ysabetwordsmith: Damask smiling over their shoulder (polychrome)
[personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
This poem came out of the February 2016 [community profile] crowdfunding Creative Jam. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] alexseanchai. It also fills the "sleeping with a comfort object" square in my 1-23-16 card for the Valentine's Day Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by EdorFaus. It belongs to the Shiv thread of the Polychrome Heroics series, and follows the stories "Warm Fuzzies" and "Outside Influence" by [personal profile] dialecticdreamer.

Warning: This poem contains some touchy topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. There is confusion, angst, trust issues, eating more high-caliber licorice than is advisable, Shiv wondering what his body is doing, and also what his mind is doing, because the inside of Shiv's head is always a warning, asking for help and getting it, more past references to Shiv's wrecktastic education, minor medical details, Dr. Bloch carefully testing how much dominance Shiv will actually go along with, the challenges of multiple layers of relationship packed together, Shiv tripping over paperwork triggers due to past mistreatment, cross-cultural translation challenges, Dr. Bloch taste-testing the licorice that Shiv is concerned about, Shiv realizing in retrospect that some of the rules he's broken had serious safety reasons behind them, somewhat awkward teamwork, Shiv struggling to wrap his mind around complex concepts of addiction and habituation, ambivalence about study-scale and personal-scale scientific method, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"Privacy and Comfort"

Shiv lay on his bed, one hand
petting his blanket and the other
dipping into the bag of licorice cats
as he thought about things that
Drew and Dr. G had said.

He thought about the warden,
too, and the silver pen that was
so hard to keep from touching.

Even now, the memory of
those outrageous patterns on
the man's shirt made Shiv smile.

Drew had pranked the warden
partly out of personal interest and
partly because of Shiv sticking up
for Edison about the Microfyne.

The blanket felt soft and fuzzy
under Shiv's fingertips, a deep blue
instead of Edison's banana yellow.

Shiv couldn't help wondering
if it was really safe. He picked up
his tablet and paged through the files
that had come with the ice-blue pillow
currently propping him against
the headboard of the bed.

Introduction. Project description.
Safety statement -- well, of course it
claimed to be safe. Signed consent form.
Blank forms for general feedback,
recording daily amount of usage,
reporting harmful reactions, and
reporting helpful reactions.

Dr. G had said it was safe too,
but he had also said that Shiv could
ask Dr. Bloch for some sort of worksheets
to explore the ideas further.

He was all about testing everything.
Sometimes Dr. G reminded Shiv of a man
looking over a used car and kicking the tires.

Shiv reached for another piece of candy,
and realized two things at once: first, he'd
eaten enough of it to get his whole hand into
the top of the bag -- which was still nowhere
near empty -- and second, he was starting
to feel different. Not good, and not bad,
not anything he could put his finger on.
Just not quite the same, somehow.

He rolled the top of the bag closed and
wondered idly if he'd been poisoned,
but that didn't make much sense. It'd
been checked, and besides, he knew
what food poisoning felt like and what
being drugged felt like, and this wasn't
like any of that, even if it there was
almost a hint of buzz in the feeling.

Shiv wasn't sure how to figure it out,
which made him uncomfortable.

Then he realized that he didn't have to.
He could just ask Dr. Bloch about it,
and have a pretty good chance of
getting a straight explanation ...
and maybe a nicotine sucker.

So Shiv used his tablet to send
a message to the dropbox that was
for not-an-emergency things,
then sat back to wait.

It didn't take long for Dr. Bloch
to get back to him on the viewscreen.
"Hello, Shiv," said the doctor.
"What can I do for you?"

"I was thinking about some stuff,"
Shiv said. "Dr. G and I talked about
the Microfyne and he told me
to ask you about ... habitation?"

"Habituation?" Dr. Bloch said,
like it was perfectly normal for
someone to mess up words and
it didn't require calling him an idiot.
"Yes, that's something I can explain."

"And Drew left me all of this licorice
that's really great and I ate enough of it
to get my hand in the bag and now I
feel ... kind of funny," Shiv said.

"Sick to your stomach?" said Dr. Bloch,
leaning forward over his desk.

"Nah, I know what that's like,"
Shiv said. "This is different. I can't
place it, and that bugs me."

"All right, I'll send someone to pick
you up. Bring your licorice and I can
double-check it for you," said Dr. Bloch.

"Okay," Shiv said.

He waited for the knock at
his door, and then went along
with the guard to the infirmary,
enjoying the chance to get out
and stretch his legs a bit.

His cell was comfortable,
but it was pretty small.

"Hello, Shiv," said Dr. Bloch.
"Let's see if we can figure out
what's going on here."

Shiv had given up fussing over
the 'we' back when he realized
that Dr. Bloch actually meant it
and expected him to pitch in.

Today that meant describing
everything he'd eaten in the last day
and what he felt like and when he'd
first noticed something different.

Then it moved on to walking in a circle
and bending over and letting Dr. Bloch
pat over his whole body looking for
problems instead of weapons.

"Chin up," said Dr. Bloch.

Shiv cringed. "I hate the flashlight,"
he grumbled. It gave him a headache,
and he always worried that sooner or
later somebody was going to notice
how fucked-up his vision was.

"I know you do," said Dr. Bloch.
"It'll tell me some important things
about your health, though. Now: chin up."

There was something about his voice
that made Shiv obey without really
meaning to, and the stabbing glare of
the light was there and gone in seconds.

Afterwards he leaned over
and put his head in his hands,
pressing over his eyeballs to try
and make the spots go away.

One foot kicked against the leg of
the exam bed that he was sitting on.

"Shiv, check this for me?" said Dr. Bloch.

For a minute, Shiv was tempted
to tell him to fuck off, but Dr. Bloch
clicked his tongue and nudged
Shiv's shoulder with something.
"What?" he asked, looking up.

"Check your energy level,"
Dr. Bloch said, probably
not for the first time.

Shiv glared at the mood scale
displayed on the screen.

"I hate this stupid thing," he growled.
"It's hardly ever right, and people
act like it is, and then they blame
me for getting it wrong."

"What makes it go wrong?" Dr. Bloch said.

"Because I usually feel all mixed up inside, and
there's no slot for that and this dumb program
won't make more than one mark," Shiv said.
He whacked the stylus against the screen,
making the selector dot jump around. "See?"

"I see," Dr. Bloch said with
a nod. "That is a problem."

He opened a nearby drawer, then
came back with a pen and the same chart
printed on paper, which he offered to Shiv.
"Now you can mark whatever you feel,"
said the doctor. "Just use the range
as a rough guide, and write or draw
in the margins if you need to clarify."

Shiv wasn't sure what all the words were,
and there weren't any pictures to help,
but he understood the range well enough.

"I came here because I can't stop
thinking about stuff and my body is
being weird and I want to know why,"
he said, marking the light blue bar.
"So that's making me twitchy." He
added another mark on the orange bar,
then scribbled All mixed up on the side
with a jumble of random shapes.

"Perfect," said Dr. Bloch, then
gave him a faint smile. "ECR Boy."

Shiv snorted. "Great, now Rosie
has everyone saying that."

"I can't imagine why," the doctor drawled.
"Anyway, I'll make a note that you should
always fill out this form in hardcopy."

Shiv stared at the page. "Nobody
ever just let me say what I really felt
on it before," he muttered.

"Then no wonder it didn't work,"
said Dr. Bloch. "Problem solved now."

And it was, if Shiv could get anyone else
to go along with the new trick, or for that matter,
could untangle the mess of his feelings enough
to put them on paper. Which he still hated doing,
but he had to say something if he wanted
to get to the bottom of this, and he did.

"Now let me show you something else,"
said Dr. Bloch. "Remember when we
talked about the Total Comfort Level?"

Shiv nodded. "Yeah, figuring out
how to stay in the bearable part
without messing around so much
that it just makes me feel worse."

Dr. Bloch put one finger on
the blue bar and one on the orange,
then moved them slowly together,
landing on the light green of Wide Awake.

"If you're feeling more than one thing,
look for a spot in the middle," he suggested.
"If one feeling is a lot bigger, then you might
want to give it an extra step. That should
give you an idea of your overall mood."

"Okay," Shiv said. "So um ... why
are you suddenly doing shrink things?"

"I spoke with Dr. G about some of
the challenges in running a prison infirmary,
and he proposed this for long appointments,"
said Dr. Bloch. "It seems like a much better way
of finding out when someone is losing his grip
than waiting until he snaps and then I
have to call in the guards."

"So how does it work, really?" Shiv asked.

"Do you feel like hiding under
the table or throwing knives at
my head?" Dr. Bloch said.

"Not right now," Shiv said.

"Then you're basically fine
as far as personal energy goes,
and we can continue looking for
answers until we're satisfied or
you wear out," said Dr. Bloch.

"Nice idea if people actually
go along with it," Shiv said.

"I imagine that part will take
some practice," Dr. Bloch said dryly.
"On the bright side, you understood it
as soon as I showed you how it worked,
so that's an encouraging sign."

Shiv picked up the tablet again.
"Didn't this thing come as part of
a program?" he said. "I think there
were forms or something but I kind of
blew them off because they didn't make
sense. Maybe they'd work better
if I could do those on paper too."

"It's a whole program," Dr. Bloch confirmed.
"There are pages to read and worksheets
to fill out. Ambrose says that you're making
progress with other emotional projects, so
those might make more sense to you
now. I'd be happy to print you some."

"That'd be great," Shiv said. "I wanted
to ask you for that stuff Dr. G recommended,
too, but ... what's my body doing?"

"I'm not finding any physical symptoms that
are outside the normal range," said Dr. Bloch.

Shiv huffed. "So it's all in my head?"

"Not necessarily," said Dr. Bloch.
"I have some ideas. When was
the last time that you felt okay,
with nothing to complain about?"

"I ... don't know," Shiv said,
struggling to remember. There was
always something to complain about,
because his life sucked.

"I thought that might be the case,"
said Dr. Bloch. "The most likely
explanation is that you're fine, but
you're not familiar with what fine
feels like, so it seems 'off' to you."

"Maybe," Shiv said.

"Another possibility is that
there is something physical
going on which is not obvious,"
said Dr. Bloch. "If you feel like
giving me a blood sample, then
I can check for contaminants,
measure your hormone levels,
and run a few other tests."

Shiv smothered a smile as he
rolled up his sleeve. One of
the things he was learning was
that Dr. Bloch was usually
good for a quick poke.

The familiar hands on his skin settled
something in him, and Shiv couldn't help
appreciating the privacy and comfort of
the infirmary. Despite his rough past,
he was starting to get spoiled by
Dr. Bloch's patient attention.

"I'm pulling a couple of vials today,
so just sit still and enjoy the ride,"
the doctor advised. "Sharp touch."

Shiv closed his eyes, letting
himself sink into the sensation
as the needle slid under his skin
and then twinged into the waiting vein.

That was another thing he liked
about Dr. Bloch: the man never missed
or caused any extra damage, which was
more than could be said about some people.
Turtledove had left him black and blue for
two weeks, more than once, and it wasn't
as if Shiv's veins were hard to find under
the pale skin that showed bruises
like paint splashed over canvas.

He liked sharp things, though,
in the right hands, liked the sense
of peace that he got from a little pain.
He just hadn't expected to find that
from anyone but himself.

His cheek brushed against
something warm, and then
a hand ghosted along his back.
Shiv startled awake to discover that
he was leaning against Dr. Bloch's chest.

"Steady," the doctor murmured.
"I'm almost done here." Another
quick twinge as the needle withdrew,
and then a swab pressed over
the puncture. "Hold that."

Shiv obeyed, basking in
the faint, lingering ache
as he listened to Dr. Bloch
puttering around the room.

Soon the doctor came back
with a bandaid for him and said,
"Now we've got that taken care of,
I can move along to the last possibility.
May I have some of that licorice
for further exploration?"

"Help yourself," Shiv said,
offering him the bag.

Dr. Bloch dropped several pieces
into a baggie, sealed it, and put it away.

Then he popped the last piece into his mouth.

"Are you nuts?" Shiv yelped.
"I came down here half to find out
if there was anything wrong with that stuff!"

"I don't think there is," said Dr. Bloch.
"Not only did it go through all of
the prison security, it came from
Dr. G, who wouldn't let his kids have
it unless it's one hundred percent safe.
I trust both of those sources -- and
while I also trust my lab, there are
things that lab work can't tell me."

"Like what?" Shiv said.

"Like why you kept putting it
in your mouth," Dr. Bloch replied.
"It really is excellent licorice. It's also
pretty strong, which I was starting
to suspect. So the last possibility is
that you've eaten enough of it to start
feeling the effects. You said you felt
'almost buzzed' -- that can happen with
herbal candy, it's not just flavored sugar."

"So um ... what does it do, then?"
Shiv wondered, tilting his head.

He hadn't realized that licorice
was anything more than a flavor
he could always get because
almost nobody else liked it.

"Licorice is generally soothing, so it
might make you feel a bit more relaxed
than usual," Dr. Bloch said.

"Yeah, maybe," Shiv said,
nudging the idea around his body.

"It's also a great adaptogen, which means
that it helps your body adjust to stress,"
Dr. Bloch said. "If you came down with
a chest cold, then I'd suggest that you try
licorice cough drops -- they would probably
work for you. Just don't eat those cats by
the handful, if the 'almost buzz' bothers you.
Stick to one or two pieces at a time."

"If it's bad for me, then why
is it in candy?" Shiv asked.

"It's only bad for you if you overdo it,"
Dr. Bloch emphasized. "Shiv, too much
of anything is bad for you -- even oxygen."

"How can oxygen be bad?"
Shiv said, frowning. "Isn't that
the part of air we need to breathe?"
He was pretty sure that was the one.
Probably. Well, maybe. It had
at least been in the air lesson.

"Yes, that's the part we breathe,
but too much can hurt people's eyes,"
said Dr. Bloch. "Also it only takes a spark
to make it explode, which is one reason
why hospitals don't allow smoking."

Shiv squeaked on the inhale,
thinking of all the times he had
managed to sneak a smoke there.
"Then why didn't anyone say so?!"

Dr. Bloch tapped a finger on his chin
like he was actually thinking about it.

"I believe the people who make signs
and run hospitals tend to follow rules,
so they don't realize other folks might
need more reason than just 'No Smoking'
to convince them," he said eventually.
"What would you recommend?"

"Maybe something like 'Light up, blow up!'
would help," said Shiv. "Or scary pictures."

"Make me a sign that will convince people
like you not to smoke in my infirmary, and I
will give you a carton of nicotine lollipops,
to be dispensed one at a time," said Dr. Bloch.

"Deal," Shiv said, grinning.

Dr. Bloch picked up the tablet,
fiddled with it, and handed it back.
"This has a file of common icons
and a simple layout program that
I use for making signs," he explained.
"Whatever you design, I can print out."

"You're shitting me," Shiv said.

Dr. Bloch cleared his throat
in a particularly stern tone.

"Kidding me," Shiv corrected,
hardly hesitating before he went on.
"You'd really change your signs
just because of what I said?

"I have to take smokes away from someone
in here at least once a week, and lit ones
once a month or so," said Dr. Bloch. "I may
not be able to do more for other hospitals
than email them a suggestion, but I can
certainly fix my signage in here."

So Shiv poked around on the tablet
and found icons that would show why
smoking around the oxygen was so bad:
man smoking cigarette + oxygen tank = fire.
Then under that he put a shorter row:
no smoking = happy face.

"Somehow that is much clearer than
the standard signs I get from OSHA,"
Dr. Bloch said. "Do you mind if I
make a few additions to that?"

"Go ahead, it's your tablet,"
Shiv said, handing it over.

Dr. Bloch added Oxygen
above the first row of icons,
Fire Hazard between them,
and No Smoking at the bottom,
the red letters bright against
the black pictures.

"Thank you," he said. "I'm
confident that this will help.
Just give me a minute
to send it to the printer."

Shiv waited, lazily tapping
a finger against the mattress.
He missed the fluffy texture
of his own blanket.

The room was quiet and
comfortable, though, as
familiar now as his cell.

"Done," said Dr. Bloch,
and handed Shiv a slip
for a dozen suckers.

"So if there are several things
that could be going on, then how
do you figure out which?" Shiv said.

"Well, that's what diagnostics is all about,"
said Dr. Bloch. "Some of that means looking for
clues in your body, which I already did, or the candy,
which I'll also do. But a lot of it is just weeding out things
that are impossible or improbable. Occam's Razor:
the simplest explanation is the most likely to be true.
In theory, you could've been drugged or poisoned.
In practice, the things that could pass undetected
are zetetics which would have killed you instantly
or had some other readily identifiable effect."

"So it's not that, because the pieces don't fit,
and I'm just throwing knives at roaches," Shiv said.

"That does take care of the roaches,"
Dr. Bloch said. "Now you have
less to worry about, especially
after I finish the rest of the tests
I'll tell you if anything worrisome
shows up in the later results."

"That ... kind of makes sense," Shiv said.
Most of the time nobody explained
things to him in a way that did.

"Now, what else did you want
to discuss with me? The Microfyne
and habituation?" asked Dr. Bloch.

"Yeah," Shiv said. "One of
Dr. G's kids had a blanket
and ... I kinda worried."

"I'm curious as to what roused
your suspicions," said Dr. Bloch.

"Edison was wrapped up in it like
a burrito," said Shiv. "It's one thing
to use the Microfyne on crooks like me,
but kids?" He shook his head. "Anyhow,
Dr. G swore it was safe, and told me
to ask you for more worksheets on why."

"Oh goody, I get to show you the fun stuff,
since you asked," Dr. Bloch said, rubbing
his hands together. He's usually so steady,
it's odd to see him excited. "You're participating
in the trial program, so that entitles you to see
the public feedback and some compilations."

He used the tablet to display a chart
made of many colored lines. "This maps
the average usage curve," said Dr. Bloch.
"See how it starts high but then tapers off?"

Shiv leaned over to trace the pattern
of the rising-falling lines with his finger.
"Okay, yeah, I see," he said.

"Almost everyone shows the same pattern,"
said Dr. Bloch. "They get the blanket, love it,
cuddle it like crazy for a few days or weeks --
and then they slow way down, only reaching
for it when they feel a particular need. That
is the opposite of addiction, since it activates
habituation even in a population with a lot of
addicts. I'm hoping to discover whether it might
help them relearn what 'enough' feels like."

"You said almost everyone," Shiv pointed out.
"Did anyone get really stuck on it?"

"Some a little more, some a little less, but
nobody to the point of developing a problem,"
said Dr. Bloch. "Two people did not find it
impressive. I asked, and it turns out one
of them prefers the texture of leather while
the other favors silk. So I bought the first
a leather floor lounger and the second
a silk comforter, then swapped those
for their blankets, which allowed me
to redistribute the Microfyne."

"Seriously?" Shiv said.
"Wasn't that expensive?"

Dr. Bloch shrugged. "I have a budget
for things like that, and besides, they
made valuable contributions to the project,"
he said. "You can read their reviews."

So Shiv looked up the reviews, and then
read a few others that people had posted.
He sniggered over several repetitions of
"better than sex." Apparently he wasn't
the only person who loved Microfyne.

Huh. He hadn't really thought about
that before. It made him feel just
a little less freaked about it.

"Would you like to see something else
interesting?" Dr. Bloch asked.

"Sure," Shiv said, his curiosity
well and truly pricked up now.

"We're seeing a slight increase
in sleep," said Dr. Bloch, opening
a new chart. "Now if this were bigger,
then I might worry, but look over here."
He split the screen to show another.
"It matches a decrease in complaints
about insomnia, nightmares, and
other sleep disturbances."

That reminded Shiv that he hasn't
had many nightmares lately, and
most of those after therapy days ...
which, yeah, was running low for him.

"I wonder if it's doing that to me," he said.

"We can try to find out," said Dr. Bloch.
"You haven't been very forthcoming
with feedback, but I've got a few entries.
Let me see what I can splice together
from those, your appointments here,
and the security feeds."

"Okay," Shiv said. His left heel
tapped idly against the leg of the bed.

"Meanwhile, why don't you get reacquainted
with that emotional thermometer and
its worksheets," said Dr. Bloch.

"Okay," Shiv said, and he meant
to do that, he really did. The range
of tired-calm-worried-angry made sense,
but the worksheets gave him that squashed
feeling he always got because the schools
expected him to behave but then nobody
ever gave a fuck about how he felt or
what he needed that he hadn't got.

They just wanted him to pretend that
everything was fine, no matter how bad
it got, and none of the crap they suggested
for "calming down" actually helped.

Shiv heaved a sigh and paged
to a new form, hoping for something
he could squeak a few points out of
without wanting to throw up or
take five showers in a row.

"You sound unhappy," said Dr. Bloch.
"Is something bothering you?"

"This program just ... reminds me of
some crud from school," Shiv replied.

"Well, that's not very helpful," said Dr. Bloch.
He took the tablet from Shiv and snapped
a T-mem chip into a slot. "Here, try these.
I assumed that the usual 'don't do drugs'
material would not appeal to you--"

Shiv gave a wry laugh as he
accepted the tablet. "Yeah, no."

"So I picked the least-pushy references
I could find that are easy to understand,
where it talks about habituation, tolerance,
and addiction," said Dr. Bloch. "There are
also other materials on adaptation and
coping skills for you to explore. Maybe
you'll find something more useful there."

Some of the things really were easy, almost
more like slides than regular handouts.

Some of them were a lot harder.

Shiv looked at the worksheets to see
which ones he might actually be able
to do. There's one about porcupines and
the adaptations that help them survive.
There's another about people living in
harsh environments. Shiv wondered if
he could get away with writing about
street smarts. Then there's one on
humans of the future and what kind
of adaptations they might have.

Suddenly it all stuck together in
Shiv's mind. "Hey! I'm a porcupine!"

Dr. Bloch glanced over at him. "What?"
he said. "I'll admit you're a bit prickly,
but don't you think that's going too far?"

Shiv laughed. "No, look, there's
all these silly worksheets about
adaptations," he said. "The future?
Well, duh -- superpowers! So I'm
like this porcupine." He pointed out
the other page about how porcupines
were suited to their homes. Then
he frowned. "Only I don't know
what I'd be adapting to."

"I'm not sure either," Dr. Bloch said in
a thoughtful tone. "It's a popular stance,
though, the idea of superpowers as
a part of humanity's evolution."

Next Shiv looked at the stuff on
habituation. Dr. G had been right
about things getting less interesting
after a while -- Shiv could see that in
how fast he got tired of video games
that were too easy, too predictable.

The creepy part was finding
pages about how easy it was
for people to get used to things
like abuse, violence, and pain.

That stuff hit a little too close to home,
and he quickly shuffled away from it.

The worksheets for adaptation
were mini-quizzes that Shiv thought
he might get through if he studied.

The stuff on addiction was familiar,
although it helped that Dr. Bloch had
found things that weren't too snotty
or too long and confusing.

The pictures helped a lot. Some of
the images were confusing, like the one
that talked about what addiction did to the body,
where he didn't know most of the words. But
even there he could trace the lines and get
some idea of what they meant.

Those worksheets were the ones
that Dr. G had probably meant about
figuring out whether or not you had a habit.

Shiv thought about the Microfyne.
As much as he loved it, something
about it made him a little uneasy, but he
couldn't match it to any of the warning signs.

Well, if it didn't match the addiction things,
then maybe he really was jumping at shadows.

Shiv skimmed through the coping skills,
then got interested in one page about needs.
But it was the snowman worksheet that he put
in the "definitely do" file -- it came with sets of
coping skills to color and stick on the squares.
"Can I get this stuff printed?" he asked.

"Which stuff?" asked Dr. Bloch,
coming over to look at it. "Sure."
He sent the files to his printer,
then went back to work.

And then Shiv tripped over the bit
about the blankets, right there in pages
that were probably handed out everywhere:
Collect a box of things that make you feel good.
Put a fuzzy blanket in your coping box.

"The blankets are in here," he said.
"I thought it was just ... the Microfyne
being so hard to let go of."

Dr. Bloch opened a cabinet. "Microfyne,"
he said, pointing at a half-empty package.
"Cotton. Polyfleece. Wool," he said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Shiv said.

"Shiv, we've always kept blankets in here.
Ambulances and police cars carry them too,"
said Dr. Bloch. "People get cold when they're
sick or injured, but also, having something fuzzy
just makes them feel better. It's not childish.
It's not weird. It's just what mammals do."

Shiv remembered Dr. G saying
pretty much the same things.

If both of them and the study pages
all agreed, then maybe petting his pillow
and burrowing into his blanket really weren't
as weird as he'd thought. Or maybe some
of his foster parents had been morons,
just like he thought they were.

Shiv shuffled the pages around on
the tablet, looking at how they lined up
the same ideas said in different ways,
and how one thing could show up
in different places. Cool.

It was a lot easier than trying to figure out
school with everything chopped to bits
in all the separate classrooms.

"All right, here's what I found so far,"
said Dr. Bloch. "The quick easy results
say that you're fine. No unfortunate drugs,
no other problems. Don't pig out on licorice."

For some reason that struck Shiv as funny
and started snickering again. "Okay."

"Now look at this," said Dr. Bloch.
He switched a new chip into the tablet.
"These are all stress markers, and
they're all lower than they used to be.
Something you're doing is working."

Shiv was doing so many crazy new things,
he couldn't be sure what was working.
The Microfyne definitely made him
feel less freaked out, though.

"I guess that's good," he said.

"As best I can tell, you're right
on average for the Microfyne use,"
said Dr. Bloch. "I am certain that
you haven't gotten busted for scoots
since you first got the pillow."

Which wasn't to say he'd had zero,
but Dr. Bloch was right, he hadn't been
busted for them and he seemed
to be smoking less often.

"I think that's more the suckers,
though," Shiv said. "Those help."

"That's probably part of it," Dr. Bloch agreed.

"Huh," Shiv said suddenly. "Maybe that's it.
I almost feel like I've had a cigarette, except
that I haven't. Really." Then he laughed.
"I used to put licorice in my mouth and
pretend I was smoking it. Maybe it works."

"Maybe it does, at least for you," said Dr. Bloch.
"The Microfyne was new, it was meeting a need
you had at the moment, and you used it more often."
He tapped the screen of the tablet. "Now, that's
when you had filled in the gaps and needed it less.
If it stays at about that much time per day, then
that is your typical need. A baseline."

"And it'll just stay like that?" Shiv said.

"It should, unless something else changes,"
said Dr. Bloch. "Look at the big picture here.
Lower stress, less misbehavior, better sleep --
congratulations. Do you want to try actually
filling out some records to track the changes
better, now that you're getting curious?"

Shiv narrowed his eyes. "Like what?"
Tracking anything never seemed to go well
for him ... except that Dr. Bloch was doing it now.

"Keep track of your sleep, and
anything like nightmares or insomnia,"
the doctor suggested. "Make a prediction
about how those patterns are changing for you,
or even for the other Microfyne users.
Then wait to see if you're right."

Shiv looked at the worksheets that
Dr. Bloch showed him, and shivered.

"I'll think about it," he hedged.
He wanted to know, sure, but
those things still creeped him out
more than a little, deep inside.

"Then I think that covers everything
for today," said Dr. Bloch. "You?"

"My brain is full," Shiv agreed.
"So ... candy today, or soda?"

Dr. Bloch plunked the sealed bag of
licorice firmly into Shiv's lap and said,
"I think you've had enough sweets for now.
Let's try something different this time."

Shiv hid his disappointment.
Yep, he really was getting spoiled.

Dr. Bloch opened a drawer and
handed him a little blue thing
covered in puffy dots. "Here,
try squeezing this," he said.

Shiv gave it a tentative pinch.
The thing popped under his touch.

"Shit!" he said. "I think I broke it."

"You can't break it by squeezing
it like that," said Dr. Bloch. "It's
supposed to do that. Try again."

Shiv gave it a firmer squeeze.

It popped again, and he could swear
that was the same bubble that
he'd already popped. "How
is it doing this?" he said.

"I have no idea," said Dr. Bloch.
"It's just designed to mimic the feel
of popping bubble wrap."

"Smooth," Shiv said.

"Don't tease the guards with that,"
Dr. Bloch warned. "If they confiscate it,
then I may not be able to get it back."

"I'll try to be careful," Shiv said, which
was as good as it ever got, for him.

Dr. Bloch held out two paper envelopes,
already neatly labeled. "Here, put it in this,
and your T-mem chip in the other," he said.
"When you get back to your room, put the chip
into your own tablet and you'll have your files
on habituation and everything else ready to go."

"Okay," Shiv said, and let Dr. Bloch
shoo him out of the infirmary.

He showed off his envelopes
to the guard just like he was
supposed to, and it didn't
even raise an eyebrow.

When Shiv got back to his cell,
he put his stuff on the desk.

It was small, but it was
private and comfortable.
He didn't want to give it up,
even though he knew that
he'd have to eventually.

Then Shiv lay down in bed,
snuggled up with his pillow and
his blanket, and really thought
about how they made him feel.

Not high. Not jonesing.
Just warm and fuzzy and quiet.
Sleepy, if he'd been working hard
or thinking hard, so maybe
that was okay too.

He looked at the prediction page
and jotted down Sleep better.
He could fill in the rest later,
if he felt like it then.

Shiv yawned.

He felt like his blanket was
trying to tuck him into bed.
So he put the tablet away and
curled up with his Microfyne.

He was mostly sure, now,
that it wasn't bad for him.
He was less sure about it
not being a habit, but if it was,
then maybe it was a good habit.

Shiv couldn't really remember
having a good habit before.

But this one was soft and warm
and, most importantly, not
going to get him busted.

That was a surprising comfort.

* * *


"The closing of a door can bring blessed privacy and comfort -- the opening, terror. Conversely, the closing of a door can be a sad and final thing -- the opening a wonderfully joyous moment."
-- Andy Rooney

Licorice is an adaptogen. Here is a recipe for licorice candy. While it is quite safe, Dr. Bloch is right about herbal candy -- if you eat it by the handful, the effects can go from subtle to noticeable.

Informed consent applies to all contexts, but is most often discussed in regard to medical care and human studies. Shiv struggles with it because years of abuse, neglect, and institutional wrangles have violated his boundaries so much that he can hardly see where some of them even are. He knows that some things bother him, but not necessarily that they are wrong. That leads to impaired consent, which undermines his ability to get good care even when it is available. It is further complicated by his current imprisonment, because that limits his right to make his own decisions while in state care. It's an ongoing problem. Here's a discussion about the spectrum of consent.

Help-seeking behavior is the ability and willingness of people to ask for assistance when they can't solve their own problems. It only works if help is available, effective, and free of drawbacks that would make it more trouble than it's worth. Many people learn not to ask for help because it is inaccessible, unaffordable, ineffective, and/or so revolting that they'd rather just tolerate the problem they have instead of making it worse. So in order to encourage help-seeking behavior, you must first remove potential barriers. Dr. Bloch does this by making it free and easy to reach him, demonstrating competence, and persistently rewarding people for help-seeking. He's not trying to turn a no into a yes. He's trying to turn a maybe into a yes. While the constant tidbitting hasn't "tamed" Shiv, it is enough to tip the scales once he is already debating whether or not it's worth his while to call in. Lower the barriers, raise the benefits.

Trust comes in different types and consists of multiple elements. Here you can see the steps that Dr. Bloch has taken to build trust, while Shiv is moving through the levels of trust and beginning to share more private information. A challenge of PDSD is that it tends to cripple adaptability so that people find it difficult or impossible to gauge current levels of appropriate trust; the inertia makes them continue distrusting even in a more trustworthy environment. I found this fantastic diagram of correct trust. If you were to map Shiv's path on this arc, you'd see his environment climbing rapidly out of the correct distrust quadrant and into the trustworthy quadrant, while his actual level of trust climbs much more slowly. So instead of staying close together like they used to be, the lines are diverging, and his current trust is well below what is justified. But it is improving.

A key problem with neglect/abuse is the lingering impact on functionality. It leaves huge gaps in experience and skills, so that survivors don't know many things which healthy people know. One of those is that they don't know what normal even feels like; they're just trying to fake it. If they actually get there, then it feels weird and confusing and wrong in ways that can make survivors scramble out of beneficial situations in favor of something that is worse but more familiar and thus comfortable. This is a problem that Shiv is just starting to encounter as his situation improves.

Dominance and submission is a pattern of dynamics found in social animals, often expressed through dominant and submissive body language. It has advantages for both parties even in its harshest forms. However, more nuanced versions exist and they work much better. Leadership is about far more than the use of force, and power exchange in BDSM relies on a sophisticated grasp of both energy and interpersonal dynamics. It is crucial to use power gently instead of violently -- whether it is a superpower or institutional authority. A good dominant has certain qualities which make them appealing to a submissive. One of these is the "dom voice" which can compel obedience. It kind of flips a switch in a submissive's brain, producing pleasure as well as obedience. There are tips on how to develop a dom voice. Shiv may keep the safety cover over his submission most of the time, but he does have it, and once someone has earned his respect it becomes accessible.

Consent is an inherent part of power exchange, but everywhere else. One type of consent means agreeing to do something together on a level of equal authority (most sex, peer therapy) while another entails delegating part of your agency to someone else and thus entrusting them with some care of you (receiving oral sex, asking a doctor to make a judgment call based on his greater experience). Consent is a very complex topic, especially when you get into the really sophisticated territory such as using kink to heal from abuse. A problem is that people rarely put the bottom rungs on the ladder and talk about consent in everyday, nonsexual contexts. So much of it is left to the people doing high-level work like kink where it is essential to discuss these dynamics openly.

Another crucial aspect is that personal boundaries need some flexibility. Pay attention to hard boundaries vs. soft boundaries. Hard boundaries are things you never permit because they consistently do more harm than good. Soft boundaries are things you may permit occasionally, only with certain people, or under limited circumstances when either they don't bother you much right now or the cost is worth the gain. Pushing a hard boundary is abuse; pushing a soft boundary can be beneficial if done just right. The more intimate a relationship, the more things people are allowed to do; farther out they should not be pushing any boundaries, but closer in that can help with personal growth. Ideally, boundaries are flexible and semipermeable, letting in the good but keeping out the bad. This applies to all the different types of boundaries: physical, emotional, material, etc. You can see that constant abuse/neglect has left Shiv's boundaries in ruins; sometimes he overprotects, other times he doesn't even defend himself because he thinks of a particular violation as normal, justified, or impossible to resist. No wonder he violates other people's boundaries -- he often can't even see them. Setting and maintaining boundaries is an ongoing process of interaction and negotiation. Dr. Bloch knows that Shiv sometimes sets boundaries in the wrong place, so his pushing is aimed at 1) keeping both of them safe, and 2) nudging Shiv's boundaries toward a healthy configuration. Sometimes that involves some unpleasant wrangling, and it's possible for things to go very wrong; but the alternative is leaving Shiv with boundary rubble and no health care, which is not ethical either.

Multiple relationships happen when people interact within a stack of roles. In this case, those include senior/junior, prison staff/inmate, doctor/patient, and dominant/submissive. Dr. Bloch holds the upper hand in all of those. But let's not forget supervillain/citizen, where Shiv has the advantage. Even before adding the one with professional risks, which is D/S, it's already a stack thick enough to create some inherent complications. Normally a doctor has the authority of experience but a patient has the authority of decision. But in a prison, the state's obligation to take care of inmates will overshadow every doctor/patient relationship; it limits what Dr. Bloch can ignore or Shiv can refuse. In many disicplines, this kind of stacking is grudgingly tolerated at best and grounds for termination at worst, because it can cause problems even without ethical violations, just by complicating an already challenging situation. In any small population, it's difficult or impossible to avoid multiple relationships. In other contexts, it is possible to separate relationships, but doing so results in a net loss of care because some people cannot or will not engage outside the kind of personal connection that only multiple relationships provide. Shiv has survived enough abuse, much of it institutional, that he just plain won't cooperate with anyone he doesn't have some leverage over and/or rapport with; trying to force him is dangerous, and leaving him without care because you don't like what he needs is just more neglect. This kind of conundrum leads to debates over multiple relationships. Fortunately Dr. Bloch is skilled with a variety of power sources, which enables him to make fluent choices about which one to use in the moment to boost Shiv over the rubble in his head to access a higher level of care than Shiv could manage to reach without that help. If shifting from doctor authority to dom authority gains cooperation during an exam, and if providing a little extra medically justifiable pain keeps Shiv from cutting himself, then Dr. Bloch will risk his license in the cause of providing best care for his patient. It's not perfectly safe, but it is less risky and more beneficial all around than the alternatives. Compare this to a thoughtful discussion of multiple relationships with attention to the small world effect, some clients' need for extra support via multiple rather than single relationships, and distinctions between helpful boundary crossings vs. harmful boundary violations. There are also tips on how to manage multiple relationships.

Emotional Zones of Regulation is a teaching tool which can be very helpful when applied correctly, and a fucking nightmare when misused. For children in a decent environment, who have some coping skills already, they really just need coaching in how and when to use their coping skills to manage their mood and actions effectively. It works great. For children with mental illness/injury and/or from a disadvantaged background, they have more challenges to face up front, few if any coping skills, suggested ones may not work as claimed, they have fewer spoons to tolerate more stress of any kind, and adults may be unsympathetic to any of this. It can turn into one more stick to beat them with for just not being what someone in power wants them to be. Another major problem is that people in power often overstrain their subordinates simply because they can, and then blame people for breaking down. You are only responsible for what you control; if you are not permitted to rest when you need it, then it is not your fault for collapsing or snapping under the strain -- although bad bosses will penalize you anyway. Shiv's experiences have been consistently bad because the earliest abuse hamstrung his potential for self-regulation and nobody has repaired that yet. What little control he has? You can thank Boss White for most of that.

The zones can be described with faces or text, on a spectrum from happy to angry. This is the more nuanced spectrum that Dr. Bloch uses to gauge physical and mental effects. This one adds some coping strategies at each level. Notice that those only help if you are allowed to use them (i.e. having access to a quiet corner) and if using them actually improves mood rather than just going through the motions without relief. This thermometer model asks questions, while this one just provides blanks to write in anything. It helps to think about your current zone and how to move up or down as needed.

Ideally, behavior should scale to the size of the problem. Here are examples of smaller and larger problems. This scale goes from small personal problems to big contextual problems. Here you can compare size of problem and response side by side. This worksheet offers space to write or draw the process of measuring a problem and its response. Shiv consistently has a choice between solutions which solve his problem but displease other people, or solutions which are permissible but do not work. He usually chooses to solve his problem himself and just deal with the consequences of pissing off the people in power over him. It doesn't actually cost him anything more because they were never going to be happy with him no matter what he did, so he might as well fix the damn problem. However, this becomes an issue when he could get effective help, but no longer looks for it because of past negative experiences. Working the problem helps, if and only if there are effective solutions which are permissible and accessible. This worksheet organizes coping skills for each zone.

Another drawback to using scaled tools like these is that some people -- especially children, especially trauma survivors -- have low tolerance for insecurity and uncertainty. People often make bad decisions just to cut through the chaos and create a defined answer. Everyone needs control, but people whose lives are out of control and/or who are punished for lack of control become even more determined to gain some. A healthy child tends to look at a mood spectrum and learn control by discovering techniques for moving deliberately up and down. An unhealthy child finds it difficult or impossible to move up, and the instability is intolerable; they can move down, so they act to anchor themselves firmly at the bottom. This is exactly what Shiv does, from tanking a classroom behavior chart to shouting "I am a supervillain!" at society in general. To him, trying to be good feels like balancing a chair on two legs; he knows from the wobble that it won't be long before he falls off and gets hurt. Sitting on the floor may not have as good a view, but it is much safer. In this manner, a tool intended to encourage positive behavior instead reinforces negative behavior. There are healthier ways to overcome insecurity and tolerate uncertainty, but they need a solid foundation and good coping skills to manage.

This is also why the point system in the prison almost never takes points away. You earn it, you can use it. That removes the reinforcement of negative behavior by making sure there's little or no benefit to parking yourself at the bottom. Inmates from insecure backgrounds thus get a secure base for obtaining immediate and concrete rewards for desired behavior. Getting early release several years from now is more than most of them can track. Getting an hour in the gym today, they understand and can work toward.

Emotionally complex response, mixed feelings, and ambivalence are all ways of describing complicated reactions to a situation. A leading cause is low self-awareness. There are ways to improve emotional self-awareness and deal with mixed feelings. Ambivalence may be handled in two different ways: get out of it, or embrace it.

Submissives derive a wide range of pleasures and benefits from their act of submission, one of which is often peace. Another factor is that many submissives have a major competence kink and they love to be the object of a dom's control, precision, finesse, and care. Shiv has zero tolerance for idiots and hacks, but he sure does have a competence kink. You just have to be really good to hit it.

Too much of anything is bad for you. Even survival needs such as oxygen must come in appropriate amounts and ways. Oxygen has fire hazard and health hazard risks. Technically it is not an explosive gas, but anything under pressure can blow out and oxygen facilitates burning to the point that, in field conditions, the subjective result of oxygen accidents looks a lot like an explosion. Screw up with it and things go kaboom.

Signs are ubiquitous in society as a means of passive control. People may obey or disobey them for various reasons relating to authority and domination. However, if rules are too numerous, too arbitrary, impossible to follow, unjust, and/or otherwise problematic then "no one is innocent" and people get into the habit of ignoring them. In order to get people to obey signs, it helps to sidestep the issue of obedience and connect with some other influence such as entertainment or self-interest. Even crooks who don't give a rat's ass about rules generally prefer not to set themselves on fire.

There are various types of rules. Survivors of neglect/abuse may be unable to distinguish between rules and principles, between arbitrary rules and safety rules, or between just laws and unjust laws. This often leads to extremes of obedience or disobedience.

In order for people to follow rules:
* The rules must be clear, moral, fair, reasonable, effective, and consistent.
* People must know the rules, be physically and mentally capable of following them, free to act on their decision, and there must be a definite advantage to following the rules over breaking them.
If the rules are bad and/or following the rules does not get people's needs met, then people will -- quite logically -- break the rules. This is a feature, not a bug. Ideally, people make mindful choices to follow good rules and break or replace bad ones. The stages of moral development can be rendered as a pyramid or grid to illustrate this. Criminals often drift into misbehavior. Shiv's deliberate self-identification as a supervillain at least puts him ahead of people like Farce who never actually made a conscious decision on that point.

Society needs people who don't follow rules as much as it needs people who do, but for opposite reasons. Too much defiance leads to chaos; too much obedience leads to "just following orders." And history consistently indicates that lawful neutral or lawful evil can do far more damage than chaotic evil, just because greater organization gets more done. Here are guidelines to making mindful decisions about when to follow or break rules.

Dr. Bloch starts out with a standard No Smoking/Oxygen in Use sign. This is sufficient for people who habitually follow rules, but does not detail the specific danger (sparks will start fires) for those who do not. Shiv puts together a smoking man, oxygen tank, and building on fire; then a no-smoking icon and a smiling face. Not only is it more clear to marginally literate people, it explains the safety reason behind the rule.

Diagnostics is the science of identifying the cause of problems. It includes many tools, one of which is Occam's Razor. Working with soups requires advanced diagnostic skill just because you can't rely on your textbooks to be accurate for someone with superpowers; things might be different for them.

Adaptation is the ability to change for survival, and can also refer to a trait for that purpose. This complex process has many benefits. For example, animals may change with the seasons or develop defenses. Humans make cultural changes to survive in harsh environments, and superpowers can be seen as adaptations for future needs also.

Habituation includes learning to ignore a familiar stimulus and respond less over time as interest wanes. Drug tolerance involves the body adapting such that the same dose no longer has as much effect, and more is required in order to get the desired response. Conversely, sensitization is an increased response over time. Normalization of violence and pain is another form of habituation in which it just stops being scary. Shiv obviously has this problem in spades. Here is a whole slide show about suicide that touches on habituation of pain/violence, and this one examines learning. Novelty helps people learn by refreshing the attention frequently. There are worksheets on habituation in children and in animals, and on types of learned behavior. Here is a quiz on habituation.

Addiction goes through stages of dependence due to developing tolerance. Signs of addiction include loss of control and continued use despite harm, along with abandoning other pleasures. Compare symptoms of abusing different drugs. This diagram shows a clinical path of habituation, dependence, and withdrawal. Here are worksheets to evaluate addictive risk, compare advantages and disadvantages of acting on impulse, and learn addiction vocabulary.

Coping skills help people deal with stressors or triggers. This worksheet distinguishes between controllable and uncontrollable problems, and this one on analyzing problems. It helps to identify your needs with a stress inventory and then find some coping skills to help. Shiv likes this snowman organizer which can be used with colored or black-and-white coping skills to color in. Here's a whole batch of coping skills worksheets for adults. This stress management worksheet encourages healthy coping. These questions help think through coping. Teens may want to make a safety plan. A coping toolbox is good for anyone to make. This little workbook guides you to expand your coping skills.

See the leather floor lounge and silk comforter that Dr. Bloch got for the two guys who didn't care for Microfyne.

This is a basic worksheet on scientific method for tracking simple experiments. Shiv has had so many bad experiences with recordkeeping used against him that he tends to balk at writing down anything. Dr. Bloch is trying to nail the bottom rungs back on the ladder the right way.

Sleep disturbances can be health-wrecking. There are workbooks for sleep problems and sleep management. A sleep diary helps with tracking and sleep skills. This page provides space for drawing a nightmare, and here's a half-and-half page for drawing and writing.

One of Dr. Bloch's gifts to Shiv is a fidget toy, a gizmo that feels like popping bubble wrap. In Terramagne, it is actually made by Maneki Neko and is a tech toy from Kaeru.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-05-26 04:54 am (UTC)
stardreamer: Meez headshot (Default)
From: [personal profile] stardreamer
The signs discussion reminded me of an old (possibly apocryphal) story about a dentist who didn't want people smoking in his waiting room. Regular No Smoking signs didn't work, so he substituted hospital-style "No Smoking - Oxygen In Use" signs. These worked much better, and nobody ever realized that the oxygen being referred to was in the air they were breathing. :-)


Date: 2016-05-26 07:59 am (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Need to reread and follow links. Impressed.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-05-26 07:54 pm (UTC)
technoshaman: Tux (Default)
From: [personal profile] technoshaman
This is a fair chunk earlier in the timeline... and I couldn't help but notice that - at least on camera - we haven't seen Shiv even go for a nic-pop in a while... though I suspect that his upcoming freedom may revert that a bit. Moving is *always* stressful, even when it's less than 100 feet. BTDT. *wry*

♫ Sign, sign, everywhere a sign ♪ But if the inmates themselves *make them*... they might get paid attention to. (I'm also reminded of a scene in Red October (italics denote the book rather than the movie) where an otherwise mild-mannered, straight-laced Mormon Navy doctor cold-cocks a Russian for almost flicking his Bic in a room with an in-use oxygen tent... the doc *remembered* what happened to AS204; he may have even seen it live, but for sure on the evening news.... (for the younglings: Apollo 1, nee' AS204, was destroyed on the pad when a spark occurred in a pure-oxygen atmosphere, taking the lives of Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom.))

Oh, and they do use pure oxygen in a dentist's office every day.... after they've had you on nitrous for a while, they flip it to 100% O2 to help clear your system. (Some folks *start* you on 100% O2 to calibrate your breathing capacity... but that's an older technique.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-04 06:49 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I think I'm running out of sensible, well-reasoned feedback (apologies). But *squee* this was excellent and I really enjoyed it. ^_^

faking it

Date: 2016-09-25 09:06 pm (UTC)
callibr8: (CanDo)
From: [personal profile] callibr8
>> that they don't know what normal even feels like; they're just trying to fake it <<

THIS!!! It's been thirty years, but I remember seeing a particular book in a bookstore window whose title literally stopped me in my tracks. The store was closed, but I made a point of buying a copy of the book the next chance I got. Its title: "An Adult Child's Guide To What's Normal" by John & Linda Friel . As I had hoped, it was *extremely* relevant, educational, validating, and helpful for me. When I checked online to find a link for the book, I saw many (newer) books which reference this subject; I'll probably look for some of them in my local library system.

Re: faking it

Date: 2016-09-25 11:50 pm (UTC)
callibr8: icon courtesy of Wyld_Dandelyon (Default)
From: [personal profile] callibr8
Still looking for a comprehensive list of what normal looks like, but meanwhile I did find a couple of "overview" links re dysfunctional backgrounds, that seem worthwhile:

.... a list of typical dys- characteristics

...descriptions of ways that earlier exposure to toxic environments affect our behavior and choices in the present

I'll keep looking for anything which gives a similar overview of what "normalcy" looks like.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-12-04 10:19 pm (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
I was looking for the Shiv poem (or was it Turq? or Cassandra? gah, can't remember) that had a big section of links on healthy vs unhealthy coping mechanisms. This one was kinda relevany but not quite what I was looking for. I'm going to keep browsing, but if you have an idea which is was, I'd love a pointer that way?


ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)

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