Expectations of conformity

They start young.

Monkey is roughly two and a half right now. In the past two months he’s been through multiple medical procedures and surgeries, in and out of hospitals, which has really raised his anxiety level. His behavior in public can be … different. Sometimes it’s a problem, such as when he decides to bolt out of the building into the street while Mommy is trying to complete necessary paperwork. Other times, it’s not really a problem, it’s just different, and I realize I’m the one who needs to adjust my expectations.

Unfortunately, getting other adults to adjust their expectations is beyond my power. He’s gotten some nasty looks recently, even one deliberately nasty comment. What more commonly happens is that an adult isn’t being outright nasty, but … clearly they could use some expectation adjustment.

For example, this morning I took Monkey to his library story-time. It was the first actual outing I’ve taken him on since his surgery last week (I’m not counting urgent care as an outing). When we got there, they’d just started, so there were a lot of other kids and some noise. Monkey freaked out and didn’t want to go in; I knew I had to respect that. He’s been forced into lots of painful medical things lately, he’s still in pain (even with two medicines) and his anxiety is high. Not the time to push an experience that may be overstimulating for him. Besides, we were there to have FUN. So when he said he didn’t want to go in, I said, “OK, you don’t have to.”

Instead, he decided to sit at one of the craft tables just outside the door for story time – the door was open, so we could still hear – and color. There were supplies to make a paper turkey. DS took one of the pieces and started coloring on it.

Then one of the adult volunteers came over and told him he couldn’t color on the pieces because “Those are for children who go to story time, and you should go to story time.”

In fairness, she didn’t say it in a mean way, and she did get him another piece of paper to color on. But my head was quietly exploding. WHAT?!? My medically complex, socially delayed, possibly autistic two year old who’s been sobbing in pain the last few nights doesn’t get to color this particular piece of paper or do a craft with his mother, because … why? He wasn’t in the right room? He didn’t prove that he could sit with a crowd of loud toddlers and preschoolers and not melt down?

What this volunteer obviously didn’t understand was that Monkey was attending story time. He was just doing it from a greater distance, and with less direct participation, than the other kids. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It didn’t hurt anyone for him to attend and participate in his own way.

I let it go, because Monkey was content to color a different sheet of paper. But I wish there had been a way – simple, brief – to help the volunteer understand how wrong her perception of the situation was. How limited and superficial it was. She saw the outside of the situation, but totally failed to perceive its inner reality.

Conformity is an outward thing. It’s inorganic. It’s not the same as harmony – sometimes it’s the opposite. I want Monkey to be able to relate to his environment, and to other people, in an organic and harmonious way. But I’m afraid that other people just want him to conform, to make their own world feel simpler. And I don’t know how to change that.

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An explanation and defense of trigger warnings

Trigger warning: This post discusses rape and suicide in the context of PTSD.

I came across this article (and this response to it) while looking up something else and, well, it pissed me off. So instead of writing a post about the election, which I don’t really want to think about right now, I’m going to write about why authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are idiots.

First, brief background on where I am coming from: My mother has PTSD and I have terrifying childhood memories of seeing her triggered by certain things. I also have PTSD, and was actually triggered once by a book that we read and discussed in college (I mention this since colleges are the authors’ focus – I’d have appreciated a trigger warning on that book). I used to self-harm, and I still find certain content related to self-harm to be triggering  – in the sense of making me want to do it again – even though that was over a decade ago.

On to the article. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that college students nowadays are overly sensitive, that free speech is being suppressed on college campuses in the name of political correctness, and that trigger warnings are bad and are a form of coddling. I’m only going to address the trigger warnings aspect.

A trigger warning is a statement that something (often a book, movie, blog post etc) has content which may trigger acute psychological distress in SOME people. Now, people can be triggered by all sorts of things – smells, holidays, buildings. Life is triggering. You can’t put warnings on everything. If you know your individual triggers, and they are at all avoidable, you can try to work around them. For instance, I find Thanksgiving triggering, therefore I no longer celebrate Thanksgiving. I still get a little depressed in the week leading up to it, but it’s not as bad as if I had to actually go celebrate Thanksgiving with other people and pretend to be thankful when what I really want to do is cry and watch movies and sleep until the stupid day is over for another year.

But there is actually a big difference between a trigger like Thanksgiving – which is triggering only because of its association with traumatic events – and a trigger that is inherently triggering, i.e. it deals directly with the trauma itself.

Imagine, for instance, that there was a holiday called Rape Day. And on this holiday, everyone gets together and reads graphic descriptions of rape, and then stage rape scenes, while drinking pineapple cocktails. Rape Day is inherently triggering to rape survivors (which is not to say that there aren’t survivors out there who wouldn’t find it triggering, but for those who are triggered, it is because of the content of the holiday rather than its association).

No one is suggesting that associative triggers should have warnings; only inherent triggers. In the case of Rape Day, the warning is pretty much in the name. But now suppose it was called Pineapple Cocktail Day.

Now, imagine you’re a recent rape survivor. You are invited to a Pineapple Cocktail Day party at someone’s house. You assume, reasonably, that Pineapple Cocktail Day is simply an excuse to get together and drink pineapple cocktails. So you show up at this person’s house in the evening, and walk in, and there is what appears to be a rape going on in the living room with everyone watching and chatting, unconcerned… you are horrified. You are confused. You are suddenly reliving your own experience in the worst way. You were unprepared for this, you don’t understand what’s happening, you want to go home but don’t know if you can safely drive because you’re so upset, and you don’t have any plan for backup transportation …

Wouldn’t it have been nice if the friend who invited you had said, “Oh, by the way, at this party we’ll be reading about rape and staging rape scenes”?

I’m not trying to give anyone holiday or party ideas. Obviously, a holiday about rape is a horrible, horrible idea and anyone who would go to such a party has some issues. But when you have PTSD, reading a book or a movie that relates directly to your trauma can be as alarming and overwhelming as showing up at a Rape Day party with no warning. And the casual response of other people to this thing that is so traumatizing to you can be just as disturbing. And it can have tragic consequences. I personally know of a college student who committed suicide immediately after watching part of Lolita with her roommates. She had survived child sexual abuse; something about the movie, or her classmates watching it perhaps, tapped into something that was too much for her, circumvented the means she had used to survive.

A trigger warning is not censorship. It is not the same as removing a book or movie from the library or from a reading list. It doesn’t say “Don’t read this” or “Don’t watch this.” It’s a heads up.  It’s information. It allows people to make an informed choice to read or not to read. Maybe you want to watch the movie, but you’re too fragile on this particular night. Since when is giving people information and letting them decide a form of coddling?

The critical letters from readers (who actually have psychiatric conditions) that are quoted in the response here all make excellent points. I am disgusted by the authors’ responses.

In one of these responses, Haidt says:

I teach in New York City. Suppose that part of my teaching was to take students on field trips all around the city. Suppose further that every time we went to The Bronx, we took along a police escort and an ambulance. Just in case. And suppose that I told students that they didn’t have to go to the Bronx, if it would make them feel unsafe. What would students learn? They’d come to fear The Bronx, and the people who live there.

OK, except this analogy is utter bullshit. Allow me to offer a better analogy:

You’re a teacher in NYC and you know that some of your students may be in a witness protection program due to a crime they witnessed in the Bronx. Of course, you don’t know which students they are, or even that there are any, but you know that a trip to the Bronx may expose them to being found by the people who want to kill them. Therefore, instead of the surprise field trip to the Bronx that you were planning, you tell your students the day before: “We are taking a non-mandatory field trip to the Bronx tomorrow. Let me know if you would like to be excused.”

That’s all a trigger warning is. Really.

Another response from Haidt:

I can see that trigger warnings would help some people, in the short run, to avoid painful memories. If there were evidence that trigger warnings were helpful in the long run then I would be much more sympathetic to their use in the limited way that Ms. Liddle suggests. But Greg and I think that the case is much stronger that in the long run, the use of trigger warnings is bad for people who have suffered trauma.

First of all, again, a trigger warning is not about “avoiding painful memories.” The memories are there, OK? And the associative triggers that I mentioned earlier are there. It’s about avoiding an overwhelming, debilitating psychological response that may make you a danger to yourself. Because being curled up on the floor of a bathroom, feeling like you are falling down a black hole and thinking of the best ways to hurt or kill yourself is an experience some of us would actually like to avoid, if possible. (Hard to believe, I know.)

Second, and in line with that, saying that trigger warnings help some people “in the short run” ignores the potential for suicide or serious self-injury as a result of trauma. Being helped “in the short run” is pretty damn good if it keeps you alive long enough to work through some of that trauma. Right?

Finally, when a person with PTSD says “I find trigger warnings helpful” and you respond with abstractions about what research shows, you are condescending to and patronizing this person much more than any trigger warning can do. You are saying, “You might think this is helpful to you, but you’re actually wrong. I know what’s best for you. I have a degree and I study this stuff. Now go work through your issues in a way that doesn’t require anybody else to think about them.”

It is, to use another term the authors despise, a big fat microaggression.

I know: it’s fun, and easy, to make people’s vulnerabilities look stupid by picking out the most egregious related examples you can think of and lumping them together as if they’re the same thing. “Silly liberal college students with their silly trauma. They’re good for a laugh and a bit of attention to our articles. Too bad they can’t take the joke.”

So that happened.

I got up with my toddler at 3 AM this morning and, after half an hour of sheer panic, went for the Ativan. I was bracing myself for Bad last night. We got Worse.

And the finger pointing begins. Whose fault is it? Racists? Third party voters? Nonvoters? The DNC for pushing a candidate who was widely disliked and being actively investigated by the FBI? Neoliberalism? Hillary Clinton herself, for thumbing her nose at rightists (“deplorables”) and leftists (“Bernie bros” who need to “get a life”) alike, for taking the votes of blacks, progressives, and other populations too much for granted?

We can play the blame game and deepen the divisions and hostility in our country. Or, we can look at ways to move forward. I am sounding more hopeful than I feel, believe me.

Right now I’m terrified, especially for my son. He’s so young, he has so many challenges already. Will he lose access to medical care and developmental services? Will bullying of disabled kids and those who are different become worse than it already is? What future will he inherit? An America without free speech? Civil war? An uninhabitable planet? Our country is headed into terrifying places, but that didn’t just happen last night.

We need to wake up.

We need a revolution. A revolution in thinking and acting and being, based on socialist and anti-authoritarian principles. The opposite of Trump, in other words. The opposite of everything our political system has been offering us. But are there enough people in America who believe in these values – values such as compassion, equality, noncoercion and mutual interdependence – for this to actually happen? And if so, how bad will it have to get before they are willing to join this revolution?

I’m at a loss. I’m going to go hug my son tight and love him till it hurts.

This harrowing election

There is no good outcome of the presidential election today. There is only a bad outcome and a worse outcome.

I know many people don’t feel this way (namely all the people who are weeping tears of joy at being able to vote for Hillary Clinton, who are “with her” and think they are making history by perhaps electing the first woman president). This includes many of my friends and family.

Here’s the thing.

Trump is a joke. A scary joke, a joke in bad taste, but still a joke. Yes, he’s a racist, misogynist, ableist narcissist who admires world dictators, and the comparisons to Hitler are not far off – because whether or not Trump has it in him to be the next Hitler, the forces that have fueled his campaign are the same as those which enabled Hitler’s legacy. That’s the frightening part: not the man himself, but the people standing under him, lifting him up. Many of these people have real grievances, but then so did the Germans after WWI.

Hillary, on the other hand, is deadly serious. She’s a serious, intelligent politician with experience and detailed plans and policies. She has extensive political and corporate connections. She’s an establishment insider with little to no populist appeal. She’s also a militarist who acts with a sense of American exceptionalism; has spent her career destabilizing other countries; and is antagonistic towards Russia (in a disturbingly neo-McCarthyist way) at a time when that could lead to nuclear war.

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton tacitly supported the coup in Honduras which installed a military government that has tortured and disappeared numerous people and continues to murder activists who are fighting for human rights, indigenous rights, and the environment (sound familiar? Oh yes, there’s something like that going on now in North Dakota, which Clinton has conspicuously refused to address in any meaningful way). Even though Honduras is more violent and militarized than before and social activism is suppressed, Clinton still insists the coup was legal and scored points for democracy.

Honduras gives us a snapshot of her foreign policy; as president she would carry this foreign policy into countries like Syria, where she would rather continue/ramp up the current policy of arming ISIS sympathists than let Assad remain in power. Apparently she has learned nothing from her years of “experience” about what happens when the US goes in and removes someone else’s government (however flawed that government may be) – which is that a worse, more oppressive government fills its place.

I’d like to believe that my friends and family who are “excited to vote for Hillary” somehow don’t know about these things, rather than that they actually don’t care.

Yes, Hillary is a woman. Yes, she is a mother. She’s a woman who is willing to finance the assassination of human rights activists in impoverished countries. She’s a mother who is willing to burn children to death in the Middle East. I can’t vote for her because I’m also a mother, and I see my son in those children.

Even though I fear losing my son’s much-needed access to medical treatments and therapy under a Republican administration … I can’t vote for the deaths of other children, even on the other side of the world. I just can’t. I can’t give legitimacy and approval to those actions by my vote; nor will I give legitimacy to the system of government that has led to this so-called choice.

I’m going to write something that I’ve never told anyone. I voted for Obama in 2008. The night that he won, I had a very vivid dream. I dreamed about bombs falling. Specifically, I dreamed about bombs falling on children, burning them, blasting them to pieces. I woke up horrified and confused; I didn’t know at the time that I was dreaming about the drone strikes for which Obama has become known.

Obama has done good things during his administration. His healthcare reform benefited my family (I know some other people who’ve been harmed by it, however). I’m sure that Clinton will do some good things if she’s elected.

But does that make it OK? Does that justify the horrors we perpetrate on other countries? On their families? On their children? Why do we have so little feeling for people outside our country and our continent? Why can’t we see that we are fueling ISIS by these policies? That when Reverend Jeremiah Wright said America’s chickens are coming home to roost … he was absolutely right.

“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye… and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

I believe violence against human beings is very, very rarely justified. The terrorists’ actions are not justified, but neither is the terrorism perpetrated by the United States government.

To people in Syria and Yemen and so many other places … I am sorry. I apologize for what my government has done, is doing to you. I’m sorry that we failed to get a non-militant major party candidate nominated in this election. I’m sorry, and I know that my apology means little and will always be inadequate.