Monday, January 30, 2012

Abnormal Discussion Week 2: If People are not Labels, then People are not People

The theme of my night: People are not people. People = a label. Gotta love it. So people ARE labels, then?

I love this course material. PSY 424. I'm actually enjoying the material. Almost as much as I enjoy ethnic and feminist literature (I said ALMOST, don't get carried away...). The discussion posts made by most students in this on line course are, as you might imagine, much shorter and less...well, less...


Anyhow, I plan to post my discussion posts on my blog when I think they are worthy of being read by someone other than me.

QUESTION 1

Question Posed: Many people argue for a “people first” approach to clinical labeling, recommending, for example, the phrase “ a person with schizophrenia” rather than “a schizophrenic.” Why might this approach to labeling be preferable?

Simply put, it would be inaccurate, unnecessary and insensitive to use a label that describes one aspect of an entire person in order to characterize the entire person. While most of us know that a person is not her or his disorder, a person is not her or his sexual orientation, a person is not her or his physical condition; it is difficult for the majority of us to define what makes a person a person. We spend a great deal of time, as humans, trying to understand and develop our individual personalities. We are constantly bombarded with messages in the media that encourage us to define ourselves in terms of one of our preferences: what music we like, what coffee we drink, what kind of e-reader we use. The media banks (CHA-CHING!) on our desire to Be Somebody - to identify with something, to associate ourselves with something larger than ourselves. If we feel a sense of belonging and community in something (in a group, for instance), then we are likely to feel a certain degree of pride in the label attached to that community. If we feel isolated and alone in something (in a long-time struggle with a family member, for instance), the we are likely to feel a certain degree of shame in the labels and meanings attached to that struggle. In that regard, the degree of isolation and sense of belonging largely determine our perceptions and feelings about any given label. But, whether we shun or embrace a label, people are still not labels.

Even the term "people" is just a linguistic device created to for the purposes of communication and identification. Though it's hard to definitively say why or how, there does seem to be some human drive that propels us to create language in order to interact and communicate with others in the world. Speaking of language and labels, I was captivated and intrigued by Halgin and Whitbourne's description of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a "common language."  Though I doubt the authors considered the linguistic connotations and connections and interpretations that can be made in connection to the organization and delineation of disorders, their reference to a common language is a perfectly fitting and far-reaching descriptor. I appreciate the way in which the authors frame the language of disorder as a "common language" because it evokes the simplistic yet profound idea that we all espouse in some form or another: to engage in a common language. We seek, in our work environments, in our romantic relationships, in our home life, to create and relate a common understanding. We seek, and it is very natural and beneficial to do so, community and communion and communality. A common language can free us to be ourselves, but it can also confine us. It benefits us to identify with and feel part of a community. However, if we become so identified with and infiltrated into one community, or into the foundational language that creates that community, we may lose sight of ourselves as individuals within that community. We may even become so accustomed to the body of language that we cannot see or think beyond it.

Language is both the creation of community and the creator of community. Before spoken and non-spoken language, there existed a non-verbal, non-human realm communication. The movement and interaction of the elements is a very synchronous and cyclical form of communication. Non-human elements in the world interact and come together in various ways. Water is absorbed into the air and comes back down to earth in order to water the land that harnesses the seed from which something, in direct sun or in partial shadow, grows to feed a hungry land creature that puts something back into the soil to replace what it has taken. We could look at human communication the same way, were it not for the great many languages that have allowed us to define and redefine and deconstruct our natural place in and relationship with the world as well as the language of living. I very much see the common language of the DSM as having dual-roles as both explicator and creationist. I think the authors of "Abnormal Psychology: Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders" provide an excellent framework in Chapter 2 for understanding the purposeful yet limited and limiting nature of the DSM. It, like any language guide, provides its disciples and speakers (from varying backgrounds and at varying levels of fluency) with a evolving framework and instructive guide. It, like language, is a way of looking at something - it's a world view in and of itself because it creates a world view. As with any world view, there will always be limitations and contradictions with which its visionaries must contend.

In "The Dream of a Common Language," Adrienne Rich provides a poetic language for and about women by speaking in the language of women. Rich's collection of poems, separated into three sections, is, indeed, a "whole new poetry." The creation of a language arises when their is a need for such a language. The need exists because one of more members of a group, often a silenced and invisible majority or an oppressed minority group, desire to articulate their experiences in order to preserve their experiences and create a sense of community among themselves. More than anything, though, the language of the group is created in order to reach out to those outside the community in order to seek understanding and compassion from outsiders and oppressors in the hope that such an understanding will create change. The DSM was first developed in 1952 by the American Psychiatric Association. As in the case of Rich's poetic language, and the way it spoke to and about lesbians and marginalized/outsider women, the American Psychiatric Association sought to create a common language to speak to and about psychological disorders. It sought in its earliest form, on a very elemental level, to challenge misconceptions about mental health and unhealth as well as to create a communal resource and framework for, in which ratings and criteria and definitions could be used to connect insiders to one another and outsiders to insiders. It served and still serves as a tool to dispel stereotypes and stigmas that leave individuals with mental illness feeling isolated. It serves as a common language among mental health professionals as well as a way tool for those who have experienced mental illness to understand themselves and feel connected to the common language. And, for those outside of the mental health profession, it provides an informative framework into which the common language can be accessed, processed and comprehended. On the other side of that common language is the unfortunate fact that there will always be someone or something left out of that language. While language seeks to make outsiders insiders, it inevitably excludes and, therefore, creates outsidership. If there is a community to be in, there is also a community to be marginalized from.

Besides the limiting and dualistic nature of language itself, a common language always is vulnerable to misinterpretation and misuse. That is to say, sometimes we let the power of language go to our heads. Sometimes we forget that language is just language, becoming so caught up in the story of one common language that we lose our ability to interpret and experience the world in new ways, with new languages and new stories. That is my fear for the DMS and for the field of Clinical Psychology itself. The authors, however, do a wonderful job of calming my fears in their very comprehensive and sensitive presentation of the language. Halgin and Whitbourne offer us a very human-oriented and human-based approach to the subject of Abnormal Psychology, by providing us with the essentials of the common language while at the same time staying case (or individual) focused. They don't force us into a common language of dualistic labels; they, rather, apply the common language unobtrusively and without pretense into real life situations. I certainly have my own concerns about the ability of the powers that be in the mental health industry to influence and dictate our perception of mental health through their construction of a common language (with financial pressures from insurance companies to over-diagnose and overuse the label of disorder in order to suit the medical-model that allows the field of mental health to be a financial industry).

Anything that becomes part of what Minnie-Bruce Pratt calls "The Money Machine" is susceptible to becoming so caught up in the financial side of things that it loses its authenticity and effectiveness. Still, if the DSM is handled with care and thoughtfulness, as it was by the authors, I feel it can be a helpful common language. It all depends on the context and the individual situation - which is what the "people first" (and relationship-oriented) approach to clinical labeling is all about. I am curious about the theoretical background of the authors, since their style and approach appeals so much to me. I very much appreciate how attuned they are to the dimensionality of the individual. It's hard to read this chapter, even in light of the differing views that are presented, and not feel at ease about any fears you have about the dehumanization of the mental health diagnostic approach.

QUESTION 2

Consider the reasons why treatment is not always successful. How do the client’s insight, judgement, motivation, and ability to change affect treatment success? How do the clinician’s education, modality, competence, and theoretical orientation affect treatment success?

There are many things that might affect the success or failure of a treatment. Modality certainly would affect the types of treatments, as well as the goals for (and criteria for the success or failure) treatment. In a group therapy setting, the goal might be more centered on improving the functioning of the family unit as a whole; whereas in individual psychotherapy the goal would likely be more centered on improving the functioning of the individual (however - an improvement in individual functioning always leads to an improvement in interpersonal or communal functioning). It's hard to say how, exactly, the personal and theoretical orientation of the client and clinician affect treatment success. That's like trying to pin down the cause or root of a phenomenon. We can say everything affects everything, so yes, of course, insight, judgement, motivation, education, competence and theory would all affect one another and engage in an interaction that would affect the overall clinical process. Defining treatment success is just as difficult. We would have to have a very strong theoretical background, as well as a deeper knowledge of each of these qualities of the clinician and client in order to really say how the set of circumstances and characteristics come together to form a working relationship that results in treatment success or failure. It's also very difficult to define success or failure. Even a small step in the direction of mental health (of functionality) or a step away from isolation might be considered a success.

As we discuss this topic, I think it will helpful for each of us to think about how we might define success in a psychotherapeutic setting. I can't say anything about how any other client or clinician might define success. It's even hard for me to say how I would define success because I don't have the first-hand experience and I have never though about this subject before. I'm glad to be considering it, though. I have never, formally, been a clinician; however I have been a client. When I came out of the closet as a teen, my parents arranged for me to see therapists (it was my mother's desire that I should guided, through therapy, out of my defiant state of lesbianism). I saw a few clinicians at that time. I only considered one of those clinicians successful. But I still have trouble defining what made his approach successful in my eyes. I believe it was mostly a manner of his gentle-nature and theoretical orientation. I cannot actually define or point to definitively his theoretical orientation, I can only say that I felt accepted. I did not feel any pressure to tell him the lies I was telling everyone else. When I told him that I believed the love between the person in my past and I was mutual, and filled him in on why I felt/thought that way, he did not react with hysteria. He did not diminish nor negate my feelings. He honored my autonomy and even validated my feelings and experiences (not just by listening but by showing empathy and, dare I say, compassionate love).

To this day, I think about this man (he is a pastor and is near retirement) and wish that I could have continued seeking out his acceptance and moral guidance throughout my life. That was the closest thing to acceptance, in a counseling situation, that I experienced during that emotionally profound time in my life. I actually think it was his motivation-less mindset that made our work together successful. He did not seem to go into it with an agenda. Perhaps after he evaluated me, he felt that the best treatment plan was to provide me with a safe place of listening and true acceptance. I was, at the time, experiencing a great deal of unacceptance in some of the major realms of my life. Given that, I think he thought what he could best provide was a place of acceptance. Listening and acceptance and story-sharing and validation WITHOUT an intention to change or alter anything may have been his treatment plan. Isn't it ironic. His lack of seeking, his lack of a plan to change me was actually the thing that most affected (and perhaps even changed) me. What I needed more than anything, at that time, was a person I could trust and confine in and feel safe with. I did not have to worry that he was going to report the teacher I loved or tell my mother what she wanted to hear or request that I not label myself as a lesbian "just yet." Just knowing he was in the world, with the impression he made on me, made me a stronger, healthier person who felt she wasn't completely alone (who felt a great deal of relief knowing that someone out there, even just one single person, could understand and honor my love and perhaps even believe me).

He did just what I needed: he made me feel sane and acceptable. I felt sane and acceptable on some level, but my mother was forcing another message down into my psyche - that I was crazy, deranged, sick, evil. I don't know whether or not he felt he was successful with me, especially given that we had to stop meeting fairly early on because my parents could no longer afford it. I only know that I perceive myself as having benefit from it. I would like nothing more than to someday be able to provide that acceptance and validation for someone like myself who is isolated by their own intelligence and open-mindedness. Sometimes people just need support when they are in a place of isolation (when they find that they cannot relate easily to the majority of other around them, for whatever reason). My personal account as a client of counseling raises an interesting set of questions about the mutuality and/or separateness of client/clinician perception: Can a clinician feel she has been successful if her client does not feel it has been successful (in other words, can the perception of success by anything other than mutual? Is it still success?).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Fellowship of the Outsider: Where We are Going, Only Time will Tell

When I awoke at this morning, it was almost five AM. Elanah was standing at the side of our bed. I put her in the middle. Then I added Darah because I knew if she woke up on her own (i.e., without Elanah) she would be upset. Once they were both down and asleep, I didn’t want to move them for fear that they would wake up and not return to sleep. I tried to sleep next to Darah in the few inches that were available, but I was hanging off the bed so I decided to move into the twin bed by the window. My feet were cold, but I didn’t want to wake Elanah with the sound of the sock drawer opening so I piled pillows over my feet. I was still cold, so I covered my head with the comforter. And that was when a blog entry unfolded. In the quiet dark morning. Blogging. Mind-blogging. Basically, the voice in my head spoke aloud a whole blog entry that was coherent and insightful. No one else reads it or hears it, just me. Sound like torture to you? It was to me. Anytime I compose something, usually on the fly, in my mind; I feel an urgent desire to get it down on paper or on keypad. Around 6:30, I finally ended the unwritten entry and fell asleep. At 6:45 Elanah woke us all up, and we actually cooperated because we knew the wood floor installers (are they technically carpenters, or ?) would be coming soon to work on putting in our oak bedroom flooring. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been to bed before twelve or if I had taken the hot bath I was planning to take after the girls fell asleep last night or if I had actually risked waking the girls up this morning to open the computer and write the blog entry that was in my head. I didn’t do any of the above, I just had an insightful conversation with myself despite my freezing feet and had a fifteen minute power nap after having four or so hours of sleep. So here I am, delirious yet trying to take myself to the place where early morning insights live.

Before we turned off the lights last night, Sandy announced to us, “Mummy’s wearing her movie star eyes tonight.” When she started to say my name I was expecting her to say, “Mummy’s having a tough night, she seems to be stressed.” I was surprised by what she said, because I WAS acting like quite a sleepless grump (and that was last night, before going to “bed”). I looked at Sandy with my movie star eyes. “Awe, really? Thank you. I’m so exhausted, I thought I was wearing my sleep-deprived eyes.” Then we both agreed that maybe I was, maybe movie star eyes are just sleep-deprived eyes. In any case, I’ll admit that I’d give up a night’s sleep to be told by an amorous Sandy that I have movie star eyes. What’s two! Unfortunately, I think I have gone beyond movie star eyes and entered into another state of eyedom. I won’t be surprised if Sandy says tonight, “Mummy’s wearing her porn star eyes” or “Mummy’s wearing her movie extra eyes.” Or, even: “Mummy’s wearing her medical student eyes.” I don’t know if I was raised to be vain or if it’s just in my veins (!), but I feed off of complimentary verbal attention when it comes from someone I respect, find interesting, admire, am attracted to, or even someone I know nothing about. Never enough, never enough. The bottomless well behind my moviestarpornstarbmoviemedicalschool eyes. Throw her a compliment and she will put on a free show, folks!

Behind my movie star, or movie extra, eyes is a mind though (I'll have you know!). A really rambunctious and unstoppable mind. A mind that works sometimes like a synthesizer on Speed, unless someone mentions anything mathematical or anatomical or chemical (in those cases, a mind comes to an immediate halt). I'd get to the point if I had one. But here, here's something: I do a lot of reflection. I’m good at it. I like doing it. If it had been a subject in school, it would have been my best subject. I could reflect on anything. I’m convinced I could connect myself to anything. I can find myself in anything. Fibers from the rug, runoff in the ditch, the note on pitch or flat, the grease of the print on the mirror, the word on the edge of your lips that never makes it out, snowflakes so slight you wonder how their dusts of dew amount to anything. Am I just that narcissistic or is this a “gift”? Oh well, I’m just reflecting again. I could reflect my little life away, and then my movie star eyes might become rocks of fire lighting the night sky. It can be a nice quality, the reflective trait, especially as it expresses itself in writing and other conversational platforms. But, like anything, if you live with me and my constant state of reflection, you’d start to get sick of it and wish I would just be quit reflecting for one goddamn minute. Ask me to change? You couldn’t. Not when I don’t want to change. Maybe, instead, you could see me less often or see me differently and once again rekindle your appreciation of my life of reflection. Live next door to me and pretend you're meeting me for the first time when you see me stopping to stare at the moon on my way to my midnight mailbox. Maybe you could forget about the neurotic state of my reflection and imagine me to be a dreamer with a penchant for a lovely night sky. Often as soon as a moment happens, I start reflecting on it, creating art from it, analyzing and connecting it to other smaller and larger moments, memories, concepts, characters, stories.

So, in other words, I can think. I’ve got that one covered. I can think (often aloud) in such perpetuity that you'll surely want to strangle me after a month of being trapped with me on that (...) desert island. After you try to strangle me, I will give you some space. But then you'll find me writing thoughts in the sands with my fingers. You'll be relieved to know the tide will wash away the lines by morning but you'll find me there again, after the tide has eased your trouble, using my whole body to write a message with my seashell assistants and crabby consultants. (Actually, who can say what effect a desert island might have on me....I can only imagine - and when I'm not reflecting, I'm imagining...). I'm good at thinking. As for all the other ings in life, I may be at a loss. On my tombstone, it should be said that  “She thought reflecting-thoughts and she reflected all she thought.” Hold that, I need some time to further...reflect on it. I’ll come up with something better (but if I don’t, that’s a starting place…and while I’m on the matter of my gravestone, don’t forget to hire an artist, using the six dollars I have to my name, to chisel two Georgia O’Keefe style cunt-inspired flowers intersecting. And if you are visiting my plot, don’t leave flowers. If you leave me artificial flowers, I will come to you in the night and give your cunt such a stir that it will never be still again! Please, in lieu of flowers leave vials of Witch Hazel, speak aloud sonnets, cast spells, masturbate, do something indecent. Come to me when the moon is ashine, especially when She is yellow and harvesting something she shouldn’t be harvesting). Oh, but enough reflection about meeee (myyyy future resting place); I’d rather reflect, right now, on some of my (whoops!) early morning reflections.

When Sandy and I first got together, in 2003, I had no one from my pre-Sandy life who was there in a way that I needed.  I was isolated because of my choice to be with Sandy. I also took on the psychological role of an outcast - I shunned the people that I felt were shunning me. In other words, I  began to hate the world. I went from seeing the world through rose (or purple) colored glasses to seeing the world through glasses without lenses. My eyes were burning. I wanted to love, but I just couldn't. The only one I loved was Sandy, because I saw her as Other Worldly (not of the world I hated). That is how I saw the pair of us. Aliens from another planet. You get the idea. Sandy and I married in 2005, when I was twenty. We had lived together for two years before we married. I didn't have anyone with me to cheer us on the Big Day. If Sandy and I didn't plan it all so quickly (three days in advance), she would have had good people with us to cheer her on. I told my parents I would not blame them but I did not want them there unless they could be happy for us. So naturally, they did not come. I stood by my word. I never blamed them. That doesn't mean I didn't cry during our hair appointments that morning. That doesn't mean I don't feel sad when I think about whatever the hell it meant to me. It just means I don't blame. Sometimes I set the bar so high for people that they are destined to fail and then I look at them in disbelief, like "What the hell is wrong with you? I can't believe you failed. I thought you were better than that." What a set up. I don't mean to do it, it's just part of being a little...errrrm, different. You all, my reader-friends, might have other ideas about me. I-dea-away!

Well we do know one thing. I’m very good at being “right.” I can chew a hypocrite out (and even myself when I’m a hypocrite) like no other. I’m terribly good at holding a grudge against someone who betrays my sense of fair play. It’s terrible how good I am at carrying all my grievances with me. But where to? Where will I carry them to? To a publisher, that’s where! Just kidding. Where I am carrying them is just with me. It’s nowhere but with me. I have to go back to the roots of my love in order to find the place for the letting go of the injustices.  What good will carrying them do me? Probably not a lot. I’d rather carry the roots from which the love was born with me than the meaningless third or fourth generation twigs and branches of the overgrown bush it became. If what I want is to feel the roots, I need to trim back the bush. I can’t carry the dead trimmings with me in a shoulder sack if all I really want with the bush is to see that it hasn’t been uprooted, that it’s showing signs of new growth and that it’s still blossoming occasionally.

Way back when, the ultimatum was my weapon of choice in my acceptance-deprived world. It did protect me from cruelty but it did not protect me from suffering and becoming a big ball of emotional scar tissue. The ultimatum felt like the only tool I had available to fight for myself. (The key word here is FIGHT...) I was a very lonely and bitter person. I should have taken any form of acceptance available, maybe, but I was extremely picky about the type of acceptance that was acceptable to me (and from whom). I made myself a narrow window to look out from, and then I didn't like what I saw when I looked out from it. Go figure. Ah, well, I cannot go back. I can't send an email to Nowhere. Ut ohhhhh. The Should-Haves have entered the building: I shouldn’t have been so right. I should have done this, I should have done that. The Should Haves, like the dead trimmings, need to leave the building NOW, though. The Should-Haves have no place in this building (or land or island) with its healthy and strong-rooted bush. In fact, the girl who was So Right in all the wrong ways doesn’t think it was even all that wrong that she was so right. At the time, she felt she needed to be right. She felt she needed to be right and loyal and ethical. She thought she was doing the right thing by not settling for anything less than fully supportive, respectful and humanizing people; people who welcomed Sandy into their lives with open minds and hearts. By doing what she thought was right at that time, she was right. Now if she was a different person with a different history - if she wasn't left out in the cold after she was drawn toward what appeared to be and felt like a great and powerful fire; then maybe she could have done differently. No, that's actually not a maybe. That's: she WOULD have done differently. The story wouldn't be what it is, she wouldn't be who she is today, nothing would be as it is. She, then the Right-fighter (yesterday the Right-writer and maybe someday the Right-righter) was defending and honoring Sandy. She, who then felt that hostility and anger were the only acceptable solutions, was protecting the only person on the earth who acknowledged the heart of the Revolution, looked the Revolution in the eye, and, God help her, volunteered to join the Revolution: Sandy. So listen: while She was wrong, She was also right. She was wrong and right. That’s how She’s always been, and that’s how She’ll always be. Now, unlike then, She (still me) now recognizes a little more fully the rights in her wrong and the wrong her rights. I love the wrongandright She (me) was, but when I reflect on her I often cannot help but see how the dominoes fell as a consequence of her (my) choices.

There were many who got The Ultimatum from me, either directly or indirectly. My sister, for instance, got it when she asked me to come to her graduation ceremony without Sandy. My father got it when he tried to make what he claimed were logical arguments against our age difference (i.e., that my lack of experience was reason enough to abandon the relationship, that marriage at a young age traps a person for life and prevents them from fulfilling their dreams and aspirations, that I was not capable of making any decisions or taking any risks until I gained some kind of surreal experience gained only through a lack of all risk and decision). My high school friends got it when they didn’t show any desire to or interest in getting to know Sandy. My mother got it, more than anyone, when she aggressively tried to verbally abuse me into stopping what I was doing (i.e., “Jessica, do you know why your teachers will not meet with you for dinner with Sandy? Do you know why your friends no longer call you? It’s because they think what you’re doing is WRONG and DISGUSTING. She is brainwashing you, Jessica. Sandy is a sick, sick woman. And now you’re becoming just as sick as her. ONE DAY YOU WILL SEE, JESSICA. You will see that I am right. You will see that this lifestyle, being with an OLDER WOMAN WHO IS USING YOU FOR SEX, will destroy you. You will see that you will LOSE EVERYONE YOU LOVE because NO ONE wants to be around to see the SICK things that are going on between you. No one wants to be around Sandy. I don’t want to get to know her. I will never get to know her. I will never have her in this house. If you EVER try to have her in this house, I will call THE POLICE, Jessica. You are a SICK, WEAK, TWISTED little girl. Something is wrong with you that you do this. Do you think this is NORMAL? Do you think anyone else is going to think this is normal or okay? They WON’T, Jessica. Even your friends, or Sandy’s friends, who act like they think it’s okay DO NOT really think it’s okay. They are just LYING because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, Jessica. CAN’T YOU SEE THAT? You are going to lose everyone in your life. You are going to end up VERY lonely, JESSICA. I can tell you that!” But, F.Y.I, my mother has since come a long way from these early moments of bullying that she used in order to torment me into leaving Sandy.)

The ultimatum (accept Sandy and me with open arms and a smile on your face or wish me well and say goodbye) felt like the right thing to do, the only thing to do, at the time. And it probably was the right thing to do. I was defending and standing up for the person I loved. OF COURSE I WOULD do that. But it was also very sad for me, as I felt disconnected from everyone but Sandy. Sandy’s friends, on the other hand, all welcomed me with open arms. Her colleagues and friends were my main social connections at that time, and still are. My family came back into the picture, and I am very grateful for that. One major reason why I encouraged Sandy to apply for (and accept) a job in Western Illinois was because I felt so disconnected from everyone I had ever known or cared about (from People in General). My isolation made me even more dependent on Sandy, and moving only increased that dependence. So a move toward independence has been a long time comin’. I don’t see independence as being synonymous with having a support system outside of Sandy in place; there are other dimensions of this issues, mainly emotional ones, that have yet to be unfolded and explored. I know there were people who could love and accept Sandy and me as a couple when we were first together, but I didn’t manage to bring any into our lives until a couple of years later. Regardless of my introversion, social otherness, social laziness, or one-on-one preference for all social endeavors; I know that a mind governed by ultimatums is not a very content mind.

While those close to me got the spoken and unspoken ultimatum, those not-so-close to me grew distant in other ways. Regardless of whether or not an ultimatum was involved, during the early period of our coupledom I felt isolated from the rest of the world. I did not blame Sandy at all, in fact it brought me even closer to her and bonded us in the most awesome of ways. To state the obvious, I blamed Everyone Else. For not making an effort to welcome Sandy into their lives, for not understanding our need for warm and welcoming people who could love us and accept us as we were, for not reaching out to us, for abandoning us. I don’t know how much of it was “real” and how much of it was self-imposed. I do know that my perception was that it was Sandy-and-me-against-the-world (and fuck ‘em for their ignorance!). What I felt, at the core, was hurt. It may have been that I abandoned the world, since I had been heading in that direction since my high school graduation. Or it may have been what I perceived it to be: misunderstanding and fear. Or it may have been something else: the natural transition from young adulthood into adulthood, in which a person narrows her social circle to consist of relationships with close friends and family (as well as with colleagues). It’s true that I was in an unconventional situation. I am somewhat of an unconventional sort of person. Unfortunately one of the things that makes me an unconventional sort of person is that I am generally unmotivated to socialize and so I depend on socialization built into the landscapes of my life (social opportunities available at school, etc). I had that going at Niagara University to an extent. I made friends and enjoyed their company during and a bit outside of classes. However they did not know Sandy. They did not go out of their way to know Sandy. They did not go out of their way to welcome her into their world. And how could they?

It was so outside of their realm of normalcy to welcome an almost-fifty year old woman into their world. And then, on the other end of it, there was my contribution to my isolation. A big one, in fact. I didn’t feel like I had much of anything in common with most of the people I met who were my age in school. When they talked about going to get hammered at some party in the dorms, I couldn’t have been more opposed or uninterested. I wanted, instead, to sit and read and drink tea by the fire. When they talked about meeting up for a study session, I wanted to stay in my dorm room and study alone so that I could write poetry and dance in between chapters. I have always felt like an outsider since I was a kid. All signs point to Outsidership. I don’t know which came first: outsider status or an internal outsider characteristic. Being an outsider means having outsider privilege – whatever THAT means! Outsider privilege to create a life out of being an outsider? The questions remain: Am I an outsider because THEY didn’t and couldn’t understand me or am I am outsider because I didn’t and couldn’t understand them? Am I an outsider because I’m genuinely uncommon or am I am outsider because I have an ego-complex and THINK I’m an outsider? A grain of truth in every thing implies that the only whole truth that exists is the whole of every thing. In you and me, in our perceptions, there is only a grain. Yet so often we think we possess more than the grain. What fools! Ah, well, aside from the reflection on my isolation and its single grain of truth; what I do know, in my grain of truth, is that multiple factors led up to this moment, right now, in which I am waking up thinking and spending my day writing about isolation. I do know by now that I am very selective when it comes to deeply being interested in other people. It’s not something I’m proud of.

It isn’t that I don’t find people fun and interesting; it’s just that I go into most situations assuming the worst about people. And the worst, to me, might not be the same as the worst to you. The worst to me just means that they will be even more narrow, limited, hypocritical, ignorant, “right,” dishonest, self-serving, self-motivated, insensitive and self-preserving than I am. I do my best and I think I do pretty well compared to most (self-deception likely, indeed). I fell in love with my wife, Sandy, not simply because she was in love with me and we were attracted to each other, but also because I knew she was both philosophically and psychologically similar to me and far smarter than me. I knew she was the smartest person I had ever met. When I say smart, I mean something very grand and multidimensional and spiritual. I have known a lot of smart people. People with unbelievable memories, people with astounding talents, people who can ace any exam, state any rule, recite any poem, explain any diagram. I haven't met many people who understand me. Or, let me rephrase, I haven't met many people who I believe are capable of understanding me (who I believe understand me). I have met plenty of people who claim to know and understand me very well. But I never believed any of those people. Internally, I go by the mantra, "If you think you know me, you don't know me at all." All my life, I felt like people wanted to fit ME into THEIR grand-scheme, instead of seeing me as being a separate being that has my own scheme. I have perceived the world as being very selfish - and being incapable of seeing me, knowing me, understanding me or accepting me because of this limiting selfishness. So do I look "down" on others? It's not down, no. I look at others as others and me as me. Or I look at me as The Other and others and Them. Am I really just an Us and Them kinda gal, after all? I'm stumped. I'm just trying to figure all this out as I write this. I always tell Sandy not to take my words too seriously. That goes for you, too. I think things out as I speak. I often start out saying I'm one way and end up saying I'm just the opposite. I'm never decided or decisive about anything. (But I do seek out people who are and I can easily lead people to believe that I am.) My mind-changing happens in any kind of self-disclosing situation - even in a blog. Oy, where was I going?

Here, maybe. I have met some interesting folks, I haven't come across many people who ASTOUND me. Who teach me something I didn't already know about, who share something VITAL with me. I am astounded by wisdom, insight, open mindedness, philosophical understandings, and unselfishness. I am more than anything astounded by the experience of RELATING on a deep level to someone other than myself because it is SO goddamn rare. To rarity! The blessing, and the curse...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Lesbian Lawyer who wanted to be a Counselor who wanted to be a Performer who wanted to be Famous for Anything who wanted to be a Writer who wanted to be a Judge

This was my guide and partner, Sandy's, response, after I read her aloud my first discussion entry on body piercings for my online Abnormal Psychology class: "That was a comprehensive and exhaustive response...Are you sure you don't want to be a lawyer?" Then she said, "I'll just call you Perry Mason." I said, "I wanted to be a judge when I was little, remember?" She said, "Yeah, well, I think you have to work your way up. You can't go to Judge School."

It's true that as soon as someone speaks or writes or breathes, I mentally prepare to "take them down" (in writing or in oratum). Sometimes I don't know what I want to do or where I'm going. Maybe I'm a lawyer at heart? Or maybe I'm just a power-lovin' judge at heart? Or maybe at heart, I'm really None-of-the-above but I have the body and mind of a legal advocate. I have the spirit of a fierce advocating "tear you to shreds" kinda lawyer, but I also hate in-person confrontation and I smile and laugh out of anxiety too much.

Actually, I prefer to do all of my defending in writing. In person, I'm more docile and easy-going (but if you ask my immediate family members, they may offer a different perspective. Ahem). So what am I? I was a lawyer in my English classes (on paper AND in class), I'm sort of a kind of unorthodox lawyer in my poetry. And now, I'm a lawyer in my Psychology courses as I prepare to become some kinda Clinical Psycho. I mean, Psychologist. Why can't I figure out what I wanna/gotta be when I grow up?

Any thoughts about this? If I don't receive any feedback on this matter, I'll get you (my pretty) and your little dog, too! But that's not a threat and you aren't You. And I have no knowledge of Law (other than the Law and Ethic of my Power Region) to defend any thing I have said, am saying or will say. But if you try to argue with me, even with The Law in your court, I won't go down without an overtly feminist and oddly rational keyboard bangin' fight.


------------ See Below for My Discussion Response to Abnormal Psychology Class Topic --------------

 Many theorists worry about a growing trend toward “victimization” in our society, a tendency to portray undesirable behaviors as inevitable or uncontrollable consequences of early mistreatment or societal stress. What might be some of the dangers of over-applying the “victim” label?

When theorists equate the trend of "shirking responsibility" with "victimization," they are incorrectly confusing two distinct and asymmetrical issues. There is no over-use of "victimization" because "victimization" itself is not debatable. A person is either a victim or not a victim. If a person is pathological liar and claims to be a victim, then we might question whether or not he is a victim (based on our knowledge of him as a pathological liar). Regardless of what we believe and what he tells us, his actual LIVED PAST (which is not accessible to us in the present outside of his narrative, unless it was caught on video - in which case, other gray areas regarding victimization would arise) is the ONLY determiner of his victimization. If he suffered an abuse of some form or another, to any degree or in any context, then he is a victim of abuse. The issue that the theorists seem to be raising is NOT actually about victimization (the act of one victimizing another being), but about a mentality of irresponsibility that informs a growing trend of the misperception of victimization.

In order to begin to approach the questions that Dr. H-R has raised, we need to first consider definitions of victimization. So far, I am not finding a clear and clean and easy definition. I suppose that helps to explain why it is so difficult to answer questions definitively about victimization. Victimization can take on many forms and can occur in many contexts and can be perceived or misperceived on many levels. Victimization may involve a range of injustices: from some benign form of unfair treatment, such as is present in favoritism, to a great ethical breach to an extreme violation of a social rule in which a victimizer commits an injustice (or harm) against a victim. Is victimization determined by the consequence or upon the action/interaction itself? Again, this leads us into philosophical and legal terrains. Who holds the victimization card? Who gets to say what is and is not victimization? It just reemphasizes the issues that exist on a grander scale - issues of perception. Each of us perceives the world in a unique light, through our own experiences, the make-up of our brain and our individuality/personality. Each of us possesses our own, unique perceptive lens through which we define and judge the world that we see-and-perceive. We can never truly see the world outside of our own lens, and so we are cripplingly limited in our ability to define anything for anyone (even for ourselves). A written definition is created in order to create a standard, or shared idea, among a community of individuals. The limits of any definition for a word/concept, "victimization" included, will always arise out of one mutually agreed upon world view. Just because a consensus exists does not mean it holds rights over a concept or is not limited in its consideration or application of that concept. Each of us is going to write about this topic (which I, through my lens, see as being about the prevalence of irresponsibility in the Western World) in her own singular way.

From my perspective, victimization can be looked at from three (if not more) directions: from the perspective of the supposed victim, from the perspective of the supposed victimizer and from the perspective of those on the outside (direct or indirect witnesses). A person who does not see herself as a victim may still, indeed, have been victimized. A person who sees herself as a victim feels like a victim. She experiences herself as a victim, or as having been victimized. Whether or not we, as witnesses, believe that the situation in which she earned the label of victim warranted that label; she, herself, still feels suffering because of some injustice in the past or present that she perceives. Regardless of the situation itself, someone who believes she is a victim is a victim (yes, even if she is only a victim of herself, of the oppressive mentality of victimization that renders her the victim and contributes to some part of her suffering and perception as having been harmed). In this sense, we are all, by some cause or another, victims. We all experience suffering, sometimes because of harm that another intends to commit against us and sometimes because of random circumstance.

Since we can never truly know the root of our suffering (or of our consciousness or of anything, really), then we cannot really know the root or validity of victimization. We can, however, separate the common concept of victimization from the concept of unethical behavior. We can expand our view by considering that people who commit unethical actions or unjust abuses against others can ALSO be victims. There are victims who commit abusive offenses against others and there are perpetrators who have abusive offenses committed against them. For as many different kinds of people there are in the world, there are as many different kinds of victims - because people are victims and victims are people. As we know, it is very common for a perpetrator to have been a victim in childhood. There are people who intend to victimize others and there are others who victimize by default. We cannot pinpoint WHO victims are or WHAT victimization looks like.

There are no dangers in over-applying the victim label. There are dangers in excusing and dismissing behaviors that are harmful to a society in which the values of democracy and fairness are upheld. There are dangers in enabling DANGEROUS BEHAVIOR. There are no dangers in over-applying a label ("victimization"). The label exists because we, as humans, have no better way of understanding or articulating the dimensions of our existence that cause our suffering. There exists no trend in "victimization," although it is entirely possible to consider, separately from the topic of victimization, a trend in irresponsibility.

To make it short and simple, for those who like it that way: There is a danger in confusing victimization with irresponsibility. In a Clinical context, I content that over-applying the victim label is not harmful but that excusing unhealthy behaviors for any reason would be disconcerting.

------------ See Below for My Discussion Response to Abnormal Psychology Class Topic --------------

In the Western world, body piercing is a fad. In other countries it marks status and may be performed as a ritualistic ceremony. Some research suggests that numerous body piercings may be a form of self-mutilation. Is body piercing a form of self-expression? Can we use our bodies as a canvas to express ourselves or is it an indicator of mental illness?

I anticipate that many of us will continue coming back to the underlying difficult nature of determining or classifying abnormality. The process of defining something as abnormal, from a clinical perspective, is complex and can be explored through many perspectives. At each level of our understanding of normality, we are faced with having to break down that given dimension of "abnormality" in order to determine through which angle we are going to view it. It is so very complicated. I think a comprehensive approach is necessary in order to treat the labeling of an individual or a behavior as abnormal. Although a comprehensive approach is much more difficult and requires the ability to have a wide and versatile view of human behavior; it seems to be the most effective (although perhaps not the most efficient) and helpful way of dealing with the difficulties of addressing the concepts and realities of abnormality and mental illness. The way in which we view any behavior, including body piercing, will be informed by the way in which we view the many intricacies of abnormality. It is difficult to address "body piercing" as a whole (as one, singular category of behavior) because there are so many things to consider about the "behavior" itself. Dr. H-R's set of questions highlight the many forms that the behavior of body piercing might assume as well as the many contexts in which they may or may not exist.

Even when we have information about the cultural or social context, we still are left with other questions (other levels to explore) regarding the individual. Even when we have information about the individual, we still are left with various avenues (life experiences, possible trauma, details about the piercing history itself) to explore. Just like the patters of the returns to and exits from the institutionalization of (and to institutionalized practices in regard to) abnormal individuals, I see the academic (and/or clinical, and/or qualitative) study of abnormality as being in a transient and repetitive (if not cyclical) state. When I consider the way in which Halgin and Whitbourne introduce abnormality to us (linguistically, organizationally and conceptually), I imagine entering a large building (an asylum, if you will!) in which there, laid out before you, are a series of doors. When you enter one door, you end up in a room with one door behind you and several doors ahead of you - you can exit and return to the original entrance of doors to choose another door or you can move forward into one of the next doors. Through every door there awaits another group of doors. After you've entered so many doors, you might wish you could turn around and start all over again but it's hard to imagine going back through all the doors you entered. You may wish, at some point, that you had never entered the building (of knowledge/of theory/ of psychology/ of brain and behavior studies).

It seems there is a whole range of acceptable behavior and a much more narrow range of unacceptable behavior. And even when a majority renounces one behavior (or even one particular instance or form of that behavior), there may be credence to a minority voice that goes against the grain to defend that instance or form of behavior. In other words: it's hard to judge even when we have the most details we could hope for. All we CAN do, given that inescapable quandary, is try to have as comprehensive of an approach to abnormality as possible. Body piercing, like abnormality, can be many things. I don't feel comfortable making generalizations about what body piercing is or is not, given that it is so many things to so many different people. I do -believe- that we can use our bodies in order to express art, but I also -believe- that art is an outlet for creative thought and emotional expression. Think about it - creative thought and emotional expression are associated with the brain. So some might say that some art, as an extension of what is going on internally in our brain and body, expresses mental illness (or mental health!). I think the best we can do is pay attention to the case of the individual - to find out, as much as possible, how the behavior is affecting her life (and that is even more important, I think, than finding out or classifying what purpose she might say it serves). As stated in Chapter One of the text, there are four criteria used by Clinical Psychologists to determine whether or not a behavior should be considered "abnormal:" Distress, impairment, risk, and social or cultural standards for acceptable behavior. If I were to look at an individual and her relationship with body piercing, I would try to consider the role of distress (whether or not the behavior/relationship is causing distress, if it came about because of a distressing situation or if the act is sought out in moments of distress). If distress was a factor, my next step would be to determine whether or not the distress is intense enough to lead to an impairment in her ability to function (and at what level the functioning is at - which might be hard to determine in and of itself). If a degree of impairment is occurring, the next step would be to determine what, if any, risk the behavior might be causing her or others (and this, to me, seems like the paramount criterion...but I can imagine it would be difficult to determine the level of a given risk). And, of course, it is important to consider and evaluate the social and cultural context in which the behavior (body piercing) is occurring.

Ultimately, for me, I would be most concerned with the behavior if it was causing pain or risk or consternation to the individual receiving the piercings. Even if a person is piercing as an act of self-mutilation, the behavior might be more desirable than other self-mutilating acts the person might commit had they not had the piercing option. If the self-mutilating person were interested in exploring other options for dealing with the internal factor that might be contributing to the behavior, then it would make sense to offer alternative solutions. If a person feels good mutilating herself, then why stop her? Who is to say what is good or bad for her? If it IS impairing her ability to function, then that is a sign that something unhealthy is going on. However, if she enjoys the act and sees it as the healthiest possible way of "being herself" or "dealing with emotions," then who am I to do anything but offer her some alternatives and support her in a behavior that doesn't directly harm OTHERS (outside of the pierced individual). Who am I to say what is an unhealthy or healthy way of coping and surviving? If someone is suffering and wants to change, then there is an opportunity to work with her. If someone is causing others to suffer and doesn't want to change, then that brings up a whole other issue. If a girl's father says he is suffering because of her piercings, I would encourage the father to seek help rather than the daughter (or for both of them to seek help together). If the girl were trying to pierce her father in his sleep, then I would consider her an actual harm to his safety and to his right to privacy and to be safe from external harm - and so I would say that is where the law and legal boundaries should come in. It's so complicated and tiring to consider, but I have done my best with having read the first chapter.


Monday, January 16, 2012

I Still Have a Dream, Albeit a Redundant One: that We Can Be a Human Family

MLK Jr. had a dream, yes he did. Yes. He. Did. Does that mean he was perfect in all areas of his life? Certainly not. A beloved former Women's Studies professor of mine talked, once, about Martin Luther King's mistreatment and abuse of his wife, Coretta Scott King. She alluded to the idea that his own personal failings in his relationship with his wife (I don't believe she was referring simply to infidelity, I recall that she was specifically referring to domestic violence) were covered up by the Civil Rights and African American communities in order to maintain and protect his image and the power of his message. As a self-identified Feminist, I find it disappointing, though not surprising. Please take note that I am not making any claim of truth or trying to use slander to make a point.

Whether it was physical abuse or cowardly lying or something entirely different - the point is not in the details; it is in the lesson it teaches us about the imperfect nature of humanity. While I am not interested in nor do I have a way of verifying (I have tried) whether or not it is true that Martin Luther King Jr. abused Coretta Scott King, I am interested in the issues and questions it raises about the dimensionality and fallibility of all humans, even the most prophetic and inspiring. It is not out of the question to think that a Great (spiritual and political) Leader might have had his own share of personal struggles and contradictions. He was, in large part, in the business of Ideals. Whenever we're in the business of Ideals, we're also in conflict with that awful, unspeakable phenomenon called Reality. The Civil Rights movement did not initially take women's rights issues under its wing. It was just another level of hierarchical oppression to address that did not fit the agenda of the group in power. In the African American Movement, where women of varying races and ethnicities were both present and active, the voices of power came from those who were next in line to the heir of the European-American throne. Naturally, European American men and African American men were in the best position to uprise and demand equal treatment.

There are so many intricacies to the overriding and underlying hierarchies in which we still today function (or dysfunction, if we are lucky). The larger inequalities and varying relationship dynamics are accompanied by smaller, less-visible and more intricate inequalities and relationship dynamics. A hierarchy of any origin can always be broken down into smaller and smaller segments. If one movement develops out of inequality, oppression and the inhumane treatment of one group of marginalized people, essentially the inherent separatism of that given group will inevitably leave Others (any group of others or individual other) out. Just as a political, humanitarian movement arises out of the institutionalized oppressions of a hierarchical structuring of society; so, too, will the movement mirror, at least to some degree, similar structuring. Some communities (I won't call them groups) aim to work on another de-structure, re-structure, anti-structure, or socialistic plain of interaction in which individuals come together in a Utopian environment in order to seek the common good of all people. It isn't easy to do and often ends up showing its own glimmer of an order of power.  I'm of the mind that we can deconstruct Power until the sun goes down and our universal brain turns to mush; but Power will always be at the center our internal self-oriented survivalist existence. Can we peacefully coexist despite this? It would be nice to think so.

For those of us who can imagine it, even though that's far from living it and doesn't even address the problem of those who cannot or do not wish to imagine it; we can only make small changes in our own lives to have any sort of tangible impact on the world outside of our selves. Within a movement, we can establish a socialist structure with rules and goals that increase our chances of and ability to maintain our ideals. However, what we cannot do (what goes against the very ideals we wish to uphold) is to delude ourselves, diminish or trivialize our constant survivalist urge, mischaracterize or falsify our struggle against our own nature (or, if it isn't our nature, then: what we have been for so long been indoctrinated intentionally or unintentionally into), buy into an ideology of duality (superiority versus inferiority), forget to value introspection and deconstruction, or reject constructive criticism in favor of blind self-inflation. The Cans are endless and exciting; yet the Cannots are vital reminders. Honesty, present in self and communal reflection, is the key to any kind of society that wishes to uphold ideals. That - and accepting all things, all behaviors, as HUMAN.

If we deny parts of ourselves (parts of our human existence - our natural tendencies, the notion that ALL things, even the urge to kill unfortunately, are NATURAL - existing frequently in the natural world). In a movement, all things are present (an entire spectrum of conduct and behavior). In a leader, all things are present (an entire spectrum of conduct and behavior, including contradiction). So it should not surprise or bother us so much that a prophet, such as MLK Jr., would have a secret life (i.e., a life) filled with an array of behaviors, including rage or violence, despite his non-violent rhetoric and non-violent public life. While they may not be the most popular or most widely understood; the most authentic and successful movements are those in which a high degree of transparency (even about the inevitable conflicts and contradictions) exist. (As an aside, I cannot wait to get a copy of Minnie-Bruce Pratt's "Inside the Money Machine!")

A few years ago when I was an undergraduate at Western Illinois University, I participated as a student-member on a panel addressing the intersecting or divergent relationship between the LGBTQIAetc (sexuality?) movement and the Civil Rights movement. I was asked to be on the panel because I was a student-member of UCOSO (University Committee on Sexual Orientation) and a member of Unity (student LGBTQIAetc campus group). Some of the questions posed to us were: Are they comparable, are they compatible, are they equivalent, are they intersecting, are they historically different or the same, are their goals and aims centered on the same principles, do they benefit from one another or detract from one another? The questions posed by the facilitator were intended to spark an audience-led panel forum and dialogue. Each of the panelists responded to a question, and then the facilitator welcomed members of the community (audience, listeners, people in the vicinity) to comment or pose questions in response to the intellectual contributions of the panelists. While I don't remember the specifics of the event, I do remember the a., high level of emotionality present, b., boundary-creating defensiveness, and c., contradictory, hierarchical ("us and them") mentality.

One of the opinions expressed by multiple audience members was this: that the Civil Rights movement cannot be compared to the LGBTQIAetc movement because racial, or ethnic, oppression and oppression on the basis of sexual orientation are, essentially, different. Now thaaaaat's a horse of a different color! The messages (which are probably word-for-word, though I wouldn't bet the life of my big toe on it): "Racism and homophobia are different." "They're not the same. We can't change the color of our skin." "If you're born black, you're born black. Being African American is not a choice. Being gay is a choice." "The histories are so different. Gay and lesbians weren't systematically oppressed in the same way that African Americans have been. The histories are different, you can't compare them." In response, I talked about the issue of "choice." I took a humanist and linguistic approach. As someone with a feminist-humanist perspective, as an English major and Women's Studies minor with a good deal of emotional intelligence and an interest interpersonal relationships, that was the only approach to the political and ethical issues involved that I had to contribute. I was more interested in the emotional response (emotional illogic?) that arose from the dialogue than the content (or lack of content) itself; however, I wished I been more prepared for it so that I would have been able to address the emotional issues via a technical (legal, historical) response in order to better emphasize how the Civil Rights movement and LGBTQIAetc movement can be connected by the way in which they address human rights (or a larger ongoing Human Rights movement).

Perhaps you might scoff at the idea of a Universal Human Rights movement (for fear that in order to do so a World Government would be necessary). I don't know about a World Government, but I do believe in Global Human Rights (NOT as a form of government, but as a movement based in making information accessible, encouraging humane treatment across the boards, offering collaboration across ethnic and other divides, and providing access, above all, to those things). If both movements come down to a basic desire for the law to protect and maintain humane treatment off all citizens (or of all "people"), then the issue of Choice (whether you choose to be non-heterosexual or not) is irrelevant. That's assuming that all human beings deserve to be treated equally under the law. But do laws determine what is what - what is ethical/inethical, what is acceptable/unacceptable? Is there something higher than the law? Is the law morality itself? If not the law, then what? God's word, maybe? (Please, no, because there are a few "Gods" out there. And last time I checked, they were saying different things and making different laws).

If there are to be Global Principles of Ethics for Human Beings, then who will write it and how will it be agreed upon and who will be in charge of it? The use of any rule, or committee assigned to the upholding of some arbitrarily agreed upon set of rules, creates a maze of power establishments and anti-establishments (including uprisings and rebellions). It seems doomed, yet still I support basic human rights. I have a sense of fairness and justice within that seems inherent ("Baby, I was born this way!"). I believe in as much transparency as possible (while also respecting individuals' self-chosen privacy boundaries). I believe in a definition of morality as: behaving with the aim of not doing harm to anyone, treating others as you would have them treat you (as much as it is possible), and making it your intention (!!!) to do as little harm as possible (when harm is necessary). I also know that "harm" is a difficult concept itself. We cannot control who we harm, because people perceive harm uniquely. You may think I am harming you by writing this article. I would argue that I am not harming you. Who is "right?" Who is harming and who is harmed? If I do not intend to harm, I may STILL harm you.

So, to me, morality comes down to intentionality. What happens, though, when you argue that I, Jess Mason McFadden, intended to slander MLK Jr? What happens when I maintain that I did not intend to slander his name?  If I am telling the truth, how will you know? If I am lying, how will you know? I can tell you right now that I know I am telling you the truth (the truth of this ONE moment), but I cannot PROVE to you that it is the truth for me. And so if we cannot have any way of assuring The Truth in words or otherwise, then how can assure or ensure (or insure) anything? How can we trust in "the powers that be" if we cannot trust in ourselves, our words, our truths? It's all (i.e., reality) a mind-game - a language-game. I'd love to say I believe MLK Jr. spoke to a higher truth. I'd like to put him on a pedestal the way I put bell hooks or Oprah Winfrey or Hillary Clinton or whomever on a pedestal. But I know better (at least I think I know better). I deconstruct so much that I can no longer trust in any so-called truth. Still, I live in the moment and am very trusting of people in a day-to-day sense (just not in a global, philosophical sense). I love and admire hooks, Winfrey and Clinton but do I look to them for perfection, to agree with every opinion I have, to solve impossible problems? I don't. Their personal failings (not that I know of any :-) do not diminish the positive impact that they make on this World of Words.

Today we think about histories (and herstories) of oppression. Today we think about the courageous leaders, the Known and the Unknown, that have risen up and used their gifts and worked hard to stand not only against oppression but stand for and speak of (and try their personal best to uphold) the highest and most honorable values conceivable by human beings. I am a leader in my own right (or wrong). I have lead many times in my life when leadership was necessary. And now, I do my best to lead  and assist my daughters (alongside my partner/their other mother) in finding their gifts, being their most authentic selves, and having a positive, loving impact during their time on Earth. During their short lives, they have already had an immense positive, loving impact on Earth. And I am so proud. They, like Martin Luther King (and like you and me) will have their dreams.

Not all dreams are created equal. Some wake us out of our sleep. Some make us want to stay asleep. Some dreams don't require sleep at all. Some come before us. Some come into us. Some leave us. Some aren't welcome or well-received. Some come true and we wish they hadn't. Some never come true but we realize that the chasing and the dream in and of itself is the Living Dream. Some speak to us in tongues. Some make us speak in tongues. Some just bring us to our knees. Some get us knee-deep in shit. Some take us above the clouds. Some come crashing down before they have a chance to fly. Some make us very lonely. Some bring us together. Some drive us to do things we never thought we could do. Some keep us so hard at work that we forget to live. Some make us millionaires. Some end up kicking us in the ass in the end. But there you have it: we all dream.


"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." King's rendering of Isaiah 40:5

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Mother Who Tries.


Today is a very special day. When my mom called this morning, she asked if we got Pookie a present for her birthday. I suddenly felt anxious, self-proving and self-doubting. No we hadn’t. I started blabbing on about how Bouka had just had the onslaught of birthday and Christmas gifts in Buffalo, that we had a tea party with Adam and Elisa yesterday during which Pookie opened two gifts, that I made chocolate chip cookies with the girls yesterday, that I bought stuff for Pookie and Bouka to make their own pizzas. Yada, yada, yada. Then I stopped myself. I should have stopped myself before I started. All I needed to say was, “No we haven’t.” I could have left it to her to respond in her own way, instead of trying to anticipate what she was thinking and how she would feel about it. Am I such a weak and wavering person that I cannot decide for myself how I feel about my daughter's birthday? Are my decisions always made out of anxiety about how someone else, Sandy or my mother or someone in the sky, will interpret and feel about it? I guess so. Bummer! I would tell to myself, “I gotta be stronger than this,” but that would just be more down-talk. It’s better than the onslaught of escapist and avoidant excuses. It’s better than the manipulation that I am so tempted to perform.

So what do I want to do for Pookie’s birthday? Here’s how I REALLY see it (I think. I hope. Hell, who knows if it really is – what a joke, to suggest that I know something). Here are the facts, the details about Pookie’s birthday thus far. Pookie’s Aunt Missy (Moogoo, as Bouka recently called her) had an amazing two-part celebration for her in The Buff in December. She (Moogoo) paid and made arrangements for the extravaganza at Chuck E. Cheese. It included all of the cheesy trimmings (literally, the salty cheese on the pizza was included) and loud noises that a kid could ask for. As if that wasn’t more than enough already, Melissa and Brian had us over their house for a birthday sleepover (a big slumber party with siblings and parents and even one grandmother scattered around the Osterhaut). Missy spent all day cleaning her house to make it nice and special for Pookie. My mother had a specially ordered strawberry Coldstone cake decorated just as Pookie ordered. I mean, requested! To top it off, Melissa decorated the upstairs bedroom with streamers, balloons, colored lights, books, and toys (yes, even beanbags from her sixth grade classroom). Pookie got to have a sleepover with her fun and festive Aunt Missy and her older cousin, Rachel. Her fourth birthday was a dream come true, thanks to Aunt Missy who loves her nieces to pieces and did her sister a huge favor. Am I taking the lazy way out by not decorating and doing the party (part II) thing? I don’t think so. Pookie has already had the extended family bash and the extravagant fun. Pookie has already opened loads of material gifts.

What can I do for Pookie that she hasn’t already had on her fourth birthday? I can spend time with her, which is what she loves best. When I agree to play with Pookie, she rejoices and runs to kiss and thank me. I can tell her stories (what she calls “Stories from Mouth”) about when she was little, and about all of her past birthdays. I can make her pizza stations when she makes herself a pizza. I can close my laptop and pile up on the couch with Pookie, Bouka and Sandy to watch a movie and snack on popcorn. Whether or not those things are costly, those are the things that bring Pookie the most lasting and meaningful joy. If Pookie had her heart set on a material gift then my focus would be on that, too. If I saw something that Pookie would really enjoy (like “Matilda” or a box of Skittles), I would wrap it up for her. If she hadn’t already had balloons and if Gramma Sue weren’t sending more, I would put up balloons. But given the circumstances, this part of her birthday doesn’t need to involve another material gift. I like the idea of action-oriented gifts. I also like recipient-centered gifts. These are my gift-giving aspirations. Pookie’s heart is not set on material gifts, her heart is set on family.

Last night before bed, she said to us, “Yay. Tomorrow is my birthday! That means I get whatever I want. Momma Si, you told Mommy on her birthday that she could do whatever she wants. I get to do whatever I want, too.” Sandy said, “Oh yeah? What do you want to do?” Pookie wiggled excitedly and said, “I want to watch a movie with my family. And I want to play a board game. With my whole family!” She told us what mattered to her. When she tells me something, I want to listen. I try to listen and I will continue to try to listen to her, despite all the other voices in my head that tell me what I should or should not be doing. I want to give Pookie the best gift I can give her: a mother who tries to listen to her. She isn’t the same person as me. If I like lots of material gifts and traditional festivities (I won’t say whether or not I do because it varies...but mostly I do like some of the extravagance), it’s about me (not her). I want to try to let Pookie tell us who she is. I want her to figure out for herself who she is and what she likes on her birthday instead of dictating it for her so that she doesn’t know who she is or what she likes. That’s not easy. If you think I’m ambivalent about all of it, it’s because I am (a highly ambivalent, indecisive, conflicted person). Writing helps me to sort my thoughts in times like these so I can start, or at least start to attempt, to filter out some of the crap I'm telling myself from my true values and beliefs. But, without all the crap what's left is: Pookie. It’s Pookie’s birthday. It’s Pookie who matters. It’s who Pookie is, and not what she does or what she gets, that matters.

Pookie was born four years ago at 5:30 PM on this day (except it was on a Sunday). I’m sure almost every parent feels this way, but it’s true: I cannot believe that Pookie has been with us for four years. That’s almost one seventh of my lifespan. That’s one forth of the way to her sixteenth birthday. WAH! How can this be? I feel like it was just yesterday that the nurse brought us our long bundle of baby with wild dark hair, with her wide and flat nose, her pouty lips and her giant eyes. I feel like it was just yesterday that I held her on my warm deflated and contracting belly, moments after she was born, to breastfeed her. She came out of the womb and assumed a state of contentment almost immediately. I didn’t have to do any work to breastfeed her, it came naturally to her. I stared down at her and stroked her cheek. I said all that I could say to capture what I felt. The love was repetitious and simple. “Oh, Sweetie.” “I love you.” “I love you.” “We love you so much.” “Your so precious.” “You’re so perfect.” “Hi Baby.” “You’re our baby.” “You’re such a perfect angel.” She came into the world around suppertime on a Sunday, and her cries were mild gurgles. We were wonderstruck with love, it’s true. My hormones were doing all the right things (and boy does THAT sound like a freak occurrence). It was just the three of us and a few supportive nurses. That was how it all started. Our life with Darah. Now, four years later, we have a Pookie-D and an Bouka-E. It’s not necessary but it feels good to share how lucky we feel, how much joy and love they bring into our worlds.