Crystal Meth Angel

I have an angel on my shoulder. It’s hard to see his wings, since he usually wears a trenchcoat. His slouch Fedora is pulled low over his eyes, except when he’s excited, which is often. The soles of his loafers leave little imprints on the shoulder of my shirt. The angel tells me things as I go throughout my day. Unfortunately, my angel is addicted to crystal meth, and his supply is erratic.

When he is on the upswing of his addiction, he whispers how wonderful I am, even if others don’t see my unique talents. Wait until they see the wonders that I am even now crafting. Writing? Parenting? Making videos? Working at my job? Singing? Playing racquetball? I am and have always been a wunderkind, able to do anything I want with the greatest of ease. From under his hat my angel’s face beams, lit from within by the fires of creation.

But when he crashes, oh, the things he tells me. How I am a fraud who has somehow escaped being exposed for the fraudy fraud I am. He is quick to point out the co-worker who disagreed with me and was right, the reviewer who hated my writing, the friend who didn’t call. Everything I do smells of failure, the acrid smell of fried electronics mixed with the aroma of flop-sweat.

Anne Lamott talks about this in Bird by Bird, though for her it’s a radio station.

If you’re not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.

I first started hearing this angel in graduate school. No, I lie: I’ve heard him for a long time, but before graduate school most things came easy to me. If they didn’t come easy to me, I dropped them. But in graduate school I had picked a profession I enjoyed and was good at, and suddenly I was surrounded by people who were far smarter than me and far better at physics than I was. I started having a hard time ignoring my crystal meth angel.

Lately my angel has been on the downward arc of his addiction. Every shot I hit in racquetball is evidence that I cannot play and never will. Every less-than-ecstatic review of my recent work of interactive fiction is proof that I have no idea what I am doing, and no one will like what I produce. Silence or strained grins from friends forced to watch the videos I’m working on demonstrate my incompetence.

The worst part of it is that there is always evidence to back up my angel’s claims when he’s depressed. When he’s higher than a kite his words are comforting, but they’re just that: words. But evidence of my mis-steps is easy to come by.

Dealing with my crystal meth angel is a long and laborious process. When he is manic, I remind myself that I may be unique, but that doesn’t guarantee that I’m interesting. My social security number is unique, but just you try to dance to it. I remember that it is one thing to be confident, but another thing entirely to have overweening and unsupported pride. When he is depressive, I wander around and distract myself with good memories. I lose myself in the details of what I’m doing, ignoring the big picture for a while. I breathe deep and remember that this is a phase my angel is going through, and that he’ll be better soon. I try not to rip off his fedora and cram it down his throat. My success rate in both cases is less than stellar.

I’m guessing a lot of you have a similar angel, or a radio tuned to KFKD, or a manifestation of Julia Cameron’s censor. How do you lot deal with this?

13 thoughts on “Crystal Meth Angel

  1. If anyone finds out how to easily handle this angel, I’d like to know too! I tend to do the same type things. I retreat into the task at hand, or social activities, video games, tv, or whatever I can do to remain distracted. Sometimes that is enough.

    I’ll admit that oftentimes I don’t want to try something because I don’t know how to do it, or am not good at it. Ignoring the fact that not doing them isn’t going to make me improve. The reason for this I’m sure has a lot to do with the angel. So far, that hasn’t just been a phase of his. He’s stubborn like that sometimes. 🙂

  2. This is really insightful, Stephen. I feel that I have been trying to turn down (or off) the left speaker that plays the “rap songs of self-loathing” for a long time.
    Lately, I have tried to convince myself that my self-worth comes not from what I do or don’t do but who I am.

  3. I’m still working on dealing with that angel myself. It’s been on the downswing for a couple of months now.

  4. I’ve been trying to deal with my own angel for a long time now. Mine started back in high school and just doesn’t seem to know how to shut up. I have my good days and my bad days, just like everyone else. Sean helps me ignore my angel, sometimes. Sometimes, though, I just have to grin and bear it and wait until one of the upswings. If you find a better way to deal with yours, pass it along. I’m always trying to find a new approach.

  5. How do you lot deal with this?

    It used to be Jameson, but now it’s Elliott Smith listening. Would that I were kidding.

    As much as I can, I try to ignore both channels.

    For the record, I’m glad to not be the only one who dropped (drops) the things he doesn’t do well…

  6. I generally deal with this sort of angel by bowing to it, doing its every bidding, jumping as high as it says I must jump. Not necessarily the most fruitful response.

    (I hope you weren’t too discouraged by the curt review my friend gave!)

  7. (I hope you weren’t too discouraged by the curt review my friend gave!)

    No, not at all. Rationally I can deal with reviews, both good and bad. It’s only under the influence of my angel that I base my self-worth, for good or ill, on them.

    This wasn’t me hunting for compliments — or at least, it wasn’t the main purpose. I was more curious about how others dealt with their angels.

  8. Here’s Orson Scott Card, from How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, arguing that the angel is actually useful in both its manic and depressive phases:

    The writer’s self-image. Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:

    1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.
    2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.

    It’s best if you believe both these things simultaneously, so that you can call on Believe 1 when you’re deciding whether to mail the story out, Belief 2 when going over the story to revise it, Belief 1 when choosing which market to submit it to, Belief 2 when the story is rejected (of course, I expected to get this back), and Belief 1 again when you put it back in an envelope and mail it to the next-best market.

    Of course, believing two contradictory facts at the same time is sometimes referred to as madness — but that, too, can be an asset to a writer.

    How madness is helpful to, say, physicists and racquetball players is not made clear. So perhaps that wasn’t the most helpful advice. Nevertheless.

    (By the way, I’m attempting HTML in this message and I don’t know if it’s legal or not. Sorry if it comes out looking wonky.)

  9. Meet Mona. She’s everything I am not. Articulate, fun, friendly, and smart. She sits next to me and whispers in my ears all day, about how I am not doing things right, or how I must have fooled other people in thinking I was competent. She whispers how I am a fraud and eventually, I will be found out for who I really am.

    I tend to throw myself into projects to drown her out. Occassionally, if she gets too loud, I crawl into bed and sleep. I’ve found that she gets bored and wanders off if I hibernate long enough.

    Usually, she’s just background noise that I can just live with. It’s when she gets a little noisy that I have to resort to hibernation. It’s not a very productive way to deal with it, but it’s hard to do something to prove her wrong when she’s being strident.

    Seems like Mona’s been hanging out with your angel occassionally.

  10. That “good at everything until I go to grad school” thing has me REALLY worried!

    Is your angel related to Ubermom and Antimom?

  11. Joyous,

    I wasn’t actually good at everything, but I could ignore the things I wasn’t so good at. Graduate school was the first time that I learned that I wasn’t as good at something as I really thought I was.

    And it’s possible my angel’s related to your two.

  12. I’ve been pondering this one for a few days, trying to figure out how to respond. I couldn’t come up with my answer to your fundamental question: “how do you deal with this?”, because I’m not sure I have a direct equivalent to your angel.

    I completely empathize with the stiffer competition that happens as you climb the academic ladder and move into a career. In my case, though, I’m not sure I’ve had to deal much with the depressive side of your angel. Not because there aren’t people better than me, but because in my life I’ve developed a pretty finely-honed sense of figuring out what I can probably be really good at and avoiding most other things. If I don’t feel like I’m doing well at something, my typical reaction is to give up that ground to whoever’s doing better and move on. Competition is usually uncomfortable for me.

    The down side, of course, is that it limits my experiences quite a bit. So, one could argue quite validly that my preemptive “vaccination” against the “depressive angel” is much worse than the “disease”.

  13. Of late I’ve been forcing myself to not avoid competition, as that was my approach as well. Overall I prefer the results, as I’ve found some things that I’m not that good at but that I still enjoy.

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