Pragmaticism vs. Shame: on Self-Censorship

Today, for the first time in about three weeks, my nails aren’t painted.

You have to understand, I love painting my nails. I give myself manicures themed around superheroes, pokemon, figure skaters–whatever strikes my fancy. I have well over a dozen different colours and types of nail polish. I own a separate nail art brush and dotting tool. I have three polish apps on my iPod.

But today my nails are bare. Scrubbed my most recent polish  (a Pacific Rim-inspired manicure featuring three different glitters in blue and black) off this morning, and didn’t put anything on to replace them. Why? It’s not as though I’m afraid to go out in public with nail polish on–I do so regularly, just as I often wear daisy-duke style shorts, or even dresses. My gender presentation is very frequently, very visibly non-normative, and I’m okay with that. In fact, I had planned out a new nail display for this morning, but when it came time to put it on, I hesitated.

You see, today I have my second appointment with my psychiatrist. And it’s an important one–I need to update him on medication and how that’s going (well, thank you for asking), but also I need to seek referrals; I am moving to a new city in the fall and will need medical care there. It’s a lot to cover and I want to be sure there’s time for it.

I stopped myself from painting my nails this morning because I was scared. I was worried that my psychiatrist–who I don’t know that well–would see them and be given pause. That he’d want to make our appointment about my gender, about how I understand it and present it. That deflecting those questions would take more time than we had to spare, and would distract from the real issues I want to discuss.

So that’s practical, right? I made a decision based on objective factors rather than on anxiety or uncertainty. Or so I’d like to tell myself.

But I don’t know. I can be pretty weak-willed sometimes, though I’m teaching myself not to. And I think the reason I want to avoid having a gender conversation with my psychiatrist is more than a time concern. I don’t know if I want to talk about gender head-on right now. I don’t know if I’m ready. I’m worried that he could talk me into viewing things about myself in a way that isn’t true, that isn’t right for me.

I’m worried that if I give him the opportunity he can talk me into feeling ashamed, even though I’m not, generally. My self-confidence is constantly in a delicate equilibrium, and I’m always afraid that if I subject it to scrutiny it’ll crumble. 

But the practicality aspect is part of it too–time is important. I can’t separate out the two. I wish I was in a place where I could just slap on the polish, psychiatrist’s opinion be damned. But I can’t. I made the choice not to, for several reasons combined.

This post doesn’t have a tidy ending; I just have a lot of thoughts about this morning’s decision and the factors contributing to it tangled up in my head. Can pragmaticism be a mask for insecurity? Can the two coexist? Where does one end and the other begin?

I’m painting my nails when I get home tonight. But in the meantime, every time I look at them they’ll remind me just how little I still understand about myself.

 

Narrative Resonance and You (meaning me)

I am typically loath to make generalizations, but I am gonna open this post with one, heedless of the consequences: I think we all have a specific form of narrative that speaks to us. It’s not necessarily our favourite, but for whatever reason, we connect to it on a deeper level than we do other kinds of stories. Many of my friends, for example, tell me that found family narratives hold special significance for them, that even mediocre stories have the power to profoundly affect them if a found-family scenario is involved.

I think the stories in which a person finds meaning can say a lot about that person. About their hopes, their fears, their experiences. Again, this is not about favourite tropes; it’s about the ones that reach into your chest and give your heart a twist–for good or ill, regardless of the story’s quality or the circumstances in which the thematic element comes up.

The category of stories that do this to me is simultaneously simple and complex: tales of self-actualization affect me like nothing else. Stories where someone has to overcome opposition–internal or societal–in order to simply be who they are. Musicals, books, movies, anything where this is the core theme is gonna hit me hard.

It’s, obviously, a huge category, which predictably means I spend a lot of time emotionally compromised by the media I consume. I’m willing to wager I’m not the only one either, as this struggle, the fight to be who you are regardless of forces telling you you shouldn’t, is one that members of oppressed communities know well.

These stories, regardless of their trappings, are for me about accepting myself as queer, a journey that eight years in is still unfinished. They are about understanding and finding the confidence to express my gender. About being Native, despite growing up with my white family. About being proud to be disabled, to be a caregiver, to be me. About being proud to be, to exist in the world and to take up space.

Whether it’s Billy Elliott learning to dance or Matilda realizing her family doesn’t define her path, whether it’s the titular character of Sunday in the Park with George struggling to reconnect with art or Charlie Price of Kinky Boots realizing that making shoes is what he wants to do…

All of these characters come to a place where, regardless of their self-doubt, regardless of the censure of peers or scorn of family, they simply are. They are themselves without apology or subdual, without uncertainty or second guesses.

I’d like to get to that point one day. I feel like I’m moving that way, on good days, and these stories make me feel like I can do it, like this journey is worthwhile.

And that is why if you need me you’ll find me crying about musicals.

Odds and Ends and Scattered Thoughts

Hey everyone, it’s been a while since I posted, huh?

It’s not that I haven’t had ideas–instead, rather, I almost have had too many. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things, with no real connecting thread. I’m gonna put down these germs of ideas as a way of letting you know what’s been on my mind, but also a way of reminding myself what I want to be writing in future. It’s also gonna be in bullet point format because I like bulleted lists, probably too much.

Here we go.

  • Gender. I’ve been having a lot of thoughts about my gender and how I present it, lately, and while I’m still teasing out the specifics, there’s enough there that I want to share it with those of you who read this blog.
  • Poverty. I’m poor, as I’ve mentioned in my introductory post and elsewhere, and it definitely has a huge impact on my life. Being poor shapes how I approach every purchase I make, obviously, but also other things about my thought processes, both blatant and less so. I don’t think you can really understand poverty unless you’ve experienced, but if I can open a window into my life I’d like to.
  • Superheroes. I’ve been experiencing an uptick in my thoughts about how DC comics and related media mischaracterizes their cast, some of the most iconic in the genre. There’s a lot of wasted potential there and it makes me surprisingly upset.
  • A sequel of sorts to my last post, examining my (lack of) relationship with my mother and talking about ways I can maybe open it up enough to contact her and thank her for some financial support she recently gave us, without falling back into patterns that were destructive for us both.

So that’s what’s been in my head. What about yours, followers? Any of these you have your own thoughts on?  Anything you’d particularly like to see me expand on? I want to hear from you.

June, 2003

Note: this post talks about suicide, emotional abuse, child abuse, and addiction. If you are triggered by any of these subjects, please be aware and make sure you’re in a safe headspace before reading it.

 

I have been thinking about the past today. It started pretty mundanely–a friend mentioned a book that I haven’t read since tenth grade. But that led to the realization that tenth grade was some nine years ago, nearly a decade. And that, in turn, led to the realization of what was actually a decade ago.

June, 2003.

In June, 2003, I was twelve years old and my sister was ten. We lived with my mother, my father, a dog and a rabbit in a small apartment in urban Winnipeg. My father travelled quite a bit for work–and does still–so it was often only my mother taking care of us.

I say she took care of us. In reality the opposite is almost more accurate. My mother is an alcoholic with a severe mood disorder (my sister and I are also mentally ill, but in different ways). She expected us, from the time we were very young indeed, to support her in her depressive periods, to be the ones who reassured her that we loved her, cared about her, were there for her when our father was away. She would regularly go out for groceries and come back hours later, empty-handed but wildly drunk, and spend the rest of the evening dancing to cacophonously loud music in the living room until she passed out.

This pattern was years old, in June, 2003. It was familiar. We coped with it as well as we could manage.

Until one day in the middle of June, 2003, while my sister and I were trying to recover from her most recent bout of emotional manipulation, she sat down at the dining room table, and proceeded to take every prescription pill she had.

We realized almost immediately–in fact, as soon as she had taken the pills, she called us in and told us what she had done. When my sister called 911, our mother helpfully told us exactly what pills she had taken, information we relayed to the emergency responder.

She survived. She set everything up very deliberately so she would; it would have been the easiest thing in the world for her to take the pills when we weren’t home, if she was so inclined. It was never about her wanting to die. It was about her wanting us to prove that we cared enough to save her. Shortly thereafter, we moved out of that house–our grandmother took care of us until our father returned from work, and it didn’t take long for him to secure sole custody (for obvious reasons). Mom spent some time in a mental hospital, where we visited her regularly until moving halfway across the country that fall.

I still saw my mother regularly after June, 2003. I only completely severed contact with her nearly six years later, in early 2009. But after that June day, while she was still my mother, and I still loved her, I was never able to trust her again. I was never able to persuade myself, as I once could, that she cared about her children as anything other than a tool for her own emotional validation.

In June, 2003, a woman failed to commit suicide. But my relationship with her, nonetheless, had started to die.

I’m not a “good writer”

Or so I’ve been led to believe all my life. Not by concrete words to that effect–quite the contrary, my verbal skills were overwhelmingly praised through my entire time in academia. But despite this, I’ve never conceptualized myself as “good at writing”, as a person who Writes.

Sure I occasionally jotted down my thoughts, sure other people told me they were lucid and interesting, but that doesn’t make me a writer, right? It makes me, I don’t know. A pretender. Someone with delusions of literary talent. Playing in a sandbox while other people are building skyscrapers.

How did I reach this conclusion? What happened to make me think this way? I don’t know if I can pinpoint a specific causative event, especially since I’m still in the process of unpacking how far down this lack of faith in my own skills goes. But part of the problem, I am pretty sure, is that I am a descriptive, rather than creative, thinker. I can articulate my experiences and observations. I’m told I can do it well. But I can’t invent, I’ve never been inclined in that direction.

It’s taken me years to grasp that “can’t invent” is not synonymous with “can’t write”. Even now, while I recognize it intellectually–certainly my love of nonfiction points to this conclusion–I have trouble believing it on an emotional and personal level. Yes, essay and other nonfiction writing are skills. I know this. But I am unwilling to accept that they are skills I have, despite evidence to the contrary.

This blog, as with so much of what I do these days, is an attempt to unpack the assumptions I’ve made about myself. To find the ways I’ve learned to minimize myself and my accomplishments, and to challenge them. To gain confidence and hopefully to connect with other people along the way.

Maybe I’m not a great writer. But I’m not a bad one, and I can get better.

Defining Myself: I Tell Stories

In my about page I use a number of terms to articulate my identity. Some of them are probably familiar to anyone reading this; “queer”, “disabled”, and “poor” are all nuanced, complex identities, but have a certain baseline level of cultural familiarity. I have a lot of things to say about them, but those will come with time.

What do I mean, though, when I call myself a ‘storyteller’? Well, the truth is…I’m still sorting that out myself.

An anticlimactic answer, I know. But it’s the truth. Storyteller is a label that means a lot of things to a lot of people, and one intricately bound up in my understanding of myself as an Indigenous Canadian, as someone Métis, whose family has lived on the Canadian Prairie since long before it bore that name.

When I call myself a storyteller, what I mean is this: I see my place in the world, in my communities, to be one of sharing. Of speaking my experiences, of hearing those of others within my community, and of bringing us together and moving us forward. Of collaborating with others whose experiences are like mine, and weaving our stories together, to create something more beautiful, complex, and true than we could alone.

When I call myself a storyteller, it’s not an individual process. Certainly there are stories I have that only I can tell; stories of my childhood, of my experiences. But the stories I want to tell are ones that need multiple perspectives. They are the stories that unite narratives, that find our common ground and build on it.

When I call myself a storyteller it is because I want to build. Other people are doing the work of destroying oppressive systems; I acknowledge them, I celebrate them, I admire them more than I can say. But more and more I have come to believe their work is not mine. Other people are doing the work of educating our oppressors; I am awed by them, by their patience and compassion. But they too do work I am not well-suited to.

When I call myself a storyteller it is because I want to look to my own communities. I want to find the seeds these others have planted, and to nourish them.

When I call myself a storyteller, it’s not because I want to tell my story.

It’s because I want to be part of writing ours.

Once More Into the Breach

Hi folks.

I’ve had “serious” blogs before, but they’ve always eventually found themselves lying fallow, bereft of new content. But I’m really wanting to explore writing more deliberately and potentially one day parlaying it into something I can make money for, so the first step was having a space specifically dedicated to organized, lengthier thoughts.

Not sure when my first real post will go up, but keep your eyes peeled and enjoy the ride.