Pitch perfect

That self-defense “theory” about how high-pitched distress noises stimulate violence in third parties seems to be doing the rounds again. The version I heard most often derives from stories about dog attacks on small children. It’s 98% bullshit, and 2% incorrect reframing.

There are real stories of dog attacks on small children crying in distress – child falls off a bike and starts wailing, dog savages it in response, that kind of thing. The reasons these attacks make good stories is that they are rare and shocking. The reason they are rare and shocking is that dogs are not wired to respond with violence to the cries of distress of their pack members – and yeah, for a socialised dog, humans are part of the pack. Socialised, healthy, normal dogs usually respond to in-pack cries of distress either by running the hell away or by trying to provide assistance, depending on the situation and the personality of the dog. For a dog to attack a creature manifesting pain, that creature must stimulate the dog’s predatory instincts. Again, not something that would happen to a normal dog dealing with members of its pack.

Trying to extrapolate human behaviour from dogs’ is a bit… creative, I guess? It always seems to involve a lot of picking and choosing the behaviours in question. I mean, I know a lot of dogs, and most of them are infinitely more likely to eat faeces or roll in them than to attack small squeaky children. The available statistics supports my observations, but nobody seems to care about that, somehow. Anyway, even assuming that dogs and humans were wired to respond to the same stimuli in the same way, the same rules would apply; i.e., for a human to be triggered into attacking another human in distress, they would have to classify the distressed human as a prey. And that classification would have to come first: another human being doesn’t suddenly turn into a potential burger because they squeak.* Were that the case, the human species would have gone extinct at around generation two.

By all means, the self-defence community is at liberty to continue telling women and children that if they manifest their pain in the way that comes natural to them, some people may see that as an invitation to cause them further harm. But they should have the decency to tell them what that means: that those people never saw them as fellow humans in the first place. That they were predators seeking targets way before the incident took place. And, most importantly, that the crimes and abuse they perpetrate isn’t and never was something that their victims caused.

*There is an exception. Some people have extreme pain responses to high-pitched noises, and some people respond to pain with aggression. This isn’t personal: they would respond in the same way to a running drill as to a crying child. The noise is the issue, regardless of its origin and cause. This is unfortunate for all involved, to be sure, but it doesn’t transfer the blame for resulting incidents on the person making the noise. And you know what else it doesn’t do? It doesn’t excuse grown-ass adults telling people naturally more high-pitched than them that it’s their fault if people choose to hurt them.

Vibes vs. social cues vs. scripts.

This is largely a brain dump , although it might turn into a proper theory later. For the record, I’m currently listening to “You Say Potato: A Book About Accents” by Ben and David Crystal. The book examines the impact of accents and the associated stereotypes on people’s perception of a person’s intelligence, education, social position, wealth, and overall worth, and that is kicking off all manners of dark thoughts in my intemperate brain.

My tentative theory is as follows:

There is a difference between the ability to read vibes and the ability to read social cues. Neither of these abilities implies a willingness to take up one’s expected role in a social script. And absolutely none of the above has a damn thing to do with a person’s level of interest in interpersonal connections.

A lot of the times, people complain about third parties “being socially inept,” often but not exclusively in the context of neurodivergence. The argument often goes:

  • X person said/did something that bothered me.
  • Thus, X person must either be unable to perceive my botheration, or to be trying to bother me on purpose.
  • In the former case, X person must be unable to operate according to societal norms. In the latter case, X person must be unwilling to operate according to societal norms.
  • Either way, X person must not care enough about me, or about people in general.

Aside from the fact that there is no connection whatsoever between ability and interest levels – a person may care very much about a thing, yet be unable to do that thing – this argument is the result of an unholy mishmash of interconnected but separate concepts. X person may be perfectly able to read the vibe of the room; i.e., they might know that you are bothered by something. Being able to read vibes is a power many (but not all) people have. X person may, however, be wholly clueless as to what you are bothered by. Their ability to work that out has very little to do with their empathy, and nothing at all to do with their level of interest in interpersonal connections.

Working out what bugged a person hinges on one’s ability to rewind the conversation and pinpoint where and how it went off the rails, which are two totally different skills hinging on a number of factors. The ability to rewind a conversation relies on working memory, auditory processing, and probably a load more stuff I can’t think of at the moment. A person with poor working memory may not have logged enough of the conversation to rewind it, and that is not a manifestation of lack of interest. A person with auditory processing issues may be in the same position due to different causes; and, again, this is not a reflection of a lack of interest. The inability to carry on that internal rewinding can present an immediate and unsurmountable barrier to self-correction. This is particularly true in cultures where asking questions like “What did I do wrong?” is unlikely to yield useful results because the operant belief is that answering that type of question correctly is also wrong.

Cultures and subcultures where one must not speak one’s mind directly don’t just make it harder to pinpoint what the issue is; they actually create the need for said pinpointing. In groups where saying the wrong thing immediately leads to someone speaking up and pointing out the issue, one does not need to carry out an investigation to gleam the very same information. Personally, I find that left-leaning people who are Millennials or younger are more likely to provide that kind of feedback; when you put your foot in your mouth, they immediately ask you to remove it by using their actual words. If the situation is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and adjustments are made to avoid future reoccurrences of the issue, the relationship remains untarnished by the “conflict”, or may actually be strengthened. That is rarely the case when I interact with people my age (Xennial) or older, who have a far greater tendency to interpret any attempt at course correction as a personal attack and/or a breach of the social contract. My observations cannot be generalised, though, because my social experience is far too narrow and too quirky to be indicative of trends in society at large.

Once one has worked out What One Has Done Wrong, that’s where things get really interesting, and where issues of social roles and scripts really come to the fore. Many of our social rules are context-dependent; for instance, the way you speak to your mother isn’t the way you speak to your child, and neither are much like the way you speak to your boss or to a doctor. Getting this wrong can have negative consequences. Talking baby talk to your doctor may get you attention, but probably not of the right sort unless you’re looking to get locked up. Telling your boss that you hate them and slamming the door in their face may have different results from carrying out the same behaviour at home. I could come up with infinite and ever more absurd examples, but the bottom line is that the ability to switch register when dealing with different people in different settings is something most of us have and use regularly and automatically, without ever thinking about it. Most of us pick the register we deem appropriate to the conversation at hand, particularly when we want that conversation to go smoothly.

This is the gnarly bit: different rules apply to a conversation depending on the perceived social roles of the participants, and there is no guarantee that all participants will agree to said roles. In conversations between a doctor and a patient, for instance, there is an assumed disparity of knowledge, authority, and power between the two parties. The doctor is assumed to know more than the patient, and the patient is expected to listen and follow the doctor’s instructions. The patient’s respect for the doctor as an authority should be reflected in their tone and manner of speech. How that respect should manifest is also context-dependent, and one of the main factors in play is the perceived position of the patient on the social hierarchy as compared to the doctor’s. Patients deemed to be well-educated, well-heeled, or in possession of their own personal penis are often guaranteed a greater degree of conversational latitude, because their position in the social hierarchy is relatively close to that of the doctor. The opposite applies to patients deemed to be significantly socially inferior to the doctor. If you don’t believe me, try walking into a hospital wearing dirty overalls* and tell me how that goes for you.

When those assumptions doesn’t match reality – for instance, when a patient’s level of education and experience is higher than expected – things can go awry. While some doctors respond by adjusting their register accordingly – e.g., by switching from providing reassurance to providing information, or to providing information in more technical terms – some respond by becoming defensive, aggressive, or obstructionary. This isn’t a reflection of the patient having Done Something Objectively Wrong. The patient went off script, though, and a lot of people treat that kind of thing as an infraction, regardless of the causes.

Social scripts are important. We all rely on scripts to navigate our social and professional lives, and we do so because scripts can make our lives easier. Thing is, that’s only the case when everyone signs up to the script in question and to their role in it. That isn’t always the case, and the difference between what’s script-appropriate and what we deem to be Right can be significant.

For instance, the script-appropriate response to mansplaining is simpering – and please note that I said “script-appropriate”, not “right.” Simpering proves that the interlocutor has received the mansplainer’s message – that they are intellectually or culturally superior – and that they are in agreement. Aside from meeting the mansplainer’s emotional and social needs, it also closes the script, which can actually reduce how long the mansplaining goes on for. After all, the ultimate point of the behaviour is a power exchange, not an exchange of information.

I am not advocating simpering as the stock response to mansplaining; quite the contrary, in fact. I am not terribly in favour of rewarding behaviours I consider despicable. My personal choice is to step off-script – or, rather, not to step into the script in the first place. It’s not my script, after all: I didn’t pick it and I didn’t sign up to my role in it, so I assume no responsibility in making it go smoothly. That means that my interactions with mansplainers routinely go awry. On most occasions, that suits me just fine. I am able to read the mansplainer’s bad vibes and to pinpoint their cause. I am, however, unwilling to modify my behaviour to rectify the situation. That’s not because I am unfeeling, uncaring, or antisocial; I simply have no interest in interpersonal connections that require me to debase myself in order to appease others. That kind of relationship doesn’t satisfy my needs and runs contrary to my beliefs, so I don’t get into it.

That doesn’t mean that I deliberately antagonise mansplainers. I couldn’t if I wanted to, because I wouldn’t know how. If I pretended not to know something to trigger someone’s need to educate me, the resulting lecture would not class as mansplaining, after all. I believe the behaviour to triggered by the mansplainers’ assumptions of my knowledge, abilities, and position on the social hierarchy, and those assumptions are often based on factors outside of my control (most commonly, my accent, sex, and size). The only way in which I can disabuse the mansplainers of their misapprehensions is to not take on my half of that particular script. Alas, they tend not to like that.

I’ve picked on mansplaining because it’s an easy example of the phenomenon, but the same issues apply to all kinds of interaction. Just because I don’t play along with a script, it doesn’t mean that I don’t see it, don’t know it, or that I am unable to understand the social and emotional consequences of letting it go wrong. I am just unwilling to take up roles that make me want to gag. When I do, the result is such a pathetic simulacrum of interpersonal connection that it holds no value for me.

This theory, such as it is, has fascinating implications for neurodivergent people, as well as many other minority groups. We are routinely assumed to be less capable than or straight-up inferior to neurotypical people, either because we cannot do certain things or because we do them differently. The less we are able to mask as neurotypical, the more inferior we are perceived to be, and that often results in assumptions as to our rightful place on the social hierarchy. Those assumptions come with a whole load of baggage, including the role people expect us to take in certain social scripts. When we refuse to play ball, or simply thwart a script by not being as helpless as we are supposed to be, that is misinterpreted as our inability to pick up social cues or emotional vibes. We didn’t pick the script, nor did we sign up to our role in it; we were crowbarred into it willy-nilly. All we are trying to do is to have a social interaction that doesn’t require us to misrepresent ourselves. Yet it is is our fault, the reflection of our social cluelessness or lack of empathy, when the script falls apart, and the person who started it all hurts their own feelings as well as ours. That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it.

*For those whose immediate reaction was that wearing dirty overalls in a clinical setting is inherently disrespectful: hate to break it to you, but people busy doing physical jobs do get sick and have accidents that may require immediate medical attention. That’s, like, a thing that happens. And the way they are dressed should not have an impact on the level of care they receive, but it often does.

On the weakness/acceptance of The Youth Of Today

I keep seeing posts from Boomers saying that Millennials/Xennials are either infinitely weaker than their predecessors, because so many of them suffer from physical and mental ailments, or infinitely more accepting than their predecessors, because so many of them are so open about discussing their physical and mental ailments. I gotta ask: do Boomers read actual books? Because, sorry, but no.

Literature and historical accounts from every age I can think of are solid with mentions of physical and mental ailments. They are literally all over the place, affecting people of all ages, genders, and walks of life. Seriously, my memory is awful, but I would struggle to think of a book or story from any kind of bygone era that does NOT include the mention of someone who is ill or disabled in some way. I am sure there must be tons, obvs, both among the ones I’ve read and among the countless I’ve missed, but I doubt that they would be in the majority. So I am seriously at a loss as to where the impression of a roughty-toughty / inherently uncaring past comes from. It definitely doesn’t come from the study of the information said past left for us.

I reckon what has changed is that:

  • More people know more words and concepts about physical and mental health. Until conditions are discovered and popularised, people have a tendency to talk about them in rather woolly terms. That doesn’t mean that said people don’t suffer from those conditions. Our ancestors who lost partners or children and “spent the rest of their lives in deep mourning” were probably suffering from clinical depression. Those to whom a traumatic event happened and “were never quite right again” were probably suffering from PTSD. Victorian and Georgian accounts are full of people suffering from “their nerves”, having “funny turns”, or having to be shipped off to healthier climes, to the country, or to specialist treatment centres. All those people were probably ill with actual illnesses, but the words and concepts weren’t there to adequately describe their experiences (and, if they were females, they were obviously just suffering from that). That doesn’t make their ailments less valid.
  • Literary taste has changed over the ages, and this particular age is full of trauma and illness porn. A lot of people enjoy very graphic descriptions of various forms of suffering, while past authors (or, at least, the ones I’ve read) tended to incorporate illness and suffering into their stories and accounts without rolling around in the gory details.* Combined with the lack of knowledge on health subject, this meant that past authors didn’t write “Tortured By Love: The Sunday Times Best-Seller about Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy”; they wrote “The Secret Garden.” And marketed it to children.
  • A lot of ailments were so normalised that they weren’t seen as ailments. Children caught random diseases and died, or were damaged for life; big whoop. Older people were disabled; so what? What do you think “getting old” means? Young people suffered accidents or events and were also disabled; yeah well, kind of unfortunate, but it happens. Addictions were only really an issue when they were addictions to something Foreign, like opium; a man who drank himself to death or bet away the family home was just some dude. Whether the same criteria were applied to his wife depended on the social mores of their subculture, but young women “wasting away” after a break-up or “having a turn” and killing their infant children and/or themselves were definitely One Of Those Things. And when something is normalised, it has a tendency not to gain center stage, both in historical accounts and as part of a story arc. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. It’s just there so much of it about that nobody makes a fuss about it.
  • As some Boomers are so fond of reminding us, “we” used to put Those People away – as in, our society had institutions where visibly ill individuals could be sent to, likely forever. Some families just sequestered their malfunctioning members, a la Jane Eyre. But as contemporary accounts show, “we” also had countless visibly ill individuals, in particular individuals from the poorer classes, who just got on with life to the best of their abilities, because that was the only option available to them. Many of them died younger that they might have if they could have received adequate care (“A Christmas Carol,” anyone?). And I think it’d be disingenuous to argue whether that shows that society is more or less accepting than it used to be while ignoring purely practical issues. People who needed wheelchairs but couldn’t get them weren’t seen wheeling around, because duh. People using wheelchairs weren’t seen cavorting in areas where wheelchairs couldn’t go, also because duh. That doesn’t mean that people needing wheelchairs didn’t exist, or that their lives were devoid of joy or meaning just because they were less visible. And it doesn’t say a damn thing about the people using wheelchairs now.

I’m all for examining the present against the past. But when you’ve gotta rewrite the past to make a point, that point probably doesn’t want making.

*EDIT: As a friend of mine pointed out, there was plenty of trauma porn in past ages. Lives of the Saints, anyone?

Lost in translation

As of this week, I have to add a new item to the ever-growing list of Things I Simply Cannot Do: playing Dungeons & Dragons with middle-class people. And the resulting mental fallout is (un)surprisingly depressing.

It isn’t purely a class thing. Being of a somewhat writerly disposition, I enjoy the character and narrative development side of role-playing. I like to create characters that feel real and to watch them interact with their settings in ways that are consistent with their personality and abilities. Many other players are in it to win encounters, solve mysteries, and level up. The disconnect is unfortunate, because it makes the game jarring for everyone involved. For me, it means that instead of feeling like I am writing a good story, I feel like I am reading a bad one. That’s suboptimal, but I could probably deal with it.

What I cannot deal with is the alternative reality aspect of the issue, and by that I don’t mean the myths & magic side of things. I can suspend disbelief long enough to accept that my character is purple, has horns and a tail, and can shoot fireballs out of his hands. What I cannot fit in my brain is the possibility that a group of adult humans would apprehend an armed serial killer, lead him off into the night without disarming or binding him, and then be taken by surprise when he turns around and attacks them; yet that’s what my little crew did, not two days ago. Let me reiterate: we suspected that someone was a serial killer; we told him that we suspected him and were bringing him to justice, in a place where justice = death; we walked him out of a public, crowded, easily-secured building into the night, in a town he knew and we were unfamiliar with; we knew that he was armed with at least three easily-accessible daggers, yet we did not disarm him; and when my character suggested at least tying him up before going anywhere, everyone laughed and told me that he was an idiot. Sorry about the ableist slur, but they did; in fact, the precise sentence used was “his village is missing an idiot,” to which the only objection raised was that he was probably not missed.

It gets better: when the miscreant flipped out and got into some weird-ass combat stance and I shot him in the face with a fireball*, the DM queried the realism of my reaction. That wasn’t because fireballs aren’t really a thing; he wanted me to justify why and how I would be able to shoot one without prior warning. Why would I have been able to react so quickly? I mean, when five perfect strangers kidnap an armed murderer under pain of pain, they obvs wouldn’t expect him to react badly. Why would he? Why would anyone?

I just can’t operate like that. It makes my brain hurt. Worse, it makes my soul hurt. It makes me feel lonely, because I just cannot connect to the people around me. Although we are allegedly sharing an experience, our realities are so different that they hardly overlap. The effort required to explain myself and my actions is so extreme that it makes communication difficult and connection virtually impossible. I end up stuck on the outside, desperately trying to translate myself into someone the people around me can understand. And I know that a lot of these thoughts and feelings are the result of my rejection sensitive dysphoria, my early trauma, and my lifelong other-ness playing tricks on me, but that doesn’t stop it being A Thing. I am infinitely more lonely in a room full of people who can’t see my reality than when I am actually alone. When they refuse to accept my reality even when I explain it to them, that’s worse. When they openly mock me for trying, that’s pretty terminal. Thing is, that’s normally how it goes. The instances of someone Actually Getting It straight away are so rare that I can count them on one hand. I can count the instances of said person turning around and helping me present my case to the group at large on one thumb. It all goes to shit so often and so reliably that I should be used to it by now, but I’m not. It hurts every time.

That’s probably why the recent Murderer Kidnapping Incident has kicked out so many of my mental bugs out of their usual crevices. It made me revisit my usual theories on the nature of the relationships neurodivergent people form when masked (I think of them as parasocial, even though I know the term is incorrect. If anyone can come up with a better one, please stick it in the comments). It made me think back to all the instances when I was surrounded by people I couldn’t connect with because we were approaching the same experiences from wildly different angles. It made me think about the whys of it all. It kind of makes sense, what with me being neurodivergent, trans, acespec, queer, foreign, and not built to industry standards, but I still reckon that the biggest hurdle is that my socio-economic status really needs that hyphen. I am educated well beyond the point of usefulness and I have lived most of my life hovering around the breadline; that’s not normal. It’s no non-normal that it makes it almost impossible for me to find a place where I fit, even when I technically belong there. I mean, I spent this morning washing dogs’ arses while listening to a university lecture about the impact of the Viking slave trade on cross-cultural integration in Europe. The people who value me for the former are hardly likely to want to hear about the latter. The people who care about the latter don’t tend to socialise with people in my economic bracket, and not just because they’re snobs. We just don’t hang out in the same places, largely because I can’t afford to go there. I probably wouldn’t go even if I had the money, because I prefer not having to earn money to spending it, but the fact is that I am effectively priced out of their hypothetical friendship. When we happen to interact, we often fail to connect because of everything we don’t have in common – which is often a whole lot, because our life experiences have been so very different.

It’s a thing. It sucks. Being reminded of how much of a thing it is sucks, too. It made me really miss the people with whom I never needed to translate myself, because we have enough of a shared background that they just get me. I haven’t met enough of them and I haven’t been able to hold on to most of them, which is suboptimal. Missing them hurts; but it doesn’t hurt half as much as the feeling of disconnect I experience when I fail to translate myself adequately for normies to even begin to get me. Even when I succeed, when I manage to build a bridge over a lifetime of divergent experiences and expectations, having to put in that effort hurts. And there is no guarantee that the resulting “connection” will make up for that.

*It was actually burning hands, for those in the know. I love me some burning hands.

Trans Awareness, belated

Trans Awareness Week falls on the second week of November. True to form, I missed it, but better late then never, right? So here goes my Trans Awareness Week announcement:

Be aware. I’m trans.

This is gonna come as no news whatsoever to those who know me personally. I am not famous for my subtlety, so the people around me have known it for as long as I have – three years or so. I should have worked out it sooner, but, huh, I kind of got distracted. This is actually what happened.

Back in 2014 or thereabouts, a prominent self-defence instructor started railing against the horror of “bathroom bills” forcing people to allow trans folk to excrete their waste unmolested, and baffled the hell out of me. You see, by then I had been going potty like a grown-up for nearly four decades. In my experience, if you are in a public bathroom and other people’s genitals are causing you any sort of inconvenience, the problems is not the style of the genitals in question; one of you is just going to the bathroom wrong. Yeah, predators could pretend to be trans in order to enter the bathrooms of people they wish to victimise, but that would require them to be both very dedicated and very bad at their job. Trans people get routinely treated like shit, in and out of public bathrooms, and they’re often under constant scrutiny by all and sundry. Generally speaking, if you want to do something illegal and very much frowned upon, it pays not to paint a giant target on your back first. There is statistical evidence of bathroom assaults involving trans people… but all of those assaults were perpetrated against said trans people. Also – and I honestly don’t know how this can come as a surprise to people allegedly interested in self-defence – all manners of unsavoury things go down in public bathrooms all the time, and have done so since time immemorial. So, like, maybe instead of hand-wringing over the fact that trans children – one of the most victimised demographics in the world – may be pretending to be trans in order to victimise other children, we could actually design school bathrooms that aren’t the epicenter of violence, abuse, sexual predation, and bullying in children’s lives? Jus’ sayin’.

My other cause of puzzlement is supremely embarrassing. Basically, I didn’t understand what “trans” meant. I knew that there were men who liked to wear women’s clothing and women who liked to wear men’s clothing, and that the former suffered more for their sartorial choices. I knew that there were people who didn’t give a flaming fuck about gender rules and roles, and wore and did whatever they felt like. I knew, from a lifetime of personal experience, that living like that is not without its costs. What I didn’t know and I couldn’t understand was the identity side of things. I understood biological sex, but gender completely eluded me.

The self-defence instructor in question actually spent a fair bit of time explaining it all to me. At the end of it all, I realised something that had never, ever occurred to me: other people had a gender. They didn’t act a gender – as in, they didn’t just blindly do whatever society deemed appropriate for people with a certain type of genitalia. Girls were girls and boys were boys and people actually had a gender.

Mind.

Blown.

Sorry and all that, but up until then, I thought that most people were very, very silly. As far as I was concerned, the gendering of things was just one of many sets of arbitrary social rules made up and enforced to make life unnecessarily complicated. When you set the table, knives go on the right and forks go on the left; if you get it wrong, a grown-up will shout at you. When you go to a party, girls wear skirts and boys wear trousers; if you get it wrong, a grown-up will shout at you. I kind of assumed that people just got fed up of getting shouted at and gave up what they actually wanted for the sake of a quiet life. In all honesty, I still do. I am willing to accept that most people have a lil’ gender inside, because most of my friends say they do and they aren’t liars. But when that gender comes with a whole set of rules and conditions… Nah, sorry. Not really my scene.

But I digress.

It’s 2014. I have just realised that gender is a thing that in fact exists, and people are s’posed to have one. I am very surprised and also kind of confused, because I don’t work like that. So I go to my then-partner, and I tell him that I don’t identify as a woman. I don’t identify as anything. I don’t identify. And he turns around and laughs and tells me that of course I don’t! My womanness is such a deep and pervasive part of my identity that I can’t even see it, that’s how much of a woman I am! Duh and double duh!

And

and

I kinda shrug and go with it.

It took me another three years to realise that no, I’m actually agender. They weren’t three wasted years. I consumed a load of trans media to Educate Myself. I wrote a book with an agender narrator, and spent a considerable amount of time coming up with a valid reason as to how she might have ended up like that. I did plenty of other stuff, too, but I sure did a lot of trans-related stuff. And all the way through it, I honestly thought that I was just trying to figure Them out – Them, those mysterious trans people, so inscrutable and complicated and

Yes, I really am that dense.

I can’t actually remember how it finally sunk in. It did, though, so I told my closest friends. The general response was “Huuuuuh, yeah? So, you watched the new Star Wars yet?” It turns out that when you live outside of gender for a number of decades, you end up being close to people who don’t actually care about what gender you are or aren’t. So my friends asked me about how I felt about it (very excited, somewhat apprehensive), about what pronouns I wanted (at the time, I wasn’t sure), and that was pretty much it. They didn’t see me any differently because they had never seen me through a gendered lens, because that’s not how they roll. So yeah, that was pretty cool.

As I settled in my self-discovery, I tweaked my life a bit. I got a new legal name, one that didn’t actually make me want to vomit. I tried various pronouns to see how they felt. I reviewed past relationships, romantic and not, and recontextualised their struggles in light of my lack of gender and gender awareness. I faced the fact that I’m dysphoric as all hell, which really vexed me: how can I have gender dysphoria when I don’t even have a gender? Like, seriously, it makes no sense! For a while, I hesitated to identify as trans, because I misunderstood what transness mean: I saw it as going from one thing to another, and I had not in fact moved. I still sometimes hesitate to call myself trans because I don’t feel that I work hard enough to earn that. All I do is whatever feels right for me, and while that’s not cost-free, I will never pay as much for my self-actualisation as the average trans woman. In a way, it helps that I don’t “pass” and probably never will: people who don’t actually know me see me as a tiny, titsy woman with an inappropriate taste in clothes and hobbies. That’s not how I want to be seen, but there is nothing I can do to fix that, it keeps me relatively safe, and it doesn’t cause me major psychic damage. I don’t care enough about how strangers see me for it to hurt.

So why the fuck am I writing a whole public document about my transness? Two main reasons, really. First and foremost, representation. I rejoice every time a trans person comes out, because yay, good for them! I rejoice mightily if said person is cool, because yay, one of us! Like seriously, Elliot Page came out as trans three days ago, and I’ve not stopped squeeing yet. I am not cool by any stretch of the imagination, but there may be a stray trans person out there who might find some comfort in knowing that I’m here and I’m me and I like it. I like it a lot.

There’s also the issue of truth in advertising. I am a person who wrote a book titled, “A Woman’s Toolkit.” I have written ad nauseam about violence, abuse, and recovery from a woman’s perspective. At the time, I was telling what I believed to be the truth. I still believe it to be truth from a practical point of view: when it comes to that kind of interpersonal issues, my identity is fairly immaterial. I am seen as a woman, hence I am treated as a woman and expected to react as a woman. When I disappoint people’s expectations, I am punished as a woman. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be people rushing to discredit my work because I didn’t have the right to write it.

…and it literally just occurred to me that some people will discredit my work because my transness means that I’m delusional, attention-seeking, or both. Honestly, I only just thought of that. I spend so much time with people who aren’t raging transphobic douchebags that I literally forgot that such people exist. Yes, life can be that good.

Anyhoo, this is about all I’ve gotta say. I’m agender and I’ve always been, but it took me a long time to figure it out. It took me a while to come out with it, too, because I kinda like my private life to be private. I am not going to change my name on my old books, because that’s a royal pain in the ass. Some people may have a different perception of the value and relevance of my work, but I can’t help that. They probably wouldn’t have liked what I’ve got to say, anyway. I am still on an indefinite hiatus, because writing about self-defence was really not good for me. So, huh, goodbye and stuff.

72 hrs

This blog is about the side of ADHD that hardly gets a mention because it makes you bleed inside, where nobody has to clean it up.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) is defined as “extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life.” That’s when it’s defined at all, that is; it currently isn’t a diagnostic criteria for ADHD, and it’s rarely discussed by therapists. I mod a page for ADHDers and hardly a week goes by without someone asking what RSD is and being shocked at the realization that it’s been a massive influence on their life and their therapist never mentioned it. When it is mentioned, it’s often of the purpose of invalidating it. Everyone is upset by rejection and criticism; it’s an essential part of being a social animal. If we didn’t care about the opinion of the people around us, we’d be even more dysfunctional than we are now. ADHDers just make a big fuss about RSD because of the whole emotional dysregulation thing. We’ve just gotta learn that our feelings are unjustified and how to put a lid on them, and it will all be a-OK.

That’s the theory, anyway. Problem is, this theory is a load of shit.

One of the common issues with ADHDers is that our feelings are very big and very deep, but often fleeting. We can swing from very high to very low and vice versa with incredible speed, and those sudden extremes are often misinterpreted as superficial at best, performative at worst. If we were happy five minutes ago and now we’re in the throes of despair, surely we must be pretending! Or maybe we’re feeling normal-sized feelings, and we’re just constitutionally incapable of modulating our responses to them. It’s part of the condition, innit? We don’t feel better or worse than anyone else; we just can’t control our reactions. We need to learn to express our regular emotions in a regular way, and we’ll be fixed.

Problem is, ADHD feelings really are that big and that deep. Our reactions may be inappropriate, but they are not disproportionate – they are inappropriate with regards to social expectations, but they are proportionate to our internal state. It would be peachy if we could just dial that shit down at will, but the only way to do that is to turn ALL our feelings down (hello, depression and dissociation) or to sublimate them all into an overarching, all-consuming alternative feeling (hello, anxiety and anger). And yes, we can learn to respond to our feelings so they don’t spill all over the place, but that’s hard, and it’s harder when we’re hurting. And when RSD kicks in, we’re hurting big time.

For me, having RSD is like having a bad ankle. I step on something wobbly, my ankle gives way, and I’m suddenly on the floor, unable to stand back up and near-blind with pain. It shouldn’t be like that; thousands of people step on the same damn thing every day and nothing happens to them. The problem is entirely with me and my goddamn ankle. I can’t expect the world to be perfectly flat just to accommodate my problems. I just need to take more care, or to learn to fall over and get back up again.

Thing is, in that moment I fucking can’t, because my ankle is busted and will not hold my weight. And that’s frustrating to those around me, because I tripped over my own feet and now I’m making a fuss and holy hell, why can’t I just keep my shit together? So I crawl around, or hold on to the furniture, and that’s still not normal and still not OK and still frustrates those around me. And I don’t like that, not a bit, so I put my weight on my busted ankle as carefully as I can and still fall over again or hurt myself worse, which is clearly my fault, and the frustration around me mounts until the only solution is to take myself out of the game for a bit, to keep myself away from people and their demands until I’m ready to meet them. Sometimes that takes a long time, because my healing takes a long time, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do to speed it up. Sometimes I am overly optimistic, or forced by circumstances, and I get back out there and pop goes my ankle again and I’m worse off than ever. Sometimes I give myself time to heal, and when I come back out it’s too late, and the people I was trying to shield from the consequences of my weakness have long gone.

If you’re now wondering “Who the fuck could be so insensitive as to force an injured person to push through pain like that??” The answer is: you, probably, if you know any ADHDers and have discounted their feelings because you couldn’t share them. Our pain may be inexplicable, objectively unjustified, and “all in our head”, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not real, debilitating, or cumulative. And the kicker is that by discounting it or punishing us for it, you’re adding to it. You’re stomping on our dislocated ankle in an effort to convince us that we are alright. And if we care about you at all, the fact that it’s you doing it is the worst pain of all.

For me, RSD is a sudden depression that undoes in a moment the work of years and sinks me into a world where joy, hope, and beauty are nothing but mockery, and there’s no way out. RSD is the pain of a cracked sternum that stays for days or weeks. RSD is the certainty that I am incapable of real, functional human connections that won’t eviscerate me. RSD is having to think and rethink everything I do or say, because I was doing my level best and I still fucked up and I wrecked everything, so I must be ever vigilant even though I know that it will do no good, because I’m just not good at this. I don’t have what it takes to be a proper human. I never will.

RSD is knowing that my mother was right in forcing me to mask to the point where I couldn’t even remember who I was. RSD is the voice of all the teachers who couldn’t stand me, all the schoolmates who pushed me around, all the exes who took such great pains to explain to me in words and deeds that I am inherently wrong and worthless. RSD is sympathizing with my grandmother’s disappointment at being saddled with such a substandard grandchild. My grandmother lived to 93 and never smiled at me, not once, and my RSD understands that. I’m nothing to smile about.

RSD is stupid, and wrong, and all in my head, and I know it. But it’s in my head in the way that my amygdala is in my head: I can’t just take it out, and I can’t stop it doing its thing. I can choose how to react to what it does, up to a point, but that’s about it. And, in the moment, it’s hellishly hard.

Sometimes all I can do is to get myself out of the way of people, because that’s the best thing I can do to stop things getting worse. Sometimes I do my level best to carry on as normal, even though everything fucking hurts. Sometimes my best efforts avail me nothing, because I can’t meet social expectations, and seeing the disappointment in people’s eyes just gives me another dose of the thing that fucked me up in the first place, and the whole thing spirals out of my control until I am truly fucked, inside and out.

Sometimes nothing much happens, and everything is still fucked, because the experience has taught me that it’s not safe to be me around a certain person. Then I gotta decide: do I want to keep them and hurt myself, or lose them to save myself? Which might sound a bit extreme, but you gotta remember: easily dislocated ankle, and some humans are the living embodiment of high heels. It ain’t their fault, but we’re just not a good fit. That doesn’t mean that losing them doesn’t hurt. The more you care about them, the more they can hurt you, and the more it hurts to lose them. The accountancy of pain is an awful game to play and no way to live, but sometimes all available choices are bad. The only thing I’ve got left is damage limitation. It’s a good way to survive, but in the long-term it really takes it out of you.

The title of this blog is 72 hours because 72 hours ago a friend yelled at me. She yelled at me because she misunderstood what I was saying, because she was stressed out, because of the quarantine. When I tried to clarify my position, she yelled at me some more until she eventually stopped yelling long enough to hear me, and then she laughed, and then we were fine.

Only I wasn’t fine. I was eviscerated with pain, and I couldn’t explain it to her because our brains aren’t tuned the same. I could try to bridge the gap with words, but I honestly don’t think she’d get it because ultimately, rationally, I don’t get it either. I am, quite literally, hurting over nothing, because our relationship has not been damaged by a poxy miscommunication… except that it has, because she hurt me, and that hurt was real even though the issue between us was not. So we’ve spent the last three days hanging out like normal even though things between us are nothing but, even though I’ve spent a truly ludicrous amount of time leaking water out of my eyes and listening to The Eels. I know I’ll be alright, though; had it been really bad, it would have been Robyn Hitchcock. I only hide the knives for Syd Barrett, anyway. So I’m fine-ish. I mean, I am up at 1 o’clock in the bleeding morning writing blogs people won’t read about shit nobody much cares about, and tomorrow I will be tired as all hell, but, yannow, I’ll get on with it. I know I can: I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. But it never gets any fucking easier.

This is what RSD is like for me, and there’s not a fucking thing I can do about it – and yes, I’ve tried, and no, this isn’t a request for your advice on therapy or nutrition or meditation, and if you even think of asking me whether I’ve tried yoooga I’ll spit in your eye. I don’t even fucking know why I’m writing this because the people who’ll get it don’t need to read about it; but hey, I’m fucking trying. I know I am, because my grandma told me so.

Normal

I’ve been musing about the many ways one can be considered normal or otherwise. Here, for your eyes only, is a list of generalisations and epiphanots worth precisely what you paid for it:

  1. You match the same criteria as the statistical majority. For instance, being straight is normal purely in the sense that the majority of people in our society identify as straight.
  2. You do not match the criteria for the majority, but you match the accepted criteria for a normalised (or at least recognised) minority. I think of this as “normal for X”. For instance, I have never been successful at performing modern femininity, largely because I have never bothered to try. The amount of upset that causes people largely depends on their expectations, so it can vary hugely. However, I have fairly consistently been reprimanded because I am not a lesbian (though never, to my knowledge, by actual lesbians). As it emerges, what is considered abnormal for straight women fits many people’s stereotype for butch lesbians. By stubbornly insisting on liking swords, chainsaws, and dick, I am breaking not only the rule, but also the accepted exception; and that, evidently, has the capacity to upset a lot of people.
  3. It ain’t normal, but it doesn’t come up. I get sensory overload in crowds, but I live in the country, so the issue has no impact on me or anyone else.
  4. It ain’t normal, but you’ve developed workarounds to manage it. I get sensory overload in airports, and sitting on a plane is simply hell, but I can block it all off with headphones and a book. The issue is still there, but I’m not having to deal with it, so I can manage. That doesn’t mean that being in an airport or plane doesn’t bother me, though; it still has an impact on how I feel afterwards, and it generally puts me off travelling by plane.
  5. It ain’t normal, but it only affects you. It is possible to be horribly affected by something and to still meet, or even exceed, people’s criteria for normal behavior. This is when things get gnarly, and painfully relevant to those with neurodivergences, hidden physical disabilities, mental health issues, and trauma. I got fabulous grades in school, but that wasn’t because I was a good student. I just had zero self esteem and could only gain worth by achieving at all costs. Those 100% grades barely filled the hole in my soul, and required so much effort on my part that they took an awful toll on my body and mind. But as that made my teachers and my mom look good, nobody minded that. In fact, had I found the strength to give myself a break and let myself get a B, I would have been punished for it.
  6. It ain’t normal and it affects others, but it does so in a way that benefits them overall, so they encourage it most of the time but punish it sporadically. I used to suffer from paralyzing social anxiety, but that fit in quite well with my family’s belief that children should be neither seen nor heard the vast majority of the time. It only became problematic when I was trotted out to perform for strangers, like a show dog. My anxiety usually made me mess up, and I thereby shamed my entire family and all of my ancestors for countless generations. This kind of situation can be literally crazy-making, because you are required to be two different people on demand.
  7. It ain’t normal and it affects people negatively, but that’s handy. Some groups need a scapegoat – a bad child, a bad student, a problem teen, a lazy worker, whatever. It is often the case that these people are not failing because they want to, or because they are not trying hard enough. They are simply not allowed the resources they need to perform satisfactorily, and that isn’t always by accident. Having someone to punish can be used as a means of strengthening group cohesion, as well as of keeping members into line – after all, if you slip, that could be you.

There’s a ton more scenarios, I’m sure, but this is all I’ve got at the moment.

So what? So, there is a huge difference between someone who doesn’t have a problem or need and someone who is managing a problem or need. Some workarounds require effort. Being affected in the moment but holding shit together until you’re in a safe place to let yourself hurt, doubly so. Masking your entire personality and replacing it with a front you have created just to fit in can corrode your very soul, and sucks the juice out of your life. Results may also vary; if something is a problem for you and it takes extra resources to deal with it, your ability to deal with it may vary from day to day, depending on a variety of factors: your state of health, other drains, whether you’ve had a chance to recharge after the last rodeo, and so on. And, contrary to popular beliefs, overworking that metaphorical muscle won’t strengthen it. As with physical efforts, exhaustion is a thing.

Cheap today!

Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach is on offer for £1.99 on Audible today. I just checked it out and I like it a lot. It combines a lot of the stuff I love about Buddhism with the basic principles of the only form of coaching that’s ever done me any good. I think it would be beneficial for anyone brought up believing that there is something inherently wrong with them, for instance undiagnosed neurodivergent folk or LGBTQIA+ people brought up in bigoted environments. I suspect it may also help people who were brought up to believe that the universe is just, and have started believing that there must be something wrong with them after something terrible happened to them.

Caveats:

  • It’s no substitute for therapy (but then, who can get therapy for £1.99?)
  • If you’re anti-Buddhism, this might rub you the wrong way.
  • If you suffer from gender dysphoria, it could go either way.

Dunno. I like it. It’s cheap. Maybe you’ll like it too.

Who are they writing for?

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend (hi, Jon!) that has been chewing at me ever since. We were discussing what books one can recommend to people who are starting on their road to recovery from violence/trauma/abuse, and are experiencing numerous or intense triggers. We were trying to think of books that are both useful and user-friendly in that context, and coming up with… not a lot. Most of our favourite books are solid with triggers.

STOP AND PAY HEED: Yes, we’ve all seen people claiming that they’re “triggered” when they’re actually “mildly bothered” or “just wanting you to shut up.” We’ve all seen the “lol triggered” “jokes”. However, that doesn’t mean that triggers are a joke. Suffering from triggers is not just upsetting: the reactions can be extreme, to the point of being physically dangerous, and they can last for days. Being triggered effectively means that your brain is putting you through your trauma as if it was happening all over again. If you think that’s joke-worthy, then I suggest you stop reading this blog and read up on PTSD and cPTSD. That shit is debilitating. End rant.

It was an upsetting revelation, and the most upsetting aspect of that was that some extremely useful books, books that can literally save lives, are totally unsuited to some of the people who need them the most.

I’m going to pick an example that’s gonna piss everyone off, because that’s how I roll: I loved “The Gift of Fear” when I first read it. It gave me the terminology to describe behaviours I’d seen and been affected by at a time when it was really important to me to learn how to stop that kind of shit from happening to me. I would, however, be extremely reluctant to recommend it to any person in recovery, because it’s a goddamn triggerfest. It literally sets off with the fictionalised description of the build-up to a rape. Starting with an anecdote like that is brilliant marketing, as well as a great way to get people to understand the real-life importance of the information to come, but it makes the book wholly unsuited to someone who is recovering from violence or trauma. The last thing they need is to be forced on an emotional rollercoaster like that. Aside from the fact that it could mess them up for days and set the clock back on their recovery, it adds nothing to their ability to process the following material.

Oh, yeah, fun fact: triggered people do not good students make. Sometimes, going through a triggering learning process is essential to getting over that trigger – e.g., if you re-enact an event to give yourself the opportunity to re-write that story with a better ending. That kind of activity is pretty damn risky, though, and requires a lot of prepping and aftercare. It also requires prior consent on everyone’s part. Surprising students with a rape story without prior warning meets none of those requirements, doesn’t give them the confidence that they could avoid that experience in the future, and is therefore likely to serve no practical purpose whatsoever.

The moral of the story is that I still like “The Gift of Fear”, and I’m still glad I read it, but I tend to refer people to its Wikipedia entry instead. It lists the Pre-Incident Indicators (i.e., the shit you gotta watch out for) without any muss or fuss, which gives the reader an immediate tool they can use for their own protection. Yes, the Wiki lacks the dramatic qualities that made The Boston Globe describe TGoF as a “how-to book that reads like a thriller”, but, precisely because of that, it carries at least half the book’s benefits and none of its risks. I call that a win.

The same kind of issues apply to many other books I have read and loved, but would hesitate to recommend to the people who need them the most, and this isn’t true only of self-defence books. There is a veritable plethora of books about trauma, mental health issues, and neurodivergences that are fabulous, except for the fact that they are written in ways that make them potentially damaging to people with traumas, mental health issues, or neurodivergences. And I’m not talking about the kind of trashy non-fiction that basically amounts to Damage Porn, whose sole goal is to give people the chance to ooh and aah at other people’s struggles as if they were at a Victorian freak show. I’m talking about books solid with useful information casually interspersed with totally avoidable triggers. The triggers add drama, but not content. They may allow for increased circulation, but they are a barrier to the readers who need the information the most.

I guess it depends on what a writer is trying to do, and why. Books help nobody unless they’re read, they won’t be read unless they’re sold, and if you gotta make them a lil’ bit spicy to sell them, that’s just how it is. I just wish that wasn’t the case, I guess. I wish more writers thought about the impact of their words on the people for whom they matter the most. Until they do, the people most likely to consume their work are those least affected by it: trauma tourists, mostly, and perhaps the odd trauma-adjacent reader.

(Note: I’m not claiming that I managed to make my books trigger-free. I bloody well tried, though. In all honesty, I’m not sure I’d have the guts to write something like the Toolkit ever again, because there’s just too much risk of accidental damage. But I fought tooth and nail to keep the examples in Trauma Aware SD Instruction as clinical as possible, as well as neatly contained in their easily-avoidable bubbles. It can be done. Whether it can be sold, that’s another story.)

High-passing

A wee while ago, I stopped having social anxiety. I don’t know exactly when that happened; hell, I couldn’t even tell you whether it left me by increments or all of a sudden. All I know is that one day I waited for it to show up and piss in my porridge, and it didn’t.

I cannot begin to express my surprise at its absence. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have social anxiety. I know that I was probably not born with it, but I remember it chewing at me before I hit kindergarten. By the time I started school, it was affecting every aspect of my life. It peaked in junior high and ebbed after University, but it has been with me for as long as I can remember. Now it’s gone, and I don’t know what to do with myself, because its absence has affected all the equations in my life.

Let me try and explain this. When I had social anxiety, every social interaction, however minor, caused me a significant level of distress. If the interaction went positively, that positive value was added to the negative value inherent in the interaction. If the final result was a positive, then that interaction added quality to my life, but that only happened rarely. Most superficial interactions just didn’t hold enough value to be able to offset the initial negative. Deeper interactions carried a higher potential value, but they also carried a larger initial negative because the stakes were higher, so they didn’t necessarily fare any better. In fact, when deeper interactions went wrong, the final results could be crushing. That was was why in school I avoided like the plague all the people I had a crush on: they were simply too dangerous to me. I was only willing to date people I didn’t really like, which went about as well as could be expected.

Things eased up a little when I hit university, but not enough to make me enjoy the company of all but a handful of people. Essentially, I lived in a world where interacting with people constantly took more than it added – which, incidentally, is why I genuinely can’t tell whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert. I honestly don’t think that those labels make any sense when applied to someone like me. Or someone like the person I was, anyway.

Now my social anxiety is gone, and its absence has left me a stranger to myself. So much of what I know about myself is built upon false premises. I can’t anticipate how certain situations will affect me, so I don’t know how to decide what to do. What kind of interactions do I want to make room in my life for? Do I want to try and get closer to some of the people I really like, but may not like me back? Do I want to expand my social circle to include people I’m not likely to ever be close to, because I might now be able to enjoy their company? Do I want to maintain turbulent relationships, even though the low points upset me? How will I react if things go wrong? Hell, is my concept of “wrong” still valid? It’s an interesting position to be in, and I’m not complaining, but it’s definitely weird. The weirdest thing has been realizing how much my anxiety has skewed every aspect of my past; or, rather, that “normal” people don’t live like that.

I’m tempted to look back at my life and count all the things I’ve missed out on, and I don’t mean just the things I didn’t do. I actually did quite a bit, all considering: I’ve lived on four continents, I’ve studied, I’ve worked, I’ve engaged in hobbies, and I’ve had relationships of all shapes and sizes. I did all of that while hurting, though. I had the experiences, but much of the enjoyment was lost. It’s the difference between walking up a mountain wearing well-fitting hiking boots and concrete shoes: in the latter case, you might still make it to the top, but I can guarantee that you won’t enjoy the trip half as much.

You’re also probably going to stumble a lot more. If people don’t realize what the problem is, they might wonder what the hell is wrong with you. Why do you turn everything into an issue? Why can’t you just get on with things, same as everyone else? Why are you so reactive? Do you gotta be such a fucking chore?

I recently read a post by an autistic person in which they made the distinction between “high-functioning” and “high-passing.” Before anyone decides to jump down my throat, I am not trying to compare autism with social anxiety. Similar issues around being “high-functioning” apply, though, and they also apply to depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and a whole host of other issues. You’re often evaluated as to whether you can perform to the satisfaction of “normal” people, regardless of how much that costs you. You Did The Thing! Hence, you are capable of Doing The Thing. The fact that you might have experienced huge levels of discomfort all the way through, or that Doing The Thing today means that you’re gonna be fucked for days, is utterly discounted: you’re evaluated for your performance in the moment – or, rather, for whether your performance in the moment inconvenienced any passing normies.

If you can Do The Thing, that often means that you won’t get any help or consideration. What do you mean, you need a day off today because of what happened yesterday? What do you mean, you don’t want to Do The Thing again? What do you mean, you can’t Do The Thing? I just watched you Do It! And you did great, which means that you can do it all the time! Or, conversely, you did really badly, and you ought to be punished for that, because I just know that you can do better.

I pushed myself to do so much in my life, even though I suffered through much of it, and I’m increasingly unsure as to whether that was a good thing. Maybe if I’d fucked up more visibly I might have gotten help a long time ago, and have lived a better life. Maybe I would have been left to fester with my problems in private, instead of festering with them in public. Who knows? The world has changed so much since I was a kid that I honestly can’t tell. What I’m fairly sure of, though, is that if I’d been given the right words to self-describe, I might have been kinder to myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have “achieved” so much, but I might have actually enjoyed myself in the process. For me, that matters.