Thursday, October 26, 2017

Excuse Me While I Turn Off The Lights

I am the one going around turning off the lights and turning down the music. I hate using overhead lights. During the day, our apartment fortunately gets enough natural light that we rarely need them. By the time the sun starts to go down, I switch to lamps as soon as possible. The light doesn’t just hurt my eyes; it hurts my sensibilities.

This year I discovered I am highly sensitive.

I had heard people talk about being highly sensitive, but since I didn’t really understand what that meant, I didn’t think it applied to me. I’m not that sensitive. I don’t cry all the time. Which is true. But that’s not really what it means to be a highly sensitive person.

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is one who processes everything more and is extra sensitive to the subtleties around them. Because they are observing and processing everything, they are easily overstimulated. They also tend to have strong empathy for others, perhaps because they are in tune to others’ moods and needs. Being highly sensitive is not a disorder – there are good and bad things about it. About 30% of the population (around the world and across species) is thought to be highly sensitive.

It is easy for an HSPs to get overstimulated, and when we do we tend to shut down and become less sensitive than others. Lights and noise become unbearable, and we just want to lie down in a dark, quiet room to recover. I think of it as a migraine of the nervous system.

For me, noise is a big stressor. I live with three small, very big noise makers in a country that loves firecrackers, megaphones, and blaring music from competing stores. When Nadia is crying and Adalyn is screaming and Juliana is whining, I feel like my head is going to explode. Last year I often thought the official emoticon for mom-of-three should be an exploding head.

Background noise is very distracting. Trying to talk to someone in a restaurant when the background music is slightly too high and other people are talking nearby is stressful. I have a hard time concentrating and I know I will feel frazzled after a while. A truly loud restaurant, supermarket, or shopping area is hard to handle, and even the humming of the refrigerator is annoying.

When I started reading about being highly sensitive, it was like dozens of lightbulbs going off in my head (which you know, is quite overstimulating). It all made so much sense! It explains why I often get so stressed by normal life things that don’t seem to bother others quite so much. I always feel tired and dazed after going to the supermarket, in China or America. There are so many lights and so many people (here), music, noise, choices, and so much visual stimulation. I find myself staring blankly at a row of vitamins trying to figure out what I came to find (even though I have a list in hand) and how quickly I can get out of there.

I try to keep my home neat and decluttered because I am very easily visually stressed. Of course, since I live with a bunch of very effective mess-makers, my cleaning attempts seem rather futile. Every time I walk into a room I notice the 15 random toys and items on the floor and the papers piled up on the counter. On those rare occasions when the toys are picked up and the surface are clear and the couch cushions straightened, I feel so much more at peace and in control of life.

It also perhaps explains why I love familiarity. There are plenty of places in the world I’d like to see, but I don’t actually want to go to new places. I can’t appreciate them as much as the places I have already been to multiple times. I am fine with eating the same food over and over again. I re-read books more often than I read new ones, and I’ve read my favorite books at least half a dozen times. I listen to the same album of music for months, and I almost always dislike new music – even new albums by my favorite artists – until I am familiar with it.

Life as an HSP can be tiring because your brain is constantly working hard to decode all the little nuances of life. I think of it like functioning in another language/culture. In a Chinese environment, I have to be extra alert, working to understand not only what is being said but what is being implied. What is the cultural context behind this? Are they subtly angry with me? Is there something I am missing? Am I communicating clearly – not only the right words but the right message? This is a little what normal life as an HSP is like, even in your own culture/language.

In reading about highly sensitive people, I understood a huge source of stress that I had been ignoring. I had recognized the burnout, the constant exhaustion and over-stimulation, but I didn’t understand where it was coming from. If everyone else could handle the normal life stimulation just fine and I couldn’t, it must mean that something was wrong with me.

I know my depression and anxiety have a genetic and hormonal component. But I realize they are also exasperated by trying to be something I am not. I am trying to understand myself better – my strengths and limitations and uniqueness, so I can be true to who I am, without constantly comparing myself to others and how I “should be.”

I am learning that I need naps. Partly because I’m tired and have been sleep deprived more years than not. But also because I really need some quiet time, devoid of any sensory input, to make it through the whole day. Fortunately I live in a country that believes in after lunch rest time (as do many countries because they are really smart), so I am also being culturally appropriate.

I am becoming more aware of over-stimulating situations and realizing I will need some quiet time afterwards to avoid immediate irritation and long-term burnout. I am learning that yoga helps in refocusing and coping with the physical stress of over-stimulation. I need to get out of the loud, messy house and walk (with earbuds in so I can pretend there aren’t hundreds of people around). I need to sit in my chair on the laundry porch and decompress. I need a relatively clean house so I don’t feel constantly stressed out by my surroundings. I need moments of peace and quiet for my physical and mental health.

I realize this post is mostly related to the negative parts of being highly sensitive.  It is true that being an HSP is not a bad thing, but I usually have an easier time recognizing my limitations, so I am still learning how to appreciate being highly sensitive.  To be honest, I think I have spent enough time lately in the "overstimulated" state that I haven't been able to tap into the benefits.hig  I'll let you know if I have any great breakthroughs in understanding.

It’s crazy to think that 1 of every 3 people may be highly sensitive. If you suspect you may be highly sensitive, you can take this helpful test here, created by the author of The Highly Sensitive Person. She says if you score more than 14 of 27 you may be HSP. I scored 21, so I guess that’s pretty definitive.

I read a couple of related useful books and articles this year.
1. The Highly Sensitive Person – this was a real eye-opener in explaining what it meant to be highly sensitive - and that it wasn’t a bad thing. I loved the book initially but as it wore on I got a little bit annoyed because the author is just so sensitive. Not being very emotionally sensitive, this got on my nerves. She talks about how being highly sensitive effects childhood, jobs, and relationships, but the section on parenting was laughable. Seriously half a page which said, “Many HSPs choose not to have children. But if you do, you’ll probably be a good parent.” Um, thanks. That’s so helpful. Fortunately I found a few other blogs that were much more helpful (see below).

2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking – (You could probably find this at the library) This book was more about introverts than HSPs, although she does talk about HSP’s as well. I highly recommend this one to anyone who is an introvert or knows one (so yes, everyone.) I particularly appreciated the cultural aspect of this – her exploration of western culture (especially Americans’) idealization of the popular, gregarious type. This sounds simple, but it was actually huge for me to recognize that extroversion is a cultural ideal, not a mandate.

3. Abundant Mama has some good articles about recognizing if you are highly sensitive , tips , and how it affects parenting

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me Too

Trigger Warning: Sexual harassment and assault

It was a stranger on a crowded bus.  A man in a shopping mall.  A “friend” who was a little too free with his hands. I have been lucky.  For me it was just unwanted touches or getting “felt up.”  It was inappropriate comments I don’t even remember clearly because that seemed too “common place.”  It was disturbing and violating, but it was not scarring.

Sometimes I wonder if there are women who have not been sexually harassed in some way or another. Some of these things are seen as so ordinary we view them as just part of the life experience, as if the stranger on the street has a right to make unwanted sexual innuendos because that’s just how guys act.  And nothing happened.  And he was just joking, lighten up.

Yesterday on Facebook I started seeing posts of “me too,”  women sharing that they had experienced sexual harrassment or assault in an attempt to bring light to the pervasiveness of the issue.  I didn’t think too much about it honestly, because there is always some movement going on in social media. We can’t be aware of everything, okay?

But I was surprised when I started seeing more and more of these statuses from friends and family.  Really, her too?  When I thought about all the people who didn’t post because they don’t use Facebook, or aren’t addicted and on it every day, or don’t feel comfortable sharing about something like that, or don’t feel safe because they are still experiencing some form of abuse, suddenly it was staggering.  All these were normal people living normal lives - students, mothers, teachers, doctors, women in the military, overseas workers.  How did this become so common place?

I’m not sure if it has become more common or if, I suspect, people are speaking up about it more.  Victims of sexual violence or abuse are very unlikely to speak up because of the consequences.    

I thought maybe I was just being too sensitive.  That’s what my “friend” said, “Just lighten up! It’s no big deal.”  I felt very uncomfortable but maybe it was just me. That’s what I thought until I talked to another friend who had had been treated the same way by the same person.  I finally realized, oh it’s not me who is the problem, it’s him.

I was lucky not to be in a high stakes situation.  It was not my boss or my church leader or a family member.  I didn’t have to see the person every day. But still, I didn’t say anything.  It was just “something that happens.” Besides, I had heard what people say.

Be more careful.
Why is she making a big deal about it? She just wants the attention.
Are you sure that’s what happened?
She was probably asking for it.
He wouldn’t do that - he’s a good guy!

Maybe you have never said that to a victim’s face, but if you have talked about another victim in that way, even one you didn’t know, we remember.  We know not to tell you.

I will try to be more careful.  Not to take a bus? Not to go to a mall? Not to be friends with guys?  None of these things happened in dark alleys or nightclubs. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I can assure you it wasn’t seductive.  

And you know what, it’s not about the clothes or the makeup. Wearing a short skirt is not saying, “Come and act like my body belongs to you.” In no language is too much eyeliner code for, “Please abuse me.” Flirting may be an invitation to flirt back; it is not an invitation for date rape. The very nature of harassment, assault, and abuse is something that is not wanted, not asked for. It is a violation. We must Stop. Blaming. The. Victim.

When I am not sure if I am overreacting about a gender issue, I generally find it clarifying to ask, “What if this happened to a man?” In what world has anyone ever said to a man, “You didn’t have a shirt on so what did you expect?  Of course she grabbed your crotch.  She just couldn’t help herself.”  Who would ever say, “Dude, you had an inappropriate saying on your shirt, or you made a inappropriate joke - didn’t you kind of expect to get raped?”  “You put your arm around her shoulder - naturally she thought that meant she could touch you wherever she wanted.  You can’t just turn a girl on like that and then decide you are uncomfortable.”

Can you hear how crazy these statements are?  These are the things said to your sister, your wife, your friend, your daughter.  These are the ideas we too often accept.  We have a president who graphically talked about wanting to assault a woman, talked about taking advantage of women, and called it all joke.  And we elected him anyway.  (Yes, before you go there, I know about Clinton.  If you remember, we were horrified and impeached him.)

Sure, I could be making it up.  Maybe I just misunderstood. But I am trying to understand in what situation is it okay for a stranger to grab a woman’s breast?  Why does a friend or even a boyfriend have the right to treat a woman’s body like it belongs to him?  How can we possibly justify a counselor or a pastor taking advantage of the person coming to him for help?

I have been fortunate because I learned that women should speak up for themselves, not that women should be kept silent. I learned that women were equals with men, not made to be subjected to them.   I knew enough good - and respectful and self-accountable - men and enough strong women.  I knew this wasn’t just “the way men are.” They don’t all abuse their power. They can practice self-control. They can be respectful.  They don’t get to blame their actions and choices on others. We should not demean men by expecting so little of them.

I know this post is a little angry.  You know what, I don’t know how to talk about this topic without a little anger.  Less for myself and more for my friends and family members and so many innocent children who have been harassed and assaulted and abused.  Think about your daughter, your sister, your mother.  If you saw her being abused, would you laugh?  Would you blame her?  Would say she was overreacting?  I hope to God you wouldn’t.

The next time you hear of another woman being harassed, imagine it was your daughter, it was your sister, it was your mother. Because probably, it was.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

This Is The Age

I am the first to admit (and complain) that this age is hard.  So hard, so exhausting, so constant. Some days I long for the girls to be older. When Adalyn stops throwing tantrums...When Nadia stops eating things off the floor...When Juliana stops wanting someone with her when she falls asleep every night...
But tonight at bath-time I remembered:

This is the age of rubber duckies and washcloth puppets.  The girls are excited to don their princess towels that fit over their heads like dresses, and Adalyn worries, "Where is Elsa's face and feet?" ("You are Elsa's face and your feet are her feet.")

This is the age of boardbooks and picture books, some torn and chewed and falling apart because they were everyone's favorites (and apparently tasted good too).  I still read the same story over and over at bedtime when Nadia starts for another book, then decides Quiet LOUD deserves another re-read.   Adalyn loves following a little girl through her bedtime routine in My Goodnight Book, asking why we don't do exactly every step the same way.

This is the age of stories and songs and prayers before bed.  It is daddy's rides to bed and the blanket just so, or all the right stuffed animals cuddled around. It is frantic calls from the bedroom - when you just want to finally be alone - to say, "MAMA, I didn't give you a kiss!!"

This is the age of excitment.  New bandaids call for imaginary cuts. A visit from a friend is a good reason to jump up and down.  A carton of yogurt satisfies every need, at least for the moment.  They exult over pumpkins and stickers and anything new.  They rush to be the bearer of good news, "Juliana we are eating MAC AND CHEESE for lunch!!"

This is the age of peanut butter sandwiches.  Gallons of peanut butter smeared across bread and jelly spread too liberally by a young hand.  It is making lunch special with "double decker sandwiches" or making lunch exactly the same every single day.  It is "girled cheese," which we know means a piece of bread with cheese on top, microwaved just enough to be fully melted but not too bubbly.

This is the age of songs - endless requests to listen to Moana or Capital Kids! or Go Down Moses.  At bedtime it is "Daddy, sing a made up song that's not true about a Yes."  At school time it is Nadia requesting "JEEEEE," bobbing her head and clapping enthusiastically to "Jesus Loves Me."  On the road it is Juliana singing the same line over and over until it is stuck in your head for all eternity.

This is the age of simple problems.  Adalyn called me booty! Nadia is sitting on my drawing! Juliana won't let me play with her!  Why do I have to clean up my toys every night - I do everything around here!  The stool is not pulled out far enough at the sink, the soap is too far away, the counter is too cold to lean against, you are always making me wash my hands and you are RUINING MY LIFE!

This is the age of hugs in the morning and joy when you return home.  It is, "Mama, you are the best mama ever," and "WHY does daddy have to go teach? I just want him to stay here." It is nose kisses and imploring arms and let me poke my finger in your belly button just one more time.  It is love so intense it clings and wraps and holds on because it cannot imagine life without you.

And yes, it is the age of tantrums and sleeplessness and neediness and screaming. It is the age of toddlers crying at your feet while you try to cook dinner.  It is whining and bickering and crying  and did I mention screaming? It is putting a blanket back on, or finding a pacifier, or making trips to the bathroom, or sitting through night terrors, or putting that stupid blanket back on again, every single night.

But we get duckies and boardbooks and so many giggles.  We get bright eyes and smiles at 6:30am.  We get soft cheeks against ours, little hands searching for our own, little bodies smushed against us for protection and comfort.  We are the miracle workers with all the answers, fixing problems with bandaids and crackers and do-overs.

We see glorious, energetic, confident dances around the living room, because they haven't yet learned to be self-conscious.  We experience all the raw emotions they haven't yet learned to hide.  We glimpse the black and white world as they see it, full of right and wrong and good guys and bad guys, before everything gets confusing. We are peppered with anger, such honest over-the-top anger, and showered with love, given freely and abundantly, as if they could never run out.