We’re Forked: Navigating Spoon-Disparity in Long-Term Relationships

We’re Forked: Navigating Spoon-Disparity in Long-Term Relationships

Image description: Kate’s incredibly stylish orange cane, leaning against white drawers with silver handles, on a wooden floor. 

This is a Patreon reward post for Kate, and was available to patrons last week. Patreon supporters at the $10/month level get a self-care post on the topic of their choice during their birthday month. These supporters make my work possible! Especially as I head into my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program, my patrons ensure that I can keep producing resources and self-care content. (And wow, there are some really great resources in production! Check back tomorrow for a post about that!)

Kate and I have known each other for a few years, and got to know each other while we were both going through some challenging times (though we didn’t actually meet in person until quite a bit later, and still aren’t able to spend as much time together as either of us might like!)

Kate has been one of my most outspoken supporters, and I appreciate how she is always willing to leap in with an offer of help or a suggested solution.

Her birthday is in January, and her topic is, “maintaining intimate relationships and partnerships with a chronic illness or chronic pain.”

I struggled with writing this post because I am experiencing my own spoon shortage. I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, have been sick for the last two months, and my fibromyalgia pain has been spiking. All of these spoon-hoarding gremlins are impacting my own relationships, challenging my sense of who I am and how I navigate the world, and putting gloom-coloured glasses on my view of the future. When I write about self-care for folks who are struggling, it’s easier when I can write about a struggle I am not currently experiencing. It’s easier if I can yell back into the labyrinth from the safety of the outside. Easier, but not always better. It is a myth that the best insights come from people who have “figured it all out” – I believe the opposite is often true. When we are in the thick of it is when we have the most relevant and meaningful insider information. Our struggle is not a barrier to our ability to help each other – it is the fuel that allows us to help each other. This is one of the key principles of narrative therapy, and as much as it challenges me, I am trying to bring it into my own life. Can I write something worthwhile from the heart of the struggle? Yes. Well, I think so. Let’s find out.

What Kate asked about was maintaining intimate relationships while navigating chronic illness or pain. In relationships where one person experiences chronic issues and another doesn’t, those issues can create a significant disparity in ability and access to internal resources. (And in relationships where multiple people are experiencing chronic issues, the pressure resulting from reduced access to resources can grow exponentially.)

Being in the position of having (or perceiving that we have) less to offer often triggers shame, fear, and stress. In my own relationships, I worry that I’m not worth it, that my partners will grow tired of me. I worry that I’m “too much.” I have heard the same worry from my clients.

This anxiety is so natural, and so understandable. Our society does not have readily accessible narratives that include robust “economies of care.” Our most common narrative has to do with “pulling our own weight” in a relationship, and our definitions of balanced relationships rely so heavily on ideas of equality rather than justice. Split the bills 50/50. Take turns washing the dishes. You cook, I’ll clean. My turn/your turn for the laundry, the diapers, the groceries.

And it becomes more complicated when we consider the intangible labour of emotional support and caregiving, which is disproportionately assumed to be the role of women in relationships with men, and, since women are also often the ones experiencing chronic pain or illness, this can compound into a messy and unjust situation pretty quickly. (To back up these claims, check out the links at the end of this post.)

Thankfully, both of these problems – the tit-for-tat approach, and the unjust division of emotional labour – are being challenged by writers, activists, and communities on the margins.

In Three Thoughts on Emotional Labour, Clementine Morrigan writes, “We can name, acknowledge, honour, perform, and yes, accept emotional labour, instead of simply backing away from it because we don’t want to be exploitative.”

This is so challenging for so many of us, because we do not want to exploit our friends, our partners, our communities. When we experience chronic illness or pain, the fear that we might slide into exploitation and “being a burden” becomes amplified. Morrigan suggests that we can ask three guiding questions about the emotional labour we are offering or accepting – Is it consensual? Is it valued? Is it reciprocated?

If we can answer yes to each – if we are discussing what we need and what we can offer, if we are valuing what we are offered and if our own offerings are valued, and if there is reciprocity – fantastic!

But what does reciprocity look like in situations where there is a disparity in access to resources?

Morrigan suggests that:

“It is important to acknowledge that some of us need more care than others. Some of us, due to trauma, disability, mental health stuff, poverty, or other reasons, may not be in a position to provide as much emotional labour as we need to receive. We may go through periods where are able to provide more emotional labour or we may always need more care than we are able to give. We may be able to reciprocate care in some ways and not others. This is totally okay. We need rich networks of emotional care, so that all of us can get the care we need without being depleted. We need communities that value and perform emotional labour—communities that come through for each other. Reciprocity is a commitment to building communities where all of us are cared for and no one is left behind; it is not a one for one exchange.”

It is not a one for one exchange.

This is so critical.

And it’s so hard to make space for this. It’s hard to see our worthiness and the value we bring to a relationship when what we offer has shifted from what we were able to offer before the chronic issue grew up within us and between us.

Not only that, but it’s often hard for our partners to recognize what we’re bringing to the relationship. Not because they don’t love and appreciate and support us, but because they are also caught within the web of accessible narratives and ableist norms.

In order to answer “yes” to Morrigan’s “is it valued?” question, we need to be able to look clearly at the work our partners, friends, and families are doing for us and acknowledge that work. And we need to be able to look clearly at our own work and speak openly about it, so that it can be valued. Neither side of this is easy.

Becoming aware of the skills and insider knowledges that we develop as we live our new pain-, disability-, or illness-enhanced lives can help with recognizing, articulating, and allowing people to value our new contributions.

In A Modest Proposal For A Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy (Centered By Disabled, Femme of Color, Working Class/Poor Genius), Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:

“Sick and disabled folks have many superpowers: one of them is that we often have highly developed skills around care. Many of us have received shitty, condescending, charity-based care or abusive or coercive care—whether it’s from medical staff or our friends and families. We’re also offered unsolicited medical advice every day of our lives, mostly coming from a place of discomfort with disability and wanting to “fix” us.

All of this has made us very sophisticated at negotiating care, including our understanding that both offering and receiving it is a choice. The idea of consent in care is a radical notion stemming from disabled community wisdom. Ableism mandates that disabled people are supposed to gratefully accept any care offered to “fix” us. It’s mind blowing for many people to run into the common concept in many sick and disabled communities, that disabled people get to decide for ourselves the kind of care we want and need, and say no to the rest. This choicefulness has juicy implications for everyone, including the abled.”

I love her wording here. The juicy implications of choicefulness! Imagine the possibilities of this.

And yet, even as I revel in this juicy and nourishing framework, I remember my own deep and ongoing struggle with the concept of pain, illness, and disability as invitation, as superpower, as self. This radical reorganization of labour within relationships does not come easily, and one of the reasons it’s so challenging is because our concepts of fairness are so influenced by one to one exchanges.

Piepzna-Samarasinha addresses this fear later in the essay, reminding us that, “Disabled people often run into the idea that we can never offer care, just receive it. However, we often talk about the idea that we can still offer care from what our bodies can do. If my disabled body can’t lift yours onto the toilet, it doesn’t mean I can’t care for you—it means I contribute from what my particular body can do. Maybe instead of doing physical care, I can research a medical provider, buy groceries for you, or listen to you vent when one of your dates was ableist.”

We forget that there is still care, still reciprocity available within our relationships even when our ability to perform the tasks we used to, or the tasks we wish we could, has shifted.

Learning how to navigate this shift is challenging.

Searching for resources to share in this post, I was discouraged by the sheer volume of academic research performed by normatively abled “experts” on the outcomes for relationships that include a disabled partner. Once again, the centre scrutinizing the margins. It creates such a disempowering framework.

I was also dismayed by the fact that “should I date a disabled person” was one of the suggested related searches. Gross! GROSS!!!!

These are the narratives, and the social framework, within which we try to navigate our relationships as pain/illness/disability-enhanced individuals.

We need more robust, inclusive, intersectional, and hopeful resources. Not hopeful in the “look on the bright side” gaslighting-via-silver-lining sense. Hopeful in the sense of possibility-generating, hope that, in Sara Ahmed’s words, “animates a struggle.” Hope that reminds us that there are narratives possible outside of the ableist norm, and that we can write those love stories within our own lives.

The parts of ourselves that do not fit tidily into the ableist ideal show up in our relationships in many ways. In order to write those inclusive love stories of any kind – platonic, romantic, familial, or parental – we need to recognize and learn to navigate all of it. Financial, social, emotional, physical, mental – very aspect of ourselves that requires tending and care.

Chronic illness/pain/disability impacts our financial lives – we are often less able to work within normative capitalist models. The 8-5 grind doesn’t work if you can’t manage a desk job for 9 hours a day, and many other jobs are also out of reach. This adds pressure to our partners and social supports. Money is a huge source of shame and fear for many of us, so learning how to talk about requiring financial support, how to shift the balance of contribution in a household – overwhelming! Be gentle with yourselves in these conversations.

I find this particularly challenging. More than almost any other way in which my chronic issues impact my relationships, the financial instability that has been introduced as a result of my no longer being able to work a full-time job feels humiliating and shameful. I am working hard to carve out a living for myself, to build my business in sustainable and anti-ableist ways, to do what has to be done to pay my share of the bills. But my partners still take up more than what feels “fair” in the financial realm, and it’s hard. For me, engaging with writers, activists, and advocates who are challenging capitalism and neoliberalism has been helpful. Recognizing that there are other economic models available has opened up some space for me to still see myself as a contributing member of my partnerships and society.

Chronic illness/pain/disability also impacts our social lives – getting out to see friends can become more challenging. Our partners can end up taking on more social caring work for us, being the ones we talk to when we aren’t getting out (or when we don’t feel safe to talk about our struggle with others).

The aggressive individualism of our current anglo-european culture means that we are often isolated, and this can be so discouraging. Again, I struggle with this personally and I don’t have easy answers.

And searching for resources on parenting with chronic pain, illness, or disability is similarly challenging and disheartening. Parenting with any kind of divergence from the ideal is difficult. The weight of judgement, assumption, erasure, hostility, and isolation is so real. Although more supportive and inclusive blog posts, research papers, and articles are being written, the perception of a weirdly-abled parent is still one of lack, inability, and pity.

We often want to provide everything our children needs, without outside help. That’s the expected ideal. The nuclear family is still the celebrated norm, and the ideal of a normatively abled, neurotypical, stay-at-home, biological parent is still the target to meet. We may recognize that “it takes a village” but we resist the idea that part of what that village offers may be physically chasing after the toddler, lifting the baby, doing homework with the teen, helping with the rent. Just like we need to expand our conception of emotional labour and economies of care within relationships, we need that same expansiveness and redefinition within our parenting relationships and roles.

Which is easy to say, and incredibly hard to do.

At Disability and Representation, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes, “What so many able-bodied feminists don’t get is how profound an experience disability is. I’m not just talking about a profound physical experience. I’m talking about a profound social and political experience. I venture out and I feel like I’m in a separate world, divided from “normal” people by a thin but unmistakeable membrane. In my very friendly and diverse city, I look out and see people of different races and ethnicities walking together on the sidewalk, or shopping, or having lunch. But when I see disabled people, they are usually walking or rolling alone. And if they’re not alone, they’re with a support person or a family member. I rarely see wheelchair users chatting it up with people who walk on two legs. I rarely see cognitively or intellectually disabled people integrated into social settings with nondisabled people. I’m painfully aware of how many people are fine with me as long as I can keep up with their able-bodied standards, and much less fine with me when I actually need something.

So many of you really have no idea of how rampant the discrimination is. You have no idea that disabled women are routinely denied fertility treatments and can besterilized without their consent. You have no idea that disabled people are at very high risk of losing custody of their children. You have no idea that women with disabilities experience a much higher rate of domestic violence than nondisabled women or that the assault rate for adults with developmental disabilities is 4 to 10 times higher than for people without developmental disabilities. You have no idea that over 25% of people with disabilities live in poverty.”

So that fear of embracing a new normal, subverting the neoliberal individualist norm, creating new economies of care and radically altering our relationships to be just rather than equal… this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We aren’t just subverting norms and creating new relationship methods – we are doing so, as parents, under the scrutiny of an ableist and highly punitive culture. We are conscious of the fact that our subversion of norms, which may be possible within adult relationships, may make our parenting relationships more precarious, more tenuous.

Access to external help is readily available to the professional upper class – nannies are a completely acceptable form of external help, and parents are not judged for needing a nanny when that need is created by long working hours. Needing help in order to be more productive? Sure thing. (You’ll still face judgement, of course. Can any parent do it “right,” really? Nope.)

But needing help because of pain, illness, or disability?

Yikes.

That is much less socially sanctioned, and there are far fewer narratives available that leave space for that choice to be aligned with a “good parent” identity.

And yet, many of us do parent while in pain, while ill, while disabled. And we are good parents. Just like we have valuable superpowers of caring that can be brought into our adult relationships, we have the same superpowers of caring to bring into our parenting roles. What we do may look different than the pop culture ideal. How we do it, when we do it, who helps us with it – that might all look different. And that’s scary. But the value it brings to our kids is immeasurable.

One of the invitations that chronic illness, pain, and disability extends is that it pulls the curtain back on how harmful the neoliberal ideology of rugged individualism really is, and asks, “is there another way?”

I’m not great at saying “yes” to that invitation, but I’m getting better at recognizing it when it shows up. I don’t need to have all the answers, because I have a community around me that is brilliant and incredibly generous.

So, when I was struggling with this post, I asked my best friend and one of my partners to help me.

H.P. Longstocking has been dealing with the long-term effects of two significant concussions, and in a moment of discouragement at my own inability to write this post, I asked if she could help me get started. What she sent touched on so much of what I wanted to write about, so eloquently, and I’m ending this post with her incredibly valuable contribution. She is a parent, a scholar, and an integral part of the social net that keeps me going. I think there’s hope in how she has responded to this.

She writes:

While I am no stranger to depression or anxiety, I had never experienced a chronic debilitating illness and I found that my self-care habits and techniques were no longer usually helpful or even always possible. Last summer I had several concussions. Because I had sustained so many as a child, these two accidents completely changed my life. Most of the summer I was not safe to drive or even walk as my second concussion happened when I tried to walk out of my bedroom and due to the concussion symptoms, I cracked my head into a wall. I could not look at screens, read, handle light or loud noises, and was told to stop having sex. All of my self-care habits were taken away.

I have always been an active person. Running and cycling have been my times of meditation and recalibration. Dancing brings me joy. Physical activity has been an integral part of my self-care since I was a small child. To have days, weeks, and months where walking short distances is the most physical activity I can safely manage, and some days not even that, has had a detrimental impact on my body and my emotional well-being.

I used to love to read. I devoured books and articles. I had just started my Masters and was supposed to be immersing myself in the scientific literature. I could not do any of that. I still struggle. Reading was my escape, my lifeline, my lifeblood, and I hoped, my livelihood. Now it causes me pain.

I was not prepared for the constant, chronic pain. Previously, I had headaches so rarely, I did not recognize them the few times a year I would experience one. Now, I have a hard time recognizing it because I am never without one. I find that I have my face screwed up in pain after someone reacts to me as if I am scowling at them. My coping mechanisms for the pain are to hyperfocus on something so I am unaware of most of the world around me. Unfortunately, this is usually my phone which in the long term makes it worse, but also as it gets worse, I have less self-control and ability to stop myself.

All of this has impacted my relationships. Without the ability to drive, I am often limited in who I can see and where I can go. Even without that, I am easily tired in social settings and my words begin to slur in mental exhaustion. I cannot handle loud spaces for very long, or if I do, I pay for it with days of recovery. I often feel isolated, alone, and incapable of taking care of myself, let alone being the partner, parent, and student I aspire to be.

But, I have adapted. Instead of reading, I listen to audiobooks. Instead of digesting dense theory or the latest studies, I listen to light narratives and fiction that has a plot so predicable that I can fall asleep and not miss much. I go for short walks instead of long bike rides.

My relationships have also changed.

It is hard to feel like you are not carrying your weight, especially in this neoliberal culture where people are valued according to how much productive and profitable output they can do. It is hard to be a partner with someone when you are more dependent and roommate than lover. It is hard not be able to see people, leave the house, focus on what someone is saying, or do what they are doing. It is so isolating and would be so much more so with poverty added as well. It hurts to see your kids do an impression of you which is just sleeping.

My friendships have changed. I am slowly learning to ask for help. To say no. To cancel plans last minute because it is not safe that day for me to go out. I cancel plans so often now that I am scared to make them. Much of my socialization now is online and sporadic. There is a price to pay for too much screen time. I am spending more time with people I do not have to hide my pain from. I do not have the resources to put up with mind games and people who suck energy. I have a few friends that make safe spaces for me to come and just nap around them so I won’t feel alone. My life is rich, even though my world and abilities have shrunk.

Self-care looks entirely different to me now. Instead of the sun on my face and the pounding of my feet on running paths, I sip tea wearing sunglasses. Instead of pushing through discomfort, I am learning to listen to it so that I do not make things worse. Instead of losing myself in the written word, I find comfort in story, sound and other sensory delights. Some of the people I spend time with have changed, and the ways I spend time with people have also. I do not know which symptoms will resolve and which I will have for the rest of my life, but while I grieve for friendships and opportunities lost, I am also grateful for the capacity to change and adapt, and trust that relationships worth holding onto can withstand the changes as well.

Further reading on emotional labour:

January Preview

I’ve spent the last couple days mapping out my immediate upcoming projects. It’s pretty exciting, and there are many things coming up that you can be part of!
Check these projects, collaborations, and events out, and get in touch with me if there’s anything that piques your interest.
  • I’m launching a book club for parents, stepparents, and caregivers of autistic kids. We’ll be reading books by autistic authors, and recentering the conversation about what autistic kids need away from neurotypical experts, to autistic experts. I feel like this is a critical counter to the standard approach, and it’s important to me because both of my stepkids are autistic. I want to do the best that I can for them, and that means listening to autistic adults. You can get involved by sending me a message and letting me know you want in. Unlike most of my work, this one will be in person. We’ll be meeting once a month-ish at my home, so space is limited. However, I’ll be writing up a detailed review of each of the books we read, and those reviews will be posted on my Patreon, and then on this blog.
  • I’m collaborating on the creation of a resource for extroverts, addressing self-care and mental health, since so much of the available self-care and mental health writing assumes introversion, or assumes that being outgoing and social is incompatible with depression or suicidality. You can get involved by sending me a message. Our first in-person round table discussion is coming up on Saturday, and there will be a second in-person round table discussion later on. You can participate online (in text or skype interviews), in person (in one-on-one interviews or round table discussions), or some combination of these. I am particularly interested in talking with folks whose experience of extroversion has been impacted by cultural norms that don’t leave space for extroversion. (For example, autistic folks are assumed to be inherently introverted, and so are many Asian folks, while Black and Indigenous women are interpreted as “angry” or irrational if they’re extroverted, and women in general often find it difficult to be accepted as extroverts without being shamed for being “gossipy,” “loud,” or other unacceptable things.)
  • I’m collaborating with my brilliant sibling, Domini Packer, to create a resource for survivors and supporters following sexual assault, to help build and sustain networks of support following a crisis. You can get involved by sending me a message. We’re meeting with people one on one to chat, and also talking with folks online. This is going to turn into a zine (or similar), with stories, resources, and action plans for survivors and supporters following sexual assault. We noticed a pretty big gap in the available resources, and a lot of “lean on your community” without a lot of insight into what that looks like, how to ask for what you need, how to keep boundaries between yourself and your supporters. And for supporters, a lot of “believe them, be there for them” without a lot of information about how to do self-care during the crisis so you don’t end up burning out (or worse, turning around and leaning back on the person who has just been through a trauma), how to maintain boundaries with the person you’re supporting, how to reach out for your own support in safe and respectful ways. We’re going to attempt to fill that gap a bit. I’m also interested in talking with professionals who would like to contribute. (This one is coming up quickly, so get in touch asap if you want to be involved.)
  • I’m working on a resource to help folks navigate those “Bad Gender Feels” days. This project is in the germination stage, but I am starting to meet with folks to talk about what would be helpful and what they’d like to see included in a resource like this. This resource will also include information for parents and other supporters of trans and gender non-conforming kids who want to help them get through those dysphoric days.
  • Possibilities Calgary events are running on the third Tuesday of each month at Loft 112 in Calgary’s East Village, and are always free to attend. Every month has a theme, and our in-person discussion becomes the framework for a shareable, downloadable, free resource booklet. You can participate at the conversations, or by sending your ideas or suggestions once the monthly topic is announced. (January is Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers.)
  • The Self-Care Salons are running every month on the first or second Sunday at Loft 112 in the East Village. The cost is $50, sliding scale is available. Every month includes an in-depth conversation and a resource book. 10% of the profit from the Self-Care Salon goes to the Awo Taan Healing Lodge. (In January, Vincci Tsui, RD will be facilitating a discussion about food, health, and bodies that is size-inclusive, anti-diet, fatphobia-challenging – Self-Care Salon: Bodies, Food, and Health.)
  • Bridges and Boundaries: Social Self-Care will be launching Jan 22. It’s a 6-week online course focusing on building tools for social self-care. The cost is $150, sliding scale is available, and it’s going to be awesome. You can sign up by sending me a message.
  • You can also get involved by supporting my Patreon. And at the $10/month level, I’ll write you a post on the self-care topic of your choice. My Patreon supporters are the reason I’m able to put so much time and effort into developing resources that are comprehensive, inclusive, and available for free.
  • And, lastly, my self-care and narrative coaching (for individuals and relationships) is on sale until the end of January. You can check out my services on my Facebook page (I’m in the process of updating this website to be up to date), or you can just send me an email! A single session ($150) is 10% off, a package of 3 ($400) is 15% off, and a package of 10 ($1200) is 20% off.

There are other projects coming up that aren’t collaborations or events, too. Blog posts and other plans for creating new work, mapping out my content focus for the year. 2017 focused on wholeness and integration, and 2018 will focus on hope. I’m in the process of figuring out what that means, and how to bring that focus into my various pieces of work.

I’m also working on pulling some of my work off of Facebook and making it accessible elsewhere. I’ll be shifting my Tender Year posts into a new blog (and cross-posting with Facebook), and once that’s up and running, I’ll share the link here. I’ll also be posting more of my self-care content onto my Tiffany Sostar blog so that people can read it without being on Facebook.

And, perhaps most exciting for me, two major projects are lurching up to speed:

  • the book I’ve been talking about and writing about and thinking about for ages is happening and I’ve started to pull the content together for it, so watch for updates on the 100 Love Letters book coming throughout this year, and,
  • I’m 83% certain I’ll be doing the Masters in Narrative Therapy and Community Work this year at the Dulwich Centre (I’ve been accepted into the program, and now I just need to sort out funding – yikes!)

And one major project is just starting to simmer more assertively:

  • I’m putting together my speaker event wish list, and starting to think about restarting the UnConference Series and bringing people in for events (Avery Alder is at the top of my wish list, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to bring her in for a weekend workshop on transformative gaming sometime this year).

2018 is going to be about continuing to do what I love, learning how to do it more sustainably and effectively, and working with my communities to develop strategies and resources for resilience and hope. It’s going to be good.

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.

Brick by brick

Brick by brick

Brick by brick

Some days are tough.

I know my stories, most of them. I know the story about Tiffany-the-entrepreneur. I know the story about Tiffany-the-helper. I am learning the story about Tiffany-the-stepparent.

But knowing the stories doesn’t always mean it’s easy to hold onto them. And even when you can hold onto them, there are times when you just need a break. When building a thing – this website, this business, this life – is heavy and each brick sits uneasily on the last because I just haven’t quite figured out how they fit together yet.

In those moments, I have a few reliable tools at my disposal.

I can go for a walk, if the weather is good and the kids will tolerate it.

I can make some tea, though honestly this doesn’t help like it used to – I don’t have the tea nook that I did in the house I was in before, and it’s always a bit messy, and my desk serves multiple functions and the table is always full of stuff, so the ritual of tea is something I need to reinvent for myself within this environment. I’m good at reinvention, but reinvention takes time, and energy. It draws on the well, it doesn’t fill it.

I can write, if it’s quiet enough.

And I can build Lego.

More and more, Lego has become both a metaphor for the way I’m currently approaching narrative, and one of my most effective self-care strategies. The little Lego photo shoots I’ve done for this website, and the act of building Lego, have given me new tools and new language.

I build Lego differently than my partner does. I like to divide all my pieces up by type and colour, and then build. He dumps them out in a pile and sorts as he goes. That, too, is a rich metaphor – the different paths that arrive at the same destination. The value in that variation.

The last few months have been challenging. Launching a business is quite a significant task, learning to be a stepparent is quite a significant task. I work two, sometimes three, part-time “day jobs” and am trying to turn this into a full-time, sustainable career.

My youngest stepkid was diagnosed with autism in December, and that has been an emotional and challenging process – figuring out whether to use the same therapy team for her as we use for my older stepkid, trying to get a handle on the differences in autism in young girls (and feeling so much pain and grief for her, for the way autism stigma hits girls so hard – girls who are supposed to swim in that toxic soup of sociable femininity).

But still, I build.

Brick by brick, I build.

Lay all the pieces out, look at the plan, take it one action at a time.

Right now, I’m trying to get this website launched.

Brick by brick, page by page.

We’re getting there.

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.