Monday, January 12, 2015

Feeling Your Feelings

I've been away from this blog for awhile. This is both good and bad. It's bad because I have things to say and I want to track my psychological and physical life in this space. It's good because the reason is that I've finally gotten back to writing a book I've been working on for nearly two years. During times of great stress, I've found that I can't write creatively, and this blog has been there as a way of dealing with some of the demons, both internally and externally.

There's a lot about a person that she may or may not put out there for public consumption because of the risks involved in such disclosure. I'm not afraid of being judged as I believe most judgement flows from the insecurities of the judge and has nothing to do with the person being evaluated. Mainly, I'm impatient with being misunderstood and the burden I place upon myself when it comes to how to make myself clearly known.

I mentioned in a previous post about a dream that I've had a series of revelations about life since coming to America and many of them have occurred in the past month. This burst of revelation follows a change in how I've been managing my emotional life. It's very difficult to explain because it is similar to telling someone who is blind what it is like to see or trying to explain with words what a food tastes like when no such food exists in the area that someone else lives in. Nonetheless, I can't track my life here unless I try and risk failure, and fail I likely will.

I read an article in the New York Times yesterday about grief and how the theory that there are stages has been very destructive to those who are dealing with grief. One of the reasons for this is that people feel that they have failed if their emotions aren't unfolding according to plan. One of the commenters on this article even said that she was told by her therapist that she was being indulgent by not getting over her feelings.

This therapist is not alone in her opinion that people should "get over" their issues and not feel the feelings that they do. Since I've been depressed for long periods of time, and I know how people's eyes avert or they start to fidget uncomfortably when the topic comes up. It's not unusual for someone to ask me how I am, and for me to look at them and smile when I say, "Terrible." I do this because of the conflicting impulses that I have in this situation. I want to be honest, but I also know that they really do not want me to be honest. So, I tell the truth and temper it with a social reaction that they may be comforted by. This ends up with them thinking that I'm kidding when I'm not.

One of the things that is clear to me since coming "home" has been the inability of people to tolerate emotions, particularly negative ones, in other people. This manifests in a multitude of ways including fidgety behavior, changing of the topic, minimizing of the weight of ones situation/feelings, denial of the right to possess such feelings, and recommending that one "chooses" how one feels. I've seen enough articles on how happiness is a choice linked to on Facebook to fill a terabyte drive.

The reason that people do this is not that they want you to be happy. That is what they tell themselves. They think that they're helping you stop wallowing, offering advice that will make you feel better, or trying to provide context that will modify your perspective. What they tell themselves is what they need to manage the cognitive dissonance they feel about pushing your needs away so that they won't have to endure the discomfort they feel when confronted with them. They can't bear your pain and want it to go away. They also want to be good people who "help" you. They reconcile this with rationalizations, but it comes down to not being able to tolerate feelings, especially strong or negative ones.

At one point, I reached a realization that we all do this internally as well as externally. We can't sit with other people's pain because we also refuse to sit with our own pain. How often have you told yourself to "get over it" or "I shouldn't feel this way" or "I'm being silly/sentimental/stupid" for feeling things. This sense that we should stop our feelings is no surprise because, if others tell us not to feel our feelings enough, we will learn to tell ourselves to stop feeling them as well.

The problem with censoring your feelings or telling yourself you're not entitled to them is that it creates stress. There is a rubber band effect that shoots back at you when you aren't looking. You might be angry, frustrated, antsy, etc. in situations that are relatively benign. You also then start inflicting your intolerance on others because their feelings dredge up what you're trying so hard to suppress. It creates a huge mess.

At one point, some time around Christmas, I decided to stop doing that to myself. My husband and I attended a re-enactment of the birth of Christ at a local church. During the performance, a woman sang hymns with the fullness of emotion that she felt. If you allowed it, you could see that she felt truly inspired by her faith. The state of her rapture, as reflected in her song, was powerful, and I felt it because I allowed myself to be there with her in that moment. I didn't try to distract myself by looking at a cell phone or yammering nonsense to my husband. I didn't look away at something else or pretend that this was just a performance with fake energy pushing the words out. I let myself be there with her and I cried, and I didn't try to hide how I felt from the other people there for fear that they'd witness me feeling some feelings and be embarrassed on my behalf.

That woman was followed by a young woman whose mother had died two years earlier (when she was 16) and she spoke passionately about how her faith and the church had sustained her. I cried when she spoke, too, as I was also "with" her in her passion and gratitude. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of the experience these people had. Their faith really brought them something meaningful. Even if their faith was not mine, I could fully inhabit and appreciate that.

Since that time, I've tried to stop pushing my feelings back and to engage with the world more fully on an emotional level. I walked to a memorial for veterans and instead of objectifying the experience, I inhabited the full emotional impact of it. Those names were people. Someone loved them very much and hurt horribly when they died. Their families remembered them and wanted them remembered. I was there with them in that memory and grief, and I cried as I walked around the memorial.

Being there with yourself and others emotionally is not an easy thing, but it has cleared some roadblocks for me in living life in America. In Japan, people were always suppressing feelings of all sorts, but, in America, they only suppress some of them. You can be mad, but you can't be sad. You can be happy, but you can't be passionately so. You can be smirky and skeptical, but you can't have the rapture of belief. There's a flood of emotion all around me, but most of it is inauthentic and transmuted into what can best be categorized as "aggressive" emotions (because those are "strong" and therefore "okay"). I shut myself off from a lot of things because of this, but mainly I lost any sense of connection to people in my efforts to objectify them for my own emotional safety.

I have had a sense of what can only be called "enlightenment" since I started this exercise in being fully present with people and experiences emotionally. I hesitate to use that word because it sounds lofty and oddly religious. However, not pushing back against my feelings when they come up has been liberating and has changed my dreams and my sense of how I navigate life. It's okay if I want to cry. It's okay if I'm feeling sad. It's okay if I'm incredibly happy because the phone rings and it's my husband who I've spoken to thousands of times yet he still makes me delighted when he calls. And if other people don't like those things, if they can't sit with them, that's their problem.

A Dream: January 12, 2015

Context: I have had recurring dreams since returning to America about either going back to the job I held there for the longest time (12 years) or simply returning there to live and work again. In each of these dreams, the situation has always been fairly chaotic in that there was a good deal to accomplish before leaving and the deadline for departure was very, very soon. Often, there were enormous amounts of items (clothes, furniture, sundry possessions) strewn chaotically about the room I had to clear and I felt considerable stress and panic at having to try and sort through everything before the deadline. This dream, or ones like it, have occurred at least four times previously.

The Dream: I was talking to my former boss, Darryl, about coming back to work at the company and I told him after he said he'd give me my old job that I loved him. This was an expression of platonic affection, not romantic. (Note: Recently, Darryl "came out" to me on Facebook after having known me since around 1991. When he told me that he was gay, but felt bad that he had never told me, I told him that I had known all along (and I had), but I loved him all the same.)

Unlike previous dreams in which I had been planning to go back to my old job or Japan in which I had to sort through tremendous, seemingly insurmountable piles of stuff in order to go, I was in a relatively clear room and there was a small pile of clothes and a few other items that could easily be picked up and put into a single suitcase.

Analysis: I think that returning to my former job/Japan are metaphors for finding peace of mind or adjustment to life in America. The enormous clutter that I perceived in former dreams was all of the psychological baggage between me and feeling okay about being back in America. Recently, I've had some revelatory experiences (more on that in a future post when I have the time as it is complex) here that have helped me progress to a state of greater understanding and peace. While I still cannot say that I am "happy" here, I can say that I'm moving closer to at least not fighting back so hard.

Interpretation confidence scale rating: Since this was a progression of a dream that I've had so many times and that started with my life in America, it feels very much that this is an indication of some psychological progress. 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Null Hypothesis

One of the first things that I was taught when I started studying science at a higher level (in junior high school) was a lay man's explanation of the null hypothesis. The teacher wanted us to construct a hypothesis and test it, but wanted to make sure that we didn't make one which was asserting that something didn't exist. The real explanation of the null hypothesis is more complex, but the simplistic version is that you can't prove something does not exist. You can support the idea that it does exist or has a relationship with something else, but you can't prove a negative.

If you think about this, it makes perfect sense. It is impossible to test and rule out every possible relationship between two things/concepts/etc. This is one of the reasons why science and religion don't play nice together. You can't prove God doesn't exist and scientists have little interest in proving that said entity does exist, particularly when the only means of doing so is to make indirect inferences between natural phenomena and a hazily defined deity.

To give a less emotionally loaded and concrete example, let's say that my hypothesis is that there are no unicorns on earth. Unless I can search every single place on earth simultaneously including any hidden spaces and show that there are no unicorns, then I can't prove that there are none. I can, however, say that there is no evidence of them. I can attempt to prove that they do exist by looking for forensic evidence (rainbow poop, bones, discarded horns, etc.), but I can't prove that they don't exist. While the conclusion to a hypothesis that they exist is essentially the same as they one that asserts that they don't exist, the bottom line is that basic scientific method suggest that you don't look to prove non-existence as it is impossible to do so credibly.

I'm offering a refresher on this topic because it relates to a conversation that I had over dinner with my father-in-law, a man who often picks at research and claims to be a person of science. We were talking about intoxication, and when I use that word, I don't mean simply consuming alcohol. I use it to mean the ingestion of any substance in order to alter ones emotional or cognitive state and am including intoxication by cannabis. Since my father-in-law has a history of intermittent use of marijuana (including a stint in which he grew his own), this is something that he has a vested interest in validating.

Before I get any further, I should assert that I have never been intoxicated through the use of any substance because I have never consumed anything which has a known consequence of changing my emotional or cognitive state. You might be able to count caffeine from soda, coffee, or tea, but my consumption of those items is incredibly modest. I drink one cup of coffee in the morning, cut in half with almond milk, and another similarly diluted cup in the afternoon most days. I drink two cups of tea most days, but sometimes none at all. I drink one to two cans of diet soda, but not only or always caffeinated ones. Sometimes, it'd ginger ale or root beer. Sometimes, I don't drink any at all. I have never gotten an energy boost or buzz from the beverages I drink, and I've never touched an energy drink.
I don't have any moral issues with modest consumption of substances because one likes the taste of something. My husband drinks one drink of some sort each day; he sometimes has a single small bottle or beer or a mixed drink with rum. He has never gotten drunk and extremely rarely consumes more than one drink. His personality does not change, though he never drives after even a small amount of alcohol consumption as we both know that even one beer can affect the ability to perform critical tasks.
While I don't have any moral issues with substance use, I do have some other problems with it. My father is an alcoholic, so I know what it is like to be around someone who is intoxicated.
The primary one is that I don't like how intoxication changes people's personalities. They become mean, stupid, lazy, childish, slow, etc. If someone wants to get high and sit in a room alone, I don't care, but I don't want to be around someone who isn't fully present with me when they are talking to me. I should add that I don't want them to be in that state in a way which cannot be altered on a moment's notice. Someone can be watching T.V. or using the internet and not be "present" with me, but that can change in a second if needed. They can change the focus of their attention or turn off the device. It doesn't work like that with substance-induced intoxication. You can't simply change on a dime.

The other issue that I have with a lot of substance use is that many people use it instead of developing real coping mechanisms. The answer to boredom, anxiety, depression, etc. becomes consumption of a substance. My sister-in-law's youngest son has been using cannabis for so long that he has developed a philosophy of, 'If I'm home, I might as well be high.' He doesn't have any other concrete mechanism to turn to to make him feel better in whatever way he needs to feel better because he's never had to trouble himself. His use of substances started at a relatively young age and now it's just what he uses all of the time. He's not even troubled. He's mainly using it to moderate boredom/enhance how he spends his free time. The problem is that he does it so much and that he is, from all external appearances, on a road to strong addiction that he won't be able to break free from when he finishes college and has to be more present in daily life. I'm not worried about this, mind you, as he is not my responsibility, but his mother is concerned.

Now that I've made my position clear, I will say that the reason my sister-in-law's son was using from such a young age was that their family history was one in which substance use was viewed as inevitable, innocuous, and "normal". My discussion with my father-in-law over dinner ended up being one in which my take threatened all of these notions so he gave a very irrational and unscientific explanation. My basic assertion for why I have never tried substances is that I don't know when I use one if I will be the type of person who is prone to addiction. With my family history, I view it as a not insignificant risk. With my depression, I view it as an even greater risk as any substance which may instantly ameliorate my suffering would be very hard to resist. My feeling is that there is that the risk of becoming addicted is not worth the sating of curiosity or the temporary and false emotional elation that sometimes accompanies such substance use.

My father-in-law's argument for this was that we might be addicted to anything once we try it, including sex. My answer to that is that we have a drive for some behaviors. That is, there are biochemical processes in our bodies that compel us to act on certain impulses. Drives include eating, sleeping, and sex. We are compelled through processes related to survival to do these things and suffer various types of distress if we don't act on them. Men get erections without bidding them to come. Your stomach hurts if it is empty. You can't resist nodding off if you deprive yourself of sleep for too long. These are manifestations of the processes fueling human drives.

When I talked about drives, my father-in-law said, "you don't know that we don't have a drive to get high." I said that, I do indeed know that we lack such a drive. There is absolutely no evidence that humans have a biochemical process that compels them to become intoxicated. He insisted that I couldn't know that, but I have studied psychology and human biochemistry for 30 years. I'm no expert, but I haven't once run across a study, theory, or experiment which suggests a "drive to get high." And, as my husband pointed out on our drive home, not only is there no evidence that we have a drive to become intoxicated, it would go against the grain of evolution and survival. If we ever had such a drive, those who acted on it would likely have been more susceptible to predators, less likely to tend to their needs, and more likely to waste time and energy seeking out intoxicants. There is a reason that tribal cultures use substances for ritual rather than recreation. They can't afford for everyone to be getting hepped up on goofballs all of the time.

My father-in-law, obviously losing ground, blurted out that there was no evidence that we don't possess such a drive. Um, well, yeah, because you can't prove non-existence. My husband said, "I thought you couldn't prove a negative." I mentioned additionally that this is the problem with religion and proving God is/is not real. My father-in-law then changed the subject.

This situation annoyed me because my father-in-law is incredibly pedantic about studies. He won't believe them unless he vets them, and speaks as if he is strict about science, but then he totally tosses science out the window when he needs to validate a lifestyle choice. I realized that this is what happens when you toss a question into the narrative that a person uses to construct his notions of what is "normal". No matter what their asserted orientation is vis a vis "science", it all goes out the window when it doesn't fit the preferred worldview.