Make yourself a honey-do list

Who doesn’t like a To-Do list, with a lot of satisfying checkmarks next to completed tasks? We all like those check marks, but what are we doing to ourselves when we give ourselves a To-Do list? Do you have such a list handy? Can you grab it and take a look at it? How many items are on it? How many did you actually check off? How did you feel when you received that list from yourself?

Each of us have selves made up of many parts, but we are often not conscious of the dialogue and interplay between the parts. Only when we imagine an action like a typical “To-Do” list as an interaction with another person can we see what an asshole move it is. Imagine making a list like that for someone else. Or actually do it. Think about someone you love in your life, a partner, a child, a sibling–someone you have no current conflict or simmering resentments with. Then make them a 30-item To-Do list and tell them they have to finish it by the end of the day or else.

Do you feel like a jerk? That is how you are treating yourself.

What kind of lists and requests do we make of someone we love? We don’t flog them with an impossible list of tasks that they can never finish, and possibly deprive them of things they need–rest, praise, gratitude–until they finish (which they never will).

From now on, I suggest instead of “To-Do” lists, you make yourself a “Honey-Do” list, with yourself as the “Honey.” Think of all the things you want your “Honey” (aka yourself) to do for you, and then remember that your “Honey” gets grouchy and depressed if he/she doesn’t have [fill in the blank] and that your “Honey” gets overwhelmed if you ask him/her to do too many things at once. Also keep in mind that some tasks are triggering for your Honey, because Honey is a work in progress, so if you must add triggering tasks to the list, keep them to a minimum and make sure Honey has what she needs to get through them.

Remember, lastly, why Honey appreciates a “Honey-Do” list. It’s because Honey has gifts and talents and skills to contribute. Ideally, Honey is completing the tasks for you because he/she loves you and wants to make you happy with the gift of completed work, whether that’s changing a light bulb, taking out the trash, vacuuming, or whatever. So, in giving yourself that list, keep in mind that you want to give yourself the gift of feeling loved and appreciated.

When your “To-Do” list becomes a “Honey-Do” list, it becomes an exercise in self care and compassion. It is a list from yourself to yourself itemizing needs, wants, and obligations. Identifying which tasks to take off the list–because only an asshole would demand them of you–can help you simplify your life. You might also filter out demands from other people, or places where you’ve volunteered or said “yes” when you should have been taking care of your own time and energy. Would you let other people make endless demands of your Honey? No way!

It sounds paradoxical, but we can only take care of others when we take care of ourselves. Nobody wants you to be a martyr for their happiness. That’s gross. When you start becoming a resource for yourself, others around you will automatically be happier, too.

So quit with the Nazi list-making. Be realistic about the time you have and make sure to fill your needs and reward yourself, just like you would if “Honey” were your partner or child.

Back to the Confusion!

I just returned from another great weekend with my tribe at the annual Confusion science fiction convention. I attended my first one in 1998, but have not been at every Confusion every year since then. The convention has evolved in a delightful way. Once attended by a handful of mostly-local writers, the con has become an underground lit extravaganza, attracting many dozens of writers from all over the country. So many writers are regulars at Confusion now that I haven’t gotten around to making an acquaintance with all of them. Writers are my people!

I had four panels, all of which were well attended. I moderated three, which is a job I’ve become comfortable with. At Curing the Common Cold, I announced that since research in cures for the common cold were lacking, it was time to start a patient advocacy group, which I named The Con Crud Association of the Americas (“We are all survivors”). At the Short Fiction panel, we decided it was a new golden age for short fiction, sort of, if your definition of golden age is having more markets than ten years ago and getting slightly better pay rates, but don’t get carried away or anything–you still can’t make a living writing the stuff. At Build Your Own Apocalypse, the audience flatly rejected my proposal to wipe out 80% of the population with plague in favor of being enslaved by robots. And at the late night time paradox panel, Ted Chiang schooled us all on the difference between a paradox and an inconsistency while Doselle Young time-jumped for the pure hell of it.

The convention had many emotional highs and lows. I had several friends show up that I wasn’t expecting, and hadn’t even had the “Are you coming to Confusion” conversation with because they lived so far away, including a surprise Howard Tayler! I had drinks with an old and dear friend who we both agreed would be dead right now if not for a timely diagnosis. I perfected my “sit in the lobby and see who wanders by to chat” technique. I exorcised some demons. And I did a much better job of managing my energy and taking care of myself than ever before. Although I was sad to have to go to bed kind of early Saturday, I had zero regrets about saying, “I am all out of Catherines, I’ll see you tomorrow,” in contrast to many past conventions where I pushed myself into debt on self-energy and paid a hefty price for it later.

As always, there were too many people to successfully connect with everyone, so regrets if I missed you. Let’s do this again in 2016.

PTSD is not funny! (Well, maybe, just a little)

For being such a devastating condition, PTSD has a way of creeping up on you. I didn’t realize something was truly amiss until I woke up one morning, refreshed, at 7 AM, and it occurred to me that my normal had become waking up at 5 AM every day, heart pounding, mind racing, lurching for the bathroom with terror-driven diarrhea. Then I thought, “Well, maybe this is something more than ‘stress’ or a wee tipple of anxiety, after all.” I couldn’t see the symptoms until I started to have a break from them. I couldn’t hear the whirring of the trauma gears until there were periodic silences. And then when the noise started again, I was gradually able to identify that state as “triggered,” and the periodic calm as “normal.”

It’s been a long road from there to here. Having PTSD is like dropping a bag of marbles all over the floor and trying to pick them up and put them back in the sack with your toes. I’ve had the condition twice before in my life, but always lightly. Always the symptoms receded on their own, and when my doctor said the word “PTSD” it was in past tense. Not this time. This time it’s heal or die. Hear that, soldier? Better toughen up or else! Time to suck in that gut. Whip that psyche into shape! Put on the big girl panties, you miserable worm–

–or maybe not. I wish it were that easy. As easy as punishing yourself with more structure, more discipline, more deprivation, more judgment, more criticism. If that were all it took–figuring out what you did WRONG and fixing it–healing from PTSD would be a piece of cake. Easy peasy.

But no. Instead I have to be fucking kind to myself. I have to practice self-fucking-compassion. I have to engage in the tedium of “self care.” It’s all about bubble baths, and affirmations, and positive self talk. Letting go of judgment of self and others and accepting what is, including unappealing emotions, like that one kitten that isn’t as cute as the others because it has mange and has one kind of snaggly tooth. I hate that kitten.

I’ve spent time in therapy, read lots of self help literature, read the entire internet, taken all the bubble baths, practiced all the affirmations, had gratitude for each day I get to poop at a civilized hour after a cup of coffee, and earnestly tried to educate my loved ones, which is a dreary, tiresome task when you’re trying to have a decent panic attack. It’s all very serious. Very heavy. I’ve noticed a dearth of humor around PTSD. So, it is my humble pleasure to present to a small compendium of PTSD jokes!

Why did the traumatized chicken cross the road?

The chicken can cross the road any time it fucking wants to because fuck you. What is your fucking problem anyway?

Knock knock

Who’s there?

Your trauma

Who’s there?

Your trauma

Who’s there?

Your trauma

Q: How many trauma survivors does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Two. One to change the light bulb and one to tell him it’s his fault the old one burned out.

Did you hear about the menopausal trauma survivor who went to the doctor? She was having hot flashbacks.

Why did the trauma survivor turn himself in for a crime he didn’t commit? Guilt by dissociation.

How did the trauma survivor end Middle East conflict? She wrote a long apology email.

Yo’ trauma is so complex mathematicians had to invent a new symbol for it.

Yo’ trauma is so complex it wrote a doctoral thesis on itself.

Yo’ trauma is so complex your therapist bought a vacation home in Maui.

Yo’ trauma is so complex Dr. House spent three episodes diagnosing it.

You know you’re a trauma survivor when:

You correct your therapist when she gets her own phone number wrong. [note: this really happened to me]

You announce to a friend that you’ve finally forgiven yourself, and they answer, “Do you want fries with that?”

You want to know how long you have to “keep doing self care.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The banality of evil (and good)

Over the holidays we saw the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. We all enjoyed the movie and agreed it was the best of the three films, and it was an interesting new interpretation of a story I’ve known and loved since childhood. However, a funny thing happened while I was watching. I started to feel sorry for Smaug (voiced masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch), and by the end of the movie, I was downright squirming over some unfairness I couldn’t really put my finger on.

After all, the people of Laketown had a very legitimate claim for self defense, so one can’t say they treated him unfairly. As well, the dwarves only wanted to retrieve the one large rock they had left behind without even waking him up, so one can’t say he was mistreated by the dwarves. And then it hit me. Smaug was being used by the film-makers and the audience: as a scapegoat.

Like so many one-dimensional villains, Smaug had become a receptacle for the audience’s disowned dark side, and then was killed spectacularly. Why else draw him so over-the-top? Why else give him absolutely no positive motivations or sympathetic qualities? Smaug was sacrificed ritually on screen to make us all feel good about…being good. We’re not evil, we’re not bad. This is how bad, evil people behave. They hoard treasure and sit on it and want to hurt others only for the sake of hurting, and we can get rid of evil by casting it out and killing it.

A similar example is found in the cure of Theoden from Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, the second installment of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

 

This scene is one of my favorites. I get chills every time I view it, including viewing in preparation for linking here. And yet…it’s the ultimate codependent fantasy, isn’t it? Casting out, aggressively, the bad in someone else, which can be conveniently blamed on a distant, purely evil person (Saruman), who himself was corrupted by an even more distant, more evil entity that could not even be called a person, but an energetic coalescence of pure evil (Sauron). The good Theoden is “saved” and reclaimed for his loved ones.

But we don’t live in a world with “bad people” and “good people.” Such splitting into good and bad, black and white is holdover from childhood, infancy even, when we do not have the maturity yet to see both positive and negative in our parents. Our infant selves crave the ability to personify and cast out the bad. We need a Smaug or a Sauron in order to feel good about ourselves. Or do we?

In order to make the Theoden predicament realistic, we first have to imagine a scenario in which adult humans will continue to obey a senile and insane leader. A little far fetched, but not historically unprecedented. But can we imagine a scenario in which the conflict is resolved without splitting, without casting out, without scapegoating or blaming or becoming a victim? Without a white-robed rescuer?

What resolution could be offered by each character reclaiming their own dark side and taking responsibility for self and responsible action? If everyone surrounding the mad, senile ruler were a mature, self-empowered, whole person, could he have any power? Probably not. Probably someone would throw a blanket over his shoulders and feed him some soup, while others assembled a team to hand over leadership duties to a legally sanctioned replacement.

What if only one person, or only a few, were able to hold the dark and the light simultaneously? If so, I posit you get a character like Jaime Lannister, from George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (and the HBO series Game of Thrones based on the books). As part of the backstory of the series, Jaime Lannister had been a body guard for the insane King Aerys, and ultimately killed the king he was sworn to protect to prevent an act of mass murder, after witnessing countless other crimes of the king. Jaime committed a “bad” act to prevent something even worse, and is continuously villified and punished throughout the rest of the story by characters who only see in black and white. Somehow, Jaime does maintain a stong sense of self in spite of that villification, and maintains agency and the ability to connect with others. Jaime is a complex and engaging character who makes many poor choices, but ultimately becomes sympathetic through his friendship with Brienne of Tarth and other acts that show loyalty, courage, and compassion. Jaime is a character that contains both good and bad, and, overall, Martin’s series is populated by internally conflicted characters, rather than “good guys” and “bad guys.”

Both types of fantasy have appeal. Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit emphasizes the split, and the triumph of pure good over pure evil. But Tolkien’s original work places more emphasis on the internal conflict, and the wholeness of characters who make both “good” and “bad” choices. Frodo attempts to rid the world of evil by destroying the One Ring, and in the process defeats Sauron, but he ultimately can’t cast the darkness out from himself. Likewise, Boromir’s brief betrayal in attempting to take the ring from Frodo does not negate his essential goodness or the love of his companions.

I’ve often wondered, what the heck are orcs anyway? According to Lord of the Rings canon, they are corrupted elves, but corrupted to what end? Seems expensive. Are they a realistic and viable enemy, or is an orc just a receptacle for our projections, a way to get rid of the “bad” in ourselves so we don’t have to own it or acknowledge it, but rather can safely hate from a distance? What would we have to give up if we saw Smaug, orcs, and other “bad” people simply as people who made choices we don’t agree with. Not that we have to turn them “good” in our minds. Can we hold, just for one minute, that no one is actually “good” or “bad,” that maybe we just don’t like or agree with someone, but that they have their own essential goodness and dignity? I think that makes a much more interesting story, and it’s a story I want to hear. I want to know why Smaug was so pissed for so long. I want to know what an orc’s actual ecological niche is. I want to know what happens when you can’t magically turn the bad king good again. Those are stories I like. A cardboard villain to hate? Not so much.

If someone tells you to get your head examined, say “Thank you”

I’ve been in psychotherapy for over a year now, since Oct. 2013, and have been pretty open about it with family and friends. I see it as a good thing I’m doing for myself, a long-overdue exercise in healing and self-care. I’m really touched by all of the support I’ve had in my process from people in my life, and I’ve also fielded a lot of questions. Several people are interested in trying therapy or are considering it based on my experience, and I think that’s wonderful. In the course of these conversations, I’ve been saddened to see how stigmatized talk therapy is compared to drug therapy, self-help, or bootstrapping, and I wanted to collect some of my experiences and observations here to help others who are looking for healing and think psychotherapy might be right for them. My intention is in no way to convince those who don’t want therapy that they need it. This essay is for the curious, specifically.

Therapy is like yoga. I believe most people could benefit from it. However, like yoga, you need to be motivated to get those benefits, and you have to do it for yourself, not for someone else or as an exercise in self-flagellation because you think there’s something wrong with you. It’s an “I care enough about myself and am prepared to work very hard” choice, not a “there’s something wrong with me and people think I should do this” choice.

What is therapy and why do I need it?

Psychotherapy is as much art as science, but so is conventional medicine, so don’t let that scare you away. I dismissed therapy for most of my life because collectively the field of psychology failed to cure my schizophrenic mother. The only thing that helped her at all was powerful antipsychotic medication, and that only helped about 50 percent of her symptoms. To me, talk therapy was bunk. I couldn’t understand why none of my mother’s therapists could talk her out of her damaging fixed beliefs. Now I understand that those beliefs are a deeply hardwired symptom of schizophrenia, and that the therapy was probably crucial in helping her cope with her disease, which she actually did really well. There is no cure for schizophrenia. My expectations were unreasonable. I was also afraid of developing or being diagnosed with her illness, or something equally horrible.

And that’s too bad, because therapy isn’t necessarily about curing organically-based serious mental illness. It’s about healing woundedness and bringing to resolution an interrupted process of maturation–issues that equally affect people with clinical mental illness and most of those without. If you think about physical therapy, it’s much the same. The therapy is designed to optimize your functioning and restore your full range of movement and comfort, and you can benefit whether you are fully able bodied or confined to a wheelchair. For some conditions, talk therapy can bring total cure. For others, it’s an adjunct therapy, a necessary but not sufficient condition for wholeness.

Traditional psychotherapy has phases. Most insurance plans place a cap on therapy visits, such as 10 or 20 visits per year, and that’s a shame because a handful of visits barely scratches the surface, and does not really get you past the coping skills phase, and what you want to achieve is self-insight, “corrective emotional experience,” and true growth. That’s not a quick fix. No one can explain to you how therapy really works until you’ve been through the process yourself. This is why psychotherapy training necessitates undergoing psychotherapy. It helps you understand how all the moving parts of the self fit together, and it helps you identify your own projections and unconscious triggers and behaviors. When you have been to enough therapy, your insight into others, and your compassion for others, levels up substantially.

Healing woundedness is not a do-it-yourself endeavor. I’m not ready to say that you can never heal without therapy, but mostly people don’t. They get older, they cope, they develop defenses, and their personalities develop around their wounds like a topiary on its wires. Reading a lot of self-help books is nearly worthless because your “stuff” is buried in your unconscious, where you can’t see it. It’s like trying to lance a boil on your own butt. There are parts of yourself that you can’t reach. Sometimes we all need help from another person who has the distance and perspective to see what we ourselves can’t.

Every wounded person is different, and yet also the same. Children under six do not have the cognitive capacity to contextualize trauma or abuse. As a young child, you can’t reason that Mom is an alcoholic and her behavior is related to her illness and that she loves you and is doing her best. Nor can you understand that tragedy and loss happens for no reason. Instead the young child blames him or herself for those events, and develops a profound and life-altering shame. Usually that shame is unconscious, but it affects adult behavior and relationships in deep ways. This is where self-defeating behaviors like avoidance of intimacy, procrastination, being “difficult” etc. come from. That woundedness can also drive depression and anxiety

You may be wounded even if you’re not aware of anything specific that caused it. Children raised by significantly wounded parents can pick up their own wounds by osmosis. Behavior leaks out of the parent and infects the child with shame. Maybe your parents had a habit of invalidating your feelings, or maybe they were distant and uninvolved. Don’t judge your degree of woundedness. Just heal it.

None of this is about blaming parents, either our own parents or ourselves as parents. We’re all doing the best we can, and damage happens. The good news is there are ways to repair that damage. Psychotherapy is one of the best, most effective tools we have, and, yes, young-cynical Catherine, it is scientifically validated.

The wounded child in you

Would you hand a three-year-old child the keys to your car? Would you put that child in charge of your huge presentation at work? Would you let that child parent your children? That would be crazy, but that’s exactly what a lot of us do. When we’re wounded, we split off a piece of ourselves that is the age we were at the time of wounding, and that wounded child surges up and starts driving the bus when we get triggered.

When you see irrational or immature behavior in adults, that’s them acting from their wounds. Road rage. Selfishness. Addiction. It gets pretty intense when two or more wounded children are summoned. When a group of people gets triggered, watch out! Drama central! Some people are so wounded that they don’t even alternate between a mature self and a wounded child self. They just walk around with their woundedness hanging out 100% of the time, and they trigger those around them continuously. Those people are commonly described as toxic, but that toxicity only works on the unhealed wounds of others. Heal your wounds, and the toxic people may still annoy you, but won’t have any real power in your life. The only people with literal power to hurt you are those who resort to literal violence. We have enough of those types of people in our society to trouble us without getting ourselves all worked up over people who are simply mean, overly demanding, or flailing in their own unconsciousness. You can even have compassion and help in your own way for those more heavily damaged individuals by having healthy boundaries, holding them accountable without blame and encouraging any small steps toward growth. That’s it. Adults don’t need your rescue or fixing. Focus on yourself and your children.

We have a powerful drive to heal our wounds. As adults, we unconsciously seek intimate partners that let us re-enact our childhood traumas so that we can heal them. Unfortunately, the woundedness in us attracts other, equally wounded people, and while it would be nice if we could find a partner that reminds us strongly of our abusive/mentally ill/addicted/emotionally distant parent, then fix them and get the love we craved all along, that behavior is more likely a recipe for retraumatizing and revictimizing ourselves. Ouch ouch ouch. The partners that really would help our wounds to heal are likely not to be attracted to the childish behavior we often exhibit in our pain. Double ouch. We all know someone who cycles from one abusive relationship to the next. That person is relentlessly trying to heal a wound, but is instead retraumatizing herself (or himself) by throwing herself in front of the same bus over and over. That is the drive to heal in action.

It often happens that a child will be wounded or traumatized, and will “grow up” very fast and become a people-pleasing overachiever. These kids are commonly praised for resilience and strength, but in reality, this is another manifestation of unhealed wounds. If this describes you, you’re a “red zone case,” as dog trainer Cesar Millan would term it. You’ve learned how to repress your emotions so effectively that you’ve become a ticking time bomb. Your lack of depression, high functionality, and high level of achievement in the face of significant early childhood trauma shows that you are a strong person with an equally strong risk of breakdown or crisis.

When I started looking into therapy, and I told therapists my childhood history, they invariably asked, “Have you ever had any trauma work?” and I said, “No.” And then there would be this very subtle, very discreet, “Oh boy we’ve got a live one here” expression as they scribbled furiously on their clipboards. So much scribbling. I’m at the point where I kind of love it when I say something and the session screeches to a halt while my therapist scribbles a full page of notes.

There’s no shame in this. You survived, and you did it the only way you know how. Therapy is about healing and moving forward, not judging what you had to do to get where you are.

What happens in the room?

A lot of us have a perception of psychotherapy as a place you go to have a white-bearded analyst tell you what’s wrong with you so you can stop being crazy. That is not what happens in therapy. When you begin therapy, you can expect to encounter a sympathetic, nonjudgmental person who will guide you not only toward insight, but toward inner change at a pace that you can handle. You may be surprised to find your therapist much more supportive than “friends” and family members who stigmatize or blame you for your struggles with very deep feelings. You may have been shamed or blamed into therapy to begin with, and expect more of the same. If you start therapy, and you’re uncomfortable or feel judged, you haven’t found the right match. That’s normal. Therapy works through relationship, and there are innumerable valid reasons why you might not connect with a particular therapist. Don’t overthink it. Just keep searching until you find a good match.

It’s very common that therapy will chug along quite well for a while, and then get “stuck” or stagnate as you bump up against your own defenses. You may find yourself disillusioned with your therapist or wanting to quit. That kind of crisis usually precedes a big breakthrough, if you stick with it.

Therapy is tremendously hard work. It involves facing losses in the present and in the past. You may for the first time in decades truly grieve a loss after living in repressed bitterness, blame and resentment. You may frighten yourself with your own anger. You may struggle to assert yourself in the workplace for the first time ever. You may have to, for the first time, acknowledge your disappointment in your loved ones as you let go of attempts to control them and their choices. You may have to take an honest look at your own behaviors and then forgive yourself. All of this is extremely hard.

Most of us grown-up wounded children have dysfunctional relationships resulting from our woundedness. As we heal and change, as we develop boundaries and start asking for what we need, some of those relationships will inevitably fall apart. You will probably find that the “exciting,” “popular,” or “sexy” people become impatient, offended, or deeply triggered by your new boundaries and directness (they are wounded children, too). At the same time, the “boring” Steady Freddies in your life may surprise you by stepping up to the plate and supporting you or making their own changes in order to maintain the relationship. While all of this is for the good, there is additional grief and disappointment as you go through those changes.

EMDR

I’ve been fortunate to receive a new psychotherapy modality called EMDR that accelerates healing from past and present trauma. It involves the use of visual, aural, or tactile stimulation to accelerate processing of “stuck” emotions in the brain. A number of studies have supported EMDR, particularly in the treatment of PTSD. It is also effective for disorders such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. In addition, many emotionally-well people use EMDR for performance enhancement, as it can remove emotional blocks such as fear of failure or fear of public speaking. EMDR has been an intense and life-changing experience for me, and I think it may be the only truly effective way to reverse early life trauma. There are many accounts of people who have had years or decades of talk therapy and still struggle with their triggers and negative behaviors in spite of working through their childhood traumas over and over in therapy, who then experience total healing through EMDR.

If you have a memory that is “charged,” such that when you think about it you experience an emotional reaction, and perhaps even need to alter your life such that you avoid triggers, then you could probably benefit from EMDR. My experience is that a memory loses its “color” when processed. I can think about it without that strong jolt of electricity. It’s just a thing that happened to me, not the thing that defines me.

Nuts and bolts

Therapy is expensive and time-consuming. Many people don’t have insurance coverage or don’t have adequate coverage. You may not be able to access as much therapy as you want and need. It’s worth it to make therapy a priority, as your career and economic stability will benefit from the self care and confidence that you gain, but none of us can spin flax into gold.

You are legally and ethically entitled to confidentiality in a therapy setting. Nothing leaves the room except under a very narrow set of circumstances. Your employer does not have access to the health services you are receiving under their provided plan. Your personal thoughts, feelings, and struggles are not in any way amusing to your therapist, and generally they will be upfront if they have an emotional reaction to some behavior of yours or something you’ve shared. Whoever they are, they were called to their work to help people with problems. They are not interested in sitting in a room hour after hour with someone who is perfect.

You may have to call your insurance company to get a solid answer on what your mental illness coverage is. I know my plan documents are hopelessly opaque. If you have a choice, it helps to opt for a POS-type plan rather than an HMO, as it gives you the option to go out-of-network, which may be necessary to find the right fit in a therapist. Your first step is usually a referral by your primary care physician. In order to get insurance coverage, the therapist will need a diagnosis code, but it’s usually something vague. I think mine was “adjustment disorder.” Diagnosis or characterizing what’s “wrong” with you is generally not a priority. It’s usually not even relevant.

Some therapists offer a sliding scale for people who don’t have enough insurance coverage on their own. It may take some creativity to pay for therapy, but if you want to give it a try, you can usually find a way.

It’s a good idea to ask for referrals not only from friends, but also from professionals, if you can find them. If you have a friend who is in the field of psychology professionally, that is probably a good person to ask.

I recommend looking for therapists who have expertise in identities that are important to you. Shame around your racial, gender or sexual identity can be extremely toxic, and you want a therapist who can support that identity and bring you to wholeness and self-acceptance. That won’t happen by accident if your therapist isn’t aware and trained to deal with your identity. If you’re a white male, a race/gender/sexual identity-aware therapist may actually benefit you more than you expect, as they are also more qualified to help you deal with your privilege and the guilt you may have around it. It’s win-win.

I recommend against using a therapist aligned with your religion, not because they aren’t equally qualified, but because it’s extra hard to tell which ones are truly nonjudgmental and which are pushing a shame-based religious agenda that will hold back your healing. A good secular therapist will support your religious values. Just like you shouldn’t choose a brain surgeon based on religion, please don’t base your choice of mental health professional on religion. If your religion were going to heal your wounds, it would have already. That said, it’s your choice and if you find a religious therapist that feels like a good match, it’s worth pursuing. 

If you contact an office with multiple therapists, you may be asked if you prefer a male or female therapist, so think about that in advance. You might also be offered a young/older choice. Your gut response is usually the right one. Don’t choose a therapist that reminds you of your childhood abuser. Right?

Show up on time and be prepared to pay for your session. Otherwise, there are no rules. The more candid and open you can be in therapy, the better. Ask for what you need, trust the process, don’t give up on yourself, and don’t freak out when crazy feelings come up. Embrace your crazy. You are a beautiful topiary, after all. Whatever you’ve been through, you survived. You will endure.

Read More

Well This Sucks (Depression)

 

Counseling (Depression)

sometimes happiness can only emerge from periods of unhappiness 

kintsukuroi: stories in the scars, beauty in the broken places

“No. I’m Fine.” 

EMDR International Association

 

 

How not to talk to sociopaths online

There have been a couple of major blowups surrounding egregiously bad online behavior of a very small number of individuals who cause widespread pain, conflict, and chaos. One involves online harassment of women in the gaming community. Another is the outing and documentation of a single troll in the science fiction writing community who has done incredible damage over many years and left a number of victims literally with PTSD.

Having been online since the early 90′s, I’m no stranger to trolling, and the conventional wisdom “don’t feed the trolls” that we all repeat to each other. It’s important to recognize that we know a lot more about what motivates trolls in 2014 than we did in 1994, but the core advice is not much different. Still don’t feed them. Really.

Science has taken a look at trolling and confirmed what we knew all along. These people are unredeemable assholes.

More specifically, internet trolling is so highly correlated with the mental disorders of psychopathy and narcissism, as well as the traits of machiavellianism and sadism that it might even constitute a diagnostic shortcut. It’s also clear that people who don’t have those illnesses/traits are not attracted to trolling, online harassment, griefing, and similar behaviors.

So the first thing you can do is thoroughly release any and all belief that the troll is a person who can be reasoned with. Forget it. They want to hurt you. Accept it. Believe it. Because wanting to reason with them and get them to see your point of view, or at least agree to disagree is the hook they use to keep you on the line when you should be sleeping, spending time with your family, or living your life.

Whenever you identify a psychopath or a narcissist in your life, the best and only thing you can do is get away and not engage. That’s true online as well. Online discussions, however, are very addictive, and it’s really hard to walk away when you feel like you’re losing, or just about to “win.”

There is no winning with a psychopathic narcissistic machiavellian sadist. Ever.

In the SF community, the “tone argument” has been exploited by one particular troll as an excuse to fire cruel and damaging invective at writers. The tone argument is any criticism that focuses on the tone of a complaint rather than the content. The reasoning goes that making the “tone argument” is a deflection, and it’s valid. If you are going to engage in a debate, it is a pointless deflection to criticize the tone. Knowing this, the troll has fired off horrific personal attacks and even threats against authors and was not properly shut down because he/she could then say that the person attempting to stop her behavior was using the tone argument on her. Don’t use the tone argument.

If you don’t like the tone, don’t engage. If you automatically disengage when someone’s tone or behavior violates your personal boundaries, you never have to make the flawed “tone argument” to begin with, because you’re not criticizing or trying to control another person. You’re merely excusing yourself from a situation where you’re not comfortable. It’s a healthy choice. Will you get the last word that way? No. Will you win the argument? No. (But you never will anyway.) Will things get said about you after you’ve left? Probably. So what?

How you disengage is your choice, but it should be brief and noninflammatory. “I’m not comfortable with this conversation, so I’m going to bow out,” is an awesome way to leave things. If there’s a fact about yourself that you feel you need to correct for the benefit of others, do so briefly. “You are mistaken. I was not in San Francisco that weekend.” Do not argue with opinion. Do not answer unfounded accusations or attacks on your character. Just get out.

My therapist gave me these words when I was struggling with a situation like this, and they are very good: “I am not having this conversation with you.” Do not give the troll any material. Just leave. If it is a moderated or supervised community, put in a private word with management about how you feel about the harassment, but don’t argue with them, either.

A few years ago, I was abused, stalked, and harassed online by a troll who at the time was described as “a nice guy in person.” He targeted me for a time, and I fed the abuse by attempting to reason with him. He followed me from one LJ comment section to another posting information he hoped would embarrass or discredit me. When I finally stopped responding, after expending way too much energy, he gave up and found other targets. I did complain to hosts of some of the forums where he was harassing me, but got no satisfaction. Such is life. When there’s only one victim who complains, they tend not to be believed or taken seriously. It sucks hard. Something should be done about that. There should be moderation and oversight. Everyone knows what trolling looks like. We all know it when we see it. It’s not that hard to for the site owner or moderator ban, freeze, and delete posts. There’s no need to be fair or justify it. All you need is to not like someone’s attitude. But site owners and moderators get stuck in their own fairness trap and often don’t really comprehend how damaging those particular words directed at that particular person can be.

But for your own self-care, please focus on getting the harasser off your radar and out of your world, not on justice. Some day, maybe you, too, will have the satisfaction of seeing your abuser publicly outed and excoriated. That has happened for me a couple of times. It just takes patience as other people have negative experiences with the same person and start to compare notes. Paaaatience.

A bonus of disengagement is that you don’t have to judge or prove the person’s character. If you’re in a racism conversation, and your opponent gets overheated and starts badgering you, calling you names, or personally attacking you, you don’t have to whip out a DSM and prove he’s a sociopath and call him out on his behavior. All you have to do is say, “I’m not having this conversation with you.” Magic. You’re done. And as a bonus, if the person you’re engaged with is actually a person of good faith who got a little over-angry and temporarily lost sight of their reason and empathy, you’ve done them a favor by ending the argument and treated that person with respect without invalidating the feelings and experiences they are trying to share. Your disengagement may even give you time to consider the other point of view. Once things cool off, you might decide your opponent had a point!

Disengagement with internet trolls and other psychopaths is win-win. Except for the psychopath, who is temporarily inconvenienced to find another target.

None of this is to say that abuse is ok or that a victim is at fault in any way if they are targeted and do end up being bullied, harassed, or abused. For one thing, not engaging isn’t a total solution. A determined harasser can find ways to get around any blocks you put in place. For another, everyone has defenses and vulnerabilities that an abuser can hook into, and it’s very human to find yourself getting caught up in trying to argue with, control, understand, or do damage control of the situation. These people practice and are very good at what they do and have no conscience about lying. Lastly, you would have to have a heart of stone not to be hurt by some of the horrible attacks, even if you are working very hard to ignore it.

A last word on PTSD, which has been reported by a number of victims of the current science fiction community scandal. PTSD is a real fallout of being victimized by a personality disordered individual. I’ve experienced it. I think it’s because of the cognitive dissonance they create with their dishonesty and the multiple faces. The mere fact that this person who has shown you absolute cruelty is the same person who has “friends” who back him up, defend him, and even call him “a nice guy” is enough to break your mind into a million pieces. PTSD happens when a traumatic event is “too disturbing” for the brain to process normally, so it gets stuck in fight or flight mode. It’s a miserable experience and my heart goes out in complete sympathy with writers who are going through this due to “reviews” of their work. That’s just not right. It’s not ok. And when you minimize trauma to a PTSD victim, you invalidate them, and that in itself is retraumatizing. So while we’re focusing on the bullies and trolls, let’s spare some compassion for the victims and give them the support they need to heal. It wasn’t “just a review.” Not to that person, in that time. Have compassion.

Life, the universe, and everything

I was reminded of the existence of this blog by a weak hacking attempt this morning. I started this iteration of my personal blog three years ago, in my mother’s hospital room, as she was entering what would be her final illness. A lot of water has passed under my bridge since then, and my life has taken me in directions recently that haven’t been very amenable to blogging. Since I have just turned 42, the canonical age for the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” according to Douglas Adams, I thought it would be a good opportunity to brainstorm or free associate the many lessons I’ve learned in my 42 years, or the past three, or the past year. Much experience can’t be transferred or really explained, but for most of us life gives us many opportunities to learn what are essentially universal truths.

My learnings of 42 years:

1. Love is not enough, but it’s worth doing anyway.

2. Health really, truly is more important than size or beauty.

3. Getting to age 42 in perfect health is something to be deeply grateful for.

4. Boundaries are hard, but necessary. The closer you are, the more love you share, the more you need boundaries.

5. Most people are basically good.

6. Some people literally make those around them insane.

7. You can recognize a state of cognitive dissonance in yourself when you start overthinking, excessively ruminating, needing to prove someone else wrong to justify your own position, or just feeling an extremely intense confusion or avoidance around a certain subject. When that happens, someone is lying to you or manipulating you, generally someone you like and trust. Ouch.

8. When we blame others, it is usually projection. “You spot it, you got it.” When someone tells you what your problem is, they’ve just given you a free peek inside their heads, so don’t take it personally.

9. Anger is a healthy catalyst for making your life better, when channeled appropriately. (“I am worthy of respect. I will not allow others to mistreat me. I will not participate in immoral behavior, etc.”) Don’t listen to George Lucas. Anger is not the dark side.

10. Shared values are more important in any relationship than shared interests.

11.  Disengage sooner. Life is short. If someone isn’t getting you, stop. (Oh, how I’ve learned this the hard way.)

12. You can’t please all of the people, all of the time.

13. Good things come to those who wait.

14. You can give too much. Way too much.

15. When others attack us, it is usually more about them than us.

16. When people show you who they are, believe them.

17. Letting go of a negative influence invites positive energy into your life.

18. Forgiveness can’t be forced.

19. Mastiffs shed vastly more than Newfoundlands.

20. Don’t let others define you.

21. Self care is more than flossing.

22. If you find yourself explaining to an adult how to be kind and empathetic, you’ve found someone who is capable of neither. Run!

23. Pretty much everyone is just as confused as me.

24. There are no adults.

25. But that doesn’t mean it’s ok to behave like children.

26. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds

27. Sugar is bad for you. Portion it accordingly.

28. Don’t try to make sense of insanity. Don’t talk to the crazy.

29. Keep a budget and live within your means, but don’t panic if things get off track. It happens.

30. You don’t know what someone is thinking or feeling unless you ask them.

31. I’m ok with some people not liking me. And if they let me know, it’s like having a magical trash can that empties itself.

32. Dieting is bad for you.

33. Life is so much easier if you know what you’re making for dinner by 9 AM.

34. Being in touch with your feelings makes you a more awake, more conscious person.

35. Being out of touch with your feelings makes empathy impossible.

36. If you are judgmental of others, you are probably judgmental of yourself. Ouch.

37. Renovating a house kills your soul. But in exchange you get more storage space.

38. What goes around really does come around.

39. Children grow up.

40. Life never stops surprising you.

41. Some of those surprises will be extremely unpleasant.

42. But a few will be beautiful.

 

Just Because You’re Not Offended Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Offensive

There’s been a huge controversy over three recent issues of the quarterly magazine of the Science Fiction Writers of America, The Bulletin. The debate began with issue #200, which used a vintage piece of Red Sonja artwork for its cover.

A number of people questioned the appropriateness of this image for the cover of our professional publication, particularly as it was presented without context or explanation.

Perhaps in response (it’s not clear), Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg took up the task of summarizing the accomplishments of women in the field in their regular Dialogues column in two subsequent issues, but went about it in a pretty clueless, tone-deaf manner, making repeated reference to “the ladies” and referring to professionals as “lady writers” and “lady editors.” There were also a couple of (positive) comments about attractiveness.

And then there’s an article by Jim C. Hines about the problematic aspects of cheesecake book covers (again, presumably for balance), and, quite randomly, an article by a male writer that used an extended Barbie metaphor to make a point, in an obvious, but tragically unsuccessful, attempt at humor. The ‘Barbie’ piece made reference to the doll’s “perfect” proportions and “sweater fillers” and praised Barbie for “maintaining her quiet dignity as a woman should.”

I think that sets the scene. The culmination of this scandal, however, happened in Bulletin #203, in which Resnick and Malzberg responded to the criticism with a tirade on censorship and free speech that reminded me of my beloved grandfather’s (may he rest in peace) vigorous arguments in favor of the divine right of kings. Malzberg invoked the specter of “liberal fascists” attempting to shut down the conversation, and Resnick hinted darkly that his network of spies had identified the “anonymous” complainants as people who had made comments to SFWA President John Scalzi “at Confusion.”

Others have answered Resnick and Malzberg, and as far as I can tell R/M continue to dismiss it all as “liberal fascist” attempts at thought control. I’m not going to rehash all of that.

However, I’m here to say something simple: the Red Sonja cover does’t actually offend me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not offensive. I’ve looked at it a couple of times, I’ve listened to the criticisms, and I’m still not offended.

BUT I BELIEVE AND RESPECT THOSE WHO ARE, AND I SUPPORT THEIR RIGHT TO EXPRESS THEIR VIEWS AND ENGAGE IN DIALOGUE.

Because you know what? Much as I am not particularly BOTHERED by Red Sonja, above, it, admittedly, is a rather silly image, and could have been better if the artist had originally envisioned her as a warrior, not a piece of meat. And that is a point that would never have been made if everyone had my laissez faire attitude about it. Other people being offended by things I am not actually generates useful conversations and improves the world for us all. Because people like Jim C. Hines have spent time and energy criticizing covers that objectify women, we are starting to get better book covers. That means everybody wins.

Rather than expecting everyone to have the exact same concerns and sensitivities as me, I live in a world that contains many viewpoints and ideas. I also have some concerns and sensitivities about things that others may not have thought about, and when I bring them up, I hope people will listen and consider, even if they don’t agree.

Convention Success Tips for Shy Writers

I think of myself as a quiet and reserved person and an introvert, so it was a little startling to be called a “social butterfly” as one acquaintance did in San Jose over the weekend. “You know absolutely everybody!” he said.

Well, it’s a fair cop. I’ve been in this business for sixteen years, and the set of pro sf writers in the field is basically a small town. There are several thousand of us, and of those a group of maybe 500 who are frequent or regular convention-attenders. After a while, you get to the point where you either know everybody, or are connected to everybody. I happen to think that this particular rotating group of connections and acquaintances are some of the best people in the world. If you parachute into the middle of an average, mid-sized midwestern city, you could spend all day wandering around looking for people as fascinating, smart, motivated, and dynamic as those who are just literally lying in your path at a well-attended SF lit convention. Why not enjoy it and make the most of it?

Why attend conventions at all? First of all, convention attendance is totally optional. You can be a successful writer without ever setting foot in one, and if you don’t like it, that’s well and good. You don’t have to attend. And it’s important to know this, because if you do go to a convention, it’s good to go with the attitude that it’s all optional and anything good that comes from it is just gravy.

That said, there are some very good reasons to go to conventions. Human interactions are crucial in any business, it doesn’t matter what kind. If you are someone who makes and sells shrubberies, you may be very successful as the only shrubber in your local market, but it’s still very nice to get together with other shrubbers to share experiences, seek support, and get new ideas. You might even find ways to work with other shrubbers to enhance your own business and make a little extra money together. Who knows? Anything can happen.

It can be paralyzing to go into a convention with the idea that you’re there to “do business.” Forget the elevator pitch. Don’t even think of it. Instead of worrying about making a good impression on people that will be useful in your career, form an expectation that you are just there to look around, and be curious about everyone who crosses your path. That person might be a famous writer or editor, but they might also be a radically cool fan. It doesn’t matter. Whatever serendipitous meetings occur, that is what is meant to be. Have fun, talk about your kids and pets and the weather and favorite movies, and let the business happen organically. And it will. Because trust is a basis of business interactions, and showing people pictures of your cat on your cell phone is how you build trust. Just do it.

Adjust your expectations. You are not going to go to a convention and walk out with a huge novel contract. Don’t even think about it. Put it out of your mind. You are just there to make friends. Do you like having friends in your day-to-day life? Friends are good. Humans need friends. You are just there to meet some people.

Also, if you are new to the scene and don’t know very many people, prepare yourself to spend some time alone. Bring books to read. Plan one or two solo sightseeing outings. If the hotel has a spa, make an appointment. Get comfortable with the idea of eating alone in a restaurant or bar. Bring a spouse or a partner if it makes you more comfortable, but don’t let that close you off to hanging out with new friends. If you and your companion form too tight a knot, no one else can get in.

Your goal should be to make one or two new friends at each convention. You can’t spend all of your time with that one new person, but over time things will snowball.

Sign up for things. If the convention offers any tours or workshops you can sign up for in advance, do it. You will meet people, and those people will be well-disposed to making new friends because of the situation. In a writing-oriented convention, whatever you’ve signed up for may have a pro running it, so you get to meet at least one professional in your field.

Volunteer for panels. If you have some professional credits, let the convention know you’re coming ahead of time and are willing to help out on programming. They are often very happy to have you, and may offer you free membership. Panels are also a good way to get used to public speaking, since the burden isn’t on one person to carry the entire show.

Connect with online friends. Look for opportunities to meet up with online friends. Check out parties, mixers, tweetups, and other organized get-togethers. Again, these are situations where people will be very open to meeting you and it will help you overcome your natural reserve.

Make plans in advance. If you do have someone you know will be at the con, make plans ahead of time. People have a way of getting busy, or getting tired, and you might miss them otherwise.

Bring a book. This is a trick I learned a number of years ago. I carry a book around at conventions. If I go to the hotel lobby looking for friends or new, interesting people to meet, and there’s no one I can immediately approach and begin chatting with, I’ll park myself at a table or the bar and read my book. The book itself is a conversation-starter, and at a science fiction convention, most people share your love of book-reading. You won’t get very many pages read before someone comes along and interrupts you.

Ask questions. Never have an awkward conversation again in your life. When pauses emerge, throw out a question. Where are you from? Have you seen the new Star Trek movie? Do you like cats? Don’t fill every silence. Let your new friend ask you some questions, too.

Fans are cool, too. As writers, we naturally gravitate to other writers. These people instantly get us. But don’t overlook the fans. Science fiction fans are very often extremely smart, successful, interesting people. And fans also have their own brand of power in the business. It’s fans who make decisions about programming and inviting guests of honor, etc., etc. If you make a good impression on the fans, you will definitely have a better time at conventions. BE NICE TO THE FANS.

Cut your losses. Everyone knows that conventions also attract…well…weirdos. People you don’t want to know or spend time with. In fact, this is one thing that tends to scare writers away from conventions, because if there are one or two of these types in a room, it can give you a bad impression of fandom in general. Practice some conversational dismounts to get you out of conversations you don’t want to be in. They can vary from, “Excuse me I need to visit the ladies’ room,” to “You are making me uncomfortable please leave me alone.” (And please carefully tune your dismount to the audience. No need to be cruel.) I’m sorry about this. I apologize on behalf of the whole genre. The important thing to remember is you don’t have to let someone monopolize your time if you don’t enjoy their company. You are at the convention to have fun!

You are not there to get laid. I mean, if you do get laid while you’re there, it’s great. But don’t treat the convention like a singles bar. This is a bit of a tough transition sometimes for writers who started as fans, because there is an element of con culture that is all about hooking up. And that’s great. But the writers by and large are NOT there to hook up. So what I’m saying is assess your social environment very carefully and only hit on people who are clearly available.

Allow extra days for travel, if you can. Arriving a day early and leaving a day late will make things much less stressful. Much. I particularly recommend the leaving a day late strategy. That last night at the con can be the very best, especially for shy folks, as you’ve had a day or two to gradually relax and start feeling comfortable with new people.

Schedule some downtime. I often treat myself to room service one night, which not only gives me some time to recharge, but takes the pressure off for one meal. No need to find dinner companions, choose a cuisine and restaurant, make an expedition, make scintillating conversation, etc.

Comfortable shoes. Need I say more?

Buy a banquet ticket. At some conventions, like Nebula weekend, you’ll have a chance for a sit-down meal with strangers. Go for it, even if it’s expensive. I met my friend Jay Lake that way. Every time I’ve done this it’s worked out great. Again, this is a situation where you’re automatically placed in a group, so no need to approach anyone or find a good opening line. You can just ask a question and you’re good to go.

Don’t get too wrapped up in status. If there’s one thing I’ve seen in sixteen years, it’s the coming and going of hot new writers. Trust me. Slow and steady wins the race. So there are hot new writers getting a lot of attention, collecting awards. They are just as anxious and insecure as you are, and often they sort of stop writing and disappear a few years later. Some of this year’s batch of superstars had me thinking of meteors from years past, wondering where they are, what they’re doing, are they still writing? Don’t sweat it. Honors, awards, accolades–all very capricious. Do you have some cat pictures on your phone? Whip them out. Cat pics are eternal.

Don’t be an asshole. You know how they say some people can do it and get away with it? They are not getting away with it. Trust me. Those people have lost friends and opportunities. It only looks like it doesn’t stick. Don’t be that person. It’s not worth it.

Don’t cart the internet around with you. If you’ve encountered someone on the internet and you’re meeting them for the first time in person, it is largely best to simply start over. If you’ve had extensive conversations online, then of course acknowledge it. But most people don’t have a perfect memory for every discussion or flame war, and, more importantly, if you set aside any charged interactions you may have had online, you may find the person is actually really cool.

Be authentic, be genuine, be sincere, be yourself. Have some faith that you are an interesting person and others want to know you. Wear what you want that makes you feel awesome. Be a good listener. Be forgiving of yourself and others. You’re not always going to say the right thing. You might make a faux pas, or someone around you might. Laugh it off. Let it go. Be gentle. Be kind. Make jokes. Buy drinks for people. Find ways to help.

 

Writing Updates

I’ve been remiss in posting writing news here, so I have a number of updates from the past  couple of months to share.

AnLab Reader’s Choice Award. I flew to San Jose to pick up my check and certificate for the Analog Reader’s Choice award for short story for “Titanium Soul.” This is the second time I’ve received one of these, the first being for a fact article. It’s particularly gratifying to take one home in the short story category, as I believe that it is the most competitive category, and the one most paid attention to by readers. And although it is not as high an honor as, say, a Nebula in our field, there is something really nice about taking it home knowing that it was voted on by the actual readership, in a process as perfectly free of politics and logrolling as it could possibly be. My sincerest gratitude goes to the readers of Analog for their appreciation and the effort they made in reading the magazine and filling out the ballot.

Year’s Best 18. David Hartwell chose another 2012 Analog story of mine, “The North Revena Ladies Literary Society,” for his 18th Year’s Best Collection. I’m very pleased and honored. This is the first time I’ve had any kind of a Year’s Best publication, and it feels like a major milestone.

Heroic Relics in Buzzymag. My story “Heroic Relics” was published in BuzzyMag. It’s nice to have something free and online to point people to.

Nebula Weekend Mini Con Report. This is about my fourth or fifth visit to a Nebula Weekend event, and I’m always surprised by how rewarding they are. I wasn’t very good at doing conventions early in my career, due to shyness, but I’ve evolved to the point that one person this weekend called me a “social butterfly” and said that I know “absolutely everyone.” I was talking with Jay Lake about this, and we both agreed that if you just show up, you start meeting people. I’ve been in the business sixteen years, and attending a convention, particularly one with a lot of writers in attendance, is an amazing opportunity to meet a lot of people who have a lot in common with me. I strongly recommend Nebula weekend as a great business/networking event. I think it’s widely overlooked as such because of its award-handing-out function, but it’s also a pretty good place to go as a writer and remind yourself that you’re not insane–that there are a lot of other people out there that give up their free time to scribble and share in the rewards and frustrations of this crazy lifestyle/vocation.