H is for Haiku

HI figured we all needed a break from mental health for a day. So, since April is not only A-to-Z Blog a Day Challenge Month, Poetry Month, BUT also NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month), I’m trying to write a poem a day, following these prompts. I’ve done a few, not in order, however, but whenever my muse taps me on the shoulder and drops a few good lines into my lap. Enjoy!

April 1/Day One (which I just wrote today, April 12):
Write a lune, a poem with a 5-3-5 structure (either words or syllables):

I, too, run here blindly
Trusting my feet
Since cataracts cover my heart

April 3/Day 3
Write a poem that is a fan letter to a hero or celebrity. Martina Navratilova’s autobiography, published in the summer of 1985 gave me hope and courage when I felt very alone.

Dear Martina Navratilova,

Love. Love.
That’s the score, right?

Add.
Add-in. Add-out.

Out. Let.
Long.

Rush the net.
Backhand.

Overhead
Smash.

Summer.
1985.

I learned a new language.
Reading you.

Thank you.
Sincerely.

April 4/Day 4
In the spirit of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, write a poem about the cruelest month.

March is the cruelest month.
I am drenched
In fish and scales–
Watery.
Nearly asphyxiated
Then. Pulled
From the warm
Sloshing where I could
Hear your heart swish,
my own steady with
your beat.
My surrogate,
You cut the cord
And left me to
To nourish myself,
To find breath
On my own.
With gills.

April 5/Day 5
We were supposed to write about heirloom seeds—I wrote about weeds and how what we see isn’t always what it seems. Heirloom seed-like-ish.

Monsters skulk at the garden’s edge
Ten feet tall and hairy

Momma said I shouldn’t cry—
He wasn’t really scary

Dangers lurk in the fertile ground
And nourish dormant seeds

Fallow fields lie quiet now
But soon there will be weeds

I’m currently working on a Family Portrait poem so I can cross Day 2 off my list and move on to Days 6-12. Stay tuned for another mental health break in the not to distant.

G is for Gender–Way Beyond Pink and Blue

GThis is going to be a long and rambling blog. My apologies up front. Gender is a complicated minefield of a topic, and I have a lot to say about it. I am no expert, just someone trying to make sense of it all without offending anyone. 

No matter what class I seem to land in seems to bring up gender as a recurring theme. I have to say, I know a whole lot more about gender now than I did two years ago when I started this program. Gender used to be binary—or at least we only ever talked about it in terms of the male/female binary. Now we discuss gender as occurring in a sphere. Two years ago, I had never heard of a pansexual or a demi-girl, or even the idea that gender occurs on a spectrum and not as the binary male/female boy/girl man/woman paradigm.

Take a look at this chart. It’s not a joke (although, I have to admit, when I first saw it I thought it was). Mind blowing, yes? These symbols represent the current (and rapidly changing) gender landscape.

gender symbols

 

If you’re like me, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60, you grew up in a time when gender norms just started breaking down. I remember being a child and overhearing my parents and grandparents complain about the hippies, going on and on about how they could no longer tell the boys from the girls now that the boys had long hair. You grew up when girls no longer had to wear dresses to school and were no longer confined to three careers: nurse, teacher, secretary. If you were an athletic girl, you may have even tried out for the little league team. Title IX had an impact in that girls’ sports got funded, finally.

Women became doctors, lawyers, dentists, fire fighters, and police officers. Men became flight attendants and nurses, started taking care of children, changing diapers. Stay at home dads became a thing. Gender roles became more flexible, but generally males remained males and females remained females. Gay men may have been more effeminate and lesbians more masculine, but boys wore blue, and girls wore pink and nobody played coy about the biological sex of their newborn child.

I grew up as a gender nonconforming child, never fully comfortable in the trappings of girlhood. I preferred my Red Ryder BB gun to dolls and spent my free time outside, building tree forts, fishing, and playing baseball with my brother. I wanted to be a boy but not because I felt uncomfortable in my body. I wanted to be a boy because boys had more freedoms, fewer constraints.

When I was about six, somehow I had heard about sex change operations (what is now called sexual reassignment surgery). Since we didn’t have a television and were fairly isolated in our small community, I have no idea how I might have learned about such a thing. Nor do I know what possessed me to ask my Mema about it, maybe a sense that if I expressed my desire to not be a girl, she would stop buying me girl stuff. But there we were in her Gran Torino—I leaned over the console from the back seat. “Mema, there’s an operation you can have if you don’t want to be a girl anymore. I could be a boy,” I ventured.

She turned to look at me, taking a long drag off of her cigarette. After a moment she blew the smoke out the side of her mouth away from me. “Those people are sick,” she announced and turned around to back the car out of the driveway. End of discussion, but message received loud and clear.Genderbread-Person-3.3

These days I sit in classes with people who introduce themselves and then announce their preferred pronouns, as in, “My name is Jennifer and I prefer the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’.” I have to admit, the first time I heard such an introduction I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Many of my classmates identify as queer or pansexual, and there are a lot of trans* people at Antioch. I generally introduce myself as a lesbian, but I recently learned that many younger people believe that to be a lesbian is to be transphobic.

I am not transphobic, though I have a lot to learn and am still wrapping my head around what it means to be trans*. I’m pretty sure it’s more than feeling like a boy who is trapped in a girl’s body or vice versa. Recently, I’ve listened to speakers who identify as trans* but not as transwomen or transmen, just trans, as in somewhere in between or not even.

One speaker said that he (and he did identify as a transman) probably wouldn’t have transitioned from female to male had he stayed in his native country. In his homeland, being a butch lesbian pushed the cultural boundaries enough. But when he moved to the U.S., he decided to transition because being a butch lesbian wasn’t far enough out there, culturally speaking. He wanted to push the boundaries further.

I don’t think I want to be something other than a cisgendered lesbian. But I do understand what it’s like to be misgendered and misunderstood.

I’ve written about this before here, but it’s a story worth repeating. A number of years ago, I took my then four-year-old nephew to the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I wore my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, and sat on the edge of the hot tub where he enjoyed a soak and roughhoused with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.

“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”

I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy, and he could not figure out where to put me.

“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.”

I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I have big boobs for one thing, but I wasn’t going to go there with a four-year-old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie. I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious.

“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite or impertinent. He simply had no social construct for me.

While I can easily forgive my nephew his four-year-old’s confusion and innocent question, I’m more hesitant to grant a pass to the woman who mistook me for a man in the women’s restroom awhile back. I had just finished washing my hands in the public bathroom at an Oregon beach when a woman entered, saw me, and, obviously startled, went back out to look again at the sign on the restroom door. I just shook my head and walked by her, leaving her to puzzle things out on her own.

Incidents like the one at the beach happen to me fairly often, more so recently. I would like to say that I am unfazed by people’s confusion, but their obliviousness continues to bother me.

We need to push the boundaries in order to stretch the social construct. That’s what this shift in gender identity is all about. And while many of us are beginning to understand and accept that some people are born “in the wrong bodies” and want their minds and bodies to match (though, there is a school of thought that purports if we could culturally accept gender as nonbinary, and accept everyone just as they are, there would be no need to make our bodies and and our minds match vis a vis sexual reassignment surgery, but it’s a controversial stance. For more info, check out Alice Dreger and her TED Talk), it’s still pretty radical (and, frankly challenging to grasp) to consider gender as nonbinary, as not an either/or but as a whatever.

Changing (or negating) our genders to push the boundaries? I guess that’s where change happens. On the boundaries. If no one ever pushed, nothing would ever change.

 

 

F is for FOO

 

FWe would-be counselors all must take FOO (Family of Origin) before we take any other coursework in my graduate program. This class is the one in which we must sort through all of our personal Family Issues before we move on to counsel others. The idea, I suppose, is that we get our own stuff out of the way, but I’m not convinced we can do much with our FOO issues in 10 weeks. However, at 52, I definitely had an advantage over most of my younger classmates. I’d been working on FOO issues for decades.

Sitting in FOO for three hours every week was like attending group therapy—everybody cried, and I felt like I had one of the least traumatic childhoods of all. Some people had seriously mentally ill parents; others were abused by siblings, and still others grew up in remote, poverty stricken areas and no services for hundreds of miles. My heart ached for many of my classmates who still struggled mightily with their families.

Obviously, our parents leave a lasting impact on us, but one of the more fascinating aspects of FOO was how the same behavioral patterns played out over generations. Even when each generation may not even know much about previous generations. In one family, every generation included a pregnant 16 year old. How does that happen? How do we inherit such specific behaviors from our ancestors?gabor mate

Epigenetics. The research is fascinating. We inherit memories, behaviors, trauma. A 2013 article from the online Discover Magazine explains it thusly: According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.

Wild, yes? I find it all so fascinating. As the adoptive parent of two children, as the child of a mother who was adopted, and the sister of an adopted brother, I am well aware that more is at work in our development than simply what we experience. We are  complex beings, bundles of history and experiences that are not even our own. We are more than half mom and half dad, but carry in our very essence not just the physical traits of our foremothers and forefathers, but their memories, traumas, victories, and defeats.

I guess that’s one thing about becoming a therapist that I so look forward to—exploring with clients how they came to these difficult places in life and working with them to make positive changes. Not only will they change their own lives, but they have the power to make life better for future generations.

E is for (what else?) Ethics

 

EDon’t have sex with your clients. Just. Don’t.

Washington State law forbids it and even goes so far as to outlaw intimate relationships with former clients. Forever. The American Counseling Association (ACA), in section A.5 of its 2014 Code of Ethics prohibits sex with current clients as well, as do all of the other professional organizations, but they don’t put a complete ban on sexual relationships with former clients forever, instead imposing a five year moratorium on sex with former clients.

And still. Therapists have the dubious distinction of being disciplined most often for violating this particular ethical code. In fact, they (we) outpace all other helping professions in this area, leaving lawyers, doctors, and even massage therapists in the dust.mother

But say your aspirational ethics around this issue are intact. Say you are really clear that you would never, ever engage in a sexual relationship with a client or former client, or with their family members. There are still a thousand different ways to violate client trust or for a counseling relationship to go off the rails.

The ACA’s code of ethics state that the primary responsibility of the counselor is to respect the dignity and promote the welfare of the clients (Section A.1). The document goes on to say that counselors must act in such a way as to avoid harming their clients (Section A.4). It’s a lot like the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

But what causes harm, exactly?

Consider the following scenario (borrowed from my Ethics textbook): You are the only counselor in a small town. Another therapist is a two-hour drive away. When you moved here, you became good friends with the school principal, and her son and your son are best friends. She asks if you would see her son professionally. His grades are slipping. He has started acting out at home. He’s defiant and surly. She doesn’t have time to drive two hours each way to take him to a different therapist. Could you just talk to him a few times? You want to help.

What to do? What to do? What could possibly go wrong?

How about this situation: You’re seeing a client who is a writer. You, too, dabble in the written arts. The client mentions his blog during a session, and as soon as he leaves you Google his name, find his blog, and settle in to read it. Your curiosity piqued, you search for him on Facebook. Research, you tell yourself. What you find out will help you understand him better. The next time he comes in you say, “Great blog! I have one too. You should check it out. And if you have any feedback on my writing, I’d love to hear it.”

ethics cartoonWhat’s wrong here? Why not bond with a client over a shared passion? Maybe trade a few sessions for a critique of the novel you’ve been working on. After all, the writer doesn’t have a surplus of cash. It would be a win-win. Right?

No. To borrow a phrase from Cheryl Strayed’s book of quotes Brave Enough: “The short answer is No. The long answer is No.”

You are the therapist. He is the client. It is a one-way street. You must consider all the ways in which your actions could possibly harm the client. You are not friends, buddies, colleagues. You are the keeper of deep secrets, a confidant, a compassionate listener, a mirror. Just in asking, you’ve violated the trust implicit in the counseling relationship. And the client is paying you for a service. Asking for a personal favor, for feedback places an extra burden on the client, a burden he did not sign up for.

Okay. One more. How about this? You are seeing a client who struggles with self-esteem, with feeling heard and being seen. She shares with you some of the poetry she has written. You tell her it is beautiful and moving and wonderful. You email her a couple of poems from your favorite poets and hope they resonate with her the way the do with you. She sends you more of her poetry. It really is beautiful, full of amazing metaphors and gorgeous imagery. You tell her as much. She should be published, you say. She glows in your effusive praise.

What? Is there a problem?

The short answer is Yes. The long answer is Yes. Now the client is seen. Now the client is heard. But by you. Instead of helping her gather her inner resources and find her intrinsic value, you’ve taken a short cut. Basically, you have given her the needle and the spoon and pushed the plunger down, mainlining self-esteem. You are now her source, her dealer, her heroin. Congratulations, you’ve created an addict.boundary issues

There are so many other things to consider here as well. What is poetry? Who sends poems? Poetry is the language of love. People in love send poetry. Poetry is metaphor—a word can have a thousand meanings in a poem. What you read and what the client meant might be vastly different.

What would an ethical counselor do in any of these situations? And why? An ethical counselor must always consider the needs of the clients first. In some respects, a therapist has to see the future and ask herself, “How will my actions and words now impact my client down the road?” “Will I be helping or hurting my client by taking this action?” “What is my motivation?” “Am I getting my own needs met or am I meeting my client’s needs?”

Instead of praising a client’s poetry, ask them what writing poetry does for them? What do they get when they create? How do they feel when they are writing? What’s their process? Explore. Ask questions. Help the client find her own meaning in her work.

I could write for days on this topic. But the bottom line is this: There is a power differential in the therapeutic relationship. The ethical therapist uses her power for the good of the client. Never for herself.

And I’d love to hear your thoughts on the scenarios I’ve presented. What could possibly go wrong in each of these situations? Let me know what you think!

D is for Distal Contextual Affordances (ha ha, just kidding). D is for Diagnosis and DSM 5

Each quarter, as I take new classes and learn new material, I analyze and diagnose myself accordingly. I generally text a friend of mine who is a marriage and family therapist (MFT) during class. Our exchange goes something like this:

Me: OMG, I so have this.
MFT: what?
Me: I wasn’t properly attuned to as a baby. That’s why I’m so fucked up.
MFT: gawd
Me: well, it could be that or it could be that I experienced a trauma as an infant.narcissist chicken
MFT: maybe
Me: I was dropped on my head once.
MFT: well, that explains it.
Me: I know, right?
MFT: it’s just one lens, Pam. A theory.
Me: oh. Sorry for being so narcissistic.
MFT: You’re not a narcissist.
Me: borderline?
MFT: ugh.

And so it goes. Each quarter I learn new and fascinating ways to make sense of human behavior.

A few years ago, when I began working on my memoir, I asked my (by then former) psychologist if I could have access to my records. I wanted to reconstruct a timeline of events and double-check my memories. Since she had seen me through some of my darkest hours I figured I would find a good record of events that I had been too depressed and distraught to remember. And I did. But I also discovered how I had been diagnosed, and I found it all a bit unsettling to see the DSM codes next to the list of my symptoms.

If you read yesterday’s blog, Dear Reader, you know that I was depressed. So it came as no surprise when I decoded the DSM codes to find variations on that theme: major depressive disorder, recurrent episode; major depressive disorder, recurrent episode in partial remission; major depressive disorder, severe. And so on. I was fine with these diagnoses and also with the occasional Adjustment Disorder diagnosis that I found. I knew enough by then to know that when a mental health provider doesn’t know what else to use, when a client just needs to chat a bit to clear things up, they use the somewhat ambiguous 309.9 (Adjustment Disorder, Unspecified).

Diagnosing someone with an illness or disorder that appears in the DSM 5 is an art, not a hard science. This latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is arranged quite differently from its predecessors with disorders arranged according to lifespan. So, disorders that affect children come first—neurodevelopmental disorders, followed by illnesses that appear in adolescence and early adulthood: schizophrenia and psychosis, depression, anxiety, OCD. These are followed by trauma related disorders, dissociative disorders, somatic (body disorders), feeding and eating disorders, elimination disorders, sexual dysfunctions, substance abuse issues, personality disorders, and paraphilia.

Gone are Axis I, II, III, IV, and V. Used to be that the most acute and familiar disorders—those requiring immediate attention fell under Axis I: schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, panic attacks; ongoing personality issues—narcissism, borderline personality disorder, intellectual disabilities, obsessive/compulsive disorder—fell under Axis II. Axis III was reserved for related medical conditions such as terminal cancer, which might contribute to a client’s depression. Axis IV diagnoses included life events: marriage, job loss, promotions, divorce, death of a parent or child, and Axis V is used for the Global Assessment of Functioning Scale, a 100 point questionnaire evaluating the client’s ability to function in daily life.

What we CMHC (clinical mental health counseling) students all learn early on in our clinical program is that diagnosis is a necessary evil if a mental health care provider wants to take insurance. Insurance companies will not pay if we don’t attach a diagnosis to our clients. At the same time we learn that our clients are much more than walking bundles of diagnoses.

The bottom line is that when a person presents in my office and tells me what’s going on in their life, how they are coping day-to-day, and want to pay for their sessions with insurance, I have to give them a diagnosis. One counselor I’ve talked to diagnoses everyone with PTSD. After all, she says, we have all had trauma in our lives. Others consult the DSM and match the client’s presentation with the best diagnosis.

Failure to attend to details? Difficulty sustaining attention with tasks? Often lose things? Easily distracted? Often forgetful? ADHD 314.

Heart palpitations? Sweating? Trembling and/or shaking? Shortness of breath? Nausea? Choking feelings? Fear of losing control? Fear of dying? Panic Disorder 300.01

Marked distress? Significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas but doesn’t meet the criteria for another mental disorder? Adjustment Disorder 309

When I left the psychologist and started seeing the counselor, I stopped feeling like a hopelessly troubled person and more like a person with some troubles that could be resolved. Instead of being treated for my “mental illness,” I was treated like a person and we looked together at why I might be feeling depressed or anxious or sad or worried. I began to see that my inability to come off my meds for depression had more to do with the fact that in my case, I had been treating the symptoms, but not the root of the issue.

Over time, I came to understand that my behaviors, moods, and thought patterns had more to do with how I had learned, over the course of the last few decades, to deal with the world. Starting in infancy we all learn how to get our needs met. Some of us learn to trust that we will be taken care of, that our needs are important, that our voices are valued. Others not so much.

There are many lenses through which to evaluate human behavior: family systems, attachment theory, behaviorism, post-modernism, Jungian. There are many schools of thought on how to best help people: cognitive behavior therapy, exposure therapy, psychoanalysis, narrative therapy, play therapy, art therapy, drama therapy.

There are a multitude of diagnoses I could apply to my future clients, but my clients deserve more than a label and to be compared against a checklist of criteria.

I must to remember Carl Rogers and not ask, ”How can I treat, or cure, or change this person?” But instead,“How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for [her] own personal growth?”

C is for Counseling, or How I Got into this New Gig

 

CTurns out that April is Counseling Awareness Month. Isn’t this just a serendipitous turn of events? I’m writing a blog a day, A to Z about my adventures as a graduate student in Mental Health Counseling and the American Counseling Association is making it a special month. Pretty sure I can’t take credit, but still . . . (maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle Delusional and Diagnosis).

I have a long history with counseling. I started seeing a psychologist in 1992 and have been in therapy of some sort consistently since then. For a long time, I thought of myself as having a serious character defect. I was young. I didn’t really understand how counseling worked, or could work. I had only a vague notion of Freud and his couch and Woody Allen’s neuroses.

Prozac and SSRIs hit the market about the time I began therapy* and not long after my psychologist diagnosed me with depression, she and my general practitioner agreed I would do well to try the new wonder-drug, Prozac. And, honestly, I looked forward to some relief. At 29, in 1992, I was a fairly new mom of an adopted bi-racial daughter, in a relationship with a woman 13 years my senior. I had just sold the bookstore I started, owned, and operated for three years, and I had moved back home full-time after living 90 miles away for most of each week. To complicate things, my fundamentalist Christian parents were only just beginning to adjust to my, er, lifestyle (as we called it then) and its unconventionality.

There’s more, but that’s enough. You get the idea. I was a stress monster. The crinkling of a tissue set my teeth on edge. The noise of someone actually blowing their nose sent me over the edge. The first time I swallowed one of those little green and white pills, I felt like I was taking communion. I crossed myself and sent up a prayer.rumi

After four weeks of taking that precious little capsule every morning, I no longer cared who sneezed or how loud. Irritation rolled off my back. The grey veil that separated me from the rest of the world lifted, and I started seeing in color again. Cliché, I know, but accurate. Everything sparkled. I got a good job as the bookstore manager at the local technical college with a great boss as well as health and retirement benefits. Did the little pill have anything to do with my new job? I believe happier, less-stressed, less-depressed people tend to have more self-confidence and do better in job interviews, so yes. But I digress.

I felt good, and I loved talking to my therapist. I loved paying someone to listen to me. I loved the 50 minutes of uninterrupted attention. I could do this for a living, I thought. I’d love to listen to people’s stories, to help them make sense of their feelings, to help them gain the confidence to reach for their high dreams. I had no idea that someone who went to counseling could actually ever become a counselor. I thought my diagnosis and being on meds precluded me ever being in the field.

I had never heard of Jung’s Wounded Healer. I was an English major who, stupidly and stubbornly, avoided all social science classes. The books cost too much. The classes met on Fridays. What can I say?

I wanted to get off the meds, though, yet every time I quit taking them, things in my life would head south, and the psychologist would exhort me to stay on the meds. I got stuck in a loop and never really got to the issues that were causing me to become depressed. I’d just start popping the pills again, and things would improve. Etc.

franklquoteI spent about twenty years with the psychologist before I found a new therapist, and the woman I chose to see was an LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor). I didn’t know what the difference was when I made the switch, I was just seeking someone a little more flexible and spiritual, a little less dogmatic and not so pharmacologically oriented. Turns out the switch worked very well for me then. I made several changes in my life at the same time: I got a new job, I relocated, I started taking writing classes and running, and found new community with both activities.

The psychologist got me up and out of the depression and quite literally saved my life on many occasions. And the LMHC has helped me move forward from there, developing self-confidence, practicing mindfulness, introducing me to non-Western philosophies. I have learned so much about myself, about why I am the way I am, and how I can move forward.

I’ll never be done working on myself, but it turns out, I can become a counselor anyway, not in spite of my past, but because of it. Jung believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer. And as Victor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” By these measures, I am perfect for this job.

*for a more in-depth—but still inadequate—explanation of the differences among therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and psychology see this previous blog

B is for Bathrooms or What is the Problem, People?

BWhy does everyone have their panties in a wad about where trans* people pee? A couple of weeks ago, in the otherwise ill-fated Counseling Sexual Minorities class I took last quarter, I learned that a high number, a disproportionate number, of trans* children get UTIs because they are too afraid to use the bathroom. So, they hold it until their bodies rebel. This is not okay.

For reasons I completely fail to grasp, idiots across the country are clamoring to ban gender nonconforming people from using the restrooms of their choice. Adults. Children. Trans* folks who have transitioned, surgically, hormonally. In particular the fearmongers seem very concerned about transwomen using the women’s restroom. Which begs the question WHY?

As far as I can ascertain there’s an assumption that the only reason a transwoman would want to go into a women’s restroom is to harass or assault the other women there. This line of thinking makes no sense on many levels, but the obvious nonsense is the myth that women’s restrooms are otherwise inviolate places, some sacred sanctuaries where no man dares to tread.gender restroom

What have I missed all these years? Do all women’s restrooms have a magnetic force field that only the XX chromosome can pass through, an invisible shield that keeps out would be evildoers? There is no magical ring of protection, people. Women can be attacked anywhere, including–shocking as it may seem–the ladies’ room.

There doesn’t seem to be much concern (read fear) about transmen using the men’s restroom. At least, not on the part of cisgendered men. They don’t seem to be at all worried that a transman will attack them at the urinal. But woe to the transman who is discovered in the men’s room. Boys Don’t Cry may be a movie, but it ain’t fiction. It’s misogyny—the hatred of women, of the gender nonconforming, of those who reject the binary notions of gender, and of cisgender men and women who dare to reject traditional roles (homophobia is rooted in misogyny).

It’s also about power and privilege. It’s weirdly American to deny citizens a right as basic as the right to urinate or defecate. I’ve been to a lot of countries and only here have I encountered such a dearth of publicly accessible bathrooms. Only here is the right to pee tied to privilege. As if we can somehow force the powerless and oppressed among us to pull themselves up by withholding bathroom privileges.

binary lib

As one of the guest speakers in Counseling Sexual Minorities last quarter pointed out, why do we even have outdated pictures of men and women on restrooms? Why not put pictures on restroom doors of what is inside the restroom? Why not pictures of toilets and/or urinals? Let everyone decide which restroom they want to use based on the equipment available. Seems simple enough.

A is for Ack! It’s April Already and I am Anxious

AI can’t believe I haven’t finished my first blog for the A to Z challenge yet. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, planning, scheming, writing it in my head, but clearly I’ve not put any words down yet. Until now. These few, uninspired, last minute words that seem so unequal to the task, so small and worthless and hurried.

A is for Apology, apparently. Abject. Abysmal. But I’m at AWP this week, a conference all about writing, and so, apology or not, abysmal or not, tired or not, write I must.

I am going to write about Anxiety. My plan for this year’s A-to-Z Challenge is thus: I want to spend this month writing about my experiences as a student in the Clinical Mental Health Counselor Program at Antioch University. I want to weave together a narrative, exploring the concepts (from A to Z) that I study as a student of mental health counseling and how my studies intersect with my life. How my coursework shows up in my day-to-day world.

I haven’t studied Anxiety, per se. I have taken many relevant classes, delved into the DSM 5 and learned how I might diagnose a client who presented with symptoms that fit the criteria for, say,  Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I learned to write a treatment plan and theorized about which therapeutic modality I might employ to best help my client regain his or her equilibrium.

Most of what I’ve learned about Anxiety comes from first hand experience. I am not one who has been plagued with Anxiety for much of my life. No, my familiarity with this particular demon has only been recent and is one of the reasons I started running regularly a little over two years ago.

I started waking up in the mornings with a pit of dread churning in my stomach and found that if I went for a run, somewhere around mile two or three, the pit of dread loosened and eventually abated. I guess the endorphins kicked in, the oxytocin released, and the runner’s euphoria lifted the anxiety. Cured, if only temporarily, I could get on with my day. The next morning, the anxiety would return, and I’d start over. Run. Rinse. Repeat.

A nice side benefit to running off all my anxiety was that I started to lose weight. I felt healthier. My blood pressure dropped, as did my cholesterol, and my pants size. But, I digress. I still woke up most mornings feeling like something horrible was about to happen. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the axe to fall, for the bottom to drop out, for . . . well, you get the picture.

Anxiety chased me into my running clothes and out of the house each morning. But the thing about being a graduate student in a counseling program is that these sort of disruptions don’t slip by unanalyzed. While one part of me succumbed to the anxiety, another part of my tapped my forefinger thoughtfully against my chin  and asked, “How do you feel about this, Pam Sue?”

Some people have angels and demons sitting on their shoulders. I now have Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, or their modern day equivalents, Jack Cornfield and Tara Brach. I can have a panic attack and simultaneously know for certain that while what I am experiencing might feel real, it isn’t true.

It’s weird, living with this meta awareness. I had all sorts of anxiety about traveling to AWP this week–logistical stuff that I know I’m capable of handling but for whatever reason just kept spinning on: how am I going to get to Sea-Tac from Bellingham? To the airbnb from LAX? I can’t check in until 4 p.m., but I arrive at 9 in the morning. What would I do? These questions dogged me for weeks. I envisioned myself in dire circumstances, dragging my carryon around LA for hours, sad and alone and dazed.  Yet, I simultaneously knew my fears were unfounded and not based in reality. I could make a shuttle reservation, find a friend to stay with in Seattle, even one who might take me to the airport. I just couldn’t see the logical steps in the midst of my anxiety.

Something similar happened when I realized how expensive it was going to be to eat and drink here in Los Angeles. The first day I spent way too much money on so-so food and paid $8 for a mediocre beer. So, I took myself to the grocery store, but instead of going shopping at the end of the day, when the conference was over, I went in the morning on my way to the conference and so had to schlep my groceries around the conference hall, from one panel discussion to another.

I was so anxious about not having drinking water back at the airbnb that night, I bought a six pack of bottled water and stuck it in my already heavy backpack. All the while I’m hearing Jack and Tara on my shoulders, telling me not to believe the anxiety, reassuring me that all will be well, that I will be fine, that there will be water at the conference. That the universe will provide.  But, do I listen? No. I buy the water. And I vow to do better tomorrow.