Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Seeking redemption

I’ve struggled with self hatred my whole life. There is a lot not to like about me. It’s meant that when I’m public facing I try as hard as I can, as much as I can, to be a good person. To be kind, and helpful and patient, to give more than I ask for. I’ve never yet managed to get this to a level where I feel like I’m good enough. On the inside I’m quite a mean person, judgemental, selfish, attention hungry, envious, resentful and hard to please. I fight it as best I can, but my fundamental nature has nothing much to recommend it. And it is hard, trying to be good. It is so hard when you aren’t those things and they take attention and effort all the time. I have the desire to be a better sort of person, but not the capacity.  Spirituality has given me some tools for presenting more usefully, but not for dealing with the inner issues.

When I’ve touched on this before, there have been kind and generous people who have tried to tell me otherwise. It’s well meant, but it takes me no further forward in dealing with how I feel about myself, how unbearable I find my own shortcomings and uselessness. I have done a lot of work on me, over a lot of years, trying to be a better person, but there are things inherent in my nature that I can’t hack out, and I am exhausted from fighting myself all the time, and I don’t honestly know what to do with this.

The real me, the me who is not a carefully constructed and well written persona, is shit. Attention hungry, fragile, demanding, wanting too much, giving too little. I’m not a good person to get too close to. And so every now and then there are little blow ups, and people I have claimed to love do the sensible things to protect themselves  and move away from me, and I feel sorry for myself and round we go again.

The me I present online is so fraudulent.  It works so long as no one gets too close.  And even writing this I am too aware that it sounds like a bid for sympathy and consolation, and that some people reading it might try to tell me that I am ok. Because some of you are lovely, and kind and willing to see the best in me and not to look through that to the ugliness underneath.

Today I am starting to properly ask what it would take to justify my existence. I will have to do far more than I have done. I would need to do something genuinely heroic, genuinely life changing for others, properly good.  It might be possible to redeem myself in my own eyes, but going after that would also have a price tag and I’m trying to work out whether I can have that, or whether it is too selfish, too self indulgent to make sense. To try something heroic because I want to redeem myself is deeply selfish, and if I do that at someone else’s expense, it’s still not good enough. Even the self-loathing feels self indulgent, something to wallow in, some basis for seeking attention and making excuses. I have no idea how to become a better person.

There is a lot to figure out.


Unconditional Love

I’ve always liked the idea of unconditional love, and I’ve always wanted to offer it. I don’t want to put limits on how I love, and my heart always wants to say ‘no matter what’. The problem with this of course is that if you run into someone who means you ill, then unconditional love is a really dangerous thing. Too much acceptance and forgiveness can put you in danger. It’s the sort of thing that really enables abusive relationships.

I’ve spent a long time looking for the right way to balance this. What I’ve come to at this point might be right for me. It might change over time.

There is how I feel, and there is what I do. Unconditional love in terms of how I feel is a thing I can do, and keep doing. It’s not quite a ‘no matter what’ – there are two people in my history who I truly loved for years and, as a consequence of their actions towards me, no longer love. In both cases it took some pretty serious shit to get me to that point. It is possible to break my heart such that I am no longer able to love in response to a person. I’m still not sure how to place this inside the story I want to tell myself about love.

Then there’s what I do – and I accept that what I do with someone I love will be informed by what they do. It’s not entirely my choice. I can’t do anything with someone who does not want my love, my time or my attention. I can’t enact love in a meaningful way when dealing with someone who really doesn’t want me to do that. I also can’t sustainably manifest love for someone who exhausts me and wears me down. I can love from a distance, and I can do the things in a partial way, but what I do cannot be wholehearted unless there’s a context where that works.

I’m finding this a useful way of looking at what I do, what I offer, and who I am. My heart says yes. My heart says yes when yes is not always a good idea for me. I can stay with that, and honour it, and recognise the limits on what I can do with those feelings, and maybe this will work.

 


What does it mean to unpeel a monster?

The title of my latest poetry collection – How to Unpeel a Monster – reflects something that has lifelong significance for me. It comes from a story about a child born with too many skins, who is monstrous and must be unpeeled to reclaim their human self, and the first poem in the book reflects this.

I’ve spent most of my life feeling monstrous. Too much, too difficult, too demanding, too cold, too sensitive, too emotional, too unemotional – I’ve been called all of this and more. I’ve spent much of my life feeling that I do not properly qualify as a person. As a consequence, I often see myself as someone rigid with defensive layers. I find it hard to trust, to soften myself, to open up to people.

During the period I was working on these poems, my relationships with a number of people changed in significant ways. There were several friends who started making deliberate efforts to come in and unpeel me. Offering safe space and support, accepting me as I am and not finding me monstrous, they helped me change how I think about my monster skins.

I’m still working on that. I don’t know that I need to be entirely unpeeled to reclaim some more acceptable shape. There are days when I feel good enough as I am, and days when I even enjoy being me without feeling that I need to do a lot of work on fixing and improving myself. There are also days when all I can see are my own savage teeth and claws and my unreasonable, unacceptableness.

What do any of us need to change? And are those changes for our benefit, or to comfort, ease or appease someone else? How much pressure is there to take off the unacceptable aspects of self based on what other people will allow and not who you need to be? What if there could be room for me to be all of the things? Hard and soft, furred and feathered, red in tooth, claw and tenderness, monstrous and fragile, strong and vulnerable, broken and unbreakable…

The journey into dealing with what I find monstrous about myself is increasingly a journey of finding that I just need more room for who I am. More spaces where more of me is acceptable. More people who are excited about the aspects of me that people in my history have found too difficult. I need the people who can hold those spaces of acceptance for me. I know I have them. I’m starting to see what it might be like to be able to live as my whole self, unashamed of how messy and complicated some of that can be.

All of my skins are equally real and valid. It’s just a case of what I want to share, and who it makes sense to share that with. Unpeeling is always an option. So is putting on a new and different skin. A tough and protective hide is just as acceptable as a soft, tender underbelly. I have to make space for all of it, and I do not have to make space for the people who might want me to be smaller than I am.

Thank you to everyone who has been part of this journey, unpeeling the fear and making room for the skins.

More about the poetry in this post – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/08/08/how-to-unpeel-a-monster/


Processing grief

There’s a violence to grief that surprises me no matter how many times I go round it. This is not simply an issue for grief around the deaths of loved ones. It comes up around other things and people that I’ve lost. There is a force to it than rams into me like a punch in the gut, and that can come out of nowhere.

Grief is at its most powerful, raw and predictable in the immediate aftermath of loss. You expect it then, there is a degree of preparedness and the people around you are likely to know and be supportive.

However, with life-defining grief, it can come back at any time, a sudden body blow that may put you on your knees in entirely literal ways. There are still days when the death of my grandmother hits me like a blow. There are friends whose absence can suddenly and unexpectedly reduce me to tears. There are cats I have mourned for twenty years and more. Usually this is quiet, and invisible, and sometimes it isn’t.

I’ve never liked the idea that grief is something we have to get over. A terrible loss is not something to forget or put aside. It becomes part of who you are, and you learn to keep moving as best you can while carrying it. Grief is deeply intertwined with love, and it is the memory of love without being able to ever see the beloved again that brings the body blows.

The worst kinds of grief are laden with regret. Those are the hardest to keep carrying, and often the most violent. It’s the things that can’t be said, or fixed or changed that hurt most, I have found. It’s a different negotiation to learn how to carry on when full of the grief of regret. It’s as much as anything, a process of self forgiveness. Processing the regrets isn’t easy, and is best not done alone – it can be hard to get a decent perspective on these things when you are overwhelmed.

Grief that is rooted in love becomes bearable over time, because we learn to carry the love and cherish the pain of loss as a measure of that love. Grief rooted in regret offers no such consolations and making peace with it is a harder process.


Talking about mental health

In a recent blog post, Cat Treadwell flagged up some of the things that reliably happen if you try to talk about mental health problems.  It is unfortunately quite normal to hear that you are attention seeking, making a fuss, being a drama queen, over-reacting and things of that ilk. It is also equally normal, when people turn out to have self harmed, attempted suicide, or managed it, to find a lot of people wondering why they never said anything and never asked for help. As though these two things are totally unrelated.

Talking saves lives. Emotional support, witnessing, expressions of care and help with the problems that are causing the depression in the first place all increase a person’s chances of survival. Our culture tends to frame mental health problems as personal, but usually it isn’t – poverty, lack of opportunity, poor physical health, insecurity and a lack of dignity all pushes people towards the edges. These are social, systemic things and we could fix them. Western culture makes people lonely.  The solutions to this lie in community and relationship, but if you can’t speak of it, you can’t access that support.

How something is experienced depends a lot on resources. The less resourced you are, the harder a setback can be to bear. So, if you are doing ok, and your friend appears to be in a similar situation and struggling, is this because they make more of a fuss than you do? What’s the bigger picture? Throw in a large debt, a health problem,  an abuse history and the thing you think shouldn’t be a big deal becomes much harder to manage.  When people ask for help we can’t always see the scale of their issues, so it is as well not to dismiss or diminish whatever is mentioned.

Some people are more sensitive than others, but society tends to view sensitivity as weakness. To care, to feel empathy, to be afraid for the world, to grieve over the loss of species, or the homeless on the streets, or the hungry children depending on food banks – there is so much to break your heart over. Increasingly to be viable is to be heartless. To care about anything is to live with a broken heart. If we prized that sensitivity we’d be a lot closer to fixing the entirely fixable woes we create. If we treat sensitivity as a failing, we can only push on to make life worse for each other.

You may think that if someone was suicidal, you’d be able to do and say the right things to keep them alive. What many non-depressed people don’t realise, is that your suicidal friend isn’t likely to pick up the phone and tell you they are going to kill themselves. It’s not what we do. It’s not when the windows of opportunity occur most reliably to save lives. Your very depressed friend might however speak up about some aspect of how they are suffering before it fully overwhelms them.  It may not make any sense to you. It may not seem like a big deal. Often, the life and death stuff is much smaller looking than is really the case.  Respond well to those smaller expressions and the person you are supporting may never end up trying to kill themselves.

Tell someone they are making a fuss, and when they no longer know how to keep breathing, they may remember that, and not reach out for help.


Learning to cry

I was bullied a fair bit as a child. I learned that mostly what bullies want is to make you cry, and that when you cry, the childhood ones soon lose interest. I learned to cry quickly, that to get it over and done with was safest. I did not cry for myself then, I was crying to placate other people with my pain and humiliation.

Somewhere in my early teens I changed tack. I wasn’t going to be humiliated any more. I wasn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of making me cry. And so, in a determined way I became someone who mostly did not cry in front of other people. I became emotionally unavailable. There were still people intent on reducing me to tears, but I didn’t co-operate with them anymore. It didn’t solve everything, but I liked me better as someone stony and refusing to show distress.

In my twenties, the man I was married to told me that all of my emotional expressions were suspect and seemed manipulative. What tears there were he treated as emotional blackmail. I tried harder with the not crying around anyone. At this point, in my forties, I’m really good at not crying. I’m so good at it that I don’t reliably let out emotions that I need to express and I’m working to change this.

It does help to go off on my own. Making solitary physical space to cry in makes it easier to let go. Having people around me who will let me go off and deal with my feelings in this way is also really helpful.  I notice that comforting me shuts me down, so I’ve started asking the people I am closest to not to do that, and to give me the space to cry. If I need to cry I don’t really want to be soothed, which feels like pressure to stop crying.

I’m going to be working on this. Giving myself permission to cry. Giving myself space to cry. Treating my tears as acceptable and necessary, and not something to be ashamed of. Yes, emotional expressions from me may not always be comfortable for everyone else, but I’m learning to be ok with that. At the moment, I am safe, and the people around me are not going to become dangerous to me if I make them feel slightly uncomfortable. I’m also not dealing with anyone for whom making me cry is entertaining and there is no one in my life using my tears to disempower me. I can afford to cry.

Unexpressed grief is a heavy thing to carry. Letting that out of my body might be messy, but it will be better moving forward.


My candle burns at both ends

If there are two ways a person is expected to be, I will usually be both of them. I need a great deal of introvert time, but I am also an extrovert and I need the spaces for that part of me. I’m really feeling that in the enforced quiet of lockdown. I’m a big fan of logical thinking, but increasingly I’m using the intuition that had been on hold for years. I’m rational and emotional – both of those things, intensely, often at the same time. I’m neurotic and stable and given that question set can usually say ‘both’ to any answer. I do it with gender identity too, and with attraction.

I do it with belief. I hold atheism and spirituality and the possibility of deity all at the same time.

How I think about it when I’m not dealing with anyone else, is just that I’m ambidextrous. I am also ambidextrous.

It’s tricky in that people seem to like tidying themselves up into these boxes, into personality type, and being mostly ambidextrous, I’m always on the outside of that. I don’t fit. I hate it when people try and pin me down and make me fit. I hate it even more if anyone tries to reassure me that I’m normal and that really I’m X,Y or Z. Some fifteen or more years after the event and  I am still cross about the person who tried to tell me that there was nothing wrong with my sexuality, and went on to affirm my straight femininity for me. It doesn’t help. I hate the boxes.

I minored in psychology, many years ago and I spent time with the way in which people like to divide people up into types and label them. I recognise this as part of how we identify people we have something in common with, and as coming from a desire to better understand how people operate. But, as someone who mostly doesn’t fit, I also find it alienating. There has never been a language in all of that to help me identify people who are all the things, and with whom I can share that.

I have a suspicion that a lot of non-binary folk are people who have also rejected this kind of binaryness too. I don’t like binaries, I don’t like the yes/no in/out us/them thinking that goes with it. I want more room. I want that broad spectrum of possibilities I can hold between my two ambidextrous hands.

If you too are ambidextrous and tired of the small boxes and the not belonging, I offer you solidarity. I don’t know if borrowing this word is going to be very useful, but I’ve found it comforting, so perhaps others will too.

(The title of this blog is a reference to a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay, which can be read as meaning bisexuality https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/14095/first-fig )


The impacts of gaslighting

I’m writing this post in the aftermath of the UK Prime Minister and other leading figures telling us that when their man broke the rules he wasn’t breaking the rules. Also if we loved our families we’d have broken the rules. Weeks of difficulty seem meaningless in face of this. People who have suffered greatly while trying to do the right thing are reeling, disorientated and in distress. This is what gaslighting does to people.

I know what’s going on and I can see the process. It will have a much harder impact on people who did not think they were being lied to and who trusted this leadership. Gaslighting drives people mad, and I wait to see with a heavy heart how all this will play out. For some people, it will be a quiet fall into despair and dysfunction. Some people will freeze up and become unable to act or make decisions. Some will lose the plot entirely and what they do will be hard to predict. How many in which category? How much mental health damage done? How much more pain inflicted?

My body is heavy and sluggish this morning. I feel exhausted and it is hard to push back and persuade myself to get busy. There are things I need to do, but in face of all this, there are voices in my head suggesting there’s no point even trying. There is no win available. I’ve been a victim of gaslighting before and one of the major impacts of what’s happening on the national scale, is that it is bringing up for me a lot of unwanted memory about how that felt when it happened on a personal scale.

It is so hard to resist – something people who haven’t experienced it tend to under-estimate. Disorientated, second guessing yourself, no longer knowing what to believe or who to trust and feeling like you are losing the plot – it makes a person so easy to manipulate, or just unable to defend themselves.

When everything is this confusing, anything that sounds plausibly like a calm and sensible suggestion becomes incredibly attractive. I worry about what’s going to seem persuasive.

Mental health is a delicate thing. Humans are more inherently fragile than most of us want to believe. Not recognising that is of itself a vulnerability, because when we get into shit like this we can be slow to realise we are being broken and are in danger. But, looking at the distress, despair and confusion in the UK right now, we are being broken and we are in danger and we need to do as much as we can to assert a functioning reality, look after each other and build sanity and mutual support.


Druidry and rescue

This is a tested approach for dealing with someone in emotional crises. In an ideal situation it would just be a case of grabbing some professional help, but mostly there isn’t any of that to be had, so if someone close to you is in crisis, you may be all they have.

This approach needs handling with the calm authority you would bring to leading a meditation or a ritual. That means you may well use your emotional range to get things done, but you have to do so from a place of love, strength and confidence.

  1. Make non-threatening physical contact. It helps focus attention. If someone has disappeared into themselves, and isn’t functioning, touch is a good way of getting their attention. Put a hand on their shoulder, hold their hand, that kind of thing.
  2. If you don’t know what’s happening, ask, and listen without judgement. Say nothing that will undermine them, or invalidate their feelings. You may not agree with what they are feeling and why, but if you bring that up now you will only make things worse. Don’t criticise, avoid anything that could be taken as you saying these feelings are not reasonable or valid – you have to start from where the person is right now. No one is ever rescued by being made to feel that their emotions are somehow wrong. Your understanding is essential.
  3. Validate their feelings. Tell them you understand why they feel as they do. Recognise the context in which this is happening to them. Empathise with them. If they don’t talk or you don’t need to ask, verbally empathise. Tell them as much as you can about what you understand of what’s happening and why it’s a reasonable response.
  4. Using your empathy, you need to persuade the person that you are inside this situation with them. Not that you feel exactly the same, but you are in there, feeling what is happening. You may need to cry for them, but be careful not to make it about you.
  5. Refuse to leave them in this place. Tell them you are with them, and that you can get them out. Believe that you can walk them out of this place. One breath at a time. One step at a time. This is where your pathworking/ritual skills really come in. You have to walk them out. Keep it in the present tense, don’t talk about the future too much. Take a ‘this is what we’re going to do right now,’ tone. Keep it simple. Reassure them that they can get through this. The rest you will have to make specific to what’s happening, but it is your empathy and your being in there with them that will enable you to pull them out a little way. You do not need to fix everything right now, you just need to get your person to engage with you and consider that things could be better. Your love, determination and compassion are key here. Don’t use emotional blackmail. It is ok to say ‘I need you’ or ‘I don’t want to live without you’ but don’t say ‘stop doing this to me I can’t bear it’ because that kind of thing will push them deeper in. Make it about them and what they need. They probably do need to feel needed, but not wholly responsible for you.
  6. As soon as you have them engaged with you, make some physical interventions. Do things that will be grounding and physically supportive – hot drinks, food, a blanket, getting them to bed, or under a shower, or into a bath and fresh clothes. Brush their hair, massage their feet, make them a hot water bottle, get them outside for some fresh air, or to a window. From this point onwards, focus on physical care – it supports mental health, is a good expression of love and support and creates space in which they can keep talking. Encourage them to keep talking, but don’t push hard, talking is often exhausting when in crisis. It may take a few rounds to deal with what is happening.
  7. When things are stable, consider the underlying issues and what can be done to tackle them. Do not try and do this when the person is in crisis, they won’t have the resources and may be overwhelmed and intimidated.

Dealing with burnout

Everything is harder at the moment. Everything takes longer and requires more effort and almost everyone I know is struggling with concentration, with energy levels and with feeling overwhelmed. These are all ingredients for burnout. Things that would not normally put a person on their knees might do so in the current crisis. People who are not used to experiencing burnout may find it happening to them.

Having a long history of routinely burning myself out, this is something I’ve learned the hard way how to deal with, so I thought I’d share some insights.

Firstly, what not to do. Toughing it out. Stoicism. Fake it until you make it. Trying harder. Leaning in. Pushing through it. What these kinds of approaches do, is drive you deeper into burnout. If you are spinning out of control and heading into crisis, pushing through will not save you. Equally, if you’ve got through something by pushing, it wasn’t burnout, it was a bad day and there is a lot of difference.

It can be tempting to hide it and pull away from other people. Much depends on what works for you. If peace, silence, solitude and rest are the best things to heal you, then dealing with it privately may be your best bet. If you need holding, witnessing, cheerleading and supporting then you need to talk to your closest people about what’s going on, and ask for their help and support on whatever terms make sense.

One way or another, you need to recharge. Sometimes this is literally about rest and sleep. Sometimes it means needing to move your body more, or take better care around food. You may need to recharge your mind and dig in with nurturing things. If you don’t have go-to nurturing things for bad days, it is now urgently important to find out what will sustain you.

It can be tempting to escape into something mind numbing. If your primary need is for rest, this will help you. If your primary need is for nourishment, this can make things far worse. It may not be obvious, if you are new to this, what you need most.

Burnout, for me, has always been to some degree impacted on by my relationships with people. A habit of giving more than I can afford, of not saying when I’m in trouble, and of not asking for help. I have a lot of issues around expecting my relationships to be utilitarian. But, this time, I didn’t do that. I asked the people who are closest to me to look after me, and they did, they piled in without hesitation. On Thursday morning I started crying in what, for me, is classic burnout style. In the past, I’ve got into those and random crying and overwhelm can go on for days, weeks thereafter. The people I asked for help pulled me out of the nose dive. I was not instantly ok, but the space appeared to start looking after myself and to get back on top of things.