Who I Used to Be, and The Tension of Change

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I’m not the person that I was five years ago. I’m certainly not the person that I used to be ten years ago. It’s funny, because when I bring up who I used to be, people who have known me over time tend to express the sentiment that I’ve gotten better. Heck, even I do that: I’ve been really fucked up at a lot of points in my life, and with an assload of therapy and work, I’ve been able to identify many of the tendencies and traits that got me to that “very fucked up” stage, and tweak them.

Most of this makes a lot of sense to me: I used to be an intense perfectionist with incredibly black and white thinking. I used to struggle a lot with being competitive and overly ambitious. I used to have an intense drive to understand what my purpose in life is, and to find a way to act out that purpose by living my values and making the world a better place…which combined with the perfectionism meant that I thought I had to save the world.

I’ve grown into someone who still has high expectations for myself, but who tries to be gentle, someone who still loves to compete but tries not to take it too seriously. I’ve questioned a lot of the values that I used to have: constant self-improvement and having everyone like me, and being really smart, and never making mistakes…

All of this sounds good right? I’ve improved! I’m less miserable! I’ve seen where problems are and solved them!

Well sort of. Because it makes my life easier to be judgmental about those traits that made my life hell in the past. It’s easy to hate my intensity and my drive and my ambition. The problem of course is that I haven’t suddenly become easy-going and laid back and un-ambitious. I still have all of those traits. Now it just feels like they’re at war with the rest of me all the time.

I’ve been feeling a lot of this tension lately. There’s a version of myself that I aspire to be: someone who is content to work a job that won’t ever change the world, someone who is ok with making mistakes and knows that sometimes they have to just rest and veg out. This is the one who’s had a lot of therapy and whose values revolve mostly around kindness and compassion.

But it’s not like the other parts of me just disappeared. I still want to be the best at absolutely everything. I still feel like someone dropped a lead balloon down my throat if I notice I’ve made a mistake. I still have a deep emotional pull to the values of my past: wanting to know everything and be absolutely right, wanting to never mess up, wanting to make other people happy even when I don’t have that power.

And I end up shit-talking myself quite a bit because of it. “Past me was such a dumpster fire”. “I used to be awful.” “I was so fucked up.” I understand why I do this. I want to recognize the progress I’ve made and the massive amounts of work that I’ve put in to not feeling miserable every second of every day. I want to be realistic with myself about the things that made my life really bad in the past. In some ways it’s even a coping mechanism: thinking about how bad I felt all the time is not pleasant, and adding some humor to the situation makes it easier to look at.

But if I stop for a hot second and think about it, I am still the same. I’m more. Some things have changed. But I still have all of that dumpster fire inside of me, burning quite merrily. So in many ways, I’m just shit-talking ME. I’m looking at very strong impulses in my personality, impulses that have persisted over time and that I suspect are pretty hard wired into me, and saying “that’s bad and unhealthy and shitty.”

And this is where I find myself lost. I don’t think I’m the only person who has this impulse, to separate out the elements of myself that have been a challenge in the past and label them. Some people do it by personifying an eating disorder or their alcoholism. Some people do it by thinking of “fighting” their depression. But it’s impossible to excise entire chunks of yourself, and I wish that there was a way to be kinder or gentler to those parts of me that say “you’re never ok unless you’re perfect.” I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting that, telling myself not to act on that impulse.

Some day I would love to feel as if there aren’t two entire brains that live inside me and just spend all day bickering about what is ethically appropriate. I want to make a decision like choosing to sleep in without feeling fraught and worried and overwhelmed, and having to make a fucking pro and con chart. But I don’t think that will ever happen by simply pretending the worry doesn’t exist or is just wrong.

I think I’m being repetitive. But my life is just a repetition of the same thing: trying to be kind, pushing myself too hard, fighting with myself (can I take this afternoon off? When will I get all of this done? I’m so tired, will everything fall apart if I just rest?), and beating down the voice that loses until I feel confident in my choice. And the point of it is that the solutions most readily available, to simply decide that one half of you is the bad part, are not helpful.

I keep telling myself that there’s a way to be accepting of my all or nothing, wildly demanding side. I tell myself that there’s a way to fold it in to a healthier self-understanding. Maybe I can find some kind of balance.

But as many times as I imagine some sort of radical acceptance of my anxiety, that doesn’t give me a path forward.

So I continue living in tension, and trying to change, and trying to be at peace.

The Many Faces of Masking

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Ok real talk, I started that series on pool parties, got overwhelmed, tried to write the second post about ten times, and gave up.

So I’m going to let it sit, maybe come back to it, and in the meantime write what feels right to me. For now, that means talking about masking, because I have been thinking often and deeply about what it means to mask, how you can stop masking if you’ve picked up habits to hide autism or mental illness throughout your entire life, and what it means to be authentic (which is a word that I kind of hate to be honest. Even if I’m changing my behaviors that’s clearly a choice that I’ve made so isn’t it still authentically me?).

Earlier this year, I decided to do some intentional goal planning, and one of the goals that I ended up creating was to stop masking. I created specific plans around that: wear more glitter, be more extra, be loud and take up space, stim freely, and share my emotions widely and vociferously. It seemed like the clear thing to do: I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be smaller. I had a flipping eating disorder for upwards of five years because I was so afraid of being loud or taking up space. I spend a lot of my energy holding back comments or laughs or noise.

I’ve been trying to do this for a couple of months now and in all honesty dear reader, I didn’t manage to do it much. I forgot to put on my glitter in the morning. Instead of grabbing an exciting outfit I would pick the one that was closest and comfiest. I’d forget to stim, and have to try to plan it into my day, which took more effort than it saved. I started to feel discouraged. Is it really so damn hard to live authentically? To act on what I thought were my basic impulses?? Why was I having to try so fucking hard to be me? Sometimes I’d even plan to go big and be sparkly for a specific event, and the time would come to get ready and all I’d want was to crawl back into my sweatpants and go to bed.

It was incredibly discouraging.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in recent years trying to understand how I can live up to my values and morals without destroying myself in the process with impossible expectations, and the idea of being truly myself, open and vulnerable, seemed like something that could positively impact the world around me by modeling good self-care and joyful neurodivergence while also satisfying my own needs. Was I so bad at being a good person that I couldn’t even do the cop-out easy version of it?

Ok that might be a bit of an overreaction to feeling less than up to putting on glitter, but honestly, that’s where my brain went and I was scared to start poking at why I was having such a challenge with this. So I just kept puttering along and trying to remind myself and adding it to my calendar, then not doing what I told myself to do, and feeling really shitty about myself. Classic.

Over time I started to notice that what I really wanted to do most of the time was to wear a frickin’ onesie and spend no time at all getting ready for anything. I wanted to be comfortable, efficient, and practical. Which felt…boring. It felt like the “real me” or the “unmasked me” should be more subversive or more noticeable or look less like they were just going to take a nap 90% of the time.

I guess I just wanted my maskless face to be more exciting, or at the very least be something that people noticed and cared about. It made me question if I had been actually masking all along or if I was just making things up. The idea of not masking anymore was not just for me, it was also something that I wanted to do to demonstrate to others that they were safe not to mask around me, to teach people about autism, to work on making the world more appropriate for more people. Wearing sweatpants just felt like it wasn’t doing any of that.

So here’s the epiphany that might be very obvious and not very exciting to anyone else: masking looks like a lot of things, but then again so does NOT masking. There will be times where not masking means being A LOT. There will also be times where not masking means being open about how tired and grumpy and overwhelmed I am. Neither one of those is better than the other. When I wrote my goals I was in a season (I have picked up that language from my goal planner and I find it immensely cheesey and weirdly religiously tinged but here I am, using it) of excess. I wanted excuses to dress up. I was feeling drawn to color and light.

And then I dove deep into a lot of goals and my energy was directed elsewhere: I was managing health concerns and money stress and a lot of relationships, and unsurprisingly my impulse was comfort and quiet. Not masking means responding honestly to the things that are happening around you. There is nothing less subversive about wearing fucking sweatpants and no bra. Modeling what it means to be constantly exhausted and not hide it is part of the resistance. Showing other people that you are responding to your challenges by resting and caring for yourself is subversive. These are the quiet skills that so few of us have, which makes them all the more important to demonstrate.

So fuck it. I’m proud of how I’ve been not masking in the last six months. I’ve gone braless more times than I can count. I wear mismatched socks. I look like a total slob. And that’s what has allowed me to continue functioning. I’m good with it.

The Marginalized Person’s Guide to Pool Parties

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Hello my long lost friends. It’s been years, nay millenia since I last spoke with you. I’m so sorry for dropping off the face of the planet. My non-internet life has been kicking into high gear lately, and I’ve got a ton of other projects in process (not the least of which is hand-lettering all of my Hacking Your Executive Function series). My brain needed a break.

But I’m baaaack and I’m so excited to introduce my latest series.

A few months back, Hulu debuted the show Shrill, based on the book Lindy West. Everyone at my aerial studio got WAY into it. If you haven’t seen the show, go watch it: it’s powerful and intense, and resonated really deeply with a lot of us. We’re going to venture into a tiny little spoiler here, but it’s nothing major: in one episode, the main character decides to go to a pool party specifically for fat people. It’s a revelation for her: she’s surrounded by people like her who are unapologetic, joyful, supportive, and so happy to be together. I mean literally it’s what a party should be: a bunch of people enjoying each other’s company and their own experiences together.

After seeing that episode, we started to refer to our aerial studio as “our pool party”. We could show up with whatever baggage we had on any given day, discuss it (or not) as we needed to, be allowed to participate (or not) at whatever level felt good to us in that moment, and have a bunch of strong, beautiful, amazing people yelling at us that our butts look good.

A few weeks later, I was in therapy and doing some EMDR (trauma processing) around a memory of my first boyfriend making out with me when I very much did not want him to: how I felt trapped and confused, how desperate I felt to escape, the fear. When my therapist asked what I’d do now in a situation like that I responded “I’d call my aerial friends and they’d destroy any man who dared touch me without my consent.” It took all of five minutes for me to get from that realization to the realization that what I want out of my life is to make pool parties for other people. That shit is what makes life worth living.

I’ve been letting those thoughts percolate somewhat in the last few weeks. There are some areas in my day to day life that I’m working to build spaces like this, but I also wanted to do some work to identify what it is about certain places that give them this difficult-to-replicate feeling. So that’s what this series it: an exploration of what traits make a space a pool party. It’ll also probably have some practical suggestions on finding pool parties, recommendations for leaders who want to make their spaces more pool party like, and other bits and bobs along the way.

But hold up: why does the title of this post say “marginalized person”? Nothing in that definition of pool party implies that it has to be a marginalized person. Well as per usual everything I do has to come with a lens of accessibility, feminism, racial injustice, and all the other things that make me a social justice warrior (or bard or whatever). And there’s something particular about a pool party: it’s a place of relief for those who don’t feel comfortable in the world as it is. That feeling of relief and joy that comes from letting it all hang out when you don’t get to do that on a day to day basis is unique to marginalized people.

Sure, white, cis, straight, able-bodied dudes don’t feel comfortable in every place, but there are so many places historically available to them to feel unjudged and comfortable. So the thing that makes pool parties amazing is that they provide that same opportunity to people who haven’t had it. And unsurprisingly, those are the people who need it most: the ones who go through their lives second-guessing, masking, closeted, self-conscious, insulted, attacked. Those are the people who most benefit from pool parties.

So not only will I be talking about the logistics, I’ll also be chatting about the philosophical importance of them and the the role that they play in the lives of marginalized people, particularly when it comes to healing trauma. So just in case you thought I was going to write something fun and light-hearted, don’t worry, I’ll always manage to make it intense.

So onwards! To a pool party!

Self Love, Self Tolerance, Pride, and Self-Esteem

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We’re heading out of pride month, which is why now is the obvious time for me to finally get around to talking about pride (good job me) even though I started working on this post back in May. I have a weird relationship with pride. I feel fiercely proud of the communities that I belong to: I have queer pride and autistic pride and nerdy pride. But feeling proud of particular accomplishments or who I am? I doubt that will ever happen. I’m not sure it needs to.

And that’s part of what I want to talk about: how necessary is pride? How do you build the kind of pride that supports healthy self-esteem? How does pride relate to self-esteem and self-love? What should our goals be when it comes to developing these positive feelings towards ourselves, and how realistic is it to expect something like self-love in a society that just shits all over you if you aren’t a white, cis, dude?

Let’s start by talking about toxic positivity. That sounds like an oxymoron but it’s not. Toxic positivity refers to the way that some people demand only happy attitudes. It’s rampantly common on social media, and is something that gets forced on neurodivergent and disabled people (see: the only disability is a bad attitude). It says that you shouldn’t focus on bad things, feel negative feelings, or share things that could be construed as complaining or whining. It says everyone needs to love themselves, and if you just tried harder you can be happy and positive.

What all of that misses is that some people have really good reasons not to be positive and to have low self-esteem. Some of us have brains that literally don’t function correctly to have good self-esteem. Many people live in bodies that cause them pain and distress on a regular basis. Everyone who isn’t cis, white, thin, able-bodied, etc. gets constant messages that they are wrong and their bodies are wrong. So it’s real and honest to have some negative feelings about yourself and your body. It’s a fight to have self-love or pride. Feelings of sadness and hurt and pain are reasonable feelings and they deserve attention and time. People should feel comfortable sharing negativity when they need to.

With all that in mind, if you’re female, disabled, a person of color, fat, or any other demographic that is constantly told how bad they are for existing, do you need self-love? What’s the honestly healthy and reasonable way to deal with self-esteem?

I no longer think that it’s useful for me to think about loving myself. It’s a goal that I doubt I will ever reach, I live in a society that is constantly fighting to get me NOT to believe it, and it’s simply a fact that my body is not valued in this society (although as a white, cis, relatively thin lady I have it pretty good). I’m too tired to fight that over and over and over and it just doesn’t seem worth it. It’s like living in an abusive relationship and trying to convince yourself that you are actually loved.

That being said, some people find the process of loving themselves and feeling pride in themselves incredibly powerful. I will not deny that being bold and happy and proud in the face of oppression is powerful. It’s not just about you: it’s about showing others that it’s possible, it’s about actively, every second of your life, questioning the ideals that have been shoved down your throat your whole life. For some, this work is doable, important, and radical.

For me, it comes down to effort in and return out: how much work do I need to do in order to feel some level of self love? What do I get out of it? My personal calculation has come down to say that “self tolerance” is more reasonable, but your equation may be different.

With that in mind, how do you actually go about feeling more proud of yourself and improving your self-esteem? If you want to love yourself, what can you do to make that happen?

The thing that has surprised me the most is how big of an impact the people around me have on my self-esteem. This has been true on two levels: the friends that I have and how they respect my needs, boundaries, and accommodations as well as the communities I expose myself to and the ideals they uphold.

I started with the first level because finding communities and being intentional about what images you expose yourself to is hard and more abstract. Other people (while also challenging) are also a bit more literal.

Friends are damn hard. Finding good friends, especially as an adult is hard. I’m about to make a recommendation that might seem real shitty to a lot of people who struggle with socializing: be picky. Friends who ignore your boundaries, friends who make you worried that you’re saying the wrong thing, friends who won’t allow you accommodations are not good friends. When I first started dealing with my mental health I made a concerted effort to be social more often and I canceled plans with people at least once a month because of mental health issues. I needed the accommodation of flexibility, patience, and support. My friends were willing to provide that, and because they never got upset when I canceled, I learned that my needs were valid and I was acceptable as is. I highly recommend learning about how to set boundaries and make requests, and practicing as often as possible because that will create the healthiest, most supportive relationships.

I found friends who understood when I said “I cannot tolerate chewing noises, could we turn on some music” if we were out together, and friends who never told me I was acting weird or talking weird. Friends who would listen when I told them about how cool octopuses were (and how they can taste with their skin). It’s HARD to find these people, and it can seem exhausting and impossible when you’re still looking, but keep trying.

My strategies have been to find people with similar interests to my own, to find one friend who is accepting and nurturing and then meet their other friends, and STEAL THEM FOR YOUR OWN, or to work hard on establishing one relationship at a time that you feel solid and comfortable with. Even 1-2 people who are validating, supportive, and accepting can make a huge difference. That for me was the major turning point from “I am a burden on everyone who doesn’t do enough and is ugly and bad and awful” to “I’m ok. Asking for what I need doesn’t hurt anyone. Being different doesn’t hurt anyone.”

There could easily be a whole series on building healthy relationships and finding people who respect your needs, but for this post we’ll have to settle for that down and dirty overview. It seems odd that you would need other people to build your self love and pride, but the environment you live in makes a significant difference to what you internalize, and if you’re always around people who accept you, build you up, and treat you well, you’ll start to think that’s what you deserve.

Speaking of internalizing things, let’s talk about media and culture. Your direct friends aren’t the only people who send you messages about what’s valued, what’s acceptable, and who you should be. You also get those messages from the utter deluge of media and information we get every day. Lucky for you, the internet means that you get some control over what types of images you see every day.

Curate your internet experience. No it’s not an echo chamber, it’s so easy to hear fatphobic or ableist or racist bullshit, you’ll get it no matter what. Intentionally follow people on social media who are like you and who celebrate themselves. Work to find media that doesn’t disparage people like you (e.g. I try not to watch things that make jokes at the expense of fat people being fat). Find hashtags or movements that celebrate the things you find difficulty being proud of (for me it was the neurodiversity movement and body positivity movements). Spend time looking at images of people being happy and (fat/black/disabled/trans/etc.), read articles where people talk about the things they love about themselves or how they are building community.

I have also found it incredibly helpful to find or build spaces where it’s taken as a given that you and your traits are valued. One of the most positive influences in my life is a Facebook group run by autistics that says in the rules that autistic ways of playing, communicating, and being are to be valued and respected. This gets played out in all the posts and interactions, and it feels like a place where I can finally breathe. Give yourself those spaces.

Sometimes this might mean cutting out media you enjoy. I really loved trash-watching America’s Next Top Model, but guess what? It gave me fuel to hate myself for my body. I stopped and I feel so much better. Be aware of what you’re learning from media so that you can choose it intentionally.

There are definitely additional things you can do that involve gratitude, challenging negative beliefs and myths, reminding yourself of what you do well, and so on, but these are two that I rarely have heard and which made all the difference for me.

It Feels Bad. That Means It’s Working. It Feels Bad. That Means I Should Stop.

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About a month ago, I decided to start working on a fresh set of life goals. I wanted to be intentional and thoughtful about the life I live and to actually aim for something. I wanted to do the hard work of identifying my values and acting them out as best I can. I put a variety of tasks large and small onto my schedule for the month, thinking that they would help me to feel more authentically myself and allow me to be a better person.

Today, I feel icky. I spent the better part of 20 hours sleeping yesterday. I feel stretched thin and uncomfortable and overwhelmed. I feel demanding and conflicted and too loud. I feel like I’m asking too much and not providing what I should in return.

Surprisingly, I think that these feelings are good evidence that I should keep doing exactly what I’m doing. I think that they’re good evidence of growth, of work, of change. This is both metaphorical and literal. When you’re working out and it starts to hurt, that usually means you’re hitting the point where you’re getting stronger. Emotionally, when you start to dig into things that are uncomfortable or try things that scare you, you’re growing and dealing with the challenging things. I sometimes joke with myself that if my therapist suggests something and my first response is “no!!!!” then I should definitely probably do it because the strong negative response indicates that I’m afraid of something about that experience. In general, our emotions protect our coping mechanisms, even if those coping mechanisms are bad (think telling someone with an eating disorder to eat more: it’ll upset them a lot, but the discomfort is part of being healthier).

On the other hand, a week or so ago I scraped my knee quite badly. I thought it was fine, so I mostly ignored it. I ignored it when it ached all day long. I ignored it when it started to goop some gross substances out of it. I ignored it when the skin around it turned red. And guess what? Now it’s much worse than it was to start, and most likely infected. Ignoring it when something hurts and feels bad is an incredibly stupid idea because pain is a signal to STOP what you’re doing and make a change.

So what the actual heck? Pain both means “good job keep going” and also “stop immediately you stupid poop nugget why are you doing this?”

Now most of you probably understand that nuance is a thing and are looking at me like “yup, sometimes the same stimulus means different things ya ding dong” and I get that. But I want to recognize the fact that determining when pain is healthy and when it’s a sign to stop can be incredibly challenging (especially if you’re interoception challenged or alexythemic). And if possible, I’d like to offer some suggestions for how to tell the difference.

You know how we’re going to do it? We’re going to talk about stretching.

I’m currently working on getting my splits. I take stretch classes 2-3 times a week, and I have been for quite a while now. In the first few months of working on splits I strained my leg approximately once a month. As I was pushing into the movements, I was pushing to the point of pain: a sharp kind of pain. Almost pinchy. I couldn’t breathe easily. I couldn’t hold the position for an extended period of time. And those were all signals that I was pushing my body too far too quickly, which is why I would goof up my leg, then have to take time to recover. It set me back even further.

I’m still having a hard time always knowing which discomfort is good discomfort and which discomfort is productive. But here’s a big hint for myself: you don’t need to push to the very edge of your abilities every time. Some of your stretches will feel comfortable for extended stretches of time. The point isn’t to hit one major moment of an impressive pose. It’s to build up a skill that you can keep using.

Ok time to get metaphorical:

Sometimes a new experience or skill will take you to the very edge of your flexibility. It’s the absolute most you can do. For me that would be something like cold calling a business for a sponsorship. Doing it will feel painful, breathless, terrifying. It will activate all of the fears and anxieties I have. That’s how I hurt myself.

I like to think about breath and skills as the measure here. Can I do the thing and still breathe? Can I do the thing and use the skills I have that keep me functional? That’s the equivalent of productive stretching. It’s the edge of your discomfort. It’s the place where all of your resources aren’t simply focused on making it through this pain or this moment, but instead on doing it correctly, with care, and with intention. When discomfort is something that I can do and still engage skills, that’s the growth time.

It’s funny how often I find that physical metaphors allow me to distinguish emotional nuances. Very literal questions like “can I easily take a breath” are much easier to answer than “is this distress helpful or overwhelming”. So often emotions get expressed in physical ways, and it’s much easier to notice what’s happening in your body than it is to pull apart the strands of what you’re feeling and why.

So if you’re wondering whether your discomfort means you should stop or keep going, think of stretching: can you be productive where you are? Do you need to back off a bit? What will help? You’ve got this!

Thoughts About Aging, Mental Illness, and Fatigue

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CN: suicide, death, eating disorder

I am ageist. It’s a weird thing to admit, partially because many people don’t think that age discrimination is a big deal and partially because it sucks to realize how deeply you’ve internalized certain prejudices. But I’m terrified of aging, and that colors the way I view older people. I already feel as if I’ve aged past my prime and it’s all downhill from here.

The reasons are pretty fucking obvious when I think about it for more than 20 seconds, and I don’t think that my reasons are unique, so I want to talk some about of the ways that ageism intersects with disability and mental illness, and the very real reasons that people who are already unhealthy might have negative feelings about age. Join me for this delightfully depressing post.

Time for some weird honesty: I did not expect to live to my current age. I’m 28, which is hardly ancient, but starting when I was about 17 my depression and eating disorder meant that I assumed I’d eventually succumb either to starvation or suicide and be gone by the age of 25. I didn’t make plans for the future because I could barely think past the exact moment I was in. To be honest, taking an expansive view of life and self often leads to depression and suicidality for me. It’s easiest for my mental health if I don’t let my perspective grow past approximately one year.

Now time for some angsty honesty: our society is not set up to support thoughtful aging. Before the age of 25 we have tons of milestones, and most people’s paths are reasonably set. You go to school, you’re supposed to graduate, you either get a job or go to college, you try to save money, you “find your career” etc. You try to find a partner, buy a house, get married, have kids. Even if those aren’t the things you want to do, there’s a suggestion of what you could be doing.

But post college and after that first job or two? There’s almost no guidance. I’ve recently been trying to find guided exercises that I can use to figure out the next steps in my career (as someone who loves their current job but wants to continue to grow) and literally, the only job planning worksheets out there are for people about to graduate.

We don’t have many set paths after you graduate. The rest of your life is this big open uncertainty with few milestones. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t fall back on the “default” plan for the rest of my life because there isn’t one.

So if I’m real and I’m honest, I don’t like being reminded of age. I assume that other people who are older than I am don’t enjoy their lives because I can’t imagine what my life will look like or how it could be better than what I have now. I recognize that this is internalized ageism. I recognize that it comes out of fear. The problem is that my fear of aging is not irrational. In fact it’s super reasonable.

I am not a healthy person. I have nearly constant fatigue, headaches, and aches. However I still rely on my body in a major way to help keep my emotions regulated: without some serious movement and sensory input, I get a bit manic. I’m deeply concerned that as I age, my body will no longer be able to do the things I need to do in order to stay emotionally healthy. When I think about growing past the age of 30, 40, 50, I think about all of the ways that my body will continue to fail. I know that my fatigue will increase. I know that my abilities will decrease. My fear of that is rational.

On top of that, I’m a planner. I have a deep need for control. Our bodies change in uncontrollable ways as we age. Our place in society changes in uncontrollable ways. There are no rituals, no ways to break up the years and turn them into bite-sized, understandable chunks. I can imagine that there are ways to age that don’t suck, but in America today? Aging sucks.

I don’t have a solution here. I don’t have a way to recognize that if I could freeze my body where it currently is damn would I and that has nothing to do with vanity or loving youth it has everything to do with not wanting to become more disabled in a world that sucks for disabled people. I don’t have a way to hold on to that and also advocate for respectful, supported aging. Complaining about getting older is both normal and also seen as shallow. I want more out of the conversation: I want recognition of the ways that our bodies decay and the weird things that start happening and not just complaints, but what we can do to make it better. I want recognition of the intersection of aging and disability.

Embracing Things That Feel Cheesy

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I’m currently on a kick of goal planning and self-reflection. Typing those words makes me feel a little bit icky. They’re so Pinteresty. They’re so “Live laugh love”y. They’re so…earnest. It’s not that I’m not earnest. I can be to the point of it being a fault. But I’m not earnest in the way that thinks “wine time” is a good decor choice. I’m definitely too cynical for the type of lifestyle that looks polished and can be mapped out in a goal planner (only mild shade to those who do live their lives this way).

Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago I got distracted in my normal planner life (I keep a fairly involved planner and sometimes watch videos of other people doing their planning. I’m a nerd) by something called Powersheets, a goal planner. One of my favorite planner Youtubers was doing them, and I just felt drawn to it. I’m not sure why. It certainly wasn’t the slogan “cultivate what matters” which felt cheesy and exactly 0% like me. It wasn’t the light Jesus overtones of the whole company. In fact almost everything about it screamed “run for the hills this is some woo woo bullshit that is going to make you throw up in your mouth.”

And yet I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what it would be like. I’ve been feeling a bit uncertain about my life trajectory lately. I’ve hit a lot of exciting and cool landmarks in the last few years (found a job I love, gotten married, bought a house), and now I’m wondering…what’s next? How do I grow? Where am I going? Now that I’ve started to get my mental health chaos at least sorted into some messy piles, is it time to go a step further and actually sort through it all and put it away? That metaphor got away from me. The point is, I’ve made it out of crisis, which was how I lived for many years. That’s an amazing accomplishment and I feel like a badass. But I’ve developed a lot of behaviors that were coping strategies to escape crisis (see: I will eat whatever I want whenever I want because for a long time I didn’t eat at all), and now they’re just a bit too extreme.

So I’ve been a bit antsy of late, looking for purpose. You might say goals.

Which brings me back to the Powersheets, a planner made for setting and sticking to goals. A planner very much in the realm of “cutesy shit that too many people use for trite and inane bullshit like redecorating their home to look like it belongs to Joanna Gaines”. I don’t quite know how to put my finger on the things that turn me off so deeply. It’s the quotes you can find on Pinterest, or on inspirational images. It’s “clean” eating. It’s yoga. It’s anything with the word boho in it. It’s farmhouse style. It’s telling women they’re not doing enough or living their best life unless they’ve bought this product.

Maybe those things are your jam, but in so many cases I see capitalism masquerading as insight, and I get full on angry when I try to engage with it.

But I’m still a person who likes self-reflection and who wants some guidance to finding the life, values, goals, and STUFF that I want. Trying to plan out your life without any kind of steps or ideas to guide you (especially for this autistic brain) is awful. And there just aren’t very many resources that have the word “fuck” on every other page, which would be my preferred method of planning out my life.

And I think that’s why some of these cheesy weird tools were pulling me in. I think most people hit a bit of a quarter life crisis these days: if you manage to get a reasonable job post college and keep yourself from sinking into debt, you start to wonder where you’re supposed to go now. Millennials aren’t really doing “career” in the same way as our parents, which means a lot of work on our part to figure out what we want and how to get it. I’m not interested in the kids thing, I’m not interested in a traditional corporate career track. So what do I do?

So I decided to just buy the damn workbook and do the damn thing. So what if it was cheesy? So what if it seemed like someone was trying to sell me a lifestyle along with this 30 page planner? So what if I was worried the prompts would use phrases like “spark joy” and other BS that has little to no grounding in my life and experiences? I am powerful enough to take tools that weren’t made for me and bend them to my will.

Does that sound ridiculous? Sure. Is it also how I am going to allow myself to access resources that aren’t made for me and aren’t appealing to me when no one caters to autistic brains? Also yes.

One of the greatest tools that I have learned in my mental health journey is to steal. Do neurotypicals have a resource that is completely unrelated to my sensory needs but would still help? STEAL IT. Is there a resource that people use to organize kid schedules, and I don’t have kids? STEAL IT. And in this case, is there a resource that is in many ways built around capitalistic goals and fairly surface level self-reflection that doesn’t speak to me? STEAL IT. Take those questions and spring board off of them to create additional ideas and questions that make sense for you.

What do I mean?

Well one of the exercises that is in MANY goal planning workbooks is choosing a word of the year. I don’t get this practice. I don’t understand what you’re supposed to do with a word of the year, and so often having a word of the year feels limiting to me. But I decided not to skip that section because it asked me to look at all my priorities and decide which one is most important right now. Instead, I chose to give myself a question instead of a word. My word of the year is “huh?” I didn’t take the concept too seriously, because it’s incredibly easy to fall into something that feels cliche like “growth”, but that doesn’t really help guide me. I created something open that will push me to further reflection instead of something that closes me in. And I picked something that embraces a bit of my wackiness so that I didn’t feel like I was turning into someone who wasn’t me.

Throughout my use of the Powersheets I have sworn, crossed things out, questioned their premises, and in the end made some major progress in deciding what I want to do next in my life because I didn’t get too hung up on the prompts. I took them as suggestions, then focused on what was important for ME.

I’m never going to like things like “live, laugh, love” thanks to my cynicism and sarcasm. Gratitude journals make me want to puke. But my own approach to tools like this can make a huge difference. If I approach them as “this is a question that I will use to spur my own self-reflection about my own priorities, my own values, and my own interests” rather than something that I have to take particularly seriously, it’s far more effective. Being creative in how I interpret questions and respond to them makes them more useful.

While many reflection exercises want you to take them seriously, I’ve found that being weird and goofy about it is actually far more helpful. My life is weird and goofy. I often have to address difficult topics with levity in order to survive. So if I’m asking “what’s my ideal life look like?” the answer won’t be “not depressed anymore” it will be “Fuck Suicidal Ideation Pt II: Living and I guess liking it?”. I’m embracing that it feels uncomfortable, even while I’m holding on to the parts of me that find it not my personality.

It’s a balancing act: discomfort can be a good signal to stop doing something, or it can be a good signal that you’re in the process of growing. The challenge is discerning when it’s positive and when it’s not. But let me just recommend embracing things that feel a little bit cheesy, a little bit trite, a little bit empty; you can imbue them with the meaning you want and need. So go out my friends, and STEAL.