How to Deal with Trump-Supporting Relatives at the Holidays

Spoiler alert: I don’t know exactly how you should deal with your racist relatives this holiday season. Every family situation is obviously markedly different, and will call for different strategies. But it will probably be helpful for us to think through this together before you go—don’t you think? With the election behind us and #trumpocalypse looming large, this is more important than ever.

Spoiler alert: I don’t know exactly how you should deal with your racist relatives this holiday season. Every family situation is obviously markedly different, and will call for different strategies. But it will probably be helpful for us to think through this together before you go—don’t you think? With the election behind us and #trumpocalypse looming large, this is more important than ever.  Continue reading “How to Deal with Trump-Supporting Relatives at the Holidays”

Getting Angry at Strangers

Over the course of my late twenties and now into my thirtieth year, I like to think I have become increasingly confident and assertive.  There is one area, however, in which I still find myself feeling helpless and inadequate: I have not learned how to effectively communicate anger.  This is particularly the case in situations in which it is appropriate for me to express anger toward someone I don’t know.  I have recently gone through two minor ordeals, one of which involved someone trying to cheat me out of a significant sum financially, and the other of which involved someone making a professional mistake that could have physically and psychologically harmed me.  I am not satisfied with my responses in either case, as I think they were governed by the difficulty I have in finding an appropriate way to express my anger.

The first of these occasions was the more mundane; it began with a sudden billowing of smoke from the front of my car as I arrived home one day.  I assumed my car had overheated, and waited till the smoke had stopped before driving it to the nearest auto repair shop.  The mechanic I spoke to that day looked under the hood of the car, and explained to me that one of my radiator pipes was cracked.

As he spoke, the mechanic was no doubt sizing up my petite blonde self, my Bambi-like stare as he explained what he was seeing under the hood, and making fairly accurate assumptions.  My PhD in English literature would not help me here.  When it comes to cars, I conform pathetically to sexist gender stereotypes.  The car mechanic could probably have told me there were unicorns waltzing in my engine and I would have asked the price to have them removed humanely.

But the cracked pipe seemed—and probably was—plausible, and he said it could be repaired for $170, and would be ready that day or the next.  It turned out, however, that he would need to order the part, and thus the process stretched out over five days in which the mechanics were (they told me) waiting for the arrival of the apparently rare and elusive radiator pipe.  On day four, I was informed that the price would double, as the other radiator pipe, it had now been discovered, was cracked too.  I accepted this, mildly annoyed but still basically believing I was being told the truth.

On the fifth day, when I called—and when I was finally able to reach someone who seemed to know what was going on—I was told my car would finally be ready at 4:00 that afternoon.  I showed up at that time, desperate to have my means of transportation back.  Instead, I was told that now that the pipes had been replaced, the mechanics were able to see that the radiator itself had a small leak.  They would need to replace the radiator, which would require them to order one from Indiana and would bring my total up to $1,200.  I still didn’t believe that they were outright lying to me, but I am a graduate student, so I don’t have that kind of money readily available, and I was frustrated at how they’d kept stringing me along. 

Thus—much to my dismay—I found myself overtaken by one of my least attractive habits, Angry Crying.  In such moments, my very dislike of making a scene only makes me more frustrated and makes my crying even harder to stop.  I managed in the midst of this to tell the mechanics that I would pay them the $300 or so for what they’d already done and take my car somewhere else.  I drove off in a car that did not smoke at all, but I was fuming.

My father ended up taking my car to a mechanic he trusted.  That mechanic said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my car.  Probably the initial radiator pipe had been the only issue in the first place.  But, naïve as it may seem, I was shocked that the first repair shop had tried to cheat me to such a degree.  Car mechanics don’t have the best reputations for honesty, but I still felt amazed that, had I had the money, they might have convinced me to order a new car radiator for absolutely no reason at all.

My car is running fine.  But I wonder why, in moments of deep frustration, all I can do is cry.  It would have been appropriate to express some anger to the men lying about my car, and certainly afterwards to write a scathing review of their business online.  But in those moments when some frustration that has been building inside me slides into anger, that anger always takes me by surprise, and my coping mechanism is a highly ineffective one.

***

The second event made me less angry, though it threatened me with more harm.  It left me for most of a day in bed, sleeping or too tired to move.  I was visiting my parents for the weekend, and that is very, very fortunate.  If I had had to go to work that day, or drive anywhere, or do anything at all, I would have been unable to do so.  I woke up at my usual (early) hour, but right after breakfast I felt exhaustion seeping through me.  Instead of getting dressed, I got back into bed, intending to close my eyes for a few minutes.  Not long afterward, my mother walked past the room, and I made some feeble excuse for not being up.  She laughed it off as me needing to catch up on sleep.  “I feel like I could sleep all day,” I said, perplexed.

Hours passed, and still the warmth of my bed exerted an irresistible pull on my limbs each time I tried to rouse myself.  I was starting to get worried.  My mother kept checking on me, asking if I felt sick, but I didn’t—just bone weary.  I tried to think of some reason for such intense fatigue, assuming it was somehow my fault.  Perhaps I’d accidentally swallowed an extra pill when taking my anti-anxiety medication that morning, though that was not a mistake I’d ever made before. 

Things got worse.  When I dragged myself down the hall to go the bathroom I realized I was stumbling around as if drunker than I’ve ever actually been.  I was dizzy, my vision blurred.  I fell.  My mother found me lying on the bathroom floor, and by then she was worried too.  I heard her speaking to me as if from a great distance, though I couldn’t see her through the stars floating in front of my eyes.  She tells me I asked her “Is that you, Mom?” but I don’t remember this.

It got through to me, as my mother led me back to bed, that she was asking if I wanted to go to the hospital.  I don’t know what or if I answered, but I remember how impossible a feat it sounded to get up, go somewhere, and answer questions.  I slept some more, roused only later by my mother to eat lunch, which I did without noticing the taste.  Finally, in the early afternoon, an idea penetrated my foggy brain.  I remembered that it was the first day I’d taken a pill from a new refill of one of my prescription anxiety medications.  The pill had looked different than usual, but I hadn’t thought anything of that at the time I took it, knowing that sometimes pills can look different when pharmacies get the medications from different manufacturers.  But now I went back to look at the pill bottle, and took out one of the strange pills.  As I ought to have done that morning, I read the description on the back of the bottle of what the medication was meant to look like.  The description was of a white, round pill, like the one I was used to taking—not the oblong yellow pill I now held in my hand.

At first I mistrusted the evidence of my eyes.  But I carried the mystery drug to my computer and Googled the numbers printed on it.  I felt a thrill strangely like vindication when I saw that the pill I had been given was not only not my usual anti-anxiety medication, but was in fact a serious anti-psychotic drug. (It was also a fairly high dose, I later learned, particularly when combined with my other medications).  I had found the explanation for what I was experiencing, which was a huge relief.  But the discovery also brought a chilling sense of recognition.  As a teenager recovering from anorexia, I’d been put on a medication to keep me calm and compliant.  I think I was on it for about a year.  It wasn’t until I was a college student taking Abnormal Psychology, when I saw that medication listed in my textbook, that I discovered that it was an anti-psychotic.  It was not the same one I had now accidentally been given years later, but it had served a similar purpose.  In sedating me it had leeched my will, my energy, my fighting spirit.  Perhaps that was for the best for me in the long run.  But even now I resent it, and those feelings were churned back up by the familiar enforced lethargy I was now struggling to shake off.

This is no means an attack on psychiatric medicine, which has been invaluable to me for years as I have battled chronic anxiety and depression.  Medications that allow you to be yourself, less prey to the distortions of mental illness, are wonderful things.  But there are also cases in which psychiatric medication is used primarily sap you of self, of will, of control.  The line is a thin one, and differs in every case.  But for me this pharmaceutical mishap was a reminder of a time when I felt that line had been crossed.  In both cases, I had unquestioningly taken what I was given, and was left powerless.    

Within twenty-four hours, the drug had pretty much left my system.  It took a few more hours before my concentration and focus fully recovered.  I soon returned to the pharmacy to exchange the incorrect medication for the correct one.  The pharmacist who had filled the prescription was there, apologetic.  My mother, possibly Earth’s least vindictive person, had nevertheless felt that he should lose his job over this.  But standing in front of him, hearing him apologize, I didn’t know what to say that would be worthwhile.  “I lost a day of my life,” I told him.  He apologized again.  I asked for the number of his manager, which he gave me.  And I left. 

I never called that number.  Nor did I ever put up a negative review on the auto repair shop’s website.  In the case of the pharmacist, I don’t actually want him to lose his job.  I hope he will be more careful, but his actions were accidental.  They also weren’t sexist.  It made no difference that I was a woman and he a man, unless you count the fact that women are more often diagnosed with mental illness, and so are perhaps more likely to be the victims of this kind of mix-up.  The auto mechanic’s actions, on the other hand, were malicious and probably sexist, as he saw a young-ish woman and assumed (sadly, correctly) that he could invent complete falsehoods about her car’s condition and she would believe him.  In both cases, I haven’t pursued any further action—besides writing this article.  Maybe this is due to weakness or laziness, but it’s also due to what was ingrained in me growing up: that I shouldn’t complain, cause a fuss, or stir up trouble.  I can be pretty assertive defending people or causes I care about, but expressing anger on my own behalf still makes me feel uncomfortably like that unpleasant kind of person: shrill, suspicious, impolite, rampaging.  Basically, the stereotype of the angry woman. 

I have written before about being a recovering good girl, and perhaps these two experiences happened to help me on my path.  I don’t intend to become paranoid that everyone is either conning me or incompetent, but I will focus on asserting myself on my own behalf, and reminding myself that doing so is not rudeness but basic justice to myself.  Ladies, let’s look out for ourselves, and, just as importantly, let’s speak up for ourselves.  We don’t have to be helpless in the face of our own anger or in the situations that provoke that anger.  In this one area, I am still working on finding my voice.  And I may also try to learn something about cars.   

What to Do About Depression: The Limits of the Social Model

How do people usually talk about disability, and is this model of thought applicable to thinking about mental illness and depression? Writer S.T. takes us on a journey through her own experience, both experiencing mental illness and researching the subject.

My sophomore year of college, I went through the worst depressive episode of my life. Making it to class – not even participating, just getting myself there – was a victory. I could barely leave the apartment, and some days, I couldn’t even leave my room. Pulling out details is difficult – most of the year is still submerged in a thick fog – but I remember sleeping through a psychology exam in November. The next day, I went to see my professor, sobbing hysterically in her office as I tried to explain why I had slept through two alarms. Abstractly, I knew what depression was, but as I sat there under her unsympathetic gaze, I didn’t feel like I was suffering from an illness. I felt like I was just lazy, weak, a bad student. A failure. My professor was hesitant to give me a makeup test. Her anger felt physically painful to me, but it was a pain I felt certain I deserved.

sad-505857_960_720.jpg Continue reading “What to Do About Depression: The Limits of the Social Model”

#FeeltheBurnout: Can We Keep Caring?

Actually, I could care less.

hands

For those who try to navigate the world from a place of care, life can be exhausting.  Caring as a lifestyle is a recognition of the threads that tether us to each other and to the world; it is an affirmation of our interconnectedness.  But there are so many things to care about, so much suffering, cruelty, and injustice.  Human and animal suffering, the environment, social justice, poverty, hunger, political and institutional corruption—these all seem to be things we have an ethical obligation to care about.  So how do we navigate our whole lives from a place of care without burning out, without retreating into apathy from the sheer inundation of the world’s problems? How do we recognize and meet others’ claims on us?  It can be so much easier to walk a narrower path, to move through the world guided by an ethics of self-interest rather than an ethics of care.  Let me say from the start that I don’t have the answers. 

Compassion fatigue is well-documented among those in what we can call the caring professions, from doctors, nurses, and veterinarians to, more broadly, social workers, aid workers, emergency first responders, and even defense lawyers.  I’ve seen it among activists in documentaries.  For example, the two young women in 2015’s The Hunting Ground (Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark) who have dedicated their lives to helping other survivors of sexual assault, who listen to their stories and sometimes talk them down from suicide, at certain points seem understandably overwhelmed by the responsibility.

Maybe sympathy must be balanced with a measure of detachment.  In another documentary, 2014’s Pelican Dreams, I noticed a technique used by a man who rehabilitates pelicans that have been injured by increasing human interference in their environment.  The filmmaker at one point asks the name of a particular pelican, and the rehabilitator insists gruffly that he doesn’t name them.  He just uses numbers to keep track of them.  But it’s not because he doesn’t care about them; his every word and action shows he does.  The not-naming is a deliberately adopted measure to prevent himself from caring too much, from getting too attached, so that he can still sleep at night after releasing a bird back into the hazardous world.

I have a friend who is a counselor for troubled teenagers.  I’ve seen counselors and therapists who, having been in their profession for a long time, have found it necessary to build a self-protective wall between themselves and their patient’s suffering.  They have to remain detached, to let their patient’s problems go when they leave work, or they’ll be consumed by the suffering of others.  But how do they balance empathy and detachment?  How does one draw boundaries around care?  My friend is still learning; her work still follows her home.    

This same friend uses the metaphor of a bucket: she pours her whole bucket of emotional investment into her work.  In order to replenish that bucket, she has to practice self-care; she has to spend time not thinking about work, or, conversely, spend time talking with people in the same line of work who understand.  Humor helps too, she says; this reminds me that I’ve heard of nurses making jokes about patients in a way that would seem insensitive to outsiders, but really just allows the nurses to stay afloat emotionally. 

But you don’t have to be someone who specifically works in a field that alleviates suffering to experience compassion fatigue.  You can feel it as someone who nurses your aging parent or your sick child, who volunteers at a shelter for the homeless or a shelter for animals, who has a friend with PTSD, or who just reads the news daily.  So many of us are in some sort of constant contact with the suffering of others, and need to find the balance between apathy and taking all that suffering on ourselves.  Caring is hard emotional labor—the kind that, in many of its forms, has been most often demanded of women, and is rarely renumerated.  Given this, new demands on our care can leave us feeling resentful.

I have an email account specifically for the emails I receive from animal welfare or environmental organizations.  Once or twice a day I check it, sign countless petitions.  Occasionally—not often enough—I send money.  Sometimes stories or images in those emails, or in mail sent to my house, will haunt me for days, weeks, longer.  I feel angry at the human cruelty and ignorance they often expose, and frustrated at my own helplessness.  But that anger and frustration irrationally redirects itself at whatever organization is giving me this information, and thus asking me to recognize another claim on my care.  (Did you really have to include that graphic image, PETA?) It’s the same with ASPCA commercials; I have to change the channel immediately.  See me. Care about me.  That’s what the eyes of starved dogs and cats in cages plead to the strains of Sarah McLachlan.  I do care.  I don’t want to see.

Guilt and irrational anger also merge in the discomfort I feel when faced with human needs I can’t adequately meet.  In the warmer months of this past year, I used to see the same homeless woman begging on the sidewalk every time I drove to my nearest pharmacy.  I rarely carry cash, and I would always feel relieved when the traffic light was green, so that I had no chance to stop for her in any case.  But I remember she would stand with her arms outstretched, the universal gesture of supplication.  See me. Care about me

It’s easier not to really see, because then you have to care.  And then you have to help.

The temptation to turn a blind eye, to be willfully apathetic, stretches from small personal decisions—like my looking away from the homeless woman—to ones with much broader social implications.  For example, I find myself increasingly seeking out apathy when it comes to politics.  We have a responsibility to care about politics because the election of those in power affects every aspects of the lives of those most in need, as well as the welfare of the planet we inhabit.  I was fiercely passionate about re-electing Obama in 2012; I thought the election of Mitt Romney would be catastrophic.  I even (temporarily) unfriended a cousin on Facebook because of his pro-Romney postings.  But now, with far worse potential presidents in the running, the election season hurts too much to think about.  I find myself avoiding reading or listening to the news.  In the search for a “leader of the free world,” it may (sadly) be too much to expect a public servant of moral wisdom and practical integrity.  But to be forced to accept that such a bullying, blustering, buffoonish, narcissistic blowhard as Donald Trump could actually be president almost makes me want to throw in the towel on caring about my country.  Trump and his almost equally ridiculous GOP opponents, all preying on ignorance and fear, expose not only the moral bankruptcy of the Republican party but the seemingly irresolvable division of American society into two sides that can never see eye to eye. Given a problem so seemingly insoluble, the temptation to slip into apathy is all the greater. 

It’s easier to think of reasons why something or someone doesn’t really deserve your attention or help, to justify to yourself why it’s not your responsibility to care.  But I am afraid each time I find myself doing this, afraid I am burying deeper and deeper a voice in me that matters.  Afraid that someday I won’t be able to hear it at all.  I don’t want to let it fall silent.

The Women Writers Men Will Read

by I.C.

In recent months I have seen a specific article return repeatedly to my Facebook newsfeed: Esquire’s now rather infamous list of “80 Best Books Every Man Should Read”—a list full of macho (and occasionally misogynistic) novels by authors ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Charles Bukowski. Flannery O’Connor is the only woman author featured in the list (with her collection of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find), a fact that rightly spurred indignation in feminist quarters.  Flannery O’Connor was thus still very much on my mind as I spent this past Thanksgiving in Savannah, Georgia, her birthplace, an elegant Southern city with charming squares and venerable oak trees dripping with moss and mystery. While there, I visited O’Connor’s childhood home. I am a great admirer of her short stories, and O’Connor is widely considered one of the greatest American writers, as well as perhaps America’s greatest Christian writer.  Touring the house in which she spent the first thirteen years of her life, I discovered some of the influences that shaped O’Connor’s work.  But I also found my mind returning to that Esquire list, and thinking about the larger question it implied: which books by women will men read, and why?

Continue reading “The Women Writers Men Will Read”

Lana del Rey, Florence and the Machine, and the Performance of Femininity

They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.

-Sylvia Plath, “Stings”

 

Even amidst the buzz surrounding the release of Adele’s 25 this month, I’m still caught up in two other albums released by major female artists this year. Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Rey both (like Adele) released their third major-label albums in 2015. Florence and the Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful and Del Rey’s Honeymoon each mark a sonic departure from the albums that preceded them.  Beyond that, Florence Welch and Lana del Rey are two of my favorite female artists, and listening to these two albums on constant repeat—Florence’s since May, Lana’s since September—has led me to wonder what these two very different singer-songwriters have in common, and why both have a similarly dark, magnetic appeal for me (and, I suspect, many others).  Placing their latest albums in the context of their work as a whole, I can see that part of what’s intriguing about both of these artists is their blurring of the lines between authenticity and performance, mythmaking and confession.  Both perform femininity and embody it in ways alternately troubling and inspiring.

Continue reading “Lana del Rey, Florence and the Machine, and the Performance of Femininity”