Creativity as Rest

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Part 1: The Writer Who Doesn’t Write

Today is a rainy and cold day. In the past three days the temperature has dropped 40 degrees, which means that I have been desperately trying to transition with great difficulty. Like many creative type people, the grey, rainy days make me want to curl up with a cup of tea and read or write or make.

It has been so long since I have felt creative. Specifically it has felt so long since I have felt creative around writing or creating fiction, which used to be something that was constant for me. When I was ten I wrote a novel that was close to 500 pages long. In high school I drafted a novel I actually thought I would submit for publication. Creative writing has been a part of my identity, my mental health care, and my self-expression for years.

And yet I can’t remember the last time I wrote a story.

There’s a tension that I feel so often: I am tired. I am tired all day every day. I can’t remember the last time I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep if I just closed my eyes. I struggle to pull the words out for the work I have to do. It’s no surprise to me that I haven’t had the excess to pour out into creativity.

And yet.

Every week and month that I go without trying to describe the pillowy soft fog outside my window or the taste of the air when it’s damp and the summer is melting through my fingers no matter how hard I try to hold it…I get more exhausted.

One of the things that I have spent years trying to articulate to others and to myself is the need for many kinds of rest. There is the rest of literal sleep. There is rest that comes from turning off your brain and being quiet. There is rest that comes from being with people who do not judge you. And there is rest that comes from doing the things you’re passionate about. The things that make you feel creative: and I do mean creative. Building something, whether it’s a story or a chair feeds some deep human needs and in my experience fills us up.

I have felt so empty.

Enter Dungeons and Dragons.

Part 2: The Lonely Creator

Writing is a solitary activity. The writer is struck by some kind of inspiration and the story has to get out. The writer is an observer and notices things that others don’t, finds inspiration for their work.

These are some of the lies I’ve been told about writing.

Let’s be clear here: writing is a process of connecting with other people. Language exists only between two people. The idea that writing and creativity are done in isolation is fucking weird.

I was approached a few weeks ago about the possibility of joining a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I love D&D, and I am always up for it, but it wasn’t until I started to hear about the setting and the world that a whole mess of things clicked together for me: I can’t create out of nothing, alone, sitting in the dark and staring out a window like some angsty teenager.

Creativity for me is play. I felt something come awake in me that had been sleeping for so long. I was suddenly writing a backstory and building a Pinterest board and falling in love with my character. Someone had just tossed me the ball and I wanted to be a part of this game. I felt so full.

I’ve been feeling for so long as if I am not as creative anymore: I’m too tired or too overworked. But maybe I just needed someone to play with. I just needed someone to point me in a direction or give me a prompt.

I’ve missed it so much.

Weekly Check In 9/7

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Somehow it is Monday again already. It is unclear to me how this is possible, but as we all know time has lost all meaning.
 
However that does mean it’s time for a check in.
 
I am, perennially, constantly, dealing again with exhaustion and sleep problems. Almost every day this week I have unintentionally napped for 3+ hours, then stayed up later than I intended and gotten not enough sleep overnight (read: 7.5 hours rather than 9-10).
 
It turns out that this is a massive pain in the ass that is interfering with work and aerials and eating and cleaning and basically every possible part of my life. I’m so wildly sick of thinking that I have it under control and then having it hit again and leave me with not enough hours in the day.
 
When I first started taking stimulant medications I was incredibly sensitive to them: a half pill was enough to keep me awake all day. Now I’m finding that even with my meds I can still fall asleep, which is a big NOT what I wanted. I’m thinking I may experiment with taking a full pill instead of a half pill (don’t worry, doc has given me full leave to go up to two pills per day depending on what works for me).
 
Of course that brings me to concern 2: my GP has retired. Now this is a bummer because I liked her in general but it is MORE of a bummer because she prescribed me my anti-depressants. I’m starting to run low and boy howdy do I not want to try to find a new doc right now. Of course I have the doc who worked with me on my sleep issues, but I’m not 100% sure if he’s good with prescribing me my anti depressants. Basically I would very much like to just be able to call my doctor and continue having the medication I have been taking for years that is incredibly effective for me and instead I now have to do some stressful problem solving and maneuvering in the medical system which is NOT a thing I want.
 
I get why it’s important to have docs check in on meds like this, but fuck. After like 2 years can’t I just HAVE them? Especially for people with executive function challenges and social anxieties, this is a huge barrier to accessing services.
 
In conjunction with all of this I’ve been really struggling with keeping a coherent and reasonable schedule. It’s making it tough to be online and “at work” during the hours that are normal. Instead I’m working on Labor Day because I fell asleep at 3:00 on Friday instead of finishing out my work day.
 
This makes a lot of sense when I spend all day every day just sitting on my couch and there’s very little to indicate what I should be doing. I’ve been thinking a lot about both the benefits and costs of working from home, and what my ideal set up would be if we ever start going places again.
 
I’m feeling really torn between two things: going to an office HIGHLY increases my ability to focus for long periods of time and gives my brain a clear “this is working time” signal. On the other hand, before quarantine I was driving approximately 2-3 hours every day, which was a massive waste of my time. Add in that working from home gives me the freedom to throw in a load of laundry in the middle of the day, or take a five minute break to sweep the kitchen, and there’s a lot of effectiveness that’s coming out of working from home.
 
I’m an optimizer and I don’t feel like I can optimize and let me tell you that just pushes my buttons.
 
I’m definitely at one of those places where I want to START things. I don’t need to start new things. I have plenty to occupy my time. I don’t need to learn how to draw, or embroider, or build databases from scratch, or take on multiple new freelance clients, or start running social media for a volunteer organization.
 
But I’m getting stir crazy. And that’s what I do. I’m just trying hard to keep it to one or two new things instead of five or six. Here’s hoping it works.
 
Positives of this week: I have made HUGE progress on a couple of my aerial goals and feel SO GOOD about it. Also I’ve gotten some expectations of consistency from a few freelance clients which I am very much looking forward to. Weirdly it has been a pretty dang good week, even as I’m overthinking absolutely everything. What a surprise.
 
 
 

Weekly Check In

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If you know me in my personal life, you might know that I’ve recently been doing a weekly check in on my mental health and life each Monday.

I’ve decided I’m going to start sharing them here for a few reasons: first, quite a few people have said that they find the check ins helpful as a way of modeling vulnerability, mental health skills, and connection. Second, it’s easy for me to forget to update my blog when I’m not here very often, and popping over to post the check in is a reminder that I can use it for other things. Third, I feel like it.

So here’s this week’s.

This week has felt like approximately one thousand years but also like nothing much has happened, so normal COVID time I guess.
Last week I started volunteering with TCMAP (which is a very cool resource and you all should take a look at it). It feels really really really good to be jumping into a new project that is interesting and has a lot of room for growth and feels meaningful and is with lots of smart, interesting, kind humans.
It’s also really exciting to see an organization that isn’t AuSM and how that works, and realize how much I actually know and have to offer. Sometimes I get very in my head and assume that AuSM is just a small pond which is why I feel competent at things, but if I were to leave AuSM it would turn out that I actually don’t know much at all and have very little to contribute.
Plus it feels good to get EXCITED about a project. I love AuSM, but very few things feel really new and shiny right now (this is my own fault for getting involved in almost every department in the organization). Something totally new and different that is ripe for someone to come in and create processes and organization is like someone waving my drug of choice in front of my face.
I’ve also been feeling just really GOOD about my aerial and flexibility lately. I’ve hit a couple of new milestones (hell yeah forearm stand progress! Hell yeah backbend progress! Hell yeah suddenly being able to comfortably hit splits in the air in poses that seemed unreachable a few months ago).
Especially after being out of the air for almost 3 months, it’s incredibly affirming to see progress again. It’s ESPECIALLY affirming to see both my strength and flexibility increasing because many times those two can work against each other.
For quite a while I’ve been feeling quite lonely and disconnected. I’ve been having a hard time actually having emotions or caring about things (and people). This last week has felt like a major victory against anhedonia and dissociation.
Even in personal relationships there’s been some nice developments. Jacob and I finally got some things off our chests about wanting to connect and the ways in which each of our needs weren’t getting met, something I think both of us have just been too blah to talk about for a while. We even finally managed to come up with solutions to ongoing problems and I’m SO SO SO psyched about it.
Weirdly I kind of credit it to listening to way too much Esther Perel and reading Come As You Are (both quality pieces of media if you’re not already on that train). It isn’t like either of these pieces of media was telling me a bunch of stuff I didn’t already know, but being reminded actively that you deserve to express your feelings and that the best way to get what you need is to tell your partner clearly is SO healthy.
This is yet another example of “media has such a big fucking impact in ways you don’t even consider”, and sometimes I think that gets said in a kind of woo woo fashion, but I want to pull out something very concrete and literal about it: you think more about the things you hear and see regularly. Choosing your media is to some extent choosing the fodder for your brain. There are an infinite number of things we all could be thinking about at any given moment, which means that it’s incredibly easy to lose important stuff in there. What you surround yourself with is you choosing what you think is important and what you want to remember over time.
I’ve been spending a lot of my energy on fun, fluffy things for a while. That’s not bad. Actual play podcasts rock. But incorporating a few things that prompt deeper thoughts is a balance I want and a balance that’s incredibly healthy.
So I guess this Monday morning feels bizarrely positive, and I’m just going to go with that.

Fuck My Body and Fuck Yours Too

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Bodies are assholes.

Anyone who says different is lying.

They hurt and they hunger and they exhaust and they NEED endlessly. Oftentimes the best that they give us is that they’re not actively asking for anything and so we can ignore them.

I’ve been reading Come As You Are.

One of the themes that has come up over and over and over again is that every body is perfect and beautiful just as it is, and in order to have better sex lives and less stress and less angst, we just need to learn to love our bodies.

Guess what Emily Nagoski: my body isn’t perfect and it isn’t beautiful, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been duped by a shitty culture (which I have been, but that’s a separate issue).

Let’s give an example.

I currently take a stimulant medication every morning. If I don’t take that medication, approximately 50% of the time my body will simply decide it NEEDS sleep somewhere between 2 and 5 p.m. It will sleep for 3-15 hours. Even if I sleep for 5 or 6 hours, I still sleep for a full 8 overnight. None of this has any correlation with sleeping less at night: I get more and more consistent sleep than any other person I know.

I miss appointments. I flake on friends. I skip important tasks. I miss out on time with my husband. It fucks up my life. It’s unpredictable, it’s a huge pain in the ass, and it absolutely is not perfect or beautiful. It’s annoying and frustrating and loses me money and time and opportunities. It makes me angry and sad. I do not like it.

Or another example:

I have chronic headaches. So far nothing in my life has been able to get rid of them for good. I manage them through massage and chiropractic, but that’s expensive, so mostly I manage them by trying not to get too stressed out, and Ibuprofen, and ice packs. It doesn’t work well. Last month I had a low grade headache for three weeks straight (sometimes it was more than low grade).

I am in pain a significant percentage of the time. Nothing about that is beautiful or perfect. It sucks and I wish my body were different.

In some strands of feminism and body positivity there’s this impulse to say that our basic state of being is one of joy and happiness with our bodies, as if all dissatisfactions come from culture. It’s a kind of weird version of the naturalistic fallacy: if we just accepted our natural relationship with our bodies we’d all be so happy!

Do these people not have bodies that exhaust too easily or create random pains? Do they not experience the frustration of a body that can’t do the things you ask it to, or that randomly decides it’s going to behave differently today than it ever has before (hey thanks ocular migraine that appeared once a month ago and has never come back)?

Embodiment is the way that the world acts on you and it’s often not pleasant. It’s sweat and stank (and hey Emily? Not liking butt stank doesn’t mean that I’ve internalized cultural messages about disgust and shame around sex, it means that sometimes bodies sweat and create bad odors), it’s being too hot or too cold, it’s hangovers and sore muscles. It’s all part of living as a body and it’s a hugely mixed bag.

A lot of the time the most we expect out of our bodies is that they’ll shut up enough that we basically forget they exist. Times of active physical pleasure are not the norm. Maybe that’s part cultural, but it’s also because it takes time and effort to create physical pleasure. It takes resources. It takes self-awareness and knowledge of your own body. It’s WORK.

My body isn’t perfect, and I don’t love it. Right now I accept it. I may never love it. I definitely will never think it’s perfect, and I don’t actually even know the point of thinking that it’s beautiful (what a useless value anyway). Acknowledging the reality of our frail bodies, dealing with that reality is far more radical and body positive than pretending it’s all sunshine and roses.

Saying that everyone can and should love their bodies can have some serious unintended consequences, from further alienating disabled folks and those in chronic pain, to creating a new standard of perfection that says if you don’t love yourself you’re not living up to the standard. For some people, it can even go so far as to feel like it’s your own fault if you feel bad about your body. Even though we live mired in a world of sex negativity and body shaming and absolute bullshit, somehow you personally should have the astounding ability to stop listening to all of that, ignore any real frustrations you have with your body, and live in perfect harmony.

Nah, that ain’t it.

Bodies are hard. Being embodied is one of the hardest parts of being a conscious being. It doesn’t really make sense and none of us really get how this part of us that we think of as us fits in with this meatbag that we’ve got.

So fuck my body. Fuck yours too. Sometimes they’re assholes. But fuck them in the way that you’d say it to a friend you love but who sometimes does the absolute worst things. Fuck my body in the most complex way I can imagine the word fuck. Let it fuck. And let it fuck up.

Have the relationship you need with your body.

Paying Attention

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Oh hi there folks.

It’s been a minute.

Or two.

Or a month.

Or a year.

We’ve had a pandemic. All of our lives have changed and shifted in fundamental ways. My communities have had riots and protests and murders.

I feel like I’ve circled back on myself and relived moments of college and high school and depression, then skipped through time and found myself somewhere new entirely. I don’t think this blog will keep being what it was. It will probably be weirder and more self-reflective and more stream of thought.

Because here’s the thing: writing has been my Thing since I was about 8 years old. It has saved my life a thousand times over. It has given me a career. It has helped me through the few hours of a dark and awful night when I thought I wanted to die, and has helped me to make plans a year or two or three into the future, full of hope.

I haven’t written just for me in years.

I write for my job. I write to freelance. I write to work on a book that I intend to sell. I write for other people. But I don’t write to let out that insistent, ever-present hamster-wheel of thoughts that lives in my head all day long.

Last week I started to have a slip in time. My brain reverted to the moments in college when I couldn’t find a foothold of joy. I didn’t know why I existed. I didn’t know what I brought to the world. After being in social isolation for nearly six months now, spending every day in the same place in the same room, I started to feel like that again. Everything felt like an oversized treadmill: I just keep running and never going anywhere.

But I had a few things hit me in the face since then. My therapist (because hey, it turns out therapists are actually really wonderful) listened and engaged and saw through that ruse to the part of me that was just feeling isolated and unmoored and disconnected. I felt like my work didn’t matter. My hobbies had become pointless time fillers. I didn’t live out my values anymore.

Fact 1: meaning is important to me, and when I lose meaning I start to pretend that I have to find a meaning that will satisfy some kind of cosmic importance.

Over the weekend I started listening to Dear Hank and John, a wonderfully earnest podcast in which two brothers answer questions and share facts about humanity and science and the world. And I remembered that once upon a time the media that I consumed was far less about nonprofit fundraising, or organizational strategies, or even the very important work of dismantling systems of oppression, but instead was about the impossibly endless joy of exploration.

Fact 2: I am curious. Learning all the wild and poetic things that our universe has to offer makes me feel connected.

So I’ve been thinking about what I can do to address this disconnect in me, this yearning. And it seems obvious to me: pay attention to different things. Attention is both overappreciated and underappreciated in our world. People act as if focusing your attention to be productive is the greatest thing you can ever do, but they ignore how impactful your attention can be in the more passive moments. The attention you give to TV and music and media. The attention you give to learning or simply existing. The attention you give to yourself or the rest of the world. Where attention leads, time and energy and values follow.

Fact 3: I want to give my attention to the small beauties. I am a painfully sincere person. I’ve never really been ashamed of it, but one of the things that I believe I’ve lost is the sincere wonder of finding out cool damn things about existence. We don’t really know how eels reproduce. Isn’t that fucking wild? Or when you stop to think about it, all our cells are held together by the energy of sunlight. So that’s fucking weird.

There’s a big difference between learning skills and learning about. I miss learning about. I miss the excitement of uncovering the ways in which the universe falls towards order and joy.

We have a lot of work to do to continue that trajectory, but right now, for me, I need to spend a bit of time basking in it.

So let’s get weird.

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!