Operation Ivy, Triggers, and Writing the Tough Shit

I love Operation Ivy. Their record is one of my all-time favorites.

I only rarely listen to Operation Ivy. I can’t really, most of the time.

When I was a teen, I lost my best friend. She fell victim to a lot of the terrible things that happened to her, that people did to her, and she took her life. For obvious reasons, this affected me greatly.

While I have strong memories of all the terrible shit surrounding the actual event, my last strong, relatively positive memory with her was sitting around, listening to music. We’d do that sometimes—we were poor kids, so we listened to whatever we taped off of KROQ broadcasts, and tapes we cobbled together from saved money, hand-me-downs, theft, and trades. Truth be told, I don’t know what we listened to that day. If I had to venture a guess, it was probably a lot of Bad Religion, Social Distortion, Rancid, early Green Day, and NOFX. But I remember Operation Ivy. I distinctly remember listening to the song Sound System specifically.

Our listening to things sessions mostly involved bad drugs smuggled from our parents, and a lot of random complaining about life, the universe, and everything. We thought we were very deep. I remember Operation Ivy’s other song, Knowledge, resonating a lot with us. We discussed it at length, unaware of the irony.

We’d walk home from school together, listening to these songs, internalizing them so we could talk about them later. I had one of those huge, chunky Sony Walkmans. My mother worked for a hotel, and took whatever she could get away with in the hopes she could pass it off at a pawn shop. That Walkman had some identifying marks on it, so no pawn shop would take it. So, it fell to me. Operation Ivy was a favorite; I liked it because it distracted me from the California sun. I could turn it on, tune out, jog, and it was like I was invincible.

These memories are fundamentally good memories. I loved those times—at least the times when I was with her. Those times made me who I am today.

I can’t dwell on this memory. If I start thinking about those moments, those feelings, my thoughts will stray to the other side of that scenario. What I lost. What happened to her. What I could have done differently. I’ve reconciled all this. I’ve thought everything there is to think about these things. Anything at this point is just rehashing old ideas.

For some reason, whenever I hear Operation Ivy now, I associate it with that time, and my mind always wanders to what happened. I see everything again. I hear everything vividly. There was a long period of my life, from my late teens into my 20s where I couldn’t listen to them, or anything else I associated with that time. Eventually I was able to phase Bad Religion and NOFX back into my life, but when I hear the first couple of notes of Knowledge, it always happens.

Tonight, I was walking home from the train station. I had my phone cycling through random stuff to keep me distracted. Sound System came on. I stopped. I fumbled with my phone, trying to turn it off. But by then, it was too late. I was already having those thoughts. I felt the anxiety creeping in. The touch sensor on my phone wasn’t working. So, I just said fuck it, and started jogging. I worked through it. It’s hot right now in the mountains of Japan—it reminded me of those hot California summer days, my Walkman, and taking the long way home with her.

I’m surprised I made it. I’m surprised I didn’t just stop and break down. I feel proud of myself, but I can’t really claim credit. This stuff happens as it happens; you can’t just choose to make it not disastrous. I ran through the entire album, which is just about the entire length of my walk home. I don’t know that if I tried it tomorrow, it wouldn’t leave me catatonic.

A lot of people have this strange idea that trauma, that psychological stress is a mixed blessing for creative professionals. After all, if you can just write about the things that make you cry, that’ll move the audience, right? It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. If I write about the seemingly random things that affect me adversely, I can lose a day. I can end up in a ball, unable to function. It’s not romantic. It’s not compelling. It’s disastrous. I’ve lost work over that trauma. In professional markets, deadlines are always more important than compelling narratives.

Sometimes writing about these things can help. It’s not usually fit for consumption, but just putting it down on paper can help to get it off your mind. This is different for everyone, and in my experience, it’s still a risk. Nobody wants to hear about a teenager whining about “corporate America” and listening to Berkeley punk bands. I mean, maybe they do, but I don’t think that’s my audience, and I don’t think I can produce enough of it to make it worth my while. But I do write about it sometimes. I do formulate those words, so they stop flying around randomly in my head.

What I can do, however, is work through allegory. Again, this isn’t for everyone. But I find that if I use indirect methods to think about, work through, and talk about the things I’ve experienced, it can help. It doesn’t always, but sometimes it does. If you read my upcoming book, iHunt, it’s full of that stuff. I just recently lost a freelancing job I’d been consistently working for over a decade. I lost it on particularly bad terms, so I lost a lot of money and a lot of time. I was on a rare financial upswing when it happened. I went from “finally comfortable” to “What bill can we let slide this month? Can we do without phones for two weeks?,” all in the course of a few days. This brought up a bunch of bad memories. Memories of missing meals. Memories of sleeping under bridges. Memories of being forcibly removed from my home as a child. Memories of making a fake ID so I could get a job before I was legally allowed. Memories of what those things did to my family.

It felt insurmountable.

I thought about the answers I was coming up with. The ways I tried to bring in small amounts of immediate money. Then, I started thinking about monsters. I had just released Blood Flow, and I had vampires on the brain. I began formulating a story about someone who hunts vampires, not because it’s noble, but because it’s profitable and she needs the quick cash. When you’re desperate, the thing you’re willing to do become rapidly more and more extreme. That’s where iHunt came from.

Almost everything that happens to Lana in iHunt is something I’ve been through, in sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque allegory. I don’t know if this can help everyone, but it was immensely beneficial for me. These were things I was never comfortable letting out. These were things I was always afraid to say, to admit to myself.

There’s a lot of discussion of content warnings, trigger warnings, and the like in popular discourse. This is good. But not everyone has such a broad area of trauma. I have no problem reading about or talking about suicide. But play the right music around me, and it sets me off. I’ve always viewed these topics with a bit of distance for that reason—I absolutely understand the trauma response, but no amount of realistic warning can help me approach a piece of media with that kind of awareness and safety. Fortunately my switch in that case is something relatively rare. I sometimes struggle with content warnings in my own work because of this—I invest myself worrying about fringe cases like my own. I worry I’ll miss something obvious. I want to be a responsible creator. I also worry about the judgment. If I write “Content Warning: Economic Anxiety,” will people take that seriously? Will people subconsciously build hierarchies of trauma, wherein that’s not acceptable to equate with other forms of traumatic violence? I don’t think there are any right answers.

If you’ve gotten this far, how do you deal with the tougher stuff? How do you write about things that hurt? Do you?

One thought on “Operation Ivy, Triggers, and Writing the Tough Shit

Add yours

  1. Wow, that´s a lot of tough shit to take in at once, so… thanks for writing it, and sharing it with the intent of discussion about – shall we say, stress points?

    My own baggage relates more to bullying (and, in retrospect, a diagnosis that made all that shit harder to handle), but I find it very hard to guess what creates anxiety in beforehand. Often it is those out-of-focus, tertiary elements. I still fucking hate typical school buildings, but they don´t cause anxiety in themselves. I´ve written about bullying, and while it is not pleasant it does not go over the line for me either. Then it is something like a smell, a color, a passage I read that creates a similar feeling of isolation and *here we go*.

    I haven´t really found a good way to go about it except trying to be empathetic about stress points in others, and really emphasize it in game writing that I do.

    Liked by 1 person

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