Isolation, Shame, and Guilt. And Grief. [en]

[fr] Réflexions sur la honte, la culpabilité, l'isolement et le deuil. La honte nous isole et nous laisse seuls avec nos peines et nos problèmes, nous privant de l'apport extérieur qui est souvent la clé pour avancer.

A few weeks back, I wrote a post about the professional turning-point I’m at. What allowed me to write it (and by doing that, become “unstuck” about it) was that in the course of my phone call with Deb, I realised that the situation I was in was not my fault. This freed me of the guilt and shame I was feeling, which allowed me to break my isolation. On a different scale, this is very similar to what I went through regarding childlessness.

So, a few words on how I see this relationship between guilt, shame, and isolation (and grief, too, actually).

Threatening storm and lonely tree

I’m sure I’ve talked about this before (but where, oh where): in today’s world, we are in charge of our lives. Overall, I think it is a good thing. What happens to us is our doing. We are not hapless puppets in the hands of God or Destiny.

But it is not the whole truth. There are forces in this world that are bigger than us, and to deny it is to give ourselves more power over the world, others, and ourselves than we actually have. Accidents happen, and there isn’t always somebody to blame. This is also where the difference between “things I can change, and things I can’t” comes in. The things we can’t change can be part of who we are, but they can also be bigger than us as individuals: social, political, economic contexts and the like.

Some people think they are more powerless than they are. Others feel responsible for things that are out of their reach. For the former, recognising that they are responsible for things and make choices they were blind to can be empowering. For the latter (I count myself among them), it is the opposite: feeling responsible for things you are powerless against is guilt-inducing.

Unhealthy guilt is something else again.  This occurs when we establish unreasonably high standards for ourselves with the result that we feel guilty at absolutely understandable failure to maintain these standard.  This kind of guilt is rooted in low self-esteem and can also involve a form of distorted self-importance where we assume that anything that happens is our responsibility; it may come down hard on anything perceived as a mistake in our lives and has the added anti-benefit of often applying to other people too, so that we expect too much from family and colleagues as well as ourselves.

Source (emphasis mine)

Failing at something you believe should be in your control to succeed at. This is what it’s about. Failing to find a partner. Failing to conceive a child. Failing to sustain your business.

Guilt and her sister shame step in, and with them, isolation. Shame shuts you up.

So, discovering that the dating field may very well be stacked against you, that being single doesn’t have to be your fault or a sign that you’re broken, that 1 in 4 women of your age group do not have children (not by choice for 90% of them), that other pioneering freelancers in your line of work are facing an increasingly competitive and specialised market requiring them to adjust their positioning and sales strategy, well, it kind of shifts the picture from “gosh, I’m failing everywhere” to “oh, maybe I’m not actually doing anything deeply wrong after all”.

Now, “not my fault” does not imply giving up all agency. We remain responsible of our lives — of what we do with what is given to us. I may not be able to make my ovaries any younger, but I could think about whether I want to adopt (I don’t). I can think about how involved I want to get in finding a partner (move? go through a matchmaking agency?) or if I’m actually happy enough on my own to take my chances with the opportunities life (and Tinder) might throw at me. I cannot change the market I work in, but I can work on my sales and marketing skills to make sure I communicate efficiently to my clients what value I can bring them (not my strong suit so far).

Solutions to challenging situations rarely appear spontaneously in the vacuum of isolation. They require interacting with other human beings. Often, the first step out of the isolation shame and guilt bring about is opening up to a friend. And another. And another.

Blogging and Facebook are optional 😉

A word about being “out”, however. When shame and guilt wrap themselves around something, there is often some kind of loss at stake. Even when it is something the do with our professional lives: it can be the loss of a job, of a career, or even of face, in a way, when something we believed in doesn’t work out the way we hoped.

We deal with loss through grief. Grieving requires company. And company doesn’t come knocking when you lock yourself up.

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“Have You Thought About Adopting?” [en]

[fr] Pourquoi l'adoption n'est pas une "solution miracle" à l'absence d'enfant. Et pourquoi "tu as pensé à adopter?" n'est pas vraiment la chose à dire...

— “What about you, have you?”

More than one well-intention person asked me if I’d considered adoption when I came out about my childlessness and the associated grief I was experiencing.

Procreating and adopting are two very different ways of becoming a parent. They are not interchangeable. Adopting is not a de facto fallback plan for infertility.

The boys

In addition to becoming a parent, there is a biological dimension to the desire to procreate. For some people, it’s important, for others, it’s not. Being pregnant, giving birth, passing along genes — all this is absent in adoption.

Adoption is also costly (tens of thousands of francs here), and requires serious commitment to get through all the paperwork and years of waiting (5 on average here).

Not everybody wants to adopt. Not everybody wants to procreate. Some people will do IVF. Some won’t.

Adoption can be a “plan B” to becoming a parent, but it is a whole other way of becoming a parent, which has to be chosen for itself. And for those who turn to adoption after being incapable of conceiving, it means dealing with the grief of “plan A” for having a family.

In Switzerland, about 200 children are adopted each year, most of them from abroad (30 or so from Switzerland). 15 or so by single people. The numbers are falling steadily.

I have not thought much about adoption, for myself. Just like I have not thought much about becoming a single parent. Had I know what I know now in my mid-twenties or early thirties, about fertility, about the social context leading so many women of my generation to childlessness (did anybody know then? had anybody guessed?), maybe I would have made different decisions. Maybe I would have made a plan to become a single parent.

But I haven’t, and I need to look at where I am now. And now, I don’t think it is for me.

I can understand where the “why don’t you just adopt?” or “have you considered adoption?” questions are coming from. It’s hard to be powerless before somebody else’s grief. Adoption seems like a good “fix” to the grief of childlessness.

As a society, we are uncomfortable with grief in general, and we are even more uncomfortable with the grief of childlessness. It disturbs the narrative.

Yes, you can want something and not manage to have it.

No, there is not somebody somewhere out there for everybody.

Despite all the progress in reproductive technology, our biology still has hard limits.

And we are in denial about how following the male-designed progression of studies, dating, career, settling can impact women’s ability to reproduce.

We also are caught in the cult of parenthood.

If somebody dies, we have scripts like “sorry for your loss”. We don’t have a script for what to tell a childless woman who is grieving. So it’s uncomfortable, I get it.

Also, bear in mind that making suggestions or asking people questions about their reproductive life can be extremely tactless. You never know what people may be going through. A bit along the lines of “so, how’s your sex life these days?”

I’m currently reading The Kid by Dan Savage, which tells the story about how he and his husband adopted their son. As one would expect, he deals with some tough questions with honesty and depth.

Along the same lines, I recently listened to Radiolab’s Birthstory episode, the story of an Israeli couple (two guys) who decide to have children. Not a walk in the park either.

And remember. The infertile/childless person you’re speaking to has probably already thought about adoption. And if they aren’t committed to such a project already, there is little chance a comment about it will have much impact, aside from being hurtful.

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Faire preuve de courage face au deuil [fr]

[en] Being brave in grief is not hiding outward displays of pain or sadness. It is, quite on the contrary, daring to face the full extent of our pain. That is way more scary than sticking a lid on things and pretending it's ok. (Inspired to write by this article).

Quand on parle de courage dans le contexte du deuil, on entend généralement ça dans le sens d’être “fort”, à savoir ne pas montrer à l’extérieur l’étendue de sa peine ou de sa détresse.

Mais le vrai courage, face à un décès ou une perte qui bouleverse notre existence, c’est d’oser sentir combien ça fait mal, combien on souffre, combien on est triste et désespéré. D’oser sentir le trou béant de l’absence, que la vie a perdu tout son goût, qu’on ne peut pas imaginer aller de l’avant ainsi. Sans.

Neige et chalet 126 2015-01-18 17h40

Notre douleur est à la mesure de notre attachement. Et c’est uniquement en prenant la mesure de celle-ci, en seaux de larmes, qu’on peut espérer accepter cette inacceptable absence.

La tristesse, c’est en fait le signe qu’on accepte un peu plus. Le refus de faire face, le couvercle qu’on met sur nos émotions, c’est ce qu’on appelle le “déni”. C’est essayer de faire semblant qu’on ne souffre pas tant que ça. Et c’est cette attitude, justement, qui risque fort de nous empêcher de retrouver goût à la vie, voire même de laisser des séquelles.

J’entends parfois des personnes en deuil me dire qu’elles n’arrivent pas à pleurer. J’ai passé par là aussi. L’antidote est plutôt simple, en fait: il s’agit de prendre conscience que la force de notre “refus” (“je ne veux pas qu’il/elle soit mort, je ne veux pas qu’il en soit ainsi, je ne veux pas vivre avec cette absence”) est le reflet de notre peine. Dans ces moments de refus ou de rejet, on peut rentrer en contact avec sa peine simplement: “si, il va falloir…”

Le courage, c’est ça. C’est oser sentir sa tristesse, oser plonger dans ce puit sans fond qui, nous le croyons, va nous anéantir, avec la conscience que c’est à travers cette tristesse que l’on va finir par accepter l’absence que l’on refuse absolument d’accepter.

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Music and Sadness [en]

Musique, émotions, larmes.

[fr] Musique, émotions, larmes.

This is a post I wrote over a year ago, in December 2014, but never published. It’s still quite true today. Since his death, I’ve been listening to David Bowie. I was very unfamiliar with his music and wouldn’t have listed him as an artist whose work I “liked”. Now, I’m discovering that there is actually quite a lot of his stuff I do like, and that I am finding an interest in the rest, even if it’s not my favorite kind of music. It feels like a different way of appreciating music from until now.

Emotions have always been hard. As far as I remember. Especially one, which all the others seem to hang on to. Sadness. Grief.

I can have trouble connecting to these sometimes difficult emotions. We all do, to some extent. Maybe? I’m not sure. Well, I have trouble connecting.

Throughout the course of my life, I’ve realised that there are two things that I do to help me connect, to help me feel: listen to music and watch fiction. Reading sometimes does it too, but less — I suspect it’s the music connection. Movies and TV series have music, in addition to a story.

Until about 18 months ago I was singing in a local choir. Too much going on, I had to make the difficult choice to stop. Since then, I haven’t been singing much. I got a car again earlier this year, and I sing in my car, when I listen to music.

Singing while commuting is what made me realize how important music was to me. When I was a teenager I would drive to school on my motorcycle, singing at the top of my lungs under my helmet. If I’m alone in a car, I’ll sing along to whatever I’m listening to.

Over the last year, despite the car, I have been listening to less music. I’ve been listening to podcasts, or more recently, audiobooks. Or I just haven’t been listening to much. The cable to connect my iPhone to my music player in the car is shot now, so I drive in silence. And I find that I’m not even really singing.

This year has been a difficult year. There will be more — much more — to write about on that topic. I have been keeping myself busy. With work, of course, but not being too much of a workaholic, with other things too: helping people around me with their problems (a big favourite of mine it seems), consuming fiction and non-fiction in various forms, and having an active social life, online and off.

And now that I’m stuck on a plane with my headphones in, listening to music because I’m tired and don’t trust myself not to fall asleep while listening to a podcast, I am taken over by a big wave of sadness. It’s not even very specific, sadness about this or about that. Oh, about a bunch of things, but it moves around. I don’t try to catch it. It’s just there.

And music brought me back to it.

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This American Life Episode Selection [en]

[fr] Quelques épisodes de This American Life qui valent le détour.

I had my worst “forgot something on the stove” episode today. No fire, but I came back after three hours away to find my flat completely filled with smoke. I had to hold my breath to open the windows (everything was closed). My pan is dead (I’m not even going to try). Quintus was outside but Tounsi was inside, and was exposed to the smoke for all that time. One of the first things I did after opening the first window was throw him onto the balcony. He seems fine. Vet say to keep an eye on him for the next two days or so, as symptoms can be delayed.

Now my whole flat stinks of burnt smoke. Good thing it’s not January, as a friend noted.

Some podcast episodes for you. (And me, maybe one day). They are from This American Life, which I listened to a lot at the chalet. It’s really great — I should have started listening years ago.

  • #536: The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra: a chilling first-person account of the culture of complacency in the world of finance regulation.
  • #525: Call for Help: remember this story that was making the rounds, about a family that had to be rescued at sea because of a sick baby? and how a lot of the (uninformed) public opinion was up in arms about how irresponsible it was to go to sea with a baby, and then ask the coast guards to bail you out when things got rough? Well, as you can guess, there is much more to the story than that…
  • #555: The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind: so, one of the studies this episode is based on has been retracted, but it remains interesting. First, to note that people rarely change their mind, particularly on ideological matters. And then, and this is something I think about a lot, what makes people change their mind? We do have anecdotal evidence that knowing somebody who is gay (or trans, or kinky…) can turn us around on those issues. And I think that people’s theoretical stance on an issue can be somewhat disconnected from what they would think, or how they would react, faced with a real human being they have a connection with and who is concerned by the issue.
  • #556: Same Bed, Different Dreams: for the very moving story of the two kidnapped South Koreans, the actress and the director.
  • #557: Birds & Bees: how do we talk to children about race, death, and sex? Some very good questions about consent and its “fuzziness” (I personally don’t think we should have to say “is it OK if I kiss you?” and wait for an enthusiastic verbal “yes” — seriously?!), how you can’t escape the question of race, and a moving segment on a grief counselling centre for children. If I could go back in time, I would take my 10-year-old self there. Sadly, we weren’t quite there yet 30 years ago when it comes to grief and children.
    By the way, this episode brings me to Death, Sex & Money — a podcast about all these things we don’t talk about.
  • #562 and #563: The Problem We All Live With (two parts): how do we reinvent education to get poor minority kids to perform as well as white kids? An exploration of the solution that works, but that we’re not putting much energy into implementing: desegregation. I found this episode both fascinating and infuriating. Fascinating because issues of race are not on the forefront in Switzerland as they are in the US, and infuriating that such a simple elegant solution is not given the attention and resources it deserves.

 

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I Never Lost My Hearing [en]

As the founding editor of Phonak’s community blog “Open Ears” (now part of “Hearing Like Me“) I contributed a series of articles on hearing loss between 2014 and 2015. Here they are.

Though I find myself favouring the expression “hearing loss” to talk about “hearing that’s not ‘normal'”, it always feels wrong for me.

You see, I haven’t lost my hearing: I just never had it. Well, the part that’s missing. Because there is a sizeable chunk that is there. Give me 60 dB in any frequency (down to 25 in my better ones) and I’ll happily hear.

As far as I can tell, I was born with “hearing like that”. I share my cookie-bite audiogramme with my brother and father, a typical situation of hereditary congenital “not hearing well-ness”.

Saying “hearing loss” makes it sound like at some point I lost my hearing. Like I have a “before” and an “after”, or that my hearing is deteriorating. That I have an awareness of what life with “more hearing” is like. But my “loss-less” story is very different from the stories of loss that others like Stu, Christina, Howard or Angie have been through.

I-Never-Lost-My-Hearing

I have not suffered the trauma of losing. I only have the grief of having never had, and of realising at age 40 how much more difficult my hearing impairment made my life as a child and a teen (even an adult!) during all those years where it was first undiagnosed, then underestimated to the point I just decided to cope, because it was “no big deal”.

But it was, and it’s painful to think about.

I am left with not knowing how to describe myself or my hearing, in terms that are both understandable by others and do not betray my experience of living with these somewhat wonky ears. I fall back on “hearing loss” in English, and “je n’entends pas bien” in French, but they feel like a pair of jeans that is not quite the right shape for me.

This struggle with language is, in my opinion, symptomatic of both the lack of general information about D/deaf/HoH issues in the hearing population, and (related of course) the greater social stigma (leading all the way to denial in some cases) around hearing vs. vision impairments.

Because of our unease around malfunctioning ears (yes, I dare say that), we do not speak gladly of hearing loss/impairment/problems, and the inadequacy of our language is there to remind us of this state of affairs.

We “on the spectrum” are tossing these terms and expressions around, and will continue to do so for a while before they agree to settle.

Until then, we will do the best we can with the words we have — at the risk of being misunderstood.

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The Right to Grieve — And That Means Being Sad [en]

[fr] Avez-vous remarqué comme personne ne veut qu'on soit triste? La tristesse est néanmoins une émotion nécessaire, celle qui nous permet d'accepter une perte, d'en faire le deuil, et de pouvoir continuer à avancer à travers et au-delà de la peine.

Have you noticed how nobody wants you to be sad? Tell people around you that you’re sad, and immediately they’ll want to cheer you up.

Sadness is not bad. Sadness is necessary. It is through being sad that we are able to accept our losses and move on. That is what grieving is.

Our friends don’t want us to feel sad, because they don’t want us to suffer. But refusing to be sad and to grieve brings along a lot of suffering — certainly more, in the long run, than the pain of sadness.

Sadness is not depression. Unprocessed grief can lead to depression, though.

Sadness is the feeling of loss.

A person who is experiencing loss needs the courage to feel sad, and in a world which wants to shove sad under the carpet at the first opportunity, that can be far from easy.

What is valued is staying strong in the face of loss, grief, catastrophe. Not collapsing. Not showing how much pain we’re in.

But what we need when we’re sad and in pain, most of the time, is support so we can dare to feel all this. A safe place to be heard, recognised, and not judged. Love and acceptance that does not desperately want to save us from our emotions, but on the contrary, regard them as part of ourselves and our journey through life.

To grieve and to move on from all the various losses in our lives, all the nevermores, we need to be able to be sad. It is a good thing.

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Coming Out as Single and Childless [en]

[fr] Quarante ans, célibataire, sans enfants. Un deuil à faire, et une porte à ouvrir pour en parler.

I turned 40 last summer, and it hasn’t been easy.

To be honest, I kind of expected it to be rough: my mother died when she was 40, 30 years ago, and in my mind 40 has always been a kind of “cut-off” age for having children. But it’s been (and still is) much more of an upheaval than I guessed.

Simple Flower, La Tourche

If you follow me on Facebook or maybe on Twitter, you certainly noticed I shared a slew of articles about childlessness over the fall and since then. This summer plunged me into a grieving process I’ve been doing my best to avoid for years — and am still resisting. It’s not a coincidence that my blog has been so silent.

As I started researching childlessness, and talking a bit around me, I realised that this is something about myself I have never really talked about in public. Or talked about much, full stop. Same with being single. It’s not something I’m really comfortable discussing publicly. Which is kind of strange, as I’m a very public person. So what is it about the childlessness and singleness that keeps me quiet?

Some have suggested that it’s because it’s personal. But I talk about a lot of personal stuff. It’s painful, too. Maybe it’s the grief? Not either: over the winter of 2010-2011 and the months that followed, I wrote a series of extremely personal articles dealing with the death of my cat Bagha, and the grief I was going through.

And I understood: it’s shame.

Failing to have a partner or children, when it’s what you want, is shameful — particularly for a woman. The grief of childlessness and singleness is something that we have trouble dealing with, as a society. Chances are you’re thinking “wait, 40, everything is still possible, the miracles of medicine, you have plenty of time; you’ll find somebody, all hope is not lost”. Do you see the problem here? I will write more on the subject, but for the moment please just take it as given that my chances of ever being a mother are vanishingly small — and that the best I can do is grieve and get on with my life, “plan B”.

I have kept quiet about this, and shoved it under the carpet, because it’s an issue that’s loaded with shame. And as such, it stands to be pointed out that the grief of childlessness, and to some extent singleness, is a taboo subject. People do not want to face it. When bringing it up, it is automatically negated (“there is still time”, “children are overrated”, “look at the great life you have”, “you probably didn’t really want children that much or you would have them”). We don’t know what to say. We have scripts for losing a loved one. Even a pet — when Bagha died there was an overwhelming show of support and affection around me.

But childlessness is another can of fish.

Grief has a public dimension. To grieve, we need our pain to be recognized from the outside. Grieving can not be done in complete privacy. That’s where it gets stuck.

As much as I didn’t want to, I realised that I was going to have to start writing about this. Because this is how I process. I cannot do it alone: I need you too.

I’m not where I was back in July. Things are moving along, slowly. I’ve been talking to friends, and joined an online community of childless women for support. Read about dozens of stories parallel to mine. And though a part of me still rabidly refuses to accept I will continue my life without children, tiny bits of acceptance are sneaking in. I first drafted this blog post back in December, and getting it out of the door today is part of the process.

My name is Stephanie, I’m 40 years old, single and childless — and it’s not what I wanted for myself.

Here’s the post on Facebook.
Also published on Medium.

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Pourquoi j'ai attendu avant de reprendre un chat [fr]

[en] Why I waited after Bagha's death before adopting cats again.

Depuis la mort de Bagha, j’ai vu bien des gens de mon entourage perdre leur chat également. J’ai été frappée par une réaction courante mais totalement étrangère à ma façon de fonctionner: reprendre un nouveau chat sans perdre de temps.

Du coup, je me dis que ça vaut peut-être la peine d’expliquer pourquoi j’ai attendu plus d’un an avant de chercher à adopter.

Pour moi, c’est important de dire au revoir correctement pour pouvoir bien dire bonjour. En d’autres termes, faire son deuil avant de pouvoir s’attacher à nouveau. Je crois que rien ne fiche en l’air une relation aussi bien que de ne pas avoir bien bouclé celle qui la précédait. On connaît ça dans les relations de couple, dans la problématique de “l’enfant de remplacement“, et je pense que c’est une loi de la vie assez générale.

Le deuil est une question qui m’intéresse beaucoup, très certainement à cause de mon histoire et de mes croyances personnelles.

Quand Bagha est mort, et même avant qu’il meure, je savais deux choses:

  • je reprendrais des chats un jour (oui, “des”)
  • ce ne serait pas pour tout de suite.

Je voulais prendre le temps de pleurer le chat qui avait été à mes côtés depuis plus de dix ans. Je ne voulais pas adopter ce qui aurait été pour moi un “chat-sparadrap”. Je voulais prendre le temps d’être “bien dans ma vie sans chat”, et reprendre des chats parce que je voulais en avoir, et non pas parce que je souffrais d’avoir perdu le mien.

Bagha est mort en décembre. En octobre, j’ai commencé à avoir le sentiment que je serais prête à ravoir un chat. Je savais que je partais six semaines à l’étranger en hiver, donc j’ai attendu mon retour.

Même là, elle a été dure, la première semaine avec Tounsi et Safran. Mais la douleur a vite passé et je me suis bien attachée à mes deux nouveaux poilus.

A la mort de Safran deux mois plus tard, je n’avais pas non plus l’intention de reprendre un chat tout de suite. Je voulais prendre le temps d’accuser le choc sans y mêler un nouveau chat. C’était très différent de la mort de Bagha, mais dur quand même. Je n’avais eu Safran que deux mois. J’avais l’impression d’avoir échoué, de lui avoir fait faux bond.

Quintus est tombé du ciel parce qu’au moment où j’apprenais que Safran était malade, Aleika apprenait que son mari avait reçu l’invitation qu’il attendait de l’université de Kolkata, et qu’ils allaient déménager là-bas. Elle était un peu désemparée par rapport à Quintus: le prendre et lui faire subir une ville indienne ou une vie d’intérieur? Trouver quelqu’un pour l’adopter, à passé 10 ans?

J’ai dit que si elle décidait de ne pas le prendre, et qu’elle ne trouvait personne pour lui en Angleterre, je le prendrais. Un jour ou deux plus tard, après avoir vérifié que je ne regrettais pas mon offre, sa décision était prise. Un mois plus tard Quintus était dans l’avion avec moi.

Alors voilà. Dix ans avec Bagha. Quinze mois sans chat. Deux mois avec Tounsi et Safran, un peu plus d’un mois seule avec Tounsi, et à ce jour, 16 mois avec Tounsi et Quintus.

October Cats 20

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Memories of Safran [en]

[fr] Souvenirs de Safran.

Safran was put to sleep on Thursday. I’m still very sad, though I’m not end-of-the-world devastated like when Bagha died. Tounsi seems OK, but of course it’s hard to say. I’m upset, our routines have changed because Safran isn’t there. He doesn’t seem to be pining or going around looking for Safran, in any case.

New Cats 89.jpg

Safran was with me for just a little over two months, and I feel the need to put in writing the memories I have of him — the good ones, mainly — I think part of me is afraid I’m going to move on and settle down in my life with my remaining cat and forget little Safran. I won’t, of course, but memories do fade away. Prepare for some rambling and a pile of kitty photographs.

Safran perched on the tree

Continue readingMemories of Safran [en]

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