Posts Tagged ‘imperfectionism’

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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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Our Worst Selves (or as I Like to Call Them, Our Selves)

2016.April.13

[I started drafting this before my recent travels, about which I have 1,001 things to say, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism I’m going to do quick edits and schedule to post so I can move on. The ideas here may be deeper and more complicated than my meandering draft captured, so don’t be surprised if I revisit this topic again in the future. As always, constructive criticism is highly encouraged!]

Two questions you hear a LOT on the internet that I see as strongly related:

“How could this happen?”
“How can you be friends with that person?”

I don’t believe the first needs much elaboration: we’re mostly all shocked (SHOCKED, I SAY!) at the thoughts and actions of people we don’t really notice until they burn their way onto the front page in fire and/or blood. No one ever foretells disaster and tensions flare up randomly; this space rock humanity calls home is basically one big laboratory for random events being communicated at high speeds and necessitating an ever-broader range of emoji and inflections for the word “tragedy” (except not in the classical theatrical sense, because a tragic hero must have a tragic flaw that foretells his — it’s always a he — tragic downfall).

The second statement, I fear, will seem equally random. For as long as I’ve tried to live an open life (which coincides roughly with as long as I’ve had a social media presence), people have taken issue with my broad selection of friends:

“How do you hang out with them?”
“I had to hide her on my feed, she’s just too negative.”
“That’s when I blocked him.”
“They are all just idiots; I don’t see why you bother.”
“Where’s your loyalty?”

But I’m increasingly of the opinion that they are two sides of the same awkward coin: inattention.

I don’t know why I can absorb a lot of information without it weighing me down, but I can, and I choose to do so. I’ve been saying for years that my “superpower” is perspective (thanks to a life lived along the fringes, between identities — some of my advantages helped offset otherwise confining societal expectations), so I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to approach either news or social media with my sense of openness and possibility. As is my habit, I’ve attempted to apply my personal privileges and skill sets to exploring possibilities and, hopefully, expanding them for others along the way.

But perspective is not just spotting silver linings for every dark cloud — it’s about balance. It’s also finding the dark clouds for every silver lining, and recognizing how light can play tricks on you.

For better or worse, I didn’t begin to curate my Face-friend list for length until it approached 500 (and such curation remained minimal; I didn’t excise the profoundly hard/negative until I was knee-deep in caregiver isolation and felt ill-equipped to find balance with the, what, three people I ended up de-friending?). I didn’t turn away people who were contentious, different of opinion, or generally negative, because perspective has shown me that people don’t behave in such a pattern without a reason. Although I’m sure I came off at times as a collector, someone who wanted only digital notches on my social headboard, I saw every single person I added as a friend or potential friend. I could have accumulated twice as many Face-friends if I’d wanted, but it wasn’t about the number to me, it was about the (potential for) connections, however narrow the range of commonality. My “Aquaintence” and “Restricted” lists were the mere dozen or so people whom I might hug in person but couldn’t hand off information without having a sit-down conversation about how they might receive it.

As for the rest, perhaps people thought I couldn’t see how contentious and negative “those people” were (note: “those people” were not consistently the same people; sometimes they would even talk about each other). But I saw the negativity. I could further see the pain and isolation of individuals from one another, and I would notice the way some folks insulated themselves with cynicism, skepticism, or misanthropy. I continually see the hard topics that drive wedges between us. And I don’t have to agree with someone else’s perspective to interpret and understand it; experience has shown me the humanity in people who don’t agree with me (even in people who are hateful toward me), so I endeavor to seek out the humanity always. Not because everyone can, but because I can.

And because I now habitually see the gray coexistence and subjective lighting of stormy clouds and silver linings (or is that silver clouds and stormy linings?), I look at the agitated, inflamed, overwhelming dis-ease of opinions on the Internet and I can see something of a familiar trajectory. I’ve learned to look past tone and education and shared experience, to squint and turn my head and check my eyes when I look at strong opinions, to see behind them people who have rare experiences and who are struggling to be seen and heard. And I believe the Internet is *giving everyone the opportunity* to do the same.

Okay, too silver, let me fix that…

I believe the Internet is *forcing us all* to do the same.

Awkwardly.

(But hasn’t the Internet shown us that awkward can be okay?)

The thing about Internet hate is that it isn’t Internet hate. There’s a lot of data out there that says humans so rarely change our minds about anything, it’s hard to blame anything for anyone’s opinion. The internet hasn’t transformed anyone who wouldn’t have been just as transformed if exposed to the right radio programs, scientific journals, newspapers, governmental edicts, wrapping paper, cheesecloth or parchment scrolls of yore. The challenge of our time isn’t new hate, new ideas, or new resistance to progress — it’s that old hate has found a stronger, louder voice on the Internet. This has been documented since the days of AOL chatrooms, and BBS systems before that. People just let it all out there, in part because we feel less accountable but also because we assume we’re in like-minded company. The small, self-selected spaces in which we participate online allow us to see in others much more of of ourselves than might actually be there. This is the macro level of what my favorite book on communication calls “The Usual Error”. You might tell yourself that the 200 members in your Facebook Fandom group aren’t all on the same page as you, but you are way more likely to assume you’re in the same book than with 200 random strangers driving on the highway or waiting with you at the DMV.

Online, we each express ourselves a little more boldly than we do in person (aggregated together in one place, most any viewpoint can garner attention — isn’t that the point of movement-building?). Advocates of peace and love as policy can be just as intense, just as intimidating, just as prone to cherry-pick data and memes (especially in the eyes of their opponents) as their opponents. The more significant difference is that, thanks to social media algorithms, a worldwide archive of material that can never quite be deleted, and the way sensational tweets can become ratings gold for what’s left of earlier forms of media, we now actually KNOW what is being said and thought by people who don’t agree with us. It shocks us. But only because we haven’t been paying attention.

And by “we”, I mostly mean white people, men, cis-persons, and/or those with better-than-average academic credentials. Practically everyone else grew up knowing about the deep tensions and the daily acts of unreported violence; they were a fact of life you only got through by doing what you were told, moving away, or perhaps fighting them with whatever means you had available (hint: these means did not include most governmental channels until fairly recently in American history — there’s a reason why unions and affinity groups were so important for the first half of the Twentieth Century and why they were so effectively undermined in the second half). So today’s viable ideologues are not representative of some mass hysteria, stupidity, willful ignorance, or swell of hate and misunderstanding (although sometimes the media and/or machinations will feed these aspects — sometimes deliberately, often tangentially to other goals — in their own interests). These patterns in voting are a reflection of viewpoints that have remained largely entrenched for generations in pockets that didn’t quite have the stage they now have. But just because you didn’t know this view of the world to persist while you or your parents sang “Kumbaya”, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

There never was a center, a normal, a mainstream. There was only the polite effort to minimize our differences until they absolutely necessitated response. That the myth of a mainstream “truth” lasted this long was a function of wishful thinking: that our incendiary melting pot was actually chill and balanced, that all those awful ideas that presaged the culture wars of the 60s were resolved and not surrendered to least-common-denominator banalities (like how much voting mattered and how so OVER racism we were as a country), that legislating anything from moral high ground and simple majorities (as opposed to, I don’t know, consensus and really fucking hard national conversations) wouldn’t invite generations of political resentment.

People fear what they do not understand, no matter how popular or moral it is (or seems). and the more polarized our leaders seem, the harder it gets for them to build common ground. Just as many conservatives are bewildered that not everyone arms up every time they hear the word “socialism”, so it is that liberals are bewildered that some people still like guns more than they like broad political inclusivity.

For one, maybe two generations, everyone got roughly the same inoffensive news coverage from roughly the same handful of inoffensive news outlets because it was so convenient (and the lack of an apparent agenda — which is not the same thing as a lack of agenda — was better for ratings and readership). Subtle, even unconscious biases convinced most of us that we were all equal under the law and that meant all old grudges were to be forgotten and America was, at long last, the only and best home to opportunity. With a handful of notable yet unspoken ground rules (religion and cops are generally on the right side; respectability of tone reflected respectability of argument; the majority and the customer were right unless the Supreme Court or the Board of Directors say otherwise), coverage allowed people to believe whatever we wanted, and the need to keep peace between disparate groups invited a lot of talk about unity, tolerance, and acceptance until every bigot, xenophobe, and extremist could answer accusations with, “I know you are, but what am I?” It wasn’t the absence of opposition that existed all this time; it was the absence of its mention.

Internet hate is not hate born on the internet; it is the same old hate externalized like never before. The startle here shouldn’t be what we now know they’re thinking; it’s how long we hid our heads in the sand and could believe otherwise before the Internet!

The “mainstream media” as we think of it, operating with a broad audience in mind and some attempt at objectivity in presentation, is less than a hundred years old; before World War II it was standard practice for not only editorial boards but all sections of any newspaper to coordinate around a specific political slant and to use its circulation to promote the political agenda of its publisher. To some extent, this practice only became subtler as television news emerged to carve out a middle ground and newspapers had to adapt; as news institutions fall or get bought out in waves, we may not be seeing the death of journalism so much as the end of its golden age of neutrality and a return to its polarized roots.

I would not wish harmful outcomes on any community, but they may just be the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. With every Trump victory, the good white liberals of America have to confront the fact that people of color have been right all along and we never really did lick that whole racism problem and laissez-faire capitalists (when they’re not lobbying for favorable laws and gargantuan tax breaks) have to begrudgingly consider that their economic gospel is especially bullish for loud, media-savvy blowhards. With every gruesome, unarmed death at the hands of a police officer, more civilians are forced to pay attention to how police are empowered, trained, and galvanized with fear that is too often nonspecific and/or coded to reinforce and entrench officers’ every prejudice. With every poisoned American city and collapsed bridge, activists are forced to recognize that polarized, single-issue elections fill government with ideologues who can only rehash the same battles over and over for inching social change, while miles of infrastructure and mundane policy age gracelessly until people (far more often than not, the very people our leaders swore they’d include in their big tents every four years for the last forty) die committing such innocent acts as drinking water and driving to work.

These are not shocking, spontaneous disasters; they are the fourth act of America, and they can be directly traced to incomplete victories of one and two generations ago, when short-term solutions made long-term problems look solved (if you didn’t look too long, which we’ve totally turned into an American value) so the victors wouldn’t have to look any harder, any deeper, at themselves, and no one would have to look at the losers at all. (I suspect there are parallels to Reconstruction after the Civil War, but it would take someone more familiar with that era than myself to draw clear connections.)

 

Our great American narrative has said that this land is great and we’re all great because we were born here and that’s all you need to be empowered to win, so all those losers of unfinished business and unvoiced resentment, the unequal equals who know they’ve been lied to their whole lives but not always about what and why, well they all think they’re winners, too, and they’re wondering when you’re going to start treating them as such. This is one thing the advocates of #BlackLivesMatter and Trump voters actually have in common: they have no more buy-in to American culture than they had before upper-class white folks declared racism was wrong but it was over now anyway and we should all go home and get some sleep because everyone’s got to go to work in the morning. Until such folks find authentic involvement and representation in their own lives, they’re going to keep raising a lot of fuss on the Internet.

There was a time when “community” was perceived largely around geography/proximity: your neighborhood, your town, your coworkers, the family who lived nearby… You and your community were in roughly in the same “place” at roughly the same time. The roots of this phenomenon touch on immigration, urbanization, and no small amount of housing discrimination, but it wasn’t hard to see the commonalities because you actually had a LOT in common. Areas were settled, resettled, sold, rented, blighted, gentrified in waves as people with a lot in common followed one another from one destination to the next. Before there was an internet, even the most urbane American was unlikely to encounter THAT many types of people, and it made it easier to hold beliefs and unchecked assumptions about everyone else.

The internet gave people the chance to reconnect in ideological “communities” after suburban sprawl and myths of normalcy made it hard to tell whether your next door neighbor was actually just like you or completely different, and in doing so it is pulling off the band-aid of American tolerance to show we’re still deeply scarred.

Call-out culture, when it is authentic (and not just white people looking to score brownie points by talking over others rather than engaging in an actual dialogue in a relatively safe space — although this is STILL not what activists mean when they say we need more jobs for communities of color!), is not a genesis of whining and/or entitlement; it is the culmination of generations of lived experiences not being taken seriously, of people with privilege being taught that their privilege doesn’t exist and/or could be overcome with good intentions alone (okay, maybe also a token black and/or gay friend), of well-meaning idealists declaring victory too soon after small achievements and failing to evaluate their success with the rigor of, say, a pedantic capitalist.

It’s not too late to find common ground, but we’re going to have to let go of those reflexive block buttons and actually talk with our ideological opponents once in a while. Find out what makes them tick. Share a link that didn’t come from an inflammatory Op-Ed, but includes relevant storytelling and enough research to ground that story without hitting someone over the head. Note: I’m again talking mostly to people with a lot of privilege here; self-care is revolutionary for people who already face daily oppression, and they should be judicious with their boundaries; but, for example, white people defriending other white people over racist microaggressions will only show that we want to avoid the problem of perspective, not that we want to engage or discuss our ideas or challenge ourselvses.

At our worst, Americans are lazy, and our oversights always have a way of coming back to haunt us.

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Hello, Emotional Labor, Nice to Meet a Familiar Face

2016.February.4

If I had readers, they might have noticed that last night I got really into a series of links educating me on the concept of “emotional labor” and ways it typifies the nuances of feminism. In the briefest terms I can imagine, “emotional labor” refers to any kind of effort given to take care of another person’s emotional well-being. Its significance to feminism is that the U.S. and most human societies socialize emotional labor as “feminine” and/or women’s work, therefor not “real” work and, coincidentally or not (ha!), un/under-paid. (Really, the articles I’ve been linking to do a much better job of explaining and you should go read them; I’m just trying to define my terms before I proceed.) The concept itself is not exactly new to me, but this succinct summation and eloquent framing go a long way toward filling some gaps in my ongoing healing; I am beginning to see the last several years as a single stream of emotional labor that wasn’t always conscious, contained, or consensual, and feel inclined to map and confront the whole mess if I’m to reinvigorate what’s left of my support system and be a more considerate human being moving forward.

Twitter: Emotional Labor

The Source

The more I learn about gender roles, the more I see myself fit the pattern of female socialization, especially the aptitude and availability to provide emotional labor. Conversely, long before I started to question — and eventually denounce — masculinity whole, I only felt cursorily like a man or male. I didn’t feel like anything other than male (i.e., trans), I just wasn’t enthusiastic about what my assigned gender was supposed to say about me. To the extent that I have been able (and thanks to a long list of privileges I can name in a future post, I have had more ability than most), I just kind of wade on the banks of male-ness without ever getting out of the water.

I’ve almost always lived between worlds, able to see the subtleties of both sides (and eventually, more than two sides), granting me perspective as a superpower. But it also creates a weakness — a person who can see many things is going to be especially vulnerable to that which ze does not see; my blindspots have been few, but devastating. The more I could see myself within the greater scope of humanity, the easier it became to eschew entitlement (which I define as the active embracing or promotion of privilege as earned/deserved/appropriate), but any time I could plausibly frame my privilege as equality- or merit-based, I would do so. What was missing, even in my antipathy toward masculine, was a more-than-superficial understanding of the ways other people might defer to me in a way that is so subtly consistent that I don’t even know to question it. It takes a patient, yet vocal, friend or ally to call me on my shit (emotional skilled labor?), and yet I assumed every friend was fully aware, capable, and empowered to do so.

The Flow

From November 2011-November 2015, I was a 24/7 caregiver to an elder from my life who had entered the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It felt like both an appropriate use of my skills (such as compassionate attentiveness, adaptability, generous communication) and a fitting tribute to all the ways he and his deceased wife had changed my life. I had woefully inadequate help during those years. The rest of my family, who had never bonded quite the same as I had (although there are reasons that account for certain chickens coming before certain eggs), was unwilling and/or unable to participate, and his extended family were older and strewn across the country. I leaned heavily on my Internet friends, but none of them really knew what I was going through or how to help, and most of them faded into Facebook’s arbitrary feed algorithms.

That left only my loves (and thank goodness for polyamory; if I’d only had one partner during this time, she’d have run away screaming). And let me just say that being there for a caregiver is its own special meta-caregiving Hell. It was nearly impossible for anyone (or any aggregate of someones) to give me what I needed because I was giving too much. I felt I had no choice; in turn, I gave them no choice.

So back to the flow of emotional labor: I was taking care of a sick old man who missed his wife, who developed all kinds of uncomfortable afflictions that compromised his quality of life, whose medical care was erratic due to abrupt changes in his doctor’s practice, whose family was far away and whose friends had mostly already passed, and whose mind was every day becoming more foreign and unreliable to him. I held space for him every day and let him think his thoughts and feel his feelings, setting aside my own. I held space for his siblings, who would call to check on him and write letters as they gradually lost the ability to hold any sort of dialogue with him over the phone (sometimes they’d visit; that was invariably exhausting). For a while, I tried to hold space for his old friends and associates, certain they’d miss him and call to check on him, but few did. I managed his finances and his lifestyle as he would have, including lunching out at least once a week, even as I knew he would have been embarrassed to be seen in public like that only a few years ago. I tried to maintain our shared house, willed to me since I was four but now over fifty years old, but there are no classes for pseudo-homeowners and he was in no shape to tell me all the maintenance tasks he was forgetting to do. I lived both of our lives for us.

I tried to hold space for myself, but my efforts were pretty misguided. I missed travel the most and tried to get people to come visit me (living in Texas is exhausting if you don’t get recharged by people with fresher perspectives once in a while), but visitors flaked out and the rest became high-pressure stressors/stressees due to my overwhelming expectations. I tried to maintain a link with activism, but without an active role it mostly reduced me to crying over losses and watching others celebrate the victories.

My loves held space for me. Tremulous, loving space.

Then their lives went to hell in their own right. Between the three people who stuck around until the end, there were sudden job losses, loved ones with cancer, intimate betrayal and the end of a partnership, offspring with suicidal ideations, moving to new (less than ideal) places, death of a parent, and the usual heartbreaks of politics and friendship and living in Texas. I tried to be there for them. All of them. Often at the same time. While still caregiving 24/7. And dealing with my own heartbreaks and emerging medical issues. I’d like to say we were able to hold space for one another, but that feels too clean, too simple. They held space for me, as best they could. I told them they had to let me hold space for them. I told them they should find ways to hold space for one another. I called it “survival mode”. They called me out for talking down to them with “dad voice”. I asked, “What’s that?”

Because I’d never had anyone who talked to me with that voice. I just thought I was stating the obvious.

Let me tell you, survival mode will see even the wisest and most cautious person wielding privilege like a male billionaire running for office. And if he has the superpower of perspective, he’ll see around just enough corners to have an excuse for every encroachment and never, ever see the flow of emotional labor for what it is:

CAREGIVEE>CAREGIVER>META-CAREGIVERS

And because I am attracted to caring, generous, and thoughtful people, the flow ended there. All because I failed to realize that caring, generous, thoughtful people might be that way because they were socialized feminine, and that although I behave in many of the same manners, the dynamic is rooted in women donating emotional labor to men, one of which I ultimately am, making an unchecked power dynamic — however egalitarian in mind and practice — anything but equal.

The Cleanup

Now that my caregivee is in a home and I only caregive part-time, what we have left is a downhill flood, wherein I have to find a way to siphon off the emotional radiation I’ve fed upon my loves.

And now, thanks to these posts about emotional labor, I at least have some idea how it got this way.

This piece had major, scissor-breaking cuts of tangential information and probably didn’t come to a very satisfying conclusion; I’m going to go ahead and post it in accordance with my tenet of Imperfectionism (that saying it at all is more urgent than saying it in the best way). There may or may not be a follow-up or extended version at a later date.

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What I Need to Tell…

2015.December.14

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block the past month or so, not because there’s nothing to tell but because it’s all just a big jumble of rubber-bands — not one of those slick rubber-band balls that you pick up and strip away one swatch at a time, but a crumpled cluster of enthatched rubber of indiscriminant qualities and age.

I told myself it would be easier if I just started posting the topics; whether I followed through was kind of unimportant. I just need a reference point for future conversations, future reflections…

So here are some of the topics that deserve full posts and rigorous conversations (but probably won’t receive them):

Why did I have to go to Washington, DC, for the funeral, and why did I only stay for one impossible night?
Why did I hide myself with the former colleagues I saw there, making no mention of my successful plural relationships, my workshops supporting the same, and my interest in the same sexual and reproductive topics that we struggled to include in our work a decade ago? It’s no different from my crippling identity crisis when I lived and worked there, is it?
Why didn’t I ask them to talk about themselves more when all I wanted was to NOT spend the whole afternoon talking about myself (and doing exactly that)?
How do I feel about the fact that our deceased mentor was the only one of them to stay in regular contact over these past four years of caregiving?

Healing is incredibly hard, and it’s impossible to know how much there will be until things are stable. My self-care and relationships are probably in critical-but-stable condition.
I am exercising restraint and caution when thinking past the holidays. I need openness and flexibility then and rest and low pressure now.
I have got to find a way to break myself of the old habits that became dormant during caregiving.
I really want to get back into reading.
My brain still doesn’t feel like my own. My mood and endurance know great heights, but I still mix up words and drop things as much as I ever have.

I was the first caregiver I knew of my generation, but I am far from last. Already, friends and peers are approaching me to share their accounts of dementia in the family and identify a path forward.
If I expand my umbrella of “caregiving” beyond just dementia/memory care, I realized I know quite a few part-time and full-time caregivers under the age of 30, 40, 50. We are not as alone as we think.
The first piece of advice I’d give any new caregiver might just be “Caregiving is not a spectator sport.”

Also under the category of “not as alone as we think”, I’ve discovered a lot of people were following along my adventures online these recent years who never once spoke up in support or comfort. My loved ones had already helped me understand before my peers themselves did that said peers simply didn’t know what to make of me and my circumstance, but I’m almost as resentful of their reemergence en masse now that I’m “normal” again as I am that they were ever absent. I just don’t think they realize how much of myself I forgot existed, and how many voids little notes and acknowledgments would have filled. I wish any one of them had said, “Hey, you’re going through a rough time, but I can’t hang while you’re going through this; drop me a line when your life isn’t consumed with old man smells and navel-gazing.” But this is literally all I want to ever say on the matter, because I love them all for being there now.

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Social Media, Self-harm, and the Gambler’s Ruin

2015.July.12

In all of my totes-academic 2nd- and 3rd-hand reading, Michael Crichton once introduced me to the concept of “The Gambler’s Ruin”, sort of a piece of chaos theory that states winning streaks and losing streaks are inevitable, and each will get longer and more impactful the longer a person gambles. Accordingly, the secret to good gambling is not really how you gamble or how you bet, it’s knowing when to quit (i.e., near the end of a hot streak).

Feels a lot like Social Media, doesn’t it? I’ve been a power user for years, and I’ve known that there are good days and bad days and bad weeks and bad years… I’ve known that sometimes the most important support I can get is the support to take some time off the Internet (especially the social parts of it), especially when it starts to feel like I can’t catch a break. I’ve also seen the “winning streaks”, the days where the stars and pixels align and I am inundated with all the support and affirmation and cute animal pics I could have ever asked of the Internet just when I need them most.

Of course, the more I win, the more I want to win, and sure enough, I don’t get out in time.

The other day, I pointed out the parallels between social media and The Gambler’s Ruin to a lover who happens to be a counselor, and she backed up my half-joke with a serious factoid: social media has been proven to stimulate dopamine in the same way as does gambling.

I can’t think of a clever phrase that encapsulates the correlation (“The Facebook Ruin?” “The Gambler’s Timeline?”), but clearly this is A THING.

I’m also thinking about how susceptible I’ve become to negativity in activism. I’m never in on the victories because my circumstances prevent a high enough level of participation at this time, but boy am I in on the losses and the squabbles along the way. I’ve had to start saying that activism is self-harm for me in my current context (caregiving). The more I think about it, the more I think it’s just online activism that is self-harm. I can convene with interested parties, help people network, educate on important issues, and even attend a rally or something and not feel worse for it. It’s just the link sharing and flame wars that get me into heart-achy territory.

I guess online activism (especially without any offline support or involvement) is also susceptible to The Gambler’s Ruin, and it is a game at which I am particularly bad.

In accordance with my philosophy of Imperfectionism, I am posting this as soon as it is finished, with almost no revision, second-guessing, or elaboration of my quirky sense of logic. The Michael Crichton book in question was The Lost World, which is basically a book on logic and an errata on Jurassic Park disguised as an unnecessary (and highly profitable) sequel. It’s nothing like the movie, and therefor I highly recommend it.

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PSA: It’s Okay to Laugh

2015.May.20

[I drafted this a few weeks back, tweaked it a little, and shared it with a trusted source who thought it was even better than I did when I drafted it. I feel like it needs a lot more work than I am willing to give it, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism, I’m just going to post it as is.]

If you think about it, White Guilt is pretty damn hilarious.

From the stance of marginalized people, the notion that a visible status and some restless pushback can disrupt the individuals with power better than generations of ardent resistance must cause more than a couple of stifled giggles (in the head-shaking sense that one must laugh so as not to cry).

From the stance of people who believe in the power structures that exist, that poor people deserve to starve and people of wealth deserve to have their personal security regarded as a public matter and that no trained cop has ever, ever shot the wrong kid for the wrong reason, the idea that the people who hold that power should feel guilty is a notion worthy of derision.

From the pragmatic, those who perhaps know that systems are unequal but are just trying to get by and don’t make it a personal mission, the weight of oppression is optional and emotional, and how ever is guilt going to get the children fed and the roads paved? [snicker]

From the bleeding hearts, we vocal white liberals, White Guilt is a trap that either catches oneself (evoking nervous laughter) or gives chase unceasingly (evoking smug laughter until we fall and it inevitably catches us).

White Guilt finally caught up with me last year, when the strain of caregiving and other personal struggles forced me to pull away from activism; I was left alone to cross-reference the intersections of my white privilege (which I more or less handle sanely) and my male privilege (which I can hardly say I handle at all…) and started seeing very uncomfortable patterns in my dating and, for lack of a better term, “ally” behaviors.

The greatest laugh of White Guilt is that it laughs at you when it takes away your sense of humor.

For the thousands of privileged people on the Internet clamoring so desperately to be accepted as “one of the good ones”, the easiest gesture to make is to call out others’ bad behavior without ever looking within. Denounce the racist fraternities, but not the academic culture that overlooked them for generations. Stop following whatever privileged writer has been newly declared “problematic” without taking the time to re-examine why you loved them in the first place. Swoop in on other people’s social media, declare their privilege is showing and they should read some bell hooks, then swoop out before they ask for clarification (or specifics).

People of color have no obligation to educate white folks, and I’m “one of the good ones”, so that kind of applies to me too! 

Are we sure we’re not the subject of someone’s satire? Because it seems pretty ridiculous…

The truth is, with the right perspective, just about anything can be funny. Those of us who want to be aware of our privilege should take extra care not to laugh at the expense of those less fortunate than ourselves, but that does not mean the paradigm itself is not rife with comedic potential. It’s a matter of getting the right joke.

Personally, I’ve been at this a long time, but I still struggle at times to keep perspective. I should know by now that any time I can’t laugh at SOMETHING, I’m probably not in a healthy mindset. And I’m so used to looking at the big picture, the intersections, the gravitas of everything touching upon everything else, that I actually have to encourage myself to seek out the humor in mundane moments.

As a caregiver, there are plenty of these moments, where I only take myself and my situation seriously at my own peril.

I often find myself tweeting ludicrous scenarios from my caregiving adventures. I do so partly because I use my hashtag as an archive, so that one day I might come back and make sense of how these years reshape me. I do so partly because moments are poignant, and a moment recognized is a moment when I stood still and looked around.

I also do so to share a laugh.

A few people have told me that my social circle has likely evaporated because people don’t know how to interact or relate with me as a caregiver. For such persons, I might be tempted to say their interactions were never stellar to begin with, and my expectations were not high (I was never comfortable on pedestals — especially when my loved ones were left off — nor of casual enmity, especially by Brutuses who never bothered to declare animosity until I was already under attack).

But really, this waxing cantankerous comes more from the fact that I have been telling people all along how to interact with me, to no avail. I was an over-communicator before all this started, yet people consistently hesitate to ask even basic questions. I would hold private and public events regularly to stay connected, until attendance tapered off and I was just spinning my wheels. I posted thorough, thought-out lists of how my needs could be met best, and they got a handful of likes and no substantive results.

And I shared (and continue to share) poignant moments along the way. Because I am now an unfamiliar entity, my posts are approached with trepidation, every word taken most severely, and all humor stripped away because it might be better to be silent than to be insensitive. My family chastened me once for calling my caregivee “the old man”, even though it was a) factual, b) protected his privacy, and c) only used in humorous posts. Not long ago, I shared a slice-of-life moment that made me smile, but got two frowny-faces on Facebook. Anyone else’s roommate starts fussing over the “correct” flavor of ice cream and it’s a silly laugh to be shared; it happens in my house and I end up feeling like I’m bringing people down for having shared it.

Let me be clear: I cannot laugh at the person for whom I care. He is not weak, ridiculous, pathetic, or contemptible. He is my personal hero, and he is sick. But because of his illness, he sometimes says or does idiosyncratic things. That’s amusing.

To not laugh at funny situations (again, in good nature) would be to infantalize him.

Laughing can also represent acceptance, that however well or not things work out, we have done our best in a situation and we have no significant regrets. To not laugh at our missed opportunities is to acknowledge that we weren’t doing the best we could. That we have something for which to actually feel guilty.

I can’t really speak to when or how it’s appropriate to laugh at White Guilt (I just dashed this off in the wee hours when I should have been sleeping), but I can tell you about my life and my personal experience. I can tell you that I share moments that touch me, but not so much the ones that scare me. I announce changes in condition (for the sake of my family, who will always opt for the least interactive communication available, ever since we used to shout across our series of rather small houses for one another because stepping into another room was SUCH a chore), but only when it feels safe to do so.

Everything else, I’m at least trying to be a little funny, because humor helps me cope and sharing humor helps me not feel alone. I won’t dare laugh at something I could change, but I’d like to get to a point where I could laugh at anything I couldn’t.

So for future reference, any time you think I’m trying to be funny about my life as a caregiver, please join in the laugh. And if, some day, I return to activism and you think the same thing about something I post with political implications, try to find the humor in it (even if it’s just how ridiculous I am for trying).

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PSA: Hyper-vigilance Kinda Sucks the Life Out of You

2015.March.31

Caregiving fosters hyper-vigilance, which fosters a normal state of negativity because you’re always thinking out worst-case scenarios. It’s taken me three years to realize this. It’s devastated my once-positive perspective during years that were already hard many times over. It’s cost me friendships. It’s cost me hope. It’s cost me love. I can’t imagine how much it’s hurt the perspective of people who only (or primarily) know me online.

Now that I’m aware of it, I can work on balancing things out, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still get worse. Combine this with ambivalence about Facebook profiles on the longer side of a decade old, and most days, I can’t tell the difference between friends naturally drifting away due to life circumstances, friends who merely flake out or stop using social media, people who have written me off because they think I’m a flake (sorry, buy Maybes are the best I can manage for the vast majority of impersonal event invitations), and people who hate me.

Leap in logic? Sure. Something I can stop or reverse at this point? I doubt it. I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself, up to and including therapy and changing how I define friendship and purpose. Four months ago, I had to put an all-stop on activism because there were too many hard truths coming from the outside world to keep up with the hard truths afoot in my own home. (If you see me post something even remotely activist-y, you should know that I’m hurting myself doing it

I used to post often about what my needs would be as a caregiver so I could keep the feeling that I am a positive, accepted, and respected human being. I didn’t stop posting about those needs because I stopped needing them, I stopped posting because no one was listening. Why? I dunno (see above).

The point is I often feel forgotten, and while my pride probably needed the jolt of reality, this has more than once swung too far and too fast in the other direction. Depression, illness, and exhaustion are common in caregivers (check, check, check). So is early death (uh…).

My caregivee spent most of the last three years doing better than expected, but he is firmly in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s now. There are more appointments to keep, more decisions to make, more aberrations to track, but I still have time to twiddle my thumbs and ponder the perpetual now. Those moments have become rather empty.

I have the minimal support system I need to get things done. We have food, income, housing, stability, and back-up for when one of those things flounders. What I need are gentle reminders that I am still a human being and I am entitled to an at least occasional affirmation of my humanity.

So here’s an updated list of only five things YOU can do to support me (or another caregiver you know):

Say hi (preferably not on Facebook). I have a dozen apps, sites, or other interactions where we can chat, including text and meatspace. Most of them have become specialized for affirmation during my time as a caregiver, but Facebook is weighed down by the 500 friends and years of algorithms that predated my caregiving days (to say nothing of their admission that negative posts get more traffic, so it’s in their best interest to make our days worse).
Connect me to new friends. I don’t really get to meet new people. No coworkers, no classes, no dates or parties… If you think I should meet someone, just connect us. If you know any other caregivers (not necessarily Alzheimer’s, but especially them; not necessarily young, but especially them), connect me.
Stop telling me about Alzheimer’s breakthroughs. The next person who posts a link to an article about an Alzheimer’s breakthrough on my wall is going to get snail-mailed a copy of last week’s local Greensheet; that will do you just as much good as those articles are going to do me/us. Yes, there are exciting discoveries afoot, but they are already too late to do my caregivee any good and that makes them just one more distraction.
Face-time. Come see me! Invite me over! Does anyone just hang out any more? Special props to anyone who lives within a 20 minute drive, wants to drop by because they’re “in the neighborhood”, or is willing to accompany me on one of my numerous errands!
Share your joys with me. Little or big, I don’t care. I missed a half-dozen weddings last year, but the ones that hurt the worst were the ones I wasn’t even invited to. So send me a postcard, post a cute meme, tell me about your new favorite movie. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t appreciate in the way you do, I WOULD appreciate how much it means to you. Celebrating your humanity will help me hold onto mine.

Thank you, sincerely, just for reading this. Any small or large effort would be appreciated, especially in the weeks and months after this post has waned. Hopefully, other caregivers can use this, too, so share it with a caregiver you know and ask them to customize a list of ways you could support them, too. Remember: our society is aging fast. Some estimate that up to 1 in 3 of all Americans alive today will be a caregiver at some point in their lives. I’m just one of the first you know.

*posted without edits or links, because I’m trying to develop a stance of Imperfectionism*

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