Nobody ever complains that
you are treating them like a child
listen to their stories,
encourage their dreams,
and tell them how special they are.
—Callan Williams, 1997
I grew up in a home with parents I loved, with parents who loved me, but with parents whose Aspergers brains just didn’t let them understand the emotions of others. For my mother, especially, as a woman with Aspergers this inability to make an emotional connection — emotional anorexia, I called it, as she consumed emotions without taking nourishment from them — left her frustrated, angry and narcissistic, demanding that everything be about her sense of loss and separation.
This meant that my world was a minefield, with something always ready to blow, be it my father’s missing the point — I called him “The Man Who Couldn’t Take ‘Yes‘ For An Answer,” as he pounded away past agreement — or my mother’s disconnected emotional rants that my father learned to service in an extremely co-dependent and enabling way.
My models for learning how to interact in the world, how to have appropriate and pleasant social interactions were deeply flawed. I had to learn to protect myself, had to learn to survive in that mess. I had to piece together a way to learn to be a human from the shards I had around me, doing the best I could with broken models.
One of my gifts has always been a big brain, so that was the survival mechanism I used. From the earliest age, I didn’t just grow, I had to analyze, understand, assess, measure and consider what things meant and how to respond to them.
I couldn’t just take things as they were and be happy, rather I had to pull them apart to find the deeper meanings, becoming a very close observer of everything, not left in my own world but struggling to understand the world around me so I could get out in front of it, understanding and working to manipulate the world around me.
I stayed defended, sharp and independent, never learning to be one of the gang, but rather being forced to be boldly myself, actor and observer, in every moment. I was never one of the sharks, feeling master of the world, never that young. I had to be immersed in the meta information of life, working to make it explicit and process it at a high level before I even went to school.
That was, in the end, good work. The skill to make the meta explicit, to suss out what is going on beneath the surface, lets me do the work of meeting people where they are, of assessing and analyzing their feelings and their needs, of being able to to tease out the threads and identify what is important, what the deeper challenges are, the ones below the surface.
The obligation to learn to do that hard work, though, at such a young age, just to survive in the world with a difficult household and a queer heart, well, that was costly. At the time when I should have been exploring myself, my desires and possibilities, my potential and my joy, instead I had to explore others, had to deny and control myself so I could take care of other people.
What I missed in all of this, the big gap in my life, was having my own heart nurtured. No one was there for me to encourage and support me in working the process of growth & development.
- care for and encourage the growth or development of.
- encourage, promote, stimulate, develop, foster, cultivate, boost, contribute to, assist, help, abet, strengthen, fuel
- help or encourage the development of.
- cherish (a hope, belief, or ambition).
I had to learn to nurture myself. In school, I was queer and smart, not just one of the kids, but one who pushed the boundaries, reading through things I was just supposed to be seeing the surface of.
From that story of being in Kindergarten and being able to read not just the paste jar but also the teachers manual to the time in fifth grade when I stood up to the teacher having the class vote to decide my scientific understanding was wrong (it wasn’t) I was the nail that stood proud, not one of the chosen kids who knew how to make teacher proud by shining at following the rules.
I learned how to be challenging and smart, seeing through the games rather than playing them.
But you cannot go on “explaining away” forever:
you will find that you have explained explanation itself away.
You cannot go on “seeing through” things forever.
The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.
It is good that the window should be transparent,
because the street or garden beyond it is opaque.
How if you saw through the garden too?
It is no use trying to “see through” first principles.
If you see through everything, then everything is transparent.
But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world.
To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.
– C.S.Lewis, The Abolition of Man
I learned early that there was only one person who would nurture me, who would support my unique process, and that person was me. I made my own comforter, out of tiny bits of fluff and warmth that I found wherever, a patchwork of scraped together pieces that I struggled to keep together.
It was much later in my life that I began to come to emotional maturity, working to integrate the heart I had to deny with my understanding of the world, to become actualized by learning to trust that heart rather than just control it with my big brain. By that point, though, both of them were too big to trust with anyone else. “I have am doing better at learning to trust myself,” I said to the love of my life, ” and now I need to learn to trust other people.” “Can’t you do that on your own?” she replied, telling me clearly that she wasn’t going to do that work.
I learned how to nurture myself and in that process, I learned how to nurture others. This was the work of seeing, supporting and encouraging them. By being able to see their deeper, meta truths in an explicit way, by being able to put language to the feelings and thoughts that they had but had not processed, I was able to serve them, at least until they felt challenged that I was illuminating too much of them and acted out.
This still happens, as people tell me when they find it difficult to read my blog entries because they are too explicit and too revealing, not about my struggles but about the struggles that they have and try to keep under wraps. But I have, over the years, learned to modulate myself around others, going into concierge mode, denying my own heart and being gracious when doing the work.
For their last decade I took care of my parents in a way that was so powerful that I was thrown out of two different caregiver support groups for bringing challenges too difficult for novices to hear into the room, for being too much of a porcupine. Professionals may not have known how I did it, but they were awed by the care I gave my parents. “You are all over his chart,” one clinician told me. “We trust you.”
My question then was “Who cares for the caregivers?” but now the question is much more personal, much deeper, going back not only to when I learned how to turn outwards and care for others, but when I had to learn to care for myself at a much too tender age.
Who nurtures the nurturers? How do we get “encouraged, promoted, stimulated, developed, fostered, cultivated, boosted, contributed to, assisted, helped, abetted, strengthened, and fuelled?”
Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child. When you never learned to accept nurturing except through an analytical filter of caution, challenges occur. When you never learned to just be one of the gang, challenges occur. When you never learned to just trust the call of your heart without processing first, challenges occur.
I know that I can nurture others, know that I have polished the work of nurturing to a very high level. What I don’t know is how I experience being nurtured in the world, experience being nourished, replenished, affirmed and supported.
My requirement to nurture my parents was to be beyond judgment, beyond my own tastes and my own fears. This is at the core of my embracing of queerness, the belief that people need what they need, not what I think they need, not what I would be comfortable with, not to my taste. I have to meet people where they are to be able to nurture them.
My experience of the world is that if I am too whatever for someone else’s taste — too queer, too smart, too big, too insightful, too explicit, too intense, too whatever — then I end up having them try to cut me back rather than nurturing me. I end up having to do the work to nurture them, because the feelings that come up when they engage me, their feelings, the feelings that make their world about them, end up being placed on me. I know that unless they do their own work, they can’t be there for me, and know that there are good and pressing reasons why they haven’t yet done their own work.
To be unnurtured is to be alone. From my earliest days, I learned to use my head to make sense of the world, learned to see through and make the meta explicit. I learned to scavenge my own emotional nourishment, learned that my world had to be alone and separate or else it was unsafe. I learned that my instincts would get me in trouble, so I had to modulate everything or be at risk.
It took me decades to learn to trust my own heart. Owning both my heart and my head is a powerful blend, letting me communicate my reality with strength and grace, letting me be a safe and nurturing space for others, I know that I can do the work to be there for them.
Finding others who have done the work in a way that lets them be there to nurture me, though, is a more challenging proposition. Who nurtures the nurturers? Where is the empathy that we need to be replenished and nurtured?
I learned early how to watch out for myself, and thanks to my big brain and my femme heart, I learned well how to nurture others, beyond just pushing my own expectations and into working & supporting the process of growth and development. I meet people where they are and do the work to listen to their stories, encourage their dreams, and tell them how special they are.
Nature or nurture? Both, of course. But nurture is the part we can work on, we can develop, we can give to ourselves and others. The lack of it, though, well, it can leave some gaps.