Over the last year or so, I’ve been reading a lot of books about people who lived in oppressive environments, or people who were dealing with dysfunctional circumstances. I read, over and over, about how people in those situations survived, and in some cases thrived, because of their communities. Sometimes their ‘community’ was as small as a tightly-knit extended family; other times it expanded to include a neighborhood, a religious group, or a cultural/ethnic/racial group.
Writing my 4/12 post, grumbles, uncovered a sore point — why don’t I feel part of even one community? All my friends live far away, and I rarely see them in person. If I have an everyday kind of chore that I just can’t bring myself to do — the kind that would really help if I had a friend who could come over, for moral support if not to directly help – well, I just have to figure out a way to do it myself. (Which means they don’t get done; or it takes months and months, maybe years, to work myself up to it.) So that seems unfortunate.
But the only model that I have experienced personally of something resembling (how I think of) a community is my ultra-entangled family of origin. In theory, they are people I could call in the middle of the night if I had an emergency. When things were going wrong in my life (most of the time, it seemed like), they were very interested in telling me everything I was doing wrong. Occasionally they subjected me to a laundry list of all my faults, why I was a hopeless loser who was never going to amount to anything. Other times I was castigated for not being ambitious enough. When I did succeed at something, nobody was very interested. I was told I was being selfish for wanting to talk about my achievements. Instead, I was regaled with the achievements – all supposedly much more impressive than mine — of my siblings, cousins, neighbors, children of my parents’ friends, etc. I was asked why I couldn’t be more like those people.
And all the while, the bulk of my emotional energy was going towards supplying emotional labor* to all of these people. My mother demanded, and got, the lion’s share, but fairly frequently other people insisted I supply them with a better mood, or emotional support and encouragement, or just a listening ear when they felt unheard in the rest of their lives. Wikipedia talks about ‘emotional labor’ as if it only occurs in jobs; when it does, you get paid for doing it. You also suffer stress, emotional exhaustion, and depression, eventually leading to burnout. But along the way, you’re getting paid, and, at least potentially, you’re getting respect for being a professional. I was born into a family situation where my role was to supply emotional labor for anyone who asked, 24/7/365. I never got a vacation; I never got days off. I worked really hard, I cared about doing a good job, but I never felt respected for the services I was providing, never mind appreciated.
I kept waiting for it to be my turn: someone to encourage me, someone to offer me emotional support, someone to call in favors to help me do something amazing, someone to celebrate my triumphs. But that didn’t happen.
During this same time period, I also wanted to create art, but I couldn’t. I felt things inside of me that wanted to be expressed, but I couldn’t get to them. I thought I was blocked. Infrequently, I hacked away until I had something to show, but it was always pallid and lifeless. Since not only a major part of my identity, but a source of comfort, was considering myself an artist, thinking that maybe I wasn’t one after all, or that maybe I really sucked at it, was worse than the rest of it.
Not long after Spouse and I were married, I told him I’d been trying to create art for years but was somehow blocked, so he bought me Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and I began her program. I’ve returned to it often through the years, but I’ve never gotten through all 12 weeks.
She describes creativity as a well that needs periodic replenishing. She suggests you do that through something she calls (iirc) ‘artist dates’, where you essentially let your inner child come up, and do fun, open-ended, playful things with them. That is the one part of her program I can’t get the hang of. Which is a little odd because I do interact with my 2 inner children fairly often. Maybe part of the problem is trying to schedule it? Left to my own devices, I’m just not a planner.
Starting in 1985, when I was a year out of high school, I either had paid employment, or attended classes, or did both at once, for almost all of the next 24 years. There was one period, while Spouse and I lived in Chicagoland, that I was unemployed for a little over a year. I had been so sure that leaving Indiana and returning to Illinois was going to kickstart a glorious future for me. I got a job right away, working in downtown Chicago again, but this time as a professional – a GIS analyst. It was a disaster from the very beginning. My boss was a lot like my mother – impossible to please, demanding, capricious, screamed when she didn’t get her own way. Not only did no one want to work with her, but (I learned later), even interns wouldn’t take a permanent job with the agency if it meant working for this person. I never got to do what I was hired to do — I think I made one map. Instead, I was getting paid $16 an hour to do data entry. Now, I liked doing data entry, but you don’t need four years of college for it (or in my case, 15 years of college). And I was doing data entry while I was hiding from my boss; it was a way to fill 8 hours, and not feel totally useless. But it wasn’t enough. This was a job where I found myself going to the bathroom 7 or 8 times a day, just to use up time. I figured out exactly how much money I was making per minute, after taxes, and then I counted down every day. It was horrible. I lasted just under three months. And then I couldn’t find another job, doing anything.
Even though I was married, and at that point had been married for seven years, even though Spouse didn’t care if I worked or not, every day that I wasn’t working I felt like a failure as a person. (Just saying that, tears welled up.) “If you can’t or won’t ‘earn your keep’, you should get thrown out into the street.” I felt that, all day every day, no matter what Spouse said.
So, in desperation to stop those voices in my head, and to give myself a reason to get out of bed in the morning, I started working for my father part-time. He was self-employed (probably still is), and I had worked on and off for him since I was in high school. He was an exacting boss, and he always thought things should take me a lot less time to do than they really did, but he was fair. He never screamed.
He even appreciated some of my skills [writing, editing, bookkeeping], and working for him, I got a chance to exercise them which I’d rarely gotten a chance to do in other jobs. (But when my younger brothers did some of the same tasks, with less skill and less interest in doing a good job, my father paid them more.) Being an executive assistant meant that I did have to do a lot of things I was not good at. I could see directions that I could have taken the job that would have utilized my strengths more [updating his look, adding a Web presence], but my father wasn’t interested in letting me do that.
When my brothers worked for my father, I got the impression my father thought they were doing him a favor; he was lucky to get them to spend their free time helping him out, when they had other much more important things to do. But when I worked for my father, I got the sense that he (or maybe my mother) felt that I was incapable of doing a good job at anything requiring skill, so he was doing me a favor. There was no awareness that the stuff I’m good at is stuff that neither of them is interested in, nor would they have any facility for judging the quality of my efforts. No, it was just ‘poor pitiful Laiima needs some money; give her something to do, will you?’
So I was working, but my self-confidence was even lower than it had been in the other job (where I’d been getting paid a lot more money). And there was no chance this job was going to ‘lead to’ anything better.
I haven’t been paid to do anything for approaching three years. I tried a bunch of things that I was going to try to transition into, but that strategy fell apart when I found out I had carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ve also developed other health issues that kind of preclude me sitting at a desk 8 hours a day, 5 days week. Since every job I’ve had has been ‘office ‘ work, I haven’t really known what I could even look for, that would be different. Once my unemployment ran out, I stopped looking for a job, at all.
I have anxiety disorders, so I still worry about things.
I have never in my life had so much free time to do whatever I like, whenever I like. It was scary as hell in the beginning — I kept looking for someone, anyone, to tell me what to do.
Without really noticing it, I began ‘filling time’ with activities that have become sustaining: uploading photos to Flickr; blogging on WordPress; blogging on Tumblr. Periodic visits with and without Spouse to Greater DC and environs. Other activities I also enjoy burbled up organically — more fiber arts; painting; designing an exhibition catalogue; experiments in cooking; refashioning garments; trying different kinds of writing — interviewing two people then figuring out how they play off each other and writing about it; science writing; fiction; poetry. I’ve read several hundred books, and I’ve gotten ideas from them. I’ve attended events at my library. I’ve gone for walks around my neighborhood, and learned about Maryland’s natural history as a result of meeting nonhuman neighbors [snakes, skinks, shrews, bats, mice, turtles, frogs, toads; many birds; many insects; many plants].
I now have two notebooks devoted to ideas to write about, and every few days I add more. I have a third notebook for garment design ideas. I have a fourth notebook for natural dyeing experiments. I think I’ve taken about 13,000 photographs with the camera I have now. (Spouse’s ‘keep’ rate is ~ 1/10, but mine is ~3/10.)
What if the outpouring of energy that has fueled all of this creativity is available to me partly because I am not a member of a community?
I’m sure that somewhere there are communities that enrich their members, but that’s not a kind I’ve ever been in. When I get in a big group, what I know how to do is make myself indispensable to somebody in power, and then find myself unable to set limits. Therefore I burn out very quickly. Or if it’s an online group, I make a name for myself by over-sharing intense emotional experiences, which most people don’t know how to respond to, so they don’t respond, so I feel not just invisible but rejected. And then I burn out.
I only know how to get and give support sustainably one-on-one, in small doses. Widely separated in time and space helps.
There have been times in my life where I’ve had a lot of friends that I saw regularly. I felt very supported, maybe even appreciated. But I wasn’t creating any art.
Instead of Julia Cameron’s idea that creativity is a well, I think it’s rather more complicated than that. I think there are many activities that draw on the same fund of energy, what I call emotional energy. Instead of a well, I think that emotional energy is an aquifer, is groundwater. A well can be how you access it, especially if you want to guarantee a continuous flow. If you are paid to be a writer or artist, you will have writing assignments or commissions, you’ll have deadlines. You will have obligations to meet, and a well helps you do that. You can’t overdraw it, though. And you have to let rainwater replenish it.
25 years ago, when I was beleaguered and besieged by my family of origin, that was the equivalent of too many wells drawing on a rapidly-diminishing aquifer. It’s no wonder I wasn’t able to create art too!
Almost 3 years of not working, and being left up to my own devices, has begun replenishing an aquifer that had been depleting faster than it could fill for most of my life.
I’ve changed my approach to accessing the aquifer too. Instead of relying on other people to tell me what I should be doing, I’m waiting for my own ideas to make themselves known to me, on their own time. Sometimes there’s a topic that I think I should write about, but when I try to start writing about it, nothing bubbles up. Instead of continuing to hack away at it, I stop and let it sit. I revisit it periodically, but mostly I wait for it to let me know it’s ready. I do the same thing with my fiber arts. Part of me kind of wants to draw with pastels, but the urge doesn’t feel bottom-up, so I haven’t tried anything.
Doing things this way is not drilling a well, it’s discovering and making use of a spring. When something bubbles up from down below, and makes it to the surface under its own power (so to speak), that’s what I need to attend to.
I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time why the stuff I read about ‘discipline’ in a creative context rubs me the wrong way so much. And I think it’s this idea of trying to control and standardize something that comes from a different paradigm.
The reason I don’t get up every morning and write for two hours, or write in the evenings for two hours, every day rain or shine, is not that I’m lazy, or that I don’t care about being a writer, or whatever else. Writing isn’t a job to me, it’s something I love to do, something that nourishes my spirit. And if I make it into a job, if I control and standardize it, then the only kind of output I’ll get is well water.
Spring water is alive, it’s got soul. And it comes when it wants to. The more I trust that it’s doing its stuff for good reasons, the more I wait for whatever it wants to tell me on its schedule, the better the quality not just of my output but of my relationship to my selves. So the whole process is more enjoyable, and also more satisfying.
It’s probably a really good thing that I’m an introvert. The big thing I miss from not being employed is the chance at intellectual engagement, talking about ideas with other smart people. I can do that with e-mail though. I also miss having face-to-face conversations where something sparks between you, and everything just flows. But that almost never happened during a work day. I have had that happen with strangers; I could probably tell you every single time it’s happened, some going back many years.
Maybe community isn’t what I’m seeking at all. Maybe I just want opportunities to connect. Isn’t art seeking connection? But balance too, else I’ll be overwhelmed.
And are there jobs I could do in which I could learn how to set healthy limits in my interpersonal interactions? Because when I look back at my work history, it’s uncomfortably filled with situations with abusive bosses where I had two strategies, both unhealthy and unsustainable. Either I just avoided them, or was passive aggressive; or I initially protested things I knew I shouldn’t do, gave in to their pressure against my better judgment, and oftentimes got injured, and usually completely demoralized. Which actually pretty well sums up my relationships with my parents as well. (I had more successes against my parents than bosses. So maybe money and respect doesn’t make up for as much as I thought?)
I did have a few good bosses, that I enjoyed working for, did a good job for, and was happy to put them on my resume. But then there’s the +/- 20 other jobs that fit the other description. I never noticed how prevalent that pattern was until right now. Ouch! No doubt there are indeed a lot of abusive bosses out there, but I bet there are also people who worked for some of the same people I worked for, but navigated their relationships in a healthier way. Because there are only a handful of issues that I will stand my ground and not budge on. And those are issues that came up more with my parents! Therefore, success! Oh, fuck. Does that mean if I had stood firm with my bosses, things would’ve gone differently? If I didn’t reliably back down and let them walk all over me? The last 2 jobs I had, I did try negotiating with my bosses, but then I backed down. When my life is at stake, I’ll stand firm; when it’s just money, self-respect, and an entry on my resume, I dither and then fold.
I don’t know whether to cry or to throw things. Epiphanies are good but this one feels like a kick in the head. Thunk!
No wonder I don’t feel respected by other people. If I don’t respect myself enough to stand firm when I need to, to walk away if I can’t get what I want, then …
You know what image springs immediately to mind? My shower. I can’t clean it. I’ve been trying to make myself clean it for a least a year and a half. And then when I, predictably, fail at it — because it’s all caught up in my PTSD, so I have a major panic attack whenever I think about trying to do it — the self-loathing starts.
I told Spouse before we were married that I wouldn’t do any housework. I didn’t know I had PTSD then, but I did know that very bad things happened when I tried to do housework. So I promised myself I wouldn’t do any. Before we were married, Spouse said that wasn’t a big deal. I was sure he wasn’t taking me seriously, or perhaps he misunderstood how messy I could be. So I made a big production out of saying (I now realize, self-defeating) things like, “I know it’s not fair, to you, but what my mother did to me with housework as a punishment wasn’t fair to me either. And now whenever I think about doing any of it, I have a panic attack, or worse. So I’m telling you, I’m not doing any. Really. For sure. None.” He insisted he was fine with it. Then we got married. And even though he had lived on his own for several years, he apparently had some unconscious idea that when you’re living with a woman, housework magically happens. Except that it didn’t, because I wasn’t doing any of it. He grew up in a house where his mother followed him and his brother and father around, picking up after them. Her life revolved around housework. So then he started talking about how unfair it was that I wasn’t doing ‘my share’. And I explained again, that I really couldn’t. And we fought about it. He got passive aggressive. I found myself trying to figure out what chores I could do, and then doing those. But refusing to do others. I had a nuclear meltdown or two, and that would buy me some breathing space. But then he would start right back in on how unfair it was. And I would feel like, if I don’t give in, I’ll have to go back and live with my parents. And I would rather die. So I have to give in.
But if I don’t do housework, and I don’t have a job, what right do I have to take up space? People don’t love you unless you provide services for them, whenever they ask. If you say no, or you try to renegotiate better terms, you are a monster and an abomination, and you don’t deserve help from anybody. And by God, we will make sure you don’t get any.
I’m almost 46 years old, and I’ve been afraid all the time, since at least 1973, but possibly since birth. No wonder everything hurts. No wonder I have trouble getting out of bed. No wonder I can’t figure out what to do next.