Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On being myself, and other animal traps

on 2017 March 4

This collection of pieces forms a whole essay, but only loosely. I’m trying to find the principles behind being (a) engaged, happy, moving versus being (b) alienated, traumatized, stuck, at least for me. Each piece is a bite out of that puzzle.

1. Being “myself” is a trap

toon1

Image description: Comic panel – person says “Just be yourself”, “Not like that”.

I’ve really tried to follow the advice to be myself, but it feels unreal. Any attempt to be Something counteracts my natural tendency to avoid fixing on that thing, even if that thing is “myself”. Not-being, or the absence of attempts to be, could leave more room for me as an animal to use my built-in facilities to meet my needs. Any conscious attempt to “be” could get in the way of my nature and make me stuck. Trying to be forces identity to be made into static words. I could say to myself, “well I should just accept that I’m an introverted autistic lesbian” (or whatever string of adjectives feels like an “identity”), so I should just “be” that openly. I could even be overtly proud of it and do things like make a blog with that string of adjectives as the subtitle, thus claiming that particular identity. But those are just very partial and inaccurate words, and by following them, I’m trying to become a dead concept from my mind, rather than be all of me, always unfolding.

The cartoon feels like the advice I’ve gotten all my life.

2. Being someone else is a trap too

Some parts of the therapy industry, especially the autism part of it, are based on the notion of becoming a better person by being indistinguishable: that is, by copying, conforming, and not being at all “yourself”. This idea is also prevalent in how we treat lower and middle class children generally, from the moment of conception through school. There are “developmental milestones” that everyone is supposed to meet. If the weight gain in pregnancy isn’t “right” (meaning average) then it’s “wrong”. It’s wrong even if that weight gain is right for that particular baby. Then you’re “behind” if you can’t read when you’re six, and so on and so on. The more wrong you are, the greater is the pressure to become normal.

The peak of this irony is when the schools teach us to read Great Literature. If you actually read it, it turns out, none the historical figures our culture credits for wisdom agree with today’s predominant concept of development. All the philosophers and prophets from Rumi, Lao Tsu, and Jesus, through Einstein, cummings and Thorough – although they may differ on other points! – speak with one voice that human quality is not measured by averages.

toon2

Image description: Woman reading, saying “I love this book by Aristotle! What are you reading honey? Is it at grade level?”

This cartoon is probably not that funny because the abstraction may be too great, but it shows how we profess to exalt the philosophers but don’t act accordingly. The irony is not in the contrast between an “advanced” author like Aristotle and a children’s book, but rather the contrast between the concepts advanced by Aristotle and the concern with evaluating younger humans in milestones. (Aristotle would not do that.)

I partly wish Jean Piaget and the other academics who gave us so much vocabulary for those human averages had kept their ideas to themselves, because now we’re a society of armchair psychologists mis-applying that knowledge against anyone with less power. The flattened form of that knowledge underpins the entire educational and child services systems, milking the middle class to inculcate them based on ungrounded concepts. Some of the elite is spared because they don’t see “average” as the goal for their children.

Some quotes about development and differentiation:

  • To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. – Oscar Wilde
  • When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you. – Lao Tsu
  • The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done. – Jean Piaget
  • If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. – Henry David Thoreau
  • This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee. – Shakespeare (Polonius’ speech to Laertes)
  • Always say what you want and be who you are, because those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter. – Bernard Baruch

3. Happiness visits whenever she feels like it

If I were to wildly swing a hammer about in a dark house for a long time, I might occasionally strike a nail by pure chance. That is the arbitrary way happiness visits me. She appears, and then weeks or months pass before it happens again. I’ve gathered quite a bit of expertise in the chasms of my own depression, but I am naive about my happiness because I’ve had so little time to get to know her.

The euphoria of presence arrives. I tell myself “there it is!” and the weight lifts, I breathe, and things are okay, but then it is over. I don’t know why she came or where she went. Then I wait a long time for the random reappearance. Until recently I’ve had no way to steer towards it. It used to visit for just seconds, and now sometimes it last minutes.

When the euphoria is absent, I often wish to be happier. It feels like there is a scale of 0-10: When I’m at 3, I hope for 5; when I’m at 5, I hope for 8. I frequently evaluate where I stand. But when that visitor is here, I’m in all places of the scale at once; or there is no scale; the very idea of wishing to be happier no longer makes sense. I can be sad when she’s here, and I do not wish to be less sad. Whatever I am, I don’t wish for anything different.

That’s almost all I know solidly about happiness. I don’t know what it feels like for other people. Is the visitor more like a permanent resident for them?

4. Happiness isn’t one thing – it’s at least five

I do not believe there’s a single happiness scale. Here’s a bogus illustration of how I’ve thought simplistically before, but now I think it’s bogus.

scale_wrong

Image description: “The bogus scale” portraying a line with levels for overjoyed / happy / content / okay / blah / sad / depressed / suicidal.

I’m coming to believe there are actually at least five independent things that I used to mistakenly lump together, and they are listed here.

In each case the green dot represents the baseline where I think we settle at when we’re healthy. (Healthy is not always visibly happy.)

(A) level of trauma

The trauma scale is the extent of stress and danger felt in the body, with these four levels:

scale_trauma

Image description: Scale with levels for baseline (emotions functional), stress (emotions reduced), fight/flight (emotions severely limited), shutdown (no emotions).

The book “The Body Keeps the Score” explains how trauma level is embodied in distinct measurable physiological states. It is not just a matter of degree or of how one consciously feels; it’s a physical and hormonal yet often hidden thing. Under stress the body puts more energy into alertness and less into the immune and digestive systems. If stress is chronic, the body never gets a chance to function well as a whole.

The baseline is functional while the elevated states are “worse”. Under stress, we gravitate to safety, we’re alert, don’t trust as much or take risks, and we’re less aware of nuanced feelings. Under fight-or-flight we stop thinking and act in fear. In shutdown mode we stop trying and give up hope of preserving ourselves, so we only survive if the danger goes away on its own.

People who don’t spend at least a chunk of each day in baseline probably experience a frequent lack of knowing their own feelings, and may get sick often, because the regulation system is turned way down.

I spend a lot of time in the chronic stress state, probably most of my life. When I found out about complex post-traumatic stress syndrome (CPTSD) and then got diagnosed, it helped make sense of the times I’ve shut down and had anxiety spikes when there was no present danger. The same trauma levels occur when people are triggered by memories as when the actual danger is present. With CPTSD, the triggers are non-specific, hard to name, and could be present anywhere.

(B) life force

The life force scale measures the amount of wanting to remain alive.

scale_lifeforce

Image description: Scale with levels for baseline (optimistic – wanting to live), pessimistic or lethargic, suicidal.

Luckily for me, my baseline is wanting desperately to live. Maybe people who claim to be okay with death may have found a different baseline. I don’t know where this scale manifests (whether it is a hormone or a thought or what), so it’s hard to describe what it is. But I know I’m almost always at the baseline, and only when I’ve been exposed to certain over-the-counter medicines have I lost the willingness to live. Some people spend most of their days in the mid to lower range and really don’t want to live, even if their trauma level is baseline. On the other hand people like me can rarely be baseline in trauma level but nearly always be baseline in life force.

 

(C) social esteem

The social esteem scale is partly a performance and partly a mirror – seeing others seeing me. It involves an evaluation of myself in relation to others. It measures social options, such as having potential partners and friends.

scale_esteem

Image description: Scale with levels for life of the party, chipper, baseline, downer.

Ideally we have a reasonable number of options, so we can choose among all the people around us, or choose alone time, and at the same time other people can choose us. When we choose one person, we reduce the attention we have available for someone else, but ideally they would have alternate people to turn to, so there’s a community balance of attention. Under those conditions we can steer through life and find one set of people, and through them find other people as we change. It is very adaptive and dynamic, and we get energy from one person that we can apply to people that we wouldn’t choose as strongly, but they are seeking us and need the energy. Having those options gives confidence or expressive happiness.

I think social esteem can be out of balance in a few ways: One is having too few options. When we don’t have those options, we’re either just alienated completely, or can only choose among people we don’t really want around (they may be forcing themselves on us). That can lead to being a downer, low confidence, or being a drain on others. On the other hand people could also have too many options, and spend so much time rejecting and filtering through throngs of their admirers that it makes it hard to navigate towards the people that they would really connect and balance with. And a third imbalance is over-performance of esteem. If someone is chipper all the time or tends to be the life of the party, it feels like too much of a performance and gets tiring to others.

Healthy people with real options are not so socially active, not trying so hard. So I feel the baseline or healthy level is not at the top, but rather more towards the bottom.

Normally I’m at a very low level on this scale – a downer. In fact I can think back to only a few very specific short times in my life when I was in the healthy range, and the feeling of options was so strong that I felt like (and appeared to be) a whole different person. Most of those times were on trips. At other times I’ve been hypersocial but it hasn’t been fulfilling. I cannot even imagine how life is like for people who have ongoing options all the time and can steer adaptively.

 

(D) body health

The body health scale is just that – fitness and function affect mood.

scale_health

Image description: Scale with levels for healing, keeping steady, gradual reduction, dying.

I feel like illness affects happiness in a way that is different from the way trauma, optimism, and esteem affect it, so I’m listing it as a different scale.

(E) future beliefs

The future beliefs scale measures whether I believe the future will be better or worse than now. Since it’s cognitive, it is somewhat independent from the other scales.

scale_future

Image description: Scale with levels for going uphill, level, going downhill.

The important thing about this kind of happiness is that it doesn’t matter what my circumstances are now, only the direction that I think the future will take. If I’m in the gutter and believe I’ll make it to the sidewalk (metaphorically) then it makes me happy. But if I’m in the penthouse and believe I’ll be out on the sidewalk in the future, then I’ll be unhappy. It’s related to why wealthy people sometimes cannot understand how someone who appears impoverished could be happy.

Sometimes these different aspects feed on each other: for example, health could promote trauma healing, maybe leading to social esteem. But also they can be separate: I could have a strong life force but shut down by trauma at the same time; or alternately I could be free of trauma but suicidal on account of toxins. When I’ve been very happy in the social-esteem way, I’ve hardly ever felt the trauma go away, and I cannot experience the euphoria of the visitor at those times. So in that way the different aspects may actually be contrary to each other.

At this time I don’t know whether the euphoric visitor kind of happiness is one of these factors, or all of them together, or another distinct thing. It might be the feeling when all of the scales are at “baseline”. I feel that high social esteem and strongly optimistic beliefs about the future could actually interfere with that presence, because those things are what we might call ego-driven – the lies we believe to be surface-happy. We might have to let surface-happy drift away to find the deeper kind.

A scale that I didn’t include was love and connections. I have often felt it would be “the magic answer” if only more people loved me when I was young, or I could somehow get that now. But I don’t really believe this; love is something I do and cannot capture, so I can’t “have” it. I now think it’s more of an action that happens as a result of these other scales of happiness. It is not itself a state of being.

5. There are at least 15 things that make me happy

Here is a list of all the things that have “worked” in some way to make me happy. Although related to the scales of happiness above, these are more like behaviors, events or conditions on the outside that seem to influence the inside. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find out what I can do that could reliably have results, but basically none of them have been easily controlled.

  • Intimacy and sex – When I have had enough opportunity for touch and acting on my attractions to people, it eases the feeling of oppressive otherness. Being in a state of opportunity is a huge relaxation. It’s been a tiny minority of my life, but in those short periods I felt like and appeared externally as a completely different person – more likable and confident.
  • Undereating – When I started listening to food, it had an immediate and profound effect on my health and happiness. I’d always done what I was supposed to, trying to be low-carb and all the other diet advice. But then I started to ask the food itself if I should eat it, and trust my facility to hear the answer, and then I noticed I ate a lot less, no breakfast at all, and actually increased “bad” things like bread and other carbs but decreased “good” things like raw vegetables – contrary to all advice. That for me caused a direct feeling of happiness and was the first technique that I came across that I could repeat for similar results. But when trauma-stress is high, that impedes my ability to hear the food and I can’t continue to do it.
  • Work success, contribution – When I’ve had paid work, no matter how boring and corporate-slavelike it is, the money and responsibility make me feel valued. I used to downplay this because it was embarrassing to be affected so much by that; I wanted happiness to come from other places. But then I had to admit that one of the biggest factors in feeling okay at the end of the day was whether I followed demands of other people. Even if I disliked doing it at the time, it fed me. But I have rarely been able to find and keep jobs that maintain this.
  • Music and literature – Composers like JS Bach, Schubert, Grieg and Wagner have affected me deeply – music is direct. Also Rodin (sculpture) and Proust (fiction) or a good essay, sometimes. But when I read because “decent people read” it doesn’t work. It only works when I let go of shoulds.
  • Nature and travel – This is very hit or miss bit it can broaden my horizons and make small things seem small and less controlling.
  • Feeling others’ weakness – It usually feels like there is a bloc of people controlling everything around me and I’m never part of it. But at times I’ve seen through the bloc and seen their weakness, and it makes me feel less oppressed; it switches on my compassion. The practice of making an effort to see someone as acting from fear or weakness when they are ruining something helps me feel less powerless and happier. I’m not sure why, but I can only do this sporadically; it seems to rely on being filled from other sources.
  • Teaching – When I’ve had the opportunity to teach, it’s invigorating like magic coffee. For example, once I gave someone an introductory piano lesson (though I can’t play the piano well myself). I could see that she had a block against it, but the block was melting, and I could participate in that process and feel the excitement of it melting. I remember moments from my school teaching (like the “oh!” from a student who suddenly is no longer blocked) but mostly jobs in schools aren’t real teaching. I can no longer access teaching, even as a volunteer, even though I’m capable of teaching some things, for reasons I don’t understand well. There seems to be a growing force in society that conspires to keep people like me far away from classrooms, even from adult tutoring.
  • Exposing my true self – Once when I had to stand in front of a crowd and admit I was autistic, and I was the one defining the terms of it, I felt vindicated: I wasn’t being defined by others. When there’s a lie that I somehow believed or that I had to submit to, but then was able to throw it off, that liberation has made me happy. I’m not sure how to get in those situations again though.
  • Setting boundaries and controlling my environment – Making a decision to draw the line, or to demand something for myself has made me happy. Mostly I’ve been compliant because of the fear that if I imposed anything on anyone, I’d lose everyone. (People aren’t actually drawn to overly compliant people so this fear is unfounded.) Relatedly, when I live alone and plan my space and my day, I get into a flow that I can’t get into when other people are there. The flow allows inspiration to dictate the next thing I do, and the experience of acting by small bits of inspiration, even if it is just household chores, builds into a flow of happy living.
  • Drugs – Taking the indica strain of cannabis convinces the muscles to let go of tension, and it has shown me what a low-stress level can feel like in the body, giving me more power to go there, or at least closer to there, at will. The interesting things about that drug are that it teaches, and that it’s anti-addictive. Once it works, I learn and then don’t need it as much. It does not feel like something external that forces anything, or that fixes or masks; it just opens me to me by disengaging some regulating mechanisms for a while. Along with undereating, it’s one of the only contributors that I can control. I haven’t tried the common prescription anxiety meds, and I remain unconvinced because reviews of them are so mixed.
  • Responsibility burden – Cutting down on the number and complexity of responsibilities has made me happier – things like a managing a house and car, the stress of people stealing things, and the self-imposed requirement to co-own and manage things with others. But I haven’t taken this reduction very far because managing a lot of things is a skill I have, and so I usually feel the opposite pull of more complexity in order to get the benefits of those things.
  • Energy treatments – Acupuncture, chants and other things designed to unblock physical energy paths have worked, but rarely. When it worked it was very noticeable and immediate, but it evades repetition. There’s something about that kind of intervention that can only work once for me, then I have to find a new way to reach the next block.
  • Access to a healing environment – I’ve noticed that all the things I might do for myself are more effective if I’m in a social environment that has an intention of being supportive, while all of those efforts are stymied in environments that are more competitive. This works even if I don’t have any close relationship with people in that place and even if nothing specific is done; it is just the intention that brings out different energy in the place. The kind of improvement is extremely gradual.

6. Needs are complex

This piece is about a single point: that the list of human needs is not just food, shelter, and the small handful of other needs commonly listed. It also includes needs like contribution, ritual, integrity, belonging, grieving, and many others as best described by the book Nonviolent Communication. (Here’s a more complete list)

Happiness could be what we have when our needs are met. Are we happy when we have the power to meet our own needs, or when our needs are met outside of our own power?

7. The enneagram is real

Before I get to the point of this piece, here is some background on basic stuff about the brain. This is shorthand and I can’t ensure that it’s exactly scientifically true, but here it is. There are distinct brain layers corresponding to evolutionary leaps. The reptilian brain is the stem and is what we have in common with all other vertebrates. The second layer, the mammalian brain, is wrapped around the stem, and it’s what we have in common with all other mammals. The outer layer is common to primates, but is larger in humans than in the other species.

Because of this anatomy and evolutionary history, as animal beings we have three distinct sets of facilities that go along with the layers:

  • Defense, instinct, and boundary setting – This facility allows us to protect our lives, be a distinct person, kill, and just generally be autonomous. When over-relied on, it is anger.
  • Love – This facility allows us to bond with others selectively, and gives us the desire to protect our own families and clans over others. When over-relied on, it is favoritism (love and hate go together).
  • Planning ahead – This facility allows us to predict threats, gain abstracted intelligence, and survive over changing conditions. When over-relied on, it is fear.

Imagine yourself in pre-industrial times when survival depends on what you do at every moment. First, you have to defend against immediate attacks – first layer. Second, knowing you can’t live alone (we’re social animals), you need to be a member of a clan and widen your circle of protection to include them, but not others outside the clan – second layer. And finally you have to predict future threats (like winter or tigers) and plan ahead to survive those – third layer.

These probably go along with chakras as well, and also are embodied in the enneagram:

enneagram1

Image description: Enneagram (nine pointed circle) with triads labeled Defense (8,9,1), Love (2,3,4), Planning (5,6,7).

The enneagram is known for being a personality type system – each person finds themself at one of the numbers one through nine, with some subtypes and other flavors. It is also a model of the facilities and connections between them. Note that in the triads, the enneagram types represent imbalances – so for example, people in the defense/instinct triad (8, 9, 1) have a wound in that facility. I’m a 9 and can be very boundary-less and passive in ways that annoy people and cause me to not really be there when I’m somewhere.

Happiness might be what we have when we can use all three facilities in balance. (I’m saying this without knowing if it is true or how it relates to the other pieces in the essay.)

Happiness might also be what we have when all our needs are met because all the facilities are in balance, giving us the power to meet our own needs. For example, my needs for integrity and contribution are often not met. The fact that I chronically can’t meet those needs for myself probably means I’m broken or imbalanced in some of the facilities.

8. I’m breaking the silence about being unattractive

I feel like it is shameful in our culture to say that we are unattractive. The truth is, some of us don’t turn other people on (much or at all), so the whole world of intimacy or physical passion is closed off to various degrees. But if I outright say I’m unattractive, people get nervous hearing it and rush to silence me. People may be thinking that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or they are hoping against evidence that everyone is attractive to someone. There could be lots of reasons people rush to silence that sentiment, but what I notice is that it is silenced routinely and energetically.

When things are silenced like that, they are taboos in the culture. But even if it is a taboo and pushes people’s buttons, ugliness and/or being unattractive is a real phenomenon and deserves non-judgmental air time.

I know what it’s like from both sides. There are people who I feel uncomfortable around, like a persistent pushing-away force no matter how nice they are trying to be, and I get nothing from interacting with them. For some of them I notice that is their pattern with everyone. Those of us in that group are a disadvantaged minority, so maybe we should band together and make a “no friends club”. But the thing is, I have no motivation to do that because those certain people don’t motivate me, and I’d honestly rather have no friends than hang around with them. And that is how it is for most people in relation to me. We can’t break the silence together or work for our rights as a group because we simply don’t want to coalesce.

Of course I’ve wrestled with this my whole life – the facts, the shame, the denials. I don’t have a complete answer but here are a few ideas about what makes people unattractive.

Early learning. The first factor is how young children learn to get and handle attention. People who get early compliments in life learn to milk it and become very smart about how to position themselves to be cuter. But for some of us, no matter what we did, we never felt the draw of other people toward us. I grew up having no idea what is more effective or less effective, so those skills are not imprinted into me. I think for some of us, we develop a fatalistically repulsive personality because of the lack of early success in being attractive as a young child.

For me that extended to teen years. They say you can’t leave teens unsupervised because “you know what they will do!” But no one would do anything of the sort with me, so I was “safe”, but also didn’t develop a good understanding of how sexual intimacy develops in a healthy person.

Exposing and giving what people want. The second factor is the outgrowth of the first. People have a variety of shallow initial attractors – a sexy body, money, gifts, humor – whatever they use to draw people initially. Some of us don’t have much of that, or don’t know how to show it, so there is rarely an initial attraction on shallow grounds. Without that, there isn’t much opportunity to get deeper, so the shallow stuff matters.

Energy, health, and happiness. Another factor is the energy you send out from being in a state of health and balance. Fit athletes tend to be much hotter looking than sick or weak people. Happiness attracts too: being outcast might be a cause of being unhappy, but it also works the other way around: being unhappy leads to being avoided.

Association and position in groups. Another factor is the position you appear to inhabit within your cultural group (or any group). Once a group sets what your position is, your worth has a momentum, so new people are attracted to you partly based on the position they believe you to occupy, and you tend to stay at a certain level. That kind of attraction may be utilitarian and not very emotional, but it is still a factor in drawing people. No matter how insignificant a group is, there is nearly always stratification within it: someone is perceived to be one of “us” or not. Another way to look at it is having an association or implied recommendation from someone at a certain level as a factor making one more attractive.

Appearance. Finally, what about body appearance? It is impossible for me to tell how important this factor is. People like to say it’s shallow and unimportant, but I’m skeptical. Most people I know have had people eye them and make some kind of an advance based mainly on their appearance, and for some people that happens regularly. But that’s basically never happened to me from men or women, so that leads me to think appearance might be very important. But it could also be the smiles or energy or health-vibes that people are sensing as they observe your appearance.

I’ll elaborate on the factor of association since that seems to be the only kind of attraction I have had at times, but it’s twisted.

Without a recommendation, the position I’ve been in a lot is like I have flashing warning lights that keep people’s guard up around me. I usually don’t see what people are like when they are just being natural in their own living room. I’m a permanent stranger, but over time as they become familiar with me, I become a known stranger; they protect their other connections from me. Even established connections including family usually don’t recommend me to others, or my association comes with a warning signal so the third person sees me as a stranger.

There have been cases where I was signaled as acceptable and it’s been stressful but interesting. A prominent memory is a wealthy family friend who invited me to a far wealthier person’s Long Island clam-bake and introduced me as if I was one of them. I was so far out of place that I couldn’t even pretend to be that, so I froze up and couldn’t speak the whole time. Other more recent times were with a true friend who’s in a higher social functioning level than me. (When I say “higher”, I mean that unlike me, he appears to meet people in many contexts, form bonds, make friends, and so on in the normal bilateral way as part of the fabric of society.) Because he’s there, when he tells people about me, it makes me seem as if I’m also at that level. He says it with a tone of voice that conveys there is nothing wrong with me and it would just be natural for the other person to associate. When I’ve met his other friends, they said “hey” in a way that gave me a very cosmic feeling because they said it as if I was at their level – not disabled or treacherous. Normally that’s all that happens, but sometimes I continue to get included to the point of feeling out of place. One time I was part of a long three way conversation with my friend and his other friend, and the whole time I had a distinct feeling that I was not really allowed to be there or that I was spying on her uninvited. I felt I would surely be kicked out when they discovered I wasn’t really at that level.

Having said all that, I need to say there’s a whole different dynamic with neurodivergent people and those with mental illness. With those, the attractiveness factors don’t matter or don’t play the same way, so those are a lot of the people I have ever connected to.

A recent phenomenon that I haven’t been able to explain to myself yet is that I’m aging to the point where my social-relational age matches young adults (instead of teens, as before), and consequently in places where I find them (my new job and my volunteer position), I’m finding the disability factor is lessened in those particular spaces, and that I’m included functionally and on an energy level in a way that does not have the flashing warning lights.

9. I have a short depression story

Here’s a short autobiography of my depression. Feel free to skip the section but I have a compulsion to include it for completeness.

For the first 14 years I was “low energy” and non-emotive; people called me “even-keeled” or “observant”. I figured out how to be safe, which meant restrained, and there was a tremendous anxious energy going into that restraint, even though it looked flat on the outside. My few friends were vital to my existence. I now characterize that period as depressed, but I didn’t use that word at the time.

Adolescence was 7 years of deep and constant depression. People probably tried to help but I was very good at being invisible, safely outside anyone’s safety net. Notably my parents were unaware that it was even a problem. There were exactly two settings where the depression magically vanished. One was a school biology field trip to the Chesapeake Bay. I don’t understand the reason, but some change in the social order put me within it, instead of outcast. So for 3 days I was functioning. The other was a volunteer trip to Kenya. I was ecstatic without pause for two months, but I hadn’t learned to change my outward affect. I also had not developed the ability to be reciprocal or compassionate; overall I was quite broken and immature and horrible to be around.

The third stage was 25 years of pain management where depression wasn’t stealing my whole life, and I tried to believe it was all behind me. I had a vision of a long dusty road going with no end in sight, and the feeling of resignation that there was no shortcut; I’d have to take the long road one day at a time. During that time when I left the West (trips to Hungary and Russia), again as in Kenya I was whole and integrated, and reached the conclusion that Western culture was my problem. In any case, it really felt situational and not some kind of “brain chemistry” thing.

More recently I saw a photo of me and 40 other people. The only person not smiling was me. I thought of all the other photos in my life: nearly all were like that. Only then I realized I convey depression obviously; everyone knows, and I was never successfully hiding or managing it.

If only Dostoevsky could be as concise.

10. There are definite things that turn OFF my animal facilities

Going back to the enneagram, there are certain “animal facilities” that we are supposed to have, and when we do, we can meet our needs properly. But like a machine, we can break. When the facilities are broken or imbalanced; then we can’t meet our own needs. In this puzzle piece I’m trying to connect all the things above, and this is where it starts to get political. Below is a a list of the biggest things that have broken me consistently over my life.

False beliefs and being something. Like I said earlier, the advice to “be yourself” is a trap, and I’ve had the worst results from following advice in general. Food is a big example: I’m inundated with all the ways to eat right, but it’s coming from outside and so following the advice is blind. It’s as if I said “OK, I’ll stop acting from within and just do what you say.” I’ve tried to “be” so many things I was told to be all my life. With food, I’m the queen of rebound: I can omit carbs (or whatever I’m supposed to avoid), but then when I give up, I eat more of the “bad” thing than I would have if I hadn’t followed any advice. Even advice that is universally recognized as “good advice” is terrible for me; I rebound and do the opposite of the advice, the more I try to follow it. My conclusion is that being something and doing stuff is never a good answer.

Lack of steering. “Steering” is what people do to navigate life towards what they want and away from what they don’t want. Birds steer in tiny quick movements all the time to catch updrafts; it has to be fast, self-serving and thoughtless, since a bird can’t afford the time to think “Should I really take advantage of that draft?” As another similar example, in order to have sexual feeling, we have to know where we are going and steer towards it; a certain kind of sexual block prevents someone from knowing what to do to reach the feeling they want, or it prevents them from acting on it because of fear or guilt. In my case I feel like being present or happy is something that I don’t know how to steer to. I don’t know where I am in relation to it, and I’m not accustomed to being there, so I don’t know what direction to go or what to do or how to recognize when I’m getting closer. This lack of steering, over time, has baked into a kind of traumatized, inflexible way of being that is very difficult to undo.

Artificials. I experimented with artificial colors a few times – eating lots of one color candy at once and testing the effects. Although not a blind experiment, it was pretty clear that certain colors caused depression a few hours after the experiment. Since there is hardly any data out there on these effects, it is an experiment each person would need to do separately if they suspected it. (In my case, the blue color known as BBG was the worst; it is found in M&Ms and Gatorade, and is also used as a neurosuppressant for spinal cord surgery – no wonder it has psycho-effects! Less pronounced were reds and yellows.)

Loneliness. There’s an autistic kind of loneliness which manifests as not being part of the social/cultural fabric. Most self-help books describe loneliness as an internal failure to engage with people, with the assumption that there is an ever-present supply of people everywhere you go. But some of us have the willingness and ability to engage, but are avoided or even outcast. For me a lack of intimacy over most of my life is a kind of chronic pain or suppression that makes me feel only half alive. Also I’m “othered” so often in group settings that I barely know what it’s like to be included in a complete way. I’m just not seen as one of “us”.

Unemployment. Not having a way to contribute to the world is like being lonely for work, instead of lonely for people. Contribution is a basic need. Being paid has the benefit of money, which is power, and the side benefit of being told daily that we are needed. Paid and volunteer work has been increasingly difficult for me to find though, and I think it kills my motivation to do anything else.

Lack of space control. Being in a house controlled by others, or partially controlled, or invaded by others, is a gigantic stress factor for me. I think it’s one of the near-universal autistic tendencies to need control over at least some small space, our time, and our belongings. When I don’t run my day – when I’m expected to adapt continuously to others’ needs – then the whole time I’m in adapting mode, I’m also in a kind of shut-down mode.

Overstimulation. By stimulation I just mean the amount of sounds, lights, and movement. For me it’s a gradual build up that I don’t notice and then find it hard to trace. For example I could be in a hotel setting for a long meeting and then afterwards be in high alert and need four hours to relax again, but I wouldn’t have detected any problem as the tension was building up. Some autistic people have that a lot worse, or at least react against the problem much sooner.

Antidepth. There’s a flattening effect of modern Western society – the lack of any discernible culture, or the pressure to not be deep or spiritual. It’s partly an effect of the “system” – capitalism, centralized religion and other normalizing forces that make public life appear mindless and fake. Which leads me to the next section…

11. Western culture lacks fundamental humanity

We don’t care for each other as a cornerstone of society. There are aspects of society that formalize “care” in systems, and there are lots of individuals who care, but I just don’t think it’s who we are.

One example is with crime. If I’m walking alone in a city and it’s getting dark, and there are risks I’m exposed to, I don’t have confidence that the other 90% of people around me who are trustworthy would protect me from the 10% who could be a danger. The other 90% also don’t have that confidence from me. We should assume that we’re all suffering, incomplete, weak, possibly traumatized, and that we need each other. And we’re all there in the same place, but we don’t do the acts of caring that would make crime impossible.

In a more general sense, we don’t prioritize meeting all our needs as public and community policy, or even as family policy. Some needs are even politically contested, like universal health care, education, and economic opportunity – some people claim that there’s no public value in even trying to meet these needs! Other needs, like the need for ritual and contribution, are not even on the map of public discourse.

Since all the needs are real and more or less universal, we should start with the assumption that we can meet everyone’s needs in our society. But that’s so far away from today’s reality. Instead we manufacture poverty and compete to ensure others needs are not being met, in the spirit of competition. But our needs are meetable practically by definition; nature doesn’t make insatiable needs. (If someone appears to have an insatiable need for something material – such as boats, they probably have some other more fundamental need that is not being met, and boats are a substitute. The real need can be met; the substitute need is endless: you can always say you “need” more boats. Real needs are not a zero-sum game that we should be competing over.)

From the “needs” perspective, our culture is a disastrous failure. I feel like along with most everyone else, I’m a victim of this bizarre Western way of organizing ourselves, that has the effect of turning off my animal facilities, making it hard for all of us to just be happy.

12. Anti-bullying is ironic

(Quoting from my friend Stephanie in this piece.)

“Bullying” means coercion or control by one person over another, and we’re all supposed to be against it. At the same time, our society is organized around putting people in their place – control by one person over another. Where would patriarchy be without someone to oppress? What would plutocracy amount to without people to profit from? One of the main purposes of schooling is to stratify the population; yet schools are where we ironically find anti-bullying campaigns.

So what happened that made bullying a thing that we think we can stop? Has it gotten worse? Did standards change? Are people more troubled by being coerced than before? When people say they are anti-bullying, do they mean they don’t want to have a pecking order at all for the first time in history, or is it a change of technique that they are after, or a change of approach from strengthening the victims to disempowering the bullies?

I don’t know the answers to all that, but anti-bullying as a movement seems to be a distraction from dealing with reality at large. It’s so much easier to get riled up about the possibility of local and specific bullies than to deal with inequality everywhere.

On the other hand, those doing this kind of work may be trying to deal with reality at large, by starting in schools, but the deeper message may often get lost in the school system’s mechanical propaganda. Some of the more enlightened guides on the topic say that teachers must be included in the policy (meaning they don’t get to bully because they are in charge), and that victims must be able to fight back; otherwise the campaign won’t work. That deeper version sounds less ironic.

This is closely connected to the need for us 90% safe people to protect each other. I think I feel that bullies are not at all the proper focus for change, but that by learning to protect each other, that is the more appropriate focus. In other words we have to actively protect social space knowing that would-be bullies will always lurk there, not just police the space to to attempt to keep bullies out.

And to finish with Stephanie’s advice: “We few who know each other must cling to love.”

13. Unreliability comes in flavors

This piece is about reliability on the job, and an observation that allistic and autistic people have very different behavior with respect to being reliable or unreliable. I’ve had to hire people to work under me, which is the source of these generalizations.

I feel like allistic (normal) people inhabit a world of verbal pillows where they speak as if they are reliable, but actually doing what they say is not really a core value. Some allistic people make many times more plans as they will ever really do because saying they will do something is most of what counts; follow through is an inconvenience only done when necessary. They seem to only take an action in their job if there is constant praise and/or a constant threat of being fired and the threat is backed by anger, so to make normal people work at all, I think it must take a complex system of social hierarchy and scorn and praise – which I can’t create. I’ve had a few of them work for me and in general they don’t do much; they seem to be in an eternal holding pattern waiting for a push.

Autistic people on the other hand seem to inhabit a more solid contractual landscape where words imply follow-through, and they are self-training and self-motivating as a rule. Only autistic people will ask for less money, to ensure they aren’t being paid for something that they didn’t do. But even so, they have been only somewhat more reliable than allistic people in my experience. The reason is “stuff”, which is the whole collection of triggers and depression and mis-ordering of the environment and the call of special interests, which is unpredictable. “I was going to finish the project but then I had to build a cat house”, or “my life unraveled” or whatever happened. The thing that happened is usually prior to the job in the ordering scheme. We have to have certain things to get on with the next thing: relationships have to be stable, then my stuff has to be where it goes, then I have to empty my in-box, and so on and so on, THEN I can work. When we don’t control that whole sequence of pre-requisite conditions, we don’t have the power to be reliable. But when things align, we can sometimes produce at hyperspeed.

While I don’t know if the allistic unreliability issues are connected to their happiness, I’m pretty sure there’s a pattern among more autistic types that happiness is a precursor to basic functioning in demanding settings like jobs.

These problems are serious employment disabilities and not just discrimination; real-world projects need reliable outcomes and employers are not set up to handle random downtime. This makes me think the place to address the problem of unreliability is in the pre-conditions in the environment, and that the answer is connected to the answer to bullying, and connected to having our needs met generally.

14. My trauma could not help her trauma

One day I realized that my best friend, back when we were 16, who was neglected and unprotected and unsupported throughout high school, who’s mother was never home, who had adult “boyfriends”, and who dropped out and went into prostitution, was actually being raped in her own house, and threatened, and was the property of a gang, and although she told me and possibly only me about all of this at the time, I didn’t say anything to anyone, and she never got any help.

Why didn’t I say anything?

The mind can make boxes and simultaneously believe opposing things: in one part of my mind I knew that it was a crime, and that if it was reported she might be taken to a foster family where this would not happen, but I only knew that as an abstraction and not applying to this situation which I considered unique and operating under its own rules. I didn’t trust adults and wouldn’t tell them anything; I assumed I’d be silenced and wouldn’t matter and, of course, that my feelings were wrong – about everything. The friendship which I placed above all else would end if I did something. So a person internalizes the oppression and becomes an accomplice, and builds walls separating parts of the self to allow herself to feel no guilt. So while I could recite the details of what my friend was going through, I simultaneously remained ignorant of it for 29 years until one day when that particular wall came down, and I realized that that was that – her situation and what they show on TV cop shows were not two different things, but are really the same, the only difference being that with strangers there’s a simplifying objectivity.

No matter how important something is, I seem to be able to do the mental segmentation necessary to prevent myself from acting on it.

In the few years following the incident with my best friend, three other friends, all from Quaker families, struggled to bring to consciousness that they had been serially raped by their fathers. I guess I’m bringing this up to challenge myself and you the reader to never assume that someone is “fine” or safe just because they seem happy.

15. There are large scale systematic engagement barriers

I haven’t finished this essay for months because I wanted to weave it all together and say important things about accessibility and creating spaces that people can engage in, including disabled people. There must be ways to recognize all those systematic engagement barriers which aren’t just one person’s issues. There must be some ways to open up spaces that create movement and inspire engagement. But this is too big, so I’ll leave the conclusion for another time.

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