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    2 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    15 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 (http://images.publicradio.org/content/2015/01/19/20150119_mlkmarch19_53.jpg)

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.

May 19, 2015 - Ancient History, AV Club    1 Comment

Looking for a Moment of Zen


Connor around the time we bought our first TiVo box.

We bought our first TiVo machine when Connor was about 7 months old. This turned out to be the single best purchase we made as new parents. It allowed us keep up with our favorite shows so we still felt connected to popular culture through the following months of sleep deprivation and unpredictable schedules.

We developed the habit of watching The Daily Show over Cam’s lunch hour, when he came home from his library job just five minutes up the road. Connor would sit in the cradle of Cam’s crossed legs and watch the show with us. Soon, Connor was laughing along with us, even though he didn’t understand the jokes—he caught on to the rhythm of the comedy, and the funny faces helped too. We didn’t know about his autism yet, but his ability to perceive patterns was already strong.

By the time he was two, Connor had started folding Jon Stewart into the epic adventures he played out with his action figures, as important to the story as his other superheroes. He would even hook a clip-on tie to the collar of his t-shirt, then stand tiptoe on the bathroom stool so he could see his reflection. He babbled in his “moon language,” but with a very peculiar rhythm that ended in maniacal laughter. When I asked him what he was doing in there, he replied with some exasperation, “I Jon Stewart!”

Only a week or two after his second birthday party, he announced very clearly, “For my next birthday, I want Jon Stewart party.” Cam and I found this hilarious, and we assured him that we would make it happen. For our amusement, we checked in with him every few months: “So, what kind of birthday party do you think you might want for your third birthday?” And he steadfastly replied, “I want Jon Stewart Party!”

At last, summer rolled around again, and we worked hard to make his wish a reality. With a birthday so close to July 4th, it was easy for us to get flag party supplies. We handed out invitations with a picture of Jon Stewart on them and the message “WE WANT YOU to celebrate Connor’s third birthday!” to the other kids at his preschool. (We got a few disapproving looks from other parents who thought we let Connor stay up ’til 11pm to watch the show as it aired; a quick explanation of the magic of TiVo resolved things.) The technology where you could get a photo scanned onto a cake’s frosting had just come to town; we got some strange looks at the bakery when we brought in a cast picture, I can tell you.


The day was everything we could’ve hoped for. His preschool teacher made him a t-shirt with Jon Stewart’s face on it. We played episodes on TV while the other 2- and 3-year-olds ran around whacking each other with American flag thundersticks.2015_05_19_10_21_52

And when it was cake time, he announced with a certain cannibalistic glee , “I eat Jon Stewart face!”


It’s hard to believe that that party was almost 10 years ago. Connor will turn 13 this summer, a milestone I sometimes wondered if we’d ever reach. His love of comedy is still integral to who he is, and his senses of the absurd and satire come as much from Jon Stewart as they do from us his parents. Whenever we wonder whether he can understand a concept with complicated emotional nuances that can be difficult for autistic kids, we know he’s gotten it when he makes up a joke about it.

To be fair, Connor (bottom left) comes by his weird sense of humor naturally.

To be fair, Connor (bottom left) comes by his weird sense of humor naturally.

It would close a 10-year circle beautifully if we could figure out how to get tickets to one of the remaining tapings of The Daily Show. We had heard that, through friends of friends, one of the birthday party invitations had made its way to Jon Stewart himself. I doubt he still has it, but maybe he remembers it. And if this story makes its way to him in a similar fashion, maybe he could see his way clear to make a kid’s lifelong dream come true.

Mar 2, 2015 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Road to Selma: Why I’m Going

Wednesday morning, I leave for Selma, Alabama.

I’ve had this dream for longer than I could remember. I saw grey pictures of its arching bridge in LIFE magazines at my grandparents’ house, magazines that were already old before I was born. The people in their prim, archaic clothes were darker grey than the bridge, darker than the pavement on which they fell when beaten and gassed by racist police.pettus

I didn’t understand why walking would get them beaten. They looked tired and strong and wise and full of grief. And the white people—the people who looked like my family and my neighbors and my teachers—looked enraged. I didn’t understand at all.

Selma135 years later, I’m not sure I understand any better. I still fail to understand why white people treated them with disdain and cruelty and brutal indifference. I fail to understand why white people still treat black people that way.

I mean, I know. In my head, I know all the reasons: the history, the psychology, the structural imbalance, the crackpot pseudo-science. And I know it comes down to power. I’ve read, I’ve listened, I’ve studied, I’ve debated, I’ve considered. I’ve even done something close to praying, praying for insight like a lens I never owned.

If I understand anything, it’s why the marchers braved that bridge. I’ve been moved to take up the middle of the street with other people, insisting on being seen, shouting truths that had to be said. I’ve locked arms with people as different from me as possible, yet the same, and refused to be moved until we felt heard.

But I’ve never been as invisible, as endangered, as unvalued as the people in those black-and-white pictures. That’s my privilege.

So why am I compelled to walk in their steps on this fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday? The atmosphere there couldn’t possibly be more different—it’ll be a re-creation of that march in geography only. The road won’t be grooved with the weight of their footsteps, like pilgrimage stairs furrowed by centuries of the faithful. City and state leaders will be there in support. Police will block cars, not bodies. No one will be injured. No one will risk their lives to be there.

But the names of men and women killed by racism are fresh in our mouths today. Explosions and gunshots and dying words ring in our ears right now. Social and economic pressures choke communities of color into slower submission, and still white people refuse to see the oppression that parades in front of us at this very moment.

So, like a white woman named Viola Liuzzo, I ride south to answer the call. Like Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. James Reeb, I go with those of my faith who place justice for the living on the same altar as reverence for the dead. But I’m not a Freedom Rider or any other brave person doing dangerous work. I’m not trying to expiate white liberal guilt. It’s not about me.

I just want to look out from that bridge, through the crowd of strong shoulders, and see the water and trees that stood there 50 years ago. I want to be a witness to the powerful flow of history, and its maddening intransigence. I want to take pictures in full, living color of black and white people marching together to remember, to resolve, to recommit to the necessary work of being fully, fairly human to one another. And I want my grandchildren to see those pictures, and know that I was there.

10 Things My 30s Taught Me

On December 28, I turned 40. This came as no surprise, even to one as math-impaired as me.

It’s virtually impossible to throw a birthday party on my birthday, since everyone is exhausted from Christmas and saving up energy for a big New Year’s Eve blowout (if they’re even in town). There’s even an Old English word for it: symbel-werig. It means “feast-weary,” and that’s what everyone is on my birthday.

The worst it ever got was my 18th birthday. My parents had dinner theater tickets, and my brother was at his friend’s house (after his birthday, the day before mine. No, really.). My sister and I were home alone. She made a Pyrex bowl of raspberry Jell-O and stuck a taper candle in it. We watched Schindler’s List. Whoop-de-doo.

For the big one this year, though, I decided that nothing said “me at 40” like riding rollercoasters. Thanks to Nickelodeon Universe, the indoor theme park in the middle of the Mall of America, it’s actually possible to do this in a Minnesota winter. Also, yay for half-price unlimited ride wristbands from 5-10pm. There was the entertaining possibility that I’d get a mall security escort because I’d been a marshal at the #BlackLivesMatterMOA protest two weeks earlier. I planned to lure him onto rides, in case I felt like chanting anti-oppression slogans on the loop-de-loops. Alas, no joy.

Rolling over the odometer also made me think about what can happen in just one decade of living. I don’t feel older, or even different, just more like the person 30-year-old me hoped to be eventually. Still, I learned a lot of lessons in the last 10 years, so here’s the top 10 lessons I learned in my 30s.

1) Having a second child is nothing like having the first. I had my first son when I was 28, and my second one when I was 32. Instead of throwing up 20 hours a day for 5.5 months, I threw up 24 hours a day for 7.5 months in my second pregnancy. My labor couldn’t have been more different, too. And you needn’t look any further than this blog for how different the boys are from one another. Motherhood: what a weird, wonderful ride.

2) The key to my kid is the key to myself. When I was a kid, my parents and teachers told me I was “socially backward” because I was intellectually advanced. Slamming doors and balloons popping gave me migraines. I preferred the company of adults. And I recognized a lot of these traits in my older son; we joked that he inherited those traits. In fact, what we both were was autistic. Learning that unlocked memories and mysteries that plagued me my whole life, and understanding those helped me translate the world for my kid. We’re all so much better for knowing ourselves.

3) Intersectionality is everything. I’ve felt this way forever, but didn’t know there was a word for it until I read a Flavia Dzodan blog post that introduced me to the term, coined by UCLA prof Kimberlé Crenshaw. I also didn’t realize it was such a controversial idea until I started advocating it. How is this difficult for people to understand? We are all so many different people, and all of our selves are bound together when it comes to liberation. How can you be a feminist who excludes trans women? How can you be anti-racism and simultaneously suppress the contributions of women? How can you demand an end to oppression but hold planning meetings that are inaccessible to disabled people? In Flavia’s words, “My activism will be intersectional or it will be shit.”

4) Don’t move without a safety net. I learned this one the hard way. In Minnesota, you have to be a resident before you can apply for state health insurance. We had paperwork ready to go the day we moved, but we encountered a four-month wait. We’d saved money for an appointment to get me set up with bridge coverage for my fibro and depression. What I didn’t do was research doctors—the one I went to refused to continue the treatment plan I’d had for over a decade. The decompensation that happened without my prescriptions resulted in a summer lost to pain and despair, ultimately landing me in the hospital. Lesson learned? You cannot overplan for your medical care when moving–your life literally depends on it.

5) Family is what you make it. I grew up so close to my family that I refused to even consider moving to New Zealand to be with my Darling Husband, because I couldn’t imagine going so long between visits with my parents and siblings. But after I called out my family about 4 years ago for treating my autistic son like crap and undermining our parenting, everything changed. My brother and sister still won’t talk to me for hurting my mom, even though she and I are fine now. Thankfully, we’ve built a family of friends, old and young, near and far, who more than make up for the love lost. All that’s left to mourn is the continuity.

6) Sharing knowledge is more than the letters after your name. My grad school department kicked me out in 2005 because my area of study didn’t match their idea of subjects that build a “world-class history program.” Despite that, I have 15 years of teaching experience, and knowledge that I use everyday—with my kids, with other kids, with other adults, and in my organizing. Teaching is my vocation, plainly put. Even if the flood of post-recession Ph.D.s makes it unlikely I’ll get a college job again, I’m always looking for ways to share what I know in engaging ways.

7) Caucusing is hazardous to your health. Until we moved to Minnesota, I’d always lived in states with primary elections, so I was extremely excited to attend my first caucus on February 2, 2012. It was weird and idiosyncratic and strangely wonderful; I was too hyped about democracy to sleep until midnight. At about 1:00 AM, I woke with abdominal pain. By 5:00 AM, it was worse than labor, and Darling Husband took me to the ER. I had acute pancreatitis, caused by a gallstone. I spent a week in the hospital, and they surgically removed a bag of rocks from my gut. I now view caucuses as highly suspicious and potentially life-threatening.

8) I am committed with my whole heart and soul to equity. This isn’t about rights, or even history. It’s about empathy. If anyone’s potential is oppressed for who they are, then my potential is also less. I see the beautiful humanity in everyone, and want for them the joys I’ve found and the opportunity to be all of themselves. And yes, I’m willing to block traffic, invade public spaces, and commit civil disobedience to make this happen. I consider it a sacred duty.

9) Together, we win. I’ve never been very competitive, and I always plan for failure so that, as Lloyd Dobbler wisely advised, “…everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise.” But with the campaign for marriage equality, and against Voter ID, and for a new anti-bullying bill and a higher minimum wage, guess what I discovered? I like to win. I like it almost as much as the conversations and organizing it takes to come out victorious. These efforts and the folks I’ve met in them evaporated any cynicism I had about the potential of people power. I highly recommend it to everyone.

10) It’s never too late. I didn’t intend to really go balls-out for the last year of my 30s, but I accidentally did. I learned and performed burlesque dance, even in this imperfect body. I got two big tattoos, the first I’ve ever had. I went to a national convention for community organizers. I shut down highways, corporate offices, and the largest mall in America. I made my kid’s middle school change their negative, reactive response to common autistic behaviors, and re-centered them on positive reinforcement that nourishes all children’s education. All this with my physical and mental limitations. It’s never too late to do important things, and if you forget that, just ask me for a reminder.