Nov 23, 2015 - Social Studies    No Comments

Scouting at the Shutdown

While the Boy Scouts Movement has creepy, eugenicist, imperialist, moderately fascist origins, the Girl Scouts have no such conflict attached. The values of community, commonality, friendship, and service pervade the Girl Scouts’ ethos, along with a focus on developing practical skills to make girls feel strong and self-sufficient. Even that most dangerous of developments—the Girl Scout cookie—fosters an entrepreneurial spirit in its purveyors.

I grew up steeped in Girl Scout values, even if I dropped out when I was only a Junior Scout. I never made it to one of the international Girl Scout/Girl Guide lodges in foreign countries that I dreamt of as a kid already obsessed with other cultures and travel. But my grandma and my mom were both long-time Girl Scout troop leaders, and even if I didn’t get a badge sewn on my sash for them, so many of the skills they taught me came from that curriculum of skills and values.

I learned to sew, cook, camp, and navigate in nature from both of my mother’s parents. Whether it was a trip to the North Woods of Wisconsin or a weeklong wagon train adventure in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, a lot of my memories of them involve forests, campfires, and practical problemsolving. Whenever I see birch trees, or smell pinewood smoke, or rub apart the silky seeds of a milkweed plant to give them a boost in spreading, I feel their steady presence around me.

I became involved with the occupation of the Minneapolis Police Department 4th Precinct following the police killing of Jamar Clark. Of course you did, you may be saying—where else would I be in these years of racial justice work? I was there, marshaling, the first night, when the crowd marched between the 4th Precinct and the Minneapolis Urban League to call out and disrupt the mayor and police chief who were offering the same unsatisfactory rhetoric of moderation that Dr. King skewered in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I was there, chant-leading for 3.5 hours without a bullhorn in the pouring rain, and later holding down the west gate as witnesses and allies pressed large tarps to the chainlink fence to protect themselves from the pepper spray the cops deployed.

Red circle with a flower in the center, circled by words "Ladies' Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society."But I was there, too, on the peaceful days. On a rainy Tuesday afternoon when we sat under the covered entryway and formed a sewing and knitting circle that reminded me of the old “Ladies’ Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society” buttons (though, times and trolls demand that I say that the only people acting in a terroristic way at the 4th Precinct have been the cops themselves). On a chilly Friday night when we gathered, a thousand strong, for a candlelight vigil demanding justice and transparency. On the next Sunday night, while people of color from the Northside met elsewhere to plan next steps, with my boys along so they could say they saw this all someday.

People gathered around a crackling fire in a metal fire pit in the middle of the street in front of the Minneapolis Police 4th Precinct

AP photo/Jim Mone

The encampment has reminded me of my grandparents and my Girl Scout origins so powerfully, it’s given me sensory flashbacks at times. I’ve told stories around pinewood fires that smoke and spit. I’ve sung songs in wide circles of shared strength and faith. I’ve hugged strangers, and taught skills (some I wish I didn’t have to, like how to safely wash eyes stung by tear gas), and eaten food cooked with love for a crowd. Every picture of a red, crackling fire and nylon tent takes me back to my childhood.

Other things have added new associations to my memories of camping and community. When the music starts up, people dance, old and young. When it’s time to link arms and chant, we don’t choose the neighbors on either side—we just form an unbreakable, committed chain of bodies and voices. When we need supplies of one kind or another, we post Google Docs, tweets, Facebook posts, and group texts. When comfort and consolation are called for, people drive up in cars with heaters and warm seats and sometimes even kittens to cuddle.

This encampment obviously isn’t infinitely sustainable—winter is coming, as Ned Stark would say. But that doesn’t mean it was pointless or ineffective. It has radically changed the narrative of what the North Minneapolis community can do, among people who don’t already know: serve one another, sustain a peace among rivals, clean and feed and provide for people of every age and background. These things take work and discipline civic-mindedness and good faith, things that the narrative of white supremacy says are beyond the ability of communities of color. They can defend themselves in the face of gross brutality, as we saw repeatedly throughout the week. They can build intersectional relationships, with groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and labor unions, that will pay dividends in the future as we work toward the combined goals of racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice.

I’d like to think that the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, would’ve approved of the 4th Precinct Shutdown. I’d like to imagine that current and former Girl Scouts lace the crowds that have gathered to defend the prolonged protest. I’d like to know that the communal sharing has spread skills and gifts in a way that will serve the Northside residents and others for years to come. And I’d like to believe that, in the seasons to come, the smell of woodsmoke and the feel of yarn and the sight of tents and the greetings of new and old friends will remind everyone of what the uncommon, beloved community we built together at the 4th Precinct.

Nov 19, 2015 - Social Studies    No Comments

In the Trenches

[These are only my experiences and observations. I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, especially not people of color, for whom this fight is literally life or death. Take this caveat for what it’s worth.]

I’m making fair progress on my pulp action novel, and I need to write a flashback scene about the main protagonist’s father. Since the book is set in the Harlem Renaissance, I decided that the father had fought in World War I.

Naturally, this raises problems because of the racial segregation of the U.S. Armed Forces at the time. But in my research, I came across the 369th Infantry Regiment: an all-black unit that enlisted to fight in the Great War. They’re little known compared to more famous units like the Tuskegee Airmen, but no less impressive. They faced significant racism in the town where they trained for only a month before being deployed to the front in France. Once there, they were reassigned to the French 16th Division, because white American soldiers refused to fight side-by-side with black American soldiers. U.S. Army superiors even issued a cautionary pamphlet to French leadership, warning them that black men couldn’t be trusted not to defect, flee battle, or rape women.

B&W photo of a dozen black men in WW1 uniformsThe unit acquired a number of nicknames in the course of its service—the Germans called them the “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were also known as the Black Rattlers and the Men of Bronze. By the end of the war, 171 members of the 369th were awarded the Legion of Honor or the Croix de Guerre, including Pvt. Henry Johnson, who was the first American ever awarded that highest French military honor. They spent 191 days under fire, and never lost a foot of ground.

NCheshire regiment living in WW1 trenchesaturally, research on the Great War led me to descriptions of trench warfare. Rather than mere ditches, the trenches were an incredibly elaborate, highly tactical system of earthworks. None of this, however, reduced the horrors of living and fighting in them for years on end. Water constantly flooded the trenches, sometimes as deep as knee-high, requiring pumping crews to drain as much water as possible. The constant wetness led to miserable conditions such as trench foot, and the close quarters meant that vermin were an endless problem. Letters from the front describe rats as big as cats among the millions of rodents that infested the place. By day, soldiers lay low as artillery pounded their positions; by night, both trenches and the No Man’s Land between them sprang to furious action under cover of darkness. Mustard and chlorine gas attacks were common; soldiers practiced holding their breath for six seconds, to cover the four seconds it took to put a mask on.

How morale could be anything but abysmal was entirely beyond my imagination.

With all this research fresh in mind, I headed down to the 4th Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department, located just three blocks from the spot in North Minneapolis where cops shot an unarmed, possibly handcuffed man named Jamar Clark on early Sunday morning. Community members and activists against police violence gathered Monday to protest yet another extrajudicial killing of a black man. Members of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis occupied the front entrance, and a little camp sprang up around the precinct.

Camp occupation of MPD 4th Precinct

photo by Chris Juhn

The rain started in earnest on Tuesday, and by the time I got there to join a knitting circle at the occupation, things were pretty swampy. I brought some wooden pallets to lift supplies out of the mud, as well as hand warmers, hygiene supplies, and some cocoa butter and hair grease (the revolution will not be ashy). Campfires in metal braziers smoked in the drizzle, and tents, tarps, and plastic ponchos offered a little protection from the weather. The foyer of the precinct was a cozy nest of blankets and pillows for the half-dozen people holding it down.

Despite the weather, despite the constant threat of escalating violence, everyone was cheerful. We all had a purpose, even if it was just to be part of the crowd. Those who couldn’t stay brought welcome deliveries of hot food, dry socks, and coffee. Folks stopped by our little craft spot and took knitting lessons, or looked over my shoulder to read the message I was cross-stitching as gifts for friends. The sense of community and purpose was unmistakeable.

A blue haired woman in a black motorcycle jacket scanning a line of people with linked arms

photo by Emily Terrell

That community felt very different yesterday, when people rushed to reinforce the occupation after Minneapolis police literally threw the people in the foyer out onto the pavement, then attempted to trash all the tents and supplies. I got there as soon as I could, and went right to work as a chant leader for the next three and a half hours. Sometimes I screwed up, and everyone laughed along with me as I joked, “White lady can’t chant.” Between upbeat chants I gave lessons in how to use milk or antacid to wash pepper spray from their eyes, as police continued to escalate tensions.

B&W picture of people holding a tarp up to a fence

photo by Chris Juhn

We blocked access points, raised tarps in front of gates in an effort to protect against possible chemical agents, and kept chanting. The rain poured down; SWAT teams circled the block in vans with armed officers hanging out the cargo doors to intimidate. The smell of tear gas from other parts of the occupation hung acrid in the air.

And yet, while sometimes angry and confrontative, the crowd remained mostly peaceful. My fellow marshals grinned fiercely when we crossed paths. The demonstrators stayed relentlessly cheerful. At the west gate where I was marshaling and directing traffic, a dozen young protestors traded chants for freestyling and dancing. A young man came around with a huge tray of spicy fried chicken that bolstered everyone’s spirits (important lesson learned: I don’t look very authoritative while directing traffic with fried chicken in hand). A grandmother kept bringing her golf umbrella over to me, protecting me from the rain while she lectured me about going without a hat.

And suddenly, I knew how those soldiers in the trenches kept their morale up. The power of sharing even miserable experiences with people who stand for what you stand for is almost intoxicating. As rough as it gets, as uncomfortable, as frightening, you know you’ll be able to say where you were when people ask you what you did when the crucial moment arrived. Even if it’s just to hold an arbitrary line, you did something indispensable. We’ll have the stories of the mud and the rain and the campfire smoke and the camaraderie.

Long line of people standing with arms linked in the rain

photo by Chris Juhn

Nobody’s going to get a Croix de Guerre out of this. Most likely, none of us will end up with a badass name and reputation like the Harlem Hellfighters. But we’ll always know we fought for our value, even for our country—the country that values black lives as much as white ones, women as much as men, queer as much as straight, poor as much as rich. And that’s better than any medal.

Nov 2, 2015 - Uncategorized    No Comments

An All Souls’ Prayer for the Near Misses

In this season of remembrance,

as the world prepares for the long sleep of winter,

our hearts draw closer to the ones who’ve gone before.

We open the bundles of grief

whether thickly wrapped by the years

or jagged edges poking through new, thin cloth,

glimpsing the missing who walk at the blurry edge of vision.


But not all we mourn has passed on.

Our hearts sometimes rattle with the terror of near misses,

when the almost-lost are still this side of the thinning veil.

We see their ghostly pictures on the ofrenda.

We see friends and coworkers, and imagine what they’d wear to the wake.


We give no time to recover from these brushes with loss

Of deaths so narrowly averted, our knees still quake

and we listen to their breathing in the night

and imagine how different the house would sound without it.

We wash the clothes they wore the day we almost lost them.

Our hands are drawn like magnets to rub the scars.

We drive out of our way not to see the cursed-blessed place.


Accidents and attempts, panics and scares, on days so near

we might still turn to those pages in our planners.

And when we cry our tears of terror and relief on All Souls’ Day,

when we are pressured toward gratitude instead of grief,

the hundred thousand living specters squeeze the breath from our lungs

at the graves marked but not dug.


Oct 7, 2015 - Psychology    1 Comment

Vignette: Lost in the Shuffle

To go along with the series of posts I’ve been writing about my recent mental health hospitalization, I’m adding a few short scenes from life on the ward. Hopefully, they’re a good complement to the more traditional posts.

Pills in Cup“What are the pink ones?” I ask the nurse as he hands me my morning meds in a tiny paper cup.

“The same as yesterday: your allergy pills,” he answers, his attention on something else.

“Huh,” I reply. “I haven’t had my allergy meds since I came in here. Maybe it’ll help with this stuffiness.”

“No,” he says slowly, like he were teaching a child. “You had those yesterday.”

I frown. “No, no I didn’t.”

He sighs and reiterates, “Yes, you did get them yesterday. 30-30-30, which makes 90 milligrams, remember?”

“No,” I answer flatly. “I’m very sure I didn’t. There was no pink in my cup yesterday morning. I remember.”

His bedside manner dies a quick, cold death in the face of my resistance. His mouth tightens into a flat line for a moment before he says, “Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to have different memories, because I know I had the same conversation with you yesterday.”

“No, I didn’t!” I exclaimed. “I might be wrong about the pills; I don’t think I am, but maybe. But I’d definitely remember this conversation. This is not a replay.”

He looked at me sadly, as if my disagreement disappointed him gravely. I didn’t think you’d be the type to argue, his expression said. “I’m sorry you don’t remember,” he said.

“I remember fine,” I snapped. “I’ve got a photographic memory. I remember the cup, I remember the pills, I remember the blue and green pattern on your damn shirt. I did not get anything pink yesterday.”

He walked away, ducking his head as if to stave off any further argument. I sat back in my chair, winded with exasperation, and then it struck me like a fast car:

This is how it starts. Now I’m the lady arguing about pills in the psych ward.

I’m the one whose memory has holes in it like depression had walked through the spiderweb of my days, tearing whole sections out. This tool I rely on so heavily—these millions of flashbulb pictures I layer, sort, and store all day, every day—it’s unthinkable that it would fail me.

I can recall the yellow pattern of the wallpaper in my nursery as I lay on my back in my crib. I can recall the precise color of any piece of my clothing so I can match thread to fix a button while I’m out shopping. I can go through our house and say where we got almost every object in it. How can my memory have ejected something so recent, so memorable? What else would it suddenly toss out into the void? How long would it take me to miss it?

Is this how it is for the other people in here, the frequent flyers? When did their memories start to shuffle unexpectedly, like furniture moving itself while you’re out of the house? How many conversations did they forget before they started to doubt the solidity of the ground they were building their lives on? How do they plan a future or react to a crisis if they can’t call up a clear, certain memory of what went before?

I was swamped with confusion, but the beacon that drew me through the fog was empathy for these temporary neighbors, and all the people like them in mental health units and outpatient programs and aching solitude all over the world. In feeling the vertigo of being adrift in the sequences of everyday life, I wanted to rush around, planting signposts, affixing Post-Its to bathroom mirrors, tucking notes in lunchboxes to remind them that there is order and love and understanding out there, even if they can’t remember it.

I sat by the window most of that morning, looking out on the endless Mississippi River flowing by. I thought about how it didn’t need to remember any of the people who’ve traversed it over millennia to follow its inexorable path. I stayed with the terror of losing the reliability of my own memory, and how it might feel to learn to flow without staking out landmarks every inch of the route. It would mean letting go, the hardest thing in the world for me to do.

On my way past the nurses’ station around lunch, I heard a voice call my name. I looked over and saw the morning nurse. He had an odd look on his face, like someone who’s about to do something their parent is making them do.

He cleared his throat and said, “Um, so, funny thing. It turns out I was mixing you up with somebody else who also gets allergy meds. It was her who I talked with yesterday, not you.”

I stood silent, shocked to get this admission from anyone in authority. People in mental health units don’t have to apologize for anything, typically, not even fairly egregious mistakes or omissions.

“So, heh, I guess you didn’t get those meds yesterday. Sorry for the confusion,” he finished, shuffling papers on his clipboard so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with me.

I nodded and thanked him for the apology, when what I really wanted to do was pump my fists in the air, and hoot, and run a victory lap around the TV lounge. I don’t need to be right all the time. I’d even made a weird sort of peace with being wrong. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say all I felt at that moment was a rush of relief like the one when you finally see a road sign after doubting your direction for miles on end.


Oct 5, 2015 - Physical Ed, Psychology    3 Comments

Telling Time

This is the third in a series of posts about my recent struggles with mental illness. You can find the first post here, and the second one here

TW: self-harm, suicide

Doctor Who Spinning Tardis watch

This is not my actual wrist, or my actual sonic screwdriver, but it IS the watch I wear. I wear mine with the face on my inner wrist.

I started wearing my wristwatch last Thursday. I had to go out and do things, and part of my leaving-the-house routine involves putting on my watch and the two rings I keep looped through the band when they’re not on my fingers. It felt good to slide the heavy cool rings in on my right hand again, to run my thumb over the runes and ocean-grey gemstone.

But I winced as I buckled the watch, because it sits right over the wound on my wrist where I tried to kill myself. I put it on anyway.

It’s not much of a wound, to be honest. I heal very quickly; it’s at the itchy stage now, worse than any of my tattoos were. The only reason there’ll be a scar there is because I was so quiet about it when I got to the hospital that nobody remembered to do anything until I reminded folks hours later, up on the ward. They told me it was too late for butterfly stitches or super glue, and had me wash it well.

Let’s be clear: when I wear my watch over it, it’s because I am ashamed. I am ashamed because it’s a weak wound, messy and shallow, with many individual cuts barely deep enough to break the skin’s surface. It’s humiliating because it looks like I didn’t mean it, like I was only willing to commit enough to draw some blood and get some help. I want to tell people, no, the knife was much duller than I thought, and once I was sitting down with it, with the pictures of my sons in my lap, I was crying too hard and too weak to stand up and find a better blade.

I’m embarrassed that I couldn’t even do that right. I feel like an imposter so much of the time, which is part of what makes it difficult to internalize any of the nice things people say to and about me. The day I tried, I was crushed beneath a thousand failures, things that I see every time I look at myself in the mirror. Those failures are like other cuts, disfiguring me so thoroughly that I can’t understand how anyone could see me and mistake me for a good person. To fail to cut like I meant it just puts more hesitation marks on me, signals that I can’t perform under pressure—a pictograph for despair and incompleteness.

I’m ashamed that I feel confident enough to write about these 2014-09-19-1062seafeelings so openly here, but I’m mostly unwilling to have a conversation about this in person. Even with good friends, I’d rather the mark was out of sight so we can talk more abstractly about my problems. The wound is the very opposite of abstract; it is hopelessness in a concrete, raised mark. When I don’t want to have those conversations in real life, I feel like as much a fraud as some sea lion (see adjacent comic) flopping around online, splattering his abusive comments all over everyone’s internet when he barely has the guts to say hi to his neighbor if they collide on the street. I’m just another fake getting virtual courage behind a computer screen.

I’m even ashamed that I didn’t want my parents to find out about any of this. My mom’s not on Facebook, and my siblings unfriended me five years ago, so it’s ironically safe for me to use social media as an outlet and expect it not to get back to any of them. One of the only things I insisted on that numb night I checked into the hospital was, “Don’t tell my mom. Nobody needs that.” The first and last previous time I’d been suicidal enough to go into the hospital, the first words out of my mom’s mouth when she called me there were, “How could you? How could you even think of putting us all through this?” I knew what she meant—I remember the hollow devastation in the days after my grandpa took his life, the questions and no answers. And to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t have it in me this time to sit through that tirade. Guilt was already twisted into every muscle in my body—I couldn’t take any more. But it’s hard to forget that I can’t even do family right when it’s needed most.

With luck, the scar won’t be visible much longer. For months now, I’ve been planning to get a tattoo to remind me to stay alive on the inside of my left arm. It’s the smoothest, palest skin I have, the perfect parchment for a reminder like that. And it shouldn’t be hard for a talented artist like my friend to weave the design around the scar. I like the thought of burying it under something beautiful.

Even then, though, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be ashamed of that mark. It’s so second-nature to find features and flaws in myself that demand to be concealed so I don’t risk rejection for them. I know some will tell me it’s just the receipt for the price of this precious life. I’m not ready for that yet—I see my belly’s stretch marks that way, but I can’t find what’s redeeming in this piece of evidence yet.

Stigma is related to the word stigmata, the marks on Jesus’ body from his crucifixion. To see and touch them was proof of his identity. This scar translates the stigma of mental illness into that physical evidence, and even covering it with a tattoo or a watch will not erase the judgments it will provoke when others and I will see it. Time will have to tell whether it becomes a symbol of failure or redemption.

The Long Con

This is the second in a series of posts about my recent struggles with mental health. You may be interested to read the first post first.

Real Lottery Gravity Balls

A psych ward is a funny place. About the only other places you get such a random assemblage of people, stuck together for so long, are jury duty and prison.

The mental health unit has characteristics in common with both. Drawn from a surprisingly broad cross-section of society, the hand on the lever of this lottery is mental illness. Once you’ve “registered” in this particular Powerball, it’s only a matter of time before failures in the medical system, stress, and coincidence bring your number up. Some people try not to accept the summons, but you can only put it off for so long.

And like prison, those in the ward have very little control. Doctors abide by the same scheduling habits as cable installations. Meals show up around regular hours, but orders are skimpy and frequently wrong. Sometimes this reaches the realm of comedy, such as the guy who randomly got four—count ‘em FOUR—prune juices with breakfast. One guy said, “It’s enough to make you laugh,” to which I replied, “Dear gods, don’t make him laugh!”

If you need or want anything, plan early and ask often. Ask before you actually want it, in fact. What distinguishes the veterans from the first-timers is how they get what they need. They know exactly when to get louder, talk more, pace faster, move objects. This is classic agitation at its finest. The rest of us who aren’t willing to trade the shreds of our civility for what we need look on in an awkward combination of embarrassment and admiration.

Anything that helps kill time is a valuable commodity, but residents aren’t working with a full bank of options. No cigarettes for those whose days tick down ash by lengthening ash. No freedom of movement—the whole natural world is look-but-don’t-touch beyond glass windows, and without fresh air, we all pale, cough, and itch in the dry, controlled environment. I asked for yarn and a crochet hook to keep my fingers from being fidgety, but security measures mean that even dental floss only comes in six-inch increments. When I pointed out that you couldn’t do much with six inches of anything, one lady cackled until I got the joke and blushed.

We talk to each other because there’s nothing else to do. Some people are desperate to tell their stories; once the floodgates are broken, the pain of their lives flows out, carrying the flotsam and jetsam of broken relationships, fractured trust, crushed hopes. Others fold in on themselves, all raspy paper angles, like grim, silent origami. The staff tries to draw these shy ones out of their shells, but it ends up being a ridiculous commercial on TV or a silly conversation among the more gregarious inmates that prompts them to eventually break the silence. And what they say often surprises us with its unexpected dry wit or snappy observation.

The truth is, there’s no way to know what’s the truth about anyone in here. Some stories, told with wild gestures as misplaced punctuation that breaks sentences in odd places, can’t possibly be true. People adopt credentials they never earned, claim other people’s whoppers as their own. There’s no fact checkers, no Snopes, no common acquaintance to call out a lie.

One guy has set himself up as a kind of professor, soliciting consultations at group meetings, so he can share his accumulated wisdom and expertise. What he doesn’t impart to others (in his too-rich language, full of ten-cent words misapplied and mangled) goes in notebooks that curl with the force with which the words were pressed from the pen. Another woman swears that she’s a trained law enforcement officer. Her stories start out plausible, with all the right jargon, but veer unexpectedly into obvious delusion before swerving back to the reasonable. Her timing doesn’t match her storytelling, either; she interrupts other conversations mid-stream, holds forth for a few minutes, then paces away rapidly before she finishes the sentence she started.

Next to these folks, I sound just as braggadocious when I mention that I used to teach college, or that I’m fluent in French, or that I ran for school board. I could claim that I earned my Ph.D., that I travel the world, that I have 100,000 Twitter followers, and it would sound no more or less true than anything else I claim. Experiences are hollowed out to just the visible shape, the lives outside our ward far away and nearly irrelevant to the problems that landed us here.

Whatever stories we’re telling, whatever tales we’re selling, we’re all con artists on the ward. We’re on the grift, we’re looking for the next score. But the get-rich-quick schemes we’re peddling promise a healthy life instead of riches.

We know the real road to this treasure is long, hard work, but the wait seems impossible. With the zeal of newfound converts, we’re sure the new meds are going to do the trick: stop the jitters, feed the craving, push back the dark, deliver blessed sleep. We profess our dedication to the routine of self-care and reflection. We vow to sidestep gaudy temptation and all her lures—so seedy and threadbare by sober daylight, but delicious, seductive, irresistible in the dark stretch of night.

We call family and friends, throwing out line after tenuous line into the river, trying to catch anything secure enough to weigh us down against the relentless current. Even estranged, unhealthy bonds look good enough to hold in here, though you heard them spill the numb-lipped story of damage done by the same person with whom they’re now cuddling and caressing the phone handset.

Practical, long-term solutions feel like magical thinking here. It’s clear that none of us can wait long for real improvement, not when the next drink, the next hit, the next catastrophe might show up before we even get home from the hospital. Logic demands that we cook up something faster, and so we mastermind the new scheme for a windfall of happiness and safety.

Too bad the house cheats. Too bad we’ll never make it out the door with our stolen goods. At least, in this place between folly and failure, we’ve got plenty of fellow grifters to appreciate the beauty of the plan.

Ocean's 11 at the Bellagio

Oct 1, 2015 - Psychology    17 Comments

The Place That Scares You

TW: suicide, self-harm

What lands a person in a psychiatric ward is a trip beyond the pale, a dip in the waters of extremity that run so deep, it terrifies the people around us as we flirt with the bottom. I didn’t reach a tipping point the day I hurt myself. I wasn’t hearing The Critic or The Stalker any more loudly or frequently that day than the one before.

No, the day I hurt myself was simply the day I couldn’t wait any longer to be heard. I tried to check in two weeks earlier, but the gruesome fact of mental health today is that there is no room at the inn for the safe. You must be pursued to the gates by the hounds of depression, or delivered in a heap just one step shy of the morgue, before a bed will materialize. The first time I went to the ER, I wasn’t willing to say the feelings were anymore threatening that day than any other. I knew which buttons I would need to push to get what I needed from this torturous, Russian-roulette game of a Skinner box, and that day, I wouldn’t play.

It shook loose a few resources I needed, though, to crumple and collapse so mortifyingly before others. A week’s wait to see a new psychiatrist is a breeze compared to the four months it would take without the stamp of desperation I let them put on me. But the new meds are mighty slow to upload. Three to four more weeks before even a glimmer of future usefulness might be perceived, the doctor says. You think, I can do that—it’s at least a destination, not just the yawning abyss of uncertain improvement.

But sometimes, some days, waiting it out with gritted teeth just doesn’t work. The sympathy garnered for a hospital visit that doesn’t become a stay is thin as skim milk. The pressure mounts up again almost immediately, sure as gravity. That scream for help is so fresh in your mouth, you can still feel the jagged, blocky shape of it. But for everyone else, it’s already passed into distant memory, evaporated by the breezes generated by our fast, forward movement. You want things to be normal, so you act like they’re normal, but they’re not normal. And you still need the help.

That’s how you find yourself, crying all day, your mind on the thousand other things awaiting your attention, things you probably should be doing instead. Things you begin to think you’ll never get done. Things you begin to think would be better done by someone else. Someone better than you. A better worker, a better friend, a better wife, a better mother. Anyone better.

Anyone whose body isn’t so broken and weak. Anyone whose mind doesn’t spin uselessly on endless loops. Anyone whose senses don’t spark against every stimulus, lighting fires of irritation that burn through patience and kindness, that driest and most precious kindling. Literally anyone else. But you stand in the way, The Stalker reminds you. No one else can pick up these duties until you let them go. No one else will step in and do what you can’t until you’re gone. It’s the most sensible thing in your irrational world: Just get gone.

At that point, it hardly matters whether you’re successful. If you are, you’re gone, and that’s it. No eternal reward, maybe not even a sense of rest and a second chance, but at the very least, a cessation of struggle.

And if you’re not, well, that attempt makes your earlier cry articulate, etched in your undesirable flesh. Nobody would do this if they didn’t need help, so help they must get. There’s a line between the normal world and the extreme, and by carving a part of it into your body, you have crossed it. People tend to take notice of those gestures; if you’re lucky, they take notice while there’s still time to help. It’s almost funny to see the rush of activity, the urgency of concern, when you’ve been crying out for so long. Why was this the thing that got their attention? Is it really that arbitrary? Is it just a matter of sacrificing pain and safety to unlock these bystanders and their will to act?

Why would anyone wait, if that’s the case?

These are the things that make people consider self-harm in the first place. And if it does anything well, the psych ward confirms that there is no advantage to be gained by waiting patiently, asking politely, respecting boundaries. In this place, all that gets you is overlooked and underserved. I have to be willing to sacrifice my general unwillingness to be a self-centered pain in the ass in exchange for better care. Some days, that’s not a trade I start out willing to make.

The heart of what I need to learn is how to ask early and often, not for anyone else—I could raise a million dollars, turn out a million voters, teach a million lessons, just so long as it’s for someone else. I’m long on giving, because it’s how I define my self-worth; I’m very, very short on taking, because I’ve internalized the idea that the more space I take up on this planet, the less there is for people who deserve it more. Even just writing this blog post, with the distinct possibility it’s only worthwhile as my own way of processing things, feels like I’m wasting people’s time.

The psych ward gives its residents an odd assortment of gifts when they check in. You give up your shoelaces, your vices, your freedom, your control. What you get back is deceptively cheap. You get an excuse from anything that might demand your attention. You get a medical team all in one place. You get to rest as much as you have to—just think of the last time you could really say that. And you get to be entirely honest about how much you need help.

These things aren’t really cheap, though. To get them, you need to do something most people can’t—you need to stay in the place that scares you. The place on the banks of that deep water that would swallow you up as soon as give you your reflection. Staying that close for that long makes people in the normal world anxious; they want to help, but the water is terrifying, and changing the subject seems like the best defense. In the hospital, though, you’re not the only on the water’s edge—you’ve got company, right there in person. And because we’ve all crossed that line somehow, it’s not hard to invite each other to pull up a chair.

Sep 9, 2015 - AV Club, Social Studies    3 Comments

Expanding the Universe

I saw Star Wars for the first time when I was two years old. I perched on a stack of phonebooks in the front seat of our Ford pickup, and the drive-in theater screen enveloped my whole world. I don’t remember what must have been the poor, crackly quality of the sound—the expansive visual feast polished the music and dialogue to match.

I fell instantly, deeply in love.

Nerdy kidStar Wars was all I wanted to talk, or even think, about. As my mom changed my newborn sister’s diapers, I fed her whole scenes of dialogue—memorized on contact from that first viewing—so I could have an acting partner. I roamed over our backyard swing set with tiny fists full of action figures, so many I had to stick some in my mouth to climb the slide ladder. Forgetting to take them out again resulted in the premature decapitation of several first-run figures as I bit down when my feet hit the ground. I had Star Wars bedding, Star Wars towels, Star Wars records, and one sad misfire of a Star Trek pajama set from a well-meaning grandparent.

I played Star Wars with my preschool classmates and neighborhood friends—but only the boys. The other girls weren’t interested, and I quickly learned that inviting them into our lightsaber battles and X-Wing flights earned me their scorn. So many of my gendered ideas about who I preferred to be friends with came directly from this experience. Boys shared my passions, and didn’t expect me to navigate social minefields. We came, we saw, we blew up the Death Star. Simple.

I wouldn’t have a significant group of female friends until I was in college.

And as the only girl, of course, I got to be Princess Leia. As an undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome kid, I must grudgingly admit that I was probably more like C3P0—pedantic, oblivious, anxious, always interjecting irrelevant, self-centered observations. But Leia was everything I wanted to be—dashing, brave, imperious, powerful, efficient, and beautiful. Her role let me direct the play scenes in her bossy, self-assured voice, and I used the authority she lent me to muscle my way into even more action, assigning her piloting skills and a lightsaber before the Expanded Universe would.

The only time Star Wars got complicated was when more than one girl wanted to join in. As my sister grew up and I dragooned her into play, the absence of another female role led me to assign her to the only non-gendered main part I could find: R2D2. Artoo was the perfect little-sibling role—non-verbal, swept up in the action, useful as a tool but without the need for much consideration. In our thirties, I would joke about all this at a family dinner, only for my sister to narrow her eyes and growl with long-held bitterness, “I WAS ALWAYS THE DROID.”

I was shocked by that reservoir of resentment, but thinking about it more, what else were the options for two girls in the Star Wars cinematic setting of the 1970s and ‘80s? Women weren’t visible on the command levels of Empire starships; their numbers were infinitesimally better in the Rebel bases. Stormtroopers and aliens were ungenendered to the untrained eye. So what’s left? Those two goth chicks with the water pipe in Mos Eisley Cantina? Mon Mothma or the dancing slave Oola in Return of the Jedi? Sy Snootles?

Shows like Star Wars Rebels, books like Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, and all the trailers for Episode VII: The Force Awakens represent a hyperspace jump forward in representation for kids of all kinds. Children of color get action heroes to play; so do girls. Even queer kids get heroes that just five years ago would’ve been unimaginable in a mainstream media juggernaut like the new Star Wars universe.

I have no patience for alleged fans who can’t see how this is a good thing. Their pristine fandom was never fair or representative of all the people who loved its stories; we shoehorned our way into the drama through sheer force of childhood creativity.

The simple fact of the matter is this: The future we can imagine grows from the present we live in. As I stood at the bus stop Tuesday for the first day of school, I looked at the crowd of 15 kids, all neighbors and friends of my sons in our apartment complex. It’s as varied as it gets: white, black, Latinx, Somali, Japanese, boys, girls, genderqueer, disabled, neurodiverse. The more of them who see reflections of themselves in visions of the future, the more of them will have the confidence to follow their dreams to create the real future we’ll live into. That world can’t help but be better for the diversity of lives it values.

Sep 3, 2015 - Psychology    No Comments


You know what feels really great?

Walking down the very middle of a street.

No, really, I highly recommend it. The first time I ever did it, I was in the company of about 1 million other people streaming down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2004 as part of a demonstration of support for women’s choices in reproductive health care. I’ve also enjoyed many of Minnesota’s fine thoroughfares this way: Nicollet Mall, Hennepin Avenue, University Avenue, Snelling Avenue, I-35, to name a few.

Most recently, I strolled back up Snelling Avenue at a leisurely pace, following the peaceful and successful #BlackFair demonstration. I was still working in my marshal role, but I only had half as many people to look out for. So I was taking up as much space as I felt like, because nobody gets a lot of opportunities to stretch out on this planet, and I’m not one to let them pass me by.

I complimented a fellow marcher on her excellent sign, and we got to talking about the action and what else we were setting aside from our busy lives to participate. I asked what brought her out, in her walking cast boot, and she replied simply, “Activism is my self-care.”

Deep inside, I heard the resounding chime of the Bell of Truth, because I agreed so strongly with that statement. Activism is my self-care too. That’s true despite the physical toll that direct actions have on my thoroughly unreliable body; I would spend Sunday in bed recovering from Saturday’s events.

But as the meetings for #BlackFair and planning for other actions kicked into gear earlier that week, I noticed the immediate impact it had on my depression. The mental and social engagement of planning with old and new friends blew through that dark bank of clouds like a brisk wind. I found myself not only excited to keep building the movement, but the sunshine woke up other parts of me that had slept through the long, sad summer. I made plans to pick up some cloth to make crafts for friends; I opened files for the book I’m writing and started building sandcastles of plot again.

Marshal Mom JessCommunity organizing in the movement is good for me in other ways, too. I don’t really just attend demonstrations as one of the crowd anymore—I’d much rather put on my oh-so-stylish neon vest and work to keep people safe and supported as they take part in the action. This is one of the few things I will admit to being good at, that gives me any sense of pride in my competence and skill.

I like to joke that, “I don’t marshal; I mother.” That’s more true than people realize. I don’t just come ready to redirect traffic or crowds, I come with the Mom Bag loaded for bear: full first-aid jump kit, snacks and drinks, tissues, sunscreen, even bubbles for the little (or not-so-little) ones. It takes all lanes of my busy, pattern-seeking, autistic brain occupied to be constantly scanning the crowd and the environment for potential hazards and those needing help. And solving problems big and small—from checking in with mobility-challenged participants to de-escalating people seeking to disrupt the demonstration—gives me the feeling of protecting and emotionally supporting my Beloved Community. Marshal Mom Jess 2

And I laugh with joy when I see people really getting into a chant, or when we’ve got a sound system on the back of a truck to pump out the jams for a dance party in the middle of an intersection. I see them participating with their whole bodies and souls in acts that center marginalized people and help them take up that space and sound on the planet to which each of us is entitled. It fills me up with powerful hope for the future, and energizes me to create more of those spaces that so strongly affirm every person’s beauty and dignity.

Image courtesy of MPR News (

But I realized that I haven’t been IN those spaces for many months now, maybe years. I run the edges, solve problems, help where needed, which is so absorbing that, when I see photos after the fact, I don’t even have any memories of people doing those things. I don’t always get to link hands with everyone and participate in the powerful chant by Assata Shakur that reminds us of our duty to fight for freedom, to love and protect one another. And when “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar starts blasting from the speakers and everyone dances, I’m usually standing stock still in a crosswalk. Last time this happened, I faced down a muscle car driven by an angry white dude who hit the gas three blocks away, to screech from 45 mph down to zero only six inches away from my shins, looking me in the eyes the whole time.

I'm the one with the text on the back of my shirt. Photo credit: Chris Juhn.

I’m the one with the text on the back of my shirt. Photo credit: Chris Juhn.

I hope nobody in that circle of wild, glorious dance really noticed that car, or even me. I hope the music and empowerment blinded them to everything but the other beautiful faces in that crowd. I hope the people I help when I marshal only remember someone kind, not my face, not even my hair.

But I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel missed or wanted in those crowds. And I’m not sure if who I am—the depression, the self-esteem, the knowledge that I’m not who the movement is for (or should be about)—is even capable of dancing to the words “We gonna be alright.” I’m not sure what this movement would mean to me if I could.

Aug 31, 2015 - Psychology    3 Comments

Cruel Summer

I say this with the best of intentions, but I hope nobody noticed how bad my summer was. Because the narrative of a depression relapse in the middle of your vacations, camps, road trips, and lazy days is really what Alanis Morissette thinks irony is (rain on your wedding day, etc.). But I’m more vulnerable to them because summer has always been the cruelest season for my family and me. Summer is when the work dries up. Summer is when child care is too expensive for me to work regular hours. Summer is when even the smallest get-away costs more than we can afford. Summer is when I almost died five years ago when we first moved to Minnesota.

I didn’t catch the relapse as quickly as I might’ve because I don’t just have depression, I have significant levels of anxiety. Even when you’ve been okay, part of your mind as a person with depression is constantly standing on a foggy dock, straining to see through the mist for the first solid emergence of the prow of a relapse that might crush you. That’s exhausting by itself. But when you’ve got anxiety, things are constantly emerging from that mist—it’s just that most of them are giant piles of overinflated worries that cleverly take the shape of a ship, and pop like soap bubbles when they hit the dock. This time, behind the endless stream of bubbles, there was a ship.

I’m a good patient. I noticed the pattern in my sleep and appetite, my restlessness and constant exhaustion, and told my therapist. I stay on my meds, I don’t miss appointments, I don’t try to hide what’s going on from my medical team. But I don’t talk about it much, because I feel certain that people want to know the energetic, laughing me who accomplishes things and supports others. I don’t even want to know the other me.

And I’ve learned things this time around. I’ve named two of the voices in my head who live there and tell lies. One is The Critic. He (yes, he) tells me that I should be doing more, doing better, using my time differently, spending my energy more wisely. The Critic points out mistakes and replays conversations over and over so I can see where I should’ve handled it well, instead of how I did. The Critic is not interested in reason or evidence; The Critic’s lens distorts everything beyond recognition.

The other voice is The Stalker. The Stalker is full of patience, and never needs to raise his voice. The Stalker hangs back in the shadows, creating his own if I’m trying too hard to use sunlight as disinfectant. The Stalker waits for The Critic to chip chip chip away at my memories and sense of accomplishment. The Stalker feeds kindling to the cold fire of Doubt. And then, The Stalker says, quietly and calmly, “You really shouldn’t be here at all. You make work for others, you contribute nothing. No one would care if you disappeared right now. Someone better would take your place, someone with a body that worked, someone with a mind that focused, someone whose voice is needed. You cost your family more than you bring in. They could live better when your debts were erased and your insurance paid off. You’re more useful dead than alive.”

And the problem is that neither The Critic nor The Stalker are wrong all the time. Depression registers their input as just as valid as any other outside source, more than some. And depression makes you too tired to call them liars all the time.

So I hope I’ve seemed okay this summer, when I found myself making bargains with myself to put off death by another hour at a time. And I am getting better, only now when there’s another lost summer to mourn. I hope my kids don’t inherit a sense of dread for this time of year from a mom who naps in the day because she worries all night, a mom who says no and gets irritable at them for being kids with the bad luck of having someone with depression as their parent.

I hope, when you saw me this summer, you remember my laugh as I joked about my new hair color or cheerfully threw down with the revolution. But I guess I also hope that, through all that, you understand that you were also talking with someone who thought about suicide every day, and battled through the heat of summer in the cold of depression. You never know who else you talk to who might be fighting the same battle.