A Flare-up of a Chronic Illness

[Content note: depression]

This is a personal post, not an advice post or a big societal problems post. But past experience has shown that some people appreciate and benefit from it when I describe how I try to think about things.

“Reframing” is a term we sometimes use in mental healthcare (and elsewhere) to basically refer to changing the way you think about something. While therapists sometimes suggest ways to reframe things to clients, it’s ultimately up to the individual to decide whether or not they want to reframe, and if so, how.

For some people this concept can hit a nerve because it can sound a lot like the well-meaning but ultimately useless (and even hurtful) advice we get to “look on the bright side” and “think about the positives.” But that’s not what reframing means to me. Here’s an example.

In one of my classes, we are required to meet in pairs for ten weeks to administer and receive counseling. Not as a roleplay exercise, but as an actual attempt to disclose one’s struggles or work with someone else on those struggles. Many students in the class expressed strong discomfort with being one of the “clients” in this exercise, but I’m already accustomed to sharing very personal and intimate details with thousands of strangers online, so I had no qualms about signing up to be counseled.

During our first session, my student-counselor asked me a question: “What, to you, would be an ideal or perfect day?”

It didn’t take me long to think about my answer, which turned out to be sort of a non-answer.

“There isn’t one,” I said. I explained that after eleven years of depression, there is no longer such a thing as an ideal or perfect day and it feels like there never was. That sort of thing is so far out of the realm of possibility for me that, in my view, there’s no point in sitting around hypothesizing about it*.

The reason is that hypothesizing won’t bring me any closer to experiencing it. The things that stop me from being able to have perfect days, those days you spend the rest of your life wishing you could relive, are not surmountable things.

As an example, I told them about the previous weekend, when my roommate and I had gone to visit friends in the suburbs of Philly and then went to a steampunk-themed dance in the city proper. I’d been looking forward to it for a while. It was supposed to be one of those awesome nights. We got all dressed up, and I was wearing my friend’s spectacular dress that I felt amazing and sexy in, and I was with my friends, and it was going to be awesome.

Until, of course, it wasn’t. Not long after we got there, I experienced one of the things I refer to as a depressive trigger, for lack of a better term. It’s whatever the depression version of getting triggered is–specifically, it brings on acute depression symptoms–and it happens to me periodically. I heard it and I felt every metaphorical gear that keeps my brain working properly grind to a halt. It was like driving down a beautiful country road in the sunshine and suddenly finding yourself in a thunderstorm.

After that I couldn’t make myself function. I felt an uncomfortable combination of numb and sad in a very “deep” sort of way. I was constantly on the verge of crying, and knew I would if I let myself think about the thing that had triggered me. I couldn’t talk to anyone, at least not in any socially appropriate way, and I couldn’t dance or pretend to be happy or do much of anything else.

So I left my friends, sat in a corner, and spent most of the rest of the night writing in my notebook (good thing I carry it everywhere) and messaging with one of my partners on my phone. (Situations like this, by the way, are one of the reasons I’m so adamant that it should be socially acceptable to be on your phone at social events. Because my options at this point were: cry in front of my friends, be on my phone, or leave and somehow find my own ride back from Philadelphia to New York at 10 PM on a Saturday night.) I was eventually more or less okay, but it took a long time, and I spent most of the night on the effort to make myself feel more or less okay.

This is not atypical for me; it’s been happening for almost as long as I can remember, and while the triggers have changed a little over the years–as has my ability to manage them–the fact that they happen in the first place has not.

I used to hate myself for it. I’d berate myself endlessly for “ruining” everything or “wasting” good times away, especially since the triggers were as predictable as they were unavoidable. Surely I could learn to stop doing this? (But I see nothing about “acute depression triggers” in any of the scholarly material I read and I don’t even know if this is a typical aspect of the experience of depression or if anyone has ever reported it at all. I just know that that’s how depression works for me.)

Now, I told my student-counselor, I think about it differently. Of this specific incident, I think: I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it.

And because I’ve learned to think about it that way, a lot of other things start standing out–the things that went right. I had a great, relaxing day with my friends before it happened. I got dressed up and felt good about how I looked. At the event itself, during the times when I was feeling more or less okay, I met some interesting new people and took some great photos that I’ll have to look at and reminisce. While I was feeling triggery, my friends noticed and checked in on me in ways that demonstrated their concern and care but did not step over any of my emotional or physical boundaries. (Most significantly, I don’t like to talk about the things that cause me to feel bad, and nobody asked or expected me to.) While I was feeling triggery, I managed to disclose a little bit of it to my partner online–not something I am often able to do–and my partner was supportive. I was able to stop it from getting any worse.

Reframing is not the same as its distant cousins, “looking on the bright side” and “finding the silver lining.” I didn’t choose to look on the bright side or find the silver lining. The silver lining found me, after I had reframed the situation in a way that didn’t make me look like a horrible wretched failure of a person. And when I reframe, I don’t attempt to dilute or ignore the reality of the situation. It is not preferable that things like this happen when I’m trying to have a good time with my friends. There is no “silver lining” to getting triggered. I’m not going to wax poetic about what this teaches me about myself or about the human condition. I’m not going to gush about how situations like this really bring out the wonderfulness of my friends and partners, because my friends and partners are wonderful a lot of the time, whether or not I’m currently feeling like crap.

When I think back to that night now, I don’t feel sad, because I’m remembering the good things along with the bad. Previously, the distortion that my brain engages in would’ve made that impossible. I’ve tried to somehow force myself to think about the good things before and failed. It could only happen once I found a way to look at the situation realistically.

I didn’t fail. I didn’t ruin anything. I didn’t choose for this to happen. I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it–with the help of some of my friends, but also by drawing on my own strengths and resources.

~~~

*That said, the question the student-counselor asked is typically a pretty good one to ask, as it helps the therapist understand what their client hopes to change about their life. But I already know that I want something impossible. I want to be cured. I won’t be, and that’s okay.

Occasional Link Roundup

Here, have some super-old but still-good links because I waited way too long to do another link roundup!

1. Greta posts a much-improved version of the creepy Christmas song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” along with some great commentary:

Yes, there probably are some women — and some men — who say No as part of a flirtatious game, to get their pursuers to pursue them. That is also part of rape culture. The idea that you really know someone wants you when they ignore your boundaries and keep pushing past your objections… this is also part of rape culture. (It’s also really sex-negative, reinforcing the idea that it’s bad and wrong to enthusiastically say Yes to sex when you want it.) I don’t like it when pop culture encourages, celebrates, and reinforces this idea.

When pop culture reinforces the idea that ignoring boundaries is part of a flirtatious game, it doesn’t just encourage the recipients of attention to say No when they really mean Yes, and to think that if someone takes No for an answer it means they really don’t like them. It encourages pursuers to think that No means Yes, or that it means Maybe, or that it means “I want you to keep trying.” And that makes them more likely to push past someone else’s boundaries.

2. Suey writes about being a student with anxiety and the unhelpful responses that people make.

There are some very warm-hearted and lovely people I know that have quit graduate school because it felt more like The Hunger Games than a collaborative learning environment. We need to stop applying a “survival of the fittest” mentality to academic success, wherein intelligence is linked to ability to endure rigor. I think it’s a huge loss of the academy that people I know to be brilliant and life changing have quit due to a lack of support.

3. The Feminist Griote writes about selfies in the wake of that one awful Jezebel post:

Fat people, queer people, trans* people, femmes, disabled people, POC need and deserve affirmation too! For many of us taking selfies is an exercise in putting our self-love into praxis. The act of loving, seeing, and accepting oneself in real time. Also, so what if people take pride in the likes and comments that their selfies garner?! There is nothing wrong or gross about freely accepting compliments. Folks need to stop pathologizing those who relish in the compliments that they receive. It takes lots of work and practice to be able to freely accept a compliment, especially when you struggle to see yourself as worthy and never was accustomed to receiving them!

4. Shanley writes about how misogyny in the tech industry is often attributed to autism or mental illness in a way that both stigmatizes autism and mental illness and excuses misogyny:

Importantly, these appeals do not represent any actual engagement with mental illness — something that is sorely needed in the technology and startup industry, where many of us suffer in shame and silence with undiagnosed or untreated conditions, where mental illness is incredibly stigmatized, and where very little community support is available.

Rather, it represents a dangerous armchair psychology — expressing no actual knowledge of, nor empathy towards, mental illness, just co-opting the ill-informed and stigmatizing representations of mass media to avoid actual engagement with behaviors and trends in the community.

5. Over at Social (In)Queery, a fascinating deconstruction of straight male displays of faux-homosexuality:

Public proclamations of support on the part of heterosexual men to end homophobia are significant and important in changing opinion about GLB identities. But, asking what these men are getting out of the performance complicates such an easy analysis. This sort of “bro-ing” of anti-homophobic stances does not necessarily have the effect of challenging the naturalness and inevitability of sexual and gender categories. Much like the anti-Chick-fil-A video made by two straight, white men to protest the restaurant’s homophobic policies, Macklemore and the Warwick Rowing Team’s gender and sexual practices and proclamations reinscribe their heterosexuality as so powerful and inevitable that even an anti-homophobic stance can’t call them into question.

6. Julia writes about the importance of communicating clearly as mental health professionals, which includes not using jargon when non-jargon will do:

Because social work occupies a weird non-medical niche in a medical world and we have a chip on our shoulders about the fact that we do real clinical work, our notes have to be more formal than the doctors’ notes. Specifically, social workers tend to refer to themselves as “this writer”, which drives me bananas. As in, “This writer attempted to meet with client, who was unavailable due to being in the shower.” I’m not sure why an awkward writing style proves our professionalism.

7. Remember those weird high-tech anti-rape panties? The Belle Jar Blog explains why they won’t work:

It also bears mentioning that idea behind this clothing operates off the assumption that most rapists are strangers, who attack women in dark alleys late at night, when actually the opposite is true – most rapists are acquaintances with, or even romantic partners of, the victim. So what would happen if a woman did have AR Wear’s Anti-Rape clothing on, removed said clothing of her own volition, and then was raped? It would be so unbelievably easy for a judge to rule that it couldn’t possibly have been rape, because the victim chose to take off her own protective clothing.

8. Tressie writes about the purchasing decisions poor people make, and why they’re not as “stupid” as many people make them out to be:

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.

9. Crommunist writes about the myth that feminist men are just pretending to be feminists in order to get laid:

Now far be it from me to say that being a cishet guy feminist doesn’t give you some kind of advantage in certain circles. I’ve had sexual partners who I’m sure wouldn’t have slept with me if I hadn’t lived my belief in equality among genders. I’ve had a couple outright tell me that they were attracted to me, at least in part, because of my feminist beliefs. That being said, I’m sure I have a bunch of sexual partners who wouldn’t have fucked me if I had reeked to high heaven of the previous week’s physical exertion because I couldn’t be arsed to work a faucet. I’d imagine… all of them would agree if you asked them.

So yeah, feminism might help some guys get laid. So does showering. And the reason feminist women don’t want to fuck anti-feminist cishet guys is the same reason that women with functioning olfactory faculties don’t fuck guys who don’t shower: it’s because y’all stink.

10. Ferrett’s post about evaluating your feelings based on evidence really hits me in the feels (TW: suicide):

Being a depressive is generally living in the Land of Suck, but you do have to learn one vital secret of life in order to survive: A thing can be emotionally true and factually a lie. Which is to say that I wake on certain mornings consumed by the idea that nobody in this world loves me, that everyone would be much happier if I drank the Drano, and that my funeral would be attended by no one. This is not how I feel; this is how things are, so much so that on three occasions I’ve actually tried to end my worthless life.

Then, slowly, I gather the facts around me: My wife is cuddled up next to me, evidently content. My phone contains texts from people who wanted to talk to me. My blog occasionally contains some nice comments.

And I think: Though I feel as though no one cares, the evidence around me suggests otherwise. And, gripping the facts like I would the rungs on a ladder, I haul myself back to reality.

11. At Shakesville, Kate writes about the ways in which trans* people are expected to self-harm and/or be suicidal as a condition for receiving the healthcare they need (TW):

See, if we can’t say with conviction that we’re going to off ourselves if we don’t get the healthcare we need in a timely fashion, insurers, providers, and governments are always going to be able to deny us on the grounds that our needs aren’t real. Don’t get me wrong. Trans* people who publicly confess to thoughts of self-harm aren’t lying. It’s just that they’re frequently going through an exercise for the benefit of cis people. It sure as hell isn’t for our benefit, people.

12. Also at Shakesville, Melissa writes about the harms of the trope that sex is “natural”:

Sometimes partners who want each other more than anything and have no other ostensible barriers just happen to have bodies that don’t line up right, that don’t fit together perfectly. When it can take experimentation just to achieve the basics, the “sex is natural” trope can make people feel like failures at the whole sex thing, which adds a whole other layer of unnecessary pressure. Virgins often expect sex to look like it does in the movies, instead of the fumblefucking that our first time looks like for many of us.

For lots of people, sex takes some planning, some creativity, some ingenuity. And it also takes communication.

13. Aoife on telling bi people to just come out already:

One of the profoundly annoying things about being out as a bi person, you see, is the way you keep on having to defend yourself. And not just in the ordinary way that all of us queer folks have to defend ourselves from the homophobes of the world who figure we’re all a bunch of filthy sinners (blah blah blah ad nauseum). As a bi person, you don’t just have to defend being queer and also a decent human being. You have to deal with the fact that, unless you give sufficient proof, nobody will believe you

14. A great slightly older post on what consent looks like in practice:

If your partner is consenting, you will see them meeting you halfway on stuff, responding to your touch, touching you back, making approving noises, positioning their body helpfully, making occasional eye contact, smiling, giggling, kissing you, smelling your skin.

If your partner pulls away, flinches, draws back, goes still, goes limp, freezes, is silent, looks unhappy, starts holding their breath, goes from meeting you halfway to merely allowing your touch: stop and check in with words. Maybe they’re ticklish? Maybe they want to stop.

What have you read or written lately?

Assorted Thoughts on Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

Last post about Women in Secularism (for now), I promise!

I just wanted to give a quick overview of how things went since I couldn’t do much over the weekend but liveblog/-tweet obsessively.

First of all, I want to thank Marcus Ranum (and Stephanie) once again for getting me there. I’m still a little shocked that people would buy me plane/conference tickets just like that and it makes me really happy. So thank you, again. I hope there will someday be a way for me to repay all the various acts of kindness that have come my way simply because I joined this community.

Second, I want to thank Melody Hensley and the rest of the CFI-DC staff for organizing this. Even if I had paid my way to the conference, I think it would’ve felt like a small price to pay.

General logistics stuff. This was the first professional conference I’ve been to and I was really impressed by how well it was organized. The hotel was awesome, everything was easy to find, there were beverages in the tabling area, there was plenty of space for people to mingle, things generally started and ended on time, and so on.

The questions were handled differently than most conferences I’ve been to: rather than people raising their hands and asking, they wrote their questions down on cards that were provided beforehand, and the MC chose the best questions to ask the speakers. While some people felt that this made the experience feel less interactive and personal, I think it was a wise decision. First of all, it prevented long, irrelevant, not-really-a-question-but-more-of-a-chance-for-me-to-talk-too “questions.” Second, it made it possible for people who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of a huge room of people to ask questions too.

My one issue was that there wasn’t really any mention of the harassment policy. While I knew that WiS has one (I wouldn’t attend a con that doesn’t), I was surprised that the staff never mentioned it during any of the brief housekeeping comments at the beginning. I realized at the end that had something happened, I wouldn’t have really been sure who to go to or how to contact them. On the other hand, aside from a few awkward situations, I felt so safe and comfortable all weekend that this was never an issue.

The talks. Were amazing. My favorites were the panels, especially Faith-Based Pseudoscience and What The Secular Movement Can Learn From Other Social Movements. (Apparently there was also a fantastic panel on women leaving religion, but that was at 8:30 on Saturday and I slept through it oops.) I knew that Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, Amy, Debbie Goddard, Sarah Moglia, et al. would be awesome, but I also got to hear Carrie Poppy and Desiree Schell on the panels and thought they were great. I also enjoyed the solo talks, especially Rebecca Goldstein’s and Susan Jacoby’s.

My one gripe is that I felt that the talks kinda focused too much on history and philosophy, which–don’t get me wrong–are interesting and important subjects, but I would’ve loved to hear more about strategy and organizing and the issues facing non-white/queer/poor/etc. women in religion or in the secular movement. That said, the variety of talks seemed intentionally designed to appeal to as great a variety of people as possible, so I won’t kvetch about it too much.

The people. AHHH. The people are always my favorite part of going to conferences. I finally got to meet a ton of people I’ve been friends with online and also made a lot of new friends. On Saturday night, PZ graciously lent us his room for a 25-person Cards Against Humanity game, which later dissolved into a 4 AM rant session. And there were plenty of lunches and dinners and hanging out between talks.

The best thing, though, were all the compliments. All weekend I kept hearing people affirming each other and pulling each other up. It seemed like any conversation I participated in involved someone being like “I’ve really admired your writing for a long time” and “That piece you wrote about X meant a lot to me” or even just “Your fashion sense rocks.” While I obviously liked it when people did it to me, it also felt really nice to hear people complimenting others. It was a reminder that we really do have a community.

The FtB gang (well, most of it) at WiS2. Credit: Brian D. Engler

The FtB gang (well, most of it) at WiS2. Credit: Brian D. Engler

Diversity. It was pointed out several times by attendees that the audience at WiS2 was very, very white. I noticed this too. I’m not sure if it’s a consequence of the cost, the subjects of the talks, the marketing, or something else, but I hope that future WiS conferences make an extra effort to engage and welcome atheists of color.

In other ways, though, it was quite a diverse audience. There were folks of all ages, including a few really awesome kids and teens. There were plenty of men (so much for the claims of “separate but equal”). I got to talk to a bunch of queer/trans* people, which is always great. And although Elisabeth Cornwell mentioned in her talk that there weren’t any poor people in the audience, there were in fact quite a few, many of whom had benefited from Secular Woman’s, Surly Amy’s, or Marcus’s travel grants.

The Ronald Lindsay thing. If you’re reading this you’ve probably already heard all about this, but if not, here are some excellent observations on it from Rebecca, PZ, Stephanie, Adam, Ashley, Amanda, and even Cuttlefish.

I think that, completely regardless of Lindsay’s views on feminism and its tactics, the remarks and the aftermath were inappropriate. First of all, this was not the time and place. As the CEO of a major organization and a blogger, Lindsay has plenty of fora in which to air his ideas and concerns about feminism. The opening remarks of a conference created in response to vicious attacks on women in the movement just shouldn’t be one of those fora. Lindsay likewise could’ve discussed his concerns privately with influential feminists in the movement rather than posing them to a conference audience. Not to belabor the point, but it would be like opening a conference on mental illness by suggesting that some people with mental illnesses use their illnesses as an excuse to be lazy, or something.

I don’t think that Lindsay is a bad person or opposes women’s rights or anything like that. Although I disagree with the views he expressed about feminism and the concept of privilege, I don’t think that these views should never be expressed. This just wasn’t the appropriate place to express them.

Second, there’s the issue of Lindsay’s subsequent doubling down. While I was irritated by his opening remarks, I didn’t think it was a huge deal…until he responded to Rebecca Watson’s criticism by producing another blog post in which he attacked her and compared her to North Korea. Literally. Keep in mind that Rebecca was a speaker at this conference, and that, apparently, Lindsay wrote this post instead of attending a fundraising dinner for the conference.

Needless to say, this is unprofessional, petty, and inappropriate for the CEO of an organization. Lindsay made many of us feel as though he was supporting this conference under duress and in name only.

Lindsay’s talk was as notable for what it left out as what it included. While he addressed the use of religion to oppress women, he made absolutely no mention of the vicious abuse women, including many of the women in the audience this weekend, have faced in the secular movement. He made no mention of the bullying of Jen McCreight, of the posting of Surly Amy’s address online,  or of the continued impersonation, harassment, and threats toward Stephanie, Ophelia, Rebecca, Greta, and others. He did not say that even if Jen, Amy, Stephanie, Ophelia, Rebecca, and Greta are completely wrong about every single thing they’ve ever said or written, this does not make it okay to threaten them with death and rape. He did not make a single comment about why this conference was organized in the first place. This omission was glaring and telling. It shows that he doesn’t understand what it is we’re fighting for.

Anyway, I deliberately left this till the end of my post because I think it’s unfortunate that the vast majority of what happened at this conference, which was fantastic, is getting overshadowed by this unprofessional incident. I think it’s important to talk about it, but I also want to emphasize that I thought that this conference was a huge success and I hope there will be a third one. (If you’d like to help make that happen, by the way, you should donate to CFI and earmark the money for Women in Secularism.)

In any case, I think it’s pretty clear why a conference like this needs to exist. Women and (male allies) need a space to discuss their place in the secular movement without being accused of trying to make men “shut up.” We don’t want men to shut up; we just want to be as heard as they are.

WiS2 attendees after Maryam Namazie's talk. Credit: Brian D. Engler

WiS2 attendees after Maryam Namazie’s talk. Credit: Brian D. Engler

Giving Thanks

This is a sappy personal post.

This is not your typical Thanksgiving post, so first of all, you should read this and understand what this day actually commemorates. Hint: it’s not a happy awesome feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans and all that.

However, I still celebrate it in my own way because I think it’s important to have a day set aside for giving thanks. And sure, I could do that any day of the year. But doing it on the same day as everyone else does it feels more meaningful.

It would be nice if someday we started a new tradition of giving thanks on a particular day without associating that day with genocide. However, for now we have this Thanksgiving Day, and I’m going to celebrate it.

First of all, I’m thankful for writing. I’m thankful for having had the privilege to learn how to do it well and to be able to make time for it. Writing has always been one of the few things that can lift me out of my own mind, if only for an hour or so. The urge to write is like a phoenix–it burns like a fire and just keeps resurrecting itself if extinguished.

Writing has always been a key part of my development as a person. I’ve kept journals since I was 11 or so–that’s more than a decade of constantly watching myself grow and reexperiencing my own life. Whenever I’m not sure if I’ve really gotten better at this whole life thing, I can reread my old writing and see that I have.

Writing for an audience is something I’m a bit newer to, but even that I’ve been doing since high school. First it was mostly poetry and fiction; then I switched to personal narratives (like the one that got me into college!) and fiery op-eds.

I’m thankful for the change I’ve already made with my writing. I’m thankful that others have benefitted from it. I’m thankful that this matters.

I’m thankful for the internet. Go ahead and laugh. I know, it’s terrible and keeps us from enjoying “Real Life” and spending time with our families and whatnot. For me, though, that hasn’t really been my experience of it. The Internet has brought most of the other good things in my life to me–friendship, love, knowledge, inspiration.

I’m thankful for feminism, skepticism, and the rest of the ideologies I subscribe to. The reason I’m thankful is because it’s a personal thing. Feminism showed me how to find fulfillment in my relationships and taught me that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. Skepticism taught me not to automatically accept everything my brain tries to tell me, which is very useful when you have depression. Both helped me find a world beyond my own self.

I’m thankful for Chipotle, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Milanos, and Cheez-Its. Because I thought it’d be good to take a moment to appreciate the things that, for the most part, have sustained me this quarter.

And now, here comes the rainbowvomit part. Watch out…

To all the fellow activists I have met–I can’t even begin to explain how important this has been for me. I’ve met people who sued their schools when they were teenagers. I’ve also met people who are in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, and are still fighting for the changes they want to see in the world.

It’s that latter group of people that has particularly impacted me. For most of my adolescence and my college years, adults–by which I generally mean, people more than a decade older than me–were the people I dreaded interacting with. They were the people who rolled their eyes at me, told me to just wait till I’m older and working a shitty job and hating my boss. They said I’d “grow out of it.” They said it’d be different once I have my own kids. They said I’d stop caring. They crushed my dreams to such an extent that there was a period of time when I actually wanted to be a housewife–I thought that that’s how awful the world of work would be.

Now, I get that many young people are too flighty and idealistic and could probably benefit from being gently brought back down to earth once in a while. But as everyone who actually knows me ought to know, I am not such a person. After living with depression for nearly a decade, I have to fight to be optimistic and to see a purpose in life other than just making enough money to get by and popping out some children so that I’m not lonely in my old age.

That’s where meeting older people who still have that passion has really helped. The grown-up activists I know are wiser and more experienced than me, but they still value my ideas. More importantly, they’ve shown me that there is a way to be an adult while still being youthful.

To my partner–it’s weird writing this knowing that you’re going to read it, so I’ll just speak directly to you: thank you. I won’t say that life would be miserable without you, because that would be unhealthy (not to mention false). I was happy before you, and I’ll be happy after you—if there even is an after. I hope there won’t be.

But I will say that life with you is richer, sweeter, and more colorful. Thank you for the hug at Union Station; thank you for the phone call after that terrible date; thank you for those summer nights when we stayed up talking till 5 AM. Thank you for making me read The Fault in Our Stars (remember, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true). Thank you for that ridiculous night with the crappy wine. Thank you for making plans for the future. Thank you for worrying while I was in Israel. Thank you for asking me what you can do if the depression comes back. Thank you for making me make the first move. Thank you for refusing to own me and for never expecting me to shrink myself so that you can look taller standing next to me. Thank you for letting me be as independent as I need to be. You are the epitome of that timeless bit of advice: “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Yes, I just quoted a Sting song at you.

Deal with it, sweetheart.

And, finally, to my friends–I just don’t know where I would be without you. You are my proofreaders, my confidantes, my debate partners, my cheerleaders, my support system, my chosen family. Everywhere I go, physically and mentally, you go with me.

Things I learned from my (mostly) new friends: you can say, “Please stop that, it’s hurting me.” Feelings don’t have to make sense. Sometimes you need to be confrontational. There are worse things in the world than being a bit snarky. Just because someone didn’t mean to offend you doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about it. You don’t have to pretend to be okay.

Thank you for that. Thank you also for the Sunday night Google hangouts, the typos, and the hugs. Thank you not only for helping me, but for accepting my help in turn. Thank you for telling the rest of your friends about my blog. Thank you for showing me that going out and drinking and doing Young People Things doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and coercive. Thank you for helping me see that the people who say things like “Calm down” and “It’s not such a big deal” and “Stop complaining” are wrong and I don’t have to listen to them or keep them around in my life. Thank you for talking about me behind my back, because with you, unlike with anyone I’ve known before, I know that it’s going to be positive. And thank you, of course, for all of the <2.

Few of my friends live near me. They’re mostly scattered all over the country. People make fun of those of us who spend a lot of time online, but here’s the thing–not everyone has the privilege of being physically near the people they love. I never really found that at Northwestern. I found it through writing and activism.

And so, in writing if not in person, I thank the people who help keep me strong and passionate.

[storytime] An Abridged List of Lies I Was Taught as a Child

  • Money and success will make you happy.
  • Being beautiful is an obligation.
  • Being fat is the worst thing that could happen to you.
  • College will be a magical la-la land where you will finally be happy.
  • Men don’t like strong, opinionated women.
  • Being gay is wrong.
  • Never ask a guy out.
  • Never have sex with someone you’re not dating seriously.
  • Casual sex will make you depressed, and a slut.
  • Intelligent people are better than nonintelligent people.
  • Your parents know best.
  • Family comes before friends.
  • You should be willing to sacrifice anything for your family.
  • Fitting in is important.
  • If you’re upset, you’re probably being too sensitive.
  • Your friends should come from your cultural/ethnic/religious group.
  • If a guy likes you, he will let you know. And if he doesn’t, he’s a wimp anyway.
  • Your career should be as high-powered as possible.
  • Your husband should make as much or more money than you.
  • It’s okay to let men do things for you rather than learning how to do them yourself.
  • Never, ever trust another woman. She will stab you in the back at the first opportunity.
  • If someone doesn’t like you, you should probably ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.
  • If your boyfriend is unhappy, you should try to make him happy.
  • Politics doesn’t matter anyway.
  • Everyone can tell how many men a woman has slept with just by looking at her.
  • Your clothing should always “flatter” your figure.
  • Sex can only be one of two things: Dangerous, or Special and to be saved for The Right Person.
  • Getting ahead is more important than sticking to your principles.
  • You can always just choose to be happy.

I learned these things as a child and a teenager. Now I’m an adult and I finally get to reeducate myself. A decolonization of the mind, so to speak.

Most of these lessons have been proven false by experience and common sense.

What lies were you taught as a child?

Days I've Been An Adult

[TMI Warning]

According to our culture and our legal system, I just became an adult.

That is, I just turned 21. Happy birthday to me.

Although 18 is the age of majority, 21 is the age at which we gain control over our own bodies by getting the legal right to pump them full of alcohol until we vomit everywhere and/or engage in inadvisable sexual relations.

Needless to say, I won’t be doing much of that, not on my birthday and not ever. But 21 is still an important age to me. Now I can bring a bottle of wine to a friend’s house as a gift. Now I can order a glass of champagne at a restaurant to celebrate something important.

I’m an adult today.

I’m an adult today, but I’ve been an adult many other days of my life. I want to reflect on those times now.

I was an adult on all the days I left my family behind, when I pretended that my family didn’t matter to me because that’s what adults do.

I was an adult on the day I fell in love with my best friend, and on the day when I left him two years later because it wasn’t right.

I was an adult on the day I sat clutching the phone for half an hour before finally dialing Counseling and Psychological Services.

I was an adult on the day I sat with my notebook and voice recorder, freaking because I was about to go talk to strangers, but I did it anyway.

I was an adult on the day I had my first panic attack and sat sobbing on a bench in downtown Chicago, punishing myself for all the things I couldn’t do.

I was an adult on the day I told my mom that I needed help.

I was an adult on the day my psychiatrist told my mom that I’d been cutting myself, and she turned to me and asked if it was true.

I was an adult on the day a careless driver totaled my car, with me and my little siblings inside. I jumped out of the car, my face stinging from the airbag, and carried my brother and sister off of the street, glass crunching underneath my flipflops.

I was an adult on the day I took my first dose of antidepressants, the first of many, and I was an adult on the day I decided that I didn’t need them anymore.

I was an adult on the day I turned down a paying job for the chance to volunteer in New York City.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I wanted to die, and I was an adult every single day after that, when I chose to keep living anyway.

I was an adult on the day I chose my major and my future career.

I was an adult on the day I told the world I have depression, and on every day I’ve done it ever since.

I was an adult on the day I had to tell a guy “no” for the first time, and when I realized how much worse things could’ve gone.

I was an adult on the day I had to tell my best friend what to do when I can’t stop crying.

I was an adult on the day I lost a close friend because of who I am.

I was an adult on the day I met my newborn nephew and wondered how there could be a whole person there that hadn’t even existed 48 hours ago.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I have enemies. I have enemies because I like to say what’s on my mind. That’s not a reason anyone should ever have enemies.

I was an adult on the day I realized that my little brother is growing up to be just like me, and the thought of that made me feel awful.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I could never believe in God again, and I was an adult on the day I begged Him for help anyway.

I was an adult on the day I knew that I never wanted to leave New York, and when I decided that I was going to return even if I had to crawl there all the way from Ohio.

I was an adult every day I opened up and gave someone new a chance.

I was an adult every day I sat at the kitchen table, waiting for my dad to drive me back to college, crying.

I was an adult on the day I realized that things were never going to be the same again.

And I was an adult today.

I know that anyone reading this probably thinks this is all really sad. They will probably wonder why I would choose to think about such sad things on my 21st birthday.

It’s because, sad as they are, these things give me strength. I feel prepared for an adult life because I have been an adult so many times already. While reflecting on happy memories feels nice, it doesn’t give me that feeling of inner strength, because everyone can deal with happiness. Not everyone can deal with despair.

I can.

Dancing With Myself

[This is a piece I wrote in response to a prompt at Open Salon and just thought I’d repost it here.]

You aren’t really a daughter of Russian parents unless they make you do ballet.

Mine did, though I started later than most–when I was five years old. I continued until I was  fifteen. Over those ten years, I perfected splits, fouettes, and grand jetes, danced in several professional ballets, and starred as Clara in the Nutcracker. I was thin and graceful, and my parents never demurred when asked to produce photos and videos of their talented daughter.I often danced for friends and relatives who came to visit, or who we went to visit ourselves.

But ballet took a toll on me, and not necessarily in the ways you would expect. Since I was prepubescent for most of that time, I didn’t need to worry about staying skinny; it was easy for me as a child. Dancing en pointe hurt my feet and gave me terrible blisters, but it really wasn’t that that did me in.

No, what led me to quit was the atmosphere that characterizes the world of ballet. The other girls were awful, catty, nasty people. The ballet teachers pit us against each other ruthlessly, calling one of us a favorite one day and choosing another the next.

We were talked down to, humiliated, and shamed. I recall one day when we were taking a break to stretch in the middle of class, and I politely asked my teacher if I may be excused to use the restroom. She nodded but pursed her lips and whispered, “Never again.

If you came late to a class, as I often did because I lived far away and my parents, believe it or not, had other responsibilities in addition to driving me around, you were required to wait meekly by the door until the class completed its current exercise, wait until the teacher acknowledged you, apologize for your tardiness, and ask permission to join the class. You would walk to a spot at the barre with thirty pairs of eyes glaring at you.

As a shy and bookish girl, this destroyed me.

I remember how my teacher would insist to my parents that my hair must be in a bun that doesn’t fall apart–not exactly a small thing to ask from a mane of hair that reached past my derriere. Inevitably my bun would fall apart and I would be unable to fix it and I could feel those same thirty pairs of eyes narrowing, thirty mouths sneering and snickering at me.

I quit ballet, inevitably, when I was in high school. I joined the marching band instead. I delighted in wearing a uniform that hid my developing and no longer skinny body, in meeting people who didn’t judge me, in being able to simply run to my place in the warmup circle when I was late rather than performing the humiliating ritual required by my ballet teachers.

I’m not skinny anymore. Not at all. I’m not so flexible. I can only do three or four fouettes before I start losing my balance.

But I still carry myself well, chin up, back straight. I still love to dance, though I prefer to dance to the Black Eyed Peas instead of Tchaikovsky.

Sometimes I regret quitting ballet because I’d invested so much into it. But I’m thankful every day that ritualized humiliation and catty competition are no longer a part of my daily life. I’m grateful that I didn’t stay long enough to have a chance to succumb to some of the  more well-known pressures that a ballet dancer’s life brings.

The beat of the music still plays in my head, but now I dance to it in my own way.

Why I Oppose Banning Burqas

This is not the problem.

And no, my reasoning has nothing to do with racism or any other ism!

Belgian lawmakers recently passed a bill that, if approved in their senate, would make it illegal to wear burqas in public. This comes on the heels of France’s

When justifying banning burqas or similar Islamic garments, people typically make two points–one, that burqas represent and facilitate the oppression of women, and two, that they pose a security risk.

I’ll address the oppression issue first. Some women do indeed wear burqas because they’ve been pressured into it by their culture or by specific men in their lives. But other women do it out of a genuine desire to observe their religion in that way. Some even see it as an empowering gesture. It is fundamentally unjust to oppress the latter group in the name of protecting the former.

But even if I’m being completely naive, and even if not a single Muslim woman willingly chooses to wear a burqa, I conveniently have a second argument. For those women who are being oppressed by the burqa, would banning it really help? The obvious answer, I should hope, is no. In this case, banning the burqa is the legal equivalent of slapping a band-aid over a knife wound–and of treating the symptoms rather than the disease. The disease being, of course, large-scale societal oppression of women. Not something that can be fixed with a single magical law. To use an analogy that’s even closer to my personal experience, banning burqas to promote feminism is like banning suicide to promote mental health.

Not only would banning it not help, but it would probably backfire. If these women’s husbands or fathers are pressuring them into wearing the burqa, they would probably keep right on doing it despite the new law, thus placing these women in a prime position for facing charges, jail time, or plain ol’ harassment by the police. After all, they would be the ones paying the price for breaking the law, not men.

As for the whole security issue, I don’t have too much to say about that because I’m honestly not an expert on the subject, but I’ll say this–Israel has no burqa ban, or any sort of ban on Islamic head coverings, and yet has an incredible security force that manages to stop virtually all potential terrorists within the country’s borders. They don’t release these statistics to the public, but all the time in the Jerusalem Post, you see another story about security guards catching a would-be terrorist. Maybe the security authorities in these European countries should have a big pow-wow with Israeli ones and see what they’ve been missing.

I think it’s very tempting for people (and governments) to believe that issues like the oppression of women by organized religion can be fixed by something as simple as a law banning burqas. But ultimately, you can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. What looks like oppression to us may not feel that way to the women in question. Or maybe it does. In any case, banning burqas won’t help.

I’ll leave you with my favorite cartoon on this subject:

The Trivialization of Mental Illness

I’m reading a very interesting novel called The Four Fingers of Death. It’s somewhat science-fiction, with a distinctly Vonnegut-esque tone to it–very sarcastic and cynical. The story takes place in the 2020s, and the author, Rick Moody, gives several hints as to the general milieu of the future. Few people have cars as gas is very hard to come by, India and China are dominating the world, and paper books are mostly a thing of the past. One little detail that the narrator mentions several times–a detail that most readers would skim over, but that the author undoubtedly meant to make a point with–was the 8th version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Currently the DSM is in its fourth version–DSM-IV–but the DSM-V is in the works. However, in the world in which Four Fingers takes place, the DSM-VIII has medicalized all sorts of everyday issues, such as a disdain for hygiene (“aggravated hydrophobia with hygiene avoidance”), opening a game of chess in an unusual way, being rude to waitstaff, and speaking unusually (“conversational pseudo-uremia”). What completely got me, though, was when the narrator diagnosed a new friend with “mixed caffeine obsession with chronic caffeine dependence” when–get this–the friend suggested that they meet up at a coffee shop!

The author’s point, of course, is easy to see. It’s a satire of the supposed overdiagnosis of mental disorders even today, and of the presence of useless and non-clinical “disorders” in the DSM. As in, hahaha, at the way things are going, soon we’ll call not showering a mental disorder! To this point, the narrator of the story mentions that everyone has been diagnosed with a mental disorder these days. The way he talked about the DSM–“I flip through it looking for symptoms I have yet to contract”–makes this attitude even clearer. Through his satire, Moody implies that mental illnesses are not something to be taken seriously.

Forgive me for making a big deal out of a (probably insignificant) novel, but this mindset right here–that mental disorders are just some sort of farce invented by people yearning for attention for their minuscule problems–this is what’s responsible for one of the biggest threats to adequate mental healthcare in America. I’ll attack this mindset point-by-point.

First of all, contrary to popular opinion, “everyone” does not have a mental disorder these days. I’m sure you’ve heard someone comment, perhaps after hearing of another person’s diagnosis with a disorder, something to the effect of, “Oh, lord, everyone’s popping pills for something these days!” No. Everyone is not popping pills for something these days. Many people do, at some point in their lives, take medication for a mental issue. But most psychotropic medications are meant as temporary solutions while the person works on their problems in therapy or on his/her own. People aren’t meant to take them for their whole lives.

And even if every single person in this country does, at one point or another, take psychotropic medication, that doesn’t mean much on its own. Almost everyone takes drugs for colds or headaches at some point, but nobody seriously advocates against this. I use the word “seriously” carefully here–a radical diet book I came across recently, Skinny Bitch, claims that we should basically never take medication for anything. It says, “Yeah, getting cramps totally sucks. It’s supposed to. Every month you endure cramps (without medication), you are preparing for the physical pain of childbirth. So suck it up. Stop interfering with Mother Nature.” Pardon my coarseness, but I actually nearly crapped myself when I read this. What?!

Most of us are glad that with things like modern surgical techniques, dentistry, drugs, and diagnostic tools (like x-rays and blood tests), we now live happier, healthier lives. Before these things were developed, people had 40-year lifespans and got all kinds of gruesome illnesses. Similarly, back in the good ol’ days, people with mental disorders either spent their lives in misery, got committed to mental asylums, or simply offed themselves, depending on the nature of the disorder. If we can prevent that by having “everyone pop pills,” so be it–at least until we can find a better solution.

Second, the fact that some mental disorders may be overdiagnosed does not mean that every diagnosis is illegitimate. Some parents, for instance, push for their children to be prescribed medication for ADHD in order to help them get ahead in school, even if they do not actually have ADHD. It should be noted that there are standard screening procedures for this disorder that ensure that people are diagnosed correctly. If a parent gets their child to somehow cheat the screening tests, or if an unscrupulous doctor prescribes medication even though the child doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria, well, guess what–these people are being unethical. That does not mean that ADHD isn’t a legitimate disorder that many people–adults included–legitimately suffer from.

Furthermore, although some people probably do “imagine” their disorders and seek treatment in order to get attention, I should point out that this can only be a minority. There is nothing at all pleasant or fulfilling about spending hundreds of dollars, taking medications that give you really crappy side effects, and telling a complete stranger about the most shameful aspects of your life. This is not fun. Anyone who invents a mental illness and seeks treatment for it as a way to entertain themselves is an idiot.

I should also point out that even though some people do falsify their problems and some psychiatrists do overprescribe, this is a general trend that you can’t really apply to individual people. Unless you are a psychiatrist, you are simply not qualified to judge whether or not a particular person’s problem is “real” enough to merit treatment. Everyone told me there was “nothing wrong” with me and that I should stop being a crybaby, until it got so bad that my daydreams changed from imagining that cute guy from class asking me out to imagining which method of suicide is most effective. Don’t be the person who trivializes someone else’s illness. Just don’t do it.

Third, Moody suffers from the mistaken assumption–shared by many people–that the trend in the field of mental health is for increasingly insignificant and non-clinical problems to be classified as mental disorders. With this view in mind, it’s easy to see how the author could come up with the hypothesis that in 20 years, a disinclination to take showers could be considered a clinical disorder.

However, if there’s any trend here at all, it’s in the opposite direction. For instance, premenstrual dysphoric disorder–more commonly known as PMS–was in the DSM until the revision of the DSM-III in 1987. Much earlier, in the 19th century, women who suddenly showed a strong desire to have sex were labeled with the diagnosis of “hysteria.” The cure? An orgasm. (This diagnosis was also a catch-all term for any medical complaint made by a woman. Obviously, it’s not longer considered a disorder.)

Finally, I’m pretty sure that nobody who has this author’s opinion of the DSM has actually looked at one. I’m no DSM expert, but I’ve looked through it a number of times, and I can tell you that very few of the disorders listed in it seem trivial to me. (There are disorders that shouldn’t be there, perhaps, but for different reasons. For instance, gender identity disorder, which refers to a very strong feeling that one has been born into the wrong sex, is probably in the DSM because psychologists have assumed that it leads to a lot of distress and problems for the person who has it. Before it was possible to change one’s biological sex, that was probably true. But today, it has become clear that if a person who’s “suffering from GID” is able to change their sex, things get better. The remaining problems are caused more by society’s lack of acceptance for trans* people than by their psychological makeup.)

However, Moody is echoing the prevailing cultural sentiment that mental disorders are nothing but insignificant little problems that people have in their daily lives. If this were true, popping pills to solve these problems would indeed seem pretty silly. However, it’s not true, and unfortunately for those of us who have to struggle to find adequate mental healthcare and to get friends and family to accept and understand that struggle, people like Moody are busy spreading this misconception around through various media–in this case, a satirical novel.

Contrary to what Moody seems to think, recognized mental disorders cause significant problems in daily living, relationships, and work. Some involve hallucinations or delusional beliefs. Some involve uncontrollable episodes of panic, which are said to feel somewhat like heart attacks. Some cause people to be unable to experience pleasure from anything they do (this is called anhedonia). Some cause people to become so preoccupied with cleanliness, order, and performing particular rituals that they are literally unable to go through the day without taking care of these things. Some keep people from getting a good night’s sleep–ever. Some cause people to try to throw up every bit of food they eat, or stop eating altogether. Some cause people to want to kill themselves.

Do you see anything trivial here? I don’t.

"Don't Be Afraid to Give Up the Good for the Great"

[Sometimes I like to send myself emails using FutureMe. I get them a year later and instantly remember what it was like to be me a year ago.]

Dear FutureMe,

Yesterday it happened just like in the dream I kept having over the summer.

I was motionless on the sideline, in front of a wall of music that was staring me in the face. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t run out there and be with them, and I couldn’t turn back time and change my decision, and I couldn’t cry and risk everyone seeing.

Three small miracles changed it from the dream version, though. It was daytime and not night, I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t feel the overwhelming sadness.

[Read more…]