Curses and Blessings, reprise

What can happen when you’re given time and space alone with your ideas? When you’re sent off to a little cabin and someone else is cooking your food and tending to the day-to-day management of your comfort and well-being? When you’re told that the only thing you have to do is whatever you want to do?

Well, any number of things can happen, I suppose. I’ve had very different experiences with writing residencies and retreats. The similarity across all of them — the DIY and the formal ones — is that I’ve come back to my “real life” changed in some way, come back with some new understanding of the writing I went away to work on, which is precisely what I go away for. So … excellent!

How that realization or understanding happens isn’t at all similar. My first DIY retreat, I spent all day every day writing out one character (I was mostly a fiction writer then). I wasn’t working on the story that character was part of. I was digging into his history, trying to understand how he became the man who showed up in the story I wanted so badly to finish but which I couldn’t finish if I didn’t understand that man.

In the end, I wrote so much about him that I realized he was the main character, that the story he’d stepped out of wasn’t the central story at all, as much as I love my original protagonist. That was definitely not the place I’d imagined finding myself at the end of the retreat. Not even close. But I learned a lot about how I feel my way into a story and how to work with story elements and more formal tools to shape a successful arc and land sure-footedly at a conclusion.

At my first formal residency, I’d planned to write scripts for my comics project. I started a script, and it was a solid start. But, but the end of the two weeks, what I’d done most was learn more about how comics work, how sequential art moves with and without words and that some of my ideas were feeling awkward and clunky because I was writing scripts that were at odds with the medium I’d chosen. I did a lot of drawing, which I hadn’t expected, and learned some things about my drawing and what I want from my artwork.

And now …

I came to Alaska with a plan. I decided a while ago that I want to turn my “Fat Talk” essays into a collection. I had an outline of what pieces were needed to complete the arc I’d imagined for the collection. All I needed was time to really sit and focus, time to start building those missing pieces.

Except that’s not what my time has been here at all. I’ve been writing, yes. I wrote a whole new essay that is at least a strong skeleton for what I want the finished version to be. I’ve done some bits of other, not-part-of-the-collection writing. I’ve read through all of the existing essays and made notes for things that need revision, places where I need to go deeper or where I need to steer back on course.

So … productive. But also … not. Everything has felt a little off, a little not quite what I needed to do.

And then Sunday happened. Sunday, I ran up hard against the wall of: what even is this project? what’s the point? what am I trying to say, anyway?

It’s not an unfamiliar wall, but slamming into it is never welcome. And, to be clear, this isn’t La Impostora creeping up on me. She’s always lurking, but this question, this wall, is different. It’s more the realization that I don’t have the clarity about the project that I thought I had. Similar to the realization during that first DIY retreat that I’d been focused on the wrong character, that I was supposed to be writing a very different story.

What do I do when I run into the wall? Well, this time I did some good and some annoying things. I slept. A lot. I hung out on social media. A lot. And then — finally — I started journaling, writing out the conversation I needed to have to get answers to the questions the wall was asking. I made notes. I made lists. I asked and answered the same questions a few times. I just kept writing.

Slowly, and then more quickly, an answer — the answer — began to come clear. I fought it a little, falling immediately into the control freak role that sometimes creeps into my writing, trying to force things to go the way I want them to rather than the way they actually need to. Because, if the answer that was taking shape was really the answer, most of the writing I’ve done has to be undone and then rebuilt in profound ways … if it’s usable at all.

So here I am, halfway through my residency, with a project that’s totally in shambles.

And this, this is what can happen when you strip away the distractions of work and daily life and spend oceans of time with your ideas. This right here. The curse and the blessing.

Time to pick up my pen and get the fuck to work.

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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Triggered: Musing on Misophonia

My last post has me thinking a little more about misophonia. In case you missed that post and need a definition: Misophonia is a neurological disorder in which sound cues are misinterpreted within the central nervous system. The word means “the hatred of sound.” People have misophonia are triggered by specific, entirely mundane sounds, responding with irritation, rage, panic, the need to flee. People describe it as feeling as if they are being driven mad.

Me. I am “people.” I’ve been dealing with this for decades. In responding to comments on yesterday’s post, some new thoughts came up for me.

First is the inherent meanness of misophonia. It’s bad enough that common sounds make misophones feel as if they’re going crazy. But it also makes them feel like bad people. They must be bad if they feel such violent rage — often toward beloved family members. So you don’t just suffer from the trigger, you also question your inherent goodness as a human. And then I responded to Ramona’s comment and realized that, on top of suffering from the trigger sound, if you aren’t always able to control your response, you might lash out at the person making the sound, and that person would have no idea what they’d done or why you were acting so irrationally. Thanks, misophonia.

Misophonia was only made an officially recognized disorder in 2000 or 2001 (sources disagree). Twenty years ago! How in the world is that possible? People have surely been suffering from this for about forever. I’ve been dealing with it since I was a kid, and that was a thousand years ago, so … where was the medical profession all this time?

But it makes sense, right? It would never have occurred to me to say to anyone, “Oh, you know, when you make that sound, I want to grind you into dust.” Because who would ever say that? And because “that sound” was usually something harmless and normal like taking a breath or whispering. So being set off by a trigger sound is maddening and makes you feel like a secretly-homicidal person. Who wants to talk to the doctor about that? And as I type that, I realize that I’ve know about this for years, and I’ve never once mentioned it to my doctor!

I need to do a little research, find out how this disorder finally made its way into the light. I joked in last night’s post about misophones uniting and shouting, “We’re here! We’re here!” like in Horton Hears a Who, desperately trying to get the attention of the world’s doctors. Of course, that wouldn’t have happened, because so many of the sounds involved in that mass uprising would have triggered more than half the assembled crowd, and everyone would have fled. 🙂

Disorders are “discovered” all the time — quotation marks deployed because in most of those cases, people have been suffering for any number of decades and it just takes a while for medicine to catch up, but damn. That’s so cruel.

Lakshmi commented that living in a city must make it harder to deal with misophonia. Do you know, until I read her words, it had never once occurred to me that living in this huge, many-peopled city must absolutely have made this disorder worse for me. Just from the greater number of people I encounter in a day, the triggers would increase exponentially. And, by the same token, the fact that I’ve spent so much of the last two years alone in my house has meant that I’ve had significantly fewer run-ins with trigger sounds. How have I not seen that?

One of the articles I read about misophonia talked about ASMR helping people calm down triggered. Um … no. Not me, at any rate. That’s for certain. ASMR is a trigger. That whispery nonsense makes me want to slap the speaker. Ugh. Calming? I mean, if “calming” is another way of saying “setting me off.”

I really do feel as if I talk about misophonia a lot. I haven’t posted that much about it here, but I think I’ve posted a number of times on FB. Each time I write about it, there are many people who comment that a) they’re learning about it for the first time as they read my post, and b) that they or someone they know suffer from it. Meanwhile, all the articles say how rare misophonia is, that only 15 – 20 percent of the population deals with it. It’s unlikely that I just happen to know a huge number of that small 15 – 20 percent. I’m not buying it. What rings more true is that most people have never talked to their doctors about it. Misophonia makes us keep the suffering to ourselves, so the number of folks who have it is dramatically undercounted. I mean, I’m a total over-sharer, and we’ve already established that I’ve never mentioned this to my doctor. Definitely a serious under-counting.

Does it matter that people don’t know about misophonia? What difference would it make if more people were aware? Well, for one, more sufferers would know they aren’t evil and insane. Yes, that’s a big one. But also, people who don’t suffer from it would (maybe?) be more understanding when a misophone snaps at them to stop yawning so loud, stop shuffling their feet, stop chewing with their mouths open. Maybe. Or at least they might not take it so personally. Well, except for the open-mouthed chewing. Please take that personally. And stop. Stop right now. People, THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON TO CHEW WITH YOUR MOUTH OPEN!!!

Ahem. <pats hair back in place>

The unfortunate truth is that there isn’t a lot anyone can do to help someone who has misophonia. I mean, I have my self-soothing tactics, and sometimes they work. Interestingly, one of the things that helps the most is recognizing what’s happening. Having the lightbulb moment of knowing that I’m responding to a trigger doesn’t erase the sound’s power … but it sort of does, too. It can make me feel less out of control. And that helps me remember to use other tools to calm myself. I can listen to music or white noise. I can walk away from the sound, from the person making the sound. I can engage the noise-maker in a different way so that they stop doing whatever it is that has me wishing an anvil would fall on their head.

There are a number of studies being conducted — there’s an International Misophonia Research Network, for example, and a Misophonia Research Fund. It’s encouraging to see that people are working to find treatment options. One interesting treatment I read about was wearing hearing aids that play a relaxing sound. There is still the DIY treatment of reducing stress and getting more sleep. That’s what I’ll be focusing on. That and remembering that throat-punching is generally frowned upon.

It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Triggered: Misophonia Redux

I’ve written about misophonia before. And tonight I need to write about it again. Calling it out, naming it, can help sometimes, can defuse some of my anger response. A quick explanation:

Misophonia, or the hatred of sound, is a disorder. People who deal with it — people like me — are set off by specific sounds. And the response to hearing those sounds can be irritation, rage, panic, the need to flee. It makes sufferers feel as if they’re being driven insane. Fun times, right?

So yes, misophonia. I have it. Or, most accurately, it has me … has me tied up in knots and twisting in the wind. I might be happier if my response was the need to flee, but no. My response has always been instant rage. Zero to infinity in a nanosecond. A shaking, head-exploding rage. Picture me the way anger is depicted in the movie, Inside Out.

I have a long list of sound triggers. Mouth noises are my kryptonite, but knuckle-cracking is also pretty horrible for me. Loud yawns, certain voices. Yes, driven into a rage by the sound of someone’s voice, something they cannot control and certainly can’t be blamed for.

I finally learned that misophonia was an actual, for-real disorder about 10 years ago. And it’s only been a named and recognized thing since 2001. I’m picturing a crowd of misophones somehow finding one another then banding together and fighting to get the medical establishment to recognize them. I see them taking to the streets, shouting, “We’re here! We’re here!” like in Horton Hears a Who. You know, or something.

Learning about it was as glorious as the sun breaking through the clouds after a storm. Learning about it meant I wasn’t imagining it and that I wasn’t the only person suffering from it — if people were writing articles about a problem I had that I’d never mentioned to a soul, that meant other people were having the same problem, and I wasn’t alone in my craziness. Most importantly, misophonia being a real thing with a name meant I wasn’t the horrible person I’d lived my whole life believing myself to be, a monster who got crazy-angry at people when they made everyday noises that shouldn’t have inspired violence in my heart.

I’d spent decades fighting myself to keep my reactions to myself. My responses were unreasonable, so I’ve always worked hard not to show how I was feeling. I mean, I still fight to keep my reactions in — it would really not be okay to punch people in the throat because they yawn loudly. But at least now I know I’m not actually losing my mind, just living the life of a misophone, dealing with a trigger sound. And recognizing that I’ve been triggered actually helps me calm down. I can do little things to put out the fire — listen to music, make noise of my own to drown out the trigger, breathe deeply and do a mini body scan to distract my brain.

When I wrote about this the first time, I had just read an article that suggested reducing stress and getting more sleep could help. I liked the sound of that, and I like the sound of that now, too. Unfortunately, I haven’t done a very good job on either front (and writing slices at midnight isn’t really helping, is it?!).

Why am I thinking about misophonia today? Because the first zoom of my day included a meeting participant who triggered me big time. BIG time. A trifecta of horror. He 1) cracked his knuckles, 2) started eating some kind of squishy scrambled egg burrito business, 3) chewed with his mouth open.


To put it mildly.

I had to turn off my camera. I was literally grabbing fistfuls of my hair and pulling it.

Open-mouth chewing is … the worst. I was truly made insane by that guy. So insane that, for the first time in my life, I actually tried to do it, to see why that might even be a way anyone would ever chew anyhow. Yes, this is as nuts as it sounds. I took a piece of my muffin and tried to chew it with my mouth open.

I was quite comically unsuccessful. I didn’t know what to do with my muscles to have my mouth stay open while I was chewing. I’m serious. I was chewing r-e-a-l-l-y s–l–o–w–l–y trying to get the mouth-open thing. Not only was I not able to chew that way, I wasn’t making any sound at all. What gives? Are the open-mouth chewers wilfully making those disgusting noises? Are those sounds not a natural byproduct of chewing with your mouth open? Has the cruelty been the point all along?!?!

I have spent the rest of the day trying to make any of this make sense. I’m triggered anew just remembering that meeting.

It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

When the foghorn whistle blows …

Because everything I think of triggers a memory of a story or a song or both, thinking that I wanted the title to this post to have the word “fog” in it immediately put “Into the Mystic” in my head. Which is nice, but also distracting …

I wanted fog in my title because I am thinking about how foggy I feel, how my brain seems to be operating on half power (or less) most days. I know I’m not alone in this. Seemingly every day someone remarks on how they have no sense of time anymore, or they can’t remember how to do the most basic things, or they’ve lost the ability to concentrate for more than a minute on even the most important things.

We say we have Covid brain, but there are plenty of people who actually have Covid brain, which is no laughing matter, so joking about it seems wrong. At the same time, this weird fog we’re in is absolutely Covid related. I guess we could say we have pandemic brain.

One sign of that for me that’s on my mind today is how little reading I’ve done in the two years since quarantine began. I have a house full of books (too many books, if the crew that moved me into this apartment is to be believed). Among the mountains of books are many (MANY) that I haven’t read. You’d think I could have made a serious dent in the unread count during two years of mostly being in my house. You’d be wrong, dear reader. Sorrowfully wrong.

I love to read. I can’t think of another time in my life when I’ve read as little as I have during the pandemic. I miss books, miss being able to lose myself in a story, in a character. My brain is just so uninterested, so unable to want to hold onto fiction.

My book group met today. We were in agreement that we all hated the novel we’d read. And I really did hate it. Finishing that book was a kind of punishment for me. I just kept groaning and putting it down. But part of me wonders if the book is really as bad as all that. Yes, everyone in the group agreed that it was bad, but mightn’t we all be suffering from the same pandemic brain problem of not being able to focus on what we’re reading?

One of the women in the group complained that the book had no plot. And I totally agree, but it is possible that I couldn’t discern the plot because my brain isn’t functioning at the level I am used to? Maybe the book really is just as bad as I thought it was, but I wonder.

What else is my foggy, frozen brain not managing to take on? How would I know when I am here, in the midst of the fog?

I want to be reading. I want to be doing a whole host of things that I don’t seem to have the mental capacity for right now.

Is there a solution to this? I hope so. I don’t want to sit and stare blankly come May when I’m off at my residency.

What do I have mental capacity for? As I established at the start of the week, I can sing. I have been singing a LOT this week. (I’ve really needed it.) It’s true that I want to be reading, but maybe I need to just go with what feels doable. I can sing. I can sleep. I can do a little cooking. I can ride my bike. So, not fully atrophied, just in a weird place.

Is it pandemic fatigue, maybe? I can’t think of a better name for the “fizzled-out-ness” I often feel, as if my brain has chosen to shut itself off and recharge, the way C3P0 closes himself down in Star Wars. We are nearing the two-year anniversary of practically everything being turned upside down. And it still amazes me how many things I haven’t managed to figure out in these two years, things that would have made the pandemic a little easier for me, would have made working at home a little easier for me.

So I can sing, sleep, cook, ride my bike. Can I also take on a task a day that focuses on making plans, on imagining what my third pandemic year is going to look like? Maybe a task a day will form a cord, a rope, something I can use to pull myself out of the fog.

When that fog horn blows
You know I will be coming home
Yeah, when that fog horn whistle blows
I gotta hear it
I don’t have to fear it

And I wanna rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
And together we will float
Into the mystic

It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Serendipity or Divine Intervention?

At the last adult education program I ran, the program assistant used to smile and shake her head at me when she’d see my heart melting over some of our more in-need-of-a-hug students. My “benditos” she called them. (Don’t misunderstand: quiet as it was kept, her heart was just as squishy as mine. In fact, all of my benditos were hers, too.)

Admittedly, I was then and I continue to be a pushover, especially for young people who’ve been thrown away by the system — education, justice, employment, legislative. My heart yearns to adopt every last one of them. In that years-ago job, I had the opportunity to offer them kindness and acceptance, to give them a little bit of a soft place to land. And every time I bent a rule or gave one of those young people yet another chance, our program assistant would shake her head and smile. Because I was being my usual bleeding-heart self … and because she expected no less of me.

Some of my beloveds were able to find strong foot- and hand-holds and fight their way up from whatever was holding them down. Some weren’t. Or, were only able to go so far. All of them deserved so very much better than the hands they were dealt.

I left work tonight and walked a subway stop so I could get some more steps in. When I got to the train, I saw that I’d missed a call from the coworker I’d left in the office. Turned out, she’d locked herself out of the suite, so I walked back, went upstairs, and let her in.

When I left the building the second time, I contemplated getting on the train but decided to walk the stop again, get some more steps. (All told, I added about 1500 to my daily total with this extra to-ing and fro-ing.) I thought this story would be my story for tonight, short, kindly, done.

As I went down into the train, a deep voice called behind me, “Excuse me, miss, ma’am?” 

There was no way I wasn’t going to turn around at the landing. Unsure if I’m a miss or a ma’am? Yeah, that sounds like someone I’d have bent the rules for at my old job. That probably sounds silly, but I have a good gut instinct most days, and I trust it. I turned around.

A very young, slight man, grown-ish, but still more baby than brother, not nearly grown enough that he couldn’t have been my grandson.

He handed me a paper and asked if I could help him find the precinct noted in the upper right corner. “They just let me out and I’m trying to go get my stuff.” He took a step back from me. “I don’t need to touch your phone or nothing. I know how that goes. But maybe you could look it up?”

I did, found that the precinct he needed was nearly an hour away.

Let’s think about that. This kid was arrested for something. Was arrested in the neighborhood where that precinct is. They brought him downtown, I have to assume, for court. And they just released him because, I’m going to assume, whatever they’d arrested him for didn’t stick (or they had no good reason to arrest him in the first place but could so did). They brought him downtown to go to court and were so certain they’d get to keep him locked up, they didn’t bother to bring his things downtown with him. It’s winter. This baby had on a t-shirt and a wisp-thin hoodie. They didn’t even let him put on a damn coat. And then, when they didn’t get to put him back in jail, they just put him on the street all the way downtown, no money, no anything, just a piece of paper telling him where he could go to pick up his things.

We are, more often than not, a pretty hideously cruel species. What the actual fuck?

I told him the precinct wasn’t close, showed him what train he’d need to take to get there. We kept going down the stairs. I asked if he had money for the fare. He said no, that he figured he’d show the paper at the token booth and hope the agent was nice. I’m not saying that wouldn’t be possible, but we were going into an entrance that didn’t have a token booth. I told him I’d swipe him in. But then it turned out I didn’t even have enough money on my fare card to swipe myself in. I asked him to wait, so I could load up my card. Again, he stepped away from me, clearly wanting me to be aware that he wasn’t a threat to me, wasn’t going to try grabbing my wallet when I went to the machine. As if I would have been afraid of this kid. My gut had already passed judgment. I knew I was safe.

I put money on my card and swiped him in. He thanked me very sincerely. I told him I was happy to help. We heard his train coming. He put his hands over his heart, bowed a little, and ran down to the platform.

Obviously, my evening went exactly as it was supposed to. I was supposed to walk the subway stop rather than get immediately on the train so that I was above ground to get the message from my coworker so I could walk back and let her into the suite. I was supposed to walk the subway stop again so that I’d be the person heading into the station in front of that sweetheart of a boy who needed a little kindness to send him on his way.

I accept that, the serendipity of all of that.

What I don’t accept is the casual lack of care with which that boy — and far too many boys and girls like him — was treated. For him to be turned out onto the street after his trip to court is ugly. You know you’ve taken him far from home, far from an area that is familiar to him, far from his belongings. And yet you throw him out like so much chaff. Into a winter night when he has no coat. As if you hope he jumps a turnstile to get himself home so that you can arrest him again. As if you don’t want him to have a chance. As if he is worth not the briefest nanosecond of thought.

How could you not see his soft eyes? How could you not hear his warm voice? How could you not notice the way he moved his body so carefully to make sure you would know he was not a threat? How could you not feel the knife in your heart when he hunched into himself, ready for sharp rejection when he asked for help?

If Linda had been with me tonight, she would have shaken her head and smiled. She would also have put that boy in the backseat of her car and driven him to the precinct and then home. And not because she and I are the world’s biggest softies (though we might be) but because that boy was a boy, a child, a young person who deserved better than what he’d been handed. He was someone’s baby. And, for those few minutes we spent together at the Jay Street station tonight, he was my baby.

It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot