Intellectual Curiosity, Passion, Downtime and Compartmentalisation

The first season of House, M.D. is, hands down, the best season. The writers are still exploring the possibilities of toxic brilliance and medical problem-solving, and it’s significantly less ridiculous than the subsequent seasons. Besides, Hugh Laurie is a gem, and we all know it.

In the episode “DNR”, a famous jazz musician with ALS (John Henry Giles) has trouble breathing, and because it’s House, wackiness ensues. There’s an exchange between John Henry and House that has always stayed with me. He commiserates with House – or celebrates; it’s not entirely clear – that they’ve sacrificed the other priorities in their lives (family, friends, other interests) for “that one thing.” That one thing that holds their interest, their passion, their furious commitment. They think about it constantly. It’s all they do and all they want to do.

That was a scene that really stuck with me. I know people like that. In writing. In science. I know people who are committed to that one thing. People who never switch off, not really.

It’s a bit of a trope, and it’s become something of an expectation.

I don’t have that. I don’t have one thing. I have numerous things, and they are all vitally, terrifyingly important to me. It’s true that I love science. I also love writing fiction. I love singing. I love music. I love narratives of all kinds. I prioritise my relationships and my friendships very highly. I prioritise my health (and let’s be clear, my health is an ongoing project. It’s not just “eat healthy and exercise.” It’s a ridiculous, time-consuming gauntlet of physiotherapy, weight training, running, gastro-intestinal specialists, diagnostic procedures, complicated recipes to stick with my complicated diet, and maths. There’s actual maths).

Most of the scientists I know are actually fairly well-rounded people. They have families and hobbies and social commitments – but they are also very committed to their work. Many of them don’t seem to have a strict demarcation between work and not-work time.

“Sometimes,” said my colleague, a friendly young post-doc, “reading papers is fun, though.”

“Noooo,” I said flatly. “Reading papers is work. It is always work.” I mean, of course, that it is always work for me, because I see it as work. I have to engage “science self” to read papers, and that in itself is work. It’s not that I don’t have that passion, or that intellectual curiosity, it’s just that if I’m trying to have downtime, I need it to be actual downtime. I need to be reading fiction, or playing games, or something like that.

If I have time when I’m not running analyses, working in the lab, writing to deadlines, writing on my own projects, working on my own health in some way, running basic household errands, or catching up with my friends (a hugely important priority but a very different kind of down time as far as my brain is concerned), I need it to be actual nothing time.

I think I learned this in my PhD. It’s possible, with a PhD, to be always working. There are always more papers you could read, or more analyses you could run, even if you’re not in the lab. Unless you set very strict rules for yourself, you could be working all your waking hours.

You’ll burn out. Most people will burn out. I burned out, for a very long time, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so wary about reading papers for “fun”, or about using my cherished spare time for anything but easy, cruisy fun activities. It took – actually, it’s a work in progress. Let’s employ the present tense. It is taking a very long time to recover from burnout. I am still burnt out. I still have panic attacks (bonus: nausea) when trying to work on data from my PhD. When I open up those documents on my laptop, I find myself trying not to cry. Burnout is a very, very bad thing. I did something to my amygdala, and whatever I did, it hasn’t healed yet.

So I need to compartmentalise. Even if I like what I’m doing, I need to stop, and do something else. I need to watch movies and drink whiskey with my husband, or cross-stitch while watching Daredevil, or play Pillars of Eternity while patting the cat. I need to spend a ludicrous amount of time working out. I need to write stories.

It sometimes makes me feel out of place. I’m here among people who are working constantly, who are driven by their projects and their work and excited by the possibilities. I’m excited by the possibilities, but PhD burnout has left me with a giant bleeding wound in my sense of intellectual curiosity. I’m wary of getting involved, emotionally, in a project. I’m wary of dropping everything else I love and throwing myself into a problem.

It definitely fuels the imposter syndrome. Because I switch off, and play games and read novels (and those novels are not literary canon, or non-fiction analyses of ecological disasters, or biographies of great political figures), I feel like I don’t deserve a place at the table.

I’m coming to terms with this. I resent the trope, and the expectation, that everyone should experience their enthusiasm in the same way. When I am switched on, when I am on shift, when I am meant to be present, then I am present. I work hard. I do good work. I contribute. I ask questions. I solve problems. But when I am off shift, I am damn well off shift, mentally as well as physically. I am not “doing science” any more (except in the very basic way that, when you’re a scientist, you have a tendency to question processes you encounter in every day life out of curiosity. That just sticks around, much in the way that, as an English major, I can’t help analysing pop culture. That mostly doesn’t have an off button either).

When I am off shift as a scientist, I become something else. I’m a writer. I’m a gamer. I’m a singer. I’m a friend and a partner and a person managing two chronic health conditions. I can’t spend the rest of my life feeling guilty for not working all the time. I am not interested in using my social media accounts to promote scientific discoveries – I use them for being my off shift self, not my on shift self.

I’m finding it hard to articulate this problem, and I’m not sure if I have succeeded. Let me put it another way.

Life is short. We don’t have much time. We have the hours that we put into our work. If we’re lucky, it’s work that you’re passionate about. Also, because we’re mammals, we need to sleep. Between sleep, and work, you have to fit everything else that you love into the other hours of the day and night. Everything else.

So even though I love what I do – and I do, I love all my jobs, and they are numerous – when I switch off, I switch off. I deal with the surprised looks when I explain that I’m writing a blog post or a story, not a paper; that I’m reading a fantasy novel, not a biography of a famous scientist (side note: again, having a major in English literature, I’m relatively secure in my reading habits. I might read several hundred trashy novels a year, but I’ve done my dash); that I’m not concentrating on some difficult analysis on my laptop – I’m actually watching old episodes of Daria (or, possibly, the Flash).

This mental screed has been brought to you by shift work and too much coffee.

Wait. Stop. Listen.

Wait. Stop. Listen.

There are worlds within our words. I think that sometimes people don’t know this. We speak to each other in voices full of echoes, words that carry the weight of our experience, but what we hear only carries the weight of our expectations, and these are universes apart from one another.

I understand the nuance of written language very well. I love the delicacy of it, the subtle richness and layers held within a single word. The commonality of cultural interpretation. The concept of a loaded word, as though it were a loaded gun, and it might go off at any moment.

These things are instinctive for me and I feel like they always have been, although obviously that can’t be true. At some point I was a child learning to read, and words were a little thinner then. Back then, the triumph was in making these strange markings on the page into stories. That was victory enough for me. I didn’t even realise that I was finding layers and nuance in sentences for years afterwards, when I learned that two people could read the same thing and experience something entirely different.

I am not so good with spoken language. There’s a reason that I use a lot of disclaimers, with the written word and especially the spoken word. If written words contain oceans, spoken words are like galaxies – except that I can’t see them. They might as well be infrared. I can feel that there is heat, but I don’t know what’s going on.

I learned at a young age that I was easily misunderstood. Those galaxies of meaning, of emotive spoken language, the body language, the tone, the intent, and even the social rules governing the interpretation of words themselves? They were invisible to me. I could neither see them myself nor make myself seen in them. When I delivered words, they were flat and blunt. I can emote when singing – there are galaxies in music too – but not when speaking.

I hurt people, and was hurt. I still remember a friend who stopped speaking to me when I was eleven because of something I said, something I didn’t consider particularly insulting or offensive. As far as I knew, I was just making conversation. Perhaps I was too blunt, and too careless.

I got older. I tried to be more careful. I was still blunt, and still careless. I still hurt people by accidental speech, and still I was hurt when I was misunderstood.

I watched people when they spoke. I tried to learn. I watched their body language. I listened to their tone of voice as though it were the readout from sonar mapping equipment, something that would stop me walking into walls, and in a way that is exactly what it was.

In a way, learning this consciously, by paying attention, gave me an advantage. I realised, with horror, that people speak past each other all the time. I realised that what one person says is not what the other person hears. I realised that two people can be being factually correct and honest and still be having two completely different conversations. I realised that people would over-interpret body language, and come to opposite conclusions, fuelled by what they wanted and what they feared, and not at all by what was being said.

My instinct – one that I still have, so strong that it is almost overwhelming – is to say “Wait. Stop.”

“Wait. Stop. Stop. Listen. Listen.” To point at one party. “You are saying that X, because of Y, is Z.” To point at the other. “You are pointing out that, given the fact of Y, Z and X are the same thing. You are saying the same thing. Stop arguing.”

If you think this sounds an awful lot like an undergraduate humanities tutorial, you’d be right. I can think of at least six subjects I took, off the top of my head, where a good half the time was wasted by people talking past each other, because they didn’t stop to think about the baggage- the nuance- the expectation- of speech.

Watching characters arguing in TV shows is a special torture. “Wait. Stop.” They don’t say or ask the simple things that could resolve the situation. They don’t wind back to find out what they really mean. They leap to wild conclusions about what has been said. Their inability to understand one another, to sit down and find their common language, is a plot device, and it is almost physically painful to me. I once put down a book I loved for eighteen months, because the big misunderstanding, as a plot device, gives me profound anxiety.

I am terrified of being misunderstood.

I’m human. Being misunderstood is inevitable.

I now take a great deal of care when I communicate. I add in disclaimers. When I say that something makes me happy, that I love something, I always add that “this works for me. It might not work for you.” We live in a world where, whenever you say you are happy about something, whenever you say you have done something that works for you, you are supposed to be judging people who do different things and want different things. I’m not. I’m honestly not. I love exercise, and I talk about exercise all the time. I love the way it makes me feel. I love that I can walk around without pain. But my talking about gym does not mean I think everyone should go to gym. My love of diving and writing does not mean I think everyone will love diving and writing. My fondness for my monogamous, married, heterosexual relationship does not mean I think everyone should be monogamous, married, heterosexual or in a relationship.

I do not expect people to share my preferences. I do not expect people to share my fears or my drives. I fully believe myself to be odd, but then, I also believe that everyone is odd.

That’s the problem. We speak the same language (well, let’s assume that for the moment) but everyone is carrying a different lexicon.

I wish I did not have to use disclaimers. I wish I could just happily, boldly say that I am not interested in something without it being an insult to the person who is interested in that thing. I wish it was alright for people to like different things, want different things and need different things, without having to state outright, every time, that I understand this, and it should be assumed in everything I say.

But my lexicon is peculiar to me. My assumptions, and the nuance that I inject into words, are peculiar to me. There are some common cultural associations, but these are so layered. They all mean slightly different things to different people.

Now, I see, I’m belabouring the point. It just bothers me. Being able to communicate with one another, being able to speak clearly, to dig through the baggage and the confusion to find out what you’re actually trying to say – these are so important, so crucial to being a human being who has to relate to other human beings. The people we are closest to get to build a new dictionary for us. They’ve learned our language.

I just wish that wasn’t such a painful process.

Maybe one day it won’t be.

Until then, I will keep trying to be very careful, and sometimes I will be blunt and careless. I will misunderstand. I will be misunderstood. I will hurt, and be hurt, and I will say sorry.

Whimsical Banality: I like flying

Over the past few years, I’ve caught a few flights. I’m by no means a frequent flyer traveller, racking up those miles, setting up camp in the Qantas lounge – but I’ve been back and forth a fair bit. Between fieldwork, conferences, committee meetings and the odd indulgent holiday, I’ve found myself sailing above the tarmac far more than I ever expected.

People hate flying, for a few good reasons. Leaving aside the fact that you’re travelling a significant distance above the ground, crammed into an impossible seeming machine crafted from substances that certainly do not float in the air when dropped, it’s cramped, and it’s boring, and you’re up close and personal with strangers, and you’re not able to move, and it’s loud.

Even when it’s quiet – even when everyone’s asleep – it’s loud. There are mighty engines at work. They generate noise. I have invested heavily in noise-cancelling tech, just so I can tolerate plane flights without turning into a seething mass of overloaded-sensory-processing anxiety.

These are excellent reasons to hate flying, and I admit that, if I’m on a long-haul flight (I’ve been on very few of those), I can sometimes desperately yearn to be on the ground.

Mostly, though, I like flying. I like planes. I haven’t generally needed to fly anywhere I haven’t actually wanted to go, and the first few flights in my life were always exciting. They meant I was going somewhere new. I was going on an adventure. I was going to fly in the air to a new place and it was amazing. I think that set the pattern. Now, getting into my seat in the plane, setting out my various entertainment devices, and gazing out the window, are all prequels to an adventure, even if it’s not an adventure that awaits me.

When the plane takes off, when it cuts ties with the earth, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when I know I’m out of my normal world and my normal schedule, and anything might happen. The usual rules don’t apply. I become open and chatty with everyone I meet, from taxi drivers to hotel reception staff, when I am usually a fairly shy and even taciturn individual. I look forward easily to checking into my accommodation, dropping my bags, and lying down just to feel what it is to be in a new place.

I think about stories. I think about the possibilities and the worlds I could write. I think about the future, and I don’t feel weighed down by any of it – because how could I be?

I’m flying.

Burn this Homily To The Ground: “If I can do it, anyone can!”

I take on the above in the full acknowledgement that I’ve been guilty of it myself, and also knowing that the underlying sentiments are probably a bit too widespread and complex to address in a single blog post, despite my best intentions. We’ll see how we go.

For me, personally, the best example lies in physical challenges.

On the one hand, I can run. I’m profoundly hypermobile, with all the attendant biomechanical difficulties, limited proprioception, extremely shithouse balance and a tendency to inflamed joints. I’m also (finally) staring properly down the barrel of a Crohn’s diagnosis, which brings with it more joint inflammation, gut pain when running (which alters blood flow to that area), and various extremes of personal fatigue and chronic pain.

I should not be able to run, but I can. I can run because I decided it was important to me, so I put a lot of work into it. I did a lot of research. I talked to a sports physiotherapist, and then a sports podiatrist. I did everything they told me to do. It took me five years to be able to run 5K.

It takes most people nine weeks.

But I can do it.

So if I am tempted to say “If I can do it, anyone can!” in spite of the uselessness of it, I actually do cut myself a little slack. I shouldn’t say it – because it’s not true, and it’s harmful – but I have done so. What I can say is that some overwhelming challenges can be overcome with commitment and work, but maybe that’s not a high priority for someone else, or maybe those physical challenges actually can’t be overcome. There are some physical limitations that are unassailable. I can use my victory as a motivating factor for other people who have difficulty, to prove that it can be done when it’s hard, but I need to be careful not to shame people who (a) really just don’t want to do this thing (and might be making excuses to save face, because sometimes admitting you don’t want to do something is hard and opens you up to bullshit judgement), (b) actually can’t do this thing or (c) could do this thing if they put in an enormous amount of effort but that’s not in the cards or a priority for them, now or ever.

Here’s the flip side, and how I learned that I hate this sentiment.

I can ride a bike reasonably well. In fact, I used this as my primary mode of transportation when I lived in the inner city. These were mostly flat rides, slight hills and trying not to get taken out by careless drivers (good times, good times). I can, however, only ride while seated. I can’t stand up in the pedals to get that extra force that people use to get up hills. I used the gears instead.

If I stand up, I can maybe pedal three or four times before my hips start to hurt. Literal agony. It doesn’t matter how activated my muscles are, how otherwise prepared I might be, they simply can’t tolerate this movement. It’s gotten worse as I’ve grown older.

I tried a Spin class. They… do this movement a lot. I came out of the class limping, and declared that I would never do that again.

I’ve had multiple people with their own physical challenges tell me that if they can do it, surely I – a reasonably fit thirty-something who works out almost all the freaking time – can do it.

No. My physical challenges might be invisible (you can’t spot hypermobility or gut inflammation by eye, as it turns out), but they’re very real. This is something I physically cannot do. I might be able to withstand that level if pain if I was being chased by fucking zombies, but otherwise? No.

It sucks that I had to learn it this way, rather than figuring it out on my own, but “If I can do it, anyone can” is profoundly ableist. I feel uncomfortable applying ableism as a concept to my own problems – since I am, to most intents and purposes, really able-bodied – and yet, it’s true.

It gets even more tricky when it comes to problems of neurodivergence.

I am, as it turns out, a bit spectrummy. For the most part, learning this has been an enormous relief, since now I can work around some of my difficulties rather than just beating my head against them like a brick wall wondering why I am not a grown-up yet. It has been a downer in some ways. My social anxiety issues are never going to get better – I just need to work around them. My task-switching is never going to get better. My innate scheduling is never going to get better. Hyperfocus will always be an intense mixture of blessing and curse (I can get so much done but if you interrupt so help me fucking god I will end you).

I’m aware that when you are late for an appointment, or when you forget about it, people think you don’t care. They think it’s disrespectful, and you haven’t prioritised it. They think you haven’t tried.

I’m thirty-five years old. I have been trying my whole life. I exist in a world of calendars, lists, timers and alarms – my phone functions as my personal assistant, and I am profoundly glad that I live in the current era. I love my paper diary. The physical act of writing down an appointment helps me remember it, and writing it in my beloved diary even moreso.

I try to time things perfectly. I back-calculate from the time of the appointment, trying to account for traffic, weather, other people’s behaviour, and possible road works. I set a timer that says “stop what you’re doing and go and put your shoes on, you git”. I feel like I’ve covered everything – and it gets more and more elaborate as I get older.

And I’m still fucking late. I can’t stop myself getting distracted. I think I’m going to add a second alarm that just says “No, really, move now.” Sometimes I get so frustrated that I want to cry, because I have tried so hard and I still can’t manage this basic thing. It’s now turned into an issue, where even when situations are entirely out of my control, I worry that I’m going to be thought irresponsible, flaky, unreliable, self-absorbed, and so on. I worry that friends think I won’t care, because I forgot we were catching up, when the reality is that I love them and really wanted to see them but I got distracted. Again.

This is why my jobs (I currently have five*) are perfect for me. I have near-complete independence of operation. If I get in late, no-one cares. I’ll get my work done and stay late if I can to make it up. I obviously never charge for hours that I don’t work. And I might be a disaster for appointments (by the way, I occasionally do show up fifteen minutes early), but I am excellent at working to deadlines. This is one of the blessings of hyperfocus. If necessary, I’m capable of dropping everything and just falling into the project until it’s done. If I have a meeting in the same building, I can manage that just fine (most of my lateness involves difficulty with travel schedules).

I do have one job that requires me to stick to a timetable, and the only way I’ve managed it is by honestly deciding that everything needs to be done half an hour earlier. This tactic actually doesn’t work for everything (I’ve tried it. It only seems to “stick” for some things).

If someone turns to me and says “If I can do it, anyone can” with regard to scheduling, I have a strong urge to smack them upside the head with a copy of Neurotribes.

This isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t let me off the hook. I will keep trying, because I think it matters, especially when it comes to making sure friends know I care and do actually prioritise them highly. I will probably keep coming up with more and more elaborate schemes to try and make time work for me. They probably won’t work very well, but that’s not really the point.

So here’s my tip: don’t say that thing. If you want to help someone who thinks they can’t do something, and you’ve worked your arse off to be able to do that thing, sure, by all means, share your experience – but recognise that your experience and theirs will be profoundly different. They might be excited, and think “Hey, if you can do it, maybe I can too!” and that will be amazing. But don’t push. Don’t ever push. There’s always more going on than you think.

 

(*Three of these are nearly-finished projects, and one of those three will continue to pop-up randomly throughout the year. Another one is winding up the first half, and the second half begins in May. And the final job is only on weekends, and only occasionally. Fortunately, I have another two jobs – one for only 2.5 weeks in April, and another one that starts when around May. So it’s a good thing I have all these systems to allow me to schedule tasks.)

Pain Management, Logic and the Mild High

In spite of the bummer of a title (and I can’t make it chipper and perky without employing some rather extreme suspension of disbelief), this is not supposed to be a complete downer of a post. It’s more about trying to find a way to be systematic and logical while working within a fairly chaotic system.

I have quite a few friends with chronic pain issues; by comparison, I’m fairly new to this (or am I? more on that in a minute).

My “magical wizard steroids” aren’t working so well any more, and the pain is back, although not as bad as it was pre-steroid.

There are different types of pain involved, and I actually have a little private glossary with terms for different pain, and a habit of trying to pinpoint which part of my internal abdominal cavity is affected. I’m using iPeriod as a pain diary (I mean, I also use it to track periods, but there are note sections, and ways to rate pain, so I’m all about that off-label use).

I have pretty good pain tolerance, too; and humans don’t remember pain well; this is why I started keeping a pain diary (which is every bit as gloomy as it sounds, but not nearly as Marquis de Sade as it could be. I’m sure there’s some delighted S&M author writing marvellous erotica for the kinky folks and calling it “The Pain Diaries”, but forgive me if I don’t google it). I don’t trust my memories of pain.

I have one parent with a substance abuse problem, so I question every decision to take painkillers – because the only painkillers I can take are narcotics. Paracetamol does literally nothing for my intestinal pain and NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories: naproxen, ibuprofen, diclofenac/Voltaren) are verboten when you are suspected of having inflammatory bowel disease.

I take the painkillers; they really help (they’re not perfect; with severe pain, they get rid of… some… of it); and they do make me slightly high. They used to make me really high, and I’ll be honest: that was fun, and felt like a consolation prize – but then I started to develop a tolerance.

I am writing in this roundabout way to put off describing the problem, but let me lay it out as analytically as I can.

  • I don’t want to take painkillers because they make me fuzzy and they are addictive and also I run out; which means I have to go back to the GP for a prescription; which means admitting that the treatment isn’t working; which makes me feel like a failure; which also makes me scared that the GP will think I have a substance problem (which she doesn’t, she is patient and constantly assures me that this is not something I should be worrying about right now. She is a fucking gem, I’m not even kidding). Also, they have side effects. Codeine slows down peristalsis and guys, I have a bowel problem. This isn’t great.

 

  • To deal with the fact that I don’t want to take the painkillers, I start inventing weird rules like “I will wait at least an hour to see if the pain goes away on its own” – and sometimes this actually works. The pain isn’t constant, really. Or at least, if it doesn’t go away completely, it wanes.

 

  • I also think a lot about “how bad is this pain? Can I work through it and tolerate it? Because if I can, I should.” This is not in a moral sense, but mostly because of (1) above. I can’t live on codeine. So I try to assess and analyse the rusty stabbing under my ribcage and the burning fiery cramps behind my navel. I try to put numbers on this. It doesn’t really work.

This system is, as you can see, a bit of a mind-fuck. I’ll run on this system for a while, and then I’ll start yearning to take painkillers – not because I’m desirous of the very mild high (although it is nice with the world the way it is running at the moment to briefly not care and not be terrified), but because I’m just tired of being in pain. I’m tired of trying to block it out and work through it, even though I can actually get away with it for a wild. I just want a fucking break from it, even though I don’t desperately need the painkillers at that point.

Here is the flipside:

  • a more scientific approach to pain management is to take effective painkillers at the onset of pain, as soon as possible. This is a hell of a lot more effective than waiting until it gets bad. This is what you’re supposed to be doing, at least for short-term pain. I’m not sure what the advice is for long term pain (as a side note, when I got sent home from the hospital recently after surgery on my hand, the doctor – who doesn’t know me – wrote “take two tablets every 8 hours” on the panadeine forte prescription and I LAUGHED AND LAUGHED AND LAUGHED because my running time is “every 4-6 hours, don’t hit max dose”. Every eight hours. HAHAHAHA nope).

 

  • Actually being in pain all the time, even when it’s just in the background, is an honest to god, bona fide mental health issue. It makes me I get bad tempered. I get frustrated. I get depressed. My creative juices dry up, my intellectual fascination shrinks to a pinpoint. I only get by focusing on the next thing and the next thing and I can’t look at the big picture or I just start crying. Also, I am not much fun to be around. I try to have a fairly tight, iron control on my temper and behaviour so I don’t make life unpleasant for the people around me, from co-workers to friends to Husband – and it’s exhausting. I sometimes just want to sit down and rant and say that it fucking sucks and I’m done with the whole mess, but I also want to stay positive… (not in a “toxic positivity culture” way, but in a “don’t give up” way).

 

  • I actually need to take the painkillers before I work out. As a person with hypermobility syndrome, I need to do a lot of core work, and also I run. Running is known to fuck with gut function, even for people with sensible and healthy and functioning digestive tracts. Running keeps me healthy in other ways, though, and I desperately want to keep doing it. Yesterday, I forgot to take drugs before I went for my run and I basically collapsed in a heap from pain in my last running interval. I pushed through until that point, and then I just… couldn’t.

 

So this is where I sit. I sit stuck between “I need to tough this out” and “I need to function” and I go back and forth. Some people don’t understand why I don’t take painkillers all the freaking time; and some people don’t understand why I take them at all. I don’t know how to find normal here, or what the benchmark is. I suppose I’m writing this to try and get it all out, and hope with fingers crossed that someone else with chronic pain issues will chime in and tell their own story and how they manage it, because I don’t get it. I feel like I’m living a half-life while I get this shit sorted out, and it’s just… balls.

Hmm.

My apologies, gentle reader, that was a bummer of a post. I’ll write about something else next time.

 

Burn This Homily* To The Ground: The Moral Virtue of Silence

  (*for homily, read “platitude” “trope” “so-called wisdom” or “widespread bullshit”)

There isn’t any.

NEXT.

Oh, wait, that was hardly the excessively worded deconstruction that I usually enjoying inflicting on my hapless readers. I suppose I should go into more detail.

Those who read my blog but haven’t met me might not be surprised to learn that I am frequently just as verbose in person as I am online. Those who know me on Facebook, but not really in person, will be aware that I post a good deal of banal bullshit on my own life (updates on pets, how much sleep I’ve had, how good coffee is, why adulting is so hard, all the exercise I’m doing, the fact that I’ve actually done laundry and now have clean knickers, why I’m having surgery yet again and yet somehow surgery can’t cure being a clueless git who gets herself injured all the time) in addition to the sharing of various political articles (the next person who says “echo chamber” to me is going to get… look, I want to say throat punch but let’s be honest: a violent temper in my case doesn’t equal actual violence and the worst I’m going to do is get enraged and glare at you, so let’s just imagine I am way more badass than I actually am, alright? NOW QUAKE IN TERROR YOU FOOL)… holy crap, where was I?

The coffee just kicked in. I am bouncy and alive and, given that I had surgery on my hand just over a week ago, involving a general anaethestic which generally drops me on my butt with overwhelming fatigue and literal chemically-triggered depression for 2-3 weeks, this is a miracle.

I like to talk.

I have a lot to say.

I don’t have much of a sense of privacy, except in a few key areas which will surprise no-one. I’m usually quite willing to discuss things that do surprise people – the only thing that gives me pause is making them uncomfortable (as some discussions do leave people thinking “Holy fuck, how do I respond to this? Was this a grave confessional?” and I wish I could just tell them, no, dude, seriously, I talk about shit, I talk about everything, I don’t really give a fuck as long as it’s not making you uncomfortable and unhappy). If things butt up against my “oh wow suddenly I don’t want to talk about this, that is such a weird feeling for me…” line, then generally I will say so (being a bit of a people-pleaser – yes, really – I’ll start out trying to soft-pedal a change of subject in the hopes of not having to shut down a particular line of inquiry).

People like to critique other people for sharing boring shit on social media. Here’s my response to that [link], but to TL;DR: filter and scroll on, my friend, this is an amazing superpower you have. I’ve had people admit to me that they’ve filtered me because I just post so much and then I look at their feed and realise that they’re incredibly selective about what they post; I often feel a brief moment of envy and wistful admiration that they can do that. I am just not built that way. I never have been.

I have, in the past, felt ashamed of being so open. It makes me vulnerable. I’m an easy person to hurt. It used to make me feel foolish, when other people invoked their right to privacy and managed to deal with their problems and their lives without turning it all into a GIGANTIC BREATHTAKING HILARIOUS TERRIFYING NARRATIVE that could be shared with all and sundry.

Because we do have a trope that very talkative people are foolish, or shallow. We have a strange sort of societal notion that really valuable people are quiet and thoughtful (as though those things have to go together, honestly). There’s a lot of “well, who needs to hear about that when there are more important things?” (scroll, my friend. Scroll like the motherfucking wind)

There’s a lot of “No-one needs to know everything about your life” memes. Well, no. But I also don’t see a lot of romance in shutting up, either.

There’s a lot of “Empty vessels make the most sound.”

Spare me. The fact that I’m caught up in my giant breathtaking narrative in no way makes me superficial. It just means I like communicating. I like telling stories. I like reflecting – aloud, for an audience. It’s how I roll. If it’s not your thing, that’s fine; I don’t get to tell people what they should listen to or receive. I was shocked when I realised that I’m not alone, that there are a tonne of other people out there who live inside this constant stream of consciousness, that it’s not a completely abnormal way to exist. What a huge relief that was! We are numerous. We are vocal.

We are storytellers.

I read a lot of romance novels, either of the standard present day drama setting or the science-fantasy/paranormal settings. I’m a big marshmallow when it comes to those sorts of things and I enjoy them greatly (when well written, at least. And plotted. And charactered. I am quite picky these days).

The romantic male protagonist (because they tend to be quite heteronormative, but I do read a few that aren’t) tends to be silent and brooding. The heroine (see previous parentheses) tends to have to guess at his feelings and desires. Even in well written ones, the heroes aren’t overly communicative. There’s an element of toxic masculine tropery in that, but it doesn’t just apply to the guy: it applies to the women as well. They tend to be relatively quiet. Often, the bouncy, babbly, talkative women are sidekicks, or immature teenage sisters, or best friends who are tragically marked for death (Scream springs to mind). And the bouncy, babbly, lovable talkative guy rarely gets to have his own triumphant story.

That’s not true of all genres, but there is a running pattern.

I want a talkative hero. I want a romantic sexy hero who never shuts up. Maybe he babbles and gets embarrassed, maybe he’s just bouncy and a storyteller, but he’s not brooding, he’s not uncommunicative, he’s not living in a silent well of sexy broody tragedy, he’s just – well – a talker. There are probably things he doesn’t talk about, maybe that’s where the hook is, but who knows?

We have this idea that people who talk, people who communicate well, hell, even people like me who communicate more or less constantly… aren’t interesting. They’re superficial. They have no rich inner life. I’m not sure why. Maybe there’s less for the reader/viewer to figure out (hey, babble is a defense in many cases; you know we’ve got plenty of mystery of our own, hmm?). Maybe it runs up against that vicious “show, don’t tell” rule which means a main character probably shouldn’t be too self aware.

I did in fact get told this would be lazy writing if a character understood themselves well enough to realise some of their own flaws and try to actively work to correct them.

What, characters can’t get therapy?

A lot of which is – by the way – about talking, and about giving yourself permission to talk, and to feel, and to be open in a safe space about a whole bunch of shit that previously you thought you shouldn’t bother anyone with or that you were overreacting about and honestly, in therapy, it doesn’t matter whether you’re overreacting or not – what matters is that you’re reacting, and that’s interesting, and why, and what does it mean, and does it help and what do we do with it now?

This post is about talking. It’s about telling stories. It’s about, yes, run-on sentences and poor grammar and firing off ideas as they march through my talkative, talkative brain.

And it’s about telling you, that if you’re one of those people who, like me, has so much to say, even about the little things, all the little things, and you’re tired of people implying that you’re shallow or stupid or boring because you have so much to say – it’s okay. It’s really okay. Seriously? The only thing we have to worry about is making sure we let other people get words in edgewise. It can be hard to learn to listen when you have so much to say all the time, and if that’s a problem you have, I promise, you can learn and work on it and it gets better. It doesn’t mean you have to shut up all the time, just pick your moments.

It’s okay to talk. Honest.

 

 

Dog Quest: Rehoming

We have a bit of a sad announcement to make. Some friends already know, but as I’ve been struggling to come to terms with it, and haven’t been prepared for any pushback to come my way, I haven’t put it on Facebook, so here it is.

We’re going to try to re-home Abby.

There are a few reasons for this, but before I go into it: this decision was not made lightly. This decision is heartbreaking. I question it every day when I look at her adorable little face; when her oddly truncated tail goes “thump-thump-thump” on the floor when she see us; when she cuddles into my lap; when she brings me the tug rope and shoves it into my hand because IT IS PLAY TIME NOW.

It all came to a head when Lestat died. Lestat died because Abby, while she didn’t get to do physical harm to him, literally scared him to death. He was too old and his poor ticker couldn’t take it. She got through the door while I was carrying something. She doesn’t do this to Michael, but I’m unsteady on my feet, and it’s obvious. After what happened with Jabba, there was a lot of self-recrimination. I was being careful. I was about to close the door behind me. She literally bowled me over to get to our old man cat.

We talked it over after the attack on Jabba, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.

Here’s the thing: Abby is a lovely dog in many ways. She is 100% a safe dog with people. As far as I’ve seen, she’s gentle with kids (very limited exposure though). She is very clever. She is trainable, learns readily, is eager to please, very playful and an enormously fun, loving dog.

But she has a very high prey drive; and she is very anxious and reactive. These are not easy things to deal with, especially in combination. She has attacked another dog. She has attacked cats. She is a gun dog in a Rottweiler body (with the possible exception that I don’t think she would have good retriever instincts – as a side note,  she would probably train that well. It’s very easy to take stuff away from her).

These don’t make her a bad dog. They don’t make her a dog that wouldn’t make someone a wonderful companion – but that someone needs to have no other pets.

We’re rehoming her for Ridcully’s sake; that doesn’t require explanation. As far as Abby is concerned, he is a fluffy edible toy. Amos does not have this cat-eating impulse.

We’re rehoming her for Amos’s sake; that does require explanation. While he loves to play with her, she bullies him. We’ve been told this is “normal dog hierarchy”, but this is by people who haven’t witnessed it. I have seen normal dog hierarchy: pushing and shoving and wrestling and jealousy. There is a level of antagonistic interaction that is perfectly normal. This is not that. Amos sometimes hides behind me when Abby comes close. He won’t play tug rope if she also wants to play. Some days he plays with her happily. Some days he actively avoids her. She causes him high levels of stress. When she gets frustrated or anxious, she basically starts fights with him, which end with him throwing her off, snarling, and running away. Actual fights, not playing. Sometimes these require intervention. I have stepped between snarling, furious dogs more often than I’d like. Professionals in the field have watched Abby’s interactions with other dogs very closely and have admitted that they can’t figure out her triggers. She is fine with them. She is happy. She is playing. Then she is not fine, is freaking out, and needs to be removed.

Yes, Amos will mourn when she goes. Yes, he will need a higher level of interaction from us to compensate. We get that. We still think, long term, he will be better off.

We’re rehoming her for our sake. We have tried a great many things to deal with her anxiety – exposure therapy, medication, carefully managed “working distance” – but it is beyond our skill level and available time. I could probably manage Abby’s issues quite well if I did literally nothing else with my life. I take my responsibilities to my dogs very seriously and the constant stress and guilt of trying to manage Abby and make sure she is feeling happy and safe is exhausting; it’s making me miserable. The constant stress of getting her away from the door that keeps Ridcully safe is exhausting. Distract her so she stops barking. Redirect her stress into play. Put stinky goop on her paws so that her anxious licking doesn’t give her yet another fungal or bacterial infection. It is constant. When we want to take Amos for a walk (Abby does not like walks; it took us a long time to work out that the extra stimulus freaked her out and she was always eager to get back in the car and go home), we always have to think about what we will do for Abby. Leave her in the yard? Risk of over-stress and abandonment panic. Put her in her crate? She will feel safe, at least, but that means we can’t stay out longer than a couple of hours (I refuse to leave her in there longer than that, unless it’s overnight for some reason).

Ultimately, we’re rehoming her for her sake. This is not rationalisation. This is just fact. Abby needs to be an only pet – no other dogs, no small fluffies. She needs someone who can make sure she gets lots of playing and interaction every day (i.e., someone who is home a lot, like me, but who is not dealing with the dramatically fluctuating energy levels of chronic illness. She’ll bring me the tug rope and I will be prostrate on the couch and… sigh). Maybe a family with teenagers who will romp with her. She needs a dog-experienced owner. She needs a yard that has opaque fencing so that she can’t see into the other yards and get stressed about it (this is actually an important tactic for anxious dogs).

Living in our house – where she is in competition with Amos for attention, where she can’t get the stimulating interaction she needs as a dog with a high prey drive and energy level, where we have post-and-wire fences that mean she gets worked up by anything that happens in the neighbours’ yards, where she is constantly aware of prey items she can’t get to – it’s not good for her. It might actually be making her condition worse.

There is a family or owner out there that will be delighted with Abby. She has an extremely sweet, loving nature. She is a fun, playful, snuggly dog.

She is just not right for us.

In terms of pushback: please don’t suggest we are “giving up” or doing this lightly. We fucking adore this dog and have had her for three years. Please don’t suggest we haven’t “really tried” – you have no idea I swear to god. Please don’t suggest that the Amos-Abby antagonism is normal dog interaction – you haven’t seen it (a couple of friends have), and you may not have a benchmark. Please don’t say we’re abandoning her or betraying her – I already feel like that is the case, and we have gone through this mental space so many times. Keeping a dog out of guilt isn’t going to make for a happy home either.

I wish things could be different. I deeply regret this, and the necessity of it, but when I picture her in a home with an experienced owner, as an only dog, happily playing tug and bouncing around in a yard that is all her own, I feel an overwhelming sense of happiness and relief. It will be hard to find the perfect home for her, but I’m sure it’s out there.