The Shoulds

I keep thinking about things I ‘should’ do.

I ‘should’ eat better, I ‘should’ clean more, I ‘should’ exercise more/at all, I ‘should’ read more academic things, I ‘should’ be prepping for academic things, I ‘should’ write, I ‘should’ volunteer, I ‘should’ be in the streets, I ‘should’ do what my colleagues do, I ‘should’ call home, I ‘should’ go outside, I ‘should’ do this, that, the other.

And…yes. I mean, I ‘should’ do at least some of those things, for health. For safety.

But all I think about is what I should do and what my loved ones need and want. And when I fail to do those things or live up to my shoulds, I deprive myself–of things like sunlight and friendship and pleasure.

I decide I don’t deserve to go to that free pleasure event, because I haven’t done enough in my community–regardless of my energy level, regardless of my physical ability, regardless of anything that’s been happening in my personal life.

I decide I don’t deserve sunshine because I haven’t been able to get out of bed for days and weeks at a time.

I decide I don’t deserve a massage to help my aching body feel better because I haven’t lived up to the societal standards of feminine hygiene like shaving–even though shaving makes me ache so badly. And I decide I can’t get a wax even though I actually like the feeling of my legs being hairless because I just don’t deserve it. I haven’t done enough. I’m too much bad, not enough good.

I talk to myself like that all the time.

But I would totally tell my wife to do whatever she needs and wants to feel good about herself. I would say the same to my male partners.

What is it I want? And why is it so hard to figure that out *and* act on it? Why do I feel like I’m not good enough to do what I want?

My therapist tells me I only need to do what I want in this life. I keep looking at her like I don’t believe her. I think, to me, part of my personal definition of being a good person is doing good works. And if I’m not doing good works, I’m not being a good person. So then it makes it hard for me to feel like I ‘get’ to do things that are purely pleasurable for me.

But if I never let myself feel pleasure, how do I get out of misery?

Also, it’s hard to consistently do the good things I want to do, and I hate being inconsistent. It’s hard for me, I mean. Not knowing when my body will shut down on me makes it difficult.

Other people manage, and I tell myself that. I just…I’m not supposed to compare, and I haven’t figured out how I’m supposed to manage.

It’s particularly difficult when I’ve spent a lifetime being told–first by actual, physical people who were supposed to take care of me (my parents) that all my physical and mental ails were trivial/not real (from illness to broken limbs, not a thing was believed until hours/days had passed and I finally got them to take me to a doctor). Now, it’s hard for me to believe that about myself. I keep telling myself it’s not that bad, that I don’t have it as bad as other people, that I need to just pull myself up and get on with it, that I’m horrible for not just getting on with life, that all of this is just me being hysterical and manipulative and melodramatic (and hey, those are words from my past). It’s hard for me to take care of my body.

One of my partners is a sweet caretaker, but he’s the sort that wants to do for me. And he’s been so so helpful, but he’s not great at telling me to make an appointment. Not yet. I think he’ll get there. But I have to learn to do it on my own, because it really shouldn’t be on him, or on anyone else. I just…never learned how to do it, never learned how to value my body.

And that gives me this really really bad case of the shoulds all the time. I ‘should’ do all these things, but a lot of the time I can’t, because I actually physically can’t. Or I mentally can’t. And I need to be easier on myself about that.

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Wrestling With Anger

I haven’t written in a little over a month because I’ve been dealing with anger, with being angry.

It’s a scary place for me.

So I’ve been running away, hiding. Mentally abusing myself for feeling anger. Verbally abusing myself, when there’s no one around to hear it. It’s a thing I can’t stop. I’ll think of all the things I should be doing, and all those shoulds that I’m not doing (no matter the reasons), and then “I hate myself” will pop out of my mouth, or “I’m not a good person” or “I’m a terrible person.”

Being alone has been hard.

Being with people has been hard.

I keep assuming that all the people I care about who aren’t around me every day, who don’t see my physical and mental struggles every day, must hate me. I keep assuming they think I’m terrible and a fake.

I keep wanting to take time away from what little activism I do, because my first response to it is anger.


 

I do some of my best writing in anger.

It’s a white-hot flash, an energy buzzing over me. I hum with it, almost sing in the clarity as words flow from brain to keyboard.

Whether I write or not, though–whether I publish or not–once the flow stops, something else happens.

If I write, usually I feel good. Usually, I write well, and I write something that I think furthers the cause, or helps my audience understand better.

But then there’s a crash.

If I don’t write…if I just press it down, ignore it, try to move on…I’m sad. I usually wind up more depressed.

The solution seems to be to write–but I don’t want to be angry all the time. I have these flashes of things to write about all the time, and I’d love to write more. I just don’t want to be angry all the time.


 

I have a complicated history with anger.

Anger–rage, really–prefaced many of my step-dad’s worst abusive bouts.

Anger had center stage at my grandparents’ dinner table when my dad was home, as he and my grandpa shouted at each other, red-faced over politics and mashed potatoes.

Anger fueled the retorts that protected me from more physical abuse, but also shamed my family.

Anger has made me feel both impotent and powerful, both clouded and clear.

I can’t trust it.

Anger scares me.


 

Anger is an appropriate response to social injustice, particularly when one experiences that injustice.

Often, we as a society treat anger as something totally unacceptable, particularly in women and people of color. I’m a white woman. I ‘win’ on the white front, but not the woman front. It’s never been acceptable for me to be angry, even when it was appropriate.


 

In my depression, I am deeply angry at myself for disappointing everyone (myself included). Sometimes I’m angry at my family for how they treated me growing up, but mostly I turn that rage inward.

I don’t want to always be angry. Reading social justice things has become dicier for me lately, because I feel the flash of anger, and that flash too quickly reminds me of my self-anger and how I’m not doing enough.

I don’t want to respond to things out of anger always. I want to respond out of empathy and gentleness and compassion. Those are the things I admire. I’ve spent so long trying to do that, but the walls I’ve put in place are crumbling down, and now I don’t know how to rebuild them. I don’t know if I can. I don’t want to be my dad or my step-dad, always yelling, frowning, red-faced, wild-eyed.


 

I hope I can find peace with this soon, because I don’t know what to do with all of this anger.

Mental Health Therapy and Luxury

Therapy for mental health is and is not a luxury.

On the one hand, such therapy can be expensive and is often not readily available. Some therapists aren’t covered by insurances plans. Some offer sliding scale fees, and some do not (based on their needs for keeping their practices going/themselves fed/etc.). Too many people consider therapy to be something for ‘privileged’ people, something that is frou-frou or extra. Many terrible stereotypes about therapy, therapists, and those of us who avail ourselves of mental health services exist and are perpetuated. These things all work to make therapy a luxury for many people, in the sense that it is not easily affordable/accessible for these people.

Personally, this cost keeps me up at night. I guilt myself for using resources to take care of myself when I’m not financially contributing to our living situation. And yet, taking the steps to take care of my mental health has been life-saving.

On the other hand, therapy is not the same thing as a luxury good such as an expensive car, watch, set of cook ware, mansion, TV, or any other thing. While these things are also not affordable/accessible for many people, they do not provide a healing service.

I’ve heard, far too often for my liking, pairings of “I can’t afford therapy” and “I’m buying an (or more than one) expensive item,” from people who are experiencing mental health issues. People get to choose how they spend their money and manage their mental health–but those two statements don’t logically fit together.

As well, as someone for whom mental health services are a need, such statements sound to me like the speaker does not believe the issues I’m (or any one else dealing with mental illness) working with/through are real. It sounds dangerously close to saying, “Why go to therapy when you could just do XYZ other thing?” or “Oh, you should just get over it.” That may not be the intent, but it is the impact.

I cannot buy my way to mental health. I am not positive that anyone can. Even in my fundamental Christian upbringing, I got that message:

Of course, the Titanic did sink–which makes this song a bit odd once I really stop to think about it–but that repetition of not being able to buy my way to happiness? of not being able to get myself to mental wellness via money? I was gifted that even in my super-Christian, super-fundamental background, courtesy of Amy Grant.

Even though I prick myself about the costs associated with therapy, I am grateful to know that I can’t buy my way to wellness. I wish I had better words to express this, in the moment, to the people in my life who have implied that therapy and luxury goods are of a kind.

Depression-pain

I don’t know if I should content-warning this or not–but I’ll be discussing my experience of sudden-onset depression pain.


There are days when it comes on fast, strong, sudden, hard. The bottom dropped out from under me, no free-falling feeling, just the hard face-smacking thud of finding new low. Fresh air gone, high walls replacing all that beautiful sunlight. Blank dark walls. The only way is straight forward, if I can walk at all. If I can move. If I can get up.

Breathing hurts. Every breath, every beat of my heart feels like jagged pieces of glass under my skin, piercing from the inside out.

Every move I make feels cutting, hard, edged, wrong.

My emotions go flat, outside of the pain. Is pain like that an emotion? I can’t tell. Or is it a sense, like sight and touch?

Tears come and go, running down my face at the slightest provocation, or not coming even when they really really should. Am I even human anymore?


In the days after the initial smackthumpthud of a hard fall like that, I’m tired. So tired.

I feel cut open on the inside. The glass is there-not-there. It can rise quickeasy to cut again, and it’s there just below the surface if I relax too much, waiting for tender insides to rest on sharp edges.

My feet hurt, like I’ve walked a lot. My joints all ache.

My lungs don’t seem to hold as much air, and breathing still hurts.

My bones feel like they’ve been broken and started to heal; my muscles feel weirdly tight and loose.

Sleep is hard and weird, heavy but in fits and starts.

Tears still come, randomly. Not as many.

I long for everything soft–voices, arms, pillows, blankets.


There’s no timeline on these things. I never know how long they’ll last, or how long it will be between.

Right now I’m in ‘days after.’ I’m not in ‘between.’

I’m terrified I’ll go back down before I come back up. There’s no guarantee of going up before down. These aren’t sine waves, predictable mathematical curvatures. I’m terrified of how far down might be, that I haven’t seen true bottom, that I will totally break. This is the darkest gray right now.

My Disability Is Not Your Problem

I could stop the post with just the title. Pick any one of my disabilities/health issues, or any combination, and then realize: not your problem.

I suspect this needs more unpacking, though, because I’ve encountered various forms of resistance. Some people get defensive when I need to take care of myself, and some people want to do too much for me, and some people think “people like me” are dangerous.

So, for the first: If we’re doing something together, whatever that thing may be, and I realize I need to stop doing the thing in order to let my body rest, I will say so and do so. This is not about you. It does not make you a bad person, whether you continue on with said activity or not. It simply means my body needs to rest. Often I can’t walk very far, and I definitely can’t walk very fast most of the time. Sometimes this is a knee/hip problem, sometimes this is an ankle problem, sometimes this is a migraine problem. Whatever the case may be, if I need to stop, I will, and this is about me, not you. It doesn’t mean I think you are a horrible person. I don’t think you ‘made’ me do anything. I simply must listen to my body or face more serious consequences later (and by ‘later,’ I might mean ‘in five minutes’). And in most cases, I will have some form of solitary entertainment with me (phone, book), so I will be fine on my own while you have fun completing the festival/fair/mall/etc. (The exception to this: sexy times, during which I likely won’t have a book {unless we’re reading sexy things to one another?}, and in which case I’m sure we could work something out.)

For the second: There’s a lot I can’t do a lot of the time. Right now I have arthritis in my neck in such a way that using my shoulders/neck can cause a really painful all-day migraine the next day. So I have to be careful. That said, there are things I can do, and I really hate feeling useless. Doing AllTheThings for me because of my potential for pain means I’ll likely end up sitting here feeling like a burden to everyone around me, particularly those who live with me. Let me do things that I feel I can do. If it turns out they cause me pain–then let me find something else I can do. But let me do things! I want to be useful and helpful.

For the third: There’s a lot of stigma surrounding people with mental health issues. We get pigeonholed a lot as dangerous, criminal, etc. However, the vast majority of us really aren’t. For my part, I am every bit as capable of thinking through complex issues and arriving at peaceful solutions as the next person–possibly more so, given the gun- and prison-loving nature of the USA. I’ve graduated at the top of all my classes, including #1 in graduate school. I’m a theologian. I support gun restrictions, Black Lives Matter, police reforms, liberation theology, inclusive and intersectional feminism, womanism, consent culture, inclusive sex education at all ages, mental health awareness and education, ecotheology, RACK and SSC, polyamory…. I support conflict resolution and learning when to walk away. And, while a lot of these things may be ‘dangerous’ to the status quo, they’re not violently dangerous; they’re not criminal. And they do not have a thing to do with my mental health. My mental health status is one part of me, not my totality, and so to label me as a danger purely because of that is to miss all the other things about me.

In sum, my disability/ies is/are not your problem. I’ll take care of me, and I want to be useful, and I’m not a danger. If I need help, I’ll ask. In the meantime, let’s enjoy one another’s company.

Validation and Empathy

Somewhere along my life path–pretty early on, I think–I picked up the idea that I had to seek validation from outside sources. What I did was very important; who I was, less so. One set of ‘parents’ paid me for grades (though they didn’t have to–I would have received straight A’s just for the achievement of it, and because I found school both enjoyable and easy), while the other punished me if I received anything below an A (including high B’s). I volunteered and participated in so many different ways, from church to school to community, in a continuous balancing act of pleasing two sets of parents with conflicting ideals.

I didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, sneak out, get in trouble in school, or have sex (until I was 18, and that’s a whole different story).

And yet, I was never good enough. From at least age 12 onward, my life was full of accusations of how I was screwing up, how I would never make it, how I was doing all the things I explicitly did not do (drugs, drinking, sex) and not doing all the things I explicitly did do (good grades, volunteering). I was constantly trying to prove myself against this backdrop of irrational disbelief.

The few times I felt recognition for what I did do felt like heaven.

At the same time, I also learned or was born with a huge dose of empathy. It wasn’t until recently that I read anything by David Foster Wallace and realized I’ve been doing that my whole life: finding compassionate reasons for the things that seem to cause others’ blood to boil.

{This empathy caused a small tiff between my grandfather and me once, when a waitress slopped his coffee onto his saucer as she sat cup-and-saucer on the diner table. Grandpa began grumbling about how horrible this was, that this was the most terrible thing, that he ought not to tip her for that. I pointed out that perhaps she’d had a long shift or a bad day, and maybe he could give her a break. He shot back that I would be a lawyer for all the criminals someday. He did tip her, though.}

Right now, my empathy and need for validation are tangling nastily with one another. I’m in the process of trying to learn how to validate myself after 30-odd years of seeking outside approval. I’m trying to undo that awful voice inside me that says if I don’t do XYZ thing, I am not worthy of love and respect. At the same time, my empathy for various people and situations makes me want to do more.

However, if I am doing in order to feed my own validation, I am doing for the wrong reason–and I will likely end up hurting more than helping. These struggles are not about me–but if I let the need for approval/validation win, I will make them be about me, and that will be wrong.

And so I am struggling with myself, and learning to have empathy with myself.

God said "Love your enemy" and I obeyed him and loved myself. - Khalil Gibran

Coming Out is Forever

My wife and I had a conversation the other day revolving around her transition. She mentioned that she’d written a journal wherein she realizes she’ll be coming out forever–a feeling which I as a bi/pan person can understand, since I’m also always coming out. In our discussion, and in her journal, she brushed on the pressures of ‘fitting in,’ of ‘passing‘ as cisgender.

I paused the conversation there, because I wanted to check in with her. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t trying to conform to something that wasn’t her, that she wasn’t trying to fit into a mold with an ever-changing, ever-moving target of cisgender ‘femininity’ just because it has ‘cisgender’ attached to it. I wanted to make sure she felt free to be herself.

And I wanted to mention an article I’d read: The Null HypotheCis. This article points out that our society tends to treat ‘cisgender/cissexual’ as the null, the standard, the thing against which we test.

After all, surely if we’re going to risk so much, put so much at stake, in such a monumental “decision”, we should approach it carefully, and make sure to be certain, right? Shouldn’t we be looking for proof that we’re trans before gambling our whole lives on that being the case?

Well, maybe… if proof of being trans was even really something possible, beyond the simple proof of subjectively experiencing your identity and gender as such. But more importantly: we never ask ourselves for “proof” that we’re cis.

And yet–identifying as cisgender is (as the article points out) every bit as much of a subjective thing as is identifying as transgender. (And perhaps that’s part of the discomfort of transgender identities–that such persons make us call our cis selves into question, make us think about how subjective our identities really are.) I brought it up to her because I know how easy it is to buy into that narrative of the societally structured null hypothesis, that ‘straight’ is null and LGB is the question.

As a bisexual woman married to someone who didn’t come out of the closet as MtF until well after we were married, I lived with ‘heterosexual couple privilege’ for years. And I still do, in some ways, since we’re still in the very beginning stages of Eren coming out at work and making legal marker changes.

And yet–both Eren and I live with stigma every day. Both of us are eternally coming out. And sometimes, it’s exhausting and hard and emotionally draining. Sometimes people expect us to be the educational battering rams to knock down their uneducated peers’ views.

But worse? Bisexual people experience higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation than lesbian and gay folks, and transgender people have an even higher suicide rate. In a world where we’re constantly either erased or that it will kill you for existing, is it any wonder that our two groups experience such high rates of depression and suicide? No, it isn’t.

Eren and I worry more about her external safety and my internal safety. We worry about someone ‘finding out’ she’s transgender and deciding to hurt or kill her for that. A world that makes a punchline out of her existence means her existence is in itself dangerous and a challenge to the system. We worry about my internal safety as I am currently the one teetering most precariously on that depression slope. We worry that in 49 states (including ours), ‘trans panic’ is still a ‘defense’ for killing a transgender person.

So what can we do? We can recognize that transmisogyny hurts all of us:

Transmisogyny not only names the oppression trans women face as both trans people and as women, but it is also an enormously valuable concept for understanding what motivates violence in a patriarchal culture. It is both a specific descriptor and a larger framework for understanding much more about how gender works in our society. In fact, I would argue that the simultaneous hatred of both transness and femininity — transmisogyny — is at the root of much, perhaps even most, of the anti-queer violence in our world.

Let me be very clear: I in no way wish to take away from the specificity of the term transmisogyny and the experience of the world, unique to trans women and nonbinary transfeminine people, that it describes. I am emphatically not arguing that people who are not trans women or otherwise transfeminine directly experience transmisogyny. Rather, I believe that transmisogyny is such a strong (and often subconscious) influencer of attackers’ thoughts and actions that it underlies many of the ways in which people of all genders are disciplined and punished over perceived gender and sexual transgressions.

In other words, while transmisogyny is primarily aimed at trans women and transfeminine people, and it is experienced solely by them in ways that should be discussed without mention of other groups, its prevalence in the world is so widespread that it also happens to “spill over” into violence against others.

Combining this with The Null HypotheCis idea, we can see why so many people are threatened by transgressions against boundaries thought to be objective but actually subjective. And we can see that these shouldn’t actually be seen as threats but as freedoms for all of us, ways to break the bonds that those ‘objective’ boundaries have held us in. If we can break free from a reliance on supposedly objective understandings of gender and turn our gazes to subjective understandings, perhaps we can break free of the violence against queer people of all stripes–particularly transgender women of color–and perhaps we can begin to see visibility and a reduction in suicide rates amongst bi and trans groups.

And maybe–maybe then, coming out won’t be quite so exhausting.