Fractured Mirror

My husband is the front man for a popular local Blues band. The other day as he was preparing for the latest gig, singing under his breath to make sure the songs on the set list lined up, I said, “I have this fantasy, one day I’ll come to one of your gigs all done up, in spiky high heels, a new hair-do and makeup, and a shiny dress, and strut.”

I don’t get to many of my husband’s gigs, you see.  The place his band plays most often is ninety miles away, and he has to be there for set up and sound check at four o’clock for an eight-thirty show. With the show going to eleven-thirty, tear down, and the drive coming and going, he’s gone nearly twelve hours for every three-hour gig. Since we only have one car, I couldn’t arrive later or leave earlier. Twelve hours is a bit much for me to be hanging around with no place to decompress.

He said, “I’d like to see you strut up to the stage, pull me down, and start dancing with me.”

“The problem is,” I said, “that whenever I try stuff like that it never works. It doesn’t feel the way I want it to feel. I don’t get the reaction I expect, or I get no reaction at all.” I paused. “Of course, people say you should do things for yourself and not in hopes of some reaction.”

I was thinking about this conversation this morning as I did my physical therapy. About how things never turn out quite the way I want or expect them to. And it occurred to me: other people’s reactions, or lack thereof, aren’t exactly what puts me off from dressing up and showing off. It’s the fact that those reactions don’t line up with what I feel inside. That is, I don’t get the confirmation I’d like of my interior reality. The times in the past when I have tried to strut my stuff, I generally feel pretty good about it. If I don’t feel beautiful, or hot, or confident, I can’t make the effort in the first place. But inevitably, because I’m fat (i.e., I don’t match socially accepted beauty standards), or I don’t have the “right” clothes, or some reason I don’t know, people with whom I come into contact don’t react the way they would to a beautiful, hot, confident person. At best, they don’t react as if anything is different or special about me at all. At worst, they treat me as an object of derision, “Look at that pitiful fat woman who thinks she’s all that!”

It’s like looking in a funhouse mirror that, instead of showing me the beautiful, powerful woman I feel myself to be–the one I know myself to be, when I’m thinking properly–shows me a monster, or a Cubist painting with fifteen eyes and ears where the mouth should be. Or nothing at all.

broken-mirror

I’ve also experienced the opposite kind of distortion: times when I’ve gone out dancing just for me, not meaning to impress anyone or leave a mark, are invariably the times when some random, skanky dude starts hitting on me. It’s always the skanky dudes, never the ones you might feel reciprocal interest in. Or maybe all guys are skanky when you’re just trying to have a good time for yourself.

Both circumstances make it extremely hard to trust my perception of reality, and both have led me to armor myself when appearing in public. Worse, they’ve led me to pull farther and farther inside my shell because I can’t anticipate with any confidence what’s going to happen when I step outside. Sometimes weeks pass without my leaving the house. When I do leave, I’m always on the alert, always evaluating: what’s happening here? Is this person going to make some comment I’ll have to respond to? If they do, will it be one I’m prepared for, or something out of the blue? Can I go about my business in peace? Or do I have to be ready for something weird that hasn’t entered into my plans?

Outside my home, I’m never entirely sure what’s real or what’s going on. And I’m sure at least a portion of this is due to my having CPTSD, which got exponentially worse after my three years trying to front a band where one of the members had untreated Narcissistic Personality Disorder (in my opinion, which I think is valid. I had a lot of experience with this person upon which to base my armchair diagnosis). Going farther back, my entire childhood was spent among people who never let me have a feeling or experience of my own, but twisted my every expression to be about themselves.

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if there is anything I can do. Pushing forward in spite of what others might think hasn’t worked. I’ve only succeeded in becoming more uncomfortable and insecure, and the effort is more trouble than it’s worth. When you can’t see your reflection properly, why look in a mirror at all? Letting go of expectation from others and only doing things for myself is…well, I never held much with that advice. Once, when I was struggling with writer’s block because I despaired of ever being published, a therapist told me, “Don’t write to be published! Just write for yourself!” I told her, “Plants don’t live to be watered, but if they aren’t watered, they die just the same.” I think the whole idea of doing things only for oneself can only be valid if you already have a secure starting point. It completely dismisses the fact that human beings are social animals what want and need input from others to thrive. And without expectation of some response, why bother doing anything at all? Some people might have an undamaged core propulsion system, but I don’t.

Basically, right now this fractured mirror epiphany is an idea I need to meditate on and talk to my therapist about. But I wanted to write a little about it, so I didn’t forget I had the epiphany in the first place.

Thoughts for a New Year

When I was a little girl, I watched Olga Korbut compete in gymnastics at the Munich Olympics on TV. She was skilled and strong and beautiful, and I wanted to be her. I told my parents I wanted to take gymnastics lessons. They said,

“If your gym teacher says you’re good at gymnastics maybe we’ll consider paying for lessons.”

My heart sank. I already knew it would never happen. Two years previously I’d changed schools, and along with the new environment, I’d gone from loving gym class to positively dreading it. I wasn’t part of the “in” clique. The other girls bullied me mercilessly. Especially in the locker room, where they stole my clothes and threw them into the showers, then laughed at my body when I went to retrieve them. The gym teacher, a grey-haired woman made of steel and leather, looked the other way because I wasn’t a promising student. On the hockey field I was slow, big, clumsy. When we did the gymnastics unit in late winter, the uneven bars terrified me and I excelled in “uncool” areas like balance beam. Since the coach spent all her time with the girls on the bars, she’d never see the one place I did well.

No gymnastics lessons for me.

This kind of thing was par for the course in my family–at least, for me it was. Being so much younger than my siblings, especially my sisters, I never got a good picture of their early lives. If I wanted to do something, gaining the support of my parents, especially monetary support, meant providing proof I was already good at it, either in the form of a teacher’s recommendation, or in dedication unusual for a young child. And maybe this isn’t unusual. Just this morning, we ran into a friend at the doctor’s office who spoke of his daughter’s love of music. “If she keeps up, we’ll buy her a full-sized instrument in a couple of years,” he said. Knowing his family, however, I can’t help but think they supported their daughter in other ways before now. As a child, it seemed to me my parents were always throwing me into the deep end of the pool to see if I sank or swam (except when it came to actual swimming. There, my dad took care to see I knew how). If I swam, good; I’d earned the right to whatever I wanted to do. If not, too bad. I must not have wanted it very much in the first place.

Over forty years have passed since I watched Olga Korbut, and I still have trouble doing things simply because they bring me pleasure. I always seek the justification: Have I proven the right to engage in this activity by being incredibly skilled at it? By flying without a net far beyond the time any sane person would have sought one out or put one in place? Am I good? Really good; good enough to deserve to do what I love? A lot of the time I’m not even certain what it is that I DO love. It seems to me there are many activities I might enjoy, did I not have this need to be exceptional at them all the time. Hiking, camping, skiing, all kinds of physical things. In the realm of the physical, it isn’t just my early training holding me back; it’s the fact that, my body size being what it is, I feel I have to prove that all large people can succeed in being physical. That’s not to mention the whole other aspect of large people moving: that a large person moving must necessarily be trying to become less large. I know I would enjoy music more if I could sing for the sheer joy of it or pick up my flute without feeling I have to plunge straight into Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto or the Gravel Walk at top speed.

Because of all those things, I rarely engage in activities I suspect I might like, or have liked in the past. So I get more and more rusty at them until, far from being skilled, I’m quite terrible at them. And that’s more than reason not to do them some more. When I do engage, most often I feel none of the pleasure I hoped for, only grim effort. That’s almost worse. Doing anything at all becomes more trouble than it’s worth.

Worth. That concept again. The idea that what comes out of me doesn’t measure up to the investment.

In the coming year. I mean to focus on things I like more. I want to find the place where I can still like them, the place where I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I want to have more fun. I want to remember that, in spite of struggle, not EVERYTHING is a struggle. Play is a good thing. Joy is a good thing. Not all activities have to “pan out” or “measure up” or “become” anything other than what they are in a single, brief moment. When I lose track of this fact, my life becomes one of unending struggle and brutality. Keeping track is hard. I’m often afraid if I don’t do the hard parts of life, no one will, and if I unclench my mind so that all the details I’ve arranged there have space to breathe and rattle around, then some will escape. Then, I think, no one will save me.

I don’t want to focus too much on the hard parts here. I know it’s a form of self-sabotage. There’s always an excuse not to do enjoyable or potentially enjoyable things. It would take too much effort I’d better spend elsewhere, I think, or How can I go swimming when I haven’t mopped the kitchen in a couple months, or But we have so many bills! As if sitting home and worrying about the bills will get them paid.

I want to nurture the enjoyment as I would a seedling, in hopes it will grow and flourish. I don’t know if it will work. But then, I’m trying to get away from the idea of only doing what I’m sure will work.

A final word: If you have kids, don’t make your support of their interests conditional. It’s crushing, and the damaging effects last a long, long time. Kids are smarter than people want to believe, and they know when your support is half-hearted or insincere. Put too many conditions on it, and they’re likely to conclude, as I did, that pursuing their interests is too much trouble and requires jumping through too many hoops. When I worked with autistic adults, one thing we tried to abide by as staff was never making primary reinforcement (Food, shelter, love) conditional on behavioral change. I think joy is just as much as primary reinforcer as any, and should be shared without strings attached.

 

Two Weeks Later

Two weeks and two days ago, I woke up, along with the rest of the United States, knowing that Donald Trump had, contrary to all polls and predictions, and an increasing amount of the popular vote, won the election. This is what I’ve witnessed, read, and experienced since then, in no particular order and presented as much as possible without judgment (though there are definitely items on the list I find personally repugnant).

  • People texting or messaging me, to whom I’ve rarely spoken before, to express their dismay and terror. People who, knowing 70% of the county in which we live voted Trump, wonder which of our neighbors did, and whether it’s safe to trust them.
  • Within a day, 200 reports of hate crimes against People of Color, Muslims, and LGBTQ+ folks, even in areas of our state that swing fairly liberal. Within two days, double that number. In almost all cases, the perpetrator referenced Trump’s win as the force empowering them.
  • The report that 53% of white women, most of them middle class and above, voted for Trump. Numerous think pieces attributing this development to women “placing race above gender in importance.”
  • A friend experiencing so much harassment after the election that before two days had passed she and her family decided to move to another state.
  • Intense arguments between the conservative half of my extended family and the liberal half.
  • People of color feeling (justifiably) betrayed and saying they will “never trust a white person again.”
  • Think pieces blaming white women in particular for being too complacent.
  • A rally of the “alt-right,” a white supremacist group, at a hotel near the White House, complete with Nazi salutes and slogans in the original German.
  • Think pieces blaming the election results on third party voters.
  • Think pieces blaming the election results on “identity politics,” and calling on the Left to empathize more with white working class voters.
  • Arguments about what kind of show of solidarity is “right” or “enough” and what kind of action allies need to take, and who gets to define all those things.
  • A definite absence of acknowledgment from the able community of how much danger Trump’s election and Republican control of (potentially) all three branches of government poses to people with disabilities.
  • Lots of people with activated trauma of various kinds lashing out at each other. Calls for solidarity being met with recriminations.
  • Large peaceful protests of the election results in nearly every major city in the country.
  • A friend frightened and in tears because the protest in her city turned violent.
  • Conservative claims that all the protests are “riots.”
  • People conflicted between maintaining the outrage that motivates them and the urge, as well as politicians’ encouragement, to treat this election as “business as usual.”
  • A huge popular movement to audit the vote in three states where the tallies were incredibly close. Jill Stein’s unprecedented campaign to do just that, which raised $2.5 million in under two days.
  • An acquaintance whose cause celèbre is Universal Basic Income insisting it’s not just “white working class;” it’s working class in general.
  • Lots of advice from various quarters on how to be as safe as possible under an authoritarian regime.

The election stressed me out more than any before, but the two weeks since have aged me in a way I never imagined possible. I’ve always looked and acted (by societal standards) younger than my age, and I haven’t felt much different in my body from the person I was twenty years ago. But lately I’ve wondered if the various passing aches I’ve attributed to other causes aren’t really a sign of my age. If the lapses in memory, which are more frequent, are a sign of encroaching senility. If I’m just as fat old woman sitting on a couch, cursing the kids and dreaming of better times. I have become my father, though still stronger than he was, I think. My husband says if my father were still around, this election would have killed him. He’s right, too.

Except for checking in on particular groups, I’ve stayed off social media. Especially Twitter, which can be a pit of adders if you don’t tread carefully. People of all persuasions are willing to speak in harsher terms there than they might elsewhere, I’ve noticed. Snark is rampant. So are claims of tone policing and “marginalized people can’t be bullies,” which is patently untrue. Anyone can be a bully. People who carry grave hurt are often particularly good ones.

I cried for a week after the election, and I’ve cried many days since. So have most of the women I know. (Yesterday my husband said he wanted to curl up in a fetal position and cry. I told him that was okay, he should cry if he needed to. He said he couldn’t remember how.) On social media, my tears of often dismissed, either indirectly or when the speaker refers to a group of which I’m part in general terms: “The fact that this outcome shocks you proves how privileged you are. My marginalized group knew all along how bad it is; you just didn’t listen.”

It’s not shock that moves me to tears. I have my own marginalizations: sexual assault survivor, disabled, mentally ill, unemployed, financially insecure. Living in a rural, white area where the main two employers closed their doors in the last year and the message boards are full of screeds about “Obummer’s war on coal,” and the persecution of Christians, and the liberal elites with their need to control everything, I never took it for granted Hillary Clinton would sweep to victory. To me the election boiled down to an obvious truth: If Hillary Clinton won, though she might not be perfect, we’d be okay for the next four years. To quote Rebecca Solnit, “Voting is a chess move, not a valentine.” If Donald Trump won we definitely would NOT be okay. None of us. Not women, white or otherwise. Not my family and friends of color. Not the disabled, or the LGBTQ+ community. Not even the people who voted for him. And yes, I ran across more than a handful who voted him because they’d rather the world burn to ash than try to fix it. I always had to wonder if these people saw themselves burn, or if they imagined watching from the top of the heap, unaffected by what they’d put into motion. I suspect the latter. A certain kind of white male never bears the brunt of what they put into motion. It’s the rest of us who do.

The high potential for failure is what stressed me out so much in the weeks and days before the election. It’s what caused me to dip into my husband’s Valium prescription at times and turn to the Scotch bottle at others. It’s why I cracked dark jokes about the Apocalypse, which I was terrified would come to pass. And when they did come to pass, it wasn’t shock that I felt. It was despair. I had hoped so hard that we were better than this. Smarter than this. More compassionate. I had prayed to whatever gods happened to be around that the crowds at the Trump rallies represented a small minority. The election results dashed that hope to pieces, and I take little comfort in Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. A 51%-49% split is far too narrow to suit me. With such deep differences, how will we ever find a place to meet?

My conservative brother-in-law asked my husband the same question the other day. He voted for Trump. He said it was the hardest decision he’s ever had to make, but he knew only two candidates stood a chance of winning and, in the end, Hillary Clinton represented “everything he was against.” He wondered why people who disagree with liberals as to policy are now being characterized as racists and bigots. If I still spoke to him (I blocked him on social media during the 2012 election cycle), I’d like to scream at him that policy has nothing to do with it; that Donald Trump never made any coherent statement of policy at all, but riled his supporters up against immigrants and people of color and demonized his main rival. How is this policy? But Clinton reached out to marginalized people and supported women’s bodily autonomy. That, my brother-in-law says, was his main sticking point; he’s against abortion in any form. He has three daughters. I keep wondering, if one of them were expecting a much wanted child and found out in the twenty-sixth week of pregnancy that her child wouldn’t live, would probably not survive gestation, wouldn’t he want her to have a choice of what to do? Or would he doom her to walk around for sixteen weeks, a whole four months, knowing her child was dead inside her? Having lost both my children early, I can say for a certainty such a situation would have driven me out of my mind with grief.

Two of his daughters, by the way, are married to Black men and have mixed race sons. And he voted for a man who wants to institute racial profiling and stop and frisk laws. How could he do that? How would he feel if it were one of his sons-in-law, one of his grandsons, who got pulled over by a cop for “fitting the profile,” and shot for no cause? Is he so secure in the notion that bad things don’t happen to good people? If the cop claimed later he “felt threatened,” would my brother-in-law think that was enough?

A lot of our differences are of religious origin; BIL is an Evangelical Christian and we are farthest thing from it. 83% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. I cannot fathom why, and neither can most other Christians of my acquaintance, Evangelicals among them. How can people who claim to honor Jesus Christ choose a man who lies, who preaches hatred, who sows division, who admits to being a serial rapist? It seems to boil down to the belief that Christians are being persecuted under the current administration. Even though I know the reasoning, it boggles my mind. It seems obvious to me that if you want to teach your children that the Earth was literally created in seven days and is only 4,000 years old, that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah and co-existed with humankind, you are free to do that. But not on the public dime because it’s faith, not science. It’s clear to me that if you run a business that’s open to the public, you are required by law to serve all the public whether or not your religion agrees with the way they live their lives. Nowhere in the Bible does it say “Thou shalt not bake wedding cakes for, or rent your venue to, or arrange flowers for, or photograph gay people, nay, not at their weddings or celebrations, or in any other place, for such is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.” Kosher delis aren’t allowed to refuse service to goyim because we don’t wear yarmulkes. If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t get one. If you don’t believe in birth control, don’t use it. Evangelicals seem unable to see that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom to force your religious views on others,” and when you point it out they cry persecution. It’s baffling to me, as much as the claims that “America was founded as a Christian nation” when one can cite document after document disproving such a statement, and Freedom of Religion was written into our Constitution. And it really doesn’t matter that at the time of the founding, Christianity of one form or another was the religion of most of the West, and it was probably inconceivable to many that other religions would become so prominent. At the time of the founding, only white, male land owners were allowed to vote or hold citizenship. Do we want to return to those strictures as well? At times, I think some do. Or they conveniently forget the parts of the original Constitution that don’t fit into their world view.

But to return to the original question: With a population roughly divided in half as to the way to proceed, and those halves near as makes no difference to polar opposites in stance, how do we ever find a meeting place? Some say it’s incumbent on the Left to reach out to and persuade those on the Right, which has quite a lot of the Left justifiably angry. It always seems to fall to the Left to be reasonable, though I know those on the Right would disagree with me there. Compromising with mule-headed Conservatives has dragged the Left more and more toward the center, until most of our politicians are on a level with Nixon and Reagan. Some would disagree with that, too (my BIL says the Republican party has swayed too far Left for him; what he means by this, I have no idea whatsoever), but you can look up and compare the policies. How loud does the Left have yell that we’re all humans and all deserve the same civil rights before the Right agrees? I’m sure many individuals agree–even my BIL claims to be against mass deportation and instituting a Muslim registry. There seems, however, to be a cosmic disconnect between the individuals and the philosophy, between claiming an idea and putting it into practice.

Many classify the divide as between Urban and Rural, and if you look at a county-by-county map of votes cast, this seems to bear out. It reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s Hugo-nominated book, The World Inside. I read it long ago, but essentially America’s population is divided between City dwellers who lead rather decadent lives in skyscrapers, and the farmland communities in between, where the inhabitants practice rather bizarre rituals. I hate to think this prophetic, although I, along with many of my circle, don’t see a way we can bring such disparate views of the country into a unified whole. We’ve begun to voice the once-unthinkable: Maybe this country doesn’t work. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge there need to be two, or many. I don’t see how this could be possible. Given the lack of clear geographic lines along which to form borders any division would force people out of their homes. And Urban and Rural areas have a symbiotic relationship; one can’t survive without the goods and services of the other. Negotiating trade agreements would be a nightmare.

Living in a Rural area, I can sympathize with some of the sentiment. We don’t have many of the advantages of an Urban environment. Jobs are low-paying and hard to come by even if you have a good education, which many lack. If the main employer of blue-collar labor shuts down, everyone suffers. I don’t blame scared people for wishing for a return to the “good old days;” however, I know that those good old days, when a person could make a good living and support a family with a high school education, were only attainable for a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century. I think when people rally to the cry of “Make America Great Again,” that’s what they want: The dream they’ve been denied. Giving up on a dream is hard. It’s easier to cast blame on one group or another and reach for simple (though not easy) solutions than it is to change an ingrained system of thought. Though Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories are part of the American mythos, most of the populace are not innovators or entrepreneurs. They’re more secure in the assurance that everyone knows their place. Now everything is topsy-turvy, and it frightens them.

A little while ago, my husband came back from a gig with his Blues band and told me about a conversation he’d had with his buddy, the guitarist. His friend had mentioned reading of a college professor who said “Any white person living in this society is racist,” and how it had put him off. My husband took the opportunity to clarify, explaining how when a certain group of people has power, they tend to construct their society around themselves, paying attention only to the things that matter to them, which pushes people who don’t fit the model further and further to the margins. So, in this case, whether or not a white person actively holds racist views, they benefit from a racist society in ways people of other races don’t. And that, my husband went on, is what’s meant by privilege. He managed to get intersectionality in there, too. His friend understood; in fact, he said it was the first time any of that stuff made sense.

We need more conversations like that and fewer recriminations. But as long as people hold fear and pain close to their hearts and come to the table with minds unwilling to stretch and ears unwilling to hear, I doubt they’ll ever take place.

 

Waking Up In Trump’s America

Yesterday was my birthday. I got the worst present imaginable: Donald Trump as president elect of the United States.

I watched my news feeds on Tuesday night in sick fascination as state after state was called for this orange monster, whose campaign openly espoused racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and all forms of hate and bigotry. At first, there was desperate hope: We knew the first reporting states would swing his way. When the West reported, justice would prevail.

Over the course of the night, it became horribly clear this was not true.

I feel assaulted and betrayed, ever more so as reports of violence against People of Color and the LGBTQ+ community come in. But more than that, I feel I should have known better. If we’re casting stones, there are plenty to go around. We scrabble at someone to blame, whether it be those who voted third party, or those who [for various reasons, including voter suppression; never forget that] didn’t vote at all; whether it be the majority of White women whose internalized misogyny and/or desire to preserve their safety and position caused them to cast their ballots for a man who openly derides them; whether it be the Democratic National Convention and its machinations, or the 500 years of violence and the culture of white supremacy upon which this nation is built, or, or, or. In our complacency, we believed it couldn’t happen and we fatally underestimated the force of white rage. Of those who embraced the hateful rhetoric as well as those who were willing to overlook it in their bitterness against a broken system.

I am complicit. It sickens me. And though I am disabled and non-Christian, I am more likely to come out okay than many others I know: My Black and Brown friends and family, my LGBTQ+ friends and family. But I cannot remain complacent. The unimaginable has happened, and I cannot preach love and reconciliation. I cannot preach patience. I cannot share the Abraham Lincoln quote about the better angels of our nature, because those angels have already fallen and besides, he didn’t speak to the Black, to the Brown, to the Indigenous, to women. Only to white men.

Though I am not much of an activist, on this I must act. I don’t know how as yet. Perhaps with words, but I feel in my heart I need to do something more than string words together in the safety of my house. I toy with ideas of using my few resources to build safe places for those who need them, but my heart rages and my dreams are full of crows. Badb Catha has never been a goddess I spoke to, but in the last day she is much on my mind.

Right now I am worn out with too much emotion and too little sleep. Right now, I can do little but declare my intent: To stand with those who suffer and fly in the face of hate. Later, I shall see where it leads me.

I call upon Badb, Macha, and Nemain to strengthen me in body and spirit.

So mote it be

 

What I Can’t Forgive

CW: Infertility, discussion of weight loss and eating disorders

If you’ve been around the fat activist or body positivity communities, you may have heard the axiom “What gets diagnosed in thin people gets prescribed for fat people.” What this means is the medical establishment often encourages fat people to engage in behaviors that would be seen as warning signs in thin people, or overlooks symptoms in fat people that would have them sending thin people to specialists, because ANYTHING is better than being fat, amirite?

For a person born female or assigned female at birth–by this I mean a person in possession of a uterus and ovaries and all those childbearing parts–a BIG warning sign is the cessation of menstrual periods before the age of normal menopause, which, in the United States, is 48-54 years. It often occurs in women with eating disorders, both because of weight loss and the tendency to engage in excessive exercise. Generally speaking, it takes a loss of 10% of body weight to cause amenorrhea.

Let’s look at those numbers. Say a woman who weighs 125 lbs loses 10% of her body weight, or 12.5 lbs. This leaves her weighing 112.5 lbs. If she’s 5’6″, which is an average height in the US, her BMI would be 18. (Personally I despise the BMI as a rating of anything, but it’s what the medical establishment uses, so.) Hey, that’s underweight! Better address that.

Now let’s apply the same reasoning to another 5’6″ tall woman who weighs 200 lbs. She loses 10% of her body weight, or 20 lbs, bringing her weight to 180. Her BMI is now 29. Guess what? She’s still overweight. It doesn’t matter how she lost the weight, or whether she engages in ritualistic eating patterns, or if her periods have stopped. No one will even ask about that. She has to lose over 60 more lbs (achieve a weight of 115 or less) before she hits underweight. I personally know people who started out average, who’ve been hospitalized for an eating disorder at that weight. But if you start out fat, you’ll be congratulated. If you live.

I started menstruating at twelve, and I stopped at fourteen. For five and a half years. My eating disorder hadn’t yet kicked into full force when it happened; I think I’d dropped from 145 lbs to 130. Perfectly within the normal range for a 5’7″ adolescent, despite the way my pediatrician “tsked” over my being “tubby.” No one commented on it. I was just as glad, frankly. Issues of sex and reproduction and sticky fluids disgusted my mother, who left it to the sixth grade film strip to explain matters. When I needed sanitary supplies, I took them from her box of Kotex in the hall closet without mentioning it to anyone. She didn’t hit menopause until after my cycles stopped, so that was convenient. I doubt my dad ever thought about it, despite being the one who did all the shopping for our family. Maybe he believed I got my own supplies somehow. How he thought I achieved this, having no money of my own, I have no idea. My pediatrician complimented me on “slimming down;” later, when I got a bit too thin for his liking, he sent me home with cases of liquid nutritional supplements. They piled up in the pantry, untouched.

Common wisdom is that your cycles are supposed to start again once you gain weight. Mine didn’t. It took a therapist’s intervention and several courses of Provera before that happened.

The reason I rehearse all this old, old information is this: the exact same thing happened the last time I turned my will toward losing a bunch of weight. I was bigger than I’d ever been (though not as big as I am now), and I hated it. More, I hated myself for it. I tried to talk to my then-psychiatrist; I wanted him to understand why it was so difficult and loaded a topic. Despite knowing I’d almost died of anorexia, he just said, “Well, you know how to lose weight. Eat less and be more active. If you really care about your weight, you need to do what’s necessary, not whine about it.”

Deep breath. Can I just take a moment to say how despicable it is for anyone in mental health to use the words “If you really care…?”

Anyway. It took a while, but I decided he probably knew best–he was the doctor, after all. Maybe I was just whining because I was lazy. So, I joined Weight Watchers and boosted my activity. A lot. It worked for a long while. I lost so much weight in the first few weeks that clothes I had just bought fell off of me. And my periods stopped. Again.

That was almost exactly ten years ago; I was forty-four. And while that’s not an unreasonable age to hit menopause, it isn’t quite normal, nor is it normal for women in my genetic line. My mom had cycles well into her fifties, and one of my sisters had her last child at forty-one. I asked my psychiatrist if one of my medications could have caused it; he said no. I asked my primary; she said it was probably perimenopause and my periods would probably be irregular for a number of years, blah, blah, blah, the usual stuff. Which didn’t make any sense to me; they didn’t get irregular, they simply stopped. But no one related it to my weight loss, which, incidentally, they praised. I didn’t bring it up because I was proud of it, and I didn’t want to hear that for some inexplicable reason my body reacts to the slightest weight loss by becoming infertile, which I suspected, and had since I was a teenager. There was still the matter of believing I’d have children some day, despite my age and my mental health issues.

Much later, an acupuncturist told me it probably was the weight loss rather than my age that caused my cycles to stop just then. She may have been saying that to make me feel better, I don’t know. I do know the main reason I stopped “watching my weight” and “let myself” get fat again was that I hoped desperately that, by some magic, it would restore my fertility. It didn’t. The lack of ANY other menopausal symptoms let me hope for a long time, but I’m coming to the place where I think I have to accept that I blew it; I missed my chance for children of my own. It’s hard. I’ve swallowed a lot of bad stuff in my life, but this one…I just can’t seem to get it down. And people suggest adoption (too expensive) or fostering (no space for a person older than three, and I have doubts that we’d pass muster as a foster family), or working with Partners or some other volunteer group, and none of that is what I want. Humility aside, my husband and I are intelligent and educated and self-aware, and I wanted to keep that genetic code in the pool. Too many stupid people breed. I really think that, so sue me.

I can’t forgive my doctors of ten years past for blowing me off. For giving me the easy answers, whether or not they were true (I found out later that Depakote, the mood stabilizer I took at the time and that I’m taking now, has been known to cause PCOS and infertility. I stopped taking it for a long time because of that). For not saying, “Hey, you have a history of anorexia and you’ve lost over 10% of your body weight. Maybe there’s something in that.” I can’t forgive the medical establishment for privileging a specific body size and type over actual health, to the point where the health concerns of those outside that type are routinely ignored. Even at my lowest weight recently, I was still “overweight” by a few points. So obviously there could have been no connection between my early amenorrhea and my weight loss.

But most of all, I can’t forgive myself. As much as I repeat to myself I was in a bad state and in no condition to challenge those with perceived power over me, I can’t forgive myself for not doing it. I can’t forgive myself for not pointing out the correlation between my weight loss and the cessation of my cycles, for not bringing up the similarity to my previous experience. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. At least I would have tried. The thought haunts me, the same way it haunts me how readily I crumpled after two miscarriages when I know women who’ve had three, five, ten, and gone on to have healthy children. Even women in their late forties. As I would have been, had I spoken up.

And sure, there would have been obstacles. Maybe a lot of them. There still would have been my mental health and the financial burden to address, the need to talk my husband around; I might not have been capable of those things. Some people think it’s “selfish” for older parents to have children; there would have been that judgment to face, along with all the judgments parents face. That’s if I even managed to carry a pregnancy to term, no telling what more failures would have done to me. I thought at the time I couldn’t face another miscarriage. Now I see that as cowardice.

Aslan, the godlike Lion in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, always tells the human characters, “You can never know what might have been.” My imagination amply provides me with “might have beens” every day, and none of them seem worse than where I am right now. I’d give everything I have for one more chance.

I think this grief and blame and regret will follow me the rest of my days.

 

 

What If?

A week ago, I had my first physical therapy appointment. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before, but for the last few years I’ve experienced a grinding pain in my right ankle joint when I walk more than a few blocks, as well as moderate to severe back pain when I’m on my feet for any length of time. Once again, because of my background in dance, I know what causes these things. Some of my family, myself included, have a congenital misalignment of the hip joint that causes all kinds of messed up things–knees that turn in and rotated calf muscles and the like. You can see it in pictures going back for years; my dad had it. It causes a person’s feet to pronate (flatten), which, in turn, makes the outer ankle joint grind. The back pain is because I’ve been sedentary so long my abdominal and core muscles have atrophied, so I hyper extend my pelvis. Simple.

Anyway, I asked my doctor for a physical therapy referral, which she was happy to provide. Even when I know what’s going on and what to do about it, I have some idea that those things will be easier if someone else tells me to do them. And it’s often true. When I was more bought in to societal messages about weight and health and all that, it was easier for me to pursue a “healthier” lifestyle. Now I’ve shed a lot of those beliefs, most of the time I simply don’t care whether I’m healthy or not.

The appointment went about as I expected. I didn’t get a lot of new information. My feet are strong enough, but my joints and tendons are looser than “normal,” so, when I gained a lot of weight and lost muscle, they gave way. The PT recommended orthotics, prescribed some mild exercises, and told me to come back in ten days.

While he was writing up my plan (such as it was), I had a thought: “What if taking care of my health is my job right now?” What if it’s what I need to do for myself, whether or not I care or feel interested and motivated? Just because taking care of one’s health to the best of one’s ability is a sensible and objectively good thing to do? Leaving aside complications of the way the Western medical industry is constructed and its tendency to cling to a priori assumptions about what constitutes health, as well as the myth that you can judge someone’s health by looking at them, isn’t that a uniquely human thing to do?

The question upset and terrified me. Trying to explain to my husband reduced me to incoherent tears. In the first place, something about ongoing and seemingly never-ending processes instills me with existential and primal horror. I have no idea why this is. A common selling point of a lot of fad diets and weight loss systems is the phrase, “Not a diet, but a lifestyle change!” Maybe there’s a connection there; I hate that rhetoric because I question the value of the lifestyle it promotes, or I view a “lifestyle change” as… I honestly do not know. When I think about it, I think of the final challenge in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy comes to the precipitous edge of what looks like an abyss between himself and his goal. Remembering the clue about faith, he steps into what seems like thin air; the camera angle shifts to reveal a narrow stone bridge across the gap, its stones so close in color and shape to those of the abyss walls as to provide perfect camouflage. Indy, of course, scatters dust before him to make his path clear, and reaches the Grail. For me, that invisible bridge never ends and no Grail exists. I walk on air forever and ever, only faith keeping me aloft.

Or maybe I’m more like a cartoon character, who can walk off the edge of the cliff, unencumbered by the laws of gravity until they look down.

Whatever the source, as I said, the idea of going on forever and never reaching a destination is intensely awful to me, so awful I had to walk away from this post for an entire day after writing the previous paragraph. No rest, no home, no ability to stop or sit down. Isn’t that the theme of some enduring folktales, like the Wandering Dutchman? Don’t some believe the traveling people were cursed?

Another reason the idea of “working on my health” upsets me is it brings up the eternal question, “What then?” What if I do become healthier? What if I regain the stamina I’ve lost, build muscle, stop having back pain, find a way to regulate my weird hunger issues and all that? Do I even care about that? No one has any obligation to “be healthy” on anyone’s terms, especially not anyone else’s. Do I really think it will improve my life to go through all this? And then to have to keep repeating the same patterns over and over until I die (because you can’t just do any of this stuff once and be done; I learned that in the six years I sat on my ass)? The honest answer is I don’t. I think having a few minimal comforts in my life and not being surrounded by overtly abusive people is as good as it gets.

That kind of leads to the third reason this “what if?” question upsets me: It hurts. It leads into thoughts I don’t want to explore and emotions I don’t want to feel. You wouldn’t think 20 reps of a simple exercise on each leg and 2 minutes of another for each foot twice a day would be so difficult, but it’s emotionally excruciating for me to keep them up. I forget. I procrastinate. I make excuses. ANYTHING to avoid doing them.

I think of myself as an open book, but the truth is, I’ve spent the last 15+ years in stasis, like a person in a Science Fiction novel with an incurable disease, who gets frozen until technology catches up. The stasis wasn’t perfect. I lost weight and gained it. I aged. I didn’t look my age, and maybe I still don’t, but lately I’ve noticed wrinkles beneath my eyes in the mornings, creases above my upper lip. It kept me from dying, though. So far. Now I’m out of stasis, gods know why, because there doesn’t seem to be any cure yet. And things that happened (or didn’t) while I was in stasis still affected me. I’m angry, but I don’t know how to be angry, so I’m just in pain. I want to go back into my box. I want it to stop.

When I was young, my one goal was survival. Sometimes I lost track of that, notably when I was anorexic. Not coincidentally, I think, this was when I lost the ability to care much about anything, but when I “recovered” enough not to need hospitalization, my goal was the same: survive until I could get out of an intolerable situation and be my true self. The older I get, the less sure I am of what my true self is, or if it even exists. I have a consistent feeling the life I have is not the one I was supposed to have, though I’m unable to articulate what “the one I was supposed to have” looks like. I’ve never been career-minded. I’ve never had much ambition. Maybe this is because I lack the capacity to believe that anything I do matters in a real sense. It’s all filling time. People tell me having written seven novels is an achievement; I think I only did it because otherwise I’d have sat on the couch and stared at the walls. It was possible, and preferable to facing the emptiness at my core.

A few days ago, I remarked to my husband that we’ve lived in our house twenty-one years. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I never imagined we’d be here so long. I thought we’d have a couple kids, find a bigger place, do the things the rest of our nominal peer group in town did. I wanted those things, more than I realized at the time. They’re out of the question now, and nothing replaces them. I blame myself; how did I let that happen? It’s impossible to pursue dreams, or even have them, when your very existence depends on forbearance.

This blog post has no tidy ending. It’s all questions, and taking one step after another. Going on and never arriving. Some people do it by choice. For me it’s an unceasing nightmare.

How Did I Come to This?

“Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Lament for the Rohirrim,” The Two Towers, Book I

The Two Towers was always my favorite book of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, and to me, the most powerful part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation was Theoden’s (Bernard Hill) recital of the above lines as his steward arms him before the Battle of the Hornburg. (In the embedded video clip, the speech starts about a minute in.)

I’ve felt a good deal in common with Theoden of late. Trying to put myself back together after leading a largely ineffective life for so many years, I often echo his question: “How did it come to this?” Yesterday, I had some vague idea of engaging with my physical world. In the deepest parts of a depressive episode, I lose the ability to act on my environment in a meaningful way. I can see the cat hair piling up in corners and the grime in the bathroom sink, and I have some idea these are unwelcome. But the effort of doing something to change them, to clean the sink or sweep the floor, requires some investment I don’t have. I know my environment is filthy, possibly disgusting, and I know I wouldn’t want anyone to see how I live, but I don’t care. No one besides my husband is going to see it, and even if I tidied up, things would get dirty again anyway, sooner or later. Why bother to begin?

Whether this latest dip is starting to let up or whether I simply let things go too long, the mess has been getting to me more and more over the last few days. So I did tidy up a bit yesterday. I didn’t tackle the bathroom, as I meant to, but I swept and dusted the living room. It took me an hour, and by the end of it, I was exhausted and in pain. Once again, I asked myself, “How did I come to this?” I was a dance major in college. A walk of three or five miles was nothing to me. How did I allow myself to get in such terrible shape that an hour of light cleaning had me in tears?

Still shot from "The Two Towers"
Still shot from “The Two Towers”

Tolkien adamantly denied that his works were allegories for anything, but readers always find meaning that authors never intended. Part of the poignancy of that arming speech, for me, is that Theoden knows the answer to his own question. He listened to the voice of depression, in the guise of his adviser Grima Wormtongue, and it turned him old. He left the work of ruling to others. When Rohan was meant to be the Western shield against enemies bent on invading Gondor, he refused those who would keep the old treaties any aid, although it cost him his only son. He drew into a small world where his depression ruled and hope was futile. And it resulted in the last stand at the Hornburg, and arming children for war. How did you come to it, Theoden? You did it. You did it to yourself.

And so did I.

I’m not implying that I could in any way have fought off my mental illness by force of will. I spent many years saying “This too shall pass” on bad days and getting through as well as possible. When “getting through” became impossible, I got help–or as much as I could. I do have a tendency to consider low level depression normal, so it takes my being in a bad state, indeed, for me to look outside for answers. And a lot of the help I got was barely better than the alternative. I don’t hate or blame myself for my depression, most of the time.

I think I could have responded to my circumstances better, maybe. Some of what I did, I did for good reasons. I gave up “dieting” because I truly believe it’s more hurtful than helpful. I renounced excessive exercise in the name of weight loss for much the same reason. The trouble is, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I stopped moving at all. Like Theoden, I drew inward. My world contracted to the size of my house. It was comforting, and besides, why challenge myself to walk downtown to the post office if my husband is willing to pick up the mail, or to join him on weekly shopping trips if he’s willing to do them alone? Many “self improvement” systems, good and bad, make much of getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is hard for me, I admit. I’ve had little comfort in my life; choosing to do uncomfortable things is not high on my list of priorities.

So now my legs and back hurt if I’m on my feet for any length of time, I have asthma and no stamina, and there is no Gandalf coming to fight my demons for me and restore me to health. Medication and therapy will only do so much to banish my personal Wormtongue. The rest is on me.

Because of my background in dance, I know what to do. My back hurts because my abdominal and core muscles have atrophied for lack of use. My legs hurt for much the same reason. I’ve lost most of my flexibility, which I once prized. A combination of yoga and Pilates would go a long way to remedying these things, as would getting out of the house and simply walking around the block a few times a week. I know doing these things would help, not only with the pain and the muscle atrophy, but with my constant hunger. The problem is doing them. I’ve always found my motivation in self-hate and bullying myself into doing what I didn’t want to. These even made up a great deal of my life as a dancer: “Look how fat you are even moving as much as you do! You can’t ever stop or you’ll be disgusting! No wonder your boyfriend wants to hook up with other women!” I’ve managed to avoid going back to that mindset so far, but I’m terrified it’ll return the moment I start moving. Moving, you see, wakes up the damaged child inside me (and, by the way, I feel extremely silly using those terms), and starts it crying. All it wants is to be left alone and let to sleep and feel no pain. I’m not sure it can feel anything but pain, and that terrifies me. I don’t want to re-experience that every day of my life; it’s horrible. How does one integrate something like that? Of course, beating myself up, telling that damaged child to suck it up and stop whining because that’s getting us nowhere, doesn’t help, either.

How do I deal with this? What do I do? My former therapist used to tell me, “Baby steps,” but baby steps are abhorrent to me. I’m made of all or nothing, highs and lows. Why bother taking a step so small you can’t see you’ve gone anywhere? Why bother with a small step if even that causes inner weeping? If I sit on the couch on my ass, my back doesn’t hurt either. My current bad health distresses me, but in a distant way. On another level, it doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s as if, perhaps, the shrieks of that damaged child are so loud and demanding I have no attention for anything else. I suppose parents feel something similar when a colicky infant won’t stop screaming for days on end and all they want is for it to SHUT THE FUCK UP! I don’t know any way to silence my internal screaming other than to remain still and small. The damaged child inside me controls my whole life.

When last I saw my doctor, I got a referral to physical therapy. My first appointment is tomorrow. I’m toying with the idea of doing Pilates again. Both these things terrify me. If I can’t find some internal meaning and positive motivation, they’ll go the same way as everything in my life: I’ll do them for a while, maybe even a long while, and then give up.

How did I come to this? The real question is “How do I get out and never come back?” I haven’t got a clue.

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