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Monthly Archives: April 2018

(Personal) My Sister, One Year Later

Myth 150

One year ago today, my sister died. My mother, my two nephews and their father were gathered in the conference room down the hall from her room in the hospital when we got the news — even though her heart was beating and she was breathing (with help), her brain hadn’t registered any activity for long enough that the presiding physician called time of death. Everyone cried. It was the first time I had hugged my Mom since I had come out to her. It was the first time I had ever hugged either of my nephews.

I rushed to Baltimore with the small hope that I would get to see my little sister alive one more time. It had been eighteen years; we spoke on the phone sporadically, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left home. The worst thing for me, at the time, was knowing that the last time I saw my sister was when I was being disowned. Between then and last year, she gave birth to four children, tried to take care of my difficult and increasingly frail mother, had a nervous breakdown. For the longest time she had been self-medicating for mental health issues, and in the end that’s what had brought us here.

I think about Teneka every day. I think about how hard it must have been to struggle against your own brain without a support network of people who understood and accepted what she was going through, who were committed to helping her find what she needed to get better. It could have been talk therapy, or cognitive behavioral techniques, or medication. It could have been changing her lifestyle so that she had room to take the time she needed to cope with everything on her plate. It could have been a community of people willing to give her help when she needed it without asking or judgement.

Instead, she was under a system that punished her for finding any way she could to ease her pain without giving her access to the tools she needed to do so in a healthy and sustainable way. The people around her dismissed very real issues she was having and encouraged her to do the very things that would make them worse. Her own mother took whatever help she offered and said it wasn’t good enough, accused her of being selfish and lazy and untrustworthy. My sister was a good woman who needed help, someone to orient her. But there was no way she could get that.

It breaks my heart, because my sister is part of a narrative that’s been used to blame black Americans for our problems since the end of slavery. The truth is, however, much more complicated. The immediate cause of her passing — what’s on her death certificate — is not the reason she died. The real reason is that we, as a civilization, are far more interested in judgement and punishment than compassion and assistance. Instead of recognizing the very real problems Teneka suffered under, we made her feel broken for not being able to cope with them.

Her experience isn’t uncommon. There are so many black women who have to shoulder extraordinary burdens — motherhood and everything that comes with it, often totally by themselves — while being told that they are wrong in every way. Our sisters don’t look the way they should; they don’t talk the way they should; they don’t act the way they should. Their names are wrong, their hair is wrong, their clothes and makeup are wrong. They’re hoes, or they’re stuck-up; they’re too angry and too loud, too ignorant, too dark, too ugly.

Misogynoir took my sister away from me. The stigma around mental health took my sister away from me. Our social inability to address the pain felt by our most vulnerable citizens while placing them under impossible stress took my sister away from me. I’m still grieving about that, because I’m reminded of it every day.

Remember this story about two women being racially profiled at an Applebee’s?

Or this story about a black woman detained by police on the tarmac because the police were called on her for no reason?

Or this story about a black woman being mistreated at a Waffle House and the police receiving no repercussions?

What about the responses Kelis received when she detailed the abuse she received at the hands of Nas?

What about what our sisters have suffered at the hands of powerful men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly?

These are all stories that have been in the news for the past two weeks. If I started going into the recent and not-so-recent history of mistreatment of black women, we’d be here all day. If I started going into the institutional problems that prevent our sisters from getting the mental health treatment they needed, we’d be here all week.

I don’t want anyone else to feel trapped in a private and invisible hell the way my sister was. It’s so important for me to speak up about mental health because I know first-hand that not doing so literally kills people. We have to be better about this. The lives of our women depend on it.

Dr. Amber Thornton is a licensed black American psychologist who has devoted so much of her time to addressing the stigma of mental health in our communities while also advocating for better cultural competency within the professional psychological community. Her podcast, “A Different Perspective”, has invaluable information about depression, anxiety, and the black experience.

Journalist Imade Nibokun heads up the Depressed While Black Twitter and Tumblr pages, creating an online community of folks across the diaspora who have to deal with the personal struggle of depression and the social struggle of institutional racism at the same time.

The Black Mental Health Alliance is an organization of licensed black American mental health practitioners, activists and organizers dedicated to dealing with mental health issues on a personal, professional, and institutional level.

All of these people are doing much-needed work, helping our community see the problems we face clearly while adapting perspective and solutions built by institutions with little to no insight into how these problems manifest through our shared culture and history. On the anniversary of my sister’s death, I vow to support them and their work and I ask that you please do the same. I want my sister’s legacy to be one that spurred us into action, to finally address this blind spot within our own community.

I love you so much, Teneka. I’m so sorry that we failed you; I will work hard so that we fail far fewer people like you.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Mindful Resistance

Politics 150Ever since Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, MO I don’t think I’ve been able to reflect on our political situation without a mix of anger, horror or despair. It’s been tough to know what to do with these very difficult emotions even at the best of times; when the news cycle seems designed to draw them out of you multiple times every day, it can be almost impossible. Progressives in America have been emotionally and ideologically battered by the storm of Trumpism, and I think a lot of us have become unmoored from our principles and ability to cope with the constant thundering of awfulness. However, in order to effectively brace against the gusts of bigotry and hypocrisy, we have to be anchored to our core beliefs and values. It’s more important than ever to be considerate, deliberate, and careful in the ways we engage the big problems of the day.

Having compassion for the people we engage with, especially online, centers us in a place of empathy. There are so many corners of the Internet where perpetual outrage has become the norm, and we’re encouraged to think of the people who disagree with us as a faceless, perhaps inhuman ‘enemy’ undeserving of consideration. As we grow more estranged from folks with different perspectives, the criteria for being spared our wrath becomes smaller and smaller. Over time, we might find ourselves having knock-down, drag-out fights with close friends we’ve known for years over relatively small disagreements. We might cut ourselves off from people who might only need patience, understanding, and connection.

I notice these days that my temper is a lot shorter than it used to be, and I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons for that. It can be exhausting advocating for your right to equal protection and consideration, especially to people who refuse to acknowledge there’s inequality in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about this; anger is an indication that my sense of order in the world has been disrupted, that there’s an injustice that needs to be rectified.

It’s what we do with that anger that causes issues. Anger can be a great motivator for real change in the world. Protests and movements that have forced power to reckon with the abuses it has perpetuated gain momentum because of our anger, given direction and a purpose. But far too often our anger is simply expelled towards the closest targets, and far too often those closest targets are our friends. Even if our anger at something a friend says or does is justified, it’s worth holding that anger mindfully to consider how it can best be expressed.

Anger can be balanced with compassion for our fellow human beings. So many people we know have grown up in a racist society, unaware of their privilege or the fact that they benefit from it. It’s hard to see that for what it is, and harder still to reconcile that with the story we’ve told ourselves about our lives. Hardest of all is knowing exactly what to do about it; there are so many white progressives painfully aware of their privilege but with no idea how to make peace with it, or how to use it to erase the structures that have provided them with it. When we ask people with privilege to recognize it, we’re not just asking them to admit the existence of an institutional injustice. We’re asking them to admit their personal history is a lie; that they benefit from something they never asked for.

Dismantling our self-image is a process, and it’s different for everyone. It took me years to understand and accept transgender ideas, and longer still to come to terms with my privilege as a cisgender male. There are still issues that I need to deal with, still things that I get wrong all the time. To be honest, it’s frightening and exhausting wading into all of that; there’s so much to untangle, much of it a fundamental understanding of sex and gender expression, and the punishment for doing or saying the wrong thing is so high.

I think we all have our blind spots. Some of us are blissfully unaware of the immense amount of human suffering beyond the borders of our own country, while others struggle with recognizing the need for deeper consideration of our environment. Some of us are tone-deaf when it comes to racial justice; others don’t take into account how difficult it is to deal with poverty at an early age, or hidden disabilities, or even the difficulties of being a woman. Knowing our own difficulties in the journey towards undoing the damage of the bigotry we’ve been taught can help us understand how hard it is to do, and have greater empathy for those who may not be malicious — just ignorant.

That kind of consideration can also allow us to pick our battles. The Trump Administration and the forces that have given rise to his particularly odious brand of politics presents us with an overwhelming multi-front assault daily. Environmental regulations are being stripped; scientific expertise is being devalued; criminal justice issues are becoming worse as police forces are emboldened by the empty ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric coming from the Attorney General; people of color are being systematically targeted through countless initiatives; our privacy rights have been severely compromised; reproductive rights are being challenged at every level; cultural enrichment initiatives are being threatened and defunded; corruption, hypocrisy and sophist arguments have made reasonable debate about this in the public square all but impossible.

We now know that bad-faith actors online exploit our desires to try to bridge the gulf between ideologies, forcing us to provide evidence for minute details and batting them away when they’re delivered. We know that the thundering waterfall of awesomeness is designed to wear down our ability to resist. We know that the people who want to enable Trump’s agenda are counting on our eventual burn-out; once the heat dies down, they move forward after we’re too spent and discouraged.

We have to know our limits. We have to understand that our energy to resist is a finite resource, and that it’s important to give ourselves the space we need to recharge. If we’re incensed at every new scandal, or sound the alarm over every new development, we not only exhaust ourselves — we exhaust our allies and others who might come to our aid. Sometimes, taking a moment to understand what’s happening and what still needs to happen for terrible consequences to come due can help us prioritize the issues and decide where and how we fight. We’ve done an amazing job fighting so much bullshit from the administration, but there are three more years before removing them from office is a viable option. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are ready for battle, but maybe we haven’t considered how to be ready for war.

It’s simply impossible to resist everything Trump is throwing at us. Sure, it’s awful that the President of the United States is getting into a Twitter war with athletes and rappers, entertainment figures and journalists, but we know that dignity is a foreign concept to him already. Will getting angry about it change anything? How much does that matter compared to, say, making sure that voting restriction laws aren’t rammed through various state legislatures or that our immigrant friends and neighbors have what they need to find a legal path to remaining here?

I don’t mean to advocate for letting important stuff fall off the radar. But it’s better to devote our limited time and energy to a few causes that are really important to us than try to do everything at once and extinguish the fire that keeps us going before we can see our actions produce results.

We have to be careful about our resistance. It’s great that so many of us have become so passionate about the direction of our country and committed ourselves to turning it around. But we must also be the changes we want to see in the world around us, and that can’t happen if we’re buffeted by the political currents day in and day out, unable to remain rooted to our principles and see things clearly. We sacrifice our mental health, our relationships, our ability to create true and lasting change by acting without thinking. We have to take a long look at our core values, what it means to live those values on a personal and societal level, and how we can take our communities from where we are to where we know they can be.

This can’t be done by the expression of anger or the rejection of the people who make us angry. Careful thought is needed, and planning, and eventual solutions to our biggest problems. How can we curb greenhouse gas emissions in this country before we incur the worst effects of climate change? How can we encourage big, multi-national corporations to keep their headquarters in the country while paying their fair share of taxes and their workers a living wage? What does a society that has dismantled the institutions of racism and bigotry within government and culture look like? What does justice look like for the corrupt, the racist, the hateful at all levels of society? Is there a way back for people like Chris Christie, or Louis CK, or that friend from high school who fell into the clutches of the alt-right? What does that path towards reconciliation look like?

I honestly don’t know how effective our resistance will be until we think about these questions and discuss the answers we come up with. I don’t think we can keep screaming at each other to make things better without thinking about how we can do that, all together. We have to be mindful with our anger, our calls for justice, ourselves, our friends and neighbors. Otherwise we’ll end up doing some of the very things we can’t abide seeing from the other side.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Politics

 

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(Personal) Hello, April

Self Improvement 150Floating in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour was long enough for me to realize that a great deal of my problem is overstimulation. It’s tough for someone sensitive to sensory input to live in a world like this, geared towards making sure something is grabbing your attention all the time. We live at a time where it’s seen as largely acceptable to pay for something with our focus instead of money; think about all of the services we use for ‘free’ in exchange for ads, or the data that companies can use to make ads that much more irresistible. Corporations have learned to use our attention as another potential revenue stream; it’s time we start thinking of it the same way we do our hard-earned money. That’s why this month, I’d like to focus on budgeting my attention and focus the same way I budget my money.

I admit it’s a harder thing to do. Money is a finite resource (just like our attention), but it’s a lot easier to quantify and measure. We know exactly how much money we get in our paychecks, and we can subtract our expenses from our income to know when we’re stepping outside of our means. With attention, it’s not so straightforward. We can’t wake up every day with the intention that we only ‘spend’ 2 hours’ worth of attention on social media, or that today is a ‘no advertisement’ day where we refuse to pay attention to any form of advertising. We can’t slice our focus into discrete chunks, and then decide what parts of our environment we give those chunks to.

But we can be more mindful about when and where something is asking for our attention, and what our reaction to that request might be. On our phones, what apps and games buzz to draw our focus back to the screen? When we’re browsing a website, what links do we click to stay engaged with it, and how do we end up following article after article? When we’re walking or driving outside, what things grab our eyes and hold them? When we watch TV, how many times do we notice ads — especially ones that work around our ability to fast-forward through them?

Any time you notice something using obnoxious or obvious means to attract your attention, think about the process that created the situation. Why would a company risk the ill will of a potential customer just to force us into having to engage with its advertisement? Why on Earth would so many websites auto-play videos when we visit pages? What’s to be gained by forcing us to engage with something?

There are some websites that we might feel are worth paying for with our attention. When they ask us to whitelist them from ad blocking programs, we might be inclined to do so. When Google or Facebook asks for our information in order to better serve ads to them, we might think it’s a fair trade for the useful and convenient services they offer. That’s fine. But it really should be our choice, and I think our modern experience online and in real life isn’t set up in the interest of offering us that choice. Everywhere we go, there is something trying to get us to engage with it; we don’t have the ‘right’ to choose where our attention is going when we enter a public space.

I’m really not sure how we can address this on any big level, but I do know that I will take better notice of things that try to force my attention away from what I’m doing — whether it’s YouTube offering me other videos to watch, IGN auto-playing videos, movies with egregious product placement, or ad ‘stunts’ tricking me into investing time or focus towards something. One of the biggest pet peeves I’ve developed recently is a company taking advantage of my fandom in order to sell me a pile of crap; the endless rebranding initiatives of Marvel Comics and the “mystery box/alternate reality” model of Bad Robot properties immediately comes to mind.

I know enough about myself to know that it’s easy for my attention to be drawn away, and it’s best if I cultivate an environment where I choose when and how to switch my focus from one thing to another. I’ve already disabled almost all notifications on my phone, and whenever a website offers me desktop notifications I decline and resolve to use that website less in the future. I use apps like Ghostery and AdBlock Plus to clean the pages of the sites I visit, and I whitelist only the ones that I use frequently and don’t have obnoxious intrusive ads that pop up, play sound, or ‘trick’ you into being redirected by shifting the close button or using intentionally misleading UI. When I finish one task, or an article or a video, I try to take a breath to recenter myself and make a mindful decision on what to do next. That’s not always successful, for sure, but I’m getting better at this the more I do it.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month, too. In the interest of making sure I’m on a more solid foundation for life, I’d like to double back and refocus on the basics: meditating every day, reading and writing every day, eating well every day, exercising as often as possible. The very basic building blocks of self-care that give you the best possible shot at being emotionally resilient. So far, it’s…still a process, but failure is bundled into that of course. The trick is to not let failure discourage you; take the lessons you can from it, then move on with a better idea of how to succeed.

So that’s it; being very judicious about my attention and how I’m spending it, then putting that attention to where it will do the most good. How about you folks? What would you like to work on this month?

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Goodbye, March

Self Improvement 150The crisis point hit right in the middle of the month. We were coming out of a big Services meeting when my manager scheduled a one-on-one meeting right afterward. I had assumed it would be the follow-up on our annual reviews and talk about merit increases; in a way, I was right. The management structure in our department is in flux right now, so the colleague who had been my direct manager was starting to offload his responsibilities behind the scenes while my new direct manager was stepping in to take the reins of my little slice of the day job.

The two managers — let’s call them Cain and Abel to protect what little innocence they have left — make a pretty effective good-cop/bad-cop pair. Cain is one of those folks who knows a scary amount about computers and online culture, has seen just about everything there is to see in the dark underbelly of the web, and generally gets along with you if you’re competent in the way he’s looking for. Abel is an aging punk and family man who has a bottomless and unironic love for professional wrestling. They’re both really great with their jobs, and really good with people in their own way; they go out of their way to build a personal relationship with the folks they’re managing. Unfortunately, they’re both now part of a structure that seems to force people to say one thing while doing another.

Cain was my direct manager at the beginning of the month, and he had given me a heads up that my performance at the day job was dangerously close to unsatisfactory; that being said, he would put me on an ‘unofficial’ probation to get my success metrics back up and train me how to work a bit more efficiently. After a month, if things were back to where they should be, I could skip a more ‘formal’ probation process and resume business as normal. That was the plan, and I could see I was in a bit of trouble. I was working through it, trying to corral the depression and anxiety, working hard to prioritize self-care, and nearly through the latest emergency with Mom.

In fact, the day after Mom had been placed in long-term care at the nursing home, Abel and I had the meeting that put me on the Performance Improvement Plan. If you’re not a part of corporate America, the Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP) is a really scary thing: some say its only purpose is to build a paper trail that ultimately ends with you being pushed out of the company, while others say it’s an actual disciplinary step designed to get you back on track and the company wouldn’t go through the trouble if it didn’t want you to stay. Abel assured me the latter was the case, but given the track record with my company I couldn’t fully put my trust in that. For every reassuring comment, there was another that set off alarm bells in my head. Even if I made it through the PIP, I got the feeling that my days at my current position were numbered.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I freaked out — wouldn’t you? But after that, I dug in. I asked questions about how to navigate through it; I did research on different perspectives and advice on how PIPs should be handled; I built a plan to make sure I hit (or exceeded) my goals for the plan; and I brushed up my resume and started to look for another place to be in earnest.

This past month has been dominated by the day job and my continuing recovery. I’ve been working hard to realize the source of my anxiety and deal with it directly, and while that progress has been slow there has been progress. I’m working hard to make sure that I get enough sleep, my diet is improving steadily, and that I build habits that help me to become more emotionally resilient. I’ve done my best to be more consistently mindful.

I also tried float therapy for the very first time. Float therapy is the new marketing term for putting yourself into a sensory deprivation tank for some time; most people only know about it through the 1980 science-horror film Altered States or through Fringe, the surprisingly fun science-fiction show that ran on FOX a few years ago. In real life, float therapy supposedly helps you with rehabilitation; it’s also supposed to help with anxiety, deeper meditative states and lucid dreaming.

My dear husband gave me a gift certificate for three floats as a birthday present, and this was the first time I actually remembered to make an appointment. The FLOAT Center in Oakland is (according to them) the very first of its kind in the Bay area, and it’s more of an old-school experience; while other tanks have LED lights and music and such, here it’s just you and a huge light- and sound-proof tank filled with a slurry of Epsom salts and heated water. It’s completely dark, extremely quiet, and pretty humid.

I was shocked by how well it worked. I’m fairly sure everyone has something they’ll need to get used to at first, and for me it was the humidity inside the tank. The strange sensation of weightlessness was actually really pleasant, and the complete darkness conjured strange, flashing images that grew more intricate as time went on. It was ridiculously easy to lose track of time in there, but when the knock came to let me know my hour was up I was almost dreamily relaxed.

The proprietor is wonderfully liberal and New Age; I rather like her, even if the metaphysical explanation of what happens with the tank is a little suspect. Given how badly I’ve needed a healthier way to manage stress and the fact I have two more free floats in store, I wasted no time in booking my next session along with an hour-long massage. I have the feeling I’ll need to be poured into my car by the time it’s all over.

It’s been a hard month, but things have steadily gotten better — or at least, my attitude has. There is still a lot to untangle with Mom’s finances, and I get the feeling that now she’s staying some place local family will drop the threads we had been working on; it’ll be up to me to keep the momentum. The focus on my day job has been paying off, and I’m in good shape with my PIP. There is at least one promising lead on the job search, and if all goes well I might have excellent news on the other side of May.

Most importantly, I feel more capable of focusing on the things that are important to me and I have a solid framework of determining how and why that focus gets broken. One of the things I’d really love to do in the month ahead is find a way to bring this realization to action. Attention, especially for someone like me, is a precious and finite resource. It’s important to make sure that I protect it and spend it as judiciously as possible.

That’s my March. What big successes did all of you have this past month? What was the most important lesson you learned? How did the last 31 days or so prepare you for success this month?

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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