Frozen

The day after I published my last blog post, I stumbled across this article about a recent study on the brains of people with clinical depression. It’s not very long, if you want to read it. Briefly, researchers in China and the UK discovered that the reward centers in the brains of depressed people don’t work the same way as they do in people who aren’t depressed. When a depressed person does an activity that’s supposed to be rewarding, they don’t feel any gratification; in fact, they feel almost the opposite. In addition, negative experience hangs around longer in the brain and is harder to dismiss.

In light of my speaking of these very issues in my last post, I found this quite interesting, if not reassuring. Yes, it’s true: I don’t get any gratification from positive experiences. My brain is wired not to.

Well, that’s just great. How do you work with something like that? How do you move forward?

The question of how to move forward has been on my mind a lot, anyway. The other night, my husband and I watched the season premiere of Supergirl–we’re big fans of the current lineup of DC superhero shows on the CW network. At one point, Cat Grant, the CEO of CatCo, where Supergirl works in her alter ego as Kara Danvers, sits Kara down for a lecture. To paraphrase, she says, “Right now you have all kinds of options and you’re not taking the plunge because you’re afraid to leave your comfort zone and face change.” The speech hit me in a sore spot. I wondered if it applied to me.

The truth is, I’m afraid a lot of the time. I get up in the morning, drink my coffee, scan the headlines and check the notifications that have come in overnight. And then I’m paralyzed. What do I do next? Having an appointment or a plan for the day can get me a long way, at least for a while. Too much structure, too many days in a row–or even in a week–when I have to keep a schedule drive me around the twist. I start thinking things like, “Okay, you just have to get through [X] more [days, hours, etc] and then you don’t have to do this anymore.” This inevitably leads me to question why, if I have to coach myself through every activity, if I find it so abhorrent that I long NOT to be doing it, I engaged in it in the first place. Which is why I stopped going to the gym after a few weeks. I didn’t hate it, but I reached the point of coaching myself, of telling myself afterward, “There, you don’t have to go for another two days, it’s okay.” I don’t like engaging in activities that end with my crying inside.

I can do necessary things most of the time. Things like laundry and washing dishes. Things that don’t take a whole lot of connection or effort. I don’t expect anything from them, and they don’t actively hurt. Other things, though…I remember it wasn’t that long ago that I was making jelly and feeling fairly good about it, but it seems like something that happened to a different person in a story I was told. And I don’t know if that person was “normal,” or took control of me due to medication-induced hypomania, or what. I once said on Twitter that when I’m hypomanic, I imagine that’s what normal people feel like all the time. I got a lot of pushback–“Mania isn’t normal!”–so I don’t know. About the same time my meds got lowered, I caught a cold or something; anyway, the sinus trouble flared up, and it’s caused some fairly bad asthma. I just don’t feel GOOD. I have no energy and no motivation and I’m tired all the damn time.

Anyway. I end up frittering a lot of time away. I play casual games and surf the Internet, and before I know it, it’s three or four in the afternoon and I’m still not dressed. And on the one hand, I feel intensely guilty about this. But on the other, I don’t care all that much. If there were anything I wanted to do, I’m pretty sure I could do it. I just don’t want to do anything. Unlike Kara Danvers, I don’t have a bunch of exciting options to pursue. I don’t believe anything is going to make a positive difference in my life.

That’s what terrifies me, I think. Very little is pleasurable in and of itself, and none of it leads anywhere. Every impulse toward motion is followed by the inevitable “And then what? What difference will it make? What meaning does it have?” Nothing, and nothing, and nothing. Through my life, my motivation has come from two things: Self hate, and hope for the future. I don’t hate myself anymore, or I don’t most of the time and when it flares up I can let it go, or at least not indulge in it. I don’t have any hope for the future. Things I’ve wanted, either I’ve achieved them and they’ve meant nothing, or I’ve made it partway before hitting an insurmountable obstacle, or they’re impossible. I know we’re “supposed to” live more in the present, but my present sucks. When the meds are working, it isn’t as bad. Sometimes I do enjoy things. I can’t feel that now, but I remember having felt it. That’s the purpose of antidepressants: to relieve the overwhelming misery of the present so you can work on deeper issues. I have the misfortune of having reduced my meds by mistake (essentially) at the same time as I hit the worst of the pain at my core. It’s left me stuck, frozen. Unable to see past the unbearable now.

I’d like to make a visible and positive impact on something, somewhere. I suppose that’s why I changed my mind from not wanting children when I was young to wanting them so much. I think I would have been a good parent despite my mental health issues, and I would have raised forward-thinking and compassionate kids. But even more than I want to make an impact, I want something to impact me for more than a moment. I crave a real connection. Instead, I’m an alien in human skin. If anyone sees beneath the surface, they don’t let on. Maybe it’s my own fault; maybe I learned camouflage too well. Or maybe I just can’t tell. Maybe in learning to live with negative things, I’ve closed myself to the positive. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s possible. I’ve had too much experience of joy turned unexpectedly into grief. Sorrow is constant; joy is ephemeral.

When my husband is overwhelmed, I advise him to pick a direction, any direction, and move forward. Complete one task, then move to another. I’d follow my own advice, but I’m not overwhelmed. I’m underwhelmed, and fear prevents me from connecting to anything that might be engaging on a deep level. What if I muster the faith for another go, what if I summon the will to move toward something anything, even if right now it doesn’t excite me, and nothing changes again? What if I challenge my fear and my life is no different? What if no one notices or cares? You can only do so much personal work before you need outside validation, reassurance that it’s worth something. Long ago, speaking about writing, a therapist (not a very good one) told me I shouldn’t write for validation; I should write because I love it. I told her plants don’t live to get watered, but if someone doesn’t water them, they die all the same.

Lately, my horoscope has been full of messages about “standing on the edge of a precipice about to take the plunge into a new life.” It may be right. I fear I’m going to remain frozen unless and until I have some guarantee there’s someone at the bottom to catch me.

Passion

At my annual physical the other day I spoke with my new doctor about wanting (always understanding that for me, “wanting” anything is a theoretical construct) to be less sedentary. “I used to be really active, but I got depressed,” I told her, keeping a long, complicated story as short as I could.

“Well,” she asked, “when you were active, what did you like to do?”

“Nothing.” I said. “That’s the problem.”

How can you want something if you don’t like anything? Without wanting, how can you accomplish anything? Some philosophies promote focus on the Journey rather than the Goal, but the Journey doesn’t bring me any joy, and it never has. Well, perhaps on occasion, and mostly long ago. To be honest, the Goal has rarely brought me joy, either. Sometimes it’s garnered fleeting praise, but all too often the work of achieving it has outweighed the momentary high before the inevitable let down.

Writing the above paragraphs, it occurred to me I don’t know how to have fun. This isn’t a new thought. I didn’t have much fun as a child, and I never learned later. Most of my play was solitary. The few other kids on my block trickled away as their families moved. I lived too far from my school friends to spend any non-structured leisure time with them. When my siblings were home, they had little to no interest in playing with someone so much younger. At school, at the camp my mom sent me to for a few awful summers to get me out of her hair, the activities I enjoyed were the ones other kids mocked, not the “cool” ones. My parents interacted with me as little as possible, and didn’t encourage my interests, especially the ones that came at a financial cost. Their grudging support required I prove beforehand it would be worth their investment, and if I didn’t live up to their expectations their support vanished. Want to try gymnastics? Only if your PE teacher says you have talent (I didn’t). Music lessons? Can’t justify that if you won’t practice. It didn’t occur to me until much later that most children of six aren’t developmentally equipped to spend an hour a day at an instrument without adult support and encouragement.

In a few weeks I will turn 54 and I am still impossibly bitter about all this.

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A friend shared the above meme on Facebook today, with the comment that they often forget the truth of it. I replied I don’t forget; I just don’t know how. I was in my late twenties before someone told me it was okay to make mistakes, that I didn’t have to be good at stuff. It was a revelation, and I thought I had it. But early experiences sink deep, especially when events later in life affirm them again and again.

I can’t honestly say I’ve never had fun. Those times are hard to remember, though. My teenage friends were a serious bunch. Fun was an overrated and limited commodity, it seems to me now. My adult life has been full of struggle. Plans to do fun things fall by the wayside, done in by lack of resource, lack of energy. The things other people find fun drain me more than not, or else I find them inaccessible. When I was much younger, sometimes I’d dress up and go to a club. It did nothing for me; after a solitary drink, I’d go home wondering why I’d bothered and why everyone else there seemed to be enjoying themselves. Festivals and dance gatherings strike me the same way, as do parties. I used to enjoy camping and hiking, I think. Now they seem more trouble than they’re worth. Whatever I try to engage in, I feel like I’m in a separate world from everyone else, and if I’m going to be in a separate world anyway, I’d rather do it at home.

A big part of this is concern for safety. Having fun can be dangerous. For a woman, it’s even more so. Doing things invites mockery, disappointment. [The popular idea that happiness lies in letting go of expectation is bullshit. Even if it were possible–which it isn’t; the whole premise stands upon the expectation of being happy–letting go of expectation generally results in getting taken advantage of and having to deal with other people’s shit.] A woman showing happiness or having fun is perceived to invite comment and attention whether she wants it or not. A happy fat woman is an insult to humanity, and there are plenty of people with no qualms about letting you know it.

But to return to my original point, it’s hard to do things you like if you don’t like anything. And it’s hard to like anything if you hurt deep in your soul and nothing soothes the pain, much less gives you joy.

I used to like things. I used to like playing dress up and let’s pretend. I used to like writing. I used to like singing and playing the guitar. I used to like doing art and craft projects. I used to like flirting, and grand romantic gestures. Somewhere along the way, I lost my love of those things, maybe when it became clear to me that they all (with the exception of singing and playing guitar, which I sometimes did around others) were activities performed in isolation. Or better so; one of my sisters teases me to this day about pretending to be a mountain lion when I was small, as if that’s the stupidest thing anyone ever has done, as if that’s all she remembers about me. Perhaps it is. As for flirting and romantic gestures, they’ve been ill received, unreciprocated, or plain ignored. I’ve been told time and time again that one should do things for their own sake, not for hope of gain (there’s the expectation thing again). Human beings are social animals, though–or are supposed to be; I’m not sure it applies to me. Putting oneself out over and over and never getting anything back is draining. You can only host so many dinner parties without being asked to one before you give it up as a bad job.

The last thing I remember doing solely because I wanted to was enrolling in dance classes when I lived in California 30 years ago. And though I chose it, my participation was not unequivocally positive. I was all too aware that I’m tall and large, not a “dancer” type. Being present in my body in an expressive way sometimes hurt on an emotional level. That led to my seeking a degree in Dance Therapy, but when I got turned down for grad school, something in me broke. Sometimes I think it broke permanently. I once told my husband he’s never known the real me, because the real me was passionate about a lot of things. I’m not passionate anymore. I’m just tired.

In many Western magical systems, Wands, both the tool and the Tarot suit, correspond to passion and the will. This used to bother me; the two don’t fit together in my head. As I thought about writing this post, I saw that passion and the will work in tandem. You might start something out of passion, but will keeps you on task when passion ebbs. In the same way, passion can prop up a flagging will. Without passion, I’ve run the last 25 years or more on will alone, and I haven’t got any more.

Walking down the street the other day, I felt the effort in my legs and back. My thighs are weak; climbing a single step is a challenge. I don’t like this state of affairs, but I lack both the will and the passionate desire to change it. When I walked three miles a day, every day, and did Pilates most days as well, I was passionate in my self hate, in despite for my body. I don’t want to go back to that place; hatred is a poor motivator. A lot of people engaged in body positivity talk about practicing “joyful movement,” but I don’t find joy in moving. That’s why I stopped. People talk about following your dreams, too. What dreams I once had died years ago. Nothing new has sprung up to take their place.

I’d like to feel passion for something again. I don’t know how to get it or where to find it. I especially don’t know how on my own. Conventional wisdom, especially in the USA, holds that you’re supposed to be able to do everything on your own, without help–that “no expectations” thing again, never mind that no one really achieves anything on their own, without the help or input of a single other person along the way. I don’t trust others, though. I’ve carried too much, too long. I’ve been patient with other people’s issues and cleaned up other people’s messes. I’ve made things nice for others and supported others in crisis without ever being asked. When do I get something back?

Maybe it’s the depression talking–the depression has been strong for the last few weeks–but I don’t experience any sense of fulfillment from doing things. It seems to me I used to, a long time ago, pre-anorexia. But just as losing more and more weight did nothing for me then, nothing does anything for me now. People say, “You’ve written seven books! That’s an accomplishment!” and I feel nothing. When I think about “becoming less sedentary,” I don’t expect it to do anything for me, either. Being sedentary isn’t too uncomfortable. It’s far less uncomfortable than the idea of forcing myself into activities I don’t enjoy that aren’t going to change my quality of life in any way I can foresee.

A week ago I saw my medication manager and had my antidepressant bumped back up; we’d lowered it because the higher dose, though it made me feel better, came with some irritability. It didn’t take me a week to notice and question that. Noticing I had fallen into a bad depression again took over a month, because depression is so normal for me. Anyway, today I woke up feeling a bit more positive. I still don’t know if my ability to feel passion will ever return. I hate the slowness of taking baby steps toward change, but I suppose for now, being able to get out of bed without asking why and being able to get dressed instead of wondering whether it matters will have to be enough.

 

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Dysphoria

I didn’t plan to write this post on National Coming Out Day. I didn’t plan to write it at all. But I have thoughts, and you know where that leads me.

After I published the post “Ugly,” a dear friend–one I’ve known a long time, who may know me better than anyone–mentioned that the feelings I expressed are similar to those experienced by many LGBTQ+ and trans folk before coming out and/or transitioning, and that coming out and/or transitioning sometimes helps (although not always). Thinking about that, it seemed to me I’ve been attempting to come out for a while; I just don’t know what as. I’m not gay. I’m not trans. I don’t know what I am. My friend suggested Otherkin, but I have my qualms about that term for various reasons. My husband sometimes says, “You’re not human; you’re Fae.” I don’t know how serious he is, or how I feel about that, either.

Once, many years ago, when discussing social problems with a friend, I pointed out that as a white male he can expect certain things from the world. He replied, “I’m not white.” I pointed to his very pale skin and mentioned his European ancestry. He said, “I’m not white. I grew up poor in a ghetto in Detroit. All my friends were Black. I listened to Black music. That’s my culture.” We argued back and forth for a time, and eventually I conceded: he doesn’t consider himself white. I don’t think that means that he never got any of the privileges that come with white skin in our world, but I understand the internal experience. I know it’s taboo and people of color really, really object to the idea for an overwhelming number of valid reasons, but most of the time I don’t feel white, either. It doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from my whiteness in myriad ways, but it’s another thing that makes it hard to find a place to be.

The idea of my experiencing a similar dysphoria to LGBTQ+ folk interests me, though. It shines a light on many of my body issues. One thing I’ve returned to over and over again in the last years as I’ve put on so much weight is this: I don’t dislike my body because it’s fat. I dislike it because it doesn’t feel like it’s mine. I started out hating myself for being fat, and that continued until very recently. But it’s no longer the case, except tangentially. The more of my body there is, the more I feel it’s not the one I’m supposed to have. I think this is one of the things that makes it so hard for me to find any love for my body or practice any form of body positivity.

Trouble is, I haven’t a clue what body I am supposed to have. My therapist asked me about this several sessions ago. I stammered, at a loss for words–a highly unusual state for me. Finally I pulled out my phone and showed her a meme I’d saved. “This is what I look like inside my head.”

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She asked why, what struck me about this picture. Again, I couldn’t answer, except to say, “She looks strong.” I don’t know what this means, either.

I am not physically strong. Once I could claim a great deal of physical endurance, if not muscle strength. Now, I can’t even claim that. And of course, there are many deceptively simple answers to building endurance and muscle strength. But in our culture, they all play into modes of thought I don’t want in my life. I don’t like many physical activities for their own sake. Forcing myself to do them is more harmful than helpful. Going to the gym and trying to engage in circuit lifting for two weeks triggered a month of PTSD flashbacks. How do I make myself do something I hate without hating myself? How do I make a change in my body without saying the body I have is wrong? How can a person be present in the moment and still believe in a future where things are different? It doesn’t help that I have no models. As in the meme above, every time I see a picture that “looks like me,” it doesn’t really look like me, because I’m fat and my body isn’t built along the lines currently considered photo-worthy.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and I don’t know what to do with these thoughts. I just had to write them down, because for a moment something seemed clear.

But Why-y-y-y??

I’m writing this post in mid-October. It’s more suited to late January or early February, for reasons that will become plain. I may hold off and publish it then. More likely, I’ll write it and publish it immediately. That’s my usual MO: I get an idea, spit it out, and release it into the world. Actually, I’m not so sure any of us will be here come February, and I want to go on record with this moment of clarity over a question I’ve wrestled with a long time.

When my husband was still teaching (a career he yet hopes to return to some day), he would sometimes tell his teenage male students, “There are three dates you have to remember when you’re in a relationship: Your girlfriend’s birthday, your anniversary, and Valentine’s Day.” I’m going to leave aside, for the moment, the way this humorously-intentioned advice reinforces the stereotype of men as lovable bumblers incapable of remembering significant details and focus on the teenage males’ inevitable response:

“But why-y-y-y-y?? What makes Valentine’s day so important? It’s just a day!! Why do I have to do special things that day? I mean, she knows I care about her. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be with her!”

My husband has also asked me this question over the years. With us, it’s delved into the social and political implications of a manufactured holiday: Why do women expect men to make such a big deal out of it, even men they’ve been with for years? Don’t we know it’s a marketing ploy? If you want those things, aren’t you falling into the trap of perpetuating patriarchal gender norms? How can you be a feminist and want a romantic Valentine’s Day? And for years, I have been at a loss to answer. I’ve struggled with my wish to be acknowledged in what I believe to be a way that reinforces a lot of societal ills and stereotypes about gender. I’ve been deathly afraid that my desire to be shown special attention, my desire for a celebration of love, has marked me as a Bad Feminist.

Right now, though, all those questions boil down to the same adolescent protest: “But why-y-y-y-y?” And I have an answer:

Because you don’t get to think that the mere fact of your bodily presence is enough because you’re a man. Because women of all ages consistently and constantly go out of their way to make things nice for their partners, whether this looks like listening to them talk about subjects in which they have little interest, or debating about what dress they’re going to wear on a special occasion, or doing more than their share of the work of keeping the environment livable. Because women are required to do more than just show up, and suffer when they stop putting in the extra mile.

Lately–and I mean in the last year or so–I’ve seen more and more women talk about how they do nice things for themselves, not to benefit the male gaze. Usually this comes in conversations about catcalling and other unwanted male attention: Some dude bro says, “If you didn’t want to be noticed, you shouldn’t have worn that pretty dress,” and a woman responds with “I dress for myself, not for you.” My gods, you’d think the men had been robbed. They cannot stand it when women talk about doing things for themselves rather than the men in the world. It’s even worse if you reject cultural beauty standards altogether. How dare you make yourself unattractive? You simply can’t win.

But men still think all they have to do is show up. “She knows I love her. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

News flash, guys: You are not that special.

I get that the rituals of a different time are confusing and maybe seem irrelevant in a changing world. In my parents’ time, in my in-laws’ time, relationships between middle class cis het couples followed a (relatively) clear course: Courtship, which was mainly led by the man, I believe; proposal, marriage, a couple kids. The man as the breadwinner, the woman as the caregiver. Probably then the ritual of giving your wife a box of chocolates and a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day–or going out to dinner as a couple, or whatever–served as a mark of appreciation and a reaffirmation of the connubial bond. But the late 60s began the process of throwing off the chains of the 50s. My gods, women have careers now. They can ask men out! They have sex without being married and still demand respect as human beings! Geez, isn’t that enough? WHY DO YOU STILL WANT THAT OUTDATED BOX OF CHOCOLATES?

Despite the loud and persistent denial of certain male-identifying people, the women’s movement has never been about just women. Challenging patriarchal norms has benefited men, too. You don’t have to wear the stiff suits and ties all the time, just as we don’t have to wear skirts and heels. (Unfortunately gender-based dress codes have not yet accepted men in skirts.) You can grow long hair, get your ears pierced. You don’t have to be the sole support of a family. You can be a stay-at-home dad if that suits you and your partner. You don’t have to repress your emotions. You can not want to have sex all the time. You do not have to subscribe to the toxic models of masculinity that have made men’s lives so hard.

But, and there’s always a but, you do have to stop being so full of yourselves. You have to show up. You have to participate. You do not get to park your ass in the easy chair and say that’s enough. “Of course I love you, honey! I married you didn’t I?” doesn’t cut it. Don’t pass it off on being unable to articulate your feelings. Exhibit some learning behavior.

Women are fucking tired. And part of the reason we’re tired is that so many men have taken women’s progress and the changes we’ve initiated in society to mean they can be lazy. Yes, you can do something other than go “into business” and still be considered a contributing member of society rather than a deviant (provided you have enough of certain types of privilege, which I’m not even going into here). You do not have to strive toward the house in the suburbs and the 2.5 beautiful children. But there are consequences to whatever you choose, and one of the consequences of wanting to be in a relationship is doing the work. Part of the work is active participation in whatever rituals you and your partner find important. If a romantic Valentine’s day isn’t important to either of you, fine; rituals change. You need at least to discuss it, and it wouldn’t hurt if you were the one to broach the subject. Far too often, women are left with the responsibility of bringing up topics that men would rather ignore.

And please, don’t with the manly-man “emotions are beyond me” shit. I already told you, we’ve worked hard to begin to build a world where men don’t have to suffer such constraints, and we’re sick to death of the “Women Are from Venus/Men Are from Mars” crap. For too long women, and LGBTQ+ people, and People of Color, have borne the burden of speaking the language of (mostly) white, cis, het men and moving through a world geared towards white, cis, het men’s wishes. It’s about damn time white, cis, het men got in the game.

This post is probably making a few people reading it extremely uncomfortable. Good.

In the end, the answer to the question “But why-y-y-y?” is very simple: Because your partner wants it from you. That should be more than enough. We are not things for your amusement, like your X-Box or your flat screen TV. We are humans, and it is perfectly fine and normal for us to ask for what we want. And if you have a problem with that, it’s on you, not on us.

Ugly

Beauty has always moved me. Ever since my early childhood, works of art, music, dance, words and all beautiful things have filled me with ineffable emotion, something between extreme sadness and desire. I remember being five years old and listening over and over to the piano cadenza from Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto on our old record player, because it was just so wonderful to me. I have no rational explanation for my response. Pathos as a rhetorical device is meant to stir the emotional recollection of lived experience, but how much lived experience could I have had at such a young age?

When I experience beauty, I do not want to own it. I want to become it. Not to influence people, or to elicit a response. Just to be it, to embody that transcendent quality. I want to be beautiful.

This is a problem. It’s a problem for numerous reasons, but I’ve come to see that first and foremost, I don’t feel beautiful inside. I feel rotten. I feel tainted with an ugliness that no superficial change can remedy. No makeup, no clothing, no weight loss or addition of muscle can fix it, because ugly is my identity. I feel it as strongly as I suppose others feel their gender identity. It’s the core of my being, my basic nature.

I’ve only spoken to one other person who gets this and feels the same, though I know many who’ve told me they recognized early they could never be beautiful and so never aspired to it. It doesn’t seem to eat at them as my desire for beauty does me. I have a hard time understanding.

Writing about this is extremely difficult. Trying to articulate it brings tears to my eyes and makes my throat close up. It’s one of those places where I wish I could just rip the sensations and emotions out of my stomach and hand them to someone: “Here, try this on and you’ll know.” Because this reality is beyond words, beyond expression. As I can’t remember a time before beauty moved me, I can’t remember a time before the absolute certainty of my own ugliness. I am Quasimodo in a world of Esmereldas. Probably beauty moves me the way it does because I know I lack it.

The pre-verbal quality of this feeling makes me wonder if it isn’t something I absorbed in the womb. I know my mother didn’t want another child by the time I came along, and whatever face she showed to the outside world, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she prayed to miscarry early. The religion I was raised in doesn’t put much emphasis on Original Sin, but Presbyterians do subscribe to the doctrine of predestination; maybe I somehow caught on to this early enough to understand, to believe myself Not One Of The Elect. The feeling of being flawed goes that deep. The pictures in my book of studio portraits taken between the ages of a few months and six show a cute, blonde girl, but I remember feeling unattractive from about four on–a feeling which worsened over time, as my age peers continued to poke fun at my looks. When I got old enough to recognize that girls objectively less attractive and larger than I were still accepted into the ruling cliques and didn’t face the same derision, the fact cemented my opinion that the flaw in me must be something other. Not a superficial wrongness, but one flowing outward from my heart, poisoning everything about me.

I fear photos and mirrors; I believe they must inevitably show me for what I truly am. But when I do look, it’s not too bad. Sometimes I can critique a specific part of my body; “I don’t like the hanging flab of my upper arms.” Mostly, I don’t associate the images with my sense of self at all. Even gazing at my naked body in a full length mirror, my body with its rounded belly and vast thighs, I see no one in particular. Just a woman. Not one who fills me with distaste. Not the inner ME, either. The inner ME is the sense of wrongness in my stomach, the one I can only ignore but never banish.

I suppose calling this wrongness “ugliness” is something I learned. We’re indoctrinated early on in the truth that a woman’s value lies in her beauty. I have no value, therefore I lack beauty. I guess that’s how it worked.

People sometimes try to reassure me that I am, in fact, not bad to look at. I try to reassure myself. But all the words, all the times people have said “You’re beautiful,” make no difference, because I don’t feel them. You cherish what you find beautiful, don’t you? You nurture and protect it. I don’t feel people show that impulse to me. I don’t feel cherished. I don’t believe anyone thinks of me when I cease efforts to thrust myself into their faces. I don’t believe anyone has held me in their hearts, wondered about how I am and what I’m doing, obsessed over me the way you do in the first throes of an infatuation, when your life hangs on the possibility of a date or a phone call. Outside the boundaries of interaction, I cease to exist. No one works to impress me, no one plans for my delight. And I know, according to some, you are not supposed to require these things. Women especially are supposed to reach for what they want. But it’s hard, so hard, to reach, and reach, and reach, sometimes to achieve, but mostly to fall, and swallow the failure, and move on. It empties you out, after a while, reinventing the self over and over again. Knowing that I operate without a net, that no one will catch me if I fall because no one sees me falling (or worse, see it and don’t care), is not a source of strength. It makes me question why I bother with anything at all.

When I set out to write this post, I meant to address the complex relationship between beauty and value women in our society suffer from every day. It’s devolved into something else, an exploration of the constant pain at my core, where value, and appearance, and the simultaneous need for and fear of regard tangle into a Gordian knot of Titanic proportions. I’ve been trying to untangle it for almost forty years, and always, just when I think I have one thread separate and laid out clean, the others contract into an impossible snarl. I’ve tried the Alexandrian solution, but the problem isn’t one I can cut through. Other people contributed to it; I need other people to do their part. But I can’t count on that. So the question always returns: How can I be okay without other people doing their part? I can’t. I used to try, and once upon a time I was able to salvage a few passions from the ones damaged beyond saving. If not this, then that. If not that, then another thing. I used them all up years ago; I have nothing left. People have taken it all and never put anything back.

They don’t put it back because I don’t matter because I’m ugly. And so it continues.

I write this fully aware that I am in a bad depressive state right now–bad enough that I booked an early morning appointment with my medication manager for Monday, though both Mondays and early mornings are things I try to avoid. This state may have been triggered by lingering physical illness, or by sticking my toe into an ocean of hurt my last therapy session, but I can’t get on top of it. Lately I reduced my antidepressant because the higher dose combined with my mood stabilizer, though it made me feel really good, also caused severe irritability. I would far rather have the irritability than this blackness, where all I can feel is the pain in my heart. I can’t bear to leave the house for fear of eyes upon me, for fear my inner flaw will show plain and even if others are too polite to mention it, they’ll mock it in silence. I imagine voices with the ironic tone peculiar to the Grosse Pointe of my schooldays, where every compliment hid barbs and every glance flayed to the bone.

Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.

 

 

Before You Bemoan Trigger Warnings and Coddled Youth…

Today, I got triggered because my jeans were too tight.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” you may be thinking. “That’s ridiculous. Aren’t you taking this whole concept a bit too far?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Even I think it’s ridiculous. And no, I’m not taking it too far.

See, I have profound issues with my body (if you’ve read any of my blog posts, you already know this, or at least suspect it). When I was 17, I almost died of anorexia nervosa. I struggled with a severe eating disorder for years after, and have never felt entirely comfortable in my body. I’ve put on a large amount of weight in the past five years or so, and everything that makes me notice it brings all those issues to the surface. Clothes that no longer fit right. The sense of being compressed into too small a space, a space I once inhabited with (relative) ease.

This is what it feels like: I can’t breathe, and I don’t know whether it’s from the tightness of my clothes or something in my head, a stress response. My heart races. My body starts to shake. All the horrible things I’ve ever thought about my body, all the horrible things anyone has ever said about my body, fill my mind, pushing out everything else. I’m terrified to move. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that something is happening over which I have no control. The idea of control in itself is vague and illusory. I feel helpless. I want to run and hide, or fight, but I’m incapable of neither. There’s no safety wherever I turn.

All from squeezing myself into a pair of too-small jeans.

Breathe.

I have a lot of triggers like that: triggers other people might consider “stupid” or trivial. I haven’t actually been through a lot of things that were life-threatening in the moment, and the ones I have experienced pale beside earlier sustained trauma. Yes, it was terrifying in the moment being raped. But in all honestly, it didn’t mark me the way it marks other people. I got over it fairly quickly. I can read graphic descriptions of rape and other physical violence. I can even see them on TV or in movies, though I don’t like them. It’s the little stuff that gets to me, because my trauma was day-to-day over a long period of time. Everyday things other people don’t notice are loaded in ways that are hard to explain. Tight clothes. The idea of exercise. I have a hard time with the mere word, “exercise.” Playing music. Trying to make conversation. Leaving my house, which is mostly safe. People not being honest about what they’re feeling–I guess that may be more common than I suppose. Hunger, which I experience several times a day. Imagine having a fight or flight response every time you get hungry. 

My point is, no one can know what’s going to trigger another person. You can’t say, “Oh, that. I don’t have any trouble with that, so you shouldn’t either.” You can’t say, “Your desire to be safe and informed in this area is a symptom you need to pull up your panties and grow up. The world has bad stuff in it; get over it.” Triggers don’t work that way. Instead of judging by your own experience, maybe try showing some compassion and trying to understand.

I think most people want things to be easy and to fall into neat categories: THIS is something that could be triggering and THIS isn’t. THIS is normal human experience; THIS is beyond the pale. But mental health issues don’t work that way at all. Definitions change all the time as understanding changes. In my lifetime alone, homosexuality was removed from the DSM; I was hospitalized with men whose only “illness” was “being gay,” and mental health professionals didn’t begin to address the results of the ways they were treated because of it. In my lifetime, Manic Depressive Psychosis has become Bipolar Disorder, has become Bipolar Spectrum Disorder. Most people still view PTSD through a single lens. The idea of CPTSD is catching on, but it’s still not an “official” diagnosis.

So, you know, shut up about other people’s triggers. I know it’s difficult to build a standard policy on shifting sand, but that’s not our problem.

That’s all.

Mansplaining MMCCLIXXIVV: The Irony

So, the other night, I posted this Tumblr meme to my Facebook page:

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I both like and dislike it. I like it because it uses superheroes many, if not most, people are familiar with as examples of struggle and perseverance. This is something Geek-minded folks, who may not find more common inspirational memes accessible, can relate to. I dislike it because I dislike inspirational memes in general. At their best, they reduce significant struggles to simplistic terms. At their worst, they become “inspiration porn,” a nasty internet phenomenon that hurts all people with disabilities, whether physical or mental. Bearing this in mind, when I shared the meme, I said I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or whether it made me want to shove my fist through a wall. Soon after posting, I went to bed.

When I checked Facebook the next day, a couple of my friends (with one exception all women with a variety of chronic illnesses) had commented. Nothing major, but the general consensus was “Fist through wall.” Several mentioned that the characters were fictional (IMO, not a stumbling block to taking inspiration from them), or that at least two are fabulously wealthy–a reality which, if it doesn’t solve problems, does, in fact, make them infinitely easier to bear. One friend noted that the list doesn’t include any woman superheroes, which made her think that it was geared toward “TEH MENZ.”

Oh, my. Haven’t we learned by now the danger of pointing our sexism and misogyny in Geek culture? Apparently not. Not long after my friend posted this last comment, this happened:

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A male friend came onto the scene. I think it’s relevant to point out that he isn’t a close friend; he’s someone I picked up from one game or another and kept after I stopped playing because I genuinely like him. But I don’t know him beyond Facebook, and he doesn’t know me. On the other hand, I’ve been extremely close to the women involved for years.

So this male friend starts off with how he thinks people on the Internet just take things “way too seriously” sometimes, and the meme was meant to be a positive message against suicide, and that’s all. And then he goes on about every character mentioned, and how the creator probably picked ones that resonated with him, and how comic book characters have always been sources of inspiration and on and on AND ON FOR ALMOST 1000 WORDS.

One of the original woman commenters, who wrote her B.A. thesis on censorship in comic books, replied with a refutation of some of the things the man said and pointed out that the meme addresses movie versions of the characters rather than the comic book versions, which made his examples inapplicable. He replied by saying she was still “missing the point” in that we were “nitpicking whether these heroes were good enough to convey the message.” And on for another 1000 words or so, describing various iterations of the characters in Golden and Silver Age comics.

That’s where I stepped in and said enough. I told him IMO he was the one missing the point, which was that no one was trying to nitpick whether the heroes were “good enough” to convey a positive message, but that we dislike inspirational memes in general, that all of us have various chronic illnesses which are more than a matter of “just suck it up and keep fighting,” and that he took the entire conversation out of context. Plus, where the heck did he get that it’s an anti-suicide meme, because I don’t see that anywhere. I actually may not have stated things as clearly as that. Yesterday the whole incident had me so livid I could hardly bear to read the thread; today as I write this and look at it, it all seems way less loaded. In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned that I have an “Always Keep Fighting” sweatshirt which I love to death (Thank you, Jared Padelecki). Another woman friend got into the fray, mentioning that the meme almost offended her because how the Hell was her experience supposed to be comparable with a superhero’s?

Massive side-eye for this entire incident.
Massive side-eye for this entire incident.

Dude comes back with ANOTHER lengthy, point-by-point essay full of this, that, and the other, by the end of which he’d kind of admitted that he flew off the handle because he’s seen a lot of nastiness around this particular meme, and said he considered it anti-suicide because he got it from a suicide prevention page, and even managed to apologize in words. Kudos to him. But he still thought my one friend was missing the point.

Anyway, that really should have been the end of it, but later my feed barfs up a lengthy status update from him. This guy’s status updates are rarely shorter than 1000 words, and I mostly enjoy them, especially when he takes down inaccurate religious memes. He and my dad would have loved each other. Well, this one started with how he doesn’t generally agree with the Right about political correctness ruining everything, but you can be overly critical of innocuous stuff, and THERE’S THIS ANTI-SUICIDE MEME…. etc, and “more than one person who shared it even stated that they didn’t know if they loved it or hated it.” *clutches pearls*

Okay, enough. I restrained myself all night and most of today. Done now.

evil willow

Dude, first off, do you really not understand the concept of irony, or can you just not apply it to yourself? You come into a thread where people are having a relatively light-hearted discussion about their problems with a meme and proceed to lecture them AT LENGTH about “taking innocuous things too seriously,” to the point where it took me telling you to back the fuck off to get you to disengage, and then you complain about it to the public? Who’s taking things too seriously now?

In the second place, I have no idea if you’ve ever experienced suicidal ideation, but I doubt it, because if you had, you’d know it’s FAR from innocuous. It’s a fucking killer. People lose the fight every single day. I’ve attempted suicide more than once, which is why I have a fucking semicolon tattooed on my wrist–NOT because I love proper punctuation, although I do. So have several of my dear friends, and let me tell you, when you get to that point it takes more than a shitty meme about metahumans to motivate you to keep breathing. Fuck you for dismissing the pain of that. And fuck you twice for taking issue with people who have to find reasons to go on living every day pointing out that your “innocuous” meme is problematic. In case you hadn’t heard, you can like things and STILL critique problematic elements in them.

In your extended status of yesterday evening, you cite a problem in the LGBT+ community of safe spaces designed for that community (the gay male community in particular) being welcoming to others not of that community (straight women in particular), who then complained that the safe space wasn’t designed for them and, in effect, tore it down while while being unwelcoming to those who had sheltered them when they built their own safe spaces. Back to irony, you did the exact same thing on my post: You came into a space that was not yours and insisted it play by your rules. In addition, you took exception to people who have actually attempted suicide not loving your “positive message” against it. I thought you were better than that, honestly. If a marginalized group has issues with a piece of media purporting to address that group, then you need to shut up and listen instead of getting all butthurt when people in the group say “THIS DOESN’T WORK.”

But you know what? I think it boils down to sexism. I think you saw some women discussing something they found problematic, and I think you saw my friend’s reference to TEH MENZ, and you could not help but jump in to mansplain to us that we were the ones taking things too seriously and taking things out of context and whatever-the-hell else you felt we wimminz weren’t “getting” because you couldn’t STAND for us to have opinions that differed from yours. It would have been easy enough not to engage–as I chose not to engage beyond one comment (and okay; I’m lying, it wasn’t easy at all, but hey, KEEP FIGHTING THOSE IMPULSES LIKE BATMAN). It would have been easy enough to let it go, to say, well, these people have a different take, this meme doesn’t work for them. But you didn’t. You had to let us know just HOW WRONG you thought we were, and how much better you know about all things superhero than we do. Because misogyny.

I don’t know what you meant to achieve aside from parading your own knowledge, but I can tell you one thing you did achieve:  I trust you less than I did yesterday morning. As I said above, I enjoy your rants. I enjoy your takedowns of idiotic memes. But having been on the receiving side of one, I now have to wonder how many times, when you’ve complained about people just not understanding, you’ve painted an inaccurate picture putting yourself in a more positive, and them in a more negative, light than objectivity dictated. How many times have people on the Right with whom you’ve interacted been far more civil and more articulate than you let on? Because I’ve learned you’re loath to admit wrong, and you love having the last word.

I’m going to post this on Facebook. I’m going to post it to a restricted list you are no longer part of, because I don’t trust you anymore. Not because I can’t take criticism, but because you can’t. And in the event you stumble across this anyway, through a mutual acquaintance or just through the randomness of the Internet, I leave you with this reward:

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Congratulations.

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