Two Tight Slaps

After two tries, we got a photo with a "neutral expression" that didn't look like I intended to torture and kill your dog.
After two tries, we got a photo with a “neutral expression” that didn’t look like I intended to torture and kill your dog.

I needed to get some photos taken for visas yesterday. I kept putting it off, for legitimate reasons, and also just because I felt afraid.

If you’ve been following along, you can probably understand why cameras and photographs would scare me. If not, this will fill you in. But the source of my anxiety was something I wouldn’t have recognized in the past. I wouldn’t have been able to understand why I was afraid and consequently I wouldn’t have been able to calm my fears.

It would have been an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking battle of wills to force myself to do it. So this was progress.

Instead, I realized I was afraid of having my photograph taken because I was afraid someone would touch me in a sexual and uncomfortable way. And I began to imagine what would transpire if that happened.

I had an advantage over Rose Chasm. I wasn't prepared. And I knew it.
I had an advantage over Rose Chasm. I wasn’t prepared. And I knew it.

Perhaps because various accounts of the experiences of foreign women in India (where I am going, no it is not Country X, it is just on the way) have been circulating recently on social networking sites, and because I read them fairly recently, I began to recall the advice of the director of the study abroad program I participated in those years ago.

To understand the impact of what she said, I think you need to picture her. She was an NRI and an economics professor in the US, but she had returned to the city of her birth to be near her aging parents for a few years. She was a small, thin woman, probably not much more than five feet tall.

Her first name was Kalpana, which means ideal in Hindi, and it suited her. Kalpana-ji, as we called her, wore immaculate silk saris in winter and brilliant cotton selvar kameezes in summer. Her family was Brahmin and educated and fairly wealthy. She was polite and polished and not to be trifled with.

She took some time to speak with us girls about the harassment we were likely to face in sexist North India. We got the usual advice–avoid eye contact–and then this one, “If they try anything, give them two tight slaps. That’s what they expect.”

I'm not normally a proponent of violence, but thinking you can act to protect yourself helps.
I’m not normally a proponent of violence, but thinking you can act to protect yourself helps. In our modern world, having procedures in place to respond to sexual harassment is vital.

And I’ll tell you, that was extremely helpful advice. I was groped once or twice in crowded areas by men I never saw, andI felt immensely better about the whole thing after delivering my two tight slaps. (Really only one slap–after that, they would have been lost in the crowd and I would have been slapping some poor innocent fellow.)

Thinking you are unable to act to protect yourself leaves you feeling helpless, vulnerable, even despairing.

It’s a gap in a girl’s education. Boys are often told to defend themselves when they are bullied. Adults rarely tell girls that. We are told to use our words, to tell a teacher perhaps. And maybe that’s for the best. Maybe in a school setting, that is what works. But being grabbed in the crotch is no different than being punched in the face. It is assault, and feels intensely violating and frightening.

Inappropriate touching and sexual harassment are forms of bullying. They are ways of intimidating and shaming a person, just as much as demanding someone’s lunch money is. Responding assertively to protect oneself helps. It may not stop the bullying, but you feel better afterwards. Immensely so. And how you feel matters.

Girls aren’t taught that. We should be.

Pondering my visa photos, I imagined myself giving the photographer two tight slaps. And I wasn’t afraid anymore.


The Whole is Different

Really, she needs a home. Spread the word. As you can see, she's very patient. Just don't poke her with needles and everyone gets to keep all their fingers.
Really, she needs a home. Spread the word. As you can see, she’s very patient. Just don’t poke her with needles and everyone gets to keep all their fingers.

This week, as I may have alluded to, has been spent in doctor hell.

On Tuesday, I had a physical. Wednesday, I saw the eye doctor. Thursday, I saw the travel doctor because my primary doctor could not answer all of my travel-related health questions.  Next Tuesday, I will go back to my primary doctor because, in all of my rush to make sure my typhoid vaccine was up-to-date, I didn’t realize it was time for a tetanus booster and apparently my doctor didn’t either. Oh, and Monday if they’re open, it’s time for another visit to the vet. The cat has a bladder infection and needs a series of 3 antibiotic injections every two weeks. This will be the second one.

I should probably also see the dentist, but I just can’t deal with it yet. I have this problem with people sticking things in my mouth. It’s hard to get past. So I think I’ll take care of some other stressful things first. If I can bring it down to only one or two stressful items on the list, maybe I can cope.

Oh, and I’m officially old now and my doctor ordered a mammogram. I am just grateful it is not yet time for regular colonoscopies.

Sometimes I wonder if life wasn’t better back in the old days–well, 30 years ago–when they didn’t screen for so many things, we didn’t live as long, and we just took our chances on dying a horrible death. They probably weren’t. But it’s a seductive thought.

Despite my complaints about it, I don’t actually really mind all of this. It’s part of the process. But it’s hectic.

And there is has been another aspect to it all for me. A good one probably. But it’s hard on my brain. And I really wish I could just stay home today, mop a bit perhaps, and let this all sink in. But I have promised myself to get on the visa renewal wagon today and to get started on the quest for decently priced refundable airline tickets. (Wish me luck.)

There is a sine wave on the roof of the school. That is your clue.
There is a sine wave on the roof of the school. That is your clue.

Because of all the doctor visits, I’ve taken some walks down memory lane at the same time. That’s the part giving me a headache this morning.

It’s a bit of an accident. I’ve held onto old doctors that were once convenient despite a few moves–they are good doctors, and I value continuity. So they are located near places I used to work. It made sense to drop in on some folks, including a school I haven’t worked at for more than 8 years.

That was fun.

But it’s made me realize that in all this work to integrate my dissociated self, I’m different. The whole is not just greater than the sum of its parts, it is different than the parts ever were. It’s also different simply to be someone whose day-to-day experience of the world no longer involves coping with significant trauma symptoms.

There is a lot of different.

I am actually someone I would rather be. And it’s not that I am a better person, although I suppose I may be a more competent person.  It is easier to be me, and I am generally more joyful, more hopeful, and I can enjoy other people more. Which means they enjoy me more. It is mostly just more fun.

On Ritual, Transition, and Meningitis

We have to get serious about the "new home" business.
We have to get serious about the “new home” business.

Walking to the travel doc’s today, it occurred to me that this is all rather routine. Doctors, shots, prescriptions, packing, documents…I know how to do this. There are new parts to it–packing clothes for cold weather instead of hot, visa applications have gone 21st century and are now online–and some complications. (Can anyone look after my very sweet and very elderly cat?)

But travel, at least this kind of travel, is a particular kind of ritual, the way getting pens and pencils and erasers and new clothes was once a ritual before the start of school every year. Years ago, a graduate student worked for me in the special collections room. When I left, he gave me a packet of new lead pencils. That was his ritual before the start of every term: new pencils.

There are some things we do that are the same, and yet different every time we do them. Travel is one of them. Going home to old haunts is another. They are familiar, and yet new–and frightening to some degree.

We did not look anything like this.
We did not look anything like this.

As a kid, we wondered what our teachers would be like, whether our friends would be the same or if the summer and vacations might have changed them, if we would get picked on this year. As adults, we start new jobs much like our old ones. And yet they are always different, aren’t they? We move houses and towns into new houses and new towns that are so often similar, but still different. Still frightening, really.

And rituals help. Rituals are comforting, predictable. They ease the shock of the transition ahead.

There is a reason we send kids to bed with a story or a song and some cuddling, why the order at night is bath, pajamas, teeth, story–or whatever your order is. Sleep is a transition also. The ritual helps.

So maybe I got a meningitis shot today because I think I actually need one. Or maybe it is just the reassurance of knowing I have been looked at, examined, counseled. Maybe being looked at alone can keep me safe.

What are your rituals?

A Magic Mountain Day

roller coasterI know I owe another installment of my Psychotherapy 101 series. I promise I have not forgotten. That is still forthcoming. Never fear.

But today was just too exciting a day not to write about.

I went to the doctor.

Although it may not be an event in your life when you take your clothes off and let a near-stranger feel all of your most vulnerable parts, it is for me. It is a little like the rides at Magic Mountain. It’s an event.

Of course, Magic Mountain is actually fun, and although the doctor who examined me is hot in her own quiet way, getting felt up by her in the way she felt me up is not fun. I mean, I could probably kind of convince myself there was some fun to be had in there, but it would take some doing.

I feel a little queasy just looking at these.
I feel a little queasy just looking at these.

Nonetheless, I have a sense of accomplishment afterward, like jumping off the high dive for the first time. “See, Mom!” I want to shout, “I did it. All by myself.” I’m not really sure who “Mom” would be in this situation. Certainly not my mom, but that is what kids tend to shout, so it’s still what I feel like saying.

It especially feels that way because I had blood drawn, as they tend to do when you go to the doctor, and I am awful about blood. I am even worse about needles. Shots tend to make me nearly faint.

Also, since I am going away, I expected other needles to be involved as well. Fortunately, I am much more up-to-date on all the exotic immunizations–like typhoid–than I had expected. They didn’t have what I really did need (Japanese Encephalitis).

But the anticipation of all of those immunizations meant I entered the examining room sweating and shivering at the same time. Having fasted and gone without my usual morning tea (which has lately stepped up to coffee for reasons I can’t fully explain), I wasn’t my clearest or most coherent.

Getting on the examining table turned out to be its own challenge. It was me against the paper. I’m not sure who won. Probably the paper. But the doc set that right again, so it was all fine.

Anyway, I survived it. Furthermore, I managed to more or less coherently ask the questions I needed to ask despite being caffeine deprived and terrified and get the paperwork filled out for the Country X officials.

So it’s been a good day.

Staying warm is really expensive. I may have to sell a kidney to get one of these.
Staying warm is really expensive. I may have to sell a kidney to get one of these.

Then, afterwards, I stopped at a sporting goods store to check out things that people who live in sunny climes like myself don’t typically have unless they ski (and I don’t): like waterproof rain jackets, long underwear, and wool socks that don’t make you want to tear your feet off they itch so much.

I had a small heart attack after looking at the prices and left. More on that later.

But, really, if you have suggestions on where to buy those things cheaply, let me know. I do remember from living in a cold climate that being cold and wet because you can’t afford the proper clothing sucks. It is infinitely better to be broke in a warm region than a cold one. I remember that very clearly.

Psychotherapy 101: A Coherent World View

missing pieceIf you come from a background that is anything like mine–where you were repeatedly harmed by people charged with your protection or by people you should have been protected from–then you most likely have some work to do or did at one time.

We tend to do that work in psychotherapy, or at least in conjunction with it. But we sometimes start out on that path of healing without any real clear idea of what we need to do.

We know what is wrong. We know we don’t feel good in some indescribable way, kind of like having a mental flu. But instead of body aches, your whole being seems to ache. You just don’t feel right. And eventually this gets to be too much to just ignore.

But sometimes that fuzzy sense of something wrong but I don’t know what to do leads to a lack of direction in the work that needs to be done, and that slows you down. It’s also frustrating. And you feel wretched enough. Frustration with the process is the last thing you need.

Having been at this for a long time (about two decades, to be more specific), I think I have finally determined what it is that someone like me needs to do. There are four things. They are complex enough to deserve their own posts. This is only the first on that list. These are in no particular order. In general, you need to do all four at once.

#1. You need to construct a coherent view of the world, yourself, and of other people.

One of our most fundamental human needs is for a comprehensible reality. Without that, life becomes dangerous, unpredictable, and unmanageable. We become anxious because everything feels dangerous and depressed because, unable to determine how to act, we feel helpless. It’s no fun. No fun at all.

It is untenable to remain in that state. You need a way of explaining things–all of them.

There is not a single right answer that actually does explain everything you need to have explained fully and accurately. In fact, we don’t really know exactly why people behave the way they do or why life unfolds the way it does. They are not unknowable, but we don’t have it all worked out yet. Anyone who claims to have done that is either lying or stupid.

Fortunately, you don’t really need to have it entirely worked out either. I say “fortunately,” because you would most probably die of old age before you did. And you also have loads of other things you’d rather do than sort out the lousy things that have happened to you.

Don’t despair. What you need is not a view that is entirely correct and accurate. You just need a view that works. A view that works is one that accounts for the facts as you know them–what you have experienced and seen for yourself–but that you can live with.

You need to know why you act and feel the way you do, and why you acted and felt the way you did in the past. You need to know why other people act and feel the way they do, and why anyone who harmed you chose to do that. You need to know why and how traumatic events in your life unfolded at least to some extent.

Again, these ways of understanding do not need to be right. They only need to be “right enough.” Right enough means there are not too many little dangly threads that don’t fit and don’t make sense to you.

Also, you need to know how people who haven’t chosen to harm you act and feel the way they do as well. Because they may be entirely different than the people you grew up with and you are going to have to be able to deal with them also. Successfully.

What I mean by an understanding you can  “live with” is one that is not so devastatingly bleak that you might as well kill yourself now, a view in which you are not utterly worthless, other people are not wholeheartedly evil, and life is not completely capricious and untrustworthy. It doesn’t need to be all roses and sunshine, but there does need to be some reason for hope.

You may be fortunate and seek out psychotherapy with someone who has explanations for your life and your reality that you can adopt of whole cloth. They just seem to “click” for you. Wonderful. Lucky you.

Or you may not.  The better your memory and the more severe and bizarre the abuse, the less this is likely to happen, because you will need a more complex explanation than someone who remembers less.

You may need to cull bits and pieces of ideas from various sources: your therapist, reading, talks, your grandmother’s wisdom. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. It just needs to work.

The two standards for evidence need to be how well it accounts for your real observations–not the confidence the speaker has in them–and how well it allows you to go forward in hope for the future.

That’s it.

Except for the other three things.

Autonomy, Connection and Self-Esteem

This is the puppy. Not recently though. She's much bigger now.
This is the puppy. Not recently though. She’s much bigger now.

It has been a long day, but I am also home after a week away, puppy-sitting. (The puppy got sick. It had a biting problem. Lovely little thing but I am, as perhaps you can imagine, exhausted.)

Consequently, this will be a short post although what I have on my mind most likely deserves more space. Still, I will do my best to tell you all about it in 300 words.

I have long been suspicious that there is far more emphasis on self-esteem than is really necessary. A part of why I think that is that self-serving biases, a set of cognitive errors in which we see ourselves as better-than-average–is much more common in WEIRD societies.  Other cultures engage in those errors much less so, or even hold self-effacing biases.

Yes, you have to be able to live with yourself. I’m not sure that you need to think you’re the cat’s pajamas. Although my cat is very cute. And would probably select very attractive pajamas.

That’s another story though.

And it occurred to me this morning, out walking the puppy (at a point when she was behaving very nicely and not biting at all), that there’s a reason for this, and it has to do with the balance between autonomy and connection

I think these would suit her.

We all need autonomy. We also need connection. We need both, And there seems to be a range of acceptable degrees of balance between the two.  You can be single, have a few close friends, and a supportive family that lives far away and be quite content with life. You can also live in the same house with your parents, a sibling, and your sibling’s spouse and children and be quite happy.

What you can’t live in is solitary confinement, and you probably couldn’t take the “joint family” situation (the parent/sibling/sibling’s family scenario) if no one ever left the same room.

And it occurred to me that relationships provide a sense of safety. They are your pack. In hard times, you can anticipate they will protect you. When push comes to shove, it’s possible they may fail you. But in the abstract, you might imagine they have your back.

Self-esteem provides safety as well. If you conceive of yourself as quite capable of managing hardships on your own, that lack of close, protective relationships isn’t frightening. No one needs to have your back if you believe you have your own.

We focus on self-esteem in this culture because we don’t believe anyone really has our backs.

Animal, Mammal, Human

Some identities we choose, and some are chosen for us by others.
Some identities we choose, and some are chosen for us by others.

We all have identities, in concentric and overlapping circles. We are who we are because of who we are like, who we are one of, and then only after that because we are who we are ourselves.

We have national identities, racial identities, ethnic and religious identities. We are suburbanites or urbanites or village people (not the band). And then in addition to that members of our professions and our families. We have identities that are really roles: parents (or not), spouses (or single people), friends, offspring, siblings.

We need them. We need to be both ourselves and one of a group. And usually it’s a lot of groups.

Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert from Stanford University, claims that terrorists are not really working towards specific political goals: when terrorist attain their goals, they just find some other reason to exist. Their real purpose is social.

People just want to belong.

To belong, we need to understand what makes us one of a group, what makes us the same, and how we are different. You can’t have a strong identification with a group, even one you really do belong to, if you can’t grasp what makes others in that group tick.

Understanding, or at least thinking you understand, is key.

One of my favorite mammals. (I couldn't get away from cattle altogether.)
One of my favorite mammals. (I couldn’t get away from cattle altogether.)

Half the work of working through trauma is not about the events themselves. It’s about doing what you didn’t have time to do because you were too busy just getting through the day. Among them, sorting out who you are–your identity.

And identity, as I think I’ve made clear, is not just about oneself as an individual. It’s about knowing who you belong with, who is like you, who isn’t.

I only have a little of this worked out.

I know that I am an animal, that I am a mammal, and that I am human. I know that I am a piece of Creation. I have spent enough time trying to understand how we think and behave that I feel I belong (and if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve been watching this process). I feel I know who and what I belong to.

And it’s actually pretty cool. Whatever their faults, humans are an exquisite species.

bowerbird nestWe make things, for example. As I may have mentioned, I’m housesitting for a friend right now.  I happened to glance at a basket full of jewelry sitting on her dressing this morning. Nothing extravagant, mind you. I’m not talking about rubies and emeralds and diamonds. I mean beaded things, pendants, silver. That sort of thing

Someone made those. That’s what people do.

We make jewelry and furniture and houses and paintings. We play music and tell stories.

Bowerbirds have nothing on us.