The futility of blame

I found an article on the internet some time ago about blame, and how pointless it is to blame anybody for anything. I’ve never found it again, and it’s a shame because the idea–so radical, so strange–has stuck with me for a long time.

In our culture, we are bathed in blame. From earliest infancy, we learn to blame ourselves and others for anything that might go wrong. Blame is such a powerful instinct, we don’t even blink when we see people instantly blame somebody, possibly themselves, for a situation that is clearly not under anyone’s control.

It’s easy to see how pointless it is to blame yourself or another person for something like the weather, or the choices of another person, or other calamity that is clearly no one’s fault.

It’s much harder to look at situations where someone is clearly at fault, and see how blame is pointless, counterproductive, even unfair.

If someone has committed a crime, should he not be blamed for that crime? If it is his fault, then he deserves the blame. He knew better and should not have done wrong. Right?

Not necessarily. There’s a fine, but important line between blame and accountability. When we wield the scimitar of blame on someone who has done wrong, we un-person him or her. We ask them to absorb a ball of shame the action created and somehow neutralize it. But that’s not how shame works.

When someone does wrong, and knows they do wrong, we assume they have the ability to make a different choice. We all have grooves in our brain, a lifetime of our own experiences stacked upon a lifetime of our parents’ and grandparents’ and great grandparents’ experiences. Let’s say someone is guilty of shoplifting. We assume that because we are able to make a choice not to steal, and are able to provide for ourselves, that the individual who was caught shoplifting also has that ability.

But why do you and I have the ability not to steal? Is it because we are virtuous people who have wrestled with all of the shoplifting demons and defeated them? Or, let’s be honest…do you really just not want to?

I’ve never even wanted to steal an item from a store. Not once. I’ve never doubted my ability to earn money and somehow obtain the things I need. Why? Because I have grooves in my brain establishing positive behavior around those values and habits. I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to struggle. I just don’t shoplift.

So what do I know about someone who shoplifts? I know he has different brain grooves. I know that even if he knows it’s wrong, even if he knows that someone is getting hurt by his actions, even if he wants to stop shoplifting, the grooves in his brain are going to push him very hard to do so. Those grooves were created during a very different life experience than mine, one in which shoplifting was necessary for survival, or was a coping mechanism that he can’t simply let go because he wants to.

We all have those kinds of grooves in our brain. Some of us are lucky, and our grooves only result in endearing and forgivable peccadilloes, like an addiction to soda or leaving passive aggressive notes for your coworkers.

How many people do you know with a minor peccadillo that are actually able to decide to stop and then succeed? It is equally difficult to overcome a larger problem, something destructive, antisocial, or offensive. The truth is that most people are doing the best they can at any particular time, given the hand they were dealt the tools they have for coping and change (which may be zero). Some of the very “worst” people are those who have lost their capacity to learn and grow. And those are also the ones we blame for the bad things they do and that happen around them. If they could do better, they would. Eventually, some of them will. Just the same as that office note-leaver.

Blame is a pointless exercise in shame reassignment. But that doesn’t mean everyone is off the hook. Accountability looks different than blame. Accountability means that even if you were doing the best you could, you have to accept the consequences of your actions, including people being very angry and hurt. Accountability means accepting help and working toward growth and change in whatever way your current neural wiring allows.

Holding someone accountable is not the same as blame and punishment. In many cases, it means helping and setting limits so no further harm can happen. Accountability for a perpetrator looks like making a good faith effort to change and make amends (if possible), or do some other good to outweigh the harm. Accountability for the victim means owning the hurt and letting forgiveness happen in due time if it’s right for the situation.

When we indulge in blame, we never give ourselves a chance to experience our pain and transform it. Seeing oneself as a victim is meant to be a phase of healing, a temporary one, a time for releasing self-blame, not a permanent life condition. Blaming is a way we give our power away. Choosing not to blame is choosing not to be tangled up in someone else’s brain grooves, to wish them well in finding their healing path, to take back your own power. Whoever you’re blaming today, try to imagine that in some way that is very real to them, they had no choice, even if it seems they did, even if it’s a choice YOU are able to make. Think of that annoying thing you do that you know you should stop, and have some compassion. We are all doing the best we can.

Embracing the crazy

I was driving my dog to the vet this morning when I realized I didn’t know where I was. My vet is outside of town, but the farms I was passing looked totally unfamiliar, and it seemed like it was taking a really long time to get there. I drove several more miles, hoping I was just momentarily disoriented, until I found a road sign that finally let me orient myself. I had missed a turn, and gone driving–for a long time–in the wrong direction.

I got back on track, but arrived at the vet with my dog fifteen minutes late. As soon as I walked in, the receptionist told me there wasn’t enough time for the vet to see him and do the x-rays that he needed for followup on his pneumonia. They had scheduled me for a regular half hour appointment, and all of that needed more time.

“We’ll need to reschedule,” she said. “You could see a different doctor this afternoon…”

I started crying. “Never mind,” I said. “I’ll call you later. I’m very upset and it took me a long time to get here and I’m just really frustrated.” I turned and left without making a new appointment. As of now, I’m not really sure what to do about those x-rays. I made the appointment specifically with the owner of the clinic, because we’ve been with her for about twenty years and we trust her, and I wanted to do everything perfectly for Courage because I still feel very raw from losing Chewie and feel like maybe I let him down.

It wasn’t one of my best moments. I felt angry because they’d made a mistake and messed up my day and my plans. I don’t like that. I don’t have so much free time that making two trips to the vet in one day sounds like a good way to spend it. But at the time I responded, I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing or why.

I know what the “correct” and “adult” thing to do would have been. I would have stuffed my feelings down and whipped out my smartphone (which I would have remembered to charge and bring with me, unlike today), and made a new appointment. But doing the correct thing always is Old Catherine.

New Catherine is in touch with her feelings and when they come up, she shares them and takes time to think about what she’s feeling and why, and then decides on an appropriate response.

Old Catherine had to be perfect and adult at all times. Old Catherine more or less kept it all together, because she had to. Being perfect, being a “good girl,” was how she kept in control, and if she stayed in control, nothing bad would happen and everyone would love her. Except it did and they didn’t.

New Catherine is ok with not being in control. She doesn’t need to be perfect and doesn’t need to be a good girl. She doesn’t mind being perceived as emotional, unstable, immature, unreasonable, or even…crazy. Oh, crazy. That word that above all others keeps women in their place and under control at all times.

And because New Catherine is ok with being emotional, out of control, and crazy, she’s also okay with bursting into tears and leaving a situation because having to reschedule a vet appointment is just a bit too much now, m’kay?

I’ve been practicing this new, more radical brand of emotional honesty for a while, now, and there are two shocking things about it.

First, pretty much everyone reacts positively to it. Second, it almost always leads me to a better, more adultier solution than the adult solution I bypassed in order to let my crazy out.

Example. Earlier this year we refinanced the house. One of the steps in the process was a appraisal. In order to get the best rate, we needed to be lower than 70% loan/value. Our appraiser lowballed us, and because we didn’t make 70% or less, we were going to have to pay a $1600 fee.

The appraisal did not inspire confidence. It came out way low on a per square foot basis, in spite of the fact that we have a pretty damn nice house in a very desirable neighborhood. Plus, there were errors in the appraisal. I protested the appraisal with the bank, and they got the same appraiser to send a new appraisal. The new appraisal was randomly $40,000 higher, and still full of errors, but it still didn’t meet the 70% mark to save us that $1600. I was extremely angry when this came through. When the bank manager emailed the new result, I was ready to go to war. I was angry with the bank and felt like I was being cheated. I composed, but didn’t send, a scathing email.

Old Catherine would have done the adult thing. She would have suppressed that emotional response. She would have sucked it up and paid the $1600, even though the whole thing seemed very shifty.

But New Catherine had a better option. New Catherine had the option of just being honest and open about the whole thing, and giving the other party the benefit of the doubt. We had already spent $400 on the appraisal, so I called the man at the bank who was putting together our loan and told him, without blame or recrimination, that we had been spooked by the whole deal, and were going to walk away from our $400 fee because we just weren’t comfortable with the dodgy practices of the appraiser. And it was the simple truth. Just accept the loss, be honest about how you feel, and don’t try to control the outcome.

And a surprising thing happened. Within half an hour, the bank called. They agreed that the whole appraisal situation was dodgy, and they didn’t like it either. How could he have been off by $40,000, to just add it on later? The appraiser had been hired by the underwriters, and they were out. But the bank liked our loan well enough to underwrite it themselves. All of this happened after 5 PM on a Friday.

I’m not saying every conflict or problem turns out for the best when you give space for your “crazy” or “immature” feelings. In fact, I have experienced some significant pain and personal loss as I have transitioned to being more honest about my feelings. But I did it anyway because I knew I had to be true to myself. And I sort of braced myself for more conflict and ugliness going forward.

So the fact that people actually tend to respond positively, and offer better solutions than I could have come up with myself–well, it blows me away.

As I write this, I’m still not sure what I’m going to do about the x-rays. I’m just sitting with my crazy, immature self, trying to figure out what that self is trying to tell me. I think I wanted more than an expert opinion on my dog’s recovery. I think I wanted a bit of catharsis. I wanted to connect with “our” vet after the nightmare of the emergency vet experience and intensive care and the loss and everything else. I think I wanted to hear her say she was sorry. I wanted to know why the other vet at her practice sent Chewie home, when he was literally five hours from death. I left having no idea he was in any danger. And I think I’m still struggling with the crushing cost of the whole thing–$4500. The followup appointment and x-rays will probably cost over $300, and I guess I need a minute to make peace with that expense, too, before I whip out the Visa card again. Knowing I have these needs helps me decide what option works best for me. Old Catherine would probably have seen any old vet just to get it over with. New Catherine will probably make an effort to connect with the clinic owner, so she can cry with me a little bit like she has for our other pets for the past twenty years. I need that, and Old Catherine wasn’t very good at honoring those needs.

This isn’t really a conflict in the way the refinance was. I’m not looking for a solution from them, really. I just need some time to hold my crazy parts, listen to them, and let that lead me to a wiser choice. It’s a new way of being for me. I’ll never go back.


Puppies: time to disengage?

This year there has been a lot of controversy around the Hugo awards. Hugos are awards in the science fiction genre voted by members of the World Science Fiction convention. Historically, they’ve been quite prestigious, and Hugos are highly coveted. This year’s award nominations were tainted by an unusually organized voting campaign. Two groups of authors, calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies, objected to what they viewed as a domination of the awards by women and minority writers (and I acknowledge I’m paraphrasing their argument here and may be getting it wrong because it never made sense to me). Leaders of the Sad and Rabid puppies created award nomination slates, and encouraged their readers to nominate a specific slate. Although they claim to have only been defending themselves from what they view as an organized disenfranchisment by “social justice warriors,” this was the first time anyone actively campaigned for full slates of nominees, as opposed to, say, recommending a couple of their favorites. Their efforts were extremely successful. Because nominating ballot numbers are low, they managed to fill nearly the entire ballot with their picks.

The Hugo results, announced last weekend, were a near-complete shutout of the Puppy nominees. Some award categories went to No Award, and No Award was ranked above the Puppy slate nominees in nearly every category.

Tobias Buckell put together an alternate Hugo ballot, showing what kind of works would have been on the ballot without the Puppy campaigns. Although it’s hard to say that none of the Puppy slate works would have been nominated on their own merits, it’s a good list of works that got a lot of votes and are therefore probably deserving of attention.

Here’s where I want to disclose my biases. I am an unapologetic social justice warrior (SJW). I am in total sympathy with the liberal, social activist side of this conflict, and was utterly appalled that a small group of authors took advantage of the mechanics of the nominating process for their own gain–at the expense of others. I did not vote in the Hugos, but I did consider buying a supporting membership so I could, and if I had, I would have voted No Award across the board, because I felt that no matter who received a Hugo, the whole process would be tainted.

So when I say it’s time to disengage from this conflict, as I’m about to do, it’s not because I have any sympathy with the Puppies or think they deserve to be excused for their behavior. In fact, my opinion of all of those involved range from “misguided insecure person” to “raging malignant narcissist who has publicly stated that women want to be raped.” And I in no way want to “forgive” or reconcile or have anything to do with these people. They have burned their bridges with me forever, and to the extent that I’m able to remember and recognize their names (which I am not making any kind of effort at), they would probably not find me very favorable as a person to network with in the future.

However, there is a point in every conflict where it’s time to walk away and stop engaging. I think that point has come with this year’s battle over the Hugos. I see many on the SJW side seeming dissatisfied, like the moral victory is somehow not enough. I see people visiting Puppy blogs, looking for newly offensive things the Puppies have said and done. Let me save you some time. They are not now and probably never going to be done with this. Giving energy and attention to it at this point isn’t going to accomplish anything.

In any effort to raise consciousness or create change for the social good, it can be very seductive to slide into the mindset that there is a way to “win” or “lose,” and that you can’t “win” until you’ve converted or neutralized the “other side.” But no one’s consciousness has ever been raised by humiliation or punishment. If the “other side” is going to get over its issues and become aware, they have to do it themselves. And, quite honestly, they are human beings and still deserve some basic respect, even if it’s only in averting the gaze while they continue to embarrass and humiliate themselves.

The Puppies have no more power than we give them. They don’t have any hypnotized army of minions. There isn’t a secret Gamergate factory that decants mindless Puppy Warriors who will do the bidding of their leader. What they’ve accomplished in 2015 is the best they could do, because they found a loophole in the Hugo nominating system and exploited it. And it’s over.

I don’t want to see links to the latest crazy thing one of them said. I want to see links to how the Hugos are getting fixed so that 2015 can’t happen again, no matter what the agenda. I don’t want someone to prove to me that the Rabid Puppy leader is a raging malignant narcissist. This is already well-established. I would love to see links to essays, books, and other works by writers and artists with unique, powerful, and positive voices. The fifteen minutes I spend reading and being angry about the latest frothy rantings of an outraged white male is fifteen minutes I could spend discovering an unknown writer whose books could become my new best friend.

I want to be inspired, not brought down. Disengagement doesn’t mean conceding, or letting the other side win. It just means choosing to direct your energy elsewhere. And when dealing with people who thrive on attention, even if it’s negative attention, denying them THAT is bigger moral victory even than a No Award for short story. How about we give responsibility for sexist, homophobic, racist rantings back to the sexists, homophobes, and racists and keep celebrating the amazing unstoppable social change we are experiencing in our times? We don’t need the old white guys to cosign our values. Stop giving them the clicks and linklove. Save your sanity. Disengage.

You* are near hopelessly enmeshed with everyone else and it is killing you slowly

How do you know you’re enmeshed?

You’re afraid to tell the truth because it will hurt someone’s feelings.

You apologize for crying or having any emotions at all, or you are reactive when other people emote in your presence.

You hesitate to look too happy because it might make someone else envious.

When facing a hard conversation, you try to spin it in such a way that it goes over well.

When people fade from your life or stop speaking to you abruptly, you assume you’ve done something wrong.

When dating, you think a lot about whether the other person likes you, and not much about whether you like them.

You think your life would be a lot better if someone else would go to therapy.

You spend a lot of time and effort trying to get that person into therapy, or some other kind of “help.”

You talk about other people behind their backs. Or, let’s be honest, you gossip endlessly.

If you have a problem with someone, you either avoid telling them forever (if possible), or you tell them OFF aggressively.

You’re not ok with other people being angry with you.

You believe you create behavior in other people, and they create it in you.

You are so exhausted from feeling other people’s feelings you can’t feel your own.

You give and give and give and end up feeling used.

You’re afraid to get too close.

Once close, you’re terrified to death of abandonment.

You hold a grudge, and have trouble letting go of resentment.

You hate-follow someone online (maybe me!) and you don’t quite know why, but it scratches an itch.

You interpret other people’s behavior based on what YOU would do in that situation, and then are offended based on what YOUR motivations would be.

You judge yourself and others on a regular basis.

Some people are “good” and some people are “bad.” If you think you’re more evolved, you label them as “healthy” and “sick,” or “cool” and “not ok.”

You’re flaky. You don’t commit to things, and you do a lot of last-minute backing out.

You’re uncomfortable with feelings.

You have a lot of stories you tell and retell yourself about other people’s behavior and your reactions to it.

You’re deeply invested in right and wrong.

There are one or more people that absolutely enrage you, that you give consistent attention to, and you never get over it no matter how much time passes.

How is it killing you slowly?

You are suppressing your authentic self.

Your relationships are shallow and meaningless because you can’t effectively engage in conflict and resolve it.

You are possibly either behaving abusively in your relationships or tolerating abusive behavior.

You are not living up to your potential.

You are constantly in victim mode.

You are trapped on the drama triangle.

Your ability to experience joy is muted.

You are unable to fully grieve your losses, so they build up like plaque.

You are married to or dating someone who is not good for you, and you can’t end it.

You are addicted to something–a substance, a behavior, a person.

You are losing yourself in others.

*Where “you” applies to a large proportion or most of U.S. adults.

Home improvement home stretch

I started working on the spare room in July, intending to complete it well before school started. It’s lucky I allowed extra time, and that school starts late in Michigan, because the time, it is crunching.

I had a lot of challenging tasks to complete, some unexpected. On the agenda was prepping the entire room for painting, sanding the floor, and refinishing the bedroom door and two closet doors. Because of the bad condition of the many layers of paint on the woodwork, all of it had to come off. That’s turned into many hundreds of hours worth of work, and luckily I’ve had a number of volunteers to help with it. I also hadn’t planned at the start to remove one wall of painted-over wallpaper, but it was quickly obvious that I would have to do it. The paint is stripped off nearly all of the woodwork, now, and the wallpaper is stripped. The paint was flaking off the plaster walls inside the closets, too, so I had to tackle that problem. One closet had extensive mildew where the paint was flaking, so that had to be stripped and sanded, as well.

Once I started working near the windows, it was clear the old wood windows badly needed refurbishing. There was a ton of peeling paint, mildew, and some rotting wood. The glazing is in such bad shape it practically doesn’t exist. The glass planes are held in by by habit and eagerness to please, apparently. So there is much detail scraping yet to do on the windows (yay muntons), plus picky detail sanding, plus glazing, plus repair of some of the trim and replacing the sash cords.

Refinishing the doors is an interesting problem. The doors have an old shellac finish, which was covered over with crappy latex paint. The latex paint has been flaking off the doors for years. For the main door to the bedroom, I scraped the latex paint off and started sanding the crap out of it. It became clear pretty quickly that while we could make pretty good progress on the flat surfaces with a power sander, the curvy detail bits will take a lot of time.

I then began experimenting with methods of restoring the original shellac finish on the closet doors, hoping to save myself 700 hours of hand-sanding. Shellac is a very forgiving finish. It’s a natural product, non-toxic, alcohol-soluble. You can repair a damaged shellac finish with rubbing alcohol and a dab more shellac. The main challenge is getting the last residues of paint off so the shellac can be restored.

First, I tried wiping the door down with denatured alcohol. That took much of the remaining paint off, but not all. Next, I tried adding more shellac, for the purpose of removing. That’s a method some people have used successfully to remove paint from shellac. Unfortunately, it didn’t budge the stubborn bits of leftover paint.

I also tried mineral spirits. Nothing.

Last, I tried citristrip. It works about as well as citristrip always works, which is to say I would be spending 700 hours doing detailed scraping with dental tools to get all the paint off, and even if I did that, there were many gouges in the door, from wear and tear and from the scraping process. I would have to match the stain color and then carefully stain every individual gouge, in order to then re-shellac it.

So, ultimately, my only choice is to sand fully and refinish. However, I did learn enough about shellac that I decided to use it for the floor instead of polyurethane! One problem I have with the project is that I don’t have the wherewithall to refinish the whole floor-all three rooms and hallway. So I had resigned myself to creating a line at the threshold. It would look awkward, but it’s an improvement over the water damage we had before.

However, with shellac, I can come back later and continue finishing the floor in the hallway and other rooms, and blend out the the line by removing the shellac, maybe sanding it a bit, and then blending new shellac in the next room into the old. You can’t do that with polyurethane. So it’s a great solution for my situation, it’s more authentic to the period of the house, and a shellac floor looks absolutely beautiful, especially with a coat of nicely polished wax over it.

So that’s what I’m up to, and I haven’t even talked about painting yet. It should be a pretty straightforward painting job, after all of this arduous prep. Coming soon, my manifesto on why you should never, ever, ever paint over natural woodwork in your home, and it’s not only because it makes a lot of work for the next homeowner if you don’t do a good job of it.

Giving up on Twitter

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably didn’t notice that I deleted my account yesterday. You wouldn’t have noticed, because I have barely been present for months. Every once in a while, I’d log in, make a half hearted attempt to “catch up” or jump into the stream to see what people are talking about. I might post a tweet, I might not. A couple times, I’ve made an effort to “use” Twitter, with some kind of idea that I could build a following by being clever and interesting, and that later that would help me market a book that at this point has not been published, has not been written, has not really even been conceived. Then, I’d feel bad about not marketing that nonexistent book when I inevitably lost interest in Twitter again–about five minutes after promising myself I’d do better.

I have to admit, Twitter is just not for me. It fails for me on a couple of levels.

–Is it a social network? Can I chat with my family and friends on it? Turns out, not so much. The churn on people’s posts is so great that if someone is using Twitter to connect, I’m unlikely to see their important updates. Did they just get a new job? Did their mom die? Did they have a baby? Is their cat cute? I have no idea.

–Is it a watercooler? Twitter got weird for me when, having started using it as an informal social network, my boss, colleagues, and other associates turned up on it. Now we were supposedly going to be rapping on the side about the big stories we were breaking. Twitter is your peek into the process as we digest the day’s news and spew it out in published form later. Can’t wait until tomorrow morning to find out what I’m working on? Follow my Twitter feed. Just ignore those bits about my Mom and my cats and that rash I want to ask my doctor about.

But, wait…maybe it’s a…

–Social activism platform! Yes, let’s change the world by tweeting at each other about how things could be better. A lot of people have jumped onto the social activism bandwagon. You can get on your soapbox any time you feel like it and protest the injustices of the world. Can’t fit it all in one tweet? Just string a couple, or seventeen, together. Air your grievances. The problem with social activism on Twitter, though, is it leads to…

–Public shaming. Oh, we all love a good public shaming. Who doesn’t want to log onto a social network and hear about some jackass thing some stranger I’ve never heard of before has said. If you want to amplify his/her jackassery, you can retweet it. If you’re lucky, maybe you can get him fired. Who doesn’t like starting their day with plans for productivity, self care, and enrichment, only to end up being personally offended by something you never needed to know anything about, and joining a campaign to punish this person. Because we all know that being publicly humiliated is a powerful motivator for personal growth. If you’re very unlucky, you might eventually find yourself putting your own foot in your own mouth, and…

–Your tweet goes viral. Congratulations, it’s your turn for public shaming. People have lost jobs, had careers ruined, even been permanently unable to date because they said something stupid on Twitter. It seems like with all the confusion over what Twitter is for, people forget that it’s not a private message group with only their friends and like-minded acquaintances. It’s even become popular among people with high numbers of followers to complain about “randos” butting into their conversations. So you say something intended for your friends ears only, and suddenly the internet falls on your head. Or, possibly, you don’t even say anything stupid or insensitive, but you happen to be female or non-white or something, and you suddenly find your replies or inbox flooded with abuse from people who have made Twitter their personal hate-hunting ground.

But what about promoting that book? I’m just not convinced it’s worth it. Twitter works well for some people, and as far as I can tell, those are folks who have a defined focus for their Twitter stream and don’t engage in a ton of “conversations” or try to do social activism. (Seriously, try serving food to the hungry in a soup kitchen if you want to be socially active. I’m sick to death of social activism that consists of finding fault with others from the comfort of your living room recliner.) I may decide later that I want to start up on Twitter again. If so, it will still be there. At this time, I’m glad to have cut out a social media service that I have never really enjoyed.


Yeah, it’s been a rough week. This is Courage taking an epic post-hospital nap on the couch. He is doing well, delighted to be home, and really appreciates all of the notes of support and encouragement. He promises to write back just as soon as he grows an opposable thumb and learns to read and write.

I hate when people point to challenges and wistfully say that life will get better when “things are less crazy.” Those are always the people that can’t stop themselves from volunteering for everything, over-committing on the job, manufacturing personal drama, and then avoiding it all with procrastination behaviors. But it does seem warranted at this point. Things really did get crazy for a minute, there. I’m looking forward to having a quieter time in the coming weeks, not trying to go on any vacations, panic-purchasing a car, or losing a beloved family member.

All of this has been pretty stressful. Yep.

I wanted to write a bit about the ongoing EMDR work I’ve been doing this summer. It’s really been going well, and the experience has been fascinating. I wrote a little while back about how much clearer I felt, and the resultant burst of productivity.

EMDR is like Russian nesting dolls, however. One of the challenges you have to work with (and against) is your own defense system. So in my experience, processing one traumatic memory has led to the “unlocking” of new targets. Rather than clearing the first memory tidily and moving onto the second, I’ve found them layered inside each other. Except the dimensionality of Russian dolls is backward. The larger, more traumatic memories are wrapped inside layers of smaller ones. That’s the defenses at work. We can’t face the most painful material until we’ve worked through the less painful stuff and have gained trust in ourselves.

So it felt weird this summer when I found myself functioning in a much more centered and grounded way, and yet I also experienced the awareness of a new “package” of traumatic material emerging. It caused an odd split–or, well, really, the split was always there as the part of me that carried that material was kept carefully contained while the rest of me went about daily life.

It wasn’t until I trusted myself and felt safe that this stuff could emerge into consciousness. I got stuck trying to clear my first target memory, so we created a new one. For weeks, I showed up and processed the new target memory. It wasn’t really THE target memory. It was a memory from my recent adult life, and it was the closest I could get to whatever it was that was bubbling up into my consciousness. I went at it with the tappers over and over again, feeling no closer. It was as if I was descending into a bank of fog, and the fog was stopped me hard. There was no getting through. It was hard to even identify what was inside of it, though I was finally able to articulate, “I’m angry.” I felt like I was struggling with myself. I knew that package was there. I could feel it in my stomach. I woke up exhausted from nightmares I couldn’t remember. I projected it like crazy on the world around me. But it wouldn’t open.

We had a hiatus of a couple of weeks due to my vacation and my therapist’s travel schedule. In that time, I finally got a peek inside the package. I suddenly became able to connect feelings with an experience from my childhood–one that exists as a combination of fragmented memories and received family history. It was nothing new, and yet it was completely new. It is not a recovered memory. It is something I always knew and felt and carried with me, but I was not aware of those feelings, or the effects they had on my life, choices, and behavior.

That package is pretty big. I’ll admit I don’t know how I’m going to process it. I have felt that way at previous levels of processing. The only difference is this target looks much larger. I am taking it on faith that we can get through that one, too. I hope there’s not another, huger, Russian doll contained inside this one. My gut feeling is that there’s still stuff down there in the fog. There’s nothing to do but keep moving forward.

So, aside from the car troubles and pet loss, this new level of processing is sapping my energy somewhat. The difference now is that I know I’ll be ok, and I’m willing to be patient and be compassionate with myself as I grieve all of these losses, new and old.




Chewbacca falls

We lost our mastiff Chewbacca to a nasty pneumonia that came on frighteningly fast yesterday. Both dogs had had an upper respiratory infection for a week already, and when Chewie started having breathing difficulty, I took them to the vet. Chewie got some subQ fluids and both went home with antibiotics. They offered to hospitalize Chewie, as I told them I have trouble giving oral meds at home (they are super stubborn), but it did not seem imperative, and the vet didn’t seem worried Chewie was in serious danger.

I went home and spent the afternoon working on a home improvement project. Chewie napped on the couch. When I checked on him around 4 PM, he looked pretty bad. I went ahead and gave them both the dose of antibiotics I was saving for 7 PM (an every 12 hour medication).

Chewie struggled to get up off the couch and I helped him. Then he collapsed on the floor, unable to go any further. It took me a while to summon a crew to put him in the car, and we went to the emergency vet. He was alert, and it still seemed like we’d gotten him there on time.

They did an exam and X-rays that showed pretty bad pneumonia. While the vet was describing a treatment plan for him, he went into cardiac arrest. He never came back.

We were utterly shocked. We had assumed this illness to be a form of kennel cough–a very common and relatively minor illness. True, the dogs were geriatric, but we didn’t expect it to kill them.

Courage was still doing well, but only in comparison to Chewie. After saying goodbye to Chewie and taking some time to decompress with family, we took Courage back to the emergency vet. I knew I wouldn’t sleep knowing how fast Chewie had gone from seeming merely sick to dead.

Coincidentally, I had planned a girls night out with my sisters. It was going to be the first time all four of us were together in a good ten years. I’d been looking forward to it all summer, as one sister was moving back to Michigan, and another was out of town for a while. Girls night was obviously canceled, but all three of my sisters made the 1+ hour drive to Ann Arbor and went with us to the vet to sit and wait for Courage’s results.

We had a couple husbands with us, so it was six humans and one dog in the room. The vet was taken aback, and I tried to explain the circumstances. But the truth is, my sisters are simply awesome. Very few families come through the way mine does. Every time. I love them.

Courage turned out to have pneumonia also, and he was admitted for intensive care over night. He got fluids, antibiotics, and oxygen.

Currently, the diagnosis is upper respiratory infection with pneumonia as a complication, but the course of illness was so shockingly extreme, and it happened to both dogs, that we suspect canine influenza. The clinic quoted us $300 to test for it, so we declined.

We had to leave a $4000 deposit for treatment. I understand why they do this. You can’t just let someone run up a $4000 tab on credit. Still, more shock. We’d already dropped $1200 that day on Chewie.

I feel grateful that we had enough credit to handle that unexpected cost–and I’m hoping we get a good chunk of that back. This came on top of two car breakdowns this summer that also cost quite a bit to sort out.

Such times come to us all. I’ll be glad to be sharing my ramen noodles with Courage, if we can get ┬áhim home safe.

No such thing as too needy, too clingy, too sensitive

The narrative goes something like this. “I am a very strong, independent, self-sufficient person. I take care of myself and meet my own needs. That’s why it bothers me so much when someone is needy toward me. It puts pressure on me and is an unfair. In fact, it’s abusive. The needy person is using and abusing me with her needs. It’s not my job to be a counselor and comforter to a needy person. I have to take care of myself by reacting against needy people.”

A lot of us have problems with the so-called “needy” people of the world. I did, and do, get uncomfortable when people exhibit certain forms of emotional neediness around me, though I’m getting better. When my mother was alive, she was the queen of emotional neediness. She had schizophrenia, and then, after she got cancer, she was also physically ill all of the time. I suspected that she inflated her physical discomforts and symptoms, both before and after her cancer diagnosis, to get people to comfort and take care of her, and I resented this manipulative behavior in her. I blamed her for her neediness and her subsequent behavior. I believed she was conscious of this and could stop any time she wanted. I also had contempt for others who showed the same sort of neediness and manipulation, and I believed it was because my mother was using and abusing me in this way that my feelings of discomfort and resentment were triggered.

Friends, whenever we detect resentment, blame, or contempt, we have to look at ourselves. I believed that my independence and unwillingness to rely on others was a positive quality in myself, and that any negative feelings triggered by needy and manipulative behavior in others, especially my mother, was their fault. I thought it was natural and healthy for me to basically be a victim of other people’s emotions.

I know now that an emotionally healthy and balanced person is not hurt or victimized by the neediness of others, whether that neediness is age appropriate (an actual two-year-old, for example), or not (an adult who occasionally behaves and feels like a two-year-old).

An emotionally healthy person has compassion for a needy person. A person’s needs are what they are. If someone is 35 years old, but they have the needs of a six year old, those are their needs. They didn’t ask for their particular set of challenges and neurological wiring, and if they could do better, they would. Likewise, a person doesn’t have to be emotionally regressed to have an extremely difficult time. Maybe you THINK that Suzy’s emotional reaction to her cancer, breakup, car accident, or other loss is excessive, and that whatever expression or duration her grief is taking is a burden on YOU, but you ARE NOT Suzy, you don’t share her psyche, life experiences, and sensitivities, and it’s very likely you HAVE NOT been through the experience she is working through that you are judging. And, yes, when you start labeling someone as “too needy,” and wanting them to stop having their emotions or to change their behavior to suit you, that crosses into judgment.

I regret the way I treated my mother. I did the best I could, but I wince as I recall all of the invalidation I heaped on her. I didn’t know any better, and, obviously, my mother’s illness and my own early childhood experiences shaped MY response to her problems. It was all a sad feedback loop, and I try not to blame myself. But I did resent the way I perceived her using and manipulating me for emotional support, as if emotional support was a currency and all that I spent on her was somehow a loss for me. I just didn’t know any better.

I know now the real reason that her neediness bothered me, and it’s shockingly simple, and pretty universal. Her neediness triggered my own deeply repressed unmet needs and needy nature. All of my independence and self sufficiency was a front and a mask I wore to avoid dealing with my own inner needy self. If her neediness didn’t reflect my own, I wouldn’t have been triggered. I was taking a triggered emotional reaction in myself, and blaming her for it. Blaming her unfairly. Perhaps even cruelly.

This is probably true for you, too. If you are very bothered by someone who is needy, whether that person is an adult or child, it’s not because you’re super emotionally mature. (Sorry) It’s because you’re needy, too, and you don’t like seeing it laid out in front of you. If you were emotionally mature and balanced, the other person’s neediness would trigger only empathy and compassion. You would offer what help you could and neither feel obligation nor blame for what you could not do. You would not need to lecture, change, or punish the other person.You would not need to label the person as an “emotional vampire” or cut them off or take them on as a project. You would not need to cast yourself in the role of counselor. You would just help. And care.

I see this now. I still get triggered sometimes by needy people, but I recognize it for what it is, and I’m pretty good at managing my triggers. And it makes me so sad to see the needy people of our world constantly invalidated by other needy people who have made the opposite adaptation (demanding/clinging vs. independent/distancing). There’s a lot of cruelty and abandonment in that dynamic. A lot of people being capriciously denied love and caring, simply because they’re asking for it too hard. And a lot of people denying their own, inner, emotional selves that same love and care because they have convinced themselves they are not “needy” because neediness is bad. Do we blame the car because the gas tank is empty? Come on!

And I’m not judging here. This is an area of growth for me. The last thing I want to do is give you a set of emotional reactions you may believe you SHOULD feel to replace what you are actually feeling when you encounter someone who is needy or very emotional. When your emotional self rises up in response to a trigger, this is a gift and a message. It’s an opportunity to take care of YOU. But what I am saying is for the love of god please stop blaming and shaming people who are expressing their emotions and needs in a way that brings up discomfort for you.

Generally, in our culture, we don’t cut ourselves and others slack for the fullness of our normal adult emotional responses–never mind the range of people with emotional challenges. We can’t handle seeing normal grief, normal sadness, normal anger, normal fear, and normal trauma. We lecture ourselves and others to “let it go.” Do you know how you truly let something go? You have to feel the feelings. And when someone else is feeling their feelings, it is really a dick move to tell them to stop, to get over it, to suck it up, or to change their emotional self for your comfort.

There’s no such thing as a needy person, only a person with needs. If you can’t help a person with their needs, do you have to kick them as you walk away, or can you wish them well and be kind? Can you take care of yourself without blaming, alienating, hurting, or shaming others? If not, you probably have the same degree of emotional damage that “bothers” you so much in other people.


The mystery of thingdoingness

I had a revelation a few weeks ago. I was thinking about swing dancing. That’s a new hobby I’ve been into lately, and it’s funfunfun. I’ve learned basic East coast swing and a bit of Lindy Hop, plus whatever the partners I dance with feel like doing on a given night. And I found myself thinking about how much fun it was going to be when actually get good at it, rather than being a beginner.

(And although I generally don’t like the phrasing “I found myself _____,” for the purpose of where our thoughts take us when we’re not paying attention or when we’re on automatic, it’s actually perfect.)

And then I noticed the thought. (I am not my thoughts. I am the observer of my thoughts.) And I realized it was just flat wrong. It was me deferring my enjoyment, even my presence, in my life until some indeterminate later date, and that actually being a total beginner at swing dancing is completely enjoyable right at this exact moment.

And just like that, in an instant, I gave myself permission to enjoy my life in the present. Every aspect of it, not just the parts that are fun in the moment, but all of the messy, imperfect, incomplete, in-process, complicated, sometimes-painful NOW parts of it that are happening in the very moment. Like right this minute, when I’m sitting in my living room typing my thoughts on a computer while it’s dark and rainy outside, and I don’t need it to be tomorrow, and I don’t need it to be six months ago. I’m just here now, and it’s good enough.

And I understand at a much deeper level that if I defer my presence in the moment until such future time as I’ve accomplished the goals that are important to me, that will mean I’m dead or dying, and that is a moment I hope I can be fully present for, but I don’t have to start rehearsing now.

I hope I’m making sense. On the one hand, what I’m saying sounds obvious and trivial. Duh! Of course I don’t have to wait until some arbitrary gain in skill to enjoy a hobby. Like, who doesn’t know that?

But what we know and what we believe at our deepest emotional levels are two different things. I both know it and know it, and that makes all the difference.

Along with that comes a different perspective on productivity. I’m getting a lot more done now that I’m not rushing to get it all done, now that I’m staying with the task I’m on right now, not pushing ahead to the end of a neverending to-do list. It turns out that staying present and not trying to get it all done is a good way to get a lot more things done and feel a lot better about the things I didn’t get to.

Just like swing dancing, I can suddenly feel satisfied with having a lot of things in process. My back yard is in pretty bad shape because we haven’t been able to do much meaningful work in it for a couple of years. Instead of feeling like I can’t enjoy it until it’s “done,” whatever that means in an environment filled with plants and animals and soil, I actively enjoy knowing that it’s a work in process and that each work period I spend in it I can be satisfied with the progress I’m making. That it’s perfect right now for what I’m doing. That when I am “done” with the work, the memories of all of those work periods will be something I enjoy along with the finished product–that the time spent working is inseparable from the result.

And everything is like that for me lately.

Similarly, I have a new-to-me sense of lightness and effortlessness in motivating myself to do tasks. Some indescribable burden and inertia that I used to carry into every endeavor has just, sort of…vanished. It’s like I’ve been swimming fully clothed all my life, and now I finally took it all off. There’s no conscious or unconscious wind-up or psyching up necessary to get going on tasks, whether they are for work or pleasure. Nor is there any conscious or unconscious recovery, “boy was that rough,” (like I’m conserving my energy or spent too much) or post-action analysis if other people (and their drama) were involved. It’s all down to “what’s next?”

Knowing this, I finally have the tools to, I think, get out from under what seems like a lot of deferred organizational work, and also to be pretty zen about taking it one day at a time and enjoying the process as much as the (anticipated) end result. I’m suddenly aware that a day has plenty of hours in it, as long as I prioritize and maintain boundaries on time and commitments.

I’ve already started incorporating some new habits into my routine–without any real effort or drama. For example, I started a daily vacuuming routine, because we have way too much pet hair around here, and I enjoy having a cleaner home. In the past, that kind of change would take a lot of effort and I would probably end up abandoning it. Every stage would be burdened with self-flagellation and subconscious shame, particularly the inevitable failure, for which I would blame myself and come up with both stories justifying why I couldn’t make it work, as well as excuses as to why it wasn’t my fault. Now, it’s just like, “Oh, it’s time to vacuum again? La da deeh da dee.” Also, you can Lindy Hop while vacuuming. I’m just sayin.

I guess this ramble is to say life is pretty darn good and is working out well and the ways in which it is not perfect are perfect in their own way because it is natural and human to work and strive and learn. I credit therapy. I credit hard self work. I credit loving family and friends. I credit yoga and swing dancing and soft kitty cats and the sound of rain.