Backstory

One TL;DR version of my autobiography could go something like this:

Identified as a gifted kid by two different American school systems, I grew up knowing I was smart and struggling with the expectation of academic excellence. I mean, I could get top marks fairly easily – except at math – and I generally did, although the margin of achievement diminished as I got older.

Besides, after year six, no one ever mentioned my giftedness again. Perhaps it had worn off.

By the time I got to University, studying science, I was miserable and so were my grades. The first thing I ever failed, I was expecting – I’d skipped all the tutorials and most of the lectures, and after trying to cram the whole subject the night before, found on the day I couldn’t answer a single exam question. Fair enough – but what bothered me was, why had I skipped everything in the first place? Venomous and Poisonous Animals should have been an interesting subject, it wasn’t even remotely difficult, and I’d known what the consequences for not attending would be; why couldn’t I make myself go to classes?

Then I failed something I’d kinda enjoyed and worked for, with no idea why. (The lecturer, who’d gone on sabbatical, was unavailable to provide feedback.) And there were some subjects I wasn’t even game to try. Clearly, I was getting stupider with every passing year.

Things improved dramatically when I moved into the Humanities – my grades shot back to the expected level and I found great joy in my field – but I still felt a glass wall between me and my colleagues, a feeling that increased when I went on to further study at a more prestigious institution, and which still exists around my few remaining academic friends. These people are smart, funny, interesting, shared similar politics, interests, and tastes, and yet… there was some difference I just couldn’t put my finger on. They were thriving, but the longer I stayed, the worse I felt.

Eventually I tapped out of academia, exhausted by feeling that I struggled with and resented what everyone around me enjoyed; feeling that the monoculture of it was killing me, without even being able to articulate what I meant by that. I wanted to start a family and that was impossible while putting so much energy into a career which, anyway, still wasn’t meeting some vague, unformed needs. The split was as painful and bewildering as a divorce. Where had the joy gone? Where was the love?

It wasn’t until I started learning about giftedness in my forties that this disconnect began to make sense. My kids’ version of giftedness is all about the emotions, the creativity, and the recalcitrance. Though they are bright, they flat out refuse to achieve academically. And now that I understand why, I understand myself so much better. Achieving well academically was a byproduct of interest; without interest, I had nothing. As Jacob Maslow put it,

“Gifted children…are primarily motivated cognitively. When they achieve excellent grades in a certain subject, it’s because their intellectual curiosity was sufficiently fired by the material provided.”

Maslow, 26/10/2018, retrieved 27/12/20

Ah. Yes. That sentence explains my whole history. I could achieve well, when I had my cognitive hooks into something; without that, a grade, a publication, or a promotion, were never enough to motivate me.

Figuring out that that’s how I am, has been like taking off a too-tight pair of pants I’ve worn my whole life.

So now I let it all hang out. Smart enough, I guess: also creative, empathic, and curious, a dabbler, happy doing a whole lot of things not very well, far more motivated by wonder than by anything else. Trying to figure out if I can do that, then changing tack once I can – this is what gifted looks like.

Silly season

©careerusinterruptus

So, we have barely finished school – in Australia, the academic and calendar years align – and Christmas is upon us.

After 674 weeks of classes, the kids and I are beyond poopered.

I especially am over people. As a social introvert, I find people both irresistible and exhausting, so having happily chatted my way through all our classes, activities, and appointments, I am now DONE. One more interaction will be the after-dinner mint that explodes me. The boys are the same. Even CraftyFish, who normally swears she’ll DIE if she has to spend two consecutive days at home, is ready for a break.

Add to that, it’s summer: stinking hot and 9000% humidity, which not only defies physics but melts the few neurons I have left and saps my will to live.

What we really don’t need at this time of year is a logistical challenge wrapped in a shit-ton of emotional triggers and tied with a big red social bow.

And yet, here we are. Thanks, Romans!

The thing is, we all love this ridiculous, over-blown, pitfall-strewn gelt-fest, so ignoring it isn’t an option. Having started counting down in September, by December 1 the kids are REVVED. That means a month of silly, loud, playful, hyper-creative. Also, sigh, sensitive, sensory, over-thinky, anxious, argumentative, and sleepless. Such a crucible makes for some big developmental leaps, because WHY NOT? Asynchronous highs and lows are coming prestissimo, faster than mama can mix mojitos.

So we do traditional Christmas with some twists to accommodate both the heat and the over-tired, over-socialised, people who come to the party with fingers on the meltdown button.

December is the month of after-dinner swims, the activity burning off some of that noise while the dark and the cool soothe and settle.

Everyone likes the festive look, though some find the process of decorating too chaotic and noisy. That’s okay. No one has to join in anything. They can find other ways to help, same as any other chore.

We have a rule against music, too, since volume is an issue (hearing-impaired mama, bat-eared children) and none of us like the same tunes. Alone in the car I blast Hooked on Christmas, but the rest of the time we stick to the regular soundtrack of wailing and gnashing teeth.

We do bake, which suggests my brain has already gone as soft as the gingerbread will be by morning. Still, it’s lovely to do with Mum, and then CraftyFish goes nuts with the icing.

@careerusinterruptus

I still over-think gifts, having utterly exhausted my ability to put a pin in anything and say “that’ll do”, despite knowing full well there’s no grades for good gift-giving. At least I’ve stopped trying to make stuff for everyone. Baby steps!

I have, however, completely abandoned Christmas dinner, on the grounds that cooking is for people with air-con. Instead we have a picnic: bread and cold meats, lots of veggies, fancy cheese and fruit. Nothing that requires the application of heat.

And then there are the socials: Family, other family, and friends from interstate, who we adore and want to see. Ideally, without tears.

When the kids were younger we crammed it all into one day, which led to a lot of meltdowns. Mostly mine.

Now we spread the load, seeing each group on different days. With slower starts, less stimulation, and less pressure, each day leans a little further from the point where excitement topples into grief. There’s time for reading and building our gifts, time to express all the big emotions, time to decompress on our screens and beds and back in the pool. By spreading Christmas over at least three days, we can refocus from the day itself to the important part: happy time with the people we love.

It wasn’t easy to get to this point. The Skeptic and I both come from places where snow falls, from conservative families who put on the whole Coca-Cola show even when they moved south. Pulling back, a little, so that we could manage genuine smiles for the photographs, took some determination. (And, okay, a few tantrums.) I doubt anyone really gets why we do it this way; they’ve just had to accept it.

The more I read, however, and write, the better I see the reality of who we are and what we need. This is the first year I’ve really embraced the slack approach and the space it gives us, to relax and to enjoy each other. May you find the same peace.

The peri-menopause is a PITA post

One day about a year ago, when my GP asked at the end of a visit if there was anything else she could do for me, I asked for a brain transplant. Exhibit A: the three times I’d been in to see her THAT WEEK, because I kept forgetting stuff, even (sigh) when it was written down.

Instead, she said something unexpected: “Yeahhhh, that might be a bit extreme; I think we’ll try you on some HRT. I reckon you’re in peri-menopause.”

Of course, I argued. (Regular readers may notice a pattern.) Exhibit B: Clockwork periods, no heavier than ever, zero hot flushes.

But my GP raised her eyebrows very high, and said, through curiously tight lips, “Trust me, I am a *bit* of an expert on these matters, these days.” Then she printed me off a list of symptoms.

Ah. Forgetfulness. Tick.

Um. Central adiposity, the fancy medical term for the spare tyre round my middle, as tough and resilient as the ones on my car. Tick.

Oh. Difficulty sleeping. I put my hand up to that one, fast. It was weird, too – not just difficulty getting to sleep, like when I’m anxious, or early waking, like in depression, but the whole bloody trifecta: difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking early.

“Yep,” she said. “That’s it.”

WHO THE FUCK KNEW?!

So we tried the HRT, and it was AWESOME.

By around New Year’s, I could sleep and when I woke I didn’t feel dead and some days I even got shit done without crashing the car. (I crashed the car, um, three times in 2019.) I WAS SUPERWOMAN.

But, you know, like all gifties, I’m a giant pain in my own ass, sometimes.

We’d run the blood tests – which is stupid, because as my doctor said, that shows what my hormone levels were like at that hour of that morning, nothing else – but it did also show (surprise, surprise) low iron, which I’ve never had before. So we tried HRT and iron supplements.

That’s right. We adjusted TWO VARIABLES.

What can I say? Apparently neither of us was at our finest, that day.

As soon as I was back to feeling like a human being, I remembered SCIENCE and quit the HRT. Because it might not be that, right?

It was that.

Oh, my god, it was that.

Pretty soon I was back to feeling like a dried-up booger stuck to the bathroom wall.

So I filled another prescription and began religiously taking the HRT.

No, I didn’t.

Get real.

My brain was AWOL, right? That means I was utterly incapable of remembering to rub some gel on my arm in the morning and swallow a capsule at night, let alone take any of the supplements the doctor had also suggested. Good lord.

What kind of idiot cannot remember to take three medicines every day, FFS?

Which is why I’m also on an anti-depressant.

Which I also regularly forgot.

Which is bizarre, since forgetting to take them pretty much instantly makes me feel like there’s a full-size pissed-off grizzly bear perched on my head, clinging with all twenty claws and occasionally teeth as well. You’d think that’d be sufficient negative conditioning to trigger change.

Nope. I’ve spent most of this year fucking it up: forgetting to take, running out, forgetting to fill scripts for days on end, headachey, tired, and miserable, completely unable to sort myself out.

Eventually – after my smarty-pants cousin said, “Oh I just keep mine near my toothbrush,” (thanks, smarty-pants cuz) – I built a routine: Out of bed, wee, water, gel, anti-depressant, hearing aids. THEN move further into the house, where all the distractions live.

Yep. At 51 years old, I needed someone to tell me that. And people think gifted means smart.

So I guess it was September when I finally got on top of it, enough hormone in my system regularly enough to fill some of the holes, and to be honest it has been nothing short of miraculous. I have turned into a weird evangelist trying to share the good news of HRT* with every woman within five years of my age.

And then this week – phew. Following Toemageddon last Saturday, Tuesday saw me smash a hearing aid using the exact same sequence of mis-steps as back in May, and Thursday saw me… prang the fucking car. Also, the exact same way I did earlier this year.

Only this time, I have some connected neurons, so I wondered: does peri-menopause make you clumsy?

Turns out, it does.

WELL FUCK.

And it turns out that all of this – sleep, memory, clumsiness, weight-gain, anxiety, and depression – is hideously inter-connected.

Oestrogen and progesterone are meant to balance each other. When they’re playing nicely, you get nice, regular ups and downs and a nice, regular cycle.

Once you hit this delightful stage in life, though, your desiccating ovaries reduce oestrogen production. Freaking out, your body seeks alternative ways to get its fix, which it does by laying down fat like a bastard – fat can make oestrogen – and this causes your oestrogen levels bounce around like the Cat in the Hat on his ball with his cups, the milk and a cake, the books, and the poor bloody fish on the rake.

Meanwhile, progesterone just slowly slopes off out of the room, completely abandoning its balancing duties.

The resulting wobbles amplify and enhance each other, both physiologically and psychologically:

Not sleeping? Gain weight! Gaining weight? Feel stressed! Feeling stressed? Crash into stuff! Crashing into stuff? Feel anxious! Feeling anxious? Sleep less! Sleeping less? Eat more! Eating more? Gain weight! Gaining weight? Diet! Wait … what was that thing, you were supposed to be doing? LIE AWAKE WONDERING. Lying awake wondering? HAVE A SNACK.

And because it is wobbly, not linear, what was working back in September may not work by January. And, because it’s “just” women, and it’s both highly complicated and highly variable, the whole issue is clouded in medical confusion and non-medical misinformation.

I saw one doctor’s comment that this is nature’s way of trying to “kill us off” once we’re no longer reproducing, and it’s pretty hard not to feel he’s right, especially when you’re waiting in 32-degree heat for roadside assistance because you hit the kerb. (Although he then earned idiot status for going on to wonder whether “we” should just “accept Mother Nature’s design for us”. Fuck off, Dr Dick.)

The shortest average period of this hormonal pandemonium I saw cited, was four years. (My GP said, seven.) Bloody freaking hell.

Can I just say, this is not one of the things they ever cover in those stupidly optimistic news stories about the advantages of late parenthood?

Because, yes, just as my hormones are going on the fritz, the kids are well and truly ramping up theirs. And I thought the pre-school years had been full of yelling, tears, and door-slamming.

Really, the only thing needed to top off this giant endocrine-palooza, is helping care for Mum through her dementia, a condition strongly linked to … yep, you guessed it: The years-long brain fart that is menopause. (Two-thirds of Alzheimer’s sufferers are women, more than can be explained by our longevity relative to men’s.) Something to think about, while lying awake.

There may be an out, of course. It is exercise. (EXACTLY what you feel like doing, when you’ve been awake half the night. Even more, I should imagine, if like a friend of mine, you’re cracking 50+ hot flushes a day. Or, like me, your local climate is exactly like living a hot flush for half the year.)

It must be said, that although it is far and away the most consistent advice given, the evidence that exercise mitigates menopausal symptoms, is far from clear.

I’m gonna do it, though.

If it means I stand any chance of staving off the Alzheimer’s or any of the other heritable diseases I know are risks in my family, then clearly I owe it to myself and to the kids, to pull on my (very) big-girl pants, sort out my back, and get my (rather large) arse into gear.

Who knows? I might even regrow my brain.

* = I know, it’s not called that any more. But these days I’m too dappy to remember what it is called. And since many doctors have not yet cottoned on to the new lingo, I don’t feel too bad about it. Cheers.