#stickfiguresunday: The Path(s)

#stickfiguresunday: The Path(s)

Image description: A stick figure stands on a road labeled The Path. Small paths lead away, labeled Why?, Is there another way?, What do I want for my life?, Who drew this map?, Where does my heart want to go? In the bottom right is a small Tiffany Sostar logo and a link to www.tiffanysostar.com

The inspiration for today’s #stickfiguresunday came from a good friend sharing their life-changing experience of realizing that further grad school would not actually get them where they wanted to be, and that there were other paths to their goals that felt better, easier, and more wholehearted.

More grad school had seemed like the best, maybe even the only, path towards their goals. But when they started questioning what they wanted, why they wanted it, and how to get it, they realized that grad school was not only not the only answer – it wasn’t even the best answer.

In that same conversation, we talked about why I had gotten married. I was on The Path – date, fall in love, get married. What I wanted was to move out of my parents’ home, experience freedom and independence, and feel capable and supported. Marriage seemed like the best, and at the time only, option. I loved him, we had been dating for quite a while, it was the logical next step. But if I had been able to ask myself some of these questions with compassion and curiousity, I could have found other paths toward my goals – paths that may have ended up in less pain and heartbreak for myself and my ex-husband.

It doesn’t help to assign blame to past selves who didn’t know that questions were possible – we make the best choices that we can with the resources and information we have available.

But it is helpful to invite ourselves to question the paths we’re on now.

Why are we on this path?

If the answer is that the path is right for us, awesome! We can stay on it.

If not, then we can start exploring alternatives.

Is there another way to get what we need?

If the answer is yes, it can be worth exploring what those other paths might look like, and whether they feel like a better fit for us. This line of questioning is most helpful when we feel trapped or forced into a certain path. Exploring alternative options with creativity, compassion, and curiousity can help us feel more grounded in our agency and self-efficacy – if we explore the options and find that this path is, indeed, the best or only path that gets us to our goals, then we can make a choice to stay on the path. Rather than being passively pushed forward by inertia or external pressure, we can make choices about what we do with our time and energy.

This is important, because there are not always better options. Sometimes we are on a rocky path and it truly is the only path available. It can hurt to look that reality in the eye, but once we do, we can start making choices about how we move forward on the rocky path we’re walking. G. Willow Wilson said “There is not always a way out, but there is always a way forward,” and that motto informs so much of my personal philosophy. Questioning our path can help us find the way forward.

What do I want for my life?

Taking a more expansive view can help. We’re on this path – towards marriage, towards grad school, towards a career in the trades, towards a big move or a friend group or a hobby or a habit or whatever else – and this path is not the only one that we’re on. We live multi-storied lives, meaning that our lives are made up of a huge number of events, experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and situations that create the stories we tell and are told about ourselves. There are many paths we are walking simultaneously. What do want for our lives? What is the bigger picture, and how does this path fit into it?

Who drew this map?

Why did I believe that marriage was the only way I could successfully move out of my parents’ house? To my older self, that is very clearly a false belief. But there was Life Map that I was trying to follow, and marriage was the next stop. I wasn’t navigating from a place of self-awareness, compassion, and intention. And that’s okay! We all have maps that were drawn for us by our society, our families of origin, our communities, or our histories. Those maps are not bad or wrong. But it’s worth examining who drew the map we’re following, and making a choice about whether we want to keep using it.

Where does my heart want to go?

What makes me happy?

What helps me feel whole?

What daydreams or imaginary selves keep tugging at me?

It’s worth paying attention to those gut-and-heart knowledges, even if they seem to contradict or challenge what we know with our rational minds.

So, what path(s) are you on?

How did you get there, and do you want to stay there, and where do they lead?

Let yourself ask the questions gently, compassionately, and with as much curiousity as you can muster.

This process can feel overwhelming and scary – if we question our path, does that mean we’ll have to abandon everything we love? Does it mean we’ll end up ostracized, alone, and broke? Does it mean we’ll realize we have no choices? (The answer to all of those is “no” but I totally understand the fear!)

If nothing else, start looking for the small question marks that pop up. When you start asking yourself about your path, as my friend did about grad school, let the knowledge unfold. What do you want? It’s okay to ask. And you might love the answer!

Finding Wellness: An Interview with Jen Donovan

Finding Wellness: An Interview with Jen Donovan

Jen Donovan lives in Eugene, Oregon, and is a mental health therapist. She posts frequently about her experience with chronic illness (mast cell activation syndrome), and her journey towards wellness. She blogs at Skunk Speaks.

She generously shared her experience and insight as part of the July theme week on the Sostar Self Care Facebook page – System Failure: Self-Care for Sick Days (and weeks, and months).

Tiffany – Can you share (as much as feels comfortable) about your experience with becoming ill and coming to terms with what was happening?

Jen – This was really hard for me because the disease I have is pretty rare and the symptoms are often fairly vague and hard to make sense of. So, for the first six months or so of having acute symptoms, I really thought that I was “going crazy.” Additionally, a symptom of the disease is panic attacks, which further confounded what was physiologically happening to me. I was lucky that I had a doctor at the time who happened to be familiar with the disease and was able to diagnose me. Just having the validation, that I was not just having somatic delusions, was a really important initial step in coming to terms with what was happening.

After that, though, came the second part of “coming to terms” – actually accepting that I have a rare, incurable disease. Again, I was lucky that I had exposure to alternative and holistic healers in my community who helped me realize that although the disease cannot be “cured,” it can be “healed” through major lifestyle and diet changes, among other things. The distinction between “healing” and “curing” has become an important one for me in my process of acceptance.

I acutely remember one day in early February, looking over the four pages of things that an herbalist recommended I start doing to treat my illness, including an extremely stringent diet and major lifestyle changes, and I was just crying and crying and crying. Even being very disciplined with these changes, it can take years to see a significant effect. I had a horrifying moment of realizing my life would never be the same. I felt like I couldn’t do it – it was too much – I would just be sick forever and eventually die. And at that moment of total terror, I had this incredible experience of complete surrender. I felt my “ego” just fade away and I just totally submitted to a journey towards wellness, no matter what it entailed. That was a really important moment in my acceptance.

Tiffany – I wanted to ask a bit more about the idea of surrender – you talk about that as being such an important process, but our culture is so resistant to the idea of surrender. Sickness/illness is something we are supposed to “fight” but in your words, it’s not about fighting illness so much as surrendering to a journey. Can you add to that? It’s just such a narrative shift that I wanted to expand on it.

Jen – Yeah, the idea of surrender has been big for me. I think one idea that has become a major core belief for me is that, generally speaking, the body is infinitely wise. If it’s doing something harmful to itself, it’s because something in the environment is not working for it. It’s not being given the space it needs to take care of itself. Symptoms are messages – our body telling us ‘hey this isn’t working!’ So to “fight” against illness is to disrespect the messages our body is giving us about how to heal. Again, this way of thinking about it isn’t going to work for every person in every situation. But for me what has worked is to accept that the healing is in the wound. That’s a phrase I read from my horoscope by Chani Nicholas at the beginning of the year and I cannot get it out of my head. So instead of rejecting my symptoms I’ve been trying to turn towards them, and accept that my body is doing something important, something meaningful. If I can surrender to the body, work with my symptoms as a partner to investigate why it is struggling and suffering, I’ve made so much more progress than when I was stuffing myself with medications to try to stop the symptoms. This is what surrender has been like for me.

Tiffany – How do you handle the social aspects of chronic illness? Especially the impact of illness on relationships.

Jen – This one is weird and I’m still struggling with it. The first major one was re-navigating my relationship with my primary partner. I realized early on that many of the things we would do together as a couple to bond were no longer accessible for me. I can’t eat at restaurants, I can’t drink alcohol, I can’t do recreational drugs, I can’t go backpacking or even camping for more than a night really, I can’t do super heavy impact play or other s/m activities. I had a couple of weeks where I worried that our relationship would collapse because all these things we had structured our relationship and intimacy around weren’t options anymore. It was scary for awhile. But I eventually recognized that if he decided to leave me because I couldn’t do these activities anymore, then he wasn’t actually dating me for “me,” but for the things I did. And that ended up not being the case. We have had to have a lot of intentional conversations about it, but we have been able to restructure our relationship around activities we can still do. And in some ways our relationship has grown deeper and more intimate because we’ve been forced to do this, and get to know each other in new ways. We have done a lot more things like more spiritual bdsm, tantra exercises, walks and gentle hikes, and we still go out dancing sometimes – I’m just sober now – and we have a great time.

I have found that this illness has given me a strange opportunity to really learn who my true friends are. It was surprising to see who stopped talking to me, or inviting me to events, once I became sick. I think some of it has to do with similar to the above, not being able to do the same things I used to. I also think some people are just really uncomfortable around someone who is chronically struggling. The reality is that even on good days I’m not really “good” – my body is extremely sick! And there are days when I feel very sad and discouraged. I try not to be excessively negative – but I’m also not going to pretend that everything is fine. And I’m learning who can handle that and who can’t, and having to adjust my social connections accordingly. Part of me feels bitter or rejected at times, but part of me sees this as an opportunity to focus my energy on people who can be there for me in a deeper way.

Tiffany – What has been the most helpful strategy you’ve found for keeping yourself moving forward? And, how do you handle those times when you can’t? (I’m asking this one because you always convey so much honest exhaustion and discouragement but you rarely come across as hopeless or despondent – it’s really encouraging and inspiring, and I’m wondering what keeps you tethered to resilience.)

Jen – Honestly, I don’t feel like I have any other option. I think this goes back to that “surrender” moment I had back in February. To give up is to just accept illness, accept death. I have to be real with myself that I will be dealing with this disease for the rest of my life, but that’s where the difference between “healing” and “curing” comes in. I’m not trying to cure myself. I’m just trying to heal. I’m trying to give my body space to take care of itself. And I deeply, deeply believe that bodies know how to take care of themselves if they are given the proper space and environment to do so. So to give up, to not continue to move forward would be to reject this deeply held belief I have and I have just seen too much powerful evidence in the world to do that.

Another thing is that I’ve managed to find some spiritual purpose to the experience, which I think has been essential to me. Here I am, 27, struggling with a rare disease and terribly ill. And yet – I’m sober, I have more fulfilling relationships now than I ever had, I’m eating and taking care of my body better than I ever have before, I’m better at setting boundaries around my health and self-care than I ever have before – my entire life is now centered around wellness and healing. I’ve made these changes because I’ve felt like I’ve had to – and yet… if I hadn’t gotten sick the reality is I probably never would have made these changes. I’ve had visions during meditations recently where it was explained to me that this illness had to happen in order for me to progress in this way in my life journey. I don’t think everyone needs to or can find greater purpose in their illnesses. But it has been a very profound realization for me – that somehow in sickness I have found wellness.

And lastly, there are days when I don’t feel resilient, I don’t feel like I’m moving forward, and that sense of despair and terror sets in. I cry and I wail and I feel like I’m dying and nothing can help me. But that’s part of the process too, in a way. Those fears and feelings are real and to suppress them would be toxic. So, when they come, I really feel them. Just really wallow in them. And usually if I let myself really sob and wallow for awhile, the wave naturally passes and my thoughts naturally start turning to more optimistic thoughts. So I guess that’s a part of what helps me keep moving forward too.

Tiffany – I also wanted to ask more about spirituality, if you want to talk about that. That’s such a difficult and fraught topic for so many people – I know that a lot of folks in my community have come out of harmful fundamentalism, or have rejected religion for one reason or another, but I also know that there are a lot of folks (sometimes the same ones! sometimes others) who are searching for some kind of spiritual connection or process. What has that journey been like for you?

Jen – Well, I’ve come from the opposite situation, lol – my dad is a fundamentalist atheist so it’s been a journey for me to find spirituality rather than get away from it!

(If you appreciate and want to support this work, consider visiting my Patreon page.)

Relaunching Possibilities Calgary

Relaunching Possibilities Calgary

Possibilities Calgary is relaunching! Over the next couple weeks, you’ll see the About pages updating on the Facebook, the MeetUp, and Twitter. The posting for the first event will be going up tomorrow, and the event itself will happen in April. The first blog post will be up the first week of April. (You’ll even see a dedicated page on tiffanysostar.com, but not quite yet.)

We’re back!

First, some history. Then, some FAQs (the questions I asked myself most frequently when planning the relaunch).

Some history

Possibilities Calgary was founded in 2010 as the term-project in a Feminist Praxis course. I was in my second year of University, had recently come out as bisexual, and was searching for community. Searching… and searching… and searching…

At the time, there was no cohesive community in Calgary for bisexuals.

This is not unusual, since the bisexual community is chronically under-supported. The lack of support leads to, among other things, increased risk of intimate partner violence, under- and unemployment, significant rates of poverty, and poor mental health outcomes. (For a comprehensive look at the issues, read the 2011 Bisexual Invisibility Report, or, even better, read Shiri Eisner’s fantastic Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution.)

I wanted community, and I couldn’t find it, so I built it. I had support from my Women’s Studies professor, Fiona Nelson. I met with community leaders to learn how to organize queer and feminist community in safe and effective ways. I had an amazing group of people to help me, and the Possibilities board was such a phenomenal support.

Possibilities ran for 5 years.

In that time, we expanded to include the asexual community (zero is not one, and so our ace friends fit under the non-monosexual umbrella comfortably!), and to include the transgender community (particularly the non-binary and transfeminine communities). There are trans members of every orientation – gender identity and sexual or romantic orientation are not the same things – but we found that those folks at the intersection of trans and non-monosexual identities were particularly and uniquely marginalized, and that Possibilities could help. For the last year of Possibilities, we had an offshoot community in Translations, which focused on transfeminine experiences.

We hosted three BiBQs during Calgary’s Pride week, and two Probabilities: Queer and Feminist Gaming Conventions. We also partnered with Calgary Outlink to host a monthly Community Café, which was a gender- and orientation-inclusive space. And, one of my personal highlights, we ran the UnConference series, bringing in speakers for multi-day events (including the hugely successful co-hosting of Courtney Trouble with the University of Calgary’s Institute for Gender Research).

Brittany says, “The BiBq was a super chill thing that I miss!” and Jocelyn confirms, “Get togethers involving food and convo” were a favourite feature.

Sid, a former board member says, “I got the opportunity not just to have my own need for support and community met but that I was also in an environment that gently encouraged me to explore how I related to other axes of oppression. Also, I always appreciated the constant supply of tea.”

Our intersectionality developed and grew over time, and although it was always imperfect, it was sincere. Rachel says, “I felt incredibly safe there.”

Michael, another former board member, says, “I really appreciated the sense of belonging to a community, and the ability to learn and grow from a group of amazing people with diverse life experiences.”

Scott, also a board member and facilitator, says, “I am not a word smith. I don’t have words beyond it was community for me. It felt inclusive and supportive.”

Jonathan, who helped me with the founding of the group, says, “Possibilities helped me learn more about how my newly discovered queer identity fit within a community. It enriched what would otherwise have been a much lonelier journey.”

It was good. It was so good. And it was needed.

But in 2015, a significant percentage of the board had moved on to new cities or new projects, and I burned out hard. Physically, emotionally, financially – I was tapped. The board members who remained continued to work hard, and new volunteers stepped up, but the organization was struggling. We couldn’t keep going. After major soul searching, we admitted the truth. Possibilities was on hiatus.

In 2016, I looked at restarting Possibilities, but realized that I didn’t have the resources to make it sustainable for myself. It hurt, but we stayed on hiatus.

But yesterday was the first day of Spring, 2017, and it was time for this seed to grow again. And so…

Some questions

Why am I relaunching Possibilities now?

Because it’s time. Because not having access to community causes harm, and because I have always believed that if you can do something good, then maybe you should do something good. (That maybe is super important – only you know what you can and can’t, or want to, do.) Because I miss this community. Because I miss being a community organizer. Because it’s time.

How am I going to avoid burning out again?

Friendship and magic? No, but seriously, I am hoping that two years of learning better self-care skills will help. I am also going to make it easier for people to support the work, and am tying it directly to my self-care and narrative work, which leads us to…

What will the relaunch involve?

I am making two commitments in this relaunch effort – one blog post or article per month, and one in-person “self-care for the b+ community” meeting. I don’t know if the BiBQ, or the gaming events, or the UnConference series, or any of the other major projects we were involved with will come back online, but I’m also not going to worry about that yet. By tying the work explicitly and intentionally to my self-care resource creation, this iteration of Possibilities fits beautifully into the work I’m doing for (and with) my Patreon. Which leads to the final question –

How can community members get involved?

If Possibilities is important to you, and you value having this community back up and running, please consider becoming a patron. That is the best way you can support this work, though I know not everyone is able. Possibilities discussion events, and the blog posts and articles, will be free for anyone, and the Patreon is what makes that possible. (Blog posts will also be available a week early for patrons, so, there’s that!) It makes me so happy to have come full circle, to have spiralled around to a new way to approach an old passion, and you can help ensure that the community stays active and vibrant going forward.

And, edited to add a link to our first event in two years!

Ocean Currents

Ocean Currents

 

 

 

 

This post was available to my Patreon patrons on Feb 11. If you would like to see posts a week early, visit my Patreon.

This week was challenging. I say that most weeks, though. There’s so much change. I don’t know who I am within these new roles, and everything keeps shifting.

I’m not actually an ocean navigator, despite the wave in my logo. I’m terrified of water (that’s one major reason we picked the wave, and that will be another post). I navigate a metaphorical ocean, but still, I think that the best metaphors are grounded in some reality. And so I sometimes read about the ocean, and how currents work.

There are all kinds of different currents in the ocean.

There are surface currents, driven primarily by wind. Rip currents that happen when a large volume of water funnels through a narrow gap in a sandbar, or between rocks. There are upwellings and downwellings, which happen when the wind blows across the surface of the water and either deep water rises up to fill the displacement, or surface water accumulates if the wind blows it against a shoreline.

And there are deep water currents, too. Like the “global conveyor belt,” a deep-water current that circles the globe and is the foundation of the food chain. It moves more slowly than surface currents, and it takes a thousand years for a section of the belt to complete its journey around the globe.

And there are tidal currents, which switch directions and respond to the gravitational pull of the moon. Flood currents and ebb currents, predictable and cyclical and strong.

Metaphorically, and in reality, these various currents have a significant impact on the whole – whether it is the ocean influencing life across our planet, or the inner ocean influencing the self. The tides, or the deep water ribbons that move slowly and forcefully, or the surface with its rip currents, and its upwellings and downwellings (and the rich metaphor of algae bloom and anaerobic suffocation in the downwelling – the choking off of life when there is no connection to the deeper water – and in the further stretch towards recognizing how downwelling, even though it creates areas of reduced productivity, is necessary for the ecosystem because it allows for deep water ventilation – there are times when lower productivity is necessary for survival).

The sun setting on the ocean.

All photos in the post, unless noted, are copyright-free photographs via Pixabay

So these metaphors, and these currents, and this difficult, difficult week.

Deep water currents change slowly. Climate scientists are worried about the global conveyor belt because increased rainfall and polar melt will change the salinity of the ocean, and therefore change its density. If the belt changes, everything changes.

And there are changes in my own deep water currents. They change everything.

My work life is changing. I have been aware, for almost a year now, that my steady day job is not guaranteed. The economy, changes in management, the nature of my role. It’s been almost a year of nearly constant low-level stress, with monthly peaking moments of intense anxiety (usually when my student loans come out of my account – lolsob). My day job – boring, predictable, reliable, and one that I am exceptionally good at – has been a constant for me for almost a decade. I’ve been with the same company, in various roles, for ten years. And I’ve been in this particular role for almost six. Seven? I don’t know. A long time. It’s been an anchor. Sometimes weighing me down, but also keeping me stable.

My work life is changing, too, because of this. The coaching and the self-care work, the workshops and resource creation and writing and trying to shape this into a career. The desire to move from work that is reliable and that I am reliably good at but uninspired by, to work that I am passionate about and personally invested in. I will be good at this. I will make a difference. But while I move towards that, there is chaos and uncertainty.

Uncertainty especially in my financial life. I have not been truly financially stable since I was married – my husband made a solid lower middle-class wage, more than enough to allow me to run my dog training business and weather the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, and to buy clothes and food and craft supplies without worrying about it, and to have hobbies and go out for dinners and have adventures. I didn’t worry about money, when I was married. And I have worried about money constantly, since divorcing. It is, like the work stress, a constant low-level hum of anxiety with regular surges to the surface. These tidal currents – the huge gravitational force of capitalism pulling deep fear to the surface.

And that financial anxiety is also tied to my relationships. This deep current originates in my family of origin, in watching the dynamic between my parents when it came to money, and agency, and independence, and reliance. Who earns it, who spends it, who makes choices about it. And then, my divorce and the year after I left, with months of rent on the credit card and groceries paid for by my best friend – a level of vulnerability and insecurity that I had never previously experienced, and one that still trickles icy through my memory, makes me wary of taking risks. And then time spent supporting a partner, who now supports me, and another partner who also supports me. And the vague sense of unease I have every time I require help, ask for a loan to bridge a financial gap, make a choice that may impact someone else.

And now the “someone else” is so complicated by the addition of two little elses. The new relationship of stepparenting. And knowing that my choices now are not just going to impact my financial stability, but also the financial stability of my relationship with my nesting partner, and rippling out from there to affect my stepkids, both neurodivergent, both requiring additional supports. And in addition to the worry about being able to provide materially there is also the worry about being able to provide emotionally and mentally. To heal the old wounds that I still carry so that I don’t pass them on, to adjust to this new role in a way that doesn’t place emotional weight on the kids as I adapt. The shift, such a huge shift, from knowing in a deep and fundamental way that I would never be a parent, to knowing that now I am a parent. And also, the drive to learn enough about the unique needs of these two specific kids, individuals, amazing little humans, to be able to help them, and to help my partner.

And that’s the key, that’s the deep water current that is changing right now – my very sense of self, in multiple areas.

And so then researching. Reading Understanding Stepfamilies: A Practical Guide for Professionals Working with Blended Families (in this, I am both the professional and the family – approaching my life, as I always have, from an academic perspective), reading Family Therapy and the Autism Spectrum: Autism Conversations in Narrative Practice, reading The Whole-Brain Child and The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children. Learning a whole new language, a new area of knowledge. And finding gaps in it – both when it comes to stepparenting and when it comes to parenting neurodivergent kids. Gaps filled frustratingly with the assumption of heterosexuality, monogamy, and cisgender identity, gaps filled with transantagonism, ableism, normativity and social pressure in so many bitter flavours it overwhelms my palate and leaves me gulping for fresh water in the form of writing, reading, trying to find connection and community and incorporate this work into my coaching because if I am falling into this gap, other people must be, too.

And also reading about coaching, about relationships, about narrative therapy – Opening Up by Writing It Down and Retelling the Stories of Our Lives and Levels 1 and 2 of the Gottman Institute ‘Gottman Method Couples Therapy’ and half a dozen other books and courses. And underneath all this research, which I love, is the slow tug of grief at leaving academia, because I decided not to pursue an MA in counselling psychology and instead started on this endeavor and it’s the right choice, and I will make a difference, and I will continue to be an academic and a researcher and a writer (writing a book! And learning how to do that). Independent scholarship is a real thing, and I will do it, but still, the changes.

Some of the books that I’m currently reading.

Photograph by Tiffany Sostar

And this change, this shift away from academics, is huge. Because deciding to finally go to university was a big deal. I had always wanted to. And I had been told, shortly after I graduated high school, that I didn’t have what it takes. I believed that story. That story became part of my core set of beliefs about myself. I was smart, I was a good writer, but I was not persistent. I did not have the “sticktoitiveness” to get through university. So I read academic theory on my own time (this essay – Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation, by Mitra Emad, was my first academic love), and wrote nerdy papers about feminism and gender on my own time, and didn’t believe I could hack it in post secondary. Until I started dating someone who said “why aren’t you in school? You’re sending me links to feminist theory because you’re reading it for fun – apply to the University of Calgary.” And I trusted him. So I did it. And I graduated with a First Class BA Honours in English and a First Class BA Honours in Women’s Studies. I did it. I challenged that core story and I changed it. And I miss academics. As broken and abusive as that ivory tower is, still, I miss it.

And I miss myself within it.

And that’s the key, that’s the deep water current that is changing right now – my very sense of self, in multiple areas.

Who I am.

Who I am as a labourer – emotional, domestic, social, and other. Where and for whom and how I work, and how I get paid, and where my money goes and where it comes from, and how I spend my time, and my intellectual energy, and what I write and when I write it and who I write it for, and who judges it, and who judges me, and how I define my value and my worth, and where I find myself, and what I call myself, and who sees me and how they see me, and how I see me.

These are the ocean currents of my life, and myself. The deep water currents and the surface currents and the tidal currents. The core self, and the self in relationship, and the self in society.

So, these weeks are challenging. As I move through my life I am aware of the currents shifting, and I don’t know what the ecosystem looks like once they’ve shifted. Who I will be, how I will be, what I will be.

But change is constant, and it is not the enemy.

The Earth has experienced changes before, and I have experienced massive change, too.

I have faith in my ability to survive the chaotic betweentime, and I have faith that I will eventually settle into new patterns and find new wholeness and new peace.

I’m happy with how things are changing. I love coaching. I love this work. I love my kids. I love my partner, and my entire polyamorous pod. I love researching, and I love finding subversive ways to inhabit liminal spaces – bisexual, genderqueer, invisibly disabled, neurodivergent – I was made for the liminal spaces and the betweenings. Independent scholarship feels like an exciting new liminal space to step into. Just like stepparenting feels like an exciting liminal space to explore, with rich potential for writing and researching and offering help and hope to others. Just like parenting while queer, and parenting while non-binary, also feels liminal and rich with betweenness and both/andness.

This is an upwelling – the wind has blown hard across my surface and there is space now for deep water to rise, and bring new life to the surface.

It’s scary, but the ocean always is, for me.

I love it anyway.

Plot twist!

Plot twist!

01

January, 2017

The other morning I was sitting on the floor in the living room, assembling Lego. Some days I build new sets for myself or for the kids, and some days I reassemble sets that have taken too many toddler-assisted falls. It was a good morning – the kids with their mom, and I had a London Fog and affection and I have this beautiful life I’m building – but I was overwhelmed with wave after wave of heavy emotions.

Because this story is not the story I thought I would be telling now, at 35.

And this is not the first time the story has changed.

And every time the story changes, there is grief, and loss, and guilt.

Lego octopus in a sunken ship.

Photograph by Tiffany Sostar

Once upon a time, I was straight. I was monogamous. I was a woman. I was married. I was going to grow old having chili bake-offs with my husband, inviting family over to taste-test, both of us winning. Every year we would go to the boutique gift shop for beautiful Christmas ornaments, to be given in wooden boxes we had designed and built and stained together. We would go to Croatia to meet his family someday. We would go to Norway to meet mine. We had three dogs. We had a new house. But I’m not straight. And I’m not a woman. And I’m no longer married.

Once upon a time, I was a dog trainer. I specialized in working with fearful and aggressive dogs. I was really good at it. I was APDT and CAPPDT certified, I took courses at the San Francisco Academy for Dog Trainers. I ran my own business. I was going to be an expert in the field. I would speak at APDT, I would host conferences, I would be sought out for interviews, I would publish books. But the economy tanked, and I went to university, and I love dogs but I no longer train them.

There are other once upon a times. Stories that felt like my forever story, fundamental to my being, that I am no longer in. The story where my soul mate and I grow old living together, he a lawyer and me a gender studies professor. The story where my anchor partner and I grow old living together, them at their video game console and me organizing events for the bisexual and trans communities, doing activism, being an activist. The story where I’m a famous author at 25. The story where I never have kids. The story where I work in my dad’s bookstore until he retires and then I become the manager. The story where I’m straight. The story where I’m cisgender. The story where I’m able-bodied. The story where depression is overcome, forever, and I am triumphant over my mind. The story where I’m inherently and eternally broken (that one was so hard to let go of).

“I am not the only one who has lived in many books.”

I am not the only one who has felt my identity sink solidly and safely into a narrative, only to have someone in the distance shout, or whisper, “plot twist!” and to feel the ink of my identity fading on the page, new words forming, words I do not know, or know how to inhabit.

These plot twist moments can be traumatic. They are moments of “identity threat” – times when our sense of self, and who we are, and how we are in the world and in relationships and in each other’s eyes, when it all shifts.

When we come out. When we divorce. When we lose a job, or a friend, or a partner, or a parent. When we gain a job, or a partner, or another partner, or a new name or a new body or a new baby. When we transition to polyamory. When we discover our kinks. When we tell our lover. When our lover tells us. When we hear that voice, stage left, “plot twist!”

Or, sometimes, when we feel the slow twist of a knife long buried. Microaggressions. Erasures. Moments of invisibility and coercive passing. When we are read by those around us as something we are not, and we see reflections of ourselves in others’ eyes that do not feel right. When stereotypes or biases against us start to eat away at our own sense of self and wholeness.

Illness. Wellness. Brokenness. Wholeness. Togetherness. Aloneness.

When we move from one state of being into another. When we find ourselves lost, and find ourselves, and lose ourselves.

I like tentacles.

Photograph by Tiffany Sostar

Lego can be fixed. I can go back to the book, find all the missing pieces (or most of them, anyway), reassemble it and it will look almost like it did when I first built it.

Life is not like that. I cannot find the booklet and all the missing pieces to reassemble those old stories, those old lives.

But my life is like Lego in another way – endlessly adaptable. A smashed house can become a truck can become a dragon can become another house. There is hope, and new wholeness, and new stories, and there is healing possible. I have learned to sit with the grief, and the loss, and the sadness, and the hope, and the joy, and the excitement. I have learned to let the plot twist, to trust myself to be present in whatever story comes next. To know myself, and love myself (in action if not in emotion, and in intention if not in action, and always reaching towards a more wholehearted love), and care for myself. I have learned how to breathe in to the moments of change, and trust that even when my identity feels threatened, feeling or fearing a thing doesn’t make it real. Whatever comes, comes. I can find a way to exist within it.

Moments of identity threat can be incredibly challenging. We often feel guilty when the narrative changes, because we know it isn’t just us that’s impacted. And we want the people around us to be happy, we want them to like us, we want them to know us. It’s hard to find a solid sense of self in the plot twist moments.

Lego can be fixed. I can go back to the book, find all the missing pieces (or most of them, anyway), reassemble it and it will look almost like it did when I first built it.

Life is not like that. I cannot find the booklet and all the missing pieces to reassemble those old stories, those old lives.

But my life is like Lego in another way – endlessly adaptable. A smashed house can become a truck can become a dragon can become another house. There is hope, and new wholeness, and new stories, and there is healing possible. I have learned to sit with the grief, and the loss, and the sadness, and the hope, and the joy, and the excitement. I have learned to let the plot twist, to trust myself to be present in whatever story comes next. To know myself, and love myself (in action if not in emotion, and in intention if not in action, and always reaching towards a more wholehearted love), and care for myself. I have learned how to breathe in to the moments of change, and trust that even when my identity feels threatened, feeling or fearing a thing doesn’t make it real. Whatever comes, comes. I can find a way to exist within it.

Moments of identity threat can be incredibly challenging. We often feel guilty when the narrative changes, because we know it isn’t just us that’s impacted. And we want the people around us to be happy, we want them to like us, we want them to know us. It’s hard to find a solid sense of self in the plot twist moments.

“There is hope, and new wholeness, and new stories, and there is healing possible.”

That’s what I’m here for.

If you feel like you are losing yourself, or have lost yourself, and the narrative is getting away from you and everything feels scary and overwhelming and you don’t know what your story is anymore, I can help.

Self-care, self-discovery, self-expression.

I can help you find the story that lets you move forward.

You can find my daily self-care tips on Facebook.

You can email me.

If you’re excited about this work and want to support me, you can find me on Patreon. In addition to the coaching, I am committed to creating accessible self-care resources because financial insecurity is too often a barrier to help.

Or you can watch this page, because as I develop resources, they’ll all be collected here.

I’m excited about this journey! We’ll build the path forward, brick by brick.