Archive for the ‘Teach Me’ Category

h1

The Privilege Paradox

2017.April.19

Everyone says if you’re a caregiver, you’re supposed to take time for yourself. If you’re stressed, you’re supposed to ask for help. If you’re hurting, you’re supposed to make sure you get what you need.

But the implicit assumption about all of that advice is probably gendered, isn’t it? Or at least reflects that the person receiving the advice is not already doing those things, or not already privileged to do them? These are responses to emotional labor, and emotional labor is gendered feminine in this Western paradigm. It is aimed at people who are socialized to always put others first and themselves last.

So what happens when the party in question is not socialized feminine? Let’s say, through flukes of bastardy and empathy, the person is a sensitive, compassionate male, who develops great need for healing from caregiving in all of those ways, but who has already over-extended the available support because his gender socializatoin has privileged him to unconsciously TAKE WHAT WAS AVAILABLE ALREADY.

Gender paradigms hurts men, but this is a rather nuanced manifestation of that harm. What happens when someone — through miracle or luck or careful learning has reached status of adult male while yet valuing the ability to cry, expression and honesty, listening to the experiences of others, and considering fairness and equality as attainable ideals — reaches his breaking point without ever quite discerning how much silent support and lack of discouragement he was receiving from others along the way? Maybe he counts himself fortunate, but just doesn’t grok the magnitude — how could he? How could anyone who hasn’t been broken by trauma ever really understand the scope of human generosity?

There are situations so intense, so enduring, that it is nigh impossible NOT to exhaust every resource that is available. In such situations, most people, however they are gendered, will take on an adrenal stance by default. If you can’t predict what’s happening for months or years at a time, you stop trying. You focus on being READY. You don’t know what for, you just know you’re going to be surprised and you’re going to have to respond quickly and effectively. It’s a survival mode. But if you’re socialized masculine, you’re less likely to realize how much you’ve received. What seems obvious to everyone else is too big to even notice.

And what happens when you come out of that long, arduous trial, and despite some progress you’re still pretty much in survival mode, and you’re trying to listen to all that advice given to emotional laborers (who are covertly gendered feminine) and you, you’re still privileged male. You’ve taken more than you’ve known, asked more than you remember asking, worn down everyone who had your back by doing things you never realized were problematic. You still think speaking with authority means you are competent; you still think if you treat people as equals they can return the favor; you still think that recognizing societal patterns about concerns of safety, judgment, bodily autonomy, competency, sanity experienced every day by people more feminine than yourself means you are above participating in them (or having them volunteered on your behalf — who has the time to demonstrate to every stranger that you’re one of the “good ones”?).

If you’re like me (and this is all me that I’m feigning hypothetical here), you speak up MORE. You ask for help MORE. You speak your pain MORE. You center your needs MORE. And to you and to people who haven’t been watching the sausage being made up-close, it looks like you’re being brave and open and taking care of your shit. You’re following advice given to all caregivers.

But to those who’ve been making your sausage so you could fix someone else’s… It waxes selfish. It grows entitled. It gets unwieldy. It becomes unsafe.

And because men are socialized to see things in rigid, discrete terms, you start to think EVERYONE ELSE is the problem.

Or if you’re aware enough to resist that kind of nonsense, then you invert it all and YOU become the worst person in the world. And that’s downright exhausting to all parties involved, because the only thing that takes up more space than a man who thinks he deserves everything is a man who thinks he deserves NOTHING.

I don’t have a solution yet. I have notions of listening more and learning through graduate school and calling on a larger, more deliberate group of friends for support (so no one person has to take on too much… theoretically…). I’m already radically shifting my relationship with digital and in-person connections (to the extent I can while also going to graduate school). I’m trying to bring yoga and mindfulness back into my life. I started laughing again recently; that’s been nice.

But at the end of the day (or at the end of an accidental online fall-apart steeped with obsessive communication expectations and a dozen or so friends patiently taking turns telling me the ways I can be unreasonable), I still gotta learn to filter. I still gotta learn to get people’s consent before I start unloading my shit on them. I still gotta stop setting down and picking up my gender when it’s convenient for maximal sympathy (because the privilege is there always). I even gotta stop framing the problem like it started with caregiving; there’s a powerful difference between a catalyst and an amplifier!

And while it’s nice to be able to (occasionally, selectively, consensually) ask really nuanced questions about how my healing interacts with the newly-mysterious greater world, I gotta learn more shit on my own, without being prompted/told/shoved in the right direction by an exasperated party.

To do that, I gotta slow down.

h1

Caregiving Will Be Intersectional or It Is Not My Revolution

2017.March.16

[This is a greatly abridged version of an essay I submitted for class last week. In womanism, personal, everyday narratives hold great value, so I aspired to merge my personal and academic trajectories. This shorter version should be more accessible to my friends outside of academia, but please let me know if there are any glaring inconsistencies or questions.]

“Social change, for womanists, begins with healing.” — Layli Maparyan, The Womanist Idea

Second to shutting up and listening, the most important action I’ve found for shifting perspective as a person of privilege is to serve someone else in a holistic way. Beyond parenting or merely putting a friend up with a broken leg, the type of care I mean is on the magnitude of years; in my case, the care recipient gradually declined (as opposed to improving, or adapting to a new baseline) and both parties were irreversibly changed. My time as a caregiver, which began in 2011 and only ended last month, allowed me to see deeply into my loved one’s humanity and, simultaneously, gave me my first glimpses into the womanist perspective. The parallels were not apparent to me at first, but as I have begun to study womanism formally, they appear as relevant as two feet conveying one person. Early on, I had a mirage of “community”. For four years (about twice as long as I’d been caregiving at this point), I’d invested my time, energy, and money into a local network of people around an ideal of ethical sexual liberation; my instincts were telling me my grandfather would need me, and that I would need a community space to return to once he was gone, but I had no religion, no core friends groups, not even an alumni association or book club. I did not, then, recognize the difference between a “community” and a “network” (let alone an online one), nor even really how you could convene hundreds of people around a single word or phrase and end up with radically disparate values there. It would take another two years years to realize “my people” were not really my people at all.

Early on, I was trying to make sure that no matter what his state, there were still two lives being lived between the two of us, but a person who is losing their mind can be hard to anticipate and to reason with. Because I was always primed for an emergency, I developed physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, which I would then replenish by leaning hard on the dwindling friends who remained close (most of my peers, I have since learned, simply didn’t know what to say, so they remained silent). I prepared for worst-case scenarios, but got a very gradual, very smooth decline. Poised as I was for an emergency at any moment, I learned some hard lessons about self-care, but they only slowed my descent. I even tried to re-envision it as a spiritual practice — what better practice for mindfulness than tending the every need of someone whose worldview was shrinking? — but I lacked the discipline, training, and support to see it through. Any and all negativity that arose was redirected toward picking apart my lifetime of misspent advantages and unfixable transgressions. As his light faded, so did mine.

I discovered womanism on Twitter, but did not immediately see the connections with my experience as a caregiver. When time came to move my grandfather into a memory care facilitiy, I resolved to study and support other caregivers, but also to include and humanize the broadest range I could. Who knows better about the delicate balance between caring and obligation than those whose framework is grounded in a generational history of caring for other people’s children and chaotic affection for their own. In an introduction to her The Womanist Reader, Layli Maparyan states that women of color, particularly black women, are the most qualified to lead social change because they “have been at the bottom of every social hierarchy created by man, particularly during the four centuries of the modern era, and multiply so, based on the interaction of race, class, and gender hierarchies and systems of identity”. In her second book on womanism, The Womanist Idea, Layli Maparyan invokes spirituality not just as a corollary of womanism but as an essential component, including six detailed qualities of womanist spirituality, “eclectic, synthetic, holistic, personal, visionary, and pragmatic”. Caregiving is, for me, a spiritual exercise for these same reasons (as if my “instincts” hadn’t been enough of a clue!).

Beyond spirituality, Maparyan also cites the following as qualities of womanism: antioppressionist, vernacular, nonideological, and communitarian. Caregiving is antioppressionist because it shows us a dynamic where privilege is irrelevant. Serving in such silence must needs demonstrate to the caregiver who they REALLY are when no one is looking. Vernacular also takes on new meaning in a caregiving dynamic, as the caregiver must communicate at whatever level possible with the care recipient, be it an accent, be it a mumble, be it a gesture and a specific hallucination. The caregiver must be nonideological not only with the care recipient but also with the limited resources available. Caregiving, like womanism, is about real life, not about politics. Finally, caregiving is communitarian, because caregiving calls for absolute compassion and absolute service, to see the humanity in a person or persons who may not see it themselves. Everything caregivers practice on their care recipients and on themselves will make them more compassionate and understanding community members — if it does not break them, which reiterates the community’s investment in the individual as well. Like many womanist texts, an absolute choice of the individual or the community (and not some balance of the two) harms all parties involved.

Academia is the only realm I know where a smart-but-broken white guy can research what just happened to him in a broader social context while also developing a lens created by people historically oppressed by his predecessors. The death of my grandfather has created emotional and financial hardships, but it has also tempered my resolve to help others and has cleared the way for me to focus on my studies as never before. The rest of my story, however interesting, no longer feels important; I am simply writing from where I am.

h1

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).

h1

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.
h1

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.

h1

Caregiving and Social Media

2016.February.17
I overdid it as a caregiver. Burnout isn’t a line you cross, it’s a toxicity that builds slowly, poisoning you and eventually poisoning the unfortunate souls around you. I couldn’t even see the forest for the trees at the time, I just did what I thought I had to do and utilized the resources I found along the way.
 
But caregiving should not be a zombie apocalypse first-person-shooter. Some of the damage done may never be repaired. I can only hope to cultivate from the whole experience a deeper, eventually academic, understanding of what caregiving burnout does to people, to relationships, to families, than has heretofore been produced.
 
I’ve always had this inclination to document everything I did and broadcast my experiences; it’s a big part of why I embraced “Free” as an identity. I felt that people needed to know about the possibilities — those who have privilege and freedom should explore it and then use it to help others, and those who do not should fight for it. What is experienced should be shared, so that others can find their own path. It can come off as narcissistic, and there’s probably some validity to that, but in a weird way it’s seen as devotional from within.
I can acknowledge a path as misguided and still be grateful that it got me where I am. (I hope) I’m no longer the 15-year-old who saves every band banquet program because scholars will one day need a detailed record of my impactful life. But because I learned to self-articulate and self-archive in such a manner, I do have a digital trail of the last four years, times I can’t recall well now. It means I can go back and trace the early cracks in lost connections and perhaps even enumerate my most egregious misdeeds. It means I can correlate the ups and downs of my well-being with which apps I was using at the time (when I started to experience verbal saturation, Pinterest was a gift, yall) or the medical status of my caregivee. Every note I’ve forgotten, every boost from which I benefitted, every like on Facebook is a clue into how I got through my own little zombie apocalypse.
In other words, I have data.
And it’s not a lot of data, but maybe it will provide a framework against which I can eventually study the experiences of other caregivers (or, let’s be honest, maybe it will provide a useless contrast against the useful framework that comes from people who generally live their lives very differently from me). It’s a start.
I still have trouble articulating what I want to do. I want to conduct a census of caregivers. I want to document and map out their experiences. I want to talk about our relationships, before/during/after. I want to develop resources to help caregivers feel less isolated, support one another, and accept the ways in which we will (for a time) simply be unrelatable to most people. I want to identify the resources that exist to support us and ensure they are getting rigorous oversight and improvement. I want to map out transitions, from part-time to full-, full- to part-, family cycles of responsibility, sudden endings and not-so-sudden… I want to create some sort of timeline for our emotional states relative to something other than the health of our loved ones.
Ancillary to this work, I want to study the Internet as an exercise in community/ies, identifying and articulating in ethnographic and anthropological ways those fleeting moments when one online space can define a life before it fades into sporadic notifications to an email address where you’ve forgotten the password… I want to continue to learn how to grow intersectional awareness and especially to get more white people to stop listening to me and go listen to a person of color. I’d even like to apply a philosophical examination of voting-as-harm-reduction and whether it necessitates voting pragmatically over idealistically every time (but that’s more of a hobby).
As always, I want to learn to communicate, to educate, and to learn better.
At this point, all I bring to the table is a rusty resumé, some stress-induced acute cognitive decline (hopefully acute), a 14-year-old degree in English, financial security for one year (maybe two), the braggadocio to attempt grad school full-time without really knowing how I’m going to pay for it, and a whole lot of curiosity.
%d bloggers like this: