I Wake Up Screaming

This morning I woke up from a nightmare, screaming. I didn’t intend to share the particulars anyplace public, but I’ve changed my mind for two reasons. The first is, though I don’t have this kind of nightmare often, when I do it’s terribly difficult to get past. Every detail is etched in my mind, sometimes for months. What makes it better is talking about it. Journaling doesn’t help. If I write it out in a private place, it remains part of me. I have to get it out into the open. Which means sharing with others.

The second reason is that when I mentioned this nightmare on my social media, I realised I have thoughts about the way Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is perceived, both in mental health fields and in the public at large. And I wanted to share those, too.

The dream started in an innocent enough fashion. I was at a shopping mall. It’s the same mall I always go to in my dreams. I know the layout, recognised the stores. I don’t know about other people, but there are certain places to which I return regularly in my dream life: The Mall, The City, The Office Building, The House That Is Not My House. It was the present day–I had my same cell phone–but all the real people from my life who appeared where about thirty-five years younger. I was either in my early twenties or still in my teens.

Anyway. There was some stuff about a pawn shop and talking with another woman about playing the flute. Then she disappeared, and I was hanging out with a blonde girl who worked in one of the shops. It was late and the mall was closing. We were flirting. I wasn’t sure whether I was male or female in this dream. This also happens often. Usually I don’t notice it, but this time I was aware of it. At one point, I took a step back and thought, “Whoa, I’m making out with a girl. Am I a boy? Huh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m a Lesbian. Okay.”

All this was fine. Then I got a phone call from my brother. He told me my mother had decided to come out as a Trans man named Andrew. In a bizarre turnabout, this was perfectly acceptable to the rest of my family, but I had an intense problem with it. I started having difficulty breathing.

Long tangent about getting out of the mall and trying to find the correct parking lot where someone was supposed to pick me up to give me a ride home. Then, all at once, I am home, in the house I grew up in, in the dining room. It’s getting harder and harder to breathe. My brother, my dad, and my mom are all there. My mom has already begun to transition; I know this, but the only thing I see is that zis hair is done up in the weird perm/bouffant style my mom always got for special occasions like Easter Sunday. They’re all eating chili, and I realise it must be Christmas Eve, and that’s why my brother is home from college; my mom always made a big pot of chili on Christmas Eve, because it heats up easily when family arrives late at night. I can’t breathe.

I think I must have felt some resentment about my mom coming out as a Trans man and everyone just sitting there eating chili like nothing has happened. I go up to zer and I say, “I’m going to validate you in this because it’s the right thing to do. But I don’t want to because you all have invalidated my experience my entire life.”

My dad interrupts me: “Oh, you mean the way we’ve supported you and kept giving you money so you could continue to be irresponsible?”

I say, “You just did it again! That’s what I’m talking about!” and everyone starts laughing and laughing at me, and I am screaming because they don’t hear me, and then I wake up.

As I describe the bare events of the dream, it sounds stupid to me–nothing to get upset about. But I’m having trouble breathing right now, and I feel as if I might start screaming again. I can’t articulate the horror and helplessness I felt. Overwhelming.

When I woke up (after I stopped screaming), literally my first thought was, “Huh. A trauma nightmare. Well, that one’s for all the people who don’t believe in my PTSD diagnosis.”

I seem to remember Post Traumatic Stress Disorder first coming into the public consciousness in those terms after the Vietnam War. It’s been around longer. Way longer. The shell shock of WWI, the ever-popular “brain fever” of Victorian times…I saw an article recently that posited Homeric heroes suffered a form of it. Now it shows up in popular culture, in movies, books, and TV shows. People know about it. They think they understand it. They don’t.

I remember the day about ten years ago when my then-therapist said, “Oh, you have PTSD. No doubt about it.” I had/have a whole host of the classic symptoms: Intrusive memories, Emotional Triggers, Nightmares, Easily Startled, Hyper-Vigilance, Depression, Anxiety. Inability to recall and articulate details. Times when I relive the trauma. No, I don’t hallucinate in visual terms. No blood gushing out of faucets or anything so explicit. But times when I am back there in my gut, in my head: hopeless, powerless. When I heard the words, I felt a vast sense of relief. It explained so much. It helped so much to hear, for once in my life, “No, this is not a ‘normal’ experience of life. But it is a ‘normal’ reaction to what you’ve lived through.”

When I mentioned the diagnosis to my then-psychiatrist, however, he dismissed it. “Oh, no; you can’t have PTSD.” Why, when I had all the symptoms? “Because you don’t fit the profile.” See, in the popular view, you can only get PTSD from a single traumatic event, like a rape, or a car accident, or seeing your buddy blown to bits. The Mayo Clinic website defines it: “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it” and “You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you go through, see or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. ” (Bold and Italics mine.)

Now, I’ve actually been through several of those in my life, including being raped at knifepoint with a towel over my head. But none of those incidents caused my PTSD. I guess I understood those were one-time, isolated events or something; I’ve never really considered it. My PTSD stems from a daily experience of being put down, disbelieved, invalidated, and having my needs dismissed or shunted aside by the people who should have made my needs a priority: My parents. I believed in my bones, from an age so early that I have no memory of believing otherwise, that if I set a foot out of line or if I violated any of the unspoken rules, they would literally expose me on the hillside for the nearest wolf pack to dispense of. My life consisted of constantly walking on eggshells. I never knew when the blow would fall, and I expected it every moment. Not a literal blow. My dad took great pride in the fact that, after one time when he slapped my oldest sister and her cheek stayed red for a week, he never hit any of us. But the fulfillment of the threat that hung over me every day. I didn’t know what it looked like. That made it worse. It got worse, too, when I was bullied in school and the people on whom I should have been able to rely to protect me couldn’t be bothered.

Well, anyway. I expect this all sounds like whining and blame-mongering. Whatever. You can believe me or not, judge me or not just as you like. My point is, for my first twenty-five years (at least) I never felt safe. I never expected to feel safe. And that kind of thing sticks with you.

How much more does it stick with a child who has grown up in an actual war zone? In an impoverished neighbourhood where violence is the norm? How much does it stick with a soldier who has spent months in the trenches, on a tour of duty, never knowing whether or when a bullet would find him in the next second? I think PTSD first came into the public consciousness after Vietnam for a reason. It was (I have read) the first war of its kind, a war where the lines weren’t clear, the mission was obscure, where trust was impossible. Having to cope with that kind of constant traumatic stress changes a person. It changes the way you see the world.

An acquaintance of mine who works in the mental health field tells me this kind of PTSD is just beginning to be recognised. She gives it a different acronym–CPTSD, CTSD, something like that, where the “C” stands for “constant” (I have recently learned the “C” actually stands for “complex”). The way she talked about it sounded dismissive to me, as if it’s not as bad, not as valid. As if it doesn’t impact lives the same way. And yeah, this could be my projection; I’m aware of that. I’m hyper-vigilant about people invalidating my experience, after all.

I wish the kind of PTSD I have would make it into the public consciousness. Into books and movies. But I doubt it will. Constant terror isn’t as easily romanticized as a single explosion. Living it day after day becomes drudgery. It’s just your life, and you have to keep breathing. It doesn’t have the rise and fall that makes a decent plot. And there’s little chance of a glorious resolution.

But you know, it explains a lot about the world, seeing it in terms of PTSD. More and more people are living with the wearing stress of poverty, the threat of losing everything to one catastrophic illness, the chance of falling victim to gun violence, the fear (real or not) of terrorism. Is it any wonder that some grasp at safety any way they can?

Life is a terrifying, catastrophic event for all too many. Think on that.

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A Witch’s Perspective on Worship and the Divine

A few months back, I was talking with an Atheist friend about the concept of worship. She had posted a series of tweets on the subject, most revolving around her opinion that putting anyone, human or deity, on a pedestal is unhealthy and worship is in and of itself a bad idea.

To a degree, I agree with her. I remember once telling my father (the Presbyterian minister, remember) that, in my ten- or twelve-year-old opinion, any god who required worship from its followers wasn’t a god who deserved it, and in any case, was no one I wanted to talk to. I’m afraid in religious matters, I often caused my father to fear for my fate in the afterlife.

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I think now the problem stems from the connotations of the word, not the actual meaning. My dictionary defines “worship” as “The reverent love and allegiance accorded a deity, idol, or sacred object,” “The set of ceremonies, prayers, or other forms by which this love is expressed,” or “Ardent, humble devotion.” The verb form means “To venerate,” or “to participate in the ceremonies connected with a religion.” I personally don’t see anything objectionable in these definitions. However, in many modern religions, particularly those which look to a single transcendental god, “worship” also carries the connotation of some form of self-abasement. They participate in and promulgate the notion that “god” is, by nature, superior: the pinnacle of Creation and outside of it. The followers of this type of god are required to perform particular rituals and adhere to a particular strict code in order to avoid angering their deity and bringing down its wrath. In most cases, recognition of the divine in one’s self is the most heinous of sins, as is any action that might be interpreted as putting one’s self on a level with one’s god. In the Garden of Eden myth, YHWH was not nearly as ticked that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as he was afraid that they’d eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, and become “as gods.”

In return for this kind of worship and acknowledging your place in the scheme of things–i.e., your deity dispenses rules; you follow them; god is big and all-powerful; you are nothing of the kind nor should you be–religious practitioners often receive exclusive benefits, like status as their god’s chosen people and access to a special afterlife. Hey, you want that land where a different tribe has lived for a thousand years instead of this manky desert? No problem! Your god gives you permission to drive out the infidels in his name! Are you tired of being sweaty and exhausted after a long day hoeing your fields? Check it: you can take this tribe as a slave race! After all, they don’t worship the same god, so they’re not really people, anyway.

These systems promote hierarchical thinking and what Starhawk calls a “Power Over” mentality. Everything is neatly arranged on a ladder to Heaven (or wherever your deity happens to live), with gross things like worms and mud down at the bottom, god at the top, and god’s people on the uppermost rung. If you’re closer to god on the ladder, you’re allowed and even encouraged to exert power over those beneath you for whatever reason you like–because they don’t look like you, because their customs are different, because they eat weird food, whatever–as long as you remember you’re beneath god and he can throw a lightning bolt at you whenever he likes. But woe betide you if, by failing in the proper form of worship, you slip a bit lower on the ladder!

Of course, even within this type of religion, some people are closer to god than others. Not everyone fits on that top rung of the ladder, after all! Did your god make men in “his image?” Good for them! They’re higher up than women, so they get to make the Earthly rules for everyone! Did god make adult humans to begin with? Great; adults have power over children. What about that convert who came from the slave race? Well, they’re obviously lesser than the original chosen people. So racism is okay, too. Generally speaking, the more a person resembles their god, the more power they’re granted. And it’s not only acceptable but commendable to exert this power over others. After all, you only want them to resemble god as much as a human can. And if this means using violence to bring them in line, well. regrettable, but god says it’s okay!

Yeah, I’m not down with any of that.

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A different way.

 

Obviously, not all Polytheistic and/or Pagan systems are exempt from these shenanigans. When you personify phenomena you can’t control and don’t understand, like hurricanes and droughts, you’re apt to feel small and powerless, and to want to create rituals to keep your personifications from interfering with your ability to lead a happy and productive life. Pagan and polytheistic pantheons have their own power structures. As well, the further removed your deities are from the Earth and your daily life–e.g., sky gods who inhabit some remote and inaccessible mountaintop–the more hierarchical they tend to be. This is a problem, because the chosen people of hierarchical gods, filled as they are with religious fervor, often come out on top in the short run. Religious history is full of myths about warrior pantheons conquering agrarian ones. The conflict of the Aesir and the Vanir in Norse myth and the Hellenic gods absorbing the Minoan in the Mediterranean are two of the better-known cycles. However, even in these incidences polytheism has a big advantage over modern monotheism in that, instead of destroying the older gods, polytheism tends to absorb them. So instead of having just one kind of god–a warrior, say–you can have both a warrior and a farmer. You can have both gods and goddess. Both fathers and mothers. It evens things out a little.

In my family, we practice a particular kind of Paganism that even other Pagans might find peculiar (or they might not). To give you a brief rundown of our cosmology: We focus on what we call “That Which Is.” This term means just what you probably imagine it does: The Whole Shebang. The Universe and everything that lies within it and without its bounds. Things and the spaces between them. Life, death, and otherwise. What we see and what we don’t. The known and the unknowable. All of it. To us, this is Divine. But it’s not god. I’m in two minds about whether I believe it has an individual consciousness. It’s an object of respect, yes. But not of worship. How do you worship something infinite? What does it want? Does it have wants? These are questions I can’t answer, though I think about them.

Since That Which Is includes Everything, it includes gods. And, yes, other supernatural or metaphysical entities. I don’t put a limit on the infinite. I’ve tried to explain this to people before–how I cannot personally disbelieve much. Particularly when I tell them I believe all gods Are, people don’t handle it well. Often I get some response like, “But if all gods are, then none are!” or “If all gods are, then they can’t be gods!” both of which make no sense to me. I mean, all people Are, whether they’re Chinese or Mongolian or Nigerian or North American. The existence of one doesn’t negate the existence of the rest. And calling the Chinese “people” doesn’t mean the Nigerians can’t be “people,” or that none of them can actually be “people.” Honestly, I don’t understand how other human beings think most of the time.

I suppose most of it boils down to the way I view what I call “gods:” They’re individuals–people, if you like–with different characteristics than human people: different abilities, different substance, different languages. Does this set them “above” me? Not in my belief. Yemaya may have the ability to move the ocean, but can she make a mean lasagna? In other words, sure, the gods can do things I can’t. But I can do things they can’t, not least of which is enjoy my human body for a mortal lifetime. And just as I have my faults and foibles, so do the gods. Some can have hair-trigger tempers. Some can be fickle. Some can’t dance. Do I feel the need to propitiate them? Not really. I don’t actually speak to most of them. I have real relationships with very few.

I can envision readers with more hierarchical ideas of god cringing and protesting about now. If gods are like people, then how can they be gods? If they have faults, why should we worship them? If they aren’t all-powerful, if they make mistakes, if, if, if… Plato had a lot of the same problems, by the way. It’s part of why he wanted to close the theaters–which would have made one god in particular very unhappy with him. And would that god have extracted revenge? He might have. Plato’s problem, not mine.

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A personal altar.

 

My “worship” doesn’t hinge on abasement and propitiation. It hinges on relationship and communication. I treat the gods the same way I treat my friends–that is, the ones I speak to. I wish them good morning. I do nice things for them. I acknowledge their presence. Sometimes, I ask them for favors, but not often. What does it look like? It might look like burning a candle or inviting them to dinner. It might look like listening instead of beseeching. It might look like asking their opinion on my writing. It might look like any number of things I do or don’t do when they enter my consciousness. And what do they do for me? Depends. Sometimes it’s difficult to know.

As for the gods I don’t have a relationship with, I don’t worry about them. They don’t bother me. Why should they? I’m not their property. They don’t have a right to me. I worry FAR more about moronic, self-centered human beings who claim to be acting in some god’s name. Maybe they ARE acting in some god’s name. I have NO obligation to fall into line and EVERY obligation to tell their god to shove it up his celestial ass. Deity gives no one the right to be a bully. And maybe a god will smite me some day, just cause. I don’t waste my time worrying about it. It hasn’t happened yet. Divine bullies generally back off when you stand up to them.

I look at other people’s relationship with their deities and I often think, “Why in the WORLD would you want to worship a god who requires you to live in a way that makes you unhappy and threatens you with eternal torment if you don’t?” Hey, if your religion works for you, great. But if not, why? Why continue to try to force yourself into a box you’re not remotely shaped to fit? Why punish yourself for not being a “good enough” member of your religion when you have another choice?

Ah, well. That’s the thing about polytheism. It allows for another choice.

I agree with my Atheist friend. When “worship” means putting another, be it a human person or a deity, on a pedestal, practicing self-abasement, and engaging in ritualized behavior out of fear of the consequences, it’s not healthy. In fact, this kind of worship is the very template for abusive relationships. And as in abusive relationships, the people most in need of getting out for their own safety’s sake are the ones least empowered to do so. I’m thankful for my more inclusive view and a way of interacting with the divine that encourages me to stand up straight, look the gods in the face, and act with both compassion and pride. I only wish more people would come to understand that another way is not only possible, but worthy. The world would, in my opinion, be a kinder place.

 

Vampires Are Real

A piece of writing advice I see over and over again is “Read within your genre.” This is something I don’t do much, for several reasons.  One is that for a long time, like many other (mostly Indie) writers who combine different aspects of fiction, I didn’t know what to call the genre I wrote in. It was only after an early review called The Unquiet Grave “Paranormal” that I decided I fit into that genre better than any other, if I absolutely had to settle on a recognizable genre for marketing purposes.

But another reason I don’t read much Paranormal is that I don’t like it. And the main reason I don’t like it is that it has a bad tendency to fetishize aspects of the Supernatural in which I very much believe and sometimes relate to on a personal level. I’ve talked about this in regard to Witches and Paganism elsewhere. Supernatural creatures like Werewolves, Faeries, Mermaids, Selkies, and especially Vampires, are most often portrayed as hyper-sexualized, alluring, generally misunderstood and mightily abused beings just waiting for the right Mundane to see through their darkness and lead them into the light, often defined as a “more human” existence. And while I do appreciate the theme of finding a commonality of experience in those different than ourselves, I despise the idea that acceptable behaviour hinges on fitting in with the norm–i.e., Vampires who vow only to drink pigs’ blood (unless engaged in sex with their mortal lovers) and Were-creatures who give up hunting and settle down in the suburbs. I cringe when I read a so-called Romance based in coercion and misinformation. I get sick at my stomach when illustrations of nubile, mini-skirted teens with sparks flying from their fingers pop up in my Twitter feed. I hope most respectable authors would think twice about objectifying LBGTQ people or people of another race this way. But I guess most think “It’s okay, because these creatures are fictional.”

Do you remember what your Romantic hero eats? (credit: leejun35)
Do you remember what your Romantic hero eats? (credit: leejun35)

I’m not going into what I believe or disbelieve about the objective “reality” of the Supernatural here. I want to speak as a folklorist. I’ve studied Other and belief about Other virtually all my life. My specialty is Faery- and gods-lore, but many of the same ideas apply. The stories we tell about the things that go bump in the night don’t exist merely to scare us. They exist to tell us how to recognize and confront the monsters that pop up in our lives. How to communicate with them. How to avoid them. Because maybe the forms they take in story are objectively “real” and maybe they aren’t, but it’s sure as shit that they exist in metaphor. Unless you’re very lucky, you’ve met people who are fickle and manipulative, who look beautiful until you gain access to an “ointment” that shows you their true nature. People who seem benign until you cross them. People who shift from polite to bestial in the blink of an eye or with the phase of the moon. People who suck out your vital energy until you have nothing left, and maybe you resort to sucking the energy out of others.

You’ve met vampires. And they are charismatic and alluring. They’re also no one you want to be around.

As a Pagan interacting with other Pagans, I’ve heard the term “Psychic Vampire” being tossed around for years and years. And you know, I always thought it was a bit absurd. Hyperbolic. Until I read this article, which deals with exorcizing a vampire in a Pagan context. It blew my mind a bit, because I realized that I had experienced the same things the writer experienced in their group over and over again. But I hadn’t understood what it was. Because, even though I’m a Pagan and I believe in a lot of things other people don’t, I had been pre-programmed to dismiss Vampires as myth. I didn’t get the metaphor. I only saw the blood. But, as my professor friend reminded me, before Bram Stoker took a hand, real Slavic Vampires could be anything. They can be people, houses, rocks. It’s the stuff that sucks the psychic energy from you.

And I realized another thing:

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I can think of three, maybe four times people in my life have turned out to be psychic vampires, and the pattern is always the same. I get into a relationship with a charismatic, energetic, motivated individual. At first, it’s exhilarating. Before long, we’re sharing deep truths about ourselves. I see that my friend has a dark center–past trauma, usually–and I feel honoured to be entrusted with it. Then the drain starts. It’s subtle. My new friend needs to be the center of attention, and assures this is the case in various ways, maybe by emoting in a vaguely threatening way when she isn’t, maybe by crying and expressing that their needs aren’t being met, maybe by initiating a conversation on social media from which it’s almost impossible to get away. There’s always some kind of crisis in my friend’s life that means I have to be supportive. And the thing is, it’s always a REAL CRISIS. You can’t say it’s made up. A family member contracts a devastating illness, or my friend loses a job, or is about to become homeless. It’s really difficult to say that these incidents are manufactured. Of course, you can’t blame a person for things happening to them or the people around them. But somehow, more and more of my energy is required. And somehow, though my friend reassures me that they will “always be there for me,” it doesn’t turn out that way.

If I’m really lucky and on point, I see what’s happening and get out. More often I don’t understand how drained I am until someone else points it out, or until some Dea Ex Machina event, like meeting a new lover or getting a new job, forces me to extract myself. A time or two, I rubbed my Vampire the wrong way–I set a boundary the Vampire didn’t like or called them on a behaviour they didn’t want to own–and they ran.

My last therapist told me that I keep getting into these relationships over and over again because of some pattern I learned in childhood, and that might be true. I am perfect Vampire Bait.

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Psychic Vampires are always at the center of the crowd. At least, it looks that way to me, maybe because of the whirlpool of energy that gets created as they suck the juices from those around them. Anyway, I’m a sucker for attention from anyone who looks like they’re the cool kid to be seen with, the one who picks and chooses who gets to be in the clique. (I think this must stem from all those times being chosen dead last for dodgeball.) I crave recognition, and a Vampire gives it by the simple act of including me in the club. I’m also highly empathic, especially where other people’s fears and pain are involved. I want to make them stop. Consequently, I will listen and support and give my energy beyond the point where it is healthy for me, always hoping to fill the Vampire’s deep well of darkness. I’ve noticed that Vampires often prey on empaths for this reason (and it’s a trope you also see in Paranormal fiction with Vampires of the blood-sucking variety). They COUNT ON us feeling sorry for them and wanting to make it better. A few of the people from my past whom I’ve come to recognize as Vampires have claimed to be empathic as well, but I can’t say I ever saw this borne out. Most of them are too hungry to have a good feel for other people’s emotions. And they also have all the qualities I admire in others and believe I lack. They’re motivated, outgoing, outwardly self-assured. They’re attractive. When I’m the object of their attention, I feel important and loved. I feel like I have worth. It’s a hard trap to extricate myself from.

One of the worst things about having been prey to a Psychic Vampire is no one believes you until they’ve also been prey. Usually to the specific Vampire you’re trying to warn them about, less often to another of the same type. So you can’t say anything. I get stuck in the place of telling myself, “Well, maybe their experience will be different,” because I feel like coming out and saying, “Please watch out for so-and-so. I know you think you’re friends, but it won’t turn out well” makes me look crazy. Plus, over and over again I have tried to speak out, only to be told things like “Oh, shit always happens in bands,” or “She may be bad in certain circumstances, but she’s fun to be with,” or “You’re blowing things out of proportion.” So mostly I hold my tongue, and then I have to watch my friends continue to interact with a person I know to be…ultimately unhealthy to be around, engaging in the whirlwind of activity, talking about what a good friend the person it. It pains me on a deep level. A couple of times, people who have been involved with the Vampire have come to me later and said, “Shit, you were right. They did the same thing to me.” This helps, but it’s not as validating as it would be if, say, people believed me in the first place. If people took my part and told the Vampire, “That thing you did to Kele was really messed up.”

This is why I cannot get on board with the fetishizing of Vampires in fiction. The things that typify Vampire mythology aren’t romantic. They’re damaging. Some people rewrite aspects of Vampire mythology to minimize the horror. They justify. They create a more family-friendly Vampire, one you can marry and settle down with. In my opinion, this is just as repugnant as finding ways to romanticize wife battering or child abuse, and I wish it would stop.

People are fascinated with things that are other. They always have been and they always will be. I understand it. I understand the allure, the wish to explore our own shadow sides by giving then life in the form of dark heroes and heroines. It’s a safe way to touch a place most do not even want to acknowledge. But it’s unwise to forget the meaning behind the symbols, and to fall in love with things who survive on your vital energy.

Reread the old stories and remember the blood.

 

When Positive Becomes Negative

Yesterday my husband and I had to run some errands in the town thirty miles away. It was getting to be dinner time while we were there, so we elected to go to our favourite Italian place. We both had the night’s special, a wonderful portabella mushroom ravioli topped with fresh spinach and Alfredo sauce. I ate a little over half of mine, and then I was through with it. But I still didn’t feel quite satisfied. This happens to me often, both at home and when we eat out. My body tells me I’ve had enough of a particular thing, but it would like a little more of something different.

I got my leftovers boxed up to go, and then the waitress asked the typical question: “Did you leave room for dessert?”

I like dessert. I’m not going to lie about that. I’m also particular about desserts. I rarely order one just to have one; something has to appeal to me on a deep level. Well, one of the desserts at the restaurant yesterday was chocolate mousse with strawberries. I love chocolate mousse and I don’t get it often. So we ordered one to share. When it came, it looked like this:

I mean, really. Who would turn this down?
I mean, really. Who would turn this down?

And it was just as good as it looked. My husband and I consumed it with extreme delight. As I rolled the smooth chocolate and slices of strawberry over my tongue, I thought about how much pleasure I was getting out of sitting in a restaurant, sharing a luscious dessert with my husband–far more pleasure than I’ve ever taken in exercise or the feeling of my body when it hasn’t carried an excess 75-odd pounds. I remembered a meme I see a lot from Facebook friends who are into the whole fitness and health-centered way of life:  “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” and in that moment, I understood it for what it is: Bullshit.

There was no way in hell I was going to feel bad about that chocolate mousse. I wanted it, I ate it, and I enjoyed it. My body stopped feeling like it wanted just a little something more. No harm, no foul.

This morning, I opened up my email to the latest motivational message from the positive lifestyle change group I’m following. The subject, “It’s Okay to Screw Up,” didn’t give me too much pause. It’s an important topic, after all. I lived the first twenty-five years of my life afraid of making mistakes, afraid a single misstep would doom me forever. I remember the first time someone–it was a dance teacher–told me it was fine to make mistakes. It changed my life.

But as I read on, I began to notice something discomfiting about the terminology. Though the message was a fine one, the words used to express it relied way too much on the body-shaming diet industry mode of thinking this group exists to counter. Things like “setting tangible goals…leaves the shadow of failure lurking on the horizon,” and “It’s easy to drop the ball if you screw up,” and, most of all, ” A life of moderation and joy means identifying your failures, your faults, your slip-ups, and letting them go. More than that, in fact. It’s about enjoying them.

By the time I got to the end of the post, “I would hate to think anyone missed out on the joy of eating a big slice of cake by being too preoccupied with guilt to properly enjoy it,” I wanted to scream because the group leader, despite her good intentions, had, without being aware of it, undermined her entire message. How? By framing certain food and activity choices as FAILURES. If you have pasta when you’ve resolved to cut out carbohydrates, it’s a failure. If you skip the gym one day because you don’t have the energy, you’ve screwed up. And although she encourages people not to dwell on these events and move on, in the end she has reinforced the success/failure dichotomy.

This might be a tricky issue for people who are not as obsessed with language as I am. The thing is, words like “failure,” “denial,” “mistake,” “cheat day,” “screw up,” and even terms like “falling off the wagon,” and “lack of progress toward your goal” carry negative meanings even when we try to use them in positive situations. And in our goal-oriented, success-driven society, they will trigger feelings of inadequacy and deprivation simply by existing. The subtext is, “You should be THIS way, but instead you’re THAT way.” One is good. The other is bad. And the outcome of saying “pay attention to your failures” emphasizes the importance of failure as a possibility. That is going to make people MORE apt to attach to their “failures” rather than less.

Now, I’m not a big believer in failure as a total concept. My focus is more on what works in the moment. If my goal is to walk two miles every day and on Sunday I don’t because it’s freezing outside, or because I’m sick, or for whatever reason, I don’t think of it as a failure. I don’t even consider it a set-back. I think, “Hmm, that didn’t happen today. That didn’t work.” The important thing is to keep the goal in mind. So, I would have framed today’s email in a much different way. I would have said something like, “When you set a tangible, long-term goal, there are going to be times when the work necessary to achieving it isn’t going to be possible. That’s fine. The trick is to remember that your goal is long term. One day of having a doughnut for breakfast is not going to make or break the goal as long as you keep striving.”

See? I expressed the same idea without using the word “failure” at all.

After reading the email this morning, I got curious. I went back over all the emails pertinent to this group, and looked through the group posts themselves, to see how often this kind of thing occurs. The answer is “WAY TOO MUCH.” Here are some examples.

“…give yourself a treat to take the edge off how much you’re denying yourself…”

“Little failures are not the end of the world.”

“…mistakes like take-out food and skipped workouts slip back in…”

All these things were surrounded by positive talk about being mindful and taking care of yourself. And that’s great! But what about the day taking care of yourself means not going for a run because your feet hurt or you have a blinding headache? What about the day you’re operating at such a high stress level that taking care of yourself looks like ordering in Chinese food, or even grabbing a burger? Taking care of yourself doesn’t always mean allowing yourself the time and space to create an all-organic, vegetarian, wheat-free dinner. It doesn’t always mean being active. Sometimes it means allowing yourself to say NO. Even to your goals.

Believe me, eating that chocolate mousse last night was no failure. It was no mistake. It wasn’t cheating or giving in.

Why is this supposed to be a good thing?
Why is this supposed to be a good thing?

The health/fitness/diet industry is an insidious part of Western society, and the way it frames relationships to food and exercise influences even our attempts to be positive. When we talk about “cutting carbs” or “cheat days” or “denying ourselves,” we’re participating in it even if our intention is exactly the opposite. We’re framing some ways of relating to our bodies and the food we eat as good and others as bad. And the more we do this, the harder it becomes to allow ourselves the freedom to make the choices that are best for us as individuals. This is particularly relevant to women, who are trained from an early age not to see our own boundaries and to place other people’s opinions of what we “should” be and how we “should” act above our own body wisdom. I have a particular problem with this as a migraine sufferer. I honestly do not know if my pain is a valid reason to give myself a break, back off from activity, and eat and drink things I have learned over the years will help–like a Coke and a steak–or if I “should” ignore my body’s signals and “muscle on through.” I have to rely on my husband to tell me it’s okay to relax. Fortunately for me, I have a husband who does this.

Language is the way we understand our reality. You can’t create a positive life if you continue to use the language of negativity and failure. If you want to make a real, long-term change, practice reframing your language in a positive way. Instead of “acknowledging your failures,” celebrate your choices. Believe me, it makes all the difference.

Motivation Confuses Me

Early January is that time of year when people in the Western World, by common consensus and an arbitrary calendar date-change, commit to starting fresh. People make resolutions and set goals for the new year. These goals often involve diet and exercise. One body-positive blogger I’m fond of hosts a month-long group along these lines, with the intent of countering the for-profit diet industry and steering people away from damaging myths and negative thinking. I’ve never been one for resolutions (and I may get into the reasons for this more as the post progresses), but this year, I thought, “What the hell? I need help, and this sure couldn’t hurt.” So I signed up to receive the daily emails and I joined the Facebook group.

Now, I’m no stranger to “lifestyle changes”–or, at least, attempted lifestyle changes, particularly those revolving around diet and exercise. The last round began seven or so years ago. It started the way they usually do: I got fed up with myself. My weight had gone significantly higher than 200 lbs. I didn’t like the way I felt and I didn’t like the way I looked. So I joined Weight Watchers, which I’d never done before. I tracked my “points” religiously. I made a point of getting more exercise. And I lost weight–fairly easily and quickly, too. Yay, me! Within a few months I’d gone from a size 20 to a size 14. I may have been able to wear a size 12, but I never bought anything smaller than a size 14. I was proud of myself. I liked myself better. I liked my body better.

However. I never managed to achieve my “goal weight” according to Weight Watchers, which was 145 (ironically, this is the weight I started out at WAY back in high school, before my eating disorders, when I was regarded as a “Fat Cow”). I got down to about 162, but I never could get my weight any lower. And I only kept my weight as low as that by adhering rigidly to the “weight loss” program. Every time I tried to switch over to maintenance, I gained. Fast. And even on the “weight loss” system, my weight started to creep back up, eventually stabilizing at about 175.

It didn’t help much that at this same time, I was dealing with the worst recurrence of my chronic depression that I’d experienced since high school. My GP had run me through every medication she could think of with no success, and finally referred me to a psychiatrist. This gentleman, while he did diagnose me with Bipolar Disorder, also put me on a cocktail of drugs that only relieved my depression by way of turning me into an unfeeling zombie. Eventually, in the summer of 2009, I ended up in the hospital again. But hey–I’d kept the weight off!

When I got out of the hospital, I stopped seeing that psychiatrist and started seeing a mental health nurse practitioner, who supervised my getting off all the unnecessary medications and trying out others until we finally found one that worked. I started feeling better. I started writing again. At the same time, I realized I hated Weight Watchers. Keeping track of everything I put into my mouth made me feel terrible. The “modified recipes” I’d been using, which I’d been so pleased with at the start, struck me as tasteless and vile. The constant exercise exhausted me. So I stopped. I stopped everything. It wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life. It made me unhappy, and unhappiness was something I was trying not to participate in.

Please don't make me eat salad again!
Please don’t make me eat salad again!

Of course, the weight came back. Slowly at first, but then faster and faster. Some of it may have been due to the new medications I was taking. But some of it I probably could have prevented. I’ve never liked exercise for its own sake, so I stopped doing it. In the worst part of my depression, I’d got out of the habit of leaving the house at all, and after the depression lifted, I didn’t go back to it. Forget walking three miles a day; now I didn’t even walk the mile downtown and back to check the mail, which had been part of my daily routine. Going out and being seen triggered my anxiety, and, after all, my husband could pick up the mail on his way home from work. My main exercise was walking back and forth between the couch and my office.

Well, anyway. Currently I weigh 240 lbs, more than I ever have in my life. I don’t like it. I don’t feel good. None of my clothes fit. I don’t feel pretty. I sweat a lot, and I think I smell bad, and I’ve developed asthma. I’m not totally sedentary–I do yoga several times a week. And I don’t eat a lot of junk (although I have become lazy about cooking and I probably don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables). But it’s not enough. I’ve tried several times to shed the weight I’ve gained. I even rejoined Weight Watchers a couple times. Nothing ever worked, and I’ve always quit again after the three-month introductory period when I haven’t lost any weight. My doctor has tested my thyroid and my blood sugar and a whole bunch of other things. She’s tried me on medications that are supposed to aid weight loss. She sent me to an endocrinologist. Nothing’s wrong with me on a physical level that anyone can find. None of the medications had any effect. Nothing worked at all.

I just need to get more exercise, and I can’t make myself do it. Which leads me back to signing up for the motivational emails and the Facebook group, in an attempt to kickstart my latest “lifestyle change.”

I want to make it clear, here, that I have nothing against bodies being any size at all. I know beautiful fat people, and beautiful thin people, and it’s all good. But I don’t like the shape my body is in. I don’t feel good, and I don’t feel healthy. A few months back, I went to an event my husband’s band was playing at, and I wanted to dance. I couldn’t. Not even through one song. My legs hurt, and my balance was bad, and I got short of breath. This, from a person who once danced six to eight hours a day. I want to be able to dance again.

Back to the thirty days of positive motivation: I’m on day three. Today’s email asked a couple of questions: “What is your positive goal?” and “What resources can you use to use to help you stick to your goal?” Okay. Positive goal for me is easy. I want to feel better. I want to be healthier. I want to be able to dance again. All good things.

The second question, though…The group leader gave a couple examples. She has a music playlist (which she shared) that helps her get jazzed. And she’s going to reward herself with a mani-pedi “because I’m awesome and I deserve it!”

My gut reaction to this statement was “That’s really classist.” Must be nice to spend money on something like that when you feel like it! I’m a woman on disability married to a poor schoolteacher. Every single penny we can come up with is spoken for. What resources can I use? I dunno; I don’t have a lot of resources at all.

I realize this is flawed thinking. I do have resources. I have a computer with access to the internet. I have a good music collection. I have a pretty nice house. And, as friends pointed out when I posted about this on Facebook, you don’t need money to pamper yourself. You can give yourself a mani-pedi! I even have a foot soak kit I bought months ago that I’ve never used. Anything that gives you pleasure is a good reward. So my friends told me.

As I considered this more (while doing yoga–hooray for me!), I realized…No. I didn’t realize it, because it’s something I’ve been aware of for some time, in a vague kind of way. I made a fumbling attempt to confront my real issue here. (Sidebar: I’m thinking more and more that this year, for me, is going to be about peeling off another layer and addressing stuff I’ve known forever on an intellectual level but never carried into a place where I can deal with it. Huzzah!) I have a problem finding motivation. I have a problem with rewards-based thinking. I have a problem wanting things. I have a problem feeling pleasure at all. And all these things combine to create a major stumbling block in my ability to achieve my “goals.”

gas-gauge-meme-generator-motivation-c080a7

Pleasure, desire, sense of accomplishment, sense of gratification: It seems to me all these are useful things to focus on when you motivation is running on empty. But I don’t experience any of them, not really. I am pathologically detached from them. What I mean is, when I say, “I want my body to be in better shape,” or “I want to be able to dance again,” it’s a thought. I don’t feel it on any deep level. It doesn’t carry any weight or have any meaning. It’s theoretical. The same when I finish a writing project, or clean the house, or, I don’t know, go for a walk or take a shower. I don’t get a sense that it means anything. The best I can manage is, “Well, that was nice. Okay. What now?”

I have some ideas about why this is. My family wasn’t great in the praise and reward department. In fact, they were (and are) abysmal. I was raised with the expectation that I would be exceptional, so when I was, it was no big deal. It was just being who I was supposed to be. No one praised me for writing a prize-winning paper or rewarded me for getting cast in a play. No one celebrated me or my accomplishments. In fact, some of those accomplishments were seen as problematic. If I got cast in a play, someone would have to drive me to rehearsals and pick me up after. I was raised to fit into the spaces of my parents’ lives. What I did in those spaces was up to me, and it had nothing to do with them. They never mentioned what I did unless it caused a problem. As a result, I can’t view anything I do as a big deal, no matter how exceptional it might be. I never learned that I was worthy of praise or reward. And I have no context for praising or rewarding myself, aside from (generally toxic) standards I picked up from social messages along the way.

In a similar way, I learned not to want things too much. If I expressed a desire, I could count on being told why it was wrong for me to want that, or why it was impractical, or how selfish I was for wanting something that would put my parents out. “No, we won’t take you to the amusement park because Daddy wouldn’t enjoy that.” I could count on being judged according to the actions of siblings who came before me. Here’s an example: When I was a kid, I loved art. I really wanted an artist’s easel. One year at Christmas time, I accidentally stumbled upon an easel that had been hidden in the basement closet. I was so excited! I thought I was going to get what I wanted. But when it came time to open presents, there was no easel among mine. Later, my sister brought her kids over. The easel went to one of her daughters. I was young enough not to be as afraid of my parents as I became later, so I asked about this. “Why did you give her the easel and not me? I’ve been asking for one.”

This is what my mother told me: “We got an easel for your sisters once and the never used it. It was a waste of money. We figured you’d do the same thing, so we didn’t want to waste the money on you. But your niece has real talent.”

I’m not going to bother to deconstruct the message in this. Just let it sink in.

Lots of New Age-type people spout the inspirational message “Let go of expectation.” I guess they mean to say that if you let go of expectation you’ll never suffer the disappointment I did over that easel. But it’s a message I despise, because when you’re completely free of expectation, why the hell should you do anything? I’m here to tell you that a life free of expectation is a miserable life, one without hope. People talk a lot about finding motivation from within and not counting on outside validation. “Do it because you want to!” But that only goes so far. It becomes a burden. If you never get any external validation at all, your internal motivation dries up and blows away on the wind. It’s like those fantasy novels where wizards use up their inner resources doing some huge spell and burn the magic out of themselves. It’s a limited quantity.

grumpy motivation

I suppose what I suffer here is a variety of Learned Helplessness. Achieving a goal through actions that put me outside my comfort zone never gets me anything. Why should I bother going outside my comfort zone? Losing a bunch of weight in High School didn’t make me any less of a pariah. It didn’t get me the role I wanted in the musical. I’ve lost and gained since then, and it never made a real difference. There are things I want on a deeper level, sure. But getting in better shape isn’t going to magically restore my fertility, not at this point. My husband says he thinks I’m beautiful no matter what I weigh or look like. Getting in better shape isn’t going to make him more comfortable with showing attraction toward me. It’s not going to make my books sell more. It’s not going to bring our family out of poverty. I could get up off the couch for any of those things. In comparison, the idea of “wanting to be able to dance again” is distant. When do I ever dance, anyway?

The idea of reward also seems to conflict with my sense of inherent worth. If I’m an amazing person anyway, why should something I like be held above my head as a reward for an achievement? Don’t I deserve that mani-pedi no matter what I do? And if I can only earn the right to something I want through engaging in activity that I don’t like, doesn’t that mean that doing what I enjoy makes me unworthy?

I understand that making a radical change requires you to go outside your comfort zone. Believe me, I’ve done that, over and over again. But I seem to have reached a point where, when I weigh my comfort against the possible outcome of making a change, I can’t figure out how intentionally making myself uncomfortable is worth the distress. I don’t get anything out of it. And I can’t imagine a life where I would. It might be different if making little changes, like doing yoga five times a week instead of three, had any kind of impact. But it doesn’t. And all too often even that small change triggers an averse reaction, like a migraine that lays me out for three days. Maybe having to puff on an inhaler ten times a day in order to draw a deep breath is better.

I don’t like my fat, out of shape self. I truly don’t. But I’ve had enough ups and downs in the body department to know–or to believe, anyway–that my identity baseline doesn’t actually change much, no matter what kind of shape I’m in. And in case you’re wondering, I’ve done the CBT and the DBT and the BMT, and all the positive-thinking exercises there are. They don’t work for me. It’s not a thought I have to change. My beliefs don’t live in my head. They live in my stomach. I can feel them there like a lead weight, every day.

Yesterday, when I was in the middle of writing this, something came up and we had to go out. I put on a bra and jeans, something I don’t usually do. I kept them on for six hours or so, during which we went to dinner. By the time I got in the car to go home, I was miserable. I couldn’t breathe. Everything felt too tight. I couldn’t bend over without my stomach pushing into my pants and the waistband of my jeans cutting off my air. I thought, “Maybe this is something I could do. If I put on real clothes every day instead of wearing sweats (i.e., being comfortable), maybe it would motivate me to lose the weight.” And then I thought, “But that would be negative motivation, wouldn’t it?” It would be imposing an uncomfortable standard on myself in order to make a change possible. It certainly wouldn’t be a reward.

I honestly don’t know where to go with this. As I mentioned earlier, this year seems to be gearing up to be a time when I go deeper into issues of self and self-worth, issues I thought I’d come to terms with years and years ago. I welcome ideas and comments.