Looking in the Mirror

I just had a difficult session with Wakana that left me feeling much worse than when it started. I needed to Skype with her because I’m struggling to finish a paper; it’s been so hard to focus. (I spent the time I would have been traveling working on the paper instead.) I have most of the articles I need – I thought I had all of them, but she told me some of them were no good because they’re sort of related to my topic, but different enough that I really should find ones that fit better. She was being quite critical and trying to get me to do research during our session. I got really angry, felt like telling her she was being my mother, and told her “That’s not how I want to spend our time together.”

(I hadn’t wanted to talk about the paper at all, to be honest. I was just complaining about it. I had wanted to spend the session processing my feelings about putting our dog to sleep last week. I’m not sure why I didn’t just say that. Maybe I’m still not quite ready to do it yet.)

Then I finally explained that I have most of the articles I need, I’ve read and taken notes on them, I have a list of topics and I’m writing down which articles talk about each of them on which page; I just need to finish that process and write the paper. I even have my entire reference list in the proper format. It’s just the writing… honestly, I think I was finding that hard because I hadn’t made the list of topics yet. Now that the information is better organized, all I need to do is… find more articles. And write the frelling paper.

One thing she said really stood out to me – it’s the primary reason why I’m inclined to view the session as helpful and not a complete soul-crushing waste of time. When I finally told her the progress I had made on the paper, she asked:

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

I couldn’t speak for a while. I was asking myself the same question. It was such an obvious thing to do, and yet I hadn’t done it. I went with something along the lines of “I assumed you knew.” (I often forget that other people don’t necessarily know what I know.)

But it goes a bit deeper than that. I was taking the good stuff I’d done for granted. I thought it wasn’t important. Sure, okay, despite being an emotional wreck with a lot of crazy stuff going on and the two people I live with complaining at me every chance they get I still somehow managed to find several articles on a topic that is difficult for me to think about, read them, take notes on them, admit to my instructor that I’m having difficulty (twice!), organize the information, and set up a Word document so when I’m ready all I’ll have to do is write. I even wrote a couple paragraphs before I realized I needed to take a step back and organize the information. And I’ve been juggling that with grieving and being the primary caregiver to two young rats who can be rather demanding at times. I sewed two sets of shelf liners for their cage, installed the grommets in four of the six total pieces, cleaned the cage by myself, and took them to the vet. (I’m happy to report that they’re both healthy.)

But who cares? I still haven’t written this paper and I have another one due in a week and I’m completely lost regarding my piano class and I haven’t been practicing and my home is a cluttered mess and my husband isn’t doing anything around the house because he’s chronically exhausted from work and I feel like shit. Pardon me while I go curl up in a hole and die.

I’m inclined to say it’s because my mother always hones in on the negative stuff. If I told her the progress I’ve made with my paper, she’d remind me that I still need to finish it and it’s not good that I’ve been putting it off. I told her I felt guilty for not appreciating our dog while he was alive; instead of sympathizing she said maybe I’ll take it as a learning experience and appreciate her before she dies. (It was kind of counterproductive.) If I told her I’d won the lottery, she’s say I’d better spend the money wisely (and where’s her share?). If I told her I’d been offered my dream job, she’d say I’d better work hard so I don’t lose it. (Or that it doesn’t pay well enough; am I sure this is what I want to do with my life?)

I think you get the idea.

But who cares? My mother is crazy. I know that. Wakana knows that. I think my mother knows it, too. That’s no excuse for my behavior. I should know better. In theory, at least, I do know better. I shouldn’t blame her for my self-destructive behaviors. I should appreciate the multitude of things she’s done and continues doing for me. Like paying for therapy. Sheesh, you’d think with all the money I’ve spent on it over the past 5 years I’d have learned something as basic as not to dwell on negative things.

The thing is, my mother is crazy. Wakana, not so much. Yet she did something that is so similar to what I’ve come to expect of my mother, I almost rolled my eyes and huffed, “Yes, Mom” like a teenager. (My relationship with my mother is very mature.)

So now I’m wondering, What did I do to make Wakana act like my mother? This isn’t the first time she’s taken a somewhat heavy hand in trying to “help” me with my homework. Does something about the way I talk about it – or the fact that I’m talking about it – suggest I want or need her help? Do I somehow present myself as helpless, unmotivated, passive, and/or ignorant of how to complete the necessary tasks? Do I turn the focus of our sessions to my schoolwork to avoid working on more important and relevant things during therapy? (Yes.) How can I become aware of my actions and the effect they’re having on others? How do I change them to evoke the responses from others that I actually want and need? (It probably has something to do with being more assertive, such as saying, “I’d like to spend our time together processing my feelings about putting my dog to sleep.”)

These are the things I actually need her to help me with. I guess it’s good that at least now I’m aware of it.

She told me to make a list of all the good things I do this week. I guess realizing I’m (at least partially) responsible for how people treat me can go at the top.


Sims 3 Legacy Challenge (Reprise)

Due to some serious glitches in my save game, I decided to restart my Sims 3 Legacy. I have the same founder and the same lot in the same town… but I’ve already started doing some things differently.

For an overview of the challenge and its rules, visit the Sims 3 Legacy Challenge website. In short, the challenge is to play for 10 generations without using cheat codes, extending your sims’ lifespans, raising them from the dead, etc. You start with just one sim on a very large empty lot and $1800 starting cash.

I decided to alter some of the rules for my challenge run:

  1. I added a total of 10 days to the “normal” sim lifespan.
  2. I decided that the camera in the founder’s inventory at the start of the game may not be sold.
  3. I added “No Bills Ever,” “Fireproof Homestead,” and “Young Again” to the list of forbidden Lifetime Rewards.
  4. Updated: I set up my own rules governing the traits I choose for sims that are born in-game (instead of requiring them all to be random):
    1. They must have the family trait
    2. One trait must be from the mother
    3. One trait must be from the father
    4. One trait must be random
    5. I have unrestricted choice of one trait
    6. If the sim acquires an additional trait (e.g. from completing a degree) I will keep whichever one is suggested by the game
  5. I’m playing a matriarchal family: I have a female founder and “only female children may become the heir to bring in the next generation.” Males born into the family may (but are not required to) stay to help take care of their nieces and nephews.
  6. My goal is for each heir to have children with whichever unrelated male sim(s) she chooses – without the need for marriage or other committed romantic relationships. (This way I don’t have to take control of non-player characters.) In fact, I’ve chosen “Commitment Issues” as the family trait to support this play style.
  7. I’m going to try to make additions to the legacy house without altering the existing structure. That means existing walls, exterior wall coverings, doors, and windows will remain whenever possible.

I’m inclined to show images depicting how the family and their house has changed over time. That’s what brings me back to play this game over and over and over again: the compression of time.

Founder: Aurora Bonaventura

The founder of my Sims 3 legacy spent her young adulthood climbing the culinary career ladder, making friends throughout Riverview, and developing the diverse skills she needed to earn a partial scholarship to University. She completed a Fine Arts degree with a grade of A, causing her salary to more than double! Now she is a full-fledged adult ready to start her family.

Aurora as a young adult

Legacy House

The legacy house has changed quite a bit. $1800 was just enough to buy the items I considered absolutely essential: a bed, a refrigerator, a chair, and a light source. They furnished a 3×3 hut with a simple door and a tiny window. My sim had $1 left over. For the entire summer she had to travel across town to use the toilet and shower at the gym.

Aurora relaxes in her tiny home.

A view of the whole legacy lot (345 Riverblossom Hills Drive in Riverview). In time the legacy house may come to rival its rather ostentatious neighbors.

In autumn I added a second, larger room to be my sim’s living space, then slowly acquired the items necessary to convert the original hut into a bathroom. It was well into winter before everything was in place.

Aurora eats cereal in the middle of her far more spacious combined living room and bedroom.

Winter Wonderland

She saved over the winter (I can’t imagine anyone doing construction in the snow) so she could add a spacious, state-of-the-art kitchen and upgrade to a queen-sized bed. She was thrilled to finally cook for herself instead of living on cereal!

Aurora helps herself to some of the waffles she just cooked in her new kitchen.

The legacy house is now a respectable size, and it has plenty of room to grow!

Will the legacy survive to generation 2? Find out next time!

Life Update

Things have been a hectic blur for me lately, a lot of transitions. Most of it has been very good, but now I’m exhausted and I have two papers to write and two skill demonstrations to prepare for.

I’m mostly recovered from my periodontal surgery: the periodontist said everything seems to be healing nicely and my oral hygiene is good. It will be … I think she said six (6) months before we’ll know if the bone is growing back. The area only bothers me when I think about it; I’m inclined to attribute most of my discomfort to jaw tension and sinus pressure. Definitely a huge improvement!

I was assertive in my last appointment with the nurse practitioner (APN) who is managing my medication. She agreed to increase my dose of Lamictal/lamotrigine to 75 mg. It’s helping – a lot.

The APN knows about MTHFR mutations and seemed to take my thoughts about them seriously, but said insurance companies rarely cover folate supplements, even when the diagnosis is supported by genetic testing. She suggested seeing how the Lamictal helps me before pursuing this possibility.

Wakana and I collaborated on my disability documentation, which was good practice for collaboration and negotiation outside of therapy.

I met with the head of the disability resource center on Tuesday. She is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met! I now have official forms to request accommodations from my instructors.

More importantly, she secured the extension I need to complete my degree! That is a huge weight off my shoulders.

We had to put Mom’s dog to sleep in the middle of the night between Wednesday and Thursday. He’d had worsening health issues for quite a while, but then suddenly he became listless and lost interest in food. (He used to eat practically everything.) The vet said there wasn’t much they could do for him, and he was about 13 or 14 years old. We knelt around him and pet him during the procedure, then said our goodbyes and all but fled from the room. I felt horrible about leaving his body lying on the floor.

It hit me much harder than I expected and brought up a lot of guilt, mostly about how I’d treated him when he was alive. I could have been more compassionate and interactive on his terms and advocated for the training he needed to be a better companion animal. But I guess it was a learning experience.

I keep reminding myself that he was Mom’s dog, and therefore her responsibility. She’s the one who raised him, who unintentionally reinforced some of his most disruptive behaviors. It kind of puts a bandaid on the wound.

I was an emotional wreck on Thursday. I spent most of the day sewing to keep myself from falling apart. I missed my fifth piano class this semester. I need to talk to the instructor and work with her to make the class more accessible to me, but I’ve always been a bit intimidated and put off by her. So far I’ve preferred to ignore the situation.

Yesterday Fox and I adopted a pair of young rats. Not the best timing, but we’d been planning and preparing for a long time. It was so much fun meeting them, their foster humans, their brothers, and their biological father. We got to have them running all over us and the couch – so much fun. At one point I had six rats squirming around on my shoulders, arms, and chest. It was the most relaxed and content I’ve felt in months.

I picked two brothers the foster parents said were “inseparable” that seemed to spend the most time voluntarily on Fox and me. One of them had sat on my shoulder bruxing; I took that to be a good sign. Getting them in the carrier was a nightmare, but they seemed to settle pretty quickly. They even seemed to want our attention soon after their first explorations of their new cage! I’m taking it slowly, offering them the opportunity to climb on me and go home as soon as they choose. It takes a lot of willpower, but I’m resisting the urge to scoop them up and take them to the couch. They get to interact with me on their terms. So far, so good… I think…

I’m concerned because they sneeze occasionally. I noticed some other symptoms yesterday, but they were under a lot of stress. I need some time and guidance to figure how concerned I should be.

I experienced a jumbled mess of emotions yesterday that made adopting rats less joyful than I felt it should be. At first I felt guilty for choosing them over their brothers, then I felt horrible for separating them from everything and everyone they’ve ever known! Then I was angry because I was aware of some symptoms while we were meeting them; their foster humans told us that they’d been kept in cedar chips as babies (by the “humane” society from which they’d been rescued) and their dad had “ongoing respiratory issues.” They assured us that the young rats had a clean bill of health, though.

It wasn’t until we got them home and their foster human sent us the initial vet report that it all clicked. One of the rats I chose – the one who spends most of his time sleeping or getting picked on by his brother – was treated for “mild” respiratory problems at 6 weeks old. His lungs were clear but still…

My past experience with rats having respiratory issues has been heartbreaking. In my first pair the more laid back, cuddly rat with respiratory issues died only a month after I adopted him. My roommate at the time said the rats had been fighting a lot more than usual in the hours before he died.

I want to take my current rats to the vet asap, but I also don’t want to traumatize them by doing so too soon. And I have schoolwork to do. Fox thinks we should wait a week (until his next day off work). He also seems a lot less concerned than I am. I don’t know if he’s not taking our new pets’ health seriously, I’m overreacting, or something in between.

The depression goggles have been very strong with me lately. I feel like everything I do is wrong.

But we have two adorable fuzzy critters, both of whom seem eager to interact with us and to love their new cage. I’ll take them to the vet as soon as I can. In the meantime I want to give them the love and attention they deserve – and cherish every moment of joy they give me.

P!nk and Janelle Monáe Show Us How It’s Done

I’m way more interested in what Dr. Maggie DiNome is doing to eradicate cancer than anyone’s dress size.

Dances With Fat

NO Negative Body TalkThis week two stars gave us glowing examples of how to deal with the bullshit that many people think they deserve for doing their jobs well.  Let’s start withP!nk.  She went to a benefit to raise money for literally curing cancer.  As usual people were not able to keep their eye on the ball and had a go at her for her weight.  P!nk was not having it, tweeting:

I can see that some of you are concerned about me from your comments about my weight,” You’re referring to the pictures of me from last night’s cancer benefit that I attended to support my dear friend Dr. Maggie DiNome. She was given the Duke Award for her tireless efforts and stellar contributions to the eradication of cancer. But unfortunately, my weight seems much more important to some of you. While I admit that the dress didn’t photograph as…

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I finally did something I should have done at least 2 years ago: I contacted the disability resource center on campus regarding accommodations for my mood disorder. It feels like signing my own death sentence, or at the very least admitting defeat. I would never have done it, but I need an extension to complete my degree (I “should” be graduating this semester) and my academic adviser suggested this as my first step.

disability form

part of the registration form requesting information about the type of disability, problems it causes in an academic setting, previous and currently-requested accommodations

I’ve been putting the whole thing off because of internalized stigma around mental illness, and possibly also some ableism. Saying I have a disability – rather than “I’m going through a rough time” – marks me as different, deficient, other. Possibly for life.

My hope for the future has relied heavily upon the belief that the difficulties I’ve been facing (my whole life) are temporary – “a minor setback” – and soon I will “recover” and have a “normal” life. Ironically, I was able to take this step because I’ve been feeling better: with more hope, positive self-esteem, determination, energy… but the obstacles to functioning in society are still real. I keep saying I just need things to settle down a bit so I can get my feet under me, but experience says they never will. (And to be honest, I’m not sure I’d want them to. For things to settle down as much as it seems I need, life would be boring.)

Life is chaotic. Our society isn’t built for people like me. (It actively and persistently oppresses us.) I can learn, grow, adapt, take meds, reach out for support, request accommodations… I recently learned about MTHFR mutations and suspect they may be a contributing factor; I plan to talk to the APN about genetic testing and supplements that might be helpful, in hopes we can get my insurance to cover them. But even with that: much if not most of the food that is available to me has been “fortified” with folic acid, the very substance that may be interfering with my body’s functioning.

My point is, social, institutional, economic, and other norms need to change before marginalized groups and individuals will be able to live “normal” lives.

If that’s what we even want. “Normal” as defined by whom? I don’t want to “be productive” and “contribute to the economy.” I want to thrive. I want to express myself creatively, share joy with others, feel safe and whole and loved…

One of the things that makes requesting disability accommodations at school so painful is that academic excellence used to be a major strength – possibly the major strength – I relied on to survive. I wasn’t being challenged on my level in elementary and middle school, so all I really had were my grades. They were my proof that I was worthy of existing. They provided some stability in a chaotic home. Even as I began to be challenged in high school and undergrad and developed a love of learning, my grades were a primary source of self-confidence and pride. Academic excellence was – and to some extent still is – an important part of my identity. Too bad it doesn’t actually mean all that much in the real world.

A woman smiles broadly while holding up a letter.

Maria was very happy to receive an A for the term!

Now my classes aren’t really about learning information and answering questions on a test or writing papers. I can do those things – when I manage to concentrate, which is becoming quite difficult. They’re about practical skills, social skills, being and doing and interacting – often on a deeply personal level. They’ve been churning up the painful realities of my life – that’s what forced me into therapy. I can’t just put my blinders on and memorize facts anymore, I have to look in the mirror, internalize things, face my worst fears, and guide others through them.

I have to juggle academic responsibilities with everyday life, which has become a lot more complex since I graduated college. There’s always something. Getting Fox to and from work every day. Remembering to take antibiotics that are making me sick following periodontal surgery. A problem with our plumbing that’s got Mom stressed out. Everyday chores… I never got the hang of them. And for some crazy reason I’ve decided that now is a good time to adopt new pet rats…

from reelmomevents.com

from reelmomevents.com

The worst part is, I have to prove that there’s something wrong with me. The head of the disability resource center replied to my email: she won’t even schedule an appointment to talk to me until she receives documentation of my difficulties. The guidelines for said documentation are quite intimidating:

  • a complete DSM-IV diagnosis (which Wakana actively avoids and psychiatric professionals have disagreed on)
  • description of my specific symptoms (I could write that)
  • my current treatment
  • “identification of the substantial limitation on a major life activity presented by the disability” and how that applies to academics
  • recommendation of specific accommodations that are supported by the diagnostic information
  • all this information has to be on official letterhead that includes the mental health professional’s credentials and contact information

I think Wakana and I could come up with something useful for most of those items, but we’ve drawn a blank when trying to come up with specific accommodations relevant to an academic setting that would actually help me. (I doubt “not having to demonstrate the skills I’m supposed to have been developing over the course of the semester” is an option.) That’s part of why I wanted to talk to the head of the disability resource center: to explain my situation and learn what requests might be considered relevant and reasonable. (e.g. What accommodations might reduce the social anxiety I experience around having to demonstrate my skills?) There’s information on the website, but it’s not really relevant to my situation.

It also irks me that throughout the site, “it is the student’s responsibility to” fight tooth and nail for these accommodations. I’m thinking perhaps the people who came up with these policies do not have disabilities – psychiatric or otherwise. At the time(s) when I would have benefited the most from having a documented disability and certified requests for accommodations, I was in no condition to be acquiring such documentation and meeting with indifferent strangers. (One might argue I was in no condition to be taking classes, but that perspective might exclude me from higher education indefinitely. Isn’t that what the disabilities resource center is supposed to help avoid?)

Reaching out for help with psychiatric issues isn’t easy. People say “go get help” like it’s the easiest, most obvious thing in the world. It’s not. It’s counter-cultural. It’s acknowledging a reality most people don’t want to accept: that we’re vulnerable and have fears and doubts and feel pain … That dedication and hard work (and good grades) don’t provide happiness, wellness, or financial stability. People don’t want to consider the possibility that maybe the dominant Western cultural expectations aren’t realistic and may even be harmful. They don’t want to believe that we’re honestly having a problem; they tell us we’re being lazy.

In a way applying for disability accommodations is admitting defeat, it’s saying: “I find your game too difficult, so I need you to change the rules for me, specifically, because I’m less capable than everyone else.”

Except that clearly it’s not everyone else.

And when we do reach out for help, the response is far from welcoming and supportive. We’re put on waiting lists, required to fill out mountains of paperwork, interrogated, told we can schedule an appointment after providing documentation, etc. It fuels the cognitive distortions that are common in depression, especially “I don’t matter.” and “No one cares about me.” It makes following through on the initial request for help very difficult.

Almost as though the very people who are supposed to be helping us don’t want to.


I had my long-awaited periodontal treatment yesterday! It was surprisingly straightforward: she accessed the inside of my gums, flushed the area with water, did the bone grafting, and stitched me up. I estimate the whole thing took maybe 45 minutes. The worst part was getting the local anesthesia.

I was very proud of myself. The radio was on when we were first setting up; it sounded to me like people were yelling at each other. I found it was amplifying the anxiety I already felt about having the procedure and anticipated feeling while people were working in my mouth. So, I requested that it be turned off “to help me manage my anxiety.”

(I think my mom was the one who actually got the staff to comply with my request – not the doctor. I don’t think she would have done that if I hadn’t said something. I’m grateful that she advocated for me.)

As soon as the radio was turned off, I instantly relaxed. It was like I had been naked under a thick, heavy blanket made of an abrasive material that covered my whole body and shrouded me in darkness. When the shouting (on the radio) ended, it was like someone had removed the blanket; I was suddenly wearing comfortable clothing in a room with just the right amount of light. I could breathe easier – literally. It was amazing.

I tensed up to varying degrees throughout the procedure, but was reassured when the periodontist checked in and told me what she was doing. The worst was when she needed to give me an extra shot of painkillers. There was adrenaline in the mixture and it made my heart start racing. I managed to communicate my distress; she told me to breathe deeply, counting to five, and exhale slowly. That made the rest of the procedure much easier to endure – even when my sensitivity returned before she was done with the stitches. (I decided I’d rather endure that discomfort than the pain of another needle.)

I was irritable and out of sorts afterward and actually told my mother I needed her to stop talking to me about stressful things. I took the medications they’d prescribed and relaxed for a couple hours.

And then I went to class. Not only did I exist in class, but I was fully present. I took notes and contributed to class discussion. I did my best to support a group member for whom the material hit close to home and disclosed that I am actively struggling with depression. My group mates acted like it was no big deal; I’m simultaneously relieved that this revelation probably won’t impact their acceptance of me… and annoyed that I didn’t get more attention! But perhaps they handled it in the way that’s best for everyone involved. I need to be just another person in this big scary world, not someone who’s considered different, deficient, “other.”

I even role-played a member of the most difficult population for me to face: cancer survivors. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve never had cancer myself, but it has had devastating effects on my family – and, as a result, my mental health. I have mixed feelings about survivors: of course I wish them well and support them in their efforts to overcome a horrible illness – especially the social pressure they face to “stay positive” during an extremely stressful time. I also… experience them as a painful reminder of what – who – I’ve lost. Some of my most painful memories.

I consciously and very actively set up mental blocks to protect myself emotionally. (e.g. “I have no idea what cancer survivors are going through.”) The blocks prevented me from getting – and staying – in character, but it was what I needed at the time. I saw a threat, made a conscious decision, established and maintained a boundary. Yet I was able to talk about it with my group mates, remain present with them, contribute to their learning (I hope), and learn quite a bit in the process.

The periodontist said the prognosis for my tooth is poor due to the location of the bone loss (between the roots).

I say eff that! I want to keep this tooth, so I will! I’m going to make a full recovery.

Sims 3 Legacy – The Next Generation

It probably comes as no surprise that the founder for my Sims 3 Legacy Challenge, Aurora Bonaventura, was indeed able to bring in the second generation of her matriarchal bloodline. One of her love interests randomly stopped by one evening after she’d graduated from University and resumed her culinary career. It seemed the perfect opportunity to start her family…

Aurora feeds her baby in the living room. Going clockwise from 9 o'clock, one can see the kitchen, bathroom, children's bedroom, and master bedroom around her.

Aurora feeds her baby in the living room. Going clockwise from 9 o’clock, one can see the kitchen, bathroom, children’s bedroom, and master bedroom around her.

She gave birth to a baby girl near the end of summer. Then her love interest visited again; she gave birth to a baby boy in early winter. Raising the two children on her own proved to be quite the challenge. It didn’t leave her any time or energy to work on other things.

A genogram (family tree) depicting Aurora (upper right) and her children: Brianna (lower left) and Brandon (lower right). Their father's family is depicted in the upper left.

A genogram (family tree) depicting Aurora (upper right) and her children: Brianna (lower left) and Brandon (lower right). Their father’s family is depicted in the upper left.

Family photo: Brianna sits in the foreground, while Aurora holds Brandon (as a toddler) in the background.

Family photo: Brianna sits in the foreground, while Aurora holds Brandon (as a toddler) in the background.

Aurora climbed her career ladder until she reached her lifetime goal of becoming a celebrated 5-star chef, then retired. She’s written 2 books so far: an autobiography and a guide to improving upon recipes.

The kids excelled in school, successfully juggling academics and part-time jobs (as teenagers). The girl, Brianna, developed a passion for painting and writing. The boy, Brandon, dedicated much of his time to improving his chess strategy.

I played until Brianna became a young adult and graduated high school.

Aurora (left), Brianna (center), and Brandon (right) take a celebratory photo soon after Brianna's graduation from high school

Aurora (left), Brianna (center), and Brandon (right) take a celebratory photo soon after Brianna’s graduation from high school

Aurora died of old age a day or two later… except that the cat (whom she had adopted shortly before having Brianna) begged the Grim Reaper to let her live. (Autonomously: I was controlling one of the kids.) The cat’s plea was successful!

Aurora is still alive… for now…

My Past

content note: language (to describe ease of using skills) that is based on my experiences as an able-bodied individual

I have a turbulent relationship with my past. I have longed for it: for long-gone friendships, fond childhood memories, deceased loved ones, “simpler times.” I have shunned it, disconnecting myself from identities and ways of being I felt did not serve me well, and embracing the anonymity of a new school. I have been taunted by it in dreams where that person I miss so much is alive again – but for some reason I never get around to interacting with them directly in a meaningful way, and I wake up feeling empty. I have been tortured by internalized abuse and actions I regret. I have blamed my past for my current problems. I have hated it and run from it, and yet I can’t stop looking back.

Yesterday was the first time I truly and consciously thought of my past as a tool. Fox’s dad was telling me about a time he was surprised by his ability to do something he found challenging, but later realized that he’d managed something similar over 30 years ago! It was a skill set he had already developed, that was just waiting to be used. “Like riding a bike,” as the saying goes: once one learns to ride a bike, one can do it again at any time (assuming no change in physical abilities, e.g. from an injury). It gave him confidence for a new direction he wants to take his life.

I connected his story to my ability to lead a group music therapy experience with my classmates on Wednesday, despite feeling overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted, and inadequate. They were role-playing children; I used a familiar children’s song to facilitate group interaction. Once I’d received enough support from them that I was able to focus on the task at hand, my past experiences kicked in. Years of playing guitar guided my fingers between two familiar chords, even though I hadn’t so much as looked at my guitar in months. My brief experience of working in a daycare for young children (seven years ago) jumped back into the here-and-now: I was singing the same song, having the same fun, and using the same strategies to keep the group from descending into utter chaos. This was augmented by related experiences in some of my music therapy fieldwork (five years ago).

Even the new suggestions I got to try out in the moment were supported by what I’ve learned through past experiences and reading. I was able to consciously focus on them and be more intentional in my overall approach because so much was happening automatically. All I needed to do was allow myself to be fully in the moment, past and present working together.

I see it in other areas of my life, too. Being in my thirties is great because I clearly remember things that happened ten, fifteen, occasionally even twenty years ago. I’ve been driving for well over a decade; it’s become as easy and natural as walking. I’ve been actively and voluntarily developing my music skills for over twenty years now: singing in choirs, studying instruments, becoming fluent in music theory, composing and improvising. Reading and writing and looking up information… forget about it. They’re all active skills I’ve nurtured for so long, they’re just part of my nature.

I can use them, trust them, develop them further. Too often I fear going into new situations alone, like I’m completely unprepared and I’ll fall apart as soon as things become unpredictable. But I’m never alone. I have all these years of experience to guide me.