Do you know what your "hero's journey" is? You know, it's your one primary personal obstacle that you need to overcome for your arc in life to come full circle, for you to slay the dragon that haunts you, for you to emerge stronger and braver despite all odds?
Because I don't.
"The Writer's Journey" defines it like this (and I have taken the liberty of changing pronouns): "The hero is introduced in her ORDINARY WORLD where she receives the CALL TO ADVENTURE. She is RELUCTANT at first to CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD where she eventually encounters TESTS, ALLIES and ENEMIES. She reaches the INNERMOST CAVE where she endures the SUPREME ORDEAL. She SEIZES THE SWORD or the treasure and is pursued on the ROAD BACK to her world. She is RESURRECTED and transformed by her experience. She RETURNS to her ordinary world with a treasure, boon or ELIXIR to benefit her world."
It's one of the most powerful roadmaps for crafting a story (pointed to often in the "Star Wars" trilogy) but many thinkers also point to the model as an interesting lens with which to view your own life.
1. What is your call to adventure?
2. What is your supreme ordeal you need to overcome?
3. What is your own personal transformation that will lead to your metaphorical treasure?
It probably explains my fascination with branding. Part of it is because I'm skilled at applying it to other people: homing in on how to leverage their weakness into their greatest identifiable strength -- grab that elixir if you will -- and many times, take it to the bank. And part of it is because I worked in tabloids for many years (and witnessed the tabloidification of the majority of the industry) and I realized that subtle and nuanced is not a published story going to make.
But I think a large part of the reason is that strong branding is derived from Story with a capital "s." And I have always known in my gut, at my core, that while I am a talented writer, it is Story where I have at times, lost my own way.
Story is everything in writing. Story is what sparks the dopamine receptors in your brain and represents that exact moment that keeps you "hooked," inspiring your curiosity to desperately want to know more and to find out What Happens Next.
Good writing rarely does that alone. It can, sure. But usually Story is the real crack cocaine at play here. Will our hero make it? Won't she?
Look at virality. Look at YouTube videos that feature, say, the kid stoned from the dentist's office. What is going to happen next? There is not much high art or craftsmanship in that. But there is raw garish story chunks pulsating from the screen. Here we have a child who is literally intoxicated after a visit to the dentist, and he is tripping. What is he going to say?
Dear Mandy, you may be saying, what does this have to do with casual sex? I did not click on this for a Joseph Campbell Cliff Notes Discussion Group. Get to the juice, girl.
Well, here is how it relates.
I think I do not know yet what I really and fully want in life. I think I don't know the answers to those hero's journey questions of: "Who am I? Where did I come from? What is good and what is evil? What must I do about it?"
Of course -- if you've read any of my work -- you are aware that I have chosen, because I saw the clever, shocking opportunity to do a play on both "News Corp." and "media whore," to use the "News Whore" brand for many of my personal endeavors.
But what does that really mean for me -- as a human being? I mean, let's be honest, what does it really mean outside of the pitching sleights of hand where "I want to take whore back" or whatever I'm saying to land myself on a Sirius show for a 5-minute interview hit.
Do I really think I'm a whore? Do I really think that sexual transaction or exhibitionism is empowering or liberating? What do I hope to accomplish? What demon am I trying to ultimately vanquish?
I will write it out here, and perhaps you can see if any of this rings true to you. Let's see if I'm able to pass the test of xoJane's finely tuned B.S.-meter.
I am a woman who has been tormented throughout my life by feelings of worthlessness. Any gesture of true love or affection I fear will be snatched away unexpectedly, causing me to spiral. Before I started taking antidepressants, whenever I would see any doctor whatsoever, I would almost always start uncontrollably crying. When I finally lost my virginity at 15, I was raped and then rejected and then rejected again by my parents. I knew I was bad. I was especially bad because I thought I was a teenage temptress responsible for it all. I was a slut. I was a whore. I deserved it.
And so begins the definition and the landscape of my entire sexuality. I felt in control of that narrative and thought if I could invert it so dramatically, like a spiky umbrella turned inside out, I could reclaim what had been lost at a formative time. You want to see whore? I'll show you whore.
You have nothing on me. You will never know me. You will never own me. You will never have any ownership of my soul. Guess what, what you got was a character. There is no intimacy there, and yet, I saw you inside and out.
But as I write that out, it sounds sad and pathetic and quite disenfranchised, really.
I know that rejection is very hard for me. I know that almost every choice I have made in my life has been driven by a desire to obliterate fear and to embolden risk -- so that I will not be so afraid of rejection. It's been my own form of electroshock therapy filled with casual sex, cocaine, sobriety and rage.
I have seen myself transform from a young girl who loathed her body and her life and her shyness to a woman who feels confidence and joy in not only her body but in her life and her confidence. That's because I embraced fear and risk, and interestingly, it's not the victories that have led to that transformation. It's because I have felt so spectacularly humiliated so many times along the way.
The day that I was on the cover of The New York Post with a gigolo in 2010, I was at the bar of Langan's when I read an item on Gawker about how everyone had been making fun of me in New York media and that coworkers at The Post had written in to say how embarrassed they were of me and the story. I had gotten only a few hours of sleep the night before and had done several TV interviews that morning. I felt really good about the story and the press I had done.
When I read this, such an intimate rejection, realizing that people who spoke kindly to my face and who acted as if they were my friends were possibly emailing in to say how much I embarrassed them, how ashamed they were to be associated with me, I was devastated. And this was coming from my own inner circle.
I drank my beer at the bar and started to cry openly and softly, the tears soiling my Blackberry I kept refreshing stupidly. Soon after, many drinks later, makeup adjusted in the mirror, I went home with a Fox news reporter and did an 8-ball of cocaine with him. We roleplayed that I was a whore. What a shocker.
When I think back on that moment at the bar -- before I went home with the guy, I look at it as one of the bigger humiliations in my life. Perhaps also because the person who wrote the Gawker item was a close friend of mine, and I of course knew he was simply doing his job. It's exactly what I would have done -- and have done -- when tasked to do so by a boss or supervisor. You work in gossip, you write gossip. You kill things when you can, but most of the time you are making the sausage, and the insides are never very pretty.
I'm grateful for that moment now because I look at it as a bottoming out of belief in outside self-esteem transmitted via loyalty or friends. And when that has bottomed out, you start to either love and accept yourself, or you continue to shake in fear of who will want you that day or any day. It was a start for me of beginning to be OK with myself, rather than gauging it on acceptance or rejection from other people.
It's funny because the idea of being a "whore" is really perhaps the most shorthand, hackneyed version of the "hero's journey" possible. It's almost as if I am playing the offend-the-audience-from-the-getgo-and-see-if-I-can-win-people-back game that some comics play on stage.
In fact, I once called out Artie Lange for playing this game with his entire life -- and he took pause and said, "Wow, you should be a shrink." For me it reads like this: Look at me, I'm sex. I'm transactional, dirty, ruthless, exhilarating, narcotic sex. But do you see the real me that's underneath? This is my test for you.
Of course, very few do. And even those who do see the real me, I have felt them hold this Madonna/whore knowledge against me as if it is some kind of psychological blackmail.
As I've recounted before, during the final months of my marriage, as we tug-of-warred between reconciliation and separation that was irreconcilable, I recall quite distinctly my ex-husband telling me, "I wouldn't worry. You'll always be able to find some guy to beat his dick on your face and call you a whore."
His words felt like a punch to my stomach.
Nowadays, when I'm not in a relationship, I almost never have sex anymore. It revolts me to give this away to someone that I'm not at least attracted to on some significant level.
But this past week, I had a really fun night with a young man who accompanied me to a VIP table (with several porn stars, including Lisa Ann) at the strip club Headquarters for their anniversary party. He was good-looking and we were attracted, and so we fooled around a bit. We didn't have sex, but we did enough. His demeanor changed as I've seen happen so many times before, particularly with men 30 or younger.
"I have to get up early for a meeting, so..." he immediately began reciting.
"Sure," I said, and then without thinking much about it: "Do you want to hang out again?"
I thought we had a nice FWB potential as long as the respect was in tact.
"Well, you have my Tinder chat," he said.
"Yeah," I replied. "I get it."
I was so mad at myself. I didn't even care about hooking up with this guy. I was attracted to him enough, but I could have easily discarded him, and instead, I felt the power differential seep out of me like cell tissue. Of course, who cares what some charming little WASP child who I would never want to have a real relationship with, thinks of me? Well, me, clearly.
I just felt depleted -- and realized I was entirely responsible.
Let me give a comparison. I've been off any kind of nicotine for over a week -- thanks to hypnosis, which I'll write about another time -- and this is a very big victory for me. I can talk myself into justification for nicotine in any number of ways. I need this short-term relief despite knowing it is unhealthy for me long-term.
Interestingly, when I was fooling around with this young man, who was a smoker, my brain had already begun to calculate and justify why I could have a cigarette afterward: Well you haven't hooked up with someone in quite a while, and it will feel so great afterward, and the two of you can sit on your porch and...
Thankfully, that potential was quickly resolved by his sprint to the door, and my brain clicked with the realization: Just like I've been able to choose to say no to nicotine because my body doesn't want it affecting my health in the long-term even if my body craves and desires it in the shorter term, I can do the same with guys like this.
Sadly, painfully, perhaps most rejection-symbolizing of all -- this young man I met off of Tinder was a last-minute replacement date when I was pretty much ditched by a guy who I had met off of OKCupid (who all of my friends warned me against after he started our text flirtation by telling me "PS: Glasses are not a good look for you").
OKCupid guy texted me minutes before the party that he couldn't make it until much later -- and he got the location wrong.
I hate fundamental personal disrespect. And I hate wasting a good plus-one. And I knew this party would be a blast because several of these porn stars are the funniest, wildest, sexiest ladies ever. So I chatted with about six potential guys who I thought might be fun dates on Tinder as last-minute backups. The young man who replied first was the lucky recipient -- of the party, and then subsequently the unplanned hookup.
Of course, like a Liz Phair anthem, this feeling of Sexy Evening with a Crappy Hookup Chaser has happened to me before -- but almost always when I was drunk or high, not now, not where I am right now in my hero's journey.
I suppose this is relevant since as I write this I realize that my choice to fool around was an unsober choice. The main anecdotal parallel that comes to mind is in 2006 when I won the Funniest Reporter in New York contest. Now, of course, going to a porn star party is not like winning a contest, but attending this party was such a blast and I was feeling like I was at a point in my career where I was a woman to be reckoned with and feeling affection for the ridiculous, sexy larger-than-life evening I had in store.
Similarly, back in 2006, after winning that contest, I shudder to remember how some flop grabbed me as I drifted into blackout and kissed me. Honestly, I probably would have made out with a barstool. At another bar later that night, a Morrissey wanna-be asked to take me home. Consequentially, I woke up after one of the most thrilling nights of my life feeling as if I had soiled it. I was not in control. After having been so powerful, I threw that power away.
Am I slutshaming myself?
Nah, I don't think so. I have a pretty good barometer for what makes me feel good -- what makes me feel nurtured -- and what makes me feel weak. That night in 2006 and that night last week -- the conclusion of it, at least -- made me feel weaker.
After the young Tinder man left, I swiped my phone on immediately. Then I pressed the Tinder app. It started to vibrate on the screen with an "X" as an option. I clicked it.
"Are you sure you want to delete Tinder and all its contents?" Yes.
I went on my computer to OKCupid, and I chose the series of options to delete that profile as well.
It felt good.
I'll meet a guy eventually, or I won't. But I don't want to do this anymore. There's nothing wrong with going to the playful extremes in sex and sexuality, but like with nicotine, I don't want to hurt myself in the long term for a quick fix anymore.
I'd rather simply pleasure myself, and if a man impresses me enough, he can one day be welcomed into a mental and emotional space I've realized is incredibly sacred.
Because it is sacred. Far more sacred than I've been treating it.
Honestly, what made me feel especially lousy about that stupid Tinder guy hookup was that it reminded me of a dark encounter I had when I called a phone sex line a few nights before.
You see, when I am not having sex regularly and not dating someone, sometimes knowing that I am turning a man on psychologically turns me on. But in this case, the dark S&M play veered into a place where the anonymous man on the line asked me to "oink" and say I was a pig and other things which in the right context could probably be hot and twisted and dangerously wrong, but in this context made me think of that moment when Dave Chappelle heard someone white laughing "the wrong way" on his set and proceeded to walk away from a $50 million deal forever.
I didn't like how I felt.
Recently, I tried to explain to a male friend of mine about how as a woman, casual sex can feel different in the power differential. Anatomically, and perhaps psychologically, as a woman you are receiving something in sex, as opposed to a man, who is literally expelling himself. We talked about how casual sex can feel as if there is a release on the man's part and the woman then bears some kind of psychic chord of attachment to the other person.
I'm done with these chords. I'm trying, with a sharp and powerful blade, to cut swaths from these meaty vines from my insides.
So what is my hero's journey?
Perhaps to get boundaries. Perhaps to realize why I am valuable. Perhaps to not let people inside so easily (literally and figuratively).
Maybe my journey is to have the very opposite kind of sex I'm comfortable having -- which might take me a long time. I've had it before, but not too many times in my life, because it has always felt so vulnerable and scary.
Maybe it's time for me to protect myself -- by finally letting myself get hurt.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.