Occasional Link Roundup

Hello! It’s been quite a while since I last did one of these, so it’s going to be quite long and include some slightly-older links. Such is life.

Speaking of life, it’s been pretty busy/weird. I moved to New York, started grad school, started my field placement (all social work students do it three days a week), met a bunch of people, did a bunch of things, and discovered the joys of going grocery shopping and carrying bags on the subway and standing with them for half an hour and then hauling them up to my fourth-floor walkup. You know.

At just under three weeks, I’m still a very very new New Yorker, and it shows when I show up late to basically every social gathering because I can’t Brooklyn or because I neglected to check the subway service advisories. Or when I try to pay with my credit card when half the places here only take cash. Or when I don’t realize that I shouldn’t have bought so many groceries at a time because I’d have to carry them on the subway and stand with them for half an hour and then haul them up to my fourth-floor walkup.

But considering what a dramatic change in my life this was (biggest move since I immigrated to the United States 16 years ago, fuck yeah!), I’m sort of dealing? I love it here so much. I love that today I went to a feminist group meeting and tomorrow I’m going to a thing called Nerd Nite which has lectures and live music and booze and on Saturday I’m hanging out with one of my best friends and on Sunday I’m checking out more bookstores and on Monday I’m meeting with the other leaders of another feminist group and on Tuesday I’m going to see this ridiculously cool-looking play about Gary Kasparov and Deep Blue. I could keep going but I don’t want to make you guys too jealous.

And on top of all that, I get to see stuff like this and this and this and this and this, and eat stuff like this.

Life is good. Hard and busy and stressful but so good.

On to the links!

1. Cliff talks about changing her name from a very feminine one to a gender neutral/male-ish one, and discovering how differently she was treated online:

I used to think people called me irresponsible, dirty, immoral, or speculated about me having diseases because I wrote about having multiple partners.

Then I changed my name from Holly to Cliff.

2. Libby Anne discusses atheist men who want to “save” women from religiously-motivated sexism:

Far too many atheists appear to think that so long as they’re not religious, they surely can’t be sexist. This is wrong. Very wrong. Sexism does not cease at the church door. If a male atheist wants to attempt to deconvert women by focusing on the sexism imbedded in many religions, he needs to make sure that he’s not engaging in sexism himself, and he darned well better be ready to address his own sexism if it is pointed out to him.

3. Tauriq explains that asking to be called what you’d prefer to be called is not “censorship” or “political correctness”:

To claim “censorship” over “compassion”, PC over politeness, is to only reinforce that you don’t actually care about language and, therefore, the other person; it’s to continue weaving the cocoon of solipsism that’s being pointed out, preventing you from actually acknowledging someone that’s not you or like you. This doesn’t mean unnecessary censorship or policing of words or phrases doesn’t exist: mockery of religion, politics and ideas – even monarchy – resulting in bans or firing is problematic.

But it’s fallacious, black-and-white thinking to claim that any time, anyone requests you not say or refrain from saying something it’s censorship: This shows you don’t recognise nuance in a complicated world; you fail to acknowledge that different things require different responses even if they appear – at first glance – the same.

4. Lisa Wade examines some gendered American Apparel advertisements side-by-side and uncovers some hilariously sad differences.

5. Tressie writes about Miley Cyrus and the use and abuse of Black women’s bodies by white women (and men):

I am no real threat to white women’s desirability. Thus, white women have no problem cheering their husbands and boyfriends as they touch me on the dance floor. I am never seriously a contender for acceptable partner and mate for the white men who ask if their buddy can put his face in my cleavage. I am the thrill of a roller coaster with safety bars: all adrenaline but never any risk of falling to the ground.

6. Jane Doe, MD on Twitter talks about the shame many women feel about their genitals and how it has harmful consequences for their health.

7. Ian may have left FtB, but he’s still off being awesome elsewhere:

Identifying as “a skeptic” does not somehow mean that all the things you do, all of the heuristics you use when arriving at conclusions, are magically imbued with skepticy power. Your brain is not better because you have chosen to affix a label to yourself. If anything, the use of a label in the place of a behaviour suggests a brain that is less engaged, not more. The moment that you stopped questioning your own assumptions, the second you abandoned the premise that you might be wrong about something, the instant you precluded from yourself the possibility that you are prone to the same errors that everyone else is, that’s when you stopped being “a skeptic”.

You are “a skeptic” right up until the point when you stop acting like one.

(By the way, I wrote something very similar [before Ian wrote this, I might add] that you might also enjoy, in case you haven’t read it yet.)

8. Alex thinks you should stop asking people for “coffee”:

The popularity of “coffee” stems, I think, from that ambiguity. It serves as both euphemism and get-out clause, putting dating or sex on the table with plausible deniability – ask to hook up, and your neck is on the line; ask them for coffee, and rejection can be parried with face-saving statements that you “didn’t mean it like that”.

[…]The trouble is, that ambiguity puts the other person‘s neck on the line. Inviting someone neither to dating or sex, nor a social event, but to something which could usually mean either places on them the burden of interpretation; of negotiating correctly an advance chosen for its disclarity.

9. Mitchell has produced a very useful guide for Freeze Peach Warriors and Brave Heroes who have been blocked on Twitter:

Second, remember that though these violations of our rights are serious, the powers that be have, in reality, only erected a proverbial Maginot line against truth and justice. Blocked on the Internet? Remember that you can still employ an army of sock puppets to do your truthy bidding! Those people in the park don’t want to hear your speech about the merits of Men’s Rights Activism? Follow them when they try to leave! Don’t stop until you’ve made sure they’ve heard everything you have to say! Family down the street doesn’t want to listen to your doorstep speech about Jesus how feminism is keeping us down? Look up all of their online accounts and make sure they can’t go two minutes without being bombarded by the free exchange of ideas!

10. The Belle Jar on being a woman writer:

When a man says flattering things about your writing, you will always be left wondering whether it is your work that interests him, or the fact that you are young, conventionally attractive and female. Most frequently it will be the former, but still, you can never shake off the fear that you are not so much talented as you are naïve and pretty. You often feel as if you are only valuable in so much as men desire to fuck you.

11. Ultra Orthodox Jewish sects in New York City have a scary amount of political influence, as Adam discusses.

12. Franklin tackles the common but ridiculous assertion that feminist men are just fakin’ it to get laid:

I don’t quite get what’s going on in the head of some guy who thinks pretending to be feminist is a ploy to get laid, but I have to assume that a guy who thinks that, probably doesn’t think women are very smart. If someone pretends to think women are people, but doesn’t actually think women are people, I suspect the ploy would be revealed rather quickly. Probably some time between appetizers and the main course, and certainly well before any clothes come off. I really don’t think it’s possible to pretend to be feminist, at least not for any length of time longer than a dinner conversation.

13. Paul Fidalgo has some of the most lyrical writing ever. Read this piece about sleep.

14. Ginny wrote a great post about anger: how it can be both useful and not useful for social change, and how, ultimately, expressing anger isn’t always about social change:

But all of that is about anger as a tactic, anger as a tool for change, and that’s only part of the story. The other piece of it is anger as simple self-expression: oppressed people have many, many reasons to be angry, and telling them to curb their anger and express themselves in a way that’s polite and acceptable to those who are profiting from the system that oppresses them — well, many words have been written on how wrong that is, and I agree with them. Anger is only sometimes, and only partly, about creating social change; it’s also about letting the damage be real, and be heard. It’s not about me at all; it’s about letting someone who’s been hurt just fucking react honestly to that hurt.

15. Aoife explains why you should stop accusing every homophobic person of being a closeted queer person:

But when you say that the loudest homophobes are closeted LGBT folks, you erase the fact that the vast, vast majority of homophobia doesn’t come from closeted people. It comes from straight people. Casual, everyday homophobia overwhelmingly comes from straight people (and yes, by the way, I know that all of you aren’t like that). The vast majority of people who vote against marriage equality are straight. The vast majority of the people who draft gender recognition legislation that enshrines gatekeeping, divorce, diagnoses and compulsory surgery are cis. The people who think that knowing we even exist should be kept from kids, because we’re too ‘confusing’? Mostly straight and cis. The people who treat us ever-so-slightly differently, who tokenise us, who judge us by how closely we conform to stereotypes? Mostly straight and cis. And, yeah, most of the people who brainwash, reject and demonise us are straight and cis too.

. This post by Melissa McEwan wins every award ever.

I am advised, by people who imagine that rape prevention is the responsibility of potential victims and survivors, that I must be careful what I wear, how I wear it, how I carry yourself, where I walk, when I walk there, with whom I walk, whom I trust, what I do, where I do it, with whom I do it, what I drink, how much I drink, whether I make eye contact, if I’m alone, if I’m with a stranger, if I’m in a group, if I’m in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if I’m carrying something, how I carry it, what kind of shoes I’m wearing in case I have to run, what kind of purse I carry, what jewelry I wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people I sleep with, what kind of people I sleep with, who my friends are, to whom I give my number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment or condo or house where I can see who’s at the door before they can see me, to check before I open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch my back always be aware of my surroundings and never let my guard down for a moment lest I be sexually assaulted and if I am and didn’t follow all the rules it’s my fault, which I already know firsthand from having been raped and seeing about 1 in 6 of my female friends and about 1 in 10 of my male friends going through it and getting victim-blamed, at least once and frequently more.

I am persistently terrorized by the ever-present possibility of sexual assault that I am tasked with preventing and the knowledge, the first-hand knowledge branded into my memory like a scar that never quite heals from the sizzle of the iron that left it, that if I am harmed, there will likely be no one there to advocate for justice on my behalf, no matter how loudly I shout nor how deeply I dig my own fingernails into my skin to escape the agony of injustice and neglect for a blissful moment of self-directed pain.

I fear being hurt again, and I fear being a failure at surviving.

This fear is part of the backdrop of my womanhood.

What good things have you read or written lately? Share them here!

[repost] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It’s Like To Consider Suicide

[Content note: depression and suicide]

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I wrote this post for it a year ago, and I decided to repost it today because I still think people should read it and I doubt I could write another one that’s better.

Somebody, somewhere in the world, kills themselves every 40 seconds.

Set a timer on your phone or watch for 40 seconds. When it beeps, another precious, beloved life is gone.

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day. Although suicide prevention entails important things like improving mental health screening and treatment, increasing access to mental health services, and decreasing the stigma of admitting and treating mental health problems, I think there’s another part that we usually miss when we talk about prevention. And that part is understanding what being suicidal is really like.

Those who kill themselves (or wish to do so) are not selfish.

They are not weak.

They are not simply having a bad day.

All of these tropes about suicide, and many others, are wrong.

I can only speak for myself, not for any of the other millions of people who have struggled with this most ultimate of dilemmas. But for me, at least, here’s how it was.

 

I don’t think I ever wanted to be dead.

I have, however, wanted not to be alive.

Why? Because living sucked, because I hated myself, because everyone else must surely hate me too, because I was a burden, because I was going to be alone forever, because I was like an alien that was accidentally born on the wrong planet, to the wrong species, in the wrong society. Killing myself would be like correcting a cosmic error.

There were many ways I dreamed about it happening. Pills of some sort would’ve been my first choice, although I was absolutely terrified of what would happen to my body if they failed to kill me. (Go figure, I was terrified not of dying, but of failing to die.)

But I wanted to be able to take the pills and lie down somewhere and just curl up until I stopped feeling forever.

Sometimes I also thought about bleeding to death by slashing my wrists or something. But I despise pain above all else, and also, poetic as it would be, the thought of someone I love finding me that way made my guts churn. Also, could I actually do it? Could I actually take a knife and slice open my own skin?

I doubted it.

Jumping off of a building occurred to me a lot, especially at the very beginning of my love affair with suicidal ideation. That was back when I was studying journalism, panicking constantly, and feeling just about ready to do anything to escape. Was the journalism building high enough? If not, what would be?

And then there were the trains. Living in Chicago, you take them a lot. Every time I stood on the El or Metra platform as a train rolled in, I thought about it. Not seriously, as I’d made no plans and written no note, but the thought did occur. The rails screeched, and gust swept into my coat and rattled my bones. How I hated standing on the platform, forced to imagine my own death graphically every time a train rolled in.

Recently, when I was already better, I was waiting on the platform for the Metra. A train was coming. It turned out to be an express train that barreled through the station without stopping. The blur, the clamor, the sudden slap of wind–I was left shaken for several minutes after it passed, imagining what that could’ve done to my body.

Strangely, I never even considered guns, although that is what a character in my abandoned novel chose to use.

I composed many different suicide notes in my mind. Some were lengthy and elaborate, with separate sections for each person I wanted to reckon with before I died. I used to keep secrets and grudges for years, and I wanted everyone to know the truth in the end. (These days, I try to make sure that if I suddenly die today, little will have been left unsaid.)

Other notes were simple. They contained nothing more than a quote or a song lyric. Often they included an apology to my family. I thought about writing it in Russian, not English, as though that would make it any better for them.

I also thought about not leaving a note, but something about that made me very sad. What if they never knew? But might that not be better?

And I could not stop listening to that OK Go song, “Return“:

You were supposed to grow old.

You were supposed to grow old.  

Reckless, unfrightened, and old,

You were supposed to grow old.

I never made a firm plan to kill myself, I never attempted to kill myself, and, obviously, I never did kill myself. The only reason, I think, was because I cared more about my family’s wants and needs than I did about my own. As much as I thought I needed to stop living, they needed me to continue living, and so I did.

Is this “normal”? Do others talk themselves out of suicide this way? I have no idea. This isn’t really something I talk about over beers with friends.

I was lucky, when it comes down to it. Lucky to have a family I love so fiercely that that love overpowered my hatred for life.

Death and I, we have an awkward but strangely comfortable relationship now. If I don’t bother with her, she doesn’t bother with me. I don’t fear death itself very much, although the idea of just not existing terrifies and baffles me, just like the idea of time travel or parallel universes or the butterfly effect.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve traveled to the edge of the known world, teetered on that edge, and then shrugged my shoulders and returned. I can’t really tell you exactly what I saw there, but I will say that there is a thick glass wall now between me and those who haven’t made that journey.

I say to a dear friend as I write this, “I’m thoroughly desensitized to the thought of myself dying.”

“I’m not,” she says. “You should stay here and grow crotchety and gray. Perhaps even collect spiderwebs.”

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you, too.”

For better or worse, I will live with what I saw at the edge of the known world until I die what I hope will be a natural death.

You Remember The Weirdest Little Things

My routine begins with stripping off whatever uncomfortable, poorly-fitting clothes I was wearing to make myself presentable, and replacing them with athletic shorts and a tank top.

Then plain white socks, which I almost never wear except for this.

I reapply my deodorant.

I make sure my phone is charged and updated with the newest Citizen Radio episode.

I fill up my drawstring bag: wallet, keys, water bottle, phone.

I tie my hair back, ignoring the little curls that fight their way out anyway.

If I’m wearing makeup, I wash it off. Where I’m going, I don’t need it.

The last part: I step into my black gym shoes (I hate white gym shoes) and put on the drawstring bag.

But after that, the routine deviates. Before, I’d glide down the carpeted stairway, two flights, and out the front door, where the street is lined with trees and students carry bags of groceries. On the way there I pass small apartment buildings and large single-family houses with gardens that spill over with flowers. The sun is starting to set, but it’s still hot and muggy. The sprinklers keep the lawns happy.

I turn right and cut through campus, past the huge science building (one of the largest academic buildings on the continent, I heard my freshman year). To the north of it, they’re building a parking garage for the gym, and the dust from the construction site gets in my eyes every time.

But I finally make it to the gym, where it’s cool, where the windows overlook the beach, the grass, and the water. Even during the busiest times, I have my pick of the machines. When I’m doing upper body, I do pecs, triceps, delts, a few other things I don’t know the names of, and sometimes biceps. When I’m doing lower body, I do calves, quads, inner thighs, glutes, and hip flexors. And always, I finish it off with 30 minutes on the elliptical.

And then I’m back into the humid evening, darker now, a little cooler.

Now things are different. Even though there’s an excellent, affordable, 24-hour gym just five minutes away from me (compared to 20 minutes before), it took me a while to start going and it’s still hard to get myself to do it. I don’t want to walk down the stairs of Not My Building and up Not My Street into Not My Gym where I’d have to do Not My Routine because the machines are different and wrong and usually taken up by burly men who terrify me and honestly don’t need those machines as much as I do anyway. (Oh, what I wouldn’t give to feel like I belong in the gym as much as they do.)

But that’s what I have to make myself do if I want to keep working out in Not (Quite Yet) My City.

The hardest part is the part of the routine that has stayed the same. The smallest physical actions become laden with meanings that are impossible to negotiate and reconcile. Putting on deodorant. Putting on socks. Putting my water bottle in my bag. The same deodorant I used before, when I was there, the same socks, the same bag. Not the same water bottle, though, because I have no idea what happened to the one I had during the move.

Obviously, the solution isn’t to stop working out, because I love it and it saves me every time. After that first time I finally went to Not My Gym, my shoulder was so sore I could barely take my shirt off, and it was the best feeling. But if that’s the best feeling, the feeling I get as I put on my black shoes and realize that after this point, it’s not going to be the way I’m used to it being anymore, is the worst.

Why, of all things, has my brain picked the stupid gym thing to torture me with? I don’t know, except maybe that everything else here is just so different that there are no other triggers for that poisonous nostalgia. Nothing about my life here resembles what my life was like three weeks ago, except the parts of it that I spend on the internet. (But even then, it’s hard to forget, with the constant questions from friends about how grad school and life in Not [Quite Yet] My City are.)

Even my domestic routines are different; my bed feels completely different, I dress differently (sensible shoes, naturally), my apartment is very different (insert snark about New York apartments here, but actually, it’s a beautiful place), commuting no longer means walking 10 minutes through campus to class but walking 5 to the subway, waiting at the station, jumping on the train, taking it for 15 minutes or an hour or an hour and a half, getting off, walking somewhere else, etc.

Shopping is different, the city looks and sounds different, the grocery store chains are different, taking out the trash is different, doing the laundry is different. The food I eat is different (just as I looked forward to), the things I do for fun are different. The people I see are different and virtually nothing about them reminds me of my friends back home.

But one thing that has remained completely the same is the process of getting ready to go to the gym, and whenever I have to go through that process, I swear I’m convinced for a moment that I’m going to walk out that door and into my old routines. Where my friends are, where my real gym is, where everything is comfortable and safe.

You remember the weirdest little things. The cluttered desk where the deodorant hid, the mismatched socks pulled out of the drawer, the waning light through the window of the conditioning room, the opening lines of Citizen Radio as you start the first set.

Eventually I will be able to force myself to do this the new way enough times, and with a short enough interval in between, that the new routine will solidify in my head, and Not My Gym will become my gym, as will my building and the street and the city itself. Eventually I will stop feeling like I’m on some weird vacation/summer camp/reality TV show. I love Not (Quite Yet) My City enough to know that that will happen even when it doesn’t feel like it at all.

~~~

P.S. I chose to write about this particular aspect of moving to New York because that’s what I felt like writing about today, but the big picture is rather different. I love it here and I’m glad I moved, and so far it’s actually been even better than I imagined. But sometimes, it’s very hard.

812 Miles

Mile 1

Of all the car doors I’ve shut in my life, this one feels the most final.

Mile 31

I can finally breathe properly for the first time in days or weeks (I’m not sure). As soon as we got on the road, I instantly felt better, so instantly that I’d call it miraculous if I weren’t already so familiar with my own patterns.

The last fourteen or so hours have been some of the worst of my life. I was up till past 3 AM, crying and panicking too much to sleep. Everyone I knew nearby was either out of town or asleep, not that I’d ask to see them even if I could. I wanted to quit everything. I regretting signing my New York lease more than I’d ever regretted anything. If only, I thought, I could unsign that piece of paper, drop out of grad school, go home to Ohio, get a boring job, and never have to leave anyone or anything again.

I was online and made a bunch of rather miserable tweets that you can probably find if you wanted to, and luckily there were a few people around to talk me down from it. I suddenly remembered that my friend Andrew had, earlier that day, brought me a chocolate muffin and I’d left it in the disheveled kitchen. That got me out of bed, and I mechanically walked–though it felt more like crawling–through the ghost of an apartment until I found it and brought it back with me. For some reason this made all the difference.

But the morning wasn’t much better. I got less than three hours of sleep. I woke up at 6 AM when my alarm went off and realized this was not a nightmare. Through the gaps between my drawn curtains, I saw that it was sunny, beautiful out. My soon-to-be-former home was waking up and starting the day with complete disregard for whether or not I would be there by that day’s end.

I could barely open my eyes all the way and I cried about everything. I cried when I saw my room completely empty, I cried when I had to throw away some things that wouldn’t fit, I cried when I walked down the street to get a bagel (with lox), I cried in the shower, I cried when I hugged my roommate (and friend) goodbye.

For one morning I was the world champion of crying. I could cry at literally anything. I could cry about taking my apartment key off of my keychain. And I did.

Mile 85

I’m lucky that the biggest moves of my life–from Israel to Germany back to Israel and finally to the United States–happened before I was 7 years old. I was too young to understand what I was losing, too young to remember more than the fuzziest outlines of the architectures of my former homes.

The only time I start to understand is when I visit Israel and walk through its streets. Suddenly, unbidden, an alternate universe unfolds in front of me and I start to wonder–who would my friends be? Which cafes would I write in? Would I even be a writer? What would I sound like, speaking Hebrew fluently and without an accent? How different would I look and dress? What would I study?

(All I know about that alternate-universe me is that they would still call me Miri, because that’s how Israelis abbreviate my name.)

And I start to mourn a self that could never be. I idly consider moving back, even though I know it wouldn’t work, I could never get back what I’d lost.

But the life I’m leaving now is not hypothetical. That me existed. I had friends here. I had routines. I had places I loved to go. I pelted my friends with snowballs and read by the lake on summer evenings and cried on benches surrounded by gardens that were more beautiful than I felt I deserved.

I loved people there, and I was loved.

Mile 116

There’s not a single cloud in the sky in northern Indiana today. We drive past fields of soybeans and ripe corn, interrupted here and there by patches of woods. The sunlight flashes off of silos and tractors standing idle in the fields. Occasionally, there are solemn wooden barns in various stages of disrepair.

Soon enough these landscapes will be a sight as rare as a good bagel outside of New York.

Mile 147

But actually, the second-worst part of this morning was the shower. After we’d packed everything into the van, my dad and I each took a shower so we wouldn’t be all sweaty and hot in the car. He went first, then went to wait outside. I took my shower and couldn’t make myself get out of it.

Not that I’m by any means an expedient showerer on the best of days or anything, but this time I really, really, really didn’t want to get out of it. At the other end of that shower awaited the rest of my life. After I got out of that shower and got dressed, there’d be nothing left to do but to say goodbye and get in the car and leave. There would be no more excuses. I had thrown away everything there was to throw away. I had vacuumed very carefully. There was no way to delay it anymore except have a tantrum and refuse to go like a four-year-old.

I didn’t do that. I turned off the water with shaking hands, leaned against the shower wall to try to catch my breath, dried off, reapplied my clothes, and left.

Mile 165

My dad wants to prove to me that the iPhone car adaptor he has is jacked up, so he tells me to play some music. He has an idiosyncratic music taste (everything from classical to Amy Winehouse), so I went with something safe: the Russian music I grew up with.

The song is called “We’re Leaving” (except in Russian) and I obviously chose it on purpose. I can’t do it justice in translation, but I’ll just say that it’s a sweetly optimistic song about leaving and going somewhere you know you’re loved, but leaving behind people who love you too. There’s also some stuff in there about not really knowing what lies ahead, and about understanding that time will heal you, and about, basically, getting your shit together and helping other people. So, needless to say, it’s at least a tiny bit relevant to my particular situation.

It also talks about how quickly time always passes when you’re about to leave, or when someone is about to leave you. That’s the part that always hurt me the most about leaving. I’d know that I have just a week left and that it’s killing me, but that soon I’d feel like I’d do anything to still have a whole week left. And then there’s a day left and it’s killing me, but soon I’ll wish more than anything to still have that day. And then an hour, and then half, and then no time at all.

For the last few weeks I’ve been terribly worried that when my dad arrived to pack up my things into the van, they wouldn’t fit, or some other calamity would happen and we’d fight about it and arrangements would have to be made and it would be a huge mess. This thought was extremely stressful, but there was little I could do about it because I couldn’t exactly visualize how much space the van would have or how much space my things would take up once they were all packed up.

But then my dad showed up, looked over my things, and made absolutely no comment about the glaring possibility that they would not fit and a Disaster would occur. We carried the stuff down the stairs quickly and easily because I’d packed it into many small boxes rather than fewer large ones. It fit into the car easily, without anything fragile being squished, and with space to spare. I was sort of dumbfounded.

Then during the drive my dad mentioned to a few people on the phone that I’d packed very well and everything had been easy, and I realized an embarrassing truth: I had been hoping that the things wouldn’t fit and there would be fights and it would be a Disaster.

After all, it would delay the inevitable moment when I’d have to leave.

Mile 247

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Harder than any academic program, harder than hiking the Negev in August, harder than band camp in 95-degree heat, harder than applying to college or grad school, harder than any breakup, harder than getting into (and staying in) treatment for depression. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. There will be harder things in the future, but for now this is it.

Mile 293

Last night at some point I went on a bit of a rant about sexual assault and victim-blaming, because it’s been on my mind lately since I’m completely terrified of going anywhere alone in New York after 11 PM.

As I tried to explain to someone who has never had to worry about it: imagine going through the WORST thing that could ever happen to you, and imagine knowing that no matter how it happened–no matter HOW–people you love, people with legal and social authority, people with power would blame you for it. The first words out of their mouths would be to blame you. No matter how it happened. You could be sitting on your fucking couch in your ratty sweatpants, eating popcorn, when it happened, and they would tell you that maybe you were sitting too attractively.

That, to me, is worse than the sexual assault itself. Much worse. I can probably deal with physical pain and trauma, but the social isolation that will follow is a different beast.

That, to me, is why it doesn’t actually matter that New York is totally safe these days and come on stop acting like it’s such a terrible place when it’s totally not anymore. (I know that. I love it, after all.)

If I get raped or mugged in New York, people I care about will ask me why I was out alone in New York. Full stop. If I get raped or mugged in New York, my options are 1) hide this from people I care about, including lying about any injuries that result, or 2) get blamed.

That many people find it acceptable that half of the world’s population is terrorized and trapped indoors at night by the threat of gendered violence is a testament to the dismaying power of cognitive biases to create and perpetuate oppression.

Mile 423

The Midwestern farmlands have gradually turned into nearly-unbroken deciduous forests and lazily rolling hills. The sun is setting. I’ve just eaten chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce, which I generally end up eating at some point on just about every road trip.

I mentioned once before that the first time I went to New York City on my own, it was for a stupid reason. I’ll elaborate: it was for a guy. The same one I could barely make myself stop hugging back in Chicago this morning. (Was it really just this morning?)

That was the reason I went, but it wasn’t the reason I stayed. New York eventually helped me rediscover the person I used to be, before depression and before I started clinging desperately onto people in an attempt to avoid the misery I felt. I used to love being alone. I used to take long walks and write for hours rather than in short bursts. I used to treasure my own company. I used to need no one else to have fun.

In New York I started doing all these things again. During the summer that I spent there two years ago, I’d hole up in bookstores and read entire books in a single city. One time I walked from Battery Park all the way to the northern end of Central Park: nine miles in a day. I took the bus to Rockaway Beach alone. I sprawled on the grass in Central Park alone. I even went to Times Square alone, although in Times Square you can never be alone.

As terrified as I still am of being alone in the city, I know that it’s my favorite place in the world to be alone.

Mile 482

For the past four years I’ve believed earnestly that coming to Northwestern/Chicago was a huge mistake, one of the biggest I’d ever made. Although over time I stopped imagining what life might’ve been like had I chosen better, I never really stopped believing that it had been the wrong choice.

Until last night. Only last night, sitting on a cold rock at midnight while Lake Michigan danced beneath me, did I realize that it had not been a mistake, and I had been in exactly the right place, and there was no reason to regret anything.

But all I could do with that realization was go home, try to sleep, wake up early, and move far away.

Mile 692

It’s dark now. We’re driving through the mountains in Pennsylvania. They’re black silhouettes against a slightly less black sky, full of stars I’m not going to see again for a while. We’re not talking much anymore, but my dad is playing me some music he’s discovered recently.

We thought that love was over,
That we were really through
I said I didn’t love him,
That we’d begin anew
And you can all believe me,
We sure intended to,
But we just couldn’t say goodbye.

This brings up all sorts of memories of my now-former life and I almost choke up again.

Mile 743

For the first time this entire trip, we hit traffic. We inch forward painstakingly until the traffic jam clears up. It does so right as we pass the “Welcome to New Jersey” sign. Go figure.

Mile 789

I can tell we’re close. The sky is a dark, dirty orange, and more and more signs for New York City are zooming past us.

Now I’m thinking that this is a huge mistake, that I shouldn’t have moved to New York or I shouldn’t have decided to study social work or neither. I know why I feel this way, though. The move is triggering memories of college, of how sure I was that Northwestern was the right place for me to go and journalism was the right thing for me to study, of how dearly both those decisions ended up costing me.

But I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t like that. I did my research this time. I found out what the social work curriculum is like and what my professors research and what services Columbia offers and what I can do with my degree and what sort of starting salary I can expect and which agencies Columbia works with to provide field placements and how to get licensed to practice therapy afterward and whether I can transfer that license to another state should I leave New York and how much it would all cost and how long it would take me to pay back the loans and what loan forgiveness programs are available and so much more.

I researched New York, too, by traveling there so much and visiting different parts of it and becoming very, very well-acquainted with Google Maps. While my love for the city is probably not very rational, my decision to move there was very much so. I did my research. I will not have to regret this. I will not.

Mile 800

In the distance, I see the skyline.

Mile 810

We’re speeding over the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge. Literally speaking, I know what lies before me (it’s Manhattan), but other than that I have no idea. I might love it, I might hate it, or–most likely–I will have some complicated combination of feelings about it.

I do know that across that bridge will be a graduate degree, maybe even two. Across that bridge, barring any huge setbacks, will be two licenses that will allow me to do the work I want to do. Across that bridge are people I love, people my family has known for years and years. Across that bridge are people who will eventually mean the world to me, but I haven’t even met them yet. Across that bridge are the places I go every chance I get.

Across that bridge is a city where the lights never go out and the trains run all night. Across that bridge is a city I know is home, even if I don’t feel it quite yet.

But the rest is largely a mystery. In a few minutes I’ll be there.

On Memories Of Former Homes

The market is swarming with people on Friday afternoon. Tables covered with piles of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, bread, and household goods beckon as their owners shout their prices into the din. Feral cats dart beneath the tables, dodging people and cars to snatch scraps of food. Shoppers haggle: “Ten shekels for this? No way. I’ll give you eight.”

If you listen closely, you’ll hear Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and probably more. You’ll see men with kippas and black hats. You’ll see women, including young girls, with every inch of skin covered but their hands and faces, and women with miniskirts and crop tops. You’ll see schoolchildren shopping for their families and old men and women dragging bags of groceries on their own. There will always, at any given moment, be an old lady standing at the curb and shouting at a bus driver because the bus route has changed, and the rest of the passengers are shouting to her which bus to take instead.

More than anything, you’ll notice the heat. It beats down from the sky and rises from the pavement, seeps out of buses and cars and into your body like a poison. It’s a dry heat, which may seem like a small comfort, but it makes all the difference.

Past the market stalls and down the mountain, the Mediterranean glimmers. By this time of year it’s nearly impossible to actually swim in thanks to the jellyfish, but if you swim in the bay you’ll be fine.

The hours pass and the market starts to shut down. By the time the sun is setting, the whole city has slowed nearly to a stop: buses don’t run anymore, stores have closed, and the last few stragglers are rushing through the streets to get home. As night falls, the smell of freshly-baked challah flows out of open windows along with the prayers and songs of Shabbat.

To you, this may be unfamiliar and weird and even uncomfortable; to me, it was home.

~~~

When I was 13, I returned to Israel for the first time since my family moved away seven years earlier. That trip, at the time, meant absolutely everything to me. It was a chance to rediscover my history and heritage. It was a vacation from the boredom and bullying that made up my school days. Most of all, it was an escape from the horrible new feeling–not even just a feeling, but a way of being, really–that had seeped into every little corner of my life. Six years later, I would learn to call it depression.

Those two weeks in Israel caused mood swings the likes of which I’d never experienced before (but that would become too familiar over the following nine years). I felt ecstatic to be back in what I then considered my Real Home and full of wonder at the things I was seeing and learning. Being there caused a flood of old memories to resurface and I delighted in them.

But at the same time, I balked with increasing fear and horror at the idea of returning to my miserable American existence, which I was certain I could cure only by returning to Israel after high school. (I did not, obviously, know about antidepressants.)

Although I knew I’d miss the food and the stunning beauty and the beach and all that, what I knew I’d miss the most was just that feeling that I had there, that unmistakeable thereness.

I told my mom in tears that I was terrified of forgetting what it was like to be there, and in response she told me about a trip she took to southern Russia as a teenager, a trip that grew fuzzier in her memory over time, but that she could never truly forget. Maybe the details were gone, but the essence was not and never would be.

Somewhat comforted, I tried to capture the “thereness” in any way I could. I associated it in my mind with certain smells and songs. I kept a detailed diary. I took photos. I recorded it in poems.

Ever since, I’ve been chasing that feeling.

~~~

Summer is probably the best time of the year to be in Ohio. It’s hot and muggy as hell, but everything becomes soft and beautiful in the summer. The fields of ripening corn ripple over hills left by glaciers long ago, and the streams that wind through the woods–assuming they haven’t dried up–are perfect for dipping your feet into.

My mom and I, and later my siblings once they were told enough, would often explore the paths that lead through these woods. Many of them separated different subdivisions from each other, or they were part of school grounds or parks. One such path led to a mysterious mansion far away from any other houses; another was strewn with paintballs that my little brother eagerly collected but that my sister was for some reason terrified of.

Summer in Ohio is anything but quiet. Cicadas can keep you up at night if you’re not used to them, and early in the morning you’ll be woken up by neighbors tending to their lawns more meticulously than my family ever did. Once or twice a week we’d drop whatever we were doing because we’d hear the ice cream truck coming down the street, and that was our favorite summer sound of all. (That, and the lifeguard’s whistle when breaktime ended at the pool.)

For a good twelve years or so, that’s how all my summers felt. Nowadays they’re quite different.

~~~

More wisdom from my mom: the summer before I started college, I was dating my best friend and we were about to go off to different schools. Although I’d spent the previous summer in Israel, away from my then-boyfriend, this was the first time I’d be in an indefinitely long-distance relationship and I wasn’t taking it well. His school started a month before mine did, so he was the first one to leave. My mom told me, explaining that my anguish was perfectly normal: “It’s always harder to be the one who stays.”

Maybe that’s a small part of the reason it’s so much easier now for me to love places than people. With places, I always get to be the one who leaves. Places don’t “grow out” of me and leave me; I grow out of them and leave them. People change suddenly, without warning; places usually change slowly and very predictably, if you know anything about sociology.

That’s not to say that my relationships with places are easy or simple. It took me a long time to understand that I love my town in Ohio in some way. It was painful to realize that I couldn’t stay there and still be myself. It was even more painful to come to Northwestern and realize that what I thought for five years would be a safe haven was actually rather cold and unwelcoming, and not the sort of place I would ever learn to belong in. Yet there were things I loved about it too.

When I was little I played a game with myself. It was very simple. All I did was pay careful attention to my surroundings and pretend that I was seeing them again after having been away for a very long time, perhaps because I’d been transported to a magical alternate universe and had just now found my way back (I liked fantasy novels as a kid; can you tell?). This game made me see ordinary things like my house or my backyard through an entirely new lens. I was able to make myself feel as though my boring white-bread neighborhood was the most amazing place in the world, simply by pretending that I’d been forced to leave it for a while.

Later on, that actually sort of happened. No, I didn’t get transported through a wormhole to an alternate universe; I just went back to Israel for a whole summer (the aforementioned summer). When I returned to Ohio, I instantly fell in love with it in a way I never had before. It was so green. So quiet. So comfortable. I could understand the language strangers spoke to me. How had I ever taken that for granted?

I never really lost that feeling, and I carry it with me now as I move to a place that’s almost as different from Ohio as Israel is.

~~~

Everyone whines that they hate snow, but you can feel the energy pick up on campus as the flurries turn to snowflakes that grow bigger and bigger. Just a few hours ago it was sunny and above freezing, but that’s Chicago weather for you.

As Deering Field turns from green to white, students on break from class (or maybe just skipping) show up to throw snowballs and make snowmen. Past the field, Deering Library towers imperiously like a set from Harry Potter. In fact, we’d often jokingly call it Hogwarts.

If you walk past the library and down to the lake, you’ll see the hundreds of huge rocks that line the coast. Most of them have been painted by students to celebrate friendships, relationships, student groups, or just their lives at Northwestern in general. Sometimes I see marriage proposals, sometimes I see my favorite song lyrics, sometimes I even see Russian words; I’m not sure which of those makes me happier.

Ever since I first saw the painted rocks the summer after my seventh-grade year, I knew I had to get into Northwestern and paint my own rock someday. I managed the first half of that, but, for some reason, not the second.

~~~

You might think that, as a person with depression, I tend to focus and ruminate on the negatives of things. Although I do that sometimes, I also have a remarkable ability to find the positive in just about everything. Usually this ability serves me very well; although I’m fragile during transitional periods and dislike change, once I’ve had some time to process things I’m able to adapt to just about anything. That’s because I find the good in it.

Ironically, though, when I’m depressed this turns into a sort of weakness. Like a lifesaving medicine that becomes a deadly poison in overdose, my happy memories of past homes become so potent during depression that they rob me of my ability to appreciate the present. When I’m depressed, I’m tortured by these memories, which play over and over in my mind like faded old movies that I can’t turn off. I remember the most insignificant little things: the worn-down steps to my grandma’s apartment building in Haifa, the porch swing on the deck back in Ohio, the hard and scratchy couch in my old dorm where I’d watch football games on TV in the fall, the sound of kids jumping off the diving board at the pool my family went to (still goes to; I’m just not there anymore), the snow falling around University Hall, the taste of a sudden mouthful of Mediterranean water, the slam of the door to the garage when my parents came home from work, the music of my high school marching band echoing through the muggy summer night.

I think of these things without wanting to and I hear the same cruel thought over and over: You will never feel these things again.

I have these memories, but the places they come from are lost to me forever.

Oh, sure, I could return, physically at least. I have returned. But the feelings are gone. That thereness is gone.

~~~

Another season, another (very different) campus. It’s a summer night in New York City and I’m sitting in front of Columbia’s Butler Library and crying for too many reasons to explain. Students–my peers, theoretically–walk past me in chattering groups and I wonder for the millionth time what’s wrong with me. I’m finally exactly where I wanted to be and somehow it still feels awful.

After a while I pick myself up and walk somewhat mechanically off of campus onto Broadway. The sun has just set, which in most of my previous homes would mean that things have either died down or will shortly. But here, the city is just coming to life. The restaurants around campus are still full. People are standing around in front of bars and on street corners talking. The 24-hour pharmacies and grocery stores and diners (I’m still amazed at the idea of a 24-hour anything other than Burger King or 7-Eleven) are full of customers.

The night is warm, but not hot, and I feel better.

There are, right now, over 8 million people in this city who are just like me and also not like me at all. All of them have, at some point, been as terrified and lonely as I am right now. All of them have places that they love and miss. All of them have friends that they rarely see, or might never see again. All of them have parts of their pasts that they wish they could relive, and parts of their pasts that they wish they could forget, and maybe even parts of their pasts that they wish they could both relive and forget, if only because forgetting would end that burning need to relive.

It’s hard to feel alone when I think about that.

~~~

People tell me that the new memories I’m making can replace those old ones. That the new home I’ve found makes up for the loss of my previous homes. It doesn’t, just as new friends can’t replace the ones I’ve lost. Love just doesn’t work that way.

For what it’s worth, I’m glad that I’ve moved to a place that I adore so much. I’m glad that I could live here for the rest of my life and still be learning new things about it all the time. I’m glad that I’m a just a subway ride away from sprawling parks you can get lost in and from some of the loudest, most crowded city streets I’ve ever seen, from stores that sell the food I grew up with and stores that sell food I’ve never heard of or tasted before.

But those memories continue to haunt me and I know that I have to live with them somehow.

The best I can do is to try to capture them in writing so that I don’t have to carry their weight on my own, but it seems that I can’t. At best, writing provides a facsimile, a movie-set version of landscapes that were endlessly deep and rich. They didn’t end with a painted backdrop.

Sometimes I feel like I’d give anything for just one more day to inhabit these old places, homes, selves, lives. I want to feel like I felt when I lived there. I want to feel like the person I was, even though I don’t actually want to be that person anymore.

Isn’t there any way I can come back?

Most of all, though, I don’t want to lose yet another home. But it’s too late. I made the decision to move months ago, and even if I’d chosen to stay in Chicago, it wouldn’t have been the same. College is over. Those lazy days in coffee shops and bookstores are over. Running down the hall or down the stairs to see my friends is over. I will never again feel like I felt when I did those things, and I will never again be the person who did them.

I have to keep telling myself this so that it’ll sink in, even though telling myself this feels like shit. Otherwise I’ll keep feeling like any minute now I’ll wake up back in my old apartment and realize that this whole New York thing was just a weird and kind of scary dream, and it’s time to throw on some clothes and get to class.

But the funny thing is that someday this, right now, is what I’ll miss. Someday the memories I’m making right now will have a “thereness” of their own and I will miss them just as terribly as I miss Israel and Ohio and college now. Someday I’ll look back on my first days and weeks in New York and smile and cry about them.

It is probably true that whenever I travel between these four places in the future, I will simultaneously be leaving and coming home. I’m trying to make my peace with it, as awkward as it feels.

It’s weird, isn’t it? Loving more than one person feels completely natural to me.

Loving more than one place, though, feels like betrayal.

#FtBCon Wrap-up and Thank Yous

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Hopefully you caught at least part of our first-ever FtBCon this weekend; if not, here’s a convenient playlist of all of the things. I had a blast with it despite being chained to my computer for two and a half days; I met a bunch of people, learned a lot, and got to talk about some important stuff. Not that different from a meatspace conference, actually!

The best part were all the comments I saw from people who said that they never have the option to go to meatspace cons. Many said this was their first atheist/skeptical conference. Many said that physical/mental disabilities, money, work, children, and so on kept them from traveling to cons.

Of course, FtBCon isn’t anywhere near a perfect simulation of a meatspace conference. It can’t be. Nothing can replace that feeling of walking into a huge room full of likeminded people milling about, vendors selling books and jewelry and clothing, friends you rarely get to see in person. Nothing beats taking photos with your heroes and having people recognize you from the Internet. We have to keep doing our best to make conferences accessible in every possible way.

But FtBCon came damn close. The chat room was always full of great conversation, just like the hotel lobby after the day’s talks have wrapped up. Many of the panels would keep going after they went off air, with the panelists telling each other everything they didn’t get to say during the panel and then dissolving into conversation about family or books or life. People found new bloggers and speakers to follow, people made friends, people made plans for the future.

For instance, the folks from the amazing chronic pain panel mentioned wanting to create some sort of group for skeptics with chronic pain, and my mental illness panelists and I want to do a series of private and public hangouts about mental health from a skeptical perspective. And throughout the conference, many of us were already busy thinking up ideas for the next one (in fact, there’s a lively conversation going on in the FtB backchannel about that already).

Some of the highlights for me, aside from my own panels, were listening to Shelley Segal perform a beautiful song called “My Morality,” listening to Kate (check out her brand-new FtB blog!) give a great solo talk about the DSM, giving the folks from the Pathfinders Project the chance to promote their amazing work, hearing Ashley and Kelley talk about representation in some of my favorite YA novels, and, of course, drinking with everyone at the end and dissolving into laughter every 10 seconds.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been a part of this community for about a year. I never could’ve guessed, a year ago, that this summer I’d be helping organize such an awesome event–and one with so much potential to be even better next time.

Here are the panels I organized, by the way. On Friday night we did Sex & Skepticism, which I’ve been hearing is many attendees’ favorite panel:

The last panel of the night was Supporting Freethinkers with Mental Illness:

And on Sunday afternoon, we did another one on mental illness: “What’s the Harm? Religion, Pseudoscience, and Mental Health”:

In conclusion, I had a fucking fantastic time. I want to thank the rest of the organizers–Jason, Ian, Stephanie, Brianne, Russell, Ed, and especially PZ, who basically put this whole thing together before we got off our asses to help. (We promise to do better next time, PZ.) I also want to thank everyone who submitted proposals for panels, including the ones we weren’t able to accommodate (sorry about that! There were only a few of us and very many of you). And I especially want to thank my panel participants–Kate, Brendan, Drama, Olivia, Ed, Greta, Benny, Sophie, Franklin, Ginny, Nicole, Courtney, Ania, Niki, and Allegra. It’s gotta take guts to go on streaming video in front of hundreds of people to talk about sex and mental illness, but you all did it and it was great.

And, of course, thanks to everyone who was so excited–everyone who shared the event on Facebook, everyone who kept the chatroom hopping with discussions, everyone who tweeted, everyone who told us that this is important and necessary.

If you attended, please fill out this survey to tell us how we did. The next FtBCon will be much better, and it may be sooner than you think…

What I’m Doing This Weekend! #ftbcon

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FtBCon is almost upon us! Here’s a handy guide to everything I’m doing this weekend, aside from ALL OF THE SOCIAL MEDIA. All times are CDT (UTC – 5). The rest of the schedule, with links to where all the sessions will be, can be found here.

I’m hosting three panels for others (not speaking, just setting up and relaying audience questions):

Promoting Social Justice in Small Atheist Groups: Friday 10pm to 10:50pm with Paul Wright, Daniel Midgley, Madge Carew-Hopkins (they’re all from Australia!)

A lot has been said about promoting social justice in large groups of atheists, like forums, blogs and conventions. It’s not always easy to keep out the trolls and harassers and to say what needs to be said, but it can be done. But what do you do in a small university atheist club, or a local skeptic meetup group? Paul Wright, Madge Carew-Hopkins and Daniel Midgley talk about atheist groups in Perth, Australia and how the arguments that rage in the wider community have parallels in local atheist groups.

Reproductive Rights: Saturday 2pm to 3pm (with Brianne Bilyeu, Greg Laden, Bree Pearsall, Fausta Luchini, Aoife O’Riordan, Robin Marty and Nicole Harris)

A panel of reproductive rights activists come together to discuss access to abortion in current events , clinic escorting and some common religious and non-religious arguments against abortion. Our panel consists of clinic escorts – including one panelist who volunteered before FACE laws went into effect (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances), health care professionals, an author and several bloggers who write about reproductive rights. Our panelists hail from Minnesota, Kentucky, Virginia and Ireland.

Meet the Pathfinders: Sunday 11am to 12pm (with Ben Blanchard, Conor Robinson, and Wendy Webber)

Three of the volunteers of the Pathfinders Project, a yearlong international service and research trip sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief, will be discussing the project, themselves, why they are involved, and why humanist service is so important.

I’m also moderating three more:

Sex & Skepticism: Friday 6pm to 8pm (with Greta Christina, Ginny Brown, Franklin Veaux, Benny, and Sophie Hirschfeld)

Sexuality is an area of human experience where pseudoscience and woo frequently prevail. How can skepticism and atheism enhance sex? What are the harms of allowing quackery and unexamined biases into the bedroom? Our panelists have a wide range of experiences with sexuality and skepticism, and their views on these questions will be diverse and thought-provoking.

Supporting Freethinkers with Mental Illness: Friday 11pm to 12am (with Kate Donovan, Brendan Murphy, Olivia James, and Drama)

“Have you tried yoga?” “You just need to pray harder.” “You should try this herbal supplement.” People with mental illnesses get advice like this all the time. Although it’s not particularly helpful to anyone, with skeptics and atheists it’s especially misguided. What should we say to freethinkers dealing with mental illness? How do we support them in an evidence-based way? How can we use skepticism and critical thinking to reduce the stigma of mental illness? How can we improve access to treatment that actually works?

What’s the Harm? Religion, Pseudoscience, and Mental Health: Sunday 1pm to 2pm (with Ania Bula, Nicole Harris, Niki M., Allegra Selzer, Courtney Caldwell, and Rachel Maccabee)

Religious and pseudoscientific communities often claim to promote mental health, whether through treatment or social support. Our panelists will discuss their experiences with mental illness and how religion and pseudoscience have influenced them. They will talk about the religious and pseudoscientific treatments they have gone through and how friends and family from those communities have responded to their mental illness.

And I’m speaking in this one, moderated by Crommunist:

God is Love? Relationships in a Godless World: Saturday 4pm to 6pm (with Ania Bula, James Croft, Jamila Bey, Beth Presswood, and Anti-Intellect)

Despite the popular assertion, one does not need to believe in a god to have love in their lives; however, disbelief surely shapes the kinds of loving relationships atheists can have. What effect does lack of a god belief have on things like sexual desire, shame, and the types of relationships we feel comfortable with? A panel of people with different experiences and perspectives discusses some of the issues and takes your questions!

I hope to see lots of you online this weekend! Don’t forget that you can talk to other attendees in the Pharyngula chat room.

Living With Depression: Hope

[Content note: depression and suicide]

This is my series on depression and what it’s actually like beyond the DSM symptoms. It’s not meant to reflect anyone’s experience but my own, although I’m sure plenty of people will identify with it. If things were completely different for you and you feel comfortable sharing, the comments section’s all yours. Previous posts in the series are here.

The title of this post is “Living With Depression: Hope,” but because of the bit before the colon, the part after it is hard to come by.

One of the main ways in which depression differs from sadness or “the blues” is the pervasive loss of hope that its sufferers experience. When you’re depressed, you don’t merely feel bad; you know beyond a doubt that you will always feel bad. You don’t have evidence for this, but the strength of your conviction is so great that you automatically attribute it to accuracy. After all, if it weren’t absolutely true that you will always feel this bad, why else would you be so certain of it?

That’s one of many ways in which the depressed brain tricks you.

Unfortunately, the hopelessness of depression isn’t limited to big-picture questions like whether or not you will eventually feel better. It affects every little thing. You will never make friends. You will never find a partner. You will never have sex again. You will never get a job. You will never get into graduate school. You will never find a place to live that you like. You will never reconcile with your family. You will never get in shape. You will never get these damn errands finished.

(This also means that it’s impossible to tell the difference between what’s actually unattainable and what merely feels that way. I recently told my mother that one of the reasons I chose not to go for a PhD was because there’s absolutely no way I could’ve made it into a doctoral program given my lack of research experience. My mother pointed out that I’d said the same thing about the master’s program to which I will soon be merrily on my way. It’s true. I did say that. I also said that I will never get into Northwestern and never get any summer internships and never find a partner and never find a way to move to New York City. Sometimes I think that I’ll never get married or never be able to get a fulltime job. Which of these are based on a skeptical assessment of the evidence, and which are not? Who knows.)

This is going to sound ridiculous when I say it this way, but imagine knowing for certain that every little bit of your life will always be bad. Imagine if someone traveled back in time from the future and told you that you are going to fail at everything and you will never be happy and nobody will ever like you. Got it? Now try to live out the rest of that life.

That is depression.

When you look at it that way, suicide becomes a little easier to understand. One of the many things healthy people don’t get about suicide is how you could want to end your life for good just because of a “temporary setback” or “when things might get better” or “without knowing how life will turn out.” People call suicide a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Sure, that’s how it looks to a healthy person. But to a depressed person, it’s not a temporary problem. It’s a permanent problem. You do know exactly how life will turn out and it will turn out terribly.

This is why it’s so patently ridiculous to me when people start going on about “Yeah well how can you really know if it’s depression or just sadness I mean aren’t we sort of medicalizing a normal emotion.” This is why it’s so clear that these people have no clue what they’re talking about. I’ve spent a lot of time being depressed and I’ve also spent a lot of time being sad. When I’m sad, my thought process goes like this: “Blah, it’s really fucking sad to be leaving behind my life in Chicago with all these friends I have and all the places I like to go. I will never have these things in my life in this way again. This is really fucking sad. I can’t wait till the move to NYC is over because then I’ll get to acclimate to a new life and it won’t feel as bad to have left this one behind.”

When I’m depressed, my thought process is more like this: “THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING GOOD ABOUT CHRISTMAS BREAK ENDING AND HAVING TO GO BACK TO CHICAGO. I HATE EVERYTHING THERE. Yeah, I guess I have friends there, but they probably don’t even like me. My classes will probably suck this quarter (yeah I picked them myself but whatever everything I choose for myself always ends up being shitty). The weather fucking sucks and I can’t stand it anymore. I’ll just sit in my apartment alone like a loser. Fuck my life.”

But here’s the thing: when Christmas break ended and I went back to Chicago, it was…fine. I adjusted, as I always do. But in the days leading up to break ending, I was absolutely unable to see that that would happen. It didn’t matter that I’d had the same thoughts at the end of every break. It didn’t matter that I had the same thoughts as I prepared to go home for break, from where I was now so reluctant to leave.

Nothing mattered. I had lost hope. Hopelessness was the default state in which I lived most of the time.

But without hope, there’s no way to be happy or even content. If things are going poorly for you right now, you’re convinced that they will always be that way. If things are going well, you’re convinced that it could all end at any time and your future seems grim.

Without hope, something as mundane as returning to school from Christmas break feels like an insurmountable obstacle. Without hope, my upcoming move to NYC would have me completely paralyzed with dread and anxiety (and I have to say, it’s pretty difficult even with hope).

Without hope, treating your depression feels pointless. Why make the effort when you already “know” it’s not going to help? Without hope, platitudes about “looking on the bright side” are pointless, because depression is an illness that literally prevents you from ever looking on the bright side. Telling a person with depression to try to be hopeful or to try to believe that things will get better is like telling a person with diabetes to consider trying to produce more insulin.

As of a few days ago, my depression has been subclinical for about a year. This means that I don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I do not have major depression. I have recovered.

I do have many of its symptoms, some in mild forms and some a little stronger. So to say that I’m not at all depressed is probably inaccurate. In any case, though, the past year has been an experiment in learning to have hope again–hope that I will adjust just fine to my move in a few weeks (!!!!!!!!), hope that I’ll like my new graduate program, hope that I’ll be able to pay my bills, hope that I’ll get a job when this is all over, hope that my life will slowly start to resemble, however crudely, the vision I have had for it.

This means trying to see clearly through the fog that has hung like a curtain in front of my eyes since childhood, and occasionally getting a peak behind that curtain. We are all, of course, largely ignorant when it comes to predicting our own futures, but the important thing is to have the ability to make predictions that don’t make us want to curl up under the covers and cry.

Confession: I Basically Never Ask People Out

Every progressive has a traditional streak in them. It might be little, it might be huge, it might be a secret, it might be totally obvious.

Mine is this: I do not take initiative when it comes to sex and romance.

Save for some occasional exceptions, I don’t ask people out on dates, I don’t proposition people for sex, I don’t disclose romantic or sexual feelings to anyone unless they’ve done so first, I don’t initiate conversations about moving relationships “to the next level” (I hate that phrase, but it’ll suffice here), I don’t say “I love you” first, and if I ever get married I doubt I will be the one to propose.

This is not a random personality quirk, and it’s also very localized. In the context of friendships and professional relationships, I take lots of initiative. I let people know that I’d like to get to know them better and I’ve initiated lots of coffee/lunch dates with friends. In the context of existing sexual/romantic relationships, I’m also very assertive and often suggest dates or initiate sex. In general, I set and enforce boundaries clearly (although this costs me friendships and relationships) and make my needs known.

So what is it about initiating new sexual/romantic relationships and making existing ones more serious or committed?

For lots of people, this is difficult because they fear rejection. They find themselves paralyzed with fear at the thought of asking someone on a date or telling them they want to have sex. They worry that asking and being rejected will lead to ridicule or ostracism. They worry that the person won’t want to be friends with them anymore.

I don’t. Rejection bothers me to the extent that it bothers everyone–it sucks and it’s unpleasant. But that suckage isn’t nearly enough to keep me from pursuing relationships that could make me really happy.

For some people–a group that overlaps with the fear-of-rejection group–initiating things is hard because they are insecure. They believe it’s pointless to even try because nobody could possibly like them or find them attractive anyway. Perhaps they believe this because of past romantic/sexual failure, or because they have depression and this is what depression does to you, or just because they haven’t tested this particular hypothesis yet.

That’s not the case for me either. Although I have a few insecurities, I’m quite confident in my ability to find partners.

For me, passivity in initiating relationships has little to do with fear or insecurity, and everything to do with the lessons I’ve absorbed about what it means to be a woman who initiates relationships and how people–men, mostly*–have responded when I’ve done so in the past.

First of all, as I mentioned, I do initiate sometimes. It has ended very badly almost all of those times. Not in the sense that I got rejected or that stuff happened and later didn’t work out. Rather, what inevitably happened was that the guy I asked on a date or disclosed my crush to or wanted to have a casual friends-with-benefits relationship with would string me along to see what he could get, and then reveal that he’d actually never been that interested to begin with. In the friends-with-benefits case, the “friends” part would quickly disappear. In the crush case, he’d persuade me to have sex with him and then claim that I should’ve known it “meant nothing.” In the date case, he’d act bored and blasé on the date and explain that actually he hadn’t really wanted to go on a date with me at all but just didn’t think to say no.

Of course, I get that at the beginnings of things, it’s hard to know what exactly you’re interested in, if anything. But this is why language exists. “Sure, I’d love to hang out, but I’m not sure yet if I’m interested in you romantically.” “I’d totally hook up with you, but I don’t tend to stay friends with the people I fuck.” “Right now I don’t see you as someone I’d have a relationship with, but if you’re okay just being friends who hook up sometimes, I’m down.”

Now that I’m older and more experienced, I know what to look for when someone’s purposefully being vague just to see what they can get from someone who’s expressed interest in them. I also understand why men might do this. Having a woman initiate things is probably rare enough that they want to “take advantage” of the opportunity, even though they’re not actually interested and even though that’s extremely manipulative.

Nevertheless, this has happened most of the times I’ve initiated romantic/sexual things, and that makes me extremely reluctant to do it again. If initiating things means wading through someone’s obfuscations and asking them to specify what they’re looking for from the situation and knowing that they might lie and lead me on anyway, no thanks.

The second reason involves all the patriarchal stuff I’m sure you know. All my life I’ve been told that women who initiate are whores. In fact, I’ve been warned by plenty of well-meaning women that men will string women who initiate along to see what they can get (or just assume that what they can get is sex and act accordingly). Obviously, I don’t believe any of these things. But the latter happens to have been confirmed by my personal experiences, which makes it really difficult to break out of that mold.

Along with that are the fears that many of us probably still have and try every day to overcome. In my case, it’s that nobody will ever like me if I take charge and ask people out or whatever, and that everyone will think I’m “a slut” and make fun of me behind my back (this has also happened, so believe me when I say I’m not pulling this shit out of nowhere).

And yeah, people say that men who take advantage of a woman who shows initiative aren’t the kinds of men you’d want to date, and that friends who make fun of you and call you a slut aren’t the kinds of friends you’d want to have.

But does that make it hurt any less?

The third reason is that, in my experience, many men who claim to like women who show initiative don’t really mean it–and, more to the point–they don’t realize they don’t mean it. They say, “Oh, I’d love it if a girl asked me out.” “I’d love it if a girl asked me for sex.” But then it actually happens, and the caveats come out: “Well, sure, I like assertive women, but she’s just too aggressive.” “Well, I just felt intimidated when she asked me how I felt about her.” “Wow, she just seems really desperate and obsessed.” “I think she’s like, in love with me, and I’m not ready for that right now.”

It’s not a coincidence that men tend to feel intimidated by assertive women and to view them as aggressive, desperate, and obsessed. First of all, that’s how women who initiate sex and dating are constantly portrayed in the media. Second, while more and more women are feeling comfortable initiating things, it’s probably still rare enough that men might assume–without realizing they’re assuming–that if a woman asks them out, she must be so desperate or in love with them that she was willing to ignore our society’s taboo against women who initiate relationships.

People tend to talk about fear of rejection as the ultimate reason for not making a move and the biggest obstacle for folks to overcome if they want to take charge of their love lives, but honestly, I wish rejection were the biggest problem I faced when it comes to asking people out. Rejection seems like a walk in the park compared to this other stuff. At least rejection is honest. “Sorry, I don’t like you that way.” But in my experience, taking initiative means dealing with people who don’t say what they mean, or say what they don’t mean, or don’t realize that what they say they want is not what they want, or blatantly lie. Who has time for that?!

For me, it’s not so much a conscious decision not to ask people out or proposition them even when I want to, but rather a nearly-complete lack of any desire to do so. When I meet someone I’m interested in, I often find myself thinking that it would be nice to date or hook up with this person, but there isn’t really any part of me that wants to make that happen. Instead I sometimes befriend them and see what happens. Worst case scenario is that I make an awesome friend; best case scenario is that they initiate things. Often they do. (And note how the worst case scenario and the best case scenario are actually equal in terms of awesomeness.)

But this is what makes it hardest to fight. If I really wanted to do something about my feelings for someone, I could absolutely drum up the courage to do it. But I just don’t. Apathy is always the worst enemy. I’ll meet someone and get a crush and tell my friends and they ask me what I’m going to do, and I usually just shrug and say that I don’t feel like doing much of anything about it.

To be clear, I’m not happy with the fact that I’m this way. Although I don’t feel any guilt over it (I find guilt over not being “feminist enough” or “progressive enough” to be counterproductive anyway), I’d like to change and I hope I’ll be able to. But it’s not a huge priority right now because I’m more concerned with making sure my depression doesn’t relapse and that I move to NYC successfully and do well in graduate school and make friends and all that. Sex and dating is quite a few burners away from the front.

In any case, this post should not be taken as an endorsement of How People Ought To Be, and the personal history I described should not be taken as my impression of What Men Are Like. It’s just how my life has happened to go so far. It’s likely that someday my life will go differently. I will look forward to that day.
~~~

*I specified men because this post is primarily about my experiences with men. With not-men, I have a completely different set of challenges and experiences that I didn’t want to get into here.

Extra moderation note: Posts like this one tend to bring out a lot of condescension and unsolicited advice. Note that I didn’t ask for any advice in this post, so please don’t offer it unless you’d like to talk about your own story and how you overcame problems like these. I wrote this mostly to work through my own thoughts on it and see if anyone else feels the same way, and as much as I love you all I have other people to turn to when I need advice.

Also, if you’re going to comment with something like “wow I could never have expected this from you I mean YOU you’re always all like feminist and talking about communicating and going for what you want I mean wow if even you can’t do it” please consider just not doing that.

The Letter I Didn’t Write

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, sexual assault]

This is a long and intensely personal post about college, which I graduated from today. I’m writing it more for myself than for you, so feel free to skip it if you come here mainly for the political rants and psychological babble.

A few weeks ago I got a Facebook invite about a book that some students were compiling. Any current Northwestern senior could contribute a letter, anonymous or not, about their four years at Northwestern, addressed either to themselves four years ago or four years from now. This fall, incoming freshman will receive a copy of the book.

I waffled for a few weeks, finally convinced myself that I had nothing to say, and let the deadline pass.

Of course, that’s not true. I had plenty to say, but I knew that if, four years ago, I had received a letter from my current self about my college experience, I would’ve packed back up and ran the fuck away. Why do that to an innocent freshman?

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

I’ve heard this for my entire life, and it’s the little voice in my head that so often keeps me silent. But usually I can ignore it, which is why this blog exists.

This time it worked. While I won’t say that I have nothing nice to say about my four years at Northwestern, most of it is not very nice. So I stayed silent.

But now it’s my graduation day, and, as with everything else in my life, I can’t fully process or move on from these four years without writing about them. Besides, this is my blog, not anyone’s book meant to provide inspiration and guidance to a new generation of Northwestern students. This space is mine, and this is the letter I didn’t write.

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