Monday, June 29, 2015

Family Values

Lessons from two very different flags

Our family is complicated. Like many other Americans, my second husband Ed and I are both divorced from our first spouses. Ed has no children of his own and thinks that “our” four (plus our very lively cat) are more than enough. My children’s father has also remarried, so my children have step-siblings and a half-sibling to add to their postmodern family tree. We are all white and middle class, and we live in one of the most politically conservative and the least racially diverse states in the nation: Idaho.

One of the biggest challenges of raising children after a divorce is navigating the space between very different sets of parental values. My younger two children are being raised in a faith tradition that historically discriminated against blacks and that continues to prescribe rigid gender roles.  I support their father’s decision to take them to the Mormon church because I don’t think religion is worth fighting about, and because my own Latter-day Saint parents managed to raise children who were respectful and tolerant of others. But I cannot remain silent about my values, even when they conflict with what my children learn in church.

In light of a landmark week for gay rights and racial discrimination, I asked my children what they knew about two very different flags. “A flag is a symbol,” my 11 year old told me. “It represents a country or an organization.” As we talked about the Confederate flag, I asked them what it symbolized. “Isn’t it the Civil War or something?” my 10 year old daughter said. I explained that for many people, the flag was associated with slavery and oppression.

“But didn’t Dr. Martin Luther King fix all that?” my daughter said. “I thought he made it so that black people and white people were equal.”

White people say things like this all the time. They say, “Oh, we have a black president now, so we can’t be a racist country,” or “Oh, we have affirmative action policies, so white males are actually the victims of discrimination” (Yes, I have actually heard this phrase come out of more than one white man’s mouth).

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over and over again these past few years, from the Trayvon Martin shooting to the tragedy in Charleston, it’s that Americans are decidedly not “over” racial discrimination. As a parent of white children, it’s my duty to teach them to use their privilege to be allies to those who do not share that privilege. My children were shocked as I explained to them how black mothers and fathers were afraid for their teenage sons, because they could actually be shot and killed, just for being teenagers.  “That’s not fair,” my son said. “That’s not right.” Exactly.

Then we talked about another flag: the rainbow flag that symbolizes the LGBT pride movement.  The Mormon church, along with many other conservative Christian churches, has been and continues to be a vocal opponent of gay marriage.  I actually do feel some empathy for people who fear that their deeply held religious convictions are being challenged by last week’s Supreme Court ruling supporting gay marriage. But in listening to some of my conservative Christian friends, I think there’s a basic misunderstanding of what the ruling really means. No church is going to have to marry gay people. The decision does not at all impact their religious freedom, any more than the long overdue imminent removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state capitol impacts individual freedom of speech.

I told my children that I think the First Amendment is one of the things that makes America a great country. Every person who wants to display the Confederate flag on his or her front lawn or white Chevy pickup truck should unequivocally have the right to do so. But any person who wants to fly the rainbow flag should and must have that same right. The government should not sanction discrimination of any kind. And as a parent, I have the power to teach my children tolerance and respect for differences and to encourage them to speak up for those who are oppressed.

That’s one thing I have learned from my conservative Christian friends: We shouldn’t be afraid to share our values. In the end, no matter what your family looks like—black, white, gay, straight, or some combination of all of these—the love you share is what matters. Love wins.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

It's Time to Talk about Fear and Love

What do guns, race, and mental illness have in common?
Charleston shooting demands difficult conversations about guns, race, and mental illness

James Holmes was obsessed with Batman. Elliott Rodger thought all women hated him and he needed to exact revenge. Adam Lanza killed innocent first graders, an act that shocked the collective national conscience. Now, in a country already reeling from racial turmoil, mass shooter Dylann Roof has targeted black churchgoers. All of the shooters were described as “quiet bright boys” who became increasingly isolated in their teens.  For all of them, numerous red flags were raised.

In his national response to the tragedy, President Obama observed what many have been saying for years: “This type of mass violence doesn’t happen in other advanced countries.” 
That’s not entirely true: Norway’s 2011 massacre, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France, and the Germanwings crash show that other nations experience unpredictable and senseless violence as well. But Obama’s still-valid point is essentially the same one muckraker Michael Moore made in Bowling for Columbine (2002). There’s something different about guns and America.

Let’s look at what we know about gun violence.

Fact: Mass shootings account for only about two percent of all gun violence in the United States. In 2015, only 133 of 5,767 deaths caused by gun violence were the result of mass shootings. In fact, you are much more likely to die in an airplane crash than in a mass shooting event. 

Fact: Blacks are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Though blacks make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 55 percent of all people who died by homicide in 2010 were black

Fact: To date in 2015, there have been 2,025 reported and verified shootings involving law enforcement. It is hard to know exactly how high this number is because the government does not track police shootings. The Washington Post has reported 385 fatalities this year so far; The Guardian 470. According to a Pro Publica study, young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than young white men. 

Fact: Suicide completion is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-34, with 41,149 deaths by suicide completion across all age groups in 2013. Almost 60 percent of deaths by gun violence are completed suicides; the vast majority (87 percent) of suicide gun violence victims are male.

Fact: Based on studies of mass shooters, about half of the shooters suffered from serious mental illness. But the most common form of violence associated with mental illness is self-harm; more than ten percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia and 15-17 percent of people with bipolar disorder die by completing suicide.

President Obama acknowledged that gun control is not going to happen, not even when a Bible study group is gunned down by a young man obsessed with white supremacist dogma. That’s why it’s up to each of us to face up to what guns, race, and mental illness represent in America. The seemingly endless and unproductive debates are really about our fear. It’s time to change that conversation.

How do we solve the gun issue?

We all look in the mirror and admit that we are afraid to die. We acknowledge that we likely will have no control over the time, place, or manner of our deaths. Then we start living. As part of our commitment to overcoming fear, we educate ourselves, practice responsible gun ownership, and teach it to our children. (Also, we start tracking data about law enforcement and gun violence.)

How do we solve the race issue?

We all look in the mirror and say, “I’m human. So is everyone else, no matter what color his or her skin is.” Then we start to treat people the way we want to be treated. We hold doors open for people of all genders and races. We write thank you notes to each other and buy each other’s coffee in the drive through lines. If we’re white, we recognize that we have privilege, and we fight even harder for the rights of those who do not share that privilege.

How do we solve the mental illness issue?

We all look in the mirror and say, "Mental illness is not a choice or a character flaw." Then we end stigma and provide treatment. Mental illness is a costly public health crisis, in both financial and ethical terms.  U.S. Representative Tim Murphy has reintroduced his “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” with significant revisions that can help individuals, families, and communities to improve access to care. 

In the wake of mass shootings, I used to write about the need to provide treatment before tragedy. My new message is this: enough about tragedy. Let's focus on treatment. Treatment provides hope, and love overcomes fear.

The American writer Thomas Wolfe wrote, “To believe that new monsters will arise as vicious as the old, to believe that the great Pandora's Box of human frailty, once opened, will never show a diminution of its ugly swarm, is to help, by just that much, to make it so forever.” Let’s stop believing in new monsters and start hoping instead for an America that can overcome its fear—of guns, of race, and of mental illness. Today we may feel lost and hopeless and afraid. But as Nelba Marquez-Greene, a grieving mother who lost her six year old daughter to gun violence, said one month after her daughter’s senseless death, “We choose love. Love wins in Newtown, and may love win in America.” 
I'm betting on love.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Same Old Stigma

Brian Wilson’s Biopic Shows Little Love or Mercy for Psychiatry

As the mother of a teenager who has bipolar disorder and a mile-wide creative streak, I was pretty excited to see the new Beach Boys biopic, Love and Mercy.  Composer and musician Brian Wilson has been completely and heroically transparent about his struggles with mental illness. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Wilson works tirelessly to promote an end to stigma through creative projects like the SMiLE sessions.  

But sadly, the movie was not at all what I expected. As an all-too-familiar modern fairy tale of the evil psychologist overmedicating and imprisoning a creative genius, Love and Mercy contributes to the merciless stigma that surrounds mental illness. Most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Love and Mercy, with its deliberately framed stories of Brian Wilson’s success and subsequent mental illness, oversimplifies Wilson’s journey, pitting Eugene Landy (note: Landy is not a psychiatrist) against the fairy princess Cadillac saleswoman who becomes Wilson’s wife. The middle of the story, where Landy coaxed Wilson from three years in bed and a 150 pound weight gain 
to regain some semblance of his creative life and artistic promise, is only alluded to in the film, and the post-Landy period is a mere blurb as the end credits roll. 

Yes, Landy was a bad guy. Love and Mercy’s Paul Giamatti does a brilliant job at showing Landy’s failures, but the fact that the story is true does not make it any less damaging, at a time when the profession of psychiatry is desperate to attract talented physicians in the face of a growing public health crisis. Worse, it's not the whole truth: While what Eugene Landy did to Brian Wilson was truly horrible, Brian Wilson's life before Landy was arguably worse, which is certainly not a justification, but it does show just how awful life can be for people with serious mental illness.  

For the many thousands of children and adults who are in prison, or live homeless on the streets, a mental health professional can be a guide on the path to help and hope. Contrary to myriad negative media portrayals of psychiatrists, most mental health professionals are dedicated to improving their patients’ lives. That has certainly been my son's experience. Yet a 2014 study concluded that “medical students enter medical school with distinctly negative attitudes toward a career in psychiatry compared with other specialties,” which explains why only three percent choose to specialize in psychiatry each year. 

Love and Mercy is just the most recent example of an unbalanced cinematic portrayal of mental healthcare professionals, what Sharon Packer has termed “cinema’s sinister psychiatrists.”  In a study of mainstream movies, Wedding and Neimic (2014) found that for every balanced portrayal (Antwone Fisher, Ordinary People), there were four times as many unbalanced portrayals (What About Bob, Silence of the Lambs, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc.) . 

The whole Love and Mercy story is this: Brian Wilson regained his life because of his family, his mental healthcare providers, and his own desire to seek recovery. As he told Ability Magazine in a 2014 interview, "Yes, I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist once a week for 12 years now, and he’s become a really close friend of mine. We talk and he helps me out.”   He also takes medication to manage his condition 

I'm not suggesting that Eugene Landy’s treatment of Brian Wilson was anything but unethical and immoral. It's just not the whole story. For every bad mental health professional like Landy, there are many more good mental health professionals, like the UCLA doctors who correctly diagnosed Wilson, or his current psychiatrist. All I’m asking is that Hollywood tell that story—the story where Wilson is correctly diagnosed, finds the right treatments and supports, and lives the life he deserves.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Behind Dr. Oz's Curtain

My son's pictures on the Dr. Oz Show, September 9, 2014
What’s Really “Nuts or Normal?”

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”—The Wizard of Oz, 1939

I don’t watch much television. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when I was shocked to see my then four-year old son crash his toy airplanes into towers built of blocks, I decided we didn’t need cable television and 24-hour news anymore. All the news was bad. And the rapidly expanding reality TV genre was worse. My children were raised on a media diet of PBS (delivered via old-fashioned rabbit ears) and DVD science documentaries we checked out from the library.

That being said, I’ve been on television more than some people, usually to talk about the increasingly desperate need to address the public health crisis of mental illness (one of my children has bipolar disorder). I’ve appeared on national media including the Today Show, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, Erin Burnett, and Al Jazeera America. I’ve done numerous local broadcast interviews, most recently in Bismarck, North Dakota and Cincinnati, Ohio.  

I was even fortunate to be a guest on the Dr. Oz show last year to talk about my book. Though I don't watch much television, I knew who he was, mostly from his syndicated column that appears on Sundays in my local newspaper. And while I was also vaguely aware of controversy about some of the weight loss methods promoted on his show, I didn’t understand why people wouldn’t just do their own research. There aren’t many times the word “always” is appropriate, but I think it’s fair to say that “Get Rich Quick” and “Lose Weight without Diet or Exercise” promises are almost always too good to be true.

I’m a bit puzzled by the credibility that people attach to television celebrities. The medium’s first duty is clearly to entertain; daytime television never even pretended that it had an obligation to educate.  What are your ethical obligations, then, if you’re a daytime television celebrity physician who calls himself “America’s Doctor”? How do you entertain your audience while also upholding your Hippocratic oath to protect the individual patient’s health and privacy?

In light of this flurry of Dr. Oz criticism, including calls for his resignation from the staff of Columbia University’s medical school, my fearless friend and fellow mental health advocate Janine Francolini of the Flawless Foundation has been quick to remind the public of the Dr. Oz show’s truly terrible 2012 series “Are You Normal or Nuts?” in which a panel of “top psychologists” evaluated audience members’ mental health concerns. 

This truly tasteless show echoed an equally tacky Reader’s Digest annual feature by the same name, which trivializes the tremendous suffering experienced by individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness and their families. For example, the 2013 "Normal or Nuts" article led with this charming introduction: “Calling all neurotics, paranoids, and phobics! Our panel of experts says you might not be as loony as you think in this fan-favorite feature.”

And people wonder why there’s still stigma attached to mental illness.

Like Janine, I want Dr. Oz to use his celebrity status to promote mental health. In my personal experience with him, that’s exactly what Dr. Oz did.

“I’m a dad, and this is important to me,” he told me before we began taping a segment discussing my experience as a parent of a child who has bipolar disorder. His approach to my family’s story was overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the tremendous gains my son has made since his diagnosis in May 2013. The audience applauded when I shared that my son has now written a book of his own, a science fiction novel where the Greek gods all have a mental illness that is actually a super power. This is what the correct diagnosis and treatment can mean to parents and children suffering with mental illness. It means hope.

Dr. Oz has tremendous power to shape public opinion about mental health and mental illness. How can we encourage him to use his power for good, like he did for me and my son? When it comes to mental illness, sadly, too many Americans are still like star-struck Dorothy, believing in the all-powerful image of Oz, not willing to look behind the curtain and acknowledge the truth.

I have an idea for this season’s “Are You Nuts or Normal?” producers. Dr. Oz invites panelists to rate people like Judge Michael Bohren, who refused to authorize medical treatment for 12-year old Morgan Geyser, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and locked up away from her family and denied medical treatment for her brain disease for almost a year.

Nuts or normal?

Dr. Oz interviews the six police officers who tasered 130-pound Natasha McKenna, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and asks them to explain why she died in custody. 

Nuts or normal?

Finally, Dr. Oz presents British parliamentary candidate Chamali Fernando so that experts can discuss her suggestion that people with mental illness should wear color coded wristbands. 

Nuts or normal?

The way we fail to treat children and adults with mental illness in this country is what is really crazy. It’s also expensive, not only in financial terms, but also in lives lost, in dreams shattered. Dr. Oz could rebuild his credibility by focusing his attention on this public health crisis, by providing help—and hope—to millions who are suffering with serious mental illness. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Lost Weekend

Where were my children? Photo by Jonathan Malm,
In high conflict divorces, it’s best to stick to the agreement, even when it hurts

I don’t talk much about my ex-husband or our extremely high conflict divorce. But I recently discovered Tina Swithin’s epic One Mom’s Battle blog, in which she details in blow-by-blow, excruciating detail, what it was like to divorce a narcissist. I couldn’t have found it at a better time.

Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to understand. In the spirit of solidarity with Tina and so many other mothers, here’s a little glimpse of my life.

On Wednesday at 3:45, I left work early, like I always do on Wednesdays, to drive to my younger two children’s schools and pick them up. It had been an incredibly stressful week, with last minute projects and deadlines, so I was eager to leave work behind and enjoy my time with my family. I hummed as I thought about the weekend ahead: the forecast was sunny and warm. Maybe we could go for a family hike on Saturday.

When I pulled up at my son’s school at 4:00, I knew something was wrong. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and no children were waiting outside or walking home. I went inside. “Maybe he’s in the library,” I thought. Worried, I sent my son a quick email. “I'm wandering all over campus looking for you--can you check in with me if you are by a computer? Or did you walk to your sister’s school?

It was close to the time I needed to pick up my daughter. Unsure of what to do, I decided to go to her school, then return to look for my son. Her school’s parking lot was also almost empty. I went to the gymnasium where she usually participates in after school jump rope club. “There’s no school today,” a teacher told me.

I was suddenly sick to my stomach. No school. On a Wednesday. Then where were my children? I did something I haven’t done in five years: I called their father. Of course, he didn’t answer, so I left a message. “Hey, there’s no school, apparently. Are the kids with you? Where would you like to meet so I can pick them up?” I also emailed him, “I'm at the school to pick up X from jump rope club and was just informed there is no school today. Where are X and X? Where should I pick them up? Or do you plan to drop them at the clubhouse? Please let me know as soon as possible.”

I had now tried to contact my kids and my ex five times in the course of 15 minutes. I put my head on the steering wheel and started to sob.

It was 4:31. My ex emailed me this: “we waited but you never showed up.”

My mind was racing. What did my current custody agreement say about days when there was no school? There have been so many changes to our agreement over the seven years we have been divorced.

So I emailed back, asking where we could meet to exchange the children.

My ex’s 542-word response had quite obviously been prepared ahead of time. I’ll just share the last bit: “You were not on time for the ordered exchange.  You made us and the children wait and wait.  That’s not good for the children. The court order says if you don’t make the exchange, you forfeit your visitation period.  That language was per the recommendation of (court ordered psychologist) because of your past pattern of actions like today's--creating crises and causing drama and involving the police etc.  We are done with your drama.  The order says show up on time or miss your visitation period.”

Yep, the reality was this: my ex-husband bet (correctly) that I would forget about the Wednesday in-service day. My other children are in a different school district and had school as usual. So my children’s father drove all the way across town with my son and daughter. He did not answer my phone call. He did not respond to my email. He just waited, like a spider in the center of a web, for me to not show up—because I was on the other side of town at the kids’ schools.

You may be scratching your head at this point. Most divorced parents manage this kind of mix-up easily. For example, one parent might politely remind the other parent that there is no school and confirm the drop off location. Or a parent might text, hey, I’m at the kids school, but they aren’t here! And the other parent could respond, no school. We went to drop off location—headed home now since you weren’t there. Want to meet in the middle? And the first parent would respond, sure, so sorry for mix-up.

That’s not how it works in my world. In my world, we stick to the agreement. We only communicate through email and non-emergency police dispatch. In my world, it’s not about what’s best for the children. It’s about payback.

The thing is, my ex is right on some levels. I should have known the kids didn’t have school on Wednesday. And we need to follow the agreement. Honestly, making exceptions to the agreement is bad for both of us; I am still resentful about the concessions I have made to him in the past, and it’s my own fault for making those concessions. I understand that my ex feels that the agreement should always apply to me and never to him. I need the protections of this agreement in many ways. While I’m sad I don’t get to spend my weekend with my children, I’ve also learned some valuable lessons. Most of all, I’m relieved that they are safe. There’s no worse feeling, as any mother knows, than not knowing where your children are.

I stopped by my children’s schools at lunchtime the next day, to apologize for my mistake. I gave them each a “date with mom” coupon so we could plan our next adventures together. At the end of the day, I’m fortunate to have smart, fun, capable children who love me—and I love them.

It’s been harder for me to forgive myself. My time with my children is precious. Also, because I was so flustered and worried, my ex was able to get me to engage at first. For example, I threatened to call his LDS bishop and report this. I also said I would file a police report. I’m not going to do either. I refuse to engage emotionally for even a single minute more. Instead, I’m going to enjoy that weekend hike, with my husband.

And next time I see my younger children, we’re going to have so much fun!

P.S. If you have a high conflict divorce, here are a few great resources for you:

Divorcing a Narcissist by Tina Swithin. Reading this agonizing tale made me realize that I actually have it pretty good. I don’t think my ex is a full blown narcissist. But he is very controlling and always has to be right. His favorite phrase is "The court order says." Apparently, this phrase only applies to me. Smiley face.

Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss and James Masterson, M.D. This book really helped me to understand my marriage and why I started to disappear. It has also helped me to make better choices in my subsequent relationships.

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, by Robert I Sutton. Narcissism in the workplace can be toxic. Sometimes the only solution is to leave.

You might also want to check out or I'll be sharing more about wevorce in a subsequent blog.

One final note: if you are divorcing a narcissist, you should be emotionally prepared to spend quite a bit of time in court. We have changed our custody agreement five times in seven years. But you should also know that as you heal and find yourself, you'll find the life you (and your children) deserve.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Dangerous Illusion of Safety

What a German co-pilot’s death and a Jewish rabbi’s life teach us about love

In 1984, I was 12 years old. That summer, my mother handed me two worn paperback books: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “Read them both,” she told me. “Then tell me which one you think is more likely to come true.”

In 1984, I chose Huxley, with his seductive dystopian future shaped by caste systems and fueled by a pleasure drug that rendered life pleasant but meaningless.

In 2015, with our terrorized, NSA-monitored, trigger-happy America, I choose Orwell and his future built on fear and the dangerous illusion of safety.   

For me and for many, this Easter season has been overshadowed by yet another tragedy involving a young man with mental illness. This time, the weapon of destruction was an airplane, not a gun, and it proved far more deadly than other tragedies like Sandy Hook or Columbine. Yet like the school shootings, the essential purpose of the Germanwings crash was the co-pilot’s suicide.

While tabloids could not resist inflammatory headlines like “Madman in the Cockpit,” 
for the most part, the mainstream news outlets were respectful and cautious, stressing the outlier nature of the tragic incident that claimed 150 lives and calling for an increased focus on improving mental healthcare for everyone. Two years after Newtown, this balanced approach shows that we have come a long way as a society in how we understand mental illness.

But the “blame and shame” comments on these articles demonstrate that we still have so far to go. 

Orwell’s book described a society controlled by fear. I would suggest that our society is swiftly moving along this exact trajectory, and that the way we treat people who have mental illness demonstrates how Orwellian fear can be used to control public opinion.

As one example of how we have traded reason for fear, in the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, a journalist with a major news outlet actually asked a mental health policy expert friend of mine, “Is it safe to fly?”

This question demonstrates our incredible inability as a species to assess risk. In fact, it is still safe to fly, much safer than driving to the grocery store. In 2013, for example, there were 32,719 automobile crash fatalities, and only 443 aviation related deaths. This year won’t be much different, even with the Germanwings disaster.

The way we think about violence and mental illness also reveals how we fail to understand risk. While it is true that school shooters are more likely than the general population to have mental illness, the vast majority of gun-related violence is not associated with mental illness. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked school-related violence since 1992: in the entire United States, between 14 and 34 youth die violently at school each year. To put that number in perspective, in Chicago alone, more than 300 young people between the ages of 10 and 25, mostly young men, were killed by guns in 2008

The crux of our collective and irrational fear is this simple truth: we are all going to die. An almost statistically insignificant number of us will die in an airplane crash. More of us will die in car accidents or because of gun violence or by suicide. Many of us will live to old age, only to succumb to dementia, heart disease, or cancer. But one way or another, every one of us is going to die. Nothing can keep us safe from death.

Only when we embrace this essential condition of human existence—when we become comfortable with the inevitable truth of our ultimate ending—can we live a life that is truly free from fear.

For me, Easter is a celebration of this freedom. The celebration begins more than 2000 years ago with Christ’s bloody, agonizing exit from mortal existence, his lifeless body hanging on a cross, pierced by a Roman spear. The celebration ends with Christ’s mythical transcendence to divinity and allegorical return to the empty tomb. But Easter is really a celebration of radical love, the kind of love that makes all men and women our brothers and sisters, the kind of love that conquers death.

I think sometimes that we focus too much on the promise of the resurrection, of life everlasting, and too little on the Rabbi’s earthly message of love right here and now. At its heart, Easter teaches us to overcome our fear of the most cruel and brutal death possible, to embrace instead the life we were meant to live. Christ's life reminds us that a stranger from Samaria may save us, that the leper may be cured against all odds, and that none among us is perfect. Christ’s message was to “love one another,” to embrace the stranger, to help the poor, and to forgive.

Instead, our “Christian Nation” has adopted an Orwellian illusion of safety and rejected the inherent risk of Christ-like selfless, radical love. We do not love one another. We do not embrace the stranger or help the poor; we blame them and incarcerate them. We do not forgive trespasses; we harbor grudges, as individuals, as communities, and as nations.

Here’s the question I have for you on Easter: What if this life is all we have? That is the question we are asking ourselves, in the wake of a senseless airplane crash that could have been prevented, if only (mental health care, no stigma, social support networks, etc.).

The question we should be asking ourselves is this: “How do I live the best life I am capable of living, here and now, today?”

Only by answering this question can we overcome the Orwellian culture of fear that is dividing the world into smaller and smaller islands of false safety. None of us can escape death. But Christ’s death should have taught us this: we all have a sacred duty to love.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Thoughts from a 40-Something Mom to All the 30-Something Moms who are Freaking Out about Internet Oversharing

Thou shalt not write about thy children online.
Photo courtesy of iceviking,
In 1994, when I was a senior in college, I searched the World Wide Web for the very first time. I still remember that Mosaic query: surfing conditions in Australia, a half a world away from Provo, Utah. The answer? A full report, including weather forecast, tides, and wave conditions. In that moment, I felt like I had won the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Knowledge Factory. This will change everything, I thought. I never once thought about trolls.

In 1994, you were ten years old. No one was thinking about what the Internet would mean for ten year olds.

In 1996, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, teaching assistants faced a daunting new requirement: virtual office hours.  The concept was so mysterious and misunderstood that some of my fellow students actually organized labor protests. But as a woman expecting her first child, I saw instead the potential to work from anywhere, which at the time seemed like an overwhelming positive. Maybe, with the help of a computer and a dial up modem, a mother could work from home, I thought.

In 1996, you were 12 years old. You were probably one of the 75 percent of public school students who were using the Internet for middle school research projects that year. In 20 years, working from home—or anywhere else, for that matter—would be your normal.

In 2001, I was a young work-at-home mother playing around with coding basic html websites, and a fleeting thought passed my mind: what if I could create a website to share pictures and updates of my two beautiful boys with our family and friends? A book editing project distracted me, though the idea never quite left my mind.

In 2001, you were 18 and headed to a very different college experience than the one I had a decade earlier.  In fact, the American Psychiatric Association reported that in 2001, one in ten college students was addicted to the Internet. A researcher explained the findings as follows:  "The sense of security afforded by the anonymity of the Internet provides some students with less risky opportunities for developing virtual relationships." (Ah, that sense of anonymity!)

In 2007, I joined Facebook so I could play Scrabble online with my siblings. I quickly realized that it was the perfect platform for that shelved idea of sharing pictures and updates of my now four beautiful children. I never once thought about privacy. Why would anyone other than people I knew and trusted want to look at my Facebook page? I also created my blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom. I loved the idea of an anonymous forum where I could be candid about the challenges (and joys) of parenting—and those challenges were becoming increasingly hard as my second son failed to respond to treatments for his erratic behaviors, which we would learn (much later) were caused by his bipolar disorder. Did I worry that people would know it was me? Of course not. No one—then or now—reads your blog.

In 2007, you were 24, transitioning to an adulthood that was shaped by unlimited access to all kinds of information. Maybe you had just bought your first iPhone, a device that transformed not only the way we access and share information, but refashioned our entire culture. Your adult life was shaped by a knowledge of this “revolutionary and magical” tool—the all-knowing computer in your purse. Before you had children, you had time to experience both the wonder and the terror of this new constant connection to all of humanity’s combined wisdom and ignorance.

40-something moms like me did not have that same luxury. Our children were young—or just being born—when all this wonderful and terrifying new technology was unleashed on us. In the 1980s, parents proudly carried wallet-sized print photos of their children. In the late 2000s, we started posting pictures, by the thousands, of our children online. We sincerely thought that the audience for those Facebook albums was the same as the audience for our parents’ wallet photos.

In 2012, when you had young children of your own, you knew better. You spent your early adult years watching people do stupid things and go viral. You experienced, either personally or vicariously, the extreme public shaming that only the Internet can facilitate. And you didn’t want your children to experience that level of public shame, with good reason. Internet bullying is awful, pervasive, and sometimes even fatal

So you created a new word to describe your criticism of the 40-something moms who were constantly posting about their kids: oversharenting. And you created a new commandment of mommy righteousness: “Thou shalt not write about thy children online.”

In 2012, in a gut wrenching intersection of a personal tragedy with a very public one, I shared a painful story about my own family on my anonymous blog. Then, after a lengthy conversation with a close personal friend, I decided to allow him to republish it, with my name attached. My revelation that my son had mental illness and we didn’t know how to help him has become Exhibit A in more than one essay about parental oversharing. For example, in 2013, Phoebe Maltz Bovy described my essay, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” as “the most outlandish version of a popular genre: parental overshare.”

In the aftermath of my viral blog post, I thought long and hard about my children’s privacy, and I made some pretty significant changes to the way I post things about my children on social media. I don’t ever use their names now. I think carefully about the content of any message concerning them, and I use privacy settings to limit access to people who can see what I post. Although I love Instagram, I try to make sure my kids’ faces are not visible in the pictures I share there.

But I absolutely refuse to stop talking about my family’s struggles with mental illness. In the case of mental illness, or any illness, advocacy trumps privacy.

Every parent writer struggles with how to talk about his or her children. Emily Bazelon presciently took on this topic in 2008. Wondering whether her own revelations about her children’s lives were violating their privacy, she asked, “Should we all close our laptops once our kids learn to talk?”

In response to her question, one honest blogger told her that he “mostly saw my hand-wringing over the ethics of writing about my kids as the result of ‘the same narcissistic impulse that causes us to write about our families in the first place. Because most people don't care what we write.’” 

This is a fact. If you write about your kids, or post their adorable pictures on social media, most people won’t read what you write. And your intended audience—real-life friends and family—are likely to appreciate your posts and feel more connected to you. I don’t see how that’s any more harmful to your children and their privacy than an annual holiday letter, and those have been around for a while.

But I also understand the privacy advocates who worry about what happens if people do in fact read what you write. Quite a few people read what I wrote about my son on December 14, 2012. More than four million, in fact.

My chief complaint with people who use me as an example of oversharing is quite simple: they all contend that what I wrote about my son was damaging to him or his future.

And that’s not even close to true.

I wish that Abby Phillip of the Washington Post had actually reached out to me to discuss the consequences of what she calls “oversharenting” when she quoted my blog. In our case, sharing our story had more positive than negative outcomes. Because I spoke up, my son got effective treatment and is now back in a mainstream school with friends who are totally fine with his bipolar disorder. In fact, they—and I—admire his self-advocacy and think he is brave for speaking out and sharing his story. We were also able to connect to an amazing community of mental health advocates. No one has ever approached us in the grocery store and said, “I know who you are. You’re that mom and kid who talked about mental illness after Newtown. You are horrible people.” It doesn’t work that way.

Google “oversharing child cancer” and see if you can find criticism of mothers who post about their children who have cancer on social media. (I couldn’t). Why was my alleged oversharing potentially damaging to my son’s future? Because we should be ashamed of his illness? Or because the writers who criticize me are ignorant about mental illness?

Would you like to know what is actually damaging to my son and his future?
  1. The appalling lack of access to mental health care for children and families.
  2. Our society’s decision to send children and adults with mental illness to prison.
  3. The stigma we perpetuate when we respond sympathetically to a mom who writes about her child’s struggle with cancer but cry “oversharing!” when a mom talks about her child’s struggle with bipolar disorder.

These struggles—cancer and mental illness—are only different because the second mom will have tremendous difficulty both in getting people to care and in getting access to care.

Even Hanna Rosin, one of my most vocal critics after my blog post went viral, finally got this last point after she researched and wrote a moving piece on Kelli Stapleton, who will spend ten years in prison after a failed attempt to kill herself and her then 12-year old daughter, who has autism. 

When I suggested on Twitter that Rosin’s thinking had evolved on the subject of parents who advocate for their children with mental illness, she responded, “For sure. I really didn’t get it until I read your book and talked to Kelli.”

Now, in 2015, I share the most important and relevant portions of my family’s story, with my children’s permission, in every place I can.

And this is my heartfelt request to you, 30-something moms: keep sharing, especially if your child has an illness that can benefit from awareness and advocacy. Parents of special needs children actually rely on Facebook for much-needed support. You never know when sharing your experiences might change someone's heart and help to heal a mind.