Capitalism Makes Me Sick
Ed.’s note: The following was delivered at the Rail’s “Rant Rhapsody Redux: Missives from the American Fall” on October 16 at the Bowery Poetry Club.
Alice Walker told me recently that writing is so organic to her nature, so essential to her being—such an inevitable flow—that she finds people criticizing her work as silly as criticizing a wisteria’s growth. And that’s how I feel about Occupy Wall Street. I love it because it’s not making claims or demands in a way that feels like one more assault in the endless war of ideas and name-calling between political factions, not just another engine belching away in the noise factory that makes up our politics, with everyone talking so much nobody is ever really heard. It just is, taking root and growing everywhere.
People are inhabiting their cities and their stories, sharing their real untriumphant, non-heroic lives in a way that’s real and meaty and intimate, not 140-character smartassisms, not Facebook updates that reinforce some fictional persona meant to impress. Just being real people, rooted in place and time. Here. Present. I love that.
So I’m going to just be my real self here, too, shaped by capitalism like we all inescapably are. I want to tell you how it’s affected me and why I care that we start healing. Why the Occupy movement feels like spiritual medicine for everyone who encounters it with an open heart.
The current system is so monolithic it’s hard to remember that it’s just one more mirage like all power, another set of illusions, like advertising and pornography, whose functions are to generate fear and desire and keep us mesmerized, inert, debilitated by self-doubt. Telling us our souls feel empty or in pain because we don’t yet have this or that, him or her, and that the people who do are better. That there’s something out there you can buy or achieve that will finally stop the fear, the aching inside that tells you you’re nothing until you have it, and that everybody knows.
I’ve never told anyone except my husband and a couple of very close friends what I’m about to tell you, not my comrades in activism for whom I would have died at times, not my girlfriends or my kiki gay boyfriends or anyone. But I’m tired of hiding and I just want to be. I want to follow the example of everyone down on Wall Street, of everyone around the world today who has thrown off the fear and judgment for being unemployed, or underemployed, indebted, disabled, disrespected, and otherwise low status in our society.
I take such strength in being reminded that that’s practically everyone. And that if we can stop hating ourselves because the system devalues us, if we can start loving ourselves exactly as we are, and loving each other, the world will simply be radically, gloriously different. The illusion of power we suffer, which makes us enslave and oppress and hurt each other, will simply cease to be.
So here’s my American story.
Capitalism makes me sick. I’m not just talking about moral revulsion, nor speaking metaphorically: I am actually sick. I spent my first 30 years in a near constant state of economic terror and the traumas that came with it. And now I am in pain almost all the time, pain brought on by the stress of trying to survive in this system.
My mother was abandoned with two babies, chronically depressed, always broke, deeply traumatized by all kinds of wild shit she did as the ’60s wound to a violent, madcap, drug-induced close in L.A. By the time I was three and my brother was six months old, I was her only support and became her shrink and confidant, her helper, the bright shining girl who she needed to think could withstand anything and bring light back to the darkness.
She must have been too afraid of ending up like her sisters—one a violent delusional paranoid schizophrenic and the other a junkie—to ask for help from her parents, and had nobody else to turn to. She had no illusions that becoming dependent on welfare would do anything but worsen our prospects so she worked like a dog at menial jobs and tried desperately to keep her head—our heads—above water as best she could. We went without a lot—we ran out of food sometimes but she’d scare up a bag of rice or take us to a bar with free happy hour snacks and we’d make it through. She tried to make our homes beautiful without spending a dime. She tried very hard, never, ever gave up, never took a vacation or a break in 20 years. But she was partially broken by it all and the system didn’t ever quite work for her.
Money was always a problem.
She couldn’t afford childcare so I went to my aunt and uncle’s after school. My aunt would turn tricks in the bedroom for drugs. My uncle would do coke and heroin and smoke pot at the living room table with his penis out while I played on the floor. He would masturbate with my hair while I tried to eat dinner or draw or do my school work. He’d pick me up and touch me. He’d watch me playing with an intensity and a fury that I knew could boil into extreme violence if I crossed him. I shut down. I escaped into fantasies of being a princess who accidentally ended up here and would someday be rescued. I confided only in my imaginary friends, and thought I had to keep taking it because I feared for my little brother and cousin if I didn’t.
At school and on TV, the emerging ethos of the Reagan ’80s told me that poverty was a moral disease, that drugs were evil, and that abnormal sexuality was a spiritual sickness affecting the wicked and the weak. I didn’t know that I wasn’t complicit or to blame for what was happening. Some would say it was a matter of liberal cultural decay brought on by the sick, destructive radicalism of the ’60s. My parents and aunt and uncle were disillusioned, burned-out former hippies, distraught over the course the world was taking, left behind by the system, and I believed it all. Since I came from them, I thought I was all of those things too.
I was smart and charismatic and ended up testing into a magnet program in a wealthy elementary school. The kids made fun of my unkempt appearance, my wardrobe. The one time they saw my dad they spent a week telling me he looked like the janitor. I was always ashamed of myself for not having what they had. I thought I was horribly ugly because I looked nothing like Christie Brinkley or any of the well-groomed, Guess-jeaned girls in my class.
I blamed myself for my circumstances, and became adept at hiding them. I’d get dropped off in front of strangers’ nice houses and then walk a mile or two home to where we really lived. I told people my dad was off on daring adventures or business when he was really a homeless meth addict by then, hooked on the working man’s drug in his own nightmare cycle of working to feed an addiction to keep working to feed the addiction. He lived in his truck, he showed up every few months or years to violently explode at my mother, to scream about her and me and my brother sucking out his lifeblood in the form of child support which he was always far behind on.
I fantasized that he’d show up healed and rescue us, but for years actually expected to hear he had died every time the phone rang. If only we didn’t cost so much money, if only I could provide for myself, my dad would feel better and come back and love me, my mom would have time for me, I’d be as good as the kids at school, and they would like me.
It was just a matter of money.
I was terrified of the other parents at school. I was scared of my teachers who treated me like trash, said underhanded things about my mom’s non-participation in PTA and field trips and bake sales in front of the other kids. The DARE program told me to turn in any adults I saw using drugs but they were so prevalent around me I knew my brother and I would be taken away if I told, so I kept silent, became a master of revealing nothing of myself or my life.
I knew I was bad and to be blamed because I couldn’t bear to think it was the whole world, that it was the system we lived in that was mean and dangerous. The system seemed to work for everyone else so it must be me. I wanted to thrive someday. I had to have hope to survive. I knew that I didn’t stack up but I hoped someday I would.
When I was 11 I exploded in hatred and pain and told my mother what my uncle had been doing. She called the cops and I had to be interviewed twice about all the sordid details I could remember, carefully protecting my mother’s complicity so I wouldn’t lose my home and my brother. But she was overly honest with them and because of her felony conviction and her admission that she and my uncle were drug buddies now and sometime lovers in their “wild years,” she was deemed an unsuitable witness. It would be a kid against a grown-up, me against my uncle whose father had been a big lawyer in town, who knew people, whose wife and friends would stand by him. The cops slunk away, the case was never prosecuted. The system deemed my victimization worthless; we were too poor, too damaged to count. I thought it was a judgment on me. I thought I would have to work very, very hard to become a person of value, to deserve to live and to be safe.
My uncle wasn’t ostracized. My grandmother, the closest person I had to a protector, constantly reminded me that my uncle was at least a good provider—he had a union job at the docks and put food on the table—and so was a much better father to my cousin than my own father was to me.
Money, it always came down to money.
Human value was defined by money, the same lesson over and over. I was told to buck up, kiddo, that others had it worse than me. And by now I was going to school with kids who probably did. In order to go on, I focused only on how lucky I was. At least I hadn’t been raped. At least my mother wasn’t shooting drugs and turning tricks. I needed to place myself somewhere up from the bottom of the scale because I didn’t know the difference between my real value and what the system deemed it to be.
My dad once told me his parenting philosophy was summed up by the song “A Boy Named Sue,” and for years I thought that twisted lesson somehow seemed fair, that everything that happened was only what was best for me because of who I was, how low I’d started, because of what I deserved to endure in order to become something better.
I wanted to join the system because it was my only hope of escape. I got straight As, perfect test scores. I sunk myself into ballet classes six days a week to avoid going home, to have a silent, voiceless, structured form through which I could express myself yet reveal nothing. Perfection was the only possibility, anything else was failure.
I was always stressed out and on the verge of tears but I wasn’t allowed to cry or show weakness, especially not around my mother who was too stressed and stretched thin to experience it as anything but another burden. I had debilitating pains in my belly. They happened at school once and an ambulance took me to the emergency room. My mother was furious for costing her the money. The stress got worse, the pain got worse, and I swallowed it down. Someone like me can’t afford to be sick. It was my fault for being weak. My fault for being flawed. Work, accomplish, escape.
It was all going to come down to money.
When I was 17, the L.A. riots broke out. I was going to one of the toughest schools in the area—4,500 kids, drug dogs, metal detectors, bullet holes in the classroom ceilings from flying shots outside. And the school exploded in a race riot. I saw one kid get his brains smashed out of his skull on the pavement. The cops were everywhere swarming and arresting my schoolmates. But they ignored me or smiled at me, asked me if I was okay, urged me to get home safely. For the first time ever, my white skin became my defining feature in a way I hadn’t noticed before—I was on the more powerful side of the big struggle simply by virtue of my color. I had privilege in a way I’d never realized and that meant power to do something useful. I was on the wrong side of justice, not a victim of the system but a beneficiary of it.
It made me sick to think I was complicit in anyone else ever feeling the way I had until then—worthless, alienated, shamed, abandoned, humiliated, deprived, terrified, discriminated against for an accident of birth. I had wanted to be a dancer or a filmmaker, but decided art was an indulgence someone like me couldn’t afford until I made the whole world just and fair for everyone, made sure no little girls ever felt like I had again. Then I could indulge in dreams. Then I would deserve to follow my bliss. I found left politics and became a true believer. I would save the world in order to be of adequate value to be worth saving myself.
I moved to New York because it was as far away from home as I could get. It was anonymous and I could start again, take hold of my bootstraps, and pull myself into something better without my family weighing me down. I tried to work in documentary film—a version of what I actually wanted to do that I could justify to myself—but by economic necessity accidentally ended up working my way up in leftist publishing and non-profits as a publicist or press agent or whatever you want to call it. I was a professional manipulator of language, a professional co-dependent for the leaders of the left. I hated it but because of my background I was a natural, and at least I felt useful.
I worked extremely hard. I was very good at shaping myself around the needs of others. I never said no to anyone or anything who needed my help. I derived all my value through helping other people’s dreams and aspirations, causes and careers. And my job constantly reinforced my second-class status, even in the movement. I was never the center of anything, always a facilitator off to the side, so it felt familiar. Like I wasn’t asking for more than I deserved.
I did a few things I’m proud of, hopefully did more good than harm. But on balance nothing was ever an accomplishment of my own. I knew that my labors were only ever a cover for the fact that I was starting from so far behind the mark. Every hard sprint forward only got me to the starting line. Any victory belonged to whomever I was working behind, never to me. My voice counted for nothing but everyone else’s was critically important and I could express what I thought through them; with my help they would be heard and things would get better. Then it would be my turn to be somebody, to do what I wanted to do.
Inside the institutions of the left, like all institutions that exist within capitalism, I discovered the same reverence for the rich and powerful as everywhere else. Almost all the executive directors and publishers came from wealth. There were family dynasties whose children were guaranteed access, guaranteed to start out as people whose voices did count.
I knew I couldn’t be better born and I was never going to make real money working for hard causes and non-profit institutions. I began to wonder if I’d taken the wrong road, if I could have done more good and gained more respect, more value, if I’d focused first on making millions on Wall Street and then turned to philanthropy. There were millionaires who lived lavishly off the dirty fruits of others’ labors, either “earned” or inherited, but whom everybody fawned over for their bravery in coming around to the good cause, for hosting great parties, for giving big money. They got the awards, the accolades, the invitations. I was just the help. I began to get cynical.
It turned out that it still came down to money. Capitalism was everywhere, inescapable, and corrosive.
I was stressed out all the time and became very resentful, very hurt by small slights, gutted by what I experienced as betrayal of the unspoken contract in my head: that if I supported everyone else, they’d finally make me feel valuable, treat me that way, pay me on time, say thank you. So I worked harder, thinking it all might come true someday if I just tried one more time, did it better, put more into it. I was still trapped in the calculus of capitalism: if you work hard enough you will earn your place at the table.
I ran on pure adrenaline. My back started hurting all the time. I was, miraculously, happily married by now and we wanted to have kids but I was infertile without explanation. I worked on, ground on, ignored the pain and the symptoms—figuring I didn’t deserve what I wanted anyway. I didn’t stop to go to the doctor. No room for weakness. I self-medicated in order to work: exercise, pot, Xanax, Aleve. All of it overtaxed my adrenal system further and the hormonal response got worse.
My memory declined—I couldn’t remember entire conversations, books I’d read, films I’d seen, ideas I’d had, appointments or commitments I’d made. My reputation started to slip. At the same time, old memories I’d suppressed in order to function started flashing before my eyes in the middle of the workday and the night. I got scared of other people and what they would think of me if they saw me like this and I had to explain what was happening. I stopped attending events. I stopped seeing friends. I hid.
And yet I carried on at work, because there was no stopping. There was no going without a paycheck for two weeks, or losing my business through which I paid my health insurance and that of my husband and employees, no losing whatever ground I’d gained on the road out of where I’d come from.
It came down to money, there was no way around it.
My left piriformis finally spasmed and hardened, which pinched my sciatic nerve. Then the hardening and spasming spread to my glutes, hamstrings, IT bands, hip flexors, outer obliques, shins and calves, all my spinal muscles, and the muscles between my ribs. The muscles pulled on my spine and a disc slipped. I was paralyzed in bed and couldn’t roll over or move without excruciating, blinding pain for two weeks.
I thought I was going to die and told my loving husband to leave me because I didn’t want to burden him. I didn’t call any friends to come help me. I was gutted when I ran into a former activist comrade one day while I was trying painfully and slowly to get down the block and into a physical therapist’s office; instead of offering to help me, which I desperately needed, all he did was tell me about some project he was working on, how I could help, and then leave me standing there, alone and scared. It reinforced what I’d always suspected: that nobody cared about me, only about what I could do for them. That the system was total and inescapable, a reflection of human nature like the right had always claimed. I hit the bottom of my despair.
And then, for the first time in my life, I just let go. I stopped struggling against it. I stopped worrying what it would mean to our finances. And even in pain I felt an immediate, blissful grace in the powerlessness of surrender, the peace of being fully in the present, totally in my body, just being. The pain was a gift: a thunderbolt directly to my nervous system, a literal pain in my ass manifesting itself from spiritual pain, telling me I had to stop trying to earn love and just be love. And in order to do that, I had to love myself first. It was time to occupy my own life, value my own gifts, go forward in faith instead of fear. No more sacrificing my life to be part of the system, or to reform the system, or even to fight it.
And no matter what, no matter what work I ended up doing, or what path I took, my value moment to moment would have nothing to do with money.
The typical personality type among chronic pain sufferers is someone who can’t say no to taking care of everyone around her, someone who bears the stress of financial and emotional support for her family, someone who suppresses her needs so she can be of service to everyone else instead. Selfless, self-sacrificing. In other words, the typical American woman.
It is a disease of capitalism. It tells us we’re worth nothing unless we somehow make the system work for us and our families—to get all the things for ourselves and for them we think makes us all acceptable, worthwhile, attractive, lovable. We negate our own selves and our dreams in a futile attempt to become people of value. We don’t realize that we already are from the moment we’re born. And all the odds are stacked against the system working for most of us—there’s not a mainstream economic indicator that shows anything but rapidly consolidating wealth for a tiny few and losses for everyone else. We kill ourselves to achieve what is unachievable, and blame ourselves and each other for failing. For being “losers.”
Economic deprivation and stress beget trauma, trauma begets deprivation, cascading down through generations. It’s the only real trickle-down in our economic system. And if you look at all the other diseases of capitalism—obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, addiction, and so on—we are nearly all sick and suffering from it in one shape or another. It’s killing us all.
And it all comes down to nothing: to dirty, filthy, illusory money.
I’m sick and tired of writing manifestos in my head to make sense of capitalism, to reform or to fix it. I’m sick and tired of justifying my physical presence in the world through my labor value or my political value. I’m sick and tired of waiting for a future where everything’s better and I can finally be my whole, real self.
For all our sisters and brothers who can make it to the occupation sites around the world and the many more who can’t, it’s time to not just occupy our cities but to inhabit our own bodies and minds, our own stories, and our relationships with each other in truth and without shame. To stop measuring our own value and everyone else’s by how much we have or don’t have. To stop hating ourselves and each other because we are rich or poor, because capitalism insists we are nothing more than inadequate accumulations of possession and accomplishment, never stacking up against the fears and desires it perpetuates through illusion. I’m tired of living in fear.
I’ve decided to live. I’m going to do whatever is as natural to me as the wisteria’s growth is to it, one moment at a time for the rest of this short, beautiful life I’ve been given. I’m going to create without feeling I have to justify it economically or politically. I’m going to join everyone else basking in the sunshine of fellowship and love down on Wall Street and around the world in just being myself in all my flawed reality. I’m going to remember that I deserve to exist and to thrive, just like we all do, just like every living thing does. To occupy and inhabit my own self in love, my community in love, my world in love, and to have faith that that is enough, that it will spread and take root and grow everywhere.
INA P. lives in Fort Greene.