Approval Anonymous

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I don’t think I could ever be Kylie Minogue. This is, I can imagine, a relief to the actual Kylie Minogue as it means she won’t be out of a job nor will she have to partake in some weird body switching thing and then become a 45-year-old gay alcoholic. A little background information on where this thought comes from: On a recent sunny, Sunday afternoon, I was randomly thinking about Kylie, as one does. Mainly, I was thinking how fickle her widespread love and approval has been throughout her career, at least here in America anyway. It’s like every 15-20 years we as a country decide that we remember that Miss Minogue is, in fact, a legend. There were no shorter than 14 years in between when she charted on these shores with a cover of “The Loco-Motion” and her 2002 hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” This doesn’t mean Kylie wasn’t out there doing her thing and making delicious pop confections. It just means our dumb American asses were too stupid to notice. I obviously have a lot of strong feelings about this major pop culture travesty. Nevertheless, this neglect from an entire nation, this utter denial of approval is precisely the thing that would knock me out of the running for becoming Kylie’s replacement. The very idea of being ignored at the drop of a hat crushes me because at the end of the day I am an approval addict, through and through.

My first drug and my worst drug, approval is something I’ve chased long before I ever picked up a beer bottle or crammed a straw up my nose. Who knows where it started but in my mind I think I probably made somebody laugh when I was infant, saw how it made them happy and in turn made me happy and then we were off to the races. From applause garnered for impromptu lip sync performances to scratch and sniff “Grape Job!” stickers on spelling tests, I itched for validation. I ached for any sign that I was okay, that I wasn’t a misfit but I was as good as everyone else. All of this sounds pretty normal for  normal kids but when you have a brain like mine, the brain of an addict, there was never enough. There was never enough love, there was never enough approval and therefore I was never enough. This is some sad, sad business for a little kid but downright pathetic for a grown up person who should have gotten over that shit.

During active addiction, a phrase I love because it makes it sound like you snort cocaine while wearing track suits and terry cloth headbands, the hunt for approval worked in tandem with the hunt for booze or drugs quite nicely. People who I wanted to be my friends also did drugs and drank so I could relate with them on that level, take them hostage as friends and then ditch them when they wanted anything real, crazy shit like accountability or honesty, from me. We all spoke the language of more so that meant we all wanted more. More love, more drugs, more drinks, more cigarettes, more conflict. The approval I got from them was hollow and toxic. Each of us wanted to vampire hours and days off of one another and if you couldn’t meet the supply and demand, I’m sorry my dear, you’re up for elimination. We also gave each other approval for behavior and attitudes that the rest of the world wouldn’t put up with. Wanna have a three-way on a week night with people you met from Craigslist? We approve. Wanna verbally assassinate one of our other friends? We approve and we’ll you help you out with that. Wanna drink on a Wednesday afternoon? Not only do we approve but we’ll also meet you at the bar.

Outside of my drinking and using friends, I scored approval where I could, by telling jokes to customers at the restaurant where I used to work, by writing little articles that maybe people would read and pat me on the back for and by puffing up my meager accomplishments to family members or anybody who would listen. Obviously, we all sort of exist on this planet and hope that people will love and approve of us and I hear there are normal, healthy ways of seeking that out. It’s like Stonehenge. Like I know it exists but until I see it for myself, it’s just a thing people talk about. Without any real self-esteem, the never-ending quest for approval is fucking exhausting. Making people laugh, quick sexual encounters and-God it pains me to say this- likes and comments on social media posts all fill up that void inside of me. But without an internal approval supply, there won’t actually ever be enough.

This was abundantly clear when I got sober. More than a few times, I resorted to having quick hookups to make me feel better. I wasn’t looking for Mister Right. I was looking for Mister Make Me Not Feel My Life. Approval through sex is the fastest way for me to recognize that I do in fact treat this whole thing like I would any drug. The rush of having people, familiar, anonymous, in person or online, say we like you is one I’ve chased through sex clubs, bath houses, MySpace and Twitter alike. Once I got hip to the fact that I was using people and their approval just like I did substances even though I was physically sober, the jig was up. By the way, is the jig ever down? I guess we don’t talk about that because when it’s down it must mean everything is cool.

Anyway, I was gifted with a buttload of self-awareness in sobriety and that sucked. All of my addict ways of looking to, ahem, fill holes, as it were, became crystal clear. This meant I knew EXACTLY what my motivation was every time I obsessively checked Twitter to see if someone liked my tweets. This also meant I TOTALLY knew what I was doing when I flirted with random people. But mainly it meant the other places in my life where I acted like an addict were exposed and sooner or later would have to be looked at.I say “looked at” and not “dealt with” because the real deal here is that I have a lot of addictive behaviors still that don’t involve substances but are ones that quite frankly I don’t want to give up. They’re crutches to be sure. But if this need for approval and the rush get from it go away, then what?

Back in 2008, I was sober for a hot minute of five months. It was a real delight too. I was dry and not getting any help and still trying to blend in with my old drunk life. Gee, I wonder why that didn’t take? I kept trying to do things for myself and talk myself into feeling better but without any real self-esteem or support it was all sort of a lost cause. One day, I treated myself and went to a taping of the Craig Ferguson show. Since the universe has no chill when it comes to irony, it’s now hilarious to me that Ferguson is a longtime openly sober person. But I wasn’t headed there to hear him crack jokes about getting sober. I was there to see Kylie Minogue. In a super-rare stateside appearance, Kylie was performing a song from the criminally underrated effort X. The track “All I See” is an R&B tinged should’ve-been banger and one that lended itself to a great live performance.  In a packed studio audience filled with gays and girls, I felt one of the few moments of joy in that excruciatingly, uncomfortable five months. I relapsed not long after seeing Kylie, not that I blame her or anything. I hated myself and didn’t think I was worth getting better. No amount of imported Aussie glamour could change that.

While history will be the judge if Kylie pursuing a country tinted disco record was a good idea, I know for a fact that looking at my own addiction to approval is. With years sober under my belt at this point, I know that cracking open other parts of my life won’t kill me and I might even make me feel better. Sure, the mere idea of seeing how I’ve sought out approval like I used to drugs isn’t pretty.  People who know how to work on these, primarily my therapist have pointed out that if I’m validating my damn self and taking care of me, I might not obsessively seek out approval from everyone else. It’s an odd thing to ween myself of off though. Something in my mind tells me that this is one addiction I can keep. After all, nobody ever died or wound up in jail seeking out approval. Yet it’s something I’m looking at and hoping to let go because that’s what Kylie would do. I mean Kylie doesn’t give a crap if America likes her all the time. She’s a worldwide icon. She moves thru this world in her diminutive, sparkle-covered body with confidence and a badass survival spirit. She doesn’t need to troll for the approval of randoms. She’s Kylie Muthafucking Minogue. And at the end of the day, neither do I.

 

 

 

 

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A Little Respect

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Part wood nymph, part rock star, the mere sight of Andy Bell in short shorts and wearing a flower crown undoubtedly changed me. Throughout the concert, he was flanked by two fierce black backup signers also covered in glitter and flowers. It was like a Renaissance painting did ecstasy while watching Little Shop of Horrors and decided to put on a show. And what a show it was. I was 16 years old and here was this rare, gay man out and proud and having a huge musical career in 1990 while I was a closeted, burgeoning drug addict who didn’t even know who I was. Bell was almost too much to look at. So in-your-face, so sweet, so charming and so out of fucks to give, it seemed like the me that could be but a me that was totally out of reach.  I mean Andy Bell was the lead singer of Erasure and I was just some effeminate teenager in Golden, Colorado.

Bullied, beaten up and black and blue, I ran towards anything that looked shinier and more beautiful than the existence I had as a teenager. It wasn’t just music like Erasure’s but Bowie, Sinead O’Connor, Deee-Lite, Madonna and anything else I could dance to and forget who I was. Drugs fit fabulously into this plan too. When I was high, I didn’t have to feel the pains of growing up gay and from an alcoholic home. When I was with the kids I used with I was cool, not just some kid that got routinely called faggot as he walked down the hall. I wasn’t the kid you pushed in the cafeteria because he wouldn’t push back, I was a smart ass drunk and drug addict and who could drink you under the table. I was cool or at the very least cool adjacent. I knew who to hang out with to at least give the appearance of being cool. I was also a kid with an incredible taste in music.

Drinking, drugs and listening to cassette tapes or going to teen alternative clubs was basically my whole life. Smoking cloves dancing to “Personal Jesus”, drinking Big Gulps spiked with whiskey and watching Book of Love in concert, taking drugs and seeing Love and Rockets, smoking weed and singing Madonna at Burger King instead of being in class. I had no use for traditional school, a place where I was regularly fucked with for being who I was. Instead, I sought out personal enrichment through drugs, pop culture and music. Like why go to biology when you can take acid, listen to New Order and go to the mall? Perpetually in peril and in over my head with a life out of control, most anybody who knew me who didn’t do drugs with me was probably concerned about me. People of all kinds tried to help or tried to figure out what was wrong but to no avail. After all, I was a nice kid, a creative kid and a kid who couldn’t if fit with everybody else no matter who hard he tried. I couldn’t even be invisible which was a real bitch. Okay, fine. I’ll be the gayest child that Colorado ever saw in 1989 but can I at least camouflage into the background?

Yet that was not my story. I was extra before we even started saying extra. Therefore the “extra” artists of that era– Erasure, Cyndi Lauper, Pete Burns, Boy George– forged the path for me to walk down. But what did I do when I wasn’t listening to music or dancing or going to concerts? It’s not like Andy Bell could magically appear like the fairy from Pinocchio and perform Blue Savannah every time I felt horrible. Likewise, giving myself platinum blonde hair like Madonna wasn’t a real substitution for self-esteem although it didn’t stop me from trying. Drugs and alcohol, thank god, gave me the ability to not give a fuck, like Mr.Bell himself. After spending my junior year harassed and pushed around, I emerged my senior year of high school as some kind of faux phoenix. The kids who fucked with me the most had graduated and now I could smoke cigarettes, talk shit, get high and listen to music in my friends cars without caring who hated me. Sure, I was still teased but after a summer of going to gay clubs, doing acid and dancing all night long, as directed by Miss Cathy Dennis, I had developed a swagger that sort of looked like self-esteem. I tried my best to own who I was but without actually being out of the closet or actually liking myself, it was just a performance.

A long running performance, at that. A tough exterior of joke cracking gay best friend who knew all the cool kids served me well and even well into my thirties. But the thing about that kid who knows all the good bands and has gossipy stories about celebrities and bitchy take downs of coworkers is that’s all there is to him. My inability to get real about the hurt, sadness, shame and self-hate that I felt inside 24 hours a day was killing me. Towards the end, drugs and alcohol didn’t just loosen up the act and make life more comfortable, they were vital for even leaving the house. I hated myself and no amount of  male pop stars in hot pants could make that go away.

At age 45 and counting, I am now unable to suppress a deep sigh or at the bare minimum a low-key eye roll when people flippantly say, “Love yourself.” Undoubtedly catchy for some other generation to enjoy in a Justin Bieber song, the idea of loving yourself to a person like me sounds downright puzzling. “Love yourself!” and while you’re at it solve world hunger. Love yourself. Please. As if someone merely telling us to love ourselves is enough. In fact, a lot of times when people say “They need to love themselves” it’s a way to comment on the perceived low self-esteem of others. Love yourself, you pathetic mess. Even Rupaul’s well-intended and much quoted,”If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”is a loaded shortcut to something that I’ve found very hard to do. Trying to love myself sounds a little easier while liking myself more than I did before is sometimes really the best I can muster.

In 2010, a good 20 years after I had the magical gay epiphany of seeing Andy Bell and Erasure on stage, the band once again entered my conscience. A year and a half sober, I was visiting my sister and her kids in Colorado. The place I had grew up in had changed too– thanks marijuana! It was no longer the deep red state steeped in homophobia and hatred. It had come around a little and so had I. My niece and nephew, who possess not just great sets of eyelashes but incredible senses of humor, were obsessed with the video game “Robot Unicorn Attack.” The ridiculous game had its moment in the sun as sort of viral obsession and along with it came an Erasure reemergence. The band’s song “Always” is winkingly featured as game’s theme song. Quick to pick up on anything amazing, my niece and nephew loved the song too. They’d giggle uncontrollably when Bell would dramatically sing, “Open your eyes. Your eyes are open.”  It seemed all too perfect that this band and this song would show back up at a point where I was starting to like myself.

Now aged 50-something with his hot pants days behind him,  Andy Bell is sober too. He’s talked openly, like we would expect anything less, about his battle with drugs and alcohol. There’s something comforting about knowing that this gay icon who was utterly 100% himself maybe hated himself too and that makes his role in who I grew up to be even more profound. It makes the beautiful angel I whose music I loved in on friends cassette tapes relatable and real, Perhaps Andy Bell, like the rest of us, faked loving himself, until he could get close to the real thing.

Maybe that’s the best any of us can do? Maybe we should take this ultimatum of “love yourself or fail at life” off the table completely. Because what I know is all of this–this feeling better, this trying to stop killing myself, this path to even tolerating myself, much less loving myself– is that it’s a lot of fucking work. No amount of Bieber songs or stickers or mugs or even Drag Race episodes can make me love myself. It’s a long road I have to walk (and occasionally fall of) everyday. Being the good drug addict that I am it’s unfortunate to discover I can’t snort self-esteem like I used to snort cocaine. Instead, it self-esteem and yeah even loving myself comes in little doses through small efforts. Just not being a dick to people at the grocery store. Holding the door open for someone and not expecting a round of applause. And not using drugs or alcohol one day at a goddamn time get me closer. Closer to a little more happiness, a little more self-esteem and a little respect.