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.

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Fractured Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

broken-mirror

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts for a New Year

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

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

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

No gymnastics lessons for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Two Weeks Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What I Can’t Forgive

CW: Infertility, discussion of weight loss and eating disorders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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.