Browsing "Psychology"
May 19, 2014 - Psychology    No Comments

The Slowest Spring

It’s May 19th, and it’s rainy with temperatures in the 50s. This is par for the course this spring—only the lightning and thunder suggests that it’s any different than March. The lilacs are only just beginning to bud; the haze of foliage on the trees is still more yellow than green.

Winter was brutally rough this year, setting records all over Minnesota for the longest stretch of below-zero days. Despite Vitamin D and a sunlight lamp, seasonal depression swept me under hard. I was home practically every night, going to bed early and waking up exhausted, only to sleepwalk through the day and do it all again. People asked me what would make it better; I replied, “The beginning of legislative session.”

1014038_832927833388313_1104830089_nAnd it did help, since I’m a wonky weirdo. Working to help pass the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act to provide strong anti-bullying legislation for our state’s kids was hard but familiar and empowering work, with some of my favorite people on the whole planet. I pitched in on the minimum wage increase and expungement reform too. I had places I was needed and appreciated, and my calendar was full and fulfilling.

But as those campaigns wound down, I felt myself begin to fray and flail again, instead of staying revived. At first, I told myself it was just my health that seemed to demand more naps and fewer commitments. But my temper grew as short as my endurance, and my motivation guttered like a bad candle that burned down too fast. Upsetting things that would’ve normally blown through like a storm wrecked me for hours and days. Things I’d looked forward to for months–like winning major legislative victories–only gave me a short burst of pleasure. The only pastime I engaged in was reading, and I recognized that I was using it for refuge more than relaxation.

So here I am, admitting the thing right as it’s happening to me: I have relapsed into depression. Yes, it’s been worse, but it’s not exactly good. Yes, I’m doing what I should be: taking meds, making appointments. No, I don’t have a talk therapist—my ability and tendency to talk over and around my feelings makes the exercise hardly worth the cost.

And yes, it’s improving with the weather. That is to say, so slowly as to be imperceptible. In the meantime, I’m planning, planting, dancing, and picking up my obligations again. The hardest thing right now is not to fall hard at the least little resistance I encounter. It’s also not easy to move out of the myopic fogbank I’ve steered into. I haven’t felt creative for months because I literally cannot see beyond my immediate circumstances, and even the smallest creative endeavor requires a bit of vision. I’m working hard to overcome that perspective, but support is always appreciated.

And in the meantime, I’m trying to remember that spring is coming, slowly but surely.

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I saw spring briefly in Washington DC, so I know it’s not a cruel hoax on Minnesotans.

Meltdown in the frozen north

Our rental managers at Como Park Apartments stepped up to offer day-long activities for the apartment complex’s kids when school closed this week. This came as very welcome news, as our car remained resolutely opposed to starting in the sub-zero temperatures. Big-hearted community efforts like this keep us here when, to be honest, we could use a little more room—there just isn’t anywhere else with neighbors and management who give each other such close-knit support.

Monday was grand, and the DH and I got loads of work done while the boys played the day away at the party room. They came back with tales of new friends and pizza-sauce stains on their faces. Tuesday seemed to be headed the same way, but at 2, my cell phone rang. “I need you to come down,” our neighbor said. “Connor’s having a meltdown.”

When we got there, he was sitting in a corner with two of the staff who were talking calmly despite his sobbing. I helped him up and hugged him tight, despite his wet swim clothes, then convinced him to come sit with me so we could talk more easily. I held him until his breathing and tears slowed, then we started to dissect the series of events that left him so upset. A scare from some horseplay in the pool, combined with embarrassment over his friends seeing him cry, kicked it off. But it was the clever liar of depression that told him everyone hated him, that he was a waste of space, and he should just die.

While it was good that the DH and I were home so we could reach him quickly, the neighbors and staff had done everything exactly right. That’s far from guaranteed when it comes to folks who don’t deal with autistic or mentally ill kids every day, and I wanted to take a moment to write about what they did and how it might have made the difference between a bumpy patch and a potential disaster.

First, the adults recognized that he was starting to meltdown. In my experience, this looks different from a regular episode of angry or sad crying; instead of falling apart, getting limp, or long wailing, a kid in meltdown usually winds tighter, with shallower breathing and critical self-talk in an escalating pattern. They may lash out at people who try to get close, or even throw things, but they’re generally not interested in hurting anyone but themselves. The best case scenario is to derail the meltdown, and distraction is the best way to do it. Give the kid something to play with, like a fidget or craft—one friend kept knitting in her bag when she worked with a child who found the motion soothing. Strike up a conversation on a common interest, ask questions. If they’ll accept a hug or something heavy for some comforting pressure, that helps too, but it’s rarely the right move to force physical contact.

If you can’t de-escalate, safety is critical. Thoughts that hurt as much as the ones that bubble up in meltdown make a person want to flee, and they may bolt for the door, or try to hurt themselves, or both. Connor had been in the swimming pool, and tried to drown himself when his self-loathing got so heavy so fast. Once they had him out of the water, he wound his scarf around his neck; they got it away from him. He ran to the far end of the balcony, and they sat with him. Location, tools, and support—they had the bases covered.

Third, they stayed calm. Kids in meltdown are loud, and sometimes they’re saying things you don’t want to hear: dark things, angry things, scary things. The temptation to talk over them, to force reason atop their disorder until both of you are screaming, is powerful. But it doesn’t help. Even your silent presence, steady and resolute if non-communicative, is better than pushing them toward a brink they might not otherwise approach. Mostly, they just need to spill. Don’t silence, don’t argue—the storm will blow itself out if it’s not being fed.

We’re grateful for many things on the good days, but sometimes a bad day turns up a cause for thanks too. I can’t say enough good things about the compassion and quick-thinking our neighbors showed in a situation that’s hard to manage even with years of experience. The same factors, managed with indifference or inattention, could have yielded tragedy I can’t bear to think about. Every parent knows that sending a kid out into the world on their own is to live with your heart beating outside your own chest. Having the right understanding of a meltdown situation can equip you to handle other people’s hearts and children with care.

Dec 31, 2013 - Psychology    1 Comment

My New Year’s Revolutions

Most of the time, autocorrect takes us further from the truth, to hilarious effect. But every once in a while, it reveals a deeper wisdom. Today, that message shows up as autocorrect turns everyone’s New Year’s resolutions into New Year’s revolutions.

That substitution may make some people uncomfortable. A resolution is a low-bar challenge. It’s self-enforced, so if (or when) you stray from your resolve, the only person let down is you.

On the other hand, revolution is naturally unsettling because it throws out the status quo, and it frequently happens on someone else’s timetable.  Revolutions have ripples that go beyond your sight—if you start a revolution, expect it to have unintended consequences. And above all, revolutions strike at the heart of the systems that oppress us.

These statements may not seem like much to you, but each one of these things is something that defies a message or expectation I’ve received in the last year, many of them fostering doubt, shame, and worthlessness deep in my heart.

So, in these hours before 2014 begins, here are my New Year’s Revolutions:

  • I will say something out loud, to another person, about my beauty everyday.
  • I will work out more to recapture my stamina, not to lose weight.
  • I will listen without talking so I can learn from people whose lives and voices are not like my own.
  • I will answer questions fearlessly about myself and my story, so others know they are not alone.
  • I will begin to give my eldest son a comprehensive, emotionally-grounded sex education so he knows that that part of himself is not a source of mystery or shame as he grows into it.
  • I will work on yelling less.
  • I will not apologize for prioritizing self-care above overcommitment.
  • I will actively work to rewrite my unrealistic standards for self-worth.
  • I will not denigrate or be afraid to lift up my skills and accomplishments.
  • I will build stronger, more responsive connections in the groups where I work and play.
  • I will keep showing up for issues and communities outside my own.
  • I will create works of information, imagination, and enjoyment, even if they’re only for me.
  • I will make my voice and presence a powerful force in the halls of government and the streets of our community.
  • I will not accept or internalize shame for the way my family and I live, and what we value.

Hey, I blogged a thing somewhere else!

In light of the recent outrages from the shameless assplugs over at Autism $peaks (yes, I’m unhappy, why do you ask?), my friend Elsa asked if I’d do a piece for her bang-up awesome disability blog Feminist Sonar. You can find it here.

The biggest surprise for me was that my brain decided to go the cold, academic dismemberment of a faulty argument route, as opposed to the table-flipping screed I’d been expecting. In any case, I hope you find it illuminating.

Oct 28, 2013 - Psychology    No Comments

Who on earth are you?

Our amazing minister, the Rev. Victoria Safford, preached a sermon this morning that asked a very existential question: “Who are you?” The funny thing to contemplate is that only at Halloween do we ask one another—even the very youngest in our midst—and accept with gravity and respect whatever answer we receive. In the spirit of revealing my true self in a time of masquerade, I thought I’d answer the question.

I am a woman. I am a daughter and sister, both biological and by marriage. I am a mother. I am still fertile. I am done having children. I am violently ill when I use hormonal birth control.

I am a wife. I am a partner. I am faithful. I am dedicated. I am a believer in true love. I am wildly, impossibly lucky.

I am an educator. I am a teacher of history, and religions, and languages, and rhetoric. I am an academic, conversant in the jargon of the ivory tower. I am a bit lost when I can’t practice my vocation. I am committed to learning everyday. I am a repository of vast stores of mostly useless information.

I am a creator. I am a writer. I am a musician. I am crafty, but not very handy. I am incapable of drawing a horse. I am at home in the kitchen. I am a fan of romance novels, the Muppets, lesbian erotica, rules-light roleplaying games, and morbid humor.

I am a bit of a slob, and a lot of a pack rat. I am convinced I am preserving valuable artifacts for future generations. I am a devotee of the chaos theory of organization. I am fond of folding fresh, hot laundry. I am reluctant to shower every day. I am in need of a housekeeper.

I am in pain every minute of every day. I am willful and heedless of my own limits sometimes. I am frustrated with the unpredictability of my disease. I am bad at self-care. I am disappointed that I cannot do more.

I am blessed with an autistic mind and keen senses. I am the owner of an eidetic memory and perfect relative pitch. I am susceptible to migraines from loud sudden noises. I am self-trained to read others for clues in their words and bodies so I can navigate the world more easily.

I am a survivor.

I am trained as a crisis counselor. I am a world traveler. I am an extrovert. I am dedicated to social justice. I am incapable of more peace work, because I am unable to engage in a fight for which there is no quantifiable chance of victory. I am drawn to anti-racism work. I am enchanted with issue politics and the feeling I get from a good protest. I am unsure whether I’m valuable to any of the people or causes I engage in.

I am insatiably curious about people. I am in love with stories and storytelling. I am a good listener. I am told I’m an entertaining, satisfying audience. I am never going to get tired of learning about others’ lives and views. I am honored to be allowed to share each and every journey.

I am a geek. I am a cat person. I am a Northern girl who needs at least four seasons. I am a Jayhawk and a cheesehead, but I am NOT a Nittany Lion. I am not a very good sports fan. I am a voracious reader. I am a stickler for grammar. I am a polyglot. I am good at improvisation. I am good under pressure. I am not good at getting quality sleep.

I am overweight. I am poor. I am naturally brown-haired. I am weighed down by crushing debt. I am never going to be a homeowner. I am not sure where this week’s meals will come from. I am scared for the future. I am tired of being afraid. I am always looking forward.

I am broken. I am forgiving. I am a child of Nature. I am made of star stuff. I am convinced of the divine nature of this planet. I am a skeptic. I am mystified by and utterly committed to my human brothers and sisters. I am in need of love, and I am devoted to giving away more love than I get.

And I am going to squeeze every drop from this short, precious life.

Oct 11, 2013 - Physical Ed, Psychology    No Comments

Written In My Bones

Last March, I stopped sleeping. I’m no stranger to insomnia, so at first I just thought I was launching into another warped cycle. I stocked up the Netflix queue and resolved to wait it out.

But it didn’t resolve. No matter how tired I got–well past the point in any normal round of sleeplessness where sheer exhaustion would keep me down all night–I woke up between 1:30 and 3:00am, and couldn’t fall asleep again until the alarm was about to go off to wake the kids for school. I couldn’t figure it out. I cut caffeine after 6pm, I stopped napping (no matter how much I needed the extra spoons that helped me steal back), I adjusted my night-time meds up a notch.

Nothing. 3am and wide awake.

And then I remembered: Exactly that time, one year earlier, I lay awake to listen for Connor’s footsteps on the kitchen floor, going for a knife to kill himself. I never heard those footsteps last March, thank the gods, and there was no such fear this March. But my body knew that anniversary better than I did, and it sent a clear message–”It’s March, and you need to keep your boy safe. You can sleep when the sun is up.”

We all have smells, sounds, textures, even lighting that bring us directly back to very specific times and places. The silky binding on a baby blanket. The smell of the cleaning fluid from that time in the hospital. The unreasonably comforting taste of Kraft Singles melted on Wonder bread. The suffocating weight of a body, even though it’s not the body, pressing down on yours. When I asked about how their bodies store memories, friends mentioned more of these than I could keep up with. There’s no doubt that sensory triggers own the key to our memory, whether we like it or not.

Those experiences don’t surprise me anymore, except sometimes in the strength and speed that they fold time neatly in half, delivering us back to a precise moment in the past. What does surprise me is how well my body remembers past events that my conscious memory has long packed away in mothballs.

This March wasn’t the first time I’ve felt the gravity of memory. For almost a decade, I’d get depressed and irritable in May, around the time of year I was sexually assaulted. And a year after my deepest dive into suicidal depression, I was so anxious and high-strung, I was absolutely intolerable with trying to make everything better than the previous August. Neither of these is surprising–many people who go through trauma of some kind experience difficulty with anniversaries of those occurrences, well beyond just realizing that significant time has passed even as it felt like the hours and days were barely creeping along since incomprehensible loss.

There are other things that can trigger buried experiences. I worked with a physical therapist who practiced myofascial release. Fascia is the connective tissue that links our musculoskeletal system; it covers every single muscle, fiber, and organ in our bodies. When our bodies sustain stress and trauma, it stretches and tightens this connective web, causing pain. And therapists practicing this technique help people unwind and loosen the places where the fascia is bunched up and causing problems.

My therapist warned me when we started that unwinding damage sometimes causes memories to rewind in equally powerful ways. He said my body remembered things I hadn’t thought about in years, maybe even things that precede what I consciously knew. He advised me to have some time free after each appointment, in case I needed time to recover emotionally. And he was so right. We unwound injuries and threats as old as I was: fear and bracing against an unpredictable alcoholic father, a rib-breaking high-speed run-in with a vaulting horse, and the car accident that most likely triggered whatever latent potential for fibromyalgia rested in my body. I cried at almost every session, and only once was it from physical pain.

Now, so soon after helping my friend through the first steps away from sexual trauma, I find that my pain levels are sky-high. I’m not eating much. Honestly, I’m drinking more, though still never to drunkenness. I feel ill at ease in my body, and I find myself devoutly wishing to change its landscape, whether with wax (don’t ask) or tattoo ink, or cloak it in clothes that aren’t heavy with past wearings.

I can’t afford any of that, though. So I just sit here, with this body that remembers too much.

Oct 2, 2013 - Psychology, Sex Ed    1 Comment

Right Where I Should Be

Being right where you’re needed is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also the most rewarding thing in the world, the thing that convinces you that all the trials you’ve endured aren’t just character building, but of redeemable use to other human beings. But I feel like I could happily sleep for a month.

Monday evening, a dear friend was raped. I got the text just as a panel on school pushouts was starting. Instead of mourning and raging at a distance, as I’ve done over the years when faraway friends went through their own trauma, I could do what I’d always wanted–even needed–to do: I quietly stood up, made my apologies, and raced to be with her within 15 minutes.

There’s something profoundly startling to hear your own words coming out of someone else’s mouth. Parents experience it all the time when their own favorite gems emerge from the miniature humans. But those dark thoughts of doubt, self-blame, and instinctive mistrust of your own reactions don’t sound right when you hear them out loud in another voice. She was full of “I shouldn’t have” and “I must have” and “If only.” It was hard to look at those ugly ideas in the light of day, and it gave me pleasure to shoot each one down with precision.

Eventually, she reached the conclusion that she wanted to report the assault. Several of the pieces of her story gave me that bone-deep certainty that this was his modus operandi, and that she wasn’t his first victim. She wasn’t content to be a statistic, and she felt safe enough and angry enough to do what she could to make sure she was his last victim. I worry I influenced her to do this because I wasn’t able to.

I went with her to the hospital, and apparently projected so much authority and right-of-place that it took a few hours for the staff to realize I wasn’t an official advocate from the local sexual assault survivors’ service. I held her hand, I made inappropriate jokes, I explained what would happen next. I told her to ride the waves of emotion without resistance or embarrassment, because fighting them would take energy she’d need for other things.

The one thing I didn’t have to do was advocate for her against skeptical or disrespectful people. Every single person we encountered treated her with credulity, sensitivity, and most of all, kindness. The nurse told us that police department, hospital staff, and survivor services had worked together to create an integrated, victim-centered care system. I want more women in our city to know this is the case. There are so many reasons women don’t report, and fear of bad treatment doesn’t have to be one, at least not here.

All throughout this, and since then, I’ve been able to say the things I wish someone could’ve told me. I don’t think my friend knows how meaningful and precious that chance is. And because if they’re worth saying once, they’re worth repeating, I’ll say them again here:

Nothing you did made him hurt you. You’re not wrong for wanting to find someone. There’s no way you could’ve known that when he agreed to the boundaries you carefully articulated, he wasn’t planning to respect them. You weren’t stupid to find him attractive and trustworthy–he was grooming you and putting on his best show.

You’re not wrong when you think things will never be the same. And the only way through this is forward; there’s no reverse gear in this car. Things and places that used to feel safe won’t feel that way for a while, and whatever you need to do to find comfort and refuge is okay. The sooner you get into therapy, the better. There’s never a need to go through this alone.

There’s no timer on recovery. There are no milestones that you need to achieve in a certain order or by certain calendar marks. You may not want to think about dating again for a good long time. You may want to take back control of your body and your pleasure sooner than you think you should want to, but that’s not wrong or “slutty” or even illogical. All you have to do is live through this at your own speed.

You’re not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, and telling people the truth doesn’t require you to shepherd them through their own emotional responses. People say things in shock that they don’t mean, so don’t invest too much in their first reactions. Some people just can’t make themselves emotionally available for this, and they may offer stuff instead. You’re not obligated to invent things for people who want to help that way.

Finally, you’re part of a not-so-secret society now. Our stories are remarkably similar, no matter how different they are. We’ve shared common thoughts, common physical responses. It’s true–this destroys some people. But it empowers many others, and how you choose to put your experience into action is up to you. And if you’re very lucky, someday you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned and make it work for someone you love, and it’ll all seem strangely worth it. Be sure to thank that person for letting you help.

Aug 12, 2013 - Game Theory, Psychology    2 Comments

Gamerography, Vol. 3: Wired to Play Differently

There’s finally a decent volume of literature out there about how women experience games–especially RPGs and video games–different than men. It helps all of us who’ve struggled to put words to the perspectives that we bring to the gaming table, many of which result in very different interactions with the rules, the stories, and the other gamers. And it provides writers and designers with insights that have changed the way games are written, so they allow more kinds of gamers to contribute to the collective interaction.

So I’d like to attempt to do something similar with another piece of myself that I bring to the gaming table. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a difference in brain-wiring that places me on the autism spectrum. This part of myself is a relatively new discovery, but it’s undeniable and incredibly enlightening about things I could never otherwise explain. Many of these features affect how I experience creativity, social interaction, and collaborative work, three central pieces of the act of tabletop gaming.

The most important factor for me is my visual memory. I’ve written about my odd filing system before, but until the HBO movie about the life of Temple Grandin, I’d never seen my memory process outside my head. Because I have that visual catalog in my mind, I get incredibly vivid pictures from a multiplicity of contexts whenever someone invokes a place, a person, a costume, and a piece of equipment.

Practically speaking, this manifests for me in gaming in a number of ways. I have virtual battlemats in my head, and I can examine them from any vantage point, without needing minis or land/cityscapes (though I do enjoy the physical objects very much, too, for different reasons). I have pictures of characters and settings in my head that I literally inhabit. I know the size of my character’s bodies, how various features affect the way they move and sound. I assign them sensory features as well as hair and eye color, so I know how they smell and the close-up feel of their skin and clothing. They’re live, vivid people in real, textured places.

Another factor is my tendency to seek out patterns. It’s not compulsive, like someone with OCD might be; it is, though, automatic. For many autistic gamers, this allows them to understand RPG systems and make them do fantastic tricks, like a lion tamer making a beast jump through hoops. They see game systems as just another coding language that can be manipulated to perform the desired action.

Sadly, this is not me. I cannot grok systems unless the rules are so basically logical and self-evident, with a minimum of math, that they’re labeled “Ages 7 and up.” (No, I can’t explain this at all. I can at least read 10 different languages, so systems aren’t the problem, but math and I have a beef going back to 7th Grade.) As a consequence, character generation is agony unless it’s basically a single-step process, and I almost never play magic users. I vastly prefer cinematic, story-driven systems in which dice are only employed to give an edge of chance to the action I propose.

My pattern recognition talent gives me a different edge. First, I’m hell on carefully planned mysteries and adventures. One friend calls me the “storybreaker”–you can practically see the tire tracks where I went offroad, revealing options that never occurred to the author, in the ones that were eventually published. I don’t mean to circumvent plot devices; it’s a function of my autistic tendency to rapidly play through consequences to the Nth degree, thus eliminating options which I know will end in failure and generating other possibilities from that birds-eye view.

Second, I love pregens, even in systems that are entirely new to me. The words and numbers assemble themselves into 3D constructions in my mind. The closest I can come to a visual representation of this experience comes with the virtual reality models Tony Stark uses in the Iron Man movies to analyze maps, machinery plans, and crime scenes. (Here’s an example.)  The alchemical process of “blowing up” a character sheet combines with my sensory memory to conceive a fully formed person almost instantaneously. I really wish you could see what this looks like–it’s pretty amazing from the inside.

The final factor I’ll mention in this post is my relationship with words. I’m hyperlexic (in short, far too many words for any and all things that pass through my head or mouth) and I’m a terrible show-off. Just as words form lifelike people and places in my mind, I love to craft my own contributions to the game with descriptions and dialogue, as vividly rendered as I can manage. Back in my days of MUSHing, the whole game was nothing but words on a screen, but I have scenes lodged in my memory that are so thoroughly illustrated and acted that I have difficulty remembering whether I saw them in a movie. And when I’m at the table, I can use the additional tools of vocal inflection, accents, gestures, and expressions, so my love of acting, connected to that vivid character in my head, can lead me to overplay my parts to a degree that might make other players uncomfortable. At least I don’t insist on staying in character while we take pizza breaks.

Love > Fear

I’m going to summer camp this year. Not as a parent or a teacher, but as a student at the Leadership Institute run by National People’s Action. This opportunity is dearly bought with the love and financial votes of confidence of many friends, as well as the perseverance of the Darling Husband, who’ll get his share of single parenting back from all those cons he’s attended for work over the years. And I’m determined to use this camp’s resources to level up my skills and be a stronger leader for the causes I feel strongly about. I know it’s going to be a challenging, agitating, soul-searching experience–I’m ready for that.

But today, I was faced with a view of my activism that I’d never, ever envisioned. A beloved friend suggested that I might be on the path toward the kind of activism that harms and terrorizes other people. And I found myself replaying all the marches, rallies, phone calls, planning meetings, training sessions, and conversations I’ve had. I searched them from the outside looking in, scanning for visions of myself as frightening, threatening, angry, or intimidating. And, of course, my vivid visual imagination got straight to work manufacturing reflections of past scenes or shadows of future selves in which I’m furious and self-righteous, intolerant of other viewpoints, but blind to the faults in my own.

But those pictures aren’t real, and the rest of my memories yield images I can’t associate with terror. I speak clearly and fearlessly, yet with respect, to anyone who’ll listen. I work hard, but I goof off too and distract my friends for a few laughs in brief downtimes. I sing, I clap, I chant, I dance. I’ve cried with both joy and grief in the halls of power and in the streets.

I don’t know how these things are scary.

I do have the clarity to see that parts of my activism might provoke a negative response in some people. I may appear to have a rigid sense of what’s right and little tolerance for other positions. My voice can be strident when I try to make it heard over those who try to drown it out. I’m not a small person, and when I raise a fist of power or link arms in solidarity with others, I probably look unmovable. I talk a lot about the actions I’m taking, because they take up a big part of my life. I retweet too much.

It IS radical, what I do. Maybe I should get used to that statement: I am a radical. I believe in radical things, like the worth and dignity of every single person on this planet, and the power of a single person’s action joined with others. I do radical things, like give my time and energy and voice to causes that do not directly benefit me at all, just because they seem worthwhile and I recognize the power that comes with my privilege. I try to offer radical acceptance to every person I meet, by acknowledging that every life is a journey, and we’re not all at the same place on the path at the same time–judging or criticizing another person for being where they are on their path accomplishes nothing.

The internal conflicts I weather as I work through the evolution of my beliefs and the consequences of my actions aren’t visible to most people, so I’m sure I seem like another cardboard cut-out liberal rabble-rouser. I don’t talk with everyone about why some causes get my attention and others don’t. Part of that is embarrassment at the inexplicable, emotional reasons for some of those decisions. I have internal boundaries among the issues and tactics of activism that don’t always come from a sensible place.

But I hope my primary motivations are clear as day: I want everyone to feel the same love and enjoy the same rights I do. I love learning and free will and self-determination, and I believe everyone deserves equal access to them. Because that’s what moves me, I’m categorically opposed to tactics designed to frighten or deprive anyone of something that’s rightfully theirs.

And here’s where I’ll make the only qualification in this whole screed: disproportionate political or financial power is not a right. Those are things you earn, and if you use them to take away the rights and freedoms of others, then you have to be ready for the same people who gave them to demand them back. If you’re the one in power, the idea of losing that position might be frightening. It shouldn’t be, because power over others isn’t a right, but nobody likes to lose control. I can empathize; I’m a control freak too.

But one of the founding principles of democracy and human rights is the power of a group of people to rise up peacefully, speak their piece, and create change in society. Sometimes, the language of this right is misappropriated by people who want to use that power to take away others’ rights (often, that exact same right they’re exercising). But the truly great moments in history largely correlate to times when individuals have stood up for their rights in the face of overwhelming disparity in power and force.

It takes guts and advice and practice and support to do that and not falter. It takes the sight of other people to the left and right of you, whether it’s in a parade or a phone center cubicle or a line of jail cells. That’s who I want to be for others who are fighting for a better world. That’s what I want to be trained to do. And if my faith and conviction in the possibility of change toward greater freedom makes  someone feel afraid of me or bad about themselves, all I can do is say that I love them and where they are in their journey. I’m just trying to be my whole, powerful self and make room for others to do the same.

Apr 25, 2013 - Psychology, Social Studies    2 Comments

Feel the Burn

I’m sleeping pretty well, but I wake up exhausted every morning. This is Day 8 of a skull-crushing tension headache. Fears I’m forgetting something important plague me constantly. Activities that used to leave me with a two-hour adrenaline hangover now make me tired before I even start. My threshold for sensory overload is so low, I’m having small meltdowns several times a day. I stop taking phone calls. I avoid friends.

I am burned out.

I’m excellent at being the little cog in a big machine, but I need a solid sense of the macro to stay motivated. But lately, everything’s been so myopic that I can’t see my place in the larger efforts I’m working toward, and it hasn’t been good for me. I feel myself withdrawing, and I don’t like being powerless to stop it. It’s crunch time, and I’m more disengaged than ever.

I called a dear friend for a lunch date, to ask him how he’s dealt with the burnout that must have been familiar in his super-intense job over the last year. Just seeing him makes colors brighter, but I need his advice, so I asked him how he manages to stay fresh over the long haul.

Some of that advice is expected. You have to set boundaries and practice saying “no.” Be at home when you’re at home. Put away the cellphone and computer. Make yourself present for your loved ones, and don’t feel guilty when you do something you love that’s totally unrelated to the greater effort. Self-improvement can wait. Feed your soul. Rest.

Some of his advice triggers an instant inner eyeroll, but I try to take it to heart, since I’m at such a loss with my own efforts. At the end of the day, take the time to write down one thing you did well. Accept praise. Don’t let doubts or second guesses stick around. Self-talk feels artificial, but it registers somewhere deep inside our brains, so do it anyway.

I’m someone who has a negative, self-critical tape on endless replay at varying volumes in her mind all the time. These are difficult steps to imagine taking. I realize that part of what’s made me feel insignificant over the last several weeks is a lack of outside reinforcement for anything specific I do. I don’t know what I’m good at. It’s impossible for me to ask for praise, but I’m starving for it. Recognition by another human that your inner intentions and outer efforts are registering in the world is absolutely necessary. My friend holds my hands and tells me how much love he always senses pouring out of me toward every person I meet. I cry a little; I’m tearing up again now as I write this.

In the grand scheme of things, the fact that I’m feeling burned out at last after over 14 months of non-stop effort and tension is only surprising in that it took this long. We all go through cycles of intense focus, followed by necessary disengagement. Only the daily grind of steady work is unnatural in this process, and constant effort is unhealthy and untenable.

But if I want to relight the fire that burns inside me for the work that makes me valuable in the world, I have to do exactly what’s most difficult right now. I need to reach out to other people for that moment of human connection. I need to remember what I love about what I do, and let others see that. I need to ask for help seeing the Big Picture. I need to accept praise, even from myself. I need to make plans and dream dreams for what happens after this work is done. I need to keep creating, whether it’s adding just ten words on a writing project, or prepping my garden for planting, or baking cookies.  I need to let small joys accumulate.

Burnout is real and natural, but the solution isn’t smothering the fire. It turns out, the answer is letting others help you feed the flames.

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