what the trees told me

poplar and maple trees

I went for a walk last night to a special place. There are trees there that speak to me. They reminded me of things I’d forgotten. I remember now.

I appreciate my special poplar trees.

___
p.s. I’m going to be starting to post irregularly on this blog and my Kitchen Sink Wisdom blog. I’m hoping that the posts that I do write will be more meaningful. See you next time!

inside the highly sensitive body

wax crayon and collage art journal spread of hands

I’ve been doing a lot of reading into Highly Sensitive People, in order to try and figure out some strategies for being in the world in a healthy way, rather than an anxious, burnt-out way. I’ve also found some new books that I haven’t mentioned before, by psychiatrist Judith Orloff. All of this reading is also helping me feel not quite so isolated and strange in being highly sensitive.

What is high sensitivity? (Or, as Orloff calls it, intuitive empathy?) It’s having a nervous system that processes sensory input in a different way from the rest of the population. From my own experience, it feels like being inside a huge sensory amplification system, and not being able to shut it off. Sounds, smells, physical sensations, emotional cues from others – they bombard my nervous system so incessantly that I (and about 15-20% of the population) become quickly overwhelmed and exhausted. I need a lot of time in quiet solitude to recover my equilibrium and energy.

Here are two simple tests that I scored 100% on. They’ll help give you an idea of how a highly sensitive person experiences the world. The first is from Elaine Aron:

  • I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.
  • I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
  • Other people’s moods affect me.
  • I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
  • I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
  • I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
  • I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
  • I have a rich, complex inner life.
  • I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
  • I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
  • My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself.
  • I am conscientious.
  • I startle easily.
  • I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
  • When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done in order to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
  • I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
  • I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
  • I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
  • I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
  • Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in my, disrupting my concentration or mood.
  • Changes in my life shake me up.
  • I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.
  • I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.
  • I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.
  • I am bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes.
  • When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.
  • When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.

Here is Judith Orloff’s test for Emotional or Intuitive Empathy:

  • I have been labeled as “too emotional” or overly sensitive.
  • If a friend is distraught, I start feeling it too.
  • My feelings are easily hurt.
  • I am emotionally drained by crowds, requiring time to be alone to revive.
  • My nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talk.
  • I prefer taking my own car places so that I can leave when I please.
  • I overeat to cope with emotional stress.
  • I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships.

Despite recognizing myself in all these descriptions, and realizing that many other people experience the world the way I do, I still feel an incredible amount of shame for being the way I am. Partly because when I was growing up, I witnessed how high sensitivity was often misunderstood and ridiculed by those who didn’t experience it. Also, in my own unconscious attempts over the years to cope with being physically and emotionally overwhelmed, I developed habits (such as withdrawing from social activities and highly stressful relationships) that were seen by others as very strange and unfriendly.

More to come on this ongoing exploration…

Detail from an untitled art journal spread, August 2005. Wax crayon and collage on paper.

redeeming the body

self-portrait

A dear friend of mine gifted me with the book This Is Who I Am: Our Beauty In All Shapes and Sizes by Rosanne Olson yesterday. I devoured it last night before going to bed.

Olson is a photographer who has taken nude photographs of 53 women of diverse ages, races and backgrounds, and shared their portraits, along with each woman’s thoughts about her own body.

It was hard for me to read many parts of the book, because I was confronted by so many of my own negative beliefs about my body, and about beauty.

self portrait number 9

I was sexually abused, starting at age three. At the age of ten I became self-conscious about my body for the first time, when I gained a lot of weight during summer vacation at my grandma’s.

I filled out early, and was the object of a lot of my male classmates’ attention in elementary school. In high school I was terrified of dating and boys. I hated my voluptuous body. I swung between two extremes: starving myself to get skinny, or bingeing to relieve my emotional anguish. Throughout my adult life, I have continued to lose and gain 50 pounds, depending on how disciplined I am, or how tormented I am feeling.

self portrait number 4

I look at my 44-year-old naked body and I notice all its imperfections. The skin on the backs of my hands is starting to thin and crinkle. I have what Isaac Mizrahi calls “UADD” (Under Arm Dingle-Dangle). There are puckers of cellulite on my buttocks, belly and thighs. My legs are crisscrossed with varicose veins. Acne scars dot my face. My breasts sag. I have body hair in all the places that body hair grows on an adult woman.

Added to that, my body hurts a lot of the time.

self portrait number 7

And yet… it feels good to be in my body. I’ve been moving to music lately, in the privacy of my apartment, in odd moments. I like the physical power of my muscles. I like opening myself up to the vibrations and rhythms of the songs. I like telling stories with my bone house.

self portrait number 3

I took my night clothes off this morning and sat down in front of my full-length mirror with my iPhone. I started taking self-portraits in Hipstamatic – stopping to reflect on each one as it finished “processing.” The light was perfect, and the Hipstamatic filters were forgiving.

self portrait number 5

I seriously wish I could post my favorite full-body photo here in public. But the instinctual creature who has survived abuse needs protecting. There are still men in my life who would sexualize a nude photo of me, and that’s not what I want. These photos aren’t about my ability to attract a mate.

self portrait number 2

They’re about my capacity to love myself with my own eyes, and heart.

And about allowing the worthy spirit that dwells within this soul-home to shine.

Update: I’m really proud to be able to tell you that this blog post was published on Stop Chasing Skinny – a community blog of personal stories about finding life beyond the scale – on April 10, 2012.

All self-portraits taken with Hipstamatic for iPhone, Buckhorst H1 Lens, DreamCanvas Film, No Flash.

the gifts of the magi

illustration of grandparent and solar system

I posted this Cowbird.com story about high school on my Facebook wall earlier this week, and was very touched by the responses it got from my Facebook friends, including some people who’d known me in high school. Our conversation explored the subject of teenage angst, and the horrorshow that the high school years can be for many people.

For me, high school was not a place of overt discrimination or bullying, although I know this is the experience of many. My teenage agony was an interior one. I was a profound introvert – shy, awkward, unsure in social settings – and I never felt a sense of belonging or recognition from my peers.

This existence followed me through my university years – and, in truth, has been my experience through much of my of adult life. In my teens and twenties I was desperately lonely, and yet neither was I comfortable moving about in a world of extroverts. I did not enjoy their activities. I craved connection, but preferred it to be deep… and one-on-one.

As a result, I spent a lot of time alone.

I still do.

~

There’s a wonderful blog post about introversion that made the rounds on social media a while back: 10 myths about introverts, by Carl Kingdom. I remember reading it on Facebook and feeling an immediate sense of recognition. Yes, I thought. This describes me exactly.

~

When I was a kid, I learned early on that it was a dangerous thing to admit my love of solitude to my peers. I remember being socially isolated many times. The summer I was 12, I was bullied by a bunch of my cabin-mates at summer church camp, and when I tearfully begged the camp director to call my mother and have me taken home, she instead instructed my counsellors to find me some friends among the girls in my cabin.

This worked for about a day, until one of my new “friends” asked me what I liked to do in my free time at home. I said I liked to be alone.

“Fine,” she responded, and walked away. She and her posse teased me mercilessly for the rest of the week. I don’t know what I would have done if the camp had lasted any longer.

~

A lot of extroverts who know me as an adult are suprised to learn that I identify as an introvert. I have learned to adapt to social situations, and after years of classical vocal training and performances, I’m comfortable getting up in front of people and engaging in easy patter about many subjects.

Abandon me at a party or a social event, however, and I die a million deaths inside. I detest small talk, and trying to find points of connection with strangers is torture for me. I do love meeting new people, though. If I can approach them in a comfortable setting, in a low-key environment, without an agenda, I truly enjoy learning about others.

~

I used to shock extroverted friends when I told them I’d often considered an eremitic life – a life of spiritual or creative seclusion. I could never convince them of the deep pull and rich joys of the contemplation. Where some people find meaning and fulfillment in relationship and service, I’m most alive and satisfied when I am connected to my creative muse. And it’s a blissfully solitary experience.

~

There’s a wonderful poem by T. S. Eliot called The Journey of the Magi. It’s about the awe-some and awful journey that the magi take to find the newborn Christ child. By the end of the poem, after they have traveled great distances over harsh terrain, and witnessed sights that they can never fully convey to those who were not there, their journey has so radically changed them that they no longer belong in their homeland, when they return to it.

That’s kind of how being introverted in an extroverted world feels, to me.

The riches that I find during my solitary – sometimes painful, often ecstatic, and always compelling – inner journeys are indescribable. They also render me, upon my return to the world of “the regular,” an outsider and a freak.

I mean that in the best way, of course. :)

Because I know that the gifts I bring back from the wilderness with me are powerful, and useful.

They are gifts that the world needs.

~

A TED Talk about the introvert advantage.