Everywhere I went, people did things for the right reasons. They helped others. They made friends. They avoided conflict. The world was full of horrible people, but I couldn’t find any of them. Where were all the people who attended charity events to start fights? Where were all the people who betrayed their family to get closer to winning a large cash prize? Where were all the people who appeared on romance-competition reality-TV shows to find fame? All I wanted was someone to tell me I was garbage, to spread lies about me—to hate me unconditionally. I was looking for hate in all the wrong places. The situation was like this: there wasn’t even a bus nearby, let alone somebody to throw me under it.
We were in the middle of an energy crisis. There was too much good energy in the world. All the people I knew talked about surrounding themselves with positivity. They were getting married and trying to have children. They said that they no longer had time for negativity—they only had time for the people they loved. Every time I turned on the TV, reality-TV personalities were either consulting with psychics to minimize the toxicity in their lives or starting a juice cleanse to achieve inner peace or ending feuds with co-stars. It was one thing for the people I knew in the real world to be moving on. Now, even people I watched on reality TV were moving on. No one wanted to argue or badmouth or backstab anymore. Everyone everywhere had stopped being fun.
I had a theory: bad energy was the new inner peace. It was as rare and beautiful and crucial to achieving happiness as good energy once was. I was a receptacle for everyone else’s toxicity. I considered myself a social environmentalist, re-using bad energy for a good cause: my own well-being. One woman’s emotional trash was my treasure. Even though I was a homosexual man in my mid-twenties, I cared more about the middle-aged women I watched on TV than I did about any man I had ever met. While all my former favorite reality-TV personalities were detoxing, I was about to start a re-tox: the goal was to get as much toxicity into my life as possible.
I had recently realized that the only way to achieve inner peace was to act as if a camera crew were following my every move. I did what any successful reality-TV personality would’ve done: I called everyone I knew and told them they were garbage. All of the conversations went something like this: “You are garbage. And you know what? We are done.” I made sure to hang up before the other person could say anything.
The truth was that I loved all the people I called garbage—my parents, my brother, my few close friends—but I loved bad energy even more. Some people drank coffee at the start of every morning to get themselves going. I watched the clips of reality-TV meltdowns and brawls I had saved on my DVR. They gave me the boost I needed to get through the long days of never getting out of bed. There was nothing better than the end of a ten-year friendship or the unraveling of a twenty-year marriage to start your day. Who needed an energy drink when you could have a bad-energy drink?
When I said that we were done, I meant it. Everyone tried calling me back but I refused to pick up the phone. They were in a state of shock—an even bigger state of shock than the one they were likely in after they became aware of my homosexuality. To them, my bad behavior must have come out of nowhere. My decision to call them garbage and cut them out of my life must have seemed motiveless. I didn’t have a backstory as riveting as the ones I watched people revisit on reality TV. No one had revealed my secrets or threatened to hurt me. Those are the things I wanted my former friends and family to do to me. That backstabbing and badmouthing was the kind of fun and excitement I craved. Grown men and women arguing on reality TV often complained in their confessional interviews that they felt like children again, back in middle school or high school. I considered this return to the catty fun of youth something to celebrate, not bemoan. We were all too young—still in our late-twenties—to be nice all the time. The new life seriousness and refusal to have fun, the moving on and leaving me behind, working hard and starting families—this behavior was unforgivable. I had heard many reality-TV personalities claim to forgive but not forget. I couldn’t do either. I didn’t forgive, and I didn’t forget.
Every time I left the house, I made new enemies. At first I wanted as little contact with the outside world as possible. But when I realized how exhilarating it was to call people garbage, I started going out just so I could alienate more people. After throwing a dinner table at her former friend of 15 years, my favorite reality-TV personality referred to the incident as an out-of-body experience. She claimed that the thrill of the drama took over her body, that she had no control over her actions and no memory of the events. I now understood what she meant. When I was done with all my former friends and family, I moved on to people I didn’t know. I called telemarketers garbage, my elderly neighbors garbage, grocery store cashiers garbage, waiters garbage, bank tellers garbage, mailmen garbage, mall shoppers garbage, everyone everywhere garbage. The hope was to burn bridges with every single person in the town where I lived, so that no matter where I went, I’d be surrounded with bad energy.
I played by my own rules, but there was one old rule I couldn’t live without. It was the way many competition reality-TV shows crowned a winner: all of the eliminated contestants returned during the final episode to vote for the person most deserving of the grand prize. This meant that the remaining players had to face all of the people they had backstabbed throughout the course of the game. These were always the most tense and toxic moments of the season: shouting-matches and breakdowns fueled by resentment and regret. I had watched too many bitter juries pick the wrong winner—not the deserving ruthless social-strategist but the boring, allegedly nice person who had children or sick relatives to take care of at home. I didn’t need the votes of all the people I called garbage. I had already won my inner peace. But I often imagined facing all the former friends and family members, the acquaintances and strangers I had called garbage. I imagined facing them one last time in the ritualistic solemnity of a competition reality-TV season finale. I had only a few words for them: you know what you did.
Author photo by John Paul Hampstead and Eric White.