I Am Not Less Human Because I Will Never Have Kids

If you have not heard this, then you are a lucky person: when you have a kid, you realize what love really is. Or some variant of that, that implies that the love a parent feels for their child is better, more, and utterly different from any other kind of love out there. In some cases, this is even put on par with an integral human experience, or used as a way to hold parents above others, as more loving, more compassionate, more…HUMAN than other people.

I am so over this bullshit.

Every single human being on the planet experiences things differently. As an example, people with Borderline Personality Disorder (myself among them) experience emotions more quickly and more strongly than most other people. “Normal” people (sad lives that they lead) will probably never experience joy on par with the joy that I have felt, or experienced Arthur Miller as the transcendent thing that I have. I personally have never felt compersion, although my friends tell me that it’s an amazing and powerful experience.

We all have different experiences, and beyond that, we have brains that process those experiences differently. It is patently absurd to posit one experience as the most/best version of an emotion, and far beyond that to connect any particular experience with an essential humanity. This is the same kind of bullshit that says romantic love is better than nonromantic love. We cannot put an hierarchy on what kinds of relationships are the most powerful and  meaningful, because (holy shit) people are different and experience things differently.

You have no idea how powerful other people’s emotions are. Perhaps you got a big old dose of baby hormones when you had your kiddo and you bonded really well. Some parents don’t, and they treat their kids like crap or neglect their kids. Some people have brains that feel ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME without any babies involved. Simply because YOU experienced love in a new and different way because you had a kid doesn’t mean that EVERYONE will or that EVERYONE is missing out on something until they have a kid. Saying so is condescending and presumptuous.

Intensity of feeling is not a marker of a life well lived. We already have enough myths that say having kids is necessary for a woman to live a good life. We do not need to buoy up the egos of moms at the expense of people who choose not to have kids or who cannot have kids. We are not defined by the children we do or do not have, and those children do not turn us into completely different (better) people.

Not only that, but deciding for other people what experiences are important and meaningful is condescending and presumptuous. It is perfectly fine to say that for you, having a child changed your life and your emotions. It is not acceptable to tell other people that this will or should happen to them. Perhaps it is true that biologically momfeels are different from every other feeling. That does not make it better or more important. Literally every feeling is unique. Get over it.

Don’t Tell Me I’m Beautiful

Today I posted a Facebook status that I didn’t expect to get much of a response. It was personal and complaining, saying that I love body positivity but that I have a hard time internalizing the messages because I want to see how people view my body.

What amazed me was the number of responses I got. It wasn’t overwhelming, but there was an instant response from a number of female friends who said that they as well couldn’t seem to get over their insecurities, despite hearing from significant others or partners that they were beautiful. Others talked about how powerful it was to have nude photos taken, or work as a model, because it was outsiders seeing their bodies as art.

It’s not a secret that there are lots of negative messages aimed at women in regards to their bodies. Between 40 and 60% of girls age 6-12 worry about getting fat. We get messages early and often about the ways in which our bodies should change, so it’s hardly a surprise that many women do internalize those messages. And while I certainly appreciate when partners and friends tell me that I’m beautiful, what I’m hearing from these responses and what is becoming clear in my own mind is that first, it is not enough for the people we are closest to to affirm us, and second, when only those closest affirm us, it leaves us in a stressful and confusing position.

My friend Brianna summed it up quite well: “I have body image issues and I don’t really believe the things that my SO’s have [said] or do say about its beauty…so I always thought that seeing my body through the eyes of someone else would help me see what they see. I want to see my body as positively as they do, but it’s difficult for me to accept positive feedback from those I’m closest to. Perhaps it’s inconsiderate of me to not see my body positively despite my SO’s insistence, but some part of me just can’t or won’t believe it.”

What truly sticks out to me about this comment is that she says it might be inconsiderate of her. How telling is it that women feel that they have done something wrong when they can’t think positively about themselves, even though the world is repeatedly telling them not to?

Here’s where things turn stressful. How do you reconcile it when someone that you love and trust is telling you something that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, believe? How do you maintain trust and love when that person tells you things that look like lies on a regular basis? It hurts to be in this position. It hurts to choose between telling your partner that you don’t believe them or lying to your partner. It hurts to try to snuff out a voice inside yourself, even if that voice is cruel or irrational, because your partner has told you something different. It hurts to feel as if you’re being stubborn or untrusting because you can’t just believe your partner.

I end up feeling as if I can’t tell where reality rests. Am I being irrational for not believing? Are they blind or insane or lying? Will they find me out some day?

I don’t have any clear ideas of how to make this situation better, because the answer is definitely not “never tell your partner they’re beautiful.” But when a partner says that to me it feels like a huge pressure to react “properly” and learn to see myself the way they do. I feel as if I’m not grateful if I need more. Just as I felt selfish when I posted that status for wanting to see the way a stranger sees me, I feel as if I’m ignoring all the kindness of a partner when they compliment me.

But society has told me a thousand times that my beauty is only worth it if everyone sees it. It tells me that beauty is objective and distant, not a product of love and care. So can anyone truly blame me if I want to see myself through a stranger’s eyes, see art in my lines or sexiness in the swagger of my hips?

It is a problem to me when my partner holds all the responsibility for propping up my self esteem after the rest of the world has torn at it. This is why I love body positivity projects. This is why I love to celebrate the bodies of my friends, and even strangers. Because if it’s up to one person to convince me that I’m beautiful, I’ll never believe it. And it’s more likely than not that eventually I’ll come to blame him. So you. Yeah you. Your body is fucking fantastic. I’m not kidding. Send me a god damn picture. I want to be one more voice that sees how lovely you are.

If I were an artist I’d paint all of you. Believe me.

Flavors of Depression

There are many, many things that make coping with depression difficult, and I’ve talked about many of them over the course of this blog. But one that I’m not sure if I’ve touched on yet is what I can only call the different flavors of depression. A friend of mine recently brought it to my attention by pointing out that different difficult times come from different needs: sometimes you may need to unwind and feel distracted, other times you may need connection, still other times you may need to feel accomplished and useful.

For me, it can be incredibly difficult to feel out what I need when I’m in a depressive episode, especially because what I need can change drastically from day to day (and sometimes hour to hour). So the best I can do is try to suss out what kind of depression I’m feeling. I don’t have a clear sense of what I want most of the time, so I try to pay attention to what I’m feeling. Of course I’m feeling depressed, but what KIND of depressed.

For people who don’t experience depression, it might not be clear that depression refers to a wide variety of different feelings and states. Sometimes depression is an incredibly strong and passionate kind of a feeling. It can feel as if everything is going wrong and everything hurts. That flavor of depression is often the self-hating variety for me. It’s an incredibly immediate feeling that often comes with crying fits. But sometimes it’s not an emotional experience at all to be depressed.

Sometimes depression is feelings of complete and utter numbness and emptiness. Sometimes my mind will pull out and out and out in perspective until my entire life feels tiny and pointless. Those are the days that I’m not sure I can even get out of bed because I don’t know why. Everything feels far away and my body does not feel like my own. It comes with dissociation and suicidal thoughts. This is the flavor of depression that scares me more than anything because I feel dead inside.

Of course the overwhelming feeling in almost every depressive episode is something like “bad no good can’t do not like” which is incredibly unhelpful. Instead of getting overwhelmed at that point, a good strategy for me is often to try to listen to what I want.

Now to be clear, what I want is definitely not always what I need when I’m depressed. But I can typically get a better feel for what needs I am not fulfilling when I think about what sounds appealing in a given moment. That can help me suss out if I’m the kind of depressed where I should hang out with people or the kind of depressed where I need to take a break from life for a little bit or the kind of depressed where I need to go work out.

For example if all I want is to lie in bed and do nothing (as has been the case recently), I know that anhedonia is one of the problems, and that what I’m really craving is something that makes me feel accomplished. It also tells me that I need to spend as much energy as possible finding something that will feel enjoyable in this moment, because anhedonia saps my ability to feel pleasure in anything.

At other times all I want is to talk. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter who, I just feel as if I’m drowning in my own mind. This one is pretty easy to figure out: it means I’m missing connection and community. I feel lost and I’m starting to lose the ability to differentiate between rational, reasonable thought and the thoughts that my depression and anxiety mix in.

When I first became depressed, I didn’t quite get the ways that depression has moods. No person’s emotions remain completely static for days and months at a time. Even when you’re depressed, the subjective experience, the focus, and the strength of that depression shifts and changes just as it would for anyone else.

This is one of the things that makes it difficult not only to determine what coping skills are best for you at a given moment, but also how to ask for help. Many times a friend or partner will ask me what I want to do or what sounds helpful and I cannot answer. That’s because depression changes regularly, and in order to figure out what would be helpful I have to do the emotional work of sifting through all the feelings to determine which flavor I have today. In the midst of an episode, that can seem overwhelming and impossible.

If I could ask anything of support people, it’s helping me through this sorting process. Asking me easy questions like “what is your first impulse of what to do right now?” or “tell me what it feels like.” Those questions can help guide me to understanding what I need.

If I could ask anything of myself it would be patience. I always want to fix things. With depression, I need to understand them first.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Let’s play a game. If you were told that you can sympathize with someone or empathize with them, which one would you think is better?

If I looked at most dialogue around emotions I would say the vast majority of people would answer empathy. There are articles and videos about how awesome empathy is.  But lately sympathy seems to be getting the short end of the stick. People often talk about how empathy is better than sympathy, or suggest that sympathy doesn’t have a place in social justice discussions because it’s condescending.

Let’s recap the basic differences between empathy and sympathy, since they’re often conflated and confused. Empathy is when you feel with someone. If your friend tells you that they’re sad because their cat died and you feel sadness as well, you’re empathizing with them. Sympathy on the other hand is having compassion for someone, or feeling something for/towards someone without taking on their feelings as your own. If my friend and I get in an argument and I can eventually understand her position I might be able to sympathize with her, but my own feelings may not change.

For a long time, sympathy was king of the hill, and in recent years empathy has grown to be the prized ability. Especially in social justice circles, I see minority and oppressed individuals pushing allies to try empathizing. The empathy is what allows others to understand the harm of their behaviors, to get motivated to make changes, or to see how sometimes good intentioned behaviors feel awful.

Especially in these contexts, sympathy is considered pitying and useless.

But there are some instances where sympathy is actually incredibly useful, or where empathy isn’t called for at all. I want to take the time to remember what the benefits of sympathy are, and to hopefully tease apart some instances in which sympathy is called for or when empathy is called for.

Now before I get into this conversation I want to make something very clear. No one gets to tell you if your feelings are appropriate to a situation or not. No other person has the right to police your opinions or tell you that you’re feeling the wrong way about something. However it may be true that your own emotions are not helping you act effectively or be safe, and in those cases an outside opinion can be helpful.

First and foremost, sympathy can be a helpful way to build into empathy. If you look at something like police brutality and you don’t yourself feel afraid and angry but you do feel sad for the people involved, that can be a first impetus to start learning more and putting yourself in the shoes of the people directly involved. This is especially one of those circumstances where it could be helpful to not quash sympathy (because it’s not good enough) but to push people to really listen to that sympathy and let it build into empathy.

Now empathy on the other hand is often more helpful when it comes to listening to other people, to building connections with other people, to being supportive. Especially with friends and family, it may seem easy to try to offer solutions when they open up, but sometimes all they want is a little empathy and an open ear. And when it comes to movements that feeling of being listened to is often incredibly important. It gives allies the knowledge to speak up when necessary, but to also understand when they need to be quiet.

While sympathy might push you to listen for a while, it doesn’t get you to internalize the feelings in the way empathy does, which means your feelings will always be taking priority over the feelings of the other.

So when is sympathy actually a better option?

Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I was very sick. I had an eating disorder and I was in the process of slowly trying to kill myself. However I didn’t really care. I felt little to no attachment to the world and didn’t have any desire to get better.

If someone at the time had truly empathized with me they would have felt awful, but they wouldn’t have had any motivation to push me into treatment. They would have understood how terrifying the possibility of recovery was, how much I just wanted to be left alone, how much I hated it when anyone mentioned that I should change my behaviors.

So instead of empathizing, my mother sympathized with me. She saw and understood that I was in pain, but instead of feeling that along with me she felt anger towards the eating disorder on my behalf. She felt fear of losing me and a strong desire to protect me. Because she sympathized with me instead of empathized with me, she chose to push me to get treatment and I am still alive and kicking today. Thanks Mom!

There are instances in which a person’s emotions aren’t keeping them safe. Abusive relationships are often (though not always) an example of this. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often have this kind of problem. And sometimes these instances are much smaller, like when one friend warns another not to go out with that guy, he’s actually a jerk. If your emotions are telling you that what you’re doing is totally the best course of action and someone you love and trust sympathizes instead of empathizing to tell you “hey, it looks like you’re hurting yourself,” that sympathy is way more effective than empathy.

Now again, it’s probably important to have facility with both skills. If you just sympathize and don’t understand what is really pushing the other person to behave the way they do, you are highly likely to make the situation worse. If my mom had empathized a bit more she might have found some more effective and less scary ways to get me help (or maybe not because I still have no idea what an effective method of pushing someone to get treatment is).

The important part is knowing that empathy and sympathy have different roles. Empathy is often the piece that gets you to listen and understand. Sympathy can be great for integrating your own feelings and perspective with someone else’s. So let’s get a little more love for sympathy.

No One Owes You Time

I’ve seen a few articles floating around about how Snake People are bad friends/people/relationship havers because they RSVP ‘maybe’ too much and they blow off plans by saying they’re too busy. Essentially, many of the posts about new social norms suggest that Snake People don’t prioritize their relationships and often telegraph that they don’t care about friends and family by saying they’re busy, by saying ‘maybe’ (and waiting to see if other plans come up), or by forgetting about plans.

I understand this frustration. I’m often the one in my group of friends that’s wrangling everyone together and it’s no fun at all. But I also understand that I am not the #1 priority of everyone that I know and care about. It’s incredibly self absorbed to assume that other people should always make time for you or that they will always know ahead of time whether they’ll be healthy, have energy, or not be dealing with a crisis.

No one likes flaking on another person. I am guilty of often flaking, and I feel awful every time I do it. So why do I continue to do it? Because I know that I am in full control of how I spend my time, and that I get to balance my needs and priorities against the needs and priorities of the people around me.

No matter how close we are, there is no point at which you have a right to my time and energy. That may sound harsh, and in practice there are repercussions to cutting someone off in that way, but every time another person chooses to spend their time with you, they are giving you something because they want to, not because they have to. There is no “you didn’t spend time with me” police that will come and discipline them or drag them to your side when they haven’t spent enough time with you. Everyone’s time is their own to use as they decide.

When someone else tells you that they’re busy it does in fact mean that they have prioritized something else over you. And that’s ok. We’re fine with this if it’s work or some kind of other Serious Obligation, but for some reason self care never rates high enough to be considered a priority. There are things in people’s lives that need to happen, like sleeping and eating and earning a paycheck and fulfilling the art/exercise/hobby needs and sometimes just being alone. Of course friends are in the mix, but simply because hanging out involves another person does not give it Ultimate Power over scheduling. Making plans with another person adds a fair amount of weight to following through on those plans, and the gift that your friends gives you when they ask to see you adds weigh to their request. But it’s never a guarantee.

I understand how frustrating it is to get a clear blow off when someone says maybe or changes plans at the last minute. But instead of blaming awful, selfish Snake People, I’m far more inclined to blame a culture that makes open conversation about mental health and well-being taboo.

Imagine this: you make plans to go see a movie with your friend and they text you day of and say they’re sick and can’t make it. Is your first instinct that they’re a flakey awful person, or that they’re sick and should take care of themselves? Most likely the second, although there are well documented instances of people being shit to individuals with chronic physical illnesses as well as mental ones.

But if you change that scenario to texting the day of to tell your friend that you’re having a small attack of the jerkbrains, or you just don’t feel up to leaving the house, you’ll get thinkpieces about the selfishness of Snake People. Even worse if you say that you’re not feeling up to it and then go do something that you are feeling up to, like being with a close family member, or spending a low key hour or two with a partner. Or if you aren’t sure whether you’ll have the energy and answer with a “maybe,” only to later decide you can’t quite make it happen.

Today I responded to an offer to hang out with “I’m kinda sick today but I’d like to make it. I’ll do my best, but I might be asleep.” Most people understand that this is me openly letting someone else know that I have a higher priority in my life, but that if possible I’ll put them up there. Most people aren’t offended, because we know that health and safety should be people’s top priorities (and for the people who don’t get that, fie on thee I say!).

I do have some friends who understand openness around mental health well enough that I can let them know I’m having a rough day and I might try to make it to see them, but I might need to stay home. And that is my right. My friends also have the right to get annoyed or stop trusting my plans if I do this repeatedly and flippantly. What’s important is that we can talk openly about what we want out of our relationship and our lives. What’s important is that  each of us has the right to set their own set of priorities.

I think that most non snake people would be surprised to find how highly many people my age prioritize relationships and friends, and how often we do make time or drop everything to see our people. But our friends also show respect and care for us by understanding that they are not the only things in our lives. And the more open we can be about why we need to prioritize something else (such as because of mental health or chronic illness), and the more people are willing to negotiate, the better relationships will be.

 

*My Google Chrome extension that changes the word m illenials to Snake People apparently works in post, which is why this post refers repeatedly to Snake People. I see it as an improvement.

Why Don’t Men Get To Be Sexy?

I was just recently watching a video of a dance competition in which the couple competing were dancing “sexy.” When the woman shook her hips, she got cheers. When the man did a little shimmy, the announcer said “that’s just wrong.”

People talk a lot about the expectations that are placed on women to look a certain way, and how those pressures negatively affect them. Nearly every woman I know has self esteem issues surrounding their body, has dieted or is dieting, worries about their weight, and is uncomfortable identifying themselves as beautiful. This seems to come about because women are hyper-sexualized and forced to be in the role of “sexually available” pretty much all the time. If you’re a woman, beauty is the price of admission for life. So when a woman acts sexy or dresses up or puts on new makeup, people cheer.

But there’s another element to the “women are the sexual objects” bullshit that doesn’t get much airtime and it’s one that pisses me off royally. Whenever I try to tell my boyfriend that he’s sexually attractive, he gets legitimately confused. It’s rare for men to be called sexy unless they’re movie stars. When your average man dresses up or tries to shake his booty, people laugh or shrug it off or say “you clean up good,” as if that’s all the validation that men need when they’re trying to present themselves nicely.

Why don’t men get to feel sexy too? Why don’t we treat men as attractive?

I’m a straight woman. I’m more likely to describe other women as hot or sexy than I am men. Isn’t that a little bit odd? Isn’t it likely that people are going to feel uncomfortable with their sexuality, their bodies, and their relationships if they’ve never been told they’re desirable, or never seen other people of their gender labeled desirable?

Here are some problems with men never thinking they’re attractive:

1. It’s considered weird if a woman initiates sex or intimacy

2. Men think that they must be the aggressors and feel a great deal of pressure to initiate

3. The idea that women must be convinced into sex makes more sense, because men are simply not attractive. Therefore no woman would ever want sex on her own, and so must be convinced/coerced/forced to have it.

4. Physical attractiveness and other positive traits get separated. Men see themselves as intelligent/funny/capable, but not attractive, whereas women are attractive and so cannot be those other things.

5. Men are more afraid of looking at their own bodies, being open to different sexual things, or seeing sex as a mutually pleasurable experience that they can approach in a variety of ways because they can’t conceive of their bodies as something sexy or interesting or attractive, but rather as a tool or instrument for doing things.

6. It just feels really awful to think you’re unattractive, and we’re teaching boys that their bodies will never be attractive.

We can do better. We can teach our kids that every body is attractive in some ways and to some people, and probably less attractive to other people. We can teach people that their bodies are desirable, that they’re desirable, and that they can both give and receive pleasure thanks to their bodies. Even men. We can teach each other that anyone is allowed to pursue a romantic interest (until that interest indicates they do not reciprocate the interest) and that there’s nothing creepy, weird, or wrong about women being the assertive ones or even about having a mutual relationship in which each partner initiates sometimes and some things.

I think men are sexy. I think my partner is sexy. And I want men to know that they are sexy.

The Transition: Finding and Keeping a New Therapist

A few weeks ago, my therapist of many years retired from direct therapy and moved into a managerial role. That means that a few weeks ago, I not only lost a serious piece of my support system, a repository of a great deal of knowledge about my mental health and history, and someone who knew my coping techniques inside and out, but also someone that I would consider a friend or at the very least an ally.

I’d spent more time with Rebekah than I have with many people I today consider my friends. An hour once a week for over 4 years is a lot of time to invest in a relationship with someone. Add in the fact that those hours are times of serious emotional work, when you show your therapist a lot of vulnerabilities and work through the harder parts of your life, and this is someone that you have to trust in a serious way, not only to be good at their job but also to handle you and your feelings gently and respectfully. You have to learn that this is someone you can feel safe and comfortable with, maybe someone you can even enjoy your time with.

When most relationships end, it’s understood to be a time for some grieving, for some element of hurt and sadness. For some reason the therapist/patient relationship is still viewed pretty strictly in business terms, that they are providing a service and you are paying them. That’s strictly true, but it’s also true that there are many service providers that get close to their clients: massage therapists, manicurists, hair stylists…all sorts of people that you see on a regular basis will come to know you over time, and many people see those relationships as important in and of themselves, beyond the service that gets provided.

While finding a therapist that is a good fit for you is hard in any circumstance, it gets significantly harder when you’re comparing them to your old one, the one you liked so much, your friend. Trying to start fresh after having built up a level of understanding and history with someone is incredibly difficult.

Here’s what I’m telling myself:

This is hard. It gets to feel weird and uncomfortable. If the new therapist keeps feeling weird and uncomfortable in a month or two months, this might not be the right fit.

Finding a new therapist is a challenge no matter what, but finding one to fill the shoes of someone you thought was just about perfect is even harder.

No one has failed if you decide this isn’t right for you and move to a different person. No one will ever replace the therapist you liked so much. If you’re lucky you’ll get a new friend. If not, you got someone awesome to help you through some of the hardest times you’ve had so far.

It’s certainly weird to feel as if I need to grieve for the ending of a patient/provider relationship, but I do feel that way. I miss someone who knew me so well, someone I trusted. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the nature of the relationship between therapist and patient is a unique one. It would be nice to have an open discussion about the rules of the unique relationship.