August 9, 2010 The Jabberwocky, Didion, self respect and giving myself a break
(I should say at the start I’m taking Didion’s conception of ‘self respect’ to mean simply allowing for your humanity/failings/contradictions – to let yourself be flawed, to work on flaws but not work over and over them berating yourself. I find ‘self respect’ a somewhat judgmental sounding phrase, and I just wanted to clear up my understanding of what she’s saying and what I’m saying when I talk about it so as not to be condoning any sort of ‘Pull yerrself up by the bootstraps and get some self respect about ya’ kind of view)
I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday that jumped out at me because of its sensible, compassionate approach to the question of motherhood. It was in response to an earlier published article that by all accounts lacked any such sensitivity or comprehension of lives and the different struggles they contain. Since I’d read a post by Mindy responding to the insensitivity of the first article, and since I was struck by the beauty of the way this new author had cut through the bullshit and really acknowledged the complexity of parenting, I posted a link to the article in the comment threat at Hoyden, to be informed by Helen from A Cast Iron Balcony that the author is a blogger from Melbourne. This didn’t surprise me as I frequently see a lot more thoughtfulness devoted to a blog post by those at Hoyden, and the bloggers I know from that forum than I ever expect from mainstream media.
After the usual morning shenanigans involved in getting a child of thirteen with Asperger Syndrome and ADHD out the door for a Monday morning (incessant chattering from him while I’m blearily reheating leftover chilli con carne and preheating his thermos, watching him drop the bowl, followed by the honey lid – face down of course, herding him through his various tasks) I sat with my morning coffee and decided to visit the blog Helen had pointed me to. I trawled through say the four most recent posts, liking the author more the more I read. I like an author that can really share – share the realities of their day to day life, share their emotions even where they’re not going to be seen as ‘sensible’, someone that can evoke exactly the scene they describe. And then I got to her (Jabberwocky’s) post on anxiety and self respect
I’ve had some wins in the work sphere, which is great. But every win seems to make me more anxious about the next task or goal, the potential for failure more loaded. Which makes it harder to concentrate on that task. Which makes it less likely I’ll complete it well. And I keep taking on too much work because I’m afraid to say no, afraid to miss out. Worse, I’ve been chasing work when I should be planning a rest, because I need to have done it. Because I need the adrenaline rush of a ‘yes’. Each commission is another cotton-bud balm on my anxiety.
And the less I sleep, the harder it is to think and work efficiently; thus the more frantically my brain whirs through its to-do list at night. Depriving me of sleep. Making me more anxious.
Yes, perversity rules.
Over-concentration on every detail is obliterating the big picture. The pinpricks of every task and every associated worry dance before my eyes and merge into a gauze of anxiety, blocking my internal access to the machinery of analysis and action. An afternoon is wasted fixating on an imagined slight. An evening passes with a tape of a recent social occasion running in the background of my brain, scanning for slip-ups. I am poised to take offence, my skin dangerously thin, nerves pulsing too close to the surface.
I need to press control-alt-delete. I need to reboot. I can’t.
Oh my LORD can I relate to that! And while I describe it in varying detail to close friends, I usually don’t fully articulate the process like that and the description triggers such a response of recognition in me that my words and ideas are tripping over each other in their rush to get onto the ‘page’: I’ve felt the exact sensation of being unable to sleep because I can’t ‘turn down the volume’ in my brain; I’ve had to trick myself into snatching sleep too: I can’t do it in bed, but if I use the air mattress in the lounge when I’ve resigned myself to a night of no sleep I can usually drop off; anxiety: every woman I know seems to have experienced some ongoing form of anxiety; counseling: I wish everyone had a good counselor; the things that have helped me; the ways I wished people talked more explicitly about anxiety, the specific symptoms they experienced etc.
Growing up in a volatile family of over reactors permeated by alcoholic men I don’t think I even understood that I was anxious, let alone self respect. I knew I deserved better than shouting and hitting, I knew it wasn’t right. I knew I was a pretty good kid, I knew I wanted something vastly different for myself. Unfortunately I didn’t quite remember that or know how to actualise any of it, or realise that my self esteem was pretty well fucked and after my brief ‘freedome’ I did wake up at 21 having been in abusive relationships, having done the stoner thing, having married and divorced a man with substance abuse (amongst other) issues, with a child, on my own, back in my family’s house going ‘What the hell? That wasn’t how it was supposed to happen’.
I did take charge of that to the best I could with the very little resources I had (and I was lucky, there are many in the same situation with less resources) – I had no degree so I set about remedying that, first a computer course at TAFE then biting the bullet to go back for a double degree in Arts and Law (middle ground and moderation have been struggles for me for as long as I can remember). I felt miserable living where we did – while it was close to family support it was also a cultural backwater (at least from my perspective) – if you didn’t have a super strong community like church (and for a while I did but eventually I walked away from it) it was scenically pretty but White Blokey Thuggish Pub Culture. The school friends I knew there (the few that hadn’t fled) were just doing the same ol’ same ol’, and I tried but I had nothing in common with them. I knew I wanted more, something different, for myself and for my son and that chystalised around enrolling him in school – I’d fought long and hard to get him to the local school I favoured only to have it dawn on me that it still wasn’t what I wanted for my bright, funny, left of centre son. I remembered those schools – the angry thuggish kids from angry thuggish homes, and I knew it would be a matter of time before my son got the shit kicked out of him and slightly longer before all that I loved about him started to deflate under the pressure of school in that area.
We moved to Sydney with all the financial risks that involved, and moving away from the support of babysitting, cooking etc that my family had provided. But it also felt like an important step towards real independance from a family I felt so tightly enmeshed in and controlled by. But you know: I was a kid with a kid, I was studying and working and raising a child and that started to wear really thin. I had constant headaches, I couldn’t sleep. I was constantly taking on more, trying to prove to myself and the world that I wasn’t their idea of a single mum, that I could do it, I could succeed, I could carve a life of dynamism and achievement. I think that my relationship with my son got more volatile around that time too: he was getting older, experiencing the intense frustrations of school for a kid with special needs, coming home exhuasted and really acting out. I had no preparation: my child went from a delight to be around to someone who completely exhausted and already exhausted me. I didn’t know how to back off from any of it either: if I stopped studying I had no career or financial future to speak of, I simply wasn’t good enough at anything else I was aware of to think I could earn a decent wage and have a satisfying life without the degrees; I couldn’t not work as I needed the money and government support was not enough; I could hardly ‘step back’ on being a mum. Life was constant juggling and reassessment, stress, strain and noise and I reacted by becoming more highly strung, self blaming and not really (or not really knowing how to or even that I should) looking after myself.
I couldn’t sleep properly and that went on for years. I was romantically and sexually lonely but I was so locked into myself that I couldn’t really put myself out there (even if I did meet someone I was interested in which was difficult being older than other students and living in an area with very few people my own age). The anxiety, the filling my time so full that I didn’t have the time, even if I’d had the inclination and facility, to look after myself, the guilt and self blame, the constant performance to the world of the person I wanted to be and be seen as was just completely exhausting. I was so at pains to show who I was by way of opinions and arguments and thoughts, but simultaneously hiding any needs, any vulnerabilities, any oddness or silliness: I continually reinvested in putting myself out there as fiercely independant, as smart and strong, as capable and funny, as someone to be respected. And so I was – those things were and are important. But independance? It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes its really self defeating. And strong? Yeah I am, but how was anyone supposed to nurture me and give me what I needed if I pretended I needed nothing? An odd and silly? Well what’s the point of trying to hide all that?
Anyway I’ve really tried to work on all of that, to ask for help, to start to say no, to stop filling my time so very choc full that its not possible/highly stressful to do the things I want to do to take care of myself, to show my specific strangenesses to the world, to admit it when I’ve been a total turkey, to show my hurt or vulnerability, to start to allow others to help rather than ‘value’ an independance that was beginning to devalue me and all the work it took. And I feel better all the time – except that sometimes the more progress I make the more I get hijacked by the ‘documentary’ Joan Didion discusses (cited in Jabberwocky’s post):
To do without self-respect … is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.
I had seriously never considered it an issue of self respect before, and I can see what she’s saying here. I’d be at pains to say that I don’t think anyone should be taken to task over ‘not having sufficient self respect’ since so frequently the people with these issues are those who’ve been shown so little respect or support by the world – it ends up making individuals responsible for a knowledge they had no access to, no way of gaining – but in the end for myself as a white university educated woman with stable part time employment, this does seem to be what it comes down to: such a desperate desire to prove to the world what I can do, to demand respect for my skills, having come so very far and changed and achieved so much and yet I don’t acknowledge my skills and achievements to myself sufficiently enough that I can give myself a break, forgive myself for not being perfect. I would disagree that self respect is the only factor at play here – how for instance for all those years I was casually employed and trying to juggle everything was I supposed to be able to sleep easily – but it does seem a rather significant one, particularly with reference to the way in which I ‘don’t sleep’ – that it’s the continual replays of the ‘failures’, and it’s that I’d like to change, for myself and for my relationships with others (apart from my son, who, being so continuously close sees me from all angles, sees my wrath, my exhaustion, my fear and tiredness, my silly moments, my unpleasant moments, as well as my bravery and laughter and joy).
I liked Joan Didion’s association of this anxiety/self respect issue with what it does to your relationships with others as well as with self:
To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us.
This is something that’s been churning over in my mind lately: that in my relationship with TBO I’ve shared so very much but frequently withheld ‘messy’ emotions in some attempt to have him see me only as strong, capable, fair, reasonable. I’ve shown him tears and I’ve shown him anger at times but to really let him see it right there when I’m hurt and feel like a mess inside instead of transforming that confusion and pain into a coherent argument at arms length, to setting out what is and isn’t okay, to words-words-words-words-don’t look at me right now-words; and that there is, in the end, a lack of honesty in not allowing him to see that. Which of course (magically it always seems to me) when discussed, when brought to light in the context of a healthy relationship ends up bringing new understandings and revelations and trust.
But also that I don’t allow others to see my vulnerabilities; that in my forceful independence I don’t allow others to help; that I’ve achieved so much but that it might be time to stop packing my days and hours so very full that I’m continually guilty about what I’m not fitting in (which was inevitable since I made sure it didn’t fit); that taking time to be able to spot responses and challenge them, taking time for exercise to release that stress, taking time on my own rather than continually offering to cook for everyone, taking time to just be quiet and see what surfaces, taking time to fit in the things I need to do but not at the speed of light, that that isn’t in fact selfish, that the best way to go might not be to know I have to and beat myself up for not, but to do it and acknowledge that it’s legitimate self care.
Anyway, thanks to Helen for pointing me the way of (the) Jabberwocky, and thanks to Jabberwocky herself, for sharing her experiences of stress and anxiety, for introducing me to Joan Didion, for words that resonate and clarify – for sharing insecurities which I always think is such a brave and generous thing to do.