I Am I, I Am Us, We Are Not Alone


My last Google search was “How to know if you’re a sociopath”.

The first diagnostic test I took was on my phone. In the time it took me to smoke a cigarette I had answered the questions, wondered if anybody actually thought lying was completely unacceptable in all circumstances, and got my score back: 49 percent. I chuckled and put my phone away. I couldn’t even commit to sociopathy.

When I moved back in with my parents into their “active adult” retirement community after a six month retreat in East Africa – an actual, white flag in the air, fleeing the garbage compactor that is the “real world” retreat – I imagined it would be a temporary stop-gap to a self-imagined future; a future I had always thought of but couldn’t actually describe, or paint a picture of, or write a five year plan toward. A future where Google searches made out of boredom didn’t involve questions about aggressive anti-social traits, at least.

Now, months removed from visions of utopia, I go running at night through the suburban retirement community and imagine what a therapy session would be like if I had health insurance to pay for it. Erratic plans for the future aside, I have baggage from a relationship that ended over two years ago. In the past ten months I’ve shattered two well-intentioned girls guilty only of loving me. In my wake I left my disinterested cacophony of shrugged shoulders and fading footsteps.

If writing is catharsis then the only reason it has taken me so long to do this is because I’ve been more interested in being obstinate than personally amendable. If there’s anything I am more than stubborn though, it’s self-important, and if there’s anything I am more than self-important, it’s self-loathing. Time to give harsh introspection a chance, it can’t hurt.

Three days before Christmas 2012 I jumped off the roof of an abandoned fishing boat into the turquoise water of the Indian Ocean, 50 yards off a beach in Zanzibar. I was in the middle of a vacation from a six month Ugandan holiday. In Kampala I published an article in an international magazine, wrote policy pieces for a national newspaper, and bribed a policeman out of arresting me for a cultural faux pas with a pack of cigarettes. In Gulu I gave an academic workshop presentation on transitional justice, chatted with the local politicians over glasses of sweet South African cabernet, and convinced a girl I was worthy of her love. In Kitgum we held hands and walked through the campgrounds of a safari, convinced we would make it to South Sudan.

Two weeks later, back in Gulu, I broke her heart without knowing any better. I had shaken it like a snow globe, fixated on the beauty of the chaos that swirled around our small world, and then dropped it and casually walked away when I realized it wasn’t artificial.

Convinced my first diagnostic test was a fluke, I later opted to try the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale. I scored in the 80th percentile, suitable enough to be Hannibal Lector’s sidekick. I don’t think I’m a sociopath though. Or a heartbreaker. I just think I’m just a socially ill-informed, personally confused asshole.

This is not braggadocio, or pride, or egoism or arrogance or ostentation. These are just the facts, so much as I can see. For as many times as the word “I” appears, however, this is ultimately about “us”. It’s about all of us who have who have crossed oceans to run away from responsibility, been brought to our knees in the rarest realization of accomplishment, have toed the line just to see if we could get away with it, or have been in our early 20s and held love without appreciating how fragile it is.

We do not exist in silos. We are not isolated.

My experiences in East Africa ended over four months ago. I’m now 25 years old, a permanent guest at my parents’ house. My father, 65, recently changed the oil from my car out of kindness (and because I don’t know how to). My mother does my laundry and smiles when I ask how her day went. I haven’t cooked my own meal since I’ve been back in the United States.

At my internship orientation three months ago, the summer 2013 interns talked about which colleges they were taking off from during the summer. I graduated from their bubbling reality three years ago. One rising sophomore – with skin molded out of aromatic clay and silky blonde hair she probably sells to Saudi princes on the side – discussed her interest in Greek life while I desperately distracted myself by hitting “refresh” on Facebook. She was born the same year O.J. Simpson was found innocent of double homicide, and whatever battle I imagined right then between the two of us, she had already won.

I’m the only intern left now. The rest are back at school, enshrined in the time they have left before they could potentially be like me. I’m still here because management likes me enough to humor me, but knows I’m too disinterested in the job and too much of a flight risk to invest in my future. I really don’t blame them though, and imagine their patience with me will be up while green still dominates the trees.

This is not anger, or envy, or shame or hatred or depression. It’s certainly not an excuse, and it’s barely a rationalization. So much as I can see we are bored. Broken. Uncertain. Timid. Confused. We are part of a fractured whole that calls out for a sense of meaning, products of a post-recession culture that has created meek runaways out of what were once burgeoning idealists. We blame abstract systems of power and privilege and we step on others’ heart strings because their destinies are easier to control than our own.

Sixteen percent of Americans aged 18-29 are unemployed; 40 percent of those who graduated college in the last two years work jobs that don’t require a degree. According to one study, 85 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. Another study claims the 70 percent of us who are employed couldn’t give a shit about what we do.

Are we well adjusted, productive, happy sponges of our environment? Or do we score high on sociopath tests because simply owning up to the worst of who we are is so hard that it prohibits us from accepting the best of others? We’re so confused that we don’t know whether our brains are screaming ecstasy or apathy.

For the last ten months, my brain has just screamed. It has rattled the confines of my skull, but my hands were always too unbending to take notes until now. Our future is tomorrow, and our job in the present is to deal with the past so we can understand the people we’ve become, how we got here, and how we see ourselves not only as individuals, but as individuals within a flimsy collective.

If writing is catharsis then self-reflection is the universal catalyst, the point of it all.

I am I, but I am also us, and we are not alone. We are stubborn, self-important, and self-loathing. Let’s admit it and keep giving harsh introspection a chance, it can only help.