I Can’t Breathe

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I think about Eric Garner a lot.  Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and others, too.  But I think about Eric Garner a lot.

I can’t breathe.

I don’t relate to the discrimination. The abuse. The lived experiences of black people in America.  I can’t.  I am white. My privilege as a white person has created a cushion of safety around me.  A generalized understanding of police as super heroes, as protectors, as the first people I should call when I am in trouble.  The videos, the images, the stories that black individuals share about their experiences with the police… I believe them.  Without conditions.  Without the “yes, but..” I believe that Tamir Rice was playing with toy gun and was killed by police.  I believe that had Tamir Rice been white, he never would have been shot.  All the stories are awful, inhumane, worthy of human rights violations.  And many of the responses from white people are awful and inhumane, too.

I can’t breathe.

If you have experienced loss of breath, a panic attack, an allergy that closes your throat, anything that leaves you gasping for air… Maybe you also think about Eric Garner a lot.  Think about what he must have felt in those moments before his death.  The fear and helplessness, the body’s automatic struggle to break free and find air.

I was 15 when I yelled “I can’t breathe!”  While struggling in the arms of someone who held me down, my arms wrapped around myself, him behind me, my weight pressing on my diaphragm as I struggled to loosen myself from his hold.

He was supposed to be helping me.  He had been taught to do this.  He was not a police officer, but a mental health worker, supervising adolescents in an inpatient unit.  And I was being restrained to prevent me from hurting myself.  I was out of control.  But when does control warrant restraint.  When does preventing one harm allow for a different, and possibly greater, harm?  It has been almost 19 years since then.  I don’t remember everything that led up to that restraint (I do recall the catalyst was my refusal to leave the bathroom after a meal as I attempted to purge).  But I still remember the feeling of not being able to breathe.  The brief panic I felt when I could not take a full breath.  When I could not escape the grip of a man who was supposed to be helping me.

To this man, I was just a crazy teenager who needed to be controlled.  To be calmed down.  He had been taught these restraints and ideologies.  He was a good man, I know he was.  I don’t blame him.  I blame the system that dehumanizes people with mental illness.  I blame the system that dismisses youth voices and creates such strong power differentials that when youth are hurt by an adult, they are taught to believe that their behavior or Self warranted it.  My behavior, my refusal to comply.. this gave them permission to force me to comply.  I could have easily been talked down.  With compassion.  With time and understanding.  The 10 or 15 minutes it would have taken for someone to sit on the floor and just be with me.  Instead, it led to hours of behavioral intervention.

I was lucky.  Youth have died while being restrained in mental health treatment.  I was lucky because he readjusted his grip.

He wasn’t the only mental health worker to restrain youth. It was a regular occurrence.  Youth with trauma history being forced into compliance.  Through further trauma.  I was lucky not to have a sexual abuse history.  If I had, I wonder if I would have had the presence of mind to yell “I can’t breathe.”  Maybe I would have instead screamed for help, or just screamed, until I had no more breath.  The struggling taken as defiance, the eventual stillness taken as compliance.

I believe that there are racist, hateful, violent police officers.  I also believe that those police who are inherently racist, hateful, and violent are in the very small minority.  I believe that the vast majority of mental health workers truly do want to help people with mental illness.  I believe those in positions of power have sometimes been bred into a system that is rooted in the dehumanizing of people they are meant to serve.  Meant to help. We take our most vulnerable citizens (and non-citizens) and created an oppression so heavy that people in power can, literally, get away with murder.

I don’t know how to change it.  Mostly I listen. I think that is what most people want.  To be heard.  To be valued.  I think the answers will come from the voices we have long silenced.  Eric Garner was silenced forever.  But I still think about him.  I am still listening to his voice.  I can’t breathe.

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ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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I have seen a lot of snarky posts on Facebook about the ridiculousity (yes, I made that word up) of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.  Everything ranging from “It’s not about ALS, it’s about attention-getting” to “way to waste good fresh water when people in 3rd world countries don’t have that luxury.”  

Yet.. “As of Monday, August 18, The ALS Association has received $15.6 million in donations compared to $1.8 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 18).”  via the ALS Association

That is 13.8 million dollars, People. 8.6 TIMES the amount from last year.  The Ice Bucket Challenge WORKS. Who cares if people are dumping ice water on their heads.  It’s gimmicky. It’s funny. It may get tiresome after you’ve seen 25 friends videos on Facebook.  But it is working.  People are not just getting wet. They are giving money and spreading awareness.  It has engaged generations of people in giving to a good cause.  Yes, it would be great if people simply gave to ALS Association.  But they don’t.  If they did, we wouldn’t need the Ice Bucket Challenge. If they did, we wouldn’t need 5K’s to support Breast Cancer, Heart Disease, Missing & Exploited Children, the Humane Society.  We wouldn’t need $500/plate Galas to support Suicide Hotlines, LGBT Youth, Cancer Research. If people simply gave, we wouldn’t need Telethons, Radio-thons, Jump-A-Thons, Hula-Hoop-A-thons, 24-Hour Fasts, 24-Hour Lock-Ins, or Unicef Trick-or-Treating.  

The Ice Bucket Challenge has made non-celebrity’s into ALS Ambassadors for their social circles and social networks.  It has made Conan O’Brien, Lady Gaga, Melissa Etheridge, Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates, Oprah, Lebron James.  Politicians, Pro-Athletes, Celebrities, Musicians.  They are partaking. And donating. How exactly can this be a bad thing?  How can people be complaining about this? Finding the negativity in something that is truly making a difference and achieving what it set out to do?  

If you don’t want to dump a bucket of ice over your head, don’t. Just donate your money. And quit your bitching. 

Reaching Out

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My Social Networks exploded yesterday with news of Robin Williams passing. Specifically, his suicide.

Facebook was filled with suicide hotlines, inspirational quotes, and encouragement for people to “reach out,” “have hope,” and “know you are loved.”

While noble in intent, these phrases feel like they mean nothing in the complex universe that is Mental Illness and Depression.  

Robin Williams fought his illness for a long time.  Bravely. Openly. Again. And Again. It was not Robin Williams that took his own life, but rather Depression.  He succumbed to a major, life-threatening Illness. To place blame on him, to fault him for “giving up,” is as ludicrous as faulting a cancer patient for not fighting harder.  The body has limitations.  Disease impacts us all, just in different ways, in different regions of our human form.  The mind is part of our body, but when it is hurt, or diseased, or disordered, we call upon that very organ to “fix” itself.  

I am sad about the passing of Robin Williams, just as many people are.  His movies are scattered among the happiness of my childhood.  Aladdin, Patch Adams, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire. Even Awakenings, which haunted me for a long time after seeing it.  But while I loved his movies, I will not pretend to know him, know his circumstances, or that which led to his death.  The very worst I can imagine is to speculate or judge him or his illness or his passing. 

What I do know is my own Experience.  My own Life. Depression runs in my maternal genes in the same way an abnormally large foot runs in my father’s.  My own Experience is that in Real Life, when you are plagued by mental illness, by automatic negative thoughts and sadness that envelops you for no reason, without warning, without convenience to the rest of Life… that people are less apt to Reach Out or Be There.  Because the fact is, most Depression and Mental Illness is not “curable” but rather “manageable.”

A relapse into Depression can bring out the worst in friends, even well-meaning ones.  How many times have we heard others tell people to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” or “snap out of it.”  Or “look on the bright side” or “It gets better” or “You have so much to live for!”

Friends, caregivers, family– they get tired. Maybe they pull away after time. Maybe they stop answering the phone.  Maybe they cut off friendships. I, myself, am a Perpetrator of those things. I am also a receiver of those actions.  As someone who had Depression that was not well-controlled as an adolescent and young adult, I understand how it can feel to be on the receiving end of Advice That Wasn’t Asked For From the General Public. Telling someone who is barely able to function that “it Gets better” doesn’t give one Hope. What does? Providing ongoing support through professionals.  Smiling. Saying Hi. Inviting them out for coffee or movies or games. Even if they say no twenty times. Keep asking. Go visit. Send letters. Call someone every time you suspect they are suicidal. Most people who complete suicide have attempted before.  Maybe it is a call for attention.  That is not a bad thing.  They need attention. They need treatment. And love. And understanding. 

Contribute to research and foundations dedicated to Mental Illness and Suicide Prevention. Just like we need better treatments and a cure for cancer, we need the same for Mental Illness. Educate yourself. Question your own beliefs and where they come from. How do you view Addiction, Suicide, Schizophrenia, and other disorders? Educate yourself on the failure of our government and health insurance to provide adequate mental health coverage and treatment. 

Remember Robin Williams for all he gave to the World.  But also remember the countless others who are silenced by stigma, or who have died without fame. Someone you know has a condition called Depression.  Learn about it. Don’t ask them to reach out for support. Instead, reach out to them.

*In memory of Denise G., 1980-2004

Pissed off PODA

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This past weekend there was a protest at Regal Henrietta by some members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.  The issue at hand was lack of access to closed captioning for movies.  Regal Henrietta provides closed captioning “glasses” that show captions.  However, some people state these glasses are heavy, uncomfortable, and the cinema has only 25 pairs.

I was pretty amazed at the commentary in newspaper articles and posts following the protest.  I never before have used the term “reeked of privilege” but that would pretty much sum up my thoughts about that…. It STUNK. So much so that my status as a Pissed Off PODA is taking precedence over my status as a Blogger. Meaning: Rant Ahead.

Seriously, wtf is up with hearing people so self-absorbed and lacking compassion for others? The deaf community asked that closed captioning be put on films whenever a deaf person was present at the film and requested it.  The response? Hearing people bitching about how closed captioning is distracting, annoying,etc.  

And you know what is NOT a good compromise? Scheduling certain movie times to be open-captioned.  Really?  REALLY?! I truly believe that suggestion is not made out of compassion or desire to provide access to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, rather for HEARING people to avoid those movie times.  

I am not sure if I have been to ONE movie with my girlfriend that we have not been inconvenienced by hearing privilege.  If we attend a movie that has the cup-holder caption device, it almost ALWAYS doesn’t work or isn’t programmed correctly.  This leads to my partner missing the first 5-10 minutes of the movie.  And that is when the devices are available.  Not available at The Little.  Not available at the Dryden Theater.  Not available in Ohio at the movie theater near her hometown.  

In Rochester, NY, where we have a school with a college program SPECIFICALLY for deaf and hard-of-hearing students and Rochester School for the Deaf, it seems like an intelligent request to have accessible entertainment.  

Pregnancy Privilege

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“Just remember it is not always greener on the other side.” – Straight co-worker with infant child, responding to discussion about difficulties in becoming parents for queer couples.

I didn’t even know how to respond to that statement. Example of heterosexual privilege? Probably. Ignorance? Probably. Spoken from her own frustrations as a young mother? Likely.  Nice? Not so much.

Investigating parenthood while part of a same-sex relationship has been intimidating. The financial barriers are at the forefront, leading me to believe that only rich gays can afford to conceive or adopt.  The cost of IVF is upwards of 10,000, with some places estimating at 100,000.  Old fashioned “turkey baster,” which is much cheaper, has a success rate in the single digits.  

Does insurance help? Maybe. Depending on your plan. And if other requirements are met. That are often costly.  Some insurance won’t cover fertility costs unless you try cheaper options first.  Which aren’t so cheap, leaving you with less money for the likely-needed future IVF.  

I expected Parenthood to be difficult.  I wish the process of getting pregnant wasn’t so difficult, too.  And the last thing I, or any couple/person having trouble with conception needs, is for someone with Pregnancy Privilege to be dismissive.  And no, Unnamed Person, I won’t get drunk and have sex with a guy. EVER.  Not even for a baby.

PODA Time

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Sometimes, even though you think you know something, you really don’t.  You can hear it, learn it, study it, speak about it.  But, still, you are missing something… some ingredient to a recipe that you can’t quite identify, even though you are following the directions.

In the past year, I entered a new relationship.  My girlfriend is amazing. Brilliant, beautiful, funny, sensitive, loving, and compassionate.  We have a lot in common. But there is one big difference between us (aside from her being tall and slender, and me being the short and stout–“teapot” of the relationship).  That difference is that she is Deaf/hard-of-hearing and I am hearing.  It is a difference that has required much learning on my part.  About what it means to be deaf and what it means to be Deaf.  About culture and language and community.  I have learned about analog versus digital hearing aids.  ASL versus SEE.  Schools for the Deaf versus Mainstream schools.  The history of Deaf people in America.

I probably could have learned some of this from a book, which I did.  “For Hearing People Only” was a thick text that explained a lot.  But it left out a lot.  Stuff that can be learned only be experience, awareness, a desire to understand life outside your own experience.

And in the spirit of spreading knowledge, I am sharing some of my first lessons of life as a PODA (Partner of Deaf Adult)… Yes, I made that term up.

1. Alarm clocks for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing should come with a warning label that advises users to inform any new new bed partner of how these clocks work.  Or else that bed partner may be woken from a deep sleep, screaming, thinking the house is on fire.

2.  The world is not made for Deaf people.  And Reasonable Accommodations apparently does not include closed captioning at all movie theaters.  A “hearing loop system” at a cinema doesn’t do squat for many deaf people.  This results in missing the Internet Cat Film Festival and lingering resentment from cat-loving lesbians, one of whom happens to be deaf.

3. You can’t wear hearing aids in the rain.

4. Or in the hot tub.

5. Or sleeping.

6. Learning American Sign Language is a lot harder than it seems.  It is not simply signs that align with English.  It is a completely different language, with its own sentence structure, grammar, etc.  A lot of people say they know some “sign” and what they really mean is that they can fingerspell the alphabet and know a handful of signs, most of which include curse words that aren’t even signed correctly.

7. Riding with a Deaf driver and passenger having a conversation in ASL the front may lead you to fear for your life.  This does NOT mean that people who are deaf can’t drive or are bad drivers.  I’m just saying that some Hearing people are not used to drivers taking their hands off the wheel to sign to a passenger.

8. A 3-year-old with a kazoo doesn’t bother a deaf adult nearly as much as a hearing one.  If my future child is ever given a kazoo, it will be designated an outside toy only or it will mysteriously disappear.

9.  Just because a deaf person can’t hear something doesn’t mean they can’t experience it.   Deaf people can enjoy music and poetry.  Deaf people also know if you farted in bed and blamed the cat.

10. Even when the lights are out, hearing aids in nightstand, cats curled between us, my girlfriend knows when I say “I love you.”