”
Sure, and running from a pack of rabid wolves looks like a cowardly act through the eyes of someone watching from the safety of a helicopter. Spend a couple of years in the Shit Pit, and we’ll see how heroic you are. You’ll find out how small and bitter your world gets, how little anything or anyone outside the Pit seems to matter. Holy shit, to have the glorious luxury of not knowing what it’s like, to take it as a given that the universe will always contain people who want to be around you, and to have no concept of how cold the world can be. You won the lottery, and you don’t even know it.
And, just like lottery winnings, there’s always a way to blow it all and end up back where you started.
I get that I’m privileged in other ways; I genuinely don’t know what it’s like to have a severe mental illness, or chronic pain, or to live in abject poverty. But, I can very quickly spot someone who doesn’t know what life is like in the Shit Pit. “This guy is so funny, but I swear he has moods that terrify me. Like there’s something inside him …” Kind of like an adorable stuffed animal that you find out is full of broken glass, right? Ask him what his childhood was like. Even if he deflects, or doesn’t want to talk about it, look at his eyes. Defenses will spring up: iron spikes splattered with the blood of the poor bastards who tried to get too close.
There was this one day coming back from school on the bus, I was a freshman, and I was reading a book across the aisle from a girl I had a crush on. I even remember the book — The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. She made some little comment about how I was always reading that book, and I snapped back with some snide barb to shut her down, and I swear to god it was five more years before I realized she was trying to be nice to me. And I know for a fact that any old high school friends of mine reading this are like, “Dude, we asked you to go out with us like 20 times! You always made some bullshit excuse to duck out!” I know! Now. I sometimes wonder if I could go back and watch it all from the outside, if I wouldn’t find that my whole paranoia about my stupid haircut wasn’t based on one single joke that one single kid made in the cafeteria, and if my self-loathing didn’t just take off and run with it.
I got to a point where I didn’t trust anybody — every compliment seemed phony, and every conversation had some ulterior motive. If I became sort-of friends with somebody, I would freeze the relationship right there — sure that if they really got to know me, they’d run away. I was so insecure that I would brag about stupid things, making me legitimately annoying to be around. Now that I think of it, “Shit Pit” is putting way too positive of a spin on it.
#1. There Is No One Formula For Getting Out, But People Do It All The Time
I considered lying here, in this last entry, and writing a fake thing about how one day I learned to be nice to people, to dress myself, and to fit in. Something that would inspire the social rejects out there, showing how with just a little effort and patience I became the fully functional member of society I am today, with a book deal and a cool job and a nice place in a trendy neighborhood and a loving family and sculpted abs and a golden tan and a hog that trembling lovers and male rivals alike say exhausts the language of superlatives.
Well, here’s the amazing magical formula I used to get myself out of the Shit Pit:
I changed schools. Then, I became a fantastic liar.
“Hi, I’m Chloe. I was the most popular girl on my cheerleading squad.”
The rest of it took years. Things started to change near the end of high school when I met John and learned a little about how to talk to people (“Step one: Tell everyone you’ve got a huge hog”) and then got a part-time job and realized, for the first time, that high school is not the world. Then, when I went off to college, I realized I was going to a new town with new people who did not know my history and that all of our social scores would reset to zero. So, over that summer, I just … reinvented myself. I spent my paychecks buying different clothes. I went to an actual hair salon (okay, this one had no effect). I went to the dentist and got my teeth cleaned. I lost 25 pounds on a revolutionary diet called “skipping lunch because I was too nervous to eat and spent my lunch money on clothes.”
Then, I just walked in the door and pretended I had always been a regular dude, a nice nondescript guy with a normal amount of friends and reasonable clothing. I didn’t do some ridiculous “cool dude” makeover like in those teen comedies — I was just shooting for “face in the crowd.” It worked. Not one person in a hundred noticed anything was up. If you know me, you know I’m a pretty successful novelist because I’m contractually required to never let you forget it. Well, I’m good at creating characters because I got practice creating one for myself.
After going dateless through high school, I had girls being nice to me left and right — not because I was a babe magnet or that they could sense my hog situation, but because I wasn’t radioactive anymore. They weren’t risking social status just by being seen talking to me. And just like that, the cycle reversed. People were nicer to me, so I no longer felt the need to be mean to them. The world became friendlier, and I lost my desire to burn it all down. After college, I got a job in a role that involved managing other people (as a producer at a local TV station), and I was forced to deal with humans every single day. My next job after that tripled the size of the team — I got good at talking to people out of sheer, forced repetition. I got compliments on how good I was at dealing with people. One lady joked about how popular I must have been in school. I didn’t correct her.
“Sure, I was on the Sex Team. We won regionals.”
I no longer had the insecurities that made me annoyingly boast about every accomplishment — when I became a bestselling novelist after writing a bestselling novel that made the bestseller list, I literally never mentioned it. I bet none of you even knew, or had heard that the New York Times had referred to my latest novel as, “The David Wong’s hog of science fiction novels.”
It really was a “fake it ’till you make it” situation. And if this all seems like shitty, cynical advice, well … here’s what I can offer you, if you’re in the Pit and want out:
What I’ve realized is that what people want most of all is to not be in the Shit Pit. What they want is to feel good about themselves, to be told that they matter, and to hear that you noticed them in the specific way that they prefer to be noticed. If you learn how to do that — to make other people feel good about themselves — I think you can make all of the other shit not matter. Think about it; people will house and feed an ugly dog that pisses all over their carpets and chews up their shoes, purely because that dog is happy to see them when they get home. That’s it, that’s its only skill, and it makes them love it desperately.
He’s happier than a lot of people reading this.
But, the key word there is “skill.” It takes practice, learning what makes people feel good. Some love overt compliments, some don’t, some love to be the center of attention, some don’t. But, like any other skill, you get better at it with repetition. It’s worth it, however, because from what I’ve seen, it covers all manner of sins — a weird face, an annoying laugh, a lack of remarkable talents … all can be forgiven if you can get over the rage and bitterness and start giving people the very thing you’ve been denied.
And here’s what you’ll find: The people who are tormenting you? They’re scared, too. Their posturing and arrogance and cruelty, their vapid pursuit of clothes and bullshit — it all comes from the same place your rage comes from: fear. Fear of not being good enough, fear of getting cast into the Pit. But, that rage that feels so good in the moment, that makes you feel so powerful … it’s a short-term high as destructive and addictive as meth. Letting that hate swallow you up, well, that’s the only way you can truly lose here. Because then you’ve let the shit inside you, let it become a part of you.
Don’t do that. As far as advice goes, that’s the best I got. Here’s a corgi snow train.
For more from David Wong, check out 6 Secret Beliefs That Are Making Us All Unhappy and 5 Subtle Ways Hollywood Taught You To Be A Worse Person.