Getting to the Heart of Things: Am I Just Making It Up?

My therapist and I have recently been embarking on a long and poopy journey deep into the recesses of my brain to try to tease out some of the reasons my particular set of neuroses decided to express themselves through my body. Unsurprisingly, I find this a frustrating and unpleasant experience, as thinking at great length about the relationship between my emotions and my body makes me want to stick my tongue out and go “phooey. I just don’t like my body and that’s it.” But I am curious about what made it all circulate around my body. How did I go from needing control and perfection to needing control over food in particular and perfection in the form of an abnormally skinny body?

So we’ve been talking about blurry, early childhood memories, or tenuous connections between what I know I feel and how those feelings express themselves in behaviors, or my early family relationships and lessons. A lot of it feels like looking through darkly tinted glasses: I can make out shapes, but I’m not entirely certain what I’m looking at. I’ll be sure there’s a connection between my feelings of uncertainty early in childhood and my eventual eating disorder, but teasing out that relationship and the catalysts later in life seems impossible. Any given issue, like my need for control, has about 15 different large elements that could have been an important “cause”. We’ll spend an hour delving into a particular relationship or incident, and by the end of the time there will be something like a narrative that offers an explanation.

It’s helpful in that knowing where something comes from helps me tailor my self care and my coping mechanisms. I’m a control freak because I grew up around some volatile people? I’ve surrounded myself with very stable folks who will listen when I tell them I’m scared they’ll get angry with me if I do x action. I seek reassurance that their feelings are stable. Understanding what needs are going unfulfilled helps me to meet those needs.

But on the other hand, I feel like I’m making things up. With so many possible explanations, all of which can be turned into neat narratives, how do I know which one is right? Even more worrisome is the fact that memory is so very fallible. There are many examples of people suddenly remembering things that never happened during therapy sessions, and even if it’s nothing quite that sinister, it’s easy to reinterpret or misremember the past (especially early life) to match your current interpretations. Is it really helpful to try to delve back so far? How much accuracy can I have when I’m partially relying on secondhand information from my parents about my early life, supplemented with fuzzy, emotional memories.

Here’s something that a very literal, black and white, absolute thinker like myself has trouble with: there is no correct answer to the how of my personality. A life cannot be reduced to a couple of simple equations that can be solved if you plug in the correct self care. There is no correct narrative about my life. I do not make sense and I never will. These are not judgmental statements. Ambiguity and randomness are facts of life. We just don’t like to admit that they apply to ourselves, especially when they end up creating pain in our lives.

So is there really any point in trying to make sense of all the billions of small factors that combined to give the world my current self?

I think there is. Each narrative contains some elements of the truth. This week I may focus on some of the difficulties my parents had when I was a child and the ways that it impacted my sense of stability. Next week I may focus on my natural tendency towards order and how it expressed itself as far back as I can remember. The week after I might think about the difficult relationship I had with my brother as a kid. Each of these things contributed something to the way I am right now. When I find answers, I like to hold on tight to them. This is how it is. I don’t get to do that with these kinds of answers. Each one is just a partial, flawed answer. I have to be gentle with them, or they will fall apart. Each time I try to grab onto one too hard and say “this is who I am, this is why I am,” it stops making sense.

The multitude of narratives also helps protect against all the bits that I don’t remember quite correctly. I have to fit competing narratives together, which means parts that don’t make sense get challenged. Any time I become completely convinced that one thing explains all of me, I have to remember how easy it is to tweak my memories to fit.

Of course trusting myself to figure it out in a reasonable manner is even harder as someone with anxiety and depression: I don’t trust my abilities and my brain. This is a hard task to begin with, but for those of us in therapy who really need to undertake it, it’s even harder. It’s easy to imagine that we’re lying to ourselves to make life easier or explain our behaviors away. I once again appreciate the importance of having a therapist I trust. I once again appreciate that this long term work of building a life that balances out my difficulties is impossible when I’m in crisis. I once again appreciate that nuance is necessary even if I hate it.

Posts like this leave me unsettled because there’s no conclusion. I do think that speaking openly about what therapy is like and how it can be difficult is important. I also want to recognize that therapy changes over time. I have been in therapy for almost 5 years straight now, and while ideally therapy is not unending, I have been working on distinct and distinctly important things throughout that time. This feels like it’s close to the end, and that’s exciting, even as I realize that there’s a strong possibility I’ll never be done with the work of accepting that I will never make sense of myself. So no, I’m not just making up stories to make myself feel better. There is some element of self creation in the narratives I choose to talk about, but the overlapping narratives give me some insight into the truth, as far as it exists. That may be the best I can do.

Asexual Trauma

Over at Queer Libido there is an amazing post about why Alok does not feel comfortable identifying as asexual. Alok is a South Asian man, and because of the tendency to emasculate and desexualize Asian men, he does not feel comfortable terming himself “asexual” without an exploration of the fact that it was trauma and colonialization that acted on his body to put him in the position he is in now (very brief summary, please read the article itself as it’s fantastic). As is my odd tendency when reading things from men of color, I found myself nodding along at many of his comments. I have no desire to co-opt his feelings or his narrative, and I deeply don’t want to play the oppression olympics, but his identification of trauma as an important part of sexual identity and his desire to look at a journey rather than a “born this way” mentality felt so important and personal to me.

As someone who never presented as feminine until I reached halfway through high school, I was never viewed as sexual. I never viewed myself as sexual. As someone who at an early age got into her first relationship and had sexuality forced down her throat, I often saw sexuality as invasive, as taking away my autonomy. Guilt has figured heavily into my sexual repertoire: I owe someone my sexuality, I owe the world my sexuality and my body. My partners have often reminded me of this fact, doing everything from telling me what clothes I could wear to guilting me into sex.

Clearly my experience of the violence and trauma of sexuality is very different from Alok’s, as my experience is that of a white woman (someone whose sexuality is deemed compulsory) rather than a brown man (someone whose sexuality is denied). However Alok’s experience of wanting to recognize his own trauma, the violence that he feels when it comes to sexuality, the distance he feels from being allowed to be a sexual subject, all these things feel familiar and important. Each of us feels that we have had our autonomy taken from us in some way, him by his race and me by my gender.

It seems intensely important to me to recognize that actively accepting the role society has created for you is not compulsory. If society bills you as sexless, you do not have to acquiesce to asexuality even if you don’t find yourself strongly pulled towards sexuality. Identities are political and they don’t appear in a vacuum. The trauma that we experience out of our oppressions plays a clear role in how we feel towards our sexuality and our bodies, but it can also play a role in how we feel comfortable identifying. As an example, I have always felt uncomfortable with the fact that the most obvious identities I have are heterosexual, monogamous, and cis, because these are the roles that society demands I have. I have spent time asking myself whether I want to publicly identify myself with these things because they have been used to damage so many women.

While Alok’s experience is one of being forcibly de-sexualized, and so he feels uncomfortable embracing that, mine is one of being forcibly sexualized. Each of these experiences can leave you feel as if you have no space to act, no connection to the body that is being acted on, no intimacy with yourself. Each of them can be traumatic. Alok asks that we openly acknowledge our trauma when speaking of our sexual identities. As I mentioned in a previous post, our histories are an important part of our identities today, and we cannot ignore that. The politics and traumas involved in those histories are part of that, and I want to be open about the fact that my body has been a site of sexual violence and mental health violence, often at my own hands. These are part of what I react to when I say I am asexual. These are part of reclaiming my body.

As Alok says “The dilemma of this brown queer body is its inability to see itself through its own eyes. The mirror becomes a site it which we view what white people have always told us about ourselves. Regardless or not of the status of my libido, I’m not sure I will ever feel comfortable identifying as asexual because it seems like I am betraying my people. ”

This dilemma is true for any person with oppressions. There is no right answer when it comes to sex. There is no certainty about whether we are the actor or the object of our sexuality. Perhaps this is the problem with labels, with identity politics, with trying to be a part of a community based on a sex drive. But perhaps this is the place we can begin to be open and vulnerable, to see ourselves as both the site of others’ violence and our own reclamations. Maybe this recognition could be the beginning of a sexuality more complex and more empathetic than any of us has seen before.

I don’t know how we can proceed from recognizing that bodies are one of the most common sites of trauma, but I know that we need to start there.

The Morning After

I know that many people love Thanksgiving, but I’m one of the odd ones who doesn’t think it’s the best holiday. I like the people I spend it with well enough, but I’ve always felt drained after socializing with those I only see once or twice a year, and gorging myself on food that I really don’t like that much is hardly something I look forward to.

Many people I know focus on the fact that Thanksgiving is about the people you spend it with, and I believe that’s true. I do feel a great deal of gratitude in my life. But for some reason saying thank you on Thanksgiving feels disingenuous to me, as if it were required of me. I like telling other people how much I care about them, and so my first impulse is to be as gushy as possible on Thanksgiving, writing long Facebook posts, and spilling my heart about the gratitude I feel in my life.

But I ask myself: why couldn’t I do this every other day of the year? Why did I wait for today to tell people they are wonderful? It’s easy for us to forget to tell people we are grateful, to wait until someone prods us or asks us what we’re grateful for. Unfortunately, people need to hear that we care for them, that we’re grateful for them.

I know that I am grateful for a great deal in my life. I know that I need to say “thanks” more often, in a real, honest way. And so I’m going to make it my mission for the next year to find some way to express gratitude every day.

I’m going to start today. I am grateful for my mother. While we’ve had some growing pains in our relationship recently, she has given me more than I can say. She has guided me through incredibly difficult situations, both moral dilemmas and hard times. She has cared for me when I refused to care for myself. She has taught me the principles of feminism, of social justice, of caring for others, and yet she has urged me to be honest and caring with myself. My mother is someone who inspires me. She is brilliant, giving, and dedicated to what she does. She gives her time and money to others and never spends enough of it on herself.

But more than any of these things, my mother is one of the few people who truly is present with me. We can sit and talk for hours because she makes it a point to be THERE when we talk. This means we can talk about almost anything, and I know that she will give me her real opinions, think through what I’m saying, truly engage with me. This is the best gift that anyone can give another person: their true time and energy, and I am so deeply grateful for it.

I love you Mom ❤

Immortality and the Female Body

Feminists spend a lot of time thinking about female bodies, the ideal female body, and how society constructs and approaches that body. However there is one element of the ideal female body that seems to be somewhat neglected, and that is the fact that it is often treated as a body that should be immortal. It’s common to hear that the female body should be without blemishes, but this goes beyond things that people simply find unattractive, and moves into the realm of a body that does not show that it could be injured or die. As a clear example, on a man, a scar is considered sexy, whereas women are expected to cover scars. We can see this in a variety of media, for example Bend it Like Beckham, in which Jess feels deeply ashamed of the scars on her legs, or many episodes of Say Yes to the Dress in which women with scars find the process of finding a wedding dress difficult and upsetting.

 

How else do we see the ideal female body constructed as something that should be immortal and outside the realm of the animal? A phenomenon that has been largely documented is the fear and disgust aimed towards women’s bodies as they age. The plethora of products and procedures aimed at keeping women looking young is overwhelming, and illustrates that something is driving us to prioritize female youth. The older we get, the closer we appear to be to death and the more fear we elicit. Another illustration of this is that women with cuts, bruises, or other injuries are often viewed as disgusting or embarrassing. As an individual with prominent cuts, I have become highly aware of the judgmental looks I get for having a body which is not smooth and unblemished. When a boy shows up with a broken leg he gets “boys will be boys”. Girls get looks of pity. Finally, female bodies are expected not to show any signs of being truly animal: women are supposed to hide that they pee, poo, fart, belch, sneeze, vomit, or do anything else that’s a sign they might do basic animal things like have a digestive tract or get sick. If you think that women aren’t policed on these fronts, watch a women the next time she belches in public and you’ll see what I mean.

 

But why is it that women are policed in all of these ways that signal mortality? What is it about women’s bodies in particular that make us anxious about our own death? While men are subject to some of these same stigmas, they are much more active when applied to women: why? All I can provide is a few theories as to why this might be.

 

In much feminist theory, people posit that women’s bodies are considered closer to nature. Male/female is often mapped onto other dichotomies such as culture/nature, rational/emotional, and good/bad. Some people posit that the fact that women give birth reminds others of the fact that we are born and thus we will die, and because of that it elicits anxiety over our animal nature. In previous posts, I’ve discussed how we often feel disgust towards things that remind us that we are animal and mortal. Taken together these two theories could give some insight into the idea that women’s bodies are viewed as disgusting unless they are heavily policed. If women’s bodies are a constant reminder that we are animals, whereas men’s are viewed as inherently more cultured, it makes sense that culture would try to “fix” women’s bodies by pulling them further and further from signs of mortality.

 

In addition, men are often viewed more as autonomous beings than females are. Women are viewed in relation to men: as wives or mothers, as daughters, or simply as vessels or objects. Because women are often viewed as a man’s other half or as a man’s property, the knowledge that a woman is fallible may reflect back to a man that he also is fallible.

 

The framework of mortality may be a useful way to bring together a number of the ways that women are policed, particularly women’s bodies, and it may be a useful front on which to challenge some of the inappropriate expectations of women. If anyone has further research on this topic or wants to flesh out some of these ideas, I would love more insight.

How To Be A Queen

This is a short story (kids book in the making?) that I wrote after a therapy appointment a few weeks ago. Enjoy 🙂

 

Once upon a time there was a little princess who knew in her deepest heart that it was her destiny to be a queen. Each morning she arose and undertook a perfect set of rituals to make her a perfect queen. She would dress in a pure white gown, stand up very straight, take her lessons quietly and follow every rule so that when she grew old enough, the people in her kingdom would see how perfectly fit she was to be queen and they would raise her to her rightful place on the throne.

She studied politics, languages, and diplomacy to be a good leader. She studied ethics and philosophy and social justice to be fair. She learned music and decorum and decorating to be lady-like and beautiful.  She was the paragon of class, charm, intelligence, and hard work. Someone had to see how suited she was to be queen.

As she grew older, the fair princess saw that despite her perfection, she was overlooked. The boys were stronger and faster than she was. They showed they were ready leaders through their competitions and it was clear to everyone that the victor deserved praise and power. She knew she deserved to be queen, that she was smart and could solve the problems she saw around her. She knew that she had done all that was asked of her.

And so she decided she had to prove she was the equal of the boys, prove she could keep up, and silently show everyone by her sheer skill that she deserved to rule. If she defeated the boys, they would have to notice her.

She marched straight up to the biggest, strongest boy of them all and challenged him to an arm-wrestling competition. He grinned mercilessly, and they each took their seats; she daintily so as not to dirty her white dress. She was a lady after all, and even if she was going to show up these boys she still had to live up to womanly standards. She couldn’t be perfect if she was dirty. And so they began.

Just after she had handily beaten the burly boy, the princess looked around, wondering where her praises were. There were a few onlookers who cheered, but most of the crowd quickly dispersed, unfamiliar with her and her story, unknowing of her potential or even her desire to be queen.

Sadly she turned to walk home. She turned a corner and came upon a nasty scene. A pair of bullies were teasing a little girl, shoving her in the mud and calling her names. The princess were outraged. If she were queen, she would order them to stop. But she knew she had to follow the rules to be queen and that they wouldn’t listen to her anyway because she was just a princess, so she looked around for someone to tell, someone with power who could stop them.

She saw a policeman and ran to tug at his sleeve, yelling and pointing at the children.

“Hm, that looks nasty. I’ll have to go file a report about it. Then someone will come back to monitor the situation,” he responded before walking away. Growing more desperate, the princess ran to the parents of the children, but they laughed and said “Kids will be kids.”

The princess was angry. Something needed to be done and no one would do it. She had followed all the rules and no one was listening to her, nothing was changing. But she was just a little princess and she couldn’t do anything by herself. She had to stay clean, and do things right until people began to notice. She had to be perfect in order to be queen!

She looked back at the little girl crying in the mud and something inside of her grew larger and larger with righteous anger.

“STOP” she yelled, throwing herself between the bullies and the girl just in time to get shoved in the mud. She sat for a moment in stunned silence. Her beautiful white dress was ruined. She had yelled. She had broken the rules. Everyone froze and stared silently at her, but through her fear words came.

“You need to stop you bullies. I may not be queen, but I will defend this girl even if it means breaking every rule in the world. This is wrong and I don’t care if people see me and hear me doing this, I will protect her! I’d rather stand up for the innocent than be queen if being queen means staying quiet about things that are wrong!” The bullies looked down, abashed, and slowly walked back to their parents. No one had ever bothered to stand up to them before. Everyone had followed the rules quietly before.

The princess’s mother came hurrying out of the crowd towards her.

“What happened?” she demanded, her eyes taking in the ruined white dress in dismay.

“I’m sorry Mother. I know now I’ll never be queen because I didn’t do things by the rules and I got dirty, but I had to stop those bullies.”

“Oh my dear,” her mother smiled. “You are more of a queen today than you have ever been before. You can only be heard if you open your mouth and speak. Today you will be Queen of the Mud, and today everyone will see you for who you are. A true leader.”

The Queen of the Mud stood up, looking around her in astonishment as all around her people knelt in the mud and dirt to applaud her actions. They didn’t care that her sheen of perfection had vanished, that her dress was torn, that she was not pristine and perfect. She had gotten her hands dirty, and they had seen her.

“So this is how to be a queen,” she whispered.

 

Forward Thinking: The Purpose of Marriage

So I’ve written before for Dan Fincke and Libby Anne’s Forward Thinking Series, but this week’s prompt has me REALLY excited. Essentially it is “what is the purpose of marriage”? Oh boy. So many thoughts. My senior year at St Olaf I took a religion class entitled Sex and Community. It centered a lot around questions of marriage (and gay marriage), and spent a lot of time defining different purposes and meanings of marriage. So I’m greatly indebted to David Booth for sections of this post that I probably wouldn’t know about otherwise.

Here’s the thing about marriage: it does not serve a single purpose. Just like family does not serve a single purpose or government does not serve a single purpose, marriage has changed and grown and shrunk and done all sorts of loop de loops throughout history and across cultures. To me, this illustrates that we get a hand in defining what we believe the purpose of marriage is. Tradition is important, yes, and we may want to pull some meanings from history, but we get to actively define what our relationships mean to us and how they change with certain rituals. For me personally, that means that marriage means nothing except benefits and a title. I would never marry unless I was already 99% certain that I would stay with the person the rest of my life regardless of our marital status. Marriage is never going to be a goal or an aim in a relationship for me. If I’m going to marry, I expect to have already committed to the person: marriage would make that commitment more public, but I don’t think that telling other people something has to change the quality, strength, or character of your relationship.

But just because that’s my attitude about marriage does not mean that the purpose of marriage is to get benefits and put a label on a relationship. There are SO MANY purposes of marriage.

Take Paul for instance. Paul believed that celibacy was the best path. However he also recognized that some people simply could not control their urges and would not be able to live celibate lives. In those cases, he advocated marriage as a way to safely enact sexual impulses, because marriage was the quickest way to kill off your sex drive.

Many people on the Christian right believe that the purpose of marriage is children. Now that’s a little worrisome to me, because if the only purpose (or the main purpose) is procreation, won’t we grow up with a lot of really unhappy and really poorly raised children? Children need stability, and happy relationships modeled to them. Children generally have a hard time growing up well if their parents are miserable. So if the only focus of your marriage is having babies but NOT on creating a happy family and strong relationships within that family, if it’s not to have a caring and loving relationship with your spouse, if it’s not to create a home, then your kids probably won’t turn out the very best.

There is another religious strand of thought that suggests that marriage is the highest expression of God’s will expressed in humans. According to this view, men and women have complementary natures, and only when they are united together can we be fulfilled and whole and live out God’s plan in the best way. In this view, women are created to serve, men are created to lead, and unless we are enacting these roles we will be unhappy (this is a view often espoused by the Catholic Church, see Pope John Paul II. They do allow that marriage to the church counts).

But wait, there’s more! For a lot of human history marriage was an economic transaction. It involved more than one wife. It was about creating heirs and expanding land and creating alliances. Even as recently as the last century (and for some people still) marriage is viewed in a very economic way: the wife provides labor and the husband provides money, and in exchange for being well taken care of the wife should also provide sex. There’s certainly a tit for tat view of relationships alive and well today.

In other cases, marriage was a way to keep control of women. Women were in control of their fathers before marriage, and the transfer of them (as property) to another individual was a way to make sure that they remained appropriately docile. One of the most effective techniques to subdue an uppity woman has always been pregnancy because it’s pretty damn hard to rebel when you’ve got morning sickness.

For many, many, many people marriage is an expression of love and commitment though. My father spoke about this once quite passionately, and said that for him, declaring in front of other people that you will commit to a relationship does change the flavor of it and makes a huge impact. The vows in a marriage often explicitly say that you will care for the other person: marriage often gives you the support to do that, to live together, to make a family together, to make health decisions and financial decisions together, to intertwine your lives. It’s a way to say “this is the person I have chosen”.

So we have a huge variety of opinions about what marriage does: it’s economic, it’s a signifier, it’s a place to have and raise kids, it’s an expression of love, it’ s a way to build a family, it’s God’s will, it’s the way to appropriately express your sexuality, it’s a tool of patriarchal oppression…

But what is it really? Is there a way to distinguish the “true” purpose of marriage? It seems unlikely to me because marriage is a human institution and it’s one that we have continued to define and create throughout our history. To me, that means that the purpose of marriage is whatever is the least harmful and the most likely to increase happiness and decrease pain (utilitarianism!!) If you choose to believe that your marriage is  an expression of divine will because that makes you feel more safe in your relationship, then you can have that as your purpose of marriage. But none of us gets to impose our purposes on others, just as none of us should be able to impose our conception of family on another person. It is easy to tell that there is no set purpose of marriage and there never will be a set purpose of marriage. It is a social structure, and each of us co-opts (or doesn’t) social structures to fit our needs. The purpose of marriage is to create family in whatever way we deem necessary.

PS-I wrote a long and involved paper about gender complementarianism, the position that men and women are created to fit together, and why it’s bullshit. If you’re interested let me know and I can either email it to you or post it here.