Staring Up At Dead Stars
Content warnings for depression, parental neglect, suicide, self-harm, homophobia, transphobia, and relationship abuse.
I started learning how to program at the age of eight.
My uncle was really into math and my grandparents gave me his old TI-81 graphing calculator that he owned when he was a kid. I enjoyed doing math on it, but what I enjoyed a lot more was reading through all the different programs that its manual described. I tinkered with TI-BASIC all the time as a kid.
I distinctly remember one morning waking up early so that I could apply what I had learned to making a "guess the number" game. When I figured it out, I got so excited so early in the morning that I ran upstairs while Dad was making breakfast and Mom had just left the bedroom and forced them to look at it.
After that, I started to get more into programming with TI-BASIC. I made all sorts of games, limited by the slow processing speed and graphics of the TI-81. I definitely wasn't only into games though. At one point, I wrote a program that would extract more digits of pi than were displayed in the typical prompt and printed them one at a time. I think I got addicted to pressing the enter button on the calculator to see another digit of that magic number came out every time I ran it. Eventually, I memorized it to as many digits as were represented in that calculator:
It's definitely not the most impressive time someone has memorized pi. As I grew up, I met more and more people who could recite pi up to 20 or 30 digits instead of my measly 12. But when I was eight, that didn't matter to me at all. I feel guilty about missing those days. I have never bothered since to memorize any more digits of pi. Most people in my field round to 3 anyways.
My next stage on my long and arduous journey was FORTRAN90. My dad saw that I was getting really into programming and decided to let me borrow his work computer so that I could continue my interests. I made so many games in FORTRAN, and at one point I even tried to show off a battleship game I made to my classmates at my "school". They didn't really get it. In my defense I think that it was pretty clever of me to copy the F2EXE.exe binary onto my thumbdrive so that I could recompile and execute my games on the go.
Me being me, I showed off my programming to whomever I could. Nobody I knew other than me was doing any programming, especially at my age. At one point, in Cub Scouts, I was especially bored at a meeting with five or six other kids my age, and I started handwriting on a scratchpad a program that I wanted to make. The other kids freaked out when they saw it.
"Woah, ******, I didn't know you were a coder!!! That's so cool!!!"
"Can you teach me how to code?"
Nobody seemed to notice or care when I insisted that it was called "programming", not "coding", and that I was a "programmer", not a "coder". And Richard Stallman insists that he isn't autistic. It was right about then that I realized that nobody else would really understand the appeal of my interests past just the aesthetics, and that my programming wouldn't be worth anything to most people that I'd meet through my life except by virtue of it being programming. Even almost a decade later, I'd love so, so, so, so desperately to experience otherwise.
When I was very young, I used to challenge myself to prove that I actually experience empathy and was capable of emotion by imagining what it would be like if my mom died. It worked to bring me to tears when I was younger, but as I grew up, that stopped working.
This happened at "school" over the next couple years:
"Woah, ******, you're so smart! You're just like Tony Stark!" - Many of my classmates through grades 4-7.
"You're going to become rich like Mark Zuckerberg!" - A teacher who ended up being at my senior graudation.
"You're an evil genius and you're going to take over the world!" - Too many fucking people.
It wasn't just programming, it was EVERYTHING. I studied so much chemistry and biology and electrical engineering. When I was 12, my older brother joked about how I had textbooks all over the floor in my room to his friends. When I tried to explain myself, nobody listened. Whether it was programming or anything else, it didn't matter.
It's definitely not a kid's book, but I read Ender's Game when I was very young despite that. My parents didn't stop me. I obviously related to Ender's alienation from society because of his intelligence. But I had become so used to being alienated that a description of alienation by someone else didn't move me or make me feel recognized. I was more than my alienation, that was the problem!
That book and its sequels introduced me to one of the most important pieces of technology to me: the "ansible", which transfers information across its nodes instantaneously, even over lightyears of distance. The idea that alien worlds would not necessarily have to be alien to each other because of their extreme distances comforted me.
I've been trying to get around talking about this, but one of the only mentors I've ever had killed himself when I was 12. It fucking shattered me. One Tuesday, just before noon, I was programming in the family room on my Raspberry Pi. I had a Kankun Wifi smart plug that I was trying to figure out how to control from my RPi using whatever SSH Python library I could find. My mom was browsing Facebook on her own computer on the other side of the room. All of a sudden, she exclaimed:
"Oh my God, these posts are making it look like ****** died!"
Next thing I knew, I was at his memorial. The following weeks, I didn't have any idea how to process it. I knew I was sad, but I didn't understand what I had to do with it. How was I supposed to feel? The days I spent at "school" afterwards went poorly. I felt like I had to force myself to express sadness, and when the teachers who clearly had zero idea what to do in that situation pulled me aside to sympathize and comfort me, I didn't feel any less sad. I just felt like I was looking for attention.
I got my first smartphone for my 14th birthday. I had used the Internet on the family computer before that, and I watched tons of YouTube on the family tablet, but having a phone was a game-changer. I was not supposed to be using it during the night, and my parents made a rule that it needs go charge in the family room when I'm asleep. I got around that by stopping sleeping.
The biggest impression made on me by my phone was Reddit. When I joined Reddit, I did something that was really, really special to me: I lurked. I didn't have to talk to anyone, nobody had to talk to me. I didn't have to exist. I could just be.
At the time of writing, there are over 8 billion people on this planet. China is the most populated country in the world, but have you ever met anyone in China? Have you ever been friends with one of its citizens? Chances are low. The Internet is a free place, but the Chinese government locks away the ability for its citizens to freely use it. I resent that there is an entire culture of people that, unless I resort to extreme means, I will never experience on a personal level.
I simultaneously resent and am smitten by languages. A lot of people in China couldn't be friends with the average American for no other reason than that one side speaks Mandarin and one side speaks English. I'm not stupid. I don't think that the solution is some grand unification of language or culture. Languages have never came easily to me, though. No matter how hard I try, I still seem to be stuck with my English-brain. I'm trapped in this abusive cycle of fascination and disappointment.
After I settled into Reddit and the Internet at large becoming my home, I started to realize more and more that I was wrong. As I was exposed to more and more people, I realized how much I had been lied to as a child and how much I had been influenced by the tiny world around me. I learned that the left wing wasn't full of crazies. I learned that gay people were valid. I learned that science has limits. I learned that being an anarchist was okay. I learned that I was transgender.
I learned that even on the Internet, I could love someone.
When I put "school" in quotes, it's not because I think that public schools don't teach you anything. It's because it wasn't really a school at all. It was a daycare for white, Christian, homeschooling moms to have an excuse to neglect their rich, snobby child once a week for a whole day. The other days of the week, we were all stuck with our respective parents.
I'd love to blame this all on my parents, but I can't. My parents didn't have a lot of a part in this. They, in fact, made an effort to have as little of a part in it as possible. That's why I'm so self-sufficient and can do my own research and have self-discipline and it's why I was always called so well-behaved by strangers and why I was always mistaken online as someone who was in their 20s and not as a fifteen-year-old. They helped where they could. Blaming them for my issues and for being absent from my life would be like blaming grass for growing.
I used a lot of Discord. I was really excited when a girl in my class also said she used it. We became Discord friends and I began excitedly texting her every single day. It's a lot easier to feign interest over text if you don't how to say "no". I "dated" her for many months. She never had the ability to say that that's not what she wanted because she was just as fucked up as I was and I knew that when I pinned her in that position.
What does she think about me now? She reached out to me a long time after that happened with no apparent resent. Is that really how she feels?
During senior year, when my technology teacher had me teach C++ to the class:
"******, why do we have to import an STD to print text?" - a classmate who I'm pretty sure called me a tranny behind my back.
He was classily referring to "stdio.h".
Also on Discord, I experimented with my presentation. My profile picture, my pronouns, my name. I made lots of friendships and lost what felt like more of them. I had a home, I had a family. I had a faith that the Internet was a means for anyone to be accepted and for new kinds of self-expression to emerge.
I also begun to hold a belief that has always been an obvious coping mechanism for everything: that my loneliness and my alienation made me special, because I had a perspective that nobody else could possibly have. It's a cope-belief that I still hold to this day. I wish I could get rid of it, though. Being special sucks.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Saturn's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.
Most "gifted" kids seem to inevitably lose "the gift" at some point in their life. Maybe they had a STEM special interest when they were younger that they just couldn't keep up with as teen responsibilities mounted. It seems like everyone I meet who was formerly "gifted" has had a time in their life where they've been forced into the ground and made to face that they are more than their intelligence. But I've never had to face that. I have never needed to question my own intelligence. It's simultaneously my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. What the fuck is wrong with me?
I think I decided how I wanted to build homes and how I wanted to love before I discovered that I was even capable of either. I wanted to do it with the only tool that I could be sure of: my skill. I wanted to build a home for other people. I built a game engine (pretty typical response to a variety of situations for me). I built a community, although it was very small. I made connections. I learned history. I formed opinions. I lived.
You know what I hate? Action movie "heroes" who are just trying to save their family from the bad guys. Saving your family doesn't take courage. Following gender roles doesn't take courage. Defying your family's expectations takes courage. It takes courage to be more than just a hero.
It's really easy for me to fall in love with someone who's in a bad situation. I need to feel trusted. I need to feel like I'm making a positive impact. I need to feel like I actually care. I need to justify to myself that I'm not just an unempathetic, empty monster. Sacrificing for your loved ones doesn't really demonstrate any courage and it doesn't make you special, but it was enough for me to survive.
I leeched off of someone I loved for a long while. I thought that I cared, but when she asked me to do even the simplest things for her, I couldn't deliver. I couldn't put aside my passion project to spend time with her. I wasn't looking to meet up in person. She left me and I felt empty. I had switched over to a nocturnal sleep schedule for her. I played hours of a game I hated with her every night for months for her. It took me way too long to figure out what I had done wrong. It took so long that after months of terrorizing her and demanding her attention and an explanation, I gave up and abandoned her.
"If I had really loved her, I should have respected her boundaries."
- The mantra I repeated to myself every single time I thought about her for eight months afterwards.
I want so, so, so badly to not be a person. I want to not have a past, or a personality, or attachments, or reason. I don't want to have relationships, desires, and most importantly, I don't want to be observed. I just want to be a thing.
But that's not what I am, and that's why I have to write this.
I felt nothing when I graduated. I had been scoring college level in standardized tests on every single subject since the seventh grade. I was voted "most likely to go to Mars". Ah, and I've neglected to mention. By then, comparing me to Tony Stark had gone out of fashion. The new role model forced upon me was Elon Musk.
I've put about five hours into writing this so far, and I don't feel as shitty as when I started. I don't feel like what I've written is as fucked up as it really is. Does that mean that I'm starting to accept myself? Or does that mean that I've only alienated myself?
Even though I had abandoned her, it felt more like I had been abandoned. I gave up on my passion project, disappointing everyone that was following me up until that point. I told them that I wanted to quit programming altogether and live in a cabin or some shit. Despite everything, I didn't hate myself. I resolved to be better. I resolved not to let myself steep to such self-sacrifice for the sake of my loved ones. I wanted to find out what I was past the programming, past my projects, and past my abuse. Looking back on it now, when I'm trying to find out the same thing, I don't think that I truly found an answer then. Time marches onwards, and I had to too.
Months later, she came back. She didn't seem to hold any hard feelings. But even though I've learned that it's not her problem to push onto her, I still love her. I hate it. Not for my sake, but for her's. She's found someone else now, who is someone that I think is horrible for her. But I hate it because I know that I wouldn't be any better for her.
After I turned 18, my parents made me start paying rent. They said that I could keep living with them for as long as I could either pay rent or as long as I was in college. Both my parents are college graduates, and so are my paternal grandparents. Academia is the tradition. They kept telling me again and again that the reason they were putting such pressure on me was so that I would give myself the tools to succeed. I don't fucking believe them to this day. How could I? They just wanted me to stop being their burden, like my older half-siblings. Mom could stop comparing me to them. Disappointments.
I didn't want to go to college because I knew that it would take years for my classes to catch up to where I was academically. I was working a fast food job, waiting for something to happen. Someone who I met on Discord offered me a software job, and said that "a woman of my talents shouldn't be flipping burgers". He told me what I already knew; that I knew better than most doctorate-holding experts in my field. He appealed to my ego and I fell for it.
I worked alone, with only my boss to communicate to. I was added to a company group chat, but I had no reason to ever talk to anyone else there. One time, my boss and two of his employees were in a video call with some potential investors. There was a LOT of money at stake. The employees bungled it, though. One was in public at a loud outdoors coffeehouse during the call, and the other went on a 20-minute technical rant that was clearly not called for. The investors pulled out and my boss was furious. I know all of this because after it happened, my boss uploaded the video of him lecturing the employees company group chat, humiliating them in front of everyone.
After a couple of months of working for him, I had never felt so isolated in my life. I struggled to actually work, and I only put in a few hours of work into my job a month. Like clockwork, I'd have a full mental breakdown around the 20th of each month, every month. I had one particularly bad episode where I lost all cohesive thought and started to believe that I could be schizophrenic. After reading what antipsychotics did to your brain, I just repressed it and forced myself to cling to reality out of sheer willpower. I told my boss that the reason I wasn't putting in more than a handful of hours per month was that I'm depressed. Instead of doing anything to reduce the pressure on me, he just said that it was okay, and paid just enough for my parent's rent anyways. Eventually, he even got me a new computer, which was so powerful that I didn't even own any games that could push it to its limits. I had to give that computer back when I quit.