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.