Gut Feelings: The Enteric Nervous System

I could get lost in this and never come out again.
I could get lost in this and never come out again.

I dissociate. For years, that’s actually been my normal state.

Consequently, sitting in a therapist’s office, trying to talk about–well, a lot of things actually–often ends with me staring at the carpet feeling dizzy and not able to think about anything at all.

Sometimes, they notice this.

Usually, what she will ask is how I feel in my body.

I hated this. I understood vaguely what it was designed to do. I also found it completely ineffective. What I didn’t like was that it shoved me back in my head. Because there I was, trying to formulate words, trying to be in a sense analytical and notice things that primarily seemed rather scientific.

“Let’s see here. My mouth is dry. My heart is beating faster. My respiration is shallow. My palms are moist and cold.”

It pushed me even further away from any kind of emotional experience I might be having.

I actually don’t know why it didn’t help, but I’m starting to understand what they might have been expecting me to feel instead: a gut feeling, a feeling in the very inside of me that I never had at all. Not even when I wasn’t busy tracing patterns in the carpet with my eyes.

We have this thing called the enteric nervous system (ENS), sometimes referred to as the “second brain” due to its tremendous complexity, and this may be the reason we get funny feelings sometimes. In fact, the ENS stretches all the way from our esophagus down to the large intestine, so we also ascribe feelings to our hearts that are occurring in our gullets.

gutWe just don’t know yet. We know that the ENS regulates our digestion and that it can keep doing this even if the CNS goes off-line, but we don’t really know what else it does. Perhaps more than it would seem it does. Perhaps less than we imagine.

But I can tell you that since starting this whole process of integration, I’ve been having odd feelings in my abdomen–not gas. I’ve always had that. My favorite food is rice and lentils, after all, and barring that rice and beans.

No, this is different. These were clearly meant to be emotions. In fact, they typically intensify at moments when I seem to be putting two and two together and coming up with myself in the process. They seem to be about the process of integration itself.

And it’s started to occur to me that it isn’t one particular feeling that occurs in my abdomen. It is all of them. But they are still a bit flattened out, a bit disconnected from the rest of my internal, physiological experiences. So it’s hard to say. It’s hard to differentiate.

It just feels so good.
It just feels so good.

They are also hard to get used to. It’s like being able to feel your own heartbeat. Tedious to listen to all the time, isn’t it? Easier when it just fades into the background. Sometimes, I can’t sleep because of what I feel. It’s not upsetting. Just distracting. Just too much stimulation.

But as these feelings become more connected, I’m starting to be able to tell a few of them apart. Sleepiness is one of them. Sleepiness, I’m finding, is lovely. Sleepiness starts in my abdomen and spreads all the way up to my head in this delicious dizzy sensation. It goes all the way out to my arms in a way I can’t even explain. Sleepiness is wonderful.

And it’s probably the reason I’ve been so unproductive the last few days. I’ve been enjoying sitting here, doing nothing much, feeling drowsy.

Sadness. I’ve begun to tell that one apart as well, although it’s a little more difficult. That one goes all the way up to my throat.

It’s wonderful.

Bert and Ernie

Last night was hot.

Actually, it’s not really so hot. It’s just it’s been an extremely pleasant spring, and I’m not used to more than a mild amount of discomfort.

Still. The point is I didn’t sleep well. And you know the kinds of dreams you have on those nights.

I dreamed about Bert and Ernie. Which probably had something to do with gay marriage. Which I’m all for. Gay people have just as much right to carry out protracted, vicious custody battles over their adopted and AS children as straight people.

No, I’m not bitter. I have never had my heart broken.

If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. And some money I need to deposit in your account. I’m also the unrecognized queen of an obscure African kingdom.

New Yorker cover.
New Yorker cover.

But I was saddened about the reaction to this New Yorker cover.

The complaint is that it infantalized the issue.

And I suppose that’s true. But I have a soft spot for Bert and Ernie. I’ll tell you why. Because Bert and Ernie understand something about what it means to be human that the rest of us could learn from.

They understand friendship.

We see “gay” and “straight” as being about sexuality. After all, without sex we’re just really good friends, aren’t we? And being gay or straight is not about friendship.

On the other hand, marriage is. Fundamentally.

As much as we talk about keeping our sex lives alive, plenty of marriages keep going without that or with very little of that. But what will kill a marriage immediately is a loss of friendship.

If all you want is sex, you can have that without a piece of paper, without strings, without ties or obligations. Marriage is about wanting to share your toys with one special person. Forever.

And Bert and Ernie understand that.

Reading Habits: Internet ADHD?

Photo credit: Daniel R. Blume. Click the image for details.
Photo credit: Daniel R. Blume. Click the image for details.

I was reading this yesterday morning over a late breakfast. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Not the article. Nothing new. Hush-up by a college. I remember that from 20 years ago.

No, I’ve been thinking about how I read it. Did I always read this way? Or has the non-linear nature of the internet that was oh-so-much talked about 15 years ago when it was new (anyone remember hypercards?) actually changed the way I read?

I’ll give you a sample.

If I recall correctly, I started hear. Third paragraph in. Why I skipped the first two paragraphs, I can’t tell you. Unless it’s that most people take about that long to get around to saying something you don’t already know. Or giving details. Like names and locations. That I usually just don’t care about.

Anyway, here goes:

“‘I was told that I might have to stay in the same dorm as the guy who had done this,’ she says, ‘and that my case wasn’t really that serious.'”

And then I skipped to the bottom of the page:

“That’s not good enough for critics, who point to what happened last fall. ‘The term too pushy came up,’ alleges Caroline Heldman, an assistant professor of sociology who…’

Onto the next page, midway down:

“When Carly Mee, now 22, finally decided in her junior year to report a sexual assault she says happened when she was a freshman, she says she was told she was mistaken in thinking her assailant was capable of rape…”

You get the idea. I do think I read the whole article. Just not in order. I did go back and read most of those long bits I skipped, although I didn’t read those in order either.

That, apparently, is how I read now.

Do you?

Emotional Reasoning and Magical Thinking

Still working at this.
Still working at this.

I’m in a lousy mood this morning. It’s hot. I’m sleep-deprived.

I can’t think of anything else exactly wrong. But let’s start from there.

I feel lousy. The first thing that pops into my head on these kinds of mornings is that the whole day will be lousy. But I know from experience that that isn’t necessarily the case.

I’ve woken up in a wonderful mood and had one thing after another go wrong until I wanted to scream from frustration. I’ve woken up in rotten moods just like I did today and had one thing after another go right until my crankiness was not even a memory.

That’s partly the nature of moods. They come and go.

It’s also that how I feel doesn’t make reality. Being in a lousy mood does not make an unending series of lousy things happen. On the contrary, sometimes good things happen, and those good things lift my mood.

My thoughts don’t make reality either. Expecting to have a lousy day does not, in fact, mean I’ll have one. I’ve had plenty of wonderful days I expected to be atrocious.

It actually doesn’t matter that much what I think about things generally. I can think whatever I want to about the day and it will proceed in whatever way it proceeds. I am not the center of the universe, and it is expanding just fine without me. It doesn’t even matter that much what I feel.

No matter how lucky I feel, the odds are still against my winning the lottery.

Doesn’t matter.

Our negative thoughts and feelings make reality only when we use them to make decisions. I could say to myself, “I’m in a lousy mood. I’m sure everything will go wrong and I won’t enjoy what I’m doing anyway. I’ll just stay in and do nothing.” And then later, berate myself for being such an oaf and doing nothing on a perfectly good Saturday. And I will have a lousy day. Not because of my feelings or because of my thoughts, but because of what I actually chose to do.

If I take a more balanced view, I might tell myself, “I’m in a lousy mood. Some things might go wrong, but they could also go right. And I will still be in the same lousy mood whether I do anything or not. So I may as well get something done.” Then, what I do with my day may cheer me up, it would give me a chance to be active and move around and get some good old-fashioned happy hormones. It comes down to the choices I make and the actions I actually take.

I could, of course, remain in a lousy mood. But at least the laundry will be done. And there’s something to be said for that.

When I make decisions based on all of the facts, and not just feelings, negative thoughts and feelings stop having the power to determine my reality. I think that’s where it’s at.

I have a few ongoing negative thoughts that really bother me. One of them is that I am worthless. I feel worthless and so I think I am worthless. Emotional reasoning. My thought is based entirely on my feelings. (What is “worth” anyway? I don’t even know, so why am I trying to decide mine?) I’ve worked hard to change this thought.

It persists in not changing.

Is it possible to simply try another tack? Just like my lousy mood doesn’t especially mean anything about how the day will unfold, what if I understand that not valuing myself doesn’t mean anything about how my life will unfold?

Feeling worthless does not mean one disaster after another will occur. It does not mean that other people will read my mind and see my sense of worthlessness as a green light on treating me bad. It really does not have to mean much.

Of course, if I base my decisions on that thought, then indeed it will influence the course of my life. But what if I don’t do that?

What if I view it as no more or less than what it is: a thought. One of many I have. Not a very pleasant one, but still only a thought.

On Grief

No, I did not buy him a necktie this year.
No, I did not buy him a necktie this year.

With the coming and going of the parents’ days in May and June, I’m left with a few ideas bouncing around in my head.

I know that I don’t really understand what it is to have parents or to have ever had parents, despite a few good months with LaLa and Lucey. To a large extent, I am an orphan.

When people talk about their relationships with their parents, whether positive or negative or just plain difficult,  I understand what they are saying. But it is also like talking to someone from another country, with a completely different background, a completely different culture, a completely different set of experiences and expectations.

But I suspect I feel that partly because the grief is so intense I can’t even begin to approach it. I suspect that partly because my reaction to sensing genuine care and concern and love from another person was to cry. Daily. For weeks. Maybe months. Until I kind of got used to it, love hurt. Terribly.

graduationAlthough my parents were largely my abusers–not much actual nurturing went on–I understand that I lost an idea when I left their home and never came back. I lost the idea of parents. When you leave parents for good, you leave knowing that you are giving up on your only chance. It is not like leaving a marriage, where you can keep hoping for a second chance with someone else.

One of the things people talk about with parents is wanting their approval. People talk about the heartbreak of not having it, of having parents who seem to never provide that for them. Who disapprove.

I could never grasp that. Not really. I tried to understand, but I didn’t.

That is something I have lost. I don’t know whether my parents ever approved of me or not. I suppose they didn’t. I don’t care. I don’t recall a time when I did.

I think about every awards ceremony I ever attended because I was being honored, every graduation I walked in and the one I didn’t even bother to walk in. I’ve never felt proud of myself at those times. I was embarrassed by the attention, worried at what would come next in my life, glad that the long race through exams and paper-writing was over. But not proud. I didn’t know how.

The Interview

What I drink just to wake up.
What I drink just to wake up.

So, when I am usually drinking my 6 cups of tea and pondering ideas for blog posts, I was Skyping with four individuals half-way around the globe from me.

I do think it went rather well. With any luck, I did convince them that they should want me to teach in one of their schools, and I will find myself on their side of the world in a few months, teaching in a place that may or may not have regular electricity but that will have walls and benches in the classroom. Yippee!

Oh, and chalk and a blackboard. Also, big plusses….

At any rate, I enjoyed it. Which suggest to me either I’m nuts (a possibility) or it went well (hopefully also a possibility).

I’ve been watching a sitcom called Reggie Perrin and he has two young subordinates known as Ant and Ste who are comically enthusiastic. I believe it is Ste (and I may have it backwards here) who says about every new idea, “I am almost physically excited!” And then does an odd sort of fist pump after that.

I was almost physically excited. I may have, in fact, been physically excited by the interview.

You can catch the Ant/Ste/Reggie interaction at 6:18 or so.

Make of that what you will.

I was thinking about this last night, lying awake. Not the excitement, because I didn’t know about that part yet. But the job and the change it means for me.

But will she help me pack?
But will she help me pack?

I am not scared of the change, but I am sad. For many reasons really. I love this city. I have, after many years of holding myself at a distance from nearly everyone, friends I enjoy. I have colleagues that have become friends that I would like to keep seeing.

I cannot bring the cat with me. I do, in fact, expect her to drop dead any day now, but she is not actually dead. Or even very sick. She is just old. That kind of old and really keeping it together that people usually do drop dead suddenly in the midst of. “She always seemed so young!” we say at their funerals.

But she was 95.

Which, when I look at the age conversion charts in the vet’s office, is about where she is. Except cats have these really weird life spans–dying of age-related diseases at anywhere from 8 years to 30.

And it seems to me for the last week or so that I have pushed away that sadness, somewhat out of habit perhaps.

I'll miss this.
I’ll miss this.

I have had to make a number of very significant changes in my life over the years, some of them rather abrupt and sudden. It has often worked out that there was a moment when I needed to act, or at least it felt that way. And if I did not seize the moment, the opportunity to make the change would be lost.

Sometimes, the moment was about external circumstances–someone made an offer they aren’t going to make again. And sometimes it’s about state of mind. I was fed up enough, angry enough, brave enough that I had the energy for the change. And if I did not make the change, I risked letting the will to do so disappear.

So I sometimes feel afraid to let my trepidation, my sorrow about change rise to the surface. I’m afraid it will make me lose my nerve. Or even that managing the negative emotions will become so all consuming, I’ll be unable to do what I actually need to do from a practical standpoint to move forward.

I realize now it won’t though. I can have all of my feelings about this change.

Boundaries and the Self

Click the image for a post about boundaries from a Christian perspective.

The key to coping with difficult people–the leaky ones and the ones who trample your rights–is said to be setting good boundaries.

I’ve always had trouble with this. Not the mechanics of it. I’m a practical person. I’m good at deciding what is and is not okay with me and asserting that. Mostly. Also, I’ve had almost 20 years of psychotherapy.

The idea of boundaries is hard for me to grasp, the language of it. I know what to do, but not really what the word means or what making rules has to do with knowing where I end and someone else starts.

This morning, I think I’ve finally sorted it.

I see what constitutes the self as being radically different from how many other people see it. This is partly because I grew up in a home where I had no rights and then left it to live in a society where I have quite a few  rights and am expected to assert them. Meanwhile, I continue to be essentially the same person.

Consequently, I don’t see rights as being a necessary part of the self. They are culturally mediated and agreed upon. They are like clothes you can take on and off. You are going to be more comfortable in some clothes than others. Some are too tight. Others are suffocating. Some are downright painful–which is why I refuse to wear heels. And most of my shoes lace up. But you are still you even if you are wearing clothes you hate.

Click the image for an excellent post on Muslim immigrants in Spain.
Click the image for an excellent post on Muslim immigrants in Spain.

You are still you even if you have no rights, or don’t have enough rights to be comfortable, or even if you have more rights than you really know what to do with.

I know most people don’t see things that way. They see clothes as being a part of themselves. But I could wear a burqa and still be me. I’d just be hot. And probably trip a lot.

I was still me even when I had no rights.

This is because I see the self as being composed of fewer essential elements. The advantage to this is that I am less distressed by radical changes in my environment or in what is expected of me. I don’t see them as being assaults on my self.

My self persists.

For example, I am not really any different now than when I turned tricks. What is me, what always was me, is that I am a practical person, and I really want to live. I believe in the power of hard work, and I think with some of it, the future can be a lot better than the present or the past.

I'm not the water. I'm the goldfish. I am not even the goldfish. I am the desire to leave the water.
I’m not the water. I’m the goldfish. I am not even the goldfish. I am the desire to leave the water.

There are a few other things that are also essentially me, but that is most of it. That is me in a nutshell.

In a very real way, I have not changed. I have worked hard to change my circumstances, my habits, many of my beliefs and even my feelings, but at a core level I am exactly the same as I was when I was two years old. I am a practical person, and I really want to live. I believe in the power of hard work, and I think with some of it, the future can be a lot better than the present or the past.

If I saw the idea of the self differently, I would need to see myself differently. The changes I needed to make would have been much more difficult. They would have felt like an assault on who I was.

The way I see the self is adaptive. You can borrow it if you like.