Thursday, August 28, 2014

So I moved to Sweden.

So I moved to Sweden. I started thinking about studying abroad just over a year ago, during my spring ’13 creative writing class – you know, the one that brought me back to life and all that.

Up until that point I’d not thought that studying abroad was something that could ever really be a part of my reality. It was expensive, it was big, it was scary. When I was younger I’d balked at moving to San Francisco for school and, comparatively, that’s an itty-bitty move. If I couldn’t cross state lines for school, how was I supposed to cross country boarders? But during that class, while thinking about study abroad in a new light, I picked up this moto: “Embrace the fear.”

Cheesy, sure, but it worked. I made it not fear, but initiative to jump headlong into an adventure senior-year-of-high-school me would have shit her pants even thinking about, and I set up a meeting with the study abroad coordinator to arrange a plan of action. A year and some change later I’m here, set up in a dorm in Uppsala, Sweden, a nine-hour time difference from home on the west coast. Getting here was hardly an adventure – more like a culmination of all of the fears and worries I’d been packing away into a little box in the corner of my mind while I filled out all the paper work, applied for the scholarships and went to the meetings.

My travel went far more smoothly than my buddy Swedish David’s did (see his travel adventures here) but it was exhausting nonetheless. They call it “uprooting” for a reason: not unlike trees, we put down thick, sturdy roots. Connections to places and communities, close ties with friends and family we get to see on a daily basis. Doing something like this? You pull all of those roots out, you pack them up and you go.

Of course you still have all those connections back home – but without the ability to be in the same room as someone, to touch them and hear their voice daily, to smell the smell of their clothes and their apartment, to eat a meal with them…it’s drastic, and there’s really no way to make it not abrupt.

I spent a considerable amount of my final days talking people through what it meant for them that I was leaving – a few of them having already talked me through what it meant for me that I was leaving and wouldn’t be seeing them for nine months. What that meant, interestingly and movingly, was that I learned things about some of my friends that I hadn’t known. Sometimes it made me desperately not want to leave. But, as I spent almost three hours explaining to my eight-year-old niece, that wasn’t an option.

Em, the older of my two nieces, asked me over and over again why I was going and if I had to go. I thought of many different ways to try to explain to her why I was going: there was nothing left for me there. No new opportunities. No new adventures. I’d learned everything I was going to learn there. I needed to go somewhere new to meet new people, have new adventures, learn new things. I was a goldfish that had grown as much as it could in its little bowl – I needed a new bowl.
She asked me again “Do you have to go?” “Yes, I do,” I said, wishing I could explain to her all of the many reasons why I was so desperate to get out of that town, but knowing she was too young for all of those details. “No you don’t,” she said. “You just want to go.”

That’s something that I’ve used on her a great number of times. “But I need cake!” “Do you need it, or do you want it?” She has learned well, my young grass-hopper. And she did touch on something important: yes, I wanted to go. Did I really need to go? I obviously would have survived had I not, but I’m not convinced I would have thrived.

That goldfish in the bowl thing – I feel like it was pretty accurate. Opportunities for my kind of people are limited in that town. We go to the university and we move on. And I’d only gone to the university there because it was easy and it was safe. It was close to home, I wouldn’t have to uproot to go there. It wasn’t so much a choice as it was laziness and fear. Besides, there were things I need to get away from, a sort of spiritual toxin that had started gathering in the air around me there, and there are lessons I need to learn that I couldn’t without leaving. Such as the lesson I will hopefully be simultaneously helping Em to learn: just because people leave doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned you. It doesn’t mean they won’t come back. This is new to her, there’s no way she can know that. And my history tells me otherwise – which was one of my main hang ups when it came to leaving. I hardly trusted that people would still be around for me. I’m in the process of really understanding that they will, and that wouldn’t be happening were I still there.

The town had become constricting. Staying and trying to force more growth to happen would really have only amounted to my chasing my tail for a couple more years before I jumped ship to go on some other adventure. But this adventure, I think, is the adventure I need. Growing pains are inevitable, but at this point I welcome them. It’s good to be in a bigger bowl – good to be able to move freely again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Response to Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh’s blog post about the suicide of Robin Williams is really, horribly, outrageously awful. From the generally demonizing language he uses to describe the act of suicide and therefore, by extension, the people who commit suicide, all the way to the words "joy is the only thing that defeats depression," his post blatantly misunderstands and misrepresents this mental illness. It perpetuates false and damaging ideas about depression specifically and mental illness generally, the kind of ideas that stunt society’s ability to understand and therefore handle and treat mental illnesses.

I know I’m not the only one who is incredibly over individuals perpetuating ignorance that effects people on a societal level. I really only read the blog hoping he’d have something worthwhile to say – and he did, when he spoke about the effect of suicide on friends and families or the danger of slogans like “Genie you’re free” that have cropped up around Robin Williams’ suicide. Maybe if he had spent more time on those topics the post over all would have been a more positive experience, but for the most part reading the post was just frustrating, for so many reasons.

Walsh claims to have struggled with depression, something which I won’t contest (I don’t know and won’t claim to) but this claim comes off more as an attempt to create an aura of authority through experience rather than a genuine revelation. The only reason this point bothers me is because what Walsh actually does is lord his success in that battle over the people who are currently losing it or have already lost. Joy is the only thing that defeats depression? If you're depressed you often are incapable of finding joy, especially in the love that surrounds you. Depression obscures your sense of reality and self (which he actually did a good describing) and makes you incapable of seeing how you have earned or deserve the love others give you. You feel guilty for taking up their love, which you imagine would be better spent on someone else. The way Walsh frames it, you’d think a person who’s depressed could simply wake up one morning and decide, “Hey, you know what would be a better idea? Joy. Joy would be better. I’ll do that instead.” Then bam – just like that they’ve found the light again.

That is not how it fucking works.

Walsh calls depression a “spiritual problem” without defining exactly what “spiritual” means in this context. The fact that this is paired with his ongoing talking about “light” and “darkness” and joy and love being the reason we exist and the things that brought us into existence leads to a very Christian-feeling paradigm being forced onto the issue. Aside from the fact that this excludes and alienates people of other faiths or no faith, it paints depression in broad, simple strokes as a matter of good vs. bad. On a very basic level this might true: choosing to fight and live despite how hard it is is the best possible outcome. Choosing suicide is the worst possible outcome. But this has nothing to do with depression itself.

Furthermore this dichotomy blatantly disregards chemical causes for depression. Depression is a chemical matter, regardless of how you look at it. Sometimes it’s caused by an event or a series of events which leaves a person wounded and unable to heal themselves. That is the kind of depression I’ve been fighting this past year – the kind of depression one of my besties has also been fighting for a year and another has been fighting for two. Sometimes shit happens and we have to fight through the aftermath, and sometimes that fight can be almost insurmountable. (Aside: this is the only thing I can think of as making sense as “spiritual” – the kind of depression which results from an injury or multiple injuries done to the heart and soul, the emotions and mind.) But even this kind of a depression involves chemicals in the brain: something bad happens and your brain responds to that stimuli. The chemical levels in your brain are altered by that stimuli and that can have a lasting effect. The event itself, the memory of it, the injury it did, can continue to affect those chemical levels, or perhaps those chemical levels continue to respond to ongoing struggles with the reality of those events. No individual experience is exactly the same.

While I believe very strongly in therapy over medication, chemicals do play an enormous role in depression and I recognize that sometimes medication is the only thing which can elevate a person to the place of being able to find light in the darkness. While therapy can help us process events that have caused depression or other disruptions in our mental processes, sometimes medication is needed to get a person to the point of being able to take that work and use it to heal. And sometimes a person’s brain just plain has a chemical imbalance. My first bout of depression, in hind sight, seems like little more than puberty-induced hormonal shifts gone awry. There was no triggering event, but there was a deep and inescapable sadness which I doubt I would have gotten out if it weren't for the help of medication which aided in balancing out the chemicals in my brain, allowing me to work through the otherwise very average teen-age stuff I was dealing with.

A lot of people experience chemical depression. A lot of people experience depression as the result of an event or a series of events which leaves them wounded and struggling to heal themselves. It is true that suicide isn't the answer to those things, that suicide leaves a permanent mark on the people around you, that it isn't something which sets you free and that some of the ways in which people have portrayed the suicide of Robin Williams may be damaging or misleading. Nonetheless, it is still incredibly ignorant and equally as damaging to so readily dismiss the vast and varying complexities of depression by trying to put it into a framework of dark vs. light, simplifying it to a spiritual battle akin to Heaven vs. Hell. Claiming that looking at depression in this light reveals greater complexity only serves to obscure the degree to which depression and the people who are losing their battle with it have been belittled and dismissed. Rather than revealing the complexities or diving deep to understand them, this tactic disregards the complexities of the issue.

The claim of complexity in Walsh’s argument seeks to hide the misleading over-simplification of the issue – something which perpetuates misunderstandings and falsehoods, carrying on a long tradition of misunderstanding and misrepresenting mental illness in a way which leads to individuals and society as a whole to being unable to adequately talk about or address mental illness. I am done with that misrepresentation, and I am incredibly over the damage it has done. If we’re going to prevent more tragedies like this one from unfolding at such alarming rates in the future, we have to be able to seriously talk about mental illness without perpetuating falsehoods and stigmas. We have to be able to delve deep into the actual causes of all mental illnesses, educate ourselves and each other, and work toward better, more accessible mental health care (and this includes removing the stigma that can be and often is attached to those who can access mental health care and do seek help). We need to stop talking about diseases such as depression as though they are solely a spiritual battle between light and dark, and talk about it like a real world issue everyday people are dealing with. We need to talk realistically about how we can help people instead of chalking it up to their willingness to find and achieve joy, because things are never that simple.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Femininity and…piercings.

I didn’t really think I was going to write one of these about piercings, but this morning happened. Of the physical changes I’ve made recently I felt like the lip piercing was a relatively minor one yet the reactions from my family unit have been…interesting. For the most part not necessarily negative, but also not particularly positive.

The best part of finding out that my mom is really super weirded out by the fact that I let a guy stab me in the face with a needle and that she’s mildly uncomfortable with it is that, wonderfully, I don’t mind in the least. I can confidently say I don’t care what people think of my lip piercing because it makes me feel good about me, which I’ll get to in a moment. Besides feeling so comfortable with other people not necessarily liking it and finding that it really affects my own feelings about it in absolutely no way, most of the people who haven’t been overly fond have been relatively respectful about it. They just don’t say anything about it or, if they do, they focus almost exclusively on the pain involved in having a piece of metal shoved through your lip rather than disparaging my choice to do exactly that.

This is apparently not true when it comes to Grandma’s Boyfriend, who was exceptionally unkind about it at breakfast this morning. The dialogue looked something like this:

Grandma’s Boyfriend: Take it out.

Me: No. I sold my writing desk to get this.

Grandma’s Boyfriend: No one likes it.

Me: That’s not what I’ve heard. [aside: the vast majority of my friends have told me they are quite fond of the piercing and some of the people most important to me have partaken to some extent in their own body modifications]

Grandma’s Boyfriend: They’re just not telling you they don’t like it so they don’t hurt your feelings.

Me: You don’t seem to realize that piercings are not that big of a deal anymore.

Grandma’s Boyfriend: How is anyone supposed to kiss you with that thing in your lip? [as though making sure I’m as kissable as possible is or should be the top priority in my life]

Me: Kissing isn’t exactly a thing I’m worried about right now. [I’m moving to Sweden in two weeks and besides, haven’t actually been in a relationship for several years now. What is my top priority in reality? School. School and writing]

Grandma’s Boyfriend: That’s good, since no one’s going to want to kiss you with that thing in your lip.

At this point Grandma returned from the bathroom and we were interrupted by the waitress, so the conversation was derailed. What I would have liked to say: “If someone is going to judge me so harshly based on the modifications I have chosen to make to my own body, they’re really not worth my time. They know where the door is. They can let themselves out.”

His opinion didn’t get under my skin. As we’ve already established, his harsh opinion means pretty much nothing to me, especially considering that he was using shitty scare tactics to try to undermine my sense of self and security in myself: imagine someone telling a little girl no one would want to be with her because she wasn’t dressed right – maybe she was wearing boys clothes, for example. It’s the same kind of manipulation, with the same design and the same goal in mind: control. Convince someone (very often or perhaps most obviously but not exclusively women – men have to deal with it all the time, too, only in different forms) that if they’re appearance doesn’t conform with previously established “norms” then they will be facing a desolate future of loneliness where their only friends are shitty rom-coms and the bucket of ice cream they’re crying into. It’s classic body policing. We see girls and women of all ages and backgrounds being targeted in this way to control their expression and action, and it’s super fucked. Everyone should be able to express through their body what they want to and how they want to without someone trying to scare them out of doing so or shitting on their decisions to do so.

While his opinion means nothing in the big picture, it was outstandingly annoying that it was a conversation that happened at all. It was also a little surreal considering that, to be completely honest, I don’t encounter that kind of body policing on a regular basis. I live in something of a bubble – those friends I previously mentioned? I cultivate them carefully. If someone isn’t respectful of my decisions and concerned about my wellbeing as a human person they love and who loves them in return, they don’t get to be a part of my life. Life is pretty damn short and I’m not about to waste what time I do have on people who push me to conform to their ideas of who or what I should be rather than supporting me in developing into the person I want to be. So even though I wasn’t anticipating Grandma or her boyfriend to like my lip piercing, the lack of surprise didn’t make it any less annoying that I had to sit through that conversation for the sake of – wait for it – politeness (it’s arguable whether I was entirely polite during the conversation or not, but I didn’t flip him the bird or tell him to mind his own damn business or walk out, so I feel like I did a’ight).

The reason his opinion didn’t get to me, though, is because the piercing makes me feel good. There is an association in my brain with things which require a certain amount of pain to obtain, things like piercings and tattoos: the willingness to undergo pain to achieve a certain outcome correlates in my mind to a certain kind of bad-assery that I’ve always wished I had within myself. This past year has been tough. I’ve lost a lot of my sense of self and have been relegated to a relatively timid and shy creature who keeps to herself and deals with social anxiety on a somewhat regular basis (although it’s not super intense, mostly just wildly uncomfortable). So, as I’m making my recovery from the year, I wanted to do something for myself that would give me some of my confidence back.

There’s a certain amount of magic that happens when you alter your appearance. If you look at yourself in the mirror and see you’ve achieved a certain effect, that aspect of yourself might be boosted or reinforced. If you think you look beautiful, you feel beautiful, and maybe from there the confidence you gain from that allows you to project beautiful, and, so the theory goes, other people pick up on that confidence and may be more likely to see you in a similar light. That’s kind of what the lip piercing is: I accepted the pain to achieve a specific outcome (my brain’s translation: bad-assery, even if minor bad-assery) in addition to which piercings and tattoos tend to be somewhat more associated with certain groups or sub-cultures, such as punk, which are then associated with certain tougher attitude (though, as previously mentioned, this correlation is decreasing as piercings and tattoos become more mainstream).

Those things combined makes me look at my lip piercing and think “Hey, look at that. A tiny reminder that I have a little bit of a bad-ass in me.” And with that reminder in place, I feel a little tougher where I used to feel weak; I feel a little more confident where I used to feel timid. And I act accordingly – more boldly, with greater flare, if you will. Maybe the effect will wear off as I get used to the piercing, but hopefully by then the boldness will have re-ingratiated itself to the rest of my personality and stick around for good.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Femininity and…hair.

For the better portion of the past year I’ve been sporting what I have thought of as a very chic a-symmetrical hair style, much longer on the right than on the left, a haircut I got after trying to grow my hair out long for almost seven years. My hair apparently doesn’t grow fast and I had a number of mishaps that involved it being cut shorter than I had anticipated (including one very unfortunate incident of my attempting to cut my own hair…never again) so I never got it quite as long as I wanted, and when it was long I mostly wore it up in a clip anyway. But I wanted to grow long, luscious, goddess-locks like my roommate’s, whose hair currently stretches to just below her ribcage but, before she got her most recent trim, was about at her waist. Long and healthy hair is undeniably gorgeous, and I wanted to have hair like that – hair that made me feel powerfully feminine, the kind of hair you have to cover up lest you incite the lust of angels (point for an old-timey biblical/Apocrypha reference! Am I allowed to give myself points?).

Very recently, though, I went in and had almost all of my hair cut off. Having had a pixie cut before I know I look pretty good with really short hair and I love my new haircut – but I find myself thinking of the cut as “boyish” when I still want to be feminine, which I find makes my feelings towards my hair a little more ambivalent than I would absolutely prefer because – like I said – I love it and I think I rock short hair. Nonetheless, part of me seems to want to feel insecure about my short hair, or maybe that part of me just doesn’t know how to feel confident in my appearances – and would that really be all that surprising, considering all of the messages regarding beauty that slam us every day? Even in my day-to-day life it’s difficult if not impossible to escape them, and I don’t watch a whole lot of TV and I never read style or gossip magazines. But the messages I do encounter have planted a seed that still lurks in my brain: long hair equals feminine, short hair equals boyish. Feminine equals beautiful, boyish (on a girl, at least) is pat-on-the-head cute at best, dyke-ish at worst.

Hair is all sorts of tied up in gender expression in our culture. On the feminine side of the coin this can involve anything from the meticulous removal of body hair or the careful cultivation of long, luscious goddess-locks. Historically in our country movements in which women cut their hair short were seen as radical if not dangerous (consider the flappers of the roaring twenties, with their then cutting-edge bobs). As a co-worker once told me, as a girl “people look at you differently if you have short hair.” She herself discovered this when she cut her own hair short and became aware of subtle differences in her interactions with the people around her, as though she as a person had been altered rather than just her hair. She recently cut it even shorter, also adopting the total radness of a-symmetry, and has expressed a certain amount of “fuck you” attitude when it comes to people assessing her based on her haircut (this being one of the many reasons I deeply appreciate her).

Long hair is obviously far from demanded at this point in our cultural/societal history, but it stills seems to ruffle some feathers when women chop their hair off. It was shocking when Demi Moore shaved her head for GI Jane, and years later it was still shocking when Natalie Portman did it for V for Vendetta. I am admittedly out of touch with most pop culture and pay little to no attention to celebrity gossip, but I still managed to catch wind of Jennifer Lawrence’s pixie cut causing a bit of a stir (and apparently when you Google “Jennifer Lawrence hair cut” you will find all sorts of articles and blogs about why she would cut off her hair). But all of these women are beautiful, with or without goddess-locks. Natalie Portman’s pixie cut following her dramatic shave is what initially inspired me to chop off all my hair at end of high school – she was beautiful and rocking it so I figured, “Hey, I might rock it, too,” and I totally did.

So, while most of our hailed Hollywood beauties sport sleek, long manes of carefully maintained hair, we have seen and do have a couple of women hailed as beautiful who sport short hair. They seem to be far more infrequent, however, and I speculate that this contributes to/supports the cultural view of long hair being associated with femininity.

This idea is, in my world at least, reinforced by the kind of media and toys I see my young nieces interacting with. The shortest hair I’ve seen on a girl in any of the shows or movies they watch is Velma’s bob in Scooby Doo. So it really wasn’t that surprising when my younger niece (aged five years) asked me why I cut my hair, informing me very seriously “You look like a boy.” My sister chided her for saying something so mean, but it wasn’t mean. Aside from my mom, their grandmother, they’ve probably only seen a couple women with such short hair in the entirety of their very short life spans.

“It’s OK,” I said, “it wasn’t mean. They’re just not used to seeing women with short hair. But women can have short hair, too, and still look like girls, right?” My nieces thought about this very seriously before responding, “Yes, and boys can have long hair.”


“And girls can wear pants. And boys can wear dresses.”

“Yes they can. Because you know what? People can do whatever they want with their hair and their clothing and their makeup and it doesn’t matter.”

It was a lovely conversation!

Why long hair must be associated with femininity I can’t rightly say, and formulating a hypothesis would require far more in-depth research than my newly free-from-school brain is willing to deal with just this moment – in addition to which, I’m not totally sure that the why is nearly as important as the simply being aware and figuring out what the cultural expectations mean for the self.

Furthermore I am quite curious about the response I had to watching my hair be snipped away: “Will my short hair make people think I’m a dyke?” It was a weird moment, as I like to think that I usually don’t give one flying fuck about what people think of me, in addition to which my hair is not capable of making anyone think anything. But more importantly: why on earth would this strike me as an inherently bad thing?

My brain in that moment latched on to one of the more negative terms that has been used when referring to women of the lesbian type, and seems especially to be directed towards women who present as more “butch.” So the word tends to carry some negative connotation and seems to most often be associated with women who aren’t “feminine.” Think of how my niece asked me why I cut my hair and told me I looked like a boy: there was something decidedly negative about the association which isn’t so different from the idea here. Looking like a boy while being female is not, the tone of both this word and my niece’s observation implies, a good thing at all.

That this is the word my brain latched on to is both interesting and troubling to me: troubling on a couple different levels, one being that it suggests to me that, on some level, I buy into the negativity of the word, which is gross and why would I do that? (Answer: because no one can totally free themselves of their culture or the messages which fly around all crazy-like therein. Some of those things are bound to stick and they can be hard to undo.)  Secondly, it says a lot about how I anticipate people viewing me as a person based on my hair style.

I want to sit with that “second” for a while: whether or not I buy into the negative connotations of the word “dyke” and the general (but not necessarily consistent) association with “butch” or “not feminine,” I definitely believe that many, many other people do. And some part me is, or at least was, afraid of being seen in that distinctly negative light because of my hair style – a hair style which I will repeat, I very much like and think looks very good on me. My fear or anxiety or whatever it might be that other people would look at my hair and judge me as a person for it, but more specifically judge me in a negative light for it’s lack of traditional femininity, is indicative of some serious fuckery and I do not like it.

Here’s the deal: I cut my hair for me, not for the people around me, not for the guy I was flirtatiously texting last night, not for my family or my best friends or my neighbors or even my gods. I cut my hair for me because I’m about to embark on a huge adventure to a place where I get the chance to start completely fresh in a place where I don’t know anyone and cutting my hair was not only a way of freshening up my style, it was a way for me to symbolically leave behind the old and the shitty and the things that aren’t important, worthwhile or useful anymore. You know what else is entirely unimportant, not worthwhile, and useless which I would do quite well to slough off and leave behind? Other people’s superficial judgments about who I am and what I’m all about based on superficial details they can see with their eyes and use to calculate my so called “femininity,” as though that has anything to do with my worth as a human being. I’ll stick to the kinds of people who take the time to get to know me, and I’ll enjoy taking the time to get to know them and building a meaningful, worthwhile relationship with them.

Everyone else? If they want to make the judgment call that I’m a dyke because I have a short hair they can go right on ahead. There’s nothing wrong with being a dyke anyway.