27 January 2015

3 things I wish I’d known about sexuality and identity

The transition from childhood to adulthood can be a confusing time.  (Do I win some kind of award for understatement of the year for that?)  Sexuality and gender identity can be especially hard to understand and deal with if a kid suspects their answer isn’t totally aligned with the norm.  This stuff can involve a lot of questioning and soul-searching, and it’s hard to know what to ask or how or to whom when you’re only just emerging into a world that’s willing to give you the proper framework for it rather than tell you you’re too young to be thinking about that stuff yet.  You can end up saying a lot of stupid things to a lot of people you care about along the way, and however genuine and necessary those statements and questions are, years or even decades later you might look back on those conversations and know that the other someone still knows you said that, and you will wish you could call them and explain yourself now that you understand what you really meant.  (But it’s not like I’m speaking from experience or anything, here.)

We’re getting better about helping kids through this stuff now (I hope).  Acceptance of homosexuality is on the rise, the word “transgender” appeared for the first time ever in the President’s State of the Union address, Gamergate was a perfect demonstration of how strong our movement for women’s equality has become (and how far we still have to go).  So maybe this post is a little old-fashioned now – but as my kids grow up, I fully intend to make sure these adult messages are getting passed along to them in a way they can understand.  Here are a few of the things I wish I’d known around, say, the age of twelve, in the interest of avoiding some of those acutely embarrassing memories I still harbor:


1. Gender is a concept, and it’s complicated

Here is a fact which bears repeating because of how confusing it is for most people when they first encounter it: Sex, Gender, and Sexuality are three totally distinct things.  Your sex is (more or less) the set of genitalia you were born with.  Your gender is (more or less) what’s in your head – your feeling about what type of person you are.  And your sexuality is, to put it simply, what you’re into. 

The idea of gender being in your head is especially hard for people.  It’s infinitely depressing as I start down this path of raising a child to hear how early and often people ascribe masculine or feminine personality traits to their children based on their sex.  It’s so deeply rooted in our culture to have only two genders and to have those be defined entirely by genitalia that many people wouldn’t dream of an alternative.  And it’s destructive even for cis-gendered kids – kids whose gender identity does happen to coincide with what’s in their pants.  It makes young boys feel they can’t express their emotions through tears.  It makes young girls feel they have to love pink.  It creates all our favorite damaging stereotypes about adult men and women.  So imagine what it does to kids who don’t feel as canonically masculine or feminine as their genitals dictate (and, if we’re being honest, that’s a lot of us). 

For me, the biggest revelation I came upon way too late was the notion of male privilege.  It was never presented to me explicitly how fundamentally differently society treats men and women.  I saw it all the time, of course, but I lived it, too – and when you live it, it’s hard to see just how pervasive and persuasive it is.  So at the time, it was hard to see that for me (and I stress that strongly, here), a yearning for male privilege was a large part of my sometimes-expressed wish I’d been born a guy.  Certainly not all of it – but a huge, undeniable part.*  I didn’t understand at the time that gender is nothing but a construct, both a social and a personal construct – and that because it is social in addition to being personal, it’s very easy for outside forces to influence a person’s thoughts about what they’re really feeling.

What I would say to Young Me now: “You may think your decisions about gender are entirely your own, but they’re not.  They can’t be, because you’re a social creature and you belong to humanity.  You don’t exist in a vacuum.  The best you can do is think long and hard about it, quiet your soul, and ask yourself: how you feel, how that feeling impacts your daily life, and whether you need to make an external change to reflect your inner self.”

*This is such a critical point that I don’t want it to get lost: This was my experience, and it wasn’t all of my experience.  Everyone has a different journey and my road, thank God, has been a relatively easy one.  I applaud the courage of those whose battle with traditional gender roles is far more personal than mine.


2. Neither your gender identity nor your sexual orientation has to be set in stone

I’ve said before that our society (our species?) puts a lot of stock in labeling.  We want you to tell us you’re [insert-label-here], and we want you to stay in that bucket.  Jumping buckets just might be some kind of sin.

In high school I heard a self-identified lesbian spewing all sorts of hatred for a girl who had previously declared herself gay and then dated a guy.  I sat quietly by and let this person rant.  And I thought, “Wow, good thing I’m straight and don’t have to worry about this!”  Ha!  There are so many things wrong with that memory.  This person’s hate for someone who changed their mind – or didn’t change their mind at all but didn’t feel the need to tell an outside person all the minute details of her inner desires!  The assumption on my part that I was straight despite all the still-building evidence to the contrary.  My fear of other people’s opinions about my sexuality.  My belief that a person could only ever be one thing and any “deviations” along the way were nothing more than an attempt to figure out what that one thing was.  My inaction in the face of her hate.

It may not be the most relevant use of this quote, but whenever I think about these kinds of things I’m reminded of Maya Angelou: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” 

The more I’ve learned about gender and sexuality, the more comfortable I am in saying simply, I like people.  I can’t tell you what kinds, really, I just know it when I see it.  Or get to know it.  Or hear it from across a crowded room.  And tomorrow I might not feel the same way.  And it’s none of your damn business anyway.  And your interests and self-identity are none of my or anyone else’s damn business, either.

What I would say to Young Me now:  “If it helps you to think of your gender and sexuality in terms of labels, then by all means do it – but don’t feel you have to hold onto those labels forever.  Wear them while they suit you.  And if anyone tries to push you into donning an outgrown or ill-fitting coat, push back.”


3.  It is NEVER okay to belittle someone else’s experience

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve repeatedly had to learn this one the hard way.  As a simple and obvious example, even into high school I used to call all sorts of things ‘gay’.   I said it even though I had an amazing friend who early and often yelled at me for it.  And I’m still learning how to see the world from other people’s eyes.  Even today I caught myself wanting to defend my hometown as I read about someone else’s awful experience in it.  #NotAllTucsonans, style of thing.  It was pathetic.

Acceptance comes up often in discussions of sexuality and identity.  We all view the world through our singular experience, and by definition that makes it difficult to get into the mindset of another person.  (Neuroscience tells us we get better at this as we get older, thank goodness!)  We’re called upon again and again simply to trust that someone else is sincere when they tell us they like people who identify as the same gender, when they say they’ve never felt comfortable in the bodies they were born with, when they carefully explain why the word ‘gay’, when used pejoratively, is offensive to them.  And the moment we persist in arguing they must be wrong or they shouldn’t be such a baby about things, we invalidate them and their hard-earned sensibilities.  We’re saying our stupid comment matters more to us than the reality of their everyday experience.  We’re letting our singular, myopic view of the world dominate the dialogue.  Wouldn’t it be nicer and easier all around to just give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re intelligent people with the ability to decide for themselves who they feel like and whom they like?  Wouldn’t it be better to embrace their experience as another shining example of the vast spectrum of human individuality?

What I would say to Young Me now: “You will make mistakes and offend other people.  That’s life.  So when someone tells you they’re offended by your words, take the time to figure out their side.  And if you still insist on saying what you’re saying, know that you’ve just given your comment priority over someone else’s feelings.”


I hope as my kids grow up and figure these things out for themselves that I can direct them toward information like this to help them build attitudes of acceptance and self-assurance.  I know as their mom I’m more or less a background voice to the tapestry of friends and classmates and media outlets that will no doubt contribute to their worldviews far more than I will.  But maybe, just maybe, I can at least give them a little bit of a leg up.


20 January 2015

4 Things That Aren’t True About Anxiety

You may be able to tell from my earlier posts that I suffer from the occasional panic attack or two.  Life often feels like a balancing act: caffeine intake, exercise, sleep, food choices, movie selections, goals accomplished… you get the recipe wrong, and you’re asking for an attack.

But my experience isn’t everyone’s.  I read so many lists of things that “every” person with anxiety supposedly experiences, that “every” friend should know if they want to help… and sure, some of it rings true, but so much of it has nothing to do with me and it drives me crazy to be defined by others’ too-broad lists.  It’s a symptom of a greater evil – a desire to classify and cure all forms of mental illness, to compartmentalize and, intentionally or accidentally, to marginalize.  So here’s a list of what, to me, is NOT true about anxiety.


Myth #1: The symptoms of anxiety are common to all anxious people

Anxiety runs the gamut from a mild difficulty around which one can still function to a crippling daily bombardment of terror.  It can come suddenly out of nowhere or predictably in certain circumstances, and it can be about any number of subjects or even nothing at all. 

For years I convinced myself I didn’t really have an anxiety problem because I couldn’t easily pigeonhole it into one of the classic anxiety disorders defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  My attacks weren’t about nothing, they were always about death.  I could trigger them myself if I thought about death long enough.  They didn’t happen very often or over a specific period of time.  And not being able to define my problem in the context of an external diagnostic system made me feel like a phony.  I didn’t have anxiety and I didn’t deserve to complain about it.  I was just being silly.  And that’s a bullshit thing for a teenager to have to feel when they’re sitting there in the shower bawling their eyes out because one day they will, inevitably, die. 

This is a truism that applies to so many different aspects of life and self-identification: External sources don’t know your experience.  They can’t.  If you’ve got anxiety, you’ve got anxiety and no manual is going to justify or deny that for you.  What those manuals can do is help inform you of the wide variety of methods you can use to help yourself out of whatever you’re experiencing.  Which brings us to another myth…


Myth #2: There is one best way to help all people who experience anxiety

The other night I told my husband we couldn’t watch the Nostalgia Critic review of the movie Casper.  I didn’t have to say why.  He knows me well enough by now to leave it alone and watch it on his own time.  So tell me – exactly how many other people with anxiety would this no-watching-Casper treatment apply to?

I hope it’s obvious that a mental hardship (not necessarily a disease, a disorder, or even a problem) with symptoms as broad as anxiety would also have a wide range of legitimate treatment options.  And the most important part should go without saying, that the person with the anxiety is the one with the final word on what they will and will not allow for treatment and help. 

This is something we often miss with mental hardship.  It’s your brain that’s “broken”, so it must be a reasonable assumption that a broken thing can’t be trusted to fix itself.  And in certain extreme cases, that may be true.  But it’s a rare case of anxiety that doesn’t come and go.  A person not currently in the throes of anxious grief is certainly capable of explaining how they want to be handled when they are having a problem.  The phrase, “What can I do to help?” is a powerful one.  Use it.  As genuine and good a place as you’re probably coming from, you can really, really mess with an anxious person in the middle of an attack by doing and saying the wrong things.

But if I can presume, a word of caution to fellow anxious folks: you know yourself best, but please be open to others’ insights.  The best help I got was from a counselor I was almost too proud even to go see for the two sessions I really needed him.  I thought I could take care of it myself and no one could tell me anything I hadn’t already considered.  I knew in my bones the book was closed on the afterlife, and the inevitability of my cessation was crushing.  And all the counselor had to say was, “I know you think you know, I know it feels concrete to you, but what if you can tell yourself, logically, it’s impossible to know?  What if you can force that room for doubt?”  At the time I smiled and nodded and thought to myself that was a nice load of crap.  Now I tell myself this every single time the panic looms.  It still feels like a lie and it probably always will, but humbly I admit I don’t own the answer, and it helps.  Help can come out of anywhere.


Myth #3: When people are anxious, it shows

That depends.  For the big stuff, probably you’ll see some classic symptoms.  Maybe it involves panic attacks, maybe it’s physically apparent – but maybe it’s not.  To beat to death a tired cliché… that whole iceberg thing.  Ten percent above water and all that.  You know it.

I don’t like getting people all riled up about my anxiety.  It’s tiresome.  So unless I really need a hug, I’m likely not to mention how long it takes me to calm down enough to get to sleep some nights.  If someone never looks anxious, always seems bubbly and happy, doesn’t seem to have a care in the world… it’s still not reasonable to assume they never have a moment of oh-my-God-I’m-going-to-die-right-now pants-soiling fear for no reason.  You just never know.  And it doesn’t make their troubles any less real or worthy of regard if they do open up to you about it.


Myth #4: Everyone who has anxiety wants to be fixed

Confession: I do.  I really do.  But not with drugs, and not at the expense of anxiety’s benefits – that high-strung, “dancing on the edge of something awesome” kind of feeling.  I don’t believe it’s possible to simply excise the part of me that breaks down in terror at the thought of death while leaving the rest of me intact.  It’s a lament I hear often with various forms of “mental illness”: No treatment, please, if it means any kind of loss of “self”. 

That’s the real bitch about it.  Much as we may want to, we can’t ignore that the problem is in our brains and our brains are ourselves and our selves have been built with anxiety (or whatever) as a fundamental component.  So sure, I’d love for mental illness to be taken as seriously by both the medical community and society at large as a tumor or diabetes is – but I’m tired of the concomitant assumption that viewing it in that light means it needs to be treated with the same sterile hand.  It’s been my experience (and I’m positive I’m not alone) that like it or not, my brain is myself and altering that means altering me, which seriously limits the options on “fixing”.  I also know dozens of people who feel that life is much better, and they feel more like themselves, when they can manage their symptoms with a pill.  Both are fully understandable, legitimate approaches to dealing with mental illness. 

Understanding goes a long way toward helping someone with their anxiety.  If you see a problem in someone else, maybe ask them about it and see if they’d like you to do anything or even just be there for them.  If you see it in yourself, find someone to talk to who will listen.  That last bit’s critical.  And most importantly, don’t let this post or any other external source make you think your problems aren’t worth tackling.


16 January 2015

Another update

Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?

We’re one doctorate and one kid up from the last post, and I’m finally starting to remember what it feels like to be human.  I wrote that post about sleep, didn’t I?  I can’t follow my own advice.

So here we go again on another quest – to become an Author.  It’s fast approaching.  Stay tuned!

26 May 2013

Something to Leave Out of Your Carry-On Luggage

I had the most bizarre experience in the airport security line today.

The security guard scanning the carry-on luggage asked to run my laptop bag through the machine a second time, which I thought was a little odd – there was almost nothing in the bag after I took my laptop out.  The second time through, she stopped the bag and hailed another security guard to search it.  She pointed at the screen to show him what to look for, and he nodded and brought the bag over to me.

By this time I was thoroughly confused.  The guard asked if I had anything sharp in the bag that he could cut himself on and I told him no, not to my knowledge – and what a weird question, right?  I’ve never been asked that when my bag’s been searched, before.  He searched through all the main pockets and came up totally empty, as expected, and then went through them again for good measure.  I was getting a little annoyed at his persistent searching. 

But then he turned the bag over, opened the back pocket, and pulled out a 10-inch butcher knife!

Let me tell you, a giant unfamiliar-looking knife is not something you want to see come out of your laptop bag at the airport.  I think my heart stopped.  The guard looked at me like I was crazy and then showed the knife to the first guard and then to another guard and asked if I needed to be brought in for further questioning, and all the while I was blathering that I didn’t know where it came from or how it got in there, and absolutely yes, please go ahead and confiscate it.  The third guard assured me I didn’t need to be interrogated but of course they’d be taking the knife away from me, and to my infinite relief they let me go on my way.

It took me about a half hour of racking my brain after that to piece together a story about the knife.  It looked kind of like a knife from work in Arizona, and it’s possible I put that knife in my laptop bag to keep from stabbing someone on the way to cutting a birthday cake in the lab.  And then I totally forgot about it for many, many months up to and including the moment it got pulled out of my bag by the very worst possible discoverer.  I still don’t particularly recall having done this, but it sounds plausible and almost familiar.

I just want to point out that this means I’ve taken that knife with me on at least one other flight before this one, if not a few more.  I find it a little concerning that it hasn’t been found before now.  But if I could I’d give those guards today a raise.

20 May 2013

The End of Hibernation

I think I’m finally ready for a return to blogging.  A lot has been happening since I last posted – mostly, this stupid degree has been dragging on far longer than it needed to and I couldn’t in good conscience keep up with a blog while I was supposed to be writing a dissertation.  But by the end of May this nightmare will be over, and I will have time again to devote myself completely to my writing passion!

Well, for two months, anyway.  In August I’ll be distracted again by another major project in the form of a mini-person.  I don’t intend to let this devolve into a mommy-blog, a topic already done to death by much better writers than myself, but you can rest assured you’ll have to wade through a couple of anecdotes that I will find far funnier and cuter than you will.  Bear with this first-time mom and her oxytocin rush.  Nevertheless I intend to stick around this time, for good – and I imagine that blogging and writing will take center stage as a welcome diversion from the insanity of infant preoccupations.

I have ten days to go on this degree, and then it’s game on with the blogging!

06 October 2012

Things Short-haired People Don’t Understand

This should really be titled, “Husband – JUST READ THIS AND QUIT NAGGING ME.”  But I figured I’d write for a more general audience, so here you go – things you people who’ve never had long hair need to know about my lifestyle, because sometimes it just doesn’t seem to get through.

1.  I need more shampoo than you.

Your hair is like ONE INCH long.  At most.  In some places it’s shorter than your eyebrow hair.  You don’t shampoo your eyebrows, do you?  Why should you need to shampoo that part of your scalp at all?  But even so, for the sake of this discussion let’s assume your hair is one inch long, and mine is ten inches long.  I will need to use – you guessed it – TEN TIMES AS MUCH shampoo as you to get the same amount of coverage on my hair.  So don’t be telling me I’m using too much shampoo.  I’m using twice as much shampoo as you.  Three times at most.  So really, YOU are the one using too much shampoo. 

2.  I should not shampoo every day.

The thing about short hair is that it has not been on your head long.  ALL of your hair on your entire head has been there for less time than the bit of hair that’s two inches away from my head.  I did extensive, thorough research on this subject (thank you, Answers.com) and have determined that hair grows at a rate of about half an inch per month.  That means ALL YOUR HAIR has been around a maximum of, say, three or four months.  Mine?  These ends have been with me for two YEARS.  So while you can happily destroy your hair by shampooing away replenishing scalp oils every single day because you’re not even going to see that hair half a year from now, I NEED that oil to maintain this mane I hope will still be treating me right two years down the road.  I don’t want some kind of split-end mutiny on my hands.  Do you even know what split ends are?  Can you get a split end in three months?

This applies to hair dye too, by the way.  When I go to dye my hair, I’ve got to worry about how it’s going to affect my look two years down the road.  How old am I going to be?  What will I be doing with my life?  Will this affect any future job I could try to get?  Because some colors are easier to dye over than others.  I’m just lucky I can go back to brown whenever I have to – I salute all you brave blondes out there.

3. Your bad haircut is as nothing compared to my bad haircut.

Again, if you get a bad haircut, the absolute longest you have to worry about it is three months.  And I’m pretty sure in two weeks it’s going to settle in just fine and you can get it fixed, no problem.  You can move on with your life.  Two weeks isn’t even long enough to really notice the roots under my dye job.  When my hairstylist messes up, she chops off three extra INCHES, not millimeters – and we’ve already discussed that it can take months to recover from that kind of error. 

Now, you may be saying, “But you still have a lot of hair to keep cutting and get the shape right.”  NO.  If I wanted to take another three inches off my hair, I would have done it the FIRST time.  Now I have to wait another SIX MONTHS to get it even to the point where it SHOULD HAVE BEEN WHEN I WENT IN.  That’s HALF A FREAKING YEAR.  If I want to cut more off and reshape it, I basically have to resign myself to an entirely different hairstyle and look.  Maybe I don’t even have the right clothes or earrings to pull off that mop.  I could have to invest in a whole new wardrobe.  So don’t tell me your awful haircut is worse than mine.

4.  My hair takes a lot longer than yours to get pretty every day.

If I want to do my hair and make it look actually pretty, it takes me an hour.  I have to do it in layers, one row at a time, getting each section right before I move on to the next part.  This is a complicated work of art I’m sculpting, here.  I’ve watched you short-haired people “doing your hair.”  It takes like ten minutes.  It doesn’t even involve any kind of iron.  So if I say I need to get ready to go out somewhere, you can assume that I need to get my hair done, and that’s going to add an hour to whatever time you were estimating for yourself.  And that’s assuming you’re also doing your makeup like I am.  No?  No makeup?  Add another half hour.  Being beautiful takes WORK, bitch.

5.  A ponytail is a legitimate hairstyle.

I don’t want to take an hour out of every single day to get my hair looking gorgeous.  You’ll be lucky if you get that once a week.  Once a week for me is about equivalent to all the time you’ve racked up over the week doing your hair daily, anyway.  If I don’t do my hair up nice, though, it’s utterly hideous because I also have curly hair (and that is just a whole other rant for later).  It’s not only ugly, it gets in my way.  I can put up with it getting in my way if it’s pretty, but if it’s going to be hideous too then that is just unacceptable.  So if I shove my hair up in a ponytail all day long, DO NOT make fun of me and my childish-looking hairstyle.  It’s convenient and comfortable.  End of discussion.

I hope you’ve learned something.

24 July 2012

Is it a healthy sense of caution if you’re constantly envisioning your own death?

I’m on a plane over New Mexico right now (well, not right now right now, when I’m posting this or you’re reading this.  I mean maybe I am.  It’s just a highly unlikely coincidence.)

I’ve been saying to a lot of people lately that I’m not afraid of flying, and I see now that I was so, so very wrong about that.  I thought I was telling the truth.  But sitting on this plane right now, I don’t actually think I’ve gone a whole minute without being fully aware of a pervasive sense that I’m stuck in a poorly ventilated tin can death trap.

Let me give you (future me who’s reading this and trying to convince herself she’s really not afraid of flying) a few examples that I’ve come to realize do not connote a healthy level of fear:

1. As I sent that last-minute text to my husband before I had to turn the phone off on the tarmac, I wondered whether he would think to post my message to my friends on FB when I died so they could know the last sweet sentiment I said to anyone I loved.

2. I’ve repeatedly cycled through all my dozens of plane crash stories, trying to figure out which one best applies to my current flying environment and whether I’d die if any one of a wide variety of malfunction or human-error scenarios occurs.

3. When we lifted off I was looking out the window watching the city get smaller and smaller, and with every miniscule lag in acceleration (typical of even a successful takeoff), I was Zen-preparing myself to watch that ground start to tilt and get bigger again.

4. I was pretty convinced that the drawn-out grinding sound I heard on the ascent was an engine failing.

5. I practically ran back from the bathroom because there was a small jolt of turbulence and I needed to get back to the safety of my seatbelt before a panel ripped off the plane and I got sucked out the hole like that one lady did in that one Cracked article I read that one time.

6. When we landed on my first flight we turned into the airport at an angle, and all I could imagine was the plane barrel-rolling out of control and plummeting into the earth.

7. Whenever we went into a cloud I was ready for the moment another unseen plane collided headlong with ours, and I couldn’t decide just how likely I was to even know what hit me in the fractions of a second it’d take for me to get crushed or exploded to death. (I mean in a head-on collision, our plane and the other plane would each probably be going ~500 mph for an effective speed of ~1000 mph, or 450 m/s, and if our plane was in the neighborhood of 100m long, then at row 25 I’d be dead in about a tenth of a second and it’s arguable whether all of that sensory information could manifest a conscious acknowledgement in that time, although I have a sinking feeling I might get to enjoy a few milliseconds of perfect imminent-death awareness. P.S. that is why you learn algebra, my friends.)

I know that air travel is safe.   I know this.  I know that even if problems occur I’m likely to make it out just peachy.  But none of that matters when you’re dealing with a phobia.  Talking yourself out of a death phobia is pretty useless.

And I still fly.  Regularly, even.  At the beach I still swim out into water that’s probably deep enough to hold great white sharks and I inadvertently do my best injured seal impression trying to stay afloat.  I’m totally willing to drive on the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway even though I’m pretty sure the bridge is going to collapse and I’m going to survive both the impact and the threat of drowning only to be shredded alive by a pack of ravenous alligators.  I sometimes even lean against railings on high balconies, although that just seems foolhardy when I can get the same view just standing near the edge rather than risking death-by-shoddy-railing-craftsmanship.

It’s just I feel nauseous every single time I get on a plane.