Recently, a friend of mine became a life coach and wanted to practice some “family systems therapy” with me. He started out by saying that we all have different voices inside us, telling us that we’re not good enough or that we should be doing this or doing that.
And I said I didn’t know what he meant.
And he said Yes, but . . . for instance, what voice told you to put on the hand sanitizer after you opened the door?
And I said no voice, I just thought, it’s flu season, and this is a public place, and I could contract the flu by touching a door handle that someone else touched after sneezing and covering their mouth. And if I got the flu, I could get pneumonia, which might get misdiagnosed, and then require hospitalization where I could deplete my entire life savings, and also get a secondary infection from an unsanitary IV drip that would result in a flesh-eating bacteria and the amputation of my right arm. That’s all.
But what voice is telling you that? He asked.
No voice, I said. These are thoughts.
Well, who is telling you that you might have your arm amputated just from opening a door? He asked.
No one, I said.
But where, he said, did a voice like that originate?
I said there is no voice. It’s a thought. It came from my mind, but probably the thought followed the action. Maybe it was a reflex, and then the signal was sent to my brain from my body. Or at least that’s what the latest research indicates about decisions. We think we make them, but we don’t. Probably some gut bacteria wanted the hand sanitizer so my microbiome wouldn’t risk compromise by another kingdom of the invisible.
Did your parents tell you to wash your hands a lot? He asked.
All I’m saying, said my friend, is that we have voices in our heads telling us what’s right and wrong and they originate somewhere.
I said, if voices are thoughts or reflexes, then okay.
Who is telling you you’re not safe if you don’t put on hand sanitizer?
I said the word Me as slowly as possible.
My trouble with his questions wasn’t that he was expressing his idea through a metaphor or just using the wrong word—though people using the wrong word has made me reflexively use hand sanitizer before. A symbolic act I can only assume stems from a similar fear of contamination.
If you grow up drinking the blood of Christ on Sunday, you might as well believe you can prevent imprecise language from entering your vocabulary with rubbing alcohol. And the truth is, I didn’t start thinking I might lose my right arm to a flesh-eating bacteria until after the first publicity meeting for my debut novel So Much Pretty. A meeting that could have been titled So much handshaking.
My trouble was with the idea of shifting the blame for my behavior to some voice that might have belonged to someone else at some other time and become, in his words, a “part of self.”
There is no cautious self or wild self. There is just myself. I am the one responsible.
I am the one who stole the twelve-foot sign shaped like an ice cream cone, who stole the baby Jesus from the nativity scene outside Lourdes Church and replaced it with a Halloween mask of Satan.
I am the one who spent Saturday afternoons jumping from the edge of an industrial ruin, drunk on Genny cream ale, into the deep swimming hole contaminated by lead from the gun factory.
I am the one who threw a rock at my boyfriend’s head, who put dozens of packages of Jell-O in my history teacher’s swimming pool, who stole an entire tray of doughnuts from a bakery at three a.m. and managed to balance it on the handlebars of my bicycle as I rode home through the silent, boarded-up downtown of my youth. It was me who set my French textbook on fire, who shaved my head, who dropped out of high school, who moved into my own apartment at seventeen and wrote plays and waitressed and didn’t go to college.
I am the one who left the country with five hundred dollars and a change of clothes, hitchhiking and train-hopping from London to Athens until I found a nice safe place to live, squatting on the top floor of a dilapidated hotel with three drunk boys and an IRA fugitive. It was me who took a boat to the Middle East, sleeping on deck for three nights, who worked in orchards behind barbed wire, fired up on Turkish coffee, guarded by soldiers with Uzis. I am the one who didn’t go home again.
You might suspect that if I hadn’t done all those things, I wouldn’t need so much hand sanitizer now.
But to call these acts wild, to see them as separate parts of consciousness, is to be a tourist in your own city, to erase in the name of celebration, and to ignore the world in which a majority of people live.
Or you might realize that hand sanitizer is a necessity to feeling clean, feeling protected, when you’re traveling among those who believe in “parts of self,” or who ask where you got your education, or who signal their virtue by telling you they give to charity. People who have a different definition of the words run, work, need.
Hand sanitizer might be a necessity to feeling that you don’t risk losing your hand to the machine that turned your spirit into a product, that turned your neighborhood into a mirror of suburban values. That replaced your public intellectuals with college professors and your queer icons with married hedge funders. Your unions with co-working spaces, and your revolutionaries with TED talkers. That hand sanitizer is necessary to prevent whatever killed them from killing me.