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mental derangement

“Men act. Women appear.”

Figure 1. Vanity by Hans Memling

Figure 1. Vanity by Hans Memling

 

 

There are many gaps in my formal education. For example, I never took math in college. I haven’t taken math since I was in 11th grade. And I never took one single Psychology class. I swerved Physics like whoa.

I only took one art class (Women in the Visual Arts) and one philosophy class (Artificial Intelligence: What Does It Mean To Think?) in college. I like art okay, but I can’t stand philosophy: not because I don’t think contemplation of meaning is helpful. I just couldn’t stand the kind of students who tended to populate philosophy classes (potheads, self-important white guys who enjoyed the sound of their voices – this includes the professors, btw).

So I guess it makes sense that I’d never encountered John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing. I mean, I’ve heard it referenced and seen other people reading it. I just never needed to read it for any specific reason. But I’m reading it myself as part of research for book #3 and it’s slow-going. It’s very abstract and concept-noun-heavy which makes it hard to absorb. Usually it makes me fall asleep.

But the other night, I read something that kept me up late, thinking about my own life and experience:

According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual–but its object is always exterior to the man. A man’s presence suggests what he capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated, in the sense that he pretends to be capable of what he is not. But the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others.

By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste–indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. 

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another…

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object–and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Forgive me for coming late to this. But for me, this is everything. It’s kind of awful. It’s fucking infuriating. I’ve wasted so much thought and energy because of the above text and I’m sure I’ll continue to waste even more.

It’s the body I am tired of dragging about. It’s the body that I wish would feel good. It’s the body that never seems to do what I want it to do.

Mostly, I hate it. I hate every single thing about it. I’m sick of scrambling after it, trying to make it presentable. Trying to make ME feel comfortable in it. I’m never unaware of it.

Occasionally, I love it. I love how things feel, sometimes. Sex. Running. Riding my bike with wet hair, letting it dry in the sun. Swimming in a pool, chlorine everywhere. Situations where I can forget a little. Where I’m moving so everything feels a little different. Where people might not be looking, or if they are looking, I can’t see them looking.

It is everything to do with why I lose my mind over what I’m wearing. Why I hate special occasions requiring fancy dress.

Why I must pretend, when speaking in public, that I look differently than I do, because I could not go through with it if I believed the opinion of the surveyor within me.

It is why I hate photographs. Taking them. Posing for them. Seeing them after the fact.

It is why I have the hair stylist turn the chair from the mirror while she cuts my hair.

It is why I felt sorrow when people first told me that my child looks like me: what have I done? what have I replicated? What a horrible thing to admit. My child is beautiful. I know this. I feel this. I do not feel this about myself, though. It’s an intellectual puzzle I’ve put together, based on my sight, based on the words of others. But I can’t feel it about myself, based on sight or the words of others. I can’t believe it; don’t bother telling me it, because it never does any good. This is beyond compliments or kindness. There’s a dial in me that’s rusted shut and can’t be convinced to move. It has always been this way. My surveyor is too powerful and always has the final word.

It’s why I’m afraid to write a girl character. Why boy characters are easier. Boys aren’t as rigorously and wretchedly judgmental as the surveyor that lives in my head. What a relief to know this! But I can’t imagine being in a girl brain that isn’t plagued by the stress of presence.

It is without a doubt why I like writing. Words have nothing to do with this infernal, changeable, traitorous carcass I have to drag around and clothe and bathe and attend to in myriad hopeless ways that make zero difference in how I feel.

Words aren’t confining or insubordinate. Words do what I want them to. Words I can make as beautiful as I want.

 

 

 

On Running & Discomfort

Figure 1: Look, it's Norman Reedus. Smoking. Which I should not do. This has nothing to do with running.

Figure 1: Look, it’s Norman Reedus. Smoking. Which I should not do. This has nothing to do with running.

Because I have  anxiety, this means that above all else, my favorite response and coping mechanism to life’s problems is avoidance.

Avoid conflict. Avoid distress. Avoid stress itself. Avoid trying. Avoid upset. Avoid changing the rules or routine.

This is all in service to keeping anxious feelings and panic away. AVOID/BEWARE/STOP/NO

It’s not any wonder that I find examples of What Not To Do highly instructive.

Anyway, how did I become someone who likes running, then? In my 36th year of life, to be specific, after 35 years of hating the guts of running. (I even hated running as a little kid, btw).

Discomfort is part of running. The first bit of running – five minutes, one mile, half an hour, even runner I know has a different metric of how long The Suck lasts – is uncomfortable. It feels shitty and it feels like you are embarking on something insane and pointless, and it feels like it’ll never be over, so why start?

And yet, I do it. And other people do it. And why? Why in the hell?

I can’t speak for other people, but I run because avoidance isn’t the only coping mechanism I should have. Avoidance shrinks your life down until it’s coffin-sized. Certainty makes you into a person who is annoying as fuck. And boring.

I am drawn to people who are wild and spontaneous and who make me a bit uncomfortable. I am drawn to people who are messy and sloppy. I am drawn into their reality; it means we can live our lives a little ragged and unhemmed. I can stop with my goddamn rules and just kind of splatter and those people won’t care. These wild spontaneous people smile and love me and won’t ask me to do anything more than I can.

Figure 2: Example of person who does not if my life is all messy. Also, happens to know everything about how to fix things that are broken. So after he fixed me, I bought the company.

Figure 2: Example of person who does care not if my life is all messy. Also, happens to know everything about how to fix things that are broken. So after he fixed me, I bought the company.

So, I run. Everything bounces, sweat gets in my eyes, it hurts. There’s no purpose, really. I never lose any weight and I don’t win races and I never seem to get faster. But good things happen in my head while I’m doing it. Good things happen in my head after I’m done, too.

It’s a gamble every time I go out, whether anything good will come of this discomfort. And it’s clearly a lesson I need to learn over and over.

 

On Running and Anxiety

 

 

So, I have this thing called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It’s a mood disorder where you freak out about stupid shit and drive everyone around you crazy. I’ve been taking medicine for it since about age 26 and medication works really well for me. After a disastrous experiment of stopping my meds a few years ago, I have resigned myself to being on meds for this until I’m in the coffin. Really. I’m not wasting any more time suffering with this bullshit.

No one can stand me when I’m anxious. Even people that love me the most. I’m the grossest person alive. Seriously.

Anyway, before I learned what my fucking problem was, I developed all sorts of coping mechanisms and world views that shored up my tendency to panic and overthink and not sleep well and obsess over minutiae.

Even though I don’t have daily panic anymore, even though I sleep well (usually) and though I’m able to get through crises without full-on trembling flop sweat now, I still have been formed by the way my body processes and perceives stress.

Marrying my husband has been such good practice for dismantling some of my more persistent, malignant coping mechanisms. He really is a spontaneous person; he introduces chaos constantly and he excels in emergencies and crisis. Being adjacent to that has taught me that we can ride the wave and not drown in it. I don’t need to anticipate every move; I don’t need to plan the shit out of things; I don’t need to carry the worries of my family members. I can fudge along as I go and be okay. And they can carry their own shit. They can face their own consequences.

(Anxious people are very codependent, too, if you’re familiar with addiction in families. I was the WORST until I started learning about codependency and enabling.)

Anyway, another tool to dismantle my fearful approach to life, my general sense that I am lousy and everything I try will probably be lousy, too, has been running.

In addition to helping me sleep better and giving me lots of nice endorphins and keeping my body healthier, going on a run has taught me to STOP THINKING better than any talk therapy I’ve ever tried.

Before a run, I am checking all sorts of data. The time of day. The temperature. The weather. The time since I last ate/drank. What route will I take? Am I wearing a too-tight sports bra? Or one of the decent ones? Are these compression pants too tight or too loose? Will I need a hoodie? A hat? A rain jacket?

The best thing is just when I get single-minded and I just go on autopilot and I don’t plan and I don’t anticipate and I don’t strategize. I don’t know the route; I don’t know the distance; I don’t know how long I’m going to be out there; I don’t know anything. I’m going to run and we’ll see what develops.

We’ll see what develops: a phrase that anxious people are allergic to.

The worst thing that can happen when you just go for a run without thinking is that you have a kind of crappy run. And even then, you still went running. So you can boast about that or feel silently superior or however you want to frame it. So, really, dispensing with all my pre-emptive bullshit and JUST DOING IT is more than a cliche for me. It’s truth and it lets me continue to shed off all kinds of crap that I’ve convinced myself is worth working myself up into a lather over.

So, I go running. And sometimes it’s great. And sometimes it’s not. And sometimes I do plan it. But sometimes I don’t. And any route I take, I come back better.

Runner Sex

I was running at the bottom of a hill, negotiating thin patches of ice on a sidewalk when I saw him. Another runner. Coming the opposite direction. Doing the same as me, looking for the dry patches so he wouldn’t slip.

But he was a real runner. Like, in a full kit of gear and all that. Like, he was probably doing speedwork or training for the Iron Man. On furlough from being a Navy SEAL or something.

He was also super foxy. Like, a total babe of a man. Chiseled cheek bones. Ugh. Beautiful people.

Anyway, he said “Good Morning” and I said “Hi,” back and he was very handsome and I was very embarrassed.

Then I kept running. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him. What would it be like to be that guy’s wife?

We’d be like those sporty couples you see out at brunch sometimes. Wearing our running tights or toddling around in those weird biker shoes. Eating egg white omelets and fruit plates. 


Evenings, we’d sort our recycling together. Listen to NPR. We’d have a dog, some giant breed that likes to run, and one of those ball-tosser contraptions. We’d play with the dog for a respectable amount of time, since we’d have no children. Then he’d say something funny and I’d laugh and then we’d go up to bed and his eyes would get all narrow and serious and he’d watch me taking my stuff off. 


Say something like, “No, leave the compression socks on.”


Or, “No, leave the fun run t-shirt on.”


Then he’d go down on me. Following all the tips from the sex column in Men’s Health.


He’d say, “You taste so good. Like breakfast quinoa, with sweetened ricotta.”


He’d rub his hand over my hipbone. Then, when it was time for Actual Sex, our hipbones would knock together. The satisfying bone-crack of optimal health! Feeling like sparks coming off our hipbones. How that would come in handy in a survival situation. All we’d need was a piece of flint and some dry kindling. I’d close my eyes, consider doing one of those wilderness trail competitions with him…


“Come back to me,” he’d say, biting my ear.


“Sorry, you’re just so handsome,” I’d tell him. “You remind me of that one guy? On that one show? Back when we still had a television?”


“Keep talking,” he’d say, but I can’t. He’s breathing so hard his Garmin starts beeping and…

Annnnnnd then I’m just smiling and laughing and coughing a little, because I’m so gross but highly amusing to myself. Plus I’m at the top of the hill and barely remember any of it. And I’ve got just one more mile left. God, I love running.

On Writers and Greed

I think writers are really greedy on some levels. Like it’s not enough that they get one waking life and another full of dreams and fantasies. No, no, no, they must invent extra lives and worlds and stock them with fake people and move them around like paper dolls and make car crash noises and mimic voices and help themselves to MOAR.

When things are going well with my writing, I’m just this hungry beastly creature.

After a day of good writing, I’ll go out and see things and people that are beautiful and want to shove them in my mouth.

Like, I wrote this sleazy post during such an episode.

When Adrian comes home from work, I jump up his leg and tell him every little dinky thought I had all day and tell him all my stories and feelings until he starts hiding beneath his issue of Motor Trend.

I’m all touchy and grabby, but what’s terrible is it’s not even specific, really, to Adrian as an individual. It’s all about me and my greedy gulping insanity. I just want want want want want.

Why would you ever want one of us as a partner? We don’t make any money and we gobble up everything like locusts. It’s so gross when I think about it.

Of course, whenever I’m in this phase? I don’t care. Or think. I just feel really, really good.