Brute Reason https://the-orbit.net/brutereason Care and responsibility. Wed, 09 Dec 2020 23:11:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.3 104281261 Earned Insecure Attachment https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2020/12/09/earned-insecure-attachment/ Wed, 09 Dec 2020 23:11:45 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5271 The post Earned Insecure Attachment appeared first on Brute Reason.

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[Content note: mental illness, suicide, self-harm, ED, sexual assault, bullying, emotional abuse]

In attachment theory, “earned secure attachment” is when people who experienced dysfunctional parenting and developed maladaptive attachment patterns in early childhood are able to heal and become securely attached as adults.

I always liked the sound of that. Secure attachment: they’ve earned it.

For me, it happened the other way around.


When I was younger, I struggled intensely with insecure/anxious attachment. I scrutinized my friends and partners’ behavior for signs that they secretly looked down on or disliked me, desperately tried to make myself useful to people so they’d keep me around, and at times harmed my body in pretty significant ways in the hopes that it would make me less disposable.

As humiliating as this is to recall, let alone type out, I remember once sitting with my boyfriend on the band bus after a marching band competition in high school and crying for no apparent reason. When he asked me what was wrong, I said, “I don’t see how I’m supposed to be happy when I hate myself this much.” I also definitely remember speaking the sentence “Do you even care about me?” more than once to partners I dated in high school.

Yikes, teenage Miri.

Anyway, I eventually put all of this type of messy shit behind me through a combination of my own effort and being lucky to meet kind people who made me feel valued and valid. (Healing is relational, y’all.) Ironically given my current occupation, therapy did not play a significant role here; I was never able to find a therapist that I clicked with until last year, and that was only through the cancer hospital and only after my oncologist recommended her. Hell of a consolation prize, but I’ll take it.

Like many people, though, I slide back into some version of my past attachment styles when under severe stress. The 2016 election, followed by my own cancer in 2017-2018, followed by my mom’s cancer in 2019, followed by this pandemic in 2020, were all, to put it mildly, severely stressful.

So for the past two weeks I’ve been going through what’s basically a nonstop flashback because my lovely fiance has started dating a friend of his, and even though I’ve been poly and (mostly) lovin’ it for almost nine years now, some very deep and instinctual part of my brain has decided that I AM UNSAFE. Like, I feel it in my body. In my very bones. In my chest cavity. I’m too stupid boring busy old broken neurodivergent depressed foreign fat ugly etc. And thanks to cancer, my mind has some new issues to add to that list—I have fake tits that don’t feel anything, and I’m menopausal, with…you know, all the attendant implications when it comes to physical changes and sexuality. (I don’t particularly feel the need to go into the details here, but: if you know, you know.)

In between crying for hours every day (impressive considering I also work about 11 hours per day, work out most days, and sleep 7-8 hours—maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s menopause), I’ve started reading a new book by therapist Jessica Fern called Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy. Never has there been a better-timed book release when it comes to my mental health.

As a therapist, I’m pretty familiar with attachment theory. (Here’s a good article about it if you aren’t.) But honestly, I always struggled to find myself in it. Insecure attachment styles are generally attributed to dismissive, harsh, neglectful, inconsistent, overbearing, emotionally abusive, and/or violent primary caregivers—so, in most cases, parents. And that’s just not my experience.

My parents and I had our issues as any family does, and the first-generation immigrant experience certainly compounded and complicated some of those issues. But for all the drama and arguing that there sometimes was, I never had any doubt whatsoever that my parents love me unconditionally. My parents were always responsive to my needs. They came when I cried. When they could, they stood up for me, and when they couldn’t, they comforted me.

I always felt safe and comfortable at home, and thanks to the many sacrifices my parents made to give me and my siblings a better life than they had, I always had food, stable housing, clothing (even when it was hand-me-downs—that was normal for us), access to learning opportunities, and presents for Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, and my birthday. Although we were separated from most of our extended family by distance, my maternal grandparents, who helped raise me until we left Israel, were also warm and loving, and my older brother, despite the occasional sibling squabble, was a protective and somewhat-parental figure who is still a consistent and important presence in my life despite the fact that we’re separated by nine years and now an entire ocean.

So how does someone so fortunate with their early attachments grow into a teenager and then an adult who has the kinds of attachment issues that I have?

For a long time I felt like I must’ve seriously fucked up somewhere along the road. Many people struggle with insecure attachment, but also, many people experience physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse during childhood, sometimes for many years. I’ve had the privilege of working with many of them as a therapist. I feel like I shouldn’t relate to them as much as I apparently do.

Up until Polysecure came out, there was only one other resource that spoke to my experience with non-monogamy: the zine Love Without Emergency: Writing on Trauma, Attachment, and Polyamory by Clementine Morrigan. Many of the pieces in the zine were originally available as blog posts, which I and my queer femme friends drank in like water in the desert and shared and quoted from. A while back I tried to find one of the pieces to show a partner and couldn’t, because Morrigan had taken them down and created this zine instead. I didn’t need convincing to pay them for their incredible work, and ordered the zine.

As validating and refreshing as this writing is, though, Morrigan speaks from their experience as a survivor of multiple traumas, including child sexual abuse. So whenever I reread the zine, there’s a voice in the back of my head that’s like, “Ok, but this isn’t you though.”

Given that Polysecure has a broader scope, I started reading it hoping that it would shed some light on this for me. Just a few pages into the book, I read a list of caregiver behaviors that can lead to attachment styles like mine. It’s the usual stuff: unreliable, unpredictable, punishing, overtly critical, and so on. Then, at the end, almost as an afterthought, I see this:

“Experiences of abuse or traumas that occur when the child is separated from their primary attachment figure, which can reinforce the notion that it’s dangerous to be apart from them.”

When I read this I literally had to stop and put the book down. In that moment, it felt like the tapestry of my life had suddenly unravelled and then rewoven itself—and now, instead of random designs, it revealed an actual pattern.


I was born in Israel in the early 90s to parents who had just left the Soviet Union as part of a massive wave of emigration. The Russian communities in most Israeli cities were tight-knit enough to be almost entirely self-contained, and Russian was the language we spoke at home. I was a physically and emotionally sensitive child, flinching away from touch and hiding under the bed whenever non-Russian speakers came to our apartment. The language issue would become a pretty central theme. In fact, until I eventually became fluent in English, which probably happened when I was around 9 years old, I would never be able to comfortably speak the local language where my family was living. So, my entire early developmental period and then some.

Just to be totally clear about what I’m saying: until I was 9 years old, I literally could not trust that anyone other than my family and their friends would understand me, would be able to help me if I needed it, would have my back, would give a fuck. One recurring theme you’ll notice is that not a single non-Russian speaker I ever encountered during that entire fucking time ever considered it their responsibility to figure out how to communicate clearly and safely with a fucking child who couldn’t speak their language. It was only ever my job to quickly grasp each new language that was thrown at me–Hebrew, German, and finally English.

When I was 4, my family moved to Cologne, Germany for about nine months for my dad’s work, and that’s where things really went to shit. I was already terrified of being spoken to and not understanding, and now another language and a completely different culture got thrown into the mix. At the preschool where my parents enrolled me, there were four teachers. Two of them were Russian-speaking. Although they obviously spoke German to the class, my parents requested that I be put into one of those two classes so that the teachers could help me understand what was going on.

The school refused. “She needs to learn German,” they said. My parents protested that we were only there temporarily and that besides, having a Russian-speaking teacher would help me acclimate; the school didn’t care. (Ask me sometime about how much that country has really reevaluated its national culture since World War II.) Anyway, I got put in one of the non-Russian speaking teachers’ classes, on purpose. It was disorienting and terrifying, and it sucked even more knowing that it was all, as my parents said, na zlo—out of spite.

Luckily for me, though, there were two Russian kids in that class—the only voices I could understand. Sometimes they translated for me. Other times they taunted me over and over, telling me that my parents had forgotten about me and would never come back for me until I believed them and bawled hysterically.

My parents half-joke that I probably missed more days of preschool than I attended, because that was when I started getting sick. Like, constantly. I have even more memories of being sick in Germany than I have of the horrible preschool. I had pneumonia multiple times (something I believe affects my lung function to this day, a theory that was recently confirmed when I was finally diagnosed with asthma in the midst of this pandemic). I remember throwing up, taking liquid antibiotics, getting chest x-rays more than once. To this day, I don’t think anyone has told me, or perhaps even knows, what exactly was going on with all that.

At the end of those nine months, we moved back to Israel. But a year later, the Israeli economy tanked, my parents both lost their jobs, the university that had offered my dad a new job went on a hiring freeze, and, like so many families the world over, we ended up immigrating to the United States.

We arrived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in March. There was snow on the ground, something I’d encountered a few times in Germany but was still unfamiliar with. My parents put me in kindergarten since I had just turned 6, but there were just a few months left until summer. Thanks to the university, the city and the school I went to were both very diverse, which I think was a protective factor of some sort. But only in a limited way.

The memory that stands out to me the most from that time happened later that spring, I think. I could still barely understand this new language—the fourth I had encountered and been expected to adapt to in my life thus far. One day after school, I went out to where my dad always picked me up. Only he wasn’t there. I stood there, unsure what to do, and started to panic. Eventually, a teacher came and gestured for me to follow her back into the school. I did, and I was led to an unfamiliar room with another, unfamiliar teacher. The door closed behind me. There was only one other student there, an older Black girl who was writing something on the chalkboard. I couldn’t really read yet, but it looked like she was writing the same sentence over and over. (As an adult I would think, wow, even here there was evidence of how Black students are disproportionately disciplined in schools, huh?)

I was, I think, hysterical at this point. Despite the fact that there were older Russian-speaking students at the school who could’ve helped, not to mention a Russian teacher who worked there part-time to teach us how to read and write in Russian (a very cool thing for which I’ll be forever thankful), nobody had bothered to find a way to explain anything to me. I cried for a while, and eventually tried to put my head down on the desk. The teacher in the room said something harshly to me and motioned for me to sit upright. So I did.

After some amount of time I was finally led outside, where my dad was waiting for me. He explained everything. I had been in detention. It was the school’s policy when students are late more than once in a week. He had been late getting me to school that morning for the second time that week. The school had called and told him to come an hour later. It didn’t seem important, I guess, to tell me this earlier in the day, to put me on the phone with him so he could explain and reassure me, or, lord forbid, just do the fucking detention on a different day after discussing it with me and my family. I was six years old, my parents had arrived in this country just a few months ago, and rules are rules, I guess.

It wasn’t all awful, obviously. There were lots of Russian families and I had a few friends I could actually talk to. Eventually I started taking ballet classes and made another friend, an American girl named Jessie who was homeschooled and seemed to struggle with writing just like I did.

But that was neither here nor there. I’ll never forget the first time her family had me over for dinner. I was about to start eating when I realized that nobody else at the table was making any moves to serve themselves. They had bowed their heads and Jessie’s dad started saying, “We thank you, god, for this food—“ I forget the rest. I just sat there awkwardly. Apparently it wasn’t necessary to explain to me what the fuck this was or tell me my options for participating or not. I was quickly learning that theirs was the default way, the normal way. I’d have to learn as I went along.

(I was shocked when just a few months ago, my parents and I got on the subject of Jessie. It turns out that even after we moved away, Jessie and her parents, unlike my Russian friends, actually tried to stay in touch and even visited us once while on vacation nearby. But according to my parents, their behavior was becoming increasingly erratic and red-flaggy. Even when my parents explained that one of their proposed visits was too last-minute and we had other plans, they insisted forcefully and in a very non-midwestern way that Jessie and I needed to see each other. At that point, my parents reflected on some things I had told them about the time I’d spent with the family and finally realized that they were 100% trying to convert me to their very weird sect of Christianity. Oh, joy. They cut Jessie’s parents off and never let them see me again, for which I’m now extremely grateful.)

We lived in Champaign-Urbana for only about two years. After that, my dad’s contract ended and (I later found out) we almost had to haul ass back to Israel because we were there on his work visa. But instead, he got a job at the Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, and we moved to a new city for the fourth time in my life.

The suburb of Dayton where we settled was considerably less diverse than Champaign-Urbana had been, and it showed. For the first time, I was the only Jewish student and the only Russian speaker in my school. That became apparent to my classmates right away. By the end of my first year there, some pasty fucking white kid named Jacob had already started following me around and muttering “stupid Jew” as if he actually knew what a Jew was.

From then on it was years of ignorant comments, intentional mispronouncing of my foreign-sounding name, attempts to convert me to Christianity or make me personally answer for the crimes of the Jews against Jesus, and so on. “Do you like bagels? Do you like money? Why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior? Do they even have cars in Israel? Which church do you go to? Why don’t you go to church? Are your parents in the mafia? Do your parents have nukes in the basement? ” Friends would (half-?) jokingly say that they were scared of my parents, or scared of going to my house. That I sounded “angry” when I spoke Russian to my family. Sometimes friends’ parents would be weird about letting them come over or sleep over. I didn’t know why, still don’t really know. Maybe that was all normal. Who knows.

(Once, in high school history class, I heard a classmate yell “Hey, Commu-Jew!” from behind me. Without thinking, I turned around and responded, “What?” I mean, who else could he have been referring to, right?)

(Some of it is laughable, isn’t it? I kinda laughed. Is it actually funny? I don’t really know.)

In fifth grade I had my first experience of being bullied by a teacher. She was pretty merciless. I remember asking her if she had any different colors of construction paper available; she whirled around and snapped, “You’re just trying to make my life difficult, aren’t you?”

Our class had a subscription to a magazine called TIME for Kids, and each week we all got a copy to read. After 9/11, which happened that year, the next edition of TIME for Kids came stapled shut to a letter we were supposed to take home to our parents so that they could decide whether or not to let us read the magazine. When I thought the teacher wasn’t looking, I ripped open the magazine and read it anyway. I already knew my parents wouldn’t care, would find the whole idea of insulating children from a magazine for children to be completely ridiculous.

We didn’t have the luxury of that kind of shit. I already knew about the Holocaust, knew that Israelis and Palestinians alike regularly died violently in my home country, knew why we weren’t supposed to take the bus in Israel, remembered how they check your bags and clothing for bombs and other weapons every time you enter any building larger than a grocery store in Israel. To be honest, I didn’t feel much of anything in response to 9/11 at the time at all, because I think I was already numb to the concept of violence committed against masses of people. (Later, we had to write some sort of reflection about 9/11 for a class assignment and I wrote that it didn’t really affect me. My parents told me I couldn’t write that and turn it in, so I changed it. Smart parents.)

Anyway, the teacher caught me and berated me in front of the class for my curiosity. She took the magazine away, re-stapled it, and—I think—gave it directly to my parents, who laughed and rolled their eyes, un-stapled the magazine, and gave it to me.

That same year, my fear of other people and “dangerous” situations like plane/car crashes seemed to metastasize into a fear of…just stuff. I developed some bizarre OCD-like fixations. I was obsessed with the thought that something I might come into contact with might harm me or someone else. I refused to use rubber cement for projects in school because I thought it could kill me. Once I accidentally ate a piece of eggshell along with my hard-boiled egg and called my mom at work, sobbing, until she reassured me that there’s nothing harmful about that. I hated helping my parents with kitchen chores because I was terrified that if I didn’t make sure to wipe all the surface cleaner perfectly off of the counter, someone might set a piece of fruit or whatever down on that surface and then eat it and consume some amount of the molecules from the cleaner and get poisoned. I scrutinized labels. I had special little rituals I had to do or things I had to count. Unfortunately, seeking reassurance from my parents became a compulsion and it lasted well into my pre-teen years. And why wouldn’t it? Nobody else cared about my safety.

In elementary school I started to have consistent friends for the first time in my life thus far. I was fluent in English by then; I remember reading The Hobbit in third grade. (I doubt I understood that much, but I did read it.) My friends weren’t always nice to me, but they weren’t awful either, and some of them stayed my friends for years.

But middle school was much worse–pretty much nonstop bullying by classmates and teachers. I was also getting more involved in my ballet school at that point, and although I loved dancing and have a lot of positive memories of performing in professional ballets, there was also frankly a lot that went on there that was extremely fucked up in a way I probably haven’t fully unpacked. Again, bullying by both students and teachers, but this time along with shitty comments about people’s bodies, weird favoritism and mind games from the teachers, and just about exactly what you’d expect. I never seemed to have the exact right leotard style or color (we were required to wear a specific color based on our level; although my parents never said anything about it, I don’t think it was easy for them to afford that many fucking leotards). My long, frizzy, curly hair often fell out of its bun during class, which was again humiliating.

This one time, as we stretched on our own during a break in the middle of class, I asked the teacher for permission to go use the restroom. (Leaving the room for any reason, even during the stretch break, was forbidden.)

I’ll never forget her reaction. She paused for several moments too long and stared me down. Then she inclined her head towards the door and hissed, “Never. Again.

(Later on I would have a lot of thoughts about using that phrase that way with a Jewish student. Needless to say, our people have some pretty different associations with that phrase than going to take a piss in the middle of a ballet class.)

So anyway, it’s a cliche that middle school sucks, but for me it sucked in some pretty special ways. I remember: getting humiliated in front of my seventh grade English class numerous times for asking a “stupid” question; getting humiliated in front of my eighth grade English class for having my entire vocabulary workbook completed rather than completing each chapter the week of the quiz (“But I get 100s on all the quizzes,” I replied, and the teacher left me alone); getting humiliated by a teacher for not realizing that the zipper on my jeans was down; having horrible stomach aches that would last for hours; crying every Sunday night and telling my mom I didn’t want to go to school; barely having time to eat between school and ballet class; getting a C on a test in the aforementioned 7th grade English class and my mom threatening to pull me out of the ballet I was in that season; getting bullied because I wore the same pair of jeans two days in a row; getting bullied because someone noticed that I wore the exact same outfit that day as I had on the same day of the previous week; everyone in gym class moving away from me whenever I got near them because they thought that since I wore the same jeans two days in a row, that must mean I don’t wash my clothes and they’re dirty; suddenly bursting into tears during a piano lesson because my teacher, a kindly older white man named Bob who had once been a jazz pianist, gently pointed out that it seemed that I hadn’t practiced the piece much; telling my parents about this incident and that I needed therapy and being told no. (As I said: they weren’t perfect. But at least they fucking gave a shit, unlike literally anyone else in my life except perhaps for Bob.)

Things started to get better in high school. I learned how to blend in better. I ditched my tomboy-ish ways and started doing my hair and makeup, and making sure that I never wore the same jeans two days in a row. (Still didn’t wash them every time I wore them, though. Y’all US-ians need to stop this wasteful nonsense and consider what it’s like for people who don’t have seemingly endless reserves of clean water with which to launder pants that have been worn for eight hours while sitting at a desk.)

In high school I joined the marching band and made some friends that I fit in better with. They were pretty good friends, especially when compared to some of my previous experiences. Or they tried to be, anyway. I don’t think any of them were prepared whatsoever to deal with someone like me and I can’t fault them for that.

High school was mostly the end of the constant bullying I’d experienced for years. Some weird memories stand out. Sitting in the cafeteria with my friends, suddenly noticing male voices laughing behind me and hearing some coins clattering on the floor. Then an older girl tapped me on the shoulder and warned me that the upperclassmen behind me were trying to throw coins down the back of my jeans.

(Even now, I obsessively fidget with my top whenever I’m wearing pants, tugging it down. I prefer to wear a cardigan or another longer layer if I’m going to sit down while wearing pants. But mostly I stick to skirts, dresses, or outfits where I can tuck my shirt in.)

My ass must’ve been my most noticeable feature because I also remember my guy friends walking a few yards behind me in the hallway, talking about how big it is, making sure their voices carried far enough.

I found out that a girl I’d considered a casual friend, someone I did ballet with and even carpooled to classes and rehearsals with for many years, told her best friend this about me: “I don’t understand why people think she’s pretty. She looks like a horse.” Anti-Semitic or just shitty? Who knows!

I started dating, which in retrospect was a mistake. I asked a guy I liked out to Homecoming freshman year, because I didn’t understand that girls weren’t supposed to do that. Unfortunately, he said yes, and then proceeded to ignore and avoid me the entire night while hanging out with his friends, which was as you’d imagine pretty humiliating. Somehow he and his friends become my aforementioned friend group, although it took quite a while for them to stop making fun of me for asking a guy out and getting tricked, I guess.

My first kiss and subsequent sexual experiences were, I would later realize, sexual assault. (That boyfriend, years later, would express surprise when I told him that I was in a healthy sexual relationship. “You always trembled like a scared bunny whenever I touched you,” was what he said.)

One time he and I and our friends hung around after school before the band concert, and he led me off to some corner as usual to “do stuff,” as we probably called it. Apparently, some fucking janitor saw us and decided to tell my friends about it when she saw them, asking them to tell us to stop doing it. Thanks to that I essentially became the slut of my friend group, which was also great. As for the guy, he suddenly became cold and harsh to me a few weeks later, telling my friends behind my back, “What’s she gonna do, break up with me?” I did.

Other guys would ask me out but then refuse to ever even kiss me, only grudgingly held my hand when we walked down the hall. Aside from Sexual Assault Boy, I didn’t kiss anyone until nearly the end of my junior year.

Otherwise, my high school boyfriends were about what you’d expect. They would inevitably start ignoring me after a few months and then deny that anything was wrong when I asked what was wrong. Eventually they would admit that “I just don’t really feel close to you anymore,” at which point I’d break up with them to put them out of their misery. A few weeks later they would usually start dating one of my thinner, lighter-haired friends.

(Around this time all of that bullshit started–exercising obsessively when I could, restricting myself to only apples and almonds all day, taking poor care of myself during colds and flus so that the illness and therefore the loss of appetite would last longer, and so on and so forth. This type of shit would continue on through college. No, I never really lost any weight with it anyway, so I guess nobody ever noticed or thought it was a problem. Years later, noting that my bone density scans showed significant osteopenia in my spine even before going into medically-induced menopause, my oncologist suggested that extreme dieting is a common cause of bone density loss in young women.)

Anyway, one of those guys, I dated for almost a year. It was a rewarding relationship in some ways, and certainly the first where I felt a real physical connection with someone. Of course, we didn’t do anything past fingering each other; like everyone I dated in high school, he was quite deeply religious and opposed to premarital sex. He also thought that oral sex was disgusting and wrong, apparently, a belief I mostly (but not entirely) managed to avoid absorbing from him.

He also sometimes panicked and cried about his fear that he was actually gay, which was about when I decided that I definitely wasn’t fucking coming out to anyone in high school. He also once nearly dumped me because, he said, “I just can’t see myself with someone who doesn’t believe in anything.” I said some bullshit that I half-felt about how I do believe in some sort of higher power or some shit like that, which reassured him for some time.

Spring of our senior year, I had a major dental issue that was terrifying and plunged me into a depression. This immediately turned him off, I guess, and he proceeded to be cold and distant for a few weeks until I confronted him. You guessed it: “I just don’t really feel close to you anymore.” I broke up with him. Just a few weeks later, he took one of my best friends to senior prom.

So that was that, and after that summer I cheerfully went off to college at Northwestern, thinking that surely I was about to find my people. Haha! College was somehow even worse. By then I’d started a previous version of this blog, so this part I’ve actually written about quite a bit. But holy shit was it just awful. Being away from home was terrible. I had few friends and no sense of community until senior year. I also quickly discovered with this “casual sex” ish means, which in my case mainly meant getting sexually assaulted multiple times and hooking up with men I thought were my friends only to have them literally disappear after getting what they wanted.

My first year in college, I was a journalism major at the Medill School of Journalism, generally considered the top undergraduate journalism program in the country. I won’t belabor the point here, but it was so stressful, the professors were (with a few exceptions) so demanding and utterly unconcerned with students’ mental health, and the students themselves were so nasty and back-stabby to each other that by the end of the year, I was suicidal, diagnosed with major depression, and on antidepressants for the first time. I switched majors, of course, to psychology.

But I kept writing, both on my blog and in campus publications. As my writing ramped up, I also started experiencing the ever-present rape and death threats from strangers on the internet that would be a mainstay of my experience for years. And even on campus, men would corner me in hallways to tell me how much they hated what I’d written in the school newspaper.

I was an RA my sophomore year and was unfortunately forced to write some residents up for very obviously smoking weed while a more experienced RA was with me on rounds, so I couldn’t ignore it like the cool lax chill RA I was trying to be in order to prevent exactly what ended up happening. Unfortunately, the residents in question were in a frat. That earned me countless threats, absolutely vile anonymous RA evaluations that accused me of dressing inappropriately and all kinds of other fucked up shit, and (this one feels irrelevant by comparison) the silent treatment from like half the fucking res hall. For a while that year, I hooked up with a guy who happened to belong to that frat; he never let me visit him at that house, and he wouldn’t be seen with me in public.

All that so I could keep a job that made college just slightly more affordable for my family, which was considerably lower-income than the families of the grown ass adult men who taunted me in narrow hallways. I did not reapply to be an RA my junior year, and moved off campus as soon as I could.

(Three years later, as I was graduating, I commented on a post in Northwestern’s SSDP [Students for Sensible Drug Policy] Facebook group. Although my comment was, obviously, in support of marijuana legalization, some dude from that fucking frat—I shit you not—replied with some petty shit about how “interesting” it is that I would say this given that I had once indeed written up some fucking freshmen for smoking pot.)

(By the way, the frat was Fiji, a.k.a. Phi Gamma Delta. Literally come at me, bros. Come fucking at me. What are you gonna do to me now? Email me a rape threat? I ate that shit for breakfast back when I was starving myself.)

(To this day, my relationship with marijuana and with people [especially men] who make it a significant part of their lives is a difficult one. Still support legalization, obviously. Yet forever suspicious of people who are preoccupied with obtaining it and using it.)

There’s a lot more that I could add here, honestly, about college and about the rest of it. I haven’t even gotten into all the “casual” sexism, homo-/bi-phobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and ableism that I’ve experienced in college and beyond. What would be the point? It sucked, but by then I already believed what I believed about the world and my place in it.


Writing all of this out is excruciating, though not in the way you probably think. I kind of hate even mentioning all of it, because it all sounds so…pathetic and petty. What kind of person still carries around trauma from the fact that some kids in preschool told them their parents were never coming back for them, or from getting put in detention in kindergarten, or getting called “stupid Jew” a few times in grade school, or from the fact that their high school boyfriends were by all accounts totally typical teenage boys who didn’t know how to use words and also enjoyed serial monogamy?

But what I’m coming to realize is that it’s not about the objective severity of any one specific incident. Yeah, I didn’t have a singular traumatic event that happened when I was away from my parents that taught me that being away from my parents was unsafe. I didn’t have to. All that had to happen was that I had a safe and loving home environment, but whenever I ventured outside of it, people were /at best/ inconsistent, undependable, and kinda careless, and at worst they were mean, heartless, ignorant, bigoted, discriminatory, or even, in a few cases, violent and cruel.

And they were that way in ways that were often either explicitly or implicitly connected to my religious background, ethnicity, perceived racialized traits, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, neurodivergence, or other factors that I had no control over.

So there didn’t need to be One Big Trauma™ or even Several Big Traumas™. Rather, it was the fucking relentlessness of it. The way it followed me to new schools and across state and national borders, across a sea and an ocean. The fact that it was my peers and it was adults, friends and strangers, teachers and sexual partners, school administrators and ballet instructors, offline and online, in school and outside of it.

The only common factor was me. And the only place it couldn’t follow me was into my parents’ house.

(Oddly enough, I also have no memories of relational trauma or bullying as far as I can tell that took place in Israel. No surprise then that I was always so drawn to return to it, although my lack of fluent Hebrew always kept me from being able to relax there.)

I don’t think about most of these things very much anymore. I used to think about them more when I was younger, so it’s not that I’ve repressed them. I just strongly prefer to believe that none of this has anything in particular to say about who I am now. I have social skills, I know how to fit in, I can do my makeup, I know my worth, I choose good people as my friends and partners, I block shitty people on the internet. I’m not defined by those things, I’m Not A Victim™, hahaha I mean who amongst us didn’t have a shitty adolescence, etc. All of that stuff honestly just feels extremely cringy and also irrelevant.

Oh, but it isn’t.

I can tell myself all I want that I’ve escaped whatever circumstances caused me to be repeatedly treated like garbage in all contexts and in every type of relationship (stranger, classmate, acquaintance, friend, partner, teacher, etc) I could conceivably have, from my earliest memories at 4 years old up until my mid-20s. But the body, as they say, keeps the score. It remembers.

And now, when a male partner tells me he has a crush on a friend, my entire body screams at me that I’m going to be abandoned and alone. Sure, I don’t do what I used to do. I don’t beg, I don’t plead for reassurance, I don’t accuse, I don’t starve myself. I just quietly shut down and try to disappear because I’ve learned not to fight it.

When a friend is upset because I’ve made a mistake, my body knows (thinks it knows) that I’m useless to them now. When I see an email in my inbox about something I wrote, my body expects torrents of abuse, and then I feel shame when I instead read a heartfelt compliment or a valid, good-faith critique.

And in all of these moments, I’m realizing, my first thoughts often have nothing to do with that person or relationship. Instead, they remind me of the only reliable way I have ever known to find safety:

“I wish I could be with my parents right now. I just want to be with my parents. I want my parents. I want my parents.”

With my parents and the rest of my family, I have the only truly secure attachment I’ve ever experienced. I’m able to tolerate our emotional ups and downs. My parents can disappoint or unintentionally hurt me, and while that sucks, it in no way causes me to doubt that they love and care about me. My parents can be human—they can exhibit biases and bigotries, they can say crappy Russian-parent kinds of things about my weight or relationship choices, and I still feel safe with them. When I’m upset at them, I communicate that clearly and immediately without any fear that they will abandon me for speaking up. And if they don’t understand or apologize right away, I keep making my case because I trust that they will eventually acknowledge that they hurt me even if they can’t really understand it—and they do.

But I also have to admit that part of this is cultural. We don’t do Midwestern Nice. My parents rarely act passive-aggressively. They don’t give the silent treatment. If they feel I’ve accused them wrongly or unfairly, they don’t stomp around the house and slam doors until I apologize for daring to have a feeling; they argue back, and I argue back, until we reach a consensus or at least a stalemate. (Okay, my dad does get silent and stomps sometimes, but my mom always helps us actually communicate.) I never have to worry that if I call my parents out on something, they will suddenly lash out with a nasty remark about something I did months or years ago that I had no idea hurt them; if I hurt them, they let me know. Now, not years fucking later when it’s a convenient counterattack. They don’t smile and say things are fine when they’re not. They don’t keep people in their life while silently resenting them or trash-talking them to others. My parents cut people off when they need to. I’ve seen them do it, and from them I’ve learned how.

Secure attachment doesn’t just require a trauma-free childhood or progress with trauma recovery. It also requires an attachment partner who is able to show up in relationship with others in a safe way.


When my mom was going through cancer treatment and I was falling apart, she beseeched me to try to find a way to expand my definition of family. She told me that I have to try to find a way to see my fiance as family, to open up to my friends more and let them support me the way I need. She told me about how during my own cancer treatment, she would call her friend in Chicago and talk to her, sometimes for hours at a time.

“You have so many friends,” she said. “Don’t you have anyone you could call and talk to?”

I don’t, not really. Not in that way. My mom is the person I call. My family are the only people I have ever felt truly safe with. Right now, at this early stage of understanding and healing, I absolutely can’t imagine feeling that sort of safety in my body with anyone else.

Now I think I finally understand why that is, and why I still, to this day, often feel severe emotional drops (sometimes even crying) when separating from my parents after visiting them or after they visit me.

And that’s just my lifetime. That doesn’t even get into the epigenetic legacy I’m carrying, which I’m sure bears the weight of midnight arrests, beatings, torture, forced confessions, decade-long prison camp sentences, pogroms, medical abuse, all of it. When my grandfather got cancer from working in a Soviet chemical plant, they opened him up, took one look at the inflamed lymph nodes they assumed were tumors, stitched him back up, and fucking sent him home to die of a curable lymphoma. He survived to make it to Israel, get chemo, and help raise me—but only because, and this is the literal fucking truth, he used his knowledge of biochemistry to create his own cancer drug and my grandmother convinced a lab to manufacture it.

Where is all of that living in my body now, and how does it show up when I’m afraid of losing the people I love most?

I have to find a way to forgive my body for this. My body, that has only ever tried to protect me; that carried a potentially-fatal genetic mutation but survived the cancer it spawned; that tightens and contracts and spills tears and now flashes hot to warn me of the next potential threat.

Just get through this now, she says, then find your way back home to those who have always kept you safe.


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Post-Election Depression is Coming, So Be Gentle With Yourself https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2020/11/23/post-election-depression-is-coming-so-be-gentle-with-yourself/ Tue, 24 Nov 2020 01:58:06 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5263 The post Post-Election Depression is Coming, So Be Gentle With Yourself appeared first on Brute Reason.

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If you’ve noticed yourself feeling more fatigued, sluggish, numb, or even down since the election, you’re not alone.

For some people, it might come as a surprise that a period of time they associate with feelings of relief, hope, or even joy could also be a time when depression symptoms show up. But it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider one compelling theory for why we get depressed in the first place. [1]

Most people will probably experience depression at some point in their lives. It’s pretty much the common cold of mental illnesses. But unlike the common cold, which is caused by a pathogen that enters the body, depression is something the body does to itself. Given how destructive depression can be, and how it can disrupt just about every facet of human functioning, why would our brains be able to do this shitty thing to us?

Depression exists in our neurological repertoire for a reason. At its core, depression isn’t really sadness—its numbness, apathy, fatigue, lack of motivation. It’s like the psychological version of our body’s immune response—adaptive and possibly lifesaving in many cases, but harmful or even devastating when it malfunctions and runs out of control.

One of those “natural” functions of depression is to force the body to rest and recover when needed. It often happens after a stressful event or period of time, whether that event or period was positive or negative, because the body has expended a lot of resources on managing that stress and now needs to rest. Continuing to be super active and do stuff when you need to rest can leave your body vulnerable to illness or other types of harm, so the brain flips the depression switch to “on” and forces you to just stop—stop caring, stop doing stuff, stop trying to go out and experience new things or make new connections, stop expending lots of energy on other people, stop caring about less-important things like showering or getting out of bed early. It makes you sleep more, and sleep is essential to healing.

In this way, emotional pain is a lot like physical pain—another sort of emergency brake that our bodies have. People with congenital analgesia [2], a condition that leaves them incapable of feeling physical pain, often experience permanent injury or even die early on in their lives; without pain, it’s very difficult for them to keep their bodies safe.

Of course, depression doesn’t feel good, but one of the reasons it feels as bad as it does in our modern world is because we’ve created a society that’s incompatible with these types of rhythms. We also live in a culture that expects happiness and high energy all the time. [3]

(This is by no means an argument that major depressive disorder as a mental illness is a product of industrialization. Obviously it’s not, as it’s been recorded across cultures and throughout history. However, it’s undeniable that there’s a lot going on in our culture that makes it more likely to happen, and more severe when it happens.)

Stigma and lack of understanding of mental illness also lead people to do things or think in ways that make their symptoms worse. Suppose you broke your leg and had to wear a cast and avoid putting weight on it for a while. That sucks, obviously, but aside from maybe mentally kicking yourself a bit if the broken bone was somehow your fault, you probably wouldn’t tell yourself that your leg /should not/ be broken right now, that you should “just snap out of it,” and that you’re a useless human being because your leg is in a cast for a while. You certainly wouldn’t rip off the cast and proceed to try to walk around as if your leg weren’t broken.

Yet that’s what we do with depression all the time! That’s especially true when we get depressed after something good happens, or during a time when we think we “ought” to be feeling good. A lot of people out there right now are probably telling themselves, “Why am I depressed now? Biden won. I should be happy.” Actually, neurobiologically speaking, right now is exactly when it makes sense to become depressed.

Unfortunately, I think some people are also taking this in a different direction: “Biden won, yet I feel depressed rather than happy; therefore things must actually be objectively very bad and hopeless.” A quick scroll through Twitter demonstrates how this plays out.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to make a solid argument for things being objectively very bad and hopeless, although I disagree with that. However, there’s a difference between looking at the facts and deciding that they’re depressing, and feeling depressed and looking at everything through that lens.

There’s also another reason folks are likely to get depressed after the election, and that has to do with self-care and managing expectations. All these weeks/months/years of doomscrolling, ruminating about politics, getting into pointless arguments, et cetera probably left a lot of other areas of folks’ lives untended. Once the stimulation of election season is gone, a lot of people might realize that they’ve neglected a lot of meaningful things and now there’s a big election-shaped hole in their brain.

Some people might’ve also had an unexamined expectation that if Biden wins, they’ll finally get to relax and not worry about politics or the state of the world, or even that if Biden wins, things will get better right away. Obviously, that’s going to be a huge disappointment. For some people, a potential Biden win might’ve been one of the few things to look forward to during the pandemic, and now that it’s happened, there might not be anything else on the horizon that actually feels positive.

Of course, for a lot of folks in this situation, depression may have come up long before the election. Although the four-year adrenaline rush of this administration’s constant assaults on human rights and democratic norms may have allowed some folks to outrun their depression for a while, the crash inevitably comes, and it might come even before the body decides that it’s relatively safe.

Four years ago, I wrote about why we are not going to make it through this if we try to force our brains to be on high alert all the time. [4] I argued that refusing to incorporate Trump’s presidency into our model of the world—to accept that it is happening for now and to stop treating each new tidbit of horrible news as if it were a fire alarm—would inevitably result in burnout.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what ended up happening to a lot of people. And even more regrettably, some of us did it to each other by reposting news articles with alarmist headlines (some of which were almost certainly false or misleading) and speculating wildly all over social media about the imminent collapse of democracy in ways that, while totally valid, also vicariously traumatized others.

There will be time enough to unpack all of that when things calm down a little bit—which I believe they will—but point is, depression is likely to strike right now for a lot of reasons.

I don’t really have any specific thoughts or advice here—if you recognize your own experience in what I’ve written, you probably know better than I do what helps you most when you’re in a depressive episode. But what I really hope folks get out of reading this is to be aware that major events can contribute to triggering a depressive episode even if those events are seen as positive.

If you’re feeling the urge to lay low and rest right now, it’s okay to do that—just try not to isolate yourself from the people you love and to set a date in your calendar to check in with yourself and evaluate whether or to you’re ready to get back out into the world a little bit more (safely), or if you might need some extra support.

THere’s already been a lot on social media about how we shouldn’t stop caring and protesting now that Biden’s won, and lots of understandable snark about people who allegedly think that their political engagement begins and ends with voting in presidential elections. Unfortunately, though, the “just keep fighting no matter what happens and never stop and rest after a major victory” take isn’t really trauma-informed or compatible with like, basic neurobiology. Your body is telling you to stop and rest. Listen to it, or it’ll force you to stop and rest later, when it’s even less convenient.


[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201604/the-behavioral-shutdown-theory-depression

Note: While this is one theory of depression, it’s by no means the only theory or the only explanation for why depression occurs in humans. It’s just the one that’s most relevant to what I’m talking about here.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congenital_insensitivity_to_pain)

[3] https://bookshop.org/books/bright-sided-how-positive-thinking-is-undermining-america/9780312658854

[4] https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2016/11/21/danger-necessity-normalizing-new-political-reality


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One Year, Three Months, and Sixteen Days https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2020/11/12/one-year-three-months-and-sixteen-days/ Thu, 12 Nov 2020 05:25:29 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5241 The post One Year, Three Months, and Sixteen Days appeared first on Brute Reason.

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Grayscale photo of waves on a beach.
Photo by Gerard Pijoan on Unsplash

One year, eight months, and twenty-eight days ago I unraveled.

Six weeks post-op from my final surgery, I found out that cancer wasn’t quite done with us yet. My mom had it too.

I lost a lot of things that spring—my words, my composure, my pride, my sanity, my optimism, quite a few friends—but thankfully not my mom. Unlike my own cancer, there were no silver linings. I lost a lot but found nothing. I learned nothing, either, least of all how to live in a world without my mom in it. That lesson, I suppose, is for another day, a day I’ll try not to think about much until it comes.

I guess I did discover something about myself, though I’m not sure if I’d call it learning. I found a part of myself that words don’t touch, that speaks no language. Even my own possible death didn’t strike this part of me. But hers did.


I keep thinking about how that first night after she told me, when I had finally made it safely into the driveway–

(she had called me right as I was walking down the stairs from the third floor where my office was and out into the fading late-winter sunlight–or was it sunlight? Maybe it was cloudy that day. No, I don’t think so–and to my car, and I answered because she wouldn’t have called at that time unless it was important, and when she asked me if I would want to know something like this even if it wasn’t totally confirmed yet, I should’ve said no, because I was driving, but I didn’t, because I don’t know what’s good for me at all. I remember I was calm during the conversation–so much so that later she would admit, trying to hide her disappointment, that she had expected somewhat more from me, as I had seemed so collected, so professional, still wearing my work badge and also my work self–the conversation that must have only lasted about as long as the drive did. From that moment on, every day, five o’clock, I left work, got in my car, and relived the overture to the worst time of my life, measuring by each stop sign, each traffic light, each pothole, each turn, the devastating music of that phone call. Here I pulled to the side of the road for a while. There I briefly considered swerving into the path of an oncoming semi. So it was for one year, one month, and eleven days, until the pandemic struck and I packed up the necessities from that office and left to work from home. Only then, I think, did I start to heal.)

–and hung up the phone. Almost immediately I started to sob, and then to howl, a low, animal sound coming from a part of me I had never encountered face-to-face before. It was a sound that shook my body down to the bones, that sent the birds flying from the branches of the trees of my mind.

I remember only two other things from that night. One: curled up on the floor of my room in the dark, knees into my chest, facing the wall. Two: pacing back and forth, lights on now, on the phone with my older brother in London. The part of my brain that makes words had taken over now, and it was processing, churning, digesting, what I knew and how trustworthy the information was, how could the doctor make that diagnosis without evidence, the doctor is a fraud, the whole thing is bullshit.

(The doctor was indeed a fraud and the whole thing was indeed bullshit, but all in the wrong direction. The full medical picture, once we had it, was so much worse than the doctor had falsely claimed.)

It’s right about this time that I stop writing almost entirely. My lifeblood, my first passion, my most reliable source of solace and healing—gone. From then up until now, I’ve barely written anything that wasn’t an extension of my job in some way.

I got through my own cancer treatment by writing—the same way I’d gotten through everything else. Until this morning, when I woke up from yet another nightmare about my mom, I didn’t understand what the difference was.

My own cancer was terrifying, sickening, depressing, nauseating, paralyzing, debilitating—all those things and more—but it was all of those things in ways that could be understood and expressed using language. I lived a thousand different realities during that time, all of which I could name. I wanted to die. I wanted desperately to survive. I thought the chemo would destroy me. I thought the surgery would destroy me. (It did. I’m a fundamentally different person now.) I was so full of gratitude for everyone who helped me. There were so many things I still wanted to do. There were so many things I wished I’d done. The science of it was all amazing to me. Et cetera.

My mom’s cancer was nothing like that. I thought I just couldn’t find the right words—

(“I just don’t want my mom to die,” I tell my therapist. “I just don’t want her to die. What else is there to say? What the fuck is there to even process about this?”)

—but in reality there were no words. That experience lodged itself into a completely primitive, nonverbal, preverbal part of my brain. I was undone by it. I was a cornered animal, a ranting lunatic. I hid it as best as I could, played the role of the dutiful daughter, employee, friend, partner. The mask slipped many times; I feared that others had glimpsed the beast beneath.

Mostly I just desperately wanted to be with her. It was only some instinct of self-preservation that kept me from quitting my job on the spot, moving back to my parents’ house an hour away, and staying there until…until. I was 28, a grown adult, recently engaged and moving steadily away from my family of origin and toward creating a life of my own. In the span of a 15-minute phone call all of that seemed to shatter. I just wanted my mom. I just wanted my mom. I just wanted—

(the day she suddenly passed out in the kitchen and my dad took her to the ER, where she was eventually admitted and someone finally started the process of figuring out what sort of cancer it even was, I was at work, despite the beginnings of a flu the night before, a flu that I absolutely refused to allow to happen and that seemed to recede that morning through sheer force of will. I left work two hours early with my supervisor’s permission and drove like a maniac straight to Dayton, speaking to the doctor on the phone in the car, terrorized the nurses at the hospital until someone told me when the cardiologist would be back, and didn’t rest until my mom was discharged with referrals to oncology, at which point my flu came raging back and I eventually ended up right back in the very same hospital my mom had just gotten out of, which led to two days hooked up to IV antibiotics because I somehow got myself sick with both the flu and cellulitis at the same time. It was as if my body couldn’t even function anymore.)

—I try to write about it. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words—

In the dream my mom dies. And yeah, that’s just the beginning if you can believe it. I remember feeling really confused because she’d had no symptoms and her treatment had just started. Yeah, people die of cancer, but surely there are some warning signs first?

I have difficulty accepting it, but I assume I’m just in the denial stage. I check our Life360 app and try to see her location, then think, duh, her phone is probably still on. I don’t seem to have anyone to talk to. Who even is in my life besides my mom?

Then I wake up one morning and she’s there, and she’s okay. We talk for a while and she reassures me that she’s doing fine. And something clicks and I realize that both of these things cannot be true. She could not have died several days ago and also be sitting on my bed with me. I am having a psychotic break.

I remember having the thought that I’d told my friends (and I have in real life) that if my mom ever died I’d go straight to the hospital to commit myself. Yet I hadn’t done that and it has been days. I realize, too late, that I should’ve gone to the hospital, and not for the reason I’d thought.

And then I’m walking up to OSU’s psychiatric hospital to be evaluated for psychosis—

I wake up so disoriented that I go right back to sleep, which is the worst possible thing to do.

—the dream restarts and I’m back with my mom, visiting London with some of her friends. She is tired from chemo and not really feeling like doing a lot of walking, so we’re just chilling. I’m telling her about the weird experience I’d recently had where I totally hallucinated that she had died which was silly because here she is.

But as soon as I say the words, I start wondering which part was the hallucination exactly, and suddenly it seems weird that we’re…in London? During her chemo? No. Why are we in London if she’s on chemo. This must be the fake part. But if this is the fake part, then she’s dead, right? My chest clenches up and London dissolves—

I wake up again. It’s 8:30AM. Shaking, I start to get myself ready for work. I have my first client in half an hour.

All day, I have to remind myself that my mom is still alive.

The nightmares become a constant presence. In one I’m hanging out with a group of friends, a cuddle pile, when suddenly my dad calls. Come home, he says. My mom is leaving and I should say goodbye before she goes. I leave the gathering and start to drive, although I immediately know it’s already too late, I’ll never make it home in time—

—next thing I know I’ve wrecked the car, right on Olentangy River Road where the Target is. I’m not hurt, but the car isn’t drivable, I have to wait for the police, I need to get home to my mom, I need to get home to my mom, where is she going?

I call my dad and try to tell him what happened, that I wrecked the car, I can’t make it home, I need him to come get me, can he come get me, can he tell her to just wait, please just wait—

I wake up. It’s 8:45AM. I have to be at work in 15 minutes and it’s a 15 minute drive. In life as in dreams, I am never, will never be, on time.


Last night I had another one of those types of dreams. I woke up knowing that it was time to take my words back.

Curiously, I don’t really remember the dream this time. All I remember is the feeling—fear, grief, longing, all swirled together. It’s unspeakably sad, but not horrifying. The indelible images that all those other nightmares left aren’t there this time. This dream was etched into sand on a beach and morning came like a wave, smoothing over all of its edges and leaving just the faintest memory, now wreathed in seaweed.


It’s been one year, three months, and sixteen days since her scans came back clear and this whole nightmare, in some sense at least, ended. But the cancer was technically considered stage 4, metastatic. Is it ever really gone? Will the medication continue to work? Every month we wait for the blood test results to come back.

Fifteen times we have held our collective breaths; fifteen times our bodies have tensed like hunted animals. Fifteen times we sighed in relief and unwound ourselves until next month. Until the next rustle in the grass, which could be a tiger lying in wait, or just the wind, carving its way through the stillness.

Tonight we hold our breaths again. Tomorrow, the blood test. Friday, the results. The verdict. The reckoning.

My mom didn’t simply survive it; she continues to survive it. Present tense. Neither sick nor well, neither here nor there. She lives almost entirely in the moment, making no plans until she gets her test results, and even then only for the next three weeks. Until the next rustle in the grass.

I’m slightly more comfortable than she is when it comes to imagining a future that doesn’t horrify me–but only slightly. I try to grow, plant seeds, meet new people, move up in my career. But if we’re being honest, I would almost always rather be back home with her. The part of my mind that knows no words pulls me back there, always.

And so I too am trapped in suspended animation, a yo-yo at the exact midpoint of its whirling journey—no longer moving away, but not yet coming back, but somehow not quite standing still either—yearning, always yearning, to return home to its source, that which sent it spinning out into the world.


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Seven Meditations for Moving Forward https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2020/11/03/seven-meditations-for-moving-forward/ Tue, 03 Nov 2020 18:12:02 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5239 The post Seven Meditations for Moving Forward appeared first on Brute Reason.

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A path through a forest.
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

I.

What are you feeling right now? Name it. Name them all–there are probably more than one or two.

A feeling is any word or phrase that can come after the words “I feel” without needing the words “like” or “that” to make it fit. I feel scared, I feel horrified, I feel jealous, I feel hopeful, I feel alone.

Imagine yourself sitting comfortably in a cozy room. Picture whatever makes a space feel safe and accessible to you. Maybe you’re on a beanbag chair, up against the back wall, and on the other side of the room from you is a door.

Imagine that each of the emotions you’re naming is walking through that door and sitting down in the room with you. They’re not coming to fight you, debate you, or do anything other than sit with you, but they all have something to say.

In comes fear. He sits at the edge of a chair, twitchy, looking around.

Now sadness enters. They find a pillow on the floor, off to the side of the room, and curl up on it, their gaze inward.

Anger bursts in and slams the door, startling herself and everyone else. She flops onto the couch and crosses her arms.

Then hope walks in, the youngest and smallest of anyone in the room thus far. They pause, unsure of their place, and take stock of the others. They start to walk over to sadness, but turn and sit on the couch with anger instead.

You might think that’s everyone, but then grief shows up, old and wizened. Unlike hope, he knows exactly where to go. He sits with sadness and wraps his arms around them with an unexpected strength.

What do yours look like? Where do they sit, and how do they show up here? Does anyone else join them?

If you’d like, you can ask any of them why they’ve come to sit with you. What do they tell you?

II.

Imagine things go to shit. Really, really go to shit. Let your mind go there. What would you miss most? What do you see yourself one day telling the young people in your life about, wishing they could experience it for themselves?

When you let sadness, fear, grief, and anger speak, what do they have to tell you about this?

I always imagine I would miss trees. I think about trying to explain trees to someone who’s never seen them.

Once you’ve named some of the things you would miss most, ask yourself how you might connect with those things more than you currently do. Maybe some of those things are actually people, or experiences. You might notice an urge to cut yourself off from these life-giving things to “prepare” yourself for life without them, or to avoid the anticipatory grief that might come up if you engage with them. But the way to prepare for a famine is to store nourishing food now, and the way to face loss is to move through it, not away from it.

III.

Now imagine things turn out okay. Maybe good, maybe just okay. If that happens, what would you regret about how you spent this time? Would you wish you spent more time outdoors, off your phone, writing to loved ones, saving whatever money you could, or maybe spending more of it to let yourself enjoy things a little more? Would you be kicking yourself for not at least trying to find a new job or find a way to go back to school?

Of course, “things turn out okay” is not an event clearly marked in a calendar. It could be a series of slow realizations, too. Things could turn out okay tonight or this week, early next year, in four years, in ten.

What would “okay” or “good” look like for you? What would you want to start putting in place now in case it happens?

You don’t have to strongly believe that things will turn out okay in order to accept the possibility that they might, and to make a gift to that possible future you right now.

IV.

Take a moment to think about acceptance. I don’t mean, “Accept that this is how it is and always will be,” or “Accept the things you cannot change.” Acceptance means seeing things as they are right now instead of struggling to see them as something else.

If things are shit, then acceptance means acknowledging that they’re shit rather than immediately trying to reframe them positively. But also, if there are some truly positive things going on at the same time, acceptance means seeing those things for what they are rather than trying to lump them in with all the shit.

What is true right now about how you feel and about how the world is? See if you can make a list of true things without immediately putting them in either the “shit” column or the “not-shit” column. What are you doing in your life right now that doesn’t fit with this reality? Those actions probably aren’t serving you.

V.

Imagine that thousands or millions of years pass, and an archeologist of the future–maybe human, maybe not–finds the relics you left behind. Maybe they find a way to read your Twitter or Facebook posts, or the content in your journaling or mood tracker app, or your actual paper journal if you have one. Or maybe your smart speaker really is recording all the conversations you have with your partner, your roommates, your children, yourself (creepy, I know) and someone eventually finds those recordings.

What would you want that archeologist of the future to conclude about you? How would you want them to think that you lived, what would you want them to think that you believed? I don’t mean to say that you should care about seeming shallow or foolish–you and everyone you’ve ever known and will ever know will be long gone, so social status won’t exactly matter. But what might matter to you now is the legacy you leave behind.

When you think about what you say and write and do today, does it reflect how you see yourself? If future anthropology students read the words you left behind, what will they learn about you, and how accurate will it be?

VI.

That was entirely hypothetical, but this isn’t:

How do you want to show up in this moment? You didn’t choose these circumstances; you didn’t choose much of what’s happened in your life thus far. Whatever you did get to choose, well, you already chose, and here you are. How does the type of person you are meet the type of situation this is?

If you see yourself as a healer, how–and whom–can you heal right now? If you’re a leader, how will you lead? If empathy is your strength, how do you practice it, and how do you keep that gift from getting twisted into something that hurts you? If you’re the type of person who makes things with your hands, what will you make? If your role as a parent is central to you right now, how are you parenting?

These values are actions that are available to you in any moment, no matter how shitty that moment is. In fact, many of them become even more significant during shitty times. That’s when people tend to need healing, leadership, empathy, resources.

You’ve worked on accepting that you are in the moment you’re in. Given that this is the case, for now, what will you do?

VII.

You don’t have everything you need to be able to fully show up in those ways.

No matter who you are, that’s almost certainly true, unfortunately. But what do you have? What are the ingredients for the recipe that only you can craft right now? Take stock of what you have and what’s still missing.

Maybe you have way more time than you need, but not enough physical energy. Maybe you have enough social support, but absolutely no money to spare. Maybe you have a bit of everything, but not quite enough of anything.

What can you do with what you have? What can you substitute?

One time I baked cookies but realized I had no baking powder. I did have baking soda, as well as something I thought I had no use for and was about to throw away–milk that had gone sour. As it turned out, the sour milk and the baking soda together replaced the baking powder. The acidity of the milk combined with the baking soda produced the same effect. Sometimes it works that way in other realms of our lives, too.

Maybe if you have too much time and not enough energy, you can do what you want to do, but slower. Maybe your social support system can help get you the things you would’ve otherwise had to pay money for, money you don’t have. Maybe you can use your bit of everything to complete your recipe on a smaller scale than you intended, and that can be okay.

Or maybe there are still ways to find some of what’s missing. Make a list of the missing ingredients, and for each one, think of as many silly, weird, or inventive ways to obtain it as you can. You’re probably not going to realistically do those specific things, but the brainstorm is just flexibility training for your mind. A more doable strategy might come to you if you stretch your brain regularly.

By the way, which emotions are sitting in the room with you now? Let yourself wonder what they have to say.

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The Expanding Staircase https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2019/10/05/the-expanding-staircase/ Sat, 05 Oct 2019 16:59:51 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5206 The post The Expanding Staircase appeared first on Brute Reason.

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Square spiral staircase
Photo by Elena Kuchko on Unsplash

The following is a work of fiction, based on my experiences working with clients but not a reproduction of an actual session with a specific person.

My office, any given day:

— It just feels like I’m not making any progress. I mean, I know I’m making progress, but…it just doesn’t feel like it.

— Yeah. It’s hard to keep going when you can’t tell where you are.

— Yes, it’s like, I keep doing the things that are supposed to help—getting in to see you, getting in to see the psychiatrist, getting the referral for the assessment, starting the medication—but each step takes such a long time, and then that psychiatrist turned out to be unable to do the assessment, and then when I finally got the referral and scheduled it, it turned out they don’t even do those assessments either…

— Does it feel like those steps—for instance, getting in to see the psychiatrist or starting the medication—are getting you to where you want to go?

— Not really, because the psychiatrist couldn’t do the assessment, and the medication isn’t really helping so now I have to try another one.

— Right. It’s frustrating when the steps you take don’t seem to “count.”

— Exactly. Like, if the medication isn’t helping, did that step really take me anywhere?

— What does your gut tell you?

— No. Well, I don’t know. Obviously I had to try the medication that was offered first. The doctor wouldn’t have known it wouldn’t work until I tried it.

— But nevertheless, it doesn’t really feel like a productive step.

— No, it doesn’t.

— So, what if…we know that this process can take a really long time. That’s really frustrating and disempowering, but the delays are part of the process—

— But a lot of those delays are because I keep procrastinating. Like, I don’t even know why I haven’t called the next place yet. I got the referral from the doctor and it’s in my phone somewhere but I don’t even remember what it’s called right now. And if I hadn’t missed that one appointment, I would’ve seen the psychiatrist much sooner, started the medication sooner…

— That’s what I mean, though. That is part of the process. You’re struggling with executive function. So of course it’s going to take a bit longer to do some of these things than it might for some other people. And that’s not even taking into account the other part, which is the delays inherent in the system—waiting for the doctor to have availability, waiting for insurance to approve the medication, and so on.

— So…

— So, imagine you could somehow know all of the steps that this would take. And imagine that the steps are a literal staircase that you’re looking up at, and each flight of stairs is a stage of this process. At the top of the stairs is your goal—having an accurate diagnosis, having effective treatment, managing the symptoms, succeeding in school. It’s a really tall staircase—obviously, we’re not making this too fantastical of a thought experiment—but you’re already part of the way up. For instance, the first flight of stairs was realizing you needed to go to counseling. The second flight was getting in to see me. The third was telling me about your symptoms, and me figuring out that you probably have ADHD. The fourth was getting in to the psychiatrist, who could prescribe some medication that might help but couldn’t do a formal ADHD assessment. The fifth was trying the medication. The sixth was getting the referral for testing—you get the point.

— Right, so I can tell that I’ve gotten off the ground at least.

— Exactly. And you’re looking up to the top of the staircase and it still seems quite far away, but you’re also a ways off the ground now. How would that feel?

— I mean, that wouldn’t feel nearly as bad as I feel now, but that’s because I would at least know where the top was. Like I could see how far away it was.

— And instead, it’s more like the staircase keeps expanding.

— Yeah! It’s like I keep climbing the stairs but the top keeps getting further away.

— That’s where your frustration is coming from. Unfortunately, in the real world, you can’t actually know how many discrete steps some overwhelming task is going to take, especially when it involves factors you can’t control, like what doctors can prescribe, what insurance will pay for, which clinic provides which assessments…and you know which steps you have taken so far.

— But what does it matter how many steps I’ve taken if the staircase just keeps growing?

— Because in reality, it’s not actually growing. It’s more like that thing where you’re walking towards a distant landmark, like a skyscraper in a city, and you feel like you’ve walked so far but it still seems just as far away. It’s not, though—that’s just a trick of our vision and also of our frustration with how long the journey is taking. In reality, there is an actual physical distance being crossed, and that gap is closing inch by inch whether or not it appears that way in the moment. This is even harder, because while you can Google how far away the Empire State Building is from Battery Park and get some sense of how long that walk will be, there isn’t a knowable answer here. Not right now. When you reach the end, you will know exactly what steps it took, and how long you spent climbing the staircase. There is a real number. You just can’t know it yet. …How well does that fit with your experience?

— I agree with that. I do believe that there will be an end, at least, even though I often feel like there won’t be. Do I have to just accept feeling that way?

— I think you do have to accept feeling that way, but you don’t have to just accept feeling that way. You feel that way for now. Just as you’d feel frustrated on long walk that’s taking even longer than you thought, towards a landmark that doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, you will feel frustrated here, in this situation. But in the example of the long walk, you would know, rationally, that you’re making progress. You wouldn’t just quit walking, unless of course you need to—that’s a separate thing. You would tell yourself, “This is a really frustratingly long walk and I had hoped it wouldn’t take this long, but I’m going to get there.”

— That definitely sounds more reassuring than what I’ve been telling myself, which is that I’ll never get there.

— And that’s not the only tool at your disposal, either. Imagine the staircase again. We talked about what it’s like to look up. What’s it like to look down?

— Well…I definitely keep getting further up from the ground. As long as all those things you listed were actually steps, and not just like…detours.

— Do you think they were steps? Even if they didn’t propel you all the way to the top?

— Definitely.

— Does your distance from the ground ever shrink?

— I sure feel like it does…

— Do you, though? What brings you back towards the ground?

— I mean, no. I’m only feeling that way because of the thing where the stop of the staircase seems farther away.

— Exactly. And, not to bring math into this—

— Please no math.

— Okay, no math, just words: there’s a difference between absolute and relative. As you revise your estimate of the height of the staircase—unfortunately, you keep learning that there are more steps than you expected—your relative progress changes. Maybe before you hoped you were at 50%, but now you realize it’s more like 30. Hence your frustration. But your absolute progress never changes. If you’ve climbed six flights of stairs, you’re always gonna have climbed six flights of stairs, no matter how the top of the staircase is looking at this particular moment. Feeling shitty about how hard this is doesn’t just suddenly knock you back down a few flights.

— But how do I actually, like, feel that?

— When you find yourself looking up, try looking down instead.


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“But You’re a Therapist!” https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2019/08/31/but-youre-a-therapist/ Sat, 31 Aug 2019 22:07:14 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5191 The post “But You’re a Therapist!” appeared first on Brute Reason.

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It can be weird being open and vulnerable with others as a person who also happens to be a therapist. People are sometimes very surprised to hear that their therapist friends also, believe it or not, struggle to understand their partners, get petty or irritated, feel abandoned, lash out at people, avoid flossing or exercising or initiating difficult conversations, or feel judgmental. For example.

I’ve been hearing the refrain “But you’re a therapist!” since—actually—before I even technically became a therapist. (Back then it was, “But you’re going to be a therapist!” Yes, and? You’re apparently going to be a millionaire or a bestselling author one day, and yet.) I even see therapists themselves throwing this at other therapists in some of the Facebook groups I’m in. That, combined with actually becoming a therapist and hearing a lot about how other people think, has given me a lot of opportunities to reflect on what causes people to say this.

People seem to be of two minds about therapists. Either we are fully self-actualized human beings who float through the world with the gravity-defying force of our own impeccable coping skills and preternatural ability to sense others’ thoughts and intentions; or we’re all “crazy” and “broken” and got into this field either to wallow in our misery along with our clients, exploit those clients, or use them to somehow fix our own unusually severe mental issues.

Obviously, I highly dislike both of these stereotypes (though the latter is of course more offensive and ableist). The reality is that most people will experience some sort of significant mental distress at some point in their lives, therapists included, and experiencing it early in one’s life can be a motivating factor when it comes to choosing a career path.

But I think there’s more going on here than just stereotypes about particular professions, and I think it reflects a common misunderstanding of how therapy works. That misunderstanding is:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. Talk about yourself
  3. Have a Sudden Realization™ or receive a powerful Insight™ from your therapist
  4. ???
  5. Profit/recover from your mental illness.

Actually, it’s more like:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. Fill out a lot of paperwork (sorry)
  3. Talk about yourself
  4. Hopefully, maybe (please) do some homework stuff outside of the session (I call them experiments!)
  5. Learn things about yourself and your mental illness, both through information and perspectives provided by your therapist and your own experience
  6. Apply that knowledge to change some of your patterns of thinking and/or behavior
  7. Have a really bad week/month and forget all of that knowledge for a while
  8. Relearn the knowledge and resume applying it
  9. Increase your tolerance of painful thoughts and feelings and your confidence that you can climb out of future mental health setbacks
  10. End therapy and continue being an awesome person.

The first model doesn’t work chiefly because 1) there’s no magical realization or insight; shit is way too complicated for that and more importantly 2) knowledge alone doesn’t automatically change people’s thoughts, behaviors, or circumstances.

(Why does anyone still think that therapy is about Receiving Insights from on high? I blame Freud.)

But if it did, then it would generally be true that therapists wouldn’t have the same problems other people do.

But since it doesn’t, it stands to reason that our knowledge about mental health and creating positive change doesn’t automatically cure our personal problems. Kind of how even the best brain surgeon in the world doesn’t operate on their own brain.

The inconvenient thing about therapy is that it is, at its core, an interpersonal process. That’s why the strongest predictor of effectiveness in therapy is the strength of the working relationship between the therapist and the client.

Although there are a lot of fascinating processes that go on in therapy (I hope someone has written a blog post about them), I would argue that the core process—the one that’s absolutely necessary for any kind of change to occur—is the one in which the therapist shows the client that they have worth, that they deserve respect, that their experiences are real, that their feelings are valid, and that their attempts to cope with their situation make sense, even if they aren’t working well for them anymore .

And that is really hard to do for yourself. I would say it’s a bit like giving yourself a hug. Can you go through the motions? Sure. Is it even anything like a hug from another person? Nope.

And this is why all good therapists have their own therapist at least some of the time. And also why we have the exact same super cool fun problems as the rest of you.


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A Support Role Taxonomy https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2019/07/29/a-support-role-taxonomy/ Mon, 29 Jul 2019 23:13:48 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5178 The post A Support Role Taxonomy appeared first on Brute Reason.

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Close-up of a life preserver.
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

A universal human dilemma: you need social support, but the type of support you need isn’t the type you’re getting.

You just want to vent, but your partner jumps in with advice. A sick person gets tons of gifts, but all they really want is someone to come over and spend time with them while they’re stuck in bed. Everyone wants to come hold the newborn baby, but nobody’s offering to do the parent’s laundry or make some meals for them.

This is complicated by the fact that most people find it difficult to articulate exactly what they need in terms of support, especially when they’re already in a rough spot. Even if they do know, and could verbalize it, many people feel like they shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. So, sure, you don’t need all those nauseating frozen meals while you’re dealing with chemo, but at least they were nice enough to think of you, right?

It can help to learn how to identify what it is that you do need and how to communicate that to people. On the flip side, it can also help to learn which types of support you’re best suited to providing and look for opportunities to do those things—as well as to be careful not to push those types of support onto people who don’t need or want them.

This article is a taxonomy of different types of support that people might need. There are probably many more, although just about anything I can think of fits into one or more of these types. Some are subtypes of each other–advocacy is a type of assistance; perspective could be considered a type of information.

There are three major types of social support. Emotional support involves directly creating space for the person’s feelings and helping them to express or process them. It includes validation, affirmation, comfort, and perspective.

Intellectual support requires using your knowledge and critical thinking to help the person find ways to move forward. You can offer it through information, advice, feedback, or motivation.

Practical support helps people set up their lives and environments in ways that promote coping and healing, and is an ideal way to help if you struggle with emotional labor, listening, or other interpersonal skills. You can provide practical support by giving resources or assistance, supplying distractions, or simply being physically present.

Here are the twelve support roles, broken down in detail. They’re in order (roughly) from least involved and complex, to most.


1. Presence

Presence is the gift of intentional togetherness—the simplest way of “being there.” When you’re present with someone, you are physically[1] there with them. Even if you’re both doing your own separate activities, the person you’re supporting knows that you will shift your focus to them if they need it.

You may need presence if: You just don’t want to be alone.

Ways to be present with someone: Sit with or near the person. Don’t check your phone or start doing other things until they do, and stop if they stop. If they aren’t speaking, resist the urge to fill the silence with talking.

2. Distraction

When the person who needs support isn’t ready yet to actively resolve their problem, or there isn’t a realistic way to resolve it right now, you can help them distract themselves so that they can have a few hours of relief from what’s troubling them. Your main role here is to be the one who suggests the distractions and obtains or sets them up.

You may need distraction if: Focusing on the problem at hand is doing more harm than good; you can’t keep yourself from ruminating and feeling even worse; there’s no practical or effective way to resolve the issue right now, and you just need to get through the next hour(s).

Ways to provide distraction: Take the person out to do something they enjoy. Come over and watch TV or movies together. Talk to them about your own life or tell funny stories. Play games together. Let them play with your pet.

3. Comfort

When two people have an attachment bond, they can comfort each other—a social process that actually reduces the body’s physiological stress response. [2] (Remember oxytocin from all that fear-mongering about casual sex? This [among other things] is what it’s really for.) Comfort can involve touch or words, but the words are just there to make those bodily changes happen. People don’t have to be sexual/romantic partners to be able to comfort each other this way—these types of bonds are common between family members (even adults) and close friends, as long as those relationships are healthy and consensual.

You may need comfort if: You feel unsafe or scared, and there’s someone you trust to reassure you.

Ways to comfort someone: Hug, cuddle, or hold hands with the person (with their consent). Reassure them verbally that everything will be okay, that you’re here, that they’re safe. Keep repeating any words or phrases they find soothing. It’s okay to be repetitive—this isn’t about conveying information to them, it’s about facilitating a physiological response. Give them your full attention, or it won’t work.

4. Validation

Validation is often the first and most important significant process that occurs in therapy. [3] It’s important in other types of relationships as well. When going through difficult times, almost everyone struggles on some level with feeling like their thoughts or feelings don’t make sense or aren’t reasonable or proportional to the situation. For whatever reason, humans can’t really start to heal until we start to understand that it’s completely okay to feel and think as we do. If you’re finding that your attempts to support others fall flat, it may be because they needed validation first, and you skipped over this step. [4]

You may need validation if: You’re struggling with feeling like your experience isn’t real, visible, recognized by others, or “that bad”; you have people actually telling you that it’s not “that bad”; you feel ashamed of your own thoughts or feelings; you worry that you’re being “overdramatic” or irrational.

Ways to provide validation: Listen. Verbally acknowledge what you’re heard. (“I hear you.” “I’m still listening.”) Remind the person that it’s okay to feel the way they do. Reiterate that what they’re saying makes sense to you; if it doesn’t, ask open-ended questions until it does.

5. Affirmation

Closely related to validation, affirmation is the process of helping someone feel that you like them and think well of them. Just as people typically need to feel that their internal experiences are valid, they also tend to cope and heal better when they are reassured that the people close to them still respect them and want relationship with them. It may seem irrational, but I think it has to do with how fundamental our need for social connection is.

You may need affirmation if: You feel diminished or beaten down by your experience; you worry that people think less of you because of it; you’re receiving lots of negative feedback or criticism.

Ways to affirm someone: Tell the person why you admire or respect them. Compliment them. Give them genuine positive feedback about how they’re coping with the situation.

6. Resources

Sometimes, throwing money and/or stuff at the problem really does help. The prevalence of crowdfunding campaigns online is a testament to this. If you can afford it, supporting someone with resources can make a huge difference.

You may resources if: You’re faced with a financial crisis you can’t handle alone; there are tangible things you don’t have and can’t find or afford that would help; dealing with your situation has left you without money to spend on small pleasures or self-care that would help you cope and heal.

Ways to provide resources: Donate/contribute money. Ask what they need and buy it for them.

7. Assistance

If you don’t necessarily feel up to supporting someone emotionally, don’t forget the importance of practical assistance. It’s common to offer this when someone is going through a serious physical illness or has recently had a baby or lost a loved one, but people need it in all kinds of situations. Mental illness or stress can make it difficult to do basic “adulting” tasks, and helping someone with basics like food and laundry can free up time and energy for them to resolve whatever they’re going through.

You may need assistance if: An illness or disability is making it difficult or impossible for you to do something that needs done on your own; managing your current situation is taking up so much time you can’t do other necessary things like cooking, housecleaning, etc.; you lack transportation; you’re concerned about caring for your children or pets while you deal with things.

Ways to assist someone: Ask the person (or someone closer to them) what you can do for or with them. Offer rides, household help, childcare, petsitting, or other types of practical help. Identify what your skills are when it comes to helping people: Are you handy around the house? Great with kids? Skilled at making nutritious frozen meals? Let the person know that you are available to do this thing for them, preferably in writing so they have an easier time remembering to reach out to you if they decide they need it.

7. Information

Information is an often-overlooked form of support, perhaps because it doesn’t seem like a social process. But it is—even if you get it from a book or from the internet, you’re still receiving it from someone, hopefully someone you trust. Some people are very resourceful and tend to quickly learn what they need to know. They may not even realize that information is a specific type of support someone else might need. Others struggle with resourcefulness, and may not realize that they’re missing information, or that someone trustworthy may be able to provide it. Some people have been resourceful their whole lives and flounder when a crisis they’ve never faced before makes them suddenly incapable of finding the knowledge they need.

You may need information if: You don’t understand the facts of what’s going on; you’re feeling stuck because you don’t know enough to feel confident that you’re making a good decision; you feel like there’s nothing that can be done in your situation; you have a serious medical condition that your doctor didn’t adequately explain; you’re facing a situation that involves legal issues, financial decisions, or other specialized knowledge that you don’t have.

Ways to provide information: Suggest books, articles, or other educational materials. Recommend a doctor, lawyer, accountant, therapist, or other professional that you trust. If you specialize in this issue, donate some of your time to provide some education around the issue (within the boundaries of your professional ethics, of course.)

8. Advice

Advice is without a doubt the most-given and least-wanted form of support, which is something we have to acknowledge before we can even talk about helpful advice. While it’s almost always a good idea to get consent before offering support, advice is one of the most important types of support to never give if it’s not asked for. Unsolicited advice isn’t just useless much of the time; it also tends to directly interfere with other vital support processes, such as validation and affirmation. Nevertheless, people do often want advice—they just tend to want it from specific people, and only when those people have the context they need to give advice that’s actually useful.

You may need advice if: you want to know how other people would handle the situation if they were in your shoes; you want to hear from someone else who’s been through this.

Ways to give advice: Ask first! Consider how you’d handle the situation, but take the person’s own needs and values into account. Ask what they’ve already tried or considered, and why it didn’t or wouldn’t work. Make sure you have all the information you need to give helpful advice.

9. Motivation

There are many things that can mess with our executive function—ongoing conditions like ADHD or autism, situational factors like sleep deprivation, long-term emotional states like grief or stress, or simply having way too much to do. Internal motivation is one of the main executive functions, and often one of the first to go. Thankfully, motivating each other is something we can easily learn how to do.

You may need motivation if: You have the capability to do what you need to do, but can’t seem to get started; anxiety, perfectionism, or depression are getting in the way or resolving your issue; you need someone to hold you accountable.

Ways to motivate someone: Check in with the person about the things they’ve said they’d do. Offer encouragement and positive reinforcement. Ask helpful questions (“What would be the next step?” “What’s keeping you from doing that?”).

10. Feedback

Sometimes people need a more involved version of advice or motivation—that’s feedback. Note that sometimes people want constructive criticism specifically, and other times they may only want “negative” feedback if you see something actively wrong with what they’re thinking or doing. It’s the difference between “Do you think I handled this wrong?” and “How could I handle this better?”

You may need feedback if: You’re not sure if you handled a tricky situation appropriately; you’re not sure if you’re interpreting something correctly; you want constructive criticism.

Ways to provide feedback: Point out the person’s strengths or what they’re doing well. Offer suggestions for improvement, or alternate interpretations of a situation. Ask useful questions (“What’s your goal here?” “What other options are you considering?”)

11. Advocacy

Advocacy is a very special type of assistance that involves using privilege, social skills, or knowledge that someone else doesn’t have in order to communicate on their behalf. This usually comes up when someone needs something from some sort of institution or authority figure, but it can also apply to mediating an interpersonal issue or backing someone up when they set a boundary.

You may need advocacy if: You need something from a person or institution and don’t feel empowered to try to ask for it; you feel that it might help to have someone (perhaps someone with more privilege or with skills you don’t have) in your corner.

Ways to advocate for someone: Accompany the person to appointments and help them express themselves effectively. Make sure they are being understood. Resolve an interpersonal issue on their behalf, or serve as a mediator. Obtain their consent to speak to their doctor, therapist, or insurance company to appeal a decision or provide collateral information.

12. Perspective

One of the rarest and most precious gifts you can offer to someone who is suffering is perspective. Like advice, this one is offered much more often than it’s actually available to give, and that’s because many people don’t have as much perspective, or as useful of one, as they think. Perspective isn’t “it could be worse” or “I’ve suffered worse.” Perspective never minimizes the problem; if anything, it shines a clarifying light on it. It can come from a religious or spiritual approach, but doesn’t have to. It can also be thought of as wisdom.

You may need perspective if: You feel lost or hopeless. You have no idea how anyone could get through this. You need someone’s wisdom.

Ways to provide perspective: Make sure you actually have perspective to offer on this issue. (Have you been through something similar? Are you knowledgeable in the person’s faith tradition?) Share an empowering, comforting, or personally meaningful way of looking at the issue. If appropriate, provide a religious, spiritual, or secular interpretation. Use perspective-finding tools that the person values, such as a tarot reading. Recommend a work of art, a book, or an essay that offers wisdom. Perspective is not the same as advice, and does not necessarily include any guidance on what the person should do. It’s more about providing a new lens for them to look through if they want to.


It’s a good idea to explicitly make sure you know what the person wants before providing any type of support. This is especially important with comfort, resources, assistance, information, advice, feedback, and advocacy, as these things are the most likely to cross boundaries when they’re unsolicited. But any type of support can come across as invalidating, tactless, or even violating if it’s not wanted. Nonconsensual touch that’s meant to be “comforting” can be actively harmful.

I’ll break down some of the more complex support roles in later articles. For now, I hope this taxonomy helps you give and receive support to others.


[1] Sometimes presence can be virtual, as when people hang out together via video call or have an ongoing text chat that they know they can use at any time. But it’s much harder to demonstrate presence without a face-to-face (or side-by-side) connection.

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453013002369

[3] https://www.miriammogilevsky.me/blog/2018/8/21/what-is-therapy

[4] https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2015/06/29/dont-tell-people-how-not-to-feel/


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Back Through the Fire https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2019/05/29/back-through-the-fire/ Wed, 29 May 2019 17:22:17 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5156 The post Back Through the Fire appeared first on Brute Reason.

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Smoke after a forest fire.
Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

[Content note: cancer, illness, suicide]

In November, I had my last cancer-related surgery. My temporary tissue expanders were replaced with permanent breast implants, and I was instructed to give my body six weeks to recover, after which I could return to my usual activities.

After five weeks and 6 days, I gave in and started exercising. It was almost the New Year. It was deep winter, a time of planning and setting things in motion. I was finally done with treatment, and I was ready to live again.

So for the next six weeks, I lived. I worked out almost daily. I started my private practice. I made plans. I designed a backyard garden. I took classes, learned new things. I took on new roles at work. I returned to freelance writing.

For six weeks, I lived. I was determined to get back everything I’d lost to cancer, and then some. I enjoyed my time with family, unburdened at last by the demands of treatment or recovery. Having emerged unburnt from the fire, I felt that nothing could stand in my way.

For six weeks I lived like a person reborn. This lasted until February 13.

That day my mom told me she had cancer too. That day, my newfound momentum sent me clear off what I now realized was a cliff, and like the coyote in the cartoon, I looked down and found myself unmoored, unsafe, and spiraling down.

It was nothing like my own diagnosis, first of all. I never thought that “I’m thankful for the way I was diagnosed with cancer” would be a set of words my brain would assemble in that order. But I am. I got the call one day. I saw an oncologist the following day. Within a week, I had a clear diagnosis, a treatment plan, a second opinion confirming those things, and a team of medical professionals I trusted.

This was about as different from that as it could get. For starters, the initial “diagnosis”–the one my mom called me about on February 13–wasn’t even that. It was unfounded speculation from a rude, shaming primary care doctor. I let myself believe for a bit that it wasn’t true. But for the next six weeks, as my mom was bounced around between doctors, hospitals, and scan machines like a dented ping pong ball, the picture continually came into focus, then blurred again.

One day it was early-stage lymphoma. Another it was metastatic ovarian cancer. Some days, other diagnoses were thrown out like beanbags on a cornhole board–lung, stomach, liver, breast, uterine. Doctors would walk out of her exam room completely confident and optimistic, only to return subdued and humbled, their hypotheses disproven, without any others waiting in the wings to be tested.

Picture yourself surviving the worst thing you can imagine, and before your scars–literal ones, in my case–have even fully healed, that same thing happens to the person you love most. That was me.

My mom had always been the person I called when I was so desperately upset I couldn’t do anything else. Now I had lost even that. My parents, through no fault of their own, relied on me in completely unsustainable ways during that time. I found myself supporting both of them, trying to curb my spiraling panic whenever they talked about metastasis and preparing for the worst, comforting all three of my siblings (especially the two teenage ones), fielding calls from extended family and close family friends, driving an hour to question doctors at the hospital while sick with the flu, researching–always, always researching–calling and begging my oncologist to take on her case or make a referral, talking my mom down from panic attacks over the phone, using my own therapy appointments to try to figure out how to live if my mom dies.

I could’ve handled this for a week. Maybe two. The mind goes into crisis mode and you somehow push on.

But it lasted for six. By the third week, I was coming apart. I started to become paranoid almost to the point of delusion, refusing to believe anything any doctor said because so many of them had been wrong. When my mom finally had a vague diagnosis and some semblance of a treatment plan, my mind rebelled against it, refused to accept it, and I ranted like an unhinged person over the phone about how this was wrong, and they hadn’t done this or that test or ruled out this or that possibility, and they needed to find a “real” doctor and get another opinion.

To their credit, they did get more opinions. The opinions all converged on the fact that the particular way my mom’s cancer had played out was so statistically improbable that it had only been recorded 20 times in medical history.

By way of comparison, there have been 23.2 million cases of cancer recorded historically in the United States alone.

This broke my brain.

I walked through the world like a fading ghost. Everything was a reminder of the thing I couldn’t forget anyway. The lemon tree my parents gave me as an engagement gift right before my surgery had unceremoniously dropped its leaves over the winter–they do that–and I couldn’t shake the fear that I was killing the last tangible symbol of her love I would ever get. All of my clients suddenly turned out to have dead or dying mothers that they needed to talk about.

My work suffered–everybody noticed. My parents were often calling and texting me during the workday and I would grasp at whatever few minutes I had between appointments to talk to them, sob inconsolably on the floor of my office, or both. I no longer wanted to be alive whatsoever, but even stronger than that feeling was the belief that I absolutely could not die, accidentally or on purpose, without dooming my family for good. By then I was living only for other people–my family, my partners, my clients–and I was starting to fail every single one of them, noticeably and repeatedly. The more I failed, the more I hated myself, my life, and the world.

It was, in short, a complete fucking living nightmare.

You have to understand—I was never one of those people who wonder Why me? when they get sick. Totally reasonable reaction—just not mine. In some ways this is because I incorporate and adapt to new knowledge quickly, and I was immediately focused on survival.

But the other half of it has to do with the way in which having cancer stripped me bare. I discovered that all of that emotional baggage and maladaptation I thought I’d handled years ago were actually still there, dormant. As all of my learned coping skills and cognitive strategies were eroded away like layers of sediment, I found that there was no bedrock of self-love underneath, no protective sense of my own worth as a person.

And so I didn’t feel the need to wonder what I did to “deserve” getting cancer. I didn’t think I deserved it, but I also didn’t think I’d done anything to deserve a happy, healthy life, either. Honestly, getting cancer kind of made sense. On my worst days I really do hate myself enough to make renegade killer cells an apt (if heavy-handed) metaphor.

My mom’s illness was completely different. As the weeks leading up to the eventual beginning of her treatment wore on and on, I hated the world more and more, and wanted to live in it less and less. I wished an asteroid would hit and destroy it. I wanted nothing to do with a world in which something like that could happen to someone like her. I wanted nothing to do with a life without her in it.

As a patient, I had a dark source of comfort—this too shall pass. You either survive cancer or you die.

I survived. My illness taught me that I can overcome anything. My mom’s taught me that no matter what I overcome, the suffering it brings will never end.

And yet. With something approaching an actual working diagnosis, my mom started her treatment in late March. The treatment seemed to be effective. The tumors shrank. I found myself sometimes thinking about something other than her. Spring came, as it always does, and the seeds went into the ground, and my wondrous garden sprang up once again as if from nothing.

And, just like last year, the new life in my backyard brought life back into me, too.

I don’t know what will happen with her treatment, or the rest of her life. There are reasons for hope and there are reasons for despair. Which one will win out in my mind in any given moment is a coin flip. I still haven’t figured out why or how to live without her if she dies. When she dies, as that’s obviously going to happen eventually. That’s another one of those things I didn’t expect to be thinking about this much at my age.

I haven’t written about this for months, except for scribbled ranting in my journal, because I had nothing to say. I could find no meaning or narrative in it. With my own cancer I learned things, experienced things. I had things to say about fear and bodies and friendship and family and work and joy. It was awful but it was also in many ways profound.

This was nothing. I learned nothing, saw nothing. “What am I supposed to write about?” I remember asking my therapist. “There’s no ‘there’ there. I just don’t want my mom to die. I’m just miserable and terrified and grieving already about that. That’s literally it.”

“You should think about why this happened to you,” my mom’s first doctor said, after ordering CT scans. I have also thought about why this happened to me, to us, as has she. We got nothing.

When I lost the thread of my own story last year, even that became part of the story itself. It was a gap, but the gap spoke volumes. When my mom got sick, I wasn’t weaving the web anymore. I was a fly trapped in it.

So I made do with what I have, and made myself a little cocoon from the fibers.

Then, midway through her treatment, everything changed again. She finally got her genetic test results back. She has BRCA-1, the same genetic condition I have. Then I understood.

She was always going to get cancer. It has always been a near-certainty, since long before I was even born, since before she watched her own father survive cancer.

My dad called and told me, and asked me to be the one to tell her. I froze. Couldn’t do it. On the one hand, it was “good” news, of a sort–it was a medical explanation, and it increases her chances of survival because it makes certain additional treatments possible. On the other hand, I shuddered to think of anyone, let alone someone I love so much, going through the hell I went through. What do I say to someone about to go through what was my worst trauma?

I told my dad this. He said, “It won’t be anything like that. We have your experience to guide us.”

And that’s when everything clicked for me at last.

My mom, like me, was always going to end up in this situation. Statistically, it was much more likely that she would go through it first, and I would go second. But that’s not how it happened, thank god, because this way it was my body and sanity on the line, not hers. Because this way I was the one to be mistreated and traumatized like that, I was the one who learned what I learned, I was the one who had to figure out how to demand humane treatment and pain control, I was the one who realized that panic attacks interact uniquely with this particular kind of post-op pain, I was the one who lived to write about it, I was the one who made it my mission to learn how to talk so doctors will listen and to start to teach that to others.

Now none of that will happen to her, so help me god, because I will be for her what nobody was able to be for me.

And with that came the realization that if I had a choice—if I could’ve somehow chosen to be put through this first so that she may survive it with fewer psychological scars—I would’ve chosen this, because I would do absolutely anything to save her life and her happiness, even face down death myself.

Everyone hopes on some level to find some sort of ultimate meaning in the horrors they go through; my answer to that basically got handed to me. I went through it so she wouldn’t have to, so that I could one day walk right back through the fire I’d escaped, and lead her out with me.

Things became somehow easier after that. While there isn’t any sort of cosmic meaning or significance to all this, I don’t really need there to be. In the unanswerable question of her tragedy, I found an unquestionable answer I didn’t know I was looking for.

After that I did something I didn’t expect to do. It won’t seem like a big deal to anyone but me, but I know what it means.

What I did was I bought trees. Berry trees. Black currant, gooseberry, cornelian-cherry dogwood, lingonberry, hawthorn, fig, mulberry, and, of course, rosa rugosa, which produces those rosehips my mom so prizes.

For the first time I was willing to plant things that wouldn’t give fruit for at least a year if not more, and to trust that on the day they repay all of my digging, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and protecting for the first time, I will still be around, and I will still care. That one beautiful fall day, maybe one of the last, my mom will visit me, and she will steal rosehips from my bushes, telling me that I wouldn’t use them anyway, and her laughter will be strong enough to send the birds from the feeders and bushes, flocking up, up into the dying light.

So that’s where I was, last weekend, digging holes in the yard as the rising summer sun woke up and thawed me.

On the patio behind me, where I’d set it out after the last frost, my parents’ lemon tree was waking too, sending bursts of new smooth green leaves from its buds like offerings to the sun god it worships.

I finished my work, picked fresh herbs from the garden for my mom, threw my stuff in the car, and drove west to Dayton, where my family was waiting for me.


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Speaking Gently to My Body https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2019/03/08/speaking-gently-to-my-body/ Fri, 08 Mar 2019 05:58:44 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5136 The post Speaking Gently to My Body appeared first on Brute Reason.

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I’ve always criticized what I’ve sometimes called the chocolate-and-bubble-baths model of self-care, where a series of supposedly “pampering” actions is supposed to somehow replenish you and make you ready to face the world again.

But I think I’ve found the usefulness of these types of activities, and the answer, as usual, lies in mindfulness and intentionality rather than escapism and consumerism.

I used to have a lot of body image issues, and then I found feminism and did a lot of personal work and (I thought) resolved them. Then cancer hit and a lot of that work completely undid itself. Suddenly I was standing in front of the mirror saying shit to myself that I hadn’t said for a decade. That was weird.

But by 2019 my body and I had arrived at a sort of uneasy truce, held together by 1) it not having cancer and 2) me practicing intuitive eating and engaging in regular movement that feels good to me.

And then I got a severe flu, went to urgent care, was not diagnosed with the severe bacterial infection I also coincidentally had, and ended up hospitalized for two days on a near-constant drip of IV antibiotics.

If getting hospitalized for two days due to medical mismanagement isn’t perhaps the most on-brand thing that can happen to me at this point, I don’t know what is. I mean, it’s not like I’m writing a book about that or anything.

That said, the other really on-brand thing that happened was that I rallied and got discharged from the hospital just in time to get a good night’s sleep, keep my travel plans, and hop on a plane to Austin, where I’m now typing this in a backyard wearing nothing but leggings and a tank top. (I deserve this.)

But before all that, I was home from the hospital in a shitty mood with barely enough energy to stand up without something to support me. I also needed a shower. I’ve now done it several times and if you haven’t experienced this, I can absolutely assure you, the post-hospital shower is the best shower you will ever take in your life. It beats post-camping showers. It beats “the landlord finally fixed the sputtering showerhead” showers.

In the shower, I shampooed my hair, used two different kinds of conditioner, and used both body wash and scrub to exfoliate my severely-neglected skin. When I got tired, I sat down on the floor of the shower and let it wash the conditioner out of my hair.

When I felt ready to be done, I grabbed a towel from the towel warmer (I should mention, this was at my parents’ house, by no means do I personally own a towel warmer) and slid the shower door shut again so I could dry off in the remaining warmth.

I noticed that I felt compelled to dry myself more gently than I usually do. Of course this was probably in part because of my recent infection, but that had only affected a small part of my body. I realized I wanted to pamper myself—not in the mindless sense of showering the body in fancy products or putting it through a particular set of actions (no shame if you enjoy mani-pedis, but to me they are painful and awful and I have no idea how that came to abstractly represent self-care for anybody who does not enjoy pain), but by treating it with the sort of gentleness I would treat a loved one returned from the hospital.

After I finished drying off, I found myself saying, “Now, my dear, you are good as new.” I continued: “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. You fought hard and you won.”

Then I started tearing up.

Then I left the shower and started asking myself why I never thought to speak to my body this way after (let alone during) cancer.

I mean, if what I said was true in this situation—and it certainly felt true—how the fuck isn’t it even more true for the process of going into remission from cancer, regrowing my hair, losing the bloat and swollenness of chemo and steroids, and healing my surgical scars?

The truth is, as miserable as it was to suffer through both a viral and a bacterial infection at the same time—and it was literally worse than chemo, by the way—I didn’t hold it against my body that it happened. It wasn’t something my body “put me through.” It was something we got put through together. I felt awful when I was sick and I felt awful for my poor body. My fever spiked to 105 at times. Almost my entire face turned red and swollen. My lymph nodes ballooned. My head hurt so much I could barely find a way to set it down on the pillow so I could sleep. After my dad made me drink TheraFlu one night, my body violently rejected it into the toilet. (Kids: do not have TheraFlu be the only thing you consume all day, unless you’d like to use it to expel an accidentally-injested poison.) It was just an awful six-day slog of fucking misery.

And I didn’t blame my body for it at all.

I could’ve—immune system failure and whatnot. But I didn’t.

Cancer and surgical trauma felt entirely different. Cancer seemed personal and internal two times over—once because it involved my flawed genes, once because it involved my own rogue cells. After surgery, my muscles seemed to attack me and nobody listened to me.

This time, nobody denied that I was sick and hurting. I felt able to complain, to lie in bed and moan, to seek emotional and medical help. (Half-assed as the latter was at times.) With surgery, my medical care was absolutely top-notch, but that and practical assistance were pretty much the only forms of support I had.

As it turns out, it’s much easier to not to blame your body when your non-physical needs are being heard. It’s easier to care for and even move toward loving your body when you feel fully cared for and loved by others.


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My Zine, “The Girl Survives Cancer in This One,” is Now Available! https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2019/01/05/my-zine-the-girl-survives-cancer-in-this-one-is-now-available/ Sat, 05 Jan 2019 21:28:52 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/?p=5114 The post My Zine, “The Girl Survives Cancer in This One,” is Now Available! appeared first on Brute Reason.

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Banner for "The Girl Survives Cancer in This One." Visit bit.ly/GirlSurvives

As you may know, I’ve been writing a book of essays about my experience as a breast cancer survivor. Last month, I decided to publish a zine that collects some of the essays I’ve written so far, to put my writing out there and build some interest in my book.

It ended up being a very fun project (my first zine!) and although I didn’t end up with the old-school photo-copied look I originally planned on, it’s very pretty and the writing is very much the focus.

A photo of the inside of my zine.

It’s now available on Etsy in digital format for $4, and as a paperback for $8. You can even get the paperback signed! Who knows, maybe it’ll be worth something one day.

If you want to get updates on my book as it progresses, you should subscribe to my newsletter here.

I hope many of y’all buy it and read it, and don’t forget to leave a review on Etsy!

A photo of the cover of my zine.

The post My Zine, “The Girl Survives Cancer in This One,” is Now Available! appeared first on Brute Reason.

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