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December 31, 2013

Prayers answered, with precision

Filed under: Personal — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 12:28 am

Several months ago my laptop started to give me the blue screen of death.

It told me it needed to check the disks “for consistency,” first every once in a while; then every single day. All this was after the mouse had died completely; the interface between the battery and computer had become temperamental, sometimes telling me it had 6 hours left and 2 minutes later, dying completely; and the power cord had apparently shorted out in such a way that I had to perform nightly rituals to get it charging (squeeze as hard as possible, lift above my head, drop it to the ground, flick top; repeat).

Neal was excited that I needed a new laptop; he loves any excuse to scour Slickdeals. But I was insistent that it wasn’t time yet. It wasn’t in our budget for 2013 and I’d been feeling major financial stress with our move, so I refused to even consider it. Having no real tech knowledge, I wasn’t sure how to make this laptop last, so I did the only (free) thing I could think of. I prayed: please help this laptop get me through this semester of teaching. Just this semester. Please. PLEASE. It’s so ridiculous that some of my most fervent prayers in life have been over this laptop, but so it is.

slow internet

Neal thinks I’m incredibly impatient with technology — if he had had this little piece of Whitney Cummings (whoever she is) advice earlier, our marriage and Addison might not exist. But I think even he will have to admit that it takes real patience to work with the mouse/battery/power cord/blue screen of death situation I’ve been dealing with for three whole months, especially when I spend a good 16 hours a day on the computer.

On Thursday evening I submitted my final semester grades. On Friday morning I sent my final email to the other online instructors I’ve supervised this semester. On Friday afternoon the power cord was blinking even more unnaturally than usual, the battery indicator light was shining red (red = bad), and the laptop began beeping ceaselessly. And then it was dead. It’s Monday now and none of my ritualistic endeavors to revive it have been successful.

Of course, I was put out at first. I may have done some moans and sighs (possibly my famous karate chop hands in combination). It would have been nice to finish the article that’s due this Thursday on my regular laptop with access to all my files! If only it just could have worked until we got home from our Christmas visits! (If only it could have lasted FOREVER so I would never have to spend money on another laptop again!)

But really, it was important to notice that it lasted just until I finished my semester. And absolutely no longer. Which is exactly what I asked God to do for me. I’ve never been very comfortable with praying, so it’s awfully smart/sneaky of Him to send me this very direct message. Well played.

The new laptop is in hand now, thanks to a super $200 Best Buy deal. And it has Windows 8 and a touchscreen and a home screen to mimic a tablet — new-fangled technology, ugh! I’ll probably need to say some more prayers to get through this new trial . . .

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December 18, 2013

I guess I’m sensitive, too

If you haven’t read about how Addison’s “a little bit sen-sti-tive” and Neal’s a LOT sensitive, they probably provide useful context for this post.

So I set out to read The Highly Sensitive Person with Addison in mind. And  then pretty quickly my thoughts turned to Neal. But as I read the initial self-assessment, I kept thinking, What ARE these questions? Everyone would answer yes to these. Duh, who doesn’t hate loud noises? Obviously other people’s moods affect us . . .

my test

But I had to remind myself that no, in some of the larger-scale studies a full 42% reported that they were not at all sensitive . . . to almost any of these things. How is that EVEN POSSIBLE? And then slowly, it dawned on me, Holy crap, I’M an HSP. 

Maybe it shouldn’t have been such a shock. I mean, I already knew I was an introvert. And I have some physical conditions that some doctors consider to be nervous system disorders. (And I cry like all. the. time.) But at the same time, I didn’t fit the infant/child profile at all, according to my mom (whom I grilled with interview questions from the book for several hours last month. That lady deserves a medal, by the way, both for raising me and putting up with my psychoanalysis of said raising.). And I could not be more dissimilar from Neal in some of his keys areas of sensitivity. Still, although I couldn’t make sense of it all, I knew immediately, this book is about me.

It wasn’t until I got into the second chapter, that it suddenly started to become more clear (I say more clear, not clear because there’s a lot to take in). Apparently, there are at least two distinct types of HSPs. It appears that all HSPs have a heightened “behavioral inhibition system,” a sensitivity to punishment or negative stimuli, which could make them more conscientious, cautious, anxious, or avoidant. (Aron calls this the “pause-to-check” or “advisor” system.)

The distinction lies in the strength of their “behavioral activation system,” the one that is sensitive to reward, goal-oriented, willing to take risks, and wants to try novel activities. (The “activator” or “warrior-king” system, according to Aron). Aron asks,

“What type are you? Does your pause-to-check/advisor system rule alone, thanks to a quiet activator/warrior-king system? That is, is it easy for you to be content with a quiet life? Or are the two branches that govern you in constant conflict? That is, do you always want to be trying new things even if you know that afterward you will be exhausted?” (p. 31)

If you haven’t figured out which type I am, just go back a couple posts to my goals for 2014, which I helpfully titled, DO ALL THE THINGS! It’s like I got bored in the middle of the night and my behavioral activation system came out to play, planning 12 months of goals and an insane road trip. Yep, I am a woman in constant conflict. Neal, on the other hand, mostly lets his advisor system “rule alone,” which is why we can both be HSPs but so completely dissimilar. It also gives me more insight into what type of HSP Addison would be, if she proves to be one. That girl’s definitely got the “warrior-queen” thing going on.

Although on more careful examination of my childhood in light of the diversity of HSP profiles, I can see evidence of my high sensitivity (my intense nightmares being one key indicator), I have realized that my chief area of sensory-processing sensitivity — sound — has only become clear since becoming a parent. You may have heard me mention a time or two (or two hundred) that Addison does. not. stop. talking. Often right over Neal, who also seems determined to finish his sentence. How anyone can handle two people talking at them at the same time, I’ll never know. Without even realizing it, I get “karate-chop hands,” as Neal (lovingly) calls them — a manifestation of the full-body tension that engulfs me when too much noise is coming at me all at once. When I was first reading Aron’s description of over-arousal, I couldn’t quite identify it in myself. Sweaty palms? No. Heart racing? Not excessively. But “karate-chop hands”? Definitely.

I think it took parenting a chatty extrovert to reveal an underlying sensitivity to noise that I can tell has been there all along (now that I know what to look for). It actually helps me understand why even though I love music and it played an integral part in my adolescence and young adulthood, I prefer complete silence when working; even instrumental music in the background makes me lose my train of thought. If I’m listening to music, that’s what I’m doing . . . and that’s basically all I’m doing. Which explains why as an adult I rarely listen to music. There just isn’t time in my life for spending 3 hours listening to the same song on repeat like Neal and I did on one of our first dates.

So what does all this talk of sensitivity mean? Self-examination is, of course, an end in itself. But as I thought about summarizing my experiences with my Stronger theme (ahem, almost two years ago), this seemed like a necessary prelude. You might be able to guess why. Hopefully, I’ll articulate it myself someday soon.

December 17, 2013

Neal’s a LOT sensitive

I wrote Friday’s post first because it was pondering Addison and her temperament that first made me want to read The Highly Sensitive Person. But interestingly, almost as soon as I began reading, I stopped thinking about Addison and started thinking about Neal.

If Addison does turn out to be an HSP, I probably shouldn’t be quite so surprised. After all, she is her father’s daughter and in case you were wondering, Neal displays a lot of attributes of a textbook HSP (though in tomorrow’s post, I’ll explain more about HSP variations; you know, just to complicate things). Not that I doubted it, but reading the first couple of profiles of highly sensitive infants and children in Aron’s book certainly confirmed my opinion. I felt like I was been reading all the accounts I’ve heard from his parents and sister of his disgruntled infancy. I’m fairly convinced Jerome Kagan, who pioneered the research on “high reactive” (just one of the many names used to describe the trait) infants, would have identified Neal as such in an instant.

I have never mentioned this on here before (though I drafted a whole blog post about it almost 18 months ago that’s still in editing purgatory) but when we were in marriage counseling, we spent nearly an entire session devoted to a discussion of whether Neal has Asperger’s syndrome (back when it was still called that). Long story short (for once): after a casual consultation with a more experienced colleague, the therapists agreed that Neal fit a variety of the characteristics that could put him on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, possibly “Asperger’s lite” to use their words.

What does autism have to do with high sensitivity? Well, that’s actually very tricky. On Elaine Aron’s website, in an article written in August 2009, she explains that it is perhaps hardest to distinguish high sensitivity from autism spectrum disorders in adult men. However, one of your best indicators should be that “those with Asperger’s still show a lack of understanding of what is going on emotionally in the other person even if they can hold a conversation.”  She further describes an experience with a man with Asperger’s, concluding that “he could experience his own emotions, but he could not read the signs of the emotional experiences of others,” which would stand in stark contrast to HSPs.

Interestingly, though, around the same time that article was published, studies began to question the very pervasive idea that those with autism lack empathy. The “intense world” theory suggested that atypical responses to social situations might be due to an excess of empathy — a hypersensitivity to experience — rather than a lack of it. As far as I can tell, this perspective has only gained support over the intervening years. I wonder, then, if Aron misunderstands the distinction between autism spectrum disorders and high sensitivity.  If this new notion of excess empathy leading to withdrawal in autistic individuals continues to be supported by research, what then becomes the primary distinction between an HSP and someone with an autism spectrum disorder? If you find out, will you let me know?

My best guess is that it has to do with the level of functioning, and in that sense, I think the HSP label probably fits Neal better. It acknowledges that there is something about his innate physical functioning that he probably can’t change, and will at times be ruled by when he experiences over-arousal. Still, for the most part he leads a “normal” life, including having family, friends (1 or 2 at least, unless you count his 3,600+ Facebook fans), and the ability to make a living.

It seems only fair to point out that while Neal can agree that he’s very sensitive to some things (especially tactile stimuli like, you know, his fingernails being too close to his fingers), he is somewhat reluctant to completely embrace this HSP label. For most of his life, his own concept of self has been based around the idea that he is a calm, easy-going person — not one of Jerome Kagan’s high-reactive infants that was prone to become an anxious adult. “When I had no responsibility for anyone else, I was always calm and relaxed,” he tells me.  It seemed only fitting to share with him another passage from Quiet about those short and long SERT alleles I was talking about:

“Similarly, short allele adults have been shown to have more anxiety in the evening than others when they’ve had stressful days, but less anxiety on calm days.” (p. 113)

It would be hard to overstate how closely this resonates with my observations of Neal. Of course, as enlightening as it was to think about Neal in the context of high sensitivity, my most important discovery had nothing to do with him. Stay tuned . . .

December 13, 2013

Addison’s “a little bit sen-sti-tive”

When I was reading the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I was especially intrigued by the discussion of Elaine Aron‘s research on the trait of “sensitivity.” I had learned bits and pieces about this trait in grad school, but the trouble with it is that there seem to be about as many names for it as there are researchers who study it (and none of them can quite agree with the others):

  • Shyness
  • Timidity
  • Inhibitedness
  • Neuroticism
  • Reactivity

Not to mention introversion. Since it is so highly correlated with introversion, some researchers have considered them one and the same. Elaine Aron, for example, thinks the book Quiet is great because it talks about this characteristic in a more positive light. However, she also thinks it is mislabeled as being about introversion when it is actually about the more all-encompassing trait of sensitivity.

Despite this high correlation between sensitivity and introversion, one particular statistic cited in Quiet caught my attention: about 20% of highly sensitive people are extroverts. From the moment I read that I knew I had to pick up Aron’s books and figure out how exactly she defines this trait and whether Addison was one of that 20% (I have since learned that it may be more like 30%). Luckily, there’s also a nifty little online quiz — I love those, don’t you?

child's test

If you equate high sensitivity with shyness, timidity, and inhibitedness, there is no rational reason to attach the term to a kid like Addison. But I think my gut was telling me that despite the fact that I have a textbook extrovert, I also need to attend to her sensitivity.

So what exactly is the trait of “sensitivity”? We might be tempted to think of it in terms of our colloquial definitions — touchiness or over-reacting or defensiveness. But the scientific term is actually “sensory-processing sensitivity” and refers to someone who processes sensory input more deeply because of a biological difference in their nervous system. The way Aron most often describes it is that highly sensitive people (or HSPs as Aron lovingly calls them; she is one, after all) become “over-aroused” — sweaty palms, physical tension, mind or heart racing, etc. — more quickly because of sensory overload.

In many ways, that doesn’t sound like Addison at all. I mean, I can drag her around the United States on a 3-week trip and she seems cheerful, resilient, and reluctant to go home to her “boring” life. But there’s also a persistent approach-then-retreat pattern to her social interactions, especially when it comes to physical contact, that made me wonder if perhaps physical contact somehow triggers “over-arousal.” And when I read down Aron’s list, many of them seem to fit, especially “notices the slightest unusual odor.” It’s getting a little awkward to be constantly apologizing when we visit other people’s houses because Addison can’t stop loudly asking, “What DO I SMELL?” with her nose curled up in disgust.

But why would figuring out whether Addison is an HSP even matter? Because there’s good news about parents and highly sensitive children: parenting matters. A lot. There’s also bad news: parenting matters. A lot.

Although I’m far from understanding all the intricacies of genetics research, I’ve been fascinated with a related thread of research on the “orchid hypothesis” — the idea that some children are like dandelions and can thrive in nearly any environment based on their genetic endowment, while others will wilt or die if neglected, but bloom like orchids with careful tending. This theory, when applied to a specific gene (called the serotonin-transporter gene or SERT) that helps regulate serotonin — which is critical to mood regulation — looks something like this. There are three possible gene variations:

  • Short/short allele
  • Short/long allele
  • Long/long allele

Both short variations increase the risk of depression/anxiety, while the long variant appears to be protective. For a long time, then, the short allele was viewed as negative, a vulnerability. But more recently, researchers have found that it is not so simplistic. For example, girls with a short allele of this gene were 20% more likely to be depressed if raised in a stressful environment than those with the long allele. BUT if raised in a stable home, they were 25% less likely to be depressed than their long allele counterparts. Along similar lines, highly sensitive 4-year-olds give more appropriate, pro-social responses to  moral questions than do other children, but that difference only continues at age 5 if their parents use gentle, rather than harsh, discipline.

I loved a summary quote in Quiet from child psychologist Jay Belsky, explaining why the parents of highly sensitive children should consider themselves lucky:

“The time and effort they invest will actually make a difference. Instead of seeing these kids as vulnerable to adversity, parents should see them as malleable–for worse, but also for better.”

It was a true light-bulb moment for me in clarifying some confusion I had felt since grad school: how do we reconcile the studies that tell us parenting is critical to children’s development with those that find that it isn’t nearly as important as other factors? Here was at least one possible answer — for certain highly sensitive children, it is crucial, while others may do fine regardless.

Belsky went on to explain the ideal parent for this type of child; one who can “read your cues and respect your individuality; is warm and firm in placing demands on you without being harsh or hostile; promotes curiosity, academic achievement, delayed gratification, and self-control; and is not harsh, neglectful, or inconsistent.” Easy, right?

I have no idea what genetic variants Addison is made of, nor is it clear to me whether she will ever more closely resemble an HSP as she ages (For instance, will she turn out to be conscientious in school? It’s hard to imagine her sitting still long enough at this point, though she did ask me tonight, “Why don’t I get to take spelling tests like the other kids?”). But I’m beginning to more carefully consider what she’s been telling us all along, from about the time she could articulate anything: “I’m a little bit sen-sti-tive.”

December 5, 2013

2014: Do ALL THE THINGS!

Filed under: Personal — llcall @ 11:44 pm

I had a tough time sleeping last night. So obviously, I planned a cross-country road trip for me and Addison to take in 2015.

map of trip

Because that’s what I do. But Neal says I’m not allowed to talk about it. Because that’s what he does. (I guess one day I’ll just say, Hey, we’ll be back in a month; work hard!)

I also started thinking about the last few years of one-word themes. That tradition has been just the thing for me; I never could get anywhere with a bunch of detailed resolutions. I haven’t given nearly as much Thanks this year as I intended to, but at least a few people got some strange and random expressions of gratitude from me, so, you know, that’s good.

As we near the end of 2013, high on my priority list is to write that accounting of how my 2012 one-word theme, Stronger, went. I could look at it as being a year behind schedule, but actually, I think this year was as much about getting stronger as it was about thanks. Maybe giving thanks also makes us stronger. Deep, right?

As much as I’ve loved the yearly themes, I realized that I need to do something different for 2014. I have all these disparate ideas and interests, loose ends and goals left up in the air. I want to give each some time to either be realized or discarded. Enter my monthly themes.

  • January: Organize (Or die!, says Neal)
  • February: Cook (Ack! Did I actually just write that? I think I will devote the shortest month of the year to trying to develop a meal plan that works for us.)
  • March: Research (I’ve got a vision of a paper I want to submit to a conference in May; deadlines help.)
  • April: Quilt (When I was sick, but not too sick, I quilted for fun and relaxation — between the intensity of March and May, I need a low-key April.)
  • May: Write (Remember that whole impression I got, “Write your spiritual history” about 18 months ago? Yeah, I didn’t do that. I didn’t exactly ignore it, but it’s complicated, you know. But after many unexpected requests over that period of time, I know I need to make this a priority in May.)
  • June: Garden (I’m on the fence about this one. I don’t do sunlight very well. Or digging. Or leaving my house. But if I can teach Addison to upkeep a garden, that would be lovely.)
  • July: Travel (I’ve been saving for two years to get over to my family reunion in Hawaii and as of yesterday, the ticket is purchased. Too bad there wasn’t enough money for Addison and Neal — better luck next time!)
  • August: Play (This is my break from classes and I want to make the most of it by spending as little time on the computer as possible.)
  • September: Learn (I have this idea that I should learn something new next year. I was thinking about physics (technically not new since I took it in high school, but all I did was make trouble. Sorry about that, Mr. F) or zoology or astronomy since Addison asks me questions about those all the time. How should I know how the mechanism on the soap dispenser works? — that would be in the physics category, right?)
  • October: Create (Remember that one time I quit my job to do conceptual art? Well, I kind of got stymied with that on account of the fact that to realize my vision I needed a couple of large, empty, white rooms. I still don’t have any empty white rooms, but next year I think I’ll try to create something out of the bits of art I’ve lugged all over the country for the last 8 years.)
  • November: Plan (I’m still a little vague on this one. I was just thinking that I wanted to do some financial planning sometime next year — who wouldn’t, right?)
  • December: Read (It’s cold on our mountain right now; our heater, though working, is somewhat temperamental so it’s also cold in our house. All I want to do is curl up and read the three books I have checked out from the library. It seems like a safe bet that that’s what I’ll want to next December as well.)

Sounds like a pretty full year, but I’m excited! I usually am about middle-of-the-night ideas. What do you think? Doable? Crazy?

Have you formulated any resolutions for 2014 yet?

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