On Self Confidence
& what does it mean to have it
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(DISCLAIMER: I may be talking about Elvis but this doesn’t mean I agree with everything he’s ever said or done or that this is an apology for him! I know he was a complicated white man… this essay is just an accumulation of some fragmented thoughts on confidence, and what it means to be an artist and create publicly)
(tw: food, suicide, eating disorders)
Honestly, I didn’t expect to walk out of Elvis (the most recent film by Baz Luhrmann) a sudden empathetic fan. He always seemed a bit weird to me as a distant icon—a bit too croony, likeable, present with his fame in a suspicious way. As a young person in Australia, I think I saw him more in the kitschy Las Vegas sense—the king, in a corny marriage officiating kinda way. Then of course there are all the racial elements of a white boy singing Black music — the music that (also) shaped him.
This pristine image of the white boy Elvis was very much a construction, and ultimately something that seems to have cost him his life. That’s why I appreciated that Luhrmann explored those elements, a white child being awaken and shaken by gospel music, of the spirit of God, and what kind of alchemical experience ignited the creation of Elvis. And then, how are all the ways in which he was suppressed, controlled and castigated… how did those things impact him? I had never really thought about that. How whiteness had to be sold therefore Elvis had to fit the image of the mirage. But what happens if you can’t continue to represent yourself truthfully? How does that effect your sense of being, self worth?
It’s interesting that what seems to have deflated Elvis of the image of himself was brought on by the extractive ways the world of fame cannibalizes talent. It was his predatory manager that potentially drove Elvis to such a deep depression that he turned to food as an escape. I remember in my youth that being a punchline—the fat Elvis.*** Struggling with a chronic illness has meant I’ve had to look at my relationship to food, disordered eating, and the reality that food is another addiction... it’s not something we are given much guidance or conversation about, especially without the glare of fatphobia or judgement, but it’s something many of us have privately had to deal with. Food has been a confidante, a healer, a friend to me. Yet, food also continues to cause my body so much pain. My IBS is an ongoing issue, and the feeling of constipation…………….. is literal hell. It can turn any day into a terrible day. So it was shocking to comprehend, as an adult, that Elvis died from a heart attack because he was trying to take a shit after being constipated for months. That’s not a punchline, that’s something that we should consider the depth of. The chief investigator of his death said: “Presley's chronic constipation - the result of years of prescription drug abuse and high-fat, high-cholesterol gorging - brought on what's known as Valsalva's maneuver. Put simply, the strain of attempting to defecate compressed the singer's abdominal aorta, shutting down his heart.” He was 42 years old, just ten years older than I am now.
I obviously don’t want to therapize, but writing Who Is Wellness For? has made me understand people more complexly. I understand, more than I ever did before, what trauma does to you and how it is stored in your body, and how it manifests. Watching the movie, knowing how it ends, I felt sad that Elvis was showing deep signs of needing help, repair and care—but nobody read the signs, or cared, or just assumed that he was fine. Someone that dies that young, in that way… that’s a societal issue. It’s an indictment, at the very least, on celebrity. And celebrity is a disease borne out of society. It could be easy to just write it off and say Elvis was greedy. It’d be simple to say that, to just brush it off with “well he was the “king” and remark on the gluttony of (white) kings etc, etc and be done with it. But shouldn’t we question and not ridicule why or how a person dies on the toilet seat trying to take a shit? Shouldn’t we be more curious what led to that?
Throughout the film, Luhrmann paints a portrait: Elvis’ dwindling self confidence brought on by the obsessive control around him that stifled his very personhood, politic and artistry. We see a man confused by his country, a man challenging every norm in society from gender, sexuality to the pristine image of the white American boy. It was such a juxtaposition to what I knew this man to be. It’s as if he was re-written posthumously, as many white people are, in order to churn the engine of white supremacy… they want white celebrities to be bland and apolitical! So it was cool to see that Elvis wasn’t as two dimensional as I thought he was.
“He’s a Capricorn,” I whispered to Hisham, one of my best friends, half way through the film, bopping in my seat. People always assume we’re fine, how ugly it can be to be perceived — and then not understood! Then all the realities of loneliness, control, depression and self-image that thwart and challenge you everyday. Through this daring new exposition, I began to see the mythology of the king break and reveal a man, a broken, lost man. And I guess I saw myself in that reflection. In the griminess, in the darkness, in the loneliness… in the self destruction of it all. I’ve been so close to the trigger so many times in my life and that trigger looks different every time. There’s something scary about knowing how easily you could ruin your own life. By the time Hisham and I walked out of the film we both had tears in our eyes. I guess what we both grappled with is how little you often know someone is struggling, and how many people have lost their lives over not being able to ask for help.
I’ve been thinking a lot about confidence recently because, well, I published a book lol. The reality is, I didn’t know what to expect when the book came out and the easiest feeling was to just accept each day as it came. Whatever it would bring. But so many days I felt so empty, so sad, and because I had to perform and read and be present I couldn’t actually face those feelings while they were happening. So I just disassociated the entire time! That’s right, six weeks! Still got it.
I’m gonna be real (I’m about to be so very Capricorn, forgive me) but the hardest part about not being seen by powerful bodies or entities when you know you’re talented is that it affects a lot of things: your financial stability, your self-confidence, your literal work, your projected sense of worth. My two editors that worked on this book with me still, to this day, have not reached out to congratulate me on the book being out. I still can’t believe it. How they could sit with me through the entire process of writing this book… and never even reach out to say good job. It’s wild. When so many of these things happen, it begins to do a number on you.
So, through this, I’ve had to do so much spiritual healing to accept that many of these places will take my ideas, my brain, my taste — but not hire me or reward me or acknowledge me. I’ve seen how I’ve impacted book sales for writers when I share them, and how I’ve popularized the works of other artists who were unknown… and yet my mind, it seems, is rarely credited for doing that work. So many people take my work, are inspired by me — but I’m never credited, and I see it often! I’ve witnessed my sheer impact on culture at large… and yet, I’m erased. In real time! It’s a particular brand of crazy-making and since the book came out it’s been hard to accept that this is how my life is. And, though I’m immensely proud of this work, more than anything I have made prior (which is saying a lot, I wrote Like A Bird for 18 years!), it does begin to weigh on you. This sense of dislocation, this sense of disrespect.
Then, when I see people not taking a bet on me it’s harder to accept, and I often wonder what it is about me… what am I doing wrong? It’s been excruciating to not take these things personally or to not metabolize the sense of fear that these feelings rupture. I’ve felt so uncared for these last few weeks and that’s a hard thing to describe, to announce. But I guess that’s the truth. There’s been beautiful, inspiring moments as well… but mainly, in a way, I’ve been on my knees grieving, contending and surrendering.
Quite a few of you from the UK and Australia have reached out to say you’ve tried to buy my book, order it bookstores, only for it to keep getting cancelled or not arriving… and each time I have to explain that my UK publisher was so afraid that my mother would sue them, because I talk about her being my sexual abuser, that they decided not to publish the book, which has made the book extremely hard to buy in UK territories. It’s been so devastating to think of Australians not being able to have access to this book. My career has been so difficult and so many people have stood in the way… there are times when I really think about how easy it would be to give up. And how so many people do.
Something I liked seeing and recently reading about wrt Elvis is how he was a rebel. Obviously, this might all be propaganda to retroactively make him more interesting, but I think Luhrmann’s onto something. There was a rebellious streak that as a Capricorn I also enjoyed and felt into in the film. We hate authority because we understand authority.
After my last essay on New York caused a huge ruckus on the internet I realized a lot of my work is to be an agitator in order to make social change. That might be my entire… ethos, lol. My ex, Shaka, once told me that I like putting my neck out after I wrote an essay on MIA, abolition and cancel culture (in 2018) and was thus cancelled lol… and recently my friend Def told me, “You like the heat!” To which I chuckled and lamented… “I guess I do.” But it’s hard to always be on the outside looking in. Then I wonder if I’d want to fight so much if I’d had an easy life, if I was afforded more comfort and ease in the system… would I want to fight it so much? For most of my life I have been an outlier, desperate to be understood by all those around me, yet so rarely actually fully fathomed. That in itself has brought me a lot of pain recently… how hungry I am to be known… by at least somebody. To be held, nurtured, in all my dimensions.
I guess that’s why I write, dear reader. I write so that you may understand me. I write so that I can speak onto the page my experience, my reality, even if others won’t give me that justice. There’s also power in when they try to silence you again and again and again and again and again and again and again but you still fucking SPEAK.
I pick myself up off the floor. I take myself out the bathtub and tell myself “You don’t want to die, you want to live.” I wish I had a mother to do that for me, I wish I had someone who let me rest my head on their lap and said shh shh honey you’ve had to work too hard it’s ok, rest here, I love you. My default is to worry about whether or not I’m easy to love. Too many people have told me otherwise. But I know I am, I know I am. So I get up. I get up and I just get the fucking fuck up and I find some peace. I ask myself Fa what do you want? And baby Fa says what she wants and then I look at her and say fuck I love you so much how did you survive and in that moment I can either break down on my knees and cry for the life I’ve had or I can just say baby Fa you are a goddamn miracle. I see you! I see you! And I love you so much. Thank you for surviving baby Fa, you’ve done such a great job. I wouldn’t change anything in the world. You’re perfect. I’m so lucky I get to be you.
Confidence takes time.
I can’t tell you what a weird experience it is to put your work out into the world. You put this flawed yet heartfelt thing out into the world and people are still gonna hate it, or not read it, or not believe you, or not care (!!!!!!!!) and you kinda just gotta be like chill about that. You gotta not let it affect your sense of self. Super easy obviously! Then the reality is even if you get to where you thought you always wanted to get it might still be so fucking lonely that you’ll be looking out and wondering if it was worth it. If your ambition will ever be satisfied. If you’re lucky, you’ll figure out it has nothing to do with the material, outward world … but still… accepting that while you’re in it, in the materiality, living under capitalism but still wanting a good life… it’s hard not to want a certain sense of security. It’s hard to dedicate your life to your art, not really knowing if it will ever give you the stability that you seek.
Elvis, much like many artists across time, many people — the talented folk that never even get the stage — (I know) — never realized that there was something deep inside of him that was missing that maybe (or self evidently) he was trying to fill until it was too late. The void of pain that lingers and can consume you. Ultimately, he didn’t find a reprieve in the art because at the end of the day it seems that he lost his very purpose to make it. I guess that’s what happens when you’re taught to believe that capitalism, that the safety of money, will satisfy your every need. When we continue to see that it doesn’t, and it can’t. What most people are missing is the honest communication with themselves so they can understand the darkness within them, that constant darkness. We need to have language for those things in order to exorcise them and I’m realizing so few of us do have the words, or even the ability to communicate them into anything legible. So it’s not so much that Elvis’ fame makes him anymore important but rather it humanizes him. Even a man that seemingly had everything had a pain he couldn’t face that eventually took his life. That was my takeaway from the film, and from what I’ve gathered of his short life.
I keep thinking recently that I’m so lucky that I have a therapist. There were so many years where I was afraid to get one, and then also too poor to afford one. It’s a blessing to pay for my trauma therapy every week! That’s not progress, that’s a gift. Recently my friend Leo Kalyan, also a musician, sent me a voice note saying, “Everything is a gift.” Through the darkness that’s what I’ve returned to like a lighthouse.
There were many feelings I had watching the film. But a major takeaway is the dissonance between what fame is versus what we think it is. It’s humbling to be reminded that being seen isn’t always the answer. I’m trying to understand more deeply what is that I lack. Or maybe, it’s also just a desire to be celebrated… and that’s OK too, in fact, that’s a perfectly real and honest feeling. Yet… life goes on. You move through these feelings and go on to the next. I’m not quite there yet, this is the first time after 6 weeks I’m communicating through the fog. I guess today I feel grateful that I have the language to know myself. That I have the desire to comprehend and express my thoughts, that I want to know myself more deeply. It takes courage, it takes perseverance. And I’m reminding myself there’s something really powerful in that. To go into the deep waters and learn how to swim.
(***an addendum: Thank you to Sophie Strand, a reader (and incredible writer), who reached out to let me know that Elvis actually had Ehlers Danlos, a chronic illness that is a genetic condition that affects the skin, joints and blood vessel walls. Quoting Sophie here, “I think it's important, especially because Ehlers Danlos is rare, without a cure, and its research underfunded, to highlight that his finally death was probably caused by aortic issues paired with gastroparesis and vascular issues classical of EDS.” Pretty saddened by finding this out… but glad my hypothesis / gut feeling was onto something…)
If you find value in what I write and read this newsletter regularly, please consider financially supporting its creation by becoming a paid subscriber.