figuring out what foods work for me

I thought I had a good handle on the foods that work for me, but within the last couple of weeks I discovered a big blind spot.

As I mentioned, I’ve had hypoglycemia for a long time and now I have IBS. I’d worked out a way to manage the hypoglycemia — basically eat more frequent meals and prefer protein and fat over carbohydrates. If my blood sugar starts to get too low, I’ve relied on chocolate, candy or soft drinks (fizzy or fruit juice) like a carbohydrate jerry can to bump my sugar up briefly to relieve symptoms and give me some time to get some real food (i.e. containing protein and fat, as well as a moderate amount of carbs) in me.

The IBS is much more complicated as there are five different categories of carbohydrates that may cause a reaction, so if you have IBS, your food sensitivities may well be different from mine even if they cause similar digestive issues.

I’ve been following a FODMAP diet for a year now, though not religiously. In the elimination and reintroduction phase, I discovered I can eat:

lactose — Hooray! I can have ordinary milk, sour cream, cottage cheese (the creamed kind or dry curd), cheese (aged or not). The lactose in yogurt and ice cream is also not a problem, though the sugar is.

mannitol — The only food in this category that matters much to me is mushrooms, but cauliflower, snow peas and celery are also likely OK.

sorbitol — Most often used as a sugar substitute, sorbitol natural occurs in certain foods, like avocado (which I eat in quantity regularly) as well as corn, green bell pepper, broccoli, green beans, and green cabbage.

The problems start when I eat:

fructose — This means that lots of fruits are out, the ‘safe’ fruits are safe only in limited quantities (usually ½ cup), and I have to be careful with sugar in general. The sugar part is something I’m still figuring out.

oligosaccharides (aka oligos) — My number one problem food is wheat, though that’s mostly down to its ubiquity. Other foods in the same category are onions and garlic (which I’m limiting), nuts and legumes (limiting or avoiding depending on the details), and strong black tea (currently avoiding).

This is… a lot.

So what can I eat?

I learned from hypoglycemia to start any meal plan with protein. Meat, poultry and fish are all reliable since they contain no carbohydrates at all. Eggs are good. As noted above, lactose isn’t a problem for me so I can get my fill of any (unsweetened) dairy products, and thus milk and cheese make good snacks. Legumes (pulses), nuts and seeds all contain at least some FODMAPs, so going vegetarian or vegan would be exceedingly difficult; I try to eat these in small doses when I can but I’m not able to rely on them e.g. for snacks like I was doing with peanuts and other nuts. Avocados don’t have a lot of protein but they do have a lot of fat and seem to work for me to centre a meal around.

Next up in my usual analysis is ‘green’, by which I mean veg and fruit of any colour. Tomatoes, cucumbers, coloured bell peppers, carrots, parsnips, lettuce, and spinach are all definitely fine. The sorbitol and mannitol containing foods are also probably fine for me (but not necessarily for other folks with IBS).

Fruit is tricky because of the fructose. I need to limit some fruits and avoid others. There are none that are 100% ‘safe’ for me. I can have ½ cup servings of citrus, most berries, banana, grapes, kiwi, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, rhubarb. And because my other problem foods in other categories all contribute to the irritation, I have to be careful how I combine things.

And then there’s what I usually think of as carbs — starches and sweets. I can have potatoes; rice, rice noodles, rice crackers; corn, corn chips and corn tortillas; quinoa. There are other grains and starches that wouldn’t cause IBS flare-ups (millet, sorghum, teff; plantain, yam) but I’m not huge on starch anyway due to the hypoglycemia so it doesn’t help much. ‘Gluten-free’ might be OK; basically it’s a flag that an item is worth a look, but since my issue with wheat isn’t actually the gluten, GF is hit or miss.

I’d been having IBS reactions recently and not understanding why so I went back to my book (The IBS Elimination Diet and Cookbook by Patsy Catsos), which reminded me that I need to be careful with oatmeal, sugar and nuts, which I wasn’t especially.

As with fruit, I need to limit oatmeal to ½ cup servings (cooked volume). And I also need to limit sweet foods the same way, even if they’re otherwise FODMAP-free: ½ cup max. So, ½ cup of sweetened yogurt or ice cream, and no sweet extras like fruit or chocolate sauce. Sigh. The cornstarch and tapioca puddings that set me off before would probably be safe in ½ cup servings too. Chocolate is OK up to a maximum of 1 ounce (30 g). [Theoretically I can have two such servings per meal/every 4-5 hours, but I’m being more cautious than that until I get a better handle on it.]

I tend to have snacks in later afternoon and before bed — often milk or hot chocolate, peanuts or sometimes almonds, chocolate, sweetened yogurt, fruit and/or ice cream. Of these, only the plain milk is entirely ‘safe’, and I was eating too much of the others, especially in combination.

For beverages, water, milk and green tea are all ‘safe’. I’ve never been big into green tea, despite having lived in Japan and visited a number of times, but I’ve also received a lot of green tea as gifts and I had amassed quite a stash. I probably have at least 6 months’ worth of green tea in the cupboard, and I’m enjoying it. (Weak black tea is just not worth the bother.)

I’ve never eaten a whole lot of carbs due to the hypoglycemia (though always more than permitted on a keto diet), but I do have a bit of a sweet tooth. After a meal I often find that I want something sweet and I’m not sure how much of that is behaviour and how much is more physiological. But I’m trying to focus on more substantial foods so I’m just not hungry so often. That way I can have a little sugar, as a treat.

In some ways my self-control is usually very good or even overdeveloped. But I wonder if sometimes my apparent self-control is less an issue of self-regulation and more habitually ignoring or denying desires. If you don’t desire, you don’t crave. For instance, I’m tremendously frugal, and when that aligns with my environmental concerns I think it’s clearly a virtue (e.g. deciding not to buy an item because contains or is packaged in plastic, or mending clothes rather than pitching them). But I also am in the habit of not going to movies, concerts or the theatre, and I’m not sure if that’s because I’m not interested or I’m just in the habit of denying myself things.

I’m finding the food issue to be a bit of a struggle. I would really like to be able to eat a piece of cake now and then, or a sandwich, or some nice fresh bread, or a chocolate croissant. There aren’t a lot of foods that I really enjoy, so it feels like a loss of pleasure to deny myself these things. But it’s just not worth three days of fatigue and brain fog for a bowl of ice cream with fruit and chocolate sauce. I hope I’m able to find new foods to enjoy rather than just deny myself yummy things out of pure tedious duty.

My current routine goes something like this:

  • breakfast: 2 eggs (3 if lunch is a ways away), other savoury leftovers, no more than 1/2 cup fruit, green tea
  • lunch: dry curd cottage cheese with sour cream, corn chips, green tea, and a wee bit of chocolate
  • afternoon snack: hot chocolate or 1 serving of some other sweet with plain milk
  • supper: usually chicken or beef with veg and starch per above — I make Mexican food a lot because of the corn tortillas and corn chips; Indian is also good for the rice (though I can’t have naan *cries*) but my only trick so far is butter chicken; nachos with guacamole and sour cream once a week
  • dessert or bedtime snack: 1 serving of a sweet or cheese and corn chips

On the whole, this should serve to calm my hypoglycemia, since excess sugar or starch tends to upset my blood sugar levels. However it undermines my strategy of relying on sweets in case of blood sugar emergency (well, I could — in a pinch I’d take the IBS reaction over a blood sugar crash), so I’m going to look for some glucose tablets to act as my jerry can.

 

Notes on terminology

monosaccharide — a carbohydrate comprising one sugar molecule, such as fructose, glucose, and galactose (aka simple sugar)

disaccharide — a carbohydrate comprising two monosaccharides, such as sucrose (aka table sugar, fructose + glucose), lactose (galactose + glucose)

simple carbohydrates — mono- and disaccharides

oligosaccharide — a carbohydrate comprising three to nine monosaccharides, such as fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) which are fructose chains and are a type of soluble dietary fibre, and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) which are galactose chains and are a type of prebiotic, found in legumes/pulses

polysaccharide — a carbohydrate comprising ten or more monosaccharides, such as fructans and inulin, which are also soluble dietary fibres

complex carbohydrates — oligosaccharides and polysaccharides

 

Food Matters

hypoglycemia

At least, I’m going to call it hypoglycemia for convenience. You’ll see why later.

Background

The first time I spontaneously got dizzy I was 12 when I tipped my head sideways to see into my desk. Although I don’t remember circumstances, I do recall having very occasional dizzy spells from that time and into university, at which point they became a little more frequent. I’d usually go home and have a rest, which sometimes helped and sometimes didn’t. Someone suggested it was low blood sugar but it didn’t seem likely because I was sometimes dizzy after a meal.

When I eventually went to the doctor, he diagnosed vertigo, meaning “I spontaneously get dizzy sometimes” and advised me not to move my head around too much. Uh, thanks. He was wrong, but in fairness it took me years of experience and a few other doctors and finally a particularly knowledgeable and helpful school nurse to figure it all out.

A couple of years after this most unhelpful of diagnoses, and after I’d graduated and moved to a different city, I’d been struggling with diet generally. I’d moved away from home with my boyfriend and neither of us were very interested in cooking. I generally ate food cooked from scratch rather than convenience food, so I was having trouble figuring out what the problem was. There had been dizziness, one occasion of an inexplicable sensation of nervousness, feelings of nausea, and no doubt other symptoms I’m forgetting. I went to the doctor, who said it sounded like hypoglycemia, though he didn’t order any tests. Just as well because the test is a glucose tolerance test in which you consume a sickly sweet glucose drink and then have blood tests every half hour for 2, 4 or 6 hours. As a needle-phobic, I was happy to give that a miss. His advice was to eat more meat and drink more milk to increase protein intake, but I found this challenging because I preferred to go more vegetarian and I was off milk at the time. So I attempted to manage my blood sugar through diet, albeit with limited success.

A few years later, when I was teaching English in Japan, I often struggled with low energy, low mood and difficulty focusing. One morning I was having a tough time. I’d made friends with the school nurse and her assistant; both of them had pretty good English but mostly they were nice, and I enjoyed being around them. So feeling unable to focus on work, I retreated to the nurse’s room and as we were chatting I told her I wasn’t feeling all that well, so she asked some questions. The main thing was dizziness and feeling generally blah. What kind of dizziness? This was the first time anyone had asked that question and I wasn’t sure how to explain it. Was it a sensation of going up and down like on an elevator, or was the room spinning horizontally? It was the up-and-down type.

This concerned her because up-and-down signifies high blood sugar, while horizontal spinning is typical of low blood sugar. It was very troubling to her, a nurse whose supervising doctor specialised in diabetes, that I should be having high blood sugar in the morning. Ah, I said. I ate something very sweet for breakfast. But from then on I paid attention to the type of dizziness and it was always pointed to low blood sugar.

I continued to struggle with blood sugar issues in Japan, so when I got back I consulted a nutritionist. Doctors don’t really get any instruction on nutrition, but some nutritionists aren’t much better. When this person encouraged me to eat things like Cheez Whiz and diet soft drinks, I knew I was unlikely to going to get any useful information out of her.

Anyway, since then I’ve just continued to treat it as hypoglycemia and try to figure out what works for me through trial and error.

Reactive hypoglycemia

If you consume sugar and a short while later your blood sugar is actually lower than it was to start with, that’s reactive hypoglycemia. The science is still somewhat unsettled on the precise mechanism, but one theory is that when the sugar is consumed, the body overproduces insulin. Insulin’s function is to lower blood sugar but here it kind of freaks out, and then you crave sugar. If you succumb to that craving, your blood sugar bounces up and down, and generally wreaks havoc.

Because I haven’t had the test, I’m not certain that this applies to me, but my current doctor says they don’t really do the glucose tolerance test for this anymore. And I know from experience that if I were to have a coke or even orange juice without eating some real food at the same time, it would fuck me up, so I probably do have reactive hypoglycemia.

But this isn’t the only issue for me.

Low blood sugar before meals

I also get low blood sugar before a meal, but since this isn’t provoked by consuming sugar, it can’t be reactive hypoglycemia. I suppose it’s just a normal low caused by my body burning off whatever I ate last. In other words (though I hate the term), it includes being ‘hangry’.

There’s another issue at play — I don’t really feel hunger and instead I eventually get low blood sugar symptoms. At first I thought this was an inconvenient coincidence, but now I wonder if I’ve actually learned (or was taught) to ignore hunger and if so this would be part of the cause of my blood sugar woes.

Even so, my low blood sugar symptoms seem to be more sudden and intense than what most people experience.

Symptoms of low blood sugar

Low blood sugar can cause a variety of symptoms. These are the ones I’ve experienced:

  • mood: from irritability, through grumpiness and foul temper, to full-on meltdown (crying etc.)
  • cognition: brain fog; my natural indecisiveness gets worse to the point of complete inability to make a decision (including, inconveniently, what I want to eat or where); inattentiveness; sensation of nervousness
  • dizziness
  • stomach: I’ll get a sudden feeling not of hunger but of void, which quickly turns to nausea (though I’ve never thrown up)

How I try to avoid low blood sugar

Avoiding reactive hypoglycemia is pretty straightforward: no sweets outside of mealtime, and especially no sweets as a meal. This includes sweet drinks such as soft drinks or fruit juice.

Avoiding low blood sugar at other times is more complicated because of my largely absent sense of hunger.

In general, I need to eat proportionately less carbs and more protein and fat than other people seem to need. If I eat carbs, I opt for complex carbs (e.g. rolled oats, brown rice, potatoes) instead of refined starches or sugars, but some carb-centric meals are best avoided (e.g. pizza, pasta). (You can get an idea of the effect of a given food on blood sugar by checking its glycemic index, but in general the less processed the better.) I eat meat, and dairy is a big part of my diet (full-fat everything). I eat on a schedule and frequently (breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, supper, bedtime snack).

All of this becomes more complicated when I’m travelling because I don’t necessarily have access to a fridge, I can’t cook for myself, and I may be stuck with someone else’s schedule (especially on planes!). You can get carbs in any vending machine but protein is much harder to source. New restaurants are mostly a source of worry: will I be able to find something to eat here and will it be served before I have a crash? Do I have the language skills to figure out the menu and advise of my dietary issues? If I’m travelling, I don’t go anywhere without emergency rations.

As a result, travelling (or even going out to a new restaurant, or having a social event that centres food) causes me some low-grade worry. Will I get what I need when I need it? Dipping into my emergency rations around people is awkward because sometimes I sense they think I should share.

How I deal with low blood sugar when it happens

If I sense that my blood sugar is just a bit low and I can’t eat real food immediately, I’ll go for protein and fat (e.g. nuts). If it’s a little lower, then I’ll add something sweet (e.g. nuts plus chocolate, chocolate almonds). If it’s more of an emergency situation and my blood sugar has fully crashed, then I go for something sweet, preferably liquid because the sugar starts being absorbed into the bloodstream directly from the mouth (e.g. soft drink, fruit juice).

If my blood sugar is low enough that I feel I need some sugar right now, then sugar is the first step and real food is the next step. Real food doesn’t work as a first step in an emergency because it takes too long to be digested — I’ll end up having a full on blood sugar crash while I wait for the food to kick in. Not fun.

Conclusion

Blood sugar issues are inconvenient and become more of a hassle the farther away from home I get. I get anxious about it when I travel but I’m more relaxed if I have a travelling companion who understands my issues and can problem solve when I’m not able to. It’s not all negative though: it forces me to eat healthy food on a regular schedule, which is not the worst outcome. Uncontrolled hypoglycemia can encourage development of diabetes, so managing the issue through good diet is long-term self-care.

 

Notes on dizziness

The nature of the dizziness can be diagnostic (too bad my doctors didn’t know that). I’ve experienced the following:

  • low blood sugar: feels like the room is spinning, a horizontal feeling
  • high blood sugar: feels like you’re on an elevator, a vertical feeling
  • benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV): sudden and rather violent dizziness, provoked by changing the position of your head, can be calmed by moving your head back; results from crystals spontaneously forming in the semicircular canals of your ears and then interfering with the messages that the liquid and cilia in the canal send to the brain about position and movement (I’m certain that this is the first dizziness I experienced at age 12, and as of fairly recently it has become chronic)
  • extreme tiredness: to me feels like non-directional wobbliness; confusingly, the dizziness can happen even after I’ve slept, if the tiredness was bad enough (in university, I think I had both this and low blood sugar dizziness – the doctor’s mistake was thinking that there was only one kind of dizziness and thus one cause)

Notes on fatigue

In Japan I struggled with fatigue, at any time of day. At the time I assumed that my fatigue was all blood-sugar related, but I underestimated how exhausting it was for me to be surrounded by a different language and culture all day. I should have been eating a different balance of food, more of it, and having more naps. Fatigue is a difficult symptom to work with because a huge number of issues can cause it.

Food Matters

Better Sex through Mindfulness project

Other than the first two or three years after my epiphany, I’ve had low libido my whole life, so when I came across Lori A. Brotto’s Better Sex through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire a little over a year ago, I bought it and promptly started reading. Unfortunately I didn’t get far. The mindfulness it was asking me for felt out of my range.

I had assumed that mindfulness was a thing I’d be good at. I’m observant. I’m introspective. I’m a highly sensitive person. I have good physical awareness for both movement and health issues. So it threw me for a loop when a body awareness exercise felt difficult.

But maybe it shouldn’t have. Now that I give it some thought, there are also ways in which I can be rather disconnected from my body. Relatively recently I developed a tendency to hold my breath under certain circumstances and it took some time (and a trip to the doctor) before I figured out what I was doing. I always have a certain degree of muscle tension, especially in my neck and shoulders. And then there’s the big one: the nighttime jaw-clenching habit that I’ve struggled with for my entire adult life. Oh yeah, that!

There’s also the puzzling fact that I have no memory of my first orgasm even though I’m certain that it was with a boyfriend (pretty sure I know which one), and resulted from him giving me oral sex. I’m also certain that I didn’t dissociate in the moment, but my former sexual shame seems to have cast the memory of it adrift. In reading about dissociation (the current SB4MH prompt), I also brushed up on the related concept of emotional detachment, which is much more familiar to me, especially as demonstrated by my mother who I believe experienced some kind of sexual trauma as a child.

Although I set the Brotto book aside, I started trying to tune in more to certain physical sensations that I seem to habitually ignore.

For instance, I don’t really feel hungry when it’s time to eat, and I now wonder whether my lack of a sense of hunger is somehow learned and is an example of an idiosyncratic disconnect between physical sensation and awareness. It’s a real issue because it leads to issues and symptoms relating to low blood sugar, especially when I’m not able to eat on a schedule like while I’m travelling. This is something where mindfulness might really help.

I’ve also been paying more attention to the times when I feel (spontaneously) turned on. I’ve found that I rarely feel any arousal at all, and if I do, the sensation tends to be very mild and easily ignored. It’s usually only perceptible it in the morning when I wake up, and getting up to go to the bathroom or retrieve my vibe has often been enough to kill it.

In addition to working on this ‘remedial physical awareness’, I also started meditating. In the past I’d never got beyond a bit of dabbling but this time I actively sought out meditation classes as a way of building a foundation for mindfulness. I found a Buddhist class that was conveniently located and had a set of talks aimed at beginners. Perfect! While I haven’t quite gotten into a regular meditation routine, I now feel that I have the foundation I was after.

And with that, I think I’m ready to dive back in to Better Sex through Mindfulness!

As I read Brotto’s book, I’ll be using each chapter as a writing prompt as a way of encouraging myself to slow down, reflect, and engage with it deeply.

Below is the table of contents, which I will link to my posts as I work through it.

Introduction

Chapter 1. Sex in a Multitasking World

Chapter 2. Seeking Sexual Ecstasy – From the Couch to the Brain Drug

Chapter 3. Introducing the Raisin

Chapter 4. Becoming Aware of Your Body

Chapter 5. “Your Attention, Please!”

Chapter 6. How Mindfulness Works

Chapter 7. If You’re Happy and You Know It

Chapter 8. It Takes Two

Chapter 9. Tuning In to Pain

Chapter 10. You Have My Attention – Now What?

Chapter 11. The Next Chapter of the Present Moment

Masturbation Monday

creating a home

Home is a feeling of safety and security. It’s where you can relax and be your whole authentic self. It’s where you feel welcome and a sense of belonging. It’s comfort.

As I remember it, I don’t think I ever felt entirely welcome at home as a kid. It was not an emotionally warm or supportive place. My parents split when I was 10 and they lived close enough to each other that I spent half the week with each. I think my mom was more accepting of me, but the emotional temperature was always chilly; my dad was warmer but critical, and it got worse when he and his girlfriend moved in together — I felt actively unwelcome.

I attended university in my hometown so my first time living away was when my boyfriend and I moved across the country to a big city. It didn’t take long until the relationship became strained (at least to me — I think he thought everything was fine). We had an apartment together in an expensive city and neither of us could afford to move out. I didn’t feel comfortable; I felt trapped.

We moved back. My mom’s house was bursting at the seams. My dad (and his girlfriend) had moved to a smaller house. There was no room but I didn’t want to go back to someplace where I felt unwelcome anyway. My boyfriend’s family took us both in, which was very generous of them, but I never really belonged and the sense of being trapped returned. How can you break up with someone when you’re living with them and their parents? (I did try my dad’s place after all. I lasted three weeks.)

Much time has passed and Wolf and I have made a home together. (It still counts even though he’s living away right now for work.) We are entirely at ease together, entirely accepting, and I now have the warmth and welcome I always craved without knowing what was missing.

Our home is comfortable and cozy, a safe haven where we can close the door and lock the world out. The comfort of one’s own bed, especially when coming home after a trip, is well known. But for me, home is also where my fridge and pantry are, which means that I can eat food that I know won’t cause me health problems whenever I might be hungry and not have to rely on anyone else’s schedule or tastes. It’s also where my yoga mat, ankle weights and other gear are, which means I can do the stretches and exercises that keep my back and hips happy. So it represents my physical comfort as well.

And now that I’ve paid off the mortgage, there’s an extra feeling of accomplishment, contentment and security. Bliss.

 

F4Thought

reflecting and looking forward

“No peeking”, a Sinful Sunday photo from May 2016.

Well, 2019 was a year. Fortunately there was more positive than negative.

IBS-friendly diet and improved energy

In late 2018, I started managing my IBS using a FODMAP-based diet and by January 2019 I could tell that it was having a positive effect, and not only on my digestive symptoms.

The most unexpected — and utterly delightful — effect was that it largely resolved the fatigue that I’d struggled with for over seven years at that point, despite having undergone every relevant test my doctor could think of. As a result, instead of being constantly dragged down and only randomly experiencing the occasional unpredictable ‘on’ day, most days are now good days and if I get blindsided by some surprise fatigue, reverting to a conservative diet and waiting out my digestive process for a maximum of three days almost always resolves the issue.

For an accidental discovery, it’s had a huge effect on my day-to-day life. A few years ago, the combination of fatigue, poor sleep, depression and then antidepressants meant that I never knew for sure if I’d have the energy, cognition or focus to a given thing at a given time. (A few weeks after I tapered off the antidepressants in April 2018, the cognition and focus came back, but fatigue remained.) Eventually I got tired of disappointing myself so I just stopped planning anything and instead would decide on the day whether I was up for doing the thing. Which was me doing my best to cope, but it wasn’t very effective and it had exacerbated my inherent tendency not to make plans or have goals.

I now have the energy to plan and set goals, though I’m not actually very good at either of those things. So I’ll be working on that in all areas of my life, especially food (shopping, prepping, cooking), and sexuality (specifically exploring the factors that may be contribute to my low libido).

meditation

At the beginning of 2019 I started going to a weekly meditation class with a Buddhist group that meets conveniently near my place. I’d been thinking for some time that meditation would probably be good for my buzzy brain. And during my most recent meditation, I became aware that even though my brain is still far from quiet, it’s perceptibly quieter than it was when I started a year ago. It’s nice to feel that sense of progress.

I’m not practicing regularly at the moment but I’m working on making it part of my routine. And I’ll continue going to the classes because I find them helpful and I like the people: folks who are actively working on themselves to to decrease criticism and increase compassion are people I want to be around.

Wolf’s new job

Another significant change was that at the beginning of 2019 Wolf got a good contract job in a nearby city. For a change, we’re now both working at the same time, so things have suddenly gotten much easier financially, although he now has the expense of his own apartment and utilities. I’m in the process of paying out our mortgage early (we’re currently in payout limbo as the request has been made but the bank hasn’t withdrawn the money yet), so there’s a financial freedom on the horizon for us.

It’s not a secure enough job for me to consider upping stakes yet. But we’re making efforts to remain connected despite the distance, and he’s going to look for enjoyable things we can do when I come to visit to help with my project to have more pleasure in my life.

solitude

But with Wolf away, I’m once again alone here. It’s less than ideal but nowhere near as difficult as when he was overseas doing his doctorate: I tend not to get especially lonely; we talk on the phone every day and see each other every few weeks; neither of us are dealing with depression and/or anxiety the way we were before; and I still have support from Jaime.

Some time ago, I discovered that I couldn’t answer the questions “what do I like? what do I want?” in relation to sex. I now see that I struggle to answer these questions at all, for anything. I think this is largely because other people’s needs and wants seem much louder to me than my own. (It’s no coincidence that my epiphany occurred only after Wolf had been away for the better part of two years.)

But there is a mental quietness that comes from being by myself virtually all the time, enhanced by the fact that I keep the house literally quiet most of the time too. That literal and figurative quiet allows me to listen for my inner voice.

I’m going to make the most of my quiet time, keep trying to figure out my answers to those questions, and see what I can do to remain tuned in to my gut even when I’m not alone. I currently subject myself to a certain amount of mental chatter via social media, but I’m considering cutting down in order to be more deliberate with my energy; no decisions made yet on this point.

car theft

Our summer was marred by the theft and subsequent destruction of our car. Someone came in the back door of our house in the early evening and stole a handful of keys that were right there, including the car keys. I experienced a bunch of difficult emotions, chiefly anger, but in the end it didn’t hit me as hard as I (and others) expected. It was too much to process at once (similar to grief in that way) and I was concerned that perhaps I was at risk of burying the emotions rather than processing them. But I’m able to think about it now and while it’s still a bit sensitive, I don’t feel the need to avoid it, so I guess I’m OK.

Despite various anxieties I experienced that made it difficult to buy a new car, I did buy one, and I like it. Rather than getting a colour that would blend in, I got red because it’s my favourite colour, and despite the fact that some people judge drivers of red cars. Rather than getting a standard licence plate I got a personalised plate because it makes me happy to see it. It was an exercise in determining what I like and want, and prioritising my own pleasure.

I still have some anger, sadness and frustration about this episode, but I trust that it will ease over time and that giving it some attention today will help that process. We’ve taken some steps already for increased security and I’ll give some thought to some others, all with the goal of keeping my response reasonable and proportionate and not turning into an angry misanthropist in a walled compound.

looking forward

I’ve spent a lot of time over the holidays planning, which is unlike me. But I think I’m ready for planning and strategizing now in a way that I wasn’t before, thanks partly to the meditation I’ve been doing. (One of my common intrusive thoughts while meditating is my to-do list, so it would be helpful if I gave it its own dedicated time.)

This process of listening to my gut and planning has given me a clearer idea of what I want to do with this blog going forward. Having realised and accepted that I still have unresolved issues around sexuality, I want to work on those and I’m going to try harnessing the power of memes to give me a kick in the pants to get that stuff done 🙂

 

F4Thought

emotional disconnection, sex and loneliness

Extreme fatigue makes me very thin-skinned. I become even more indecisive and I second-guess myself terribly. I revert to my deep programming, which makes me profoundly critical of everything and everyone (including myself), and I tend to become unable to see anything positive, whether that’s noticing beauty around me or remembering anything I’ve learned on my journey into sex positivity. I don’t much like myself while this is going on, but at least when this happened the other day due to the rigours of travel I was still aware that once I recovered I’d probably feel better emotionally. And I that’s what happened. Luckily, Jaime has the patience of a saint.

Despite the epiphany I had about sexual shame almost 5 years ago now, and the subsequent realisation that I also have difficulty with trust, I find I’m still struggling with a lot of the same sexual issues that I did before the epiphany.

Confession time: I’ve not had partnered sex in a year, and not because of lack of opportunity. Although things heated up for a while after the shame epiphany, I haven’t been able to sustain that. My libido is low, I don’t get turned on, and my only strategy to address this issue is to continue to read any book I come across that seems relevant. I know that it’s possible to enjoy and want and seek sex but I haven’t figured out how to make that happen for me.

This is, to put it mildly, deeply frustrating. As a child I was taught to be self-critical. I’ve been frustrated about my sexuality not being what I wanted (or what thought it should be, which is different) for pretty much my entire adult life, and it’s very easy for me to interpret this as meaning that there’s something wrong with me, which makes me frustrated with myself.

I haven’t known how to deal with that so I’ve either simply said the no that I felt (a more recent approach), or pushed myself to do the thing (my default). But I see now that, for my issues, pushing myself doesn’t work. In fact, I think it actively causes me harm. It’s comparable to the way that men are typically taught to keep pushing things forward (through a woman’s “I don’t really want this but I can live with it”) until they hear a no, but in my case both Wolf and Jaime are keen to give me pleasure (whatever that actually looks like for me) and I’m putting all the pressure on myself. If I don’t respect my own no, I’m vitiating my own consent. In other words, I am to some extent victimising myself — a sobering thought.

A few months ago I listened to a podcast about procrastination as a writing issue and one point stuck with me: shitting on yourself for perceived problematic behaviour not only doesn’t stop the behaviour, it can actually reinforce the very habit you’re trying to change. This is the harm of perfectionism. So to change the habit I need to be kind and generous to myself, which I find challenging. I also need to spend time figuring out what I like and what I want because, honestly, I don’t really know. (I do have a strategy for this but I haven’t done much work on it yet.)

The other day with Jaime I discovered a new factor that I’d never been aware of before. During a spanking he checked in with me from time to time to ask how I was feeling and what I was experiencing emotionally. He was asking for information but this was also a cue to be mindful of my emotions, which I found really useful. I told him I was experiencing the spanking physically but I wasn’t aware of any emotions that went with any of what he was doing and I felt completely disconnected from his feeling of being loving toward me, taking care of me, being invested in my pleasure, or anything else of that nature.

The next day, he was giving me oral, and when I checked in with myself regarding my emotions I found that I was experiencing it in an exclusively physical way as well. On top of that, I also felt the profound vulnerability that I feel with sex. Jaime takes good care of me and I know he’s seriously invested in pleasing me but I couldn’t perceive it. I just felt disconnected and lonely.

Why? My first belief about sex was that it’s a man taking something from a woman, and despite everything I’ve learned or taught myself, remnants of this view are still entrenched deep in my psyche. The mind has a tendency to use all evidence to confirm its deeply held beliefs (aka self-image or self-schema), and if any evidence can only be understood as contradicting that paradigm, it’s typically ignored.

In addition to this incorrect paradigm, I also have some sub-optimal general emotional wiring: my parents didn’t connect with me in a healthy and loving emotional way as I was growing up, and I’ve recently realised that I’ve always felt emotionally orphaned and fundamentally lonely. (If that rings any bells for you, you might be interested to read Jonice Webb, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.) In the context of sex, it feels as though I lack the emotional sensors to detect warmth and caring and love.

As often happens for me, I wasn’t really aware of the intensity of my feelings during the encounter until I started thinking about them consciously, and in this case discussing them with Jaime (and weeping throughout — this shit is fucking difficult). I let him know about the isolation I was feeling and asked him to try to create an emotional connection with me verbally.

And you know, it actually seemed to work. Hearing explicitly that I am loved made me feel it in a way that physical affection has never been able to successfully communicate because of those generally incorrect messages about what being physical and sexual with another person actually means. And I enjoyed myself more, which from a rational perspective is unsurprising, but to actually feel it as an experience felt a little bit like magic.

The vulnerable feeling generated by that first sexual encounter felt similar to the thin-skinned feeling from fatigue in the way it brought my deep programming to the surface. But what if it doesn’t just bring up the ugly? What if the whole package of programming is summoned up to the surface and can be communicated with directly instead of through the layers of learning and rationality that usually muffle it? If so, this could represent a shortcut in the process from knowing something intellectually to actually feeling it. Our initial experiment suggests that this might be true.

Sex for me is still fraught and likely will continue to be for some time. The epiphany about sexual shame and the realisation that I have difficulty trusting are both essential elements but the fact that I’m still having the same kind of difficulties as before proves that they aren’t the whole story. I feel like I’ve just stumbled upon another key and I’m feeling optimistic again, for the first time in a long time.

communicating with my dad — criticisms of others

Previouscommunicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

The current low-key weirdness with my dad has got me thinking. I’d never really given his complaints about other people a great deal of thought — I find them unpleasant, so I mostly try to tune them out so they don’t affect me too much — but it’s now taken on more significance, so perhaps it would be worthwhile to explore the issue and see what I could figure out.

The complaint I interrupted on Christmas Day was about his neighbours; there’s apparently a light mounted on the outside of their house that they have aimed into one of dad’s windows. It’s a weird thing to fabricate and I think it must be true but it’s also a weird thing to do in the first place. Given the fact that this is far from my dad’s only complaint about them, I’m left wondering whether they don’t understand what the problem is with the light, or whether it’s a deliberate retaliation for something dad had done previously. Either way I suspect dad has handled it poorly, since he’s prone to biting his tongue until he explodes.

I don’t recall what prompted this particular odd diatribe, but during one of our recent calls prior to Christmas he started bitching about naming practices among Black people. The names were made up and sounded silly, he fumed. This seems like a same-sex-marriage sort of situation to me: if you don’t like it, don’t do it. Problem solved. I don’t see how the names of Black kids affect his life in any way, and the complaint strikes me as petty, not to mention racist.

He has also complained about his friends not returning his calls, though I’m sure I don’t have all the facts. Are they not returning his calls at all, or are they not returning calls as promptly as he wants? Maybe they’re legitimately busy; maybe they’re returning the calls in a reasonable time but he’s impatient. Perhaps there actually is a pattern of people not returning calls, and that raises some questions in my mind; I can see it happening with one person who may be being kind of a jerk, but if this is a trend among his friends, then it’s dad who is the common factor.

He often calls me, not to talk to me, but because he was trying to reach my mom and she wasn’t there and he wants to know if she’s around or not. She’s super busy all the time, so I’ll ask him if he left a message. But he doesn’t like to leave messages, so she probably doesn’t know that he even called. When he does leave a message, she has explained to me that she doesn’t return the call right away because she needs to be in the right mood to talk to him. I wonder if others do something similar.

He has friends who he used to stay with when he came to town, but that stopped after they had some kind of confrontation, which he complained to me about repeatedly. The way he told the story it certainly sounded like it was all their fault, but now I’m not so sure. He didn’t speak to them for months, maybe a year. And then somehow they started talking again and I’m not sure how.

By a wide margin, the number-one subject of my dad’s complaints is his wife’s son, complaints about whom I’d estimate have featured in about half of our conversations over the last 15-plus years. (The son is, I admit, very difficult — manipulative, entitled and dependent.) Complaints about her daughter are not infrequent. He complains about his wife’s anxiety and how she doesn’t like to be left at home alone so she comes with him everywhere and he never gets a break.

He scorns the uncle whose thinking is wrong despite his extensive education. He resents the aunt who is self-centred and makes every conversation about herself.

What I think these complaints reveal is that he has specific expectations of people and when they don’t meet those expectations, instead of adjusting the expectations (or discussing the issue with them calmly with a view toward mutually satisfactory problem-solving), he gets angry. But expectation causes disappointment. Or to put it another way, I think he’s making himself miserable.

My dad isn’t stupid. He’s very clever when it comes to figuring out mechanical things and building things, and at the same time he can be very sociable. I think he could figure out people if he chose to, but he seems to get more pleasure and/or satisfaction (if you can call it that) from judging them.

Next: communicating with my dad — criticisms of me

communicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

Previouscommunicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation

Ordinarily my dad calls me every 3-4 weeks or so, and I think 6 weeks is about the longest he ever goes without getting in touch.

I became aware of the lapse of time after about a month and now I keep wondering when I’ll hear from him next. At this point it’s been over 7 weeks since that brief, tense conversation — this has reached the edge of our normal timing and is now steadily inching away into uncharted territory.

Since his primary mode of operation seems to be to judge and criticise others, I strongly suspect he thinks that I was judging and criticising him.

Self-image in the sense of identity is remarkably persistent and immune to logic. He must have learned to expect attacks, and so he sees them, now, everywhere. I learned not quite this lesson but something similar. Up to a point I can relate.

Perhaps patriarchy explains a bit of why it manifests differently in us. In the face of criticism, I feel fundamentally wrong, which happens to parallel patriarchy’s habit of finding a way to blame women for any given issue. Patriarchy also says men are generally right, and toxic masculinity authorises anger as the only valid emotion for men. If my dad feels fundamentally wrong, I think he externalises it and it thus manifests as easily feeling attacked. Those people are wrong, everyone is wrong! Then he gets angry.

I’ve known my dad to “punish” his friends by not phoning for months on end when he thinks they’ve wronged him. He has also complained to me repeatedly that he calls and leaves messages for people and they don’t call back, and why should he call them if they obviously don’t care to follow up? (These days I can think of at least one reason why these folks might not be motivated to call…)

Has he has decided to “punish” me by not calling? I’m trying not to get sucked into overthinking this question. Either he feels hurt or he doesn’t. Either he’s angry or he isn’t. Very little of that has anything to do with me. Either he’ll call or he won’t.

If he doesn’t call, is that actually a bad thing? I feel a sense of loss right now but it’s not about losing the relationship we have — it’s losing the dream of the relationship I wish we had.

It seems to me that not talking to him would do no more harm than talking to him would. So I’ll occasionally note that he still hasn’t called, and measure his outrage in weeks, and see how it goes. Perhaps he thinks that if he can’t complain about people, he has nothing to say. Perhaps that’s true.

Nextcommunicating with my dad — criticisms of others

communicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation

Previouscommunicating with my dad — the standard dysfunction

Although my main disappointment when it comes to talking to my dad is that he expresses little to no interest in me, I felt that was a difficult issue to address directly: I can’t make him interested. I thought I should focus on something more concrete — a specific behaviour rather than a broad attitude.

It seems that dad’s complaints are mostly a symptom of focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive, which becomes especially clear when he repeats the same complaint about the same person over 10, 15, 20 years, rather than to try to address the issue somehow or to adjust his thinking about it.

I find it very easy to be negative and critical (I wonder why) so I have to make an effort to focus on the positive, and that’s something I’ve been working on for a long time. When I hear a bunch of complaints I feel vaguely shitty. I find dad’s complaints about people especially corrosive, and they leave me tense and grumpy.

The next time we spoke was Christmas Day. Within 3½ minutes (yes, I timed it), he was complaining. I started feeling nervous and tried to work up the courage to speak up, but then he changed to an easier topic and I was able to relax a bit. However, the conversation veered again and he was soon on to a complaint about his neighbours. He was really wound up about it. Venomous. So I said what I’d been practising: “Um, I’m just going to interrupt you there. I’m not actually interested in hearing complaints about people.”

He was taken aback. “Oh, and I suppose your life is perfect?”

“Hardly,” I chuckled.

“Well, what do you want to talk about then?” he snapped.

“Oh, well, maybe we could talk about some of my stuff.” I was holding a list of topics I’d prepared for just this eventuality.

The conversation stumbled for a moment, but he quickly grabbed the reins again. We didn’t talk long; he signed off, saying that he had a bunch of other calls to return.

I felt mostly good about it: I had determined that this was a boundary for me, I asserted it, and I defended it. I felt like I’d accomplished something — in this case, a particular kind of self-care. And then I cried.

I noted that I’d touched a nerve in him, not that that was my intention, but intellectually I found this very interesting because when I follow the “family rules” this kind of thing never happens. Ordinarily, dad snapping at me would have resulted in me feeling awful and like I’d fucked up terribly. This time I was just sad — that this is how it is, how he is, how our relationship is. These days I know that it’s not my job to manage anyone’s feelings, and it’s healthy for me to speak up for what I need, but actually acting on that knowledge is still difficult. I’m hoping it gets easier with practice.

(When dad complains and I feel shitty, is that a symptom of me still feeling some responsibility for his emotions? Is it me absorbing his emotions, and thus a sign of a boundary that needs strengthening? I may need to do more work on this, but even without that element, the fact is that my conversations with him — or rather, the times when I listen to him on the phone — are all duty and no fun, and I’m allowed to try to edit my life into something that’s more enjoyable.)

A family argument during the holidays is so commonplace that it’s a trope, and here I was, technically the instigator, but really just finally prioritising my own needs and protecting my wounds. I went over to mom’s later that day for supper and told her about the exchange. Her eyes lit up like I’d wrought magic. She was delighted that I’d prepared a list of topics.

Merry Christmas.

So, now what?

Nextcommunicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

communicating with my dad — the standard dysfunction

In late September last year I had a phone conversation with my dad that I found especially frustrating. While he was going on at length about every bit of minutia in his life, I was having difficulty getting a word in edgewise. He’d asked me precisely two questions, and interrupted one of those answers. When he’d had enough of the conversation, he signed off, leaving me annoyed and aware that we really hadn’t connected at all. I’d just been an audience. Again.

Over the next month or so, I pondered this and compared it to previous conversations with him. In that respect, this one had been unremarkable – it’s the way things usually went with him, but I’d always shrugged and didn’t think about it until next time.

This time was different. One reason was that I’ve been surrounding myself with authors and people online who say that if there is someone in your life who does something that causes you difficulties, you’re allowed to ask them not to do that thing. This is contrary to what I’d learned growing up, but it has finally started to sink in.

As I thought about my relationship with my dad, and in particular our roughly monthly calls, I became aware that he rarely expressed any interest in me, and the usual topic of conversation was the trivia of his life (down to his heel that still aches), much of which was complaints, and commonly complaints about his wife’s adult children (who are about the same age as me). I also began to realise that I don’t especially enjoy these calls. They’re just something to endure.

It had occurred to me that maybe he couldn’t talk to his wife about these things (and especially her kids), and so maybe he didn’t have anyone else to vent to. But he’d assigned me this role without ever asking me if that was OK, and as it happens I’m not OK with it, and I don’t actually have to participate in calls that I find largely unenjoyable.

The other thing that was different this time was that I’d gone for lunch with my mom at a time when this was still on my mind. Although we don’t generally talk about anything significant (that’s a whole other issue), I raised this with her, mentioning my concern that dad had no one else to talk to.

Now, my parents split when I was a kid and it was largely very reasonable, neither of them badmouthed the other, and they still talk from time to time. But she said matter-of-factly, “Oh, he’s like that with everybody.”

Huh.

I’d resolved to confront him in some way about the issue next time we spoke but I hadn’t figured out how best to handle it and that was stressing me out, especially since I was already thoroughly stressed about preparing for my upcoming trip to Japan. I eventually gave up on saying anything about it this time; it would have to wait until I was home again. But if he wasn’t interested in hearing about me, why should I shoehorn that info into the conversation? I decided not to offer anything, and in particular not mention the Japan trip unless he expressed a minimum of interest in me by saying something like “So, anything new going on?”

The next time he called was, as luck would have it, the day before my trip, and as the conversation felt like it was winding up, he happened to ask, “Got any trips coming up?”

“Actually, yes! I’m going to Japan tomorrow!”

“Oh! Good thing I called then,” he said with a touch of acidity.

I thought, but did not say, No, it’s good that you actually asked me one question about my life.

So we chatted about that for a bit, and the conversation felt more balanced and thus better than usual, but it didn’t solve anything.

I needed to do something more.

Nextcommunicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation