Emotional Detachment & the Longing for Connection

dscf3448.jpgTwice in the past week, I have had people tell me that they thought I was an extremely outgoing and social person. When I told them that my internal experience was the opposite, they both expressed not just surprise but actual disbelief.

I am about to graduate from the school that has felt like the closest thing to home I have had for half of my life. My sister is the only member of my immediate family still alive. We are trying to be closer than we have been in the past, but for us that means we talk six times/year instead of two. I am not close to my extended family. I would like to be, but I’m not sure how to go about it, and I am afraid that they don’t like me very much or they won’t be interested if I try to become closer to them. I have a few friends who I have, at various times, shared a deep connection with, but I am not currently certain of the status of any of these friendships.

All of this is to say that I feel pretty darn homeless and lacking in meaningful connections right now. Not to paint too bleak a picture, I started crying yesterday which I absolutely never do with other human beings (rarely do by myself, even), and a good friend of mine walked me up into the mountains and put his arms around me and told me he loved me and then just let me cry. So I’m not as utterly alone as I feel, but still I feel it. And given other people think that I am so social and friendly, I am confused.

So when I’m confused, I do research. Cus that’s just the way I roll. So on the internet, I found this description of emotional detachment:

Emotional detachment may also be referred to as dissociation, depersonalization, or emotional numbing. Frequently, it will occur due to some sort of psychological trauma that was experienced in the past after the individual felt emotionally connected to another person. As a result of this trauma, the individual might consciously or unconsciously choose to protect himself or herself by refusing to allow a similar situation to occur. As a result, this person’s behavior in a relationship can be quite frustrating to others, including family members.

So this is what I feel around other people. I have no trouble speaking in class. I go to school parties and carry on conversations. I go to work and tease my students and do my job. I do all of this often in a manner that must come off as cheerful and friendly. But underneath all of these situations, I feel a deep sense of detachment. A going-through-the-motions-because-this-is-what-life-requires feeling.

I think I can actually pinpoint the moment that feeling started. I have told this memory to people. I have thought about it often. I have used it on many occasions as my explanation for why I don’t seem to have gotten as socialized as other folk. But I think there might be another meaning in this memory that I am only now starting to see.

In this memory, I am six years old. I am sitting in the pagoda at the back of the playground during lunch at my elementary school. I am alone and I am looking out at the other children playing and I suddenly have a flash of insight. I can suddenly see, almost as though they are actual tangible things, the unspoken social rules that all the other little children are playing by. I can see them, and suddenly they just look stupid. So I decide in that moment, that I am done following them. And that is the moment when my personal social hell starts.

But if I go back a little further, I can pinpoint some other interesting memories. In possibly my earliest memory, I am walking along fifth avenue by the beach with my grandmother (who I was raised by and often refer to as my Mom). But at the time, she was merely my new guardian. I was about four, and I had already been given away by my birthparents and stolen and taken back several times. But in this memory, I am walking along fifth avenue window-shopping with her and she is holding my hand. When we get to the end of the street, the stores are just starting to open and we go into Regina’s for an icecream cone. But the important part of the memory is definitely that she is holding my hand. And the other important part is that I felt so much hope in that memory. And I’m pretty sure it was hope that this was someone who might love me and cherish me.

But that didn’t really pan out. The year before my playground memory takes place, my aunt (my grandmother’s daughter) kills herself. It is another one of my clearest early memories, though I have been told I was not there so I can’t possibly remember it. And yet, I do. Or I remember something that I attribute to her suicide. My aunt was one of my primary caretakers when she died. Also that year, my grandmother divorced her second husband and we moved away from him. Also that year, it was discovered that “Uncle Bob” was molesting me. So he went away, too. And my grandmother’s mother and little sister both also died that year. So then she went to bed, and that ended that hope that she might love and cherish me.

So maybe I am naturally social. I’m not sure. What I do know is that I have very few memories from a time before I learned to fear people.

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About Trauma and Becoming the Iron Man

OK, that might be gratuitous, but I do love me some Avengers. I haven’t written in a while because I’ve been busy digesting life. It’s been good. But recently I’ve been thinking about vulnerability.

I recently watched a pretty amazing TED talk by researcher Brené Brown about the power of vulnerability. I highly recommend everyone watch the talk, read her books, and look into her research. In this TED talk she basically argues that vulnerability is the key to living a connected and emotionally fulfilling life. On a seemingly unrelated note, I was talking to a boy the other night who I like rather a lot. I had just admitted to him that I am afraid of most people, and he was having a hard time synching that information with the bubbly, friendly, out-going persona that he is used to associating with me.

I’ve talked about hiding on here before. But I want to make explicit a trend that I’ve seen amongst folks who grew up in cold and emotionally abusive homes. I’ve had it pointed out to me that most people are guarded and do not hand out pieces of themselves for general consumption, but I think that when you grow up in a house where you are used to  having your personhood constantly criticized and belittled, and you are expected to meet unreasonable emotional demands in order to get any love whatsoever, I think you naturally learn to become a chameleon. (The other side of that is that you become utterly sullen and rebellious, but I think that those are really two sides of the same coin.)

One of my images.

One of my images.

So what this means in adulthood is that you go into a new situation, you instantly assess what you think would work in that situation, and you become that person. Now I’m at a point in my life where I feel safe and I’d like to stop doing that, but I don’t even know how. I have no idea how to be vulnerable or express my authentic self.

Here’s my quandary: 1) I have been sewing since I was ten years old. I worked in a tailoring shop for awhile. I can design my own patterns, and I love watching project runway. 2) I have been a professional photographer. I have sold my prints. I did school portraits for awhile. Multiple organizations have used my photos for promotional materials. 3) I have studied physics and done research in computational neuroscience. I get off on partial differential equations. 4) I have a deep distrust of science as an overarching philosophical position. I feel a deep connection to the German Philosophers of the mid-20th century. 5) I have biked from Miami to Key West and back. I spent a month on the Appalachian trail. 6) I have been reading tarot cards since I was 13 years old. 7) I enjoy translating the Gospel According to John from the original greek. 8) I have sung in more than 2 dozen choirs. I have composed and arranged. I used to play guitar in a Celtic group after I quit the classical music scene. But sometimes I still sneak into a practice room to play the piano when I think no one will notice. 9) I write novels, non-fiction, and I doodle graphic novel dummies. I have participated in 4 24-hour comic book challenges.  10) I have taught at two private schools and multiple public schools. I have been doing curriculum design for years. 11) I have maintained a passionate interest in sustainable home design for years. 12) I love to cook and I make a mean key lime pie. 13) I used to do political activism. I even lobbied in Washington. 14) I was a nude model for art classes for 5 years. 15) . . .

I could go on for a year and that list would never be complete. The point is, being a chameleon as a way of life has meant that I have done a LOT of different things. And since I don’t do anything I’m not good at, that means that I have developed a more than reasonable competence for a very wide range of pursuits. I don’t know how to connect with someone and be honest about all of that. Because I listen to myself, and I sound like a liar to me. I sound like an impossibility. And I have a feeling that I would not have done all of these things if I wasn’t acting out a really psychologically unhygienic chameleonism.

So I guess I’m just pointing to a specific problem that some kids/adults might have with vulnerability and authenticity. I mean, when you have built a lifestyle out of becoming practically anything, how do you then stop doing that and own all of the different parts that are in you to another person? Real question. Any thoughts?


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About the Term “Triggering”

I just read an article in The New Republic about the increasing attachment of the label “triggering” to media online and in college classrooms as a way to effectively censor certain content. The article also mentioned the recent Wellesley College debate about the statue “Sleepwalker” which many students at the all-women school (which I graduated from) feel to be triggering and wonder why it, of all art installations, has to be outside on campus interacting with all of the students.

I appreciate that the New Republican wrote a thoughtful article about something that I do agree has become problematic. I think that dialogue is important. But I don’t think the problem is that people are trying to become more sensitive to issues surrounding trauma. I think the problem, as with issues surrounding race, sexism, religion, abortion–basically any polarizing issue–is that there is a lack of honest dialogue.

When I lived in Boston (and lily-white Vermont) issues of race were dealt with by a culturally enforced, and inauthentic, color-blindness. PC terminology and rabid cultural sensitivity don’t actually make issues go away, folks. But we get so afraid of “messing up” and “being bad” around certain issues that we effectively squelch dialogue in an attempt to be the “good guy.” And that is problematic. I personally think that is the problem with the uprise of “trigger” warnings.

Becoming aware that certain materials can trigger folks who have PTSD is a good thing. Censoring content across the board because of its possibly triggering affects is not. Again, political correctness as a stand-in for actually thinking through and talking about race I believe is ultimately harmful, as well.

But the attitude that seemed to be expressed in the New Republic article that we should stop worrying about it, has some serious problems. The assertion that triggers are so diverse that we can’t censor everything or know what to censor is also misleading. The fact is, there are not that many categories of things, really, that cause PTSD. Rape, domestic violence, and war are the big ones.

Now I, personally, am triggered by cockroaches. So, yes, that’s random. But I’m also triggered by images of rape, incest, and child sexual abuse. And those, I do feel, are things that it would be worth being a little sensitive about. But, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that our response to being sensitive should be to ban content or censor it. Because the honest truth is that rape survivors don’t need to live in a world that will never remind them of the rape. They need to live in a world that will help them heal and think through how the event has changed their lives.

Folks who are still being traumatized, especially children, really shouldn’t be forced to read books like Speak before they are ready to deal with it. That’s why I maintain that not all kids should be forced to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird. But once they are safe, I think we should be providing even more narratives about potentially triggering materials and increasing exposure to them, not providing fewer and making it easier for them to be avoided.

My basic point is that increased cultural awareness is a good thing. But simplistic measures like labeling certain materials as “triggering” are the wrong approaches because they actually decrease real dialogue in society at large instead of increasing it. And they don’t do survivors a favor either. People shouldn’t be forced to deal with trauma before they are psychologically capable of doing so, but in order to heal and move on with life, we do eventually need to be confronted with these ideas and works of art in order to re-contextualize our lives and move forward. So that’s what I have to say about all that.

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Announcing the 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project List


The Amelia Bloomer Project celebrates children’s & YA books with kick-ass heroines, as far as I can tell. This looks like a great list of 2014 books.

Originally posted on Amelia Bloomer Project:

2014 Amelia Bloomer Project

“However bad this is, it’s always the very best time that there has ever been.”
-Melissa Harris-Perry
(from p.15 of Marianne Schnall’s What Will it Take to Make a Woman President?)

The 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project list highlights the power of the individual and the collective voices of women across time and around the world. We celebrate the legacy of Lynn Povich and her female colleagues who resisted the patriarchy of mass media. The Riot Grrrls of the 1990s introduced a new generation of young women to the right and importance of expressing themselves with loud and unapologetic voices. And today, Tavi Gevinson and her Rookie contributors challenge mainstream media and insist on using their unique talents to claim their share of the global conversation.

Powerful manifestations of contemporary, global feminist movements improving the lives of girls and women include Sampat Pal and her Gulabi…

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Revising Historical Friction by Laurel Snyder

This is a beautiful post by a writer who had a troubled relationship with her grandmother later in life. When her grandmother died, she still remembered being alone and abandoned as a child. So this writer wrote a novel examining what might have changed for her grandmother if she had had one friend through that difficult time.

The post is so touching. And such an interesting examination of how really hard events shape our lives and the lives of those we touch moving forward. And how we can reclaim stories and use them to create a new outcome. I recommend the whole post. My favorite quote:

This isn’t enough, of course. It doesn’t make up for her actual unhappiness.  And it makes me sad that I can’t share the book with her, can’t hand her a copy and say, “Here, I made this for you.”  It makes me sad she doesn’t know.

But it also makes me happy.  I look at the book, with her lovely lonely portrait in the back, and I think that it is just the kind of book we’d have read together, she and I.  Because even when people let Grandmother down, books didn’t.

I recommend you read the whole thing.

Revising Historical Friction by Laurel Snyder.

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On Achilles, Loss, and Growing Up

I’ve been rereading Homer’s Illiad for school. And there seems to be more than just the boring battlefield scenes in it than I remembered from when I was 18. I mean, there are still plenty of those, but there are some other things going on, too. Who knew? But there’s one passage that brought me to tears. And this gets relevant, I promise.

SPOILER ALERT: (Does anyone not know this story?) Achilles has just been told of his best friend Patroclus’ death. And his goddess mother hears him crying and flies down to find out what ails him. She says basically: didn’t Zeus give you everything you wanted? Everything you asked for? And he says:

Mother, yes, the master of high Olympos brought it all about, but how have I benefited? My greatest friend is gone: Patroklos, comrade in arms, whom I held dear above all others–dear as myself–now gone, lost . . . [while] here I sat, my weight a useless burden on the earth.

His self-criticism is fair. His captain, Agamemnon, (who was no match for him in battle) slighted him, so Achilles decided to sulk out the war safe in his ship. And then he called down the God’s wrath to teach his fellow warriors a lesson. But Patroclus took pity on them and went to war. And was killed.

Achilles got the “justice” he asked for, but he lost what was most precious to him in the process. But this isn’t just a “be careful what you wish for” reflection. The real point is what he did next. Which was re-enter the war to avenge his friend’s death and save his fellow countrymen.

He wasn’t just pouting when he decided to sit out the war. He thought he knew what life was, where he stood, what he was fighting for when he went to war: glory. I think he decided to sit out the war after his glory was taken away because he no longer knew what he stood for. He was lost. Like many adolescents navigating a world that is no longer black and white. He had the power all along to help his friends, but he couldn’t because he was lost.

But it was losing the person he loved the most that taught him, I think, that some things are more important than “right” and “wrong” and words like “glory” and “honor”. So he went back to war, even knowing that he would die. Patroclus’ death made him into a man, I’d say.

I think that’s a point worth pausing on. We want certain things that aren’t good for us, ultimately. But we never ever want the things that hurt, do we? And yet, those are the things that teach us about the world and ourselves. Those are the things that ultimately show us what kind of strength we have. Aren’t they? Those are the things that move our souls forward. The happy times are wonderful, but they don’t force us to grow in the same way, do they?

And so here’s the point. I write about poverty, homelessness, rape, domestic abuse, racism, bullying, lots of hard stuff. I want to help kids who have and are suffering out of those situations. I think all of us who work with and write for kids do. But at the end of the day, I don’t think we should hush those hard events away. Because that’s the stuff that builds a life.

Sometimes, if it’s too much or the person isn’t strong enough to stand up under those burdens, then they don’t, and that is a tragedy. But for the kids who suffer and do stand up, those are the experiences that are going to fuel their lives and galvanize their steps. That’s all.

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Write a House: Building a More Literary Detroit

A few weeks ago, I talked about some of the problems facing Santa Fe Public Schools. Today, I want to talk about another educationally failing region of the country and the unique approach that one little non-profit called Write a House is trying to use to help fix the problems.

Now, I have never been to Detroit, but most of us know that it declared bankruptcy last year. Most of us have seen some of the images of its huge, abandoned, burned out buildings that the media likes to flash about these days (that look like scenes from the post-apocalyptic stories I talked about last week). I think Detroit has lost something like 1.5 million residents in the past 50 years. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Detroit youth are struggling.

But I did some research and came up with some pretty appalling statistics. According to a study done by the Detroit Workforce Fund, 47% of the Detroit population (adults, mind) is functionally illiterate. This means they can’t read pill bottles, fill out paperwork, etc. Last year, Detroit’s public high school graduation rate was about 65%, which is more than 10% less than the national graduation rate. And a study in Education Weekly reported that the Detroit school district had the #7 highest drop out rate in the country last year. On top of this, Detroit youth (age 16-21) have the highest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in the country.

So what do teens who aren’t in school and aren’t working do? Well, apparently in Detroit they join gangs, do drugs, and make babies.

Obviously the problems facing Detroit are large, complex, and not going to be solved quickly or with one sweeping effort. But one hopeful thing about Detroit that I’ve discovered since I started researching it is that there seems to be a real community spirit there. Lots of folk are working to make positive change through grassroots efforts on a community/neighborhood level.

And perhaps the most interesting initiative I’ve ever seen is the project Write a House. Their proposal would help combat Detroit’s problems with illiteracy, youth unemployment, de-population, and dying neighborhoods. Basically, they are buying houses in struggling neighborhoods. Then, they are partnering with Young Detroit Builders, who take area youth and teach them construction job skills, to make the houses habitable. They will use these houses to create a unique writer’s residency program. But in this case, they want the writers to stay forever and create a more literary community in Detroit.

They’re not looking for community activists, but they are looking for good writers who have potential, are willing to settle down in Detroit for good, and are likely to be engaged citizens. The chosen writers’ official residencies will last for two years during which time they will be expected to contribute to the Write a House blog, give community readings, and use the house as their primary residence. At the end of the two years, the writer will be given the deed to the house.

Is it going to solve all of Detroit’s problems? No, of course not. But it’s a kind of fascinating solution. Detroiters need neighbors. The youth need job skills. And all of Detroit could apparently bear to have more highly literate folk in their midst doing literate things.

So what can we do to help? Well, they need money. They have already purchased three homes, but they need to raise more funds for the renovations. They are looking for a grant writer. If you are a grant writer or know a grant writer, more information can be found here.

And they are also asking for contributions through an indiegogo campaign. The page includes a great interview about the project with the director of Young Detroit Builders if you want to learn more.

So I guess what I’m asking is that you all consider helping them out to whatever extent you can and then pass this information along to anyone else you think might be willing to help them. And that feels kind of great to me since I don’t get to suggest actual, concrete solutions for specific problems really ever.

Good luck, Write a House!

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