Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Notes After a Fall

I don't want to be a perennial. I just want to take a nap. Detail
from "The Garden of Earthly Delights," by
Heironymus Bosch, c. 1490-1510
Why I Don’t Want to Be a Perennial

On a golden Friday summer afternoon sometime in 2017, I tripped and fell. One minute, I was walking home from the neighborhood pool with my tweens (a new word that, like so many things, seems to have been invented by marketers to sell me stuff I don’t need), trying to engage in a conversation with my 12 year old daughter about her favorite Minecraft machinima star, Aphmau of "My Street."

And the next, I was lying on the ground, my cheek pressed against the cool, sprinkler-soaked concrete sidewalk.

The moment when my ankle turned and I realized I could not maintain my upright stance was a slow one. I think it’s what enlightened people call “mindfulness” or “living in the moment.” I was definitely living in the moment as I resigned myself to an inevitable and embarrassing collision with the concrete. I noticed the white SUV approaching from up the street. I noticed a peach that had rolled from a nearby tree, its fuzzy surface pocked here and there where opportunistic insects had enjoyed its succulent flesh.

“Mommy, are you okay?” It felt like hours but must have been just seconds when my daughter asked me the obvious question. I considered her words as if they were the first premise of an Aristotelian syllogism, noting with dispassionate curiosity that adrenaline numbness was flooding my body and masking any pain. My elbow had erupted in a bright flower of blood, and my pants were torn and blood soaked at the knee.

My new pants. As in, I had actually paid real money for these pants in a real boutique, which is something I do maybe once a year. Of course, I bought them on sale, but still.

“This is what I get for not buying these pants at a thrift store,” I tell my daughter, moving swiftly to the question of cosmic accountability. It was clear that by violating my own commitment to sustainability, I had incurred the wrath of something or someone I don’t believe in, resulting in my inevitable karmic crash on the pavement.

Lying on the pavement, experiencing enforced mindfulness, I realized two truths. First, I was in fact “okay,” except for the kinds of bloody scrapes that were a regular fixture of my summers when I was my daughter’s age and spent most of my vacation days running around in the woods (if I let my own children do that today, I would likely be reported to CPS as a negligent parent).   

And second, the same kind of fall, forty years from now, will likely kill me.

Everything is relative.

As I hauled myself to my feet and walked up the hill to my house, half-listening to my daughter’s cheerful commentary on the “My Street” ‘ships she was predicting for the next season, I thought about an article shared widely by my Facebook circle of friends a few months ago. The title of the article was as clickbaity as they come: “Why Women of 40 and 50 Are the New ‘Ageless’ Generation.” 

The article’s premise, in case you somehow managed to miss it, is that women of a certain age are no longer constrained by age. They are, in fact, perennials. The 40-ish woman who coined the term, Gina Pell, defines it like this: 
“Perennials are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers.”
My female friends of a certain age were pretty self-congratulatory in seeing themselves this way, and I honestly am happy that they can identify with this lovely idea. But when I read the article, I laughed until I cried. Let’s just say that the life I live right now is anything but blooming.

Why did I fall on a summer afternoon? Probably not because the thrift store gods were punishing me. It was probably because I have a lot of things on my mind. Among them:

Is my mom okay? My indomitable mother, the woman who dragged her children to the top of Mount Whitney for her 64th birthday seven years ago, got sick this summer. I’ve never seen her this sick. She’s the only parent I have left.

Are my kids okay? My older two boys are both trying to navigate the college admissions process, one as a transfer student, the other as a high school senior. Don’t know how scary college is? Try reading Sara Goldrick Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream,  which really opened my eyes to the crisis our country is facing in higher education. I now understand that I’m not alone in wondering how on earth the federal government expects me to allocate one fourth of my family’s gross income as our “expected family contribution” toward soaring and unpredictable college costs. When I went to college, I worked long hours in the summer to save up enough for the school year. Twenty-five years later, my son works the same long hours for roughly the same pay I made in 1992, which is nowhere near enough to afford the costs of our state school, let alone some fancy college.

Is my community okay? Like many areas around the country, my Boise community has experienced acts of hate directed at our most vulnerable populations. I volunteer and donate and protest, and so do many others, but it feels like nothing we do will ever be enough to fill the void created by hate and fear.

Is my country okay? I probably don’t need to expound on this one.

Am I okay? My daughter asked me the question, and I’m still working on the answer. I bandaged the wounds, and they are healing. I’m bandaging the more complex wounds to my soul by reading biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas’s 1974 collection, The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher.   Lewis writes:
We are, perhaps uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still…. We have high expectations and set high standards for our social behavior, and when we fail at it and endanger the species—as we have done several times in this century—the strongest words we can find to condemn ourselves and our behavior are the telling words “inhuman” and “inhumane.”
My middle years are marked by pervasive failures of those high expectations for social behavior. In public, men say unspeakable things about women, about people, about each other. The danger to our species seems never to have been greater, and Lewis’s twentieth-century hopes that humans would unite to become the conscious mind of the planet seem na├»ve and idealistic, like something a young white male Bernie Sanders supporter would say (also, he would want free college).

Midlife is not, for me, a time of exploration. It’s a time of existential exhaustion. And no $50 jade eggs for my vagina or yoga classes with beer or any other ridiculous self-care concepts are going to make me less tired.  

I don’t want to be my personal brand. I don’t want to take some time for self-care. I don’t want to have a glass of wine. Or two. Or six.

I want my younger children to know the joy of running free in the woods on a summer afternoon. I want my newly adult children to be able to graduate from college without crushing debt. I want my mother to be able to consider retirement without fear of financial consequences. I want my community to be safe for everyone—refugees, trans folks, atheists, human beings. I want justice. I want freedom. I want a healthy planet. I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.

I don’t want to live forever, blooming and taking risks and staying current with the latest technology. Mostly, I just want a nap. Also, a new pair of pants. This time, I’ll buy them at a thrift store.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Joy in the Journey


The author and her sister on Pioneer Day in Provo, Utah
Learning How to Feel Human Again after a Faith Transition

Note: This is the text of a sermon I gave at the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Sunday, July 23, 2017.  I tend to ad lib quite a bit, so the audio at https://boiseuu.org/audio/ may differ from this written version. Also, talking about my faith transition still terrifies me. If you're going through one yourself, hang in there. If you know someone who is currently questioning their faith, be gentle.

My youngest child turned twelve a few weeks ago. As I watched her excitement at becoming a Beehive and entering the LDS church’s Young Women’s program, I reflected back on my own transition to womanhood within the church. When I was a Beehive, the church had a program called Personal Progress. With no disrespect to the Boy Scouts, this program was essentially like earning an Eagle Scout award, only much, much harder, and with none of the recognition the boys got for their achievements. Plus ca change.

As a new Beehive, I was encouraged to write a list of my major life goals. Ten years ago, in the summer of 2007, I had accomplished all of them. Married in the temple to a tax attorney who managed the money of those 1% folks? Check. Earned an advanced degree in Classics that proved I was smart but not really necessary to the workforce? Check. And like all good Mormon mothers, I was using my degree at home, where I taught my four children about Julius Caesar’s Gallic wars while canning apricots and singing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”

Most importantly, in 2007 I was called as a Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward. Now for those of you who don’t know what a Gospel Doctrine teacher is, or why I would aspire as a 12-year-old girl to become one, let me explain. The Gospel Doctrine teacher is the highest church calling to which a Mormon woman can aspire. Relief Society President? Pshaw! Who wants to be in charge of a bunch of women? The Gospel Doctrine teacher was responsible for teaching scripture every Sunday to the women AND the men in the ward.


And if there’s one thing I loved as a child, it was Mormon scripture. 


I was that kid who wrote my English and history papers on Joseph Smith and the Restored Gospel. I wasn’t just Mormon—I was in love with Mormonism. Church doctrine was the framework through which I interpreted everything about life, but most especially, it was how I decided whether or not I was a good person.

To its credit, the Mormon church makes this determination fairly easy in some senses. There are simple checklists—no coffee or tea, no alcohol, no sex before marriage—that were pretty easy for me to follow. The rubric that defined my sense of self-worth was simple too: “Wickedness never was happiness,” as the Book of Mormon prophet Alma says. Translation: if you aren’t happy, you’re a sinner.

Then there was another one of my favorite life-defining scriptures, from the New Testament Book of Matthew: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.”

In my 2014 book, The Price of Silence, about raising a child who has mental illness, I wrote about this scripture: “Mormon women bear the brunt of this perfectionism, often being expected to give up work outside the home, devote themselves to lay church service, raise perfect, polite, academically gifted children; grow a garden; preserve what they grow in their garden for their two-year food storage; and of course, stay thin, fit, and smiling in their ‘modest is hottest’ outfits, standing beside their equally perfect, priesthood-holding husbands.”

In 2007, I was THAT Mormon woman, the one who always sent the best Christmas cards (who needed to know how many hours I spent in Photoshop to achieve those perfect pictures?). I was the woman my 12-year-old-self had wanted me to become. But though I was living the dream, I was not happy.

Four months after I was called as Gospel Doctrine teacher, I had what can only be described as a revelation. I was teaching one spring Sunday about the risen Savior from the Book of Mark when I read this scripture for probably the thousandth time: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 16:16).


And I thought, for the first time in my life, “Why? Why do I have to be saved?”


Of course, this thought is not unique. Christian apologists from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis have explored the question of salvation. Lewis wrote, “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might be even more difficult to save.”

Why isn’t it enough just for people to be nice? Because Eve ate an apple? Because Adam blamed Eve when God asked him about it? Because God said so? What if—bear with me here, I was new at this!—the initial premise, the unmoved mover—was false?

Some people, seeking knowledge of God’s love, describe praying, sometimes for years, to know the truth. The Book of Mormon gives its readers this exact challenge.

Some people, like my husband Ed, never bother to ask God about anything. And some people ask, and pray, and they know that it is true. Meanwhile, as I know from personal experience, some people do exactly what the Book of Mormon tells them to—ask, pray, want the truth—and know that it is not true.

If I were still Mormon, right now, I would bear my testimony to you. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know the church is not true, that I know its teachings are harmful to people I love, that church doctrine is wrong about gay marriage, God’s love, women’s roles in life, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Also, I still think many Mormons are very nice people. In the name of whichever god or gods you choose or do not choose to believe in, Amen.”


I realized that I don’t need to be saved. That you don’t need to be saved either. That the whole premise of needing to be saved is, to put it mildly, problematic.


That April Sunday in 2007, I taught my final lesson as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. I could not teach things that I knew were false. But still I limped along in Mormonism, thinking perhaps there might be a moral compromise, some way to keep both my community and my integrity.

There wasn’t. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we cannot have our cake and eat it too (Also, the cake is a lie). A year later, a song from Badly Drawn Boy, “Long Way Round,” gave me the courage to move forward, beyond the moral constraints of my faith: “Sit and wait for the day when your life might change, and that day never comes. All the changes must come from you.” 

But when I abandoned the framework of Mormonism, I lost my entire cultural language for describing meaning and purpose in life.


(I lost my first marriage too, and that is another story.)

When I left the religion of my youth, I didn’t know how to feel good anymore. For my entire life, my conception of what it meant to be happy was defined by a set of arbitrary rules perpetuated in the culture into which I once thought I was born because of divine destiny but I now realized was total chance.

The poet Mary Oliver, among others, became my new scripture. According to the Gospel of Mary Oliver, “You don’t have to be good.” 

I don’t! Or at least, I don’t have to be good the way Mormons or anyone else for that matter defines good.

The sense of freedom in those early days was exhilarating but terrifying. No longer could I check my critical thinking skills at the church door. Suddenly, the responsibility to define morality was all on me. By rejecting the Mormon God’s plan for happiness, I was now responsible for creating my own plan.

And through stops and starts, and more failures than successes on that ten-year pilgrimage away from doctrine and toward meaning, I’ve finally started to learn the lesson I need most. 

Happiness is not about the plan. It was never about the plan. Happiness is finding joy in the journey.


One of the hardest things I’ve learned on this journey is how to be honest in identifying my emotions. I don’t think this is a problem unique to the LDS church, by the way. I think the inability to identify our emotions honestly, to embrace and accept the negative emotions as well as the positive ones, is a malady that has infected our entire culture. We see it in our Instagram and Facebook feeds. We see it in the toxic Gospel of Prosperity that threatens to destroy our democracy—in the idea that wealthy people deserve to get all they can while the poor deserve nothing, not even our compassion.

Some of you may know that I have a part-time largely unpaid “job” as a mental health advocate that I took on after my 2012 essay, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  went viral. My second son has struggled with mental illness for his entire young life, and he has taught me so much about what it means to be happy.

One specific skill my son taught me was how important it is for all of us to recognize and define our emotions in the moment we are experiencing them. Psychologists call this activity “affect identification.” It starts with the premise that our feelings—good, bad, or ugly—are value-neutral, meaning there’s no one “right” way to feel. There are simply feelings. And you are free to feel them.

It shouldn’t surprise you that most of us are not very good at this. If our religion or our culture teaches us that “good” people are happy, then we are damn well going to smile through the pain, right? According to our culture, big girls—and real men--don’t cry. Unfortunately, the consequences of our collective denial about what we feel are very real in terms of our mental and physical health.

So today, I want to teach you how to identify your feelings (for some of you, this will likely be a refresher course). I want you to close your eyes and imagine this scene. You’re having a conversation with a Donald Trump supporter. Your heart starts to pound. You feel your face flush. You have a sudden urge to leave the room.

Hit the time-out button. Stop. Name your emotion. What are you feeling? Is it anger? Anxiety? Fear? Frustration? Disgust? Shame?


If you can, write the name down on a real or imaginary notepad. Stare at the word for a minute. Slowly breathe in, and breathe out. Breathe again. And again. After three breaths, you should feel calmer. Your heart should be slowing down. You may still feel the emotion, but now, you’re in charge.

Open your eyes. That was not too hard, was it?

And yes, in case you are wondering, there’s an app for that! Mood tracking apps can help you to identify your emotions in real time. 

Instead of telling ourselves how we should feel, it’s time to start acknowledging our real feelings. It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or ashamed. Sure, it doesn’t feel too good, but as someone who has experienced clinical depression, I can tell you how grateful I am just to feel anything! Depression for me is a big world of grey, a numbness, a fog that flattens and distorts everything I encounter. I have learned to feel enormous gratitude for sadness because when I have lost something, I know that at one time, it mattered to me. At one time, it brought me joy. I am grateful for anger because it reminds me that life is unfair, that justice matters and that some things are worth fighting for.

And shame, the worst of all emotions? Well, I’m grateful for shame too. Many of the hardest truths I have learned about myself have started when I felt ashamed and let myself really feel that way.


My youngest daughter is not here with us today. She is attending her LDS ward, where she is learning, as I did at her age, that “there’s a right way to live and be happy.” I struggle daily, as my own mother must struggle in her relationship with me, mourning my daughter’s choice to stay true to her faith when I believe Mormonism’s teachings are not only wrong but actually harmful. If my daughter were here, I would tell her the same thing my still-Mormon mother would say to me: “I love you. I’m here for you, wherever your journey takes you.” And I would tell her what my father, a Mormon bishop and the best human being I have ever known, told me shortly before he died: “It doesn’t matter what I think. I just want you to be happy.”

This journey—yours and mine—is not perfect. But it’s ours. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My Obamacare "Nightmare"

How the Affordable Care Act Helps Working Families Like Mine

A few years ago, I woke up one morning and realized that I was miserable. It was becoming increasingly clear that the career I had chosen was not the right fit for my skills. I knew what I really wanted to do: I wanted to teach in the classroom again. But as the breadwinner for my family of six, I felt like I had no choice but to stay with my organization in a job I did not love.

My husband, like many men in his 50s, had lost his job a few months before when his company laid off most of its staff, and despite daily calls and job applications, he had not been able to find anything more than part time work without benefits. In our profession, college instruction, most teachers must work as adjuncts on temporary, at-will contracts without benefits. My husband and I could earn enough to support our family comfortably if we both worked part time as adjuncts, but without the safety net of health insurance, we didn’t dare to take the risk.

I looked at the numbers on my paycheck, hoping for a miracle. My employer offered a good insurance plan, and though I paid 1/3 of each paycheck for my portion of coverage, the employer contribution was twice the amount I paid, meaning the kind of coverage we had through employer-sponsored insurance would be out of reach if I decided to leave my job.

For most of my life, I had been blessed with relatively good health. But now, with 60 hours of work per week (I was salaried, so there was no overtime), plus trying to manage a household of four lively children, I was overwhelmed. I’d put on weight. I was depressed and anxious. It seemed like I caught every cold that came through the office.

I was sacrificing my health for health insurance.


Then someone mentioned the Affordable Care Act.

I surfed to our state’s health exchange and window-shopped plans. In our personal situation, all we needed was catastrophic coverage and wellness care. I was amazed at how affordable the policies were, especially after the tax subsidies.

The next day, I started applying for adjunct teaching positions at my organization. As soon as I had secured one, I put in my notice for my full-time position and transferred to a part-time one. My employer had once offered part-time employees health insurance plans, but with the Affordable Care Act, they no longer needed to do so. I applied for health insurance through the exchange.

The process was relatively easy. I was surprised, though, when my health navigator told me that my children would be placed in our state’s CHIP system, or Medicaid. “We can afford insurance,” I told her. “We don’t need Medicaid.”

She explained to me that I would actually be paying $15 per month per child for Medicaid insurance. In hindsight, it seems somewhat ironic that $15 per month is the amount President Donald Trump thinks health insurance should cost. For the children, we also had a co-pay for all services except wellness visits and immunizations.

It was the best health insurance my children have ever had.


Read that sentence again. Then ask yourself: why wouldn’t the United States want all of its children to have the best health insurance possible?

I know the Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect. But contrary to President Trump’s assertions, it is working—for 22 million people, by the CBO’s estimate

If we were having a real, national, bipartisan conversation about health care, one that included all voices and gave enough time to the process to truly consider the ethical as well as the practical implications of healthcare reform, I would support that conversation. If he were really interested in making healthcare more affordable and accessible to everyone, I would support President Trump’s goals.

But I think we all know that’s not what is happening here. Congress certainly knows: they have tried to write their proposed new law to exclude themselves from the damage they will do to Americans like me. 

Could a law be written that got the United States government out of the business of healthcare while also protecting children, seniors, and those living with disabilities and providing a social safety net to working Americans who do not have access to health insurance through their employers? I think it could. But not in six months, and not without bipartisan cooperation.

Much has been written, both good and bad, about the Affordable Care Act. But I think it’s important to remember the positive effects for workers. The Affordable Care Act provides access to health care for working families like mine who cannot access health insurance through their employers. It makes sure that children receive preventative care and screenings. For my family, Obamacare was no nightmare: it was an opportunity to pursue my American dream.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

You're Covered!

You're Covered! New reality show helps deserving Americans
access affordable healthcare.
New Reality Television Show Lets Patients Pitch Their Healthcare Woes to Wealthy Republicans

Fox announced yesterday that a new reality show, You’re Covered! will air as part of its weekly line-up this fall. The show, billed by its producers as “a cross between Shark Tank and The Apprentice with a warm, fuzzy Hallmark card ending,” features contestants who cannot afford their healthcare in the wake of the Republican Congress’s American Health Care Act reforms.

According to the producers, contestant preference will be given to the so-called “deserving poor,” described as hard-working, God-fearing white people from Rust Belt states who have lost their jobs in coal mining, construction, or other “traditional, American manufacturing” jobs. Women contestants seeking contraception or other reproductive healthcare assistance must consent to transvaginal ultrasounds and watch a series of video exposes revealing Planned Parenthood’s true role as a purveyor of aborted fetuses

The show’s format is simple and familiar. The person seeking healthcare assistance makes his or her case to a panel of five wealthy Republicans, all of whom have benefited from at least a $50,000 reduction in their annual taxes as a result of the Republican bill.  The panelists confer and decide who deserves to have healthcare. The show ends when former reality television star and current U.S. President Donald Trump makes a guest appearance to reveal the winner, saying in his trademark style, “You’re covered!”

In the show’s pilot episode, a 56-year old former steel worker from Scranton, Pennsylvania who suffers from erectile dysfunction as a result of stress induced by loss of his job, beats out parents seeking help with costly medications for their child who has chronic asthma, a young woman seeking psychiatric medications to manage her bipolar disorder so that she can continue her college education, and a 48-year old mother of three with costly complications from type-2 diabetes.

“Look, I’m not going to lie. It was hard to say no to that cute kid,” one male panelist said. “But this man—he has suffered so much. I could really relate on a personal level. It’s guys like him that are going to make America great again, no question. He deserves a second chance.”

Another panelist, who owns a small business that employs 100 workers at minimum wage, netting its owner more than $3 million per year, agreed. “I mean, mental illness, diabetes, let’s face it. Those are lifestyle choices,” she said. “When I was in college, I felt sad sometimes too when I didn’t have enough money for drugs. But I just asked my parents or borrowed from friends. And that woman with diabetes—she is so…well, let’s just say she should have shopped at Whole Foods instead of McDonalds. Maybe then she wouldn’t be sick. Besides, what kind of example is she setting for her kids? They need to learn that choices have consequences.”

When asked whether the show was perhaps the very sort of “death panel”  that Republicans once accused Democrats of creating through Obamacare, the producers disagreed. “All of these people have access to healthcare,” they argued. “They can still go to the emergency room, or they can try to buy health insurance on their own, without subsidies.”  

“Healthy people shouldn’t have to subsidize sick people for their bad lifestyle choices,” they continued. “It’s not fair. It’s not American. This show gives people who actually deserve care a chance to get it, by showcasing the compassionate conservative response—not a hand out, but a hand up.”

To those who deserve it.


Author’s Note: This essay is satire, in the same way that Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is satire. Swift didn’t really think eating Irish babies would solve Ireland’s famine, and I don’t really think a death panel reality television show should replace access to affordable healthcare for all Americans. Just sayin’.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Toxic Gospel of Prosperity

Lessons from The Book of Donald 5:1-12

Image from HuffPost Facebook timeline 
Now when he saw the crowds, the master tweeted, “Truly, we’ve had so much winning.” Then he began to teach his disciples, saying,

Blessed are the rich, for theirs is the Kingdom of Men.

Blessed are those who mourn the loss of white privilege, for they shall be celebrated

Blessed are the bold, for they will create jobs.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after Alex Jones, for they shall be righteously indignant.

Blessed are those who show no mercy, for they are good businessmen.

Blessed are the pure capitalists, for their God is the only God.

Blessed are the warmongers, for they shall use fear to control you.

Blessed are those who feel persecuted because they voted for me, for they shall see so much winning and walls and more winning.

Blessed are you when the Fake News and liberals insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of mean things about you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, believe me, it is so great, it is the best reward, and the rich people are going to make it happen, folks, I promise you, and I love all people, rich or poor, but in those particular positions I just don’t want a poor person. Does that make sense? Does that make sense?




Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Why I Won’t Comment on Donald Trump and Mental Illness

Who cares whether Donald Trump has mental illness?
(Hint: Whether or not he has mental illness does not matter)

Let’s be clear: I hate Donald Trump as much as the next freedom-loving American. Trump is a self-described sexual predator, a liar, a xenophobe, a racist, and a bad businessman. His friends and advisors include white supremacists  like Steve “Darth” Bannon, formerly of Breitbart fame, now wreaking his alt-right havoc on the entire world. Trump has openly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, the autocratic Russian leader whose record is not likely to be enshrined in anyone’s Human Rights Museum any time soon.

While I have little else in common with Trump’s supporters, at least now I can sympathize with how that “birther” crowd felt when President Obama was elected in 2008. For reasons too numerous to list here, Donald Trump is #notmypresident. 

But while I welcome (and enthusiastically retweet) nearly all negative news and commentary regarding Trump and the Orwellian nightmare he and his evil Avengers have wrought on my beloved America, there’s one “criticism” of him that makes me cringe. Any time a layperson or even an expert weighs in on whether Trump has a mental illness that would make him unsuitable for office, I refuse to engage in the conversation.

The problems with linking mental illness and Trump include but are not limited to the following:
  1. As far as we know, Trump has not been diagnosed with a mental illness. In 2016, his own physician, in a report that was undeniably unusual in its hyperbole, described the then-presidential nominee’s overall health as “extraordinary.” 
  2. Armchair diagnosing, even for the professionals, is not considered an ethical pastime. The so-called “Goldwater Rule” that condemns this kind of behavior was named after 1,189 psychiatrists responding to a survey described the 1964 presidential candidate as “psychologically unfit.”   In 2014 (pre-Trump), Forbes contributor Cheryl Conners  summed up the ethical standard: “It is not okay to directly suggest a mental health diagnosis for public figures…[T]o address a person’s mental health in speculative articles, or to serve an ideological or political agenda, is…still a professional and ethical ‘no.’” 
  3. Discussing Trump’s (alleged) mental illness as a potential disqualifier under the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is inappropriate and stigmatizing. Here’s the language in question:
    Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President (25th Amendment, U.S. Constitution).
It’s likely at this point that you have read the opinions of people who want Trump’s alleged mental illness to disqualify him as president. But living with a mental illness would not and should not necessarily proscribe anyone from being an effective president.

Exhibit A: Abraham Lincoln. His spells of “melancholy” were well known by friends and foes alike. In his 2005 exploration of Lincoln’s likely clinical depression (the Goldwater Rule does not extend to deceased public figures), Joshua Shenk wrote:
In his mid-forties the dark soil of Lincoln's melancholy began to yield fruit. When he threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a defining role. The suffering he had endured lent him clarity and conviction, creative skills in the face of adversity, and a faithful humility that helped him guide the nation through its greatest peril. 
Let me be clear: I am NOT comparing Trump, whom I think history likely to judge as America’s worst president, to Lincoln, who to my mind still retains the title of America’s best president. I am, however, making the important distinction that it is not mental illness that makes a president great, or mediocre, or downright abysmal. People are who they are. In Lincoln’s case, and in many people’s cases, the challenges of living with mental health conditions may actually confer certain advantages in leadership positions, including empathy, resilience, and an ability to think creatively.

As a mental health advocate, I am asking my fellow Trump-haters for a favor. Please continue to shame Il Cheeto for his shameless behavior, and even for his tiny hands. Call out his cruel and un-American policy decisions. Keep demanding that he release his tax returns. But stop speculating about whether Trump has mental illness, and whether living with mental illness would make him unfit for office. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

My 2017 Resolution: Liberty and Justice for All!


“Ring out the false; ring in the true!”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

As I scrolled through my friends’ Facebook feeds on New Year’s Eve 2016, noting the pictures of dumpster fires, the scornful expressions of “good riddance,” the laments of trepidation for the future, I also noticed that for many people, 2016 was actually a very good year for personal and professional growth.

2016 was certainly a good year for me. I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation on mental health advocacy and leadership. I started working full time in my dream job, teaching composition to first-year students at a community college. I spoke at several conferences, including the National Council for Behavioral Health, the Domenici Institute 2016 Public Policy conference, and the American Bar Association’s National Summit on the Death Penalty and Serious Mental Illness.

With other mental health advocates, I celebrated the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which will hopefully provide more funding and support for people living with serious mental illness. My 2014 book, The Price of Silence, continued to be read and positively reviewed, and my brave son Eric spoke at 2016 TEDx Boise about what it’s like to grow up with bipolar disorder, and how people can help to end stigma one friend and one conversation at a time.
All in all, a pretty good year.

Except for that Trump thing.

Truthfully, the election of Donald Trump won’t directly hurt me or my family too much. We’re white, heterosexual, middle class folks who live in Idaho, that “reddest of the red” states. Though my husband and I both have progressive leanings, we have behaved like good Republicans in our financial lives. We live within our means. We work hard, save aggressively, and donate as much as we can to charitable organizations. We have health insurance through my employer, and when we didn’t, we used a Health Savings Account and a high deductible policy, exactly the “solution” that Republicans are likely to offer as a replacement for Obamacare.

My family has not relied on public benefits like food stamps, even though both my husband and I have experienced periods of unemployment, and my husband, like many white men his age, remains underemployed and would prefer to work full-time.

Still, we have been lucky.

No, Donald Trump’s election (barring the frightening possibility of global nuclear war) likely won’t affect us. We’ll read the horrific headlines and shake our heads in disapproval. We’ll continue to call our elected officials and express our concerns about Russian hacking, gender discrimination in healthcare, and the frightening prospect of erosion of legal protections for marginalized people who should have the same rights as the rest of us.

We are so lucky.

Here’s where I admit something that most of my friends probably don’t know. I’m a registered Republican. In fact, when I consider only my own circumstances and experiences, I’m very attracted to libertarianism, with its inherent meritocracy and limited federal government focused on defense and facilitation of commerce.

When I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in 10th grade, I was completely sold on the gospel of personal accountability. I was a faithful member of a conservative religion that reinforced those values of making good choices, working hard, and reaping the blessings that would come from pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. In that world, financial success was (and still is) visible evidence of good character, of God’s approbation.

Then I grew up. I read Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege, and it resonated. I read bel hooks’s critique of white feminism, and that stung, too. I realized that social justice was not a fashionable accessory to my life; it was the meaning of life.

I learned that life in fact was not fair, that all people did not have equal opportunities, that even when I’d faced challenges, the world had been uncommonly gracious and accommodating to me.

This shift in perspective took several years of sometimes painful self-examination. It took losing my religion, my first marriage, and most of my friends. In fact, the process is still ongoing. I still make so many mistakes. But I have learned a few things.
  • It’s not about me.
  • Past performance is no guarantee of future returns
  • Gratitude is the key to happiness.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes.
  • Being present—for yourself and for the people you love—matters.
  • I should give all I can, whenever I can, to those who are not as lucky as I am.

One of my father’s (and my) favorite hymns begins with these words: “Because I have been given much, I too must give.” For those of us, like me, who have more than enough, giving to those who have less is the only moral choice. In fact, as C.S. Lewis wrote, we should give until it hurts.

And then give more.

Sure, on a superficial level, Donald Trump may not hurt me personally. But the sudden erosion of our democracy hurts all of us. My 2017 resolution is to fight like hell whenever I see others’ rights trampled on. It’s to join my voice with others who are calling out for justice. It’s to give all I can, and then give more.

I’d still like to see the Republican ideal of equal opportunity for all. But today’s Republican Party seems to be dedicated to a very different platform, one that robs from the poor to pay the rich, that excludes minority religions, that suppresses free speech, that appeals to fear rather than calling people to love. These are all dangerous signs of authoritarianism, and they must not continue unchecked.  

In 2017, I will defend my country's promise of liberty and justice for all. I will stay awake.