Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Weighing in on the "It Gets Better" Project

Full disclaimer: I was iffy on the It Gets Better Project from the start. The heart is in the right place, naturally, but is it the right message? As a mental health advocate, speaking strictly on the mental health aspect of this very complex issue of teenage bullying and suicide, the answer is unequivocally "no", and the answer only gets murkier when taking every other factor into consideration. I doubt there are too many teens out there who don't know, or at least believe, that it does get better eventually. And for kids who are victims of bullying, depression, or other factors that might ultimately lead to suicide, it doesn't help a great deal. It helps some, true, but there's a danger in a project like this becoming so popular (and therefore somehow successful) that there will exist a temptation to wipe one's hands clean and declare "Mission Accomplished", and that can be dangerous because a program like this can only ever be the first step towards something grander, something that can really begin to tackle the deeper issues facing all youth in particular and LGBTQ youth in specific.

Second disclaimer: I am a child of privilege. I am white, male, straight and I grew up with a relatively well off and supportive family. And while I was a victim of bullying through middle school, and this bullying certainly contributed to my depression and subsequent suicide attempts, I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to grow up as a LGBTQ youth. How could I? No one coming from a place of privilege while still striving to support social justice could ever seriously make such a claim. Likewise, most people can't even begin to imagine to the factors that cause suicidal ideations, and this is what I think a lot of the "It Gets Better" Project is missing. The desire to completely end your own existence is such an alien thought that there's absolutely no way to wrap your head around it unless you've felt it. Hell, I've suffered through at least four distinct suicidal episodes, at least one of which led to a serious attempt, and I hardly understand it. All I can say is I know what it's like. But of course, even that's hardly half of this issue. Make no mistake; in order to fully and effectively tackle this issue, it must tackled from every possible angle. This crisis is both a "mental health issue"* and an "LGBTQA issue"* and we must all work together to combat this.

*I use quotation marks because I believe the compartmentalization of social justice issues is one of the biggest obstacles to social justice progress, but that's a much larger conversation for a different time

Look, saying "It Gets Better" is one small step above saying "Keep a Stiff Upper Lip!" or "Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Words Can Never Hurt You", the latter being a flagrant lie and the others not being much more encouraging. And to someone struggling with thoughts of suicide, the difference is negligible. The thinking that saying "It Gets Better" provides comfort or support to those in danger of suicidal ideations or attempts is the same kind of faulty thinking that equates suicide with losing all hope or giving up. These are simply not true at all. The promised "better" future could be a million years away; it could be tomorrow. One might even know it for a fact. These don't matter one whit. The closest thing a suicidal thought comes to rationality focuses on ending the pain of the present, and that's something the "It Gets Better" project doesn't just ignore; by its very nature the project casually dismisses it.

It is this and other things that this post here on the blog (femmephane) critiques about Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, and for the most part I agree with the overall assessment, though on some points I feel the critique somewhat misses the mark. While the third point mostly mirrors my biggest issue with the project, it mistakes ageism with ableism (or at least leaves ableism off the list, when the key issue is a basic misunderstanding of the factors that contribute to suicide). It also carries along the horribly ableist tradition of assuming that it takes some kind of strength to survive suicidal ideations, the more insidious flipside of that idea being that only the weak struggle with or commit suicide. "Be strong" is one of the most negative things you can tell someone who is struggling through any kind of crisis; because what's heard is "Stop being weak", and that is never helpful. Strength isn't what's needed, support is. And whatever else the "It Gets Better" project is and however misguided its directions are, it is at least a step in the right direction in providing support to LGBTQ youth struggling with these issues.

The critique is correct, however, in that the project falls short in actually providing said support. All that it does is provide hope, and as is pointed (also in this article, by Jason Tseng) out this in many cases can be simply false hope. The underlying message is simply selling the issues facing LGBTQ youth and young adults short. It doesn't just get better, Tseng asserts; in many cases one has to fight for better. The (femmephane) article poses the thought: "How about instead of hope: change." The question I would pose in response would be: "Why can't it be both?" I can certainly see the appeal in change over hope (which can many times be fleeting), but I don't believe these can be mutually exclusive. You cannot have change without hope, and you cannot have hope without change. This is why I believe that the "It Gets Better" project is a good first step: it lays a foundation that hope does exist. It has rallied thousands, but with this support it needs to do much more. It needs to take action. We need to confront school policies and officials that turn a blind eye to bullying and anti-gay remarks. We need to increase access to mental health support to all students, especially those at greater risk for depression and suicide (such as LGBTQ youth). The absolute worst thing that could come out of this is if we all collectively say "Well, we sure did tell those kids it gets better. Mission accomplished."

On a following note, I must admit I acted quite viscerally to the many statements in (femmephane)'s critique made against the power of storytelling. Those of you who know me know that I am fully committed not just in sharing my stories but encouraging others to make their voices heard as well. It is this reason that I resonated strongly with the "It Gets Better" project at first despite my initial trepidations. To read that "Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting" understandably upset my sensibilities and triggered me. It was this statement that originally inspired me to write this article, and thankfully from there it has gone in a different (and I believe far better) direction. And while exploring this idea and re-evaluating has made me realize that there is definite privilege in being able to share one's story and have one's voice be heard, I still cannot disagree more with this statement. There is nothing, I believe, more empowering than to share one's story, even if only to one person (or to nobody at all). And I've already stated my reasons for why I believe that storytelling is not only an incredibly effective form of communication, but that it also sparks effective and honest communication in a way few other forms can. I'll admit that I sometimes am a little too eager to share and not eager enough to listen, but storytelling, in and of itself, is an incredibly powerful device for creating strong, positive connections between people.

I was even about to post as much in response to (femmephane)'s critique when I stumbled across the author's followup. I'm glad that I didn't, because I realized I didn't really understand where the author was coming from when they made those statements which I disagreed with so very much, and it's that lack of understanding that is the reason why so many of these "Stop youth suicide" movements fall short. Now I can at least understand the author's sentiment, that there are many voices and stories within the LGBTQ community that are routinely silenced, while still disagreeing to the point that storytelling is a flawed form of connection. Meanwhile, suicide and suicidal ideations are horribly misunderstood by many; at worst this can lead to victim-blaming [as (femmephane) accusses "It Gets Better" of]; at best this only shines a spotlight on a few external factors, but even this fails to look at every root cause. We could crack down on bullying, especially anti-gay bullying, but that completely ignores what causes anti-gay bullying. Alternative sexualities are routinely demonized both nationally, in the media, as well as locally, by both peers and adults, and there can be little doubt that this is the leading causes behind all three of these likely reasons why LGBTQ youth are at so much greater risk for suicide then straight youth their age:
  1. Much bullying (whether directed a LQBTQ youth or straight youth) is steeped in anti-gay rhetoric,
  2. Straight victims of bullying attempting to "defend their sexuality" by engaging in anti-gay bullying of their own, thus reducing the likelihood of teen peer allies or support networks;
  3. Supposedly responsible adults turning a blind eye to anti-gay bullying, thus reducing the likelihood of adult allies or support networks.
While we can certainly try to crackdown on anti-gay bullying, we will never be successful unless we can manage to change the culture that makes this kind of behavior acceptable to both youth and adults, and that's going to require a hell of a lot more work.

And say we actually succeed in accomplishing all of the above. Well, now all youth have the equal likelihood of suffering from suicidal ideations. And as suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death amongst teenagers aged 13-18, that's still not nearly good enough. And while putting an end to bullying of all kinds will likely reduce that number, and providing greater access to more and better services and support groups will probably help even more, there's a cultural aspect to this as well. You probably haven't noticed nearly as much, but the depressed and suicidal are likewise quite demonized by both national media and individuals, though clearly not quite to the same extent or with quite the same vitriol as those of the LGBTQ community. It's not even really that subtle; it's just so deeply reinforced by our culture that it's not at all polarizing. You might not even bat an eyelash when somebody claims that "only the immature and weak commit suicide," but trust me when I say this is extremely hurtful and dangerous rhetoric. You might even think a line such as this might serve as a harsh, if necessary, wakeup call to somebody who might be contemplating suicide, but you'd be dead wrong. Like saying "Be strong", this kind of rhetoric only reaffirms the suicidal thoughts of those suffering from them. And this is rhetoric that is far more prevalent in our popular culture that many would like to admit, lest one think the absolutely terrifying opinions expressed in the post I quoted and linked to were the rare musings of a single uneducated individual.

Education is a good start, but like heterosexism the problem is both cultural and systemic. I've said that the depressed and suicidal are demonized, and as the above linked post demonstrates, much of this hate is directed towards depressed and suicidal youth. It's a culture where "angst" and "emo" are relentlessly mocked, and where self-harm and self-mutilation have become so trivialized that they are typically only invoked in our pop culture for physical comedy. When a youth suicide does occur, our culture is usually so loathe to turn the mirror in on itself that it quickly lashes out at the victim; the youth was "weak" or "immature" or "selfish," or if they just had the "strength" to hang on a few more years things would've surely gotten "better". (Note: Over 60% of suicide victims suffer from major depression, which, while surely treatable, never truly gets "better".) This is turn leads to a culture that demonizes suicide, which in turn leads to a demonization of suicidal ideations, which in turn leads to demonization of depression. And being constantly told that you are weak and selfish and immature when already have such a low opinion of yourself and your head is constantly full of uncontrollable and alien thoughts of self-harm and suicide, then your chances of surviving through your depression definitely decrease.

People, and especially those who have been called to action by the recent string of teenage suicides, have a responsibility to educate themselves and others more on issues such as depression and suicide. Had the minds behind the "It Gets Better" project done this, it clearly would have taken a different form. It's a great sentiment, sure, and it's a good first step, and that is to their credit. But now it needs to go deeper. It needs to do so much more then just tell kids to "stick through it." It needs to focus on the issues that face not just LGBTQ youth, but all youth who struggle with thoughts of suicide. And it needs to take action.

You've told them to have hope. You might have even given them some hope. Now we need to work together, so they won't have to just survive off that hope anymore.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New Work

I am working on something new.

I guess I shouldn't say that this is necessarily new. Technically this is something I started work on in the Fall 2008. But I let it go and now I'm reviving it in an entirely different format, which is like new. Interestingly, neither the original nor the current format is a play script.

Now, this has been bouncing around in my head for the better part of two years, but that doesn't mean I have to have a title for it. In fact, I haven't entirely sold myself on the concept for the setting yet. I think I'm almost there, but there's a few things holding me back from fully committing. I'll delve into that later.

What follows is a bit of a journal detailing my creative process. It is written primarily as a stream-of-consciousness collection of my thoughts, with which to help me focus on where I want to go with my writing. The secondary purpose is to offer those of you who are actually reading this to get a glimpse at where I'm coming from and how I go about writing something, but again, this is generally going to be a secondary purpose. If it instead comes across as the ramblings of a mad man that go absolutely nowhere, well, you've been warned as to why.

I'll try to avoid actual plot spoilers in this and subsequent "process" posts.

Those who are familiar with the way that I write know that I normally get inspired by music. The original inspiration for this work, and the song that eventually kick-started my return to it, is the song "Hail To Whatever You Found In The Sunlight That Surrounds You" by Rilo Kiley. The lyrics are a bit annoyingly repetitive yet I still find them strangely uplifting, while the music is equal parts haunting and inspiring. Needless to say, it's the kind of song that I could to low volume on an endless loop and let it sink in subconsciously while I write. In fact, that's what I'm doing right now. What's most interesting about the song is that I can't really get an handle on it. The two songs that primarily inspired On Death and Living ("All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan and "One Headlight" by his son Jakob Dylan) are both songs that are definitely up to interpretation, but I had my own very clear idea about each one and thus they both informed the direction of the play. I don't really have the foggiest idea what "Hail To What You Found..." is all about, and the moods it inspires are all over the place (hopeful, bitter, grateful, mournful, adventurous) and all of these moods have in turn inspired the thematic direction of the work as I have planned it.

Make no mistake, this is the most complex (both structurally and emotionally) and ambitious work I have ever undertaken. What's more, this is not a story that can suitably told in my medium of choice (dramatic writing) nor in the medium I first selected for it (epic poem). Instead, I am going to be jumping into narrative fiction. So, I am not only undertaking the most difficult project of my life, but I'm doing it in a medium that I have little experience and no formal training in. And herein lies my hesitation. In order for this to work as a play, I fully believe that I would have to betray both the setting and my principal character. After all, I had completed the first chapter of this story as an epic poem, and it didn't have a single line of dialogue. Narrative literature allows me to delve much deeper into the psyche and thought processes of the character. In my plays, I usually create a character (either real or imagined) to serve as the protagonist's "inner voice", thus turning an inner monologue into a dialogue. This is a skill that I need to develop more naturally, and I have a feeling that this work (whether a success or a failure) will help me develop that skill. Furthermore, as I plot this thing out, I realize there are very important moments where I need characters to be completely alone, and I'm very loathe to use monologues in these instances (it's interesting how prone to short, choppy dialogue I am in my scripts given how long-winded I tend to be in real life.) I just hope I don't end up overwhelmed with everything new I'm trying.

I got sidetracked there; I was talking about the song. Interestingly, I've found a number of different interpretations of this song, and each one of those interpretations has some bearing on the work, either in part or in whole. The most common interpretation I've seen is that the song is a dig against religion, with opinions further torn between whether it's a cynical attack or where it takes a more "live and let live" approach. I don't really get it myself, but this theme does indeed show up in the work. Now, in real life there are obviously those who would use religion to oppress others, and there are those who use faith to inspire others. Both of these show up in the work in various forms. Neither are the key themes of the work, though the former concept (using religion to oppress) is one of the key themes in the first chapter of the epic poem that I wrote (which I will be posting here in its entirety). I'm not exactly subtle about it. In addition to those who use religion to spread social injustice and hatred, there is, in my opinion, another quote insidious application: a specific de-emphasis in finding present happiness. While there are many faiths with promises of a better life after this one, one should still not be neglectful of this life. The religious sect that features prominently in the beginning of my story follows a very extreme version of this practice, though it's intended to serve as an allegory for any force, religious or otherwise, that encourages people to feel as though they deserve feelings of misery or depression. I of course recognize that these nefarious religious practices are far from the mainstream (though they try their hardest to act the vocal minority), and I must take care not to be too terribly misinterpreted.

Another interpretation is that the song is about "happiness", and again there is are cynical and idealistic camps here. The idealistic side favors embracing happiness wherever you may find it; and if there is one central, overriding theme to my work, it's this. The cynical side sees the song as a bitter and sarcastic criticism of someone who is completely wrapped up in themselves and their own happiness. If there is one thing my writing has been criticized in general it's having protagonists that are bit too wrapped up in themselves, and a supporting cast that seemingly indulges them completely. I even hung a lampshade on it in On Death And Living:
Thomas: Man, I have been such an asshole!

Audience Member:
(To my partner, also in the audience) Right?
Of course, hanging a lampshade on an issue is not the same as directly confronting it. Needless to say, I will have sympathetic characters who are every bit as self-absorbed as Thomas here. However, the time for letting this behavior get reinforced in the long run is over. Characters will get called out on this, and I think the plans I have for how this will work are among that which I'm most excited about writing.

A few other notes before I wrap it up for the night:

I've avoided romantic subplots after the fairly amateur way I'd handled it in previous works (notably I Feel Fantastic! and especially Enduring Atlas), but they will feature in a BIG way in this work. There will be several such subplots, they will not all feature the main protagonist(s), and they will not all turn out for the best. I am both trepidatious and excited about this.

This will probably be the darkest thing I've ever written, and I don't say that just because it's set in a world entirely deprived of sunlight. Bad things will happen to characters you like. I am not going to be pulling any punches and I have no intention of letting anything come too easy (another common complaint directed at On Death and Living.) What's more, there will be unhappy endings, and others left quite ambiquous. I am absolutely giddy over how people will interpret the actual end of the story.

I have plenty more to share but I'll leave it at this for now. Maybe sometime soon I'll have an actual title for this thing!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Theatre & Social Justice

So a few months ago I wrote an essay (or had a stream of consciousness rant, take your pick) about why I never pursued a degree in Psychology or Counseling or what not. But now I take the time to answer two more questions, mainly because I'm having a bit of a crisis of faith, partially because I've been struggling all day and all night to write one freaking cover letter, and most importantly because I just need to put my thoughts out on paper and write. Which two questions, you might ask? First, why I did end up getting my Master's in Theatre, and secondly, why I would ever believe that it would help me in a career in Student Affairs. I answer them both because they're both kind of the same answer.

For starters, I believe that the greatest method of education is not found in the classroom at all; rather it is found in narrative literature. Oh sure, we learn things in our college courses; we learn a whole lot of stuff, much of it directly related to our chosen field of study (and ultimately our choice of career.) Yet this merely relates to what we do. Who we are, as humans; how we interact with ourselves, each other, and the world around us; we learn very little from the classroom. Instead, we learn these things partially from our interactions, but mainly from our narrative literature. Be it actual novels, or theatre, film, dance, television, even video games; all of these mediums constantly feed us with information on how to be the kinds of people we want to be. I chose theatre because I feel this is where my artistic talents lie, but I could have just as easily wound up a novelist, or in Hollywood. And who knows, I may still. For the time being, however, I feel I can do more to reach out to a group of people through my plays than in any other setting, and that includes the classroom.

The reason for why narrative is more effective than pedagogy in passing along a message is simple: as people, we generally love being shown, and we hate being told. This particularly holds true when teaching something that is inherently controversial and difficult to grasp, such as, say, social justice. I don't know about you, but I've yet to sit through a large-scale social justice training without either being completely put off by either the way the material was being presented or the way others reacted to it. Nobody wants to be told that the way they've perceived the world around them for the majority of their lives is wrong, yet this is precisely what most social justice training amounts to. Add to this the intellectual elitism that permeates most social justice education and it's small wonder why so many people react so violently against it, even those student leaders handpicked to be peer educators themselves.

Imagine then, instead of a classroom (or training session), this training takes place in a theatre. After all, a theatre is nothing more than a particular kind of classroom; the playwright writes the textbook, the director is the instructor, and the actors, designers, and their ilk make up the teacher's aides. Unconventional, sure, but follow me for a bit. Students are no longer being given a pedantic lecture by an authority figure (which positional politics generally teaches them to inherently distrust). If the text is well-written, the "lecture" is instead presented, not told, by a group of peer educators (actors), portraying individuals that students can make an emotional connection with. Now, students are no longer being told a theoretical world exists where theoretical privilege and theoretical oppression affects millions of theoretical people. This theoretical world is one that can just as easily not exist. And to borrow a concept from Stalin, a million is a mere statistic, but an individual is a tragedy. Introduce that same privilege and same oppression to an individual that the audience (the students) has spent an act building an emotional connection to; show them exactly, in a real world setting, what privilege looks like and what oppression looks like, and how it impact real people, and now you have a classroom that is more inclined to buy into whether such a world exists. Impact them emotionally enough, and you provide enough motivation for them to learn more on their own, and that should be goal of any educational pursuit.

And sure, there will still be plenty of people who simply won't buy it. But they'll be more much more open to the idea than if a single "radical liberal" professor were simply telling them what they believed was wrong. This kind of setting has the added benefit of making the conversation afterword more organic and more natural. I have seen countless social justice trainings and discussions frustrated into a state of uselessness due to nothing more than vocabulary and semantics. The average entitled white college student isn't going to hear that racism can't happen to them; and when you form as the basis of your training a definition of racism (or oppression, for that matter) that specifically excludes them from ever being the victim in a situation, they'll be immediately shut out of the conversation. They aren't going to listen to a single thing more you have to say on the subject; what's worse, anything you have to say that is tangentially related to social justice may be immediately dismissed as false. There is nothing more dangerous to a social justice training than trying to establish a common vocabulary. For starters, at least half of your students will tune out because your definition excludes them from victimhood (a cornerstone of young adulthood, you must understand), and at least a quarter more because "that's not what the dictionary says" or some other such nonsense. It's not helpful. It's never helpful. Trying to force one (and especially such an unappealing one) on a group of students will lead to confusion, frustration, and self-censorship at the very best.

Trying to establish a common vocabulary is just one step in the process of creating a "safe" discussion about social justice. But here's the problem: when talking about such a difficult and emotional topic as oppression, a "safe discussion" and an "honest discussion" are practically mutually exclusive. And let's be truthful here; an honest discussion is going to be much more effective in the long run. People are already going to be walking on eggshells when we have the social justice talk. That's a given. When you then try to introduce a vocabulary that people either don't agree with or don't understand, well, now people are even more worried that they're going to say the wrong thing, if they even bother speaking up at all. And here's the unpleasant truth of it all: we learn by making mistakes. In any field, in any vocation, in any aspect of life; we make a mistake, suffer whatever consequences, and learn from it. Social justice training, long before they ever get a point where people can have a conversation, is able about reducing mistakes. And that, by its very nature, reduces learning. I understand the desire to protect people from being triggered, I do. But social justice conversations needs to be honest if anyone is going to learn anything, and that means giving people license to make mistakes, trigger others, get challenged. And please, I am begging you, challenge people who make mistakes. Nothing is more frustrating than watching people I care about being triggered by someone saying something ignorant and then not getting called out on it. There's a huge difference between someone agreeing to disagree and someone completely discrediting other peoples' life experiences, and the latter needs to be called out. Otherwise what learning is supposed to be taking place?

Here's one thing that I believe that might be unpopular; but do you know what I think is worse than the person who says something ignorant that belittles or triggers someone? The person who believes something that might belittle or trigger someone else and keeps it to themselves. Again, who is learning when you create an atmosphere that encourages this kind of behavior? Remember class, there's no such thing as a stupid question, unless it might be a little bit racist/sexist/homophobic/etc; then you probably wanna keep that to yourselves. What kind of warped teaching philosophy is this? In my social advocacy class last semester, we devoted a class session to talking about social justice, and confronting racism in particular. The conversation went pretty much no where. It mainly amounted to many white students talking about how afraid they are to say the wrong thing. Of course, I too was struggling with the fear of saying the wrong thing in confronting that kind of thinking. Hypocritical, I know, but hey, I'm only human. Anyway, by the time I finally raised my hand and got on the speaker's list, there was no time left in class. The teacher told me I had thirty seconds, forcing me to quickly paraphrase the carefully worded verbal essay I had spent the entire class period mentally crafting into two sentences. What came out is probably, I feel, one of the smartest things I've ever said: "We all say stupid shit all the time. That shouldn't stop us from having a conversation." Anti-racist activist Tim Wise summed up the dilemma a lot more eloquently, but then that's why he makes the big bucks:

The whites in these dialogue groups, on the other hand, are often tentative to a point that is almost farcical. Nervous, afraid of saying the wrong thing, and convinced that people of color will yell at them for a slip of the tongue, whites often remain in a shell when racial dialogues begin.

This is one of the reasons that facilitators often go out of their way to create "safety." They are hoping that whites will participate more honestly if only they can be guaranteed that black people won't attack them for their ignorance.

Such a concern is, of course, preposterous, coming as it does from members of the most powerful group on the planet. I mean really now, do we, as whites believe there is any group on Earth that is safer than we are? Do we honestly think that people of color are in a position to jump our asses in a controlled workshop setting? What do we think they're going to do? Knife us for God's sakes?(1)

All of these issues that detract from learning take place when you try to specifically craft a social justice discussion immediately following a long, pedantic lecture that few people followed and believed wholeheartedly in. Imagine, instead, a play or a film. There is no vocabulary list that comes with the handbill; no ground rules for discussions on the wall on the way to the exit. Conversations are raw, emotional, honest, and ultimately educational. People will disagree, argue, get upset, challenge one another, and grow from the experience. And sure, people are probably still going to walk on eggshells when the discussion turns to race/sex/gender/etc. politics, but they'll be far more likely to say what they mean in this more open and honest setting than they would in a educational arena where they have been strongly discouraged from the outset not to, for lack of a term, say stupid shit. And likewise, people are likely to feel more inclined to call each other out than in this supposed safe space, where attacking other people's beliefs, ignorant though they may be, in just as discouraged.

This is what I love about the Tunnel of Oppression. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, yes, I'm aware it's a cheesy name, but bear with me. The idea is that a group of people are shuttled silently through a series of short scenes, each one highlighting some form of oppression or prejudice, and often in a highly shocking and/or emotionally impactful manner. After the tour group has watched each scene, then and only then are they brought to a debriefing session to talk about what they've seen. There's usually little time wasted in establishing ground rules for these discussions, and they are often honest, difficult, and ultimately eye-opening conversations. It's not perfect, of course, but as far as social justice primers go it sure as hell beats trying to drill into a group of people a definition of institutional oppression that flies in the face of everything else they've ever been taught.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't be teaching this kind of vocabulary, we just in no way should ever start with it. Get people to believe in institutional oppression before teaching them why white people can't be institutionally oppressed. Get people on your side before giving them a reason to get defensive. Show them, then tell them.

This was probably a lot longer than it needed to be, but that, in a very roundabout way, is why I feel that getting my Master's in Theatre was important, and why I feel that my background in theatre education has prepared me for a career in a student affairs in a way that no "related" degree possibly could. This is not to say that a "related" degree wouldn't make me more marketable, or help me find a job much easier. But after this reflection I am now more grateful for my three years in M.A. program than I ever have been before, because I now know that no matter where I end up, in whatever role I get hired for, I will be a far greater educator because of it.

And now that I've said it, and now that I believe it, I can stop fretting about it, and start getting some real work done.

But first, sleep.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why not Psychology?

It's not one of the most common of the family of "what exactly is the point of your education, anyway?" questions I get asked with obnoxious frequency, but it is the one I've probably had the most difficult answering. It's taken some pointed readings, some difficult self-examination, my desire to get back to writing in this blog, and a job search that has done nothing but question my educational journey (past, present & future) to get me to finally suss out the answer to it.

Not to say I haven't had answers to that question, they've just never been really on point. My freshman year of high school I used to tell my psychology teacher that I "didn't believe in psychology", which was admittedly bullshit (I mostly just didn't want to do the level of work she required for the class); in recent years I've tried to explain to people that my connection to depression and mental health is both intra- and interpersonal; that I didn't ever want to approach the topic from a "clinical" standpoint. But that always felt a little like an excuse for me, though in hindsight one I'm glad I had. See, today my answer is a bit of a synthesis of these two originally insincere ideas; I don't believe in the need for psychology.

Since this is the part of article where I backpedal from my outrageous and extreme position so as to not give the impression that I am some kind of outrageous extremist, I'll clarify that I believe, today, there is a need for therapists and counselors and neuroscientists and the like. I often encourage people I know that there's nothing to fear from these resources; that they can in fact help people, and I still believe that. But here's the thing: why do we need these resources?

My problem is that pills and even therapy are little more than the treatment of symptoms. Yes, therapy can, in some ways, get to the root of the external causes of depression and anxiety disorders; and yes, sometimes these external causes don't even exist, and that depression and anxiety are genuinely biochemical diseases that require nothing more than biochemical treatment. I do still genuinely believe these things. But modern psychology, in what I can only assume is a desire to appear more like a "hard science", is very quickly shifting to explaining things like depression and anxiety as nothing but a biochemical disease, to the point where external influences are being phased out. And I'm not naive enough not to realize how much the pharmaceutical companies are helping guide this transition.

But this isn't a scathing attack on pharmaceutical companies, or even on the institution of psychology, as if there even were some building or group of people one could direct such attacks. I certainly know plenty of people with or pursuing psychology degrees, and I have nothing against them personally or their field of study. This is about why I, Alex, advocate and activist for mental health, am not diving head first into my apparent following as a psychologist. After all, don't I want to help people? Well, I've come to a kind of realization; something I feel like I always knew but never had the guts to come right out and say it. I don't need a degree to be qualified to help people. Also, and here's the real epiphany, neither do you.

I need to preface this next part with a bit of a disclaimer. Therapists are by and large great people, and if you need help, if you really need to talk someone, you could do a lot worse than seeing a counselor. They will help you, and even if they don't, there's always plenty of others out there, and they're usually more than willing to make referrals. Most significantly, I've yet to meet a therapist who didn't genuinely care about people. Oh, I've heard horror stories to the contrary, but I've never seen it myself.

I'm not even saying that there's not any need for therapists. My point is that there shouldn't be; in a perfect world there ought not be therapists. This is not a perfect world where things like depression, grief, anxiety and like don't exist. This is a perfect world where general mental health knowledge is as widespread as general health knowledge; a world where empathy and connection are valued more than independence is. We live in a society that doesn't understand empathy; hell, I consider myself to be pretty empathic, and I doubt I understand it all that well. People simply have trouble fathoming one another. We get so wrapped up in "just being ourselves" that it seems preposterous when the world asks us to consider what it is to be somebody else for a moment. So we can't connect. We can't understand. Combine that lack of understanding with a general ignorance regarding mental health, and you create an atmosphere where it's neither helpful nor even generally safe to talk to others about depression or anxiety. Family members and friends don't know how to act, how to respond, how to help. Usually you're lucky if the things they try simply don't help at all; oftentimes the things that come naturally when trying to help end up doing far more harm than good. In such a world, there's an obvious need for therapists. Who else can you talk to and actually get help from?

But we cannot let ourselves be content with such a world. For starters, who has several hundred dollars to drop every month for an hour a week? And why is one hour per week the only "dosage" of talk medication we allow ourselves? If people just knew how to listen to one another; knew the basic symptoms of depression and anxiety; know what to avoid; know what to ask; then we could be in therapy, for free, any damn time we wanted. And these things aren't especially hard. You just have to be willing to learn them. And you don't need to college degree. Hell, you don't even need a course. I could probably go over the key pointers in a post shorter than this one, and while you wouldn't be nearly as a "qualified" as a registered therapist afterward (I would never claim to be myself), you could be there for someone you love in ways a $100-200 hour-long weekly session with a relative stranger never could be. That's not nothing.

I had a conversation recently with a person. This individual described themselves as not being qualified to understand or assist with someone's mental health status, and their actions did nothing to make me believe they were selling themselves short. They also said that I too was equally unqualified, and while I understand where that sentiment is coming from (again, I would never claim to be as qualified as someone with an actual degree), I have to soundly reject that notion. For starters, I wouldn't have made the obvious mistakes this individual made. It's a sad world where you need a college degree and post-graduate certification to be considered "qualified" enough to listen to a person's problems and give them encouragement and advice. We're not talking about rocket science here, we're talking about people. Yes, you could make the argument that people are generally more complex than rocket science, but on this point we have a bit of a leg up. You see, we're people too.

This has been kind of a stream of consciousness post and for that I apologize. But my point is this: it's on all of us to make this world a better place for the people we care about living with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorder. And you certainly don't need a degree for it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In Defense of Buffy's 6th Season

For a lot of fans of the show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the 6th season is universally considered one of the worst seasons (second only to the 7th season in that regard). There's a number of different reasons, from Buffy's over-the-top, annoying angst, to the de-evolution of Spike's character, to the uncharacteristically heavy-handedness in detailing Willow's drug magic abuse. While I wouldn't argue the last and I won't argue the second here, the first is of particular interest to me.

Fans love Buffy for a number of different reasons, from the excellent writing, a memorable cast of characters (especially supporting characters and villains), and the popularization of the myth story arc, which many of the most critically acclaimed modern shows now employ. It's truly a well-made show, so it's easy to see how many people, including many of its fans, miss what is ultimately the point of the show: it's a series of clever, subtle (well, usually) Aesops regarding all of the tropes and issues so commonly found in more traditional high school/young adult drama. Just, with vampires and demons and magic and the like. This was easiest to see in the high school years (seasons 1-3) which tackled issues ranging from popularity, abusive step-parents, steroid abuse in athletes, and, perhaps most famously, the question "why is my boyfriend acting so differently after we had sex?" Season 4 was all about the typical college issues, ranging from obnoxious roommates, professors who care more about their research than their students, sexuality, and insecurities about not going to college when the rest of your friends do. Season 5 was all about family, including probably one of the best directed episodes in the series ("The Body"). When Season 6 turned into a giant ball of angst, fans reacted negatively. There had always been levels of angst throughout the entire run of the show, but in Season 6 it had reached critical mass (again, at least until Season 7). It was only after listening to the "Once More With Feeling" soundtrack (the popular musical episode in Season 6 and what many fans consider a rare high point in the season) that it finally hit me, not just what Buffy's character arc was an analogy to in the season, but how incredibly obvious it had been the entire time. Season 6 was about depression. Not over-expressed angst or ennui, but serious, full-blown depression. With Buffy's songs such as "Going Through The Motions", "Walk Through The Fire" and especially "Give Me Something To Sing About" it's about as obvious as it gets. But at the same time, it's not, and it speaks to how tricky and misunderstood the topic of depression truly is.

There be spoilers here.

Season 6 begins when Buffy's friends resurrect her after her death at the end of the previous season. Her friends think they're saving her from some horrible hell, and are surprised that Buffy's not at all happy to be back, mainly because she was pretty sure she was in heaven. Either way she was content, maybe even happy. Let's re-read that a little bit. She was content (almost happy) with being dead, and upset with her friends for keeping her alive. She wanted to be dead and her friends stopped her. It's really easy to miss this subtle subtext, especially because of how dead wrong about Buffy being in some hell dimension, and how easy (at least at first) it is to sympathize with Buffy. So Buffy becomes despondent, no matter how hard her friends try to get her to be happy. She doesn't find joy in the company of her friends, or in the thrill of slaying. All she can really think about is how she wishes she were dead. In this case, the subtext wasn't nearly subtle enough. They kind of hit you in the head with a hammer over it, and now Buffy is being extremely obnoxious, and you lose all sympathy for her. She engages in behavior that is uncharacteristic and even self-destructive . Her friends, in trying to force her to be happy, end up having the opposite effect and are confused as to why their tactics aren't helping. This is textbook depression. Sure, the show should've done a better job of making Buffy more sympathetic overall, but in general it's as obvious an analogy as the show uses. It's no accident that this season emphasizes above all else humanity. Buffy has to remember what it was like to live and function as a human; Spike himself struggles with his humanity until ultimately accepting it; the main Big Bads for the majority of the season are three nerdy kids in a basement (two of which are generally sympathetic), and the ultimate Big Bad is one of the show's (hell, one of TV's) most sympathetic characters, overcome with grief and rage; and the only thing that can save the day is the words and emotional human connection of probably the only normal human character on the show.

Sure, Buffy is a little overly obnoxious with the angst. And yes, the drug abuse references were about as subtle as a brick. And the tvtropes.org's "Badass Decay" trope was originally named "Spikeification" for a reason (I would argue that Spike was never as much of a badass as he liked to pretend to be, which is part of what made him such an interesting character, but I digress). But I always knew I liked the 6th Season, certainly more than most Buffy fans did, and I now I think I finally understand why.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Self Relection on a Difficult Semester

I'm not going to lie, this semester was a rough one for me. I had a lot of struggles dealing with personal issues, and I was faced with two daunting independent projects that I had little idea how to prepare for, as well as the most rigorous and difficult, if rewarding, academic courses of my educational career. Apart from a stretch in November, where personal difficulties causing me to, and subsequently stemming from, taking antidepressants practically sidelined me. There were times were I literally felt like a living zombie. Of course, as soon as I started truly feeling better mentally I got struck with the porcine death (Novel H1N1, to be specific) that knocked me out for a week and still threatens to send me bedridden again. I like to think, however, that I learned great deal about myself. What I am capable of, what I'm not capable of, and what I need to finally convince myself I'm capable of. I wrote the first draft of my thesis play, my so-called defining work, as well as over seventy pages (I'm not exaggerating either) of writing reflecting on the nature of activism and advocacy and the role I play within it. I got my first taste of campus politics, and while essentially fruitless power struggles threatened my sanity, I find myself having an aptitude for it. So there has been a lot of bad this semester, true, but we learn the most from struggles. We find ourselves... or we find ourselves lacking. In my estimation, by the end of this semester I have definitely performed the former. I now know who I truly am, as an artist, as an advocate, as a mentor, and as a leader. And it doesn't matter that this will all change in three or five years. All that matters is I know who I am, right now, in this moment. It's a good feeling.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Thesis Update

No play I have ever written has been nearly as frustrating as my thesis has been so far. There's a number of reasons for this, but the most important is this: this is only major play I've written where the emotional arc of the play doesn't necessarily dictate the physical arc of the play. I Feel Fantastic was about two men struggling with decisions regarding antidepressants. Condition Blue was about a disgraced detective who can't live down his disorder. Both of these contained readily available plots. My thesis, at least how I originally conceived of it, is about a young man struggling to overcome grief and depression in a world that has little tolerance of the former and zero tolerance of the latter. As an emotional arc it works well, and I've pretty much had that arc plotted out from the beginning. And while that would work fine it and of itself as a novel, but as a play it's lacking of the one thing any solid play needs to get an audience following along: action. I can't stage internal monologues, and if the play is just the emotional arc as I've envisioned it, the play would be so rife with monologues that it almost might have well been a one-man show, which is not what I want. So I've had to come up with some kind of physical action- a backdrop in which to display and accentuate the emotional arc I've established.

Just a warning, for those who might care, but there's going to be future spoilers ahead.

This has been the hardest part, because usually plays are designed with a physical arc in mind, and the emotional arc develops as the story fleshes out. I've been tripped up because I haven't been able to conceive of a physical arc, certainly not one worth using, because for me the physical arc isn't all that important in this piece- in my mind it is clearly about Thomas (the protagonist's) emotional development. But that physical arc is the skeleton of the play- without it I can't even start writing. Sure, I've got an important plot element: Jocelyn (his best friend's) suicide- but this is what kicks off the emotional arc, and is the event that throws Thomas' physical arc out of whack. This means that I have to give Thomas an ultimate objective, some real-world goal that transcends his internal well-being. Knowing what I know about the emotional arc, this needs to be an objective that is multi-staged, something that he has a specific series of tasks to accomplish to reach his goal.

An important aspect of the play's concept is the idea that his struggles with grief depression are simply not tolerated (let alone accepted) in the world that he lives in and hopes to succeed in. Based on my own personal experiences as well as the stories I have gratefully been told, I determined that Thomas' ultimate objective ought to be career-oriented. While I originally conceived of Thomas and Jocelyn as high school students, this development caused me to shift the story ahead to make them college students. Thomas' ultimate goal is a post-graduate program, something that will set him on the fast-track of his desired career. This, I determined, was too large a goal for the scope of the play. So I took it one step back in Thomas' plan. He wants to get into a fairly prestigious internship; this internship, in Thomas' mind, is what will guarantee his placement in the post-grad program of his dreams. It is whether or not Thomas succeeds in getting into this internship that will provide the central question of the play's physical arc. Thomas is currently in a summer job that he is heavily focused in performing above and beyond expectations in; he hopes this will give him a killer recommendation for the internship, which will in turn determine whether he gets into the post-grad program he wants to get in to, which will in turn determine whether he gets the jobs that he wants to, which will in turn determine whether or not he will be successful and happy in life. For those of you who are fans of Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story (a book that provided a great deal of inspiration for me,) this precarious house of cards Thomas has based his future and potential for happiness on is a classic example of a tentacle: a present source of stress that bears with it the added pressures springing from a series of future events. It is this summer job that is thrown out of whack by Thomas' grief and subsequent depression.

Once I had worked all of this out, the next step was easy: what kind of job, internship, career is Thomas trying to pursue? And the answer: education. For the most part, I prefer to stick with what I know when I write, at least as far as subject matter goes. But it goes much deeper than that too. One of the traits I have that I am most proud, and I know developed in large part due to my experiences overcoming my own depression, is empathy. Empathy, and along with that a desire to help others, had to an integral aspect of this career field. Furthermore, it has to be a field where depression can, to the unaware, appear to be a major liability. All of these factors contributed to what I felt was an easy decision.

The beauty of this structure is that it allows two arcs, the physical and the emotional, to exist simultaneously while at the same time taking different directions. It wasn't hard to determine his relative success along the two arcs. It also allows me to have Thomas fail to achieve his physical goal (after a tumultuous end to his summer job, he is flatly turned down for the fall internship) while at the same time coming to a positive conclusion to his emotional arc (ie, coming to terms with his grief and depression.) After all, this story is, ultimately, my own story. And my story, at this point, is about having hope for the future, pride in my experiences, and the advocacy against oppression towards those with depression. So this story should end on a similar note.

Even with this structure in place, this play isn't going to write itself. I've still got a number of other plot elements to develop, the most important at this point is the development of Jocelyn as a physical character in the play as a ghost/vision/dream/hallucination. I definitely want this happen at some point, if not at multiple points through the play. This will allow what would otherwise be Thomas' internal monologues into an actual dialogue with dramatic action.

I'll post more as I develop, but I think I'm close to being able to sit down and pound out a first draft. I'd love feedback; how do you guys feel about this idea so far?