Open Space for Transition

I’ve been almost confused at times in the past few weeks as to why my mood is suddenly so much better than it has been in months. I realized today that a good part of the calm I’m feeling is the fact that I am no longer being misgendered* countless times every day. The few times it’s happened in recent weeks, it has stung just as much as it did in the past, but having it occur once a week doesn’t deplete my mental resources the same way more frequent misgenderings do. In addition, I’ve been getting “he/him” pronouns in one of my social media groups, which, although inaccurate, is much less painful than the ones I’m used to getting.

I can simply be myself now, and don’t have to put much effort into my appearance or being “read” correctly. Every now and again, I remind myself that I’m on T and that it will continue to affect how I look, because I’m a little worried I’ll first take a good look at myself in August, which is when I anticipate having to return to in-person work, and not recognize myself anymore if I don’t attend to the subtle changes that are happening.

I absolutely love not having to contend with others’ views of me and not needing to absorb their judgments unless I want to (in that I can choose when and how I engage much more than I could in the past). I don’t want this way of life to end, but I don’t think I can maintain my income anywhere near its current level if I try to work from home on an ongoing basis after this crisis ends. It is important, though, to know that enjoying minimal in-person contact isn’t a false fantasy I’m conjuring, but a lived reality I’m appreciating.

I have to fully re-start working from home tomorrow, so it will be highly interesting to observe how much of my positive attitude relates to the decrease in transphobia I’m experiencing and how much relates to the PTSD triggers which will start to pick up once I have more online interaction. I have seven weeks to get through and then I will have a few months off this summer. At the minimum, doing everything I can to be able to take the summers off consistently is a top priority for me in order to meet my personal and mental health needs as much as I can.

*My heart goes out to trans people that are currently trapped in abusive and unwelcoming environments because of stay-in-place orders. Here are some resources specific to COVID-19 and the trans community.

  1. Trans Equality
  2. Trans Lifeline
  3. Trans Advocate

Befriending the Fearful Parts

Today is barrels of fun as I’m dealing with the potential for severe weather as well as the ongoing pandemic. Right after learning about the upcoming weather events, someone posted “tips” for dealing with anxiety on a social media site I visited. What they wrote immediately irritated me as their message was basically “think positive” and “distract yourself.” That approach may work for some people, but, to me, it dishonors the role that parts of myself–the ones with strong emotions–play.

Anxiety is often relegated to the role of a deceptive betrayer, a cowardly enemy or a feminized hysteric in modern culture and modern psychotherapy. I find it unfunny but ironic that many of the exposure and response prevention tasks that people with contamination OCD have had to endure, such as touching a doorknob and not washing one’s hands, fly directly in the face of declarations from the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. in terms of dealing with the pandemic. We have been told to fight our fears, to quell the whispers of obsessive thoughts and to “calm the f*ck” down” when, in reality, the world presents dangers. I find myself deeply questioning the years of training I received in graduate school, wondering how much the “treatment” of anxiety is really a tutelage in social norming in order to not disturb the sheltered peace of the privileged optimists among us.

What relationship can we have, then, with our anxiety that does not trade fighting for subservience and terror? I view it as one of acknowledgment, honorance and the formation of an alliance. If this framing doesn’t work for you, ignore it! I first encountered in during Buddhist practice and immediately knew it was for me, but it may not be the story you need to tell.

To me, getting to know the scared parts of myself is first a practice in realizing there have been and continue to be things that are frightening in the world. I’m not “stupid” or “over-reacting” when I worry. I concentrate on the process of how I worry and thank the parts of self that bring worries to my mind for their care for me. There is a way to worry well or at least to negotiate with worry. I take action based on my fears, action aimed at reducing the likelihood that they will come true as well as methods of building resources if they do. Sometimes, my fears fuel panic-buying, but I’ve grown to trust myself more deeply than I did in the past, so this happens here and there, not with consistency. In short, I prepare for danger, and, in doing so, often fear it less.

I also check in with myself and with my fear to watch the extent to which it is based on concrete reality and the extent to which it is a physical reaction to stress. I find that I actually have the most difficulty with anxiety after a stressor has occurred, when I’ve taken all the practical steps possible and simply am in a state of waiting for resolution. For me, behaviors such as not sleeping or eating poorly can create their own spin-offs of fear that have to be managed by self-care.

Perhaps because I’ve been invalidated for my fears on a non-stop basis, told not to worry, that my worries are unreasonable or that they don’t deserve attention, I’m not good at remembering that, even if the worst happens, I’m not alone. There may or may not be people willing to help or sufficient resources to recover, but, even if safeguards fail me, we are interconnected and each of our lives, in my worldview, are more than a beginning and an end. What would it mean to tell the next person you hear panicking that you will be there for them in whatever way you can if their worries come to fruition, rather than telling them not worry? To have that said to you? I try to do this for my anxious parts, to let them know they aren’t going to be abandoned to fear, that the rest of me will consolidate and bring the resources I have to bear to manage the situation.

Anxiety, even at the “pathological” level I possess of it, isn’t my enemy. It does not deceive me. It isn’t hysterical. It is a biological response that has been preserved in pretty much all animals by the process of evolution to warn us of danger. Humans have the gift of foresight, of anticipating threats before they occur. We can rage against this capacity, deny its presence, numb it or attempt to silence it through invented worlds of positivity, or we can come to know the inner monsters we hold and realize they are frightened children who need love. We can come to know it as a part of us, steady in its reliable angst, and, like all parts, only made whole when it is welcomed into the family of our being.

One More Bite (Today’s Moment of Gratitude)

Today I’m grateful for having the time and available resources to mindfully eat an abundance of fresh, healthy foods. Yesterday, I received a shipment of fresh vegetables from a farmer a few states away, and combined several of them with a chicken and pasta dish I made that included a kumquat sauce. I’d ordered avocados straight from California, and, although they are still ripening, the farmer there packed them with an overflowing amount of kumquats still on the branch! It was a delightful treat and, mixed with the carrots, microgreens and spinach of yesterday’s haul, my lunch today was one of the most satisfying I’ve had all year.

My relationship with food has been the source of both pleasure and pain. I have struggled with anorexia as well as food addictions, so eating a moderate amount of healthy foods is something to which I end up aspiring rather than achieving more days than not. Most likely because of these mental health conditions, few things in life bring me the excitement and joy that food does. I stare at dishes being brought to other diners at a restaurant the way other people stare at people they find attractive. I recall meeting someone several years ago who told me he ate because he needed to eat, not because it made him happy, and I’ve never had such a “who are you?” moment as that one.

All of this to say, living through a lockdown where traversing a grocery store feels akin to potentially being taken out by a sniper in the form of a virus-carrier, my issues with food have only gotten worse. I’m starting to eat beyond the point of hunger and have spent far too much money trying to ensure I don’t have to go without in any capacity during this time. One practice that I am hoping will cut through the anxiety-fueled excess is mindfulness. Taking time to enjoy each bite as well as to honor its origins will hopefully help me to focus more fully on gratitude, and, in slowing down, I will be better able to hear what my body is communicating to me in terms of what it needs. What’s your relationship like with food? How is it being affected by the pandemic?

Attuning to Nature Sounds as a Slow Living Practice

If you have access to a sense of hearing, what sounds come to mind when you think of busyness? What do words like hectic, stressful and crowded bring to mind? I hear cars engines running, a cacophony of harried voices, the smell (wrong sense, I know) of pollution and footsteps stomping down the sidewalk or hallway in a clipped pace.

What do phrases like slowing down, living the simple life, relaxing and spacious stir up? My mind conjures notes of grass blowing in the wind, birds chirping, a stream softly flowing and insects at play on a summer night. I continue to watch live streams of nature scenes from around the world, and, more than the peaceful visuals, I’ve become accustomed to the instant feeling of calm that permeates my body as soon as I hear the accompanying sounds. In particular, the night-time noises from various animal parks in African countries and the rush of waves coming in on Hawaii’s beaches are the most soothing I’ve found.

It is a privilege to be able to enjoy slow living. What we often conceptualize as a simple lifestyle depends on pre-existing wealth or access to funds. I detest tourism to poor areas of the world that revels in the condition of life there as the “cure” to busyness, when, in fact, abject poverty brings its own forms of (often physical) suffering. To be able to be still and to be able to relax into the sounds of that stillness are gifts for which I hope I can be grateful and moments I desire not to squander.

There is nothing that needs to be done or accomplished with the quietness of the natural world. It is ephemeral, broken most often where I live by the machines humans have made. It cannot be stored in quantities and does not hold over from one day to the next. All we can do with it is attend it, open to it, and be in it as fully as the presence it offers us. The pandemic is stripping from me any vestiges of a belief in raw capitalism as a way of life; today I find myself pondering how many billions of dollars humans have spent on products designed to mimic, at maximum expense and minimum function, the enormous wealth that can be found in acts as simple as pacing my breath to the contour of the ocean’s rhythm?

Answering the “What Ifs” (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

After several days of non-stop work, today has been a bit slower. And, predictably, my mind now has a few seconds to spare to race towards “what if” scenarios. The area where I live is already in a state where bars, restaurants and schools are closed, and I’m afraid that even more stringent requirements may be enacted. My primary concern is about whether I’ll be able to keep my job and keep my house in functioning order. I’m mentally (not in reality) racing to the place on the path where I’m at the end of myself and have no idea how to proceed.

About a decade ago, when I began my current job, I moved across several states and had barely settled in when my then supervisor (thankfully not working at my job anymore) threatened to try to get me fired. I honestly believe her motivation was jealousy more than anything else; it is a long story. That experience was the closest I’ve come to “I’m lost without direction.” I dissociated to the point where I kept thinking I was dreaming and would snap in and out of glimpses of reality. I worked the way I’ve worked the past few days for months on end, doing everything I could to prove myself worthy (I also kindled a flame of burning hatred I carry to this day towards her). The experience scarred and traumatized me; the feeling of having put in decades of work and finally “arriving” and then being told it could all be taken from me without cause hasn’t left me. I didn’t learn anything from it because I did truly lose myself when the crisis hit; I became suicidal and a workaholic rather than comforting or being with myself through it.

I want to say to the terrified small parts of self who chorus their “what ifs” to me: I’ll be here with you in it if it comes again. I may lose my job, my house, my pup and my health (my four biggest worries), but I do not have to discard who I am if any of those losses occur. I have resources and I have coping skills that I did not have in the past. What do the little or young parts of self need to hear from you today? To which events in your life does your mind unconsciously cycle if you are feeling anxious, helpless or hopeless? What’s different about your life now than it was then?

Tips for Coping with Social Distancing Measures

There is evidence of community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 near where I live, and daily life is rapidly changing. Events have been cancelled, my job may be moving to e-learning and social distancing is the buzzword on everyone’s lips. I wanted to share a few ideas I have about how to cope.

Action and acceptance

I wrote about this topic yesterday. In terms of steps to take, what I want to share is to encourage you to take steps to deal with the situation at hand that are measured, within your means and accessible to you. I’ve been stocking up on basics since January, so I’m now in the stage where my anxiety is fueling me to want to purchase, for example, a 3K generator. It can be really difficult to discern between what is rational and what is panic-based; if at all possible, for larger purchases, I try to wait 24 hours before making a final decision.

In terms of acceptance, there may come a point for each of us where we reach the end of our capacity to prepare or to respond to the crisis. I won’t provoke your anxiety by laying out examples as, if you are as skilled at freaking out as I am, your mind has no trouble delivering these to you. This is the place where I think practices of spirituality and faith in humanity have to come to bear. My hope is that something greater than myself will guide me and someone kind will meet me if I arrive at the end of my means. The groundwork for this response, for me, has been years of inner work and (much less successfully) attempts to build a social support network. Each of us might have more at our disposal than our scared inner children let on.

Self-Compassion

Give yourself permission to be only as active as you need to be to maintain your health and responsibilities. I’m seeing a lot of posts about learning a new hobby, finishing the book you were writing or completing a home repair project if you are asked to stay home. Although these suggestions are well-meaning and perfect for people who need to stay busy, they can be overwhelming to those of us with workaholic tendencies who may feel that we are not being as productive as we should be.

I do encourage you to develop a daily schedule with as much time as you are able to devote to self-care and reflection. It is healthy, in my opinion, to pause from time to time to check in with yourself and your loved ones and to see how you are coping. Mindfulness and other practices can help get us out of the past or the future into the present moment.

To the extent that you are able to do so, be present with your emotions. It is okay to feel angry, scared or sadness. I’m struggling with an angry “I told you so” after my concerns as to what was coming were dismissed and mocked by several people IRL. Rather than stuff down what feels like smugness, I’m sitting with it and asking myself how I might respond differently in the future when someone ignores my advice. Our feelings are excellent, in most situations, at helping us identify our underlying needs.

Community Connections

As I shared above, social support is key to making it to the other side of the pandemic in a way that tends to our mental health needs. This is the time to get creative and to find ways to connect with loved ones, even if it has to be through virtual settings. A monthly meeting I enjoy attending has been cancelled, so we are considering hosting it virtually if the quarantine continues next month.

Take a mental headcount of the people in your neighborhood or local community with whom you might partner to meet basic needs. I’m learning about so many agencies that exist on a city and county level that I did not know were there to support the community. If it suits you, determine whether there are ways to support healthcare workers who might be highly affected by this crisis.

What are you doing to cope with social distancing if it has been implemented in your area? If it hasn’t been yet, what can you do to prepare?

Action and Acceptance

In my graduate school education in psychology, I was taught to treat questions of “but what if” with a healthy dose of skepticism, to then ask, “what is the likelihood of that happening in real life?” I would then typically challenge my client to see how improbable it was that the fear would be realized. Sometimes, though, the unlikely occurs and we have to move through our disbelief into action and acceptance.

Psychologists frame action as a coping mechanism that stands in opposition to acceptance–namely, that we try to problem-solve. When our problem-solving fails at finding a solution, we move to a place of tending our emotions. We are also different culturally and constitutionally as to which strategy we tend to employ.

I wonder, though, if there is ample room for both. We can take steps to control what can be controlled as well as to make our peace with our fate. I cannot with people who try to placate me with telling me horrible outcomes could never happen, who discount the need for any type of coping. They already have for me as a small child, so I experience “don’t worry” as “I can’t hear or see your fear as legitimate.”

To me, acceptance is the antidote to denial; it is a coming to rest at a crossroads, knowing that I do not know which paths will remain open to me and that I do not control the maintenance of the roads. None of us can predict the future and none of us can preemptively problem-solve for all eventualities. All I ask of my future self is that, if tragedy awaits, I do my best to keep my dignity and self-respect intact.

My worst fear, the “but what if” that keeps me up at night, is losing my autonomy–my ability to choose for myself where I tread through my own solution-generation. I know there are monsters who prey on the vulnerable. But there are kind souls as well and, whether it is rational or not, I attempt to believe they are in the majority. I think that is what I will focus on finding in this trying time–examples of human compassion that existed even when it seemed like all the roads were blocked with boulders. In my own timeline, I do not know who I will meet if all my ways forward collapse into one, but what if they were trustworthy and brave? What if you or I are that person for someone else?

Finding Peace in a Time of Panic

Leaders around the world have begun to reference the global pandemic within the framework of a humanity facing a war. We are admonished not to panic, whatever that means. In my country, our leadership’s been rudderless and we’ve received daily contradictory messages. Things are not fine.

As a person with lifelong severe anxiety, including PTSD caused by childhood abuse, it feels like I’ve spent so many years trying to tell myself that the world was now “safe” and that I could let my guard down. I’ve felt so jealous of people who are carefree and secure in their daily lives. Now I’m not sure if it was they or I or both of us whose prior learning deceived us.

The truth, most likely, lies somewhere in the middle. Our lives are likely more fragile and less guaranteed than the “everything will be fine” but also on stronger footing than “we’re all going to catastrophically die now” crowd would have you think. As a group, we need a range of tolerances for risk, otherwise nothing or everything would be chanced.

I keep noticing a theme of uncertainty as a driver for panic, but those of us who live deep in the realm of fear might know a different cause: no good options. The unknown isn’t what frightens me per se, it is the potential unavailability of a solution to whatever threat I might face that I find intolerable. I know what it is like to be trapped with no way out; I spent many years living that reality and it caused me to split myself apart internally simply to exist.

I refuse to bind my peace to the notion that no catastrophe will ever arrive at my doorstep. I find it insulting to be told not to worry or to trust that the higher-ups know what they are doing. The peace I seek is simply this–that there is more beauty than pain in the world. That, even in the darkest moments imaginable, kindness and compassion remain somewhere to be found, if not by me, then by the next person.

I’ve been shocked to find myself arriving at an inner well of actually giving a shit about the people in my life, a place I thought long lost and dried up. I’m not resorting to “me and mine” to the extent I would have predicted. I believe that crises can bring out the best in us, not because we avoid feelings of panic and terror, not because a solution will arrive if we simply hope enough, but because there is something central about teamwork and collaboration to the nature of being human. We will find our peace in this, together.

Even in My Dreams, She Haunts Me

I dreamt of my mother last night. The specifics of the dream, upon awakening, were immediately lost to me, but the impression of herself she’s carved on my psyche feels as though it is pulsating with remembrance of the scarring she caused. So many years have past since I’ve seen her in person that the line between who she was to me and what she represents to me has blurred.

I wrote yesterday that my capacity as a person isn’t related to the approval of cishet white men. I think I need to acknowledge part of what that means to me is that my parents’ views of me are irrelevant to my worth as a person, but also admit, in the same breath, that they still contour the shape of my inner world so much more than I wish they did. My reactivity to being dismissed and disrespected, the impulsiveness with which I direct my energy to defend myself, is a straight line from being constantly verbally abused and gaslit as a child and teenager.

My mother, real and internalized, was the queen of denial. She could cry and say she was never unhappy. She could have a conversation with me and, hours later, tell me she’d not seen me all day. She could witness my father sexually abusing me and pretend nothing happened. Reality was a malleable, unsequenced energy that she bent to her will. I didn’t have access to voice recorders or cell phone video growing up, but I have no doubt she would have found a way to deny the digital as well as the physical world.

She’s entered my mind as of late because of the pandemic. I fully expect, if she becomes ill, to hear from my siblings for the first time in years as to how desperate she is for my presence. This happened a few years ago when she got cancer, and, when I tried to form a limited amount of communication with her, she denied that she in any way initiated their contact with me. She thinks she owns me and can manipulate me to suit her needs after all this distance, time and hard truths.

I feel contempt more than any other emotion for her and it leaks through when I am disrespected by people who might, even in an oblique way, stand in for her in my mind. My dream had only the emotion of terror and the sensation of being trapped, that she found a way to make the story of my life collapse into itself and become only the abuse, the denial, the betrayal and the fear that underlies my relationship templates. A part of me wants to light up all the circuit boards the next time I’m rebuked for sharing a verifiable truth, to call out the privilege that is no doubt driving the “well, actually…” I’m receiving. I know this will lead to a response of useless and defensive posturing. The truth of my triggering will be apparent if I start emailing sources and data to prove my point.

My mission statement for this year includes “powerful vulnerability.” I wonder what the response would be if I responded with “you telling me I’m wrong about something I’ve extensively researched and for which I could easily locate 10+ scientific sources is reminiscent of how my parents responded to me when I spoke a truth they didn’t want to receive as a child. I’ve learned how futile it is to argue with someone who doesn’t give my voice the weight it deserves, so I’m not going to waste any more energy on this discussion.” There are people who show me through their responses that they value what I have to say and take it in without defensive skepticism. There is a new story of my life I can tell, but I have to stop stalling out in the shallows of my past in order to do so.

As a Matter of Fact…

We are moving into a time of year that feels expansive, active and dynamic. There is one aspect of how I approach people, though, that I feel still needs to be shed to allow me to open to the growth that awaits. I feel the need to prove my intelligence, knowledge and intellectual capacity to others and/or to educate them out of their ignorance. Were I a man rather than a non-binary person, I could see myself easily labeled as someone who “mansplains.” Gender aside, I am definitely a “know-it-all.”

I was raised by parents with little education; my mother did not attend college and my father did not go to high school. They were genuinely lacking some of the skills and information needed for the modern world. For example, I had to learn everything about colleges, scholarship and financial aid on my own. Being able to grasp information without any assistance was a requirement for me to be able to succeed; there was no hand to hold onto.

I then chose education as my career, a form of employment that is heavily focused on disseminating knowledge and helping others develop critical thinking skills. I am talented in altering how I explain a topic based on the abilities and capacity of my audience members. I am not nearly as good at guiding people in terms of de-emphasizing my own role in their intellectual gains, even though I try to encourage others as much as I can.

These intertwining factors have led me to need to precise and accurate in what I say, and to say it with conviction. Tentativeness tends to get read, especially for people who aren’t seen as men, as a lack of knowledge. I speak forcefully and with conviction.

Where things go awry is perfectly illustrated in gleaning information about the coming pandemic. I am anxious to my core about the potential fall-out of the situation and I cope with my anxiety by arming myself with a wall of research and facts. This information, though, simply bounces around in my head without direction or purpose, after I take all the logical steps for myself that it implies I should. I then struggle and fail to contain it to my own preparation, but instead attempt to inspire others to take reasonable steps to avert danger. All this ends up in me reciting information such as pandemic death rates to people who are overly optimistic, ill-informed, disinterested and/or secure that their unacknowledged privilege will shield them. I keep telling myself “they aren’t worth the effort” and “my energy is being wasted” but, at the same time, I have nowhere to channel what I’ve digested.

I want to be able to influence people. It feels unbelievably validating to hear someone tell me they thought about something I told them or that they took an action because of a message I shared. In all my years growing up, despite my knowledge base and capacity outweighing my parents’ education, I did not feel heard or seen. It felt like the energy I devoted to try to better the life of my family went into a black hole. When my current life touches that thread, I retreat to avoid getting pulled into a “help me; you’re useless” scenario.

I find two streams of thought emerging from this reflection. First, I need to find additional outlets for my abilities, and, second, I need those avenues to be fruitful. I would rather bite my tongue than be dismissed by someone unable to recognize that, in regards to most topics most days, I do indeed know what I’m talking about. Or, I at least want to stop the flow towards those unyielding shores as quickly as I can. I found myself drawn to playing online games like Sudoku and crosswords this past week, and I see now that the increase in my desire to do so is a direct result of both feeling like I am not being intellectually challenged enough and, at the same time, that there is no place for what I’ve absorbed.

As I sit with this a moment longer, I see that, even if I find ways to occupy my mind that I deem useful, I must work as well on my delivery. I know I come across in a graceless way at times. I want to inspire intellectual appetite and curiosity in others and I have a lot of personal growth I need to do in order to achieve that end-goal. Knowing things is one skill; leading others to want to know things benefits the greater good. What is your relationship with obtaining factual knowledge and sharing it with others? Are you more likely to call others “know-it-alls” or be labeled as one yourself? In what ways do you keep yourself intellectually engaged, and/or encourage others to learn?