Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's Elementary, Dear Readers

I've told you guys a lot about myself over the past 18 months. You've heard about my trauma, my dysfunctions, my sex life, my abusive relationship, my misadventures with drugs. But somehow, I'm more nervous about writing this post than I've been about most of the others.

Those were mostly about things that happened to me. This one cuts a little closer to to the bone than that: it's about the person I am, irrespective of all of that. The real me, underneath it all.

I am, at my core, a writer.

I don't mean that in a functional way. Writers don't always function as writers. Lord knows I haven't, for most of my life. I mean it in a "born this way" sort of way. I was born with a writer's sensibility. I'm a natural observer, a collector of anecdotes. I see people's motivations behind their facades. I have a sensitivity to the narrative of things. And my preferred output is words.

It's an orientation to the world, really. It's the way I process information; the way my brain makes order from chaos. I've thought this way all my life.

I'm a natural writer for the same reason I'm a natural teacher, I realized recently. I think of everything in terms of how I would convey it clearly and convincingly to someone else. This idea, this process, this experience: how can I describe it best, in the way most likely to convince, entertain,  illuminate, instruct?

I haven't ever usually had the courage discipline to write or to teach as my main purpose, but when I have (and I have!), I've been pretty good at it. Really good at it, even. 

In my shame-prone way, I usually manage to convince myself during those times that I'm cheating-- it doesn't count, somehow, because it isn't hard. I haven't earned the right to be proud of it because an orientation to the world isn't anything I can take credit for. It just is.

This usually results in an extraordinary amount of anxiety over what I'm doing, because then it isn't just my work that's on the line, it's me, and then everything actually becomes difficult, and then I feel threatened, and then I get triggered, and then I get paralyzed, and then I get the hell out of there before any more damage is done.

Because that makes sense. Doesn't it? 

<sigh> The things we do to ourselves.

Anyway, this is just me. I'm that girl. During my more socially-connected moments, I've been known as a storyteller. Renowned, even. These days, my Facebook statuses have gained a bit of an enthusiastic following because Facebook is the perfect medium for my particular set of skills and abilities: flair for anecdote, audience to entertain, no need to actually talk to anyone.


So... why am I telling you about this?

Well. It's important to establish context for this next thing, so that it makes sense to you why it makes SO much sense for me.

As a person with a writer's orientation to the world, I tend to see things in story form. My imagination just goes that way. I write myself into the constant narrative going on in my head. And when I come across other stories that turn my crank, I write myself into those, too, and entertain myself with them in idle moments. As I've said many times in this blog, I tend to see myself from a third-person perspective-- a player on a stage-- and this, I think, is why. It's just another example of the pre-established frameworks that made it very easy for PTSD to slot itself so deeply into my consciousness.

But it has its up-sides, too. This is one of them.

If you are of this writer's disposition-- and you very well may be, whether you write or not-- you'll know what I mean when I say that everything has the potential to become the next running narrative. Stories are everywhere, waiting to be picked up and continued. 

Maybe it's a story I want to be a part of, so I put myself into it. Or it's a story I want to continue, so I imagine what happens next, or what would happen if

I've always been a voracious reader and film-watcher for this reason. The characters and plots and scenery are established; the seeds have been planted and all you have to do is help them grow. And seeing a fellow storyteller's turn of phrase or angle of shot or interpretation of character or nuance of plot is always inspiring (all art is borrowing and re-imagining, after all). And my response to stories and movies I love has always been to make more of it. 

This meant that I was a four-year old who played out scenarios involving the characters from Planet of the Apes and The Wizard of Oz. A six-year old who imagined herself into M*A*S*H episodes. A nine-year old who saw herself running around with the characters from Annie. An 11-year old whose alter-ego was someone's tag-along cousin on Fame, a mischievous orphan character on The A Team and Simon and Simon and Magnum PI.

A 15-year old who filled notebooks with pages of what would happen if about a 15-year old girl in the fictional universes of The Sting and 21 Jump Street.

My tastes were eclectic, what can I say.

(A side-note for my fellow storytellers out there: I've noticed, as I've cataloged the various fictional alter-egos I've had over the years, that all of them were orphaned, displaced, self-contained, escaping a dubious past through extraordinary achievement. It was the Superhero Myth. I was enacting, over and over, the Superhero Myth. OMG.)

Although I didn't know it at the time, there was a word for what I was doing when I was writing piles of 21 Jump Street episodes (which began when I was still so naive, I didn't even consider making my alter-ego Johnny Depp's love interest. A year later, however... well, let's just say I had considered it quite a lot). Back then, before the internet, I had no way of knowing that I was joining a well-established tradition that others of my orientation had been carrying on in relative secret for decades. Centuries, even. 

I was writing fanfiction.

At some point in the 90's, I heard that term used for the first time. It was in an article about the most well-known fanfiction-writing fandom of all time: Trekkies. Star Trek fans, a notoriously obsessed bunch, popularized fanfiction as "an expression of fandom and fan interaction" (quote from the wiki article linked above).

They'd started fanzines in the 60s that contained fan-created Star Trek stories and art. In the later incarnations of the Star Trek TV series, the shows' writers actually accepted ideas for episodes from fans.

Trekkies are also, as you probably know, notorious for their devotion and their conventions and their show-as-lifestyle commitment to Star Fleet principles and Klingon dialects. At the time I was reading this particular article, this kind of fandom seemed unhinged. And I realized, rather shamefully, that I was one of those types, the relative superiority of Johnny Depp to Leonard Nimoy notwithstanding.

My mom was a Trekkie.** My version of teenage rebellion was to eschew all things sci-fi. So fanfiction and Trekkiedom were inextricably linked in my mind, and the connection was not favorable. So I went even further underground with my secret hobby. I never told another living soul about it.

** no children were harmed during the making of this childhood. No Klingon was spoken, either (no filthy cosmic barbarians, we!) But I do admit to knowing that the proper response to the iconic Vulcan farewell, "Live long and prosper," is a raised hand, split into a V between the middle and ring fingers, and the phrase, "Peace and long life." Some things just stick, no matter how hard you try to shake them off.

Not much to report about my fanfiction for many years after that. I was in college, writing my poems and vampire stories (it's all a form of fanfiction, really, isn't it?), and then in grad school, writing my New Yorker-approved general fiction, and then, and then, and then. Not a lot of time for penning 21 Jump Street episodes, although it remained my favorite idle daydream subject for years and years, and the stories continued in my head.

Several years ago, I was poking around online one day and thought of my old fanfiction, and I thought, I wonder if anyone has ever posted fanfiction online?

<google search>


Yes. As a matter of fact, yes, someone had. Many, many someones. In fact, after seeing the quantity of fanfiction that had been posted, it was difficult to imagine that anyone had the time or bandwidth to post anything else. Ever. I'm serious. I could go on...

The internet, as it turns out, was MADE for dorks people like me.

So I read a bit of 21 Jump Street fanfic, found it interesting but not particularly noteworthy, and moved on.

Fast forward to about two years ago. I was puttering around one day while my daughters were napping, and decided to finally try watching that BBC Sherlock show that had come out a few months before. I'd had it sitting on my Tivo forever and never got around to it-- I was never a Sherlock Holmes fan-- and had eventually deleted it from lack of interest.

But I saw it on Netflix, and had nothing better to do, so I queued it up and hit play.

Five minutes later, I was riveted. By the time the first episode was over, I knew I'd found something special. It was the best thing I'd ever seen on TV. The writing was gloriously smart and current and funny, the characters were perfect, the acting: amazing. 

I found myself officially obsessed.

It didn't take long before I wondered if anyone had written any Sherlock fanfiction. So one day, I went to FanFiction.net, the largest archive of fanfiction on the internet (at the time, at least), and looked it up.

And what I found was... wonderful!

First of all, there were stories. Two thousand or so. Some of them were great. Some of them were not-so-great. 

And some of them were SPECTACULAR. 

I'll talk a bit more about why I read fanfiction in a bit, but the upshot of this part of the story is this: I read some stories, and then I read some more, and then I thought I might try to read ALL of them, and while I was doing that, more stories kept getting posted, and pretty soon there were five thousand, then eight, then ten.**

**as of this writing, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000. Daaaamn.

A lot of the writing I was seeing there-- a disproportionate amount, really, considering the milieu-- was so incredibly good that I just couldn't believe my good fortune. It was like finding your new all-time-favorite novel, and never, ever, ever getting to the end of it. 

So much of the writing was of such high caliber, I began to feel compelled to leave comments for the authors. So I opened an account and joined the community of writers and readers who support each others' work by leaving reviews on stories they like.

Shortly after that, I realized that I was qualified to give high-caliber reviews as well, and that the writing I was reading deserved my best efforts in response. So I put my MFA to good use and dialed up my rhetoric a bit, and started leaving comments worthy of the writing that inspired them. 

Instead of the ubiquitous "Loved this piece! Can't wait to see more from you," I started talking shop, writer to writer. "Here's how you're using language to develop character/ create tension/ control pacing/ convey atmosphere/ shock/ soothe /convince/ provoke/  entertain/ titillate. Here's what I see you doing, here's how I see it working, here's the impact it's having on me as a reader. Here's how you're being successful. Here's how you're making me a fan. Here's how you're awesome."

And somewhere in there, though I didn't know it yet, something inside me woke up.

Sorry for the cliffhanger! I didn't intend it to happen this way, but this post has become a lot longer than I expected and my move is consuming a lot more of my time than I'd hoped, and I didn't want to miss any more deadlines! So here you go. To be continued. In the meantime: LOOK! FANFICTION!**

**both links are to general fanfic archives, which contain fanfiction written about just about anything you can think, from TV shows to books to paintings to rock bands to the Bible. Pick yer poison. I dare you.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Real Life is Real: A Fairy Tale

SO! I've been hinting for the past couple of weeks that something was in the works in my real life, and since all the puzzle pieces appear to have come together and the deal is, as they say, done, I can now share my news!

(Some of you may be more excited about this than others. Those with the highest potential for excitement include anyone who has come to visit us over the past 7 years and had to sleep on an air mattress in our living room or shell out for a hotel just to spare yourself the indignity.)

We bought a house!

It's our first home. We've spent our adult lives in the Bay Area, surrounded by one of the most ridiculously expensive, recession-resistant housing markets in the country, so this is something we a) had to work very hard for and b) weren't entirely sure we'd be able to achieve. And yet here we are. It all happened very suddenly-- we weren't expecting the opportunity to arise right now and hadn't yet realized we were ready to jump-- and then the universe just aligned and it all came together. 

It feels a bit like destiny!

So we've been signing papers and getting inspections and collecting moving boxes and blowing up our Pinterest boards with pictures of back yard landscaping and kitchen restorations and home decor tips and paint colors. It's pretty heavenly, actually.

The house is a classic 1925 California Bungalow, just what I wanted, with beautiful inlaid wood floors and built-ins, and it's spacious and interesting and has lots of potential for fun improvements. The kitchen and bathrooms have been modernized a bit more than we'd like, so we'll be restoring them back to period over the next few years (hex tile, how I love you!).

But for now, we'll be looking for the projects that will give us the most bang for the least buck, and that means painting rooms and going nuts on the back yard, where we are determined that creativity and elbow grease will work magic.

It should be noted that neither of us is particularly plantsy (plantsy? Plant-positive? Plant-capable? Plantsy should be a word and that's what it should mean. So it is written and so it shall be). And we've never done much yard/landscaping work. 

And by "not much" I mean "none."

But that's what the internet is for, right? I mean, we're not idiots--we can follow instructions-- and we can certainly lift a shovel. I've been known to get dirty. And I long for an awesome back yard with fragrant flowers and soft grass and butterflies and a place for my girls to play and a place for us to lounge and entertain friends and a place for our dog (which we now get to have!) to frolic.

So we have incentive. And time. And a growing, surreal excitement over the fact that this is actually happening, we have our own place, and we get to do whatever we want.

I never realized how profoundly I'd be affected by that. I feel, for the first time, I think, like I can allow myself to get as excited as I want to about... well, everything, really. Having our own place gives a special purpose to so many things-- the money and time and creativity we dedicate to our living space is now an investment, not a temporary facade or something not worth the effort since the space isn't actually ours. 

I think I'd gotten so used to renting that I didn't realize that undercurrent was there. I didn't realize I'd felt so temporarily placed until this week, when I suddenly found myself planted here, in this little town I love, with my amazing husband and my sweet little girls (and our future dog-- have I mentioned the dog?). I also didn't realize how foreign and strange it would feel to be able to let my dreams run rampant.

I didn't know I wasn't letting them do so, before. But it makes sense that I wasn't, when I think about it. Enthusiasm is scary. Wanting is scary. It's a vulnerability that triggers me, somehow. 

I'm sure it's got a lot to do with T and the residuals of that whole thing, but maybe also with the fact that I never launched, back when I should have, because of the accident and all that followed, and so I've always had a sense of waiting for my life to start that has kept me, in a very real way, from actually... you know... starting.

I'm honestly surprised by how deeply it's affecting me, this house. I thought it would feel like the culmination of a dream, not the beginning of one. But that's exactly what it feels like: the dawn of a whole new day.  My husband and I have been marveling at the freedom we suddenly feel. I don't think either of us realized how much we'd been holding back.

Well, we're not holding back anymore. And it is exhilarating!

It feels appropriate to talk about this home-owning experience here, because the deep level of excitement I feel is one I haven't felt often over the last 20 years. I was excited to get married. I was excited to get pregnant and to have my daughters. But as far as experiences that cross my narrow emotional boundaries without triggering my PTSR in hugely negative ways, that's about it.

So here I am, with the super-trifecta of awesome grown-up life events finally complete, and I'm feeling a level of exhilaration that I'm not sure I've felt since before that drunk driver made dreaming of the future feel like a dangerous threat.

It's striking me suddenly that it didn't feel safe to dream about those three things in particular: husband, children, a deeply-rooted home. They feel so... necessary to my life, so essential to my character, that not having them someday was too terrifying to contemplate, so allowing myself to consciously desire them was skirting dangerous territory.

In order to fully embrace your longing for something, you have to acknowledge the not-having, and that, I see now, was too painful for me to do.

Instead, in true PTSR fashion, I ignored the longing so I wouldn't have to risk sorrow or disappointment or deep, unrequited desire.

Keep it level. Keep it smooth. Keep everything-- every thought, every feeling, every dream-- at a constant, monotonous medium.

Thank god for the Wise Adult within, who knew I was afraid to hope and yet managed to fulfill that longing anyway. Husband: perfect. Children: amazing. 

And now, at long last: home, sweet home.

It was a piece I didn't know was missing. Now that it's filled, I feel, strangely, much bigger than the sum of my parts. I've beaten a demon this week. A secret one. One I didn't realize had been menacing me for a very long time. It feels like one of the single biggest steps I've take on this journey out of the darkness of PTSR.

I didn't know a house could have such power. I guess because it isn't really the house that has it. It's the dream. 

More than that: it's the ability to dream. The permission. I have the most visceral feeling, right now, of easing my foot off the brakes, more than I ever have before. It feels like I'm finally, finally, beginning to pick up speed. Like the momentum that has been building since this work began has suddenly been allowed to fulfill its promise and push me forward, back into the world.

I saw an unattributed quote today: "Life holds special magic for those who dare to dream." I guess I'll find out. 

Dreaming sounds pretty good to me. I'm ready for a bit of magic.

And also a dog. Have I mentioned the dog?

As you might imagine, posting anything of length will probably be difficult over the next few weeks as we pack up our stuff and move into our new home. But I plan to keep my schedule, so you can expect to hear from me every week anyway. I just might be talking about paint chips a little more often than usual. I'm sure, if I think about it long enough, I can find a connection between PTSR and wall-color choices. I wonder if research has been done?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Procrastination: A Concept I Should Probably Get Around To Discussing Someday

I've been thinking about procrastination a lot lately. 

(Before I go any further, I should say that I typed that sentence above about 20 minutes ago, and since then, I have gone to the bathroom, checked my email, fiddled around with my phone, stared off into space, and a few other things. Correlation or causation? You be the judge.)

I do it, of course. Most people do, at some point in their lives. Long before my car accident, I was quite adept at putting things off to egregious extents. I mean, why do now what you can do in a panic at the last minute?

There's been a lot of scholarship on the topic over the last few decades. Everybody wants to get underneath the behavior and discover the cause. Like we do with many behavioral patterns, it seems that our culture vacillates between blaming the victim ("Procrastinators are lazy, impulsive losers!") and cultivating victimhood ("I can't help it-- my prefrontal cortex has a mind of its own!").

As you may remember, I used to coach college students toward academic success, and procrastination came up all the time. We mostly talked about it as a symptom of perfectionism, where people unwilling to allow themselves to make mistakes tend to avoid starting difficult tasks to postpone feelings of helplessness or failure.

That makes sense. I think it's true, a lot of the time.

It also makes sense, then, that perfectionism of this type is just as much a product of anxiety as perfectionism-- which are pretty closely related, themselves. We feel anxious about our performance, so we try to put it off as long as we can, even though putting it off usually causes even more anxiety. We'd rather face the devil we know than the devil we don't, apparently.

A more recent theory suggests-- rightly, I think-- that since anxiety is just as likely to cause people to start a task early than late (ever done something unpleasant first, just to "get it out of the way?"), procrastination is more strongly linked with impulsiveness. If we have less control over the areas of our brains that filter out distractions and aid us in impulse-control-- the pre-frontal cortex, which affects premotor functions-- we're a lot more likely to let things come between us and a successfully-completed task.

The thing about procrastination, though, is that it looks (and feels) a lot like laziness, or lack of ambition or willpower. Of course it does. Motivations aside, in effect, it's often indistinguishable.  This one rings a familiar bell for me: shame. There is shame associated with this behavior.   

Oh, hello

All of a sudden, I'm seeing some really weird, interesting connections between procrastination and PTSR.

Or my PTSR, at least.

Here's why I'm talking about this: as I indicated last week, I notice The Fog coming in all the time now, and I've begun to realize that The Fog has been a key factor in what has basically amounted to procrastination, on my part. Anything that threatens my narrow little boundaries of tolerable experience (most things, in other words) causes overwhelm, and then gets swallowed or at least shrouded by The Fog.

From a distance, this looks like procrastination. It is procrastination, conscious or not. Something causes me anxiety, so I push it away and don't do it. It fits that criteria perfectly. 

What I notice, though, when I look at all the theories together, is that there are more parallels to my particular state of being than I expected to find:

  • I have always been a perfectionist, an avoider, a procrastinator. I have always been shame-prone. The PTSR has only increased those tendencies. As I've mentioned before, there is evidence that PTSR occurs more strongly in some people than in others precisely because of those tendencies. It fits more easily into a pre-established framework.
  • Procrastination, like PTSR, is also associated with depression. And depression is a stigmatized condition. And stigma = shame.
  • Procrastination is strongly linked to impulse control, which is linked to the premotor  cortex, which-- as I understand it from my limited research-- projects directly to the spinal cord and is involved in instinctive, pre-cognitive movement. Not quite the lizard brain, but close. 

And get this: my pre-frontal cortex, where the premotor cortex is located, was the part of my brain that suffered the TBI in the accident.

Basically, what I'm seeing is a pretty strong connection between my increasingly unconscious procrastination behavior and the PTSR.

Because, here's the thing: I was actually, for a long time, one of those people for whom anxiety triggered the desire to get things done early, rather than late. I picked up that habit in grad school, where I realized that the torture of having something hanging over my head was worse than the torture of confronting my performance anxiety. I learned to spare myself additional stress by getting the difficult stuff out of the way as soon as possible.

The Fog has become increasingly aggressive only in the past few years, as my PTSR has become more severe in general. I went from having mild, normal bouts of procrastination-- the kind everyone tends to have from time to time-- to losing whole conversations, whole days to The Fog, and becoming a person who hardly ever did anything because everything seemed like too much to bear.

I'm implying a few things here. One is that I think my brain and body have compelled me to new heights of procrastination without my permission or conscious involvement as a symptom and side effect of PTSR. I'm not beyond accepting a bit of victim status, there.

But also, as with everything PTSR-related, I think I have the power to to regain control over the psychosomatic effects and take the power back. A victim no longer. That's my plan.

Once again, I have discovered this week that awareness of my previously-unconscious behavior a) makes the behavior seem much worse, and b) feels like a very positive first step toward getting control of it.

As I hinted last week, there are some things going on in my real life that are a bit monumental and stressful (but positive!), so I've had the chance to observe my PTSR in action.

(I still can't tell you about what's happening, but I may be able to by next week. Fun, exciting stuff!)

I already told you about The Fog. It's been keeping me floating above it all, really. I've managed to avoid the panic and anxiety that would--and should-- otherwise be making me a bit uncomfortable throughout the experience. Which is its job, of course.

Well done, Lizard Brain! Now lay off a little, will you?

Because Fog aside, there are things that need to get done, and I need to be the one to do them, and I've had to be very, very deliberate about keeping my head in the game and not letting the fog sweep everything away from me before I am able to act.

It's so hard to describe this feeling. Things slip away from me, and it's not because of a lack of attention or care, or because I'm absent-minded, or because I'm irresponsible, or lazy, or unmotivated, or even because I don't consciously want to keep track of them and get them done (although I have accused myself-- and likely been accused-- of these things in the past). 

It's like a physical inaccessibility. It's like a door that shouldn't be there gets closed. Sometimes, I can feel it-- feel it-- happening, and can't stop it. Like the words are written in sand, and as I am trying to read them, the waves come in and wash them away before my eyes.

So for the past two weeks, I've been really conscious about taking notes, making lists, repeating facts and plans back to my husband over and over, to be sure I've got everything in my head that belongs there.

It's been working, for the most part. Even as The Fog has been keeping me emotionally detached, I've been counteracting the other stuff by keeping hard records.

So far, so good.

But this week, it also became really clear to me that The Fog is a response to a trigger-- the threat of overwhelming emotions-- and that this trigger is still getting pulled, even though I've learned some ways to avoid its typical effect.

So the ol' Lizard Brain is relying on other tricks. 

One of those tricks, usually encompassed by The Fog but apparently not exclusive to it, is procrastination. Despite my lists, despite what I knew, without really realizing it, I was still avoiding a whole lot of action.

It makes perfect sense to me that this would be a response to the trigger. Avoiding the phone calls, the conversations, the checklist items = avoiding acknowledging the thing that necessitates those actions, which is the thing that is threatening my equilibrium and triggering the protective response.

OMG, obvious: procrastination is a defense mechanism of the Lizard Brain, pushing those triggering events away so that the body can restore its boundaries and its safety. It's not only a conscious coping mechanism. In my case, it's also an instinctive response.


So yesterday, I grabbed that particular bull by the horns and knocked a bunch of items off my  action list. Ran errands, had meetings, made phone calls, engaged services, got shit done.

Last night, I was jumping-out-of-my-skin triggered by it all, for a while, and then I was just-ran-headlong-into-a-brick-wall exhausted after spending the day with various parts of my brain literally at war with each other (which consumes so much more energy than I could possibly have imagined).

Taking a step back and looking at yesterday objectively, I'd say that it probably approached about a "2" on what I would once have considered a normal 1-10 scale of busy days, where 10 = "busy as fuck." It was practically nothing, really, what I did, especially compared to what I see my husband accomplishing in his professional life on a daily basis. But I was completely done in by it, and am currently fighting the migraine to prove it.

But the way I see it, most of what I did yesterday wasn't about the phone calls or the meetings or the items on the checklist. It was about digging in my heels and refusing to let the path in front of me get swept away.

Nothing I did was difficult or challenging. Even in the aggregate. But the impact of having fought off The Fog and the procrastination is still unfolding, if this migraine is any evidence, and the more physical it feels, the more I think I'm getting at the true heart of it. The emotional stuff all still needs to be worked on, of course, but the physical stuff seems most connected to my unconscious self, to my Lizard Brain, and it has always been true that the road to recovery needs to go through that place first.

It sucks the most, this part, this physical, visceral response, because it seems-- and probably is-- most beyond my conscious control. 

But that's the whole point, I guess.

I'm not sure if this post has made much sense-- I've come to most of these conclusions while typing them out on the screen-- but I feel like I'm on to something, here. And I feel like these battles, now that I've finally gotten around to having them, will get easier and easier. 

I think that if I keep working on it, I'll be able to replace one instinct with another. I think action will eventually replace inaction as the most natural way to relieve stress. I think moving will eventually feel better than standing still.

I think doing and knowing won't always seem so separate and distinct, so mutually exclusive; even as I implied last week that they were. 

That belief, above all, makes me feel like my faith in myself has not been misplaced.

I'm hoping to be able to share some cool news next week. Until then, I'm going to try to keep doing what I need to do--proactively!-- to help make it happen. Wish me luck!