OTSD — Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder — a diagnosis for what ails us.

I have attached a pdf of an essay I that began with a response to a FB friend who was feeling overwhelmed by all she has to struggle with and fear on a daily basis. She is a prominent disability activist who exists within the interstices of several categories of oppression: as a woman, as a lesbian, as disabled, as poor, as black (with no particular order of significance implied). For such activists it is easy to feel extraordinarily depressed about how much still needs to be done, and how little effect our efforts seem to have had in the present.

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have OTSD — Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder — a label I just came up with this morning as I was writing my post supporting here (later to discover others have used similar labels). This is not and probably will never be entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — the psychiatry/psychology profession’s bible, because the concept violates the fundamental framework that grounds their understanding of their practice…that is, that people’s emotional and psychological problems are based on the individual’s processing of the conditions of their lives, separate from those of anyone else who experiences the same conditions. That is, the “science” of psychiatry/psychology is blind to systemic conditions and interprets all psychological problems as inherent in the individual, rather than a product of the existing organization of power relations.

Because the essay is long and complicated, and as a result, difficult to read online (especially with my currently designed website), I have created a pdf that people can download from here.

I hope people will take the time to comment on it/make suggestions/offer additional insights, either here on this site or on my business page on Facebook.

OTSD

Coping with ADHD (part 1 — or is it 2? 3?)

I wrote this in response to someone who commented on my “Rhythms are the Best for Working,” post and decided it was long enough and worthwhile enough for me to make it a separate post.

Jonathan, I encourage you to CELEBRATE your ADHD as a quality that makes you stand out from the crowd. People with ADHD are generally very intelligent and have a wide variety of interests about which they can be equally intense. Instead of seeing it as a disability (except when you need support for it), see it as a “misfit” between your brain wiring and the expectations of a rigid world that likes “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

What I try to do is follow my interest for as long as I can, and then pick up the thread of something else when interest wanes. The trick is to keep track of all your various interests and have a way to remind you of all the work you’ve already done on as-yet incomplete projects. So when you run up against a blank wall, go back to your other projects and see if you can spark some interest in one of them again. If you keep going, eventually you will complete something!

I have been writing almost all of my life, and I have saved everything, whether on paper (earlier work) or electronically (I’ve had a computer since 1984). At 64 I decided I needed to go back to old work & pick up where I left off, writing an autobiography. Well, guess what? It is already 3/4ths written, between my journal entries, emails, facebook posts, completed autobiographical short stories (names changed, but otherwise, autobiography), novellas, fragments, and poems. Right now it’s a matter of bringing it all together, filling in the gaps, and planning the story I want to tell (which affects how I arrange the materials), and then writing an ending. These days my age is pressing on me — I’d better get this done now, or I will never do it. And so I find myself carving time out for it, whenever I can fit it in.

There will always be setbacks. For instance, in June 2010 my son-in-law committed suicide, and I chose to move closer to my grandchildren. This has caused a major upheaval in my life, as all moves do, but particularly moreso for people with ADHD and for people with my various chronic pain conditions.

Nonetheless, it is the experience of all of that that has brought be back to my writing as a way of healing.

Setbacks are barriers only if you allow them to be so. Setbacks can be stepping stones instead. You may have to step back for a while, but something will gestate if you allow it, and eventually you will be a better, stronger person, and a better writer!

When Outlines Paralyze

There are essentially two types of writers in the world: those who create and follow outlines with ease, and those who are paralyzed by them.

I’m the type that gets paralyzed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still find outlines very useful, but not until after I’ve written a full draft. Then and ONLY then can I find the right organizing scheme that develops organically from the content, rather than being imposed upon it. If I set up an outline too soon in the game, and then try to follow it, I will spend hours staring blankly at my screen, or writing in fits and starts, going here and there and essentially nowhere in the end.

I am the kind of writer who needs the process of getting the words down on paper (or these days, coded into bytes), in order to find out what I know and what I want to say. Writing for me is a process of discovery. I write down one thought, and that thought suggests another, and another, and another. Ultimately it becomes clear that I am beginning to repeat myself, and that I am rambling, often incoherently. But it’s best for me to keep the words flowing until they just won’t flow anymore. Then I can go back and edit out the chaff and put like things together and contrasty things side-by-side, and separate the ideas that belong in some other work from the one I need to write at the moment.

So how does that work after you have submitted a dissertation proposal with this beautiful outline that makes so much sense…until you actually try to write the material that is supposed to go with it? Well, as I told one of my coaching clients recently: the purpose of your outline in your dissertation proposal is to get your committee’s approval. After that, you are free to go wherever your ideas and your research take you, as long as you end up with something remotely resembling your proposal…and it is good.

The truth of the matter with my own dissertation is that you would barely recognize what I ended up with compared with the original outline I proposed. That’s because in the process of doing the research I learned so much more than I knew when I started. How can you create a workable outline of a piece that you haven’t even researched yet?

Another analogy I gave her derives from an essay I wrote decades ago when I applied to be a teaching master of arts candidate at Cal State Long Beach. I wrote then comparing writing to the process of working with clay in the ceramics courses I’d taken while I was an art major. One day I was working in the ceramics lab diligently trying to create nice little objects that would serve as Christmas gifts. The instructor came by and asked what I was doing. He said that was fine if that was all I wanted to do. But if I wanted to become a potter, I had to learn to listen to the clay. Instead of imposing pre-conceived ideas about what my object should look like, I had to learn to listen for the clay to tell me what it wanted to be. And I had to make mountains of mistakes, working the clay over and over and over again. Stopping, slicing it to see how even the walls were, then punching it down and starting over again. And over and over and over again.

That’s the same way I approach my writing. That is, the writing that comes before the editing.

My client gave me her plan for the next time — that she would do the next chapter, and she said it would be beautiful.

I said, “I’m not looking for beautiful.” Beautiful is what happens after the clay is out there, after it’s been worked through, after it has told you what it needs to be. Then we carve, cutting out what doesn’t belong, shaping and reshaping what is left.

Don’t worry about beautiful, I said. I am an expert at organizing and polishing writing, but I can’t do it until after the writing has been done!

See, the thing is that when you are aiming for beautiful when you don’t have much to work with yet is that the Editor in your head becomes a Vulture standing over you, ready to pounce and destroy. Or, as Gail Godwin put it, the Editor becomes “The Watcher at the Gate,”

Freud quotes Schiller, who is writing a letter to a friend.  The friend complains of his lack of creative power.  Schiller replies with an allegory.  He says it is not good if the intellect examines too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates.  “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.  You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.”

 [I read this essay ages ago for an assignment at a women’s writing conference at UC Santa Cruz, two weeks worth of nothing short of heaven for me at the time, 1978.]

Editors are wonderful beings — whether in your own head, or hired. They are extremely useful and, when activated at the proper time, they can do beautiful. But the ones in your head have a tendency to block you rather than help you if employed to early in the game.

So for now, just write! 

Respect (and honor) your process

Tonight I was conversing with one of my clients who’s finally found her way through the tunnel she was in when we first started. As I told her, to be perfectly honest, if it had not been for what I know about the psychology of writing and learning to write (after decades of working with people at various levels of skill), I would have responded to her first drafts with something like “Who let you into graduate school?” Her work appeared to be about the level of a first year student in need of remedial instruction. And it would have been easy to dismiss the job and say “sorry, I don’t think you are cut out for this.” As, apparently, other faculty have implied. But I knew there had to be something deeper going on. You don’t get to that point in graduate school without being smart.

And then there was the topic of her dissertation, about what African American women students have to deal with, particularly the isolation, and being bombarded with cultural images telling them that they will never have what it takes.

I knew something deep was going on here, and we had to track it down and work through it.

And we have. Much of it has to do with the process she must go through in order to learn the material and apply it. This is very much like the process I had to go through with my then undiagnosed ADHD, where it took me forever to do the same work other classmates did in no time. (Though, to be quite honest, their end result often was nowhere near as good as mine, as reflected in my receiving my department’s award for Outstanding Doctoral Student in Research.)

She said she felt embarrassed about the work she had submitted earlier. I said, no! Don’t be embarrassed about it.  Don’t let yourself get bogged down in that self-criticism. Respect and honor your process. Clearly there are some people who will not understand, and from them you need to hide your process. But don’t let their lack of understanding give you something to beat yourself up over.

That’s how you work your way into another block.

Equally important, I saw how she was bound up in the very same conditions about which she was writing, in the same way that another client of mine who is facing blank page panic. Both of them must deal with not only all the conditions that lead the rest of us to have that panic; they must also deal with the cultural images telling them that they as black women aren’t cut out for academia.

All the more reason to respect and honor the process. This is how you get where you need to go.

Silencing the critical voices

All of us at one time or another have had to confront “blank page panic.” There are many reasons for that panic, but the #1 reason is that the voices of all those critics who have torn apart our work are blasting in our ears, making it impossible to hear our own voices.

I have two clients right now whose various advisers and committee people have responded to their submitted chapters with criticism that, however polite, however much phrased in the language of “nice,” has made the authors feel as if their committees believe, deep down, that they are grossly incompetent. Surely they must be thinking, “How in the world did we allow this student into our program? She’s clearly not cut out for it!”

Whether or not the committee members are ACTUALLY thinking that is irrelevant, particularly (but not only) for minority students, because for so much of their lives they have been told that they will never measure up, that they will never be good enough no matter how hard they work, because they were born into the world as second-class human beings.

White (majority) students do also encounter that deep and abiding sense that they are somehow frauds, and when their work is being criticized harshly it must be because their true incompetence has been revealed. Every one of us at one time or another had that nightmare where our degrees get stripped from us, or we are told our admission to graduate school was a mistake.

Women also are particularly susceptible to feeling inadequate or having low self-esteem and minimal self-confidence. We’ve been bombarded with messages from every which direction telling us that we will never be good enough, and especially, we will never be SMART enough to be anything more than second in ability or accomplishments. And these feelings stick with us, often, no matter how many accomplishments we have listed in our CV’s.

Men (or at least, white men) don’t understand this. My graduate/thesis adviser (both the same person) told me several years after I started the doctoral program at Iowa that the department determined that it would give me its award for outstanding doctoral student in research after my first semester there. But they didn’t tell me how highly they regarded my work for fear I would get a “big head.” I did eventually receive the award, but I can guarantee that the danger of getting a “big head” was never there! Throughout the entire program I struggled with self-confidence. I sorely needed reassurances and support.

Minority students, especially female minority students, are hit even harder — a double, even triple whammy of cultural forces telling them that they are no good and never will measure up to the best.

So when you are sitting down and facing that blank page, all those voices of criticism come back to you, telling you that the “fraud” you’ve been perpetrating all this time is now being revealed, so you might as well give up. They become a wild chorus, rising in number and volume, to the point that your OWN voice becomes a whisper, or is silenced altogether.

Here are three strategies to counteract that deafening crescendo:

1. Utilize whatever means you have developed to help you relax. Do deep breathing exercises. Listen to soft music. Take a hot bath if need be (assuming it won’t put you to sleep!).

2. Break your tasks down to manageable chunks. I have a “five minute rule” for most of the tasks that I avoid. That is, I know I can do anything for five minutes. After five minutes I can go do something else. Usually after I get started on something that way, I want to keep going.  But even if I don’t, I will have at least accomplished that five minutes worth of work. And it’s amazing what one can get done in five minutes!

With writing, five minutes won’t get you very far. So instead of five minutes, maybe you can say you will write five paragraphs — some small enough quantity that you no longer feel overwhelmed with all that you must get done. The trick is to psych yourself out by breaking your project down into small, do-able chunks.

3. Substitute MY voice (or the voices of members of a support group) for the voices of your critics. Although I am very demanding in my expectations for quality writing, whatever critique I offer has the sole purpose of helping you to succeed. Your success is my success. I’m not there to weed you out of the game. I’m there to help make sure you win it. You are not alone. I’m on the sidelines, cheering you on.

4. Join a writing support group. As of this date, there are five spaces left in “A Room of Our Own.”  Substitute the supportive voices of your friends for the vicious, harsh voices of your academic critics.

A Room of Our Own — new writing support weblog

I created a shared weblog titled “A Room of Our Own” in order to help my clients stay on track with their academic writing by getting support from others struggling with the same difficulties. Clients are encouraged to share their troubles and their triumphs as they negotiate their way through the academic maze, which sometimes seems designed to frustrate and destroy hopes and dreams.

This blog is private. That is, whatever is shared here can be read only by the administrator, Georgia NeSmith (sole proprietor of Matrix Editorial Services) and other participating authors. Authors are invited individually and personally. Additional viewers may be invited with the permission of other participants. Viewers may comment on posts but may not create posts.

Because it is private, I cannot post a link here. Anyone who wishes to participate (it is open to non-clients as well) may go to my contact page here and select the writing support group radio button. Tell more about yourself in the description box.

Participation is limited to 15. Subscription fees are as follows:

Every client of Matrix Editorial Services is invited to participate in “A Room of Our Own” as an author free of charge for six months or until graduation, whichever comes first. Authors are allowed to create their own posts, categories, and tags.

After six months (or after graduation) you may continue to participate for a subscription fee of $15 per month until graduation or an additional six months, whichever comes first.

In addition, writers who do not require editorial services but want the benefits of a writing support group may join for free for three months, after which they must pay a fee of $25 per month if they wish to continue.

Currently the site is “bare bones” but eventually many resources will be added, and the site will be organized to ensure participants can easily track categories of information relevant to them.

If you wish to participate please