Category Archives: mental health
Today I’m going to begin with a caveat: imposter syndrome varies from person to person and moment to moment. There might be times that the strategy to follow won’t work—heck, it could even backfire—so don’t feel like it’s something you must try, or like you’re less of a dancer (or a person, or what have you) if you don’t.
Take care of yourself in the moment you’re in. You don’t have to do everything today; heck, you don’t have to do everything at all. It’s amazingly liberating to realize that, to be honest, a lot of things can wait, and that you’re not even the tiniest bit obligated to try ever possible approach to a problem.
Now, that being said, buckle in if you’d like to join me on a wee excursion into the territory of Imposterland.
Okay, so earlier I was working around the house and listening to Broche Ballet’s podcast and thinking about imposter syndrome (as you do).
Somewhere in there, something reminded me of my early days in the company at Lexington Ballet, back in the Before Times, c 2018.
- Seriously, that feels like about a MILLION YEARS AGO 😱
At the time, I was grappling with a terrible case of imposter syndrome (as you do). It was a rough time. I struggled a lot. On the regular, usually when everything else was also going wrong, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head and whispered, “You don’t deserve to be here. You’re not good enough. And they’re gonna figure it out.“
And every now and then, like a lifeline from the Universe, another thought would counter, “So what? Who cares? You’re here. Get to work. Prove them wrong. Rise to the occasion. Earn your spot.“
My life, of course, is not a Hollywood blockbuster, so it didn’t immediately fix everything. Not by a long shot. I still had rough days. I still struggled to pick things up in class more often than I care to admit. I still frequently felt like a squid attempting to dance in size 114 clown shoes.
But at the end of the season, I was offered a contract for the following year—and that comes down, in part, to the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness that says, “So what? Who cares? (etc)” That stubborn streak, and the desire to make my Imposter Syndrome eat its words, kept me from walking out when things were at their roughest.
I’ve never thought of imposter Syndrome as an ally in my efforts to build a career as a dancer. I mean, now that I’m reflecting on it, I guess it makes sense to recognize that it’s trying to protect me, but it really often feels like anything but an ally.
But somehow, today, something went ping! and I realized that, indirectly, it has been not only one of my most faithful companions on this journey, but (at times, anyway) a helpful companion.
Imposter syndrome’s timorous whisper has served to feed my tenacity. At critical moments, it has awakened a kind of perverse grit. It has jabbed at the part of me that hates to fail.
I’m not saying this is true for everyone: it’s not even true for me all the time. With two years more-or-less on hiatus under my belt and little to show for it except better port de bras, a somewhat-more-reliable double tour, and a bit more, ahem, insulation than I had when the pandemic began, I’m staring down the barrel of a cross-country move into what is, in terms of dance, terra incognita.
You can bet your bippy that my inner imposter has a lot to say right now, and that the other voice, that stubborn inner voice, doesn’t always reply.
But now I know that I can say to my imposter syndrome, “Yo, thanks for looking out for me, but I’m not quitting. Whether or not I deserved to be where here when I walked through the door, I’m here now, and I’m gonna stick it out and earn my place.”
The funny thing is that sticking it out, in and of itself, really does help. You can do something day in, day out for years without improving at all, but only if your circumstances significantly limit the chance of improvement. Spend enough time doing almost anything with a least a little guidance, and you’re gonna improve.
Back in the fall of 2018, I was as insecure as a teacher of dance and as a choreographer as I was as a dancer.
Flash forward to today, and I’m a reasonably confident teacher: I know I’m not perfect, and that I have a lot to learn, but when I look at my students’ progress, it’s pretty clear that something’s working.
I’m also a reasonably confident choreographer: I set dances that people enjoy watching, and I don’t feel like I haven’t earned the right to do so. When I’m alone in the studio, setting a pas de deux or the corps parts for Act II of Simon Crane, it no longer feels like a pipe dream, or like a vision I shouldn’t look at too directly. Sure, setting an entire gigantic ballet is an enormous goal, and I still have literally no idea how to get there, but I no longer feel like I’m somehow not worthy to try.
I’m not as confident, yet, that I’ve earned my place as a dancer, but I’m getting there poco à poco. Opportunities are appearing that I doubt I could have imagined a few years back.
That’s where sticking it out, even out of nothing but sheer spite, really shines.
It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike: you fall. You get scraped up. You kick the curb, the bike, and especially yourself. You get back on. You crash some more. You keep getting back on because like heck some stupid inanimate object is going to beat you. And then at some point you’re sort of tottering along, and you start to pick up some speed, and the air moves over your skin like the breath of G-d moving over the face of the deep, and YOU ARE DOING IT!
- As a cyclist and lover of bikes, I am willing to certify that bikes are only inanimate objects in the loosest sense. Every single bike has a soul, and that soul is the soul of a pony that goes like a dream for a skilled rider with quiet hands, but will dump a N00b in a puddle STAT and then stand there laughing about it: not malicious, exactly, but perhaps a bit cynical, with a keen sense of the Order of Things. Every horse person on earth has met some version of this pony. So has every cyclist.
And then, of course, you crash again. You tend to crash a lot in the beginning, because that’s how beginnings work. Heck, if you’re a baby wood duck, your first experience of flight is being shoved out of the nest to crash in the underbrush, presumably so when is time to learn to fly, you’ll already know what crashing is like, and you won’t let it stop you (or possibly because some distant ancestor long ago decided that eggs were safer in trees, and here we are).
But, anyway, wood duck, cyclist, or dancer, you get up and dust off and get back to it. You’ve started, so you might as well keep on going.
And if you keep going long enough, you might just figure it out. You might discover, after all, that while you were looking elsewhere, you’ve earned your spot.
I used to think every other professional dancer I knew could see all my flaws. Now, I know they can: but most of them also choose—and I’m immensely grateful for this—to see my strengths.
The strength that is a spiteful refusal to give in to my imposter syndrome—or, seen from another angle, the conviction to endure through whatever trial arises—may or may not be invisible. I suspect my AD at LexBallet saw it plainly from time to time.
But, looking back, it’s a strength that I guess I can see.
One last thing: I know that privilege is a part of this. Opportunity is unequally distributed, especially for male ballet dancers, who are still pretty thin on the ground and who thus enjoy a far greater chance of finding a spot. So is the kind of financial security that affords both good training and the ability to absorb the financial challenges that come with being an artist. So is health.
Likewise, I have done exactly none of this on my own. Dancers are unicorns not only in that we’re kind of rare, but in that we—like Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn—need others to see us; to believe in us; to know what we are. We’re a communal concern, whether we like it or not.
The thought of exactly how much artistic potential goes untapped either through lack of opportunity or through lack of recognition and support is, quite frankly, staggering.
- Not recognition in the public, award-receiving sense, but in the private, “I am your teacher and I see that you have a gift and I’m going to tell you about it, along with anyone I know who can help you develop it” sense
Please know that if lack of privilege, of opportunity, of means, of health, of recognition, or of support—or, really, anything else: life is full of obstacles—stands in your way, I am not saying, “Just pick yourself up by your bootstraps!”
Imposter syndrome is a mirage, but there are plenty of real obstacles in the world, and imposter syndrome can make it even harder to overcome them.
If you’re in the woods, if you’re in the country of obstacles, I hope you’ll find your way clear (and I’ll help any way that I’m able, though I have no idea what that might look like).
I hope also that you might be able to harness your inner imposter. Maybe even make friends with them.
I’m not really there yet, but why not?
I know I’ve written about this before, and I’m sure I’ll write about it again, but because for some unfathomable reason I’ve spent basically my entire day on Twitter grooving on threads from the neurodivergent, EDS, and disability communities, it occurs to me to write about why the ballet is a good fit for me, specifically as it interfaces with autism.
Everyone on earth has now written a summary of the basic diagnostic criteria for autism, so I’m not going to do that, here. Y’all know how to Google if you need more info -.^
Instead, I’m going to touch on how working as a dancer in a ballet company is a good fit for me as an autistic person, breaking things down as I go by the specific traits in question.
So, here we go.
Narrow Range Of Specialized Interests
Hooooo, boy. With the exception of the equestrian world and certain subsets of academia (I see you, paleobiologists!), I’m not sure there are too many actual career paths that dovetail as neatly here.
Ballet is an all-encompassing special interest. It requires your body, your mind, and basically all of your time. It’s one of the very few career paths in which obsessive focus on the subject is essentially an entry-level requirement—like, the only way to make it through the training is to be motivated enough by ballet itself, which is why dancers everywhere giggle at t-shirts that read, “I CAN’T. I HAVE CLASS.”
Like, we’ve all been there, and (excepting the few who get shoved into it by overbearing parents), we all chose that life.
As autistics, we experience this thing where people get really sick of our special interests. I honestly have only met one person in the ballet world who occasionally gets tired of talking about ballet, and even he doesn’t get tried enough of it to resent it—he’s just delighted when people bring their non-dancing partners to dancer shindigs so he can talk to them about, like, politics or futböl ^-^
It’s not that we dancers never talk about anything else—but in the studio after rehearsal, or at gatherings of dancers, nobody gets mad if you talk about ballet, or if all your jokes are specific to dance.
I suppose part of this is that ballet leaves precious little time for other pursuits—but, also, you only get that far if it basically consumes your whole being.
Rigid Adherence To Routine
I go to class even when I’m on holiday.
This is, of course, partly because I like going to class, and partly because the only way to stay in shape for ballet is, well, ballet.
But I’ve realized it’s also, to a significant extent, because no matter where I go, class is class. Barre is barre. Centre is centre. Allegro is the best thing that ever—erm, sorry, allegro is allegro.
There may be minor variations (Ha! Ballet puns!) in the routine, but overall, when I step into the studio, I can relax a bit more than I normally do, because I understand the process, and I know what will happen.
That Whole “Systematizing” Thing
NGL, I love a good system—and ballet is a system.
It comes with its own entire language and four hundred years of etiquette, which (bonus!) is largely explicit.
Better still, it combines beautifully with a systematic understanding of anatomy and physiology.
Yes, parts of the system are problematic and due for overhaul—but that can happen in any system. A strong system will weather those changes and come out the other side better than it was.
Ballet has been doing that for four hundred years. As long as we allow it to, it will continue.
Being a member of a company also provides a systematic framework for managing time. Class begins at the same time six days a week; rehearsal and performance schedules are posted where you can see them enter day, but you’ve also got your fellow dancers to remind you that, oh yeah, this Friday we have an outreach gig after lunch.
In a well-organized company, you know the temporal framework for the entire season when you arrive on Day One. Specific parts of it may change due to casting or whatever (for example, global pandemics o.O), but the broad strokes are there.
The Social Aspect
My particular autism is probably most observable in the casual social contexts most NT folks seem to really enjoy—the ones where there’s no specific topic or activity, just general chumming around with a bunch of people. I have literally no idea what to do in those circumstances unless someone fires up a conversation that falls in my range of Known Topics ^.^’
And G-d help me if it’s the kind of party where there’s music and lots of different, overlapping conversations but no room to just dance . I can’t with parties like that—my spoken language processing is too limited, and my brain stops bothering, so I typically find the quietest possible place to hole up with a match-3 game on my phone.
- If there’s room to dance, on the other hand, I’m in my element. It didn’t even really matter what kind of music is playing.
There’s some very interesting research happening about much of autistic social difficulty results directly to autistic neurodivergce itself and how much results from the social opportunity costs of being different, particularly during childhood, bu it’s generally agreed that autistics on the whole typically struggle with social stuff.
Ballet might seem like a weird way to address that, since the typical class offers little or no time for what we think of as socializing. But what it lacks in time to chat, it makes up for in spades under the heading of “shared/corporate/communal experience”—which works well for me as someone who grooves on the whole “parallel play” modality, and which in itself provides fodder for chats outside of class and rehearsal (or during breaks).
- In the sense of “people doing things together as a single entity”—ie, a body, or corpus
You don’t have to know how to have a casual conversation to be part of a group of dancers—but being part of a group of dancers can help you get better at having a casual conversation. At least, it did that for me. I’m not going to say I ever totally stopped being The Weird Kid at LexBallet, but people got to know and like me well enough to see past the discomfort that causes.
Addendum: Oh, and because I totally failed to mention it: there’s nothing as social as partnering. (Well, maybe one other thing ^-^’)
You Never Have To Sit Still
Okay, except sometimes, like if you’re a corps girl in parts of Swan Lake or the Master of Ceremonies during certain parts of The Sleeping Beauty. But, even then, it’s a very active way of being still, and will inevitably be relieved by movement.
I often tell people the story of sitting (“sitting,” lol) in a meeting at the last non-ballet job I had and experiencing this intense revelation: like, literally everyone else in the room was physically able to sit still.
I was the only one doing a jig under the table, furiously taking notes to stay engaged, drawing when there was a lull, and constantly shifting in my chair.
That was the moment when I realized with absolute clarity that I did not belong there. Not in a value-judging way—just in a, “Wow, this is not my environment” way. I realized I wasn’t about to “grow into” sitting down at a desk—not then, and probably not ever.
I need to move in order to function. I mean, yes, that’s true for everyone, don’t get me wrong—basically it’s what makes us not plants. Even sessile species like sea anemones go through phases where the they float around irresponsibly before finding grown-up jobs and settling down.
What I mean is that, for whatever reason, my brain/body compels me to move more than most people are compelled to move.
I think better when I’m moving. I feel better when I’m moving. Moving helps me organize my senses and my thoughts.
Honestly, my brain is kind of like one of those sharks that starts to die if it stops swimming, only replace “die” with “dance a stationary jig while quietly losing the plot, but not actually processing information in any meaningful way.”
I don’t necessarily panic—I just get more and more restless, and the excess spills over in the form of more meltdowns and less sleep. Well, and also just having to get up and take a walk, to anywhere, even if it’s just the despised printer, enemy of humankind, or the file cabinet or whatevs.
Also, I just have a metric shedload of extra energy to burn off, and nothing does that like ballet-company life . Teaching gets partway there, but drains my social meter harder than it does my hyperactivity, so it doesn’t lead to the kind of productive exhaustion that makes me actually feel my best and reliably sleep well.
- working with horses also comes very close, but it’s hard to work at a barn and in a ballet company at the same time; being a picker in a gigantic warehouse also burns off tons of energy, but isn’t as helpful in other ways
This is never a problem in ballet, because in ballet, moving is literally your job.
So, Like, In Summary
Anyway, this is long enough.
I’ve written it in part because I’m sure there are people out there who are like, “Wait, I thought all autistics did computers or trains or math,” or even, “How can an autistic person possibly work in ballet?”
I hope this goes a little way towards helping things make sense for people in those camps, but it also helps me understand better what I need from my work environment and why company life, even during my “unpaid trainee/bottom of the pile” days, meant so much to me and worked so well for me.
I’ve been thinking hard about how to make things work going forward, because normally, in dance, you kind of audition everywhere and you go where the job is, but things are happening in my life (nothing ominous, just … responsibilities and stuff) that mean I’ll be moving to a specific place whether or not I get a company spot there.
That has been pretty scary, because I haven’t been sure how to continue building my life as a dancer if that happens. Like, literally, as a not-tall guy who still has some rough spots in his training, that’s a very real possibility. There might not be a company that has a spot for me right now.
But knowing why company life works for me will help me begin to see my way to building a working life that does work, even if that happens.
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.
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.
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.
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- 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!). 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.
- 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 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 booking myself all the gorram time, so … ermmm. Yeah. Still working on that one.
- …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.”
- 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. Ugh. Why.
- The obvious solution is to carry a small, physical notebook and WRITE THINGS DOWN. The challenge is finding one that
- is small enough that I will always carry it and
- plays well with my specific handwriting difficulties
- Oh, right. Because sometimes the relationship between ADHD and autism is multiplicative, not additive.
- 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 writing this mostly as a reminder to myself, since managing widgets on an Android device is kind of a PITA and I’m not in front of my laptop right now.
Anyway! I’m planning to add three resource widgets: one with resources for autistic peeps, one for ADHD peeps, and one for Ehlers-Danlos info.
Each will include links to websites I’ve found really helpful, and that I hope might be helpful to anyone else who’s trying to navigate that neurodiverse lyfe or that bendy, poppy, sometimes dysautonomic lyfe.
I thought about lumping the ASD & ADHD resources into one “Neurodiversity Resources” widget, but A] that could turn into one hella long list and B] breaking them out into two separate widgets might be useful for anyone who’s looking for one topic or the other specifically. Also, I find it deeply satisfying to sort things into categories, because autism.
That said, there is often a lot of overlap between ADHD and ASD, and I hope y’all will feel free to explore any resource that sounds like it might be useful.
ASD is also more common in people with EDS than in the general population, which is both fascinating in terms of research potential and a huge relief to people like me who have spent our entire lives wondering if we’re really just gigantic hypochondriacs (even though EDS is diagnosed by objective physical criteria and we chime right along with the diagnostic profiles for ASD & ADHD and have carried both diagnoses for most of our lives).
I’ll also add a Resource Room page—that way, folks can find the resource lists in an uncluttered context.
Lastly, because I’m a nerd who likes to review things and who recently received the gift of a Costco membership, I think I’m going to try doing a wee video series reviewing stuff I’ve stumbled upon at my Costco that has proven really useful in my life as a neurodiverse dancer currently struggling with the scheduling chaos related to the ongoing pandemic. SPOILER ALERT: it’s mostly gonna be food.
- Autocorrupt suggested, “…ongoing Patricia.” Patricia, I don’t know you, but apparently Autocorrupt thinks that you’re the one sowing chaos in my daily life 😱 Don’t worry, though—Autocorrupt is almost always wrong. Almost always. But if it is you, can you take it down a notch, please? 😅😅😅
You know those soundbytes that your brain makes from experiences in your own life and then plays back every time you hear some kind of trigger word or phrase?
“Something’s happening!!!” is one of mine. My friend Mal, who is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known, once shouted this during a particularly complicated group acro thing, and it so beautifully summed up the moment: like, “Something is happening! Is it the right thing? WHO CARES!!! IT’S A RESULT!!! YEAHHHHHHHHH!!!”
If I remember correctly, what was happening was, in fact, the thing we were trying for, so that’s also awesome, but the best part was just the sheer excitement that ANYTHING was happening ^-^
Anyway, it was just one of those really great moments.
As is this.
Yes, COVID-19 is still a thing. We’re still dancing in masks in most circumstances and so forth. People are still getting sick and dying, and I don’t want to make light of that.
But, at the same time, the world of the performing arts and of the movement arts is slowly, cautiously resuming operations.
This week, I’m taking the Louisville Ballet School’s second-annual Adult Summer Intensive. Thus far, it’s been flat-out amazing. I’ve hella missed starting my day with class in a room full of dancers, then spending the whole day at work in the studio. It’s so good to be doing it now, and it’s a great group this year–14 of us doing the full-day program, plus an additional handful doing the half-day version.
Next week, on the 11th, I’m teaching a workshop for aerialists (and other movement-based performers who might not have a strong dance background) specifically on What To Do With Your Hands. Honestly, given my history as a Ballet Squid, I’m both deeply moved that people actually asked me to teach that specific topic and also deeply amused. Honestly, though, the fact that hands have historically been a biiiiiit of a problem for me is one of the reasons I actually feel qualified to teach this.
I am not, for example, all that well well placed to teach flexibility, because my entire approach would be, “IDK LOL MY BODY JUST DOES THAT *shrug*”
But since I’ve actually had to work at making my hands not do stupid and ridiculous things ALL THE TIME, I think I can actually offer some useful insights–like, “your hands will be more graceful if you think of them as extensions of your arms,” for example.
On the 13th, our preview production of Leigh Purtill Ballet Company’s CIRCUS OF WORLDLY WONDERS goes live (or semi-live). The show will have both pre-recorded and live segments, and there will also be a raffle and other cool fundraising stuff.
On the 17th, it’s PLAYTHINK TIME!!! I’ll be teaching my usual workshop, Move And Be Moved, at 6:30 PM on Thursday and performing an original piece with my friend Emma in the main-stage Flowcase, which begins at 8:30 PM on Friday.
Emma has, by the way, been a fabulous partner. She came into this with no real partnering experience, but has been incredibly game about trying everything. We also take regular breaks to act like a couple of five-year olds, which is super important to the partnering relationship IMO.
In July and possibly August, I’ll be teaching at Summer Intensives, and beginning rehearsals for LPBC’s next show, Sweet Sorrow: A Zombie Ballet, in which I get to be a werewolf (AWOOOOOOOOOO!!!).
I also have a bunch of short gigs with Turners’ Smile Parade, which is an awesome sort of pop-up circusette that visits nursing homes, schools, birthday parties, and so forth, and I’m hecking excited about those, because frankly they’re SUPER fun ❤
I may or may not find a way to jam another SI into my summer, though who knows? Right now, I’m feeling pretty booked, and like perhaps I shouldn’t add anything because I need to leave room to, like, actually breathe and relax and put my feet up before I dive into what is somehow the THIRD YEAR of my ballet-teaching career and the … fourth? year of my ballet career.
Tonight, though, I’ll be sliding into the bathtub for a little R&R before I crawl into bed. My body feels great (if a bit tired) right now, but 6ish hours of dancing, followed by an hour pushing the lawn mower around, can take a toll, and a bath will help put things right.
(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 rond de jambe every week for six months.
- 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.
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 😁
Gentle Readers, a picture from today:
It’s a screenshot of a screenshot bc I’m too lazy at the moment to go get my phone and upload the original screenshot.
Anyway. I snagged this from a video I recorded of a class I took this afternoon.
There were a few nice moments in that video, as well as some that would’ve been nice if I wasn’t doing one or more small, incorrect things.
To my eye, this pic falls in the latter category. Or, well … Maybe it would be more fair to say that it falls in the grey area between the two categories?
So I posted it to Insta because I think it’s kind of funny—I’m clearly committed to this exercise that I’m doing, but also clearly (to my own eye) trying not to crash into the furniture (big mover + small space = potential disaster).
It turns out that maybe not everyone sees this shot the same way I do.
Here’s what I see immediately:
- Not quite on my leg (if you draw a plumb line from my hip socket, in fact, I’m quite a bit behind the ball of my foot)
- Back arm too high
- That stupid thumb again
- Neck retracted
- Supporting leg could be a bit more turned out
- My back leg might not be straight back? (The lighting makes it hard to tell. Rationally, I think it might actually be placed correctly, but my brain keeps quibbling about it anyway.)
- Same quibble about whether my hips are square (with the same caveat)
- At least my back is lifted and my leg is straight, high, and turned out?
What several other people see immediately:
- A nice arabesque.
So … As a dancer, you do have to learn to critique your own technique. If you want to master ballet vocabulary, it’s necessary.
But I think sometimes we get so caught up in criticism that we need to be shaken out of it.
Yes, it’s important to see what we’re doing wrong. But it’s just as important to see what we’re doing right.
Ballet attracts … okay, all kinds of people, really. It retains people who have an taste for focusing on details and working like crazy to overcome faults. It retains people who aren’t too proud of themselves—and maybe, too often, people who aren’t proud enough of themselves.
No, this arabesque isn’t perfect. But there’s a lot there to be proud of (not in the “I’m better than you” sense—just in the quiet way one feels when one works hard and improves on things).
A lot of work goes into getting that back leg high without compromising the placement of the hip. Same for keeping the back that high, working the gensture leg against its opposite shoulder to make a strong, turned-out position.
Yesterday, after a class in which I (still working off my two-week-long sinus-infection nap) felt hella weak, a teacher who I respect quite a lot told me she can tell I’m a very well-trained dancer.
That meant a great deal to me, as I still tend to think of myself almost entirely in terms of my faults. But I have, in fact, come a long way, even in the past year, while dancing under some very unusual conditions.
Sometimes we meet people who only see their own strengths, and it’s easy to regard them as delusional (I mean, not that we’re not all at least a little delusional! But That’s Another Post™). Like, seriously, everyone’s got faults.
But it’s just as delusional to see only faults.
We have to learn to walk in the middle and see both.
By which I mean, really, that I have to.
So I’m going to work on that.
Like: yeah, there’s some faults there, totally. That’s fine. I’m human.
But also, seriously? That is a nice arabesque.
I think I was 20 or so when I first thought to myself, “The first step in growing up is realizing that you’re still a kid” or something like that.
Even at the time, that seemed very obviously like a Step Zero kind of idea: like, not even Step One in the actual program of working on the thing, but the step that makes you realize there’s a thing to maybe work on in the first place.
- … Though, in fact, I’m not at all enamoured with the idea of growing up for its own sake, and never have been. More on that later, ! maybe?
At the time I was still rather blindly invested in the idea of myself as being mature-beyond-my-years. That was a problem because, in fact, I wasn’t so much preternaturally mature as developmentally delayed in a way that completely hoses up the cultural signals of maturity.
Like: it’s hard to get in trouble by doing stupid things with your friends when you don’t have any friends. Not getting in trouble can make it seem like you’re making good choices, when in fact you just haven’t had to make those choices in the first place.
It’s easy to follow the rules when you’re developmentally still at a stage in which you actually really like rules. This can make it seem like you’re a mature and prudent individual with clear foresight when, once again, you might not actually be equipped to make prudent decisions or be at all good at figuring out how your immediate actions might impact your long-term outcomes.
It’s easy to sound like an old soul when you basically learned how humans talk by reading books written by people who died a hundred years ago (and let’s not forget the social weirdness of growing up in the ur-nerdy, monomaniacal worlds of ballet and classical music, in which children tend to behave almost as if they come from another time, because the culture of the artform selects for a kind of old-world obedience). None of those things mean you have any idea how to have adult relationships.
When an actual 8- or 10-year old comes across that way, we assume that—appearances notwithstanding—they’re still not yet in a place, developmentally, that qualifies them to march forth into the adult world and, like, provide for themselves, navigate complex adult relationships, and … all that stuff.
When someone who’s 18 or 20 comes across that way, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Things Aren’t Always As They Appear. Instead, we congratulate them for their apparent maturity and are then flabbergasted when they make a disastrous hash of actually Adulting.
This can be just as true when the person in question is yourself. It can be hard to see our own deficiencies. We are, by nature, standing too close, so to speak.
Which brings me to The Obvious, Not-Obvious Thing.
I have spent a huge chunk of my life trying to prove that I could Live A Normal Life Despite My Differences/Disabilities, without understanding that simply acting as if they didn’t exist was, perhaps, not the best strategy. (Okay, full disclosure: I still do this on the regs. Long-established habits take time to change.)
As a result, I’ve basically lived a life in which I’m constantly angry at myself for the mentaphorical equivalent of failing to make it up the stairs in a wheelchair when there’s a ramp RIGHT HECKING THERE, for G-d’s sake. Or, at least, there’s an easy enough way to add one.
- Caveat: there are, of course, still many, many situations in which there is neither a literal nor a metaphorical ramp. The fact that the culture at large behaves as if people with disabilities are failures in those situations is another post entirely, and one that lots of people have written better than I might. Likewise, deciding to climb the stairs in your wheelchair because you actually want to is a totally valid pursuit.
Anyway, lately (and belatedly, given that anyone who’s spent more than two minutes around Buddhism should hecking well know better, but there I go becoming attached to a concept again—specifically one about how I should or shouldn’t learn, which seems hilariously apropos), it has begun to occur to me to forgive myself, as it were, for being what I am.
Like … I might be able, with immense effort, to change some of these things to some extent—but why do that when there are other ways to reach the same goals? And why be mad at myself when I struggle? It’s not like being mad actually helps (in this circumstance).
In other words, it has begun to occur to me that instead of continuing to ram my metaphorical wheelchair into the stairs and be angry at myself for failing to climb, I can accept the metaphorical wheelchair situation and, like, add metaphorical ramps instead. (This seems relevant to this year’s intention, “Ask for help.”)
It has begun to occur to me that instead of fighting to change some of the limitations (for lack of a better word) that my brain imposes, I can accept that they’re there and figure out how to work with them—to harness them where it’s possible and to accommodate them where it’s not.
I guess I used to assume (albeit unconsciously) that I would “grow out of” things—that one day I’d learn how to do things the “normal” way (which is difficult enough for “normal” people, come to think of it) and … that would be that, I guess?
It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis—after all, at one point, I didn’t know how to tie my shoes, and then I figured it out and now it’s automatic.
It is, however, an incomplete hypothesis, or maybe a complete one that I’ve overgeneralized. (Teaching has been helpful, I think: it’s made the idea of different people having different strengths and weaknesses real to me in a way that it wasn’t before.)
In the past, for example, whenever I figured out a way to actually get myself to sleep in an almost-normal pattern, I I would simultaneously feel pleased with myself (This is it! I’m finally doing it!) and incredibly anxious (But what if something happens and I can’t sustain it?). I would cling white-knuckled to the System I’d devised. Then I’d be terribly disappointed when, inevitably, something interrupted the System and my brain happily reverted to its night-owl default because, yooooo, chronotypes are a thing.
I felt this way despite understanding that last point (chronotypes are a thing, though they tend to wander a bit over the course of our lives and we can force ourselves, with effort and routine, to live contrarily to them).
It takes several weeks to condition myself to sleep on a different cycle than the one my brain wants, but only about two nights off-pattern to reset back to square one. This is frustrating, obviously—but it doesn’t have to feel like a disaster.
I can remind myself that stressing out about it only makes things harder, and that while more than a few nights in a row of sleep deprivation can have dangerous consequences for my mental health, I now know how to combine a handful of tools (strict sleep hygiene, medication, and sheer physical exhaustion) to make myself sleep. Ideally, I should actually apply them before sleep-deprivation-induced mania takes hold, but even if it reaches that point, I now have the safety nets in place to prevent actual disaster.
In short, I’ve learned to tell myself, “It’s going to be okay” and believe it.
And though I’ve been reading and hearing about it for years, only recently did I develop the ability to apply a measure of radical acceptance. Like, how hard can it be to say, “Ah! I’ve managed to get to sleep by 1 AM and wake up by 9 AM for three days running. That’s convenient,” without feeling like THIS IS IT! I’M FINALLY DOING IT! or freaking out when, inevitably, I don’t get to sleep until 4 AM at some point?
Really hard, apparently.
But I’m learning to both say and feel, “It was handy to be awake by 9 AM and well-rested for a few days, but it’s no big deal that it didn’t work out today.” (Admittedly, it would be harder to do that if the company weren’t on hiatus. But we are, so I might as well work on developing this skill while sleep-scheduling demands are still on easy mode.)
I can also be fine with understanding, for example, that I’m not good at the kind of abstract planning that Adulting requires, or at managing money (or literally anything else) unless I keep things very simple, or at making phone calls (I joke about this all the time, but I also spend a lot of time being annoyed with myself about it). And being fine with understanding those things could help a lot.
Like, it turns out that when you stop being mad at yourself, it actually really is easier to start looking for ways to approach problems and get stuff done, just like everybody has been saying since forever.
So, basically, my current hypothesis is this:
Why not accept that what I am and where I am right now and begin working on building ramps so I can live without constantly feeling like I’m fighting an uphill battle?
I’ve also only just kind of realized that “accepting what I am right now” is different than “clinging to an idea of What I Am.” The first option leaves room for change and, frankly, for just being wrong. I might not actually understand all that well “what I am right now,” but if I accept that I can try different strategies until I find one that works, then it doesn’t really matter that much anyway.
If I can fail without getting angry at myself—that is, without judging myself—it’s not actually that hard to try again, or try something else, or to allow myself to rest before trying something else, or, you know, whatever.
And maybe I can even learn that it’s okay to fail. We can’t all be great at everything, and the world would be boring (and I wouldn’t have a job as a dancer, probably) if we were.