2016

Carrie Fisher clogged up my news feed today and initially, I didn’t think much about it. Maybe too many celebrities have died this year and I’ve lost my ability to be shocked. And the fact that I haven’t seen an entire Star Wars movie didn’t help either. So I was looking for something beyond news of Princess Leia when I stumbled on a quote that made me look further.

“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.” ~ Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

In that moment, I mourned Carrie Fisher. I realized how brave she had been in the face of an invisible illness and how much we needed people like her to remind us that it’s ok to be not ok.
The night my brother died, I basically threw up my emotions on Facebook. I put it all out there to see and I didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about it. I spent the next 5 1/2 years writing about every little painful thing I could think of and I felt free. I was living my truth and was, for the most part, minus the pain, loving my life.
That all changed about a year and half ago when, what I now refer to as a “chemical event” occurred. My mind started to change.
I had noticed a pattern in the last few years during the fall of increased stress and difficulty managing everything.  I legitimately had a lot of things that happened in the fall, so I just assumed that the solution was to step back and figure out what my priorities were. Unfortunately, that didn’t help.
I look back now and realize that it started in late summer, increased in September and spun out of control by late October. I was experiencing a prolonged episode of hypomania, although I didn’t know that at the time. According to Wikipedia, hypomania (literally “under mania” or “less than mania”) is a mood state characterized by persistent disinhibition and pervasive elevated (euphoric) with or without irritable mood but generally less severe than full mania.
Ok. I said it…..In case anyone is wondering, I have Bipolar II. Bipolar II is different that Bipolar I in that you never reach a full manic state, but your mood cycles nonetheless.
My hypomania, while at times euphoric, was largely irritable. The longer this episode went on, the more out of control my life became. I was agitated all of the time. I wasn’t sleeping. I was testing boundaries and pushing people to their limit.
I didn’t know I had Bipolar until my life started falling apart and I became desperate for help. I ended up in a psychiatric nurse’s office on a Sunday afternoon and she broke the news.
I was devastated. I felt damaged; like my life would never be the same. And it hasn’t.
I started a psychotropic cocktail of meds that included mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics. (Side note….why the fuck can’t they call it something other than anti-psychotic?) The next day my mind was so quiet that it was frightening. For the first time it occurred to me that maybe I had always had this problem. I didn’t know that people actually live without noise in their heads. I didn’t know what to do.
I responded quickly and positively to the cocktail, which the nurse was pleased with. At one of my first med checks, she looked at me very seriously and asked, “How did you function? You’ve been able to get a Masters, hold down a job, teach and see clients. That’s amazing.” My response: “I did what I had to do. I didn’t know I had a choice.”
Several months later, I had put on a large amount of weight, which is common with certain psychotropics. I was at greater risk for high blood sugar and the nurse and I together, decided to make a change to my regimen. It’s been a very long road.
Summer came and went and I was faced with another fall. As expected, I noticed I was more agitated but hoped that we would continue to tweak the meds and I could avoid a relapse. I didn’t.
This fall is a blur of cycling hypomania and depression. Things were happening so quickly, I’m not even sure if I was hypomanic or depressed. Best I can tell, I was both. I was frightened. I was alone.
I’ve had a LOT of shitty things happened. I watched my dad die when I was 11. I endured the loss of a sibling. I had to say goodbye to my mother. All of those things felt overwhelming and were life changing. None of them were anything like this.
My body and mind betrayed me. I’ve never felt so helpless or so alone. I got up everyday and lived my life because the world doesn’t recognize psychological illness without an incredible amount of stigma. It takes so much to trust people with this secret. And even more energy to hide it.
Am I better? The answer is no. I’m close but then again, we are all just one chemical away from disaster. But it dawned on me that this illness seems to have taken my ability to write. That, coupled with the intense fear that people would find out pushed me to write this today.
As Carrie Fisher pointed out, I need to stop being ashamed. As my nurse pointed out, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve been able to do all of the things I have. I should be proud. I shouldn’t be hiding.
So this is Bipolar. 
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Juxtaposition

In a world where it feels like so many things go wrong, sometimes, things can go so right.

There’s this thing called vicarious grief, which is a grief response, stimulated by someone else’s loss. I find this concept difficult and misleading because in some ways it dehumanizes the loss experience. My friend Jeanette’s daughter was strangled in her dorm room by her boyfriend 18 months ago. I knew Karlie, but not well. The morning of her death, my sister called me, gave me no details of what happened and asked me to put some food together and come to the house. I showed up with food, because that’s what friends do. The next few weeks were a barrage of emotions, many of which left me wondering, “Is this my grief?”

When our friends lose loved ones, we often neglect our own feelings in order to offer strength and support. But I was devastated. I ached. Each night, I would climb in bed and cry. I’d cry for Jeanette. I’d cry for Karlie, who must have been so afraid. I cried for her sisters, knowing how devastating it is to lose a sibling. I was experiencing vicarious grief, but I was still grieving.

Karlie’s trial was stressful for everyone and I found my blood pressure rising everyday when I read the accounts of the testimony online. I cried at night, again, devastated that anyone’s daughter could endure so much.

And then today. Today was sentencing day. I knew this was such an important and painful day for Karlie’s family and yet, there really is no good outcome. You only hope that justice is served. Karlie’s killer was sentenced to the maximum. That didn’t make me cry. This did.hands

WGAL posted this picture of Jeanette’s hand reaching out with a caption that said “This is the sculpture of Karlie Hall’s hands that she was working on before she was murdered. Her mom now compares it to Karlie, calling her an unfinished piece of art as well.”

What I wanted to do was throw myself on the ground and curl up in the fetal position and wail like a baby. In that moment, I thought of Karlie and every other unfinished piece of art. I thought about how much life we waste and what I wouldn’t give for so many moments to redo. We are all unfinished pieces of art.

And then in all of that ‘vicarious grief”, this happened today too.

Ed

While I was nervously waiting to hear the sentence, I was in a Facebook group message and a friend mentioned Ed Washington. I had no idea what she was talking about so I looked on my News Feed and found this link https://www.gofundme.com/2g9asws .

Ed had graduated with my younger sister Crissy in 1991, but had been paralyzed his freshman year during a football game. I didn’t know Ed but Crissy had been friendly with him. I had thought about him from time to time so I was surprised to read this update:

Ed, who was paralyzed in ninth grade from a football injury 29 years ago, is an amazing young man with a positive attitude. He never asks for much but he now has a situation where he needs his “lifeline”, his wheel chair, to be fixed. He has not gotten any cooperation from his insurance resources and he has been bedridden for over five months because he has been caught up in the red tape of trying to get his wheel chair repaired. We are asking family and friends if they would be willing to help pay the expenses of repairing his wheel chair ($4995.00). We want to get Ed out of his bed and back in motion in his wheelchair. A donor has already put a deposit down to order the parts needed. If you would like to help Ed, please donate through this page.   God bless you and thank you for your prayers and support.

This gofundme page was shared on Unionville High school Alumni page, as well as, individually by many former students. In just 13 hours, nearly $10,000 has been raised for Ed, a man who has been bedridden for 5 months. When I opened that page and scrolled down the names, I was so proud to know that 30 years later, people did not hesitate. I wanted to cry. I seriously wanted to cry. Because Ed is an unfinished piece of art too. And now he’ll have new wheels.

The world  is still good.

 

The Happiness Project – Weeks 3 & 4

If the Happiness Project occurred in a vacuum, I’d be pretty happy. But June tests me every year. I’m  pretty sure I subconsciously chose this project as a diversionary tactic and in some respects it has been a success. I can’t ask for much more than that.

Summer Sessions are a whirlwind. Six weeks (five, if you are going away the final week, like me) of classes, two nights a week, nearly four hours a night. I tell my students that I know they don’t want to be there nearly four hours a night and that is my goal too, but inevitably, it happens. And my students don’t look happy. This isn’t good for my project.

By the time, we hit Week 4, many of my students (particularly, my younger ones) have forgot that we are trying to be happy. Some are tired. Some are bored. And some have no problem letting me know about it via blank stares, rolling eyes and general checked out body language. Some just stand up and walk out in the middle of class. Eh. You can’t win them all.

But I’ve got a some genuinely hooked. I have a few students (particularly, but not exclusively, my older ones) that have really bought into the Happiness Project. They have embraced it and taken each opportunity as a chance to examine the possibility that there may be something to this happiness thing.

We have continued with our gratitude assignments in every class. I believe that the majority of my students are still invested in this process and continue to put a lot of thought into this. I continue to require them to explore one thing that they are grateful for in depth and I have rarely been disappointed. Some of them are even starting to be grateful for this class. Just a few examples:

  • I am grateful for my brothers for many reasons, including having someone to talk, play and share with, but most importantly, always have around.
  • I am really grateful for my sister because she has been my best friend throughout my entire life. She would always play barbies with me, even though she didn’t want to. She was there for me when I had my first break up.
  • I’m grateful for this class. It has taught me how I can and should change my thought process and be happier and be thankful for what I have. So thank you.
  • I’m grateful for having an amazing family life. Many people live in hostile environments and don’t like being home but I love being with my family and they are always there to make me laugh and cheer me up.
  • I am truly grateful for this class because I had never thought that psychology could be so interesting.
  • I’m grateful for learning from my past mistakes every day.

Students are in the process of completing a Pay It Forward/Random Acts of Kindness project. I was honestly a little worried about this one. I asked each student to go out and commit 3-6 random acts of kindness and report back on what they did, how the receiver responded (if they chose someone they knew, or to be present) and how they felt after giving with no intention of receiving in return. Some of my students have handed in the assignment early and while I’m suspect of the sincerity of a few…..I’m completely blown away by a few of the others.

  • Working in the president’s office, I am fortunate to work with one of the College’s custodians, Kevin. Cleaning our office area is Kevin’s primary responsibility, even though he has duties in other areas of the College as well.  I try to thank him as much as possible for all he does for us, bake him a cake for his birthday, and give him a gift for the holiday; however, last week, as I watched him polish the tables in the conference room in preparation for our board meeting, and observed the expression on his face as he worked, I decided to give him a more personal token of my appreciation – a thank you card, writing about how thankful I am for the work he does.  I tried to be specific, wrote that it is obvious he takes pride in his work as seen in the care he takes keeping the president’s office area sparkling, taking care of our needs throughout the day, as well as taking care of other areas in the College.  I wrote that it is heartwarming to see him do his job so meticulously, and that I am grateful for him.  Later in the day he came over to me to say I made a grown man cry (I was touched.).  The next day his wife, who also works at the College, came over to my office area crying.  At first I thought something was wrong, but she said her husband shared the card with her, and the words I wrote in the card were so beautiful that she and her husband cried together.  I then cried with her as I had no idea I would get that type of reaction by writing my true sentiments in a card.  Oftentimes, I think I have to do something big for people to show them that I care, or to show my appreciation; however, maybe it’s the simple acts of kindness that go a long way; that somehow these simple acts of kindness reach deep down in an individual’s soul.
  • My act was just texting my mom and thanking and apologizing for everything. I texted “Hey mom, thank you for everything you do for me and this family, I never show my gratitude and I apologize for that and when I do not treat you right.” Funny enough a few minutes later she came in and asked me if everything was alright and that was just a confirmation for me that I really don’t tell her how much I appreciate what she does for me. For the rest of that day she and I got along better then ever in years and It just showed how much of a change a little thing like that can do. I think it impacted her in a big way too because living in a house with all men, compliments don’t just come flying out unless they’re are from her.
  • One of my strongest beliefs is that a true act of kindness is done when the recipient cannot reciprocate the act, at least not to the doer. That’s why I chose to place the support card entitled “Win!Win!”and the opening lines read “Life’s like a video game with all of these obstacles popping up in front of you” on the windshield of a minivan in the parking lot of the Kmart store. I choose this particular vehicle because it appeared to be a family vehicle, and it reminded me of my family back home. Many times I had said to people that when I do an act of kindness, I am not doing it for me, I am doing it for my family. I truly believe in the principle of paying it forward, and that by me doing something kind for a stranger, that one act of kindness would be paid forward, and that someday that act of kindness would reach my family. 

I’ve been so impressed at how my students have embraced many aspects of the Happiness Project. They remind me everyday that kindness and simple acts of thanks, even when required in order to pass General Psychology do have a trickle down effect.

 

 

The Happiness Project – Weeks 1 & 2

Weeks 1 & 2 of the Happiness Project have left me exhausted, achy and pondering the possibility of a meningitis diagnosis, although Lyme disease is probably more plausible. Hey, I don’t want to blame the happiness project, because it’s really not its fault. But the reality is that I’ve been teaching two nights a week until nearly 10pm, which makes for nearly 12 hour work days, coupled with 2 hours of commuting and prep time in between. Not exactly the recipe for high life satisfaction. And then I received this from a student:

“Some discourage me to either be a writer or a psychologist. So when I hear that you are a writer, and a writer, I was inspire. I said to myself, me and this lady have something in common. If she can do these two things together, then I can do it. One of the thing that really touch me when you was teaching was when you said, “If you don’t know yourself, you won’t know what you want.” I learn from that.”

I left all of the grammatical errors in because this young writer is from Liberia. She comes to class everyday and is basically awestruck by the ability to be in this country and have the opportunity to learn. She is young. She is hungry. She is ready to take on the world. I remember those days.

The greatest part about the happiness project is that my students, who span the ages of 18 to 65 are genuinely interested. I was so worried they would take one look at me and walk out the door. Instead, they have really embraced the process.

Day 1 of the project, the students took two pre-assessments to gauge their current levels of life satisfaction. The hope is that after applying the evidence based curriculum over the course of 5 weeks, they will score higher on the assessments at the end of the semester. I’m not sure if that’s feasible, but we are going to try.

The most consistent intervention we are using is gratitude. Students are required to submit gratitude journals at the end of every class, which record three things they are grateful for. While they can simply list the three things, I do ask that they explore one more fully. I have to say, I am so impressed with their answers. I really thought the majority of my students (specifically my young males) would pay me lip service. I was so wrong. Here are a few examples:

  • Gym: It seems like a silly thing to be thankful for but for me, it’s an outlet/stress reliever. No matter what’s going on in my life when I’m there nothing bothers me. I get in my zone and I think everyone needs a healthy escape.
  • I am grateful for my car. While it seems weird to be thankful for just a car, I worked hard to earn the money for my car and enjoy working on it, and making it better, faster, and nicer.
  • International Food Market: With my four days off this week, I get a chance to go to Upper Darby and buy all of my spices and special curry that I haven’t had in a while. My spices I have purchased from the same person for the last 10 years.

We fail to find gratitude in our everyday lives. We rush through life and seldom stop to really think about how lucky we are. And then we think we have meningitis.

Another small project I’ve had the students working on is savoring. Savoring is an extension of Mindfulness. It is a conscious and deliberate positive attention to the past, present and future from a multi-sensory experience. Think about when we really slow down and savor a meal. When you stop and bask in the best steak, wine, chocolate, etc. that you’ve ever had. That’s savoring.

I’ve asked to student to savor something and write an essay explaining the experience from a multi-sensory experience. It isn’t due until next week but a few students have already submitted the essays, along with photos.

 

pic milkshake

This is a milkshake that has been and is currently being savored.

It’s clear to me that the happiness project was as much for my students as it was for me. Actually, it was way more for me than it was for them. But they are reaping the benefits, so it’s all good.

The Happiness Experiment

I’ve been teaching General Psychology for 4 years and at least 20 times at last count. I’m on autopilot, to the point where I refuse to teach anything else anymore because I just want to show up, do my routine and collect a paycheck.

I had cut back on my teaching  last year because I was trying to determine if I could work less and still enjoy life and the answer is…..it depends on how you define enjoy. I’m pretty good at living a simple life and can make do without many material possessions but after a year of cutting my second income in more than half, I had to get back on track. So I asked to teach a summer class.

Teaching summer session is not just cramming 15 weeks into 6 weeks. I’ve tried that one other time. It doesn’t work. Not to mention, after this last painful semester of being stared at by a bunch of Millennials for 4 months, I knew there was absolutely no way I was going to lecture four hours a night, 2 nights a week. I also know that as much as students say “I wish we had done more group activities” that in reality, when you put them in groups, often, they just stare at each other until one person gets uncomfortable enough to break the silence. I had to come up with something creative. So, here’s my plan.

I am going to take a 6 week Introduction to Psychology course and I’m going to frame the entire semester around the concept of happiness as it relates to the biology, psychology and socio-cultural learning objectives of the course!!! Isn’t that AWESOME??? Oh, and I’m going to do it in 5 weeks because I’m going away the last week.

Before I go any further, I want to answer some of the more obvious questions from my detractors.

  • No, I am currently not under the influence of drugs or alcohol as a family member suggested recently.
  • No, I don’t care if you don’t care. If you don’t care, why are you still reading this?
  • Yes, I am absolutely a cynic. But that really has nothing to do with the study of happiness.
  • Yes, I hate Donald Trump. He interferes with my ability to feel happiness. I’m hoping this project will increase my ability to push my feelings about Donald Trump to the back of my mind and focus on warm and fuzzy things.

On a more serious note, I became very interested in the scientific study of happiness about three years ago after seeing the documentary “Happy” (See it. You need to see.). Positive Psychology is a pretty new area of research but in essence is really just the flip side of all of the other stuff we have been studying since the beginning of time. The opposite of depression is happiness. The opposite of adversity is resiliency. The opposite of grief is healing. The opposite of post traumatic stress is post traumatic growth. If I can teach my students how Pavlov conditioned a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell, I’m sure I can teach them how we are conditioned to feel happy when we hear a song.

My loose plan (still working on this…I’ve got like 10 days) is to do a pre and post happiness assessment and in between have a series of evidence based activities that the students take part in.  I’m hoping not only will the students actually learn something but that I will finally have something to focus on other than Donald Trump.

I stopped writing about six months ago and this is the best excuse I could come up with to start again. I intend to blog periodically throughout the semester to track progress along the way. I’m pretty excited.

 

 

I Have A Dream

I hate entitled kids. I just do. I hate kids who grow up believing the world owes them something. The world owes you nothing. If anything, you owe the world. You owe the world your kindness and compassion. You owe the world tolerance and understanding.

Entitled kids grow up to be entitled adults. And entitled adults are assholes. The only people who want to be friends with entitled adults are other entitled adults so basically, if you hang around long enough, you are bound to end up happening upon an asshole convention.

But, as much as I hate entitled kids, I hate the fabricated pressure we put on children during their most crucial years of development. When did the idea that every kid has the potential to be a Rhodes Scholar, a Dr. Ben Carson or Michael Jordan happen? When did we start thinking we could buy our kids way into greatness?

I have a theory about entitlement. Entitlement stems from a world that believes that if we don’t start NOW we will fail our children. If 3 year old Jenny isn’t reading NOW, she will never make it into Harvard. If 6 year old Johnny isn’t playing quarterback NOW, he has no shot at a college scholarship to Notre Dame. If 10 year old Olivia isn’t in every accelerated class NOW, she will never be able to compete for a slot at Yale. And guess what? The world is fucked up enough at this point, that probably all of those things are true. And I could care less.

So, when Jenny starts recognizing her letters, we rush her to an enrichment class and boast about her brilliance. When Johnny lobs the football to his dad ten feet away, we cheer like he is Tom Brady (before Deflate-gate) and call around to see if we can get him private lessons. And when Olivia brings home straight A’s in 2nd grade, we call the school about having an IQ test administered because how many other kids can being getting all straight A’s? Then when Jenny scores a 115 on the IQ, we discuss whether or not we need a private evaluation.

Adults teach entitlement. Adults teach entitlement in such a way that we probably think we are teaching responsibility.  We think we are teaching responsibility because we put an adult spin on a child’s “thing”. Jenny likes books. She finds them interesting. We run with that. Instead of letting her just like books, we force an expectation that she needs to excel with books. Johnny likes football. It’s fun to play. Instead of letting him enjoy the game, we focus on the future and his potential. We force an expectation that he needs to excel in football. Olivia likes to learn. It’s fun. Instead of letting her have fun with learning, we focus on her income potential. We force an expectation for greatness. And when those things don’t necessarily happen, kids don’t get it.

When adults label their children as special and unique, two different things tend to happen. One, the kids believe it. They believe that they alone are poised for greatness. The problem is….so does everyone else. That is entitlement. The other thing that tends to happen is a child may actually find out they aren’t all that special or unique.  Those kids develop insecurities even before the natural insecurity of the tween years emerge.  And I happen to have a problem with both of those things.

I have a child who believes he is poised for greatness. He believes that because he just does. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy tempering his enthusiasm with a healthy dose of reality. Because, while my child may certainly excel in life, things could fall short of his expectations too. I’d rather he balance his natural drive to excel with the security of knowing if he falls short, life will still work out.

When I watch Max beat himself up over an 89 or striking out, I think, who the hell cares? Where does he get that from? I was the most apathetic student at Unionville High School (okay, maybe in the top 100 apathetic students). But I’m a pretty driven adult, so he sees that even as I tell him it doesn’t matter. In the meantime, all around him, he sees other kids being pushed to be the best. Because everyone is being given the same message. They are all being told they are the best. Even if they aren’t.

A complicating factor in entitlement today is our educational system. We know longer teach kids for knowledge. We teach them how to pass a lame ass test. We give them every tool to ensure that they “win”. We prep them with the same material over and over. We push things like social studies, art and gym to the back burner. Those things won’t secure federal funding and attract home buyers. This mentality has landed students in my college classroom asking “Are you giving us the questions before the exam?” or “I’m sorry I plagiarized but can I have some extra credit to bring my grade up?” This is a not only entitlement but a mentality which is rooted in a fear of not being the best in a world where best barely exists.

I want my message to be Martin Luther King like…..I have a dream. I have a dream that one day society will figure out that kids deserve to be kids. They deserve to be less than perfect, less than special, less than unique. They deserve to know they are owed nothing. They deserve to be taught to excel and fail. They deserve to be kids. They deserve not to grow up to be assholes.

 

 

 

What People Don’t Understand About Racism

I’m about to make some controversial, yet, hopefully, thought provoking statements. In light of all of recent accusations of police brutality, riots, police shootings, etc., I have seen a lot of strong opinions on the topics. I’ll be honest, I don’t watch the news very often anymore. My life has enough going on without me taking on other people’s stuff. I’ve been accused of being uninformed and if that’s the case, then, I can live with that. I may be uninformed on the particulars of media slanted coverage that paints African Americans as crazed lunatics stopping traffic, looting stores and killing cops. I’m also under informed on the particulars of innocent police officers being gunned down for no other reason than wearing a uniform. But I am not uninformed when it comes to the underpinnings of the racial divide and why it is so vast. It’s my business to know.

Not only do I teach psychology with an emphasis on the socio-historical roots of why we as human beings think and act the way we do, but I also work in the behavioral health field and provide clinical supervision in one of the poorest,  most violent communities in Pennsylvania. I see racism everyday. I see it from Whites. I see it from Blacks. I see in it systemically in the government systems. My opinion is very, very informed.

I am often in awe of white individuals who try to downplay racism. I mean, I understand the urge. Who wants to say they are part of the problem? Who wants to admit to feeling uncomfortable walking down the street and seeing a young, black man coming towards them? Who wants to admit to holding their purse a little closer? Who wants to admit that they assume someone is uneducated, angry and gunning to gun down cops based solely on the color of their skin? But, it happens. It happens everyday. In every city. In every town. And you are kidding yourself if you would like to argue to the contrary.

But, I’m more interested in the why. Why do Whites fear Blacks? Why do Blacks assume the worst of Whites?

Through both my work in behavioral health and as a teacher of psychology, I have come to two very compelling reasons. The first is based on the socio-economic and historical underpinnings of the Black/White experience and the second is based on the concept of behaviorism itself.

We cannot escape our collective past. All of us are a product of what history has taught us about race, authority, crime and safety. Our personal experiences may greatly differ but the collective nature of our past is what has brought us to where we are today.

Our past has largely taught us to segregate. This goes back to a concept called “in group bias” in which, from an evolutionary perspective, it only makes sense to cling to others who are like us. This is what kept tribes alive, fed, and safe (and still does in many parts of the world). The in group bias intuitively teaches us to fear the “out group”, aka people unlike us. So, whether we are talking about race, culture or socioeconomic groups, we all have a tendency to assume our group is better than another.

We live in a country that has bred prejudice and discrimination since its inception. We rolled up and took land away from Native Americans. We brought Africans over and made them our slaves. We sent the Japanese to “encampments” during WWII to limit further possible attacks to our freedom. We didn’t let women vote. We didn’t let people of color vote. We made Blacks drink from different water fountains, pee in different toilets, and sit in the back of the bus. We blocked little children from entering school buildings. We left the residents of New Orleans to die after Hurricane Katrina. Nope….no racism here. No reason to worry, minorities.

If you are a young black woman or man today, your grandparents experienced the overt racism of the 50’s and 60’s. We are not talking about hundreds of years ago. We are talking about their grandparents. And while overt racism isn’t as politically correct as it was 50 or 60 years ago, covert racism is alive and well in America. Again, don’t kid yourselves. Studies as recently as 2000 looked at traffic stops in Midwestern States, where African Americans are by far the minority of the population. They were stopped at much higher rates than their white counterparts. These are statistical facts, published in scholarly journals. The California Housing Study sent out over 1100 identical emails to various landlords with vacant apartments signed with three names; Tyrell Jackson, Said Al-Rahman and Patrick McDougall. Guess who got the most positive response? Yep….the Irish lad, Patrick. The least? Yep…..that Black guy, Tyrell. Same email, yet a very different response. Maybe there is something to this racism thing.

If this has been your experience, coupled with the experience of your parents, your grandparents, their parents and so on, this is your history. This is your world view. Things probably don’t feel very fair.

Before I get into the behavioral elements (because they are super important), I’m going to address the obvious counter argument. Namely, “So what? Why perpetuate history? We all have free will. We can all overcome.” My answer to that is this….look at your own life. How many of us have really escaped our past? How many of us don’t credit our families, good and bad, for where we are right now? Bad temper? That’s dad’s fault. Kind soul? Well, that’s mom, of course. Yes, some of us break the cycle but it is the exception, not the rule. It’s not even close to the rule. And the race rule will never be broke when both sides are so diametrically opposed to even acknowledging its existence.

Now, put on your scientist hat and look at people as nothing more than robots reacting to various stimuli in the environment. Remember Ivan Pavlov and his dogs? Pavlov accidentally discovered that he could condition dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell in anticipation of food that would arrive shortly afterwards. This is called classical conditioning and it happens everyday. Advertising loves to pair once neutral stimuli (their boring product) with unconditioned stimuli (super hot, sexy model) to create a conditioned response (I have to have your lame product because that super hot, sexy model looks super hot and sexy holding it!!!)

Classical conditioning is at the core of media coverage of racially charged events. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times lately…..”What about when a black guy kills a white guy for no reason??? Nobody talks about that!” And you are right. They don’t, but not for reasons (from a conditioning perspective) that you might think. Here’s the deal. Historically, Blacks (at the core, a neutral stimuli) have been paired with unconditioned stimuli (crime, guns, violence) to create a conditioned fear response. Classical conditioning is subconscious. We don’t really recognize that it’s the super hot, sexy model that is drawing us to a product anymore than we recognize that selective media coverage of impoverished minorities are paired with crime. Both naturally become part of the collective unconscious.

African Americans as a group are disproportionately poorer than their white counterparts. They always have been. Crimes occur in these areas, not because people are Black but because they are poor. When people are poor, the rules that apply to people that have the basics covered (food, water, shelter) don’t mean as much. People will do things they wouldn’t do under other circumstances when they don’t have much. It doesn’t matter what color they are. Crimes occur in low income areas because of the socio-economic make-up of the area, not the race of the people living there.

I recently read a definition of empathy that goes something like this: If you can for one minute, stand in someone else’s shoes and understand why, then you have experienced empathy.

I empathize with the racial minorities in this country because I take the time to understand. I also empathize with the police because in my former life, I was a state trooper’s wife. I inherently know the difficulties of that profession. It changes people. No one is ever happy to see the cops show up. Think about every time you walk into a situation wearing that uniform, knowing that no one is particularly thrilled that you have arrived. It’s a hard life. And you have to empathize with them too. Because they do a job very few of us could ever do. Or would want to. No one deserves to die for putting on a uniform. For trying to protect. But no one deserves to be harassed or hurt or killed because of the color of their skin either. Regardless of the color.

Why I Won’t Wear Pink

There was a time that the month of October meant that the days got shorter, the air got cooler and the leaves started to turn colors. October meant that it was time to stock up on candy corn and wander the aisles of Walmart looking for a costume that my child would destroy in approximately three hours. October meant autumn and that meant winter was around the bend.

Now, October means breast cancer. And breast cancer means pink. So, put away your dark greens, browns, reds and oranges and pull out your pink. And wear it with pride. Show your support. Show you are aware.

I won’t wear pink. The fact that I look horrible in pink is irrelevant. The fact that it clashes with my hair isn’t important. The only thing that is important to me, at this point in my life, is that it is painful for my friends if I wear pink.

For some people, they have to have been there to understand this. I am fortunate enough to learn through other’s experiences. Experiences that I would have preferred they hadn’t had.

Here is what I have learned. Every time you put on “the pink” to show your support for a breast cancer survivor, you are forcing them to relive a moment they would like to forget. Every pink ribbon, every pink bracelet, every pink shirt (and now every bald cap….) you don is an assault on the soul of a breast cancer survivor. Any attempt to move on from the darkest moment of their lives is interrupted when you or I, with good intentions, try to spread awareness. They are aware. And, let’s face it….we are aware. Breast cancer awareness campaigns have been the most successful of all cancer campaigns in the history of cancer campaigns. I’m not sure that we can get anymore aware.

We don’t need to raise any more money in the name of breast cancer awareness. What we need to do is to raise money to research breast cancer and work towards a cure. Only recently, have I come to understand how very little money raised from pink campaigns go to breast cancer research. I don’t want my friends to be traumatized every October. I want them to celebrate a cure. I don’t want to be the one who reopens a psychic wound that sits close to the surface. I want to be the one who can have a drink with them when we are 85. I don’t want them to relive the worst moment of their lives. I want be there with them in the best moment; the moment they know they won’t have to fear this disease any longer.

Please, rethink the pink. Put your money into research, not a color no one should be wearing in the fall.

http://www.bcrfcure.org

Riding the Depression Wave

Given all of the attention placed on Major Depressive Disorder and suicide this week, my son said to me last night, “So, are you going to write a blog about that?” pointing to an article about Robin Williams. And my first thought was, no. Not going there.

I’ve written extensively over the last five years about death, dying and grief, but never specifically addressed depression in any of my writing. Was I depressed dealing with the loss of my brother and mother? Absolutely. I was dealing with not only what they call “ambiguous grief”, which is often experienced by children of a parent who has died, as well as siblings who lose a brother or sister (i.e. you aren’t a widow or a widower, so society tends to minimize the impact), but also “complicated grief”, which is what they call it when you lose more than one key person in a short period of time. But, I never focused specifically on being depressed. I focused on the lessons of loss. Until the last few days, I never really wondered why.

The bravery that people have shown over the past few days in outing themselves in their struggles with depression is a true turning point in the discussion of what constitutes mental illness. The bottom line is there are only a handful (and I mean, one handful) of people I know who have not experienced a bout of what is considered to be a clinical depressive episode. Major Depressive Disorder only requires you to experience a consistent 2 week period of time in which you experience depressed mood, insomnia/hypersomnia, changes in appetite, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, difficulty in concentration and perhaps, thoughts of death and suicide. While bereavement and grief in itself does not constitute a MDD episode (because it’s a normal response to an abnormal situation), there are very few people who only grieve for 2 weeks. So, more likely than not, an episode of grief evolves into a depression.

Depression is the dirty little secret most of us carry around, holding it close to the chest; masking it with alcohol, burying it in work, hiding behind our great sense of humor. But, it’s there. It creeps through when we least expect it, often hitting us from behind. And then it’s there. And we sit in it. Until we can get back up and fight it off. IF…we can fight it off.

I have always considered myself blessed and cursed. I’ve experienced an incredible amount of loss in my life, starting with the death of my father when I was 11. Death and loss was part of my landscape of life early on. It colored everything I did and probably always will. With that, came bouts of depression. Yes, I said it…..I find it incredibly interesting that I have been able to own my grief like a badge of honor but have never really owned the depression in a public way.

But, the beauty in all of that loss has been an incredible resiliency. While my losses may define me, I have grown in that loss. Those bouts of depression, while ugly as hell (which I assure you, and my closest friends will testify to) always (and I mean always) resulted in growth for me. That is a gift not afforded to all that suffer with this disease. For some, it results in death.

I lost a close friend 18 years ago to a suicide. It was probably more devastating than losing my father because I felt like Jimmy had a choice. I wanted him to want to live. I was angry and couldn’t bring myself to even talk about it for many years. At some point over the years, it occurred to me that it wasn’t that Jimmy didn’t want to live. He just didn’t want to hurt anymore. He didn’t see an end. And I had never experienced that until my brother died. I had a brief moment in which I said out loud “If I’m going to feel this way forever, I cannot go on. I can’t do it.” I happened to say it to a counselor I was referred to by work. It was a turning point for me. I had to start living again because I was, in essence, dying. That’s what real depression is…it’s a slow death. And it scared the shit out of me.

Depression is real. It’s scary and it’s horrible. It’s a disease. It’s not a choice or a weakness. Many things play into a person’s ability to manage it. For me, it’s been many things. Most importantly, it’s been a willingness to work with it. Recognizing the slippery slope and proactively taking steps to minimize its impact. I’ve seen too many angry, depressed people passing judgment on others while they insist they are fine. It’s okay to not be fine. I mean, how many of us are really fine?

Don’t ask me how I am if the only thing you want to hear is fine. You might be surprised with my response. Depending on the day, of course…..

Confessions of an Anti-Helicopter Parent

As you can guess by the title, I am not a helicopter parent. I do not hover. Even though society says I should.

I was born into a large Irish-Italian family, the 5th of 6 kids. My parents were born at the tail end of the Greatest Generation, during the Depression and instilled a strong work ethic. It was not an easy life. My siblings span through the Baby Boom into Generation X (I’m an X-er). The socio-cultural impact of when each of us were born, combined with the influence of our own parent’s authoritarian style of childrearing heavily influenced how each of us parent today.

According to today’s social standards, I’m expected to be authoritative in the way I parent my 11 year old son. I’m supposed to run my house as a democracy since the research tells me this is the best way to protect my son from the pitfalls of life; drug and alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, as well as low self-esteem. My son should feel special because he is Max. He should avoid being held responsible for his own actions because, let’s face it, the world is a scary place. I should shield him from disappointment and heartache. I should agree with him when he tells me that his teacher is mean, his friends are bullies and that life is unfair. I should edit his homework, have a home cooked meal on the table every night and insert myself into all aspects of his life. And I should feel guilty when I fail to do these things. Because, if I fail to follow the rules, I could ruin him for the rest of his life. (I’m here to tell you, that outside of the fact that my son is special because he is Max, I pretty much fail at all of these things).

I am a 43 year old single mother who struggles with this guilt every day.  A few weeks ago, early one morning, while sitting alone, a thought popped in my head. “You are a terrible mother”, it screamed at me. It was such a profound moment because it came out of nowhere. Nothing had happened. My ever smiling, ever laughing, straight A, introspective, thoughtful, happy go lucky son was the same child he had always been. And yet, in that moment, I was a failure.

Because I am trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I quickly went into damage control mode and made a mental list as to why I am not a terrible mother.

  1. Max is one of the happiest people I have ever met.
  2. Max is one of the most sensitive, introspective, thoughtful people I know.
  3. Max is one of the most well adjusted kids I have ever met despite his father and I splitting up 6 years ago, and enduring having to watch me lose both my brother and mother in a 1 ½ year span. Not to mention, he experienced those losses also.
  4. Max excels both socially and academically. His teachers love him and his friends want to be around him.
  5. Max confides in me. He still believes I’m the safe place to fall.
  6. Max puts up with my shit.

So, why given all of this evidence to the contrary, did a voice deep inside of me tell me I am a terrible mother? Outside of the internal psychological processes that go on individually inside all of us, we cannot deny we live in a world that judges every little thing we do when it comes to our children. And that world didn’t exist when we were being raised. The general social attitude towards parenting prior to 1980 was one that placed a certain level of responsibility on the children themselves to make good decisions, be independent, learn that life isn’t fair and that if you want to succeed, you will need to work hard for everything you get. Your parents didn’t show up unannounced at the school to demand to talk to the teacher if you got a bad grade. They asked you what you did to deserve that grade. They didn’t get mad at the coach when you didn’t make the team. They told you there were better kids that tried out. And they loved you anyway. They didn’t call your friend’s parents when you had a fight. They told you to go back out there and work it out. Someone, anyone, tell me…..what is wrong with that? 

It’s hard not to be a helicopter parent in a world that tells you that you are failing to protect your child. I see it as quite the opposite. I have learned that the only way to get what you want is through hard work and perseverance. Of course, I have looked to others for support, but at the end of the day, every decision was my own.  It was a hard lesson. It still is a hard lesson. But I believe that my anti-hovering position will create a more self-reliant, appreciative human being. It already has. And for that I am thankful.