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Test Day dizzaz, feat. childhood trauma, feeling my feelings, and several bonus book recommendations

[Childhood abuse + trauma]

One of the biggest obstacles to my training is my dad, a man I haven’t seen or spoken to for years. And yet!!! His voice lives inside my head. Still. All these years later. This voice is what trauma expert and therapist Pete Walker calls the inner critic.

My dad was mean. When I was growing up, he was a deeply unhappy person (he might still be, I don’t know), himself the product of trauma before he became the perpetrator of it (so the cliché and cycle go). In addition to unpredictable episodes of physical violence and psychological terrorism, he ridiculed and demeaned me constantly, never missing an opportunity to point out—to me, and to others (and, not infrequently, to me in front of others)—how inept, inadequate, and incapable I was.

Everything I showed interest in was stupid and worthless, just like me. Nothing I did was, or would ever be, good or right enough, because, his logic went, I wasn’t, and never would be, good or right enough. Or was it the other way around? I wasn’t allowed to have or express ideas, opinions, or feelings. Feelings were especially off limits. Mine were, my dad made clear, incorrect, unwarranted, and an overreaction. Always. No matter what.

What’s wrong with you? and Why would you do that? and What were you thinking? and You fucking idiot are things he’d say to me regularly. He called this “tough love” and “just joking” and “character building” and his “opinions.” It was abuse, it was unavoidable (he kept my mom and me isolated) and relentless (I’m an only child), and it traumatized me.

Contrary to the mythology of the popular saying, that trauma didn’t ~make me stronger~. It beat me down, sometimes literally, and broke me. For a very long time, it deeply and negatively impacted every aspect of my life.

In mid-2020, I started therapy specifically to unpack and process my childhood and the trauma it left me with. I’ve put in a lot of work over the past two and a half-ish years, including the (very hard) work of building confidence and learning to recognize and silence my inner critic—my dad’s voice. That voice came out screaming on Monday.

Monday was Test Day. This was technically unplanned, but not entirely unexpected. Orginally, I was supposed to test Tuesday. But I felt good on Monday, and when Coach asked me how I felt I said, “What if I test today?”

I didn’t think twice about it, honestly. I had the best training week of my life last week. I walked in the gym Monday morning excited and, even though it wasn’t supposed to be a test day, I was prepared for it to be. I was rested and nourished. I felt good. Confident, even.

The fact that I was testing with the head barbell coach and not the coach I’ve been working 1:1 with for the past several months didn’t phase me. Neither did the small crowd of fellow gym-goers, including several competitive athletes, watching me and (quietly) cheering me on as they worked out nearby. Just a few months ago, with a little less trauma processing under my belt, these things would’ve stressed me the fuck out. There’s no chance in hell that I would’ve suggested to move my test day up a day, and if it had been suggested to me, I would’ve made every excuse in the book to avoid it. Just a few months ago, I didn’t have the confidence in myself that I have (most days) now.

I ended my session on Monday feeling just as good as when I started it. Maybe better. I was happy with my total, my form and technique felt solid, I failed only one attempt (my final jerk), my body felt good, and my pelvic floor held the entire time. I was proud of myself.

And then I watched the videos of my lifts. Usually I do this between each attempt/set. For whatever reason, on Monday I didn’t. I waited to watch the videos until I was in my car. And when I did, my inner critic—my dad’s voice—immediately began berating me.

I sat there for at least 20 minutes, alone in my car, watching and rewatching the same seconds-long clips, picking apart every single element of each lift, thoroughly embarrassed that I’d lifted LIKE THAT in front of so many people, who—isn’t it obvious?—are all better than me at everything on the planet, especially lifting. I felt like a fool for having believed them when, an hour earlier, they’d high-fived and fist-bumped me and told me Good job! and Looking strong! There was no possible way, my inner critic told me, that they’d meant it. I had not done a good job. I did not look strong. I never would, or would be.

I drove home feeling utterly defeated. When I got home, I sat on my couch and, while watching the videos of my lifts on repeat, I cried. The voice inside my head was critical and unforgiving. Instead of being snappy and solid and sharp, my lifts looked slow and heavy and sloppy—and right out the gate, from the very first pull. Truly, a rookie move/mistake that I hadn’t, before yesterday, made once—literally not a single time—in all the months that I’ve been training at this gym. Instead of being able to see this for what it was—an off day—I took it as proof that I’m a failure as a person. I was, for the first time in a long time, fully inside a C-PTSD emotional flashback: drasticizing and catastrophizing and spiraling; consumed by all-or-nothing, always/never thinking. All of the hard work I’d put in and good training sessions I’d had over the last several months had been a fluke. This one single fuck-up of a lifting session was the real me.

The voice inside my head: You’re never going to get better at this. You should just quit. You aren’t cut out for this. Why do you keep trying? You’re making a fool of yourself. You’re such a fucking loser.

I know that it sounds dramatic now. All of it. It did not feel that way in the moment. Such is the nature of trauma.

As soon as I recognized what was happening—an emotional flashback/shame spiral—I put my phone down, made myself food, watched some TV, finished the book I was reading, and let myself feel however I felt, which was mostly frustrated and disappointed, for the rest of the day. I didn’t try to toxic positivity or affirmation my way out of it.

And you know what? I woke up Tuesday feeling a lot better and brought my ass right back to the gym to start my new block of training. And you know what else? I did really well. I didn’t make any of the rookie moves/mistakes that I made on Monday (which isn’t actually that surprising because they’re mistakes I’d stopped making regularly a long fucking time ago). My overhead positions were crispy. I was tight in the catch. My lifts were solid and snappy and sharp. I had the best front squat session of my life (so far). I left the gym feeling good about the training day, and about myself.

What’s my point? There are several. I have zero spoons remaining to get into all of them right now. The main one—at least for today—is this: It’s okay to feel your way through your feelings. It’s okay to not immediately try to change them or fix them or understand them or find some hidden lesson or silver lining in them.

There’s a lot of emphasis in the fitness world to “good vibes only✌️” your way through, well, everything, and very little room for “bad” or “negative” feelings, WHICH ARE TOTALLY NORMAL AND HEALTHY TO HAVE BY THE WAY. Too often, having “bad” or “negative” feelings is weaponized into a personal characterological or moral failing, which is just so gross and unhelpful. It’s insensitive, invalidating, and dismissive—at best. I’m proud of myself for recognizing what was happening as it was happening, putting my phone down, cutting myself some slack, and allowing myself to feel my way through my feelings, without judging them or myself for having them. That, my good bitch, is a whole different type of—and pretty damn big—PR.

(For the record: No, my lifts didn’t actually look THAT bad. It’s clear from the videos that my body wasn’t as prepared to test that day as I thought it was AND that I’ve gotten stronger and improved my technique in a pretty short amount of time.)

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Four books that I’ve found particularly helpful in better understanding attachment wounds and complex trauma (C-PTSD):

  • Complex Trauma: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker.

    The editing, organization, and formatting of this book are inconsistent, which I found made things difficult to follow at times. The information is solid, though, and I recommend giving it a read.
  • Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy by Jessica Fern.

    Please don’t be scared away by the title or subtitle of this book. You don’t have to be nonmongamous, or even interested in nonmonogamy, to gets something from this book. You just have to be a person who has relationships, of any kind, with other people.

    Personally, I liked this book a whole lot more than Attached, which is the more mainstream go-to book about attachment theory. I think it feels more inclusive and less stereotyped, especially with its use of language, and I especially appreciate that Polysecure looks at attachment theory and wounds through the lens of non-normative relationship structures. I believe this is important because it (1) reminds us that we have and benefit from all sorts of relationships, not just traditional romantic/sexual ones, and (2) shows how attachment wounds and relational trauma can show up in ALL of our relationships, including those with friends and family members and neighbors and people we work with, etc., and therefore impact all different aspects of our lives.

What I’m Reading: November 2022

Books! Lots of books! As always, said books are mostly narrative nonfiction about mental health, psychiatry, and trauma.

Photo of the cover of Emily Maloney's book "Cost of Living: Essays"

Cost of Living: Essays by Emily Maloney.

[Content warnings for this book: medical trauma, substance abuse, suicidality, suicide attempt]

A collection of essays from a fellow neurodivergent (ND) person (yay!) that offers a (narrow and fairly privileged) look at our fucked-up healthcare system from the perspective of a woman who interacts with it in a bunch of different roles (ER tech, EMT, bioethics student assigned to shadow med students, medical publications manager) after a suicide attempt lands her in the hospital with a shit-ton of medical debt that she needs to pay off. We get insight from her experiences as a patient (both medical and mental health) and debtor, too.

This book is very much a collection of personal essays that explores the author’s experiences as both patient and caregiver, which was informative and engaging enough to keep me reading. It’s not a deeply nuanced critique of the American healthcare system, though. So if you’re looking for that, look elsewhere.

Also, as an autistic person, I found her descriptions of her internal world to be so, so relatable—she does a good job defying the standard stereotypes and capturing what it feels like to be autistic (I clocked her as ND, probably autistic, literally three paragraphs in). If you read this book and find yourself relating to her internal world, gratz on the autism and welcome to the club. (The author does eventually reveal her diagnosis. It is not, much to my genuine shock, autism. To absolutely no shock, her diagnosis is one that many autistic people feel is a more palatable and ableist way of saying “autism,” in much the same way that “Highly Sensitive Person” is actually just autism. Let me put it this way: The Venn diagram of the author’s descriptions of her internal world and The Autistic Experience™ is a circle.)

Photo of the book cover for Kelly Sundberg's "Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival"

Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival by Kelly Sundberg.

[Content warnings for this book: domestic violence, substance abuse]

In her essay “In Defense of Navel Gazing,” Melissa Febos writes about writing about trauma:

“Listen to me: It is not gauche to write about trauma. It is subversive. The stigma of victimhood is a timeworn tool of oppressive powers to gaslight the people they subjugate into believing that by naming their disempowerment they are being dramatic, whining, attention-grabbing, or beating a dead horse. Believe me, I wish this horse were dead…But we shouldn’t write about it because people are fatigued by stories about trauma? No. We have been discouraged from writing about it because it makes people uncomfortable. Because a patriarchal society wants its victims to be silent. Because shame is an effective method of silencing.”

I don’t know if the author of Goodbye, Sweet Girl ever questioned the importance or value of sharing her story. As a person who has experienced similar trauma, my guess is that she did. I know how hard it is to write about your trauma (or at least, how uncomfortable and inconvenient it can be), especially when it’s perpetrated against you in your own home, by a person (or the people) you count on to protect you and to be a safe space for you.

This book is so well-written, and it does a great job of illustrating how abuse can happen slowly and subtly, and then suddenly and all-consumingly; about how difficult it can be to see it; and about how difficult it can be to walk away from once you do see it.

A related read: In the Dream House, a lyric memoir by Carmen Maria Machado about, as Roxane Gay says in her Goodreads review of the book, “the complexities of abuse in queer relationships.”

Photo of the book cover for Roxane Gay's "Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body"

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay.

[Content warnings for this book: disordered eating, fatphobia, racism, rape]

Immediately yes. Read it. Right now. Especially if you’re not, and have never been, fat. Evocative, uncomfortable, necessary. This book is going to stay with me for a long, long time.

I think Hunger is an incredibly important book that has a lot to teach a lot of people. You’ll get the most out of this one if you approach it with an open mind and the willingness and ability to confront uncomfortable parts of yourself, and to ask yourself—and explore your answers to—uncomfortable questions.

(I have a lot more to say about this book. Enough to write a separate, entire post about it.)

Photo of the cover of Rachel Aviv's "Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us"

Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Makes Us by Rachel Aviv.

[Content warnings for this book: ableism, disordered eating, filicide, suicidality, suicide attempts]

An exploration of how we understand ourselves, especially in moments of crisis and distress; of how a mental illness diagnosis can shape our understanding of ourselves, our experiences, and the world; and of how mental illness diagnoses can influence how others and the world interact with and experience us.

The book is structured into six chapters, each a case study of a different person and their mental health history, beginning with the author’s own experience of being admitted to an in-patient treatment program for anorexia when she was just six years old, and drawn from the history of psychiatry, philosophy, interviews with the subject of each chapter and their family members and doctors, and primary source documents, like unpublished memoirs. (Technically, the first and last chapters aren’t really chapters, they’re the prologue and the epilogue, but they’re important to the premise of the book, so I’m lumping them in with the chapters.) It’s well-researched, well-reported, and well-written—and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

I had a lot of trouble getting into a rhythm with this book, and it took me a very long time to read—it just could not keep my attention. I don’t think the book is bad. I think I went into it wanting it to be something it’s not (I really wanted it to do what Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses set out, and, in my opinion, failed to do), and I think that influenced my experience of it. That being said, I think the book does exactly what it sets out to do (re-read the first graf, above), and I think it does it very well.

Photo of book cover for "Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror" by Judith Herman.

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman

[Content warnings for this book: basically everything associated with all sources of trauma—accidents, domestic violence, kidnapping, natural disaster, sexual violence, war, etc.]

Of the Big Three trauma books—and the ones about complex trauma specifically—I liked this one the best. It’s also the first of the Big Three that was written (the other two are Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving and Bessel van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score), and it’s the book that first introduced the concept of complex trauma and proposed it as a distinct diagnosis.

(Since 1992, the author of the book has advocated for the inclusion of Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD, as a distinct diagnosis in the DSM. To date, those efforts have been unsuccessful—C-PTSD is not an actual diagnosis in the United States because it’s not included in the DSM and therefore doesn’t have an associated billing code and therefore insurance won’t cover it (everything is about money). In countries that diagnose using the ICD instead of the DSM, C-PTSD is an actual diagnosis.)

Honestly, I don’t know how I hadn’t read—or even heard of—this book before this year??? Especially considering my entire-ass college degree is in psychology??? I digress.

This book covers a lot, and it does so in a way that feels cohesive and accessible and digestible. I appreciate that the author walks the reader through the evolution of the study and science of trauma, from the early days of hysteria to our current understanding of trauma as an unconscious and physiological response and process. I appreciate that she cites so much research, and that she presents it using plain language. And I appreciate that she talks about the therapist/patient (client) relationship (this is something that I think deserves more attention, in general, than it gets—especially when the patient/client is autistic and the therapist is not).

Personally, I found the discussion about trauma reenactment and the mechanisms that drive it to be the most helpful part of this book. If, like me, you find yourself wondering why you constantly, or consistently, end up repeating patterns that mirror trauma that you’ve experienced, or why a person doesn’t “just leave” an abuser or abusive situation, this book might be particularly helpful/relevant to you. And if you don’t find yourself asking such questions? This book is still worth a read. Big recommend for everyone.

Two critiques:

One: This book is 30 years old (which is weird because the 90s were only a few years ago), and as such, the way it talks about gender and gender roles is outdated and stereotyped. There’s a lot of good information in this book specifically re: domestic violence—in the context of cishet relationships. If you’re looking for a nuanced take on the dynamics of abuse in queer relationships, you won’t find it in this book.

Two: There’s zero mention, let alone discussion, of the intersection of (non-acquired) neurodivergence (e.g. autism) and trauma, to include approaches to therapy, trauma processing, and healing that are better suited for us. I mean. I didn’t go into this book expecting it to include such a take, but as I read it, it was incredibly obvious that such a take was missing—and is still very much needed in contemporary works on trauma and mental health.

RIP (?) Twitter

Note: All links in this post lead to open access information that is *not* paywalled, and open in a new tab.

There is a very real risk that Twitter as we know and have known it will become unusable in the near future. This has been the general sentiment and concern since Apartheid Clyde (Elon Musk) bought the platform a month ago. That sentiment and concern came to a head late last week when many of the company’s remaining employees quit after Musk issued another ridiculous ultimatum (stay on board and be “hardcore” or quit and get three months of severance pay), leaving entire departments and teams and a number of critical systems unmanned.

Many of the employees who “chose” to stay are in the States on H-1B visas, meaning they must remain employed to remain in the country, which means they likely didn’t really have a choice. Last night, on Thanksgiving Eve here in the States, Musk fired a number of those employees, with no notice and only four weeks pay (v. the three months of pay they would’ve received had they not “chosen” to stick around when given the “choice” last week).

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here are a few articles to better understand what’s happening at Twitter.

Why do I care? And why should you, even if you don’t use Twitter? FOR A WHOLE BUNCH OF REASONS!!!

Much of it boils down to community, mental health, care, safety, and general/overall wellbeing.

Twitter is a lifeline for a lot of people. It’s vital for community and connection for many marginalized and disenfranchised folks—Black folks, Indigenous folks, and other people of color; disabled and chronically ill folks; queer folks; social activists; mutual aid organizations and facilitators; freelancers; artists; journalists; writers; and sex workers.

For many of us, especially those of us for whom the “real” world isn’t safe or accessible, Twitter is real life. It’s where we congregate and socialize and network and connect and build community. It’s where we find social, emotional, intellectual, and financial sustenance. It’s a place where we can make friends and family, and find help and answers. Twitter has been especially important to so many of us throughout the pandemic, WHICH IS STILL HAPPENING BY THE WAY, because it’s been a source of consistent, immediate, and reliable information about Covid, Long Covid, and disability, providing instant access to both scientific research and anecdotal evidence from care providers and patients—and has been a safe way to socialize.

“Can’t you just go elsewhere?” Yes and no. There are other places to hangout online, sure. There’s nothing else out there (yet) like Twitter. The places that people most often suggest as alternatives cannot (or at least, don’t currently) compare to the way that certain communities use Twitter.

One of the things that’s unique about Twitter is that it’s not siloed or federated. You don’t have to join certain groups or sections of the site. Everything’s just kind of…there. In the open. This makes finding community and information much easier. Another thing: its immediacy. Things happen—and travel—in real time on Twitter at a scope, scale, and speed that they don’t elsewhere. And, unlike most of the other popular social media platforms (at least, the ones that are popular here in the States), Twitter isn’t about aesthetic or performance or curating only the most palatable moments of life. It’s a place that a lot of us feel we can go to be real, without pressure to turn ourselves and our lives into ~**~content~**~.

This Washington Post article does a good job of explaining why Twitter is so important to disabled folks in particular. If you take only one thing from this piece, let it be this:

“Twitter has long been uniquely suited for people with disabilities in a way that can’t be easily replicated elsewhere. Because it’s primarily focused on the written word, it’s easier to use for blind people, deaf people and those who struggle with speech or fine motor control issues, compared with social media sites like TikTok and Instagram, which emphasize visuals and audio.

Twitter also has broad reach. Platforms like Reddit and Mastodon group people into specific community spaces or servers, making it harder for posts to gain the attention of the general public.”

Plus: there’s the extremely resource-intensive labor of starting over.

The platform is also essential for public safety. Tons of people, communities, and governments rely on Twitter for mass and instant global communications, coordinating emergency/disaster response efforts, and real-time organizing and mutual aid facilitation.

For a few messy hours late last week following the news that entire teams of engineers had quit or been fired, it felt likely, even imminent, that the site would completely collapse from a technical perspective. Today, that scenario seems a little less, but by no means entirely, unlikely. The more immediate concern now is that Twitter will become an unsafe and inhospitable space for those of us who rely on it most for community, connection, paying bills, and general quality of life—especially during the ongoing pandemic.

Gutting staff (including content moderators), canning policies (like ones governing hate speech), and reinstating people/accounts who were suspended or banned—all things that Musk has done and continues to do—have huge potential to turn Twitter a cesspool of fascism, white supremacy, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other such -ists and -isms and -phobias. A lot of this is already playing out, this Wired article explains.

As I was drafting this post Musk reinstated a handful of accounts that had been permanently suspended for, among other things, hate speech and inciting violence—Donald Trump, Kanye West, Jordan Peterson, Andrew Tate, etc. Just before I hit “publish” on this post, The Oregonian reported that Musk has granted “amnesty” to those previously suspended accounts. Since Musk took over, there’s been a sharp rise in unmoderated hate speech (use of the N-word was up nearly 500% in the 12 hours following Musk’s takeover, and there’s also bee a significant rise in anti-Semitic, misogynist, and transphobic language on the site). Brookings points out that this “speaks to how fringe, alt-right networks not only feel empowered by Musk’s takeover, but protected as well.”

The same article closes by stating:

“Collectively, recent changes to and at Twitter disrupt the ability for marginalized people to find community, produce useful discourse to share ways to foster equality, and protect themselves from hate speech and trauma. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and his potential plans to loosen moderation guidelines will continue to increase the use of hate speech and likely inhibit the ways that marginalized groups have organized and mobilized on the platform to resist harmful language and discrimination in their everyday lives.”

Twitter isn’t perfect. It never has been. It’s always been home to misinformation, trolls and bots, and hate. But not quite like this. And it’s terrifying. It’s not just the prospect of losing Twitter that’s concerning. It’s who we might lose it to, and what that could mean for individuals (people absolutely will die as a result of Musk’s unmoderated, “absolutist” free speech Twitter), and for democracy and humanity. I know that will sound dramatic to some. It’s not.

I’ll leave y’all with this thread that details lies Elon’s peddled about his credentials and why this is part of what makes him such a dangerous person, and the following embedded tweets from others who are also concerned/sad/pissed about what’s happening at Twitter. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony of embedding tweets into this post. The labor to screenshot, crop, upload, and ALT text all of these tweets, some of which are multi-tweet threads, requires more resources/spoons than I have available right now.)

Cycle 0 test day

Today was test day, which means the sole purpose of my training session today was to see how much weight I could snatch and how much weight I could clean and jerk (C&J)—with good form and technique—and then use those numbers to build my first official program/cycle with my coach. (My coach and I have been working together for the last two months, tweaking things here and there as my injuries have healed and I’ve been cleared to add more movements into training, which I guess is technically our first training cycle together, but it’s not really, you know?, so I’m calling it Cycle 0.)

I snatched 42kg and C&J 52kg, for a total of 94kg at a current bodyweight of somewhere around 66kg, give or take a kilo or two (I truly have no clue how much I weigh, I don’t own a scale). Bodyweight is relevant because weightlifting is contested by weight classes.

In weightlifting, a training cycle typically ends with a “test” or “max-out” day, to see how much progress an athlete has made with their current training program—how much stronger they’ve gotten, and how much they’ve improved their mechanics and technique. Test/max-out day will also expose or highlight things an athlete still needs to work on, and help an athlete and their coach plan out the next training cycle.

Until today, I hadn’t tested or maxed out either of these lifts since around this time last year, and I hadn’t ever tested or maxed them out with my current coach. When we started working together in mid-August, I still wasn’t cleared to lift weight overhead, which means I couldn’t test either of them. Instead, we tested both my front squat and my back squat, and spent the first few weeks focused on squats, pulls, halting deadlifts, and cleans. With the blessing of my physical therapist, we added in (very light) snatches, jerks, and presses in mid-September. Since then, we’ve stuck with very light weights. Until a few days ago, I was still using the 7kg training bar and training weights instead of the 15kg regular/competition-weight bar and regular training plates to train both competition lifts.

Going into today, I truly had no idea what to expect. It’d been well over a year since I last tested any of my lifts, and almost exactly a year since my last “pre”-injury training session (I was lifting injured for weeks before I finally stopped, got everything checked out, and took a months-long break from structured training). Also, I slept like shit last night, which is to say I barely slept at all (period, migraine, etc.).

Overall, I’m happy with how today went. I really wanted to snatch at least the greens (10kg plates) and C&J at least the yellows (15kg plates), and I did! Also, my mechanics and technique were WAY better than they’ve ever been, and my pelvic floor mostly held.

My next training cycle—my first structured one with this coach—starts Monday, and it’ll be based on the numbers I hit today. I’ll train three days a week for four weeks, then test my lifts again. The obvious aim of this cycle is to get stronger. We’ll also be focused on:

  • Staying tight in the bottom of the squat.
  • Consistently hitting triple extension.
  • Shoulder positioning in the snatch, especially when standing it up. (Hypermobility is a bitch.)
  • Jumping out, not back, in the catch.
  • High shoulders in the pull.
  • More aggressive footwork.
  • Pelvic floor control.

I’d like to add 8kg to both lifts at the end of this next cycle, which means I’m aiming to snatch 50kg and C&J 60kg in four weeks. Here’s hoping my Bambi-ass legs will grow for once their goddamn lives!!!

The difference between weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and CrossFit: A primer

Today on “Pet Peeves of a Pedantic Autistic”: A primer on some of the main differences between weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and CrossFit. Because I cannot stand when people mix these things up!!! THEY ARE VERY DIFFERENT THINGS!!!! As a weightlifter, I get particularly annoyed when people talk about “weightlifting” when what they mean is “powerlifting” or “lifting weights.” If you’re not snatching and cleaning and jerking, you’re not weightlifting!!!

The video below does a really good job of breaking down these four sports, and I appreciate that the host begins by noting that none of these four sports are bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is a whole different beast. The goal of bodybuilding is to sculpt—or build—your body to look a very specific way. The goal of weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman is to be the strongest athlete; the goal of CrossFit is to be the strongest, fastest, and most skilled athlete. Said another way: In bodybuilding, the goal is achieving a specific physique. In weightlifting et al., the goal is athletic performance.

The video is a quick (13-ish minutes) and easily digestible watch. I typed up some bullet points below it, if reading is more your jam than watching or listening. Full disclosure: I don’t know much about strongman, which means my notes about it below are lacking. I suggest watching that part of the video (it’s timestamped) to get a better feel for it.

Weightlifting

  • Two lifts: the snatch, and the clean and jerk (C&J).
  • Explosive and dynamic. Requires a high degree of technique and precision.
  • Still a niche sport in the United States. Very popular elsewhere in the world.
  • Of the four sports mentioned here, it’s the only one that’s contested in the Olympics.
  • The goal is to lift the most weight you can in both the snatch and the C&J.
  • Also called: Olympic weightlifting, Olympic-style weightlifting, Olympic lifting, and, sometimes, much to the chagrin of many weightlifters, Oly or Oly lifting.

Powerlifting

  • Three lifts: back squat, bench press, deadlift. Sometimes shortened to “squat, bench, dead,” or just “SBD.”
  • Less (but not zero) focus on technique and precision, more emphasis on raw strength.
  • More popular in the United States than weightlifting.
  • The goal is to lift the most weight you can in the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift.

Strongman

  • Uses a variety of odd objects and implements, like atlas stones, logs, yokes and sleds, etc.
  • Shares similarities and overlap with powerlifting.

CrossFit

  • A branded workout regimen.
  • Combines elements of the three other sports mentioned in this post, plus gymnastics, calisthenics, plyometrics, cycling, running, rowing, swimming.
  • At the elite level, requires all-around athleticism—strength, speed, skill.
  • Also known (and trademarked) as the “sport of fitness.”
  • Annual culminating competition: The CrossFit Games.

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In 2019 Brute Strength hosted the Brute Showdown series. Below is the first of five episodes that follow four women from different strength sports—weightlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, and powerlifting—competing against each other in a variety of workouts for fun. With a bodybuilder instead of a strongman/woman athlete, it’s not a precise 1:1 of the four sports outlined in this post and the video above. It’s pretty close, though! I really enjoyed this series when it first hit the internet, so I’m sharing it with y’all. As a treat.

Why weightlifting

A few posts ago I wrote about my change in training plans. Originally, my post-physical therapy plan was to return to my first love, CrossFit, and train competitively for it. My new/current plan is to stick with weightlifting as my primary sport, and keep CrossFit as a for-fun, sometimes thing.

Why? Because I want to and I can.

Also, I like it. Also, I want to be competitive in my sport, and I don’t think I can be competitive in CrossFit—not in the way or at the level that I want to be. Also, change is hard for me (universal and evergreen autistic sentiment) and while initially it was hard to stop doing CrossFit when I started weightlifting, the idea of changing shit up AGAIN is so stressful to me.

Here are a few other reasons why I decided to stick with weightlifting:

1. Social and cultural compatibility

Ultimately, weightlifting is a solo sport. CrossFit can be. Weightlifting just…is. And it feels (to me) less loud (figuratively/culturally), more chill. I’m basing that last part entirely on vibes, which means there’s plenty of room for me to be wrong. We’ll see!

2. Neurological, cognitive, mental, emotional, and financial compatibility

It takes a long-ass time for cues to click in my brain, and even longer for my body to learn what to do with them. This taxes me neurologically, cognitively, mentally, and emotionally in a way and to a degree that it doesn’t tax most non-autistic people. And because of the way and the pace at which I learn (tediously and slowly, respectively), especially when it comes to motor planning and output, I need custom programming and 1:1 coaching. This taxes me financially.

In weightlifting, an athlete needs to focus on a handful of foundational barbell exercises: the snatch, the clean, the jerk, and squats (front and back)—plus accessory exercises to help with those foundational exercises (technically, squats are accessory work in weightlifting, but they’re trained so frequently and are so foundational to the competition lifts that I think of them as, well, foundational exercises).

In (competitive) CrossFit, there are a trillion different foundational exercises an athlete needs to be proficient at. At a minimum, they need to be proficient in the exercises I mentioned above—plus their dumbbell, kettlebell, and single-arm variations—and:

  • The rest of the powerlifts (deadlifts and bench press).
  • A shit-ton of gymnastics movements, like bar and ring muscle-ups, pull-ups, handstand push-ups (including deficit and other variations, like strict, or facing the wall), dips, toes-to-bar (strict and kipping), handstand walks, etc.
  • All sorts of cardio exercises, including running, swimming, rowing, ski erg-ing, and biking (regular bike, assault bike, erg bike, echo bike).
  • A variety of strongman exercises, like yoke carries; sled pushes and pulls; atlas stone, sandbag, and d-ball exercises; farmers carries; tire flips; etc.
  • A bunch of other shit, like thrusters, double-unders, wall balls, rope climbs (including legless), peg board, lunges, box jumps, kettlebell swings, etc.

Plus tons of other stuff, and also the accessory work!

Some CrossFit workouts require you to establish a one-rep max (1RM) for a given exercise. Mostly, though, CrossFit workouts require you to quickly string together multiple reps of a given exercise while maintaining good mechanics and proper form. Usually this is simply strategy—in CrossFit, the fastest athlete/team wins the workout. Sometimes, though, the workout dictates that all reps of an exercise be performed unbroken, and penalizes or eliminates you if they’re not.

As much as I love (and I mean LOVE) the intensity of variability of CrossFit workouts, I’ve always struggled with this aspect of them. Stringing together reps, especially quickly and correctly, has always been difficult for me. Like many (though certainly not all) autistic folks, I don’t have an innate sense of rhythm or cadence, and I struggle with balance and coordination, as well as mind/muscle connection, which in turn (negatively) affects muscle recruitment and activation. This makes stringing together reps incredibly challenging for me, which slows me down, which stresses me out, which often causes me to rush and/or become incredibly self-conscious and begin making mistakes and getting no-reps, which pisses me off—and then it all repeats. For eternity.

In weightlifting, it’s one rep at a time. And there are only a few lifts to master. This means the neurological, cognitive, mental, emotional, and financial demands of weightlifting are more compatible with my abilities, limitations, and needs.

3. Consistency in competition

Full disclosure: While I do have first-hand, lived experience with (non-elite) CrossFit competitions, I’ve not yet competed in weightlifting, so I don’t have first-hand, lived experience with weightlifting meets. I have spectated them, though, and I have close friends who have lifted in national-level meets, so I’m not completely clueless about them.

Also: I’m not saying everything always goes according to plan at weightlifting meets, or that they’re no-stress zones. Shit absolutely goes wrong. Shit absolutely changes last minute (order of lifters, deviations from declared weights, etc.). My impression is that overall, there’s more consistency and less chaos in competitive weightlifting than in competitive CrossFit (could be wrong tho!).

In CrossFit, competitions take place both indoors and outdoors, which is to say: competing can happen in various weather conditions. There are always more than one workout per competition (there are usually three or four, minimum), and often more than one day of competition. Your judge follows you around the competition floor/field/whatever, which can, in the heat of the things, feel confusing and chaotic (was that “no rep” for you, or someone next to/near you? Was it your judge or someone else’s who had their hand up? Was the person shouting that rep count your judge or someone else’s?). Sometimes workouts (or elements of them) are announced in advance, sometimes they’re not announced until right before you do them. Sometimes new exercises and implements are introduced during competition, and sometimes these are things you’ve never trained before.

This variability is a foundational tenet of the CrossFit methodology. CrossFit is all about adaptability and all-around athleticism. And competition, especially at the higher/elite levels, is designed to test this. It’s thrilling to watch the big kids of CrossFit perform under that type of pressure.

But me personally??? Lol! Change stresses me out. Surprises stress me out. Lots of moving pieces stress me out. Having to perform in weather stresses me out. Competing in CrossFit requires more motor coordination and mental agility and flexibility than I have most of the time.

In weightlifting, competitions are held indoors. You always lift on a platform in front of judges who are always positioned in the same spots. You always have three (3) attempts at both lifts, and you always attempt the lifts in the same order (snatch, then clean and jerk). There are never any new exercises or implements introduced into competition. This consistency is much better suited for my autistic brain, which requires as much consistency as possible in order to keep me regulated and help keep autistic meltdowns, shutdowns, and/or burnouts at bay.

The drawback, for me, in competitive weightlifting is that it’s just you up there on the platform, by yourself, all eyes on you. I hate Hate HATE having all eyes on me. It stresses me out so damn much!!! In CrossFit, even if you compete as an individual (as opposed to partner or team), it’s incredibly rare that you’re performing a workout alone, by yourself, all eyes on you. The vast majority of the time, you’re competing in a heat with at least a handful of fellow competitors. When the day comes for me to actually lift at a weightlifting meet, I anticipate this being the most challenging aspect of it for me.

4. A bonus reason

Another reason why I decided to stick with weightlifting is because I just cannot get behind corporate CrossFit HQ culture. I hate giving them my money.

Until I started training at my new gym in May, I hadn’t been associated with a CrossFit affiliate in YEARS (CrossFit gyms are franchises, I write about that more in this post, in the fifth and sixth paragraphs). Since May, I’ve been training out of a CrossFit affiliate. This is something that I have a hard time reconciling. The reality is: Weightlifting is a niche sport in the United States, and many weightlifting teams/barbell clubs operate out of CrossFit gyms. Also, I knew going into this that I want to compete, and that in order to get to that level, I need personalized programming and in-person, face-to-face, literally hands-on 1:1 coaching. Not remote coaching. Not small-group training. Those requirements alone limited the options available to me.

Before deciding to train where I do now, I surveyed a number of gyms in my area. The only gym that had the space, the equipment, the expertise, a schedule that works with mine, and the willingness to work with me, an autistic athlete with competitive goals, was the gym I currently train out of. It was the last one I surveyed.

It’s a wonderful facility with incredibly kind and supportive people. I really, really like it there, even as I really, really dislike corporate CrossFit HQ culture. The only way I’m able to rationalize it is knowing that I pay for a weightlifting membership, not a CrossFit membership (yes, they’re two different things), and, technically, my money isn’t going to CFHQ (yes, this is some questionable mental gymnastics).

Admittedly, I don’t (yet) have the same experience in or exposure to the weightlifting world as I do the CrossFit world, so it’s possible that, along the way, I’ll find out things about USA Weightlifting ethics and culture that don’t sit right with me. Who knows! We’ll see! There’s still time for me to learn to hate it!

*

I want to be clear about two things:

One: I don’t think CrossFit is a universally bad choice for autistic athletes. I think that at this point in my athletic career, and given my goals, of the two, weightlifting is the better choice for me. I think that if I’d had a better understanding of the root of my challenges earlier in my athletic career *and* coaches and clinicians who believed me and worked with me to address those challenges in a supportive environment, I could’ve gone further in CrossFit (and weightlifting, tbh). At this point, though, the idea of competitive CrossFit isn’t appealing to me anymore. I rely on the gym to help level-set my mental health and keep my nervous system regulated. In order to keep doing that, I have to enjoy what I’m doing. Not always, but often. Or at least, often enough. And that just wasn’t happening anymore with CrossFit.

Two: I didn’t decide to stick with weightlifting because I thought it would be easy. It’s not easy. At all. It’s tedious and technical and requires a ton of effort and energy and attention. It is, frankly, really fucking hard. I decided to stick with it because I love it, I have more fun doing it, and I think my body and brain are better built for it.

Hiking Hart’s Cove via Lower and Upper Cascade Head

Y’all, look.

Listen.

Last Saturday I hiked Hart’s Cove via Lower and Upper Cascade Head out at the Oregon coast and it’s a good thing this was my last hike of the season because it absolutely destroyed me??? And for no reason????

The weather was perfect (PERFECT) and I was dressed appropriately for it. I got a full night of sleep the night before. I ate well all week and the morning of. I brought (and ate) all my regular hiking snacks. I wore the same socks and boots that I always wear while hiking. I had (and drank) plenty of water. And yet. AND YET! I ended this hike broken—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. My heels were raw. My head was pounding. My joints were aching. My muscles were screaming. EVEN MY BONES HURT. It’s almost an entire week later and my life is still pain!!! I have no idea where or why or how things went so, so wrong.

Photo of me, Kelsey, a white woman, at the end of Hart's Cove Trail. I'm standing in tall, dry grass. The Pacific Ocean is behind me. I'm wearing black leggings, a purple tank top, a red day pack, sunglasses, and a smile.

This was my second attempt at this trail, which is, allegedly, a 13.3-mile out-and-back. The math ain’t mathing, though. When I hit the halfway point (Hart’s Cove, pictured above), I was at 7.8 miles. After turning around and hiking back THE SAME EXACT WAY I CAME, I was at 14.7, not 15.6, miles??? I don’t know!!!

I first tried this trail a few weeks ago. It was a last-minute and poorly planned decision. I was PMSing, it was the morning after I got both my flu shot and my bilvalent Covid booster (the new bivalent booster protects against two of the most contagious variants, the OG booster protects only against OG Covid) (here’s a more scientific and detailed explanation of the new booster) (also: please get a bivalent booster shot if you’ve not already, and please get your ass vaccinated in general if you’ve not already), and the state was under a thick layer of wildfire smoke. Yes, even out at the coast. No, I didn’t bother checking the forecast for anything other than the temperature that day. I made it about 2.5 miles in before turning back because the wind kept knocking me down and the smoke made breathing gross.

Here’s a photo of the hazy, smokey view from Lower Cascade Head Trail, taken at 7:37 am during my first attempt at this hike.

View of the Pacific Ocean and the beach from a hillside portion of Lower Cascade Head Trail. The sky is hazy and smokey, and pastel-colored peach and periwinkle.

And here’s a photo from a similar spot on the same trail, taken this past weekend, about an hour later, at 8:45 am.

View of the Pacific Ocean and the beach from a hillside portion of Lower Cascade Head Trail. The sky is bright blue and clear.

Given how nice of a day it was, and that that was probably the last decent weekend here until next spring, I was surprised at how few people I encountered most of the hike. For the first five hours/11.5 miles, I saw only two other people—one about a mile from Hart’s Cove and one at Hart’s Cove. Most of the people I saw were starting as I was finishing—I passed about 25 people over the course of the last 2.5 miles (or, first 2.5 miles for them).

AllTrails said I gained just over 3,000 feet in elevation, but who the fuck knows if it’s telling the truth. There *are* some pretty steep stretches of trail. The worst of it is in the very beginning of Lower Cascade Head Trail, which is covered by tree canopy, which means SHADE, which is helpful if you hike this on a warm or hot day. Most of those steep portions are actual steps. Some of it’s more like this gnarled mass of tree roots.

Photo of gnarled tree roots that serve as steps on an early stretch of Lower Cascade Head Trail.

Portions of this first part of Lower Cascade Head Trail level out a bit—or at least, the ascent becomes more gradual in some spots. Once you hit the uncovered portion of the trail, though, it becomes more steep again and you basically zig-zag your way up this fucking thing:

Photo taken from the trail, looking up at the hill the trail requires you to hike. The hillside is covered in long and dry grass. The sky is bright blue and cloudless.

Once you make it up that hill, you hit tree canopy for the rest of the way to Hart’s Cove. It’s also relatively flat from the time you hit tree canopy on Upper Cascade Trail until you hit the Hart’s Cove trailhead. A lot of it looks like the photo below—until you hit the Upper Cascade trailhead. At that point, you’re still under tree canopy, but you’re on a forest service road for about a mile (little less) until you hit Hart’s Cove trailhead. The road, NF-1861, is currently (and has been (and, apparently, will remain)) closed to vehicle traffic because of landslide debris, which means the only way you can access Upper Cascade Head or Hart’s Cove is by starting at the Lower Cascade Head trailhead and hiking your ass there. It’s like nobody wants to get their ass up and hike Hart’s Cove from Lower Cascade Head anymore! (The NFS says you can also get to Hart’s Cove via Rainforest Trail, but I don’t know anything about that.)

Photo of a portion of Upper Cascade Head Trail. The trail cuts through the forest and the path is fresh grass instead of dirt.

Here’s what the mile-ish hike along the forest service road from the Upper Cascade Head trailhead to Hart’s Cove trailhead looks like:

Photo of Forest Road 1861, which is currently closed to vehicle traffic. The road is packed dirt and lined by forest.

Hart’s Cove Trail is NOT flat/level. The first 0.5 mile is a fairly steep descent (which means your last 0.5 mile on the way back is all uphill—dizazz), and then it kind of yo-yos the rest of the way to the viewpoint/turnaround spot.

This trail was covered the entire way until you hit the viewpoint, which is wide open, and it was wet and muddy much of the way. There were 2.5 water crossings on this trail, and several obstructions (lots of fallen trees). Some obstructions were things you could mostly just step over.

Photo of a downed tree across a footbridge that allows hikers to cross over a creek.

Some, though, were like…this:

Photo of piles of large tree branches and brush obstructing a portion of the Hart's Cove Trail.

And this:

Photo of piles of large tree branches and brush obstructing a portion of the Hart's Cove Trail.

A mile before the viewpoint, there’s a bench (and also a sign nailed to a tree that reads “Hart’s Cove 1 mi.”), where you can sit and take in the loud bark of the sea lions below (can’t see ’em tho), have a snack, take a nap, cry about how much your feet hurt, etc. Directly across from the bench, through the trees, is the grassy viewpoint you’re headed to.

Photo of Hart's Cove from a bench in the forest across the way. The grassy meadow is barely visible through tall Sitka Spruce-Western Hemlock trees in the foreground.

I am NOT a mushroom person. I cannot stand the way they feel or taste or smell. Some of them do look cool, though. And there were a lot of cool, giant mushrooms on this trail. This one, which looks like it got dressed in 1974, was the coolest and most giant one I saw.

Photo of a large mushroom growing at the base of a tree. The mushroom is about the size of an adult's face, and colored white, yellow, orange, and brown.

It took me just under three hours to hike the 7.8 (or however many) miles to the viewpoint. I stopped once along the way to dress my wounds (I started blistering around 2.5 miles and stopped to put on moleskin), and a whole bunch of times to take pictures and say “WOW!” à la Owen Wilson at everything I looked at.

I spent about 30 minutes at the viewpoint. I ate some snacks, took some photos, let my heels air out before applying new moleskin, chatted for a bit with the other hiker up there, laid down in the grass and soaked in some sun, etc. I’d thought about bringing a book. I didn’t, because literally every time I’ve done that in the past, the summit/turnaround point has been crowded and not at all conducive to reading and relaxing. Of course that wasn’t the case this time. This time, I wish I’d brought a book. It was so peaceful and quiet! I could’ve hung out up there, reading, for hours.

Photo of Hart's Cove taken from Hart's Cove Trail. The Pacific Ocean pools in the cove, surrounded by tall Sitka Spruce-Western Hemlock trees on cliffs. The sky is bright blue and cloudless. The water has a green/teal tint to it.

Of all the trails I’ve hiked this season, this one had the most (visible) wildlife. During my failed first attempt at this trail, I saw deer (elk?), a bunch of creepy-looking insects, a ton of bees (portions of the trail are lined with wild berries and, naturally, swarms of bees near those berries), and a giant worm that I learned was actually a small snake almost immediately after bending down to be like “damn, that’s a giant worm.” This time I saw A TON of large black beetles, lots of caterpillars, some frogs, a bunch of mushrooms, a chipmunk, and an impressive variety of animal shit. The other hiker at the top (?) of the trail let me borrow their binoculars so I guess technically I saw a bunch of sea lions, too.

Overall, an unexpectedly brutal hike. The most brutal I’ve ever done, even! I think the blisters are what did me in—though my entire body and all of my bones and even my brain hurt by the time I finished. And for days—DAYS!!!—after. So I don’t know if it was just (“just”) the blisters. It was also a gorgeous hike, and a perfect day for it. If you’re up for a 14-ish mile hike, I definitely recommend this one. Only thing I would’ve done differently, aside from not getting blisters? I would’ve brought trekking poles. There were several times, mostly on Hart’s Cove Trail, that I found myself wishing I’d brought mine. And maybe also a book.

*

A few more details:

Permit: None.

Fees: None required, a few donation boxes along the way.

Trailhead: This hike is three trails: Lower Cascade Head to Upper Cascade Head to Hart’s Cove. Currently, only the first trailhead—Lower Cascade Head—is accessible by vehicle. So you’ll have to start there. I used the directions that AllTrails gave me via Google Maps and it took me exactly where I needed to go.

Gas stations: This hike is about 90 miles from Portland, so make sure you head out with a full tank, especially if you leave early in the morning. Most of the second half of the drive is through sparsely populated areas. There are a few big gas stations about half an hour out from the trail (the Shell at the casino felt the safest to me (it’s self-service, though, which might be weird or stressful if you’re not used to pumping your own gas)), and a mom-and-pop one a couple miles from the trailhead.

Bathrooms: A pair of vault bathrooms, which were very well maintained and throughly stocked with TP the days I was there. There are spots here and there along all three trails (Upper and Lower Cascade Head, and Hart’s Cove) to pee.

Parking: Paved lot with about 25 marked spaces, including one (1) designated handicapped spot. Cars are to the left, vehicles with boats to the right. I got there early both times I tried this hike—about 6:45 am the first time and an hour-ish later this past time—and there were plenty of spots open both times. By the time I got back to my car last Saturday, around 2:30 pm, the lot was full and there were a lot of vehicles parked along the roads.

Cell service: I brought both my personal phone and my work phone (just in case), which are Verizon and AT&T, and I had service until Hart’s Cove. No service after that. Service came back when I made it back to the Upper Cascade Head trailhead.

Water source: None along either of the Cascade Head trails. Some along Hart’s Cove. Probably best to bring your own. I brought 3L and drank almost all of it.

Viewpoint: You can hike just the first 2.5-ish miles of Lower Cascade Head Trail and you’ll get amazing views. The only other view is at the end of Hart’s Cove, 7.8 miles (allegedly) in. And because the forest service road is closed, the trailhead is inaccessible to cars, so if you want to see the Hart’s Cove views, you’ll have to hike there from the Lower Cascade Head trailhead, or Rainforest Trail.

Dogs: Explicitly not allowed. Horses explicitly not allowed either, FWIW.

Having a panic attack on the trail (0/10, do not recommend)

Remember when I tried to hike Elk Mountain/King’s Mountain Loop back in May and didn’t finish? That’s because I had a panic attack—3,000 feet atop exposed trail in inclement weather while hiking with someone I barely knew. DIZAZZ.

Photo of Tillamook State Forest taken from about 2,500 feet atop Elk Mountain Trail. The sky is gray with heavy, low clouds. The trees are various shades of green.

I feel like the weather had a lot to do with it. I’m not really afraid of heights—not when my feet are literally on the ground, anyway. I don’t like flying, and I don’t like driving on elevated roadways (bridges, windy sides of mountains, etc.). But if my literal feet are on the literal ground, I’m usually okay with height. Unless, apparently, there’s weather involved.

For the week prior to this hike, my hiking partner and I checked the weather daily. We knew this was going to be a tough hike (it’s rated “hard” on AllTrails, which we presumed, from the comments, was due to the elevation gain), and neither of us wanted to hike in pouring rain or super cold temps. We were prepared to delay the hike if we felt the weather called for it. It was chilly the day we attempted this hike, and a bit overcast when we began, but overall, the forecast seemed okay. Remember, we were under the impression the elevation gain would be the most difficult/technical thing we’d encounter.

Reader: We were wrong.

There were several stretches of incredibly narrow and steep trail that was exposed and required scrambling. I’m not saying this is the most technical or challenging trail on the planet. I’m saying it wasn’t what we expected, and personally, I wasn’t prepared for it. I think if the weather had been dry and warmer, this would be a non-story because we would’ve finished the hike. That’s not what happened.

Right as we reached what felt like the most technical part of the trail (steep grade, steep drop-offs, steep scramble), the fog rolled in and the rain started coming down. And with the change in weather and terrain, I felt the panic attack coming on. It’s an unmistakable, alarming feeling, especially when it presents with derealization, like it did that day.

A lot of resources describe derealization as feeling like “a dream.” To me, derealization feels less like living in a dream (“dream” has too positive of a connotation to me for what the actual experience feels like) and more like being stuck or suspended in a liminal space. When it’s happening, the more aware of it I become, the worse it gets—the further away from reality and outside of myself I feel, which freaks me the fuck out, and the more I begin to worry (panic) that I’m going to break with reality and that if I do, I might not ever make it back.

But wait, there’s more!

As the psychological pieces of the panic attack become more pronounced, the physical aspects of it kick in. Often, I start shaking uncontrollably, as adrenaline and cortisol start pumping through my body. My field of vision narrows, and can become unclear and spotty. Sometimes, my hearing becomes impaired—voices and other noises around me can sound diffuse and garbled, my ears might start ringing with a piercing sound.

On this particular day, my Raynaud’s decided to join the party, too. Raynaud’s is a condition in which certain areas of the body—often the fingers and the toes—become cold and go numb. The affected area usually turns white or blue. Cold temps and stress both activate and exacerbate it. Here’s what it looks like on/for me.

Photo of my left hand, showing the effects of Raynaud's. The top 2/3 of my fingers is white, while the color in the rest of my hand is normal.

My Raynaud’s joining the party that day is significant because it meant that on top of intrusive thoughts, uncontrollable shaking, and impaired vision, my grip was shot, too. On their own and even though I was wearing very warm, waterproof gloves, the cold made closing my fingers challenging, and the rain made it difficult to get a grip on the scramble and tree roots, which I’d been trying to hold onto for stability. The numbness from the Raynaud’s meant I couldn’t feel my fingers.

So there I was, on the precipice of a mountain, about 3,000 feet above the ground in inclement weather, having intrusive thoughts, shaking uncontrollably, with literal tunnel vision, and unable to get a decent grip on the steep terrain around me thanks to (1) wet and cold weather that made gripping the scramble and tree roots I’d been gripping for stability up to this point incredibly difficult, and (2) my numb fingers that I couldn’t feel or properly close around the slippery scramble and roots. Also: wind. AND THEN: my trash-ass proprioception.

Proprioception refers to our ability to sense our body’s movement and location in space. It also plays a role in balance and coordination. I talk more about my proprioceptive differences in this post. Basically: Even in the best of times when there are no complicating factors, I have difficulty knowing where my body is in space, coordinating my movements, and balancing.

On top of all the regular panic attack-y things I was experiencing, I was trying to literally navigate this particular section of trail with proprioception that’s Not Great even when I’m not having a small personal crisis on top of a mountain in the wind and rain. At one point, I had three points of contact at all times, and eventually began scooting around the trail on my ass, trying to grip whatever I could—when there was something-ish to grip. Problem was, most of what was available to grip was roots, and because it was currently, and had for days prior been, raining, the roots weren’t exactly sturdy.

I knew that I needed my full attention on the trail. I also knew that wasn’t going to happen. I was putting so much of my energy and attention into trying to mitigate my panic attack. Ultimately, given all the variables—the panic attack + the Raynaud’s + my trash-ass proprioception + the elevation + the narrowness of the trail + the low visibility/density of the fog + the rain (the slipperiness of the trail and the scramble)—I didn’t trust myself to not accidentally fuck up in a situation that allowed zero room for error.

So I removed myself from the situation.

I looked back at my hiking partner and said, “I need to turn back.” With no questions asked and no shade thrown, she agreed. Which: THANK FUCK for a hiking buddy who isn’t a dick. Also, I’m proud of myself for making the decision I did. It wasn’t easy. It was the right call.

Learning I’m autistic has been such a game-changer (for the better) in so many ways. For example, it’s given me context for understanding my experiences, and more self-knowledge about how my brain and body do (and don’t) work together. And that context for my experiences and better understanding of myself has empowered me to make better decisions. Had this situation happened and I didn’t know I was autistic and how being autistic affects my proprioception (a word I didn’t even know before I learned I’m autistic), I almost certainly wouldn’t have made the same decision. I would’ve believed that turning back was weak and unforgivable—I would’ve tried to power through, and honestly, who the fuck knows what might’ve happened (autistic people are significantly more likely to die from injuries and accidents, and I’ve already passed the average life expectancy for autistic people, which is a whopping 36 years old).

I know that a lot of people think an autism diagnosis is a tragic thing. That it’s the end of the world. That’s because they’re uninformed. An autism diagnosis isn’t either of those things. In many, many ways, it’s life-changing (in a good way), and even life-saving, both directly and in-.

Anyway.

The panic attack was an all-around 0/10 experience—hard pass, return to sender, do not recommend. It taught me a lot about myself, though, and that’s 10/10 valuable information to have.

*

If something like this happens to you on the trail (or anywhere, really), you’re not crazy for it happening and you’re not stupid or weak if you decide to turn around and go back instead of trying to push through.

If this happens to someone you’re with (on the trail or not), don’t be a dick about it. Don’t push them to “face their fear” or “get over it” or “just finish” because y’all “came all this way” or “made it this far.” Be kind. Be willing to turn back/leave with them. Don’t make any shitty, judgmental comments. You don’t have to “agree with” or understand it, you absolutely should respect it. I promise you, a person having a panic attack doesn’t want to be having a panic attack (especially in public), and isn’t “acting crazy” “on purpose” “for attention.”

What I’m reading: August 2022

Hi, hey, hello! I have a lot I want to blog about. I simply do not have the brain space right now. There are a fuck-ton of moving pieces in my life right now, which is an actual nightmare for my autistic ass, which does not handle change well and which cannot function without rigid structure, schedule, and routine. So. While I wait for things to settle down enough for my brain to be able to string together coherent thoughts, I’m sharing a few book recommendations for two books that I’ve recently-ish read, and one that I’m currently trying very hard to read (see previous note about lack of brain space).

Photo of the book cover for "On Immunity: An Inoculation" by Eula Biss. The cover is a detail from Peter Paul Ruben's c. 1630 painting "Achilles Dipped into the River Styx," which shows Achilles being dipped into the River Styx, held by his left ankle.

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss.

I read this book over Fourth of July weekend and let me tell you, it was a trip to read this book when I did. Published in 2014, it references Roe v. Wade—several times—and in a way that assumes it will always be, which was particularly disorienting as Roe was repealed days before I read the book. And by way of addressing the inevitability of a future pandemic, it foreshadows Covid-19. Wild!

Biss is one of my favorite writers. Her writing is gorgeous, and she’s so, so smart. In this book, she merges sciences, medicine, personal history, cultural history, art, mythology, philosophy, metaphor, and ethics to discuss, as the title suggests, inoculation, vaccination, and immunity. In doing so, she highlights our interconnectedness, our responsibilities to each other, and the multidimensional nature of health. The result is, like everything else she writes (essays; books), stunning. My detail-oriented and pattern-recognizing autistic brain loves the connection of dots—the more dots, and the less seemingly related they are at first glance, the better. This book had dots. Lots of them. Big love.

Photo of the book cover for "Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves" edited by Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile. The cover shows brightly colored pink, red, blue, yellow, and green human-shaped forms arranged in a kaleidoscopic pattern.

Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves edited by Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile.

An anthology of previously published essays (culled from the Catapult archive) that describe and discuss the embodied experience(s) of health, disability, race, gender, sexuality, size, and shape. Didn’t love, didn’t hate, kind of liked, kind of didn’t. Ultimately, I think it’s a worthwhile read.

(I think my ambivalence lies in the book being an anthology, which means that although there’s a unifying theme that each essay is tied to, there’s inconsistency in overall structure, tone, and pace, because each essay is written by a different writer, and every writer has their own style. And, as we’ve established, my autistic brains likes consistency. That’s not the book’s problem, though. The book did exactly what it’s supposed to do. Also: What a great cover, right??)

Photo of the book cover for "All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life's Work" by Hayley Campbell. The background of the cover is black, with a skull surrounded by a black bird, fern leaves, and a small assortment of orange-ish and pink-ish wildflowers arranged just below the center line.

All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work by Hayley Campbell.

I ordered this book while listening to this NPR interview with the author. It sounded irresistible—and it is. It’s so good. I admit, though, that I’m biased—I have a thing for books that discuss death and dying and the funeral industry (I’ve been around death from a young age—from the death of many acquaintances and friends over the years (cancer, addiction, suicide, murder), to once being married to a man whose entire job every single day for many years was to conduct funerals for military servicemembers being buried in Arlington National Cemetery, to combat-related deaths of friends of friends).

Each chapter is a mini profile a different part of the death industry and a person or people who work in it: embalmers, international disaster response workers, a former corrections officer who was the state’s executioner, a man who owns a business that you can hire to clean a crime or trauma scene (once an investigation is over, the police do not clean up—the task is left to the families/property owners, to either DIY it, or hire a trauma cleaner), a funeral director, the director of an organ donation organization, a death mask sculptor, a bereavement midwife, a person whose job is to dig graves, the operator of a crematorium, and the president of the Cryonics Institute.

I’m about halfway through and so far I’ve found every chapter incredibly fascinating and nuanced. Also, I deeply appreciate that this book highlights the humanity of everyone involved—both the dead and the living.

Five related books that I’ve also read and recommend:

A peek inside my “Hike Passport”

A fact about me is that I’m a documenter at heart (as if having a personal blog didn’t give that away), and an absolute sucker for a fun on-paper memorykeeping project (once upon a time, I spent five years running a memorykeeping blog, and working on the creative teams of the biggest brands in the business). I love a well-designed and well-crafted paper product, and all the cute little shit that can go along with it. Like my adorable mini stapler that looks like a whale.

LOOK AT HER! SHE’S SO CUTE! 🐳

An overhead view of a light pink stapler, neon green mini date stamp, small stack of 3x4 color photos, and a sage green "Hike Passport" book arranged atop a wood surface.

Memorykeeping was a big part of my life for a long time. I’ve been out of the habit and the business for a few years now, and I miss it. I keep trying to get back in the groove with it, and I keep missing the mark, taking on ambitious projects that overwhelm me into freezing and walking away. So. I decided to try this very simple, low-stakes project instead.

I used a Hike Passport from Letterfolk. Letterfolk has a whole series of these “passports” covering a bunch of different activities, not just hiking. In the “Hike” one, there’s room to document 20 hikes, with some extra pages of fluff in the back. Each of the 20 documenting spreads has a templated page on the left and a dot-grid page on the right.

The templated page on the left has space to document details like the date, trail, location, distance, who you hiked with, the gear you brought, the weather you encountered, types of terrain, snacks you ate, how busy the trail was, how difficult the trail was, how long it took you to complete, and a few more. You can do whatever you want on the dot-grid page. I used it to include a photo from and the date of each hike. You could use it to sketch a scene from the hike, or journal about it. Or to preserve a pass, or piece of the trail map, or some other ephemera (wrapper from a snack?). Or a combination of those things, the sky’s the limit!

A close-up of the inside of Letterfolk's "Hike Passport," open to a blank spread. 

On the left, a templated page to record the hike's details. The fields are titled: Hike #, Date, Trail, Location, Distance, I Hike With..., Season, Gear Brought, Elevation, Nature Observed, Terrain, Weather Encountered, Trail Traffic, Hiking Snacks, Difficulty Level, Favorite Moment, Duration, When I Finished I Felt..., [blank]/10, Hike it Again? 

On the right, a blank dot-grid page.

Usually, I print my photos at home (I use an Epson PM-400. I’ve had it for almost a decade. I love it. Definitely recommend). For this project, I printed my photos through Persnickety Prints. Their website is a little janky, but their quality and service is unmatched. I’ve used them for select memorykeeping projects for almost a decade.

Here’s a look at a few of my completed (“completed”) pages. I don’t fill out each field every time, just the details that I kept track of and that feel relevant to me for that particular hike. And I never use the “When I Finished I Felt…” field the way it’s intended to be used. I always put extra notes about the hike there.

Hike #2 this year, Wahkeena Falls Loop/Multnomah Falls:

A close-up of the inside of Letterfolk's "Hike Passport," open to a spread documenting my second hike of the year.

On the left, I've recorded the following details about the hike:

Trail: Wahkeena Falls Loops (started @ Multnomah Falls); 

Location: The Gorge (OR); 

Distance: 6.1 mi; 

I Hiked With: myself; Season: (I circled the tulip to indicate "spring"); 

Gear Brought: standard day pack; 

Elevation: 1,751 feet of gain; 

Nature Observed: So. Many. Waterfalls. Views of the Gorge; 

Terrain: dirt, water, mud; 

Weather Encountered: Sun; 

Trail Traffic: 2/6; 

Hiking Snacks: None; 

Difficulty Level: 1/6; 

When I Finished I Felt...: impromptu hike. didn't know the loop existed till I arrived. pizza afterward.

On the right, a color 3x4 photo of Multnomah Falls stapled to the page, and the date of the hike (April 24, 2022) stamped in black ink beneath the photo.

Hike #7, Dog Mountain:

A close-up of the inside of Letterfolk's "Hike Passport," open to a spread documenting my seventh hike of the year.

On the left, I've recorded the following details about the hike:

Trail: Dog Mountain; 

Location: The Gorge (OR); 

Distance: 6.1 mi; 

I Hiked With: myself; 

Season: (I circled the tulip to indicate "spring"); 

Gear Brought: standard day pack; 

Elevation: 2,837 feet of gain; 

Nature Observed: Wildflowers, trees, views of the Gorge.; 

Terrain: dirt, rocks; 

Weather Encountered: Sun, partly cloudy; 

Trail Traffic: 6/6; 

Hiking Snacks: Welch's (fruit snacks); 

Difficulty Level: 3/6; 

Duration: 2:58;

When I Finished I Felt...: way too fucking crowded. lungs and legs the whole way. brutal. loved.

On the right, a color 3x4 photo of me standing facing the camera, with views of the Columbia River and tree-lined mountains in the background, stapled to the page, and the date of the hike (May 20, 2022) stamped in black ink beneath the photo.

And hike #9, Elk Mountain/King’s Mountain Loop:

A close-up of the inside of Letterfolk's "Hike Passport," open to a spread documenting my ninth hike of the year.

On the left, I've recorded the following details about the hike:

Trail: Elk Mountain/King's Mountain Loop - DNF; 

Location: Tillamook State Forest; 

Distance: 12.0 mi; 

Season: (I circled the tulip to indicate "spring"); 

Gear Brought: Osprey daypack, waterproof gloves, trekking poles, rain jacket.; 

Elevation: 2,920 feet of gain; 

Nature Observed: Trees, baby waterfalls, a river (creek?), so many slugs.; 

Terrain: dirt, rocks; 

Weather Encountered: cloudy, partly cloudy, rain; 

Trail Traffic: 1/6; 

Hiking Snacks: granola bars, applesauce, dried apples, gum;

Duration: 5:26;

When I Finished I Felt...: turned back just before 2nd summit. inclement weather and OCD episode. took wrong trail up. LOL oops.

On the right, a color 3x4 photo of me squatting and facing the camera, with views of the tree-lined mountains in the background, stapled to the page, and the date of the hike (May 28, 2022) stamped in black ink beneath the photo.

This little book is not a practical thing to bring with you on the trail. It *is* a fun and creative thing to do to commemorate your time on the trail. I think it’s a particularly great project for people who are new to memorykeeping, or returning after a break. Memorykeeping can be super overwhelming. This is a great project because it’s formulaic and simple. And because it doesn’t require a ton of supplies (date stamp and stapler not required), it’s a relatively affordable one, too.

*

Supplies:

Hike Passport: Letterfolk, $14.95 total. $10 for the “Passport” and $4.95 for shipping.

Stapler: Ellepi Klivia 97, $25-ish. You can find this on Amazon, but please consider supporting your local paper goods shop or craft store. If your local shop doesn’t carry Ellepi, try Little Otsu or Porchlight. Fun fact: Ellepi is a four-person Italy-based team, and they make all of their products by hand.

Date stamp: Miseyo, $11.99 plus shipping. I don’t remember what I paid for this total. I’ve had it for a while. Soz!

Photos: Persnickety Prints, prices vary. I paid $13.85 for these nine 3×4 photos—$4.86 for the photos (which included an up-charge because I went with the white border) and $8.99 for shipping, which: kind of yikes, I know. But also, the total cost was within my budget and I wanted to, so I did. For what it’s worth, their standard shipping (the default option) is incredibly fast and has never taken anywhere near 7-10 days to arrive, which makes that $8.99 feel like a better value than if the photos took forever to arrive.