#Feels

A wee while ago, I went looking for a book that explained the neurological and physiological reactions to emotions, in a desperate bid to make myself believe that emotions are real and valid. I found this instead: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett. I don’t know enough about neuroscience to even begin to speculate as to how accurate the book is, but I don’t care. I can use the information it gives me to navigate my internal environment with a modicum of skill and grace, instead of crashing around like a bull in a China shop, and that’s good enough for me.

It will probably be some months and a few re-reads before I’m confident enough to try and discuss what I got out of the book, but one concept has already proven so useful that I can’t leave it alone: Emotional granularity, i.e. the degree to which people can tell emotions apart. People with low emotional granularity cannot differentiate between similar-ish emotions. For instance, if they feel low energy and down, they may not be able to tell whether they are depressed, bored, or tired. They may instead clump all those emotions together under a single banner (e.g. “I feel like shit”). They are the emotional equivalent of those people for whom a watermelon, a strawberry, and a cherry are the same colour.

Low granularity can be the result of a limited vocabulary. Young children, for instance, may not be able to differentiate between any negative emotions – “mad” and “sad” may end up getting lumped together and used interchangeably, under the banner of “feeling bad.” As they grow up and learn more words, they can develop the terminology to differentiate whether they are experiencing annoyance, exasperation, irritation, indignation, or resentment. This will also enable to understand those emotions in other people.

It takes more than a large vocabulary to improve our emotional granularity, though. I used to read the dictionary for funsies, but there are things living at the bottom of ditches with a greater emotional granularity than me. My problem isn’t that I lack the words, but that I’ve lumped disparate words under umbrella terms that obliterated the nuances between various emotions.

Growing up, I was trained to lump my emotions into the following categories:

  1. Good. A very specific state of being requiring complete focus on the situation at hand, low physical energy, submission, and a very specific form of “happiness” (see below). So basically I had to have switch my brain on, switch my body off, relinquish my agency, and enjoy it. It was the only allowed state of being, so there was no practical difference between feeling and being good.
  2. Bad. Most things that didn’t fall under “good”, so all negative emotion (sadness, disappointment, tiredness, fear, etc.) but also all positive states that caused me to be too boisterous. If my happiness was too loud, it was punished, so being any kind of excited was a bad feeling. Again, there was no practical difference between feeling and being bad.
  3. Ill. Illness was the only condition under which I was allowed to rest. It was, therefore, a useful feeling, if not a pleasant one.
  4. Angry. Anger was an interesting glitch in the above system. It was a Very Bad emotion, but it caused people to leave me alone for a bit, so it was extremely useful. As the resulting punishments were no worse than those for less bad emotions, it became one of my go-to states. Get angry now, get a break, and pay for it later.

As I grew older and escaped my family’s sphere of influence, I realised that there was more to life than what I’d grown up with. I discovered new and exciting emotional states, and then proceeded to lump them in two new emotional classes:

  1. Scary. All emotions that enabled people to hurt me – love, attachment, any kind of need, trust, etc.. And, when unduly scared, the safest bet is to switch to “angry.”
  2. Useless. Pretty much all negative states relating to physical needs – tiredness, thirst, hunger, pain, etc. (Boarding school ftw). I couldn’t do anything about them, so it was best to ignore them and carry on as normal.

On reflection, it shouldn’t have taken me a book on neuroscience to tell me that I might have had a tiny bit of an issue with emotions. It did, though, and that’s all there is to that. Now I’m left with a load of new ideas to play with. How can I trick myself into feeling a greater range of emotions? How can I use my knowledge of emotional granularity to improve my interactions? As epiphanies go, this one is a bit late in coming, but unpacking it all promises to be quite a trip.

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Anxiety

I am starting to really hate the word “anxiety.” Hell, I’m getting to hate the word more than I hate the actual thing, which is saying something. I have what one may call a history with anxiety. We spent my formative years together. She was my constant companion, closer to me than my favourite stuffies; she came with me everywhere, even places where my stuffies were not allowed. We aren’t as close now, but we still hang out. I’m so used to her that I find myself habitually accommodating her, making arrangements under the assumption that she’s going to show up, as if she were an intrusive relative with the keys to my house and a penchant for gatecrashing parties.  I’m so used to living with some anxiety that I easily forget what it was like to live with all of the anxiety, and find my current self chiding my old self for missed opportunities. I should have done this and that while I had the chance. I shouldn’t have allowed my brain to hold me back. Then something happens that triggers me back to being seven years old, in church, literally paralysed by the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, and I remember how it was. I really remember: I remember in my body, not in my head.

Growing up, I was terrified when faced with literally any kind of interaction apart from hanging out with my two best friends. There were degrees to my terror, so public speaking was exponentially worse than talking one-to-one with my teacher, but every single interaction was a cause of stress – saying hello to a neighbour, getting the bus,  shopping, going to a party… The only time I didn’t feel anxious was when I was alone or with close friends, with no imminent prospect of having to interact with anyone else. So, basically, I was relatively relaxed for about four weeks in the summer, until my mom realised that going on holiday as part of a group was “better,” and took that away from me.

Did I have social anxiety? I sure did. Framing it like that, though, means that most people translates it as “the kid had brain worms.” They treat the situation as if it was an error in my thinking, the result of a brain chemistry imbalance, or both. It never occurs to them that there was a real reason for my anxiety, that it was a rational response to my situation.

I was anxious because I knew that:

  1. In social situations, there was only a narrow band of behaviours that were deemed appropriate by the people who controlled my life. Those behaviours weren’t stated prior to each event, so there was no rule book I could play by. Most of those behaviours did not come natural to me, either. I could not rely on my thoughts or feelings to come up with adequate responses to stimuli, because I would have come up with the wrong answer. I had to think my way through each situation trying to anticipate the wishes of people who expected me to read their minds.
  2. If I behaved incorrectly, I would not be told at the time, so I could correct myself. I would, however, be punished later. The punishment wasn’t a one-off that cleaned up my mistake; it was a permanent state of being. I’d be carrying that mistake with me forever, together with every mistake I’d ever made, so that it could be used against me in perpetuity.

My anxiety didn’t just happen: it was the result of my experience, collected into a data set and used to make predictions. Those predictions were gloomy – a rather reasonable assessment, given the situation – and that knowledge made me extremely wary when faced with certain scenarios. Yes, I had “social anxiety,” but I was anxious about social interactions because social interactions were really, truly, honestly high-risk and low-reward for me. People who viewed me as an anxious child never seemed to consider that my anxiety might have been a reflection of my reality. If they cared at all, they addressed the symptoms of my anxiety, rather than its causes.

As I got older and escaped my family’s sphere of influence, my anxiety changed. Instead of fearing punishment, I feared failure – and, again, that fear didn’t just happen. It was based on real experience and accurate predictions. My childhood anxiety was in my head, but it was also in my body. It constricted my throat, making it hard to talk clearly; it tensed my muscles, so I couldn’t coordinate properly; it clogged up my brain with a constant stream of predictions, what-ifs followed by potential solutions followed by more what-ifs in an ever-growing, ever-changing fractal pattern that left me very little mental capacity for dealing with what was in front of me. I was trying to run my social interactions while most of my energy and attention were on something else; unsurprisingly, I fucked up a lot. That populated a data set from which I could predict the results of future interactions – and, again, the predictions were gloomy. I had fucked up consistently and spectacularly in the past, so I could reasonably expect to fuck up consistently and spectacularly in the future. Shockingly, that kind of prediction made it harder for me to relax in social situations. It’s hard to be relaxed while hurtling towards abject failure.

This later aspect of my anxiety looked and sounded very much like brain worms: my negative expectations contributed to the negative results which confirmed my negative expectations. The way I (eventually) got myself out of that was to prove myself wrong, time and time again, and doing that fucking sucked. There is no joy in social interactions that are the psychological equivalent of putting your hand in the spider tank to show yourself that you’ll come out alright. I wanted to do it, though, and my life facilitated it, so it got done. But, first and foremost, my situation had to change. If someone had tried to change my mind when I was a child, to make me absorb a new set of “positive” beliefs that just didn’t connect with my reality, it would have been gaslighting, plain and simple. Rather than helping me, it would have probably just cracked my brain in half.

That’s what I hate about the word “anxiety,” as it is so very commonly used: it is taken to mean something that is “just in your head,” something that you can – nay, that you should overcome by ThinkingRight(TM). Nobody seems to contemplate the merest possibility that some people may actually be anxious about certain things because they have learned to, that their life is different enough from that of the majority that the “normal” way of looking at the world would be simply incorrect. I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there who are “just” anxious; I’m saying that I wasn’t, that the vast majority of people I know aren’t either, and that I’d really appreciate it if this was occasionally taken into account.

ADSD

TL/DR: Being neurodivergent can increase a person’s chances of needing to self-defend. The way in which martial arts and self-defence are taught often erects barriers that prevent neurodivergent students from accessing or benefiting fully from the training. It sucks.

 

I have dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADD. If it sounds like a lot, believe me, it isn’t: comorbidities are actually pretty common. I am also a kinesthetic learner. I am very lucky because those four aspects of the way I’m made generally don’t cause me too much bother, or at the very least pay me back richly for the bother they cause me. They are, however, a fact of my life. They aren’t going to go away. I can’t switch them on and off at will.

Their main practical impacts when it comes to learning physical skills are:

  1. Dyslexia: I have no concept of left or right. They are meaningless words with no connection to my body. If you tell me to turn in a certain direction or use a certain limb, I have to stop for a moment and work out what that means. If I don’t have that moment, I have a 50-50 chance of getting it wrong. This applies to each movement, even movements within a series – the fact that I found my right hand doesn’t mean that my brain now knows that my other hand is the left, kinda thang. So, a three-punch sequence “right left right” requires me to find which is which three times. Disappointingly, this programming fault isn’t decibel-dependant: if you yell at me the same commands, I’m just as likely to mess them up.
  2. Dyspraxia: My gross motor skills are… really gross. I am uncoordinated as hell. This particularly manifests in a total inability to throw and catch. I am the only person I know who can’t juggle 1 ball. My proprioception and interoception are also a bit wonky (e.g., people can feel my tummy rumbling but I can’t, and I found having a root canal kinda relaxing, but tags in clothes are hell).
  3. ADD: Most people are slooooooow, which makes it quite hard to follow any but the most riveting conversations. It just takes people too long to get to the end of each word, so it’s hard for me to stay focused. If you think I’m being rude, watch your favourite movie at 0.75x speed and see how far you get before you wanna tear your hair out. In my ideal world, I’d adjust people’s speed to about 1.25-1.5x. As I can’t do that, my brain occupies itself by finding connections between what the person is saying and what I know, or by going on random meanders that have nothing to do with the subject at hand. The latter doesn’t do much for my concentration.
  4. ADD, again: The only thing that truly motivates me to study or practice is the subject matter. I thought this was the norm for the longest time, and then I learned that people can be motivated by all manners of sticks and carrots. Apparently, rewards and punishments are used so often because they actually work – I have to take that on faith, because it makes no sense to me. I only respond well to immediate, bottom-of-Maslow’s-pyramid rewards or punishments. Are you going to punch me? Am I going to starve? Anything less tends to have no result or backfire. Not only I won’t become interested in working extra hard because if I pass that test I’ll get a colourful belt, but attaching extraneous rewards to activities makes me lose interest in them. As for trying to punish or shame me into doing stuff, I would strongly advise people against it.
  5. ADD, which clearly is the gift that keeps on giving: I love novelty and I hate structure. I know that people often feel safe within stable routines, but I feel like I can’t breathe. I am good at maintaining routines because I’ve had to in order to function, but I can become very depressed very quickly if I’m forced into fixed routines with no creative outlets. Making me do something that bores me and has no practical purpose can drain my energy to the point of making me physically ill for hours or days. My metabolism crashes, I feel awful, I can’t function, and I catch every bug going.
  6. ADD, probably: I have the memory of a goldfish, and that has nothing to do with my interest in a subject. I have to go over written material at least 3 times (read, read while underlying, read with the underlined bits) before it even begins to sink in. I am particularly bad at remembering movement sequences – and by “sequence” I mean “more than two movements.” By brain also randomly ejects large chunks of information as soon as new information comes in. So, a new kata knocks the old kata right out of my brain, regardless of how much work I put into it.
  7. Kinesthetic learning: I have to perform a movement to understand that movement. Explanations of the movement pass through my ears and get converted into Charlie Brown’s Teacher Speaking – and it’s NOT because I don’t care. Visual aids help. Taking notes helps more, even if I never refer to them again. So if you talk me through a Turkish get-up, no part of that will actually register. If you show me one, I’ll remember either the first or the last part. If I mimic a teacher demonstrating one, even if I’m just approximating the movements while standing, the sequence may actually go in – though I may still scramble later on if I get my left and right confused.

As I’m sure you can appreciate, the combination of these factors does not make me a prime candidate for learning physical skills. It was particularly true when I was a child. Where/when I grew up, it was almost impossible for children to learn anything they were bad at. Schools rewarded students based on their product, not their effort, so PE was hell. Sport clubs, even ones you paid to join, weren’t welcoming towards kids who were gonna suck. If you were bad at something, you didn’t get to do it, which meant that you never had a chance to improve. And lo, it came to pass that I didn’t learn how I learn physical skills until I was in my 30s.

A few years ago, I spent a year training martial arts, self-defence, strength training, and functional fitness at the worst gym in the world. I learnt no useful physical skill and I got hurt a bunch, but the space was disorganised enough to give me the chance to find out how I can insert that type of information into my brain, and even (sometimes) make it stay. Most of the adaptations are pretty simple and require no extra effort on the teacher’s part. The one, single thing I found most useful was mimicking a movement while the teacher was describing it, so my brain would actually file it. If I stay still and listen, hardly anything goes in.

Alas, at most dojos moving during an explanation is not a behaviour deemed acceptable. In fact, it is actively punished, most usually by a public reprimand, which sends me right back to being 7 and being called “spastic” in the school gym. Having to ask for the same explanation multiple times is also punished, because “I should have been paying attention,” as is making “silly” noises during physical activities, however quietly – both activities that greatly enhance my learning. Many if not most teachers seem to have a mental image of what an attentive, interested, serious student looks like, and those who don’t match it are punished for it.

My problem is that when I look attentive, interested, and serious, I’m actually most likely spacing out. It’s not that I don’t care or that I’ve given up; it’s just that style of learning just doesn’t work with my brain. I just can’t pick up that signal. Leave me to my own devices, and I’ll find a way to get over that, to make my system interact better with the environment; but I will most likely not look like a “good student” in the process. I’ll look like an uncoordinated, flapping, humming klutz who spends half their time doing things the wrong way round. And, try as I might, I’ll never, ever learn a long kata.

The irony is that the characteristics that make me a really crappy self-defence student are responsible for my interest in self-defence. Until puberty struck, they were my main reason for needing self-defence – shockingly, when you’re physically impaired and socially shamed for it, you become a target for bullying and violence. I think the same applies to a lot of neurodivergent people: the things that make us different from the normies, the ways in which we can’t blend in, put us at greater risk of needing to protect ourselves. And when that risk inspires us to learn the skills we need in order to do that, we often find ourselves shamed, punished, or excluded by those who are, allegedly, there to help us. It’d be funny, if it didn’t hurt people so often.

Survival.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine started a thread about how many people’s post-apocalyptic survival teams always seem to include a certain type of person (often a badass), with a certain type of skill (mostly killin’), and utterly exclude a whole load of other people who are also very useful. Even the people who remember that survival is about more than slaughter tend to focus on a limited range of practical skills. We are all in agreement that, when the shit hits the fan, people are going to have to pull their weight. But is the only way to pull one’s weight to kill, farm, or build? What about everything else?

If I had to pick one single type of person to include in my survival team, I’d call dibs on nurses. They can do a ton of medical stuff, they are unflappable, they are used to working with insufficient resources, they can handle people who are losing their shit, and they are not affected by normal human weaknesses, like requiring food and sleep. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: every nurse I know is also something else. Their skills don’t start and end with their job. They garden, knit, weave, fix cars, speak several languages, shoot, pickle vegetables, bake, go mountaneering, and so on and so forth. They aren’t unique in doing so, either: a whole load of people in real life have a whole load of skills. Not only that, but – shock, horror – those skills may not be thematically consistent. A few years ago, my main hobbies were MMA and crochet. One of my friends is a professional juggler and a qualified psychologist. I seriously don’t know anyone with a postgraduate education who isn’t both nerdy as hell, often in fields that have nothing to do with their studies, and physically capable. People are infinitely more diverse and useful than fiction gives them credit for, and we buy way too much into the fiction.

People are also breakable. I’d rather take a troupe of people with diverse, overlapping skills over a single ninja killing machine. Whatcha gonna do if your ninja gets hit on the head by a falling coconut and croaks it? Even if your single superhero is a paragon of usefulness, the fact that they inhabit a single, mortal body is a fairly significant drawback. I find the cultural obsession with survival = loneliness highly problematic, and the fact that it hinges on ignoring a whole load of reported history even more so. But there’s more.

We don’t just glorify a rather narrow set of skills as survival-worthy; we also totally blank out a very large set of skills, namely soft skills. The modern narrative totally ignores that survival is often facilitated by community, and that communities have their own needs. People who mediate disputes, who can get people to come up with and stick to rules, who can set up networks of exchange, who can carry out emotional first aid, who can cheer people up and calm them down, who can tell stories to pass the long winter nights, who keep social memory alive with their mythmaking… If we look at successful communities in survival situations, they have included those people. And yes, those people were also generally good at something practical, but the soft-skill side of their contribution wasn’t secondary. Yes, Maslow teaches us that we must meet our survival needs first, but, when we’re working together, the ability to work together is instrumental to that. And it isn’t a byproduct of knowing how to grow turnips, slaughtering calves, or building rafts.

As a culture, we seem to have an odd way of prioritising concrete, action-based skills over soft skills, even though those soft skills are often instrumental in making the action-based skills function. It may be partly because we can’t articulate those soft skills as well. There are job titles for people who make things and we spend a lot of time teaching them to children, but the few titles for people who help communities function are vague, and often somewhat dirty-sounding, possibly the result of the bureaucratic and political systems we’re swimming in. I think there is more, though; we are just oblivious to the fact that soft skills are valid, stand-alone skills. We treat them as if they were just there, available to us without any need to plan or work for them, and we treat the outcome of their effort like spoiled teenagers treat the washing up or the laundry: as something that just happens.

 

 

Why all the hate?

Once upon a time, I went skipping and hopping around cyberspace, carrying a basket of goodies for grandma, until I found myself in an unfamiliar and rather dark corner of the interwebs. Some of the people there were wondering about the current (at the time) controversy around Milo Youknowhoimtalkingabout. I can’t even remember which controversy it was; I know it was not the recent one about killing journalists, and not the huge trainwreck about condoning paedophilia… Which, in itself, kinda makes me think that such incidents are overabundant in the dude’s life, which in turn makes me wonder about his intentions, but that’s a whole other story.

The folk in question were absolutely puzzled by some people’s reactions to Milo. The guy is Jewish, openly gay, and dating a POC: why on earth do The Liberals object to him? What is there for them to object to? Isn’t he a Liberal wet dream? Surely all attempts at silencing him are clear indications that The Left is gruesomely hypocritical, as well as utterly fascistic!

I lack basic survival skills, so I piped up. I proposed the possibility that The Liberals in questions do not object to Milo because of who/what he is, but because of what he does. His words harm individuals and groups of people, and do so by design. The objection is to that harm, not to him as a person.

Crickets chirped for a few moments, and then the conversation resumed, neatly hopping over my interjection as if I’d never spoken. Being used to such occurrences, I picked up my basket and hopped and skipped to a place I might enjoy more.

No animals were harmed in the making of that conversation, but it stayed with me. It was as if the people involved genuinely couldn’t comprehend that someone may object to people’s actions rather than to them as people; or that some actions may be condemned because of their impact, regardless of who is committing them. I didn’t stay there long enough to work out what exactly was going on because place wasn’t conducive to my well-being and happiness, but I was intrigued.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted a link to this article, which reported that scientists found that, neurologically, dislike and dehumanisation are two different things. I don’t know a damn thing about neuroscience, so I can’t even begin to quality-check the article or the research that spawned it, but the concept tallies with my experience. It also tallies with Rory Miller’s concept of “othering” and the affordances that it brings.

I wonder now if the difference between dislike and dehumanisation was at the root of that conversation about Milo, way back when. I wonder of the people involved, the people who couldn’t hear me, are so used to dividing the world into “us” and “them” and behaving accordingly that they cannot comprehend of another way of doing business. They cannot understand of judging actions as utterly separate from actors, or judging actors solely by their actions, because that kind of mental mechanism is alien to them. Of course, in thinking this I’m guilty of precisely the same kind of thinking… but it’s got to be OK in this instance because it’s me doing it, right?

 

 

Labels.

I’ve been going on about my neurodivergence a lot lately, and that has sparked up a ton of interesting conversations about labels. I’ve been waiting for it all to congeal in some kind of logical structure, but it’s not happening, so here is a pile of label-related stuff.

 

Are labels bad or good?

To me, that’s like asking “are screwdrivers bad or good?” A label is a tool. Do you need it? What are you using it for? Are you hurting yourself or others with it? A screwdriver is useful if you’ve got some screws to deal with. It’s not much use if you want to brush a kitten. It won’t do you much good if you stick it up your nose, and you might want to think about it before sticking it between someone’s ribs.

I am personally rather conflicted about labels and diagnosis in general. I didn’t get mine until rather late in life, partly because some issues just weren’t popular knowledge, but mostly because my mom would have rather pushed me under a bus than be the mother of a wonky kid. Not getting diagnosed while being placed under intense academic pressure “encouraged” me to develop some nifty coping strategies, but it also meant that I struggled for years and years without even knowing that I was struggling. I had no idea that I was overcoming issues most other people never face. I am pretty pissed off about that. On the other hand, I am painfully aware of the fact that now, with the kudos parents can get in certain circles by having “special” children, I would have suffered the opposite fate: my mother being very persuasive, I would have been diagnosed with everything going, gotten medicated to within an inch of my life, and probably only got enough help to make my mom the Best Neurodivergent Mother Of The Year. I am 100% sure that my life would have sucked much more with that kind of “help” than without.

However, I still find my labels useful. I use them for:

  1. Reminding me of the way in which I differ from other people. That gives me a better understanding of the causes of certain interpersonal issues, which is nifty. Perhaps more importantly, it enables me to be kinder to myself. I need things that other people may not need. That’s just the way it is. The ideal person to ensure that I get those things is me. It’s a damn sight harder to look after myself if I ignore my own needs.
  2. Explaining to people why what works for them might not work for me. Most people assume that their experience is universal, and many will fight you to the death if you try and convince them otherwise. Being able to say stuff like “that type of motivation doesn’t work for me because I have ADHD” tends to cut down on a lot of crap.

I find labels less useful for:

  1. Self-limitation. “I might as well not try to do X, because I have ADHD” isn’t terribly useful to me. I could think in those terms, but I choose not to. The line of thinking I favour is “how can I help myself do X, taking the ADHD into account?”
  2. Emotionally blackmailing others. There is a line between arranging a mutually comfortable middle ground between myself and others, and demanding that they ignore their own needs because my neurodivergence demands it. It ain’t even that fine a line. I don’t want to be that person.

 

That ain’t even real!

None of my diagnoses are official. I picked one up entirely by accident; I was tutoring students with learning difficulties, I asked a couple of odd questions on some topics, my supervisor grew suspicious and ran a couple of tests, and – hey, presto! – dyslexia. My ADHD diagnosis is from a professional self-assessment test, but I’ve not bothered getting it formalised by a medical professional. I could probably insist on getting some official tests, but my life doesn’t require that. And – and this is the important bit – the lack of a professional seal on my diagnoses doesn’t make them less valid or less useful.

Official diagnoses, particularly those coming from schools, tend to be a reflection of the results of the impact of an issue – not of the impact of the issue on the person, but on how it affects their performance. Little Billy is struggling to learn to write, the school runs a few tests, and it turns out he’s got dyslexia. Little Bobby also has dyslexia, but his grades aren’t affected enough for anyone to notice. Maybe he lucked out and he managed to pick up enough workarounds (thank you, cursive). Maybe his parents force him to work on his homework until it’s perfect, so he’s exhausted and desperate but making reasonable grades. He still has dyslexia. He’s still working harder than his classmates, because he has to manage the work and the workarounds. He still has the superpowers dyslexia gives him. He could still benefit from knowing that he sees the world in a slightly different way. And, whether he gets a diagnosis or not, his dyslexia is just as valid as Billy’s.

I appreciate that official diagnoses are extremely important when trying to get help. I appreciate that self-diagnosing is fraught with dangers, particularly if one is of an anxious disposition. But I still wish the gatekeeping on this issue would die in a car fire.

 

You would say that?

A million years ago, when I was taught how to teach people with learning difficulties, I was told that I couldn’t say that someone was dyslexic. I had to say that “they have dyslexia,” because “they were more than their disability.” While I appreciate the intentions behind that kind of effort, I think they are ultimately rooted in the problem they’re allegedly fighting against.

I am dyslexic. I do not “have dyslexia,” because my dyslexia isn’t a disease. Those kind people banging on about how “I’m more than my dyslexia” can fold their banners up neatly and stow them, because duh. Of course I’m more than my dyslexia; but it is a part of me, a vital component of the way in which I interact with the world. It’s not going to go away, and I would not want it to. If you took my dyslexia away, you wouldn’t have a better version of me; you’d have a different person. Maybe that person would be cool, but they wouldn’t be me. Furthermore, calling me “dyslexic” doesn’t make me feel less, because being dyslexic doesn’t make me less. Anyone who thinks that is coming from a position of entrenched ableism, and the problem sits with them, not me.

….but I still say that “I have ADHD” because that’s the way I’ve learnt to say it, and it rolls of the tongue more easily than saying “I am an ADHDer”. If any of y’all has got a better option, I’ll take it.

Which isn’t to say that people don’t have the right to pick their own labels, or that communities don’t have the right to fight against stigmatising labels. I am merely curious as to where the focus of our efforts went. If those terms weren’t considered offensive or limiting, using them would be a non-issue. Is banning those terms really the best way to fight against the associated discrimination?

I am starting to think along the same lines about other terms, particularly those relating to the effects of trauma. There is a big push in self-defence to stop people from labelling themselves “victims,” “damaged,” “broken,” and so forth. The idea is that such labels are self-limiting and/or manipulative, and that is probably about half right about half of the time. It ignores the fact that words can mean a lot of different things to different people, and can be used for widely different purposes.

“Weak” labels aren’t necessarily used for self-flagellation or emotional blackmail. For instance, people may call themselves “victims” because they are innocent of what happened to them, and holding onto that fact makes them feel better. The label doesn’t have to carry any connotation of permanent damage; it can merely indicate that something majorly bad happened to them, and that they weren’t at fault.

A friend of a friend commented that she labels herself as “broken” because she is aware that she has suffered and still suffers as a result of her early trauma. She lives with limitations caused by that trauma. If her abuser had broken her limbs in a way that rendered them permanently damaged, people wouldn’t begrudge her the label, right? But because it’s “all in her head,” she has to fight for it. I hadn’t considered that point of view before, and I only disagree with her because I’m painfully aware that people are assholes about physical damage, too. Chances are that she could have no working limbs left, and people would still begrudge her the way she chooses to label herself – and it would all be done for her own good, to give her more agency, because that’s totally how that works.

As for labels becoming so sticky that they become an obstacle to recovery, any label can do that. The problem is how the label is used, not the label itself. And if that’s the concern, replacing “weak” labels with epic ones is not going to help matters, so we ought to toss “survivor” right out the window.

I think we should be able to pick up and use the labels we find useful in that moment, and discard them when we no longer find them useful. This is going to sound unduly Zen, but our self isn’t a constant; why shouldn’t our labels change as we do? And, if we allow ourselves to try labels on and pick the ones that truly fit, the ones that make us better able to face the day ahead, should any third party really have any say in it?

 

 

 

Heroes.

I’ve been listening to the Odyssey at work, as one does. I’ve not read it from cover to cover since I was eight or nine – yes, it’s perfectly normal. The book was lying about the place, nobody told me that it wasn’t suitable for children, so I picked it up and read it. Although I dropped Greco-Roman mythology as soon as I discovered that there were other kinds, some of its lessons stuck with me. One of the main ones is about how varied the Greek concept of “hero” used to be.

Achilles was heroic for being able and willing to kick alllllll the ass. Odysseus was heroic for being cunning. They were both special, both admired by a whole load of people, but they were hardly similar. A whole load of other people around them were considered special for all kinds of other characteristics: strength, bravery, honesty, steadfastness, loyalty, craftsmanship, etc. Even people who seemed to be at a clear disadvantage could be special. Someone could be special for their athleticism, but they better not feel too superior to someone with a physical disability. The latter person may excel at poetry, politics, or some kickass craft that made them just as special, but in a different way. People were valued for what they could do better than other people, and their help was sought in situations where those skills were deemed useful. That’s what I got from the stories, anyway – maybe people looked at Odysseus and found him lacking for not being honest enough, or looked at Achilles and deemed him a blockhead, and the poets just left that bit out. As a child, however, I was struck by how totally different people could still be special and valued for what they could contribute, rather than being measured against a fixed standard and found wanting.

Even more interestingly, all the “superpowers” the heroes have seemed to let them down at least once. Achilles had his heel, Odysseus had an uncanny penchant for taunting one-eyed giants… They were special people, but they were also all fallible, and when they were upset they cried. A lot. Hell, if you ever want to get plastered to a Greek myth, take a swing every time someone cries.

Then there’s “300,” and the myriad of copycat movies it spawned. In these modern versions, Greek heroism is very narrow, very prescriptive, and very focused on working them abs. Heroes go out, kick as much ass as they can find, and flex a lot in the process. Nobody cries, obvs; in fact, having the emotional range of a teaspoon is pretty much the only way to be A Man (anger is, of course, not a feeling, because reasons). I find this mangling of very clearly told stories fascinating. The ideal of the Greek hero we end up with is so vastly different from the one we can gleam from the most cursory examination of actual Greek myths that it’s a whole ‘nuvver animal. I wonder how the “300” aficionados would take it if they discovered that their Greek heroes cuddled same-sex friends, wept over each other’s shoulders, and totally lost their shit in grief.

The current representations of Greek heroes speak about us, our culture, our relationship with what makes people special. Greek poets may have provided the backbone of the stories, but it is us, or at the very least our media culture, who are turning them into what they are now. It is definitely us eating them up and hailing them as The Way To Be.

I’m reminded of that glorious article about Kirk Drift, and its TL/DR version. Modern Kirk is a misogynistic uber-jerk oozing toxic masculinity, and has nothing to do with the actual Kirk in the actual episodes of the actual show. We’ve collectively made this new Kirk out of our warped vision of the old one, much as we’ve made our new Old Greek heroes. And these revisited heroes all kinda suck, which doesn’t say much about us.

Trauma?

A couple of years ago or thereabouts, a friend of a friend asked me a question:

“Is the source of your trauma public record?”

I told him that I didn’t know and that I’d have to think about it. I wasn’t lying: I genuinely didn’t know. What do people actually know about my past? My friends, particularly my online friends, know more than is good for them, but what about the world at large?

I’ve blogged pretty openly about some of the shit that went down in my past, and the vast majority of my fiction is not actually terribly fictional, but I’m not sure that enough of my readers have read enough of my writing to get a clear picture. I’ve also not blogged about some of the harder stuff, for the simple reason that I don’t want to. I take an interest in self-defence and I have a vagina, so I’m aware of the fact that a whole load of people assume that someone, as some point, must have attempted a forcible entry into said organ. And yeah, that’s happened, but, to be honest, those weren’t pivotal points in my life. I don’t mean to trivialise the seriousness of sexual assault; it is just that the context of my life has been such that I had more impactful things going on. (Note: that is NOT a good thing. That’s not “resilience;” that’s “fucked up.”)

That was the second part of the question, the bit that I really couldn’t work through: do I have A Trauma? Do I, really? This is a line of thinking that shines a merciless light over the inconsistencies between what I think and know about trauma, and how I apply the concept to myself. I don’t see myself as traumatised. I don’t think I have a right to that badge. Nothing ThatBad(TM) has ever happened to me. I have never been hit by a single, major event that could/should have caused me trauma <<knocks on wood>>. As for the events and situations that left a mark, they shouldn’t have. It just so happened that I occasionally got hit in my weak spots, when I didn’t see it coming, or at times when I was unusually susceptible to certain stimuli. Unfortunate, really, but not traumatic.

I would never, ever apply this line of thinking to any other human. It would never occur to me to evaluate an injury based on my perception of the seriousness of what caused it: “Yeah, well, I’m sorry, but your leg just shouldn’t be broken. No crutches for you.” It would also never occur to me to discount the impact of an injury because other, worse injuries were also present. A broken toe is a broken toe and should be attended to, even if the whole leg is smashed up. Yeah, you want to prioritise the more serious injuries, but that’s not the same as dismissing the rest of them. Rationally, I know that I’m just not looking at my situation from the right angle, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve managed to do anything about it. I’m working on it, though.

Overall, that damn question, so casually thrown, has been plaguing me. The more I think about it, the more it seems to sprouts other questions to which I also don’t have answers. That’s vexing, but it’s nowhere near as vexing as the realisation I had a few days ago: the question wasn’t meant literally. The guy in question was asking me whether I wanted to talk about the traumatic event(s) in my life – a question that, in the context of our conversation, wasn’t particularly out of place. My literal-minded ass, totally oblivious to social niceties, has been chewing over the question like a damn koan, when the dude was just being tactful. I find that hilarious.

Neurodivergent #5

I swear, I’m almost done with this.

So, a wee while ago, I got me a new & shiny adult ADHD diagnosis. It’s been utterly awesome.  Seriously, it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.

First and foremost, it has given me a clue as to WHY almost everyone seems to zig when I zag. They’re not being weird at me: their brains are literally wired differently. They are not better actors than me, better able to fall into an inexplicably difficult (and often crushingly boring) part for the sake of having a quiet life; they are being themselves. They don’t have to act. Incredible as it may sound, the factory-standard “normal” is their natural setting.

They can’t help that, anymore than I can help being me, and that explains a hell of a lot. When I try to explain to them that I don’t feel X, that I don’t wanna do Y, or that Z doesn’t really work for me and they don’t believe me, it’s not a reflection of the value they place on my words. They have only one point of view on the world, same as I do. Unlike me, though, they believe that point of view to be universal. I’m not better than them, better able to empathise, more perceptive. I simply live with constant, daily reminders that other points of view exist. They live surrounded by people broadly like them, so they don’t. It’s an exposure issue. When they assume that “everyone does/is/feels/thinks X”, their are often almost right. It really depends on the acceptable margin of error one is willing to assign to that word, “everyone”. The impact of their conviction on our connection depends both on their willingness to have it shaken, on how far removed it is from my reality, and on how much of a barrier it builds around me, or between us.

For instance, I have had months-long “conversations” with people about the purpose and future of this blog. What that has generally boiled down to was them lecturing me at length about why I should do things I would hate in order to achieve goals that are not in fact my goals. When I’ve tried to explain that fact to them, the vast majority of them insisted that I was wrong. I want what they want, and if I state otherwise then I’m lying, to myself or to them. I found that annoying, excruciatingly disrespectful, and, eventually, a deal breaker – I cannot be friends with people who believe me to be other than I am, to be pretending, no matter how often I tell them otherwise. I don’t have a solid definition of “friendship,” but I’m sure it isn’t an endless fight to have your reality recognised.

I wonder now if they ADHD diagnosis would have helped me be more tolerant, or helped them understand. I doubt it. Chances are that the same people would have seen it as a flaw in me, a problem I can learn to overcome if I only work hard enough. I could be just like them, if only I tried!

Problem is, I don’t want to. I fucking love my brain, even when it hurts. I love the speed at which it operates. I love the way it can spot patterns and connections, however tenuous, and lead me on wild, exciting tangents. I love its ability to immerse itself into an activity, erasing the passage of time into an all-consuming now; yes, it may make me late for dinner, but now is when life happens and my brain naturally lives there. I got me a factory-issued Zen brain: how cool is that? And – not very Zen, I know – I absofuckingluely love the fact that my inner life is so vivid; I’d take my inside-of-the-pinball-machine emotional landscape over anyone’s Monet-inspired watercolour, thankyouverymuch.

I don’t love the fact that my memory is shite, that I lose things all the time, that making myself do chores is a little slice of hell, that my ability to focus and energy levels oscillate wildly. I don’t like the Achille’s heel of my rejection-sensitive dysphoria. But I can live with all that as a more than acceptable trade-off for having the most fun brain ever. Without the diagnosis, I would have never known how lucky I am.

I would also have never known how much of a giant pain in the ass I can be to those who don’t operate like me. I now have a list of basic human traits I don’t have and functions I can’t perform, or that I perform so wildly differently that it can still be an issue. That’s a problem when dealing with neurotypical people, particularly if an environment is not accepting, but it can become even more of an issue when dealing with people whose neurodivergence doesn’t match mine. In particular, some of my favourite people are on the autistic spectrum. We like each other a lot, but our brains are quite simply not designed to play well together. Knowing that fact has enabled us to have open and honest discussions about our needs, so we can try and meet in the middle instead of driving each other up the wall.

This is important: we sat down, brought out our baskets of needs and issues, spread them on the table, and talked about how we can meet as many of them as much as we can, together, so we’re all as happy as we can be, both with ourselves and with each other. The final result may look something like us masking our neurodivergence in order to function, but it isn’t: it is an entirely different process that embraces who we are. Its goal is to help us be ourselves and work together. We are creating a space in which we can both be and do. I’m 44, and I’ve never had that before. I’ve always had to choose, and sometimes the choice has been fucking expensive. What I have here and now is comfortable and comforting in a way that I can’t even begin to explain to people who’ve never had to act like someone else just in order to be. It’s home. I’m home.

A few months ago, I sat and listened to a self-defence instructor lecture us on “othering.” What she said was: “I can teach those people how not to be othered.” It hit me like a brick to the face at the time, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I knew I was one of “those people”, and I also knew that her cis/het/mono/white/anglo/upper-middle-class solution wasn’t going to work for me. I know how to pretend that I am what I’m not; that’s how I survived my childhood. I know how to “fit in,” more or less. I know how to “function”. I also know how much that hurts, the barrier it builds between you and the world, you and your loved ones, and you and yourself. Instead of being othered by others, you’re othering yourself; it may help you survive, but it won’t help you thrive. Where there is no acceptance, there can be no love. All there is is the endless grind of performing, performing, performing, while the person you really are lies not just unloved, but literally unlived.