Being Stuck in a Process

“Being stuck in a process” reminds me of a pattern Dr. Rankin discovered.  I had started therapy with her in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in 1997.  She was a specialist in mood disorders.  I had been seeing her for several months.  It was May and the planes were starting up.  I suffered from an extreme reaction to the noise of small planes.  On Friday I had a session with Dr. Rankin.  I asked her if it was OK to “white-knuckle it” through the noise.  She said “Of course.”  Then she said she had observed a pattern in my behavior.  I would start a project that had several steps.  I would do the first two steps just fine, but if I ran into trouble on the third I would conclude that I “couldn’t do it.” I would fail to see that I had already managed to do part of it successfully, in fact I would even define those first steps as failures.  This was enormously interesting to me.  I started being able to see when I did it, and finding a way to keep going.

It’s still operative in my life.  Looking back on my childhood, I see that my parents were too impatient to help me when I got stuck with a problem.  They would make me wrong for asking for help.  I remember once my father said “If you didn’t know how to do it, why did you even try?”  I remember wondering “What ever happened to ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’?”  I thought I could see through what he said.  I had no idea of the power of a parent’s words to affect a child.  That idea was repeated over and over in many different ways.  The lesson I learned was that if I wanted something to happen, I had to do it all by myself, and that if I got stuck, there was nothing I could do about it.  I see now that that’s a perfect prescription for depression.  Given the PTSD and alcoholic parents, it’s not surprising that I suffered from severe depression for most of my life.  Until I was 55, in fact.

I also have to give myself credit for not quitting in my work to change myself so I could have a life.  I suppose that’s where knowing I have to fix it myself is actually functional, because I don’t blame and manipulate others.  In the process I have learned that “trying to fix myself” doesn’t work, that I do have to get help, but teachers and therapists actually offer to help.  I keep learning that what I’m trying to do, to heal from my childhood wounds, is much harder and taking much longer than I ever imagined.

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Depression in Reaction to Feeling Good

This was originally posted on June 1, 2015.  I wrote the first paragraph to share with other people struggling with PTSD.  I’ve been going back and reading older posts and finding them comforting and validating.  This one resonated because I am deep in despair.  It doesn’t feel like depression, but it does feel like numbness, apathy, exhaustion.  The exhaustion is real, and I was hoping to find something that will help.  I went to the Vreeland Clinic, because I know they have been able to help people that standard medical practice can’t help.  And I’m not interested in medication.  One of the things I had to do is collect saliva for a test for cortisol levels.  But I have had no luck.  I struggle with dry mouth, due to both medication and age, and I simply am not able to produce enough saliva to put in the collecting tube.  Being stuck in a process to help me feel better brings up all the messages Nancy Napier talks about.  “You don’t deserve good things” etc.

June 1, 2015

The worst thing about PTSD for me is to be where I am now: Technically called hypoarousal, it also means depressed and numb.  The numbness is my brain and nervous system’s mechanism for saving me from overload.  I can barely get through the day.  There are other things I need to do, like find someone to prescribe medication — my regular person is on emergency medical leave.  I have to find out why my application for Medicare B seems to have gone into the void.  Trying to jump through the hoops of the bureaucracy is too difficult.  This is why so many Veterans are in homeless shelters.  I’m not a Veteran — not of a foreign war — though I could say I’m a veteran of a domestic war:  I was traumatized in infancy.

Nancy Napier explains that this is in reaction to having felt good about myself recently.  “When we’ve been hurt as children, it’s not unusual to have parts of us that guard against hope. … Disowned parts of us fight back with messages that say we don’t deserve good things, that good only turns into bad in the end, and who do we think we are anyway?”  Getting through the Day, pp19-4

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“Bombed-Out Village”

Wednesday, November 21

Thinking about talking with Erica about starting to tolerate — and even enjoy — the ordinary.  For most of my life I was in too much psychic pain, I needed something fairly intense to hold my attention.  Erica said something about “living on a battlefield.”  Yes, part of me is keyed up, waiting for the next bomb to drop.  Reminds me of that session with Debbie when I became aware of the bombed-out village.  The worst of it is that instead of having people around who are also in the bombed out village, so we can comfort and support each other, I am surrounded by people who are oblivious.

I started working with Debbie Alicen at Umbrella after I had found a reference to cutting oneself being a consequence of childhood sexual abuse.  I pursued the issue, hoping to find out what was stopping me from being able to easily have sex with my husband.  Years of work did not bring up any evidence of sexual abuse — all I could remember was being molested by my father at age 12 — that’s not a big deal is it?

March 17, 1989 Work with Debbie

I told her about the sadness that I had been feeling, even read part of what I had written (and that sad high voice appeared, with some crying.) I also told her what I told Dana, that it felt like being part of a group of refugees leaving their bombed out village, and having to leave behind beside the road those who can’t make it — no time for mourning or burial, just having to walk on, dry eyed, because of the necessity of survival. Debbie said “That’s what your life has been, and now you’ve finally got to the place where you can mourn, and you are also sad that it had to be that way.” At first I felt resistance, no my life wasn’t that awful, and then I realized she was right, in the necessity of survival there had been no time or space for mourning my lost innocence, my crippled creativity, and no room for anger about my sabotaged power.

My memory of this session is that I was so confused when I left that I couldn’t remember Debbie’s name.  So it was a surprise to find that that didn’t happen until six month later.  Now I understand that it took that long for the understanding to percolate downward and become experience rather than idea.

September 8, 1989

At Beverly’s after “emergency” session with Debbie. Having trouble remembering. Couldn’t remember dream to be able to work with it, it became just a bunch of meaningless words. Images from other dreams perhaps floated through my mind and disappeared. I sat in the ruins of my bombed out house and cried. Still baffled. A fragmented

September 9, 1989

“A fragmented session with Debbie” I was going to write when distracted by Beverly…

The session with Debbie was very confusing. I told her the fragment of the dream, but it didn’t mean anything. Other dream-like fragments floated through my mind, but couldn’t be grasped. I felt the whole time like I was in two places at once, massive sense of deja vu — haven’t we already talked about this — then fragments of dreams — or dream-like fragments — dreams, memories of the past? “floating in wide orbits with no center.” When it was time to go I couldn’t remember the date, the year, or Debbie’s name. I felt completely disoriented and fragmented and it persisted for a little while at Beverly’s. But I can’t remember what happened in the session well enough to write it down.

I think what happened was Debbie’s validation of the shift from seeing myself as a monster to seeing that my inner environment is what is monstrous — something I internalized at a very early age, something that felt a lot like living in a bombed out house. No wonder I had all those dreams of the A-bomb falling on our house, it matched my inner environment. No wonder the planes upset me so much, they remind me that I’m living in a bombed out house, a violated body, an invalidated psyche, and I’ve been trying all my life to pretend that’s not true.

The upset about the planes was my extreme reaction to the noise of the small planes towing the gliders out of Franconia Airport.  I suffered from it for 14 years.

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“Shell Shock”

Wednesday, November 14

My talk with Erica was really pretty amazing.  She was absolutely delighted that I was really beginning to let myself rest.  She said she had felt so protective of me at the beginning because I didn’t seem to have any idea that I needed protection.  I realized, from the softness and caring in her voice when she says “It’s OK, Sweetie, you need a rest,” that I may be allowing myself to rest, but it’s still grudgingly.  I’m still judging myself for having to rest.  I also was able to understand why the Quaker meeting was so intense, and why I had to leave right away and not talk about it.  She saw me protecting myself against something that really was too much for me.  I see that having been expected to do things I couldn’t do when I was a child, I have always expected too much of myself, and judged myself harshly when I couldn’t do what I “should” be able to do.

In Friends’ Meeting, one woman had talked about being with her ex-husband when he died.  He was an alcoholic, and they had had difficulties, but she was glad to be with him.  But she said she reached a level of despair that no one could understand except the hospice people.  It was Veteran’s Day and one of the men recited the poem “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row…”  I got tears in my eyes, remembering that that was the first World War, and they talked about “shell shock” as being cowardice.  It wasn’t until Vietnam, that people began to understand that it was PTSD, not cowardice.  I identified with the soldiers with PTSD, but didn’t really get that  I had been traumatized until I read Peter Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger, in about 2003. As a consequence of what was said at Friends’ Meeting, I was seriously triggered by despair, death, and trauma.

Saturday, November 17

The session with Erica was surprisingly intense. I think I’ve been a little troubled that life has seemed so boring recently, and that I have been addictively buried in reading. I take my addictive reading — can’t put the book down — to mean that I’m avoiding something. At least I’m starting to have some trust that the process will continue even if I don’t get actively, cognitively, involved. Maybe there’s also some trust that whatever it is will emerge into consciousness when it’s ready.

Often when I think I am avoiding something, I start searching, desperately, to find it so I can fix things.  I have to keep relearning that I can trust the process.  I think of Parker Palmer talking about the soul, how it’s like a wild animal.  “If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.”  from A Hidden Wholeness    pp126-7

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Finding Support in the Ordinary

From my journal for Oct 25

Guy in the hall on the big noisy vacuum.  I stop to comment on the little dog on the front.  He tells me it’s “Snoopy” and his nickname was Snoopy.  As I go on I feel gratitude for this “little good thing.”

From my journal for Oct 31

I’ve also noticed that I’m starting to be OK with “superficial” conversation, that I’m starting to notice little moments of beauty — single colored leaves on the ground — and little moments of goodness — friendly contact with someone I don’t know or hardly know — like “Snoopy” and the very noisy vacuum machine.

Erica has been telling me that I will begin to get a sense of how ordinary things are part of the support, and something I can enjoy.  When she said it I reacted with “Ordinary?  That’s boring.”  For a long time I’ve had a lot of trouble enjoying anything.  I know that the ability to enjoy depends on brain chemistry, but it also seems to depend on whether I’m feeling safe.  If I’m not feeling safe, then ordinary, everyday things can’t get through, only very big, intense things register on my consciousness.  I’m missing the blazing colors of fall north of the Notch, of having the mountains be part of everyday things, of having magical Neskaya and soul nourishing circle dance regularly available.  But when I had those things, I wasn’t supported enough to keep going on the practical level.  I was too much alone.  Shopping, cooking, cleaning house, scraping snow off the car, etc. were too difficult.

Once I got here to Kendal, I started looking for soul friends, for people with whom I could have soul or wisdom conversations.  Sometimes at the dinner table, we would have a deep conversation, and that would cheer me up.  But all too often the conversations were superficial, and I would feel disappointed.  I realize I almost always felt bored by “small talk.”  I could only tolerate it when I was with people I knew well, people I felt safe with, people with whom I had had deep conversations.  I realize now that only if the conversation was intense was I able to be unaware of the underlying discomfort.

Since I’ve been so exhausted, and let myself be exhausted, I notice that I’m happier at the open table, where you can sit if you don’t have people to sit with.  I’m too tired to make conversation, and I don’t have to do it at the open table.  I can also get up when I want to.  So I started going to the open table when I wanted to isolate.  What I am now finding is that the regulars at the open table have become familiar, so I’m comfortable with them.  I don’t mind the “small talk.”  I am actually feeling supported by the ordinary.

I notice, as I’m writing about this, how important the issue of safety is.  Many times, someone I considered a good friend would say something that invalidated me in what felt like a cruel way.  I have finally understood that they do this because something triggered them, it’s not about me.  But even understanding that doesn’t keep me from closing down a part of myself and being wary of that friend.

From my journal for November 10

Talked to Erica about how I’m letting myself be tired.  She said I’m still exploring my limits.  There was also something about learning how much support there was in ordinary things.  Like sitting at the open table and not having any deep conversations.  I’m wondering what kind of life I would still have if I stayed within my limits.  I think about “comfort zone” and it makes me laugh.  I never had a comfort zone.  I was always trying to get away from a place that was painful and find a place where I could be comfortable.  Now, when I’m finally in a place where I can relax enough to feel how tired I am, I am also starting to appreciate hanging out with the ordinary.  When I was first here, I was only happy if there was a “good conversation” at dinner.  Now I’m OK with ordinary remarks.  I think Erica said something about “ordinary” a while back, and I thought “how boring.”  Now I see what she meant.

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Letting Things Happen

Journal entries:

Friday, October 19

It’s almost 7:30. I’ve been too leisurely over my tea. I think I will wait and see when I finish my routine and that will decide whether I drive down to Keene or not. I got back from walking Mocha at 8:20, so I called Erica to say I was coming & left. I drove down very relaxed, feeling my butt on the seat, paying attention to the music and the trees.

Saturday, October 20

Yesterday was very interesting. I started unsure of whether I was going to drive to Keene or not. I chose to let the time it took to get through my routine make the decision. I didn’t hurry, but I didn’t waste time. I was ready to go at 8:20, so I left. It was like I had taken my hand off the tiller, stopped trying to control things. Lots of things went wrong — I wore my pajama top down to Keene, I didn’t have time to eat lunch before I picked up Jeanne, Dulany and I messed up on times, and none of it mattered. A day of grace.

Something else that fits this pattern is how I’ve changed the way I play solitaire.  I start by trying to free the aces, but when I get stuck, I stop looking for what will free an ace, and look for what I can actually do, even if it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.  Most of the time, it works out.  That was a surprise.

This “letting things happen” is the opposite of pushing to make myself do what I think should be done. It’s part of the collapse that I suspect has happened because I finally feel safe.  I know I felt a very strong container when I first moved to Kendal, but then there were all kinds of bureaucratic, strategic things that needed to be done, and I found that so difficult.  It also has taken me a while to make friends, I still don’t have a lot of people I feel safe with, and I need that to feel really comfortable.  I’ve had to let go of a number of people that I found attractive when I first moved, and accept that they weren’t equally attracted to me.  That was a disappointment. 

The “very strong container” was a feeling, but also an image.  I felt held by something like a big glass bowl, made of translucent glass, with vertical sides and a flat bottom joined by a narrow curve.  It was a little like my perception of a “floor” when I first started doing Somatic Experiencing.

My exhaustion has forced me to let myself rest, to find ways to nurture myself, to pay attention to my basic needs.  Erica says that the legacy of having my mother ignore my needs because she was focussed on getting her own needs met, left me with no idea that I was a human with certain basic survival needs.  Part of the deep belief that I had to “prove that I deserve to live” before I could get basic needs met was conditioned by her neglect.

I say that I’ve “stopped trying to control things,” but what I’m really trying to control is myself.  To get myself to do what I think I “should.”  I don’t try to control other people. What I’m really trying to do is avoid getting punished for not doing something I didn’t know I was supposed to do.  I’m also trying to just keep going through a blizzard to a place where I feel safe.

I once saw myself keeping going through severe depression as someone keeping going through a blizzard.  You know you can’t lie down, but you have forgotten why.  You just keep saying “now put your right foot forward, now put your left foot forward…”

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Attachment Trauma

I usually type up my journal a month later.  Yesterday I typed this.  One of the things I’ve been learning in the work with Erica is how deep the trauma goes.  This description of feeling so alone and disconnected is pretty much how I felt as a baby when my mother left me alone for too long.

from my journal for October 10
Read over the notes I made from the phone session with Erica.  I was very upset, not feeling connected to her.  I cried and cried, sometimes in a very high voice.  I said “Someone is supposed to come!”  Erica kept being soothing and reasonable.  “I’m here with you… stay with the feeling…  how do you know that you are disconnected?”  I hated that she was reasonable.  She sounded detached.  Didn’t she care?  My heart was heavy and my belly empty of hope.  Looking back, I can see that I was feeling grief and despair and anger.  I started hitting my leg.  She suggested I hug a pillow.  That seemed so stupid, so artificial.  But I figured “What have I got to lose?”  So I got the pillow.  It helped a little.  She asked about the doll I had made, would it help to hug her?  No, she doesn’t need comforting.  Then I thought of the little dog I got at the silent auction.  He’s a beanie baby so he’s a little squishy, and his expression is one of longing.  Very easy to want to comfort him.  I think it must have been at that point that I switched from upset baby to comforter.  I wanted to write, but I needed to hold the phone and the puppy.  Erica suggested I put him inside my shirt so I did, and that felt good.  Comforting for both of us.  I think of Mother using me to comfort herself because Dad was away.  At some point I began to feel my whole body.  “How does that feel?”  I feel my skin — my whole skin — and then I feel myself filling it.  I finally stopped crying/ screaming/ whimpering.  I felt totally drained.  Erica said something about a big wave, but I didn’t feel like something came to a natural end, just that I had got too tired and despairing to keep crying.

Song in my mind:
“after all the tears are finally cried
and I am finally clean inside
the gentle winds will come and they will dry my mind…
and all that will be left for me to do is die.”

When I find a song in my mind, I look for the message.  I had to look up the exact words.  They are from Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies, a song from 1966.

Just as Erica and I were getting ready to hang up, I heard the call waiting sound, and after we hung up the phone started ringing and it was Christine. I was so glad she called. I cried for help and somebody answered.

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Running on Fumes

From my journal for September 26

I was so tired yesterday I didn’t do much of anything.  I did take a short nap, went to meditation, walked Mocha in the rain.  I had planned to do things like call the dentist, but because I was so tired, I let myself off the hook.  I notice that when I was so triggered about the lying about sexual abuse situation, I did practical things because resting quietly was impossible when I was so triggered.  That must be how I lived a lot of my life.  That’s why I balanced the checkbook every month to the last penny.  That’s where “false urgency” comes from.

From my journal for September 28

I think of the tremendous effort I made on Saturday and Sunday not to let my mind ruminate on the issue of abuse and lying.  

Notes from talk with Erica on October 30

She says it’s a big transition to the support of having people around.  It’s hard work to make new friends. I say “I shouldn’t need to get all this rest.”  She says “You were running on fumes before you moved to Kendal.”

She says I’ve been really really really tired for a really long time.  Now I’m starting to recognize collapse: after the long worry and effort when Mocha was sick, getting me up in the middle of the night, then the vet and medication, she started getting better and then I collapsed. after teaching dance last Sunday — I enjoyed the teaching, was my enthusiastic self — and then, when it was over, I could feel how totally exhausted I was.

Erica says I’m getting familiar with my limits as an organism.

Maybe I’m starting to feel safe enough to collapse.  All those years that the “tough little drip” kept going, and going, and going…   I used to say I got through depression like you get through a blizzard.  You know if you lie down that you’ll freeze to death, but you’ve forgotten why you can’t lie down, you say to yourself “now put your right foot forward, now put your left foot forward..” and just keep moving.  But it wasn’t just depression I got through that way, it was my whole life because I did not know how much pain I was avoiding.  The erasing of the abuse was worse than the abuse.”  If you don’t know the reason you are having a hard time, you think it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough, so you push yourself.

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more from my journal for Tuesday, October 16

I read some more in Krista Tippett’s book.  It is so amazing.  A lot of it feels totally beyond my poor brain at the moment.  Maybe because so much of it is about the social engagement system, which I think, is currently offline.  That makes sense of why I’m isolating.

Got up to make my second cup of tea and realized how unbelievably tired I am.  Just sitting here with my head propped on my hand.

I wanted to write down about Trisha saying that she has a hard time doing yoga exercises and she blames it on not wanting to give up her story of being a victim.  Is that what I’m doing?  For me I think it is about taking care of myself.  Things that are basically taking care of myself — yoga stretches, meditating, even doing laundry, but especially ones that require being alone with my body — are very difficult to do.  It’s so painful to have to be with myself in that way.  Maybe there’s a lot of grief and anger that I wasn’t cared for by someone else when I was supposed to be.  I want to spend my time doing something of consequence for the world, something that matters.  If I can’t be doing something like that why take care of myself?  No motivation at all.  I’m not worth taking care of.

Third cup of tea.  Still tired, but I feel totally washed out and finally ready for some kind of new beginning.  Maybe stop apologizing for not being more effective in the cumbersome bureaucratic details of living.

Three moments of beauty noticed and savored: last night, walking Mocha, all the lamp-lit windows made rectangles of golden orange; this morning, standing behind the couch, a little sun coming in the window, sun at just the right angle to make a beautiful pattern of darks and lights of trees, grass, buildings; walking Mocha, enjoying sun, blue sky, fall colors, fallen leaves.  I notice that the sun is not making me feel like I have to hide, which is how I’ve felt for the last couple of weeks.  Comforted by grey sky and rain.

I wonder if the end of a process of struggling (but I keep doing this same one over & over) and potential for new beginning and extreme tiredness is a result of spending most of yesterday working on the blog piece.  Which was also working on the whole issue of am I a failure at living? or have I done a good job with a very tough assignment?

I took notes in my journal while I was talking to Erica,  I’ve edited and expanded them here.

Talk with Erica.  I say “I’m overwhelmed,” she says what’s happening in your body?  — heart squeezed and all the tissue around it being pulled into the squeeze, torso diffuse, arms shaking a very little bit, then there are tears, and then I start to cough.  Sometimes the cough has meant that I’m angry.  Erica suggests that coughing while I’m crying may mean it’s not OK to pay attention to what’s happening in my body.  There’s a traffic jam, anger going in different directions.  The cough interrupts a state of profound flow, I went from “overwhelm” to tears, which happened because of my attention to my somatic experience.  Erica’s language is almost too much for me, so I reformulate what I have understood: “I’m not supposed to pay attention to what I’m experiencing — what’s going on for me.”  

Erica reminds me that when I was a little kid, crying, I was right in the flow of my experience.  Mother’s response was “go to your room.”  That’s a slap in the face.  She says my whole system is sputtering with shock and bewilderment/disbelief.  I start to wail about how much in me is shut down.  Erica lets me wail, and then reframes it.  She says that right below the surface the flow is fully intact.  My response to someone who’s vulnerable is instant compassion.  “The flow is fully intact.”  I had been seeing my whole life as a desert, but I’ve only been living in a desert of not being able to see the truth about myself.  “We are being with how quickly you move into your responsive flow with your own experience.”  What am I feeling now?  — relief and disbelief —  I didn’t believe my real life is still here (“under the surface”).  I had to disbelieve in my own experience, mother saying “Go to your room” erases me, Jenny.

Krista Tippett’s book is Becoming Wise, An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  She quotes interviews with people on her radio show, On Being, who have helped shape her understanding.

The “social engagement system” is a very recent part of the brain, it tends to shut down when the reptilian brainstem is activated by trauma.

“Trisha” is in the book The Education of Will.  I say more about it in my post Struggle with Feelings of Failure.

Sun making me feel like I have to hide.

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Good for me!

I typed all that up and made a draft of a blog post.  It took me all day.  I added a part about early trauma affecting the development of the brain, how that makes it harder to heal.  When I managed to get a little more perspective on myself I saw that I had in fact taken some actual steps in a positive direction: finding out how to get the Dan Siegel course material (good for me!), putting up the poster (good for me!), signing up to write postcards (good for me!), and setting a date when I would start teaching folk dance again (even when I wasn’t feeling very excited about it, GOOD FOR ME!).  I actually did those things, despite being at the bottom of the pit of despair, and I did them without using will power to push myself (good for me!)  It’s OK to do something really tiny.  Given the weight of my despair, a tiny action is an enormous achievement.

The Dan Siegel course is in Integration, a function of the brain that is very important in healing trauma.  Introduction:

I signed up for it, paid for it, but never got any instructions for how to access it.  All I had to do was go to the website, sign in (I already had a username and password, which I had forgotten), and go to the course materials.  But somehow I haven’t been able to “integrate” these ways of negotiating around the web, so I had to call Sounds True, and have a real person walk me through it.  I’ve seen somewhere that a trauma friendly reception area has a human being in it as well as soft lighting and gentle colors.  I can’t deal with recorded voices that tell me which button to push.  Don’t know if this is just getting older, or being traumatized myself, or just being overwhelmed, as highly sensitive people are vulnerable to being.  When I was first learning the computer, things were much easier, and there weren’t a lot of windows popping up on any site I happened to visit.

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