Live Through This

No More Drama

Or at least a little less of it.

Illustration by Emma D.

I don’t know when I developed my intense love of personal drama. This is troubling because, if I can’t pinpoint the origins, I have no one and nothing to blame it on. What did this to me? What set me down this dark road?

If I have to locate the source of the problem, I’m going to say that I blame the Columbia House record club. Specifically, I blame it for giving me a nominally free copy of the first album from goth-pop sensation Garbage.

I know, I’m a little embarrassed. But at 13, I loved that album. It was scary: dark and violent and full of loudly announced feelings. Shirley Manson commanded people to bow down, threatened to light their house on fire, and–when someone dumped her–proclaimed that “you crucified me, but I’m back in your bed, like Jesus Christ coming back from the dead.” This is the goofiest lyric I’ve heard that doesn’t appear on a Nine Inch Nails album, but there you go.

The ’90s were full of women like this, I soon learned. Unhinged emotion was sort of the look back then. The Hole album was ruled by milk and blood and sick and death. Tori Amos had all of these feelings, all of the time, and when someone hurt those feelings, she growled that she wanted to “smash [their] faces.” PJ Harvey wanted to make someone lick her injuries, or else cut off their legs. Fiona Apple was a tangle of resentment and self-laceration.

I loved all of it. And when I combined all these dramatic and semi-murderous ’90s ladies with a steady stream of 19thth-century novels in which women ran mad on the moors or burned down their husbands’ mansions, and a hefty dose of fire-and-brimstone ’70s feminism, I came to one very clear conclusion: in order to be a strong woman, one needed to be dramatic as all hell.

So that’s what I became. I proclaimed every single one of my opinions–woe betide the man who brought up Eminem or George W. Bush in my company; the Eminem discussions were often enough to make them hide from me for days. And if you did not want to hear them, I proclaimed them louder. And if you so much as gave me a dirty look, I would track you down and announce that this was a look of the kind I would not stand for, and we were going to discuss it right now. Every fight with a friend became an epic battle of tears and guilt trips. I was incapable of accepting any insult, intentional or otherwise, as a minor deal, and so we had to Talk It Out right then and there, often while in mutual hysterics. If any boyfriend was slightly unsatisfied with me and/or my behavior, I would toss my head, hold my chin high, and proclaim that I was what I was, and if he didn’t like it, he should just leave and date someone boring. (Some of them actually did, which always somehow surprised me. They had a great out, too, because they could just wait until I said it, knowing full well I didn’t mean it, and then go, “You said it first, it’s mutual, OKTHXBAI.”) I could not leave a fight unpicked.

Until one day, when my friend Meredith said that she’d had to describe me to someone else and that what she’d said was, “Sady’s the kind of person who has…nemeses.” Which I did. Lots of them by that point. Turns out I wasn’t getting a reputation as a strong woman. I was getting a reputation as an asshole. And so it was time to rid myself of drama.

This was not remotely easy. In order to rid my life of unnecessary arguments, for example, I actually had to rid my life of people for a while. I deleted my personal blog in June 2011. I stopped going to big parties. In the case of some contentious relationships, I actually sent e-mails saying that I didn’t like how I behaved in our conversations, and I’d prefer it if we didn’t speak to each other. In my quest to rid my life of drama, this was a very dramatic step to take.

I don’t recommend total seclusion. It’s not practical. But at the time, I was learning to tolerate being alone with myself. I was good at asserting myself, but I sucked at setting boundaries. Everything that came through my head came out of my mouth. I needed to be isolated to learn that I could still have my feelings and that those feelings were still valid, even if I didn’t share them. Once I knew that, I could be wiser about what I chose to share.

The next thing I did was learn to meditate. I started by reading Thich Nhat Hanh, because the feminist and anti-racist writer bell hooks called him one of her best teachers. Then, since I do not want to learn any spiritual or personal tactic exclusively from the dudes, I started reading Pema Chödrön, one of the more popular female writers on Buddhism, whom I liked because of her emphasis on compassion and not reacting impulsively to bad situations, and also because she said her first spiritual awakening happened when she found out that her husband had been cheating on her, at which point she threw a rock at his head. This seemed very relevant to my own project.

Now, meditation is not for everyone. But I’m telling you about it because there is one skill that it can teach you. What you do when you meditate is listen to yourself. You breathe, and you listen, and when a thought comes up, you just say, “I’m thinking,” and let go. This causes you to hear, much more clearly, the thoughts that you do have.

When I took time to hear myself, I could hear how many of my problems were self-created, and I realized how much time I spent thinking about what a dick X was, and why Y would never like me no matter what and it was just so unfair, and why Z couldn’t be trusted. (Chödrön calls these “story lines,” the little movies we make out of our lives in our brains.) And often, I had no real idea what X, Y, or Z actually thought. I was just assuming. So when I caught myself thinking about someone else’s feelings–feelings I didn’t actually know, seeing as how I am not Deanna Troi–I would just remember that I was only thinking. This was the second important thing I had to learn: most drama starts in your own head. And most of it should stay there.

All of this sounds pretty inward-looking and vague. And it was. I had to actually nurture those skills–setting boundaries and not immediately trusting every reaction–for some time before I was ready to practice them in the world.

Fortunately, I had the internet! Lots of people were happy to pick on me via the internet, because I always, always, always reacted. If someone sent me a mean email, I responded. If someone insulted me on Twitter, I responded. If someone wrote a blog post about me that I didn’t like, I responded. If someone wrote a nice blog post and I didn’t like the comments, I responded. Can you imagine how much of my day was lost? Can you imagine feeling obligated to respond to every single bit of negative feedback that exists in order to set the record straight?

Actually, you may not need to imagine. It’s the most common response. If someone is aggressive toward you, every cell in your body, trained from caveman days to respond quickly to threats, will tell you to be aggressive right back. And yet caveman days are long gone.

When someone said something mean, I would literally meditate at the computer screen until the urge to respond drained from my body. Often, I could even feel some compassion: no one tries to pick a fight if they’re having a good day and/or life. Once I’d learned this skill, I could take it to work, use it at parties, and navigate awkward conversations with friends or my boyfriend (which were the toughest confrontations–strangers don’t matter, but the people you love do). When things got drama-worthy, I would sit there, and I would breathe until I didn’t need to fight.

I had never tried this before, because I thought it was weak. I thought that if I didn’t confront people, I would be letting them get away with cruelty. Lots of folks scoff at the “ignore the bullies” approach. It’s true: some jerks don’t go away if you ignore them. But the vast majority of them do, especially the ones who feed on attention, or who want to see you embarrass yourself by yelling back. Bullies are just people who want to make an impact, and hurting people is the easiest way to do this while getting the biggest reaction.

Not immediately reacting is not the same thing as not reacting at all. If you really need to set someone straight, you’re much more impressive if you do so calmly. Also, if someone keeps talking crap and you keep ignoring them, OR–and this is a more advanced tactic—you compliment them, it is my experience that this drives the other person absolutely effing bonkers. Which is very gratifying. When I figured this out, I figured my days of drama were done.

Well, sort of. I glided along for some time in this perfectly drama-free and calm lifestyle until I realized something: when I gave up entirely on drama, I’d also sort of given up on being an interesting person. I missed the old me, the one who would never back down from a fight no matter how uneven the odds were or how ridiculous she looked. I missed being the sort of person who could let herself be passionate, even if it didn’t always meet with approval. Mind you, I had more conversations instead of arguments, and they were less awful because I had actually learned to get out of my own narratives and start listening to people. But everywhere around me, people were leading these highly dramatic lives: falling desperately in love, being heartbroken, engaging in blood feuds with the people around them. Meanwhile, I was intentionally out of the loop, tamping down every instinctive response, glorying in my serenity. And it’s true: I was serene. I was also much happier. But I was isolated, sitting out of debates lest I get too invested, denying my dislike of very unlikable people, because I was afraid it would take over my brain again.

There’s no such thing as perfect calm–that’s my point here. Calm itself is imperfect; life needs snags and problems or else you have nothing to do but sit there. I don’t know what to do with this information. Most days, I just sit there and listen to ladies yell about their feelings through my headphones. But when and if something big comes up, I know that I can decide whether to respond. As to whether I will? Well, you know, I’m keeping my options open. Life is nothing without at least a little drama. ♦

21 Comments

  • paige.xo September 3rd, 2012 11:29 PM

    I love this. <3

  • lasertron September 3rd, 2012 11:54 PM

    Thanks for this post–it grounded me deeply. I’ve never needed it more, it seems like I always feel like people are picking fights with me and I need to look back on myself a little bit!

  • clairedh September 3rd, 2012 11:57 PM

    Loved the post! “The inevitability of human drama” as they say in I Heart<3 Huckabees (probably the second best movie ever. if people like reading about this then they should definitely watch this movie. Although the movie is pretty heavy and confusing if you're not in the right mindset)
    Also I think people need to remember that everyone thinks the same things. If you are worried about why your friend has suddenly given you the cold shoulder, it's most likely because she has her own dramas to deal with and has nothing to do with you (until you make it to do with you – but like Sady says breathe through the drama!)

  • Tyknos93 September 4th, 2012 12:02 AM

    I have the opposite problem, I try not to share anything at all. I normally tell people “Oh it’s nothing.” or “Everything’s fine.” when it isn’t or when things are actually going to hell and a handbasket. Teach me your ways of sharing your inner strife without coming across like a self-obsessed jerk.

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

    • Blythe September 4th, 2012 12:20 AM

      Maybe say something like, “Do you really want to know how I’m feeling right now?”
      It sounds a bit aggressive, but it might work. Also, just give a little bit of information at first (“Oh, I’m feeling a bit down.”) and then respond if they ask you something (“Why?” “Oh, I think I failed that test.”)

    • Katherine September 4th, 2012 12:39 AM

      Teach me your ways! I am the empress of drama queens, and I am trying to find ways to turn off the crazy (like this great article).

    • Ina September 4th, 2012 11:39 AM

      I totally share your problems. If someone blames me or I´m mad about a person I actually do nothing. I´ve got always the feeling that I have to fight back because otherwise the other one wins, but I cave in.
      As i read the post, it was the first time I saw a vantage in doing nothing and just keeping calm. Anyway in some situations I´d like to be more drama.

  • Blythe September 4th, 2012 12:18 AM

    I’m a bit of a drama queen, but I use it pretty much exclusively for comedic effect. There have been a FEW problems when people can’t tell I’m being sarcastic, though.

  • caro nation September 4th, 2012 12:47 AM

    And THAT is why that Portlandia sketch where Carrie dramatically disassembles a Tori Amos CD in front of Aimee Mann is so funny.

  • dianeisnotmyname September 4th, 2012 5:28 AM

    the way you described your pre drama-free self reminds me of myself… I am very opinionated/argumentative, and my friend has described me as someone who is an ‘acquired taste’.

    maybe I should take up some meditation.
    http://bratzmobile.tumblr.com

  • bridge24 September 4th, 2012 5:28 AM

    Holy guacamole, I feel like I was reading my own biography. This is way too similar to my life, and so enlightening to read that you went about meditating to help you. I have found meditation to be so helpful, and have unfortunately abstained from it in the last 2 years (and they have been very dramatic). Looks like this has been the perfect post for me to read at this moment in my life (I feel like I’m having a mid-life crisis at 23). Well done lovely :) xox

  • Abby September 4th, 2012 9:26 AM

    Okay, so I really liked this article, and I’m kind of the same way with responding to people online, but I have to say, how come NO ONE TOLD ME that there is an e-book of Wuthering Heights ONLINE???? HUH??? The internet should be ashamed of itself for not telling me about this wonderful POT OF EFFING GOLD SOONER. ANYWAY, sorry…. I really did like the article haha. I’ve had to limit my time on, like, Yahoo, for example, because I always feel the need to respond to the stupid buttholes on there, even though I know that responding to them is probably not going to do anyone any good. But it’s HARD, because I hate stupid and mean people…

  • bethleeroth September 4th, 2012 2:19 PM

    Sady, you’re flirting with me SO HARD with this post. Meditation AND a shout-out to the Brontë sisters (the original riot grrls)? Totally righteous.

  • captainkasey September 4th, 2012 3:29 PM

    “no one tries to pick a fight if they’re having a good day and/or life.” I had never actually thought about that before. I’ve been on a personal quest for happiness for a while now, but I’d felt like I’d been running in place. This piece definitely helped me get out of my rut and I’m super excited to resume my self-improvement. Thank you so much! <3

  • i-skreeeeam September 4th, 2012 4:32 PM

    This is wonderful stuff. I have to highly reccomend the book http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Power-Now-Spiritual-Enlightenment/dp/0340733500/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346790611&sr=8-1, for diffusing drama and much more . Corny i know but i found it to be a properly life changing and empowering book !

  • Samantha September 4th, 2012 6:58 PM

    Thich Nhat Hanh is wonderful. Meditative breathing and meditation walks were life-changers for me.
    It is tough, though, finding that balance between passion and serenity and rage. I have recently likened it to being Hulk. I can be calm, and the anger can be there, bubbling under the surface, until I can smash in the right context (hopefully with some super-friends by my side to help manage my passion so that it’s beneficial instead of destructive).

    http://poorgoop.com/

  • smilingrottenflesh September 4th, 2012 7:15 PM

    @captainkasey I also picked out that quote! Reeaally really resonates.

    Thank you for this post. It’s important. <3

  • Sphinx September 4th, 2012 8:50 PM

    Thanks, I really needed tihs right now.

  • grace September 5th, 2012 1:05 AM

    i dealt with anger and rage for a while. realizing i had a problem was actually the hardest part. until very recently i would never have admitted it. now i’m currently trying to lead a more balanced (and dare i say it serene?) life. thanks for articulating this better than i ever could!

  • Yani September 6th, 2012 5:56 AM

    these words are incredibly calm.

    thanks, sady. you are right… how we deal with situations is always our choice, no matter how much other people temp us to respond in a hurtful way.

    learning meditation – calming our overactive defencive minds during attack is one of the hardest and in turn greatest disciplinary skills to learn.
    self-discipline. teaching it to yourself. = self strength.

    yin yang

  • Llama September 7th, 2012 2:50 AM

    Rookie is the most beautiful place on the internet. After I had gone through a bad relationship, you were right there to tell me about the extreme amount of Ambient Abuse I was dealing with. And now you’re here to tell me to calm my thoughts when I need it most.

    Thank you, Rookie girls. I truly do love you.