Category Archives: asd

Thinking About Thinking About Mental Illness

In a recent article published in Aeon, clinical psych PhD student Kristopher Nielsen describes a way of thinking about mental disorders as “sticky tendencies” within the framework of embodied enactivism—which is, in turn, a framework to help with trying to understand how we humans function.

I quite like Nielsen’s description. He offered a sensory analogy:

To understand this concept a little more, imagine holding a kitty-litter sized container with both hands. The floor of this container is shaped like a little landscape with hills and valleys. Now imagine placing a marble in the container and moving your hands so that the marble rolls over the landscape. Notice how the marble gets stuck in the valleys and bounces off the hills; how sometimes it falls into patterns or particular tracks across the landscape.

Kristopher Nielsen

He goes on to suggest that we might understand mental disorders as places where the marble has trouble getting out of a given spot in the floor—where it gets stuck, so to speak.

This makes a lot of sense to me—it dovetails nicely with the idea of mental disorders as points along a spectrum (for example: we all experience anxiety from time to time, some for frequently than others; it isn’t generalized anxiety disorder unless it reaches a point at which anxiety disrupts and impairs our lives), while perhaps offering a way to help people understand how the near-universal experience of a passing depression might need to be handled differently than the less-common experience of a persistent one.

It also tracks well with my experiential sense that my mood disturbances are very much cases of getting stuck. (Of course, I acknowledge here that confirmation bias is a thing.)

It has also, in a way, helped to clarify a point I’ve had trouble expressing, because it was difficult to translate from my weird, non-verbal way of thinking about abstract things into words, which are pretty darned important to communicating abstract ideas most of the time, which is this:

Outside of the formal field of psychology, we tend to lump all mental “disorders” into one big collection. We unconsciously think of them as functioning the same way—they’re pieces of the machine that have got out of whack somehow.

This can make it very difficult for people to understand things like related and unrelated comorbidities and why a pinpointed therapy or medication might work for one class of disorders, but might not for another.

In the formal field of psychology, on the other hand, we break out groups of disorders based on the idea that they’re somehow related, though we don’t always quite have a sense of how, and sometimes we’re completely wrong have have to move things around, because brains are complicated, yo.

This distinction is often lost in efforts to communicate about mental disorders with the world at large, first because it’s fundamentally kind of a challenging idea to communicate; second because it’s easy and natural and normal to just lose sight of one’s acquired framework. We get so used to seeing things through a certain set of lenses that we forget they’re there, and we fail to include them with our description of the moon (this can also make it much harder for us to see and accept our own errors as new evidence emerges).

Nielsen’s analogy could be immensely helpful, here, if extended just a little further.

For example, we might think of autism as something that changes the substrate and makes the marble roll differently everywhere.

No two substrates will be exactly the same, but on average, NT substrates will be more similar to one-another than to autistic substrates, and vice-versa (there are, of course, other ways of being neurodivergent, and I can think of ways to further layer the analogy that should still work when they overlap).

Perhaps the neurotypical base is smoother, or rougher, or has wider or narrower grooves overall on average, than the autistic one. Regardless, the ball rolls a bit differently on the autistic base than it does on the neurotypical base.

In both cases, however, it’s still possible for the marble to get stuck.

In both cases, the place where the marble gets stuck is real, and once the marble is stuck there, its entire experience is colored by that stuckness. In both cases, the marble might need extra input to get unstuck, though that input might need to look different for a marble in an allistic track than it does for one in an autistic track.

Regardless, as long as we don’t overinvest in the analogy, the ideas of the track, the variations in the topography of the track, and the marble might be really useful in helping people both at large and within the formal field of psychology imagine mental disorders.

This doesn’t directly address the possibility, of course, of many mental disorders being less actual malfunctions than the result of an infinite diversity of minds being force-fitted into a narrowly-defined set of life options—but Nielsen’s model does acknowledge the role of culture and experiences in shaping the tracks in which our mental marbles run, and doesn’t regard the tracks as fixed, changeless entities.

Likewise, as with any model, this one might not be universally useful. For me, it’s a helpful framework; someone else might find it less than useful or even the opposite of useful.

This is why it’s important to offer models, but not to treat them as holy writ. We’re still far from really understanding the human mind, and our failure to acknowledge that can harm both people (who suffer when we try to force-fit them into inaccurate models) and progress (which is stymied when we let ourselves get stuck in our existing models and when we can’t see beyond them).

It’s encouraging to see that researchers and people at large are taking the question of how to think about mental illness seriously. When we think about our thinking, we make room for change.

This kind of change—change that questions assumptions and tries to meet people where they are—has done a lot of good for those of us living with mental illness and those of us who are neurodivergent in ways that might not fight the traditional idea of “mental illness.”

We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s good to know that people are making the journey.

I Botched My Roll

So, I made a plan (or, well, more like a goal) and … yeah. You know how it goes. Man makes plans; G-d laughs.

In addition to the schedule insanity (that I brought upon myself by not communicating as well as I should have and thus taking on a couple of projects that have added hours of driving time to each week) and STILL trying to finish getting the house sorted, we’re trying to figure things out relative to stuff going on in my family. Oh, and Nutcracker, of course. Two of them, but at least I’m only dancing in one, I guess?

So I haven’t succeeded in compiling and posting resource links yet. Mea maxima culpa.

What the past BASICALLY TWO HECKING YEARS FFS have made me really, really realize is that I thrive in the highly-structured and physically demanding environment of a ballet company, but freelancing makes my head explode.

I don’t know if I’d say that I’m glad that I’ve been given an opportunity to learn how much freelancing in dance probably isn’t a really great, sustainable career choice for me–let’s be honest, we’d all rather that COVID-19 (and misinformation appertaining thereto) hadn’t driven a hecking train through everything, and I’d MUCH rather be halfway through my fourth full season at LexBallet than … this. But, like, at least it’s given me some insight into how NOT to manage my career. Or, at any rate, to the fact that if freelancing is going to be part of my future, I have to find a better way of managing my calendar.

I don’t think I’ll ever be great, or possibly even basically competent, at planning. I think I’m going to have to accept that. It’s not in my wheelhouse, so to speak.

Apparently when I was rolling up my stats or whatevs before I was born, I decided to put a ton of points in strength, dex, charisma, and … whatever stat covers having a brain that’s incredibly good at creative stuff and storing boatloads of information about highly specific things but doesn’t cover things like planning (at all) or processing language (at least in, well, a reliably-accurate way). I clearly more or less zeroed out whichever stats cover things like planning and executive function in general.

What’s my “Not Sucking At Life” modifier again?
PC: Murilo Papini via Pexels.com

I find the whole Ye Olde Tabletoppe Gameyngg analogy helpful because it reminds me that, like, it often really does kind of seem like we have X amount of points that somehow get distributed between an array of characteristics.

While some people–probably most people–roll up well-balanced stats and are very comfortably sound all-rounders, those of us who stack one or more stats do so at the expense of other stats.

Maybe we’re strong AF with a wimpy constitution. Maybe we supercharge Charisma at the expense of mere Strength.

Maybe we roll up a dancer who can’t remember what’s happening this Tuesday, let alone some other, distant Tuesday, if there’s not an external structure in place to help him remember.

Instead of making value judgements about our stats, we can see them as tradeoffs. And just as, in an RPG, you accept the tradeoff and play the character you made, in real life it’s probably a good idea to take stock of one’s strengths and weaknesses instead of wasting energy trying to ameliorate the weaknesses beyond a reasonable degree[0].

  1. Seriously. In an RPG, you don’t go, “Greymoor Devondale prepares Spell of Basic Calendar Management” when it’s going to take 17 turns, your party is facing a Balrog with serious indigestion, and you’re the only one whose music can soothe the beast so the Thief can steal the Thing of Needing and save everyone’s butts, or at least advance to the next stage in the adventure. You play the Magic Music and let the appointments fall where they may.

I’m sure there are people who buck this general trend and who are just, you know, spec-hecking-tacular in all their stats[1]. Honestly, I’m happy for them, and happy they exist–like, legitimately, I suspect that there are probably a handful of such folk who are, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, effectively holding back the tide of the rest of the world’s collective idiocy, including mine.

  1. JS hecking Bach, organist, composer, choir director, and family man extraordinaire comes to mind. But otoh there were elements in his life that facilitated all that; who knows what would become of him in the mad l’aissez-faire end-stage capitalist economy of the 21st-century United States.

I’m also grateful for all the comfortably sound all-rounders–the human Morgan horses of the world who may not be the flashiest, the fastest, the highest-jumping, the smoothest-going, or the hella strongest but who nonetheless are perfectly capable in all those areas and thus are just plain useful. People who are generally competent at being human keep the world turning[2].

  1. Seriously. Y’all are the best. May G-d preserve me from becoming a snooty artiste who doesn’t understand how important lunchroom staffers and accountants and stay-at-home-parents and handypersons and all the competent human beings of the world are ❤

For the rest of us, I guess we have to figure it out.

I’ve maybe finally gotten my head around the fact that my body is kind of a unicorn of strength and flexibility and staggeringly good at picking up physical skills and that I am, in fact, apparently actually rather a talented dancer (if also a bit of an idiot with regard to remembering choreography in certain contexts). I’m a seething inferno of creative ideas and stories. I’m good at making stuff up. Like, really good. And for whatever reason I seem to be missing the gene that makes people afraid of improvising in front of an audience, which has begun to strike me as a kind of Holy Grail of gifts related to the performing arts. I was evidently born not with the gift of gab, but that of pure, unadulterated ham.

Oh, and I’m not half bad at obsessing about neuroscience, though it seems less and less likely that I’ll be returning to pursue a PhD therein any time soon (which is fine).

I’m also getting my head around the fact that I’m absolutely not great at planning, managing my schedule, keeping a house decluttered and pleasant to live in unless there’s very little stuff in it, doing any unfamiliar social task, general adulting, and being, well, reasonable.

You know: the things that, well, “normal” people manage with a fair degree of competence, even amidst the wackadoodle landscape of the 21st century[3].

  1. For the record, I do know that modern life isn’t easy for, well, “normal” people. Wrestling a giant is always hard. It’s just that, for people like me, we’re doing it with one or both hands tied behind our backs, basically. So we kind of need that paintbrush we’re gripping between our teeth, so we can stab that giant mothertrucker in the nostril, if we ever get close enough.

The last of these (that is, not being reasonable) has been … well, not the hardest to accept, exactly, but maybe the hardest to see. Barring my autistic resistance to unexpected changes when there is a plan (I’m much less rigid in circumstances where there aren’t really established plans or protocols, which might be related to my fearless delight in improvisation), I like to think of myself as a fairly reasonable person. After the inevitable meltdown (“WAIT!!! Here are all the reasons that it would be a HORRIBLE PLAN to combine these two classes!!! I don’t mean to be alarmist but THE WORLD. WILL. ENNNNDDDDDDDDDDD!”) I’m pretty good at accepting changes (“Oh, wait. No. Never mind. You’re right. That’s actually a good idea. Carry on.”).

I’m also generally quite willing to do what works for the greater good and even pretty willing to admit when I’m wrong, once I find the brake that lets me stop arguing simply because I’m arguing (do y’all have that, “Oh, crap, this is the WRONG HILL, but I’d guess better die here because I’m already defending it” reflex between realizing you’re at least partially wrong and adjusting accordingly, or is that just me?).

But I’m not reasonable, and what finally made me realize this was a conversation in which I grumbled at myself for not being reasonable in some specific way, and good ol’ Dr. Dancebelt pointed out to me that we don’t exactly become dancers because we’re reasonable.

To unpack that (since just copying-and-pasting the whole conversation doesn’t seem quite kosher), the idea was this: a truly reasonable person can absolutely love dance and dancing without being compelled to make a career out of it. Being a full-time professional artist of almost any kind is and has, in the Western world, almost always been essentially a way of trading security for passion. There are lots of people who are accountants or nurses (well, maybe not nurses; their schedules are usually even crazier than mine) or teachers or pipefitters or cooks who also paint, write, sculpt, or make music for the love of it, and some of them even get paid for their work.

Some of them also dance for the love of it, though they’re a lot less likely to get paid for dancing because of the demands dancing professionally makes on one’s time.

Yet to do any of those things full-time–which is all but a necessity when your thing is dance (especially ballet)–one must very unreasonably choose a difficult and, let’s be honest, financially perilous way of life. That’s just not a reasonable thing to do (though I guess one could make the argument that if not doing The Thing makes you unbearably unhappy and thus not really any more productive or financially stable in the long run, choosing the way of being financially unstable that doesn’t also make you want to die is actually pretty reasonable?).

Basically, being the kind of person who does what, from the outside, looks like choosing the life of an artist despite the glaringly obvious difficulties it imposes is a bit like being possessed–admittedly, by a fairly benign entity, but one whose directives nonetheless sometimes make other people look at you (often with a kind of baffled wonder) and say, “Well, I sure wouldn’t do that.” (On the other hand, a lot of them also say, “Man, I wish I could do that,” so ???)

But also: as artists, we don’t typically lead head-first[4]. Both my AD at LexBallet, Mr D, and the sort of Ur-Teacher of LouBallet’s open classes, L’Ancien, constantly remind us to get out of our heads and dance.

  1. Even JS Bach led from a faith like a volcanic caldera, simmering hugely away beneath the exterior–he coupled it with powerful reason to make some of the most beautiful music of the Western classical canon.

Mr D exhorts us to feel the music!

L’Ancien says, “I don’t care if you do the right steps–I want to see you dance!” Yesterday I caught myself saying almost the same thing to a promising student in my Ballet I/II class, “You were right, but you started thinking and you second-guessed yourself. Brains can really get in the way sometimes!”

As artists, we lead with our hearts or our souls or our guts or whatever (Who has time to even contemplate that? The dance won’t dance itself![5]). If we’re smart/lucky/whatever, we bring our brains along A] to facilitate the process of creation and refine its results and B] to make sure we don’t do anything too stupid and irremediable in the process.

  1. Yes, I say this with a touch of irony. Contemplation is usually part of it, somewhere along the line, and I suspect that a lot people would argue that the dance is always dancing itself. In fact, being entirely comfortable with the apparent-but-not-entirely-actual paradox implied, I don’t disagree. But That’s Another Post(R).

So I’m learning to accept the measure of unreason that appears to be intrinsic to my nature, and to relinquish the well-trained tendency to worship reasonableness for its own sake. All things in moderation, even moderation, etc.

As for the rest … it’s a learning curve.

Like, honestly, as you grow up, you’re used to getting better at things, and often just kind of growing into things that you couldn’t do very well before. Then you spend a while being, or trying to be, an adult, and you realize: oh, okay. Some of this is just kind of how my brain works, and while I might be able to move the needle a tiny bit by expending basically all the energy I have in a constant, massive, concerted effort, it probably wouldn’t actually be worth it.

It’s kind of like realizing that you’re always going to be 173cm tall with short arms, and buying a footstool to make it easier to get things down from the high shelves. Even the strongest demi-pointe only gets you so far.

A long time ago, I made this kind of decision about managing how autistic I look in the world at large. In familiar settings, with immense effort, I can “pass” as … well, not “normal,” but at least not obviously autistic. I learned to do so as a survival mechanism, albeit one that has always been both limited in its actual effectiveness (Is it really any better if people just think you’re plain old weird? By which I mean, does it actually make life any easier? My experience says it isn’t.) and incredibly taxing to maintain.

I had this kind of epiphany, at one point, that I was wasting a ton of clock-cycles trying to fly under the radar, and that outside of very limited-duration applications (placing an order at a coffee counter, and things like that) it was a complete waste of energy. So I decided to, like, stop doing that.

Which, of course, was difficult in its own way, since by then I’d spent a number of years basically cosplaying “normal” roughly 10-16 hours per day and it was a pretty ingrained habit, albeit a destructive one.

Anyway. The end result was a decision to stop swimming up stream for no dam reason (sorry, kinda went fishing for that pun, didn’t I :V) and, ultimately, to learn some new coping skills. And also to, like, just let my hands flap if they want to, sometimes. (Since then, I’ve learned that it’s amazing what kinds of physical weirdness people will overlook if they know you’re a dancer ‘\_(^.^’)_/`

So instead, I’m trying to learn to actually communicate my needs (this has been huge) and to, like, make accommodations[6] for myself as needed. I have trouble managing a house with a lot of stuff in it, so getting rid of a bunch of the stuff is a reasonable approach–and it turns out that D is, at this point in history, on board with that idea. I have trouble managing the process of making appointments with out quarduple[7] booking myself all the gorram time, so … ermmm. Yeah. Still working on that one.

  1. …By which I mostly mean “tools and strategies,” though sometimes, of course, the reality is more, “I JUST CAAAAANNNNNNN’T!” than, “I can! But I’m going to need a boat.”
  2. This isn’t a typo. I’m making fun of myself.

The appointment-management thing is kind of my “white whale,” as we say in the aerial arts community. I’ve been trying to solve that problem forever, and so far I’m 0/infinity. I don’t use any one calendar system reliably enough to prevent it, partly because my phone is crap at multitasking and I lose the thread while it’s taking its sweet time launching gCal or whatever, but mostly because I’m bad at actually remember to copy things into a central calendar and then either get said central calendar out or pull it up while booking things[8]. Ugh. Why[9].

  1. The obvious solution is to carry a small, physical notebook[10] and WRITE THINGS DOWN. The challenge is finding one that
    1. is small enough that I will always carry it and
    2. plays well with my specific handwriting difficulties
  2. Oh, right. Because sometimes the relationship between ADHD and autism is multiplicative, not additive.
  3. Obviously, I haven’t found the One True Notebook yet.

Anyway. So this is where I am right now. I’m trying to stop saying things like, “…But I’ll have a lot more time available once X show is over” because A] that is NEVER true and B] if it ever is true, I would really benefit from a few days to hang my brain out in the sun on the laundry line or something.

Or at least really finish the fecking dishes and laundry. THEY NEVER END.

I originally intended this to be just a short, “Hey, sorry I haven’t done the things yet,” post, but apparently I needed to write for a bit. It did get me thinking about a possible way to implement The Calendar Notebook, though. So maybe I’ll also post that idea at some point.

Until then, keep dancing, and keep being unreasonable, where art is concerned.

I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot

(Full Disclosure: I still haven’t seen Hamilton. I know. I suck.)

… Because I can’t, because it’s already in my arm.

The rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations has been interesting. Connecticut, where my parents live, has it ticking over like clockwork. Indiana (the state next door) is doing … something? Idk. It seems more chaotic than what we’re doing.

And here, in Kentucky, we seem to be figuring it out bit by bit.

A decision was made recently to open up vaccinations for teachers & volunteers who work with K-12 students, which is how I wound up getting called up for a shot. At least, I assume that’s why they sent me an email saying, “Ayyyyyyyyy! Come get your shot!”

I mean, not in those exact words.

The actual process of setting up an appointment was pretty simple—really, the hardest part was figuring out where in my wallet I’d stashed my insurance card.

As for the process of actually getting the vaccine, it was smooth & efficient. They’re using Broadbent Arena, part of our Fairgrounds & Expo Center. You drive in and drive right through (pausing at appropriate points) and never even get out of your car (there are other options for people who don’t drive or who don’t have have access to cars, also).

Because it was A New Situation, my brain was a little spooked about it, but the protocols were extremely clear (except for the unexpected sign near the entrance to the fairgrounds that read COVID TESTING USE GATE 1 ONLY and didn’t mention vaccinations at all—but since my email told me which gate to use, I kept breathing and proceeded as planned).

This is really helpful for neurodiverse people. If we know what the procedure is, it’s much less difficult to go do the thing. I appreciated that—and the fact that, in the course of two days, I got like five emails about my appointment so I would be able to find the confirmation code no matter what). Normally, that might seem a bit excessive, but in this case it was helpful and comforting.

I got the Pfizer vaccine, which is the same one D got. It’s a good week for it—we don’t have men’s technique class on Saturday, if I wind up feeling meh and staying home I’ll just miss normal class.

Because my wildly overreactive respiratory system places me at pretty high risk of being seriously ill if I did catch COVID-19, knowing that my first vaccination is behind me and the second is scheduled is a major relief. Obviously I’m not going to go turn cartwheels in Walmart without a mask, but with things like summer intensives and workshops on the way, it’s good to have that pinned down.


In ballet news, I’ve been taking a good, extremely detail-oriented Zoom class with Devi Piper on Wednesdays. The opportunity to really pick my technique apart and refine key elements is immensely valuable.

Today she gave us a killer plié that I’ll be using on the regs when I’m warming up to work on choreography or whatever.

A lot of really cool stuff has been happening in my life as a dancer of late—stuff that makes me feel awed at the way people reach out to guide developing dancers as we progress and grateful beyond measure for it.

In a week, I’ll be seven years into my resurrected ballet life. When I launched myself on this journey, I definitely carried a sliver of hope that maybe I’d find a way to make a life of of it, but it was so precious and fragile a hope that I rarely dared even to think about it.

Every single day, I’m staggered by this sense of immense privilege (not in the political sense, though there’s that, too—as a male ballet dancer, that’s a huge thing). To have somehow built a life in which I’m valued as a dancer and as a teacher and, increasingly, as a choreographer is something that, in all honesty, I couldn’t have imagined seven years ago.

The hope I had was that I might find a place to fit as a corps boy for a while. I was perfectly fine with the idea of just being a semi-anonymous body of it meant I got to really dance.

I seem to have found, instead, a place where I fit as someone who actually gets to do complex, visible roles. I’m probably never going to find myself in one of the big, world-famous companies, or even one of the ones that are more broadly known on a national scale, but that’s fine. I don’t care about things like that. I still just want to dance (and to make dances, and to teach dancers).

The biggest change, though, isn’t feeling that others value me as a dancer, as a teacher, and as a choreographer. It that I’m beginning to feel worthy of that esteem. That I’m beginning to value myself as a dancer, a teacher, and a choreographer—and, really, as an artist.

I owe a good part of that to the people who’ve gone out of their way to coach me; to suggest that I come take class; to draw me out of my own sense of inadequacy. To show me my strengths.

I also owe some of it to my students, who show up and focus and work hard even when I give them the world’s hardest[1] rond de jambe every week for six months.

  1. I mean—it’s not the hardest, hardest. In terms of technique, it’s really pretty basic—but the musicality is tricky and central to the exercise, and requires them to listen to the music and dance instead of just being like, “Yawn, barre work is boring.” Which is kind of the point.

I owe yet another part of it to the friends who jump right in whenever I say, “Erm, ah, ssssssoooo, ahhhh, would you like to work on a choreography project I’ve been thinking about?” Or, at any rate, try to jump right in, given how challenging it can be there schedule things even when there’s not a global pandemic 😅

But some small part of it I owe to myself. I came to the ballet studio and found the place where I simply know how to work. And then I started doing the work, and I started looking for opportunities and taking calculated risks. And when the chance came to dance full-time, I took that leap, even though it was honestly pretty scary.

And even though I wasn’t sure I was someone who would ever be good at sticking with anything that didn’t have a finite term, i stuck with it—though honestly that’s really a bit like saying like saying, “The water decided to continue flowing downhill.” It’s honestly the path of least resistance. Quitting would be harder than continuing.

So, anyway.

I don’t know where life will take me (I mean: really, nobody does). But I’m no longer afraid that I’ll never find anything that feels like a suitable path.

The periods of mindfulness, of being present in the present, afforded by the work I do—most specifically, taking class and creating choreography—have also been healing in ways I never expected.

I literally never imagined that my brain would ever be as, well, relatively stable as it is now, for one thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying ballet is The Cure, or even The Treatment, for unstable moods for everyone who experiences them. But, for me, it’s a huge piece of the puzzle.

Likewise, dancing has forced me to engage with both my present and my past more deeply than I ever imagined being able to do. My first Pilobolus SI stands as a watershed: something about that experience broke the seal I’d placed over deep, deep wells of feeling—both beautiful and painful.

There are still plenty of things in my past I’ve never directly dewalt with by the conventional means of talking about them—but somehow, when I dance, sometimes I dance about them without realizing that it’s happening.

Only later do I find that somehow, in the midst of wrestling with choreography, some old and festering wound has been cracked open and washed clean so healing can begin. It doesn’t mean the healing is complete, but it means that healing I long thought impossible has begun.

Anyway. Speaking of long, this is getting really long, and it’s the middle of the night, and Merkah would greatly appreciate it if I’d go to sleep. So I guess I’ll close here.

I don’t know how to end this except to add:

If you’re reading this, I’m also grateful to you.

Often, part of growing into a thing is talking about it. For some reason, I find that easier to do here than in a private journal (largely because I’m terrible at actually keeping up with a private journal, since it doesn’t occur to me to put things into words unless I’m talking/writing to someone else).

So you, too, have been essential in this journey.

So: thank you. And I’ll try to include some pictures in the next post 😁

On Anger

I don’t think I’m someone that most people would describe as an angry person, mainly because I work my butt off to contain myself when I’m angry about things that don’t really call for anger.

But, in fact, I think of myself as an angry person.

I’m angry a lot.

Part of me feels entirely justified: like, there’s a lot of injustice and stuff in the world, and also a lot of people just being jerks.

While it might not always be effective, anger about “injustice and stuff” seems, well, justified. What matters in that realm is what you do with that anger. Just like you can harness the power of anger to make yourself actually do double tours, you can harness the power of anger to help power you in the ongoing struggle for justice.

And getting angry (or at least annoyed) when people are jerks is kind of human nature. You have to learn how to manage it, of course, but I’m pretty sure even the Dalai Lama occasionally feels at least a little irritated by the actions of his almost-eight billion siblings in this life. Even the Buddha and Jesus got angry now and again, and the Hebrew scriptures of full of good people (and not-so-good people) who get angry at each-other and even at G-d [2].

  1. I mean, one of the ways to translate the name “Israel” is “wrestles with G-d,” and Judaism allows, and sometimes even encourages, us to have it out with the Being Upstairs.

So this isn’t a screed against anger.

Anger Happens.

Anger has its place, and usually when we try to Just Not Be Angry, what we actually wind up doing is Being Angry Anyway But Bottling It. And when we say “we,” I mean “I.”

I’m hoping your upbringing and experiences have taught you healthier habits–but, if I’m honest, looking at the way most of us act behind the wheel of a car, I’m probably not alone, here.

Strangely, when you bottle something that can be produced in almost limitless supply, you tend to wind up with a lot of it. Ask anyone who’s ever been to Burning Man[3] or had to spend a day or two without a toilet while plumbing repairs happened . Pee Jars proliferate in the dark like some kind of invasive life-form.

  1. It can be hella cold in the desert at night, and if you don’t want to don fifty-seven layers to sprint to the nearest Portos, a Pee Jar is your very best friend.

Likewise, just as it’s a bad idea to repurpose an empty one-gallon cranberry juice jug[4] as a Pee Jar, it’s a bad idea to construct within one’s being a vast reservoir for the storage of anger. Because it’s large, you can procrastinate for much longer before doing the necessary work to empty it. Because you can procrastinate for much longer before emptying it, it’s very likely that when you do, you’ll find that the contents have been magically concentrated into a vile stew of immense potency.

  1. What do you mean, “That reference seems oddly specific,” eh, buddy?

So I am, on the inside, part being attempting to learn to live with lovingkindness and part gigantic bottle of acidic stank.

But that, in fact, also isn’t what I’m reaching for (or, well … except when it’s time to empty the jar, I guess: now, where did I put my chem-lab respirator…).

Instead, what I’m reaching for is something I know I’ve written about before, but which bears revisiting. And it’s this:

When I think I’m angry, I’m usually just afraid.

Fear Is Under-Rated

You’ve probably heard my argument about how laziness is, in fact, an extremely valuable asset in terms of the long-term survival of a species (perhaps ours most of all, since it gives birth to at least as much innovation and creativity as does its dour-faced sister, Necessity, and the ability to invent–that is, to adapt–is our stock-in-trade).

Well, here’s another one: fear is also an extremely valuable asset.

In fact, I would argue that it’s a much more important one than laziness. Sure, it seems reasonable to assume that our moderately-lazy ancestors likely got a bit of a Darwinian boost by conserving their calories and putting them to use when it really mattered … but our moderately-fearful ancestors probably had a huge boost.

Like, honestly? As much as we tend to worship this ideal of fearlessness, really fearless people are excellent at getting themselves killed early in life.

And, of course, dying early in life somewhat limits one’s chances at contributing generously to the overall gene pool.

So not only does a healthy dose of fear help us stay alive, but when we treat fear with respect, we’re respecting a great gift that our ancestors gave us.

So, like, fear can be a great, great thing. Obviously, you can have too much of it–when it prevents you from living your life, that’s roughly as problematic as the all-too-common end result of having too little fear and dying in some stupid way because your nervous system didn’t bother to say, “HEY! This is stupid, and not how we should die. Could we maybe rethink this plan?”

But, on the balance, fear is a helpful gift.

So, then, what (you might by now, quite reasonably, be wondering) exactly is the problem here?

The Problem With Fear (and with Anger)

The problem, for me, is threefold.

First, by nature, I’m a bit of a bad ancestor. As much as I’d like something more impressive, if I had to choose a heraldic motto for myself, it would probably be best to use, “Quod citius ad me, ut per me stultior.”[5]

  1. My Latin is very much limited to the sphere of sacred-music latin, so that’s Google Translate Latin for, “The faster I go, the dumber I get.” If something is incorrectly declined, blame Google. Caveat emptor, etc.

I am the kind of person who has, thus far, avoided major injury by a combination of genes that make me naturally suited for fast-moving, dangerous feats and no small measure of sheer dumb luck. It doesn’t matter how good a skier you are when some other jackwagon careens into you at the speed of sound, after all, and skill and good reflexes can only account for so much, and I’m pretty sure the Divine Intelligence of the Universe isn’t really in the business of pulling morons like myself out of fires that we have ourselves first constructed and lit. At least, not most of the time.

Second, my childhood taught me to be afraid of the wrong things. So, in addition to being what you might call your typical high-adventure-tolerance hyperactive/impulsive ADHDer, I was conditioned to disregard any misgivings my brain might actually bother to produce with regard to most kinds of physical danger, but also conditioned to be completely freaked the feck out by emotional vulnerability. I didn’t even have the example of an early childhood in which fear was met with compassion and comfort–neither of my parents had the wherewithal for that, back then.

So–and this brings us to our third point–I learned to transfigure fear.

And, of course, the easiest thing to turn fear into is … you guessed it.

Anger.

At The Bottom Of Anger, There’s Usually Fear

While finally catching up on housework, I’ve been binge-watching Call The Midwife. It’s one of the rare non-documentary series that I can really enjoy: the characters act like actual people, instead of drama-flogging wackos in the worst kind of middle-school fanfic.

Anyway, I’m on series 2, and yesterday saw an episode in which fiercely-independent twins Meg and Maeve lock horns with our friends from Nonnatus House. At one point, one of the Nonnatans says something like, “At the bottom of anger, there’s usually fear,” or something equally wise.

And that, in turn, might have primed me to recognize that fear was at the root of an episode of anger I experienced while driving to class tonight.

I make no bones about the fact that I deeply dislike the way people drive where I currently live. What looks like normal driving to people here looks, to me, like reckless (though sadly not wreckless) disregard for safe following distance, and indeed for the laws of physics. Where I grew up, we have this thing called winter, and even though we’re pretty decent at clearing roads, learning to walk, and then bike, and then drive on snow and ice imparts a healthy repect for leaving some frickin’ space, ya turkey.

So there I was, driving to class, getting angrier and angrier because, well, people were driving like they always do (except when it rains, in which case they drive at the same speeds and, well, lack-of-distances, but as if they’ve never been behind the wheel before in their lives and have indeed just now awakened unexpectedly at the helm of this incomprehensible four-wheeled Death Buggy).

But OF COURSE I was angry, right? THEY were behaving stupidly and recklessly and risking their lives and each-others’ and mine for NO GOOD REASON, and MY ANGER WAS COMPLETELY ABOUT THAT because that kind of behavior is STUPID and SELFISH and UNJUST and–

And then I pulled into the studio’s parking lot.

And then I spent 90 minutes dancing in my own little box, with my mask on, and not thinking about it because if you can think about anything else in ballet class, you either need a day off or a better class (and this was a very good class) or, possibly, you’re on week 3 of Nutcracker and your brain is just DONE.

And when, at least, I found myself back in my Ballet Wagon, I was swamped by a sudden resurgence of Automotive Anger[6].

  1. I’m defining this separately from Road Rage, since Road Rage is usually used to describe behaviors directed at other road-users, and my Automotive Anger often takes the form of unexpressed interior seething.

Sometimes at moments like that, I automatically talk to myself out loud, because my mental translation software does better with abstract stuff (like feelings) if I either write it out or speak aloud. This is one of the sticking points of being a non-verbal thinker: language was practically invented for abstract stuff that’s hard to parse through sensory imagination and the experiential states we call emotions.

At some point in this conversation, I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to get back on the highway but taking surface streets takes longer and I just want to get home.” And then I asked myself, “Why don’t you want to take the highway?” and I answered, “It’s too stressful,” and I asked, “Why is it stressful?” and before I could say “Because people are jackwagons and I can’t effing stand it” some dusty long-forgotten neuron tucked away in a disused corner of my brain fired all of its guns at once and, rather than exploding into space, shot me the unadulterated message:

BECAUSE I’M AFRAID

Which … honestly?

It took me by surprise, and made me uncomfortable.

But then another part of my brain, the one that’s usually a smart-aleck about any kind of fear, was basically like, “No, that actually makes sense. Like, the way people drive is dangerous and beyond our control.”

Regarding which: wow. Apparently even my inner stupid jackwagon can learn.

A bit of fear about the way people is a good thing. At least, it is if you use it right: if you say, “Hi, Fear! Thanks for looking out for me! Let’s practice some mindful defensive driving so we can stay fairly far from other drivers as much as possible and be prepared just in case they do anything dumb.”

I took the highway home.

People still disregarded the laws of physics, but I expected that and knew I couldn’t change it. Somehow, that made a world of difference. I didn’t have to unconsciously transmute my nervous system’s life-sustaining concern over the dangers implicit in lots of common driving habits into anger in order to feel less vulnerable, or whatever my misguided unconscious habits are trying to do. I just had to drive my own car as responsibly as possible.

It didn’t mean that there wasn’t some stress involved, just that the stress was much easier to cope with without white-hot anger getting in the way.

Okay, But … So … Now What?

When I got home, it somehow occurred to me that maybe it’s time to start examining some of my other anger.

Like, I feel like most of the time I’m just one spark away from a conflagration[7].

  1. Add to this the neurologically-mediated autistic meltdowns that happen much less often but do, in fact, still happen these days, and I sound like a walking disaster. I’m kind of surprised I’m not worse off than I am.

If I lived in a different set of circumstances and had a different set of experiences, I suspect the outcome of that reality could easily be rather more unpleasant. If I hadn’t had a big sister to kick my butt and teach me that blowing up at people tends to result in getting one’s ass handed to one, as it were, they could be a lot more unpleasant.

But even as it stands, I walk around in a high-arousal state a lot, and I feel angry a lot, and I can be short-tempered in ways that almost always seem justified in the moment because my brain is great at deciding that it has good reason to be angry about … whatever. Right now, I’m really glad I was explicitly taught to assume all service-industry workers are doing their best under immensely trying circumstances (which is generally true) and that the customer is NOT always right, or I would almost certainly be such a huge ass all the time o_O

But, um. anyway. It occurred to me that maybe it’s possible to work on this after all. That maybe I’ll be able to work on mitigating some of the damage left by serious traumas and by, well, life. Maybe I’ll always be a bit more keyed-up and hypervigilant than I might’ve been if some really bad things hadn’t happened to me, but I can cope with that.

The past several years have, for me, been immensely healing. I’ve learned to trust in ways I never imagined; I’ve begun to re-examine the fabric of memory (endless thanks to Pilobolus SI, which really kickstarted that process); I’ve found, in the rubble of a life firebombed by circumstance, the tender shoot of a forgotten love that has become a passion, a career, and a home.

Still, I never imagined I would someday entertain the thought that I might also, just maybe, find a way to ratchet down the generalized wariness that leads, too often, to feeling like I’m living a kind of embattled life.

I don’t expect any of this to come quickly. Hell, I don’t expect it to come at all. If all that ever comes out of this moment of clarity is, well, this moment, that’s still an immeasurable good.

But I think if I can do this once, I can probably do it more than once.

Probably.

It’s worth a shot.


PS: It’s NACHMO time again! I can’t believe it!

Last Minute Changes

As an artist, as a dancer who is also autistic, last-minute changes are the bane of my existence.

They’re also just part of the process, especially right now.

The process of filming, with its opportunity for multiple takes, is inherently different from the process of performing a show start-to-finish before a live audience. The certainty in the familiar shape of Nutcracker—the prologue always precedes the crossing, which always precedes party scene, which always precedes “Midnight Scare,” etc—evaporates.

We just finished filming Nutcracker at LexBallet. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it was the single most stressful production of my working life this far—not because anything was mishandled, but simply because, as an autistic person, I feel comfortable when I’m accustomed to the process and stressed when I don’t.

Nutcracker is normally our most-familiar ballet. It’s the same ballet every year: adjustments are made to choreography, but the flow of rehearsal and performance are typically known entities. In a way, it’s like singing the alphabet song versus “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star [1]”: the lyrics might be different, but the music is the same.

  1. Shout-out to Autocorrupt, which was absolutely determined to make this, “Terrible, Terrible Little Star” 🤣🤣🤣 Autocorrupt be #judgy y’all

That isn’t a bad thing, but at times it was deeply frustrating. I’m sure it was even more so for dancers cast in multiple roles, who thus had to dash back and forth to exchange Costume A for Costume B and so forth. Drosselmeyer is only Drosselmeyer—the amount of undoing and redoing of costume, hair, and makeup it would take to be able to jump in and do, say, one of the second-act variations would be unmanageable during a live show.

Still, I’m learning to accept last-minute changes with less internal grumbling as I grow into this life. They still make me feel stressed and a bit recalcitrant (feels be like “I DON’T WANNA CHANGE THAT! …even though it actually works better the new way 😑”), but I’m no longer horrified that OMG MR D IS CHANGING THINGS A G A I N 😱😱😱

Instead, it’s just like: *shrug* *eyeroll* #dancerlife #yolo

In that same vein, I learned as I was packing my car that D had been exposed to COVID-19 at work again—he’s a healthcare provider, so it’s pretty much inevitable—and instead of returning home, I’d be landing at our friend KL’s house pending D’s test results.

Fortunately, I know KL well enough to feel comfortable in her home, though her catto (who normally likes me) was a little spooked about my unexpected arrival as an overnight guest.

Cats aren’t super keen on last-minute changes, either.

Anyway, I slept for 10 much-needed hours last night, and I’m recuperating. My body is definitely in restock mode: I’m super hungry and super tired, so clearly the stores of extra energy are tapped out (except, like: Hey, body? we actually do still have plenty of stored energy, so don’t expect me to eat 3500 calories today while I’m sitting on my butt! You’re going to have to manage on like 2000 or so).

My car, which was broken into at the least convenient moment during theater/filming week, is still sporting a temporary plastic driver’s-side[2] window constructed from blue painter’s tape and a clear vinyl shower-curtain liner.

Not cool, guys 😑 Also, was it necessary to explode my car’s trash bag everywhere? Note to self: get pix of temporary window.

I’m debating whether to order a tiny grocery delivery or actually slither into the driver’s seat[3] and go retrieve some food. Alternatively, I might just order some Chinese or something for today, since I have to go out anyway tmw to vote, rehearse, and teach 🤷‍♂️

  1. Dear potential thieves: please consider ANY OTHER WINDOW for your car breaking-in activities. I get that sometimes life puts you in a position where breaking into a car seems like the best or only option, but seriously, guys, come on.
  2. I’m highly grateful for being moderately-sized and flexible af right now. It’s the only way to get into my car rn without removing the temporary window 🤷‍♂️

Anyway, that’s all for now. I’m still exhausted and I’m seriously considering a nap, even though if there were a World Ranking for Success In Naps I’d be right at the bottom every time.

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