Begin again

I wrote the first draft of this post in a way I rarely write anymore: On paper, with a pen. When I began writing, as a girl, that was the way of all first drafts; through my childhood and teen years I had a large, hard, permanently red bump on the first knuckle of the finger my pen pressed against; a remnant of it remains, a permanent disfigurement that is evidence of something I’ve always been compelled to do.

I picked up a pen because I was on a third day of avoiding screens, a third day of trying to muddle through work with a multiple-day migraine. In my migraine, there are various factors always at play: work, screens, stress, meds, sleep, rest, hydration, exercise, food. Trying to figure out exactly how to put these together is like trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle. Maybe I can get one line to work, but I can never get the whole box to add up correctly. If I take off work to avoid screens, I increase stress from falling further behind. If I exercise when fatigued, I can trigger an episode, but if I don’t exercise I don’t sleep well, which can also trigger an episode. If I spend Sunday in food prep for the week I know I will eat well on work days, but I might end Sunday fatigued rather than rested, and stressed about other things I didn’t get to do.

I picked up a pen because I couldn’t sit in front of a keyboard and computer screen, but I wanted to capture something from Katherine May’s Wintering (referenced in last week’s post):

“The very permanence of the label–of having a brain that just happened to work in a certain way–was my salvation. I had to adapt. I had to surrender. The only thing breaking me was pretending to be like everyone else” (p. 183)

I have spent most of my life powering through. Powering through was my super-power. As a young adult, I did not understand those who said there were things they did not have the capacity to do; in my world view, one just did what had to be done, whatever it was, whatever it took to do it. When I was teaching full-time and raising twin toddlers and a teen, people would say, “How do you do it?” or, “I could never do what you do!” and I would think (or sometimes say): I don’t really have a choice. In my mind, in my life, there wasn’t a choice. I was doing what had to be done.

(Of course, I see now that there were choices. There are always choices. The ones available to me, though, would have required sacrifices I wouldn’t make.)

For a time, in those years, I would get up at 4:00 to either write or walk on a treadmill before my babies woke up. We’d get ourselves off to school/daycare, where I would maximize every minute of the day until it was time to leave to pick up the kids. The evening would be spent in dinner/bath/bedtime, and after I’d gotten them tucked in I would work for a few hours more to prepare for the next day’s classes, until I went to bed. I powered through, for years.

Now, I can’t.

I don’t have May’s autism diagnosis (although I may just be undiagnosed), but I’ve got others that indicate a body/brain that doesn’t work in typical ways: chronic migraine, anxiety, fibromyalgia, eczema, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, restless leg syndrome, insomnia. My startle reflex is comical, and I have difficulty with many types of sound and light. Most of the time, I cannot tolerate direct eye contact. I wear a mouth guard at night because I would otherwise break my teeth in my sleep. A person close to me has likened my brain to a computer hard drive that never stops spinning and overheats. I feel ridiculously sensitive to stimulation of all kinds. I’m often unaware of the physical and mental agitation I’m feeling until the source of stimulation ceases; yesterday, Cane turned the radio down in the car and I felt a flood of relief I hadn’t known I needed until I felt it.

In my life, I’ve seen myriad doctors (western, naturopathic, wholistic) from a variety of specialties. I’ve tried different diets, supplements, and medications. I’ve had multiple therapists. I gave up work (both teaching and writing) I loved and was good at. Nothing has really worked. The only thing that has brought consistent relief is a slower life–the life I live during breaks from school.

I don’t know why some of us need to see someone’s else’s words, someone else’s experience, to accept the truth of our own, but I am one of those people. May’s words crystallized a truth I’ve been working my way to for some time now: My life isn’t working for me, and, in important ways, never really has. It is not sustainable, and it is not something I can will my way to being different because I cannot will myself to be different. In the words of Popeye, “I yam what I yam”–and who I am simply cannot do what I think I should be able to. Not any more. Not for what it has always cost me.

At this stage of my game, it is disorienting and difficult and frightening to accept a fundamentally different view of myself. It is also liberating.

For so long, I have seen my difficulty to manage things others seem able to as a failing. The first step of any recovery program (yes, I did that, too), is to accept powerlessness. It seems I have to learn, again and again, the paradoxical truth that power comes from accepting powerlessness. Accepting where we are powerless is crucial to finding where we are not. This week, I have understood in some new way that I am powerless to change whatever it is that makes me the way I am, and accepting that gives me space to create a new idea about who I am and what I can be–and that is freeing. Instead of seeing my difficulty to manage as failure, I can see my ability to function as well as I have as, instead, a kind of strength. Instead of focusing on all the things I haven’t done or have failed at, I can marvel at all that I have done in spite of who I am. Today, my 56th birthday in this year of our pandemic–which has blown so many things open–I am finally beginning to see surrender and radical acceptance of truths I don’t like as a different type of strength, one I now need to embrace.

My task for the coming year–my gift to myself–is to find adaptations that will work for the person I actually am. First steps never have to be big ones. This week, that project for me began the way so many things in my life have: I picked up a pen and started writing.

8 thoughts on “Begin again

  1. Marian says:

    There’s so much in this post that resonates with me, Rita, and I’m grateful for your unflinching authenticity in writing it. This—”Instead of seeing my difficulty to manage as failure, I can see my ability to function as well as I have as, instead, a kind of strength”—especially hits home. Flipping this narrative is exceedingly difficult. (Or, at least, it can be for some of us; it’s something I struggle with on a daily basis.)

    I agree with May that having a label can feel like salvation. As you said in your reply to my comment on last week’s post, it’s hard to understand something if you can’t name it. Unfortunately, it was my experience growing up that if you were having difficulty managing, that *was* a personal failing, that being unable to function was a choice, and that being labeled as anything other than “normal” or “healthy” was something to be avoided at all costs. This toxic mindset has been incredibly damaging, but despite that, I can’t quite fully let it go. I think this might come from society’s fascination with (and glorification of?) people who succeed despite early hardships. These token success stories show that there’s a kernel of truth to the trope of “you can overcome anything you put your mind to,” and this means that when you can’t or don’t overcome, it can feel like an additional failure. One thing that often trips me up is the fact that I often imagine that these successes are the result of completely individualistic endeavours. But it seems to me that when you dig deeper, you often see that help was given and accepted. This brings me back around to labels, and while I do completely agree that they can be salvation, I can’t help but think that they might also be a mark of privilege. Not everyone gets access to the help they need, and some people are so steeped in toxic shame that they wouldn’t be able to access help even if it were offered to them. (I hope that doesn’t come off as churlish.)

    I’m also a person whose aha moments have come through others’ words and experiences, mostly via books and other writings, and I’m truly glad for you that you happened across a book that’s been so helpful. Wishing you a very happy birthday, Rita. 🙂

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I don’t find you churlish at all. I think you’re right that our relationship to labels is problematic. Earlier in my life I was suffering with endometriosis, and a big part of the pain for me was not knowing what the problem was–which meant wondering if the problem was even real, or was something that was all in my head. Nothing about my physical reality changed when a doctor gave me a name and legitimized my experience, but it changed everything about my feelings about the whole thing. I think this speaks to something I’m trying to get at in this post: That we need to believe ourselves. That we should feel better able to say, “This (whatever “this” is) is something I need to be healthy and OK,” without feeling that our needs are some kind of personal failing. Like you, I struggle to do that. It’s tricky, because hard work is sometimes necessary and important, and I do think that a willingness to do so is a positive character trait. I just wish we’d lose the bootstraps mythology and our narrow ideas about what constitutes worth. Lots of people have all kinds of reasons they can’t operate in the way the majority does, in all kinds of ways. Listening to my kids, I think this is something that might be changing, and that’s a good thing.

  2. Jill Salahub says:

    I feel all this, so much! I just kept saying “ditto” at the end of every single paragraph. Having always pushed beyond my limits to “keep up” broke me, and now as I heal, it is ALL about honoring myself, what I want and need. May both of us find more ease, and with it a new strength. Happy Birthday!

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Jill. I have thought often of you and your journey over the past week (months, really). I will admit to some envy when I see how you are living now. I appreciate having models to look to, though, and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from you.

  3. Kate says:

    Happy birthday, Rita. I’m sorry it was amidst migraine.

    I am so grateful you took the time to write your words on paper and again here. I have a lot of thoughts that are hard to untangle and unknot in a comment but your post has me thinking about capitalism and productivity and the values and norms we learn from stories like The Little Red Hen and the grasshopper/ant folktale we talked about this summer. I think many of us go through times when we do too much because it’s there to be done and we simply have no choice but then we lock ourselves into that unsustainable standard and burn out. Our whole culture is built by and around achievers and doers and makers and worth and productivity have become intermingled.

    Over the years, I’ve learned that like you, I often get “over-stimmed” by the radio or the television or clattery dishes or an itchy piece of clothing and because of that I need more rest. I just do. I would love to function like the people I most admire and work from sun up to down, but I can’t.

    Oh and I, too, have one of those bumps. As does Violet. I always smile when I notice one on someone’s hand because I know they are a little bit kindred.

    One last happy birthday, Rita. I hope you find a way to make the necessary adaptions without the feeling of too much sacrifice.

    • Rita says:

      I’m heading the same place you are in my thoughts (thanks in large part to conversations with my daughter this summer). Worth and productivity are intermingled in our culture, and it’s all about serving capitalism. I am (of course) grateful for many things that might not exist without the forces of our capitalistic economy, but I’d sure like it if our systems and values could be much more humane.

      I’ve long known we’re kindred spirits, but your comment about clattery dishes cements it. 🙂 And clothing–I just won’t wear things anymore unless they feel good, and I care less and less about how they look. Not worrying about that has been one of the benefits of pandemic living.

      Thank you for the birthday wishes. It’s been a really nice day, with a lot of ease and soft lights and quiet music. 🙂

  4. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    Oh, friend, I hope you get to read the words I am putting down to pages I hope are seen. I am a combination of chronic migraine, anxiety, childhood trauma (from a teacher), and Attention Deficit Disorder. I feel we all will have more discovered after this year is over, the least of which is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I urge you to keep writing your truths, your stories because they are saving me currently. Keep writing by pen, pencil, journaling for me is what is helping each day. I began journaling every morning, and it is what I am doing in my world to get through this storm. I have a little “therapist corner” for myself. Ella then created one for herself in her room as well. She calls it her “positivity corner”. I love that.

    Happy 56th Birthday, my dear friend! I love you and your words so much.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Last Week Called for Bow Wow Brownies Minus the WowMy Profile

  5. TD says:

    Happy be-later birthday, Rita!

    I completely understand the “I can’t.” Yet most people cannot understand the “I can’t, until they can’t themselves!

    Much happened this evening. I will follow up with you later, Rita. I at least wanted to get you a note of good birthday wishes for whatever you wish for!

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