Sunday, 9 August 2020

When an intersex woman isn't just a woman

Two common questions which I often get asked during interviews are:

  • Do you feel more like a man or a woman?
  • Do you prefer men or women? (in a 'love' sense).

I found it very hard to figure out the answer to the first question. Not so much because it's a hard question, but more because of the indoctrination of society and its binary way of thinking. When it comes down to it, the first question isn't even a real question, but a trick question.

You do not 'feel' like a 'man' or a 'woman', as this does not make any sense. As every human brain is unique, we can only feel like ourselves, independent from the configuration of our genitals. The definition of 'man' or 'woman' in the dictionary sense therefore refers to one's physical sex. Basically, you are a woman on account of having grown up with a female body, or you are a man on account of having grown up with a male body.

This is something which becomes quite apparent when I look at intersex women. For CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome) and XXY women in particular, they generally are not even aware of the fact that they have anything but regular female bodies, until they start fertility treatments to become pregnant, or run into the binarist and highly discriminating sport world. In either case it is ridiculous to state that they are anything but women, even if they may gather some (less pleasant) experiences along the way on account of discrimination and harassment by their environment.

In my own situation, I share the notion that my sense of how I feel or see myself hasn't changed, despite having grown up as an officially designated 'male' person until it was discovered that I do in fact have a female reproductive system as well. I recognise that on account of those first years and growing up with a body that is at least partially 'male', that it is something that will always be part of me.

Yet at the same time that my body did a half-hearted attempt to be 'male', most of the development during puberty went into female development, so that my sensation of growing up with this body is a curious mixture of typical male and female experiences. I would say that these experiences defined me as a typical hermaphrodite. Not just a man or a woman, but a mixture of both.

As a result, even though my passport says that I'm 'female' and I'm grateful that this matches society's expectations with regard to my looks to prevent annoying questions, I still wish that society could accept that us intersex people can be more than just 'women'. I'm an intersex woman, a hermaphroditic woman, a chimera, and my own person. These are experiences that I must acknowledge if I want to be myself. Everything that I experienced, all that I went through as a child, teenager and beyond, all of that is part of who and what I am.

It's the kind of diversity that society will hopefully embrace one day.


Friday, 7 August 2020

Self-motivation while adrift on an ocean

The fun thing about being adrift in the middle of an ocean are the many options that are visible, with each direction offering new and thrilling adventures and outcomes. The not so fun thing is that one's vessel has no propulsion and thus one is left to awkwardly paddle around with some scrap wood that one found in the bottom of the boat. It doesn't really matter what one direction one picks, as the wind and ocean currents will determine what direction one heads into anyway.

Sometimes that's the feeling I get with my life. I can see all the beautiful vistas that I could have reached, but there's always that combination of unfortunate circumstances, lack of motivation and crippling depression from post-traumatic stress disorder that end up clobbering any attempt at improving my life. It's pretty futile to get frustrated with ocean currents and the current wind direction.

When I try and take a look at exactly why the propulsion of my vessel is not functioning, I can obviously tell that the effects of youth trauma and subsequent traumas have done most of the damage. How do you work up self-motivation when your sense of self-esteem is constantly being attacked and drained by past and present reminders of one's failures and of being a worthless excuse of a human being. Combined with too many expectations from others heaped on top of that as well, perhaps, on account of always being the 'smart kid', due to a preference for reading, learning languages and the sciences, and so on.

When you end up sabotaging everything you try to do, because a lack of self-confidence makes you falter. When even small successes look meaningless next to the many failures and things promised and yet left unfinished... at some point you'll just find yourself adrift.

Of course there are many things which I can do. Or could do. I'm not dumb. I can learn what needs learning. I can make what needs making. Or I could, if I can figure out this lump of darkness that's inside of me, like a black hole. When you find yourself trying to motivate yourself to do something important for an entire day, but you just cannot bring yourself to do it, because... it doesn't feel right yet. That's just another failure that makes it again easier to fail the next time you try something.

And yet if you force yourself to do what needs doing, tearing through this resistance, it does not feel right either. It feels as if you're hurting yourself in the process by not understanding the source of this resistance. This bleakness and lack of purpose. Because that's ultimately what is is about.

The thing with depression born from trauma is that it isn't something that is easily addressed or treated. Sure, you can try to nuke it with medication, like anti-depressants, but the effect there is limited. It's after all caused by unprocessed trauma, which causes the brain to constantly injure itself as it goes through each subsequent retraumatisation and flashback event. The only proper long-term therapy there is to address the trauma.

Over the course of this year, I have managed to reintegrate the child personality which represented the childhood trauma back into my psyche, allowing me to finally make progress with examining and dealing with the trauma. This while also using it to understand and learn to deal with the subsequent traumatisation events, including bullying, physical violence, psychological and sexual abuse.

Blaming oneself is a horrible thing. Yet the assignment of blame yelled at me when I was a young child has been seared into my brain. It seems to have sensitised me to the acceptance of blame, no matter whether it was true or not. Slowly the sense of control got wrestled away from me. Over what was true or not. The ability to trust in others. The erasure of the physical, medical facts about my body. The erasure of my identity and my sense of self.

By the time I tried to commit suicide, I had come to accept that there was nowhere that I could go, nowhere that would accept me. Nothing that I could do or change. That's why the decision to take my own life had such a positive impact on me, because it was the first time in a very long time that I was fully in control of my life and myself.

That things had escalated that far was rather tragic.

During the years following that failed suicide attempt, I have tried to rebuild my life. Not surprisingly, I fell into the same traps as before, finding myself robbed of control by the medical and legal systems, and once again suffering psychological and physical abuse by those who sought to take advantage of my overly compliant attitude on account of having no self-esteem.

So what changed about that recently? Most of all getting to know a few friends who helped me through a number of harrowing situations. Without them I do not think that I would be typing this right now. Yet it's only a good start. Regaining control is hard. Dealing with trauma is harder. And I have to do both.

The coming time this means working on myself, figuring out more about these traumas and how to disarm parts of them. Regaining self-esteem as I work on my career. As a freelancer you do need to have some self-esteem, after all. Yet I would not at all mind a few more helping hands here, as I try to find more freelance work, or perhaps something more permanent.

The thing about being adrift after all is that you're pretty flexible about solid options that appear. One would be mad to refuse a new engine, or a tow by another vessel, simply because you have set your sights on transforming your vessel into a gold-plated and diamond-encrusted yacht through the power of wishful thinking.

I feel that part of regaining self-esteem is to learn to accept that others may see something of worth in me, much as I can see the worth in others. This also means that both giving and accepting help are essential parts of overcoming trauma.


Tuesday, 28 July 2020

How to starve yourself to death in two easy steps

For people who do not live in regions of this planet that are regularly hit by famine, it seems almost imaginable that anyone around them or they themselves would become nutritionally deficient in any way. Despite this, incidents of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) are becoming ever more prevalent in rich nations, seemingly due to poor dietary choices.

When I found myself struggling with what appeared to be extreme abdominal swelling over the past years, I was initially unsure what to think of it, and the different GPs and other doctors whom I consulted couldn't tell me anything useful either. Some suggestions being offered included eating less, or cutting gluten and lactose out of my diet and see what happens. At the time I suspected it to be ascites [1], based on the 'ripple' effect across my abdomen, indicating the swelling to be due to fluids. Ascites hereby is of course a symptoms, not a cause.

During last year and until earlier this year, I found myself dealing with an ever increasing swelling of the abdomen, combined with significant weight gain, a feeling of lethargy, regular diarrhoea and weird patches on my skin. When a new GP earlier this year told me to take some medication against gas in the abdomen and a second GP at the same clinic told that he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary on an ultrasound of the abdomen, I decided that it had to be something in my diet.

I tried low-salt, no gluten, no lactose. I reduced my calorific intake to a bare minimum and saw a drop in my weight. Yet I began to feel worse and worse. I got frequent headaches, my stool got all watery and pale and at some points I basically felt like I was dying.

This all continued until it hit me that I had seen this symptom of a grotesquely distended abdomen before: on photographs of starving children, with pot bellies and not a shred of fat left on their bodies. Googling this led me to the form of malnutrition called Kwashiorkor, named after the Ga language from Ghana. It describes a type of selective starvation, where a lack of protein intake among other factors result in a gradual breaking down of various of the body's systems. This includes the lymph system and the ability to regulate the water in the body.

As a result you get an excess of water collecting in the body, usually in the abdomen, between the organs, but also in the limbs. It also affects your body's ability to maintain itself. I began to notice weird muscle pains, extreme weakness, as well as chest pains after even mild exercise, presumably from my body increasingly harvesting itself to maintain critical systems. Muscles are highly optional resources of protein and such, after all.

It seems that by the time I figured out what was going on, I had been moving into Kwashiorkor territory for years. I could pinpoint my reduced protein intake to around 2015, when my personal situation led me to stop cooking proper meals at homes and my work moved to a new office without the Chinese restaurant right next door with their tofu-filled dishes. It was around that time that I had begun to notice some abdominal swelling, which would gradually worsen over the next few years.

As a result of then reducing my calorific diet in a desperate attempt to get some grip on the situation, I seem to have been coaxing my body into a marasmus [3] state of calorific deficiency. Basically I was starving myself to death.

Since realising this now about a month ago, I have begun to pay proper attention to getting every single nutrient which my body requires. While me taking multivitamins is a good start, they do not contain essential amino-acids, and not all food sources are complete sources of protein. I had been neglecting to eat significant amounts of legumes and soy, which are the two main sources for people who are vegetarians, like myself. The animal protein which I consumed via yoghurt and milk was not enough to stave off the inevitable, nor were the peanut butter sandwiches. The latter are not a complete enough source of protein, even though they are generally a good source in addition to regular intake of legumes, soy and animal protein from dairy and meat (for those who are so inclined).

Since drastically changing my diet this way, the headaches have ceased, the abdominal swelling is reducing along with my weight, while I'm still eating three full meals a day. Which is much more than I used to eat over the past years. I also have a lot more energy during the day, my thoughts aren't hazy and slow any more, and after getting a proper workout on my bicycle on a grocery shopping run through the hilly terrain around here, my chest doesn't hurt and I feel like I could go for another run.

I will have to see over the coming months whether this fully fixes the ascites, or whether there are more underlying causes that didn't get addressed yet. Nevertheless, this has been a highly educational experience for me. Through a combination of stress, depression, homelessness and other unpleasantness happening around me I neglected to get the nutrition which my body needs. Perhaps worse is that not even the doctors whom I consulted over those five years noticed what was going on.

To me it serves as a warning. To always put your body first, because it is so easy to neglect it. And much like an abused machine it can continue without proper maintenance for a long time. Until suddenly it doesn't.

Be kind to yourself.



Saturday, 25 July 2020

Why I'll never buy another Clevo laptop (Clevo PB51RF-G rant)

Last year I was in desperate need to replace the laptop which I had bought in 2013. Although that laptop was still zippy enough, it had developed a number of faults, including a partially defective mainboard where pressing to one side of the keyboard would randomly disconnected and reconnect USB devices on one side. Thus it was that I decided to splurge on a new laptop from Schenker (MySN, now BestWare), as part of their XMG range of gaming laptops.

Expecting to use this laptop for at least six years like my old laptop, I wanted something that would still be relevant by then, so Intel graphics were out. The XMG Pro 15 laptop that I ended up getting is a rebadged Clevo PB51RF-G. Clevo is a large OEM who design and manufacture basic laptop configurations which can then be customised by assemblers and sold to end-users.

The laptop as I ordered it features an Intel Core i7 8750H (6 core/12 thread), 16 GB dual-channel DDR4, 15" 144 Hz FHD display, NVidia RTX2060 video card and a 250 GB Samsung 970 Evo NVME (PCIe x4) SSD. All for a cool 2,000 Euro. Upon receiving it, I intended to add a 2 TB 2.5" HDD for additional storage. That is also where the problems started.

Whoever designs these Clevo laptops really hates end-users. Although marketed as being end-user upgradable, the actual procedure for getting this laptop open involved removing a whole range of screws from the bottom, then hidden screws underneath the keyboard which required forceful removal of the keyboard. Instructions for this procedure are few and far between and required me to first figure out which Clevo model it is so that I could track down disassembly instructions. Two days after I had received the laptop the SATA HDD was installed.

The BIOS on these Clevo laptops is utter trash. I thought I had seen useless barebones BIOSes after more than two decades of messing with DIY and OEM systems, but this one takes the cake. Providing only the most minimalistic UEFI BIOS, it makes it impossible to install anything but Windows 10 or a Linux distribution which offers an installer that does not rely on any 'legacy' features in the BIOS like a VGA driver. There are barely any options in the BIOS to configure... well, anything really. I guess it does allow you to change the boot order. Yay.

The keyboard.... it's junk. It's a cheap chiclet keyboard with horrible squishy tactile response and all the flex in the world. After a few months of use some of the printed-on letters began to wear off already. It's got RGB lighting embedded in it, which courtesy of the worst BIOS in the world cannot be disabled, will always start full blast on every boot in the most annoying sparkly rainbow fashion possible. It makes me ashamed to turn the system on in public because of how garish it looks.

After installing Windows 10 on it, performance was poor. Despite all the tweaking that the crippled BIOS allows, the system would soon start chugging while performing a few parallel tasks, like browsing in Firefox and editing a document in LibreOffice while running a compilation (single thread) in the background. When after a few months of this I was able to get my 2015-era PC (Skylake i7 6700K-based) back out of storage and use it as my main system again I was surprised at how zippy this PC feels, despite having only HDDs and zero SSDs, SATA or NVME.

The final kick in the teeth was the battery life. Despite using Windows 10 and confirming that the Optimus switching between the NVidia GPU and built-in Intel graphics worked as intended, battery life when using the most frugal battery life settings was even worse than that of my old 17" gaming laptop that used to get just under 2 hours of battery life when I set Windows 7 to use its 'low power use' profile. On this Clevo laptop I can get an hour if I'm lucky, rather nuking the point of going with a smaller display and it being a laptop.

In hindsight I should probably have returned the laptop in disgust shortly after receiving it, but personal circumstances didn't allow for this and part of me was happy to not be using a slowly dying laptop any more, so that I ended up just living with the frustrations. That said, I'm at the point now after more than a year with this laptop where I would gladly sell it for any reasonable offer.

This isn't just buyer's remorse, but more like feeling frustrated at having bought something that is so clearly a very expensive lemon and a joke of a laptop. Even if I cannot find another victi^Wsucker^Wbuyer for this laptop, I'm sorely tempted to get a new laptop once I got the funds scraped together. Just so that I can use a laptop that gets 8+ hours of battery life, doesn't have anaemic IO performance, a fatally crippled BIOS and the worst RGB keyboard joke ever inflicted on an end-user.

And it sure as heck will not be a Clevo laptop again. Because clearly they are the burning trash fires of the laptop world which make me dearly wish that I had just gotten a Dell or Lenovo instead.


Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Be brave

The feeling of loss. Of having lost something that was, or something that never will be. The feeling of one's mind succumbing to the intense feeling of grief, leaving no place for other feelings or thoughts to exist any more.

Sometimes one comes across a story, or a piece of music that will trigger something deep inside. Some kernel of grief, that when triggered will violently blossom into this blood-red tree that cries tears of crimson as it tears through your mind.

Quite recently one such story was that of the video game 'Gris'. It's a story about loss. About accepting it. About learning to deal with the fear and anger and pain and grief, and the countless other conflicting emotions and feelings that turn the world into a meaningless black-and-white caricature of pointlessness.

While listening to the soundtrack to 'Gris', it's easy to re-experience those intense feelings of the story's main character, but also that what it provokes inside of my own mind. The confrontation with the grief and pain in one's life, which one tries to keep hidden. Even if it will ultimately destroy oneself. You have to find it, understand it. Deal with it. Return colour to the world.

It's often hard to admit to sources of grief. One does not want to be seen as weak, or societal prejudices may lead one to believe that certain feelings and traumas are invalid.

Lately, while I'm working on my autobiography I find that I am finally beginning to put things together in my mind. All the good things. All the not so good things. All the bad things. All the things that I wish had never happened to me. All the things that I regret. To inspect and feel every single fracture in the mirror's reflection. To pick up and put back the shards that had fallen out of the mirror. To suck on the cuts in my fingers from picking up those shards.

So much of our lives happen because things around us happen, and before we know it, we get swept up, along and away, to be changed forever. Some experience an easy ride, while others end up in rapids or find themselves smashed against rocks.

I'm still trying to figure out what happened to me. Was I truly abused as a young child? It doesn't feel like something one can make up like that, not when the grief, pain and anger seem to originate at that point. Not when others around me noticed the dramatic shift in young me's behaviour as I withdrew into myself. Maybe I am afraid that if I accept this abuse as a fact, that it will make me lose the last bits of what I had always thought to be a rather okay childhood. I don't want to submit my life to be just an endless struggle against early childhood trauma. To lose the parts that were good and fine, just like that.

Yet at the same time, it seems like a necessary step to accept this. To acknowledge the grief. To acknowledge the pain and anger. To accept the gaps in the mirror and the wounds in my psyche that have never really healed. To accept that I was, that I am, that part of me will always be that scared, hurt child who is terrified of adults and of doing anything wrong because then someone will yell at me and it will feel so bad.

How does one accept that one's life started with trauma and has been lived in the shade of it for so long?

How can one pretend to be a functioning adult while dealing with psyche-shattering introspections?

How does one add the other, later traumas to this picture?

I do not know. The world around me doesn't really seem to care whether I make it or not. All I can do is make my way through level after level of this game, as I try to avoid the monsters and the darkness. To gather courage and bravely keep working my way up towards the stars.


Tuesday, 21 July 2020

And for one brilliant moment, one is simply human

Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Embrace the quiet. Feel the tears welling up as one realises the weight of every day. Of the expectations by others. By oneself. By society. The worries about getting older, about being lonely, about upcoming appointments. Of financial obligations and the pains and aches of one's body that has been wrecked by too little, poor quality sleep, too much stress and always the rushing. Rushing ever forward, to some goal nobody can see, a goal of which nobody knows what it is exactly, except that it must be there, because everybody else is rushing that way as well.

Breathe out.

Let it go.

Breathe in.

Embrace the quiet. See oneself as merely this one collection of chemicals, this one mind, in a vast universe. Accept that the universe - or this planet - does not care about our ambitions. Accept that the universe has no goals, no dreams, no ambitions. It doesn't judge you. Only oneself can.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

There's this small, blue speck in a remote part of an otherwise unremarkable galaxy. On which right now oneself exists. Along with approximately seven and a half billion other human beings much like oneself. Just this mass of bodies, moving about as busily as an ocean current, rushing towards no particular goal.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Why do you judge yourself?

What are your true goals in life?

What are your real dreams?

Why do you exist?

Can you exist as only a human being?

Keep breathing. Keep living. Keep being human.


Sunday, 19 July 2020

Atlas Shrugged: on the pursuit of personal happiness

It's been a few days now since I finished reading Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged', and I can honestly say that it was quite an experience. Having given it some time to percolate through my mind, I can say that I consider it a work that is very enlightening, if flawed. Although at one point I thought that I much prefer The Fountainhead [1] to Atlas Shrugged, I'm now no longer so sure.

I think that the main differences between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are that although they seem to both encompass the same underlying life philosophy, Atlas Shrugged is more confident and bombastic. Whereas The Fountainhead was mostly about 'show, don't tell', Atlas Shrugged likes to tell you what it thinks. A lot.

This unfortunately led to me rolling my eyes at a lot of internal dialogue, especially at the beginning of the book when Mr Rearden considers his family and near the end of the book with Galt's small novel worth of... ranting, I guess. I'm somewhat sorry to say that this latter exposition appeared to me tedious and repetitive enough that I mostly skipped through it.

So it's a poorly written story, then? Far from it. As I mentioned earlier, it's an enlightening if flawed experience. When the book tones down the preaching and posturing some, it's actually a really good story with highly detailed and intriguing characters. I especially found myself really liking one of the main characters: Dagny Taggart. Her frustrations as she sees her life's work taken away from her and demolished in front of her eyes was palpable.

It should be noted here that over the years I had been informed by others that 'Atlas Shrugged' is a novel about a bunch of rich folk deciding that they don't want to pay their due to society any more and establish their own 'perfect' society somewhere else. This concept is also what for example the Bioshock video game series is based on. Colour my surprise when I found out that Atlas Shrugged is nothing like that premise.

As the story begins, Dagny Taggart is the head of Operations at US rail company Taggart Transcontinental, who together with childhood friend Eddie and others try to keep the business together even as it is clear that some kind of rot has set in. New rail from a steel foundry has not been delivered for months, resulting in an entire section of track reaching a state where it can no longer be safely used. The owner of the foundry claims a situation beyond his control.

This sets the tone of the next chapters: even as Dagny Taggart and Rearden with his new metal alloy called 'Rearden Metal' are dreaming of how they can transform the country with high-speed Diesel trains running on solid tracks made with this super-durable Rearden Metal, they're finding that contracts are not being fulfilled and then a new law gets passed that essentially forbids market competition. Instead each US state should see exactly the same rail services, same job prospects and so on.

These regulations gradually gets expanded, all in the name of equality. Suddenly no manufacturer of steel, coal, or anything else is allowed to produce more than their competitors. Any protests against these regulations are met with an explanation that it is all for the common good. That this isn't the time to think about one's personal situation, but about the failing companies, the starving and desperate people in society. Many of these measures just temporary anyway, until the economy recovers.

Throughout this time, Dagny is astounded to learn that many people she knew suddenly seem to vanish. Some suddenly announce that they are 'retiring', leaving behind a factory or other company with no word about a successor, while others just vanish overnight without leaving a trace. She is afraid that there is a 'Destroyer' behind this, someone or some force which will end up also getting to her. It aren't just industrialists who are vanishing now, but also a lot of good workers, bankers and even artists.

In a world that feels ever more desolate, Dagny finally finds out what is happening as she intercepts a brilliant young scientist who she had working for her on a new engine design. Following the airplane he is in using her own airplane, she crash lands in a remote valley, where she meets this 'Destroyer'. As it turns out, all the people who 'vanished' simply followed John Galt and the others like him.

Meeting back up with all these friends and acquaintances, Dagny is confronted with the greyness of her life back in New York. How every waking moment is spent on keeping a railroad network together, even when there are practically no foundries any more, and even what Rearden produces is 'equally distributed' so that Rearden Metal can be used for metal gadgets instead of railroad tracks to keep the country together.

Even then, Dagny is not ready to abandon 'her' railroad like so many of these people in the valley have already given up their life's works to escape that cycle of self-exploitation. Returning to New York, she keeps fighting for another few months, ripping out parts of still usable track to repair the main lines to keep a few trains running. Meanwhile the country suffers from shortages in just about everything. Coal, gasoline, food, everything is rationed and power shortages lead to frequent blackouts.

As the country slowly dies, the US government ends up capturing John Galt, the man who has been this persistent rumour for many years now, immortalised in the saying 'who is John Galt?'. Pinning their hopes on John Galt, the latter refuses to let himself to be used to try and fix what is wrong with the country, since those leading the country refuse to admit that their policies were flawed to begin with.

After a harrowing escape, Dagny, John and those who came to rescue them find themselves waiting out the collapse of society in their hideout, as they plan out how to bring the country back again.

The basic tenets here are similar to those portrayed in The Fountainhead: one's own happiness is paramount, as is fairness towards others. Talent and dedication in others is to be acknowledged and rewarded. One never gives anything without expecting something in return of equal value. One can only be guilty of a crime if one accepts the particular set of morals in which one's actions would be a transgression.

Another important point here is that personal happiness cannot be achieved through the exploitation of others. Although one's own happiness is more important than the happiness of others, one does not increase one's own happiness by reducing the happiness of others. Similarly, the exchange of something of equal value is a very relative thing, not necessarily defined in a monetary value. After all, material possessions mean nothing if one's heart and mind are devoid of joy.

Wrapping up, as I mentioned at the beginning, the flaws in this story are found mostly in its tendency to preach instead of just showing what it means. Looking at the story outside of those flaws, it is a highly enjoyable story that manages to bring its points across in a harrowing and haunting fashion. It contains very real, if simplified, warnings about both the dangers of totalitarianism as well as those of neo-liberalism [2], systems which are based on coercing the individual into self-exploitation.

Although I would hardly call myself a devout follower of Objectivism even after reading some of Ayn Rand's works, I find it very refreshing to read stories based around a philosophy which is so close to humanism and yet so scorned by many.