Monday, July 15, 2013

A Perk of Being of a Wallflower: Being Alone Together

Alone, Together

One of the great joys of staying with my mum for the summer is getting to watch and discuss movies with her. Tonight we watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I grew up in a household where you talked during movies, but generally about the movie. This was amplified by my mother's struggling hearing and her request that I repeat and explain some of what was said (there is a lot of whispering; a common feature in a lot of teen dramas). 

It is great talking with her, as a Nurse for over three decades, she was the first person to really get me observing, thinking and talking about mental health. After doing home-visits with kids with all sorts of mental & physical differences and diseases, my mother would come home and share her day with us over dinner. Many disability studies lessons, I first learned from her.

My mother is book smart, but even more she has emotional intelligence and empathy. So whether talking to us about what is going on in our bodies and worlds, or about her patients, I cannot thank her enough for making it feel normal to pay attention and be able to share in the discomfort, joys and dignities of people who are living in separate universes of thought and experience. 

"We may never see the same colors anyone else sees," explained a friend, who recently just started on her nursing degree, "each of our rods which make the spectrum may be different. We literally see the world uniquely." The lyrics of a Fall Out Boy song, from their 2013 album, "Let's be alone, together" expresses in simple verse a scientifically verifiable reality.

"Most people are thrilled that someone is paying attention to them," my mum has told me about many of the people meets. "Someone who will sit with them and just listen; like Jules (our dog). We would all be better people, I think, if we were more like him. He takes care of me so well." I laughed and told her that my stuffed animal friend, Little Penguin does the same for me. "Yeah," she says, "I sometimes wish he could speak, but I wonder if it's better for me this way." 

Going back to the movie, what the story weaves together is a world without bad guys, and a lot of pain. It was written, said the author/screen-writer/director in the commentary, to reveal all the things that kids carry around with them. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, trauma, homophobia, sexism, criphobia -- all of them compound on one another as people pass along the hurts they receive. 

More than through direct transmission alone, the movie shows all the shit that children see, and how being aware of suffering without an ability to "do something about it" affects us; whether its Patrick who refuses to be "a TV special" growing up gay narrative, able to take care of himself but wondering "why can't you save anyone?," or Charlie, a child narrator surviving his own personal trauma, who sees "so much pain, everywhere and there is nothing I can do,"  desperately wanting to know "how do you turn it off? How do you stop seeing it?"

It does (and can) get better, the story evidences, but only if we combine being a wall-flower with doing something about our lives."We need to break the cycle," says the author, but that takes the courage to do what isn't be done, for ourselves and for each other. The key moment, he continues, is Charlie getting up and walking over to Patrick and Sam. He could have sat there & nothing would have changed. Most people probably would have just sat there. But he got up, and did something; allowing all the good and bad and better that came from it to happen.

That was the start of the film, by the end of the film none of the problems have been "fixed," many have gotten apparently "worse" but much of that is because they have been brought to the surface. Some things, important things, do get better. Friends emerge and a family changes that are willing to struggle and laugh, step back and step in when things get bad. "Let's go be pyschos together" is one of the story's climactic lines. As the building of relationships and the writing of the book/film evidence, however, to move from observing to doing, we need to learn how to talk about whats going in inside and around us.

This general sentiment hits home with a recent battle in my home school-system where The Perks of Being a Wallflower was banned from being taught in schools, following the objection of two local families. After a campaign by students and parents, the book was again allowed to be taught, with the stipulation that the children of parents who found the themes of the book objectionable had the ability to opt out. While the final decision to return the book comforts me in many respects, I worry that the children of the parents that are withholding this literature are probably exactly the kids that need this the most.

How often do we exclude care and community from the people who need it most?


Acceptance vs Approval

A friend and I were talking a little while back about what we wanted out of our current lives. Our answers are deceptively similar upon first hearing, but almost immediately the differences became evident to us. 

"I've realized I want approval" she said, "that's how I grew up." Nodding, I thought about that. It is really important that people I trust and look up to tell me that I am doing a good job. As an extrovert and an empath, I am incredibly uncomfortable with people I can't read. In the absence of communication, I assume the worst. 

But then I got to thinking about how little I respond to compliments on my work. I need it to keep going, sort of like a green-light that I'm on the right track, but it rarely stays with me.

What I do well, I tend to pass off to another agency. "Anyone reading X or doing Y or hanging out with W would have arrived at the same conclusion," is my knee-jerk narratives for success, as untrue as that may be. I guess it's because I can see success far better in other people and things. As someone who does take in so much, what I output rarely feels like it came from me exclusively. When I feel I have done something well, it's generally an appreciation for everything that went into it, with me as the vehicle that brought it together.

This is not true for what I do poorly. When problems arise I pull the fault into myself. I've shared before how I compulsively map of alternatives and escape routes in my head due to a general excitement (the profit of an anxious-depressive nervous system). The retrospective of this means that I can generally see, without need for outside criticism, numerous places that I could have rerouted. 

The fault lies in the instrument, in my mind. Add this to the fact that as an empath I tend to absorb the range of direct and ambient emotion of criticism. Add that to a flood of back-logged shame that is held at bay by years of training, a deluge of disapproval I selectively block-out in order to function: (1) because so much of it is directed at me on a daily basis just riding the train going to work by looks and comments and (2) because I just see too much, too much pain, fear and anxiety of the people are around me. No, if I gave a damn about approval, I'd go insane.

"I want acceptance," I decided. "You don't have to agree with what I do, but get on my side or get out of my way." Approval comes with fair-weather friends. I don't really trust a person until I see how they respond to a failure on my side. I can't settle into a romantic relationship until our first fight. If that goes poorly, well then I am better off going somewhere else. 

The people I trust to remind me who I am, who really make me feel like what I do, good or bad, is worth all the shit, are the people that stand by and support me when things get bad. If I can trust you with failure, I can trust you with success. I think that's why the people I gravitate towards tend to have a certain kind of edge or darkness to them, people who have seen similar kinds of shit thrown at them, and know how to handle it.

In one of my recent relationships, my partner came to me and talked about her fears of dating a trans person, admitting that after talking with family, she got to thinking about all the potential for violence or alienation that could happen to me, her or us together. I could tell in the way she said that she wanted me to untie this knot somehow, but I couldn't. 

"It's good you are afraid," I had to tell her, "it's scary shit. I'm scared by it, every day. Being scared shows you know what's going on and can appreciate it. I can't tell you how not to be scared, I can only hope that we won't let it control us." She took that in, and I think she understood. 

From all I knew about her and saw day to day, I know she did lots of things that scared her. The hard thing about loving someone and accepting them is pulling down your defenses and sharing those emotions; being scared for someone else, being brave for someone else. That's what I want and need.

I don't want approval, I want to know someone has my back.

This is the Road to Ruin, 
and We Started at the End

For those who follow my Facebook or Twitter, you may be aware that I am reading through GK Chesterton's Heretics and once again discovering many surprising things that I didn't know I knew. Few but Chesterton could write a book called Heretics and leave me feeling more hopeful about humanity; but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, because he wrote Orthodoxy and left me feeling more hopeful about faeries.

Part of how Chesterton does this is by writing in a style and with an ethos very much aimed at "the common experience."  His defense of traditions, what he calls the unconscious vote of the dead which we carry on into today, is committed and will stand behind both the practice of drinking enormously and then going to confession the next day; great liberty protected by the ability to set laws on oneself; conservation through perpetual innovation.

My appreciation of Chesterton meets its limit at the juncture between the common (we might say normative) and the mad. I've stated elsewhere that I've noted that Chesterton seems to define madness as though it were  intellectual, as opposed to socio-neurological. Also, he tends to regard paranoia as the chief madness, whereby reason is brought to irrational extremes. Once again, he continually returns to "reason" because he regards it as a useful common tool for all (or most) people. His method by definition excludes deviance, while noting that deviance (even rebellion tends to be a common feature among all people).

People may, and have, begun the other way around: beginning with madness and looking for a way back to a common experience. This is not to say that difference and identity, madness and sanity are opposites, but rather that they stress alternative aspects of an interrelated experience of at once being a part of a global community and alienated from it. As discussed with the Part vs Whole post last week, we need to find a way to talk about common experiences without covering over uniqueness.

Meditating on this brought me to recently post on face-book some thoughts on madness among the millennials, a generation sardonically referred to as a bunch of special little snow-flakes:

In so many ways an ability to be articulate about mental health, disability, and difference is going to be ever more critical for future writers. The emerging generation, which I am proud to say I am a member, has grown up with therapy, medication and madness as a common if not public experience. This is hardly to say we all received the best care or access, but those conflicting realities (mass pathologization, without mass valuation) is exactly why once we take the reigns of this shit economy, we will be hungry (if we even know it) for people who can speak with empathy and intelligence about these experiences.

From here I began to assess how much art being produce my young people today revolve around this sense of madness, held in common. This is hardly to say that madness is our exclusive property, but rather in fact it is our inheritance; one we take with far more glee than might be expected.

For whatever reason, we are not nearly as cynical as our elders, despite growing up through Wars of/on Terror, an Economic Crisis, an Environmental Crisis, Austerity Measures which cut most of us out of the means to live, and general professional collapse). Talking with people, there is a general sense, "we can't do much worse" (granting that we all probably still could). This generation has been praised (and cursed) for our Technology Skills, but frankly this group of budding pyschos is being given far more useful training: we have Survival Skills.

A key element of those survival skills will, I hope, continue to be finding ways of being alone together; be it on our laptops, texting from across the room, making art like FOB's recent album (from which the second and third subtitles of this post are drawn) or the Perks of Being a Wallflower, and moving on better modes of dealing with the economy, with society, with poverty, with the global and ecological world. This is a shit-hole, but if we are to each have our own little corner of it, we need to be able to speak through the squalor.

We are growing up in ruins. We may be mad, but we are inheriting a mad world. Perhaps cynicism is in surplus because there is still a desperate grip to be sane.

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