on Substack but also on space, absence, depression & showing up
Dear people who read my Substack,
I don’t even know where to start. I know some of you are my friends. I know some of you hate-read me. I know some of you thought this would just be a follow-up to my memoir SICK. I know some of you probably just thought to support me, why not, someone told you to.
It’s a lovely Saturday dawn and I have not slept yet. I had a lovely late night spent in Brooklyn with old friends I knew from grad school (I only went to grad school for my MA, a terminal degree that was a one-year program then—shortly after my time in 2002-2003 it became a MFA—the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Proud to see my name here, though as I have written about it a lot, I suffered there quite a bit.) They are parents and they had their night off from kids so there was much drinking and eating and joy. It was such a nice night and then then I took my dog on a late night walk—he and I are both highly nocturnal wolves these days—and then I saw a Jerry Saltz post on Twitter that I have to say irked me. Substack apparently offered Jerry 250K and he turned it down—I thought it would be for all sorts of perhaps good reasons, but the reasons given were wild and further highlighted for me a feeling I often have these days: white people are becoming more and more unrelatable, but maybe they were this way all along and we just rounded up on them (as they round down on us, whee!) The replies just made me realize so many of you have no idea how little we make and as much as we disclose these amounts, over and over, it never sinks. Because you must have your own sources of secret money (I am reminded of a chaotic viral tweet I had on the topic of white people and their secret horses), you must assume the rest of us do too. Imagine.
Maybe I should focus on my own history with Substack.
When the writer Heather Havrilesky—who has a very popular Substack—contacted me in summer 2019 I was surprised she knew who I was. Heather is a pretty popular writer of all kinds of nonfiction and has been known for her advice columns (I am fascinated by advice columnists as someone who was voted “Most Likely to Have Her Own Advice Column” in high school, lol!). I was very much suffering, and as usual very publicly—no, not for attention but because I had no choice—and I guess she wanted to help. Anyway she connected me with Substack’s co-founder Hamish McKenzie who had contacted her to do her Substack which was quite successful.
I wasn’t sure what this newsletter was about. I have been “online” since 1994—AOL chat rooms, message boards, Livejournal, a Blogspot even. It was never a big deal for me to share with stranger online as I have been doing that, very much like now, hunched over a computer, when I really should be doing my work (or, er homework)—or sleeping! I have been doing this since I was 16.
Anyway, Heather wrote,
“Hamish, I wanted to connect you with Porochista Khakpour, author of the memoir Sick. She’s a wonderful writer and also an important voice in the Lyme / environmental sickness community. Porochista was tweeting this morning and it struck me that her writing about her struggles with her health are really such a good match for Substack. A newsletter would give her a way to support herself while also reaching a vast community of people who would love her thoughts and also value her experiences and resources and would love to see all of the above in their in boxes every week.
I mentioned this to Porochista and she agrees that this could work for her. Maybe you could help to walk her through the process and give her a briefing on how it might work, the way you did for me?”
It was nice of her. I was a little wary of anything being structured—I turned down a Salon columnist gig in 2015 not just because it paid too little but because it paid too little for me to deal with all the heartache and grief that comes with having opinions online (hot takes culture has never been my thing)—but I also was like why not as my options for earning a living were more limited than ever.
(This is why my Substack is called Sicker Sickest after SICK. Get it? You do? Yeah, I might have to change it.)
Hamish & I connected and was told in vague terms—not unlike when Medium was doing solicited and unsolicited context (I had a whole nightmare with Medium and Matter but at least this project of mine came out of it which was nice)—but he seemed very kind and professional. I was told to do it for free and “if everything goes well, you will likely convert 5%–10% of your readership into paid subscribers. So, if you get 1k people on your mailing list, 100 people could end up paying. The game is to get the mailing list as large as possible through doing great stories/posts that can be shared widely among the community, drawing more people in, and then helping them get convinced that they should become a paying subscriber to get full access to your work.”
[In case you need to know, I have 940 free subscribers as of now (just an email list basically). If I advertise it a bunch today and tomorrow and in the next few days, I will probably get a few more. And of course, like my long threaded tweets, I will probably lose a few who will look at this and say it’s too long, too indulgent, whatever. So goes American internet/media culture! The rules of engagement are what they are, nothing new to see here.]
Like so many things in my life in America, I was not sure because I never trust the lingo of commerce. (This is not a great thing about me, by the way—it has probably added to keeping me poor!) But like so many things about my life in America, I also second-guessed second-guessing myself. And no one I knew had any real info.
So I focused on connection. For one thing, I wanted to provide free content in exchange for so many donating and sharing my crowdfund in 2018-2019 which truly saved my life. I had moved back to NYC in summer 2019—though I have lived in NY since 1996 when I was 18 and came here for college (with brief moves to other cities for jobs plus some moves back to LA when I was too poor or too sick or both for NYC)—and I was not sure how things would go. I still had some crowdfund money but did not know if I could do more than a year-long lease here. I did not know if the MDs I eventually got to would understand the piles and piles of bloodwork and ailments that every day multiplied, it felt like. But they did and by February of 2020 I got a lot better. Like my concussion in late 2015, I did a ton of work to get better—less rest than recommended, by the way—and I saw results. (I can hear someone saying this wording is very Capricorn. Sorry, lol.)
Last month I got my first batch of bloodwork in ages that was 100 percent good (well, cholesterol is a bit high but my good and bad cholesterol were always extremely low so my doctor was not worried). I feel so much better in my body—during the pandemic I basically became as close to non-chronically ill and non-disabled as I have in some time. (There are also some theories that the vaccine, which I got in March—Pfizer—has made many chronically ill people feel better. My MDs reports this.) I had one bad back injury but it was an EDS thing I knew how to fix (back to wearing a good brace and using a cane).
But one thing that did not get better and in fact got worse was my C-PTSD and OCD, which manifest in anxiety and depression.
At first I was doing as well as you can be when you live in the pandemic’s center (for a while it was Queens, a neighborhood over) and I reminded myself I was actually good in crisis. Then my roommate became ill and had to leave the state to be with family. And then between January to May I lost four friends. They all died in different ways: one we barely know why but it seems drugs on top of chronic illness might have been a factor; another died of suicide after her bipolar issues got worse during the pandemic; another chose to stop medical treatment she needed to stay alive (a decision she had made prior to the pandemic); another died by suicide after a long battle with long-haul covid. There are some aspects of these stories I can’t share further, but they are public. But these women were all chronically ill in some way, whether physically or mentally ill.
For the days after, then weeks and then months after, I tended to their friends and family, people I was often close to but some people I barely knew. I planned memorials, I checked in on strangers, I offered anything I could—meals, money here and there, care packages, pieces of writing I thought could cheer them up. At a few points I was up 24 hours a day so people could call me at any hour—so I could almost be a suicide crisis hotline for people who could not call suicide crisis hotlines. Strangers started to come to me for all sorts of help and advice, at one point I even tried to make sure a cyberharasser of mine in Vancouver did not kill himself.
I myself am one of those people who was never good at suicide hotlines, was never even good at therapy (perhaps I could never afford the best therapists but I had a few that were truly traumatizing in how awful they were). I have preferred religious and spiritual counsel, I have enjoyed talking to healers and astrologers (real ones or at least the realer ones! but that’s another story!), I have preferred the advice of friends and sometimes even strangers who really saw me when, say, family could or would not. They are why I am alive after a lifetime of passive and sometimes active suicidal ideation.
It’s not a new story. So many Iranians who left during the Revolution or like my family, at the start of the Iran-Iraq War, feel this. It’s a tough thing to be uprooted from your home and put here. My parents had the privilege and good luck to have periods where they studied abroad—my dad was a scholarship student who got his phd at MIT, my mom’s parents sent her for a year to Bristol to improve her English—but most likely, if I had been raised in Iran, I would have probably not made a life here. Like my parents, I am an immigrant, a refugee on political asylum. My dad is not a citizen, my mom and I became citizens in 2001, my brother who is 5 years younger than me was born here. Just before the revolution my parents were thriving—my mom’s side was especially comfortable, my dad though was simply employed at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran where he met my mom who was the boss’s daughter, basically—and then they were not at all. My brother and I were raised lower-middle-class and lower class—we both got scholarships to college or else we would not have had enough money to go. )I still had to take out loans and those were paid off “thanks” to two settlements from car accidents, one in 2005, one in 2015).
I have told these stories all many times but I realize maybe people don’t really read my work or if they do why would they even remember it? We matter to so few, or maybe I should just say I do.
Hard to know how much collective/communal terminology we can use these days. I trust so few people—I have my old friends but even some who disappeared I have chosen not to reconnect with. I have my usual communities of students and mentees, activists, and peers/colleagues of sorts. But so many are confusing me and I can imagine I must be confusing to them.
I guess that kind of brings me back to Substack. I am reopening this after months away in the spirit and service of transparency and integrity because honestly it would be easy for me to not write here again. I was going to say “easy to not write again” and maybe that right there is the truth. But how do you stop writing when this is your only real identity? I have been writing and imagining my life as an author since I was 4. I never wanted to be anything else but this.
Anyway, on keeping this free for now: I feel I should not be charging any of you for this content. I want you to have it for free. But Substack should be paying me and others at least a fraction of what they were willing to pay Jerry Saltz. They have made many of these deals but they instead want me to ask you to pay. This is wild to me. So I am not charging—even though I need the money. Money should be coming to us from big corporations not from individuals that are deep in crisis. I get how this sounds—it seems like I am saying YES I would like to choose capitalism, but what I am saying is I would like to later reject capitalism when we are not still in a global crisis that has left so many I know dead and counting, and some others I know dying as we speak.
I had for months a concern that some trans writers found this place transphobic but trans writers I have spoken to feel it is important to take up space here so it won’t just be for conservative profit. But who knows, I may switch platforms, I may later charge—I honestly don’t get anything right now.
As usual I have to tell myself, no one cares what I do or what I don’t do anyway. I guess? I do get some reader mails regularly that says the opposite
From grief, from overwork—from underpaid overwork that always amounts to the purity of poverty!—I am depressed but if I do not connect with you all, there is nothing. Connection has been strange for me lately. I don’t desire deep intimacy of any kind at all. I am no longer able to have romantic relationships—I am still processing the end of a lovely one in late 2017/early 2018—and every day I trust less people. Even my friends and peers, at times my worst self tells me to not trust them. I know this is trauma talking.
Because I am a depressed person with C-PTSD, I am not great at defending myself. I will gaslight myself, I will drown in imposter syndrome, I will blame myself for so much—until a mentor or friend or even my dog snaps me out of misery.
Even then it is hard.
There were some moments this winter/spring, just as I was doing the best work of my life and work opportunities were coming and I felt so secure in my friendships and health, that I was not sure I could survive my own mind. And I know some people are sick of writers saying stuff like this, or maybe sick of Iranians saying stuff like this, or maybe sick of queer people saying stuff like this, etc etc etc. I know some of you are sick of it, but no amount of therapy is going to make me the healthy person you want me to be. I have spent so much money on therapy since my 20s—it was not all unhelpful, but in those 50 minutes we would barely scratch the surface. I would speak so fast to get it all in, quite panicked and then I would hear the therapist say you are talking too fast because you are hypomanic and anxiety-disordered and you are panicked because you panic-disordered and I would just sit with the same feelings but now a bunch of scripts for drugs and more appointments.
The last thing I would ever think is, maybe there is something wrong with our culture, not me.
It’s still hard for me to think this.
My imposter syndrome comes from a dark place, but maybe they mostly all do. I was physically abused at a young age and then raped at 19 and 20. I had several abusive partners—my memoir SICK touches on it but does not list the worst of it because the “feminist attorney” at HarperCollins was worried these men would ruin my life. But I think they already have. So now I talk about it separately on my IG and Twitter and more and more these days I hope one day original drafts of my work can be released. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the editing of my work felt violent to me, but I will say, I very much struggle with SICK. After my editor Cal Morgan left publishing (he has been at Riverhead for the last few years, but he took time off for a while), my book was in limbo, from one editor to another, from one publicist to another, with all sorts of bigwigs at HarperCollins having bad ideas for it. Who can blame them, they know how to sell books—my book earned out during the pandemic meaning I get tiny royalty checks now (the only one of all my books to have that)—but feeling abused at Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins, esp for a Muslim Iranian was quite a special kind of hell. ( I’ve talked a lot on Twitter about how they wanted me to go on Megyn Kelley’s show and just those discussions, where they tried to convince me, on the phone and in person, as my health deteriorated and deteriorated, was one of the darkest times in that era).
People say a lot of things are “cringe” these days, which lol my generation, Gen X invented. And so I am well-aware this sincerity feels “cringe” suddenly to some. I see Gawker “snark” tone is back too on social media and all I got to say is, kids, do you really want that? It was a nice tone for activists maybe who had to really fight some fights verbally, but my god did it alienate and exclude and cause chaos among so many others. American culture is already so poisonous so bathing its language in more poison just seem, well, a waste of pretty good resources like mind and heart.
I have some other less cringey things I want to write about: good updates on my life, some recent struggles that may be relevant to you all, writers advice and health advice (I know people say no advice a lot these days but it sounds like a lot of people do want advice—including myself!) and more.
But for now I wanted to say hello, my usual longwinded, Iranian maximalist, exhausting, prob annoying, h e l l o. Sorry if this is whiny. Sorry to say sorry, sorry not sorry, sigh whatever. God, I should got to sleep. And yes, this is not my best writing, but it is where I am. I don’t know why honesty and transparency is so important to me but it is—maybe because that freedom was put into such jeopardy for us Iranians in Iran and in America. Anyway, hello, I am not asking you to pay for this, I am not being paid for this (though, hello, Substack, you pay us, please, sirs). I am dropping by hoping you are there and if you are barely hanging on sometimes please know you are not alone. Somehow we will get better, somehow life will turn. I can already see the changes I worked so hard to make for years coming into practice. (But I also realize a lot of you don’t even know what that work is—so I will be better at explaining it, in hopes that maybe you also can be inspired to work for a future that is bigger and better than your life.)
hello and good morning and good night, friends.
[art: “Cold Shoulder,” Roy Lichtenstein, 1963, LACMA]