I learned about the concept of antigens from my Ex the immunologist. These are the foreign molecules that enter our bodies and trigger a particular response. A sneeze, say, or the recruitment of cells that heal a wound. From Wikipedia: in immunology, an antigen is a substance that evokes the production of one or more antibodies. Each antibody binds to a specific antigen by way of an interaction similar to the fit between a lock and a key.

I’ve been thinking a lot about triggering in the past week or so. There is some wrangling going on with the Uganda project that feels like a steady onslaught of emotional allergens or antigens, as though they are specifically designed to bind with and inflame my own very personal DNA. That lock and key fit. In what feels like one move, our partner on the ground in Uganda has thrown a wrench into the already never smooth flow of daily running of this project, and it feels like my emotional immune system has been thrown into overdrive.

I’ve been pondering the body/mind/brain part of the equation I wrote about with regard to choicefulness the other day. The antigen metaphor feels particularly important because so much of my response to this conflict feels *physical*. I spend my life on the periphery of people who acknowledge and are trying to fumble their way through to understanding of the neurobiological relationships between emotions and mindfulness and the physical — my thoughts aren’t new. But I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate this into my own life, and my desire to be more generative in my choices.

If I take a cue from the role modeling of my friend Tamrya, I ask myself where do I feel these responses. Chest tightness. Gut. Quickening of breath. Tears. I think about a familiar sensation I’ve mostly learned to deal with — that too quick response to a difficult email. I know the adrenaline-spurred rapid typing, the shallow breathing that is a huge signal DO NOT SEND THIS EMAIL. I’ve learned, over time, mostly, to heed that and step back. The physical experience of “count to 10” — we can really learn to notice when that happens.

In this particular conflict with the Uganda partner, my physical response is compounded by jet lag/time shifting and the fact that I take a normally take a mild anti-depressant, and I forgot to take them with me to England, and I’ve been feeling the cold turkey withdrawal that there are so many warnings about. Emotional regulation has extra challenges in it, which has not made me ultra pleasant to be around for the past week or so — but it’s also given me a window into the role of the body in choice-making.

This conflict about the Uganda project is, in a way, the “perfect storm” of understanding how the brain and body and mind interplay. I look at all the physical responses I’ve had, and can put names to the sensations — anger, frustration, fury, a sense of aloneness, fear. And I can add narrative to this to understand my particular triggers, how this set of conversations fits with my own emotional immune response. I have a story that I am Alone on this project. I have a story that I am not appreciated on this project. I have a more untold story — a mere flicker of knowledge — of fear that I have made a commitment to something that I cannot sustain over time.

Barnett used a model in CMM about Stories Told/Stories Untold/Stories Lived/Stories Unheard — among others. I try to put my stories into those realms, and realize that the ones I am focusing on — especially the sense of aloneness — actually create my responses. Stories as antigens. Instead of stepping back and asking for advice, I act quickly, and alone. Which means I am the one in the constant back and forth with the person on our project, and thus end up feeling more alone. I.e., living into a story that doesn’t help anything. And therefore, I become resentful. And therefore more reactive.

But if I step back further, I remember that I am not alone. My story of aloneness comes from the difficulties of one relationship only on this project, but in fact, I am surrounded by people who are toiling hard, who put a huge amount of their own love and care and time and energy and hope into this. If I feel alone, I act like I’m alone. But, this is not mine. My story that “if I don’t do this no one will” is not helpful. People will do — if I ask them. (Thank you, Danny. Thank you Blair. Thank you Lisa. Thank you Stephanie. Thank you Leslie. Thank you Triad Steering Committee. Thank you Triad participants).

So. Triggers. Antigens. A molecule that triggers flies into your emotional immune system, and your own antibodies fly into action. Reinforcing what you already believe to be true. I am trying to remind myself: when I slow down, I remember that there are people who are on my side. And I also realize that the tussling on this project, the tug for power and the fight over what is really an extremely small amount of money in real terms, has so much embedded in it that has nothing to do with the actual money. Colonialism. Unmet expectations of appreciation on all sides. Fear that we’ve engaged in something that we don’t know how to do. My deep, deep need to only engage in partnership with people who feel like they are partnering. A really unattractive, unflattering bossiness and stubbornness on my side. My need to ask myself if this is partnering only on “my” terms, and what is the role of my ego in that? The luxury I and my business partners have in not having to engage in these kinds of wranglings all the time, because we live outside a large organization.

Finch has been having some wrangling in his own business, and I complimented him the other day on not being personally triggered by some particularly provocative acts by one of his staff. It didn’t occur to me to apply that lens to myself. But applying it helps – how can I see this conflict as something not about me, but about decades of relationships between Uganda and the west, the way we interpret the roles of people with money and the people who don’t have it?

The other thing I have learned from all of this is the need to retire my story that I’m in this alone. There is an actual historical event that made that story really powerful — but that is not true today. But I keep interpreting the events of today through the lens of the past. We all do that. But if we are trying to be more choiceful about how we respond to things, we need to be able to recognize when we are doing that. And ask ourselves how to move to a new interpretation.

I’ve been flailing a bit this week, but before I sat down to write this post, I sent out two emails in which I acknowledged my failure to respond in a generative way this week, and to ask for help. As I was writing, I got two incredibly thoughtful, generous responses into my in-box. Openness, intimacy and connection. Thank you, Tamyra. Thank you, Danny. Not alone. The lesson: ask for help.

No image for antigen, but an iris from Finch’s garden on Sunday. Noticing.


One thought on “Antigens

  1. Cate: Your humanity (even when you feel fragile and maybe even helpless) and deep caring allow you to do so much. Allow yourself to feel pissed off sometimes. Thanks for your posts. M. A.

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