The ease of kindness and imagination

This post is not about the big, challenging sort of kindness – the sort where you take lots of time out of your day, or dedicate your life to volunteering, or donate large swathes of money and time to helping people who need it. This isn’t about the huge passionate kindness that understands the kind of cruelty that drives so much of the world and seeks to address it.

This is about small kindness; and it relies – I realise now – on imagination. It requires only tiny sacrifices, and yet I think perhaps the fact that they are so small is what makes it so difficult for some people, because they are sacrifices of self-image, in a way: seeing yourself as the better person, the wronged party, the one who sees things as they are.

I don’t need imagination to know what it’s like to be that person, because I have been – and doubtless will be again – a judgemental, self-righteous prat. I think people who haven’t been are in the minority.

That teenager taking a posed selfie out in the street? Bloody narcissistic kids. Or…

…their friend’s going through a rough time, and they know this will make them laugh.

…they’ve not been able to leave the house in a week and here they are, and goddamn, it’s an achievement that deserves to be posed and celebrated.

…they really enjoy it and it harms no-one.

That woman with the screaming baby who won’t take it out of the café? Selfish bloody parents, right, only thinking of themselves and their spawn? Or…

…she suffers from post-natal depression and desperately needed to leave the house and see other adults and talk to a friend.

…she knows that if she waits five minutes, kidlet will self-soothe and it will be fine, and she’s going to give that a chance to happen.

…she is actually deaf, and doesn’t know at all what screaming baby sounds like (not common, but does actually happen!).

That person driving slowly in the right line?

Is about to turn right, and is slowing down for the turn.

That person with their headphones on who misses some auditory cues?

Is autistic and needs to reduce sensory stimulus in their environment to avoid physical pain.

People who are blocking the path outside a store?

…maybe just navigated a large group of people and are working out when they can move without walking into someone.

Yes, I get it. You’ve had a hard day. It’s been a long one. Maybe you’re tired, and you don’t deal too well with loud noises yourself. It is hard to find patience when you’re at your wit’s end, when you have your own problems, but I find that when my patience has run out, my imagination is still running full steam.

I can usually imagine, well enough, what a person might be going through to cause them to behave in a way that I somehow find objectionable. I can generally find a pretty benign explanation; and somehow, when that happens, when I find that explanation, something in me eases. The tension, the frustration, the judgement – it just loosens. That person is just trying to get through the challenges of their day – challenges I know nothing about – in the same way that I have to.

Yes, I get frustrated by people driving 10-20 below the limit in the right lane – until I see the indicator go on. Then I’m embarrassed, because I’m the arsehole.

Yes, I get distressed by loud screaming babies in echoing cafes. I actually can’t filter that noise out, and it goes straight down my spine and rips my brain out through my ears. My whole body stiffens up. It’s painful. I hate it. I can’t fix it or change it. But that is not anyone else’s fault. It’s for me to bear, and since most parents really do take kidlet for a walk after a few minutes, or the kidlet actually settles, it’s not a big deal. I’m not selfish enough to assume parents must remain housebound.

Yeah, I’m mystified by selfies too. It’s not my generation. I don’t quite get it. But then, my dad’s generation don’t quite get me either, and I wish they’d extend more patience sometimes, so I roll with it. It’s also none of my business.

There are things I can’t find enough imagination to excuse. Bigotry, for example. Body-shaming. Failure to do head-checks before changing lanes and nearly side-swiping me (oh, the adrenaline. So much adrenaline). Actual rudeness. People being mean to get the laughs. There are things which are not okay.

But the small stuff? You don’t need patience. You just need imagination.

I write this post to make sense out of something that happened to me a few days ago. It was incredibly upsetting, and it did trigger a spiral into depression and insecurity that I’m still fighting my way out of, because it woke a few of my sleeping serpents (they lurk in that portion of neural tissue referred to in scientific parlance as “the jerkbrain”).

I squeak when people surprise me.

Sometimes it’s just a jump and a gasp. Sometimes it’s a shriek. That’s pretty rare these days.

It’s an overdeveloped startle reflex, to call it one way. To call it another way, it’s a conditioned fear response to unexpected stimulus. Let that sink in.

It’s partially borne of my tendency to hyperfocus; when I’m focusing on something, I only see that thing in front of me. I am not aware of changes in the external environment. This is part of how I’m put together – I’m not neurotypical – and it is in the basic architecture of my brain. It is not changeable.

Because of this state, a lot of the time, all external stimulus is unexpected.

Now, if the external stimulus is, say, my phone, I will be surprised, but I won’t jump, gasp, squeak or shriek. I might startle in some way, especially if it’s a particularly shrill sort of noise.

If it’s a human being unexpectedly approaching me, I have a fear response. This part is a legacy of some life experiences I don’t wish to address in more detail. Unexpected touches, unexpected speech – if I’m in hyperfocus and think I’m alone in my space (this is key), I will be scared. Even if there are other people around and I think I am functionally alone (i.e., I’m not expecting anyone to touch me or speak to me), violations of those expectations will frighten me.

This is irrational in one sense – none of these people wish to hurt me. It is entirely rational as far as my brain is concerned, though, because it was a reasonable association to form, over time, for many years. In fact, sometimes even if I’m prepared for it – if I know someone is going to playfully poke me in a certain way – it will still happen. I don’t claim to understand the process fully. I can steel myself and be determined not to let it happen, and it will often happen anyway, and deafen surrounding people in the process. It’s hard-wired.

I do not, in any way, hold people who make me startle like this responsible. I’ve thought about it a lot, and there’s not anything they can do to avoid it. I don’t mind the playful approach, either – it makes the whole thing fun and lighthearted, which is a gift when this reflex comes from such dark and painful origins. People can joke about it, in a warm friendly way, because it’s a weird quirk, and that’s fine. I laugh it off and make fun of it, because that’s the easiest way to smooth over an embarrassing issue that can’t be changed and is too personal to explain in public.

It gets better over time. It’s taken twenty years for it to become something as mild as it is right now. A full shriek is rare these days.

It’s annoying for the people around me. Most people don’t like sharp, loud noises, be it out on the street, or in an office or laboratory environment. It’s a little disruptive. I’m aware of that, just as I’m aware that it’s not something I can control, or change. I can talk myself down afterwards, sure – I usually don’t need to, because “so-and-so isn’t going to hurt me” is patently obvious – but I can’t actually talk myself down ahead of time.

I used to feel really guilty and embarrassed about it, about how silly it all was, how juvenile it made me look, how disruptive it was.

I actually managed to let go of that. Feeling guilty and embarrassed solved nothing. It wasted time and energy I could spend on other things.

A few days ago, a co-worker took it upon themselves to deliver a full lecture on this particular quirk of mine. I explained that it was involuntary, that I had tried to control it for over twenty years with no success, and considered the matter closed. I was told to keep trying. To try harder. I was told this was a childish idulgence; that it was manipulative. I was told – and this puzzles me – that people will ignore it if I’m not careful (“But… I want people to ignore it? That’s actually the end goal?”). It was basically made clear to me that, at thirty five years of age, all I needed was some plain talk to overcome my juvenile behaviour and bring me in line and re-wire my trauma response.

Here’s where imagination and kindness come in:

I don’t believe that it takes much imagination to come up with many reasons why a person might have an over-developed startle reflex; and it certainly doesn’t take much imagination to find that a good subset of those reasons are really, genuinely awful and personal. I can find dozens and dozens of reasons in my own story-telling brain that aren’t “they’re doing it for attention” or “they think they’re super quirky” or “they just don’t care that it’s disruptive.”

It is the work of mere seconds to come up with this.

The conversation should have stopped when I said “This is involuntary. I cannot fix it.” Instead it turned into a diatribe on my inability to control my response to some of the most painful and scarring events of my life, events that have changed me irrevocably; a diatribe on my inability to change the hard-wiring of my brain; a reminder that I don’t quite fit in, in spite of years of hard effort and work and therapy and research and personal sacrifice; it was a scathing indictment of the effort I put in to heal from the past and just be human.

To the speaker, I imagine they just thought there were delivering their plain talk, on something that annoyed them, for which they imagined there was a very simple solution: stop doing the annoying thing. But there was no imagination there; there wasn’t a pause to come up with an alternative explanation, to consider that I might actually be telling the truth about my own state of mind; and because there was no imagination, there was no kindness.

I talked at the start of this post about the small sacrifices that need to be made for this sort of kindness. In reality, sometimes it’s so small that it’s enormous.

You have to sacrifice the idea that there is always someone to blame.

When you stop blaming people, when you can imagine what might have led to this situation, it is a lot easier to be kind.

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A Tale of Olfactory Memory Triggers

A few years ago, when I was first toying with Paleo as a concept (before I did some digging and saw some logic fails, and long before I realised that the reason it worked so well for me was because of carbohydrate absorption issues), I tried to make cauliflower rice.

Brilliant, I thought. I’ll not only be able to replace my delicious rice with a low-carb, grain-free alternative, but I’ll manage to get some veggies into me at the same time. What could go wrong?

I diligently grated the crap out of some cauliflower and set it to steaming. The kitchen filled with the smell of steaming cauliflower as I turned my attention to the other dish that was going to be accompanied by it (I don’t recall what that was, now).

In the space of about five minutes, I went from a mellow, excited person who was experimenting with food in a safe space (remembering that I have some anxiety about food), to a bottomless pit of rage, despair, fear and panic. Violent anger. Nauseated fear. Misery. On the verge of weeping. In fact, I did start crying.

“What the freaking hell?” I sobbed to Michael.

And then I realised: I don’t have good associations with the smell of steamed cauliflower. As sensory triggers go, smell is known to be almost overwhelming in terms of triggering memory, and for me, the memories of that smell are associated with some really unpleasant times (long story I won’t be telling here). It is a visceral, deep response, bypassing the logic centres entirely. I was actually embarrassed. What a benign thing to be triggered by!

So. Steamed cauliflower was out.

Years later, on the keto train, I decided I really wanted a rice substitute. As it is, I do the maths and allow myself really small amounts of rice, but I always want more, so it’s an exercise in frustration (delicious, delicious frustration).

Today I opened up a pack of cauliflower rice from Woolworths (thus obviating the necessity of me “ricing” it myself and thus having to clean up something where the smell might cause days of misery), and decided to fry it. The Parent very rarely fried things, and never vegetables, so I thought perhaps the smell wouldn’t be an issue. I sniffed the packet, and it was… okay. A bit uncomfortable for me. But okay.

I used toasted sesame oil, which is both delicious and strong smelling. I quickly scrambled some eggs to add in, to dilute the flavour further. I added generous helpings of soy sauce.

Fried cauliflower rice with egg and soy sauce, I thought. This is brilliant. Admittedly, I was a bit anxious. The smell was creeping through the sesame oil a bit, but maybe it would be okay.

I had a mouthful, prepared to spit it out and go cry in the corner.

Hmm.

I chewed thoughtfully.

Not bad. Probably a bit too heavy handed with the soy sauce, I thought to myself.

If I put the fork under my nose and inhaled, I felt awful. If I didn’t inhale, and just ate it, it was fine.

“Victory!” I declared. “And over time it will get easier and better. Exposure therapy! Desensitisation! Low-carb alternatives! Yes, this is where it’s at.”

I got through half a bowl before it caught up to me.

Now, it’s not so bad that I’m having a panic attack. It’s definitely a diluted effect. But I can feel the muscle tension crawling out along the base of my skull and along my shoulders; I can feel my stomach tightening; I can feel a little adrenaline kick as my fight-flight rears its cautious head.

And I scrapped the remainder and tossed out the cauliflower rice.

Cauliflower, it seems, is not for me. Somehow, I’d feel better about it if I simply didn’t like the taste; that’s easier to explain to people, and I suspect that for the most part that is what I would tell people who ask in the moment, since I am very self conscious about my limitations with food (whether it be the low-carb requirement or the sensory processing issue or simply anxiety about trying new things with an audience).

But it’s not the problem. The taste was fine.

By the way, this is also why I don’t do roasts…

O Bendy Gymster: Running on the spot (metaphorically)

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

-Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass.

 

This is not a post that is actually about weight training, but that’s a good example to start with. Then I’ll get to the running metaphor. Then I’m going to vent like a motherfucker.

When I talk about weight training, sometimes someone will ask out of curiosity how much I bench. I always pause before answering, because in spite of the fact that I’m not competitive about this and that I do believe the only thing I should be competing against is my own record, I feel embarrassed that I’ve been training in various ways for this long and not cleared 40kg.

Some of this is because my training is interrupted frequently; and some of this is because my joint issues mean it is actually more dangerous for me to test my max weight/reps than for most people (connective tissue injuries ahoy!), so I don’t do it often.

Most of this is because my muscles have to work twice as hard as those of most other people (not mathematically literal, by the way, but they do have to work harder) to do the same thing, because a good deal of muscle strength and tension in every movement is dedicated to holding all my bits in place. Most people have useful ligaments that do that for them.

For example, when I undertake a bench press movement, I spend a lot of time setting up. After experimenting with various positions, these days I use heel drive and a carefully curated upper back arch for my press. Force is passed through the lower body and up through my core to brace. My medial glutes (I think, sometimes hard to tell) are involved in making sure my hips – which are under mild tension, because the bench parts my legs a bit – don’t “flop out”, which would result in the wrong muscles taking the strain. Therefore they’re already sort of pre-fatigued (physio people will have better language for this) before I try to pass force up the chain.

Then there’s the shoulders. Shoulders are a fucking complex joint. They’re not even really a joint. It’s a joint system. Their complexity is a source of enormous frustration to me, because when they feel loose (usually the right one, for some reason), it’s not a matter of just tightening a muscle to pull them back into position. I have to roll the shoulder – a huge roll – to try and reset; then try to pull inward (how do I describe this) and back down using muscles across my chest and upper back, and simultaneously tighten my lats to bring it down and under. And I’m a person with poor proprioception and limited feedback – I spend ages finding these muscles. I will sit there, with my eyes closed and my right arm out to one side, feeling around inside my nerves to work out how to control the bits of me that get my shoulders into position. I must look very odd.

Then I can press. While maintaining exactly the right amount of tension across every single one of these muscles.

And if I don’t do it right, I get impingement problems. I get bicep tendinitis. I yank things.

That means that these muscles are already pre-fatigued, at least from a nervous system viewpoint, which is an enormous (and sometimes under-discussed) part of strength training.

Most people (a) don’t have collagen problems, and thus can trust their joints mostly to stay put and (b) use their stabilizing muscles instinctively, as part of a well-coordinated nervous system.

After every break from gym, I have to re-teach myself all this. At my last workout, I nearly cried in frustration. I managed two reps at 35kg, and I should not have done the second one, because I could feel the weakness in my right shoulder, which just refused to set properly.

That fucker.

I’ve been away on fieldwork. It was an amazing experience. I had to break keto – intensely. I worked long days. I was in pain. The steroids are helping. I have many wonderful stories to tell, because I had adventures and they were fantastic and important and I would do it all again three times over, but it did break me. Four weeks of insufficient sleep, really hot weather on one trip followed by icy rain on another trip, bad diet (for me), sleeping in a tent for that last week, and long days of hard work meant that I came home so exhausted I could barely string sentences together, and with my joints and gut so inflamed that I could barely stagger from one end of the house to the other, and I absolutely could not do it without groaning. I took serious painkillers for joint pain, which I never do, because I save those for my abused small intestine. When I did that, suddenly I could think, and walk straight.

I broke myself. As I said, I would do it again, and while I was on fieldwork it wasn’t so bad because I was busy and excited and could ignore it and just soldier on, but as soon as I got home and relaxed, everything broke.

I went for a run the other day. I’m not silly – I decided to ease back into it, so I wound my training program back three weeks.

I still couldn’t do it. I got through two running intervals and, while my cardio was perfectly fine, my muscles were like noodles. Burning noodles on fire.

A bit of experimentation has shown me that the strength of individual muscles is just fine; but the stamina, the endurance, the ability to sustain stress over time and repeated movements, is destroyed. This is expanded and compounded by the fact that, as stated above, they also have to keep my joints in, and they have to work very hard to do that while running.

To put it another way: I can do one bench press at 35kg just fine. I can do one of everything (that I usually do – pull-ups still escape me), no problem.

And if gym and running and fitness were just idle pursuits for me, just things I did to stave off the inevitable heat death of the universe – I mean, myself – that would be a bit frustrating, but okay.

Except they’re not. These are things that I do, not only to stay sane, but to stave off pain and fatigue. I need to have a good base level of muscle strength and sustained tone, or my joints will hurt – sometimes a lot – and I won’t be able to move much without at least a background level of ache. I need to have decent cardio in part to counteract my background levels of fatigue. I need to make walking around easier for myself because every extra physical stress I put on myself magnifies exhaustion.

Because, cry me a river, I know, but I work so hard at all this just to stay functional. When my schedule and health allow, I work out 5-6 days a week. Running, weights, pilates, hiking, diving, occasional swimming… They’re all a part of my general regime.

One glimmer of excitement and fun is the rate of progress and improvement. I will get more fit, I will increase my strength. I will be able to run longer and easier; I will be able to lift more heavy things; I will be able to do more in my life because of this.

Not this year.

This year… this year I’ve been running on the spot.

2016 has sucked for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. For me – ignoring world events just now – it’s been health bullshit. I’ve bounced from scan to operation to scan. I’ve been sick and inflamed. I’ve been fasted and exhausted. I’ve spent cumulative months recovering from anaesthetics (I’ve had three general anaesthetics and two twilight sedations this year), which always destroy me. I’ve had multiple scans that require a certain amount of prep, and it can take up to a week for me to recover from them. I’ve spent an increasingly ludicrous amount of time in moderate to severe to actually screaming pain.

I’ve had to break keto far more than I’m comfortable with – remembering that I’m on that diet for good reasons, like reducing the stress on my inflamed small intestine and keeping insulin low and generally reducing inflammation. Travel for work (and on a couple of occasions, for fun holiday! Not complaining!) has meant that I’m constantly swapping in and out of keto, and while it’s good to be metabolically flexible, generally speaking to get benefit from keto you want to be in that zone for at least a month.

So: pain. Inflammation. Interruption.

Back in May, I could run 6-7kms. That was my limit and it was hard and it was more of a stagger at the end, but the future looked bright, because I was training hard and extending my distance.

Now I can run for one minute intervals.

This year, I have worked my arse off to stay healthy, to get healthier, and not only has that not worked, I am just working twice as hard to stay where I am. I have sweat pouring off my body, shaky limbs, wobbly joints, and I’m pushing myself to the point of exhaustion just to not get worse. It takes a sacrifice of time and energy, and that’s time and energy that could go towards writing papers or other professional obligations, social obligations, keeping the household ticking over smoothly, even creative work. I prioritise hours and hours and hours every week to do this so that I can get better, so that things can get easier – but this? This just feels like bullshit.

I’m not giving up, but I am being honest about how horrible it feels to try and claw my way back to where I was a couple of years ago.

I work out and I want to cry because of how hard it is, something that used to be so easy, something that brought me so much joy, something that made me better able to face the world from inside my slightly idiosyncratic body.