Friday, July 31, 2020

Gaslighting, prednisone, and a shampoo bottle...

I’m sharing this as an example of how experiencing years of gaslighting can mess with your perceptions of reality.  Some people will read this and thing I’m nuts, others will likely relate.

I think just about everyone experiences gaslighting at some point in their lives.  Heck, we’ve all been the victim of it from the man in the white house for the past several years, but at least most of us know that is what is happening.  When it is happening in a personal relationship – be that a romance, a friendship, a parent, or at work – over a long period of time it can leave you questioning your own reality long after the gaslighting person is out of your life. If you have also had the experience of someone knowing this was an issue for you and they then take advantage of that fact, it is even more crazy making – because here is a person you trusted with a very real trauma and their response was to use it to manipulate you, it can be crazy making (and I’m using that work very intentionally, because it will make you feel utterly crazy).  A few months ago, I ended a long-time friendship for just this reason.

As I mentioned, the effects can linger long after the person is out of your life and it can manifest in some really strange ways…

This morning I took a shower. I only shower about twice a week. If you want to know why, it is because water conservation is important to me as is trying to protect my skins microbiome.  I only wash my hair about once a week.  So, my use of shampoo is minimal. The last shower I took was on Monday morning.

This morning I got into the shower and reached for my shampoo.  When I picked it up it wasn’t in the position it usually is, which is not a big deal as I live with two other people, stuff gets moved around. But it also felt lighter than it should, so I looked at it and it looked like it had less in it than it did on Monday. I thought this was weird but decided to pass it off to having a crazy week of health issues and that I must not really have been paying attention.

But then the crazy kicked in and I found myself having the following conversation with myself in my head.

Joie brain voice 1: “Why does it seem like there is less in there is less shampoo in the bottle?”

Joie brain voice 2: “Hey, it’s been a tough week, I probably didn’t notice it when I used it last.”

JBV1: “No, really…why is there less shampoo, maybe someone was using it.”

JBV2: “Will you stop? I don’t know if anyone used it, and this line of thinking is just going to make me feel crazy…please stop.”

JBV1: “You know what you ought to do? Start drawing lines on the bottle each time you use it, so you’ll know if anyone is using it.”

JBV2: “Please stop. Even if someone did use it, I have said that it is okay ask long as my housemates don’t use the last of it and they let me know.  I trust that they will do that.”

JBV1: “Yeah. But what if they didn’t. You know what you should do?  You should call a house meeting and demand to know.”

JBV2: “Please stop. It’s just shampoo. And if they forgot it sucks but it probably wasn’t intentional.”

JBV1: “Rage walk into the living room and start screaming…”

JBV2: “Okay.  THAT is the prednisone talking. I’m already emotionally on edge because of the pandemic and watching the country fall to pieces and the prednisone just makes my emotional filter less stable. Shut up.”

JBV1: “Yeah but…”

JBV2: “Stop…please. Or we are going to have a prednisone induced frustration cry here in the shower and its going to just make the asthma problem it’s meant to fix worse.  Just be quiet.”

JBV1: “Okay…fine…but how about just not keeping your shampoo in the shower anymore? Just take it back and forth to your room, like if you were in a dorm.  Then you won’t question if you are crazy or not…”

JBV2: “Fine.  If it will get you shut up…”

JBV1: “Oh goodie!  Can we get one of those cute little shower caddies to transport everything back and forth? Oooooh…and maybe shower shoes?  I always wanted a pair of shower shoes.”

JBV2: “Please stop being weird. I’m washing my hair now…I can’t hear you over the bubbles.”

JBV1: “…fine…but you are no fun at all.”

I honestly have no idea how much shampoo was in the bottle on Monday and as long as it is there when I need it, I don’t care. But experiencing long-term gaslighting can make you question reality any time your perception doesn’t seem to match what is in front of you – even with something as simple as a shampoo bottle. It puts you in the place of not knowing what is real and what isn’t.  You start to look for ways to make sure your perception matches what it actually happening.  You want to do things like put lines on the shampoo bottle not because you think your housemates might be inconsiderate, but because you want to affirm that what you remember matches what you see.

As noted I share these things in the hopes it gives a small window into how trauma can impact people, and to help those who might sadly relate due to their own experience feel a little less alone.  Peace.

And for anyone who wonders – I really do talk to myself like this. Mostly in my head, but if I can’t get my brain to shut up, I’ll do it out loud or I’ll write it out. Working through things verbally step by step is a tool that works for me. And yes...that voice really wanted to go shopping for shower caddies.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Gardening Karens

When the pandemic began and we all started staying at home my  various social media feeds very quickly filled up with two things: images of homemade bread (with a heavy lean towards sourdough) and newly planted gardens. I was not the only one who noticed this of course. The news media ran article after article about bread baking offering a variety of reasons as to why this was happening; people suddenly found themselves with a lot of time on their hands and that they were using it as a way to comfort themselves during a time of fear and uncertainty.  Gardening was seen through a similar lens but also included people trying to assuage anxiety brought about by some food shortage fears.

Not everyone was happy about this.

Admittedly there were some valid reasons one could find themselves upset that the world took up bread baking. Everyone rushing to the store to buy flour and yeast created a supply chain disruption and many regular bakers found themselves without flour or yeast to bake with. I admit to being one of those who was annoyed about this. I have made my own bread for years and while I do it in part because I enjoy the process, it is also how I feed myself. I even made a Facebook post about how ticked off I was about it, until I realized how tone deaf it was for me to be complaining about basically having a home and a kitchen to cook in, just without having the ingredients to cook exactly what I wanted when I wanted it. I was certainly not in any immediate danger of starvation. I took the post down.

But there was also a lot of posts that tended towards the "hey, I was baking my own bread before baking my own bread was cool" and how in six months when the pandemic was over (we were so hopeful then) these new bread bakers would all just give it up and go back to their store bought bread so why bother.

I didn't see as much initial news coverage on the population's newly discovered love of gardening.  Maybe this was because it didn't result in highly visible disruptions like the bread baking did, or perhaps it was just that my Google news feed didn't think I was interested, but it didn't seem to be as intense. When I started to see the backlash against the gardening trend it wasn't in the news media anyway, it was in my social media feeds. And, unlike the bread baking, there was also an image of a particular type of gardener that went along with the backlash...apparently many of our new gardeners were Karens.

For those that don't know, a Karen is basically a white woman who aggressively uses her white, and usually middle class, privilege to get what she wants. She is the one who wants to "speak to the manager" over the smallest perceived slight, and she has a habit of calling the police on BIPOC for doing things like pointing out to her that her dog is off leash in an area that requires one and being in their own car outside their home. She will of course adamantly deny being racist

The posts I saw ranged from ones filled with preemptive schadenfreude about how these new gardeners were doomed to fail because they really didn't know what they were doing, or sharing screenshots of Instagram posts gleefully pointing out a gardening mistake, to how it was only a trend that all these  Karens with their make believe farms would soon give it all up once the trend had passed.

Now, honestly, I get the Karen designation.  To take up gardening you need land and to have land you generally need to be a homeowner, and that particular privilege is most certainly one predominately available to white people. I'm not here to say that these new gardeners are not Karens, but I also think it's possible that gardening may be a stepping stone for some of those Karens to move from being an active Karen to becoming a recovering Karen.

Yes, there will be plenty of people who liked the idea of planting a garden and then abandon it once the romance wears off. There will be those who will just assume that gardening is putting a plant in the ground, doing nothing else, and get frustrated and quit when it doesn't go as quickly or as well as they like. And there will be those people, and this is so very Karen, who see gardening as bending the natural world to their will, tilling up a large garden, filling it with artificial fertilizers, spraying it with pesticides, and claiming victory.  And yeah, there will also be those who don't really garden at all, but hire someone else to do it for them (this is extra Karen).

But there will also be some people, Karen or no, but the Karens especially need this, who start to dig in the soil, plant some seeds, see those seeds grow, and begin to notice things. They might notice how the rain (too much or too little) impacts certain plants, or that some plants wilt in the sun while others thrive.  They may start to be aware that their garden is visited by bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects, and recognize the garden doesn't exist in isolation. It is impacted by non-garden forces, and it impacts the non-garden area around it.

And maybe that will lead them to the thought that perhaps they don't exist in isolation either.  That they, in all their Karen-ness, are part of a system too, and begin to see how their actions impact others. And that, like the garden, the system they are a part of thrives best when every part of it has what it needs to grow.

Now I'm not saying that gardening is going to gift us with a sudden influx of enlightened Karens, but I do know that putting your hands in the earth and paying attention to how all of the natural world's various parts interact, can be a profoundly healing and eye opening act for some people.  It can make one recognize that that we are not separate from the earth, we are a part of it, and that nature is not something we should seek to dominate and control, but a diverse system we need to learn to live in relationship with.

And if any our Karens can get there, then the next step is to recognize that they, as human beings need to learn to live in relationship with other humans beings too. Personally, I don't think you can get to that place with out at least beginning to reflect on your own behavior, at which point our Karen may well be on her way to becoming a recovering Karen. After all, part of recovery is recognizing the mistakes you made and finding some way  to make amends for them.

People start down the road of radical change for a host of reasons, sometimes they hit rock bottom, sometimes they witness a horrible event, sometimes its reading a book, and sometimes its planting a garden.  If even one Karen can have her eyes opened, and it takes planting a garden to get her there, then plant away.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Bomb, Soap Flakes, and Resilience

Trinity Test - Alamogordo, NM - July 16, 1945
I have a memory from when I was ten years old and living in New Hampshire. That summer I had come back from my first summer camp experience having learned about the existence of nuclear weapons and what they were capable of doing. The movie, The Day After, came out not too long after that and we watched as a family.

In this memory I am laying in my bed in the dark waiting for sleep to come. I hear the sound of a plane flying overhead and I wonder if this is a missile on its way to destroy life as I know it. Ten-year-old me had no idea what a nuclear missile would sound like when it approached, or if I’d hear it at all, but in my mind they were like little rockets which were surely noisy.

Around this same time, I also had a very vivid dream in which nuclear war had happened. In the dream I lived in a town that wasn’t blown up but was preparing for the other aftereffects like radiation and nuclear winter. I was walking through town to warn people of what was coming. As I walked, I saw that people had large boxes of soap flakes that they were sprinkling on their roofs, on windowsills, in doorways, and in great circles around their house. They told me that the soap flakes emitted a vapor that hung in the air around the house creating a barrier to radiation.

I told them that it wouldn’t work, that it was just making them feel better. That the rain would come and wash the soap away and we’d have to do it all over again. I asked who would keep making all the soap now that the world was blown up, but even in dreams no one wanted to listen to a kid.

Somehow, I learned to live with the prospect nuclear annihilation. I didn’t fear nuclear weapons any less, and even now in writing this I am getting that familiar tightness in my belly. I didn’t hate their existence any less. But I was not paralyzed by that fear and hate. They existed, and short of finding some fantastical magic wand to wish them out of existence, they were not going to disappear anytime soon.

Preteen me simply did not have the power to remove them, stop them, or wish them out of existence.

But I didn’t go down the road of denial. I didn’t stop pretending they existed. I actually wrote my first letter of protest to President Reagan expressing what my feelings were about them. It was their existence that kick started my own activism.

I accepted their existence, but I didn’t accept that I couldn’t do anything about it. I also, somehow knew that the change I wanted to see might not happen in my lifetime. I wrote in my diary that I hoped one day kids like me would grow up in a very different world where they didn’t have to fear nuclear weapons. I even imagined my diary being discovered a hundred years in the future and people would marvel that such a world ever existed.

It was a surrender to the reality of the world on any given day, while working to make a different reality come to life, even though I’d not likely live to see that new reality. A mix of surrender, resilience, and humility…though I was not able to name those things then, the result was being able to live with the conflict of possible annihilation side by side with the hope for something different.

This is the mindset I want to actively cultivate now. I can’t make the horrors of the world go away. I still have not found that magic wand that will fix the world in an instant. I want to be able to hold both the knowledge that this is the state of the world in this moment, and not accept the state of things as immutable. And I need to do this while being aware that while I am doing this work in part for myself and the people around me, but it is far more for the people who are to come after.

I can’t get ride of this virus on my own, but I can work to create a culture that won’t be so negatively impacted as we have been. I can work to create a cultural mindset of collectiveness so that in the future, if this happens again the response will be one of support for one another and not the destructive denial we have all witnessed.

I can’t get rid of racism. I can’t change the history of our country. I can do the work to become anti-racist myself. I can work to lay the foundations for a new culture that not only finds racism unacceptable, but which actively works to rid itself of it.

I can’t undo the immense environmental harm we have done to the planet. I can work to create a relationship with the earth and nature, where I am a part of nature and not separate from them. I can create spaces for other people to find this connection and to begin to create a culture where the natural world is not seen as just another resource or capital to be exploited, but is a living system that has their own right to exist. One that human beings exist within, not outside of.

There is a metaphor we use often about how each generation stands on the shoulders of the generation before them. I’ve never liked that metaphor because standing on someone sounds so oppressive to me. Not to mention our ancestors haven’t done such a great job of things – building upon what they created just doesn’t seem wise. We need a new foundation to build on and a new space to build it. So that whoever comes along next has a place to start.

I still feel a lot of fear. I still carry worry. But if ten year old me can find a way to live within the opposition of a world that seems to dangerous to live in, while still finding some hope for what is to come, then 48 year old me ought to be able to do the same.