Empty Promises

The following tale is my response to this month’s speculative fiction writing prompt posted by D. Wallace Peach. Link to her original post here.

Pixabay Image by Brigitte Werner

My quest for self improvement began with good intentions. But you know what they say about that. And they – whoever they are – were right, at least in my case.

The beginning was unremarkable, certainly not a decision with any associated labor. I saw the ad for the Promise, a new innovation in body art, and suddenly understood the answer to a question I hadn’t consciously asked. I’d been unhappy, but resigned. Until I saw myself in the Promise, the promise of how I could be.

Maybe it will sound strange to you. But when I saw the picture – the photo of who I could be – I filled with a previously unfamiliar sensation. My usually hollow emotional chambers near burst with the possibility of that golden body, the gleaming key to my betterment. After even a small taste of that feeling – that fullness – I would have paid any price for more. I was hooked from the start.

During our free consultation, my body artist – BA – left no doubt about the prospect of a better life. The results were guaranteed if the program was followed as prescribed. My decision to proceed was cemented by the described ease, the transformation by an artistic hand, the assured certainty I’d never known from my self-directed choices.

After my initial sessions with my BA and her team, I felt great. The body sculpting was painless and easy as advertised, a combination of well-numbed injections and muscle stimulation. All while I rested on the softest leather chair I’d ever touched. From the the water packaged in slim glass bottles to the sound system that could intuit music preferences, everything was top of the line, sleek, sexy. The perfect mirror for what I was becoming.

The effortlessness it took to achieve my new body was almost too good to be true, but the results spoke for themselves. People immediately looked at me differently. I felt desired and physically attractive for the first time in my life.

Please understand, I only wanted what anyone does. To feel better. To be better. You can understand that, can’t you? I wasn’t a greedy or vain person. Not then.

I might not have needed the additional embellishments – the gold plated forearm, the decorative filigree – but I didn’t know enough to say no. Well, that’s not completely true. I didn’t want to say no. Eventually, I always wanted more.

When the old feelings of self-hatred and emptiness returned, I felt confused, then cheated. Until I called my BA to schedule another procedure. That always helped, at least a little, before it stopped helping at all.

Ultimately, I stopped feeling even momentarily whole no matter what we did to my body. Very possibly, I felt more empty and alone than before I’d started my quest. No matter how I appeared on the outside, the aching hollow inside always returned, magnifying the pain of my unhealed wounds. The loud echo mocked me.

Because here’s one thing I discovered too late: No matter how good an external change feels at first, it doesn’t last if there are no internal changes to match.

I guess didn’t realize being admired wouldn’t feel the same as being loved. I’d thought once people started looking at me, they would really see me, want to know me. But they only seemed interested in the parts of me that weren’t real and I’d lost track of what was.

When I shared my dysphoria with the BA, she seemed unconcerned. Rather, she was pleased to offer me an experimental procedure she called a mood and personality upgrade. There was talk of a brain implant with external mood dial, something I barely understood and would have never considered at the outset. But by then, I would have agreed to anything, anything to feel better.

At what point had my good intentions crossed an invisible line to the point of no return? Many things seem obvious in hindsight, but even now I can’t say when I knew I was in trouble. There were signs along the way, warnings I suppose. But I dismissed them. When my friends and family expressed concern, I decided they were jealous, if not narrow minded.

In the midst of my quest, I only saw the gold possibilities of a body that had previously eluded me, a shell to protect me from the cruelty of rejection and self-loathing I had endured in the past. How could I have known the reality would never quite match the promise of possibility? That the key wasn’t in the armor, but in healing the wounds beneath.

I suppose I understand that now, even if it’s too late to peel back the grotesque mask I traded for my humanity, the failed brain implant. And let’s face it: knowing is different than doing. Just this morning, I noticed my shirtless belly roll over the top my boxers and caught myself itching for another upgrade. I can make no promises to either one of us. I’ve broken too many already. The craving for more hasn’t left me, despite all the unfulfilled promises and new insights.

My story is a cautionary tale. Perhaps you’ll listen, though I’ll understand if you don’t. I didn’t listen to the people who tried to warn me. Still, if I can help even one of you reading this, maybe there is still hope. Maybe one of you will be spared my fate, then help me find my way back.

Less Medication, More Medicine: The healing power of being seen

Leg shaking nerves only slightly attenuated, you met my gaze meaningfully as you said, “I’m OK…better…OK.” This was our second meeting.

Some moments feel extra authentic. This was one of them. Cloak of your defenses parted, I could see more of you – the effortful courage, the determination to stay clean. I could see you were OK, but not easily so.

During our first encounter, I understood quickly that you were used to being dismissed. You understood mistrust, had lived a lifetime of both creating and responding to it. Prepared for judgment, I watched the confusion, then the change in your posture when none was forthcoming.

“I’m usually too much for people,” you said.

“Really?” I hoped you might consider that another’s response to you might be more about them. Your shy smile and brief eye contact told me that was the right thing to say.

Briefly, I saw you as a young girl. Before you knew of unspeakable cruelty, desperation, the relief found by a needle in your arm. Before so many years of shame distorted your reflection. Before.

I could tell I’d put you at relative ease, could tell by the way you seemed simultaneously more full and light, even as your leg continued to jackhammer into the carpet. What else would you notice if you could be still? Would the vulnerability feel too much like drowning? Could you remember what it was like to feel safe, if, in fact, you ever had?

Without fanfare, I announced my impending departure from the clinic, that this would be our final meeting. Best to rip the bandaid off quickly, if you’d even care.

“Wait, no, you’re leaving? No!”

Your vehemence and involuntary tears, wiped quickly away like an annoying mosquito, reminded me that even brief encounters can be powerful.

“You don’t understand. I don’t like people. I don’t trust people. You’re different. You listen. You…you…it was different…you don’t group people together…you never treated me like a junkie.”

I didn’t know what to say. Except, “I’m really sorry I won’t get to see you deeper into your recovery. I really am. You inspire me. I think you have what it takes to stay clean.”

I meant it.

Your allowance of grief at our parting was hopeful, I thought, as was the discussion about our shared humanity. Addiction is almost certainly fueled by a wish to get rid of unwanted feelings, to manage deep wounds, the aching loneliness. Your capacity for shared grief, even momentary, a sliver moon in darkness.

You didn’t realize, I’d bet, that I was only witnessing what I saw before me, what you – courageously – had allowed me to see.

It actually wasn’t me who was different, but you. The you that shame forgot. The you wiped clean, exposed, if only for a moment.

What was unusual, perhaps, was your willingness to shed the protective layers. To unfurl your defensive fists. To risk being hurt, just long enough to be seen. Only then could you see your light – the new moon reflected – in the mirror I held in front of you.

You came to me for medicine, which I provided. But I hoped you would realize: true healing is found not in medication, but in being witnessed, in seeing yourself anew. If you wish to know light, outside or within, you must learn to polish the glass. If you want to see your true self, you must look closely in the window, to see your translucent shine reflected there.


Note: This is a work of fiction. Although inspired by real events, it is not a story about any one person and should not be read as such.