At the Feb 5, 2018 meeting of NAMI High Country, my partner Melanie and I gave a joint presentation about our journey toward accepting difference. I was profoundly moved by how many friends turned up to support us. I was also so deeply moved by feedback we received right afterward, and wish I could have recorded it somehow to recall on dark days. The part I offered is shared publicly on the "notes" tab of my facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/notes/cath-hopkins/swimming-upstream-one-couples-journey-toward-accepting-difference/10155131534145918/
I got this extraordinary invite from High Country UCC Pastor Tamara Franks:
“I am asking a handful of mature souls to offer a story of truth, a story that offers your vulnerability to our gathered body. For the next six weeks, our Worship theme will be ‘Risky Business.’ Acknowledging and noticing that the teachings and ministry that Jesus was about proved quite daring and risky, one's vulnerability and truth often comes in response to the angels ‘Do not be afraid’ message.
Through both Brene’ Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame and Molly Baskette’s Standing Naked before God: The Art of Public Confession, I am hearing that ‘We churchy types should ask ourselves: are we supporting a culture here that makes it hard to tell the truth? Do we give off signals or otherwise shut down honest expressions of pain, vulnerability, and disclosure?’
The gift of whole-hearted living and the freedom of living life in all of its glory, weakness, fear, joy and decisions of bravery entails accepting grace and compassion in situations where we have struggled or felt alone, unlovable or otherwise separated. The more we hear these stories of truth allows each of us to relate, to grow deeper in our own humanity and divinity and grows our Gathered Body in the process. (Aside: I have actually had people tell me, ‘I’ll be back in church when I have it all together.’)”
[end of invitation]
In response to this unique invitation, I shared the following remarks during the High Country UCC worship service on February 4, 2018:
Many of you here already know me, and part of my story. For those who do not, my name is Cath, and I have lived with disabling mental illness for 25 years now. Just recently it has come to my attention that undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome is the missing linchpin underlying so many of my paradoxical quirks and gifts.
We do need some basic standards of acceptable behavior for the good of society. But when a culture like ours defines ‘normalcy’ too narrowly, the unintended consequences can be devastating. Too many of us with ‘atypical’ internal or external qualities learn to be ashamed of who we are, instead of being encouraged to embrace our uniqueness.
Early on, I attuned to such feedback, modifying my behavior so as to feel more secure in a world that always felt foreign to me. Though likely never ill-intended, I repeatedly received the message that who I was at my core was fundamentally flawed. I was “too much” in “too many” ways.
I was too sensitive, too shy, too restless, too inquisitive, too emotional, too picky, too idealistic, too intense, too much of a tomboy. I learned to believe my being so different in these ways meant I was defective. So, I learned to self-censor. Doing so was exhausting and dispiriting, but it enabled me to fit in reasonably well, which was almost always praised and reinforced.
I believe that in the end, this practice was as psychically crippling for me, as it is physically crippling for a root-bound plant to be stuck in a too-small pot. In fact, I believe that the fully disabling extent of my mental illness was in many ways triggered by my chronically trying to force myself to inhabit conventional ‘flower-pots’ that were for me simply too restrictive.
Each time I’ve had a breakdown, and there have been many, it has ended up being a mixed blessing. It seems that periodically, my psyche just busts through the internalized constraints I once believed protected me. As a result, the restrictive framework I had used to fit-in just shatters. The process can be excruciating. But each time I have managed to drop some damaging internalized expectations and replace them with life-affirming authenticity.
My neural wiring and values remain ill suited to the culture I inhabit. So these shifts are liberating, yet also more alienating because they mean I don’t conform as much. Because I don’t conform as much, I get fewer strokes of external approval. It’s still exhausting trying to honor my authentic quirky self while living in a world that celebrates or demands conformity.
Self-esteem has been similarly complicated for me. When I became incapable of functioning at school and work I realized just how much of my self-worth and identity depend on external validation. I remember how easy it was to claim outside-approval is nice but unnecessary; everyone is intrinsically valuable, quirks are OK, since it’s our heart that really matters, right?
But in my experience, most of the people who say we do not need for others to approve of us are those still receiving external strokes, whether in the form of paychecks or professional titles, awards or certificates, or upgrades and honors. As I recall from the days I once got those strokes routinely, it’s a lot easier to wax philosophical from there about worthiness.
It is also confusing engaging with a clarity-seeking world as someone who is intermittently functional, rather than consistently disabled. I tend to look like I don’t quite fit into either category. This often confuses people who are used to categorizing people in neat boxes. My paradoxical extremes of ability and disability also make it hard to maintain level self-worth.
I test out with perfect hearing, but background distraction makes it absurdly hard for me to converse. Even if it’s quiet, I struggle to focus once a group size exceeds three. I connect well with people one-on-one and face-to-face when my energy allows, but via telephone I struggle to sync up with the basic elementary back and forth cadence that is natural for most people.
In order to prevent headaches I have to wear a ball cap even inside, yet I use a sun-lamp to get through the winter. I can’t read magazines but I can proofread legal documents. I have an exceptional long-term memory, but I am always forgetting the most basic things like turning the heat on at home.
Some days, I create spreadsheets, install rain-gutters, even dive and catch mothers-in-law rolling down mountainsides. Other days, all I can do is get out of bed and go walk the dog. Melanie says I’m a landscape artist with a weed-eater, but I can’t manage to chop vegetables for a salad. It’s baffling.
People expect consistent, predictable performance; and it’s unsettling even to me how I oscillate between hyper-focused and incapacitated. I never know how functional I will be on any given day. Through trial and error I overextend less frequently, but it is still very hard to honor my own limits in a world where people strive to be ever more efficient and productive.
My partner Melanie and I work hard to focus on new definitions for ‘normal’. With help, I’m trying to believe that it is OK to be inconsistent, atypical, me. [We then showed the "This Is Me" official lyric video now embedded at the bottom of this page.]
This post also resides on my facebook page "notes" tab here: www.facebook.com/notes/cath-hopkins/speaking-on-risky-business-and-whole-hearted-living-at-high-country-ucc-nc/10155131467020918/
NOTE: Giving this talk happened to fall on back-to-back days with a longer talk I did at the local chapter of our NAMI group. The link to that one, posted on my facebook "notes" tab:
Okay, so still no massive writing or photo-processing spree has taken hold yet, but there is movement afoot! So in an ever evolving quest to understand myself, and in part due to my writer's / photo-processer's block, I have been on a bit of an online research journey the last several months. It was inspired by having come across a folder of childhood records and realizing that I never paid much attention to the fact that I had been formally recognized for high IQ and giftedness. I started to wonder whether that might have something to do with the intensity and diversity of my life experiences, and my seemingly paradoxical gifts and disabilities. As it turns out, the giftedness has had many unexpected impacts on my perception and experience of life. But identifying as gifted can seem so haughty and exclusionary, it felt awkward to discuss. But I explored it more.
I came across an online community called Intergifted, and through them found the Intrepid Integrity online "authenticity incubator for gifted mavericks" hosted by Silver Huang. I totally clicked with Silver, and the others participating in the Pioneering trial run of the Intrepid Integrity program. To encourage and free up our creative expression, we were invited to post fantastically imperfect creations -- that was so liberating to me. And we spoke just as freely about ways in which we are gifted as the many ways in which we are imperfect. I felt myself uncurling and breathing into valuable parts of myself that had been abandoned or underdeveloped for the sake of convenience and fitting in. I discovered a keen relatability to the autists in these online groups.
In part too thanks to a new-to-me therapist who is extremely insightful, I have in fact learned along the way, that there is a great likelihood that undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome (in the US, now called Autism Spectrum Disorder) alongside the high giftedness has underlain my gifts, differences and disabilities. Finding this out has clicked in helping make sense of my life exceptionally more than any of the other laundry list of mental health diagnoses that professionals have doled out and retracted on my behalf for over 25 years now. And apparently, I am far from unique in this. People are trained to screen for Autism as it appears in boys or men, but it can look exceptionally different in girls or women -- especially if they are bright, smart, or gifted.
Why post this particular image of Sojo here? Accuse me of anthropomorphizing if you must, but if there is such a thing as Autism in dogs, I think Sojo has the canine version. It is uncanny how similar our neuroses, sensitivities, and gifts seem to be. She does so much better being out and about in her "I Need Space" vest, and now that I have invested in a weighted vest, I don't have to borrow hers so much :)
Well, once again my plans to write and/or post pics regularly have not panned out. But why not give it yet another try? I guess part of my problem is that I feel like I have so much I want to say, but so much of it seems paradoxically disparate and yet interrelated. It's been almost 2 years now since posting here, and also almost 2 years from our big completion of the Appalachian Trail to our first post-AT backpacking jaunt which we took last week into the Linville Gorge. The biggest joy there was sharing our whole trip with Melanie. I ran into technical glitches when I uploaded our Linville Gorge photos, but then came across my mostly unprocessed AT photos once again. It's pretty neat looking back through them from a bit further out in time - they bring back the adventure so freshly. So grateful that Sojo continues to be well, and helping us better appreciate the present too.
While many of the wondrous views in nature are on a wide landscape scale, many more are smaller and literally underfoot. Mosses like those above bring me both comfort and joy. As does snow falling in frozen streaks into pools highlighted by fall foliage below. I am grateful that in scrolling back through photos from our AT adventure I see such sights again and can share a few of them as well.
Reflecting back on everything that went wrong during the beginning of our AT trek back in April 2015, I am particularly amazed that it ended up turning out as well as it did, one step at a time, through October 2015. Our first day was cold and foggy and wet, AND, I realized I really had caught my nephew's bronchitis; Sojo chewed through her 1st leash; and at supper my 10-year old stove turned into a fireball. Through the first 2 weeks I had to use cough medicine - and an asthma inhaler for the first time in many years - to help my lungs clear the bronchitis which made the ascents extra difficult. A few days in, I also chipped a front tooth, and my tongue became obsessed with failed efforts at smoothing the new rough texture. By a few weeks in, the soles of my feet felt so bruised I took an unplanned rest for some 5 days so I could walk rather than hobble. While Sojo loved the hiking and adapted to the camping, she was still highly anxious and very reactive during that time period whenever we encountered people or dogs. I am now so grateful that we were able to keep plodding along until we hit our stride, and so grateful too for early visits from both Melanie and my parents that kept our spirits up. So many amazing sights and experiences lay ahead.
Well, I never did manage to post to this blog during our almost 7-month 2015 Appalachian Trail pilgrimage, but at least now I can start from the beginning in recounting parts of our adventure here. In the meantime, below are 4 photos from our more recent forays into the Linville Gorge Wilderness that has eased our transition.
It was a delight to discover upon returning home to NC that there was still awesome color in the lower elevations of Linville Gorge, but some of my favorite sights were rain dappled wildflowers. All 4 of the photos in this post were taken from the Pinch-In Trail.
In between towns I am more likely to be posting updates at https://www.facebook.com/SalixAndSojo
Melanie Childers, my beloved partner, created a wonderful celebration for some of our friends and family to help send us off with a customized Backpack Blessing ceremony which spoke deeply to my own sense of spirituality. I will miss Melanie deeply, but it was such a wonderful experience to have a chance to reaffirm ties within community, and to receive their blessing, and also to know that these people will be around for Melanie to connect with more in my absence. We are so grateful for the loving people in our lives. Along with sharing some powerful readings from others during the ceremony, Melanie also composed the message included below the photo. I'd also like to say a thanks to dear friend Mary McKinney for both photos in this post.
Blessing of Cath, Sojo, and Backpacks
Cath and Sojo,
As your adventure continues
On new and rugged paths
May you be open-eyed to the wonders along the route
May you be sure-footed even when the ground is slippery and uneven
May you be full-hearted to experience the gift of each moment.
May you realize the joy of being part of such a magnificent creation.
May you respect the powers of the natural world,
Be alert to your surroundings
Proceed with caution and trust.
Rely on your inner wisdom.
May your steps be sure and confident, paced and balanced
May you step lightly, and may your knees be agile and strong.
May your spirits be renewed, replenished, and energized.
May you be patient with each other.
May clear water be abundant, or at least adequate
May your meals be satisfying and nutritious, if not gourmet
May the ticks and mosquitos find you unappealing.
May the deer and turtles trust you as kindred spirits.
May all strangers you meet be gracious and hospitable.
May you in turn be gracious to all you meet.
All journeys involve hope and fear, laughter and tears.
You will likely meet joy and pain, longing and doubt on your path.
May you and our world have the freedom to laugh, the courage to cry,
The compassion to be open and the faith to believe.
May you go in peace, and may peace go in you.
All repeat together:
May Cath and Sojo be safe.
May Cath and Sojo be well.
May Cath and Sojo be peaceful.
May Cath and Sojo be content.
Two Melissa's have played a huge role in our lives - the first being Melissa Gentry at Rescue DOG Sanctuary who first rescued this beautiful pup and cared for her so well, and the second being Melissa MacKinnon at Woof Pack Pet Services who helped us learn how to calm some of Sojo's fears and encourage her to build on her strengths!
Cath Hopkins on