Enthusiasm

A friend of mine was saying yesterday that he sometimes wished he could be as enthusiastic as me about things. It took me aback, because for the most part I am very nonplussed about life. Part of it is dysphoria, which I personally think is a byproduct of living with nightly nightmares and flashbacks and a touch phobia among other things. But part of it is that I’ve always been a fairly insular person, and so I don’t associated myself with enthusiasm. Or at least – not enthusiasm related to social events!

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But in this instance, the term came up because I was cooing and fawning all over probably the most glorious sunset I’ve seen all year. We were in the car, and I was alternatively gasping and bringing a whole band of sound effects along with me: ‘oooo’, ‘ahhh,’ ‘eeee’. I was pointing and talking about colour gradations and ‘oh god it’s so glorious’ and essentially I turned into a non-crying equivalent of the Double Rainbow guy.

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Nature does this to me. I’m the girl who – when the moon is full – will often sing ‘moooon, moooooon,’ regardless of who else is around, and then stare avidly and adoringly until I have to go do ‘real life things.’ I will stop and watch wild animals on my walk. I’ll go and examine the buds of Nuytsia floribunda (the Australian Christmas Tree, and largest species of mistletoe) just because it makes me feel good to do so.

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So I do have enthusiasm for nature. Actually, I have enthusiasm for a few things; good music, good art, good TV, good food. People? No, not so much. I have lovely friends, but too many damaging experiences with people have taught me a deep, ingrained wariness that always stops my good will from becoming much more than a hesitant love. I am still always surprised when my friends accept this as something valuable because I know in my heart that I have so much more to give, if I could just let myself.

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I’m that person who cries at every song during the Sound of Music simply because I feel intense emotion that isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just so intense that I cry. Every time. Every time even though I’ve seen it a hundred times. Sunsets and sunrises and storms and general ‘nature things’ are the same way. I’m invested. I get enthusiastic.

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I used to be very afraid of some of the things that I did naturally and spontaneously. I was afraid of doing silly dances to celebrate things like ‘Glen has brought chocolate home for me,’ and I was afraid of singing songs that I’d made up about people’s nicknames, I was afraid about crying at things that most people didn’t associate with crying (until I saw Melanie on So You Think You Can Dance, this season, who cries like I do – all the time at random things), I was afraid of being the one to laugh loudest in the cinema (I always am, I once had a friend tell me that I’m the one who breaks the barrier and makes it okay for everyone else to laugh as loud as they want; but secretly I think I’m the one that everyone else thinks ‘honestly, woman, it’s not that funny.’), I was afraid of closing my eyes over that perfect bite of key lime pie or saying ‘this is sex‘ in my driven, happy way when I see a bombastic piece of artwork.

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I still can be afraid of these things, you know. I am afraid to show my happiness and enthusiasm around others. I knew a couple of people who – when I was growing up – took this as their cue to make my life as miserable as possible. And so I learned that happiness and enthusiasm could be tools used to subjugate and subordinate other people. So my enthusiasm became a private reality, something I cherished on my own. No wonder I grew to love being on my own so much. It was the only time I could feel something good in a way that wasn’t always tainted with shame or self-hatred.

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This year I made a decision to be more natural with these things about other people, to be more vulnerable. It was a hard decision. It first started because I was tired of feeling so ashamed at myself for tearing up during the Winnie the Pooh theme song, or during the lyrebird singing during the David Attenborough Life of Birds documentary. I love sharing media with other people, but I hated my emotional reactions to things because they are intense. I am the person who – upon feeling myself starting to cry during an inspirational moment in a musical – will start counting times tables in her head to stop the upswell of intense feeling. Social embarrassment avoided, but it also bleaches my enjoyment out of a movie or TV show.

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So my friend was seeing an enthusiasm that I’ve only really been happy to explore around other people in the past year / year and a half. It’s hard to be that person around other people. It’s hard to be myself. A lot of life has taught me that being yourself is the fastest way to be damaged. And as an adult, I’m learning that being myself now is maybe a faster way to healing, if I approach it carefully.

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I’m a crier at movies and TV shows and songs even when they’re not sad. Especially when they’re not sad. I’m a person who has silly dances (the ‘we’re going out’ dance and the ‘I’m washing my hair’ dance and the ‘we’ve run out of the toothpaste where’s the new tube’ dance) and who sings at the moon and sings songs for her friends and bops her head to bass-lines that no one else can hear. I’m someone who is sensitive and vulnerable and enthralled by plants and animals and rumbling thunder. I’m someone who laughs the loudest in the cinema and can laugh at the same joke, in the 50th viewing of the same show with the same intensity as when I saw it the first time. I may have alexithymia, I may not know what I’m feeling; but I feel things intensely. It’s not just depression and dysphoria all the time, and I am teaching myself to show this reality to other people.

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Which is probably a good thing, because tonight we’re watching Sound of Music with said friend, and I will cry at every single awesome song just like I did the last time I watched it; simply because it makes me feel that good. It will be so much nicer to do that rather than counting times tables to make me seem as emotionally ‘appropriate’ as everyone else watching!

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Wandsuna – Mr and Mrs Finch

So I’ve been up to stuff lately! I just completed my first semester in the Master of Communication, and now I’m on tenterhooks to see how I did overall. Nerve-wracking! I sail into my second semester over Christmas/New Years/my birthday, which is kind of relief, I’ve never been too enamoured of December in general. It’s hot.

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I turn 30 this year. On the one hand, it seems to be some kind of stereotypical that I should be panicking right now. On the other hand, it’s just an arbitrary age that signifies the fact that I’m getting older. Something that happens every single day, you know? I don’t know how I feel about it. Do I wish that I’d achieved more by now? Of course. But I never knew Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder could be so overwhelming, nor did I realise when I was younger just how sensitive and gentle I am; and that has – by necessity – lead into a life where I take things slowly, and gently.

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Do I have any goals for 2012? Yes. I want to finish the drafts of two books. One on shamanism, and a science fiction novel (booyah). And my personal goals? I’d like to learn a greater tolerance to stress, and experience greater periods of contentment. I suspect the two are connected.

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Let me leave you with the new installment in the Wandsuna series:

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Wandsuna - Mr and Mrs Finch, by Ravenari

On dogs, PTSD, and being an artist with issues.

This is not a ‘new art’ entry. Though… okay, alright then, here’s something I’m working on:

Zentas the Mini-Dragon- by Ravenari

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Now for the actual entry.

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In one camp (CAMP 1), you have many mental health officials and organisations release studies that say things like: Cats and dogs markedly reduce the stress of those with mental illness, and provide a sense of responsibility that can sometimes save a person’s life. Sometimes, the only thing that helps a suicidal person get out of bed in the morning, is feeding their dog.

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And then in the other camp (CAMP 2), you have many dog training officials and organisations release information that say things like: Cats and dogs benefit best when they’re raised in a stable and consistent environment. Remember that dogs need socialising, and to try and minimise tension, stress and fear around them, because dogs can pick up on this and it can create behavioural problems.

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And then in my camp, you have a conscientious, but mentally ill person who wants very dearly to have a dog in her life, but knows very much that my mental illness would on occasion create atmospheres that may stress a dog out.

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Now what there doesn’t seem to be is another camp of specialist dog trainers (or professionals in general) that have read both the scientific studies on ‘rescue people’ (i.e. humans with mental illness who would benefit from the presence of dogs), and dog happiness (i.e. dogs who would benefit from the presence of a more calm environment), and create dog/human positive-reinforcement training techniques designed for the mentally ill.

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I know some trainers out there exist like this, but in Western Australia, you can’t even find trainers to specialise in helping you train a professional therapy dog, let alone step in and offer as much understanding reassurance to the human as to the dog. Now I hope I’m wrong in this, but the divide between the initial camp 1 and camp 2 is quite large.

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What to do? I don’t know. Unfortunately, my illness has gotten in the way of me having a dog once before, and with no trainers to help me through my very specific issues, I’ve had to put getting a dog on the backburner. But my heart is open for a dog, I love dogs, I love being around them, I love spending time with them, I research training techniques (I’ve clicker trained my cats, particularly Maybe, who thinks it’s the best thing ever), I research dog breeds, I research dog genetics, I watch Youtube videos of dogs that I enjoy, and more than that, I contact breeders to ask them questions about their breeds.

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I think a lot of people don’t overthink things as much as I do. People want to do the best for their dogs, sort of, but many don’t buy books, or research training, or figure out a lot of things regarding their dog before they get it. Many people learn ‘the hard way.’ And many people still get it mostly right by happy accident. But I’m not ‘many people,’ I am a person with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a dissociative disorder. I have nightmares at night, and can shriek and flail and be very frightened – which rules out very protective breeds. I have to be responsible and do a lot of research.

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And I have to try not to scare the crap out of myself, which is very easy because you know… all the stuff I just mentioned above.

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There’s no easy answers for me. I am, in a word, a stresshead. Being in the presence of animals does significantly relax me, and my cats are – according to our vet – happy, friendly, well-socialised cats that are sweet-natured. In their presence I can go from ‘ZOMG LIFE IS HARD’ too ‘aw, pretty furry animal, do you want to do some training? Let’s play!’

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But enough about that, I want to know where the meet is between camp 1 and camp 2. Where are the trainers and psychologists meeting together to make pets work for people with mental illnesses in ways that are both humane for the pets, AND humane for the people? If we can spend so much time rescuing dogs and cats (I am a big believer in rescue dogs and cats), surely we can spend as much time rescuing the people that need so much help to make it through the day. And surely, considering that both people in camp 1 and camp 2 tend to care about living beings, there is room for a niche to develop? A niche of ‘people who help people with mental illness have pets.’

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We have a growing number of ‘people who help people with physical disabilities have pets,’ but – at least where I am – there doesn’t seem to be much of the ‘helping people with mental illness have pets.’

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That’s a sad thing, because clearly there are benefits to be had all round if the situation was managed safely and ethically. And on a very personal (and probably selfish) level, I find it is yet another of the things I am impacted by, in terms of having these illnesses. Something as straightforward as expanding our family – that millions of people do – is not straightforward here. It is not straightforward, but in a more supportive and nurturing environment; it could be easier.

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It could even be healing.

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I see many futures for myself. Too many. In a world where one of my debilitating symptoms was being certain I wouldn’t live out the year (every year), starting to overcome that has presented a world of overwhelming possibilities. But in one of those futures, I take the time to get a dog. It is a journey of trial and error, but with research, there is love and happiness too. And maybe one day, I can help there to be more professionals who can help people with mental illness have successful relationships with their canines; especially those people with mental illness who are conditioned by their disorders to lack confidence in themselves and their abilities. It is often those people who most need the animals who aren’t prone to overthinking. Who do just often enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

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Of course, in yet another future I see myself as a professional space-travelling chocolatier. So…you know. O.O

The problem with being too driven…

The problem with being too driven in self-work and self-awareness.

Tonight I am pondering the endless work of Sisyphus. The endless pushing of the stone up the hill, the endless rolling of the stone to the bottom of the hill, the eternal suffering for the sake of ‘progress,’ and the slaves that it makes of us.

Sisyphus pushing the rock.

Progress is a myth in the sense that; progress can happen, but it will never be the salvation of humankind while humankind exists. To gain this non-existent progress, we must work endlessly, more than ever, we must slave for something we cannot have, and for something that is also endless. We must be Sisyphus, ever struggling, always tired, never ‘there yet.’

And tonight I’m pondering it specifically in relationship to my own attitudes towards self-work. My struggle for the myth of progress within myself, has created a situation where I have become a slave to that progress, and now I suffer greatly for it. That is its greatest irony. The flaw of my consciousness that pits me against myself.

So once more, in order to understand this, I turn to the innate wit and knowledge of animals. And again, to one of the most unthinking of animals; the snail. I do not wish to be a slave to self-work. It makes me suicidal and at best, it makes me absolutely certain that life is without a point. That is not something they teach you about in therapy, and – I believe – it is not in the curricula of therapists either. That self-work can lead to death if it is not balanced with an unconscious, ‘animal’ care of the self.

It can’t all be conscious thought and maintenance. That is to be a slave to consciousness. And without consciousness, we wouldn’t have mental illness in the first place (no, really; the most unconscious of animals don’t even have ‘mental illness’ in their lexicon for a reason). It is a grand irony then, that the very thing that makes us so dysfunctional by animal standards is the very thing we – sometimes wrongly – depend upon to regain function.

Animism has taught me differently. Consciousness has its place, but so does unconsciousness which makes up the vastness of the bodymind in the first place, and informs our ‘free will’ so that we will nothing that our unconscious doesn’t ask of us first. And I have learnt more from the instinctive and innate world of other species than I have from any book or any other human animal. Consciousness will have its place in my healing, but right now it has made me a slave of the healing process, and it will be my unconscious that frees me.

I am tired of being a Sisyphus to my own mental health and mental illness. I will try to go a Snail’s way. I will let the great stone roll down to the bottom of the hill and leave it there. I will go and innately find food and shelter, rest and play, rain and crispy green things. Not in the name of progress, not even in the name of health, but because that is what animals will sometimes do. And if health or progress comes of it, then I am sure the therapeutic world may be happier, and my friends and family might be happier, and I might even benefit from it in the long-term.

snail as totem - by Ravenari

But if nothing comes of it, at least in the short term I cannot say that my life is pointless any longer. Because there is nothing pointless in the rain and green crispy things, in rest and play, in food and shelter.

And because there is a great deal of pointlessness in being Sisyphus, rolling my stone of ‘self-work’ up the hill only to see it fall to the bottom again representing yet another allotment of heavy work for the tired and overworked; the endless, eternal suffering for the myth of progress.

02. all you need is - by Ravenari

So I have this thing called a ‘touch phobia.’

Imagine your favourite food in the whole entire world was chocolate. It wasn’t just your favourite food, it made you feel better to eat it, it improved your mood, and nothing else really compared to it. It’s more than just a food. It’s something that you’re dependent on. You love having it, sharing it with others, experiencing it. It’s great.

Then – one day, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – it makes you throw up, and feel itchy and scared and aggravated all at once. It’s horrible. For a year – because you love chocolate so much – you make yourself eat it sometimes thinking ‘maybe it’s the type of chocolate, maybe it’s the brand, maybe it’s the ingredients, maybe I just need to stand upside down while eating it,’ every crazy thing you are thinking of. You are that desperate to get back the ‘feeing better’ and improvements of eating it. You try other foods. You try lateral thinking. You try crazy stuff that makes you feel more sick while eating it, and you try scientifically prescribed stuff that doesn’t make a difference.

Nothing else makes you feel as good, nothing compares to it; one day you remember that humans are biologically designed to need chocolate. Tests show that without nourishing, healing chocolate, human babies are more prone to die, to get sickness, to wither, to be emotionally stunted later in life. Damn, you think, I need this stuff. Not because of science, or my biology, but it just made me feel good. I was more human with it. It was part of my shared collective experience of what it was to be a human.

Then, one day, after thousands of dollars and years of painful therapy and problems with your friends and family members who don’t really understand it, you are considered ‘recovered.’ But your recovery is that simply – you can eat chocolate without throwing up or feeling itchy, most of the time – but you’ll probably never be able to taste it again. It will never make you feel better again. Or improve your mood. And people tell you that this is reasonable and okay and even think that this is a Good Thing (TM). You can functionally eat chocolate without being sick, so…goal achieved?

They are wrong.

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Now, substitute ‘chocolate’ for ‘touch’, and you have haphephobia (aphephobia, or touch phobia). This is what I have. And this is what I’ve had for almost five years now (along with PTSD).

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Man it would be horrible to be that dependent on chocolate! But the analogy stands, human animals are dependent on postive experiences of touch. We are social animals. Without the ability to enjoy touch, I will always be a broken human animal. I will be biologically and physiologically incorrect. But even more than that – I will suffer for it every day that this is the case, as I have suffered for it every day that I’ve had it. Not a day goes by that I am not heartbroken at my own condition. Don’t get me wrong, I think I am an extremely fortunate person in many respects. I enjoy many parts of my life. But not as much, and not in the same way. I have learnt to find the joy where I can find it; who wouldn’t? That’s what you do when you want to make the most out of life, but I’m not going to ignore the impact this condition has on me; even though I frequently try.

PTSD without a touch phobia – even when my symptoms were phenomenally worse – was ‘easier’ to deal with (I say that with a considerable amount of wryness, I mean it’s still PTSD), it was easier to cope with my life, it was easier to be resilient to all of life’s problems. I was a nicer person. I was less grumpy. I found it easier to forgive. It is amazing how the ability to touch someone’s shoulder, or embrace them, or kiss them on the forehead in a crisis makes you a nicer human being overall. Or at least, it certainly made me a nicer human being.

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After five years of concerted, applied, fatigue-inducing, dedicated therapy with different therapists and even one specialist, and self-work, I can confidently say I have improved. And by improved I mean I can sometimes hug some of my friends and not feel awful or gross or like I need to run from the room about it. Sometimes I can hug my closest friend and not shudder with disgust or feel nauseous or sick. About four times a year I can do that.

Sometimes however, the touch phobia is so severe that even putting on my own moisturiser in the morning, can trigger a strong, phobic fear reaction. A couple of years ago a GP prescribed eight sessions of massage for a muscular condition; I went to one session and the massage therapist flatly told me they couldn’t help me. The muscular condition never healed as a result. I just don’t relax unless I’m unconscious! That’s a shame, I used to love massage too. And I get a lot of muscular conditions as I work as an artist, but also have crippling nightmares four or five times a night that leave me tense and sore every morning.

Touch often feels like ‘sandpaper rubbing vigorously beneath my skin.’ It’s worse the better I know someone which makes me a delightful dating partner, close friend, family member and on and on. And yes, it’s probably tied into my experiences of childhood sexual assault; though exactly how, none of us are sure. Not even after years of meditation, thought, self-reflection, therapy, dreamwork, clinical detached examination and etcetera. It’s additionally confusing because I haven’t always had a touch phobia, and I haven’t always been repulsed by touch. As per the above analogy, I used to have a very positive relationship to chocolate touch. I craved it. I felt positive touch to be a joyous thing at times, soothing at others, a way of forging connections, showing compassion, and so on.

But no longer.

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I am sure there are people out there who have recovered faster than me, because I will frankly admit that I like to take things slow in self-work and self-improvement, even if I devote time to it every single day. And I’m sure there are people out there who haven’t. It’s hard to know, because it’s a less common phobia, and it tends to affect those of us who have already been silenced by abuse of some kind.

It seems we’re the ones least likely to write about it publically, like I’m doing right now.

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Most phobias are of things we’re not physiologically designed, behaviourally programmed to need and crave. I mean, humans aren’t really meant to experience positive growth upon encountering venomous spiders, needles, the number thirteen, germs and so forth. It’s just, on the flipside, not meant to create super dysfunction when one encounters them.

Touch is one of the exceptions to the rule. We are physiologically designed and behaviourally programmed to need it, to thrive upon it, to grow with it. It improves our immune systems, it makes us happier people, it reminds us we are part of a community, it’s a way of showing love amongst friends and lovers, and a way of forging a connection between business colleagues, and a way of being human.

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All I can do is keep working on it. Sometimes consciously, sometimes laterally by approaching other issues in therapy, sometimes by standing on my head and focusing on the basics like eating well, keeping fit and making sure I get enough rest. Sometimes I’m in a better place about it than other times. December is always a tough time because my friends like to hug, and because once upon a time so did I.

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I’m putting my own personal account of aphephobia/haphephobia out into the ether. I’m Ravenari, and I have a touch phobia. I’m working on it, I will always be working on it while I have the strength and the fortitude to keep doing so.

I can’t tell you exactly why I’m writing about this so candidly, except that I am very frustrated that there’s very few public personal accounts of aphephobia/haphephobia out there. There’s some clinical descriptions, there’s a few shorter personal accounts (boy I bet you were wishing this was shorter!), and that’s about it. So here’s some of my story. Do with it what you will.

PS: Please don’t hold my terrible chocolate analogy against me! Lol.