Poor? Mentally Ill? Sorry, You’re on Your Own.

Poverty and mental illness have something in common.

There is a stigma attached to both.

Both are seen as moral failings. If only people tried harder, worked more, improved themselves, they could lift themselves out of poverty. Without relying on anyone else’s help, which would be shameful.

And if only people stopped being so negative, looked on the bright side, smiled more, thought more about others, their positive mental attitude would make all those shrinks and pills unnecessary. They wouldn’t be shooting people with assault rifles and sucking up tax dollars for disability payments, which is shameful.

Society can’t afford poverty and it can’t afford mental illness. Why should we make the effort when the poor and the mentally disturbed don’t?

Why should these two conditions both be associated with such stigma and for such similar reasons? It’s simple. People don’t want to think that poverty or mental illness could happen to them.

The truth, however, is that a vast number of Americans are living one paycheck or one illness away from poverty, and one in four or five Americans will face a mental or emotional disorder at some point in their lives. And they are afraid. So they tell themselves that the conditions only affect Other People. And those people must be stupid or lazy or unmotivated or something, or they wouldn’t be poor or mentally ill in the first place.

And that’s where stigma begins.

And what are the consequences of stigma?

Well, first of all, it means that no one wants to spend money alleviating either condition. If these Other People can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and improve, the thinking goes, why should we pay them not to? Job training programs, child care, higher minimum wage, insurance coverage, community mental health centers, treatment programs for addiction, need to be paid for some way, but not with our tax dollars, by God!

And it means we don’t want to look at the Other People for fear of seeing ourselves. Don’t put halfway houses, group homes, unemployment offices, treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals, and other reminders in our neighborhoods. Not In My Backyard!

It’s not just a failure of compassion, though it’s that too. It’s not just a failure of the social “safety net,” though it certainly is that as well. It’s also a failure of the imagination – what would it be like if poverty or mental illness should happen to me? The reality is too unpleasant to think about, so don’t.

And while we’re talking about unpleasant, let’s mention the place where poverty and mental illness intersect – homelessness. Don’t we assume that homeless people are both poor and mentally ill? As such, spending money on them is doubly wasted. Why bother? It’s not like it’s going to help. Poverty, homelessness, and mental illness are incurable, after all. (Unless a person can cure their problems without outside help, of course.)

So what’s my stake in all this? Am I a bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder who wants to cure society’s ills and make us all foot the bill for it?

Well, yeah.

But I’m also living month to month on my income. My husband makes only a bit over minimum wage. We have both, at one time or another during our lives, been on unemployment and/or food stamps. We have no nest egg or emergency fund. It wouldn’t take much in the way of reversals to wipe us out. Even at that, we’re relatively privileged.

And I have a mental illness – bipolar disorder 2. Without insurance, I could not afford to see a psychiatrist, or buy medication (one of mine costs $800 per month), or get inpatient treatment if I ever need it. Right now my condition is moderately well controlled, but if I should suffer a setback, I might not be able to work at all. And there we are, back at poverty.

These two unfortunate conditions – poverty and mental illness – affect me directly, so I can’t look away and say they only happen to Other People. I know that they affect others more severely than they do me, and I don’t know how those people make it through.

But I do know that stigma isn’t helping any of us.

When Your Friend Is Depressed

…And by “depressed,” I mean clinically depressed – the sort that has no apparent reason and lasts for weeks or even months. Your friend is not just sad, but feeling hopeless, helpless, discouraged, defeated. even immobilized. She or he may not want to go anywhere or do anything that used to bring happiness. You may even detect a dullness – called “flat affect” – in the person’s voice, a lack of animation, often combined with monosyllabic responses.

What can you do to help your friend?

At first it may seem like the answer is “not much.” And that’s partly true. What your friend really needs is probably help from a mental health professional and possibly from antidepressant medication.

There are, however a few things you can do to help your friend – and a few things you shouldn’t do, not because they will make your friend’s condition worse, but because they simply won’t help.

Let’s start with the things you can do.

Keep reaching out. Even if your friend doesn’t respond, refuses your invitations or doesn’t show up, know that the simple act of staying in touch says that you like the person even though she’s having a hard time and that you won’t abandon her. Make no mistake, many people will. Even if your friend is unable to respond, when she finally does get some relief from the depression, she will realize and remember who stuck by her during the depths. Surely you can spare a minute or two for a phone call or email a couple of times a month. You may think it won’t make a difference, but it will.

Offer to help with practical matters. If your friend has decided to get professional help, you can make doing that easier. You may not realize it, but the simple acts of getting up, dressed, and out of the house can seem insurmountable to him. Offer to drive him to his appointments or to the pharmacy to pick up his prescriptions. Give him a pill caddy to help him remember to take his meds every day.

Imagine your friend is physically ill. In a way, she is. The depression is a result of a neurochemical imbalance in her brain. What would you do if a friend were recovering from an illness or perhaps surgery, or even the death of a loved one? Bring her a hot meal once in a while or pick up an extra sandwich if you’re getting one for yourself? Offer to do laundry or another household chore? Enlist other friends to help? Pray for her healing and tell her you are doing so? None of this will make your friend magically well, but they can help her through the worst phases of a depressive episode while she’s waiting for medication to take effect (which may take as long as six weeks).

There are also some things that you shouldn’t do for your friend because they simply will not work. Here’s a brief list.

Don’t try to “fix” him. As much as you may care, you do not have the power to make it all better. Trying to do that will only frustrate both of you. Leave your psychological theories and miracle cures at home.

Don’t give “pep talks.” Telling your friend to snap out of it or to smile more or to think of others who have it worse will not alter his brain chemistry for the better. He most likely won’t be able to appreciate jokes and humor, either, even if he did before the depression.

Don’t expect quick results. Clinical depression lasts for weeks or months, or in some cases even years. It’s frustrating to see your friend suffering for that long, but if your friend sees you give up, she may too.

Don’t ignore suicidal talk. Suicide is a real risk for a depressed person, even if he is getting professional help. Most people who kill themselves give warnings – they talk about being better off dead or give away their possessions. Stay with your friend. Make sure he has the number of a suicide hotline. Call his therapist. Take him to an emergency room.

My advice for someone who lives with a depressed person is similar: Do what you can and realize what you can’t do. If you truly care about the person and stick with him or her through the bad times, you may find one day that you have your friend or loved one back – maybe not as good as new, but on the way to getting better.

That’s when you’ll find that all your efforts have been worth it. Helping a depressed friend survive and heal is an accomplishment not to be taken lightly.

Hungry Children: A One-Act Play

Sharing food with the needy

[Setting: The Halls of Power]

Guy in Suit: The media keep saying that there are hungry children in America.

Other Guy in Suit: Let them eat dinner.

Bleeding-Heart: That’s the problem. They don’t have dinner to eat. Or even breakfast maybe.

GIS: We already give them lunch at school. That’s five days a week.

B-H: Unless they’re absent or on vacation or a snow day.

OGIS: Then it’s the parents’ problem.

GIS: Why do schoolchildren have so many vacations, anyway? We don’t get all those vacations.

B-H: Uh, yes you do.

GIS: Oh. Well, never mind that now. We were talking about tax cuts…uh, job creators…uh, feeding children. That was it.

OGIS: Suppose the media are right?

GIS: The media are never right unless we tell them what to say.

OGIS: Well, just suppose. For a minute. OK? The problem I see is that it looks good for us to feed poor, hungry, starving American children. By the way, are they as pitiful-looking as poor, starving foreign children?

GIS: Probably not. You were saying?

OGIS: If there are hungry children, and we do need to feed them, how are we supposed to do that without feeding the lousy, lazy, good-for-nothing moochers at the same time?

GIS: Ah, yes, the parents. If we give the parents anything, it should be one bag of rice and one bag of beans. And — hey — they could feed their kids that too.

B-H: But children need good nutrition — fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals and enough to keep them full and healthy.

OGIS: Hey, we have plenty of minerals left over after fracking. Won’t those do?

B-H: No.

GIS: But if we give kids all that fancy food, what’s to keep the parents from eating it?

OGIS: Or selling it for booze or cigarettes or drugs?

GIS: Think about that! The drug dealers would be getting all the good nutrition. Then they could run faster from the police.

OGIS: We can’t have that, now can we?

B-H: But…the hungry children? Remember? Eating at most one meal a day, five days a week, when school is in session?

GIS: That’s plenty. I heard American children are obese, anyway. They could stand to lose a little weight.

[Curtain]

 

I thought it was time to revisit this post when my husband and I visited IHOP for their No Kid Hungry promotion, which raised money for www.nokidhungry.org. (You can donate at their website. I did. Besides buying all those pancakes.)

I was also reminded of a conversation I had with someone who works in the education sector. She was at a conference, talking with a group of teachers. One of them mentioned how many snow days they had that year and my friend responded, “Oh, boy! I bet the kids loved that!” There was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the teachers spoke up. “On a snow day,” she said, “many kids don’t get to eat. The only real meal that they get is at school.”

My friend had never thought about that, and neither had I. We both came from times and places when there was always food in the fridge and a hot dinner on the table. Sometimes we forget that life isn’t like that for everyone.

In this election year, we’ll hear a lot about welfare and funding for schools and improvements in educational policy. Childhood hunger may not be mentioned, but it is intimately tied up with all those issues.

You can donate to local food banks and charities. You can work with nokidhungry.org. Or you can leave it up to the Guys in Suits, for whatever they think it’s worth.

Seven Reasons I Hate the Bloggess

Red heart, studded with apins isolated on a white background. 3d render

First, let me say that I read the Bloggess all the time. I have her books and I read them all the time too. But secretly I hate her, and here’s why.

1. She had a weirder childhood than I did. She lived in a small Texas town full of farm critters and wild animals, and weird characters, including her father the taxidermist, and has interesting poverty stories, like the one about the bread-sack shoes. I lived in a nondescript middle-class suburb with a stay-at-home mom and a dad that went to work every day smelling of Vitalis and Aqua Velva, rather than deer blood.

(This was also the problem I had trying to write country songs. You can’t get very far with “I was born an industrial engineering technician’s daughter/in the Central Baptist Hospital of Lexington, KY.”)

2. She had more interesting pets, with more interesting names than I did. She had a raccoon named Rambo that wore Jams and a delinquent turkey named Jenkins. Later she had a dog named Barnaby Jones Pickles and has cats named Ferris Mewler and Hunter S. Thomcat. We had dogs named Blackie and Bootsie and rabbits named Christina and Mittens. Our recent dogs have been Karma and Bridget, and the only eccentric cat names we’ve bestowed have been Django and Dushenka.

(Ordinarily, I don’t like cat names like Baryshnikat and F. Cat Fitzgerald. I think cat names should be something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to yell out the door if one of them wanders off, like Louise or Garcia. But I suppose the Bloggess’s neighbors are by now used to anything.)

3. She has more interesting disorders than I do. I have a bad back and bipolar disorder type 2 (and a blog about it, bipolarjan.wordpress.com). The Bloggess has generalized anxiety disorder, anti-phospholipid syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and, apparently, an obsession with chupacabras and vaginas. This gives her much more to write about. Although I do have two blogs. Two! In your face, Bloggess!

4. She’s less inhibited than I am. The Bloggess would have ended that last paragraph, “In your face, motherfucker!” I didn’t learn to cuss till I was in my 20s and no one I meet ever believes I swear until I do. Then they’re shocked. Also, I swear all the time, except in my blogs, where I’m afraid I’ll offend readers, all of whom I assume have tender sensibilities. The Bloggess knows her readers better than that.

5. She has way more readers than I do. And she’s published books and has another coming out. I have 495 followers and I think most of them want to sell me books on how to publicize my blog. I should probably study a book like that, but I’d rather read ones about emerging viruses, cloud cities on Venus, and mostly true memoirs. On the other hand, I have the distinction of being the only writer ever to have articles in both Catechist and Black Belt magazines. So take that, moth . . . Bloggess!

6. She and her husband have more interesting arguments than my husband and I do. We never even talk quietly about whether Jesus was a zombie.

7. She has a stronger voice than I do. I mean her writing voice. I had no idea what her speaking voice was like until I saw a video clip of her on the web, talking about vaginas. But when I’m going to write in my blogs, I have to lay off reading her for a day or two, because her voice takes over my weak, tiny mind and it wants to sound like her. I wish I could write like that. Or at least as well as that.jennyme

But, like the Bloggess, I am a strangeling. And that’s a start.

The Other Sex Talk

I’ve never had the “sex talk” that all people – both parents and children – seem to dread. I’m not a parent and when I was a child I received my technical understanding of reproduction from a health class film, which left a lot to the imagination, and the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, which filled in a lot of gaps that the health film skipped right over. (The film referred to a menstrual period as “the weeping of a disappointed uterus.” Ick.)

erotic education button on computer pc keyboard keyBut that’s not the sex talk I mean. This is the sex talk for consenting adults that hardly anyone has but everyone needs to. It’s divided into two sections: The Health Chat and the Pleasure Chat. It’s best to conduct these conversations when everyone is still clothed and not engaged in heavy breathing. I would recommend choosing a time and place not conducive to sex – a park, for example. Both parties need time to consider the discussion before deciding whether to proceed.

The Health Chat

The easier part of the health chat is discussing birth control/safe sex. What method does each partner typically use or prefer? Barrier methods? Hormonal? Does either person have an allergy to latex? These are things it’s better to know beforehand.

So far the health chat has been fairly smooth and non-threatening. Next comes the part that too many people skip because it’s just so uncomfortable to talk about: STDs. Herpes and HIV infections are the most serious, as there is no cure for either, and both carry enormous stigma. But those are the very reasons potential partners must talk about them. They’re not just potential surprises but possibly life-changing ones.

STDs can be a deal-breaker. Talking about them in advance can eliminate the possibility of a revelation at an inopportune moment and give the other person a chance to consider the risks, the seriousness, the forms of protection, do research, or even discuss the subject with a physician.

How do you do this delicate dance? Be forthright, but not panicky. “I know we’re both thinking about having sex, but I need to tell you something. I have a herpes infection.” Explain what you’re doing about it. “I’ve been on anti-virals for over a year and haven’t had an outbreak in that time. I always use condoms, even when I’m not having an outbreak.” Then back off. “I’m sure you’ll want to think about this, maybe learn some more about it, before we decide whether to go further. And that’s okay. If you decide not to, I respect your decision.” There, that takes what? Two minutes? Three? (Working yourself up to having the conversation may take a tad bit longer.) But ethically, it’s something you need to do.

It’s also legitimate to ask if your prospective partner habitually practices safe sex. “I didn’t use condoms with my last girlfriend, but she was a very nice woman” is not a good enough answer. That nice person’s last partner might at some point have had sex with a diseased goat. The point is, you just don’t know. The safe option then is for you both to get tested. I once advised  a friend who was in this situation of what his hero Ronald Reagan said: “Trust, but verify.”

The Pleasure Chat

It can be best to check out with your partner what activities he or she finds enjoyable. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be very important. Again, it’s something you might want to discuss before you’re close to getting it on, to prevent knee-jerk reactions that might spoil an otherwise good time.

If both of you enjoy mainstream, middle-of-the road sex, that’s fine. But one or both of you may also like the more kinky side of things. Better to talk about it than be surprised when someone approaches an unexpected orifice or brings out an unfamiliar sex toy.

One saying in the kink community is that sex should be safe, sane, and consensual. It’s better to discuss the safety and sanity, and get the consent, before proceeding.

Also, discussing these matters beforehand gives you a chance to think seriously about what your boundaries are – what things you absolutely don’t want to do, what you might try once as an experiment, and what you’ve never done but have no objection to. You can also take time to ask yourself whether you are reacting automatically or have actually thought about the questions raised. Your instant instinct might be “Ew,” but on further reflection you might say, “I’ve never thought I’d like that, but if it gives my partner pleasure, maybe I could try it and see.” From these reflections can grow more varied – and more fulfilling – sex lives.

Talking about sex can be scary, or erotic, or sensible, or just plain necessary. One thing’s for sure. If you can’t have a sex talk with someone, you shouldn’t be having sex with that person.

 

(This is for my friend John and others who informed my thinking on these issues.)

 

The Power of the Purr

My father hated cats – until he cared for Bijou.

His feelings toward cats had their roots in his childhood. Once his mother was bitten by a stray cat that she was trying to help. For that, my father held a grudge. Bijou changed his mind.

Bijou was a smallish tortoiseshell calico, my very first cat. I picked her out of a roomful of cats at the shelter because of her gentle demeanor and because her quiet ways didn’t seem to garner a lot of attention from the other prospective pet owners. Over the years she became a cuddlesome kitty who slept curled up in one of the curves of my body, behind my knees or snuggled by my waist, safe and cozy and sharing warmth.

When my husband and I went on our honeymoon, I asked my parents to look after Bijou. I knew my dad’s feelings about cats, but I felt sure he could at least give her food and water, if not warm up to and love on her as she liked.

My father had cancer – multiple myeloma – a particularly vicious form of bone cancer. It was hard for him to move about, so when he went to our house, he usually ensconced himself in the barrel-backed chair while my mother did the honors filling food and water bowls.

But then Bijou jumped up on his lap.

And purred.

She had been avoiding us a bit before we left, preferring to take up residence under the bed or behind the sofa. We thought it was just a normal reaction to all the confusion and chaos surrounding a wedding.

Actually, she had feline leukemia. She was isolating, as cats often do when they don’t feel well. Maybe the stress of the wedding preparations caused her disease to become active. Maybe it was just her time.

Whatever it was, it touched my father. He had never been one for cancer support groups with names like “Make Today Count.” But one small cat, purring her way through pain and illness that would ultimately defeat her reached him the way nothing else could.

Maybe he saw in her the tenacity in the face of suffering that he too would need. Maybe he read her purr as acceptance of her lot in life. Maybe he saw a cat with every reason to strike out at someone choosing instead to jump up and purr.

However she did it, Bijou changed his mind about cats.

Finding Balance – Literally

We always hear about finding balance – between work and home, family and career, mind and body, heart and head.

My struggle for balance is more literal. My struggle for balance is about not finding myself on the floor with new bruises on my tush.

A number of factors influence my struggle for balance. Various parts of my body are in quiet or open rebellion.

I often joke that I have rocks in my head, but really they are in my ears. Otoliths (literally, “ear rocks”) are tiny calcium crystals that live in the inner ear and bump up against the little hair cells that send information to the brain about gravity and balance – which way the head and body are moving.

Unfortunately, if the little bits of calcium start rattling around loose in the “vestibular organs” (balance centers) of the ear, the brain senses movement when there isn’t any. The result: dizziness, vertigo, loss of balance. Technically, this is called Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV).

Practically, what it means is that moving my head in certain directions – such as tilting my head backward, especially with my eyes closed – makes me wobbly and prone to falling. This makes showering and shampooing tricky, even without the slippery surfaces, water, and suds.

(An extreme version of this, particularly when there is a sinus or ear infection, is called “labyrinthitis,” which I have also experienced. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk. The room spins. Then you crawl to the toilet and throw up. Repeatedly. The usual treatment is antihistamines such as Antivert or Benadryl.)

Then there are my back and my toes. The two are not as far apart as you might think. What connects them are nerves. And my nerves are frayed.

That’s not just figurative. I have bulging disks between the vertebrae in my back. A number of years ago, some of the bone in my lower back deteriorated and the combination caused a pinched nerve. I had pain in my back, of course, but also in various areas of my legs that were served by that particular nerve. An operation relieved the pain, but there was some residual damage to the nerve.

Now I have no feeling in the three smallest toes on my left foot. You’d be surprised at how much those baby toes have to do with balance. I was. The nerves have healed all they’re going to, so this is it.

How do I achieve balance?

Sometimes I walk with a cane. I try to avoid uneven ground, which pretty much means anything that isn’t paved or as flat as a golf green. I stand with my feet farther apart than most people. I don’t stand on my toes, largely because I can’t, or stand on one foot or with my eyes closed. I would absolutely fail any drunk-driving test that involves those skills.

Indoors, I do something that I’ve learned is called “wall-walking” (which is different than climbing the walls, something I do quite well figuratively). In my own home, where I don’t usually use my cane, I try to keep a light, finger-tip touch on the wall, a door, a bookshelf, or anything else handy. I don’t lean my weight on it. It simply gives me a solid, unmoving point of reference. It’s sort of like when tightrope walkers use a long pole to help keep their balance, or when a gentleman extends a hand to help a lady step down from her carriage. (Depending on whether you’re at the circus or in a romance novel.)

So. I know what you’re thinking. You think I am a decrepit old lady and should just get over it.

But what if I told you I am only 25?

In truth, I am not 25. I am at the age when one begins to worry about aging.

But I was 25 when I started getting labyrinthitis. And even younger the first time I damaged my lower back.

The point is, mobility and balance issues are not limited to the elderly. Back operations and pinched nerves can happen at any age – for example, after a car accident. Some neurological conditions strike young adults.

Finding balance can be hard at any age.

 

The Ups and Downs of Positivity

The only thing making you unhappy are your own thoughts. Change them. 

When it rains, it pours…but soon, the sun shines again. Stay positive.

I see lots of posts and pass-alongs like these on Facebook: memes claiming that all our problems are in our heads and that we have the ability to change our circumstances by changing our thoughts.

With apologies to Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen, I have trouble with the whole positive thinking movement. My back pain makes me unhappy. My brain chemistry won’t let me control my thoughts (I’m bipolar). Thinking about being rich does not attract money to me. Ordinarily I view positive thinking as wishful thinking.

But I know many people believe in positive thinking and its ability to change their lives. So I set up a little hypothetical dialogue. On one side is Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. I have selected quotations from her book, particularly those dealing with health, and juxtaposed them with comments from Leslie Larkins, who embraces positive thinking.

Larkins, a former scientist, has always been extremely rational, so it surprised me that her outlook is informed by positive thinking. And she has plenty that she could be negative about. Larkins has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), and had a bout with breast cancer and a surgical mistake that (if not caught) would have subjected her to a completely unnecessary mastectomy. At various times in her life, she has also been treated for depression.

Larkins says that her embrace of positivity came with her MS diagnosis: “When I realized that the problems I had been having at work – trouble with focus, forgetting things – had an actual cause and I accepted that I couldn’t continue to do my job, it was actually a little bit of a relief because I had been feeling out of control for a year or so and couldn’t understand why….I did a lot of research on MS and realized that I could end up in a wheelchair any time, so if I wanted to do something in my life, I shouldn’t put it off. That thought was actually quite empowering to me.”

Ehrenreich, in the first part of Bright-Sided, focuses on the breast cancer movement, particularly the pink-ribbon side of things: “Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world, to the point that unhappiness requires a kind of apology….The cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease….[I]t requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer.”

She quotes Cindy Cherry, who stated in The Washington Post: “If I had to do it over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely. I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not. Money doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve met the most phenomenal people in my life through this. Your friends and family are what matter now.”

Larkins responds: “Thankfully I did not have to have the ‘full cancer experience’ because I didn’t have chemo and therefore didn’t lose my hair, so I was kind of a stealth cancer patient and could only tell people who I wanted to know. I wasn’t forced into ‘breast cancer culture.’ I also was in a place where I could handle the emotional issues myself, so I didn’t encounter the support groups and such. I think the ‘Cheer up, it’s good for you’ comes from people who don’t know what to do or say, trying to help when they have no idea what’s going on.”

She adds, “I definitely would not want cancer and I would not want MS, but I do really understand this one. I sometimes joke that being diagnosed with MS was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced/allowed me to focus on the present, not the sins of the past and not the possible mistakes or failed plans of the future. Once I started doing that and it became a habit, it became much less likely that I would fall into the despair of those worries. It was definitely a paradigm shift for my outlook.”

Larkins’s scientific rationality may have helped her as much as or more than the positive thinking movement. At least it gave her a logical base for embracing positivity. “I think having the medical background and a good handle on statistics and human psychological reactions to probability helped me think clearly about all of it, rather than letting it bury me in despair,” she says. “I think it mostly allowed me to stand back and see what I was doing in my head from an objective view.”

Larkins and Ehrenreich also disagree on the benefits of psychology and support groups. According to Ehrenreich, “Psychotherapy and support groups might improve one’s mood, but they did nothing to overcome [my] cancer.” Indeed, a claim that a psychological uplift can cause a remission in cancer seems (to me, at least) both unwarranted and unprovable.

Larkins, however, swears by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, not for its cancer-killing results (if any), but for its influence on her ability to deal with her various diagnoses. She does see a distinction between “positive thinking” and CBT (don’t Google the acronym, she warns).

“Positive thinking can be a result of CBT,” she says, “but if you just say ‘I’m going to think positive thoughts’ you will end up frustrated. CBT is the method for changing how your brain functions, and it does, indeed, change your brain physically.”

She explains the process: “The more you think about something – an event or a problem – the stronger the neural connections that make up that memory become. My analogy is that it’s like carving a groove or rut in a path by going over and over it again and again …. As the groove gets deeper, it’s easier to fall into it any time you get close to it. By consciously stopping yourself from treading that same neural path, and actively carving another one that has more positive, pleasurable feelings associated with it, you allow that groove to smooth out and the new, positive one to take its place ….

“It’s not that I never fall into a repeating loop of self-recrimination, but if I catch myself there, I consciously tell myself to go down another path, one that I’ve predetermined so as to have it ready and at hand when I need it. It has gotten much easier with practice….”

Back over to Ehrenreich: “Breast cancer… gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift,’ …  a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

“[I]f you’re denying feelings, you’re doing psychotherapy wrong,” Larkins insists. “You’re also doing meditation and CBT wrong. It’s not about denying, it’s about experiencing them, evaluating them and deciding consciously if they are doing you good or harm.”

Nor is positive thinking the only method Larkins used for alleviating her depression. “Medication definitely helped!” she says. “When I’ve gone off the SSRIs [antidepressants] entirely, I found myself getting weepy and feeling out of control, even though I could see, objectively, that I was OK and even reasonably happy. The meds allow me to control my brain enough to take control of my brain, if that makes sense.”

What about other areas of life? Positive thinking has been touted as an answer for everything from poverty to relationship issues. Ehrenreich explains, “People who had been laid off from their jobs and were spiraling down toward poverty were told to see their condition as an ‘opportunity’ to be embraced, just as breast cancer is often depicted as a ‘gift.’…In fact, there is no kind of problem or obstacle for which positive thinking or a positive attitude has not been proposed as a cure.”

“This,” says Larkins, “I see as a struggle to make sense of and control an uncontrollable world. The same way that religious people call everything ‘God’s will’ or less religious folks say ‘[E]verything happens for a reason’ as a way to feel better about bad things….I think a lot of the ‘positive thinking’ rhetoric is more [a way] of actively distracting yourself from dwelling on the bad things. If you’re not predisposed to depression, that may be a workable method. If you already have malfunctioning brain chemistry, it’s not likely to help, but concentrated cognitive therapy can.”

As for me, I try to notice positive things in the world (which means not watching very much news); I try to add positivity to the world by thanking servers, clerks, cashiers, my husband – anyone who helps me in the course of a day; I appreciate things that make me laugh; I try to find some little thing I can agree with, even if I disagree with most of what a person says. I give myself permission to feel rotten when I feel rotten, but know that it won’t last forever. I do the best I can.

 

My In-Law and My Ink

I expected a total freak out. I really did. So I tried to work it into a phone conversation as naturally as I could.

“Say Mom, did Dan tell you I got a tattoo?”

Instead of the expected shriek, I got a fairly calm query.(1) “Where?”(2)

If I were being a smart ass I would have said “At Monkey Bones Tattoos.” But I took the sensible route for a change and said, “On the inside of my left wrist.”

Then she asked, “What did you get?”

Again, any number of possible responses crossed my mind. But I decided to play it straight and told her the truth: “I got a semi-colon.”(3)

The next obvious question was, “Why?”

I could have said because I’m a huge grammar nerd, which would have been the truth about me, but not about the tattoo.

I explained as best I could. The semi-colon tattoo is a symbol of mental health awareness and suicide prevention. I rushed through the grammatical part of the explanation: In writing a semi-colon is a place where the writer could have stopped, but chose to go on. The idea is that someone will see the tattoo (4) and ask about it. Then you can explain the symbolism and how you are trying to combat the stigma of talking about mental illness. Like I just did.

I wrote about this on my other blog, Bipolar Me (https://bipolarjan.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/a-tattoo-is-for-life/) when I first got the tattoo, so if you saw it there, I apologize for the repetition.

Actually, no I don’t. The message is one that bears repeating, as often as we can and in as many ways as we can. You know someone with a mental illness(5) and that person is afraid to talk about it because of the stigma that still exists around the subject. I have bipolar disorder, type 2, and I talk about it all the time on my Bipolar Me blog.

Talking about mental illness is risky. You often get one of the standard reactions: a fixed, awkward smile; unwelcome advice about cinnamon or apple cider vinegar; outright disbelief; a decrease in contact with that person; sudden bad reviews at work. Perhaps worst of all, you get, “Isn’t that what the guy who just shot up the shopping mall had?”

Ordinarily, I post to my blog on Sunday. But this is National Suicide Prevention Week, so I wanted to post now. You can find out more about the tattoos at http://www.projectsemicolon.com/.

As Mom R. said about my tattoo, “It’s for a good cause.”

 

(1) My father-in-law was a Navy man and sported a few of the more common nautical tattoos, so I guess Mom R. had had a while to get used to the idea. Anyway, at least she didn’t go all, “The body is the Temple of God” on me.

(2) Apparently this is the first required question if someone announces a tattoo. Unless it’s on your face, neck or other readily observable spot. I suspect that everyone who asks imagines that it is located some place at least mildly kinky.

(3) Monkey Bones is locally known for extreme, large, and disturbing tattoos, like zombie cows. (I’m not kidding, either.) I think they must have been so embarrassed at being asked to do a pitiful mark of punctuation that they hustled me in and out in ten minutes.

(4) And if we had been Skyping, Mom R. would have, but Skype has been glitchy lately since I changed browsers. So we have our weekly coffee chats over speakerphone. This prevents a lot of Dan handing me the phone and saying, “Here. Say hello to Mom.” Especially when I’m not prepared with any tidbits of conversation, like a new tattoo. Here’s a picture, if you’re curious:

finished
I guess Mike at Monkey Bones isn’t embarrassed after all.

(5) Depression, anxiety, OCD, ASD, whatever. I guarantee it. Someone you know is struggling, and may or may not be getting help for it. A semi-colon tattoo would show you care.

The Worst Sex-Ed Book. Ever.

Dr. Seuss is my all-time favorite author of children’s rhyming books. He did not write a sex education book.(1)

Shel Silverstein took over from Seuss as my favorite children’s poet. He did not write a sex-ed book either.(2)

IMHO, no one has equaled those two in writing rhyming books for children, though many have tried. Lord, how they’ve tried. And for the most part, failed miserably.

I once edited a magazine called Early Childhood News, which was intended for an audience of child care center owners, directors, and possibly staff. It was occasionally entertaining.(3) I got a lot of children’s books to review.(4)

Which is where the sex-ed and the poetry come in.(5)

One day an amazing book came across my desk. It was titled How Dad and Mother Made Your Brother, which should have been my first clue.

The book was obviously self-published. To say that it lacked the services of a professional editor and a professional illustrator would be a charming understatement.

The text was written (and illustrated) by a real medical doctor, so I guess that was one up on Dr. Seuss, but it didn’t help. The main characters were – I’m not kidding – Stanley Sperm and Essie Egg.

One memorable illustration(6) showed Stanley and Essie sitting on a bench, courting, I suppose. As I recall Essie had long eyelashes and Stanley had either a top hat or a bow tie. Maybe both. Behind them was the gate to a park, with a sign identifying the location as “Cervix.”

You can probably tell from the bow tie and the park bench that scientific accuracy was not the author’s primary concern. Also, Essie and Stanley were the same size.(7)

And now we get to the poetry. Here’s a sample. The author was attempting to tell where Stanley Sperm had lived, before he met the coy and comely Miss Essie. Somewhat confusingly, it seemed that Stanley had come from one or the other of two towns:

The towns are both named “Testicle”
and they look like two round eggs.
They’re not located on a map,
but between your Daddy’s legs.(8)

Do I have to say I did not review the book? (I thought not.)

I kept it for a time, though, to show disbelieving friends. And possibly as the basis for a party game, with each person reading aloud from it until exploding with laughter, when it would be passed on to the next reader.(9)

Of course, given the sex-ed books currently used in schools, there may be other texts out there that are just as bad, or at least as inaccurate. But for sheer unintentional awfulness, How Dad and Mother Made Your Brother has won its place in the annals of scary books that will make kids never want to have sex. Ever. That being the point of most sex education in schools anyway, as far as I can tell.

(1) That we know of. He did write advertising, so who really knows where he drew the line?
(2) Though he certainly could have. He’s the author/artist of Different Dances and the songwriter of “Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love Most.”
(3) The ad sales department once insisted I add a column about food, as they desperately wanted to attract Lunchables as a client. Yeah, right. Lunchables. For child care centers. I had no choice in the matter, except for the title of the column, which I made as repulsive as possible – “Food Digest.” Well, it amused me, anyway, even if no one else noticed.
(4) Also, sometimes companies sent me samples of toys they hoped I would promote in the magazine. Not sex toys, though. I also received, for some reason, an anti-circumcision newsletter. I used to count the number of times the word “foreskin” appeared in it, just to look busy.
(5) You were starting to wonder, weren’t you? Go on, admit it.
(6) I’ve been told that only shock treatment will erase it from my memory.
(7) Reminder: The author went to medical school and, presumably, graduated.
(8) I hope that’s enough of a sample, since it is the only verse I memorized. I do recall that the conception scene would have been a real production number, had the book ever made the transition to film.
(9) With bonus points awarded for imitating the voice of Bullwinkle the Moose or possibly Daffy Duck.