More Confessions of a Body Positivity Failure

CW: Weight Loss, Diet Talk, Exercise Talk

Since last June. I’ve been swimming two or three times a week, having been fortunate enough to have found a community pool and then a rec center that are welcoming of people of all sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities. I’ve also made an effort to bring some more awareness to what I eat and how I eat it: whether I’m eating out of boredom or some other emotional reason and whether I’m eating what my body wants me to eat or just putting anything in that will serve for the next meal. I’ve done both these things because I didn’t feel good in my body, being largely sedentary and eating whatever, and I haven’t followed either an exercise program or a diet with any militancy. Still,  find that I’ve lost about twenty pounds and I’m in a smaller pair of jeans.

I’m deeply conflicted about these things, especially the food part, and I was before I started doing it.

I feel better. Days when I swim, I notice some elevation of my mood, although not a lot, and it may be due to the simple fact that I’ve gotten out of the house and done something rather than sitting on my ass bored and alone all day instead of any release of endorphins. I’m glad I’m back in my smaller pair of jeans, because I missed wearing them and they fit better than any other jeans I’ve had, and the manufacturer doesn’t make that style any more.

Still, I’m deeply conflicted about what I’m doing and why.

At our last session when I brought this up, my therapist asked me, “If you feel better in your body, what’s the problem?” I told her I felt like I’d betrayed my principles, and worse, betrayed my friends, some of whom are fat activists.

Maybe I’ve done what I needed to do for myself. But the truth is, I don’t believe in weight loss. I don’t believe there are right and wrong ways to eat or good and bad foods, or any of that. And I see myself falling onto the trap of feeling virtuous when I motivate myself to make a vegetable stir fry instead of sticking a frozen pot pie in the oven because it would be easier. Sure, my body often enjoys eating the stir fry and responds with a cry of “Yay, vegetables!” But maybe it would enjoy the pot pie just as much for other reasons. I like being able to wear the smaller jeans again, but isn’t the discontinuation of that style another sign of fat oppression? I don’t like to ignore that, but at the same time, I want clothes that fit and wearing ill-fitting jeans makes me upset and depressed. And I supposed to endure that for the sake of fighting oppression?

I also feel virtuous when I go to the rec center and swim. As I said, I don’t get a lot out of the activity for its own sake, and often the feeling that I really should go is all that gets me out the door and on the road. (It was easier during the summer, when the pool was outside and there was lot of sun, and it was hot out.)

I ask myself a lot, “Why am I doing these things if they go against what I really feel and believe in?” And those feelings of virtue have a lot to do with it, which I hate. They’re the antithesis of being fat positive, which I strive to be–and fail at miserably, it seems.

Maybe these questions wouldn’t trouble me so much if I weren’t so depressed just in general. I know they didn’t bother me much in the summer, when my mood was better. But with the seasonal shift, I’ve become more and more listless and uncaring. I have no internal motivation to do anything. Nothing feels good for its own sake; nothing interests me. When I do go to the pool, it’s not because I look forward to swimming. It’s because I feel I should go, or at best because I recognize that I’ll feel marginally better going than I would if I don’t, because sitting at home with no interests and nothing to draw my attention is bad for me. And with every “should,” there’s a corresponding “Why?” Going to the pool presents its own obstacles: It’s far away, and it’s cold, and I don’t actively enjoy it–in fact, I find swimming rather pointless and boring. So why do it? Eating better is hard when I don’t feel like cooking. Even making the weekly grocery list and doing the shopping can be torturous. I’d rather do things that are easy, most days. So why pursue a healthier diet? especially when I recognize that “Health” is relative and there’s no obligation to be “healthy” anyway, or to attempt to manipulate my body either for health or size reasons? Why do anything at all, except to be “good?” Which I’ve already said is something I don’t believe in as far as food control or exercise.

My therapist suggested I write this blog post. I was initially loath to do it, because I know the subject matter can be triggering to those around me.  But I decided to go ahead and do it, because the topic preys on my mind and because–again–it’s better than sitting around doing nothing. I don’t feel I’ve expressed myself very well, and I have no answers to the questions that keep bothering me. Maybe other people do.

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Empty

I don’t know what to say in this space.

For a long time now, I have felt exactly nothing. Nothing good, nothing bad. No highs or lows. I am am abandoned building; no one is home and no one is coming to visit. I am the level plain where nothing grows.

There are words for this state. Clinical ones like anhedonia, Which technically means the absence of ability to feel pleasure, so it misses half the mark. Or I can make up metaphors like I did above, intellectual games that don’t touch me. I don’t really feel the need to express anything about this state. To say that it’s awful would be a deception, for if it isn’t pleasant, neither is it unpleasant. It is nothing.

Sometimes, it is boring. With no drive to do anything one way or another, I spend a lot of time in my house staring at the walls, waiting for something to change, like my husband coming home so we can eat dinner and fill a couple hours watching TV. I never feel anything about it, unless an occasional mild amusement. I don’t really look forward to it, yet it’s something in the nothing: Something to fill the hours until bed and sleep.

I find other things to fill the hours. Housework I can do, if it’s not too challenging. Big jobs are beyond me, because I would have to care about them, and even though I can see my house getting dirtier by the day, I don’t really care. No one ever comes here, so how can I care about the drifts of cat hair in the corners? Sometimes I go swimming at the rec center thirty miles away. That’s good for three hours, including travel time; I can stay in the pool about half an hour before it starts to become unbearably dreary, and another fifteen minutes if I stretch it out.

Sometimes I think I don’t want to go on another day in this nothingness. But I don’t care enough about that to be a danger to myself, either.

When I look back at the words I’ve written just now, I suppose this state must seem awful. It’s not awful; I’ve done awful. It’s something beneath awful, or maybe just above. Moving one way or another and starting to feel, maybe that would be awful. So when I try to express what it’s like, I’m stumped, because how do you express the utter lack of feeling? I don’t have any desire to go one way or the other, either to improve or get worse. Except sometimes, when other people around me are passionate about things in their lives, I feel the lack of any passion in my own life and I cry.

I’ve thought taking a step, any step, would be better (always understanding that better has little meaning to me because I don’t experience this state as being awful). When I took up swimming, I thought maybe it would open my feelings up to something else. But every step becomes more drudgery, a going-on without going-toward, and it becomes so hard to keep taking the steps at all. I’ve thought about sitting down to write again, doing NaNoWriMo next month, just making myself do it. But the idea of adding another thing for the sake of filling empty space makes me a bit angry; I don’t really believe it will get me anywhere and so why bother?

I don’t even know why I’m writing this except that I haven’t posted a blog in so long and I feel some sense of moral obligation.

I suppose this state could be an issue with my meds. I have had this thought. I can’t check it out now, because the med manager at Mental Health retired and they haven’t hired a new one yet (vague sense of dread at having to form a working relationship with a new person). It’s been suggested that this is a symptom of seasonal depression now that summer is gone. And that might be possible, except this emptiness was lurking under everything all through the summer, too. I could never be as involved in things like my garden as I thought I ought to be, because I just didn’t care enough. In fact, as to the garden, I’m (vaguely) relieved it’s dead now, so I don’t have to maintain a semblance of caring about something that I really can’t be all that bothered about.

Mostly, I feel that this state is beyond my control. I don’t think I can do anything about it, no more than the dry gulch can affect the weather that might or might not bring rain. I can only wait it out. I would say, “In the hopes that something will change,” but I don’t feel any particular sense of hope (or hopelessness). I’m resigned to the idea that I’m in a place beyond hope (or hopelessness): that maybe age or something else has put hope as far from me as every other feeling.

So my days are full of empty waiting. Waiting for anything to have meaning, to sink a hook in me, to hit my heart in a place where it registers as something other than a brief thought.

Waiting for people to come back to this empty house and light the fire.

Mental Illness and Relativity

As I mentioned a few posts ago, at the beginning of December I started a new medication, and it worked. It worked better than I dreamed it would, and it’s continued to work. I still have bad days, usually when the weather is icky. I’m not sure science will ever unlock the mystery of the relationship between weather and health; I’m not sure scientists give it as much credit as it deserves. However, my good days increasingly outnumber the bad ones.

This is new and strange. Perhaps the strangest thing is how much time I suddenly seem to have.

Mental illness is a time sink. I could fall into social media or casual games for hours and hours on end, and then when I lifted my head to see the sun setting wonder what happened to the day. I’d remember when I was younger, even as recently as ten years ago, accomplishing so much in a day. Getting up and not taking hours to move beyond drinking coffee and checking my notifications. Putting on clothes and going downtown, going for a walk, working in the garden, doing the daily maintenance on my home, cooking elaborate meals. Depression and anxiety, the two main manifestations of my mental illness, have limited me by limiting my time. Dragging myself out of the Internet and putting down my phone has often seemed a Sisyphean task, the effort only gaining me minutes of clear space before those twin rocks forced me back on line.

I have had a love/hate relationship with those rocks. They are smooth, presenting no challenges other than their existence. They have kept me safe from interacting with things I’m not ready to face. I think many mental illnesses still exist, evolutionarily speaking, because they DO keep people safe and keep the broken parts from grinding together; it’s just when they take over and become chronic illnesses rather than temporary traits that they become more problematic. On the other hand, I sometimes (frequently) have remembered times of being more functional and wondered, “Is this it? Is this as good as it gets? Is this my life now?” Living with an uncontrolled mental illness is brutal and unforgiving; there’s always a reason why it’s your own fault. There are always other people, more functional and successful people, with whom to compare yourself, so the things lacking in your life stand out in sharp contrast. It’s easy to forget that every day you survive is a victory.

With my mental illnesses in relative check, I have so much more time. The time starts right away, first thing in the morning. I sleep better. I don’t have to take a sedative every night just to find my way to dreams. I go to bed and get up at times more “normal” for me. I need less sleep, too–still a solid eight hours, but not nine or ten or more. I can even function for a day on six or so, as I did last week when I had jury duty, which is another task that would have been impossible for me even to face before. It doesn’t take me two hours to get up off the couch and wash my face. Where I used to see the sun set and wonder what had happened to the day, now I’m functioning before noon most days. It still instills me with a sense of wonder, but now I’m wondering what to do with all this time, rather than wondering where it all went. In the past little while, I’ve crocheted a hat for a friend, started work on a sweater for the same friend’s tortoise (so they can match), cooked more, cleaned more, picked up yoga again (until I injured my ankle, at least), even gotten a start on a couple writing projects. The last two have remained difficult, as are any dedicated creative endeavors; contacting my heart causes me pain that brings everything to a screeching halt. Last night I even went with my husband to an open mic he wanted to play at. I looked forward to it all day. I put on makeup! And I had a reasonable time, experiencing some feelings of annoyance and alienation, but not nearly the feelings I would have just a short time ago, when I’d have been ready to leave an event five minutes after walking in the door–if I went in the first place.

All these things may seem small to a person who hasn’t struggled as I’ve struggled the past 10+ years, but to me they’re huge. And people (my therapist, my med manager) have told me in the past that losing time was an aspect of my illness, but I really didn’t get it until now, when that time is spread gloriously before me. Depression sapped my will and my motivation to do anything at all. I couldn’t even see how dirty my house got until six months had passed since the last time I’d mopped the floor and I made myself do it because I simply couldn’t stand it anymore. Everything became a matter of “which is worse: doing or not doing? How much can I stand?” Anxiety crippled me with a sense of dread at the prospect of engaging with life on any level at all. Much better to fend it off with games, with chit-chat, with Netflix, with anything I could use to numb the fear.

I don’t fool myself that all this is gone now. As I said, I still have bad days, and those days are BAD. Perhaps the worst thing about them is slipping back into self blame and recrimination, all the unproductive ways of thinking that, though I’ve worked forty years to loosen their grip, still take hold of me at those times. That I’m irredeemably bad and awful, that I have no value, that I’m weak and lazy and all the rest. That life is grey and dreary and will continue to be so until the day I mercifully die. Those days, I simply have to grit my teeth and bear it, try not to listen to the messages, and do what I need to do to get through. I have no illusions that I could survive in a capitalist institution like a “normal” job, or that routine “work” wouldn’t send me back into the spiral of suicidal ideation. A warning sign is that even saying those things sounds to me like making excuses for laziness, and right now my brain is berating me for wanting “special treatment” and “wanting to be taken care of instead of carrying my own weight.” Those are the signs of my sickness, and I think I may never be altogether free of them.

But right now, there is time. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Time for you and time for me; time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of toast and tea.”* And those indecisions, visions, and revisions, don’t scare me to death. And that’s good.

I believe this is how Einstein explained relativity: “A minute looking at a pretty girl goes my in the blink of an eye, but a minute sitting on a hot stove lasts a lifetime.” For me, a day consumed by anxiety and depression passes in an instant, and a day without their weight expands with infinite possibility.

I much prefer the latter.

*From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 1917

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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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.

Emotional Labor and Mental Illness

I think it was about a year ago when I first ran across the term “Emotional Labor.” I’m not alone; although the concept has been a staple of sociology for thirty years, it’s only recently I’ve seen it discussed on a wider scale. If you want to read more about it, this is a pretty good article, but in brief, emotional labor is the effort we take to regulate emotions and the expression thereof. It extends to modifying environments to make them more welcoming and comfortable, keeping track of details, and various types of nurturing. In other words, what used to be termed “Women’s Work.” Sociologists often make a distinction between “emotional labor” and “emotional work,” where the former takes place in a job setting while the latter is geared toward home and relationships. I personally find this distinction unnecessary and even a little offensive, so for the purposes of this post I’m using the terms interchangeably.

When I first saw the term (I think it was here), it was like a lightbulb flashed in my brain. “Oh!” I thought. “This is the piece I’m missing!” Here’s some context: I’m married, and have been for twenty years, to a wonderful, feminist man I love dearly, who is my best friend. If any of those pieces had been missing, I wouldn’t have married him. And for the most part, we have a great marriage. However, like any couple, we have our disagreements and rough spots. There’ve been numerous times in our relationship I’ve tried to communicate things to him and felt like I just wasn’t getting through on some level. The idea of emotional labor, the fact that my work to keep our household running smoothly is often taken for granted and sometimes plain invisible, gave me a way to explain in words he understood better.

I don’t know how much the division of labor in our household is due to the way gender socialization works, and how much is our particular characters and aptitudes. While I like to think of myself as a dreamer, the fact is I’m quite a practical person, with an organized mind and an ability to keep track of what goes where and when which thing needs to happen. My husband is the dreamer, and his great memory for detail sometimes leads him to get bogged down in minutiae, while his perfectionism causes him to develop intricate processes to accomplish relatively simple tasks. He’s capable of huge compassion for others, but not so much for himself, a tendency he attributes to the religion he was raised in. I’m very open and outspoken about my emotions and my process; him, not so much. While you could find reasons for all this in the different ways men and women are taught to behave, you might, if you knew us well, see these qualities as part of our individual identities.

But there’s one place where my husband and I definitely differ: I have a mental illness, and have spent more than half my life learning how to manage it. While he experiences intermittent episodes of depression, they’re not the life-threatening kind that leads one to intensive treatment. Consequently, he hasn’t had to do the emotional work I have, and gets along all right without it. He’s a great conversationalist, facilitator, and mediator. People feel safe with him. But he doesn’t have the skill I have at delving into deep matters or my comfort level with addressing extremely uncomfortable personal topics. When your emotions can kill you, when you’ve been held on a locked hallway until you learn (or make a viable pretense of having learned) to deal with them, you become adept at self questioning and self regulation.

Of course, not everyone does. Some people with mental illnesses are ultra resistant, some don’t have the insight and aptitude, some fall back into old patterns when they get into triggering situations, and some are simply too ill. I’m talking about those of us considered “high functioning” in one area or another: by reason of intellect, or ability to appear “normal,” or ability to hold a job. The people you wouldn’t immediately peg as having mental health issues. And some high functioning people don’t learn either, because they can manipulate or coerce others into doing their emotional labor for them. Some use their illness as an excuse not to do their own emotional labor. Our former housemate was one of these. From the outside, she was interesting, intelligent, and capable, a fun person to be around. It was only once you got close that the demands started, and these could take the form of anything from long conversations over coffee trying to “process” some real or imagined slight to waking people up in tears at three in the morning to spend three hours talking her through an event from days earlier. Any attempt to make her do her own work was framed as retraumatizing. Because, face it, emotional labor isn’t usually fun. It’s hard, and it’s often painful, and it feels much better to have someone else do it for you. It feels like being taken care of, and it is. She refused outright to go to therapy because therapists “wouldn’t understand” her, and this necessitated interventions a couple times a week to keep her from blowing like a steamkettle. Living with her was draining and frustrating on a level I’d never experienced before, and haven’t since, although one instance came close.

The psycho ex-housemate stuff will become relevant later, trust me.

Anyway, I’ve spent a good portion of my life doing the emotional labor of others. Trying not to trigger my repressed parents. Talking friends through fights and breakups. Reassuring people of their worth and attempting to shine a different light on their problems. As I said, it’s something I’m skilled at, trained in, even, since my degree is in Dance Therapy. It’s not to the advantage of my personal boundaries that I’m highly empathetic, because when I feel something “off,” I’m not content to let it lie. Doing so makes me uncomfortable; I have to get it out in the open. Also, I find trivial conversation tiresome. I’m always looking for a deeper level of interaction.

The problem is, when I exert my energy on the emotional labor of other people, I often drain myself to the point of not being able to practice self care. Before I know it, I’m empty and spiraling down into a depressive cycle. This is why, when this meme popped up on Twitter the other day, it really resonated with me:14040135_10157345413950254_692207246828710712_n

Now, the above doesn’t exactly articulate my experience. It doesn’t take me a huge amount of energy to maintain my high functioning persona, mostly because I don’t bother with doing so; if I have it, I have it, and if I don’t, I don’t. I have an extreme distaste for masks and personas of any kind, and I never had much use for societal expectations (which is no doubt one reason I’ve always had a hard time working a “job” in the commonly understood sense). And when people rely on me for emotional labor, I generally come through. However, as I already said, I often do so at the price of my own mental health. And that’s bad.

Using my marriage as an example, and getting back to the psycho ex-housemate: I was involved with her for one year. My husband was for five, and during that time he did the bulk, if not all, of her emotional labor. He was the one she woke up in the middle of the night when she was upset and needed talking down. He was the one who never had time or space for his own activities, because he always had to be available to her. He was the one who faced The Wrath if he went down to the corner store for a beer to drink during their scheduled TV date and she flipped because she decided his absence meant he was going to blow her off. And, by the way, if you think this sounds abusive, IT ABSOLUTELY WAS. Bear it in mind: Refusing to do your own emotional work inevitably makes you toxic.

The year I spent in the same house with the pair of them, most of my energy was spent trying to get him out. When I succeeded and we moved far, far away, there was a consequence to both of us I hadn’t foreseen. He’d had to do so much emotional labor for psycho ex-housemate that he wanted no part in doing any more for anyone, himself included. I was so afraid of being like, or even appearing to be like, psycho ex-housemate, that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to. I expected that once we got out of the toxic situation, things would naturally assume a more normal condition. We’d be able to devote more time to each other and our mutual needs, like looking after our home and sharing chores and responsibilities, without the looming threat of psycho ex-housemate coloring every interaction. I hadn’t counted on him being so damaged, and simply worn out, that what I considered “normal” was beyond his ability even to consider. And because I hadn’t yet run across the concept of emotional labor, I had no way of addressing the situation.

On top of that, we got involved with another set of people who didn’t do their own emotional work. Because of my nature, and because I tend to believe doing the emotional work of others is my only value and setting boundaries will cost me friends, I took the bulk of it on. My husband was perfectly willing to listen to me vent about it, and even join in, but didn’t, or wasn’t able to, support me the way I wanted in the moment. I developed some physical health problems, including suffering the two miscarriages I’ve mentioned in other posts. There, too, I didn’t get the support I needed. Neither did my husband. I honestly don’t think we’ve done the emotional work around those losses that we should as of this day. There are a lot of reasons for that, not least that miscarriage carries a certain stigma and isn’t talked about much, but also my deep feeling that children are something more worthy and desirable women get, and I was asking too much by wanting them. Anyway, in the end, I broke.

There’ve been times along the way when I’ve been more functional than not, but I’ve spent basically the last twelve to fourteen years broken from doing too much emotional labor for others and not getting the help I needed doing mine. That’s the better part of my marriage. I have regrets about it I can’t even articulate. I’ve blamed myself for not being strong enough and for not being more demanding, and for not standing up for myself. And I’ve blamed my husband for everything you can imagine and probably more you can’t. But in the end, blame doesn’t do either of us any good and doesn’t matter. It’s how to go on that matters.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: As much as possible, do your own emotional labor. Whatever it looks like: caring for your space, finding a place and support to talk through your feelings, taking a long bath, learning how to paint or dance. If there’s scary stuff you need to work through, find a therapist. If you have health issues, get them looked at. Don’t rely on others to do the work, or invite you to discuss things, or prod you into it. Especially don’t do this if you know they have a mental illness, even if they’re really good at it. Being really good at it means they probably have to do more emotional labor in a week than you face in a lifetime. Okay, that’s hyperbole. But seriously, do your own work. Otherwise you risk damaging the people least able to bear it. People you love.

And I guess that’s all I have to say.

 

 

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