Visible & Invisible Symptoms: A Paradox of Trauma

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This time two years ago, you know, I wanted to die. I say that not to provoke pity, but that’s simply how it felt. I walked out to the Promontory Point park in Chicago, laid out on one of the huge, flat concrete blocks, still warm from the sun, and quietly wished the orange sky would open up and take me, then and there. Many people have observed that there’s a big difference between actively orchestrating one’s own departure and having images of it wash over you involuntarily, the way a passing car might spray muddy water on you on a rainy day. So I lay there, covered in the spray. I’m not sure which disturbs me more: feeling that way, or knowing how frequent and common this feeling is.

But I also had to ask myself: why is this happening? Is there anything really that wrong that could prompt this? I came up dry, and had to chalk it up to some deep, internal flaw. Or maybe many flaws. Not something chemical, no real illness, per se, just a state of fundamental fuck-up. Later that evening, something unexpected happened. A katydid appeared on the screen of my window. I hadn’t seen one since I was a child, and I took that as a prompt to start writing, to do a journaling exercise I’d spotted a few days prior. A torrent of memories from my childhood came back to me: things I hadn’t thought of or simply could not have accessed. I sat in my apartment, overwhelmed and shaking, and became acquainted firsthand with the phenomenon of repressed memories that I had read about so many times. In a certain sense, the sky did open that night. Rather than extracting me from my life, it took me deeper into it, into a typically-hidden layer that had been driving and contaminating my thinking for quite some time. Notably, it wasn’t that I had forgotten entire episodes of my life. I was familiar with the events. What had been hidden was the way it felt to experience those events, the emotional color missing from the black-and-white film. When that awareness returned, it was horrifying. A level of emotional voltage that I could not have conducted as a child.

It never occurred to me that I could have repressed anything. But that’s the thing about repression! It does a great job of hiding things. My personal working theory on repression is that it provides a short-term service: by walling off the worst of the worst, on a surface level, it allows you to be functional. But in the long term, it creates problems. Once the threat is gone, that hidden layer continues to direct your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, without allowing you to look under the hood. I had often asked myself, why am I like this? Why do I do this? When I explained to my friends that I thought the bout of depression had some connection to the accident I was in as a child, they tried not to be rude, but they looked at me as if I’d just told them that water is wet. Really, now? The major traumatic event of your early life has some bearing on how you’re feeling now? Incredible!

But that was the thing. Up until then, it had never seemed all that traumatic. I hadn’t really perceived it that way, at least.

I have noticed something curious and disturbing. Often, when I talk to friends who endured some kind of assault, abuse, or neglect, they stand back, aghast at my car wreck story, as if it were something far worse than anything they had gone through. This is often followed by an insistence that their own experiences were not that bad. And this got me thinking. If someone who has gone through something I consider utterly horrible reacts that way to my own story, then why don’t I? Is there a reason I can’t consider it traumatic, the same way they have to write off their own experience? And it brings me back to this exhortation to functionality. The mind simply can’t accept it. It can’t accept it, or believe it, because that would throw everything into chaos. We have to function. We have to keep the gears turning.

I was lucky to escape the worst of the injuries. Had we been at a slightly different angle, had the car behind us been driving much faster, it’s entirely possible my spine would have been severed. I walked out with a fracture. My younger sister Virginia’s spine was severed, completely and immediately, and my twin, Holly, was in exorbitant pain from a broken femur. What I find especially curious now is that it did not occur to me, for many years after the fact, how close I was to being paralyzed; my mother recently admitted that she intentionally did not tell me this. Then, for years after that, I completely forgot that I had any injury at all. I see this as evidence of the mind’s ability to convince itself that nothing is wrong. That everything is fine. That we are functional.

It was bizarre to watch other adults’ reactions to my parents as they grieved my younger sister. My mother, determined to show up for Holly and me and bring some semblance of balance back into life, was criticized for being “too functional.” My father, on the other hand, who was openly emotional (as if that could be avoided in such a situation), posed a serious threat to how people around us believed men should act. I watched my parents and their natural responses chafe against the worst of our gender conditioning. In the midst of the upheaval, though, my sister and I took a major directive. Above all, function. Keep the wheels turning. Meet the grown-ups’ expectations.

Which is why in 2014 and 2015 I struggled to believe anything particularly serious had happened to me, as an individual. To my parents and twin, certainly. But to me? Come on. Holly and I always had good grades, went to church on Sundays, rarely if ever fought, got into good colleges. Surely, I mean, surely if something really wrong had happened, wouldn’t we have, I don’t know, done something? Lashed out in some way? I had a counselor tell me that people in these situations often do lash out, they yell or fight, they abuse substances, they run away. I could have done any of these things, she told me, and I would not have been unjustified. I told her there’s no way I would have done these things. The vector of my personality simply doesn’t point that way. But that raised the question: what did I do?

I should mention that I perceive two categories of traumatic events: Earthquakes and Canyons. The wreck I was in is an Earthquake: a sudden, huge upheaval. Other situations, like a persistent exposure to some kind of abusive behavior, are Canyons. Both create deep chasms of the mind, it’s simply a matter of time. Moreover, I find it completely fruitless to compare “chasms” between individuals as if some are more important than others. But it’s become obvious to me in the last few years that some of the highest achievers I know are straddling some very deep chasms. While some lash out, others lash in; they lash themselves to the yoke of professional respectability, of keeping up appearances. They turn the wheels. I observed this over and over at UChicago, and I perceive it now in various aspects of my professional life.

There are visible and invisible symptoms. These chasms, in my view, can force a person into a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dynamic. On the one hand, to grieve openly, to have any form of outward expression, seems to validate the situation and make it real. And yet, that would have felt invalidating to me as a person. My sister and I gained so much praise and social currency from working within the systems, jumping through the academic hoops, gaining all the points and gold stars and making the grown-ups proud. Anything that took away from that registered as a major social threat to me. On the other hand, to pack it all in felt very socially, academically, and professionally validating. But the lack of visible symptoms undercut this whole idea that anything was ever really wrong. And that made me feel worse about myself, believing there was no real reason to ever feel wrong, or to not be functional.

The only evidence I had to go by was my own misery, which I had been successfully ignoring up to a point; food was one excellent way of stuffing them back down, suffocating them. But no one knew my binge eating secret, and with no outward evidence of the problem, my only yardstick was a lifetime of feelings that I couldn’t admit or take seriously anyway. But oh, is it possible to have everything lined up on paper and still be utterly, foundationally miserable. (Tag someone you know. Tag yourself.) Anything buried eventually comes to the surface. So many of us have been trick ponies, mascots, and excellent sheep, and look at how smoothly the gears turn. But ultimately, I think, the most “functional” thing one can do is to find or create some space in which these things can come to the surface safely, before one passes the point of no return. Our culture is not readily set up for this, and mental health care is a privilege. But this is what I hope to see us moving toward: spaces in which one can release the pressure, validate the situation and make it real, and not suffer socially for it.

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The Anti-Crap Crusade: Minimalism’s Dark Side

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Image of tea ceremony implements

Get your sh*t together folks. We have TEA CEREMONIES to perform.

I think people are missing the point of Marie Kondo’s book. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up came out nary a year ago and unleashed a flurry of gushing testimonials and a smaller but not insignificant collective eye-roll. The point is not to have less for the sake of less, to get on some smug millennial “I’ve figured out the secret to happiness” high horse. The point is to keep the things you like.

I think most people’s homes are full of crap. But that’s because it’s not my crap. I don’t know what value it has or doesn’t have. Of course, people accumulate years worth of junk because on some level, we buy into other people’s value systems that say “you need this! You need this! You need this!” But feeling like you have to chuck it all, as if not owning things is some default moral good, is—guess what— just another way of superimposing someone else’s values onto your own. That is not really useful.

If any decluttering program is going to have any value to you whatsoever, it has to be based on your values, not some Elite Daily bullshit guru’s. On the one hand, it sucks to feel overwhelmed by stuff you don’t want. On the other hand, it sucks to feel bad about yourself for having things. While it may sound obvious, it’s your home. It should feel like your home. It should support you in the things you want to do. This, to me, is what makes Kondo’s book special. Shinto animism aside, your gut won’t lie to you about what you actually value.

If you need to build yourself a nest of first edition books and yard-sale pottery, DO IT. If you need an apartment that feels like a contemporary art museum where your thoughts are free to echo in the chasm surrounding a half-dozen carefully selected objects, DO IT. If you need to live in a tree, DO IT. If you don’t f*cking care, GOOD.

A few years ago, I went through a major stuff-related guilt trip. I felt downright shameful at the thought of having too many things. Aghast at the error of my free-spending ways! Guilt seeks punishment, and thus began many apartment purges and trips to Goodwill. As it turns out, depending on where you are emotionally, decluttering can be a very soothing, liberating activity, or it can be a cleverly disguised form of self-flagellation. If you decide to do a declutter, let it be an exercise in being honest with yourself, not beating yourself up.

One trend that concerns me is that having the ultimate, consecrated pristine home is just another item to pile on top of all of the other things you have to do as a young person with an internet connection. You know, once you make your daily Soylent green smoothie and get back from two hours of CrossFit or whatever it is you’re supposed to do to be merely adequate in the world, who the hell knows. If you’re not performing a daily tea ceremony off a spotless floor, I guess you can just resign yourself to never actually becoming an adult. You can continue to slink through life as a kind of wretched impostor teenager, dreaming of actualization while a single tear falls into your coffee mug full of Lucky Charms. I guess.

image of a landfill

This is your life now.

Jesus. Sometimes I hate the world. But you know what I don’t hate? Everything in my apartment, because I liked it and decided to keep it. Truth be told, I really do still love a good clean out, but only because I don’t feel bad about it anymore! Do I need 20 kinds of tea? No! But I like tea! I will never use this samovar, but I like looking at it because it reminds me of my mom! I also like these fake flowers and Christmas lights and Sailor Moon box set and this lamp from Ikea that glows in the dark and looks like a giant pear! Hooray! I never wear these little Korean stick perfumes, but they look like tiny people in bunny suits and that makes me smile. I will never read this Soviet history book again, but looking at it reminds me of the good parts of college.

Honestly, I love Marie Kondo (and Karen Kingston and her team of Feng Shui genies). I hate it that people feel down on themselves for not living in Pinterest-ready homes. But God almighty does it feel good to let go of the stuff that amplifies your guilt—guilt about other things, not about having stuff to begin with. Perhaps the good lord will strike me down, but I recycled my beaten up study bible from high school that filled me with a sense of failure and dread whenever I saw it. When I got rid of letters, cards, mix CDs, and gifts from a nasty ex-boyfriend, I felt like a f*cking exorcism had been performed. Over the winter holidays, my sister and I gave our rooms at our father’s house the Kondo treatment, and it took a while, but it was a huge relief. Bad experiences from the past have their value, but there’s no need to constantly dwell on them and look at their remains. You don’t have to hang on to the dross of bad memories in order to grow from them. Having the time to clean and declutter is a gift, to be sure, but there’s something meaningful about being able to sort through the material side of your life and actively choose what matters to you and what you consciously want to let go of. Having more space and being able to move more easily are also worthy bonuses.

I am firmly on team declutter. But I will never be on team “make your life look perfect because the f*cking internet.” If you’re thinking about decluttering, go for it. Or don’t. Do whatever you need to do. The only real value in decluttering is gaining clarity on what is meaningful to you.

Generation Lifehack

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As it turns out, it takes a hundred years to become a hundred year old oak.

As it turns out, it takes a hundred years to become a hundred year old oak.

Spring comes late to Chicago, which is mighty frustrating after the long winter. I get impatient, walking down my street, waiting for the satisfying little splorts of green to finally peep out of the trees and the ground. “Why did I move somewhere where nature is such a grouch,” I wonder.

But until about the end of April, it’s just not time yet. Spring has been in the making all winter, and all the necessary ingredients are still brewing. Heat and light are still building. Leaves are still asleep in branches.

The other day I asked myself if I would get angry at a little sprout for not being a tree yet. I don’t, as it turns out, walk down the street and scowl at individual saplings. But I do it to myself a lot, and I get frustrated for not having more leaves and branches, so to speak, not blooming enough, not being there yet.

All over the internet I see articles and pitches for books that are supposed to speed things up. There is a seemingly infinite number of Ted talks and blog posts aimed at increasing productivity. There is a profusion of new age, new thought writings that at best are a modern retelling of ancient wisdom, and worst are a verbal swill that implies that all you have to do is wish. For the left brain, infinite lifehacks and clever strategies. For the right, affirmations galore.

Some of these pieces are truly useful. But not all of them. Taken together, in that way that information hits you so fast that you can’t think critically about it all, it leaves me with a kind of gunky residue of the mind, and what it says is, you should be doing more. You should have accomplished more by now. Because the things you want can be accomplished quickly. Other people’s accomplishments are also more visible than ever. Any image, video, or article can go viral, and being immersed in social media gives the impression that so many people, especially young people, are accomplishing so much, so quickly. So what about me? What about you?

Not everything that moves fast always moved fast. What looks like an overnight sensation or a breakaway success often has quite a lot of energy built up behind it, which is easy to overlook. A plant may bloom overnight, but what about the heat, the light, the enzymatic reactions, all building until they reach the absolute right point? When a new singer reaches the charts, I wonder how many voice lessons and flopped auditions they went through. When a new DJ starts getting booked at festivals all over, I wonder how many crappy gigs they played and how many hours they spent in their basement breaking needles and blowing fuses. (Of course, there will always be the Paris Hiltons of the world, but that’s another blog post!) Even when someone has raw talent, it has to be refined through practice.

The things that are big and epic—the mighty oaks of the business and art worlds—spent plenty of time just being regular oaks. Still providing shade and oxygen and acorns and nesting sites, but on a smaller scale. One of my favorite things to see in museums, for instance, is artists’ sketchbooks. We get used to seeing masterpieces on display, but I love seeing the sketches, all the evidence of practice and persistence. I like to see the gradual evolution, the grit and fire that goes into producing something great.

It’s a good thing, overall, to look for better ways to do things. Efficiency, strategy, and rethinking old paradigms are all good things. Keeping house and managing offices benefit greatly from these tricks and hacks and tools to cut out the extraneous. But even adopting new strategies for things like time management and positive thinking still take time to implement. New habits take time to form. It’s painful to assume that everything can be done quickly, and that if something can’t be achieved quickly, it’s not worth doing or it can’t be done.

The things I really value and want to master—writing, drawing, meditation, being a good partner, and so on—are lifelong pursuits. Some things, by nature, take time, and taking that time is scary because I’m used to instant gratification in so many other areas of life. So the challenge for a member of generation lifehack like me is not to be afraid of the alchemy of time and the risk of trying. Not to be afraid to be devoted to practice, and let it grow.

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If Strong is the New Skinny, is Fit-Shaming the New Fat-Shaming?

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Wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to weigh 90 pounds, and now I'm supposed to lift 200? (Image via inspiremyworkout.com)

Wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to weigh 90 pounds, and now I’m supposed to lift 200? (Image via inspiremyworkout.com)

About as early as junior high school, I sensed that there were two feminine ideals vying for supremacy. At very least, there seemed to be two acceptable options for middle class white females:

Splayed across the pages of Vogue and Elle were the model types, emaciated and amazonian. Squatting and sprinting their way through Shape and Women’s Health were the athlete types: not much bigger than their model cousins, but more muscular.

The first type, the fashion ideal, represented the long dark road toward anorexia; it suggested passivity, superficiality, artifice, and being a fashion victim. We were warned against it early on in school.

The second type, the fitness ideal, was touted as a kind of liberated solution: the “healthy,” active, superheroine type. A butt-kicker who could still rock an evening gown.

It didn’t occur to me that both were, in many cases, unnaturally and unsustainably thin, and that perhaps neither was particularly healthy.

Growing up, my heroes were women like the Spice Girls (for better or for worse); later, they were actresses like Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element, Carrie-Anne Moss in the Matrix, and Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I marveled at these lean, thin, women in active, action-oriented roles. In their carefully scripted and choreographed worlds, women not much taller than me could wield power; they could be spectacular fighting machines. They were principally beautiful, but endowed with supernatural strength. I didn’t see Bend it Like Beckham until I was in college, but when I did I noticed how curious it was that the two leads, Keira Knightly and Parminder Nagra, were substantially smaller and thinner than the other women playing the rest of their soccer team. Over time I sensed that while people loved the idea of strong, athletic, powerful women, they still preferred for them to look like more like models and less like serious athletes.

The olympics, to me, are always a great example of this. The more a female athlete looks like a model, the more excited we get about her. The more she looks like a man, the more our enthusiasm wanes. For instance, look at the ratings for beach volleyball versus weightlifting. It’s tempting to say that an athletic body is inherently beautiful. But that line of thinking hasn’t always applied to women, and from what I gather, it didn’t so much until the aerobics boom of the 80s, or perhaps a little before.

As a kid of the 90s, I’m surprised at how recent the phenomenon of women’s athletics is. It stuns me to think that for most of western history, women were discouraged and even forbidden to train their bodies in any capacity like what we do today. Our participation in sports and training is undoubtedly good. Yet when I see any kind of women’s fitness magazine or clothing retailer, I feel a great deal of skepticism about what they are really promoting. I think we need to be wary of what exactly we are cheering for here: are we really admiring the strength and ability of women–women who may not be small, lean, or conventionally feminine–or are we just admiring a new spin on a previously established ideal of ultra-lean femininity?

It is good to move from language of passivity to activity, and from value based on appearance to value based on ability. But I don’t believe that’s what’s truly happening yet, at least not on a widespread cultural scale. Many women, through sports and athletic training, have developed both a physical strength and sense of self-worth that would have been impossible in previous generations. But I don’t believe this is what’s really being promoted in any of our mainstream media outlets. As people continue to rebel against the ultra-thin beauty ideal and push new paradigms of beauty, fitness seems to be supplanting mere “thinness” as the ultimate goal. But what does fitness really mean? Does it mean being powerful? Or does it just mean being lean? I see an unsettling convergence in image-based pressures between men and women, where nobody gets a break: athletic leanness is becoming an aesthetic mandate for men, while for women, the ever-present aesthetic mandate leans toward athleticism.

So now we have Victoria’s Secret angels with six-packs. Is this inherently bad? I don’t know. But the emphasis on leanness, on a lack of body fat,  is a strong common thread between the fashion and fitness ideals, and they evoke for me what I call the “no curves rule,” which says that if you are white or Asian, you need to have as little body fat as possible, or risk being seen as lazy, gluttonous, and shameful. Traditionally in the west, white and Asian female bodies have been seen as a kind of coveted, private property– in contrast with brown and black female bodies, which have been treated as literal property, hypersexualized, and considered a kind of decadent public good. Discipline, work ethic, and purity are mainstays of America’s white, Puritanical roots, and on a subconscious level, I believe many women are relying on their fitness (and really, a very white, moneyed beauty ideal) to remain in a more privileged and protected class, or to work their way into it. What’s at play is the notion of the “disciplined body,” by which a person conveys their status and worthiness of respect by showing how dedicated and restrained they are (in addition to having enough money and free time to maintain their body shape). The fashion ideal demands discipline through rigorous dieting; the fitness ideal prioritizes discipline through rigorous exercise.

Even when it uses the language of activity, equality, and empowerment, any commercial media I see that involves women’s fitness still feels focused way more on aesthetics than ability to me. I still sense a deep undercurrent of the fear of fat, and everything fat has come to represent: laziness, ignorance, idleness, poverty, carelessness…things that are an affront to the values of our Puritan heritage. I’ve written before about how preoccupations with how we look often go much, much deeper than that, bleeding into territories of how we are treated, valued, and even our physical safety. So I have no doubt that when I see other women striving for a level of leanness that is exceptionally difficult to maintain, many of them have goals beyond just beating a PR, whether they are conscious of it or not. I myself am in the uncomfortable position of wanting to milk this sizeist, classist system for all it’s worth, and yet at the same time wishing it never existed so that I (and everyone really) could feel less anxiety and fear, or even none at all regarding body image. What I would love to see is a diverse range of healthy body types receiving representation and admiration in mainstream media. Little by little, I see it starting to happen, but it still feels like a pipe dream.

Part of what complicates this discussion of fitness is the insistence on “health,” that specifically, this is good because it is healthy. But “health” has always been the cleverest and most convincing disguise an eating disorder can take. It certainly was for me at the apex of my obsession with food, when I sincerely believed what I was doing was healthy, even though it was causing me a great deal of physical and mental suffering. So again, are we really encouraging health, in its beautiful diversity of forms, or are we taking this modified feminine ideal and proclaiming, “this is healthy”?

Health, like beauty, means something different to everyone. To some people, health is being alive and not in any great measure of pain; to others, health means ultramarathons! I personally prefer Igor Boutenko’s definition of health: having the energy to accomplish your goals. I like this, because it places health in the camp of an individual’s needs and values, and takes it out of the realm of commercial images and cultural stereotypes. The idea that someone could have all the energy and vitality they need and yet have a body we consider overweight is unfathomable to some people. On the other hand, I know from experience what it’s like to be technically thin, and struggle to function.

There’s a level of functional fitness that makes life substantially easier and more enjoyable; I support it unequivocally, and pursue it for myself. But I’m wary of the point at which training actually gets in the way of life, rather than serving it. I believe Americans have a unique obsession with self-improvement that does an excellent job of keeping us so focused on our own perceived shortcomings that we take our attention and energy away from our communities and civic life, and even away from real progress within our own lives. As Naomi Wolf writes in her book The Beauty Myth, a secretary who can lift two hundred pounds is still a secretary. I’m not trying to make light of the meaningful personal accomplishments that athletic training brings. But there’s a scary irony in that this training, which for so many people is a source of health and confidence, for others becomes a source of taxation and anxiety, and a distraction from other meaningful, worthwhile goals. Mindset is critically important, and I am not convinced that most mainstream fitness advocates are truly in an empowered or empowering mindset.

There are times when I see images of fit women, and I feel motivated and encouraged. But more often than not, I feel I’m being given yet another set of standards to judge myself by, and I’m coming up short. Wait a second, first I thought I was supposed to weigh 90 pounds, and now I’m supposed to lift 200? Is this merely a new type of pressure to apply to myself–in the form of literally applying as much physical pressure as possible?  Because as much as I appreciate and admire strong, athletic women of all sizes, I myself am not, at this moment in time, one of them. And frankly, I don’t want to have to beat myself up for not being able to lift more. My life has simply not yet required me to drag a hundred-pound tire across a field.  What it has required me to do is develop confidence and self-worth, and to whatever extent exercise will help me in that process, then I’m all for it! But if it’s going to be another self-flagellation contest, then I’m out. I’m skipping that extra hour at the gym and spending it with my friends. Or writing.