Fog. From working with patients, I know that brain-fog is one of the key symptoms of fibromyalgia, and I'm pretty sure it's a direct result of, over time, over and over, being told that one does not feel what one feels, does not know what one knows, and has not experienced the events directly connected with one’s pervasive sense of being unsafe in the world. Foggy. Well, if I don’t know what I know, and I don’t feel what I feel, and if the events of my life exist in some non-existent never-world, it’s a little hard for me to stay focused on today’s school pick-up time, the grocery list, and when to take this swarm of pills designed to defog my being into a wellness that will perhaps forevermore erase the fog, the events, the feelings, and the knowing. Frankly the fog is a big fuck you to the consensus reality I’ve been bullied to get with, these many years. Or so I imagine.
Fog. One of the difficulties of being an empath is that it can be hard to know what's my feeling, and what’s someone else's. This lack of clarity is getting better, as I settle more and more into the body's solidity, its big, firm butt on the chair, and size-eleven feet on the ground. But still. Sometimes in a room full of people sporting the full-on fog, I get lost, too. Where’s the harbor? What’s the point of any of my bright solutions, when you are trying to raise a wolf-child in a barely heated cabin in the middle of nowhere, while a feral puppy eats the furniture, and your back is being torn apart at the shoulder-blades? And you – what use have you got for what I might say, when most of your upper teeth are gone, you haven't slept in years, and pretty much no one on the planet has offered the time, space, or resources to help you unwind the never-world of neglect and abuse where you spent your formative years? The skull on your sweatshirt says, Fuck You, Mindfulness Lady, and, believe me, I get where it’s coming from. I do the meditation expert’s version of a Trump press conference, and exit the room, pretty convinced I know nothing, or feel nothing, and may not necessarily exist in any meaningful way.
As it turns out, therapy-universe has a word for this phenomenon – it's called de-skilling, and it's a classic thing that happens around people whose experiences of being diminished become externalized into a cleverness-erasing force field. It’s a superpower, and it can be really scary to interact with. What to do? Well, you could attempt to armor your heart completely, and have nothing to do with the parts of yourself & of other people that have been silenced. Or you could try to allow contact, but only within certain roles. Expert is acceptable. Skeptic also. I read yesterday about the Internet-based movement to “debunk” the Newtown school shootings, which goes as far (apparently) as to demand of parents that they disinter the bodies of their slain children, to prove that they were killed by gunshots. This impulse has a very strong WTF quality, until one realizes that, just as the Expert seeks distance through knowing-without-feeling, the Skeptic seeks distance through denying-without-feeling. Anything to avoid being de-skilled, disarmed, discombobulated, contaminated with pain and loss and horror. By contagion, both expertise and skepticism can themselves be powerful de-skilling forces.
Or, you could develop the capacity to stay grounded in your own body and experience, and then go into the fog with this awareness as a lifeline. Ask. What is it like right now? Ask. What do you feel? What do you know? Which are the parts of yourself that have been pushed off into a blurry never-land, but nevertheless have something important to say? Start to understand that nothing is in and of itself inherently foggy. That morning river road is a momentary version of something that can also be clear, bright, visible, understood. Sometimes fog clears quickly, and sometimes it sticks around all day. Fine either way. Don’t confuse the fog with the terrain.
The times I have experienced deskilling – when talking with profoundly depressed people, when teaching sullen, hung-over people – have been horrible. They've also been formative, because they’ve crystallized commitments to avoid de-skilling others in the world, to go into my own foggy places, to approach other people’s stories with a lifeline in place, and willingly enter fearful places and ideas.
A long time ago, I was assigned to teach a Writing About Language and Literature course to first-year students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This was hard. I was maybe three years older than my students, and I knew very little about teaching. What I did know, I had gleaned from the beautiful expertise of my various professors, whose polished lectures opened doors of scholarship into my birthright as a human being. You are a born participant in the vast arc of the humanities, they said.
But this model of teaching was not going to help me, here. First, I didn't know much, so, good luck with the brilliant lectures. Second, even if I had been a magnificent scholar, it wouldn't have mattered, because my students’ English comprehension, speaking, and writing skills were mostly not good. And why would they have been? All through their Cantonese-speaking childhoods, these young people had been frog-marched through English, the language of people preparing to – in the face of great uncertainty – abandon the project of colonizing them, while at the same time demanding all the attention and respect of a long-term responsible partner, instead of a love ‘em and leave ‘em abusive country-song boyfriend.
Anyway, we had a problem. I was supposed to help these kids learn to write and speak more fluently, and to do that, I needed to understand something more about the thick fog of silence that hung over the classroom. Early episodes did not go so well. Having, I thought, come up with a brilliant set of discussion questions, I was met instead with heavy, drippy clouds. I said, If you won’t talk, I won’t stay. I spun on my heel, walked out, and slammed the door so loudly I thought the cinderblock classroom building would come down on us all.
The students told me, next time, that it was not in their culture to speak up. I said that this was too bad, because it was in my job description to make them. Impasse. Then it occurred to me to wonder if, instead of inserting some new story from outside the fog, I could ask the students to report from inside it. I asked, Who are you? Where do you come from? What does it look like, where you are? What do you know and feel, what have you not been allowed to talk about, throughout your long and semi-coercive career of learning English?
So my students wrote from their lives. They interviewed one another, and wrote about one another's stories, till the fog cleared of its own accord. Not through some irresistible power of my expertise, but through having so little not-knowing and not-feeling left to feed on. The fog cleared as fog will – in its own time, in response to warmth and change.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.