a white woman with long hair (me) has an arm and a leg sticking out of an upstairs window and is grinning

Trying To Get Off The Optimism Train

In which optimism turns out to be really hard work but doesn’t have an off switch.

I think that like many things from gender to the bitterness of chocolate, optimism and pessimism are places on a scale. If there were a Kinsey scale for optimism/pessimism I would be at the TOTALLY GAY end of it.

I don’t just mean looking on the bright side and always spotting the silver lining even when it’s really just a greyish sheen. I’m talking about something deep and instinctive, something basic. A knowledge inside the depths of my self that things will turn out all right in the end and that the goodness in the world will always be the winner.

Optimism is fine. In fact it can be very joyful! There’s never a shortage of hope or trust or belief. As a child, I honestly thought that the world was a nice place where everybody had good intentions and wanted the best for everybody else, and the heroes would triumph, and everything could be sorted out easily. I had advantages, of course: my whiteness, abledness and relative wealth were good protections against many kinds of nastiness and gave me the privilege of not having to think about them.

This naïve optimism lasted me a long time, I was running into the sun, arms outstretched in delight. It wasn’t that I didn’t trip and fall, but I supposed that was my own fault, because I did not run correctly. Arms at my sides, glancing at others to see how they ran. I slowly learned that running style was not the only factor in my painful tumbles. Sometimes there were obstacles in the road; it was prudent to keep an eye out for them. Sometimes other people bumped into me, knocking me over.

I had become an adult before I truly understood that there were people running beside me who would deliberately stick their feet out and trip me over, or casually throw a stone into my path.

We all learn these things, of course. For some it is earlier and more painful than for others. Although the realisation came late for me, it was one of the worst injuries I’ve ever sustained. Even then it took me a while to realise that it was all right to choose not to run alongside certain people any more because if I did I would get more hurt than if I didn’t.

But throughout all this my optimism remained pretty intact. So what if I had to pick myself up and dust myself off and deal with some wounds? Nobody gets through life without getting hurt. I was happy to do it. The joy of the running made it worth it.

I had not understood, before I became severely depressed, and before I had ME/CFS, just how much energy it takes to get up again, dust yourself off and take care of your wounds. The falls are more frequent, more painful and more difficult to take care of.

This is for many reasons. There is the systemic oppression of disabled people and the widespread prejudice against them. But there is also my reduced ability to spot potential hazards and react to them in time, and the fact that things that would not have been obstacles previously now are. I find it harder to assess my wounds and decide the best way to take care of them, and they always seem to take longer to heal.

All of these are reasons why I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into gaining and maintaining balance. Mindless optimism leads to a lot of pain, and now that my ability to cope with that is reduced I need another way to protect myself. Though looking back, I can see that actually I’ve been striving to balance my optimism out for a long time, since I first realised just how much it could hurt me.

I had a therapist a few years ago (only briefly, which was a shame because I liked her) who gave me a stack of cards bearing the names of different attributes and asked me to sort them into groups. One of the groups was ‘I want to be more…’ and I haven’t forgotten her bemused reaction when I placed the ‘critical’ card in that group.

Of course, I wasn’t thinking of the meaning as ‘disapproving/judgemental’ but as ‘carefully evaluating’. I doubt I’ll ever reach a place where I don’t see the best possible outcome of a situation, which is why when I am ‘carefully evaluating’ something I can appear to be focussing unduly on the negative aspects. I’m trying to see with the clearest eyes I can.

I’ve come a long way and this actually comes fairly naturally to me now. I can be critical. I can easily recognise negatives, even expect them. I understand that things will often not go my way. I have learned to expect imperfection from the world, from people, from art, everything and even to comprehend that I can still love them despite their flaws (sometimes, anyway!).

Yet this has led to a strange dichotomy,  because while these things now come naturally to my head (where I think and analyse, reason and consider), and even to my heart (where I splash around in the paddling pool of my feelings), my gut (where all the deep instinctual stuff lives in a murky cave but frequently emerges to roar and wave its tentacles) is another matter entirely. The gut is still a raging optimist.

If I just explained this in the right words, they’d get it…

If they really understood, than maybe…

Of course I’ll get awarded PIP, they couldn’t not give it to me, no matter how many other people are unfairly deprived…

I’ll just give them one more chance…

It’ll be better eventually…

They didn’t mean it that way…

It doesn’t matter how many facts I know. It doesn’t matter about the statistics, and the stories, and the warnings. No matter how many times I am disappointed or betrayed, the gut always thinks that the next time will be different. Often the next time is exactly the same, but the gut doesn’t care about that; it never learns.

And I am just so tired. I don’t have the energy any more to let the gut have its fun, to expend on defending and healing myself. To stand up after falling over, to inspect myself for damage, to clean myself up, to dress my wounds, to allow them to heal… it costs so much. Sometimes it feels as though it costs too much.

My relatively new defences, the criticality, the deliberate lingering on negatives, the wrenching off of the rose coloured spectacles, are often effective. They are located in the head and the heart and they are pretty good at standing firm and not letting things get through to the gut. This is a system of weapons and armoury, of not giving the gut a chance to flood me with hope. This way the pain that comes with disappointments and betrayals is manageable because the difference between expectation and reality is so much smaller. A bonus is that if things go well then the subsequent rejoicing is in no way diminished!

All the same, optimism is a sneaky bugger and it can easily creep past the defences if it really wants to. This is usually the case with the big important things because they are so much harder to create an impenetrable guard against. The gut truly, genuinely believed that I would be awarded the full reward when I applied for PIP, and then on the mandatory reconsideration. The head and the heart, with their knowledge of the facts, the statistics, and the countless stories, knew that there was a high probabilty that I’d have to go to tribunal. In fact, they expected it and weren’t in the least surprised when that was what happened. The gut could not understand this and rampaged around trying to tell everybody else that they were being miserable killjoys. When I got the decision, it was the gut that went into meltdown, crawling back into its murky cave with its tentacles wrapped around itself, screaming and screaming and screaming.

You could say I was gutted.

a grinning woman
geddit? geddit?

In a similar way my gut believes, with blithe delight, on tiptoe with anticipation, like a child wondering when it will finally be allowed to open its christmas presents, that one day I will recover from ME/CFS. It is simply incapable of visualising a scenario in which I am still this ill, or more ill, at the age of, say, seventy. The head and the heart fling all the facts and figures and stories at it. They write facebook posts and twitter threads and blog posts about how rarely people recover, how people suffer, how people die. They refuse to allow anybody to tell me that of course I will recover. And they know what they are talking about! It’s the truth! But the gut just can’t take it in.

This is actually concerning, because if the gut continues to happily believe that one day it will be going to work and walking into town and cooking and gardening and everything else it delightedly anticipates, how will I ever truly manage to accept my illness, my new reality? How will I be happy while ill? I feel that I must accept it or be forever miserable, always gazing into the past and the future, grasping after a life I may never have.

These days every little disappointment seems to chip away at my soul, making me a bit less, making me shrivel, making the things I take pleasure in shrink. To allow my optimism free rein is far more painful than I can cope with at the moment. That is why I try to suppress it – but the head and the heart worry about what will happen when the gut finally realises that I may never recover. They can handle the balance of hope and fear and present reality, but I’m frightened that when the penny finally drops with the gut it might destroy me.

In the meantime, if anyone wants a pair of rose-coloured spectacles, I’ve got some going spare!


  1. Once you are forced to see the systemic oppression, it definitely can’t be unseen. But, you still have to keep going. Thus, my personal happy medium is to adapt snark and gallows humor. It’s like the realists’ (or maybe just trauma surviving bad pun afficianado’s) version of optimism.

    Liked by 1 person

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