“There is something appalling in the idea that a person for whom you would sacrifice anything today might in a few months cause you to cross a road or a bookshop.” — Alain de Botton, Essays in Love
Originally published in Post Grad Survival Guide.
Everyone I’ve ever broached the topic with has at least one story about a weird ex-partner.
These stories run the gamut from destroyed possessions and rabid pets, to bizarre fetishes and peculiar eating habits, from outlandish alcohol and drug consumption, to demanding late night requests and disturbing family members, and from cult memberships to strange, unhygienic habits. And those are just the commonalities.
I love hearing them. Sometimes I joke that I’m collecting material for a novel. Yet I have no plans or inclination to write a novel, ever — it’s more that I love hearing about people at their most unguarded.
Sometimes when the person telling these universal stories describes all their exes as weird or labels relatively normal acts as neurotic, it’s immediately obvious they are the one with a problem. Sometimes these stories make it evident that the person telling them is pretty terrible at noticing red flags or listening to their intuition.
But all too often, I think they reflect the reality that 99.9% of people are absolutely weird once you get close to them.
To paraphrase a talk Tavi Gevinson gave years ago, your exes are crazy because people are crazy and your exes happen to be people.
The problem is, we rarely do get as close to other people or spend as much time with them as we do with partners (and family members, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who considers their family to be even remotely approaching the shores of the lake of sanity.)
Familiarity breeds contempt. Within the toxic confines of contemporary monogamy culture, we expect partners to be everything to us.
Which is at odds with an increasingly curated world, where our lives become a form of performance art, our every act a sort of product placement, our choices and actions laid out for all to see. The surface becomes all that matters.
Looking good. Seeming qualified. Appearing competent. Seducing through self-suppression.
And that’s why it’s so often our partners, once we feel secure enough in their affection to let the facade we show the world crack and fall away, get to call us crazy. They’ve seen beyond the curated Instagram feed, the neatly formatted resume, the slick portfolio, or immaculate make-up.
Sometimes people tell me that my life sounds strange, that I tell the oddest stories and seem to encounter the most bizarre people. They question whether I’m exaggerating or fabricating.
I look for the weirdness, rather than letting it catch me off guard.
Sometimes I get emails from teenagers still at school talking about anxiety and their struggles to relate to their peers and the answer I often give is: you’re not as weird as you think.
Everything you’re embarrassed about other people discovering, or which makes you feel utterly alone or which seems insurmountable and impossible, everything that makes you feel hopelessly weird — it’s not even remotely strange or unusual. Probably. Mostly. I don’t know. But probably. E.g:
You can be fairly certain that other people around you are confused about their gender identity, or have crushes on classmates, or feel like everything is hopeless, or want to run away and live up a mountain, or are losing their religion, or don’t know what they want to do when they’re older, or can’t stop fighting with their parents, or wake up in the night drenched in fear, or spend lunch breaks in the bathrooms as a panic attack rips the air from their lungs, or lose their minds in crowds, or can’t stop chewing their fingernails, or relate to their cat more than any other human, or fear no one will love them, or get nightmares on the night before the first day of school, or get random homicidal urges (intrusive thoughts), or whatever else.
This isn’t something I knew while I was at school. It’s something I realised afterwards, when I began reconnecting with old classmates, bumping into them at odd times or unexpectedly hearing from them. We were never as different as we thought. We just never talked about it.
Most of us are truly a lot less weird than we think, we just don’t talk enough about the weirder sides of ourselves, which discourages others from talking about theirs, which leaves us thinking we are unique in our weirdness.
Or maybe you’ve heard that writers are weird. Or artists. Or scientists. Or actors. Or presidents. Or musicians. Newsflash — they’re not weird either, we just pay closer scrutiny to their lives.
It’s hard to be secure in your own weirdness.
It’s hard to know which facets of it are hey-this-is-normal-kinda-weird and which are hmm-maybe-work-on-that-kinda-weird. Not bad, just worth working on. But it’s all human, so here’s that Adam Phillips line I quote far too often:
“Sanity is a talent for not letting whatever frightens us about ourselves destroy our pleasure in life…The sane create, the mad merely suffer.”