Traumas and Blog Prompts

One of the things that NaNoBlogThing does for its members is provide the occasional prompt for a post. Like most collections of blogging prompts, these are usually benign creativity boosters and story prompts to help out someone that gets stuck in writer’s block. But there was one that came up recently that didn’t sit well with me; it seems to be lacking in forethought:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Has anything traumatic ever happened to you? Describe the scenes surrounding a particular event.

I understand that trauma happens on a spectrum, and that the person involved can dramatically change the perspective on an event (as can the care that person receives in the immediate aftermath of trauma). Some people who experience life-threatening car accidents go on to recover both physically and mentally and can, after a time, drive again safely and without panic or anxiety. Others aren’t able to heal to that point and can sometimes not even ride in a car without experiencing panic attacks.

Trauma is just so PERSONAL.

PTSD is weird, and “Describe the scenes surrounding an event” is something I can’t even do (yet) in scheduled, structured therapy. Looking at the prompt, my immediate reaction is “Well THAT’S not going to happen.” And I can’t imagine that I’m the only NaBloPostThinger writer that lives with PTSD and it’s related mental health issues.

I understand that this post isn’t really talking about “that” kind of trauma, but really, there isn’t another kind. All traumas require healing – and there’s no way to look up what counts as traumatic (beyond a the actual definition of trauma itself). Different things bother different people on various levels, so a post that one person thinks is pretty benign (about a car accident) can be completely triggering for another.

Even suggesting a post about a traumatic event that you have healed from or that helped you to grow in some way would be better than the open ended “anything traumatic”. Otherwise, from a psychological standpoint, it has the potential to open up a lot of really ugly emotional stuff, without having a way to process or effectively deal with those emotions. For real, just writing out the sequence of events (factually and as chronologically as possible), let alone describing entire scenes, can be almost impossible to do for someone with PTSD. It’s a real mindfuck sometimes.

While I don’t for a minute think that the prompt was intended to be discomforting, a blog prompt that suggests the emotionally invested discussion of traumatic events just seems really out of place in a list that also includes “What kind of music do you listen to when you write?” and “Do you prefer to write with a pen or a computer?”

One of these things is not like the other ones, you know?

The Difference between Choice and Failure

Failure.

Ugly word, ugly connotations, ugly mental constructs built to avoid it. I was reading an article recently about when to stop doing something, and it kind of tweaked my brain about failure versus changing your mind.

From the original article:

In the past year it became increasingly clear that the Temple was not doing what it was supposed to do. It was the hub of a wonderful little community, no doubt about it. But it wasn’t helping people find their purpose in life, discover who they truly are, or change their lives to follow their dreams. And after exhaustive discussions with the others involved with running it—discussions about passing it on to new leadership, adding new programs, or even radically changing the structure of the Temple—it became clear that we didn’t have the humanpower to change things.

So there I was. The two options on the table were:

  1. Continue asking people to give their time, money and energy to an organization that was not changing lives; or
  2. Close the organization.

In black and white, Option 1 looks ridiculous. But when you’re standing at the brink, looking at giving up something you’ve worked so hard on, you start to justify. 90% of nonprofit boards would choose Option 1. Because quitting looks an awful lot like failure.

Faced with that, you start finding reasons not to quit. You start to rationalize.

Now, when it comes to rationalization, I am a champion. I am Grand Poo-Bah Queen Of All Rationalizations. In my mind, I’m even now coming up with a list of things I’ve rationalized, so that I can rationalize to you my title. As Queen of Rationalizations, I hate failure.

Failure means losing. It means you set out to do something and couldn’t, you stupid ass. Your lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, inability to follow through (etc. etc. etc.) all got in the way and now you can’t keep up with the things you said you would do.

But… what if that’s not how it works?

What if saying “you know, this isn’t working anymore” isn’t failure. Rationally I don’t think it is. Every person has limits, and every person changes over time. Nobody expects you to stick with what you say you want to be when you grow up, especially if you’re seven when they ask.

It’s one thing to say “I’m going to become a great soccer player”. But when you find out that massive amounts of running makes your old knee sprain turn into a grapefruit sized, swollen angry mess, maybe changing your mind isn’t failure.

Maybe even “I really don’t like this anymore; it’s making me crazy” isn’t failure.

Recently, I pretty much quit playing MMOs. Some part of me is very sad at this, because I really do enjoy gaming. But another (hopefully more rational) part of me says that I have other things I need to focus on. That part was actually pretty easy. What wasn’t easy was the blogging thing. A few years ago I started blogging about WoW. I blogged about roleplay and raiding, the intersection of the two, and how to build little immersions into your gameplay in a way that enriched the game. I also became kind of a crusader for the idea that roleplay wasn’t stupid, and it didn’t mean you couldn’t hack it in PVE or PVP.

When I stopped playing the game though, I stopped writing about it. And I felt like a huge failure. I’d said I wanted to be a good blogger. I wanted to write interesting content that other people would enjoy, occasionally even posting silly things. I decided, very early on in the life of the blog, that I was going to have new content at least 4 days a week.

And so, when I stopped writing, I got out the big red rubber stamp and branded myself a failure. I had failed as a blogger.

Then someone*, in the midst of a rant about my failure, said something very interesting. What if I chose to stop blogging instead of just not doing it. What if, instead of beating myself up about how I couldn’t do it and was such a failure at something as “trivial”** as blogging, I chose to let that go?

Somewhere, in the back recesses of my brain, something went CLUNK.

Amazingly enough, saying “I’m choosing not to write this blog right now because I can’t sustain MMO time and have other real life priorities” changed failure into a decision to go another direction.

Nobody ever told me that looking at something, seeing that it wasn’t working (for whatever reason), and choosing to do something else wasn’t failing at it. It might LOOK like failure, from an uninformed outsider’s perspective, but it wasn’t. Several years of LIFE had passed since I started writing – the kind of life that changed who I am and what my priorities had to be.

That’s not failure. That’s just, well, life.

Now, I’m not saying there are no failures. I failed to keep my garden alive through the drought this spring. But I can still be a gardener even with dead plants in my veggie garden. I still choose to have that be part of who I am. I’m not a failed gardener, I just failed THIS particular garden THIS particular spring. And I know why, and I couldn’t do much about it, so I’m choosing to let that go and be thankful that at least I got tomatoes.

But I’m trying very hard to look at my life and my job and my relationships and evaluate what is and isn’t working, and to not brand myself a failure when I choose to discontinue something that has become toxic, unfun, or mentally unsafe. When I run into those situations, I’m looking at options and choosing new directions.

If you’d told 5-Years-Ago-Me that I was considering getting my massage therapy license and no longer considering being a classroom teacher, I’d have thought you were crazy. But Current-Me likes that idea and is interested in it.

Stick-to-it-iveness is a good trait to have.

So is knowing when to stop digging.

*Probably either Hillary, Marty, or my therapist.
** HA. Anyone who’s ever tried to produce new content 5 days a week for two+ years knows that there’s nothing trivial about it, but I was rationalizing why I was a failure, see?

How does your garden grow?

(Another sort of kum-ba-ya post for this week. Apparently I’m in that kind of mood.)

Reason #1 (which is actually a few reasons):

Because it’s fun. I get to spend time outside in the sun. I get to eat fresh, fully ripened vegetables I know were grown well and healthily. I get to feed garden spiders, meet snapping turtles, and watch lizards and skinks feast on craneflies, mosquitoes, and whatever else they can catch. I can go out and pick pretty flowers for my kitchen and cook with fresh herbs. I get 30-60 minutes of sunshine and “meditation” time every few days (or every day in the summer) while I water and tend to things, time spent alone, but with purpose. Because it forces me to actively pay attention to my surroundings. Because I can easily see the results of my work, whether it’s fewer weeds, pruned plants, picked harvests, or cleared out space for new things.

Reason #2:

Because it’s never just “go to work, come home, live meaningless and repetitive life” with a garden. In fact, I’d never really thought about it that way, until I read a recent article on Cracked.com about things they never tell children about being adults. Apparently, once you become an adult, you never have “summer” again – “summer” just means more work and then weekends doing housework and then more work, with no chance to re-create yourself and take breaks to think.

There’s a certain truth to that, unless you’re a teacher (at which point summer sometimes means working two seasonal jobs to get extra income). At work, time is measured in arbitrary weeks. Those weeks change, with weekends and shifts … well, shifting every week. Time is measured in coupons and promotions, sales plans and marketing strategies. It’s measured in hours of different colored squares that tell me that this hour I have to answer the phone, but next hour I have to stand at Register 3, before I go to lunch.

When I go home, though, I look at the plants in the yard. I notice that the replanted Pentas look a little droopy and need water, but that the mulch is holding up on the new bed pretty well. I notice that the gerbera daisies seem to be thriving in the bed with the hibiscus plant, and silently cheer to FINALLY have a spot for them (and that the new one I got last week with no color indication is, in fact, PEACH. NEW COLOR YAY!). I notice that the purple coneflowers have sprouted their batch of babies for this year, taking my total plants from 6 to about 30, and that the shasta daisies out front need water. I notice that it’s time to start eating lettuce, and that the radishes are starting to look radishey. I notice that the crepe myrtles are budding out, and that a few still need to be pruned.

I notice that it’s late March.

In June, I’ll be noticing something different. I’ll be pulling out dead squash and tomato plants and starting the season of “wait and see”, giving me time to plan a fall garden and start preparing for winter.  By September, I’ll be hoping to keep a last few plants alive, thankful for the butterfly and wildflower gardens ability to tolerate heat and drought. In October, I’ll plant broccoli and winter squash.

In short, even though I go to work, and my work is “meaningless” in terms of creating that new start, creating chapters and dividing lines in my life the way school once did, I always have the garden to find that meaning. Every spring is different. Some plants will die, others will thrive. I’ll hand turn the compost and coffee grounds and dead leaves into the soil, tilling under any last vestiges of what might’ve been left over last year, and start again fresh.

The seasons are pretty spiffy like that.

Reason #3:

Because when I work in a garden, in a muddy t-shirt and stained jeans and old boots, with my hair tied up in a bandanna and enough dirt going around that I eventually end up finding it not only between my toes but behind my ears and IN MY BRA, it doesn’t matter what I look like. It doesn’t matter if I can wear a bikini and not be in a state of high anxiety the whole time. It doesn’t matter if my (body part) doesn’t conform to (unrealistic social standard).

I’m in the garden. I can spend an afternoon with a shovel and a pickaxe, a rake and a hand mattock, and bust through many square feet of 30 year neglected shrubs. I can weed and water, put down mulch, prune plants and deadhead flowers. I can carry bags of mulch and topsoil and sand and poo. I know my way around a lawnmower and a weedeater; I’ve used a chainsaw and a pole saw. I can trim bushes and cultivate baby plants into strong seedlings that will grow into fully developed plants. I can tend things as they grow. And then, after all that tending, I get flowers and vegetables and fruits to show for it.

In the garden, I’m strong, capable, and awesome, even if I have dirt in my bra. It doesn’t matter what my mental state is, if I’m having a good or a bad day, the sheer physicality of the work grounds me and evens things out.

The Earth is strong, and I gain strength from working with it.