On Charlottesville

It’s taken me a few days to process my thoughts on Charlottesville.

Aside from the more immediate sensations of anger, resentment, outrage and frustration, I also found myself confronted with the question of how to address this event publicly without doing any of the following: allowing my anger to take precedent over my professional responsibility (i.e. lashing out and being profane on social media), publishing an uneducated and/or arbitrary response, or bustling in with a hero mentality, thus silencing black voices in favor of my own.

Though I’ve allowed myself some time to organize my thoughts in what I feel is a semi-rational response, I may still do some of the above. While it ought not be justified, let me be the first to admit my imperfections.

I’m not going to waste time on a lengthy introduction explaining the events of Charlottesville this past weekend. While this harrowing example of domestic terrorism deserves every ounce of scrutiny and public disgust that it’s receiving, I don’t see the benefit of dragging everyone through the details of what can be considered the most deplorable betrayal of American values of 2017. Instead, I’ll summarize what everyone already knows to be true: the Alt-Right organized a rally fueled by hate, at least three innocent people died, and the President of the United States has fostered an environment where this is considered acceptable.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in History and studying it extensively has allowed me the privilege of seeing the world through what I believe to be a uniquely heuristic lens (this is meant to be taken at face-value: I don’t claim superiority over those who haven’t indulged in this discipline and I certainly don’t mean to come across as inconspicuous). It is incredibly difficult for me to bear witness to current events and isolate them to the 21st century. Likewise, as a teacher at a Northeast Philadelphia school where 98% of my students are black and brown, I find it equally as impossible to view most aspects of this country as being separate from the systemic racism that so explicitly runs every aspect of 21st century America.

The grace period that I’ve allowed myself between the events in Charlottesville and writing this post has allowed me to write in such a way that lessens the initial impact of my outrage, but don’t get it twisted: I am furious. I am furious that the Ku Klux Klan is being compared to the BLM movement, when BLM, by definition, exists to legitimize the lives of black and brown Americans, while the KKK seeks to delegitimize and further oppress those who are facing oppression. I am furious that my Facebook friends are supporting Nazism. I am furious that the All Lives Matter crowd is painfully silent now that three lives have been taken due to a protest instigated by the Alt-Right, and I am furious and disappointed that our President chose to address this tragic event by claiming that there are “multiple sides” responsible for this atrocity.

Let’s be clear: There are not multiple sides to Nazism.

You cannot be objective toward Nazism.

The introduction of free speech was not designed to allow for people to outwardly threaten to lives and existence of an entire group of individuals. White Supremacy is un-American, un-Christian, and a vile disrespect of the efforts put forth to put an end to the institution of racism. This is not up for debate. If this doesn’t make sense to you, I invite you to engage in a healthy conversation regarding topics such as what Black Lives Matter actually stands for, the history of oppression in America, differences between reactionary and progressive movements, etc. I will gladly engage in this dialogue with you.

Threaten or delegitimize the lives of the students and the families that I encounter, however, and I absolutely will not defend your “right” to free speech.

I will not debate the right of my black and brown students to live and thrive. Their existence is not a matter of politics or argumentation. There are not “multiple sides” to their right to exist, to excel, and to have their voices heard.

As time progresses and the social unrest plaguing this country continues to expand, I am becoming increasingly aware of the Lord’s motivation for planting me at Mastery Charter School. Now more than ever, black children need to be encouraged, empowered, and equipped with the tools necessary to face an institution designed to prevent them from succeeding; we, as an institution, have let these children down. I feel a sense of urgency this school year to encourage my students to acknowledge their potential, to demand justice, to embrace the power that they hold as black Americans.

I feel this urgency as a result of…

Charlottesville

Tamir Rice

Philando Castille

Eric Garner

Michael Brown

Ferguson

Sandra Bland

Heather Heyer

If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.

In the coming months, years, decades, I will continue to pray for this country. I will pray for the misguided, the oppressed, the silenced, the hurting, the martyrs. I will continue to proclaim that BLACK LIVES MATTER, and I will pray that I will remain angry, so as to never cease to remain an ally, to never be tempted into silence again.

B.

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You Are Here

You are here, and that’s okay.

This has been my steady mantra for the past few weeks. Like most twenty-somethings, I’m finding that transitioning into adulthood isn’t always as seamless as our friends on Instagram make it seem, and that even during the times when I do feel like I’m killin’ it out there in the real world, it’s usually due to victories of minimal significance, such as “Wow, look at me, getting my cat medical insurance” and “YES, I made that phone call to AAA all by myself and DIDN’T HAVE A HEART ATTACK.” Yep, I’m a real big shot.

In light of all of the rapid changes happening in my life as well as the lives of my peers, (and after allowing myself to wallow in self-pity way too many times), I’ve finally allowed myself to be completely transparent with my own insecurities, labeling the core of my general unpleasantness as what it really is: discontent. The kind that is constant, never-ceasing, painful and callous: the kind of discontentment that can never be coerced into the opposite.

I can envision a map: the kind that is emblazoned with treacherous mountains, roaring rivers, and wide open plains, all hand-sketched with slightly choppy line work and, in parts, smeared from overuse. The map has also faded over time, and it’s corner is tainted by a water mark that got there from God-knows-where and originated from God-knows-what-beverage. There is no beginning, and there is no end. The only words that grace the surface of the map, in bright red and bold print, are the words YOU ARE HERE. 

When I was in high school, all I wanted to do was go away to college. The lure of quasi-independence, new faces, and a fresh start was mystifying. I lusted after the opportunity to live the full college experience. Once I did, I lusted after graduation. Full independence. Real life, with no papers or required reading.

Once I graduated from University, I wanted a career, or at least a job where I could climb my way up the ladder into what eventually could become a steady, fulfilling career. Once I found that career, I wanted a contract. With the contract, comes the constant yearning for a promotion. To excel beyond expectation. To expedite my journey to the top of the ladder (…at twenty two years old. I know, keep dreaming).

When I was single in college, I wanted a relationship. After a few failed attempts, I unwrapped God’s offering and found Shane. Now, I can’t wait to become engaged. It is likely that once I’m engaged, I’ll be itching to be a wife.

The trend continues. And try as we might, it’s so easy for us to get stuck in the quicksand of wanting the next best thing (the quicksand that the map fails to warn us of). We have a distorted understanding of the map: never does it say that there is an ultimate end that will bring us the happiness we crave. Nowhere does the map label a moment where we can finally say “this is it! I’ve done it.” There is no beginning, and there is no end. Only a solitary proclamation “You are Here.” Here. In this moment. Right now. And the contentment that you crave can be found here, where you are. It is not reliant on a single achievement or life event…our contentment is determined by our willingness to accept where we are, even if where we are is unpleasant.

I have friends who make more money than I do, and friends who make much less. I have friends who still live at home, and friends who’s apartments could swallow mine whole. I have friends who have 2k Instagram followers, and friends who have 100. For the first time in my adult life, I’m beginning to experience the freedom of letting go of the bitterness that comes with not having reached the highest possible level of achievement just yet, and embracing the ground that I find my feet planted on. Right now, that ground contains a broken car in the shop, a weak savings account, fatigue, relational strains, depression, and anxiety. 

However, my ground ALSO contains coworkers who are willing to drive me to and from work until my car gets fixed, a savings account that EXISTS, bills and rent that are always paid early, good friends to catch up with over coffee, a body that is strong and capable of exercise, and a life partner that goes above and beyond to make me feel worthy and valued. 

I am young, and life is a series of trial and error. Dreams and goals are healthy and lovely and good and have their place on the map. But for right now, I am choosing to embrace where I am.

Whether it’s with a flat tire, an empty fridge, a good friend or a good beer, I am here, and that’s okay. 

You are there, and that’s okay.

-B.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”: Did They Take it Too Far, or is My Privilege Showing? (*SPOILERS*)

*TRIGGER WARNING: LGBTQIA VIOLENCE, DESCRIPTIONS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE, AND TALK OF DEPRESSIVE EPISODES

Last night, I finally streamed episodes 1-3 of Hulu’s exclusive adaptation of one of my favorite works of literature, The Handmaid’s Tale. 

And all I have to say is: What. The. Hell. 

It’s not that the show was bad or poorly done…in fact, aesthetically, I felt the producers did an incredible job across the board in portraying the essence of Margaret Atwood’s vision of the theocratic dystopia Gilead: both in terms of stellar casting and ambience, which in partnership created a brilliant portrayal of the pictures that formed in my mind while reading the book for the first time.

No, my “what the hell?” reaction is not meant to reflect any type of disappointment with the technicalities or depictions of content from the novel: it’s in response to the horrific, heartbreaking, sickening, excruciating, and nasty (honestly I can’t even be bothered to form fancy words anymore) story of Ofglen, a secondary character who, while definitely important to the plot, was not terribly dynamic in the book. Not only was her depiction in Hulu’s adaptation brutal and raw, her backstory was completely and totally added in by the producers of the show. If it wasn’t, I’m not sure I would’ve tuned in to see some of these things in living color.

I know I added this in the title, but I feel like now’s the time where I need to mention it again: THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE, FOLKS. If you have yet to watch the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and wish to not have the ending spoiled for you, stop here. Go watch it, and come back. If you’re mentally ill, have any kind of history with trauma, or are just plain sensitive, maybe be careful with episode 3. That’s all I’ll give away before sending you off to your streaming endeavors.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my distress (I know, the suspense is killing you), I feel like I owe the readers who are not familiar with the Handmaid’s Tale plot (and who are ultimately uninterested other than reading my take on the show) a brief synopsis of what the story is actually, you know, about. Written by Margaret Atwood in 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale is written from the perspective of Offred, a handmaid in the theocratic (former United States) Republic of Gilead. On the cusp of the switch from democratic government as we know it to a pure biblically-based, cult-like dictatorship where women cannot own money or property and are assigned a ranking in society, Offred is assigned as a handmaid, chosen for her fertile ovaries to carry out the task of repopulating the republic through means of ceremoniously copulating with the Commander in which she is assigned, with the obligation to bear he and his barren wife a child before being transferred and “stationed” in the home of another needy Commander and his wife (The name Offred literally means “Of Fred,” as handmaids are stripped of their real names and given over to the ownership of their current Commander). The book is brilliant, and rather than serving as strict anti-Christian propaganda (though some will undoubtedly interpret it as such), it brings to light the many injustices faced by women around the globe and brings to the forefront the dangers of extreme fundamentalist ideologies, particularly when proposed as a means of government.

All of that is gut-wrenching enough, especially when recreated for television with a moving soundtrack and awesome actors and actually seeing it happen. 

“But wait! There’s more!” cries Hulu. Enter this girl:

https---blueprint-api-production.s3.amazonaws.com-uploads-card-image-340344-a5cedbe6-f26e-4e2c-a2cc-9099d6e2426b(image: Mashable/Take 5/Hulu) 

This girl. Ofglen (well actually it’s boss-lady Alexis Bledel, but her role here is a far cry from her Rory Gilmore days). Offred’s fellow handmaid, who goes from being a secondary character (at best) in the novel to embodying on screen, quite literally, everything that could possibly go wrong and terrible in a woman’s life EVER. (That realization actually came from my boyfriend, who sat and watched this stuff unfold right alongside me in utter disbelief).

In the book, we don’t know a whole lot about Ofglen, other than that she is Offred’s partner on shopping days (handmaid’s are only permitted to walk outside in groups of two) who is eventually revealed as an underground member of the resistance who tragically commits suicide before she could be taken away in a black van by “the Eye” (the folks in charge of policing the general population). Undoubtedly this is a tragic end for Ofglen, and NO part of me wishes that they would have shown her suicide on screen. But what the producers did decide to do with Ofglen, rather than having her meet this type of quick, simplistic (off-screen) end, is arguably worse. Much, much worse.

In short, Ofglen’s character in the series is incredibly dynamic, unlike her novel counterpart. The producers created a backstory for Ofglen of her identifying as a lesbian (obviously a serious crime in Gilead, with outed members of the LGBTQ community being labeled “gender-traitors” and sentenced to death), who, other than being a secret member of the resistance, carries on a forbidden relationship with her household’s Martha (In Gileadean society, Marthas are the cooks/housekeepers in homes of Commanders).

Somehow, this is discovered, and after a difficult scene where Offred is being tortured and questioned about her knowledge of her former shopping partner’s sexuality, the show cuts to reveal Ofglen and her partner in court, after having had their tongues cut out of their mouths, and each receiving a different sentence: Ofglen, while deserving of death, is spared because of her fertility and the need for as many handmaid’s as possible. The Martha, on the other hand, is sentenced to the mercy of the state. What follows is a gut-wrenching van ride where the two can’t speak to one another (you know, no tongues and all), but can only cry into each other’s hands. When the van stops, the back doors are opened to reveal a single noose in the distance. The Martha is ripped from Ofglen’s hands, dragged over to the noose where a guard places it over her neck, before being suspended in mid air by a crane-like contraption and suffocated to death right in front of a screaming, heartbroken Ofglen. The scene, which lasts for an excruciating 25-30 seconds, ends with the doors of the van slamming shut with Ofglen’s lover still visibly hanging and writhing to death in the background, Ofglen still screaming her devastated, tongueless head off at what she was just forced to witness.

Phew, that was hard. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.

The final scene of episode three opens with Ofglen waking up in a hospital bed. Having difficulty standing up, she lifts her gown to reveal a large white bandage over her nether-regions. The “Aunt” enters the scene (one of the women in charge of training and overseeing the handmaids) and informs Ofglen that “the stitches will come out in a few days. You will still be able to have children, of course, but things will be so much easier for you now. You will no longer want what you can’t have.” THEY CUT OUT HER CLITORIS. That’s right, the award for most tragic character goes to Ofglen, who, after being robbed of her ability to speak, seeing her lover being savagely murdered in front of her face, and having had her child taken away years prior (she mentions to Offred in the second episode that she had a son and a wife in the days before Gilead), and now having to undergo genital mutilation, officially can be said to have experienced, over the course of two episodes, every horrific thing that has and could ever happen to a woman.

I am writing this now after having spent a restless night of sobbing, nausea, hyperventilation, and uncontrollable shaking. This started with the van ride, was solidified by the hanging scene, and by the time we learned of Ofglen’s “surgery,” I was too numb to even take in anything else. It’s like my brain couldn’t take any more, so it shut off. I should also mention that I can scarcely recall the last time I experienced this kind of reaction as a result of a television show or movie. This was beyond tears for Marley and Me or Me Before You… this felt traumatic. Like I had just witnessed these events in real life, rather than on a screen.

I understand that there are multiple sides to the television censorship debate. I’m not here to say that if you can watch a scene like this and not be affected, that you’re somehow a desensitized psychopath. I’m also not here to be called a sensitive, over-dramatic snowflake, so please go somewhere else if that’s your intention. I can’t control how I react to things, and this content was particularly traumatizing for me. I still have no appetite, purely from this stuff. I’m writing this because I’m wanting to warn others who are aware of their own sensitivities to possibly reconsider diving into this show: a responsibility which, in my opinion, ought to have been taken up by Hulu.

Reminiscent of the Netflix book-to-series original 13 Reasons Why, we’re learning more and more how far producers are willing to push the envelope to achieve a level of shock value amongst viewers. Sure, you can throw a TV MA warning on there and assume that that will suffice for any content that may be expressed therein, but at what point does content become so traumatic that even “mature audiences” will be pushed passed their breaking point?

Shane showed me an article by Hollywood Reporter last night titled ” ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Rape, Mutilation, and That Shocking Death Scene Explained.” In it, Bruce Miller, one of the shows lead producers, explains why they chose to execute (sorry, definitely no pun intended) the hanging scene in the way they did:

“It was a hard decision and a big discussion. We all had trepidation about doing it because it’s incredibly harsh and brutal. But all the reasons you’re afraid of doing it are why you should do it in the first place.” -Bruce Miller, The Hollywood Reporter

Well, yes. And no.

This is where my internal conflict comes to fruition. As Miller also stated, everything that occurs in the screen rendition of The Handmaid’s Tale has ACTUALLY happened to women, somewhere, at some point in history. Ought we not to be brutally honest about these experiences to give them legitimacy? Yeah, these are serious issues that should make us all uncomfortable. Women have been and are still having their tongues cut out, both figuratively and literally. Female genital mutilation is an ongoing problem in various areas of the world. Forced sexual encounters are way too common. And slowly but surely, women are being stripped of their reproductive rights. Yet none of these depictions in the show traumatized me quite as much as Ofglen’s experiences, particularly the scene where the Martha (her lover) is hanged. Did this scene traumatize me because it’s not something that I, as a straight cis woman, have to fear on a daily basis? Is my straight, white privilege the reason that I wanted to call up Hulu and be like “No, this is too much. THAT takes it too far.” Am I being made uncomfortable in the same way that white people are uncomfortable with the black lives matter movement because it’s bringing representation to something that they themselves are not directly affected by?

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After a sleepless night pondering these things, I have come to the conclusion (a hazy one, but a conclusion nonetheless), that no, this has less to do with my privilege as a straight woman (though undoubtedly that privilege exists) and more to do with the fact that this scene is BRUTAL. Most of the content in this show is highly unpleasant, as it should be. Like I said, I am all for on-screen honesty and forcing people to become fired up about relevant social issues. But if you’re going to construct a scene this way, showing every last excruciating second of a murder, rape, suicide, overdose, or what have you, particularly when it’s a veer-left from the book and completely unexpected by viewers, a trigger warning, at the very least, would be appropriate.

Again, I’m not arguing whether the producers of The Handmaid’s Tale should or should not have done the scene. Personally, my boyfriend and I feel that there were SO MANY ways that they could have gone about this that would have been significantly less traumatic to watch, and that perhaps that would have been a better choice. We don’t feel this way because we want to shy from these issues, however: we’re simply concerned, again, with the welfare of the mentally ill, LGBTQ community, and others who have experienced similar trauma that may be taken to an awful place after being blindsided by such a raw depiction. At the very least, streaming websites especially ought to be more specific with their warnings *see trigger warning at the top of this page*.

“I’m all for on-screen honesty and forcing people to become fired up about relevant social issues. But if you’re going to construct a scene this way, showing every last excruciating second of a murder, rape, suicide, overdose, or what have you, particularly when it’s a veer-left from the book and completely unexpected by viewers, a trigger warning, at the very least, would be appropriate.”

And as a side note: before this pops up in the comments, no, trigger warnings were not a thing “back in the day.” That’s true. What isn’t true, however, is the backwards assumption that people were “tough, less sensitive, able to handle it” back then. No, actually, they weren’t. It just felt that way because mental illness and trauma were kept secret, leaving the folks who could have greatly benefited from a trigger warning here and there to suffer in silence.

Honestly, as contradictory as it sounds, I most likely will continue to watch The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a riveting depiction of a fantastic novel that isn’t afraid to reveal the problematic ideas that exist in the world today for what they are. However, I’ll definitely be more cautious, which I hope this article prompts others in potentially similar positions to do (before you end up like me: having to stand under hot water just to stop your muscles from convulsing out of pure terror).

Perhaps this article will prompt a healthy discussion about websites such as Netflix and Hulu taking their shock value too far, possibly prompting them to be more mindful of the content they choose to include. If not, I hope that it at least helps to keep someone safe.

Finally, in true Handmaid’s Tale fashion, I feel obligated to leave you with this message: ladies (and gentlemen) who have experienced oppression of any kind,

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. 

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

-B.

*featured image: fouronesixlit.com, c.2017. http://www.fouronesixlit.com/2016/03/24/the-analysis-of-language-in-the-handmaids-tale-and-how-it-influences-writers-style/

 

 

 

How High School Gym (and Jocks) Almost Made Me Hate Fitness

*the following story, I’m sure, will not be unfamiliar to most. That gives me the kind of solace that I hope this post gives back to you.

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If you knew me in high school, you knew I was no athlete.

My right-brained noggin found its comfort in the arts…I was highly involved in the school plays, choir, and marching band, and was totally content and happy there. Most of my physical activity took place either on the field during band camp, walking up 5 flights of stairs in the 2 minutes provided for us to transition to class (the struggle), or, horrifically, in gym class.

Before I dive into the dark underbelly of what it was like to attend a public school and NOT be involved in any kind of designated sport, it’s worth noting that I did encounter a handful of amazing, supportive, compassionate gym teachers, and yes, even some jocks. Like all of my posts, this is not to be viewed as a sweeping assumption of high school athletics in any way (can’t wait till I’m confident enough to not have to make that disclaimer).

However, it can’t be denied that 80% of those I encountered in the world of high school athletics seemed to make it a priority to make my life a little bit worse in whatever way they could. Like most public high schools, mine was dominated by sports…if you weren’t a part of improving the school’s sports status, you didn’t HAVE status. I thank the Lord every day for the music department, actually, because if it weren’t for me finding my value in the very thing that I was bullied for, I doubt my already melancholy, pre-pubescent self would have found value anywhere {shout out to everyone in there who impacted me. Y’all RULE}.

I can’t stress enough how much gym class actually ~negatively~ affected my day. I have a plethora of graphic and clear memories of high school which are slowly drifting closer and closer toward my subconscious now that I’m already working on one year out of college… but when they hit, they do so in one of two ways: warm and reminiscent, or freaking terrifying. When they hit, I experience every single feeling that raced through my body when the event actually happened, as if it had happened 6 seconds ago rather than 6 years. The one that drove me to write this post (spoiler: a bad one) happened in gym class.

If you’ve been following some of my life updates, you know that I am seriously into running. During these past few months, I’ve noticed such a change in the way that my body interacts with itself since becoming more of a health and fitness junky, and running is probably the most rewarding of all the daily exercises I do. When I run, I feel so strong, powerful, and able. There are also times when it brings me back to some significant high school trauma.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment, sophomore year, when we were running the mile in gym (gloat break: funny to think that I couldn’t even run a mile back then without stopping to dry heave: now I’m working toward 6.00 and feel amazing. Anyway…) and I accidentally cut a corner coming around the side of the field. Prior to this seriously heinous offense, I was feeling pretty good about my run (it was rare that I EVER felt good in gym class, being the awkward, skinny, out of shape band geek that never looked quite right in her gym shorts) and was prepared to finish strong. I honestly hadn’t even realized that my right foot landed in front of the cone set in the corner of the field, as I was so focused on finishing with as little discomfort as possible, until I heard a loud, angry voice boom in my right ear:

“NO CUTTING THE GODDAMN CORNERS, GO BACK AND DO IT AGAIN!”

{and under his breath}

“goddamn lazy kid.”

This is how this gym teacher spoke to us (can you guess what his favorite word was?), and this is what we were used to hearing. Back then, it didn’t feel outrageous because it was normal. But it still felt terrible. I totally understand that plenty of teens have had MUCH worse experiences than I have. I’m not writing this to trivialize their struggles…rather, I’m making a conscientious attempt to legitimize them.

A few months back, I couldn’t cut a corner while ice-skating with my boyfriend because it just doesn’t feel like an okay thing to do now. That’s kind of silly. What isn’t quite as silly, though, is how much that second statement has affected me through the years…the one calling me lazy. The one assuming that, because my face was not familiar in the realm of high school sports, I MUST have been lazy. I wasn’t worth a warm smile or the attempt at remembering my name (many gym teachers had a tough time remembering my name) because I wasn’t involved in their circle. At the time, my 16-year-old self ceased to realize that this incident was never actually about the cone in the corner of the field. It was about a kid like me only being visible when someone was in need of a punching bag.

I’ve already stated how happy I was in the activities that I belonged to in high school. I have absolutely no regrets about the social circle in which I chose to plant myself. Nonetheless, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments where I wished I was one of “those” athletes. The ones who got invited to parties, who never had to worry about the jockey boy who sat in front of them in class turning around and heckling them every single day to the point where it made them physically ill to even think about showing up; the ones who got to wear sports jerseys on dress down days instead of band tee shirts that plastered them with a “make fun of me” sign…the ones who were greeted with chummy conversation by the gym teachers instead of the alternative. Being a teen in my situation, who wouldn’t occasionally lust for that life?

The reality, though, was that I wasn’t one of those kids. Fitness wasn’t something that earned me adoration, friends, and feelings of accomplishment…it was a cruel punishment with the sole purpose of humiliating me even more than that of which I was already enduring on a daily basis. This is where gym class fails kids. Scratch that…this is where high school fails kids. Through this disappointing trend, too many teenagers are being taught that fitness is a punishment, not a reward.

“INSTEAD OF PASS/FAIL, KIDS SHOULD BE TESTED ON THEIR ABILITY TO RECOGNIZE THEIR POTENTIAL AND EMBRACE WHERE THEY ARE ON THE SPECTRUM OF PHYSICAL FITNESS, VIEWING IT AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO GROW RATHER THAN A DISAPPOINTMENT.”

The pacer test, physical fitness test, and other “pass/fail” testing methods utilized in gym classes across the country teach kids that there is a normal” level of strenuousness that their body should be able to endure at their age, height, weight, etc., and that falling short of that standard indicates literal failure. When I started running longer distances and becoming more concerned with my time, I became worried about whether my pace could be considered “normal” in the world of athletics. While speaking with a coworker (who also happens to be an avid runner) I said something along the lines of:

“I’m concerned about the fact that it took me 52 minutes to run a 5-mile loop last night. Is that a normal pace?”

Her answer, while seemingly obvious, hadn’t even crossed my mind prior to this conversation. “There is no ‘normal.’” She said. “You need to listen to your body and decide what YOUR ‘normal’ is, and grow from there.” (Remember that post I wrote about listening to your body? Clearly I need to practice taking my own advice.)

These words were such a revelation to me. Without even realizing it, I had allowed myself to grow into adulthood with the same outlook on health and physical fitness that had been planted in my mind in high school. In fact, the reason that I just started taking care of myself this year is due to the fact that I had never thought of myself as an athlete, or even being worthy of the title “athletic.” That was for cool kids, to which I was not one. To be able to live up to that lifestyle, I would need to fit the mold in so many ways that I just couldn’t manage to fit. Again, this followed me until I was almost 23 years old.

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While there’s little that can be done about the ever-present bullying issue that plagues our schools (I mean, we should all DEFINITELY continue to combat it, and it’s a worthy fight, but the reality is that kids will continue to bully as long as current trends keep up), the mentality and language surrounding fitness in schools could stand to endure some serious reform. Instead of pass/fail, kids should be tested on their ability to recognize their potential and embrace where they are on the spectrum of physical fitness, viewing it as an opportunity to grow rather than a disappointment. We need more gym teachers who are in it for the betterment of the health and wellness of the next generation; not to socialize, hold biases, and relive their own high school glory days.

Sometimes, I wish the guy who heckled me in class every day because I was an easy target could see how active and fit I am now. I wish the girls who dropped me from their friend group and went on to bully me once they realized I wasn’t like them in terms of mutual interests could see me when I run, lift, and crunch, and finally accept me as a real, worthy, living specimen. I wish that gym teacher could see me take three hours to meal prep after my insanely long Saturday morning run, for him to know that I do care about myself and know that I AM NOT GODDAMN LAZY. Most of the time, though, I appreciate the reality that at this point in my life, I’m doing it for me, not for anyone’s approval.

High school almost made me hate fitness, but it failed. Kind of like I failed that pacer test.

Be strong, former nerds. And embrace your normal. 

-B. 

About a month ago, I made a decision to dedicate much more of my time to health, wellness, and body positivity. At first, it was a breeze. I felt happier, had much more energy (with way less nausea and abdominal discomfort), became motivated to make the most out of my days, and even landed a new job! (Which, if you read my last post Depression and Joblessness, is a HUGE improvement to my quality of life).

Lately, though, it’s been a struggle. While I absolutely love what I do and wouldn’t trade my new job for the world, it doesn’t exactly cater toward a rigorous gym schedule, nor does it make it easy to eat right (since I have to get up so early, I’m lucky if breakfast is a pop tart on the car ride into the city). While I tried to wean myself off of caffeine, I soon found that it was next to impossible to get through even the first few hours of my day without at least a small cup of coffee, because I go to bed (on average) at 12:00 and wake up at 5:00 the next morning. And the icing on the cake (pun definitely intended) is that, when I finally do get back to my apartment at the end of the day, all I want to do is scroll social media and eat cupcakes for dinner in some kind of a sick attempt to de-stress with junk food and laziness.

Again, I’m not complaining. I love my job. I feel like I hit the lottery with this job, actually. I’m not ungrateful, nor do I blame my job for the abuse I’ve been putting my body through. I have weekends off, after all. So why don’t I take that time to hit the gym and prepare wholesome, organic meals for the week? At the very least, why don’t I take that time to rest?

I attend a weekly small group with my church on Tuesday nights, and this week’s discussion happened to be about the struggle to obey our physical bodies (essentially, listening to what our bodies are telling us they need and prioritizing those needs). In my assessment of my own struggles, as well as others’ testimony to similar issues, I think the difficulty in prioritizing our physical needs can largely be attributed to one (very broad) category: typically beginning sometime in our teens, we’re socialized to believe that we’re not worth it. 

img_0122(photo by Brittney Birosak)

I know that sounds like a harsh, sweeping claim, but read on. Hopefully I’ll be able to explain myself (if not, you can yell at me in the comments for being an assumptive, over-generalizing jerk).

When I say that we’re socialized to believe that we’re not worth self care, I don’t mean that we’re socialized to hate ourselves (that’s an argument for another post). What I mean, quite simply (and slightly less drastically) is that we’re taught to believe that obligations are more important that our well being, that rest equals laziness, that time at the gym or taking a quick nap could be better spent doing something else, something more important. College students share hilarious and witty diagrams on twitter that illustrate the reality that you can’t have a social life, enough sleep, AND get good grades…you must choose which is more important to you. All nighters are encouraged, even praised, and the bodily abuse that young adults put themselves through during their undergraduate career are painted in a comical light and accepted as reality.

This is all fine, until we’re hit in the face with not-so-funny statistics, such as the fact that the University of Pennsylvania has seen ten student suicides in the past three years, or that suicide is the third leading cause of death for college students in the United States, or that, in 2014, 29% of teenage suicides in the U.K took place on exam day or in anticipation of exam day/receiving the results of an exam. (Office for National Statistics, University of Manchester). 

“WHEN I SAY THAT WE’RE SOCIALIZED TO BELIEVE THAT WE’RE NOT WORTH SELF CARE, I DON’T MEAN THAT WE’RE SOCIALIZED TO HATE OURSELVES…WHAT I MEAN, QUITE SIMPLY, IS THAT WE’RE TAUGHT TO BELIEVE THAT OBLIGATIONS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN OUR WELL BEING.” 

And this is just beginning documentation of the early years of young adulthood…these problems don’t go away once one starts “adulting.” The only thing that changes, in this case, are the things that we place before ourselves. Instead of papers and exams, we follow the call to work, relational obligations, money, and even household chores before we follow the call to answer our bodies’ physical and spiritual needs. We guilt ourselves for spending time to regenerate from the ruthless drive of daily life. We start drinking coffee in our teens because it’s “trendy,” only to become dangerously hooked later on. Due to our overpacked schedules, we’re almost forced to eat the quick and convenient fast food that is presented to us in under 5 minutes without even having to leave our vehicles. This, again, is due to the social “trend” of draining our minds and bodies to benefit factors outside of ourselves.

Yesterday, I had a day off from work. Since I woke up two nights ago feeling a tight, torturous, knot-like pain in my abdomen (again, cupcakes for dinner) I decided to spend my day off “refueling.” After a successful morning at the gym, I came home, laid down with my cat, and fell asleep. When I woke up from my hour nap, I felt a harrowing twinge of guilt. That’s right, guilt. For resting. ON MY DAY OFF.

Why? Because there were dishes in my kitchen sink that could’ve been done during that hour. I could’ve already been showered, dressed, and at the grocery store by this time. There’s basically a scroll of things I could’ve had done, or at least begun doing, during that hour, but instead, I wasted it on myself.

Christian readers: Elijah was literally ORDERED by God to rest and nurture his body before he could go out and continue his awesome work. Heck, GOD HIMSELF needed to rest on the seventh day. You are worth the time for rest, and you can’t be expected to carry out your calling before caring for your body.

Non-Christian readers: You, too, deserve more than processed food, coffee as a meal, and quick, easy, but less than nutritious fuel for your body. Take the time to cook for yourself, to treat yourself, to listen to what your body is asking of you. No matter your obligations, remember that none of it can be done to the extent of your ability without affording yourself the time and energy necessary to be well. 

EVERYONE WITH A BODY: LISTEN TO IT. You are beautiful, and well worth the effort. 

-B

Depression and Joblessness

Let me tell you how my day started.

 

I woke up, begrudgingly rolled out of bed, and made my way to the bathroom. After completing my usual morning activities (shower, coffee, meager breakfast, more coffee…) I brought myself to the bathroom mirror to start my makeup (because when you have a date with the dentist’s chair and a rendezvous with a cavity, you need to look your ABSOLUTE best). As I was moving through the routine, setting aside various brushes, creams, and powders that had had their turn, I felt a tickle of hair touching my face, right next to my left eye. Instinctively, and because I’m a human, I proceeded to move the offending strand of hair away from my makeup canvas (I was an artist at work) with a plan to complete my facial transformation. However, much to my dismay, the offending strand of hair had gotten caught on an eyelash that was donned with not-yet-dried mascara, leaving a nice, thin black line of mascara going across my cheekbone and up my temple from when I had moved the strand.

 

I burst into tears.

 

Not like the subtle, pretty tears that you see on TV or that sometimes happen when you poke your eye (the ones where they just barely fall down your face, without much background noise or wailing). No, these tears were the equivalent of the ones I’d shed when I broke a bone two summers ago. Reminiscent of a biblical woman in mourning. Devastated. Completely devastated. Because I now had an unwanted black line on my cheek…one that wasn’t supposed to be there; one that interfered with my routine.

 

But why such a dramatic reaction? Why not just do what any makeup-wearing person (I refrain from saying “girl” here for a reason) would do, and just wet the corner of a towel, maybe mumble a few watered down curse words, scrub off the line, and move on? The answer, simply put (and not a secret to many of you), is because I have depression.

 

I know. I can hear your silent thoughts. They’re either saying “here we go again, another sob story from another sad person” or “OH MY GOSH, B, ARE YOU OKAY? DO YOU NEED HELP? IS THIS A CRY FOR HELP?” Both quite opposite sides of the concern spectrum…both of which I have an answer for. To the first: nope. Sorry. No sob story here. Just some information and awareness that you kind of obviously need. To the second: nope again. In fact, I can’t repeat it enough: this is NOT a cry for help, this is NOT a cry for help, this is NOT A CRY FOR HELP. I am fine. Things are fine. Please don’t call the treatment center and try to have me admitted again. I promise you, that while I appreciate your concern, that action is hardly necessary.

 

Let me try to read your mind again, I’ll bet I can come pretty close: now you’re thinking “Okay B, if you’re sooooo ‘fine,’ why are you sobbing over a little smudge of mascara on your face?” Wow, so glad you asked! I could jump right into the explanation, but I feel that it would be beneficial to cite a quote from a poem that one of my very talented Facebook friends wrote about her own struggle with mental illness. She writes:

 

“It’s like they give me pills and they act as a mop but it’s dry,

It’s a tool, but not everything is aligned,

It’s missing the soap and water… I’m missing the

Stability

So, I’m not exactly fine.”

 

…Damn, right?

 

(Bring your claps and snaps on over to Jessica Jean Podskoch for that one.)

 

This excerpt acts as a useful transition into the explanation for my behavior. Yes, I have pills. Yes, I take them. Often. However, like a dry mop, medication can only take away the most obvious, major stains of the disease, while leaving behind the smaller remnants of inconvenient obstacles that still affect day-to-day activity. With the help of my medication, I no longer lay in bed with the curtains drawn from 7am to midnight. I no longer need to be coerced out of bed or coerced into eating or drinking, and I don’t feel the need to resort to self-destructive behavior to numb the overwhelming sense of dread and sadness that plagued me for so much of my teenage and adult life. I do, however, find it difficult to manipulate my reactions to fit the severity of the event. Such as smearing my makeup. Or having dirty dishes in the sink. Or getting a little bleach stain on a pair of leggings that I like. These things suck for regular people. For those who suffer from depression, they’re downright tragedies.

 

By now you’re probably thinking (here I go, reading your mind again. Maybe I have a career in this business…) “If someone with depression reacts to all of these minor things as tragedies, how must they feel when faced with more serious matters?”

 

More serious matters. Like, for example, unemployment.

 

Here is where we (finally, sorry) get into the nitty-gritty of my very amateur, very novice post. This seems to be an appropriate time to also throw in a little disclaimer about me not being a doctor or licensed mental health professional; just someone who considers herself to be a part of the mental health community. Therefore, most of the content written here will come mainly from my own experiences and the experiences of those close to me who suffer with similar illnesses. This is NOT, under any circumstance, meant as a sweeping declaration of the experiences of all who suffer or have suffered with clinical depression. Depression affects everyone differently. It’s important to remember that.

So, depression and unemployment: how does joblessness, which no doubt totally STINKS for anyone going through it, affect a person with depression? The best (and most convenient) way to illustrate this dichotomy is through the following diagram:

 

Depressive Episode (hospital admittance, therapy program, intro of meds…)

|

Recovery (moving on from episode, learning to live with meds, using strategies from therapy)

|

Stability (achieving a sense of purpose. Nothing spectacular, but you’re living.)

|

Unemployment (you graduate college, finish internship, lose current job, etc…)

|

Stagnation (you spend your days actively searching, but no jobs come up.)

|

Feelings of Worthlessness (you get rejected from that interview. You leave messages with no reply. You fail your certification test(s)…)

|

Lack of Motivation (you find it more and more difficult to get up, go online, and search for jobs. You know you’re on a time crunch, but yet the motivation is nonexistent).

|

Depressive Relapse (the goal is to NOT arrive at this stage).

 

“But B, I lost my job and was DEVASTATED. It totally ruined my financial situation, tore my family apart, and can easily be classified as the worst time in my life. I don’t have depression. What makes you special because you do?” I hear you. I get you. As I stated earlier, unemployment is wildly unpleasant for EVERYONE. Not just those with a mental illness. However, this might clear up the difference:

 

For those with a healthy functioning brain and stellar serotonin levels, the stress of finding a job remains, largely, within that category: stress. No doubt the stress is severe, debilitating, and exhausting, but it remains in such a way that unemployment and identity remain in separate compartments. Your joblessness does not take away from your huge heart for others, or your talent in sports or art, or your awesome cooking skills, or your favorite TV show that you record on the daily. Your joblessness is only a small part of who you are, and you are determined to change that status as quickly and by any means possible. When you do find a job, your heart fills with the pride of having earned that gold medal of the salary and the sense of belonging that you WORKED for.

 

For people who suffer from depression, the cycle looks slightly different. The two are similar up until the “lack of motivation” stage. Arguably, those who are experiencing unemployment will experience many of the same emotions cited in the “unemployment” and “stagnation” stages…feelings of worthlessness may even creep their way into the healthy mind when faced with such a challenge. Furthermore, it is the lack of motivation (a common symptom of depression in general) that is perhaps the most telling of the differences between a healthy mind and an unhealthy mind when experiencing joblessness. It is also crucial to point out, too, that lack of motivation is the stage that is too often perceived as laziness on the part of the sufferer, and not well understood by the healthy mind. Why aren’t you at least LOOKING for a job? You had one interview and got turned down, big deal! It’s one interview! You apply other places and eventually someone will take you! Why would you give up after taking your cert test once? Plenty of people fail the first time! You have to keep trying or you’ll never get a job in your field! All familiar words to the irrational sufferer. My favorite though, is this: You say you’re so depressed because you’re jobless, yet you lay in bed and do absolutely nothing to change your situation. How does that make any sense?

 

You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. We know it doesn’t make sense.

 

All of those italicized statements are perfectly rational. They make sense. It’s what you have to do to get through this life. You get rejected from one position, you take it in stride and move on to the next. You fail your cert test once: yeah, it sucks, but you study harder and take it again. It happens. And it’s almost always going to turn out okay. As long as you put the work in…

 

That’s where we struggle. For depression sufferers, its difficult to reach that stage where you put the work in and everything turns out okay. Just as a smear of mascara on my face brought me to a place of total agony, so does being turned down from a job feel like the final and dramatic end of my world as I have known it. Failing my first attempt at my certification test adds to the horror of being a failure, of being worthless, of being an air hog, a waste of valuable space. In the face of these emotions, it is easiest to just crawl into bed, shut the blinds, and wallow in your worthlessness. After all, that institution rejected you because you suck, right? Your resume sucks, your transcripts suck, your interview sucked, and you suck. They aren’t going to hire a person who sucks, so why would anyone else? You can’t even pass a stupid test that you WENT TO SCHOOL TO PASS. Why even bother wasting your parent’s hard-earned moolah to just keep failing the test, just like you’re failing at life? In the end, it’s simple: you’re unemployed because you are a lazy, pathetic, sorry excuse for a person and you SUCK. (cue depressive relapse)

 

This is when unemployment and identity cease to remain separate.

 

Say any of the above to your neighbor. I dare you. Actually I don’t. Don’t do that. Not that you would, because you’re a decent person, and no decent person would talk like that to any other person. Yet that is the kind of language that depression forces us to inflict onto ourselves every single day. It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re constantly engaged in a battle with your mind, desperately trying to hold on to rationality while also attempting to throw a lasso around the thoughts that force you back into bed. Depression attempts to silence all forms of rationale, so trying to talk reason to a clinically depressed person may prove to be a bit of a challenge. Instead, try to see their situation for what it is, and understand that what is perceived as laziness actually might be something much more dangerous: a transition into a depressive episode.

 

As a pretty committed Christian, I feel like I can’t end this post without mentioning this pretty amazing verse that I have highlighted with a little heart next to it in my brand-spanking new Bible with the dandelion on the cover (shout out to Shane, thanks for the adorbs Christmas present love ;).

 

Luke 12:32 (this entire portion of Luke has just become my mantra) says:

 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

 

How comforting this is…to know that through my suffering and through my fear, Jesus is STILL pleased to include me in the Kingdom. How, then, can I be a waste? Worthless? A failure?

 

I think I’ll go push for that job now.

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