Hoops

The other day I was lurking in a comment thread on an article examining how one solution to homelessness is to give people houses, much along the same idea as one way to alleviate poverty is to give people money. The thread went in a number of different directions. One was the difference between private charity (e.g., church-run) and public (i.e., government sponsored) charity. The consensus being that private charity often  involves certain stipulations to ascertain whether the impoverished person is “deserving” of help (do you go to the right church, life your life the right way, etc.) whereas public charity tries to distribute resources more equitably.

Whoa, hold on there, hoss. As a poor person, I disagree. Okay, the government may try to distribute resources more equitably, but US culture is so steeped in ideas of the virtues of capitalism and the idleness of the poor that the people making laws can’t help but spout nonsense every time they open their mouths. How would they? They literally have no idea what being poor is. As a result, ideas about deserving show up in all the ways meant to help people in need. They take the form of hoops you have to jump through to get that help, and while they may be different hoops than, say, being required to recite the Lord’s Prayer before supper or having to sleep in a separate shelter than your life partner due to ideas about morality (or, for that matter, not being acceptable to a shelter at all if you’re gay), they do more to hinder and demoralize us poors than to give us a hand.

We’re currently in the process of seeking some assistance, and here are some of the hoops I’ve noticed.

The Childless Hoop

Virtually every form of public assistance I’ve looked at prefers, and in the case of being eligible for immediate aid requires, that there be minor children present in the house. Now I happen to think it’s great the government wants to feeds children despite some politicians’ best efforts to the contrary. And I don’t believe that people would elect to have children solely to get those cushy benefits, as I’m sure some do. However, as a childless poor woman I feel even more of a second-class citizen every time I fill out a form asking if there are minor children in the house and know my chances of getting help would be better if there were. (In fact, back in the dim and distant past, the first time I applied for assistance [unemployment], the case worker told me to my face I might as well give up trying since I didn’t have children. And this was before Clinton’s Welfare Reform, mind.) Moreover, as a childless woman who desperately wanted children but couldn’t have them, I feel slapped in the face every time I have to answer that same question. Not pleasant, or easy.

The Distance Hoop

The other day, my husband had to drive some forms over to the county social services extension in the next town, a distance of ten miles. When he got home, he told me, “I was watching the gas gauge the entire way, and I’m going to have to come up with some money to put in the tank by the end of the week or I won’t be able to get to work.”

Every time we have to turn in a piece of paperwork or attend an in-person interview, at least one of us has to travel those ten miles at minimum. If we can’t do what we need to do at the extension office and have to go all the way to the main social services building, that’s thirty miles. One way. There’s no public transportation in the rural area where we live. If we didn’t have a working vehicle, we’d have to borrow one or beg a ride, or we’d be stuck. It’s asking a bit much, I think, of poor people to require they have a car–and the gas for it–to be able to apply for assistance. And it plays directly into the next hoop we have to jump through, which is

The Time Hoop

Applying for assistance takes time. No matter what some people believe, you can’t just walk into an office and claim you need help, and walk away with a fat cheque. There are myriad forms to fill out, and interviews to attend, and more paperwork to file after the first lot has been processed. We’ve been working on this process for six weeks now, and we have no word whether we even qualify.

Government agencies don’t care about your time, and that’s dehumanizing. And it’s even worse in rural areas. Sure, some things can be done through the post, but the post isn’t reliable. Here the post has to go from Delta, where the main social services office is located, all the way to Grand Junction to be processed, and only then back to our small town. This can take days. Back last summer when my husband had his work accident and we were trying to see if we could get it covered on his insurance, we got a notification that we needed to file certain paperwork after the date it was due. Consequently, his whole claim was denied. More recently, we received notification of a phone interview the evening before it was to take place (at 8:30 the next morning). This doesn’t leave much time to make arrangements–in our case, with my husband’s job, in other cases, for childcare or anything else necessary to make sure you have a chunk of time available. And we were lucky; our interview could be conducted over the phone. If you have to go in, in our area that’s 30 miles to cover to get to the main office, then another chunk of time waiting–there’s always waiting–and then up to another hour for the interview itself. If you have to travel and you lack a car, you can easily blow an entire day getting to and from one interview. In that long ago time when I filed for unemployment, I had to ride a local bus from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti several times. It’s a distance of ten miles; it took 45 minutes there and back, plus the time at the social services office every time. That didn’t leave much during the day for other things like, say, looking for other work.

The Proof Hoop

I’m convinced that the reason for all these hoops is that the social safety net–for what it’s worth–in the US isn’t designed benefit people at all. It’s designed to keep out those whom the system decides don’t qualify, for whatever seemingly arbitrary reason. And nowhere is this more evident than in the mountains of proof required to convince social service workers that you actually need and qualify for help (the accumulation of which takes time which you may not have, mind).

Take my disability claim. I have had a serious mental illness my entire life. Numerous doctors have treated me for it. Many of those have told me and those around me that I would never be able to work a full time job. (My parents were told “she’ll never be able to take care of herself” when I was eighteen.) Despite this, it took me until ten years ago to think that maybe I might qualify for disability, So I filled out the forms and was denied off the bat.

This is not unusual. Generally disability claims are denied the first time you apply, unless there’s reason to believe you won’t live another six months. If you appeal, you have a chance of your claim being granted, but you have to supply ample proof of your disability and, in many states (mine included), attend a court hearing.

I wasn’t up to the task, so I enlisted a lawyer who would take for his fee a portion of the award if my claim was granted. What I would do if it weren’t, I had no idea, but I was in bad shape so I went for it.

It took two years. The court demanded all my medical records for the ten years previous, as well as statements from all the doctors I had seen in that time and any I was seeing currently. In addition, I had to fill out another ream of paperwork: all about my treatment, and the meds I was taking, and what steps I had taken not to be disabled. I was deep in a major depressive episode at that time, and I could barely face doing the work. My lawyer called me up and yelled at me for not reviewing my files.

Well, anyway. I guess I presented as crazy enough at my hearing because my claim was granted. But even though I have a lifelong illness, the powers that be see fit to review my case every three to five years to see if I still have Bipolar Disorder. This puts me in a Catch-22, because if I improve too much I’ll lose the disability medical insurance that pays for the medications that helped me improve in the first place, and I’ll be right back where I started.

As a contrast, at the same time as I was going through all this rigmarole, a friend in England with troubles and a depressive episode of her own needed a reprieve from work. She saw her primary care doctor and told him what was going on. He wrote her a slip of paper “signing her off work” for six months, which she took to the nearest benefits office and that was that. Of course, things being what they are in the UK right now, this system may be on the way out.

More recently, as we’ve filed for assistance, we’ve been asked for proof of disability, proof of work, proof of wages earned, proof we no longer had a bank account that’s been closed for ten years, proof that an insurance policy was canceled, proof of debt…and the list goes on and on. All of which serves to solidify my belief that the social service system in the US exists in mortal fear of dispensing benefits to someone who doesn’t “deserve” them.

The poor would be better served, and bureaucracy much reduced, with less judgment and less concern about who deserves what and more compassion and trust. But until more politicians take their heads out of their asses and stop listening only to those with clout and money, attitudes of judgment will continue to infect the very systems claiming to provide relief.

 

The Math of Poverty

Getting some pushback on yesterday’s blog, I see. Apparently poor people haven’t earned the right to be judgmental, or to be angry. Sometimes I think there are only two ways to be an acceptable poor person in the US. The first is the “Bob Cratchit” model: Show up to work every day at your perennially underpaid clerical job, wearing the threadbare yet neat suit you (or your partner) have painstakingly hand-tailored by the light of your single candle, live on your bowl of bean broth a day and never ask for more, and generally show stoicism about your lot. The second is the “dirty beggar” model: wear sackcloth and ashes and hang out on street corners (preferably with your entire family and a small dog), shaking empty coffee cans and hitting up passersby for spare change. This second, while not respectable, is certainly acceptable in that it gives your “betters” someone to look down on and complain about in various forms of media. Falling outside either of those models confuses and alarms people. And when people are confused and alarmed, they react in unpleasant ways.

Which brings me to today’s post. I found something educational in the veiled vitriol of one comment (interesting use of the quotation marks around the word “husband,” by the way; did you mean to question the existence of such a person? or do you simply doubt that we’re married? I decline to upload a copy of our certificate for your inspection.). It went like this:

“With the $10 you spend on Netflix, you could have had THREE pairs of glasses and not waited three years!”

Honestly, at first I had no idea what this meant. $10 is obviously not $101, which was the cost of my glasses. And it definitely would not have covered three pairs of glasses. So I had to rewrite this portion of the comment in my head. It came out like this:

“If you had saved that $10 a month instead of spending it on Netflix, you could have bought three pairs of glasses in three years.”

Ah-ha! That makes better sense–to a point. And this is where the educational part comes in. You see, poverty math is not like money math. Money math is straightforward: X amount x Y months over Z years = AMOUNT. Poverty math is more existential, and there are far more variables. So what looks like a simple equation ($10 saved on Netflix X 12 Months/year X 3 years = $360 = Enough for three pairs of glasses) becomes a complex equation including time and circumstances and all kinds of other things a poor person has no control over. I’ll spell it out:

Let’s say I decide that I’m going to do without Netflix and put that money in a jar every month, so at the end of three years I have enough for my three pairs of glasses. Let’s also say that at this point in time this is the only “extraneous” expense I have so this is the only savings I can make, and let’s grant that I am making enough to cover my monthly housing, food, and utilities.

After six months I have $60 in my “glasses fund” jar. And then something happens. It doesn’t matter what happens. Stuff always happens. Maybe I blow a tire on my car and it has to be replaced. That’s minor; a new tire costs about $60, less if you get one that’s patched. Do I dip into my glasses fund? Of course I do, because I have to have the car to get to work. It puts me back at zero on my glasses fund. This shows how savings are a function of circumstance. So now our equation can be expressed as:

[12(Savings) / (Circumstance)] X 3 = Glasses

You can make up the loss in a relatively short time. But that was a small problem. Let’s say there’s a big one. Let’s say your car blows an alternator. That’s around $300–it’s been a while since we had to have an alternator replaced. It wipes out your monthly food budget. Now you have $60 and no food, and your kids are hungry. Do you hold onto that $60? It’ll buy a lot of macaroni and cheese. Of course your future glasses will take back seat to that. Your savings have actually gone into a negative amount here, because it’s going to take you a while to make up your deficit. Remember, you have no credit cards, only cash in hand.

Poverty Math is an exercise in relativity, and the rule is always Current Circumstance > Future Circumstance.

People come up with all kinds of arguments against this reality of hand-to-mouth living. There’s always the person who will say, “But do you really need the car? Can’t you take public transportation or get a ride to work?” And I’m not going to answer that question, in the first place because there will always be something more important than the future that comes up, and in the second because nothing will ever satisfy these people. No matter what lengths of austerity poor people go to, those who think they know better will always claim they should do more and sacrifice more.

I don’t know if Poverty Math qualifies as a science. Perhaps it’s more of a philosophy. The time and relativity aspects insist that one exist in a kind of perpetual NOW, where worries about both the past and the future become irrelevant. Perhaps this is why so many spiritual systems recommend giving up material goods and living a life of poverty. I don’t see the bright side, myself. The problem of an eternal now is that you lose the ability to believe in the future at all.

If that’s part of enlightenment, I’d rather have the money.

[With regards to Occupy Math, who I hope will find this post humorous.]

Dear Wealthy Person…

Wait: I’ve started off wrong, haven’t I? Because you don’t think you’re wealthy, not at all. You probably think you’re comfortably middle class, though your six-figure income puts you in the top 2% of earners in the US, though your yearly income is more than my husband and I expect to see in ten. I see this as part of the disconnect the wealthy have from those on the bottom of the income scale; after all, studies have shown wealth decreases empathy.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve posted another meme about how poverty is due to mismanagement of funds and not a lack of funds, and how you’re not about to “throw money at” the poor because it won’t solve the problem. And I’m not. It still makes me mad, though. I don’t have any reason to suppose you posted this meme in response to my sharing my GoFundMe campaign begging people to help us with this week’s $500 in bills that have to be paid RIGHT NOW, yet I do suppose it. Every time I see a meme like the one you shared, it feels personal to me. Both judgment and a slap in the face from someone who doesn’t know, and likely will never know, what it’s like to live in abject poverty. The kind of poverty where every day is another choice of what we can do without, another decision on what to put off and what absolutely has to be paid for.

I’m thinking you believe you could make those decisions better and more easily than we do. Trim the fat! Don’t spend anything extra and then you’ll have money to put away! I’m imagining your voice telling us we don’t need expensive broadband Internet (after the installation fee, cheaper than what we had before, so the alternative is no Internet, mind). We don’t need mobile phones, do we? Certainly not two of them, with two separate accounts! ($75 a month for the both of them, in an area where some places still don’t have landline access. Oh, right–we DO have a landline for emergencies; it’s $25 a month. Sometimes the fiber optic lines get cut.) They just aren’t necessary–except my husband needs to be available to take calls anywhere and anytime a job might come up. Except I have a mental illness and my phone can be my lifeline in a way the landline isn’t, in a way I can’t explain, but of course that doesn’t matter. I didn’t need to spend money on a nice steak yesterday ($7 on a really good sale) because ramen is good enough for every meal, even when I have a literal physical condition that requires and infusion of high quality food every so often. Let’s see, if I eliminate all that “fat” from my budget (unnecessary Internet, unnecessary phone plans but the phones are already paid for, the food doesn’t count because one must have some kind of food), then I’ll have saved a whole $125–not even enough to pay one of the outstanding medical bills we have on hold because my disability (did I mention I’m disabled?) medical only covers 80% and the husband doesn’t have any insurance at all. So we’re stuck with the pile-up of bills incurred when he almost cut off his thumb last fall. Now I’m down to choosing which of the utilities I can sacrifice and whether or not that mortgage payment is really necessary, and do I really have to see my therapist and my medication manager in this next week? That’s another $75, which would be $50 except the last time I saw my therapist (almost two months ago), the Mental Health Center was good enough to defer my fee. But I guess it’s not really important whether or not I’m suicidal.

You may notice that I can tell you the exact amount of every bill and how much we’ve spent in the last few days ($34.81 for a small sack of groceries because the last $10 has to go in the gas tank), and I didn’t even have to look that shit up. So I object to the claim that financial difficulties we face are the result of “poor management.” The truth is, we don’t have anything to manage. When you’re faced with a choice of being shot or being hung, all decisions are trivial.

I know very little about the way you live, other than that you have more than I do. I can admit that. Why do you assume you understand the causes of poverty, or how poor people live?

In Googling (there’s that unnecessary Internet service again) to find a citation for another statement I want to make, I found a lot of articles from people who seem to think as you do, right down to using the same words: “Throwing money at” the poor won’t cure poverty, for whatever the reason of choice happens to be. Can I just take a minute to tell you how offensive that wording is? Every time I see it in relation to someone or something needing funding to solve a problem, my sight turns red. I get an image of someone throwing meat at a starving dog to distract it, then running away. Running away without LOOKING and SEEING whether that dog has been mistreated, whether it’s chained, whether it has sufficient water and shelter and all the things a dog should have. To me, it says a lot more about the person who uses the phrase than it does about the people at whom it’s directed. It says you want an easy way out. It says you don’t want to think. It says you want to do the barest minimum thing possible to assuage your guilt, and maybe to keep you safe where that dog can’t get you. So you talk about “throwing money,” and then you dismiss the very concept, because you’ve made your pronouncement that it won’t work. And you know what, in some ways you’re right. “Throwing money” won’t “solve” poverty on a wide basis. Solving the problem would mean taking a good, hard look at the problems that cause it, at the limitations of Capitalism and Calvinism, and working hard to combat them. But that’s too hard. So you declare yourself without responsibility to your fellow human beings, who have had the misfortune not to start out with as much as you have, of who have slipped into the hole that waits for everyone who doesn’t toe the line. To those with mental or physical disabilities, or just with the wrong temperament, to do what one has to do to succeed within the system’s limitations. You got yours, they need to get theirs. World without end, Amen.

I’ll tell you what: “Throwing money at” poverty might not cure it. But it certainly helps to be able to get over the next hurdle and breathe a bit before you have to face the next one.

My husband owns two pairs of pants, did you know that? One for work and one for not-work, with a not-too-badly worn pair of jeans for those dirty jobs around the house. Is that too much for him to have, do you think? Should we sell one? Maybe with the money from it we could start an investment portfolio. I’m a bit luckier: a friend regularly gives me an Amazon gift certificate for my birthday, so I can get some clothes, a pair of boots. My good winter boots are 20 years old. My husband hasn’t had a new pair of work boots in at least 15 years, maybe more. If we can’t make them last, what do we do? There’s no money for new ones.

THERE’S NEVER ANY MONEY FOR NEW ONES.

Last time someone made a major contribution to my fundraiser, I bought new glasses ($101). I felt guilty for doing it, even though I’ve been needing new glasses for about three years now. I felt guilty about wanting to be able to see. But maybe that’s another thing I should have done without.

You know what else we don’t have that’s considered normal? A television or cable service. Entertainment in this house is hauling the laptop into the bedroom and hoping the screen lasts through another hour of streaming something on Netflix. Oh–should I have added Netflix to the list of things we can do without? That’s a whole ‘nother $10 per month! I should celebrate.

I know you have a job, wealthy person. I’m almost certain you don’t need it, because your partner earns the bulk of your income. It’s a hobby for you. Even that hobby would sustain us comfortably–more than comfortably. We’d be well off if we had the wages you earned from your hobby. Currently the husband is working part time at half his usual wage because that’s the only work there is. And yes, this much is true: We chose to live where we do, in an area that doesn’t offer a huge amount of opportunity. And we did all right until the Recession hit. We were willing, and are still willing, to make certain sacrifices. We saw a way toward a better future. That’s why husband went back to college right before the Recession. But you know what? That college degree has done bupkis for us. No one wants teachers here. No one wants to “throw money at” education. Good gods, what’s going to happen in a rural area with no alternatives but public school under our current president, I can’t bear to think!

You might advise us to up and move if we can’t make it where we are. I want to ask you, who’s going to pay for us to do that? Is someone going to guarantee work and moving expenses? Is someone going to find us a new place to live–far, I might add, from family members who are getting older, and who need us, and who don’t want to move? The house we live in wouldn’t bring much. We’re fortunate in that my dad bought if for us as a wedding present, but we’ve had to mortgage it up to the eyeballs. And you know, poverty has affected our house, too. I think we’d have to put about $10,000 into it before we could sell it. Where’s that going to come from?

I’m winding down from the intense rage I felt at the beginning of this post, but I want to add one last thing: You know what they worst thing is about being poor? Besides the moralizing, judgmental people who think they know what your life is like, I mean. The worst thing is, you get to this state where it seems like all you’ve known and all you’ll ever know, so there’s no use in dreaming of anything different. I was noticing this just this morning: We used to say things like, “Maybe next year we’ll get a chance to go to Denver Comic Con,” or “I really want to go to the Ren Faire in Larkspur; maybe next summer.” But we don’t say those things anymore. Because we know it’s not going to change. There’s not going to be any Comic Con this year, or the next year, or the one after that, so why bother even thinking of it? And maybe you’ll say that’s part of our problem: that we don’t make plans and then stick to them, so we never get out. But I’ll answer you this: You can’t make plans and stick to them if you don’t have the wherewithal and you have no way to get it. No matter what plan you make, it has to be able to shift in the face of necessity. And necessity boils down to food and shelter, with warmth and light and water coming not far behind. When I see your self-righteous meme, I imagine you think we’re not keeping track of these things. The truth is, we juggle them every single day. It doesn’t stop the unexpected from happening: The blown tire that has to be replaced, or else husband can’t get to work; the sickness that makes it impossible to work; the family emergency; any other thing that a wealthy person like you has a cushion for and we don’t.

The truth is, giving poor people money does work. You just don’t want to believe it does, because it relieves you of responsibility to help. In my book, that makes you a taker every bit as much as you think I am. So I guess we’re even.

 

The Practice of Apology

It happens often in the book world–sometimes it seems every other week these days. An author, usually a white woman, releases a book relying on the misguided use of a racial trope. The writing community of color calls her on it. She issues an apology which, knowingly or not, glosses over the real issues, and the community of color responds with more ire. And people look at the apology, and shake their heads, and ask, “How hard can it be to say you’re sorry?”

How hard can it be?

Yesterday I wrote a preface for my book, The Parting Glass:

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(In 2010, when I wrote the first draft of The Parting Glass, I was a good deal less aware of issues of race and cultural appropriation than I am today. Considering myself a fairly decent and enlightened person, I thought drawing on my own experience of life was enough. Consequently, I made some choices for the book that make me cringe when I read it today. The character of John Stonefeather relying heavily on the trope of “alcoholic Indian” is one, as is Timber’s practice of something I refer to as “Native American shamanism,” and even Sage’s role as the sassy Black girlfriend. It isn’t enough to say I didn’t intend to be disrespectful in any way, or that I did draw from and embellish people and situations from my real life. I made bad choices I would not make today, and I’m sorry for that.

I can’t rewrite the book at this late date, and I’m not going to pull it from publication because despite the flaws I’m still proud of it and I like the story of how Caitlin and Timber first met, which is central to the book and unfortunately relies on the more problematic elements. But I have tried to do better since writing this book, and I will continue to do so. It’s important to me that marginalized voices be heard, and that bad stereotypes not be perpetuated.

Thank you for reading this.)

I added it to every edition, and most of them are already available. I did it, not because anyone called me out on the book’s problematic elements–no one has; the book hasn’t a far enough reach to cause a stir of any proportion at all. I did it because as I gained awareness of the issues involved, the fact that I unthinkingly used bad tropes bothered me more and more, until I couldn’t let it go any longer without doing something.

How hard could it be? I’ll tell you: It was hard.

When I wrote the book, from 2010 – 2012, I considered myself fairly enlightened. It was only as I got more involved in social media, and concurrently social justice, that I began to see how very problematic some of the basic premises were. This was after I’d already published the book, and I didn’t want to let it go.

Again, I wasn’t involved in any confrontation; all of the relevant conversations happened in the “what if?” space of my head. What if someone called me out? What if I got attacked? What if? What would I say?

My first instincts were not the best. At least I didn’t dismiss the inner challenge out of hand, but that’s the best I can say of myself. I got defensive. I justified. I told myself, “Yes, but I based this character on a real person and I based this experience on a real experience! I only embellished and made it bigger, so it would be story-worthy.” I told myself since I knew a Native person with substance abuse issues in my past, putting one in my book was okay. Likewise with white people who had studied with Native teachers, likewise with every other problematic thing in the book. I also told myself since the core of the story isn’t about those problematic tropes, it was okay. (Spoiler: It kind of is and it kind of isn’t, and it’s not okay.) I told myself the Native people I know personally assure me I’m a good person, so I couldn’t be doing something really out of line.

After I told myself all these things, I ignored the problem. I said I’d address it if it ever became an issue. And I tried to forget. For four years, I tried to forget. In the meantime, I turned out three more books, each getting a little more aware, and a little more diverse, and a little better regarding the kind of world I want to portray and the kind of world I want to see manifest. It’s been a bit of a challenge, considering the realities of the geographical setting of my book series (rural Colorado, which I know well since I live there). But gradually I’ve added more People of Color, more LGBTQ+ representation, more diverse viewpoints. I hope I haven’t done it too badly.

Currently, I’m rereading my own books to refresh myself on the world and the overall series arc before plunging ahead into book eight. Saturday night, I started The Parting Glass. It’s always been a joy for me to read that particular volume, as it’s one of my favourites. This time, however, I hadn’t got through the first chapter before I started cringing. Could I really have used those tropes in that way? Yes, yes, I did. Wow. I wouldn’t do that now.

A book is a moment in an author’s life; it shows how they thought, what they considered important, and perhaps how they felt at a particular time and place of life. People learn, and grow, and change, and I did all three more than I had thought. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone picking up the book with its problematic elements without my making a public apology. So yesterday I wrote the short preface above.

How hard could it be? It was hard. It took me four years of growth before I did it, and even when I sat down to work I wasn’t sure I could say I was sorry and mean it. I think I managed. And one last time, I came to this without people riding me and demanding I grow all in an instant, while supportive friends of color told me I wasn’t a bad person. I like to think if I’d been confronted earlier I would have stepped up to the plate, but I know myself too well for that. Probably I’d have dug in and become even more defensive, reached for more justification.

This isn’t to say people should let authors alone and not challenge problematic elements in books; they absolutely should do so, because if people stay silent, others never learn at all. When I acknowledge how hard it was for me to come to the point of apology, it’s to say to other authors that I get that it’s hard. AND because it’s hard, we have to practice. Practice listening. Practice saying, “I did a wrong thing, and I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry if I offended anyone…” or “I’m sorry, but this is what I really meant…” Just, “I’m sorry. I will do better in the future. I will do my best.”

When learning an instrument, you don’t practice scales because you’re ever going to perform scales for the public. You practice scales because they teach your body the way your instrument works and the combinations of notes you’re likely to find in a piece, so when you are performing you can do the right thing without thinking about it. In a similar way, authors need to practice apology. If and when someone confronts you, don’t react at once. Don’t take it personally if and when someone calls you on a problematic element. Take a breath. Refuse the urge to justify and dig in. If you can, ask for clarification, but realize this may not be possible. When you do respond, just say, “I’m sorry.” Ask how you can make it better, and offer to do so, if that’s possible. If you can’t make it better in the moment or in the near future, promise to do better. That’s it. Marginalized people don’t want our justifications; they’ve heard way too many already. If you have privilege in an area–if you’re white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical–it’s incumbent upon you to listen and do better.

How hard can it be? Hard, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is refusing to learn.

 

 

 

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Mental Illness and Relativity

As I mentioned a few posts ago, at the beginning of December I started a new medication, and it worked. It worked better than I dreamed it would, and it’s continued to work. I still have bad days, usually when the weather is icky. I’m not sure science will ever unlock the mystery of the relationship between weather and health; I’m not sure scientists give it as much credit as it deserves. However, my good days increasingly outnumber the bad ones.

This is new and strange. Perhaps the strangest thing is how much time I suddenly seem to have.

Mental illness is a time sink. I could fall into social media or casual games for hours and hours on end, and then when I lifted my head to see the sun setting wonder what happened to the day. I’d remember when I was younger, even as recently as ten years ago, accomplishing so much in a day. Getting up and not taking hours to move beyond drinking coffee and checking my notifications. Putting on clothes and going downtown, going for a walk, working in the garden, doing the daily maintenance on my home, cooking elaborate meals. Depression and anxiety, the two main manifestations of my mental illness, have limited me by limiting my time. Dragging myself out of the Internet and putting down my phone has often seemed a Sisyphean task, the effort only gaining me minutes of clear space before those twin rocks forced me back on line.

I have had a love/hate relationship with those rocks. They are smooth, presenting no challenges other than their existence. They have kept me safe from interacting with things I’m not ready to face. I think many mental illnesses still exist, evolutionarily speaking, because they DO keep people safe and keep the broken parts from grinding together; it’s just when they take over and become chronic illnesses rather than temporary traits that they become more problematic. On the other hand, I sometimes (frequently) have remembered times of being more functional and wondered, “Is this it? Is this as good as it gets? Is this my life now?” Living with an uncontrolled mental illness is brutal and unforgiving; there’s always a reason why it’s your own fault. There are always other people, more functional and successful people, with whom to compare yourself, so the things lacking in your life stand out in sharp contrast. It’s easy to forget that every day you survive is a victory.

With my mental illnesses in relative check, I have so much more time. The time starts right away, first thing in the morning. I sleep better. I don’t have to take a sedative every night just to find my way to dreams. I go to bed and get up at times more “normal” for me. I need less sleep, too–still a solid eight hours, but not nine or ten or more. I can even function for a day on six or so, as I did last week when I had jury duty, which is another task that would have been impossible for me even to face before. It doesn’t take me two hours to get up off the couch and wash my face. Where I used to see the sun set and wonder what had happened to the day, now I’m functioning before noon most days. It still instills me with a sense of wonder, but now I’m wondering what to do with all this time, rather than wondering where it all went. In the past little while, I’ve crocheted a hat for a friend, started work on a sweater for the same friend’s tortoise (so they can match), cooked more, cleaned more, picked up yoga again (until I injured my ankle, at least), even gotten a start on a couple writing projects. The last two have remained difficult, as are any dedicated creative endeavors; contacting my heart causes me pain that brings everything to a screeching halt. Last night I even went with my husband to an open mic he wanted to play at. I looked forward to it all day. I put on makeup! And I had a reasonable time, experiencing some feelings of annoyance and alienation, but not nearly the feelings I would have just a short time ago, when I’d have been ready to leave an event five minutes after walking in the door–if I went in the first place.

All these things may seem small to a person who hasn’t struggled as I’ve struggled the past 10+ years, but to me they’re huge. And people (my therapist, my med manager) have told me in the past that losing time was an aspect of my illness, but I really didn’t get it until now, when that time is spread gloriously before me. Depression sapped my will and my motivation to do anything at all. I couldn’t even see how dirty my house got until six months had passed since the last time I’d mopped the floor and I made myself do it because I simply couldn’t stand it anymore. Everything became a matter of “which is worse: doing or not doing? How much can I stand?” Anxiety crippled me with a sense of dread at the prospect of engaging with life on any level at all. Much better to fend it off with games, with chit-chat, with Netflix, with anything I could use to numb the fear.

I don’t fool myself that all this is gone now. As I said, I still have bad days, and those days are BAD. Perhaps the worst thing about them is slipping back into self blame and recrimination, all the unproductive ways of thinking that, though I’ve worked forty years to loosen their grip, still take hold of me at those times. That I’m irredeemably bad and awful, that I have no value, that I’m weak and lazy and all the rest. That life is grey and dreary and will continue to be so until the day I mercifully die. Those days, I simply have to grit my teeth and bear it, try not to listen to the messages, and do what I need to do to get through. I have no illusions that I could survive in a capitalist institution like a “normal” job, or that routine “work” wouldn’t send me back into the spiral of suicidal ideation. A warning sign is that even saying those things sounds to me like making excuses for laziness, and right now my brain is berating me for wanting “special treatment” and “wanting to be taken care of instead of carrying my own weight.” Those are the signs of my sickness, and I think I may never be altogether free of them.

But right now, there is time. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Time for you and time for me; time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of toast and tea.”* And those indecisions, visions, and revisions, don’t scare me to death. And that’s good.

I believe this is how Einstein explained relativity: “A minute looking at a pretty girl goes my in the blink of an eye, but a minute sitting on a hot stove lasts a lifetime.” For me, a day consumed by anxiety and depression passes in an instant, and a day without their weight expands with infinite possibility.

I much prefer the latter.

*From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 1917

Sneak Peek of the next Caitlin Ross novel!

So…I kind of accidentally started working on the eighth book in the Caitlin Ross series, The Sun and the Moon. Here’s a brief excerpt to pique your interest! Remember, if you’re new to the series you have SEVEN books to catch up on before you’re ready for this one.That should get you through a major portion of your Goodreads challenge for the year! Enjoy!

(From Chapter Two)
“Timber.”
The sheriff stops to clear his throat, and now he’s positively terrified. They’re on the last-name basis of male buddies, MacDuff and Bruce to each other, seldom more. That Bruce has strayed outside the lines of their well-defined relationship means something is amiss. Still, no good comes of jumping to conclusions; it may not be personal. Perhaps Bruce needs his input on a professional matter. He has, over the years, and sometimes, then, when he has to admit things happen beyond his ken, his habitual composure cracks.
He’s lying to himself, and he knows it.
“Hank.” He grips the other’s hand, hard enough to make him wince. “What’s going on?”
“I need you to come with me, Timber. There’s been…an incident.”
The sheriff’s tone destroys hope. Images flood his brain: a car flipped, Caitlin and the bairn bleeding, dead. His throat dries at once.
“What is it? Caitlin…Sammie, are they all right? Are they—?” Alive, he wants to say, but he can’t get the word out.
“Your daughter is fine. Caitlin is….”
“WHAT?”
He’s aware that, behind his back, every head on the site has turned to look at him. With an effort, he lowers his voice.
“Tell me. Tell me now, fast.” Make the wound quick, like ripping off a bandage, so you can’t feel the pain of skin tearing.
Bruce shoves his hat up to scratch his head. “She’s had some kind of episode in the park, I guess. Hallucinating. Started screaming. Babbling about vines. Or that’s what the mom who called the ambulance said. They took her to Triangle Hospital in restraints.”
His heart sinks when he hears the word “episode;” he knows what this is. What triggered it, though? Surely She wouldn’t have had call to work a great magic in the park. It doesn’t matter; She needs him. Before Bruce finishes the last sentence, he’s halfway to the truck, pausing only at the door to ask after his child.
“And Sammie?” His voice snags on his daughter’s name.
Bruce scurries to catch up. “CPS has her for now. It’s not my jurisdiction, you know, but I knew you’d be working up here. So…look, follow me and I’ll get you to Triangle fast. Full siren all the way.”
The drive to Triangle takes forever, and he can scarce keep his mind on the road. What could have triggered one of Caitlin’s mad events? And Her alone with the wean and him not there to guide Her? Praise all gods for the kindness of strangers! But maybe not the one god. That god whose name it’s better not to speak. He doesn’t know, exactly, what it is between that god and his wife, but he’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind and stupid not to know there’s something. And he knows enough about that god to make a connection between him and Caitlin’s odd spells. Hasn’t he seen them often enough? And hasn’t he seen what the god can do with a drink or a tap of his staff?
Knowing he couldn’t have foreseen it, could not have been there, he still blames himself. Whatever comes of it is on his head, and whatever has to be done about it is his to do.

Reality Quicksand

A little while before Yule, my mental health medication provider suggested I try a new (new to me, that is; it’s actually quite old) medication for my anxiety.

Pause. I probably need to explain that my anxiety isn’t “normal.” It’s rare I experience invasive thoughts; though they can be a factor, they’re more likely to figure in my depressive episodes. Instead of that, or obsessing over perceived mistakes and subtext, I tend more toward a somatic experience of utter terror with no apparent connection to anything happening around me. My heart races, I feel sick at my stomach, I clench my jaw and fists, I feel driven to hide and make myself small, all without having any idea why and without anything having happened to trigger such a response. (This led my previous psychiatrist to scoff and tell me “You can’t be anxious without being anxious about something!”) The overall tension prevents me from sleeping; until recently I had to take a high dose of Temazepam every night to be able to sleep at all.

My med manager thought that this phenomenon was more a manifestation of my bipolar disorder taking the form of a mixed state where the manic side of things manifested as irritability and anxiety than of anxiety per se, and that it accentuated the symptoms of my CPTSD. The medication she suggested is indicated for controlling bipolar mania. Being rather at the end of my rope, and being all too aware that taking sleeping pills every night is not a good practice, I said, “What the hell; let’s give it a shot.” Since I’m notoriously resistant to drug treatment, neither of us expected much from the small dose she started me on.

However, the new med worked better than I had imagined. Within a couple doses, I had given up the sleeping pill except on especially stressful days, and by the time a couple of weeks passed, I felt more “myself” than I had in years. I started a new writing project. I committed to doing my physical therapy, even adding some extra yoga and Pilates to my morning routine. I pulled out my guitar and figured out the chord progression to a song I wanted to learn. None of it occasioned the overwhelming feelings of personal peril I’d come to expect.

Then I got sick, and I was seriously ill for almost three weeks. Still, when I started to recover, I went back to the activities I’d remembered I enjoyed. For a while. After a few days, the anxiety returned to torment me. But this time, I wasn’t sure if I’d become tolerant of the new medication, or if it was something else.

Today I’m fairly sure it’s something else. I’m equally sure that something else won’t respond to medication.

Yesterday, for the first time since starting the new med, I woke up and did not want to get out of bed. Everything seemed too hard. My life seemed overwhelming and bleak. All day I was barely functional, and today isn’t much better.

This may seem like a tangent, but it’s not: I follow a certain astrologer on social media, one who specializes in reading the planets and stars as they relate to my sign, Scorpio. This young woman is exceptionally gifted. I can honestly say I haven’t ever run across a better. (If you’re interested in this kind of thing, check out @ScorpioMystique on Twitter and Instagram. I think she has another account where she reads for other signs, but I can’t bring the handle to mind right now.) Yesterday, her horoscope mentioned the Full Moon energy and all its benefits, but added, “If you woke up feeling exhausted and emotionally drained…” and went on to mention several reasons this might be, notably having an unbalanced relationship between your professional life and your home life. I commented that I did, in fact, wake up emotionally drained and exhausted, but the balance question didn’t resonate. She answered, “What about your relationship with yourself? Maybe you need to focus more on self care.”

Ouch. That hit home. Self care is a difficult area for me. I never know what it is.

Today’s horoscope advises to “write down a list of your most pressing dreams and goals…what feels right for you.”

Great. I’m not so good at that, either.

After I started recovering from the Great Plague of 2016-17, when I brought my mind back around to what I wanted for myself and how to achieve it, well. That’s when the increased anxiety hit. And I know why. It’s because for nearly twenty years, I was programmed to believe my goals and what I wanted for my life were selfish and wrong. A lot of people in my circle will understand this. It seems to be part of The American Way. So practicing self-care, even when I know in my head it’s good and the right thing to do, is a horrible struggle against voices telling me I am bad and wrong. On top of that, because I’m fat and because I have a history of eating disorders (or maybe it’s brain chemistry in part, IDK), I have a tendency to A) never believe anything I do in terms of my physical being is enough and B) go overboard until I damage myself or burn out. And all of it spirals around and around in my brain until it literally incapacitates me and I have to curl up in a ball on the couch and cry.

Twenty-plus years of near constant gaslighting has turned my reality to quicksand: dangerous to navigate and prone to sucking me under to drown. And though my Buddhist college promoted being “grounded in quicksand” as a positive development, I can’t think they had any experience with the actuality, because it sucks. (I’m sure they meant it as a metaphor for non-attachment, but be real.)

Days when I’m on a more or less even keel, it isn’t so bad. The problem is, the more positive things I do for myself, the louder the negative voice get and the less steady I become. I go from getting up, having coffee and farting around on the Internet a bit, and doing my morning PT+ routine without much hassle to this:

Me: I’m not feeling so great today. Maybe self care looks like taking it easy.

Inner Voice: You can’t do that. If you skip PT ONE TIME, you’ll NEVER go back to it.

Me: Physical activity brings up a lot of shit for me and I don’t know if I can cope today.

Inner Voice: That’s because you’re a LAZY PIECE OF SHIT. You have to prove you’re NOT a LAZY PIECE OF SHIT by doing MORE PT!

Me: This conversation is really hurting me.

Inner Voice: You DESERVE to be hurt! You DESERVE to be punished! Excessive exercise is the only way of redeeming yourself!

Me: Don’t I deserve some comfort?

Inner Voice: Comfort is for LOSERS! How will you ever achieve anything if you concern yourself too much with being comfortable?

And on and on, until the warning that if I skip one day I’ll never accomplish anything again becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as I try to shut out that awful voice and protect myself. It’s a fight I can’t win. Being gentle with myself and taking things slow, at the pace I need to be able to continue, becomes a sign of what a terrible failure I am. Everything I like is dangerous and tainted, because I can’t do it just a little; I have to do it until I’m exhausted and in pain.

Sometimes it goes the other direction. I get a creative tickle and think, “Huh, maybe I’d like to pull out my flute or my guitar.” And the awful voice says, “Yeah, you better. You realize it’s been five years since you played any music? What the hell is wrong with you? Some musician you are. How dare you pretend you are one!!” Same with writing, or physical activity, or anything I want to engage in in a positive way. It all gets weaponized against me.

Trying to describe this process makes my brain feel like it’s about to implode, by the way. And I don’t know what to do about it. I have no control. If I “give in” to the awful voice, things I love (or even like, or vaguely want to do) become punishments, and doing them reinforces the idea that I need to be punished. If I resist, I feel worse and worse as the voice gets louder and louder, until it encompasses every single thing about my day. Hungry? If I eat, I’m an evil glutton. Tired? If I sleep, I’m a lazy shit. The most human activities are transformed into crimes against nature, proving I have no right to exist at all.

Up until now, the only way I’ve found to get out of the cycle is to back off everything until my mood changes on its own. One day, if I hold out long enough, I’ll hit an upswing. Then I can start all over again. But this means I can never actually achieve anything, because I’m always taking two steps back for every step forward.

There are things I want out of my life. There always have been. I want to write again. I want to be in better physical shape. I want to look different than I do. At the risk of sounding less body-positive than I believe I am, I do want to shed some weight–not because society tells me that’s the only way I’ll ever have value, but because I don’t like the way my body feels at this weight. I want to get back to playing music, singing, growing a garden. And all those things…it’s like the only way I can protect them is not to do them at all, because if I admit to wanting them the awful voice will find a way to turn them against me. Turn every pleasure into pain.

I have no sword to cut this Gordian knot. I already know “just pushing through” is futile. I’ve tried that strategy over and over for going on thirty years and it doesn’t work.

Reality sucks me down like quicksand, and I drown.