Monthly Archives: July 2013

The care and feeding of an activist

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, and if you’re particularly astute, then perhaps lately you’ve picked up on certain words that don’t often show up in my writing.  Like “Capitola.” Or “pool.” These are words that hint at the goings-on of my life, barely revealing the subtle shift from my regular day-to-day routine into a different reality. If this was my personal journal, and if I wanted my life to be center stage, I’d be dropping words regularly like Beach. Boogie boarding. Sand castles. Wetsuit. Surfing. Sand dollars. Sea glass. You get the idea, I’m sure. If you haven’t figured it out, I am On Vacation.

All Summer Long.

And let me tell you, it is much-needed.

I love my work. I care about my work, particularly when it comes to teaching, writing, and activism. And when I care about something, I immerse myself deeply into it. I don’t do stuff because it’s just a task that needs to be done. I do it because I care about it. And if I don’t care about it initially, I find a way to care (Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in her classic book The Managed Heart, refers to this behavior as “deep acting.” Instead of pretending to care – which she calls “surface acting” – you dig deep and find a way to actually care). In addition, I’m not someone who does things on a superficial level. When I do a job, or take on a new task, I dive in hard, putting in 150% – not because I have something to prove, but because I’m excited and energized about what I’m doing. I run on super-charged, Energizer batteries, because I care.

But even Energizer batteries eventually run down. And if you keep trying to work on a dead battery, you’re going to experience burnout – especially if you’re a sensitive, caring, passionate, deep-acting kind of person.

Burnout is a common phenomenon. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on the issue, and scores of books dish out all kinds of advice about how to deal with burnout. Most of the studies I’ve seen tend to focus on two types of burnout: workplace burnout (which is especially common in the helping professions and in education) and caregiver burnout (which, in some cases, poses more health risks than what the actual patient being cared for might be facing). However, I can’t seem to find a single study that addresses activist burnout. And that, frankly, is surprising to me.

Watch the film Made in L.A. (Hecho en Los Angeles), which documents the three-year struggle to win basic labor protections from the retailer Forever 21. Notice how many people were involved at the beginning of the movement – and how few stuck it out for the entire three years. Watch How to Survive A Plague, a film that chronicles the activism of ACT-UP, and see how years of government indifference led to infighting within the organization – and almost caused the entire movement to implode. Burnout among activists is rampant, in my opinion. Because, if you think about it, activists are determined, caring, passionate, and persistent individuals, pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into their efforts. However, activism can be exhausting, and many activists have been doing the work so long that they’re running on fumes. Often, activist efforts are completely ineffective (and, in many cases, these efforts are met with open and blatant hostility). And exhaustion combined with ineffectiveness can transform even the most idealistic person into a burned-out cynic.

Christina Maslach, a researcher at the University of California, has conducted dozens of studies on the issue of burnout. (For you psychology trivia junkies, Maslach was the whistleblower in the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo. A graduate student at the time, Maslach is now married to Zimbardo.) She has written several books on the topic, including Burnout: The Cost of Caring and The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do about It. Maslach has also created an instrument called – you guessed it – the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which has been utilized in hundreds of burnout studies. And through all of her work, Maslach has found that burnout essentially boils down to three toxic risk factors:

  • emotional exhaustion;
  • ineffectiveness; and
  • cynicism (Maslach refers to this as “depersonalization”).

Sound familiar?

Here’s where, I imagine, you might expect me to launch into a discussion of ten-simple-ways-to-avoid-burnout. Accept what you can’t change, and change what you can. Step back periodically and recharge your batteries. Find your tribe, and develop a strong support network. Relax. Meditate. Practice mindfulness. Feed your body good, nutritious food. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Ask for help when you need it. All of these are good suggestions (and I do my best to take these suggestions regularly – hence the Extended Summer Vacation).

But all of these suggestions rest on the assumption that burnout happens because of some individual flaw. Psychology as a field tends to default towards that approach, operating on the assumption that, when problems manifest within an individual, it’s that individual that needs to be treated. In The Truth about Burnout, which addresses burnout within the workplace, Maslach (who, as a social psychologist, is more likely to look at the individual within a social context) makes the case that employee burnout is not an individual failing, but is instead a symptom of a deeply flawed organization. If we extend that logic to activist burnout, we can say that activists who experience this are not weak, or flawed, or inadequate. Rather, they are the symptom-bearers, the “identified patient” in a deeply dysfunctional, oppressive society. And “treating” the individual isn’t going to do anything to eliminate that dysfunction.

By far, the most common suggestion I’ve seen in the burnout literature (particularly in books about workplace burnout) is this: Know when to jump ship. Of course, in many cases, this is very good advice, for there’s nothing worse than feeling stuck in a job you hate. But when it comes to activist burnout, we can’t just walk away from it, or ignore it, or pretend it’s not happening. We may feel tired, frustrated, angry, hopeless, and helpless. But we also know that giving up is not an option – because what ship are we going to jump onto? The only option is to change the one we’re on – because we can’t afford to let it sink.

So we’re back to ten-simple-ways-to-avoid-burnout – you know, the ones that reduce a societal problem to an individual solution. But individuals make up groups, and groups make up societies. And if we have a lot of individuals with common activist goals, and every single one of those individuals is practicing radical self-care, then imagine the possibilities.

That is why I am On Vacation. All Summer Long.


Filed under human rights, mental health, psychological research

Living under a rock

We were at the pool. My daughter was in the shallow end diving for “sinky toys,” while Amy and I watched. At first, we were the only ones at the pool, but at some point, a woman with two young boys entered the pool area. The youngest boy strutted right over to the shallow end, where my daughter was swimming. She stopped and turned to face him, and the two kids stared each other down, sizing each other up. After the staring contest ended, the little boy climbed into the pool, swam to the wall, and focused his attention on me.

“Who’s her mommy?” the little boy asked, pointing at my daughter. It’s not the first time we’ve gotten this question. I did, however, find it curious that this was his first question.

“We both are,” I answered. “I’m her mommy, and she’s her other mommy.” I pointed to Amy as I said this.

The boy made a confused expression. “You can’t have two mommies!” he said.

What rock has he been living under? I thought to myself. I smile and said, “Some kids have a mommy and a daddy. Some have two mommies, and some have two daddies. Some have just a mommy, or just a daddy.” I could have kept going, but a little voice in my mind said, Keep it simple.

Now the boy looked thoroughly confused. “But two girls can’t get married!” he said definitively.

Before I could respond to that statement, his mother, who was sitting at the far end of the pool, yelled, “ALL RIGHT!!! THAT’S ENOUGH!!!” And that effectively put the kibosh on any further questions.

My guess is that this intervention took place because the boy’s mother assumed I was feeling uncomfortable, and she didn’t want me to feel that way. In fact, I wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable. I didn’t mind answering his questions, and I didn’t mind holding the space for him to digest this new reality and make sense of it. But I have to say, I felt VERY uncomfortable after his mother told him to knock it off. Because whether she intended this or not, the message that he got was, It’s not okay to talk about this.

In our house, we frequently talk about different kinds of families – and different kinds of people. We don’t do this in a preachy-teachy way; these subjects come up naturally, probably because of who we are and who we know. She knows people with two mommies, two daddies, three mommies and a daddy (this configuration involving a coming-out, a subsequent divorce, and both parents re-partnering), four mommies (again, through separation and re-partnering). She knows that children can have more than two parents – and not just because of divorce. She knows what it means to be adopted – by any type of family. I don’t think she knows the word “bisexual” yet, but she knows that sometimes people can be attracted to boys and girls – not just one or the other exclusively. She knows what it means to be transgender. She understands what the word “intersex” means. To her, none of this is confusing – it’s just reality.

Later that evening, as I was reflecting on the incident at the pool, it occurred to me that I might be the one who’s been living under a rock. Even though I’m very book-smart, I can be very naive – and I realized that I’ve naively assumed that, in this day and age, parents are increasingly talking to their kids about sexual orientation and gender. But that afternoon at the pool, my proverbial bubble that I’ve been living in was burst, and I witnessed just how thoroughly confusing the idea of two mommies or two daddies is to many children.


In 2013.

In some ways, I understand. Many parents might not know how to talk about these topics, especially with younger children. Shielded by heterosexual privilege, parents who are heterosexual and who are raising heterosexual, gender-normative kids may see no need to talk about it; the fact that the only research I could find that investigated how parents talk to their kids about sexual orientation involved lesbian moms (or gay kids) attests to this. Probably a lot of parents, somewhere along the line, internalized the message that the woman at the pool conveyed to her son: It’s not okay to talk about it.  

The it’s not okay to talk about it message runs deep in our cultural psyche, I think. When the film It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in Schools was released back in the late 1990s, the controversy that ensued was polarized and fiery. On the one hand, the film galvanized parents and educators to start conversations with children about lesbian and gay people – and it provided them with the tools to do so effectively. On the other hand, the film was relentlessly criticized by the anti-gay religious right. Their argument didn’t stop at it’s not okay to talk about it – rather, their message was: It is NOT SAFE to talk about it.

Here’s what Karen Jo Gounaud, the then-president of an organization called “Family Friendly Libraries,” wrote in her review of the film, which was subsequently published on NARTH’s website:

There’s a sophisticated new arrow in the gay activists’ quiver: a polished, well-produced video called It’s Elementary. . . .

“Indoctrination” is not too strong a word to describe what was really going on with those classroom activities. . . .

We must protect children from educational materials that contradict the historic truths about family which are rooted in America’s Judeo-Christian foundation. The survival of the family needs all the armor of truth we can supply. That truth is elementary, and it is imperative. There’s no time to waste. Let’s get together and get it done (emphasis mine).

As wacko as these statements are, they’ve effectively scared people into silence. Although a handful of websites exist that give tips on how to talk to kids about sexual orientation, no books have been written on this topic. None. No psychological studies exist (at least that I could find) that document the effects of educating children about sexual orientation – either in schools or at home. And attempts to provide that education for kids (either through films like It’s Elementary, or, more recently, through California’s FAIR Education Act) are often met with powerful resistance. This education just isn’t happening – at least not on a widespread level.

All of us need to be talking to our kids, in age-appropriate ways, about sexual orientation. And gender. And families – of all types. And sexuality. And not just if your family falls under the “sexual and gender minority” umbrella – all families should be having these conversations with their kids. Watching the re-release of It’s Elementary (titled It’s Still Elementary) to get tips on what to say is a good start. Although simplistic, Mental Health America has a page titled, “How to Talk to Kids about Sexual Orientation and Prejudice,” and it gives advice for different age ranges. Be honest. Keep it simple. Answer questions directly. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so – and then find out.

As it turns out, the little boy at the pool probably didn’t care much about our daughter’s family situation. He was after her sinky toys.


Filed under children, coming out, gender nonconformity, intersex, LGBT families, psychological research, relationships, same-sex marriage, transgender

The best-laid plans

So, I had a plan.

I’ve been reading this book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. I’m only about halfway through it, but already I can relate, relate, relate.

My plan for this week was to write about introversion. I wanted to talk about how, for introverted people, engaging in traditional forms of political activism (marches, protests, rallies, etc.) can be very challenging. Reflection, introspection, pensiveness – these aren’t qualities that grab people by the throat and get their attention. Instead, in order for their voices to be heard – and author Susan Cain provides many examples of this – the introverted need to pretend that they love being around lots of people, and that they love speaking up and speaking out. They have to pretend to be something they’re not – extroverted.

And I had lots of good research to support this, too. There’s a 2012 study that shows that people with avoidant personality characteristics tend not to engage in community activism. Avoidant personality disorder, by the way (at least in the DSM-IV-TR typology), is an Axis II disorder. People who are labeled “avoidant” tend to be very anxious in social situations, constantly engaging in self-evaluation as they navigate the social landscape. And so they tend to avoid these situations – hence the term “avoidant personality.” Axis II means serious, chronic, temperamentally-based, and highly resistant to treatment. Yes, introversion has been seriously pathologized.

There’s the 2010 study of AIDS activists that showed that the only personality trait that correlated with the likelihood to engage in activism and civic engagement was – you guessed it – extroversion. The activism that these individuals participated in involved lots of social interaction – corralling random people on the street to get them to sign a petition; engaging in public demonstrations; giving presentations to high school and college classes, civic groups, and health care organizations. Exactly the kinds of things that highly introverted people (or people with “avoidant personality disorder”) would completely shy away from.

There’s the long trajectory of research conducted by Abigail Stewart, a feminist psychologist and researcher at the University of Michigan. Much of her research focuses on political activism – specifically, how personality characteristics and environmental factors contribute to one’s activism. Of course, repeatedly being on the receiving end of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression can galvanize someone, regardless of their temperament, to become politically involved. But being an extrovert, and being willing to take risks and try new things (a quality that personality researchers refer to as “openness to experience”) – both of these together are cornerstones of an activist personality.

That was the plan. But, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.

Last night, I decided to postpone writing this blog post. I’d started to write (and, as you can see, had begun to connect the dots between activism and extraversion). But there came a point where I just couldn’t stop yawning, and my brain felt like it was turning in for the night. Between my partner’s ongoing health issues (which have been keeping me awake at night) and my neighbor’s ongoing mental health issues (which also tend to rear their ugly head at night), I’ve been TIRED. So I went to bed. Tomorrow morning, I said to myself, I’ll be fresh as a daisy, ready to write about introversion and activism. As I was drifting away to sleep, I could feel my mind working and re-working the idea that we, as introverts, have our own “activist style.” I slept peacefully and woke up looking forward to writing.

But before I sat down to write, I scanned the headlines. “GEORGE ZIMMERMAN CLEARED OF ALL CHARGES,” proclaimed one headline. “GEORGE ZIMMERMAN ACQUITTED OF MURDER IN TRAYVON MARTIN SHOOTING,” said another. I read a gripping New York Times piece written by Charles Blow: “The Sadness Lingers.” And then there were the demonstrations, all over the country – in L.A., San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and in front of the Seminole County Court House.

I’m stunned. But not surprised. And now my “best-laid plans” seem inappropriate and irrelevant. Because Trayvon Martin is dead. George Zimmerman walks free. Institutionalized racism still exists in the United States.

And, right now, I can’t think of anything earth-shattering to say. But I will say this: writing about introversion, after reading these headlines, seems silly and shallow. Instead, I feel like I need to say something strong and powerful – something memorable and insightful, about the trial, about racism and oppression. But it’s not happening. At least not immediately.

Some people are incredibly skilled at speaking up in the moment, saying exactly what needs to be said. Rev. Jesse Jackson has that quality. So does Al Sharpton. And both of them spoke up immediately after the Zimmerman verdict. Some people are good at thinking on their feet, springing to action in the moment when necessary. Many of last night’s protesters probably fall into that category. These are the hallmarks of extroverted people.

I have neither of those qualities. I need time to think and reflect before speaking. When I’m faced with a decision, I need time and solitude. (Interestingly, I’ve been told that I make decisions very quickly and definitively. I may look like a quick decision-maker, largely because I don’t tend to talk through my decision-making process with others. But believe me, there’s a lot of internal churning going on.)  My writing process is similar – I don’t actually spend a lot of time writing, but I do spend an incredible amount of time thinking. Most of the work happens in my brain, which makes my writing process seem deceptively short and easy.

And right now, I feel like I need time to think, digest, and reflect. I don’t want to go downtown and protest. I don’t want to tweet or post Facebook comments – at least, not yet. At the moment, I don’t even think I want to talk about this much. I do, however, want to go inward, and take the time to sit with this – and then speak up and take action. It doesn’t look sexy and powerful, but that’s the kind of activism I practice.

Last night, before my brain and body threw in the towel,  I came across a 2012 study conducted by Dawn Szymanski from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She looked at the individual coping styles of African-Americans who engaged in activism, and found that those who had a reflective coping style, characterized by thoughtful, careful planning and insight, were far more likely to engage in activism, compared to those with a suppressive coping style (people who bury their head in the sand and pretend that problems don’t exist) or a reactive coping style (people who speak and act quickly, often on impulse). And people with a reflective coping style are more likely to be introverted rather than extroverted.

Hmm, I think as I read my post. Maybe my best-laid plans didn’t go so far astray after all.


Filed under hate crimes, human rights, psychological research, racism, Uncategorized, violence

Mental illness comes out of the closet

It’s 10:30PM on July 4. I’m in my bedroom in our condo in Capitola, listening to the seemingly never-ending booming sounds of fireworks echoing into the night. Will it EVER stop? I think to myself. I am not a fireworks person, and I am definitely not a night person. I’m mildly reassured by the fact that I’m not being kept awake by fireworks and by 110 degree heat (which was the temperature reading that day in Sacramento. Capitola, in contrast, hit a high of about 72 degrees.). Finally the fireworks start to die down, and I settle down into bed, ready for sleep.

Then, a few minutes later, I hear this:


My ears perk up. What the hell is going on?

There’s a bang! bang! bang! at our front door. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!!!” And then, the words you never want to hear in the middle of the night, especially on the Fourth of July: “FIRE!!! FIRE!!!”

There was, as it turns out, no fire. No medical emergency. No crime-in-progress. The person who was running around screaming outside was our neighbor, who has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, paranoid type. Her behavior, apparently, has led to several run-ins with the police (including this time). And, as a result of these ongoing incidents, she’s facing the possibility of eviction – and, if she can’t find a suitable housing situation, possible homelessness.

Schizophrenia is a common – and debilitating – mental illness. Worldwide, about 1% of the population suffers from this condition. Symptoms include hallucinations, bizarre delusions, disorganized and fragmented thinking, strange and inappropriate behaviors, and negative symptoms, which involve the absence of behaviors that should be present. Negative symptoms include things like depression, severe apathy and lack of motivation, flattened emotions, and social withdrawal. These symptoms, given their chronicity and severity, have reverberating social consequences. According to a study conducted through the Johns Hopkins University/Bloomberg School of Public Health, between 73-90% of people with schizophrenia are unemployed. About one-third of the homeless population in the U.S. (and one-fifth of those in prison) suffers from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. They often can’t work. They have difficulty finding a stable housing situation. They have run-ins with the law. And they often fall through the cracks of the mental health system, not getting the treatment they need.

The one ray of hope? Family support. When a solid group of close family members takes charge of the person’s treatment and care, outcomes improve immeasurably. Family caregivers take on a tremendous amount of responsibility. They try to get the person to take medication consistently. They track their finances. They help them find a suitable job. They may arrange and monitor their housing situation. They act as a liaison with case managers and other treatment providers. They defuse situations that could escalate into police involvement. They help to determine when a stay in the hospital is appropriate.

Family support. The phrase sounds so innocuous, but the charge is daunting. Family caregivers commonly neglect their own self-care. They get burned out, causing their emotional support for the person with schizophrenia to wane. In some cases, the burnout is so strong that family members bail out altogether. And, of course, there are situations where there never was any family support to begin with. Sadly, many of us in the LGBTQ community know that scenario all too well.

No one has ever done a large-scale, comprehensive study of people in the LGBTQ community who suffer from schizophrenia. In fact, the handful of studies I came across are single-subject case studies, describing one person’s experience. All of those studies came out of the LGBT Affirmative Program, which is part of the Heights Hill Mental Health Service of the South Beach Psychiatric Center in Brooklyn, New York. This program, the only one that specifically addresses the intersections between severe mental illness and LGBTQ identity, recognizes a number of key points:

  • Many LGBTQ people with mental illness may not feel safe coming out to providers. In fact, they may feel as if they have to put up with heterosexist and cisgendered assumptions as a trade-off for receiving psychiatric services.
  • Because schizophrenia is most likely to strike during adolescence or early adulthood, for many LGBTQ people with mental illness, their first psychotic break may have coincided with their initial coming-out experience and LGBTQ identity development process. This is likely to have a major impact on their relationships, socialization, internalized homophobia, and self-esteem.
  • In LGBTQ people with mental illness, symptoms of chronic depression, emotional flatness, guardedness, social isolation, anxiety, and suspiciousness could be misdiagnosed by providers as signs of schizophrenia, when in fact they actually represent the aftereffects of internalized homophobia, marginalization, and oppression.
  • For LGBTQ individuals who lack family support, the outcomes tend not to be very promising. People who are ostracized from their families are more likely to delay seeking care, and they are more likely to stop taking medications and drop out of treatment.

From the very onset of mental illness, the quality of support within the family can make or break a person’s experience – particularly if we’re talking about an LGBTQ person. It’s common for a person’s first psychotic break to occur in response to a stressful event – and getting cut off from your family because of your sexual or gender identity certainly qualifies as a stressful event. Once a person receives a diagnosis and is expected to follow some sort of complicated treatment plan, they’re going to have a lot of trouble complying on their own without family support. The “chosen families” that Kath Weston waxed bucolic about in her 1991 book Families We Choose might be willing to celebrate major holidays together and share childcare responsibilities, but they’re probably less likely to continually run interference for a person with schizophrenia. In fact, just as many LGBTQ people with mental illness fear coming out to their health care providers, it’s also common for them to fear coming out as having schizophrenia to the LGBTQ community. The dual (perhaps multiple, depending on other identity statuses) marginalization that results from being queer and from having a mental illness ends up feeding off one another, making for a more depressing prognosis.

Once my neighbor settled down, I went outside to speak with the police officers who handled the situation. “She’s moving soon anyway,” one of the officers said to me. “Then she won’t be a problem anymore.”

“So we’re passing the buck?” I retorted. “If she moves, she might not be my problem, but she’ll become somebody else’s problem. And it’ll continue until someone steps in and gets her the help she needs.”

“You’re right,” said the officer. And that’s how it is for many people with severe mental illness. Unless a collective of family members steps in.

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Filed under coming out, disability, gender nonconformity, health, intersectionality, mental health, Uncategorized