Archive for the ‘Questioner’ Category

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The Self as Unreliable Narrator of Self

2016.October.16

search: define gaslighting

“gaslight: manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” — Google

“Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.” — Wikipedia

“Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.” — Everyday Feminism

There is a struggle going on in my brain. I think about it every day, but I don’t talk about it much because it’s so deeply personal I haven’t trusted myself to filter it outward through language. There are three prevailing forces, not battling each other like it’s a war so much as bumping against each other uncomfortably, like too many people on a subway platform; need for personal space aside, it only gets scary if one gets pushed too close to the edge, but then what is only an obnoxious daily ritual to others becomes a matter of life and death for that one, who is silently measuring their own balance, agility, and friction for a way to shift back where there may no longer be room.

I don’t know if gaslighting is the appropriate term, but I do feel like my own mind is making me question my own sanity.

The forces:

  • The human brain likes to give us the illusion of a static reality. The same instincts that see fluid movement instead of choppy frames when we watch a film reel also simplify our account of other people and especially of ourselves. It’s why stereotypes and binary judgments can be hard to unlearn. And whatever our relationship with the reality that people change, the brain especially doesn’t like to accommodate the fact that “people” include oneself. In other words, this force is the stereotype I hold of myself, foundational lens to all knowledge and experience.
  • My political and cultural inquisitions have always moved me toward greater acceptance and inclusivity, but only for the last 2-3 years have I honed the will to consciously identify and contradict privilege (especially male privilege; my childhood gave me unique perspectives on whiteness that have made those confrontations far easier by comparison).
  • Despite being exactly where I want to be in life, and with the people I want to be with, my mental health remains set by terms I don’t understand/recognize from the prolonged trauma of caregiver isolation and burnout.

With these forces so easily identified, it shouldn’t be hard to see how they play out: some potential* confrontation of privilege arises, I give it my activist zeal, but it shorts out my self-perception or de-legitimizes some important social memory/context. I over-commit to addressing it (being a caregiver has heightened my previous strength of “fighting fires”, i.e., dealing with problems as emergencies, to the extent that it is hard to see any problem as anything but an emergency) but underestimate the scope or otherwise approach it with inadequate resources. While the two forces in conflict crash into one another, my caregiver brain determines whether I will calmly choose a direction, take a moment to regroup, or crumble on the floor in anxiety. And since these moments often arise in my head, whatever support I have means I face them functionally alone. By the time I realize I even need help, I am often either incapable of asking or stuck in a situation where no one is immediately available (never mind whether this hypothetical person would be well enough versed in how my brain is working to be any help).

[*Note: I have yet to identify a potential privilege that didn’t end up being real in some way, but I have often identified the wrong one for the problem at hand and gotten sidetracked from a more urgent matter, especially if I exhaust myself or other parties in doing so.]

I am coming to see how much baggage I carry with me. I never thought much about that slang as it became popular in the 90s, but I have seen (through recognizing my hoarding tendencies as I reclaim my living living space, through lukewarm reciprocity as I traveled to reconnect with faraway friends, through continual reflection over the role of my family of origin) how tightly I hold onto things material and ethereal. People. Ideas. Connections. Myths. As comical as it sounds, picture me carrying ten or twelve giant bags and suitcases, all so entangled that it is no longer possible to let go of certain ones without the whole pile crashing down upon me. I can’t look at that pile of baggage and tell you when it reached ridiculous or how to undo it; this was a lifelong accumulation, a slow tsunami of grief emerging from nowhere and everywhere.

Isolation, leadership, and masculinity have become triggers for me, but I still want to be motivated, I want to work to improve this world in idealistic fashions, and I don’t always slow down and examine the paternalism of logical, articulate, academic assumptions and statements. Making hard choices alone reminds me of caregiving. And asking for help reminds me of unchecked privilege. And not asking for help feels like perpetuating the toxic status quo. System error.

Loved ones have probably seen isolated examples of this short-circuit happening but may not realize how often or how deeply it’s happening. There’s usually a dilemma around it, so the deeper terror doesn’t get noticed. It doesn’t help that I lost some of the best allies I had in this process during caregiving because I would just emit my raw discomfort in all directions (I call it emotional radiation) and it was too psychically violent for them to remain close (they practiced self-care, and I am heartened by their having done so). I was unable to make meaningful new connections while I was caregiving at home. I kept my agenda full the first half of this year because I was trying to make room for all the people who had gone to come back (they didn’t). I am now too busy with school to make new connections elsewhere (and there I am nervous about how much of my particular crazy to share if it isn’t going to lead to a peer-reviewed article).

One of my primary assumptions for unpacking privilege is that I am fallible and don’t always understand my own reality, but if you deepen that doubt without breaks or support or reinforcement (and have you ever tried to take a break from your own brain?), the entire structure of perception itself starts to break down.  I thought my overall trajectory this semester would be simplifying my life: picking priorities and streamlining them, setting healthy boundaries, all that, but I’m starting to think I should be focusing instead on doing something about my life’s fractures.

My brain shorts out when someone close to me expresses displeasure or contradicts my understanding of reality. Buy they also call me on my mistakes, of which there are an alarming number. That’s when it feels like self-gaslighting, when I have to trust others more than I can trust myself. I say things and forget them — not from 6 months or 6 years ago, but like yesterday. So at the same time I’m trying to reprogram my brain to not default to “dadspeak” or presumptions of shared understanding, the programming itself seems to be more glitchy than I think. What if in updating an app on your phone, it suddenly forgot the program language or wrote an error into the operating system? Where do you find IT for a system you’ve built from scratch around your own experience? I have a therapist and she’s been instrumental in reprogramming my thoughts, but glitches are deeper, and I’m not sure how much she realizes I still try to do on my own…

I still don’t know how to deal with general anxiety; I assume and envy how those who’ve lived with anxiety for decades probably got an initiation, a process of learning to live around it when their lives were simpler and they had better support, and here I am waltzing in in my mid-30s like I’m capable of doing anything. Sometimes I think about that meme, “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” and wonder if I am that mediocre white man. I’ve dug a hole so deep I don’t know how to get out or even how to describe where I am, let alone what help would even look like.

It’s possible I’ve always been this needy, but my needs were sated until I spent 4 years living two lives (not terribly well), taxing every faculty; I’ve been moving in the direction of balance and self-care for almost a year now, but I still stumble often (and it takes a lot more for me to get back up than I expect). Every emotional wound goes more deeply than it should. Every moment of confusion links to another. I relish the concentration of throwing myself into a project because it’s an excuse to focus and tune everything else out, but anything short of an obsessive deadline that will prove everything I can still do is at risk of disruption and distraction. I heal faster when I have too much to do (it’s easier to stabilize a bike that’s going fast), so I do grad school and graduate assistantship and part-time caregiving and two relationships and assistant parenting and therapy and yoga (ha) and dietary changes and commuting and friendships and social justice and queering my own identity because if I don’t do it all at once I will do worse at ALL of it (and I probably won’t heal).

 

I’m not sure how much of this is still physical exhaustion or poor nutrition or compassion fatigue or navel-gazing or being distracted by a confusing break-up 2 years ago or my failure to meditate with any regularity, but I can rarely get the question out before I fall apart. When I recover from one of these short-circuits (usually with help: touch, affirmation, food), it’s usually to focus on something else: relationship stuff, scheduling, classwork, logistics of my commute to school and work. The question that tripped me in the first place remains unanswered (often unasked).

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The Data from Hurt Is Good Data

2016.September.5
Yesterday’s physical activity just never ended… There were two yoga progressions in the morning (it’s been a while since I did more than one), then I went to the kiddo’s birthday party (#assistantparent) and ended up on every slide and bouncehouse in the joint. I fretted internally over my wonky knee or busting my glasses, but the less I held back, the less I hurt, and I carried that attitude through the rest of my day. I let myself be dragged into more tents when I was tired, and I still took pictures and change for air hockey everywhere I went.
 
Then I added an errand on the way home for my favorite tea, picked up dinner, and shortly after eating started scrubbing away at the bathroom floor. That floor has been a source of tremendous frustration since late in the move; the only way I’ve found to clean it of years-old plumbing-disaster residue is scraping by hand with a small sheet of almost-sandpaper. Coming in yesterday, after several hours work spread over three weeks, I was not quite halfway through my second scrub; I committed and knocked out everything I could reach in two hours. I pushed myself. I let myself be dragged out, just as I had at the party. It felt great, physically and emotionally.
 
I ain’t going to lie, I’m hurting today. Mostly in my hands and wrist (should be great for writing my first assignments, huh?). But I’ve been reminded of an essential truth, which is that sometimes we can do more than we think we can. We can work harder or faster, not because we underestimated last time but because we’re stronger, we’ve healed some, or because we have fresh eyes. I can’t speak for how often or accurate this experience is for anyone else, but I know it’s almost cyclical for me and this is my favorite part of the cycle.
 
These kind of moments are life-affirming for me. I like being proven wrong or misguided (I like it better when there’s communication involved, but I’m not above figuring it out myself — just very slow about it). I like the process of discovery, and of experimentation. I like learning by doing. I like the way my body can ache distinctly and tell me what I was doing 12 hours ago. I like the way my brain opens up when my body challenged or diverted (as by physical labor). I like knowing I can do more, and how.
 
And that’s my first thorough update on graduate school.
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Tenets of a Tall Tour

2016.March.30

For centuries, young European men (and later, some women) would mark adulthood with a tour of the continent to see all of the art and hear all of the music and learn all of the things that were not yet digitized and available via free wifi.

Not one to take such traditions seriously (to say nothing of my limited prospects and habit of shopping clearance racks), I’ve decided to look to the Grand Tour tradition for antagonistic inspirations for my re-release upon the world. I’m calling it A Tall Tour, because I am in no way grand but I am quite tall.

Where the Grand Tour was structured and formulaic, the Tall Tour will be kind of scattershot and decidedly queer. Where the Grand Tour was one long journey, accompanied by servants and friends, I’ll be taking short jaunts wherever I can afford them, sometimes with a friend or lover along, most of the time meeting my company along the way. Where the Grand Tour was supposed to instill a sense of scope and develop lifelong connections… actually, that part sounds pretty good.

I’ve been cooped up too long. I’ve been out of commission too long. I need to reintroduce myself to the people doing the kind of work I believe in if I am ever going to find my own path amid theirs. I need to take all my navel-gazing about masculinity and privilege out into the world and learn how others have adapted, how others are demonstrating their values as much in action as in word. I need to see old friends and reconnect, see each other through fresh eyes. I need the long, quiet passion of a road trip (or several) to figure out my own patterns again. I need to take the pulse of my passions, to make sure I’m not reinventing wheels that are already in motion.

The purpose of the Tall Tour is to refresh myself and my perspective and apply those gains toward future projects and, most likely, graduate school (although I will only attend school locally, I can still learn from the syllabi and resources of programs elsewhere). I want to take my understanding of the world back into meatspace (i.e., not online, although I’m certainly still looking to learn more about how activists survive and work on the Internet). I’m especially interested in the nuts and bolts of intersectional activism, caregiving, and sexology.

And, of course, finding any excuse I can to connect these topics to one another!

So from now through late August (-ish… really depends on getting into grad school), I’m trying to take every travel opportunity that aries. When it’s feasible, I’m going to drive, incorporating multiple stops, but there will probably also be some flying (and if I get my druthers, trains as well). I will keep costs low where I can, but these travels are a centerpiece of my self-care and healing. (If you’re at all concerned how I’m going to afford this, I’m currently accepting grad school scholarships, gift cards to Southwest Airlines and hotel chains, and couch-hosting volunteers on these trips!)

What happens on those trips is very much determined by what events draw me and what people I meet there. I love activist cons, with movement workshops and self-care, and intellectually sexy spaces, with flirtation and openness and tying the intimate to the societal, and academic lectures, with lots of numbers to crunch and assumptions to check. I love little sidebars with just a handful of people. I love one-on-one exchanges over warm beverages. Anything that presents these connection opportunities and touches on my favorite topics is fair game. In spaces where I really know people and/or have been before, I might even present a workshop of my own.

And most of all, watch this space. I will hopefully have some good questions come up along the way, and I’m never as good at answering them alone as I am with friends.

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All My Old Haunts…

2015.November.30

I had a poetic opening, but that part of my brain has been lost to logistics.

It was a hard weekend — not without highlights, but they were diffuse, like a bright lamp in thick, close fog. You didn’t know you were upon them until they’d already passed. You didn’t know when or whether more would follow. And between them, it was easy to lose direction.

I wouldn’t have seen the news of the passing of a dear friend and colleague if I hadn’t left a certain app on my phone some months ago, because it had been the easiest way to connect with my mom while she stayed with my caregivee. Less than two weeks ago, we placed my charge into a memory care facility; although I visit almost daily, my era as a full-time caregiver has ended.

I’d been trying to gather my thoughts on what to write, how the move was upside down — straightforward emotions and exhausting logistics — how I’d intended to start this grand phase of healing with eyes and heart wide open but so far have struggled to get even a good night’s sleep (let alone a good perspective).

But here we are. Less than two weeks into my bloody, fumbling, desperate heal, it’s time to pack a bag, board a plane, and mourn one of the best people you could meet.

I started writing his eulogy immediately, a short one (because nothing else will do for a person who has done so much) about how he’d barely known me, three years in the same office, ended ten years back, and yet this man of accomplishment and knowledge had checked on me more than any other from that time. He’d always asked about my caregivee, even before the dementia signs, as if he’d seen known our paths were destined to merge.

Last year, he talked to another good friend, who had moved to the area and was struggling to find a job. Her career trajectory was only tangential from his, and he had only my reference to go on, and yet he gave his time and focused insight freely.

I had intended to reconnect with him, and with everyone I will recognize at his funeral, some time next year. Probably a road trip. Maybe a happy hour and a networking lunch. I wanted to see them all through new eyes, and see how they see me. Most of them, it’s been ten years. I have a devastating fear that some will not get word in time, but maybe that’s a symbol of one’s impact: that it’s simply impossible to reach everyone in time before one’s funeral.

The timing is eerie. I’m not sure I could have attended a funeral one day sooner after The Big Move. And my departed friend just re-added me on Facebook a few days ago (he had a propensity to forget passwords and, inevitably, create new profiles because he loved to connect so much).

I was supposed to have a plan, an agenda, some sense of direction and questions I wanted to ask, some notion of how I was going to connect my past as an activist with my present as a caregiver and my future as a contributing member of society. What do I want to be when I grow up? I don’t know, what does your movement want people to grow up to become?

I’m going in empty-handed, though. Just a business card and an openness to follow the experience wherever it takes me. There are sure to be stories.

He would have wanted it that way.

Now here’s an adroitly relevant video from St. Vincent:

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